Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Baptism of CJ

I went to a new church on Sunday. It’s not a new church, having been in existence for about the past 13 years, but it was new to me. It is a nondenominational church that had begun like so many others in the way Scripture put it, “Where two or three are gathered.” It now boasts about 1200 members so evidently they’re doing something right.

There had to be over a thousand people in that congregation and the sheer number was almost overwhelming. The service began with what reminded me very much of a rock concert — guitars, amplifiers, drums, keyboards, group of five young people with microphones, moving lights, a bit of smoke and a volume that was almost earsplitting. The singers, whose images were projected on huge screens on either side of the stage, were all attractive, healthy-looking young people, very invested in the ministry in which they participated. They clapped, they waved their arms and they seem to be enjoying it. What was also interesting to me was that even though the church was clearly aimed at the younger generations, I still saw some rather senior citizens being greeted at the door and welcomed as old friends. Indeed, this church must be doing something right.

I went because a young friend of mine, CJ, was being baptized and I wanted to be supportive of him in his decision. He was among at least must have been at least 100 people who were baptized just at the service I attended. There were two pools, one on either side of the building, complete with video cams so that even if I couldn’t see what was going on by standing up, I could still see each person being baptized. It was rather amazing being brought close enough to see their faces before and after their immersions. There were older adults, several kids maybe ten to twelve years old, young adults, teens, and even families. Several times I saw couples and even groups of three and four all being baptized simultaneously. Talk about community experience. Even though we were sitting next to one of the pools, I would have missed CJ’s baptism had I not been looking at the big-screen over the pool. Unlike some of the others, he wasn’t particularly smiling, nor was he looking teary-eyed. To me he looked properly serious as I would expect a young man of his age to look when making a major decision in his life. He did smile once he came up out of the water, this time like so many others who were also baptized today. I didn’t get a chance to talk to him after church, but I’d like to know how he felt, what his thoughts were, and what it all meant to him.

There was a part of the sermon before the baptism where several ministers spoke at length about baptism and explained their baptismal policy. The main point was that baptism wouldn’t save you, only accepting Jesus as Savior would do that yet much emphasis was placed on the act of baptism almost as if it really were required to complete the package. One minister said that their policy was no children under 10 were to be baptized because they would not remember their baptism and that sort of got to me. I was baptized at eight, and although I don’t remember a huge amount about my childhood, I definitely remember my baptism in the Southern Baptist Church. I had several disagreements with their interpretation of Scripture and practice although I had heard similar arguments when I was growing up in the SBC, but this congregation wasn’t affiliated with that denomination and it wasn’t my place to say anything or even really to be judgmental of their beliefs. They were following Jesus as they understood it and a lot of people seem to agree with their interpretation just by looking at the number of people present.

I thought about this church, the baptisms and CJ most of the afternoon. At 15 he’s undertaken a journey that literally millions of others have taken at various points in their lives. For some it begins as infants, baptism being their entrance into the body of Christ, allowing them to grow up as members of that body and to confirm their faith in another ceremony of the church called confirmation when they are old enough to assent to the baptismal covenant promised in their name at their christening for themselves. For some it comes a little closer to the end of life. For each one of them, though, it marks a commitment to a life that is more about living faithfully in the world and working to change it into a place more like Eden as it was originally. This church into which CJ chose to be baptized tries to do its bit to make the world a better place, even for people outside its congregation. Theological dissimilarities or not, I have to give them kudos for not just the joy they seem to find in worship but for their welcoming of strangers and their commitment to helping those in need, physically or spiritually.

Baptism is a joyous time, whether for an infant or an elder. It’s also a serious time, a time for commitment not just from the one being baptized but for the entire community of faith that gathers together to witness this baptism. I hope that his church will support CJ in his journey because it really takes a community to guide, lead, support and walk with him as he grows into his beliefs and the acknowledgements he made Sunday morning in church. I hope he will consider me as part of his community even though I may never attend that church again. But I want him to know that I also walk this path, just as he does, and I’m still learning what it means to be Christian.

