Sunday, April 26, 2015

Cloaks and Wineskins


After this he went out and saw a tax-collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up, left everything, and followed him.
 Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax-collectors and others sitting at the table with them. The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax-collectors and sinners?’ Jesus answered, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.’
 Then they said to him, ‘John’s disciples, like the disciples of the Pharisees, frequently fast and pray, but your disciples eat and drink.’ Jesus said to them, ‘You cannot make wedding-guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.’ He also told them a parable: ‘No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, “The old is good." - Luke 5:27-39


You meet people in the strangest places, people who may at first seem just like everybody else but who become important people over the course of time. I'm not sure what Levi thought when a stranger walked up to him and spoke to him, but evidently there was a compulsion there that made Levi get up and walk away from a fairly lucrative if despised profession. It was a compulsion great enough that Levi even threw a big party and invited lots of his former co-workers to meet Jesus. We don't know if Jesus changed the minds of any other tax-collector, but he did collect Levi and gained a follower who also probably became a friend.

I wonder if Levi knew what he was getting into when he stood up from his tax-table. Did he call another collector to take over his stand? Did he take what money he had collected to another and ask that they get it to the proper authorities? Did he do the same with his tax rolls? Or did he just stand up and walk away from it all, leaving it to whomever noticed and might feel encouraged to lighten the amount the Romans would get as a result of Levi's work?

Levi became not just a follower of Jesus but, most likely, a good friend as well. He threw a banquet for Jesus where a number of Levi's former associates were present. This threw the scribes and Pharisees into a frenzy of accusations that Jesus was associating with Roman collaborators and sinners, people any righteous Jew would refuse to be seen with much less sitting down and eating with. Of course, Jesus got a reputation as a drunk and partygoer by associating with the outcasts, but in reality the scribes and Pharisees were just looking for evidence to use against Jesus who was a challenge to their authority.

Jesus had an answer for the scribes and Pharisees and, as was quite frequent, he used images to make his point. They asked why he ignored the righteous people he should associate with and instead dined and partied with people known to be outcasts and less-than-respectable citizens. In this reading, he used the images of cloaks and wineskins, both of which were common, ordinary objects. Everyone had a cloak and probably even a young child would know what a wineskin was.

The lesson was about practicalities -- and also about people. It isn't practical to ruin a new piece of cloth to patch an old cloak, or put unfermented grape juice in an old skin which has already been stretched and which might not withstand the pressure of fermentation of a new batch. The old saying about "waste not, want not" certainly would apply here. But when Jesus used the illustrations, he was talking about people, not commodities.

Daily we are surrounded by people: friends, family, co-workers, acquaintances, total strangers and all sorts in between.  We don't have disciples like Jesus did (at least, most of us don't), but we do have people around us. Some are like cloaks; they warm us, they comfort us, they help protect us. They're the ones who patch the holes caused by rough treatment, loneliness, even down and out desperation, not with patches cut from new cloth but with love, caring and compassion. Others are like old wineskins with new wine put in; they have already been stretched and pressure from within makes them give way so that the skin ruptures and the wine is lost. These are the people who drain us of energy, who cause us pain and misery, or who represent things harmful to us. They may call themselves "friends" but these are not friends at all.

Jesus was surrounded by people too, some like warm cloaks, some like bursting wineskins. At times his disciples seemed like one or the other, sometimes seeming to change from one to the other in the space of the blink of an eye. What kind of friend swears they would die for you yet go and hide when you yourself are in danger? The disciples were like that, and we are not really a lot different. We celebrate when the bridegroom is present but hide when he is taken away. What kind of friends does that make us?

We as Christians claim friendship and discipleship with Christ. We quote him, we pray to him, we gather together periodically to celebrate his life and resurrection as we partake of the Eucharist. But when we walk out the church door, do we become cloaks or wineskins?  When we see people in need, are we cloaks or wineskins? When there are people in danger who need our help, which are we then?

Could we be Levis who walk away from a lucrative profession to follow a homeless rabbi and teacher? Would we throw a party for our associates and friends to introduce this rabbi to them as someone to listen to and to follow? That's putting away the wineskin and taking up the cloak.

Do we have the courage Levi did? 


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 25, 2015.



Sunday, April 19, 2015

Goodbye, my friend...

I don't remember the precise time when we passed from acquaintances to friends, but I should. I didn't know at the time it was going to be one of those friendships that lasted for decades and would be so important to me. Had I known, I'd have marked it on my perpetual calendar and tried to find a Hallmark card or a bunch of flowers or even a pizza special enough to celebrate the day.

I met her at church. We were both on the Altar Guild but on different teams. At some point in time, we started talking and became good friends. For me, I considered her one of my very best friends and, as the wise know, those are the treasures we find in life when we open up to the possibilities of entering a relationship. It was a risk I have always been grateful I took and that she did too.

She had such an interesting life, one so different from mine. She had lived in places I'd dreamed of, and I always envied that. She definitely traveled in social circles well above mine, but somehow that didn't matter because we were friends. I took her into my world, she shared hers with me, and we were both comfortable with that.

