Sunday, May 22, 2016

Gaius, Diotrephes, and the Elder

The elder to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth.
 Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, just as it is well with your soul. I was overjoyed when some of the friends arrived and testified to your faithfulness to the truth, namely, how you walk in the truth. I have no greater joy than this, to hear that my children are walking in the truth.
 Beloved, you do faithfully whatever you do for the friends even though they are strangers to you; they have testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on in a manner worthy of God; for they began their journey for the sake of Christ accepting no support from non-believers. Therefore we ought to support such people, so that we may become co-workers with the truth I have written something to the church; but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing in spreading false charges against us. And not content with those charges, he refuses to welcome the friends, and even prevents those who want to do so and expels them from the church.
 Beloved, do not imitate what is evil but imitate what is good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God. Everyone has testified favourably about Demetrius, and so has the truth itself. We also testify for him, and you know that our testimony is true.
 I have much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink; instead I hope to see you soon, and we will talk together face to face.
 Peace to you. The friends send you their greetings. Greet the friends there, each by name.  - 3 John 1-15

We don't get many letters anymore, except maybe overdue notices from bill collectors and charities, or perhaps some invitations to test drive new cars or establish a new bank account. The art of letter writing has really gone by the wayside, for the most part, replaced by electronic transfer of information via email, Facebook, or Twitter, or the like. We don't write many letters anymore, and the ones that we do are usually thank-you notes, letters of introduction, cover letters for resumes or letters of resignation from a job or position. The Bible, however, has a number of letters in the New Testament; Paul wrote a bunch of them, but we are really not totally sure who wrote the rest.

Case in point, the letter in 3 John, to a man named Gaius and ascribed to someone who may or may not have been named John., In fact, however, the only identification the writer gives is the title of  the Elder.

The Elder's letter is basically to commend Gaius is for good work among his people, their good work in the community, and especially their hospitality to missionaries and evangelists sent to them from outside. The Elder calls them coworkers in the truth. Not everyone, though, came in for acclaim and appreciation. Some of the people were doing just the opposite, to the detriment of the word and the message.

One of these people was named Diotrephes. Evidently he was a leader of a group but was the opposite of Gaius. Diotrephes was rather arrogant, and against the authority of those who sent out the missionaries and evangelists. Evidently the Elder believed that Gaius was Orthodox in his teaching and in the beliefs of the community, partly based on hospitality to the itinerant emissaries. Diotrephes refused to offer hospitality and demanded that others not assist in any way.

There is an unattributed statement that I found somewhere that goes something like "When the other fellow is set in his ways, he is obstinate. When I am, it's just firmness." These days it seems like that little saying is more true than ever, although Gaius and Diotrephes seem to have a touch of it as well.

We welcome those who think like we do or believe like we do, and tend to reject those who don't. We find it in politics and in religion, both subjects which usually don't get discussed at the dinner table. They are threats to our security, our peace of mind, and even our very being, or so we think.

Gaius  was trying to teach his people to accept those who came preaching and who brought them new ideas and new teachings from the group in Jerusalem and other apostolic churches. The Elder warned against those who rejected the message on the belief that theirs was the only right way.

What we want to do is welcome people into our churches, and often we put something outside the door that says "Welcome" or "We welcome everyone!" There are people outside who want so much to believe this is true, but they have been wounded by churches who initially welcomed them but then turned against them for one reason or another.  It's unfortunate, and more than unfortunate, it is tragic.

It is like hundreds of people being hungry and the food kitchen can only feed ten of them. We've got to find a way to stretch the table, and reach more people who are hungry, not necessarily for ham sandwiches or stew, but for a place where they can be who they are, without shame and without further trauma. That is what Jesus wants us to do, to welcome God's children into God's house.

In the letter, the Elder reminds people that another man, Demetrius, has been sent to them as a teacher and a witness to the truth. The people are asked to welcome him. They are also to imitate the good that they see and to reject the evil. That something we should all be looking for. The Elder and the latter by saying he has a lot more to say that he can't do it for would rather not do it in a letter.

Since the letter of  3 John is the shortest of the Johannine letters (something like 242 words), it would be interesting to see what else Elder had to say to Gaius and his community. Unfortunately, like a lot of the letters that we read in the New Testament, will never know the other half of the conversation, nor will we know that the outcome is. That's one thing about Bible stories: they don't always have neat and tidy endings,  leaving no questions and no real sense of what happened next. I have a feeling that in a way that is a good thing, because it creates for us an opportunity to read the story, put ourselves into it, and then make our own ending by the way we think, believe, and act. That's the value of such an inclusion in our sacred texts.