Blessings be upon you, CJ, on your first days as a member of the Body of Christ and the community of faith. May you be a faithful follower of the one you professed as Lord and Savior.  And yes, CJ, being Christian still means you have to listen to your mom and dad, hang up your clothes and not feel the world owes you.  Jesus paid more for you than you can imagine, and so your life is just paying back that debt. God loves you, CJ, and so do I.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Sticking Point

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.  - Colossians 3:12-17

This is a familiar passage I've often heard in part used as a final blessing at the end of the Eucharist, a kind of comfortable charge to take away and use for the rest of the coming week. Whether or not Paul actually wrote the letter to the Colossians, it packs a lot into a short space, a bit unlike Paul's convolutions and reiterated phraseology.

The first thing that catches my attention is the calling of attention to the fact that the listeners to this letter are, in fact, God's chosen ones, holy and beloved. Sometimes it is hard to remember that, especially when feels a bit like Joe Btfsplk, a character in the long-running L'il Abner comic strip, a poor soul who is under a permanent dark cloud and for whom everything he comes in contact becomes a disaster of some proportion. It's good to have the reminder that God chose each and every one of us and that to God, we are loved and cherished.

The admonition of the passage comes with some instructions for how to live up to the billing God has for us, as compassionate, kind, humble, meek and patient. I don't think God has in mind for us to be doormats, but rather quiet-tempered folk, not egotistical, rude or too anxious to get to somewhere to do something we think is the most important thing in the world and definitely far more important than anyone else who might get in our way. Good advice, particularly in a world that values "I" more than "we" a lot of the time.

Now I have a problem. I get to the part about forgiving. The writer has hit a real nerve as I have a forgiveness problem. I've accumulated quite a little pile of resistance to forgiving people I think have wronged me in some way, going all the way back to the aunt who reminded me of my status as an adopted rather than blood child of the family to the mild snark from a friend which was most likely a joke but felt like a hammer blow. In between are a whole cast of thousands, or at least hundreds. God only knows why I hang on to such things. It is as if I were a hoarder only instead of collecting things, I collect hurts and resentments. I want to toss them out and start with bare walls and floor but they sneak back in and sit there like a ball of cat fur in the middle of the freshly-vacuumed floor. I know I have to forgive in order to move on; Jesus said so, Paul said so and so did a lot of others in the scriptures. What they didn't say was how to make it stick. Maybe I just don't have enough faith that I can really banish them, even with God's help. Until then, clothing myself with love toward all my fellow human beings (along with other creatures and the whole earth, as a matter of fact) is pretty nigh impossible. I'm stuck.

I can be thankful, very thankful indeed. I can admonish and teach with some wisdom although maybe not as much wisdom as I'd like, and I can worship with singing for sure and very gratefully too. Yet I always come back to that sticking point -- forgiveness. What power am I giving away by losing the hoard that I've maintained? What security do I find in hanging on to negativity and pain? Why am I afraid of letting go?

Perhaps in that comfortable benediction I am reminded that I've got this weight on my back that needs to be relieved. Just praying for it to go away doesn't seem like enough, I think I need action, much as throwing out or recycling what used to be precious papers and things. I justify the belongings by saying that as soon as I get rid of something, within a couple of weeks (or a month or two) I will need it again and have to go and buy another one. It's happened more than once. But there have also been a lot of times when I've never really missed whatever it was. Wouldn't it be really great if I threw out some resentments and hurts and didn't miss them afterwards?  The trick is to actually expect that result when I do pitch them.

Maybe I need to heed the words of Jesus to the effect that "to whom much is given, much is expected (Luke 12:48)." Thinking about it, I have been given a lot over the course of my life, so why do I think I have a pass to forget those things and cherish the bad stuff?  Like Paul wrote in Romans 7:15, "I do not do what I want, and hate the things I do." I seem powerless to stop. The only hope is the grace of God, and my acceptance of it.