It is said that a mark of a true friend is one with whom you can share anything and still keep the friendship intact. We disagreed about some things (she loved talk radio and I listened to nothing but classical, among other things). We could (and did) talk about almost anything (okay, we left out some things that would have simply been TMI -- too much information). We laughed a lot which is always a good thing. She could be serious, but she also could be very funny, sometimes at the same time.

Of all the reasons I have to be grateful to her, probably the most important was her being there for me when I really needed her. She was one of the first people I called after my husband died, and she figuratively held my hand for weeks afterwards, helping me come out of the fog and make decisions I had to make.

When I needed a ride to a medical test, she was there to take me and sit in the waiting room until the procedure was done. Now there's nothing more boring than sitting in a waiting room, but she did it not once but several times. It was to her that I turned to when I was given the diagnosis of breast cancer, and she accompanied me on the initial visit to the surgeon to explore my options. She was my second set of ears and also my advisor. "Here's what I think but it is completely your decision," was that advice and it gave me the courage to do what needed to be done. She got up long before her normal rising time to take me to the hospital and wait until I was safely out of surgery, which involved a lot of sitting in a waiting room -- again. She picked me up the next day and brought me home. We checked in frequently and I knew she was there when I needed her. To me, that was the greatest sign of love a friend could give and she gave it wholeheartedly.

I've learned that one of the hardest things about growing older is the loss of people we considered  rocks and even portions of our own support system. News of her passing came a shock but not a surprise. Knowing her medical problems, it was inevitable that one day something was going to happen, I just wasn't ready for it to happen quite so soon.

I'm grateful we had pizza together a week or so ago, and that I got her my usual Easter gift to her -- cheap chocolate-covered marshmallow Easter eggs, the cheaper the better. She loved the things and would ration herself so they would last for as long as possible. This year I gave her several dozen, telling her with a laugh that that should last her until next Easter. I hope she got to eat a lot of them.

Little things like that meant a lot to her, like the shoestring potatoes another friend gave her every year for her birthday. She looked forward to those and enjoyed them for as long as possible. I think to her, they were as important a gift as any extravagant one would be.

One thing she loved above all was her family. They were the center of her world. She could get exasperated, upset, hurt and puzzled by them but there was never a time when her love didn't encompass each and every one of them. Her family has been so exceedingly lucky to have had her with them for so many years.

I'm really going to miss JJ, as I called her. I am grateful for the memories but I wish we'd had time to make a few more. It appears her passing was quick and, hopefully, painless. That's a passing I think everyone wants but not everyone gets to have. I'm glad it was that way for her. She would have hated losing her independence. I'm glad she was spared that, for her sake and her family's.

Most of all, I'm going to miss that bright light she brought into my life. The world for me is a bit darker today. We didn't often say it, but there were times when the greatest thing either of us could say was "I love you."

Goodbye, my friend. You'll always be as close as my next heartbeat and my reminders of the many gifts you've given me. We'll meet again, and I hope there's pizza in heaven because we'll have a lot to catch up on.   Rest in peace and rise in glory, JoJane.

Temptations

’Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.”
 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
   and serve only him.”

 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you,
   to protect you”,
and
“On their hands they will bear you up,
   so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”
Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
  Luke 4:1-13




Jesus had just been baptized, complete with the Spirit appearing as a dove and a direct attestation from God. That same Spirit told him to go out into the desert where he would be for a fairly significant period of time. Jesus  was in the desert for 40 days  (40 consecutive days, unlike our Lent which is 40 days but excludes Sundays). While he was there he was subjected to some temptations which, had he given in, would have eased his situation and given him power over the earth or so he was promised.

nbsp;Jesus had feelings, emotions,  thoughts, and fears; he would have had to or his human experience would have been totally and fatally flawed. He was the Son of God, yes, but on earth as a Jewish male, not a god.

For us, temptations crop up with great regularity: buy this, get that, avoid this, lose weight because you're always too fat no matter what, keep up with the Joneses or you'll be considered a loser. We get temptations and some of them we can do without but some we succumb to. We're human and humans are subject to temptations. Jesus' temptations were about his being human and more. Having been in a human body for 30 years, he had to have gone through a lot of things that we go through, little temptations like  eating a little too much a meal or drinking a little too much wine,  doing something that maybe shouldn't be done but is done anyway. With his own temptations, Jesus showed how we should react to our own.

Every time we pray the Lord's prayer, we always pray "… Lead us not into temptation…" That always seems to be a puzzle to me. In the theology of my childhood church, God gives us trials to check our faith, to see if we succumbed to weakness or whether we were strong in our faith. If someone got cancer, it was God's will, it was God's test of their faith, regardless of the outcome. If a child died, it was God's will and a test of the parent' strength of belief. No matter what came along, if it wasn't great and wonderful and terrific it was a test from God. Wait a minute. Wasn't something like this covered in the book of Job?

Job lived a righteous life; he was a good guy. Suddenly, based on a sort of celestial contest, Job lost everything that made his life enjoyable and productive. His health was taken from him, most of his family were killed, and all his possessions were taken away because of a bet. Job was a pawn in an apparent  struggle between the Adversary and God, to see if Job the righteous would become Job the unrighteous. He passed the  test and of course was able to regain everything he'd lost including more children, more wealth, more livestock, more everything. I realize that Job is an allegory but so much of the theology that I was taught as a child and even some that I hear today is dependent on this as a test from God. Job passed that test because he never denied God, he never got angry with God, he never did anything wrong. God rewarded his faithfulness.