What I take away from 3 John is to listen for authenticity,  and scrutinize those who wish me to pay attention to them. I must listen for truth and not just for the stories or neat packages of plots. There's a world out there that needs many things, authenticity and truth among them. Will I follow Gaius' truth?  How I act will make that determination, both for me and for those with whom I come in contact. It may be a tough row to hoe, but no one ever said life was going to be easy.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, May 21, 2015

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Volcanoes of Pentecost

Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.’
So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. The people all answered as one: ‘Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.’ Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord
On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God. They took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder. When the Lord descended upon Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain, the Lord summoned Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.
- Exodus 19:3-8, 16-20

There’s been a note in the news lately that Mount St. Helens in Washington has had a swarm of small earthquakes which seem related to the filling of the magma chamber inside the volcano. While it’s a long way from a full-blown earthquake/eruption, it’s still a thing to keep an eye on.

This week marks the 35th anniversary of the last major eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18th, 1980. I was living in Oregon, about 175 miles from the scene of the event. My apartment building overlooked the Columbia River with Washington on the other side. That morning I got up and turned on the TV. All I could find on any channel's coverage was of a volcanic eruption. Having never experienced one of these, it was kind of an interesting experience.

Inside my apartment I didn't see anything, didn't feel anything, and I hadn't heard anything, but not many miles away, to the north of me, ash was falling from the eruption. I went outside and looked up to find that the sky was a brilliant and cloudless blue, at least over my head. I looked towards Washington and I noticed that from about the middle of the river and extending to the north sky was black like some someone had come along and just painted the sky a dark, grayish black. The line was so straight and the color so even that it seemed surreal.

I thought about that is when I read the reading from Exodus where Moses and the Israelites were parked at the base of Mount Sinai. They were gathered because Moses had been told by God to collect the whole group, and to give them certain instructions. The interesting part comes on the third day when there was thunder, lightning, and cloud on the mountain with an increasingly loud trumpet blasting and shaking ground beneath their feet. That’s where the image of the volcano erupting crossed my mind.

 Some volcanoes produce thunderstorms and very visible lightning as they erupt, while some others of them spew fiery sparks. Yet others send out in clouds of smoke and ash. To me, the passage sounds like Moses and his people were in the presence God manifested as a terrifying eruption.

Thinking of eruptions where bright sparks and sometimes bright columns of yellow and red come from the top of the mountain, I thought about the tongues of flame that appeared on the disciples’ heads on the day of Pentecost. The approach of the Spirit on that day was like a mighty wind blowing and a trembling of the earth. At that time, the tongues of flame over their heads, appearing as though there was an eruption going on, an eruption that would change the landscape of their lives forever.

 It must have been somewhat frightening to suddenly begin speaking in other languages, and I’m sure the disciples weren’t the only confused ones. Still, it was the gift of the Spirit to help with the spreading of the word of God, just as the eruption on Sinai was to get their attention.

Pentecost invites all of us to place ourselves in the path of the great wind and earth shaking of and by the Spirit, the place of awe and attention to what God wants of us. Sometimes it might take something on the magnitude of a virtual volcanic eruption to do that.

The reports that Mount St. Helens is awake and the magma beneath it is building up gives us a foresight that sooner or later it will blow up again. Other volcanoes around the world have been erupting, some quite violently and others just as dangerously but with clouds of ash instead.  I wonder if God is giving us a message, and waking us up to go out and teach and preach and live so that others will see and marvel.

Now I don't think we are meant to be human volcanoes, much less disciples with little pinpoints of flame coming out from our heads, but I think there can be a spiritual glow indicating the presence of the Spirit within which might be an indicator. I didn’t see St. Helens erupt in person, but I have seen people on whom I could almost see tongues of flame above their heads. Really.

Some people walk around as if they had a little grey cloud over their heads, or maybe it's volcanic ash. I wonder what we would think if we saw a little flame instead?

I will remember those tongues of flame the next time I see a picture of an erupting volcano, or perhaps the next time I see someone with a particular glow that indicates the fire of the spirit inside them. It's a good thing to look for, and much better for the environment.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, May 14, 2016.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Mother Church and her children

