Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Songs of a People

O black and unknown bards of long ago,
How came your lips to touch the sacred fire?
How, in your darkness, did you come to know
The power and beauty of the minstrel's lyre?
Who first from midst his bonds lifted his eyes?
Who first from out the still watch, lone and long,
Feeling the ancient faith of prophets rise
Within his dark-kept soul, burst into song?

Heart of what slave poured out such melody
As 'Steal away to Jesus'? On its strains
His spirit must have nightly floated free,
Though still about his hands he felt his chains.
Who heard great 'Jordan roll'? Whose starward eye
Saw chariot 'swing low'? And who was he
That breathed that comforting, melodic sigh,
'Nobody knows de trouble I see'?

What merely living clod, what captive thing,
Could up toward God through all its darkness grope,
And find within its deadened heart to sing
These songs of sorrow, love and faith, and hope?
How did it catch that subtle undertone,
That note in music heard not with the ears?
How sound the elusive reed so seldom blown,
Which stirs the soul or melts the heart to tears.

Not that great German master in his dream
Of harmonies that thundered amongst the stars
At the creation, ever heard a theme
Nobler than 'Go down, Moses.' Mark its bars
How like a mighty trumpet-call they stir
The blood. Such are the notes that men have sung
Going to valorous deeds; such tones there were
That helped make history when Time was young.

There is a wide, wide wonder in it all,
That from degraded rest and servile toil
The fiery spirit of the seer should call
These simple children of the sun and soil.
O black slave singers, gone, forgot, unfamed,
You - you alone, of all the long, long line
Of those who've sung untaught, unknown, unnamed,
Have stretched out upward, seeking the divine.

You sang not deeds of heroes or of kings;
No chant of bloody war, no exulting pean
Of arms-won triumphs; but your humble strings
You touched in chord with music empyrean.
You sting far better than you knew; the songs
That for your listeners' hungry hearts sufficed
Still live, - but more than this to you belongs:
You sang a race from wood and stone to Christ.*  --
James Weldon Johnson

There are people who seem to have so many gifts and talents and abilities that it is almost impossible not to look at them as exceptional. The very brief biography of James Weldon Johnson on the Lectionary page is a long list of positions, talents, and passions that have made him one of those exceptional human beings. During his lifetime (1871-1938), he lived through a period where African Americans were generally not thought of as intelligent or important. Johnson, like George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington, among many others, proved scoffers wrong.

Among Johnson's greatest gifts was that of a poet and storyteller. His book, God's Trombones, is a short book of sermons in verse, sermons that carry the tones of Black preachers along with the grace and power of a bard.

I ran across a poem of his the other day, one I'd never read before.  It gave me such a lot to think about, especially in these days and times. Johnson connects the music of the spheres and of creation with the songs of the people which express their feelings, strengthen them in hard times, and bolster their faith in a God who was and is always with them.

We have listened to the sounds of great composers, compositions and songs that lift our hearts and inspire us in various ways. The spirituals, created and sung by slaves in the fields, around the fires in the evening, and in church, spoke of their lives and struggles as well as the stories from the Bible that taught not just the stories themselves but principles of Christian living.

Some spirituals like "Follow the Drinking Gourd," "Wade in the Water," and "Steal Away" gave them directions and signs to look for if they escaped slavery and headed north. What would Christmas be without "The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy"? Or Holy Week without "Were You There?" What would campfires at church camp be without "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" or "Go Down, Moses"? We have learned these songs and love them, but have we ever thought more deeply about them? Have we ever used them in our own struggles and trials and found hope and deepened faith in them?

We all have songs that come to mind in different situations, be they stressful or happy. Maybe it's a musical version of a prayer or a psalm, a hymn or a song we heard on the radio when we were young. It could be a song of our ethnic history or our geographical area. Perhaps even a lullaby or a song we learned from our grandparents. Music is part of our lives, and part of our faith tradition. Johnson understood this as he spoke of the songs of his people, the music of unheralded bards whose names are known to God alone but whose music still echoes in our hearts and minds.

Johnson reminded his readers that the songs their ancestors had sung are still part of the musical literature. From Girl Scouts to high-school choruses to church choirs, even from the floor of the House of Representatives, people still sing them and enjoy the beauty and simplicity of the tunes and the words. But the closing line is perhaps the crux of the entire poem, the explanation of why these songs are so important.