This is hard for me to comprehend now. If someone gets cancer, is that a test from God to see how strong their faith is? A job gets lost and with it a family's stability is lost also;  is that a test from God? It is far  above my pay grade to really say yes or no, but as I grow older the more I wonder what is it that I actually believe about this. How can I say ..."lead us not into temptation ..." or the new version, ..." save us from the time of trial..."  when I don't believe God actually leads us into temptation or a time of trial just to check and see if were going to pass the faithfulness test. I would venture to say most if not all of us would fail miserably.

I can look at Jesus. He was as  Paul said, was "...in all points tempted like as we are, ..." (Heb. 4:15b). That's what makes the crucifixion and resurrection so incredible.  Yet am I supposed to believe that Jesus death on the cross was God's will and pretty much the sole reason Jesus had to go through Good Friday's agony? That's pretty hard pill to swallow.

As I grow older my questions grow. Not that I don't believe; I believe very strongly in the crucifixion and resurrection and humanity of Jesus as well as his divine nature. But what I can't believe is that this is a test from God or that a lot of things that we hear other people say about "Oh well,  it was God's will" or "God is testing our faith". I just can't wrap my mind around it. Perhaps I'm not supposed to. Perhaps the test is to see if I can still rely on God and yet solve my own problems without assigning blame to someone else. I don't think my cancer was sent by God, but it strengthened my bond with God and it also taught me that I have more strength maybe than I thought I did.

We aren't as strong as Jesus; we succumb all the time. Where I think the lesson is in what we do if we give in and what's the outcome. Does it bring us closer to God or separate us further from God? That's the real question we have to answer, and answer directly to God. God doesn't require it, but is always ready and waiting to listen.



Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 18, 2015.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Witnessing with our lives

Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus. When they saw the man who had been cured standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition. So they ordered them to leave the council while they discussed the matter with one another. They said, ‘What will we do with them? For it is obvious to all who live in Jerusalem that a notable sign has been done through them; we cannot deny it. But to keep it from spreading further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.’ So they called them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.’ After threatening them again, they let them go, finding no way to punish them because of the people, for all of them praised God for what had happened. For the man on whom this sign of healing had been performed was more than forty years old.
 After they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. When they heard it, they raised their voices together to God and said, ‘Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and everything in them, it is you who said by the Holy Spirit through our ancestor David, your servant:
“Why did the Gentiles rage,
   and the peoples imagine vain things?
The kings of the earth took their stand,
   and the rulers have gathered together
     against the Lord and against his Messiah.”

For in this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant
Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.’ When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness. -- Acts 4:13-31

Peter and John had been preaching in Jerusalem, a rather brave thing to do considering that not all that long ago they had hidden with their brother disciples as their teacher and master had been crucified publicly not very far away. This time, though, they had healed a 40-year-old lame man and suddenly the crowd saw them as more than uneducated Galileans who preached about the impossibility of a dead man who came back to life. Those sermons and speeches got the temple leadership all in a tizzy. What to do about these men whose actions were causing such a stir throughout Jerusalem?

The answer was to haul Peter and John off to prison until they could decide what to do. Their final solution was to tell them to just shut up, to quit talking about this Jesus, and let things go back to normal. Peter and John must have grown some spine since the resurrection; they not only refused to keep quiet, they continued to speak out, to pray openly, and to attract more and more attention.

Each of us probably hears thousands of words a day. Conversations with friends, family, coworkers and sometimes almost total strangers like the server at Starbuck's or the clerk at the grocery store, news and entertainment on the radio and TV, readings and sermons in church, exchanges of ideas and proposals at work; the list is almost endless. Sometimes we might even hear a sermon from a street preacher or pass by a religious channel on the media. Now and again, a word or a phrase or even a tone of voice might cause us to pause a bit to hear more of what is being said.

Perhaps that's how Peter and John's message got through to so many. It's certain that the miracle of the lame man gave them an extra credence. Still, the bumbling disciples who seemed to have been so slow to catch on when Jesus was with them had become persuasive, even eloquent speakers. Looks like the Spirit had taken over and turned their lack of understanding into tongues of gold.

We get used to seeing miracles or what we call "miracles." On almost every newscast there's a final story about something that would make people feel good: a lost child found, a veteran with an amputation takes his first steps, a dog saves a family from a fire, people risk their lives to save other people or animals from risky if not potentially fatal situations. It's easy to call them "miracles" and, perhaps they are. A lot of what makes us pay attention is the words the newscaster, reporter or eyewitnesses use to describe what happened. The people in Jerusalem had seen a lame man healed, but they were told about a man rising from the dead. Now that was a true miracle!

We hear the words about that miraculous event every Easter and, in fact, we hear it throughout the year in church. What we don't hear is talk about it outside the church walls unless you run into a street preacher or tune in to a religious program on radio or TV. Oh, we get sound bytes of Christians around the world walking the pilgrim way or doing the stations of the cross during Holy Week, carrying crosses on Good Friday,  marching through the streets and around the churches on Palm Sunday, and joyous celebrations of Easter a week later. After that, nothing unless there's a funeral or wedding of a prominent person or someone around whom a community rallies.