 Commemoration of Harriet Starr Cannon, Religious

‘Mother, embrace your children; bring them up with gladness, as does a dove; strengthen their feet, because I have chosen you, says the Lord. And I will raise up the dead from their places, and bring them out from their tombs, because I recognize my name in them. Do not fear, mother of children, for I have chosen you, says the Lord. I will send you help, my servants Isaiah and Jeremiah. According to their counsel I have consecrated and prepared for you twelve trees loaded with various fruits, and the same number of springs flowing with milk and honey, and seven mighty mountains on which roses and lilies grow; by these I will fill your children with joy. ‘Guard the rights of the widow, secure justice for the ward, give to the needy, defend the orphan, clothe the naked, care for the injured and the weak, do not ridicule the lame, protect the maimed, and let the blind have a vision of my splendour. Protect the old and the young within your walls. When you find any who are dead, commit them to the grave and mark it, and I will give you the first place in my resurrection. Pause and be quiet, my people, because your rest will come. - 2 Esdras 2:15-24

There are a group of books in the middle of Episcopal Bibles (and some Protestant ones) that usually get glossed over. They've never been added to the canon, the officially sanctioned books of the Bible that are considered authoritative (genuine) and useful for teaching and direction. The books in the middle are called the Apocrypha, books not accepted by several church councils, including the one at Laodicea in 368AD. They were considered not genuine and therefore not suitable for reading in church. Now and then, though, we read snippets of some of them, and we find something of value in them.

The writer of 2 Esdras, whoever it might be, is speaking for God who advises mothers to cherish their children and bring them up to be strong people. Of course, Esdras is speaking metaphorically about the church as mother. The tip off is the reference to the twelve trees and springs along with seven mountains, the very numbers themselves representing the twelve tribes of Israel, twelve disciples, and seven as the number of perfection or completion.

The tasks that follow are those which God, prophets, Jesus and his disciples urged the people to remember to do, namely taking care of those who were, in the words of the Prayer Book (1928), in  "...[T]rouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity." Granted, the prayer asks God to "comfort and succor" the afflicted, but the entire Bible urges us to do those jobs in God's name.

Mothers teach their young ones basic rules like sharing their toys, not hitting their brother or sister or friend, saying "Please" and "Thank you," and being nice to people. Those basic lessons are parts of the list that Esdras set out in his list beginning with "Guard the rights of the widows, secure justice for the ward...." And Esdras is just repeating what God and the prophets had been saying for generations.

The church emphasizes the same qualities; indeed, we call it "Mother Church" because it is a place of nurturing and learning as well as a place to worship God and have contact with others of similar belief and purpose. It is a place where all should be equal and all should be welcomed and cherished. Is it a place where people in ragged denims are as welcome as those in Armani suits? Where a dirty,  rusted truck can park unashamedly next to a shiny BMW? Where troubles can be forgotten for a time and the mind can focus on community in Christ? It should be--and in many times it is. If it isn't, though, Mother Church fails because her children fail, and no mother wants her children to fail.

What does failure look like in this scenario? Failure is ignoring the stranger who is not dressed as nicely or as cleanly as those with whom he/she asks to worship. Failure is paying more attention to the big givers, as important as they are to the church, and not being as welcoming to those without the material resources that make that possible. The sermons tell us to welcome the poor, and care for the needy, but there are times this part of the sermon is forgotten before the people go out of the door.

On Mother's Day, mothers are particularly welcomed in our churches. Often they are presented with flowers as thanks for their work as nurturers and teachers of their children. Mother Church uses this occasion to remind us of the sacrifices and sometimes outright hardship some mothers face, as well as giving thanks for their continued presence in our lives and in our pews.

Not all have had such wonderful mothers; there have been abusive mothers as well as neglectful ones. Some have abandoned their children (for any or all of a myriad of reasons) but others have taken in children not their own and made them members of the family, showing them the same love that their own children received. Paul, in his letters, said that we were adopted members of the Body of Christ, grafted on the tree of salvation. We become members of Mother Church through the adoption we receive at baptism. We are welcomed and we are accepted.

Mother Church continues to teach the exhortations that God expects of all of us, words that come to us from the prophets and from Jesus as well as those of 2 Esdras written in somewhere in the 200s CE. With that many repetitions, it seems we should pay attention. Mother's Day might be a really good time to do just that.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, May 7, 2015.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Christ Light

People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within. - Elizabeth Kübler-Ross

It's a gray day outside. Living in Arizona, we don't get many of them. Some people with severe Seasonal Affective Disorder, though, can almost immediately get depressed even with a few hours of gray-ness. Me, I love gray days. Growing up back east we had them often, usually accompanied by rain, soft, gentle rain that made everything lush and green and beautiful. Here, though, we have what seems like 360 sunny days a year although the latest figures I can find indicate the number is 296, including partly sunny days. Be that as it may, I still like gray days if for no other reason than it makes me look at the world a bit differently.