I need to work harder at forgiveness and remembering my special place as one of God's chosen ones. Perhaps by doing those things the others will fall into place. The only thing is to try and try again. Sooner or later, I may be able to live fully into the whole passage. It's what the journey of faith is about.

Taking that first step -- that is the challenge.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 27, 2013.


Sunday, April 21, 2013

A Letter from 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

It isn't very often that the Daily Office gives me a whole book to read on a given day but luckily, today is one of those days. And the "book" is actually a letter, which makes it even better. The Elder, who we call John, certainly believed in brevity and getting to the point. Compared to some of Paul's letters, this one is a like a postcard in length but a very interesting postcard or maybe a very friendly business letter. Whichever it is, it is meant to convey approval for Gaius and not for Diotrephes, two church leaders apparently fairly close to each other in distance if not in practice.

Itinerant evangelists sent by the Elder to his various disciples and their communities helped to keep the small churches on track faith-wise. They brought encouragement, noted problems, reported those back to headquarters and tried to resolve such issues as they could while guiding the leaders and members in faithful worship and practice. They were very like the visiting merchants who brought goods not locally available but necessary, valuable or both. Gaius' people welcomed them and listened to what the friends brought to them. On the other hand, when the friends visited Diotrephes' group, they were apparently blocked. In short, it was a case of "Hi, thanks for coming, come back when you can stay longer, goodbye." It wasn't an expression of hospitality that such visitors might expect from fellow believers or one that was indicative of a willingness to receive new teaching or encouragement from the one who had sent the friends to them in the first place.

The missionary friends make me think of the circuit riders and ministers in a new world, a place where outlying communities were too far to travel to church in a larger town and needed to have the church brought to them. The Methodists were famous for their circuit riders later on, but before they came the few Anglican priests in the Virginia colony were required to go around to scattered communities to preach, teach and preside at the Eucharist. In the meantime the villages were more or less on their own, depending on the infrequent visits of the priest to challenge and correct any errors that might have crept in during their absence. It wasn't a foolproof system, but it was the best system available at the time and under the circumstances. The tradition of sharing priests continues today in places as diverse as clusters of villages in England and the widely separated congregations of our Native American population. While they usually don't have to wait weeks to see their priest, it isn't quite like having a priest in every village.

Something else occurred to me while reading the Elder's letter and that was that it could have been written to various groups today. Not long ago a group of dissenters were working toward restoration of trust and good relations with the group from whom they had separated themselves. Things were going well until a visiting scholar was invited by the original group to speak at a seminar. Orders came from their higher authority that the dissidents were to break off discussions because of the perceived taint of unorthodox teaching on the part of the scholar and willingness of the original group to hear it. I wonder what the Elder would have made of it?

Raymond E. Brown* noted that even though the Elder charged Diotrephes with egotism, inhospitality and rejection of authority, he does not refer to Diotrephes in way some of those today might refer to such people, namely as heretics, false prophets or deniers of Jesus. Instead of calling for Diotrephes' removal as head of his congregation, the Elder encourages Gaius to continue to welcome the missionary visitors and send them on to other groups who would also welcome them and benefit from their teaching. Why there was no call for discipline for Diotrephes is a mystery, but the Elder seems to want to encourage the one more than condemn the other.

I ask myself into which camp I myself might fall . Where have I extended hospitality and where have I rejected such extension? Where has my ego stopped my ears and where has my heart been open to encouragement and instruction?  I have a feeling that if I could picture something that would establish where I lay in relation to the two I would find myself probably very firmly planted in the middle of a see-saw, trying to balance between two opposing points.

Is that really such a bad place to be sometimes, I wonder?