For people enjoined to spread the good news, we aren't always that good at it. We let the clergy and the church do that for us with ads in the paper about times of service and maybe a bit of the mission statement which isn't always understood by the target audience. We put banners outside the church or church or denominational logos on bumper stickers or cling-ons for our car's back window and think that's being a witness. It's better than nothing, but it really isn't up to the par of Peter and John. We aren't called to be them, but we are called to witness, as the prayer book puts it, "...not only with our lips, but in our lives..." (125).

While we are still in the Easter season, it might be nice to be a witness whether by words or by actions. Acts of kindness, forgiveness, empathy, and presence are things we can do on a daily basis. Maybe we won't mention the name of Jesus, but maybe, just maybe, Jesus will work his way into the conversation. It's worth a try.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 11, 2015.

















Saturday, April 11, 2015

Requiem

I listen to the radio a lot, always the local classical station. Usually I don't seem to hear much choral music except in December and on the Sunday program featuring Baroque music, but lately I've heard a few more, and oddly, most of them seem to be selections from various requiems. I started thinking about it the other day and suddenly saw what might be connections between the requiems and the upcoming Holy Week. Perhaps tenuous and erroneous connections but nonetheless, it seemed worth thinking about.








Requiems are Roman Catholic masses for the repose of the dead, musical compositions of those services, and memorial compositions and works written in honor of a particular person. They can also be used at memorial surrounding death or mourning. Most of the major (and a bunch of the minor) composers have written versions of the requiem, whether for a special occasion or memorial for a famous person, or sometimes as a concert piece. Like writers are drawn to write about subjects that speak to them, composers often find something in the liturgy that suggests a musical exploration. They are no less beautiful or meaningful, and quite often they are incorporated into memorial services or funerals.






The word requiem is a form of the Latin requies meaning repose or rest. The opening of the traditional service is Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine, (Grant them eternal rest, O Lord) and is a prayer for the dead and a comfort for the mourners. When we pray for the dead, we are asking that God look with mercy on them and give them eternal rest. The various prayers of the requiem mirror the confidence we have in that mercy but also sort of hedging our bets on behalf of those being memorialized; we tend to be forgetful, and while we're sure God isn't, we aren't taking chances.

The Kyrie eleison and the Agnus Dei are familiar, at least in translation, from liturgies we celebrate during Advent and Lent. They represent both requests for mercy for the dead but also for ourselves. While we pray for the dead, we also pray for ourselves. Especially during Lent we are reminded again and again of our mortality and our inability to evade sin. We are encouraged to penitence for what we've done wrong and determination to avoid sin in the future. Of course, we may be penitent but most of us have some jolly little sins we're relatively fond of and others we really would like to do without except they are too convenient at times. Still, we go to church, confess our sins, promise we'll change, and pray for those who are now beyond any earthly redemption, for that redemption only God can provide.


I know that we hear requiems around November 1st and 2nd, the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, and that makes sense. We remember those we loved who have died and we pray that they will rest in peace and rise in glory. But why would we hear requiems during Lent and Holy Week?  Whose death are we mourning? 


Holy Week, which begins tomorrow with Palm Sunday, traces the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, moves through the events at the temple, the celebration of the first Eucharist, the night in the garden, the arrest. trial and finally crucifixion of Jesus. There we have a dead man for whom we might well pray for God's mercy upon him. But hold it. Jesus rose from the dead - and you can't sit shiva or raise prayers for the dead if the person isn't dead! So therefore it has to be a reminder for someone -- maybe us.


We pray for the dead and, perhaps, we hope deep down inside that someone will do a requiem or pray for us after we have died. We can't pray for ourselves or ask for mercy so we hope we have paid it forward in the prayer department by praying for others. Hopefully someone will do the same for us.


During the season of Lent and Holy Week, we draw closer to the cross, the instrument of death, and find that it isn't about death but about life. It's about Jesus but it is also about us. It's about our mortality and the promise of rest and resurrection. Perhaps the sound of the requiem is to be a comfort to us. The march to the cross leads not to a requiem but rather a celebration of life.


Amen.













Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 4, 2015.          









Sunday, April 5, 2015

A Saturday Night in Hell

It's the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. In church terms, it's usually called Holy Saturday, a day when there doesn't seem to be much going on other than usual Saturday chores. Oh, there are probably people making sure Junior and Sister's new clothes are well-pressed and ready for church tomorrow. Some families will dye Easter eggs that will be hidden around the house and yard so the kids can have the fun of finding them. Easter baskets have been purchased (featuring thematic toys, balls, dolls, and cars) or Easter grass and different kinds of candies for the do-it-yourself baskets. Tonight parents will fill those baskets with chocolate bunnies and marshmallow eggs, pink and yellow chicks and bunnies (the ever-delightful Peeps, of course), jelly beans and the like. It will be a sugar rush second only to Halloween, and even adults will sneak a jelly bean or Peep to remind them of when they were kids and found their own Easter baskets.

Church-wise, the Saturday before Easter is a morning full of polishing, dusting, vacuuming, draping the altar with linens so white they glisten and arranging flowers and lilies by the dozens. Before noon, everything is usually ready for the Great Vigil of Easter, sometimes held on Saturday night, sometimes early on Easter morning. But, for the afternoon, the church is quiet and waiting.