Maybe my love of gray days leads me to love Gothic cathedrals. Great stone walls and piers reaching toward the sky with vaulted arches spanning wide spaces are like a giant gray forest with a canopy overhead. It's a worshipful place, a place where I feel God in a very immediate way. But there's even more there; the tall cathedral walls are punctuated with pieces of glass, colored glass. The glass glows when the sun shines and at night, when the lights are on, the world outside can look to the cathedral and see a bit of beauty, maybe a bit of heaven and be comforted by it.

The thought struck me that Christ is like a cathedral--strong, great, solid, and beautiful. Those who live in Christ see the glory of God shining through the stained glass pieces of the windows, casting patches of colored light around like a warm quilt. Christ draws us in to the beauty and the glory within himself, and leading us to the altar of God to celebrate this communion. It's a mystical moment, a place where time is suspended and all that matters is the calm, quiet, and closeness.

For those outside, Christ is like the cathedral at night, lights blazing. Like the beacon on the hill, it shines out into the darkness and draws people to it, people who are hurting and need comfort. It's a thing of beauty in a world of ugliness and squalor.

There are people who are definitely in Christ. It shines out of them, this Christ-light, and it extends outward to a world that needs to see that light. They are people of goodness, people who care about their fellow human beings and want, in any way they are able, to bring the light they have to those in darkness and gray days. Watch Archbishop Desmond Tutu's eyes as he talks. No matter what he is saying, the light of Christ shines from his eyes. His joy shows in his smile, his dancing. He has been through experiences that most of us will never have to face, yet Christ is in him and works through him to show the rest of us what it can be.

Probably we each know at least one person who is a light in our shadows and grayness. The friend who is always there and who knows, instinctively whether we need to talk or just need someone to sit with us in silence. We see someone answering the needs of the world and finding joy in it, like the man who works to fill backpacks of food and supplies for school children who otherwise would go hungry and lack educational tools. We see congregations helping to build houses for the poor so that they can have a safe place to live for themselves and their children. It's the Christ-light that shines through these helpers that show us who Christ is and what his message is all about.

Christ is always there for you when you need him, shining his light around and through you. I saw it in a Russian Orthodox priest I met once. I couldn't speak Russian, he couldn't speak English, but there was something about him, an almost tangible aura that shone around him and through his eyes. I had no doubt he was a Christ light.

For whom can you be a Christ light? It isn't enough to accept the light coming into the heart and soul like sunshine through a window, but it also has to go somewhere, be something that motivates a person do something for others, even and especially if it comes without strings or expectations of thanks or glory. Christ never asked for glory for himself, only for God. Perhaps that is the clue we often miss. Perhaps that is why we stifle that Christ light in ourselves.

So let us go out and let the glory be to God. Then let the Christ light shine so that the whole world is illuminated. It will be a much better place--and Lord knows, we need that.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 30, 2016

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Success in the Face of Failure

"The man who cannot accept the possibility of complete, radical, personal failure in the carrying out of this Christian mission is not sharing that absolute poverty of spirit which characterized the freedom of Jesus to accept the divinely appointed means for his mission." -- John Narrone, A Theology of Failure

I've been thinking about failure lately, mostly personal, repeated personal failure. It's not easy to admit that one often feels a total failure, especially when faced with the success of others but it has to be faced. The world needs failures as much as it needs successes. Somehow that's scant comfort to one of limited success to know that they are part of the balance.

I googled "theology of failure" just by chance because I wanted to see if there were such a thing and evidently there is. The quote above was taken from an entire book on the subject. It seems that there is, among the many references to "theology of failure" available online, a large number of articles, books, and references to pastoral failure (or threat of failure).

There are also many articles referring to "theology of failure" as it relates to what might be considered by some to be failed theologies--failures in feminist, black, liberation, GLBT, liberal, etc.--theologies which don't seem to match up to expectations that they will resolve conflict and ensure equality that many in the Christian religion feel is the gospel imperative. Despite years of attempts, discussions, marches, meetings, and the like, there are still ceilings that don't seem to be crackable, and gaps that seem unbridgeable. While the struggle continues, theology as a whole has attempted to move on and yet has pretty much stayed stuck in the same ruts they were when the various branches of theology shot off from the tree.

This is not a new phenomenon. It just makes me wonder if a "theology of failure" is just a rearrangement of words for "failed theology." The verse often used in discussion of theology of failure is that of Matthew 10:14, "If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town." In essence, if the venture appears to be a failure, move on and try somewhere else. Was it the messengers who failed to present the message in a way that compelled others to willingly accept it, or was the message flawed and that caused the people of the town to reject it?  Was it a theology of failure or a failed theology?