*Brown, Raymond E., An Introduction to the New Testament, (1997) New York: Doubleday, (403, footnote 3)

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 20, 2013.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


Every man must do two things alone; he must do his own believing and his own dying. -- Martin Luther

According to the US Census Bureau there are an estimated 7,071,341,675 people on this planet at this minute. Oops. Another minute is gone and the total has changed to  7,071,341,912. That's an awful lot of people. There are some places where there are population densities of hundreds of thousands of people per square mile and others where human beings only travel through because the land is unsuited to human habitation without massive restructuring, but how do you restructure a sand dune a hundred feet high to provide a living space? It's beyond my pay grade to try to figure out how it could be done, and I'm definitely sure I wouldn't want to live there.

The world is much smaller than the world in which my parents and grandparents lived. Undoubtedly the thing that has most contributed to this shrinking world is the development of instantaneous communications, via radio, television, cell phones and the internet. For my grandparents, letters and newspapers and the occasional person passing through town brought news that was already history before they even heard of it. There were probably times when they felt lonely and cut off from the rest of the world, but that was just the way it was.

These days people seem to have lost the concept that being alone doesn't always mean being lonely. Social networks on the internet and text messaging on cell phones mean that, barring being in a place with no bars on the phone or no wi-fi for the laptop, someone in a strange city can still be connected to friends and family. They may be a bit lonely, but they don't always feel totally alone.

Despite the rise of instant connection and, in a sense, the end of virtual (if not actual) aloneness, people are still lonely. Oh, there are some who are perfectly comfortable being alone and don't feel more than the occasional hint of loneliness but they are few and, unfortunately, far between. Most others have succumbed to the norm that one must (almost) never be alone because alone is bad, social and constant connection are good. There are, however, times when one is, despite all intentions to the contrary, alone, even in the middle of a crowd. Whether it is because they feel they are invisible to others, bear visible scars or disfigurements, are dirty or unkempt because they are homeless for whatever reason, or whether there is pain that focuses all one's attention on it, there can be people all around and yet one can feel totally alone. Then there are those who are seemingly in perfect health, well cared-for and prosperous who feel like an empty shell, realizing there is a void there where something like faith should be. As Brother Martin said, a person must do their own believing, and in the aloneness of their existence at some point they must come to it on their own.

I confess that when I read Brother Martin's statement my mind went to times when I've felt alone. One is when lying in an emergency room bed some years ago, suffering intense pain and waiting for someone to tell me what was wrong and that it could be fixed. Minutes seemed very long but I was aware of the bustle outside the curtains of my cubicle as well as the retching of the person in the next cubicle. I remember a television program about a day in the life of a hospital emergency room where a woman was brought in following a terrible accident of some sort. She was bruised and bloody, and she was surrounded by people talking, poking, prodding, inserting tubes and IV needles. All the people were talking and giving orders but to the woman, her  seeming isolation led her to cry out, "Will someone please talk to me?"  I've felt that way, even though I haven't been in that same situation.

I have a feeling that's what Jesus endured on the cross. He had people all around, looking at him, some gawking and some mourning the horrifying sight, and he also had the isolation of overwhelming physical pain. His cry of "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" was a reaction very similar to the woman's "Will someone please talk to me?" only directed to the One with whom Jesus had always been in contact, even when he was physically apart from others. This time, though, Jesus was dying in a public place with people all around, yet he was dying totally alone. Alone in the midst of a crowd.

Even to those called to a state of that apartness we call "alone" or "solitary," there is usually some connection with other human beings as well as with God. They say no Christian can be truly a Christian unless they are in community but I wonder, would the desert fathers and mothers have said the same? They may have lacked human community, but they sought, and frequently found, a greater one.

The world has changed a lot since Brother Martin spoke those words, yet they are as true now as they were then, maybe even moreso. There are some things a person just has to do alone.