We know the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and Easter Sunday is pretty familiar too. But what about the time between when Jesus was laid in the tomb and the stone rolled across the entrance and the first witnesses finding the stone rolled away and the tomb empty? We know that is probably the greatest mystery but it doesn't stop us from wondering, just as it did our ancestors.

When we recite the Apostles' Creed, we say "...He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again..." (BCP p. 304). Older versions of the Creed use "...he descended into hell...," something suggested or mentioned in various parts of the gospels and epistles. Tradition has it that between being laid in the tomb and rising from it, Jesus went to the realm of the dead, Sheol, where all souls/spirits went. There was no punishment or glory, simply a place of eternal rest. There Jesus led out the souls of those who had lived before his coming to earth, people like the patriarchs, prophets and even Adam and Eve.

This signified his place as the second Adam, releasing souls by his power over sin and death just as the first Adam had introduced sin into the world. It became quite a popular story in the Middle Ages, and many people watched the miracle plays that dramatized the events. By this time, Sheol had become the Greek Hades which had gained an additional layer of meaning as a place of punishment. By the harrowing of Hell, Jesus became the victor over Hell's power and even Hell's own gates. Watching this dramatized gave the people a way of understanding a complicated issue and a moral lesson.

The story is traditional doctrine but seldom taught as such. We say the sentence of the creed and just sort of skip over it without thinking about it very much, if at all. But think of the early Christians and those in the Middle Ages. For them it was a very important thing, a promise that Jesus would keep the gates of Hell open not just for the one-way traffic of souls being forced in. For a majority of people who were trapped in a kind of hell of slavery, bondage, poverty and lack of control over most parts of their lives, it must have been comforting to see that the Jesus they heard about in church (if they could understand the Latin), could actually save people from Hell itself, a place even worse than what their normal situations were. Like the stained glass windows of the churches, the miracle plays such as the Harrowing of Hell were as much for education as simply for beauty or entertainment.

Of course, we don't know that visiting Sheol is how Jesus spent Good Friday night and perhaps Holy Saturday night as well, but it is one possibility. We celebrate Easter as Jesus' victory over death and a foreshadowing of our own rising again at the Last Judgment. We don't always stop and think about Hell and, in fact, some of us really only think about sin seriously during Lent when it is sort of made clear to us that we need to take sin seriously. For some of us, the belief that Hell will be empty and that all will have a second chance with God, no matter how evil the acts they have done, is a comforting thought while others are busy contemplating Hell well-populated with dictators, despots, miscreants, felons and people who simply don't believe the right things (in short, who don't agree with their particular beliefs).

I don't find it hard to think of Jesus bursting open the gates of Hell and bringing out the righteous. I don't even have a problem thinking of him bringing out people others would consider far from righteous. The mercy of God extended through Jesus is a power stronger than anything, including sin and death, so is it impossible that Hell is a place we choose here and now rather than face at some point in our lives when our earthly existence comes to a close?

That's something I think I will be contemplating this Saturday night. I'm betting on a very full Heaven and a very empty Hell. One night in Hell might just have emptied the place for good.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 4, 2015.







Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Prophet's Underwear


Thus said the Lord to me, ‘Go and buy yourself a linen loincloth, and put it on your loins, but do not dip it in water.’ So I bought a loincloth according to the word of the Lord, and put it on my loins. And the word of the Lord came to me a second time, saying, ‘Take the loincloth that you bought and are wearing, and go now to the Euphrates, and hide it there in a cleft of the rock.’ So I went, and hid it by the Euphrates, as the Lord commanded me. And after many days the Lord said to me, ‘Go now to the Euphrates, and take from there the loincloth that I commanded you to hide there.’ Then I went to the Euphrates, and dug, and I took the loincloth from the place where I had hidden it. But now the loincloth was ruined; it was good for nothing.
 Then the word of the Lord came to me: Thus says the Lord: Just so I will ruin the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem. This evil people, who refuse to hear my words, who stubbornly follow their own will and have gone after other gods to serve them and worship them, shall be like this loincloth, which is good for nothing. For as the loincloth clings to one’s loins, so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, says the Lord, in order that they might be for me a people, a name, a praise, and a glory. But they would not listen.  - Jeremiah 13:1-11

When the  tomb of Tutankhamen was opened and the contents revealed, surprisingly enough there were undergarments waiting for the Pharaoh's need of them. Looking at the tomb graphics and figures, many figures, including Pharaoh, are wearing short kilts or even just plain loincloths. Almost every culture has worn loincloths and some, like Sumo wrestlers among others, continue to wear them as part of their identification. Today we're more likely to hear about boxers, jockey shorts or even thongs, but they all started as an improvement (more or less) on the loincloth.

The story today begins with Jeremiah's underwear. Underwear isn't a subject often mentioned  in the Bible. In this story, God told Jeremiah to go get a new linen loincloth. Jeremiah was told not only to buy the undergarment but to put it on and wear it without washing it or letting it get wet. We aren't told how long he wore it but at some point God came and told him to take it to the river and hide it among the rocks. Some time later, Jeremiah was told to go dig it up and what Jeremiah found was a rotten, stinking mess that could never be used again. Symbolically, it represented the people who had once again proved unfaithful to God.