The Inquisition would probably be considered a failed theology; indeed, any theology that requires those who don't accept it, for whatever reason, to be tortured into acknowledging and accepting it seems like a theology doomed to failure even though it seemed like a good idea at the time. Even the story of Adam and Eve seems to have a built-in theology of failure in that when given free will to obey a simple command from God (or not), humankind chose to fail at the test. Or was it a test? Did God build in a theology of failure along with the components of DNA, the number of limbs and ability to walk upright?

Not everything is a success; for every success there are probably a hundred, maybe thousands or more failures. It's all trial-and-error, if-at-first-you-don't-succeed, get-out-there-and-win-one-for-the-Gipper. There are fairly universal feelings when things go sour: fear, panic, distress, sadness, anxiety, worry, shame, and anger. It's easy to blame others for the problem but like in divorce, the fault is nearly always two sided with each contributing to the rupture and failure. It doesn't take a doctorate in theology to understand that, although accepting it might be a totally different story. 

Human beings are going to continue to fail at things, whether by accident or design. Sometimes the failure will be theirs, sometimes it will be someone else's that will affect them adversely. Where is God in all this?  Did God plan it, did humans take on God's role, or was it just something that happened? Is it something that even needs to be asked, much less answered? Probably, since humankind has been asking and trying to answer those questions since the second leaf fell off the fig tree.

We fail and try to move on. But when everything and everyone else fails, we still have an ace in the hole--God loves us. Pure and simple solution: God loves us unconditionally, totally, permanently. God doesn't walk away when we fail, doesn't turn God's back, or tell us to buck up and try harder.

God loves us. No matter what. That sounds perilously like a success to me. I think I could get used to that, no matter what else happens in life.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 23, 2016.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

God's Gazelle

 Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, ‘Please come to us without delay.’ So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. - Acts 9:36-42

When she was born, her father named her Tabitha. In Aramaic, her name meant gazelle, a small, slender, graceful member of the antelope family. I'm sure her father saw in her the qualities of the gazelle.

She grew up as Jewish but living in the Greek-speaking city of Joppa, she also answered to Dorcas which had the same meaning as the Aramaic. Joppa, even then, was an ancient and prominent city containing the port of Jerusalem, about 30-35 miles northeast of Jerusalem itself. It is still an important port city.

Like so many others in the Bible, Tabitha/Dorcas only comes to our notice only at one moment in her life, or so we are told. Evidently she was a great-hearted Christian woman, devoting her life to her community and those less fortunate. We don't know when she became Christian, but she embraced the teachings whole-heartedly. Her life was dedicated to good works such as sewing clothing for those in need. The poor, widows, orphans, and the sick were all part of her ministry and beneficiaries of her alms and gifts.

She was beloved by members of her community, so much so that when she died, the disciples in Joppa sent word to Peter who was teaching and healing in a nearby town. To make the story short, Peter arrived, was impressed with the love expressed by the people for Tabitha, then raised her from the dead. The crowd went wild.

Something that struck me was that the raising of Tabitha was very familiar. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all report a somewhat similar incident but the one that I thought of was from Mark 5:41, "He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”). Both Jarius's daughter and Tabitha were beloved people who were devastated by their deaths. Granted one was a young girl while the other was an older woman, but both were loved enough to go out to appeal to a man of God, Jesus or Peter, to help those they loved.  In both of the stories, someone was told to get up; in Mark it was the little girl, (Talitha) and in Acts, Tabitha. They sound very similar but both did as they were told.

The result of both miracles was that not only were two women restored to life but that the faith of those around them grew stronger and even non-believers came to the faith. Tabitha herself has inspired countless women to take up her mission of providing clothing for the poor. Dorcas Societies still exist and the need is still there.

In Acts, Tabitha was named a disciple, a follower of Jesus and a practitioner of what Jesus taught. I wish there had been more about her, how she came to life the life and do the work she did. Like many women of the Bible, she is like a footnote, a miracle with a name attached. Yet she is more than that; she is a woman, a disciple, and an inspiration. The world could use a few more like God's gazelle, Tabitha, also known as Dorcas.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul at Episcopal Café Saturday, April 16, 2017

Sunday, April 10, 2016


‘A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me.’ Then some of his disciples said to one another, ‘What does he mean by saying to us, “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me”; and “Because I am going to the Father”?’ They said, ‘What does he mean by this “a little while”? We do not know what he is talking about.’ Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him, so he said to them, ‘Are you discussing among yourselves what I meant when I said, “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me”? Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. When a woman is in labour, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. - John 16:16-22

Babies are among the most intriguing and delightful things in the world. Whether they gambol on four feet or walk (eventually) on two, just watching them is enough to make Scrooge smile.