You [the singers] sang a race from wood and stone to Christ. The songs are our guides to freedom in Christ. They are guides for us to live Christian lives, to think, to pray, and to give thanks to God every day. The music will sing us, members of all races, from the slavery of sin to redemption by grace, from idols of wood and stone to faith in the living God.

*"O Black and Unknown Bards," found at; accessed 6/16/16

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

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Bernard Mizeki - catechist and martyr

In it was written, ‘It is reported among the nations—and Geshem also says it—that you and the Jews intend to rebel; that is why you are building the wall; and according to this report you wish to become their king. You have also set up prophets to proclaim in Jerusalem concerning you, “There is a king in Judah!” And now it will be reported to the king according to these words. So come, therefore, and let us confer together.’ Then I sent to him, saying, ‘No such things as you say have been done; you are inventing them out of your own mind’; One day when I went into the house of Shemaiah son of Delaiah son of Mehetabel, who was confined to his house, he said, ‘Let us meet together in the house of God, within the temple, and let us close the doors of the temple, for they are coming to kill you; indeed, tonight they are coming to kill you.’ But I said, ‘Should a man like me run away? Would a man like me go into the temple to save his life? I will not go in!’ -- Nehemiah 6:6-11

I'd never really considered it, but the church calendar is more than just a way of marking off days of the year like a regular calendar. For each day there are specific readings: those for following the Daily Office, others for the day's liturgy, and, for many days, there is an event, saint, or group of saints, to be commemorated or feasted. The educational part is finding a saint (or group) I'd never really heard of (outside the Daily Office) and reading about them. It's also possible to see something in their lives and struggles that help me with my own. It's like an exercise in identifying what makes a Christian life and how I can learn from the person or persons to live it more fully.

Take the saint for today, a man born in Mozambique named Mamiyeri Mizeka Gwambe who became a lay catechist and martyr in what was Northern Rhodesia, now called Zimbabwe. He began working for a Portuguese storekeeper in his native village and learned the language the storekeeper spoke. He seemed to be gifted at languages because wherever he went, he learned not only the local tongues but also European and Biblical ones. He sought education from the members of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE, also called the Cowley Fathers) and wanted to become a priest but that was denied him because of his race. Instead, he became a lay catechist and God-propelled teacher, translator, and missioner. He was baptized in 1886 with the name Bernard.

Bernard established a mission to the Mashona in Northern Rhodesia, establishing this at the village of the local chief and at the request of the Bishop of Mashonaland. He lived a simple, normal life, becoming part of the village life and eventually the school teacher for the children. With the chief's permission, he moved the complex close to a grove of trees sacred to the Mashona, but angered some of  the local religious leaders when he removed some of the trees and carved crosses in others.

Bernard used the faith of the Mashona who already believed in one god, Mwari.  He also utilized the deep spiritual lives the villagers already had to teach Christian belief and practice. The mission lasted from 1891-6 and was tremendously effective.

All missionaries were considered to be European colonial government agents, according to many of the black African nationalists. They began an uprising in 1896 and Bernard was warned to flee for his own safety. He refused, believing that Christ had sent him there for a purpose and that he would not leave the people Christ had led him to. On June 18th, he was speared outside his house and mortally wounded. His wife and a helper ran to get blankets and food for him but later reported that there was a blinding light coming from the place where Bernard lay. When they reached the spot, Bernard's body was gone. It has since become a place of reverence and devotion and a great Christian festival takes place there each year.

Bernard was a bridge-builder, not a wall-maker. He lived a simple life, loved the people he shared a village with, and taught children and adults about the greatness of God. He refused to leave when things got tough and it became the place of his martyrdom. This was a true martyrdom, not a false one where people feel they are being persecuted and injured because others disagree with their beliefs and positions. Bernard didn't seek his own greatness, but was rather invested in proclaiming the greatness of God.

How different things are now for us here in the United States. We hear about building walls. Preachers and would-be prophets proclaim the gospel of fear and segregation, individual rights and approval of the elimination of "undesirables," overtly and covertly. Even those supposedly presenting the will of God have seized on a small group of verses and have made an entire doctrinal platform of them. "Love your neighbor," a central tenet of the gospel of Jesus and the work of Bernard Mizeki, seems to have had a clause added, "...Unless they are not 'like us' and oppose 'our' rights and our 'control' over 'our' country."

We have martyrs in our own land, not always religious ones, but ones who represent those whom some of us fear, hate, or find inconvenient or somehow unworthy of sharing our rights and privileges. Unfortunately, children get caught in the crossfire, as do innocent people simply out to have a Bible study, enjoy an evening out, or even attend school or social events. We aren't just talking about building walls around on our southern border but walls that separate communities and groups of people from those who are different.