The job of the prophet was to warn people of the dangers of the course they were taking. It wasn't foretelling the future by saying something like "A week from next Tuesday a plague will hit and the people living on X, Y and Z streets will be decimated." It was seeing the cultural and religious bodies being infected from within and trying to tell them that they needed to change their ways of doing things or else.

God often made prophets do strange, not to say weird, things in order to get the people's attention. Isaiah had to walk around town naked for three years which must have scandalized the neighbors since even accidental exposure of certain areas of the body was not acceptable. Ezekiel had to lie on his left side for 390 days, then on his right side for 40 more before baring his arm and prophesying against Jerusalem. Ezekiel was also told to cook barley bread over a fire of human dung but he bargained God down to cow dung instead as human excrement was considered unclean while a cow's was a normal fuel. Jeremiah had to wear and then bury his underwear. In each case, using an extreme visual to go with a warning from the prophet was God's way of trying to get Israel and Judah to listen.

Occasionally something would get their attention and the people would return to the way it was supposed to be, but then they would slide off into apostasy, greed, selfishness and downright sin of any and all varieties once again. Another prophet would give them a message, but again like so many times before, the intimacy with God would be rejected in favor of being like the alien neighbors who seemed to be having so much more fun.

Some fancy stores have departments such as "Ladies' intimate apparel," a very dignified name for women's underwear. Intimate apparel suggests garments that cling to the body, close, familiar and comfortable. Intimacy is more than underwear, though. Intimacy is a relationship that is close, familiar, comfortable and sometimes even passionate. It's a kind of relationship that everyone craves but sometimes are too afraid to pursue. They fear disclosing too much and giving others power, especially the power to hurt deeply, that comes with a person sharing that information with another.

One thing we are assured of is that God loves us and wants the best for us, even if we don't know what that is for ourselves. God extends intimacy to each of us yet often we reject it or completely forget about it. We become the dirty underwear stashed in the crevice like Jeremiah's. We go chasing after foreign or false gods, becoming dirty in the process and straining the intimacy that we, and God, crave.

What does it take for us to return to that intimacy with God that we were intended to have? It isn't something that just suddenly comes on and sticks around; it has to be fostered, like adding kindling to a tiny fire to make it grow. Prayer and meditation can be a good start, as can being mindful of our actions and thoughts.

Where are we failing God when we mentally curse at the person who just cut us off on the freeway or whose dog left a "gift" on our front lawn? Where are we failing when we see pictures of hungry children and then blithely go on to our favorite restaurant for lunch or dinner that would cost enough to feed that child for days? When we fail at caring for others we fail at caring for God, for each of us carries some God-stuff within us. We fail when we forget to pray or when we only shoot up arrow prayers when we are in trouble but don't bother with thank yous for help received or for something good that happens.

Intimacy takes work, unlike underwear that just clings to the body. It is a relational thing that has to be carefully tendered. Yet intimacy is a gift from God that lies within us all and that we can return to God as our gift and our duty. Maybe we don't need a nude prophet or one with dirty underwear, but we do need to pay attention to those who tell us where we are failing in terms of God, our neighbors and even our planet.

Paying attention is another of those intimacy things--a closeness, familiarity and even passion--that will help grow a kingdom, God's kingdom, here and now.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, March 14, 2015.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Perpetua and Her Companions

 Commemoration of Perpetua and Her Companions, Martyrs at Carthage, 202

Readings:
Psalm124-127
Daniel 6:10-16
Hebrews10:32-39
Matthew 24:9-14

Saints come in all kinds. Recognized saints, by churchly standards, are classified in several categories: Priest, soldier, apostle, archangel, doctor of the church, mystic, founder (especially of a religious order), virgin, confessor, and so on. One of the big categories of sainthood is that of martyr, one who dies for the faith in a less-than-peaceful way. Confessors are those who stand up for Jesus but who die quietly and naturally (or possibly by accident), but martyrs are done in by others in sometimes rather gruesome ways. Take St. Lawrence, for example. He was martyred by being roasted on a grill. Legend has it that his final words were, "Turn me over, this side's done."

Perpetua was a catechumen, one who had not yet been baptized. She was apparently a young widow with a small child still being nursed. Her family was wealthy but apparently not Christian. When she was due to have a hearing in court, her father visited her and tried to persuade her to have mercy on him by renouncing this Christianity and returning to the kind of daughter he had known and loved. Perpetua, having had a dream or vision of a golden ladder and a fair land beyond it where the shepherd welcomed her, knew that she would not get out of this alive and so told her father that whatever happened would be God's will. He left dejected, probably to never see her again.

In another vision, Perpetua found herself struggling with a gladiator. She won the contest and understood this to mean that she would withstand the attacks of the devil and prevail even though she would lose her life in the process.

Her day of trial came. She, another female prisoner named Felicitas, and three men, Revocatus, Saturus, and Secundus, were taken to the amphitheater. Things did not go precisely as they were planned. Perpetua was led out, a wild cow threw her to the ground and tore her tunic but failed to kill. Felicitas had been wounded as well and Perpetua helped her to regain her feet. Saturus was mortally wounded by a leopard but the other animals, a bear who would not leave his cage and a wild boar who gored his keeper, did not attack the men.