One of the first  games a baby learns is peek-a-boo. The mother (or someone else) will sit where the baby can see them and then hides their face in their hands. Suddenly they pop their hands away and say "Peek-a-boo" which somehow makes the baby smile first, then giggle. Repeating the exercise makes the baby laugh which makes everyone else laugh too. The game can be played with pieces of cloth being inserted between the parent and the child and then flipped away, or a parent popping out from behind a piece of furniture or a door frame.

It's a fun game to play, but it also seems to have a secondary purpose other than just making the baby laugh. It begins teaching the child about separation from others. For a very brief time the child can't see the other person, but the person always returns. As the child grows older, more separations occur. A parent goes to work, or the parents go out for an evening, leaving the child with a babysitter. Most times, the parents return, just as their familiar faces pop up from behind a cloth, a pair of hands, or a sofa. But sometimes they don't, and the child learns a very different kind of separation.

Jesus was preparing for his separation from his disciples. Like small babies, they had to learn about separation in steps, from a very short one to a much longer one. He used the image of peek-a-boo, the "now you see me, now you don't," to introduce the subject to them, but grown men don't think of peek-a-boo. Instead they go to the adult-type questions: "Where are you going?" "Who are you going with?" "What time will you be home?" Sound familiar?

There was a warning in Jesus's message. The disciples would be in mourning while the world would be rejoicing, but those tears and that sorrow would turn to joy. It's interesting that Jesus used the image of a woman in labor. Having undergone that particular kind of experience, I can tell you it hurt more than anything in the world that I could have imagined. But once it stops hurting, it's possible to remember that it was agonizing pain, but the body (or the mind) doesn't replay the exact feeling of the pain itself, only its presence and that it was unpleasant. The disciples would remember they lost something, but they would also experience the joy of meeting Jesus again, if only for a short time.

Jesus vanished from sight in about 33 CE and we are still waiting for him to return. We sometimes get a glimpse of Jesus-like behavior.  

We still look for Jesus to come back and resolve all the problems of earth. We are often resigned to the evils of the world; after all, one person or even a thousand people can't fix them all. Every now and then, though, we see someone doing something Jesus-like, something like handing a hungry person a sandwich, filling a child's backpack with needed school supplies, bringing an elderly shut-in food, flowers, or just the gift of a human visitor. Jesus didn't just do big miracles like feeding 5,000 at a time, or walking on water, or even raising the dead; he also talked to foreigners, gathered children around him, and taught so persuasively that people were drawn to him and tried to live what he taught them.

The church tells us that Jesus is all around us all the time, whether we're aware of him or not. He isn't playing peek-a-boo with us--or maybe he is. Christians look for Jesus to be within them, in their hearts and minds. It's that Jesus in us that makes us want to help alleviate suffering and poverty, cure diseases, give everyone access to clean water and quality education, among other things. So why do those things still exist? Could it be we are waiting for Jesus to pop out and fix the problems for us? An adult form of peek-a-boo?

If Jesus is in us, we've got work to do. No games, no sitting and waiting, no trying to look around a piece of cloth to see if Jesus is there. When we were children, peek-a-boo was a great game (still is for grandmothers and infants), but it's time to get busy and show the world the Jesus in us all, even the most unlikely of people.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 9, 2016.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Low Sunday

It's been a relatively quiet week, church-wise. After the build-up of Lent, the constant quiet activity of Holy Week, and the energy and exuberance of Easter, the church may still be celebrating Easter but the people are more than ready for a bit of rest. There are still Bible studies to do, sermons to write, the church to be tidied up, flowers arranged, brass polished, and the like, but for the most part, those who have invested so much of themselves and their time in the lead-up to Easter are relaxing just a bit. It's sort of like a mini-vacation, a bit of Sabbath after the biggest Sunday of the whole church year.

The First Sunday after Easter has often been called by a number of different names. The most common is the unofficial designation of Low Sunday. You'll never see it listed that way in the newsletter or bulletin, but behind the scenes, that is how it is called.

On Easter Sunday, every pew and chair is full, the choir is in full voice, there are "bells and smells" (ringing of the Sanctus bell and thuribles full of incense marking processional, recessional, blessing the Gospel book and the whole altar in churches where such "high" touches are not usually done), the church is abloom and garlanded with decorative flowers and greens, crucifixes and crosses wear translucent white coverings, and the altar and clergy are garbed in white or gold to celebrate the occasion.

By the following Sunday, though, things have changed. Most of the decoration is gone, the choir may have taken the day off, the bulletins are a bit shorter and less ornate, and there are a lot of empty pews (the chairs having been taken off to wherever extra chairs are kept until the next big occasion). Families who spent Easter together have returned to their homes, and hostesses who have had a full house take the chance to sit down, find the last bit of fake grass from Easter baskets, and plan another meal of leftover ham or roast.