Originally published at Daily Episcopalian on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 13, 2013.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego

Then Nebuchadnezzar was so filled with rage against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that his face was distorted. He ordered the furnace to be heated up seven times more than was customary, and ordered some of the strongest guards in his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and to throw them into the furnace of blazing fire. So the men were bound, still wearing their tunics, their trousers, their hats, and their other garments, and they were thrown into the furnace of blazing fire. Because the king’s command was urgent and the furnace was so overheated, the raging flames killed the men who lifted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. But the three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell down, bound, into the furnace of blazing fire. Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up quickly. He said to his counsellors, ‘Was it not three men that we threw bound into the fire?’ They answered the king, ‘True, O king.’ He replied, ‘But I see four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god.’ Nebuchadnezzar then approached the door of the furnace of blazing fire and said, ‘Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!’ So Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out from the fire. And the satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king’s counsellors gathered together and saw that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men; the hair of their heads was not singed, their tunics were not harmed, and not even the smell of fire came from them. Nebuchadnezzar said, ‘Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants who trusted in him. They disobeyed the king’s command and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God. Therefore I make a decree: Any people, nation, or language that utters blasphemy against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins; for there is no other god who is able to deliver in this way.’ Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the province of Babylon. -- Daniel 3:19-30

I can never hear this story without thinking of Louis Armstrong and his version of the story. I don't remember when I first heard him do it, but once I did, it stuck. It's been years, but I can still remember that constant phrase, "Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego."  It was a sure way never to forget those three names, any more than I can forget Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar from Job's story although why I don't know. I've certainly never heard a catchy song with those names!

The story is about faithfulness to God in spite of all obstacles. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego had that kind of faith and God took care of them. Even though the fire was seven times hotter than was normal, when the three of them were shoved in, not a hair  was harmed; however, the same couldn't be said for those who actually chucked them in. And Nebuchadnezzar? Either his soldiers had miscounted, his eyes were playing tricks on him or there was a fourth figure in the middle of the fire, another who appeared to be totally unharmed and unbesmirched by the cinders, smoke, flame and flying sparks. It was enough to make Nebuchadnezzar change his mind, in more ways than one, and out of the furnace came the three who had originally gone in.

One of the lessons we're supposed to get from the reading is that if one is faithful to God, God will pull them through even the most terrible fate. It's a very comforting theology but good, decent people who are faithful to God suffer and endure all kinds of horrible things and, despite their faith in God and assurance that God will save them, they still suffer and sometimes they die as a result. It is times like these when people question where God is, why are they being punished in this way, and why do such horrible things happen to good people. Wiser folks than I  have tried from time immemorial to answer those questions which, I think, almost everybody has asked at one time or another. For people of faith, there's seldom a question that God is present, maybe not taking a visible hand in fixing what is wrong, but still present with the sufferer.

What Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego accomplished was far more important than just coming out of a fire hotter than probably the proverbial hinges of hell, as important as that might have been to them. Because Nebuchadnezzar actually saw three men go into an inferno, witnessed a fourth joining them and then having three men emerge from the furnace unscathed, Neb was impressed. Maybe not exactly impressed enough to convert to Judaism but he did make it a crime in the land to blaspheme the God that had brought the three through the trial and promised very severe punishment on those who did so. That was progress, real progress.

Fire is often portrayed as a cleansing thing like the images of coals of fire upon the head or a burning coal on the tongue. The symbol of the city near which I live is the Phoenix, a mythical bird who, like Fawkes in Harry Potter, burst into flame and died only to be reborn from the ashes. Some species of evergreen need fire to crack the cones and seeds and allow new saplings to grow from them. Fire in the story today not only rescued three men who refused to worship an idol of the king but gave the king himself a view of the power of a God greater than himself or any others in his land. It was a pretty potent awakening. Maybe it wasn't a cleansing for Nebuchadnezzar, but it was certainly an eye-opener, and sometimes that's all it takes to change a mind -- and a heart.