After a short rest, all remaining prisoners were lined up to be executed by human executioners, much as the pictures of ISIS executioners with their prisoners in front of them. When Perpetua's turn came, the young executioner's blow only wounded her. Reaching up, she took the blade in her hand and guided it to her neck. Presumably, the executioner then completed his task. I wonder -- did Perpetua's courage make any impact on the young man who took her life? Did it make a difference at all?

Today we have so many news stories and articles about martyrs in various parts of the world. Over the past months we have become increasingly familiar with martyrdom on almost a daily basis. The recent beheading of 21 Christians, mostly Coptics, was just the latest atrocity in a long string of beheadings, kidnappings, and tortures in different parts of the world. We are horrified, but don't seem to be able to do anything to stop the carnage.

There are those, however, who consider themselves martyrs. No, not that they are being persecuted like the Romans did to Christians, Christians did to Muslims and Jews during the Crusades, or Muslims doing to Jews and Christians now. These are the ones who have staunch beliefs and believe everyone else should believe as they do. Because they frequently meet with disapproval or outright rejection of their beliefs, they consider that they are persecuted and are martyrs for their faith. Somehow I think Perpetua, Felicitas, Lawrence and all the others who endured excruciatingly painful deaths to earn the title "Martyr" would probably shake their heads in disbelief.

What would we do if we were placed in a position similar to Perpetua or her companions?  It would probably seem so easy to just deny their beliefs and save their lives. What made their faith so strong and unshakeable?  They knew the risks of even secretly practicing their beliefs, yet they continued. Why? What was so compelling about the message of Jesus that they would risk certain death if they were discovered?

Probably they would understand Luther's statement of "Here I stand, I can do no other." What they had to lose was their place in a kingdom where the slave and noble would be equal,  there would be no pain, suffering, or death, and they would be comforted and loved by the man who had been himself a martyr to prove that God's love was for all people and for all time. Their faith in that promise enabled them to stay strong and faithful, even in the arena where they faced certain death.

Even if martyrdom isn't a possibility or probability in our current lives, can we be sure how firm our faith is? Would our faith stay strong in the midst of persecution or would it crumble like a dried leaf?  Do we trust Jesus and his promises enough to stand on those promises, whatever comes? Are we as willing to build our faith as we are to tone up our bodies and strengthen our muscles? It all requires the same thing -- practice and attention. We can look to Perpetua and the other martyrs like her for examples.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Observance


This very day the Lord your God is commanding you to observe these statutes and ordinances; so observe them diligently with all your heart and with all your soul. Today you have obtained the Lord’s agreement: to be your God; and for you to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes, his commandments, and his ordinances, and to obey him. Today the Lord has obtained your agreement: to be his treasured people, as he promised you, and to keep his commandments; for him to set you high above all nations that he has made, in praise and in fame and in honour; and for you to be a people holy to the Lord your God, as he promised. - Deuteronomy 26:16-19


During the season of Lent, there's a word that keeps cropping up: observe. We are urged to "Observe a Holy Lent" or we discuss various Lenten observances that different people find enriching or valuable to their spiritual lives. Again and again the word "observe" crops up, and there's no getting around it.

The word itself has several meanings, one of which is to watch, notice or study something as being significant. Another is to act or comply with a law or standard, be it legal, moral, religious, or ethical. We have professional war correspondents and peace organizations observing the action in war zones either to report the news or try to find a way to resolve the problems causing the aggression. Referees in sporting events are supposedly impartial observers whose job is to maintain adherence to the rules, keep order and adjudicate disputes. At Vatican II, non-Roman representatives of other denominations and faiths were invited to observe the historic meeting. And then we're told to observe the speed limit, observe holidays and city/town council meetings as well as trends in finance.

In the Deuteronomy reading, God commands the people to "observe these statutes and ordinances" and to "observe them diligently with all your heart and with all your soul." It isn't enough to just stand back and look at them, God wants the people to deliberately and fully keep the commandments, ordinances, and statues to which they had agreed and to obey God in all things. Those statues, etc., weren't just words laid out in a contract that could be ignored if it got inconvenient. They covered legal, ethical, moral and religious aspects of life, and if one in any one category was broken, it broke the chain that bound all four aspects together. The purpose of the observances was not only to do what God wanted, it was also to bind and strengthen the bonds between people and which included God as the center.

When we observe God's laws, we are responding to an agreement thousands and thousands of years old. Some of the laws might be outdated but we can look at what that particular law represented at the time it was first heard and find parallels in our own lives now. The price of ignoring the agreement and the things the people were called on to observe physically, emotionally, spiritually, ethically, morally, and just about any other -ly a person could think of, is living in disharmony with fellow human beings, nature and the many elements that compose it and with God as well. It is a sort of package deal. When one part of the  body is ill, the rest of reacts to it and tries to bring things back to normalcy. Something in disharmony does not function well, and we can't always just ignore it and think God will fix it for us.