In the early church, new prospective members (catechumen) had to undergo a lengthy period of instruction before being admitted for baptism and inclusion in the Eucharist. They would attend the Liturgy of the Word but be excused before the Liturgy of the Table began. When their time of study ended, they put on white garments and were baptized at the Easter Vigil. They could then join the community for the Eucharist. At the end of the octave (Easter and the seven days that succeeded it), they exchanged their white robes for regular clothing at church, marking the end of their being set apart and the beginning of their life as full Christians.

One of the other names for Low Sunday is Quasimodo Sunday. Those familiar with the Hunchback of Notre Dame will recognize the name of the maimed character who found abandoned on the steps of Notre Dame on the first Sunday after Easter. In fact, the Introit (opening antiphon sung or spoken at the beginning of the service) for the day in the Roman Missal was Quasi modo geniti infantes, rationabile, sine dolo lac concupiscite, "Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation" (1 Peter 2:2). The reference to the catechumen is unmistakable.

However it is called, the First Sunday After Easter is a continuation of the Easter season, 50 days   that lead to the feast of Pentecost. During the Easter season, we celebrate Jesus's appearance to the disciples, Doubting Thomas being shown the wounds in Jesus's hands and side, the road to Emmaus, and the Ascension. Alleluia comes back into our vocabulary after a 40-day absence for Lent. Many churches omit the confession of sin during the season. In short, the Easter season has a lot going on.

But we have to stop a minute. We are taught that every Sunday is a little Easter, no matter at what time in the church year it occurs. People forget that quite often during Lent but a quick count the number of days in Lent comes out to 46--if the Sundays are counted in. Subtract those six Sundays and there are 40 days left. When it comes to Easter season, every Sunday after Easter itself is a little Easter, and should be celebrated as such, if not with the full panoply we reserve for the actual Easter Day.

Whether or not we call it Low Sunday, the First Sunday after Easter, or Quasimodo Sunday, it all amounts to the same thing--a celebration of Jesus's resurrection and the gathering of the community to share in the Eucharist. The newly baptized participate as well as those who were baptized decades ago or during some other church season.

So fill the pews, shout the Alleluias, and thank God for the blessings of Easter all year. Amen.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul  on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 2, 2016.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Jesus in the Tomb

Holy Saturday is a rather quiet day during Holy Week leading up to the celebration of Easter. Jesus done a lot between Palm Sunday and Good Friday.  His death on that day was that of an ordinary criminal which was not a nice, quiet death at all; sometimes it took many hours or even a day or two. In Jesus's case, it took about six hours. The body was taken down from the cross and laid in a tomb which was then sealed. On Holy Saturday we wait, outside the door to the tomb.

Holy Saturday is the holding period for us. We decorate the church for the Easter celebration and, for many congregations, a celebration of the Easter vigil on holy Saturday evening. It is a retelling of salvation history and leading up to the events of the resurrection. It is a happy joyous service, but first comes the quiet preparation and before that simply the quiet.

We seldom think about the time between Jesus being taken down from the cross and put in the tomb and the vision of the empty tomb on the announcement of Jesus resurrection. In Scripture that's a blank space. Nothing. How did the disciples spend the time other than hunkered down, hoping that they would not be caught and recognized as followers of Jesus, or simply tried to go about daily life which didn't stop just because Jesus has died?

This image, by Jean-Jacques Henner, shows Jesus in a posture of repose but not swaddled in burial shrouds. It shows him all alone, without any company-- no angels, no grieving family, and pictured against a dark background. We seldom think about Jesus that way, but maybe we should.

Jesus was the son of God; that is one belief we Christians have in common. But besides being the son of God, Jesus was also a human being. His conception was a bit extraordinary, but he was born, lived, and died as a human being. Had he simply been in the middle of his ministry and then suddenly be lifted up to heaven,  that might have given rise to some speculation. Jesus came to earth as a human being, a child with skinned knees, a young man leaving the family to pursue a powerful calling, preaching and teaching and healing in all sorts of places and involving all sorts of people. The one thing we don't like to think about is that in order to live a fully human life, Jesus also had to die as a human being.

All humans are born, live their lives, then die. Jesus's stay in the tomb only lasted from the Friday afternoon until when? Was he in the tomb when he visited hell, an event which we call the Harrowing of Hades? Or was he able to be in two places at once? We aren't sure precisely when that resurrection took place other than that Mary, Jesus's mother and her companions --or, per another gospel, Mary Magdalene was there alone--went as early as possible after the Sabbath to anoint him. They had not had time to do so immediately after his crucifixion. But the tomb was empty.