Bernard didn't build walls between people. Now we want to put our own stamp on everything. Recently we heard that now gigantic corporations want to "sponsor" parts of our national parks, of course, branding them with their own particular logos. It's like setting up a kingship where the individual or corporation is the ruler over something God created and of which we are only stewards.

So what is the answer? What can I learn from Bernard, given the differences between us, including time and place? Of course, courage and perseverance in the face of danger is a big thing, even if it has death staring me in the face. Then there is bridge building by finding commonalities and working with them. A big thing is love; Bernard loved the children of the village and their parents saw that. It brought many of them to Bernard, to learn from him and to enjoy his company. So many lessons, most especially remaining faithful to God and not building our own kingdoms or following those who seek to do that very thing.

"Should a man like me run away? Would a man like me go into the temple to save his life? I will not go in."  I think Bernard Mizeki would have agreed with Nehemiah. In fact, he became the example of Nehemiah's words.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Saint of Second Chances

When he [Paul] had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus. -- Acts 9:26-27

His name originally was Joseph.  He was born on Cyprus and was a Levite, one of the priestly class. He was considered to be almost an apostle by the people who knew him and his work, and was given the name Barnabas which meant "son of encouragement" because of his gift of oratory.

A rich man, he was among those who sold all that he had and gave it to the apostles as a token of his dedication and obedience. Beyond that we don't know a lot about his life, although we know of his experiences.

I believe Barnabas should be called the patron saint of second chances. He introduced Paul to Peter and the apostles. Because of Paul's previous persecution of the Christians, the apostles were leery of meeting him; Barnabas, however, stood as his reference and as a bridge to acceptance. Later, he and Paul undertook a mission to preach to the Gentiles in Antioch. The mission was so successful that the two were sent back to Jerusalem to present a much-needed contribution to the struggling church.

They worked together well but there were differences between them. After leaving Jerusalem a second time, following agreement about circumcision of the gentiles, Paul wanted to go visit the already-established churches while Barnabas was of another mind. He wanted to take John Mark with them as they had previously. Paul, remembering that John Mark had bailed out on them on a previous journey, refused. Paul finally left with Silas for Syria, while Barnabas and John Mark went to Cyprus. Barnabas gave John Mark a second chance and it paid off.

After that we don't know much about Barnabas. He appeared to be still living when Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians. Paul's words (vss. 9:5-6), written somewhere around 56-7 CE, indicated that the breach between Paul and Barnabas had been repaired and also that Paul had made peace with John Mark who, after Barnabas' death, became Paul's disciple during his imprisonment in Rome.

Barnabas was a man who apparently believed in second chances. Not just once, but twice he spoke up for those in need of a second chance. It seems like he would have been a great person to have around, not just with his gift of oratory or for his value as a disciple, but as a kind of peacemaker, a bridge builder. Heaven knows, we need a few more of those in this world. But where are we going to find them?

There are some people we could think of as bridge builders, people willing to give even enemies a second chance to patch the differences. Desmond Tutu, with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, gave victims a second chance. Never before had they had the chance to speak to those who had harmed the and give their personal impact statements. It also gave the oppressors an opportunity to hear the stories of their victims and to repent. It was certainly a landmark event. Many were repentant and even more were forgiving.

Former president Jimmy, at over 90 years of age, still continues to bridge the gap between rich and poor, first-world and third-world communities. Helping to build houses for the poor through Habitat for Humanity, he also serves as a peacemaker and activist, a supporter of the rights of women and children, and whose foundations help search for cures for diseases. These causes help those around the world in places where they are otherwise voiceless. Who says one person can't make a difference.

There are so many others we hear about and many, many more that we don't. But the thing is that giving others a second chance is a Jesus thing. Whether the fault was with them in the first place, or whether it was because of things beyond their control, they deserve a second chance. Give people second chances, and, with great expectation and hope, those people who are helped are able to turn their lives around and often pay it forward.

Everyone needs second chances from time to time. We need them when we hurt other people, which is why we not only must apologize for the hurt, but so we can to repair the breach. We may make a mistake, and we need a second chance to start over, using what we've learned to avoid making another mistake of the same nature.