During Lent we try not to do things we normally do and sometimes do things we ordinarily wouldn't do. We call them observances and we approach Ash Wednesday with a definite idea of what we are going to do to observe this Holy Lent. Some will give up some treasured little habits or vices like chocolate, sodas, smoking, or eating meat on Friday. Some will endeavor to pray more, take more exercise, save up the money they would spend on entertainment or coffee and giving it to charity after Lent is over, or do more spiritual reading. Some will take on things like helping in soup kitchens, food banks, and other places where they can be of service. At the beginning we fully intend to keep those observances we established for ourselves. Unfortunately, like a lot of New Year’s resolutions, they don’t make it past the first week.. Still, just giving it a try is a point in their favor even if it seems like a failure to them.

None of us will ever completely live up to the agreement made with God but then, even Babe Ruth never hit a home run every time he came up to the plate. The things is to keep trying, keep the eyes focused on God. Jesus distilled the agreement down to two simple things for us to do - love God and love our neighbor. If we can do those two things, observe them wholeheartedly and faithfully, especially during Lent, we might find our faith deepened, our lives more fulfilling, and the world a better place for us and for everyone else.




Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, February 28, 2015.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Seeking



Upon my bed at night
   I sought him whom my soul loves;
I sought him, but found him not;
   I called him, but he gave no answer.
I will rise now and go about the city,
   in the streets and in the squares;
I will seek him whom my soul loves.’
   I sought him, but found him not.
The sentinels found me,
   as they went about in the city.
‘Have you seen him whom my soul loves?’
Scarcely had I passed them,
   when I found him whom my soul loves.
I held him, and would not let him go
   until I brought him into my mother’s house,
   and into the chamber of her that conceived me.
- Song of Songs (Solomon) 3:1-4

One thing about every good story, and a lot of not-so-good stories, is that they feature different kinds of characters. There has to be a central character who can just an ordinary person, a villain or evil thing that is creating havoc, and a plot where the protagonist finds themselves on a quest for something: to kill a dragon or demon, to find something that was lost, restore that something to its rightful place and thereby make the world a better and happier place.. He or She isn’t a hero or heroine yet; that doesn’t come until the end, usually. In between times they find themselves on an adventure and they become what we call a seeker.
Seekers are interesting characters. Usually they’re ordinary people put in extraordinary circumstances and who develop things like courage, knowledge and purpose.In stories they often fall into these adventures as a result of circumstances, like Sir Galahad, the knight of the Round Table who sought the Holy Grail, or Luke Skywalker. They usually are led into quests that tested them in ways they would never have expected and, in the end, they often were considered heroes and were rewarded for their success. Usually the journey was full of twists, turns, traps, dead ends and danger before it was all finished, but in the process the seeker did more than achieve the goal; they learned about themselves and, sometimes, about a relationship they didn’t know they lacked.

In the Bible there are lots of seekers. Most of them seem to say "Why me?" at the beginning. Paul the apostle was busy being a persecutor of Christ’s disciples and followers until he was unceremoniously dumped in the road on the way to Damascus and his life abruptly took a 180-degree turn. The rich young man approached Jesus was seeking eternal life, but when Jesus told him what was necessary for him to attain it, it was too difficult a quest for him. In the Old Testament, Moses was a prince in Egypt, became an exile after a murder, and then met a mysterious force that burned a bush but did not consume it. The bush had a voice coming from it with instructions for Moses to get on the road and do some rather difficult things. Moses was one of the “Why me?” people, but he did as he was told and the result was that the Israelites that had been in Egypt were returned to the Promised Land.
Each of us is a seeker, whether we are engaged on a life-altering quest or not. There is the quest on which the advertisers send us to find the perfect anything – house, car, mate, chocolate, whatever—by using their products and services to help in your search. Of course, in this case, the seeking probably will never stop and the seeker will reach the end of the quest. Set on the earthly path which requires more and more, some people can never stop searching for things that will make their lives perfect and complete. They may never find either.
Then there are the seekers who are have an emptiness that they need to fill. What each one seeks is a little different from person to person. Unlike the seekers in stories, everyday human beings are faced with multiple choices in a story that has yet to be written or told, much less finished. Many people seek God or some sort of Higher Power simply because they realize there's something missing in their lives. Many men and women would and do go to monasteries, convents, or even out the wilderness to find way to fill up that emptiness. They used prayer, contemplation, work and study to find what they considered the ultimate treasure which was unity with God.
Most of us cannot give up our day jobs and our families to go out in the desert or join a religious community in order to make the search happen. Most of us have to do it wherever we are. Still, we feel the need to seek God, to look for a fulfilling intimacy that only God can fill. With Lent under way, many people are seeking Lenten practices that will aid in the struggle of living a Christian life in a desert of broken dreams, broken promises and probably broken health whether it be the mind or body.
The seeker in the Song of Songs passage was looking for her lover, God, in various places, even in dreams. The important thing was that she continued to search. That is part of what Lent is supposed to teach us: to continue to seek greater things than the world can offer us. It's an invitation for us to practice the things that open us up to God and to let God come in and fill the empty spaces that we may not even know where there. We need the God we encounter in dreams and readings, but the important thing is to keep searching until we find God who is really only a breath away but sometimes seems billion miles.
During this Lent, let us become the kind of seeker the Song of Songs tells us about. Let us seek and be open to all possibilities, no matter how remote, exotic, mundane or seemingly impossible. If we pay attention we can find what we are looking for.
Have a blessed Lent.

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