We very easily picture the empty tomb, but not so often the occupied one containing the body of the man called Jesus. We forget that Jesus was human, and we forget that at this time he lay on a bed of stone wrapped in linen and totally alone. It's entirely possible that God sent angels to keep him company, or that the resurrection happened within hours after the tomb was sealed. We simply don't know and will never really know, but one thing we need to consider is that in order to live a full human life, Jesus had to experience death.

He had to experience lying in the tomb had to undergo the same sort of mortal process of death and dying that all human beings have to undergo. None of us like to picture death, much less what's going on in the coffin once it sealed and laid in the ground. Perhaps we needn't think about it at this particular time in the church year either, but the point that I took coming back to is that Jesus, like us, was alone in death, and alone for a time, at least, in the tomb.

Somehow it's comforting to know that the Savior of the world knew what humanity truly felt like because he had experienced it from beginning to end.  At his death, Jesus knew total separation from God. Many feel that way in life and also when life is ending. For us it is an illusion because God never leaves us alone and in the darkness, but Jesus, having experienced it, did not want us to be left in that place of emptiness and despair.

So, on this Holy Saturday, I contemplate mortality and death, but I also hope for the resurrection and joining God in heaven just as Jesus did. Instead of focusing on dyeing Easter Eggs or doing the church flowers, I will be thinking about Jesus knowing true separation from God so that he could bring us all closer to God.

It's a pretty powerful thing to think about on this holy Saturday.

Image: Jesus at the Tomb by Jean-Jacques Henner, 1879 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, March 25, 2016.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Joseph, Jesus's Stepfather

Once upon a time there was a man and wife and who were expecting a baby. They had to make a trip to another town to take part in a census, but when they got there, there wasn't any place for them to stay. They ended up in a stable and their baby boy was born there. That baby boy went on to change the world, one life at a time.

Of course, that's the story we hear every Advent and Christmas, the story of Jesus and his family, Mary and Joseph. During Advent we have the run-up to this part of the story, the part where Mary has a visitation from Gabriel, goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, and then returns home. Then there's the part where Joseph finds out Mary is pregnant and knows it is not his. He has a dream where an angel tells him that the child is God's and that he should marry Mary.

So whatever happened in the intervening months between the Advent stories and the trip to Bethlehem we don't know. Evidently Joseph and Mary (and their families) worked out some details and the couple worked out their own. After that, we only hear that they had to flee to Egypt to escape possible death, the child grew to the age of 12 and stayed behind in Jerusalem, panicking his parents. After their reunion we hear no more of the family except in one or two episodes and then the mention is only of Mary, not Joseph.

Stories have come down to us that suggest Joseph had had a family prior to his marriage to Mary but that his wife had died, and then that he had died sometime during the intervening years. What the real story is has been lost to the intervening years.

Joseph's role in Jesus's life has been seen as that of father, stepfather, adoptive father, teacher, and guardian. He was all of them, in one way or another. He fulfilled the role of male parent in the little family, teaching Jesus to use the tools of a tekton and bringing him in to the family business as a money-earner. He made sure Jesus learned how to be a good Jew, how to fulfill all the obligations and responsibilities, prayed the proper prayers, and learned the scriptures. Joseph also modeled a good head of the family, ensuring his family was well provided for, safe, and loved.

Being a step parent or adoptive parent is hard; a person comes into your life that isn't really related to you. You then have to learn to love this alien being and think of him/her as your very own. They may not want you to love them, or want to think of you as their parent. For almost any parent, even the kindest treatment may produce rebellion and disobedience.

Young things have to learn to spread their wings, and that can be a most painful time for those who watch over them. I'm sure Joseph had a few of those moments with Jesus, no matter that he was really God's son. We have to remember that Jesus was human and had to learn just as any child would.

We can think of Joseph as a model for God. That may sound blasphemous, but in a way, Joseph took a child that wasn't his own and raised it with love, kindness, and probably a bit of correction. God does that for us. We humans make mistakes that need correction; God provides the means for us to learn from our mistakes, and to have the opportunity to correct them.

We don't think of Joseph as often as we might. We can celebrate his feast today, dedicated to his role as the husband of Mary. There's another feast day on May 1 which focuses on St. Joseph the Worker. As Mary's husband, it's also a fitting day to celebrate his parenting of a most extraordinary child.

Here's to Joseph, a quiet saint with a tough job. Every child should have a father like Joseph. It would make for a very different world.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café, Saturday, March 19, 2016.