We are often skeptical about giving second chances to people who have been imprisoned, addicts, prostitutes, or any one of hundreds of things we fear, disapprove of, or feel scandalized by. Barnabas would probably come to their defense and help them turn themselves around. We want second chances for ourselves but not always for others. It's almost too bad we don't follow in the footprints of Jesus that Barnabas did. After all, Jesus set the standard.

Jesus believed in second chances like the woman by the well; he knew what she had done yet gave her a second chance and she became his first evangelist. Jarius's daughter, the woman with the hemorrhage, the centurion's slave, Lazarus--all of these represented people being given a second chance. To those surrounding the receivers Jesus gave the opportunity to turn from unbelief to belief, from the feeling of being lost to one of being found, recognized, and set on a new course. Mistakes happen, errors happen, but there should always be an opportunity for a Barnabas to be around.

We all make mistakes. We all want forgiveness. At times we all need a Barnabas to stand with us and to help us to reestablish ourselves. We also have friends who, God willing, are the kind of friends who will do just that. Hopefully, we have family who will see that we have done but also see the person they knew and loved, even though now they look at someone who has done something horrible.

So who can I give a second chance to today, this week, this year? Jesus and Barnabas would probably be the first to step up and say "Here's one; we stand by them. Go find others."

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 11, 2016.

Sunday, June 5, 2016


He said not: Thou shalt not be troubled, thou shalt not be tempted, thou shalt not be distressed, but He said: thou shalt not be overcome.  -- Julian of Norwich

We had our next-to-last class meeting of our Education for Ministry (EfM) groups last weekend. It's always sad to come to the end of the year, but we still continue our practice of doing a theological reflection (TR) each week. We take a story, Bible passage, picture, poem, commercial, advertisement, or almost anything, and look at it from a number of different angles. We ask what the artifact means to each of us, what the world of the artifact is like, what is broken about it, and what would make it whole. We explore what culture says about it, where we would find something similar in our Christian tradition (Bible, lives of saints, hymns, readings), what our personal position on the artifact is, and what implication or epiphany we have had as a result of listening to others, voicing our own thoughts, and listening for God to put in a word to us. We take this epiphany out into the world and try to incorporate it into our lives and ministries.

This past weekend we had a picture of a group of kayakers negotiating a whitewater run. There were big black rocks on one side, and lots of swirls, eddies, and turbulence in the water. Each paddler seemed intent on making his/her way down the rapids safely, keeping one eye on the water ahead, the other checking periodically the path of the one paddling ahead of them so they could either follow safely or look for a better way of negotiating the rough water.

One thing all of us agreed on was that all of us find ourselves in whitewater now and then, figuratively if not literally. There are times we all have felt we were not in control of what was going on around us. It was probably like what the disciples felt during the storm on Galilee, powerless and full of fear, even with Jesus in the boat with them. But Jesus was sleeping through the whole thing! So the disciples did what most of us do when we're in over our heads: they called on Jesus to get them out of the danger. Now doesn't that sound like something we would do?

Dame Julian certainly seemed to have gasped the concept of whitewater, whether or not she had ever seen the actuality of a stretch of it. She did understand, though, that we would all face trouble, temptation, and distress. Surely her severe illness at the age of 30 would probably count as one of those whitewater experiences, yet upon her recovery she began to have visions that have come to be known as the beginnings of her Shewings or Revelations of Divine Love, a spiritual classic. The visions lead her to become an anchoress at a local church. Julian may have abandoned living in the world, but the world came to her for counsel and direction.

Illness, like many experiences, make us feel we are not in control, and that we are totally helpless.  It's true; we quite often are. Yet Dame Julian has a word for us: "But He said, thou shalt not be overcome." What on earth does that mean? What if we or someone we love die as a result of illness or accident, despite many fervent prayers and assertions that we believe God will heal? What if we are in deep trouble and it seems like God is far away and totally uninterested?

It's not an easy position to be in.

What is it to be overcome? Is it permanent, or can it be temporary? Are there things we can do to get ourselves out of the maelstrom or are we permanently stuck?

What if we could see whitewater as an opportunity? We can learn from turbulence, even if the experience itself is far from pleasant. We can  learn that overwhelmed doesn't necessarily mean overcome. Like kayakers who learn early in their training to right a kayak that flips over, we can learn to see the rapids as a challenge and an opportunity to grow. It is also an opportunity to learn to trust that God will not abandon us.

That may not mean that God is going to resolve all our problems or pull us safely out of every turbulence even if we shout "Help!" at the top of our lungs. What God will do, however, is be the second person in our kayak, the guide leading us onward, the quiet inlet where we can stop and rest.

It's something we can believe in, and that's what Jesus told us to do. It's something to hold on to, even when we feel overwhelmed.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 4, 2016.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Words of Wisdom

With patience a ruler may be persuaded,
   and a soft tongue can break bones.
If you have found honey, eat only enough for you,
   or else, having too much, you will vomit it.
Let your foot be seldom in your neighbour’s house,
   otherwise the neighbour will become weary of you and hate you.
Like a war club, a sword, or a sharp arrow
   is one who bears false witness against a neighbour.
Like a bad tooth or a lame foot
   is trust in a faithless person in time of trouble.
Like vinegar on a wound
   is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.
Like a moth in clothing or a worm in wood,
   sorrow gnaws at the human heart.
If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat;
   and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink;
for you will heap coals of fire on their heads,
   and the
Lord will reward you.
The north wind produces rain,
   and a backbiting tongue, angry looks.
It is better to live in a corner of the housetop
   than in a house shared with a contentious wife.
Like cold water to a thirsty soul,
   so is good news from a far country.
Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain
   are the righteous who give way before the wicked.
It is not good to eat much honey,
   or to seek honour on top of honour.
Like a city breached, without walls,
   is one who lacks self-control.
  -- Proverbs 25: 15-28

I used to work with a guy named Bob. We didn't work in the same department, but it was a small,
bull-pen type place where everybody was more or less in the same room. Bob had a very dry sense of humor. He had his favorite buzzwords and replies. The one I remembered best was when someone would ask how the day was going, he would always come back with "Same stuff, different day, ground finer."  Of course, he didn't say "stuff", but it became a catch phrase for the whole office.

The lady I called Granny had similar sayings that would pop up from time to time. The first time I went to visit her,  she told me something she said she told every guest. "The first day you're here, we wait on you. The second day, you wait on yourself. The third day you start waiting on us!"  It was all in good fun, but somehow I enjoyed doing a little bit of waiting on them; it was like being part of the family.

Ben Franklin had a similar proverb or saying that was a bit more pointed than Granny's: "Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days." While Mr. Franklin was much more well-known than Granny, she had a gentility and politeness he didn't always exhibit. He did, however, have Poor Richard's Almanac, and hundreds of pithy sayings that stated general truths or pieces of advice. There's one for almost every situation, occasion, or even just for everyday thought.

The book of Proverbs is considered a book of wisdom, sayings and moral lessons that are rather pithy and which convey truths in a commonly-understood language. Granny may have had the saying about the third day, as did Ben Franklin, but Proverbs also has somewhat the same wisdom: "Let your foot be seldom in your neighbor's house, otherwise the neighbor will become weary of you and hate you." The use of similes, comparing two unlike things that usually are preceded by "like," create contrasts that point in the same direction. They become part of the culture by being short and meaningful.

Wisdom often comes in small packages. Jesus tucked a lot of wisdom in words like love, faith, believe. Love your neighbor, faith has made you whole, do not fear--only believe. How often do we forget those bits of wisdom, particularly if they make us uncomfortable or just slip through the cracks of our mental filing system. It's uncomfortable to be asked to love our neighbor, particularly if they are "different" from  us in some way. It's hard to have faith that things will work out, especially when facing things like cancer, poverty, homelessness or the like. It's hard not to be afraid when facing those same things and the uncertainty they bring. It's hard to live in a world out of control-- our control.

"Like a city breached, without walls, is one who lacks self-control." The world admires people with self-control, people who can stand on the ramparts and appear to be masters of all they survey. We reserve scorn for those we perceive to be without self-control--the addict, the obese, the homeless family living in their car, the mentally ill among others. How is this reflecting what Jesus taught in short, simple terms? How are we different than the crowd picking up stones to cast? Ben Franklin had a few words of wisdom here: "How many observe Christ's birthday; how few his precepts."

Perhaps we need to look for little bits of wisdom that are like shiny shells in the sand. They are easily overlooked and they require a modicum of effort to bend over and pick up, but there is a small slice of the world that can be held in the hand and observed. It can be a tiny piece that can be the linch pin for solving the whole puzzle before us.

Maybe it will remind us to look for the key words - love, faith, believe. And it may provoke other key words that we may have forgotten. Perhaps Ben has a final word of wisdom for this moment: "Work as if you were to last a hundred years. Pray as if you were to die tomorrow."

Proverbs -- words to live by.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café on Saturday, May 28, 2016.

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.