I don't expect to be incinerated any time soon and when I am, I won't need an angelic visitation to bear me up during the process. I will, however, undoubtedly face figurative fiery furnaces in my life as I have in the past. My lesson is to remain faithful to God, no matter what, and to trust that God will be with me if not actively fixing things. I haven't always emerged totally unscathed from my emotional and spiritual incinerators, but I hope I have learned from the experiences, learning lessons to help me in the future.

My job now is to see the furnace before I get thrown in (or throw myself in) and to do what is necessary to try to avoid the situation. Whether I can or whether I can't, though, I have to remember that there is another sharing the heat with me, another whom I may not be able to see or feel but who will be with me in all things.

And the voice of Louis Armstrong is still singing in my ear, "Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego."

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 13, 2013.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

It's Alarming...

There it goes again, that annoying beep-beep-beep-beep.  Five days a week it beeps at me at precisely the same time and five days a week I'd like to take it and throw it against a wall. I know, that would be violence against a hapless alarm clock that is just doing its job, namely reminding me that it is 5:30 a.m. and  time to get on with the business of the day. I don't fault it for that, it's just that I've usually been up for at least an hour, thanks to my four furry four-footed housemates who are firmly of the opinion that no mother-figure of theirs should be in bed later than 4:30 at the very latest.

On the whole, I'd prefer the beep-beep-beep to Gandhi's vocal exercises, as amazed as I always am by the range of tone and volume he possesses, especially at 4 a.m. . I'd prefer the beep to Dominic's moving from one side of me to the other, usually walking over me and making sure that every one of his four feet lands on my body in at least two places during the exchange also at about 4 a.m. I'd even prefer it to Domi and Sama having a fraternal wrestling match on the bed right next to my feet, but somehow it never works out. I usually obediently roll out of bed at their command, do what needs immediately doing for myself and then head for the cat food cabinet. That's all it takes. They eat and then go off to various places to enjoy their morning nap, having done what they could to disrupt mine. If they weren't so lovable (most of the time)....

Of course, when I'm busy taking a shower or some other occupation where interruption is not really welcome, there goes that beep-beep-beep-beep, escalating to beepbeepbeep if I don't respond within the first thirty seconds or so. If that doesn't get me in there to shut it off, there's always the louder, more insistent beepbeepbeepbeep!! until I finally get to a place where I rush into the bedroom and hit the button that puts it to sleep for another 24 hours or so. Today I was halfway through inserting one of my prosthetics into the bra I planned on wearing. What do I do when that dratted thing beeps at me?  Leave the prosthetic folded like a taco stuck halfway into the pocket where it will spend the day or finish inserting it and then go shut off the clock?  The prosthetic won today but tomorrow I may have to scramble out of the shower and drip my way in to turn it off or interrupt the flow of words while I'm sitting in front of the computer and typing away at some piece of potential brilliance.

I have a "smart" alarm clock. It recognizes Saturday and Sunday as days when I don't need to have an alarm go off so it very politely refrains from beeping at me  on those days. That's nice of it, or whoever decided to program it that way. Of course, I could have it turn on to a radio station instead of the beep, but that wouldn't propel me out of bed if I were still in a prone position when it went off. I can sleep through music; I can't sleep through beep-beep-beep. I could just turn the darned thing off completely but then I might just oversleep and be late to work or an appointment or something. Yeah, fat chance with the boys around, but who knows? They might decide that I need a day to sleep in (another fat chance, but it has been known to happen -- once, about two years ago, I think it was). .

Something in my psychological makeup says I need to have a working alarm clock set and ready. I pay my insurance company to take care of my car and house and I pay my doctors to help keep me as healthy as humanly possible. That little mechanical device helps to ensure that I meet the day in a timely fashion. It's just another kind of insurance.

Of course there is another alternative. I could just set the alarm back to 4:30 and be done with it.

Nah. That's too simple.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Preaching the Good News

 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. -- Acts 4:13-22

One thing about doing a turn on a street corner is that you never know who's in the audience. If you get a good crowd and what you're delivering is good stand-up comedy or even something inspiring, you might get a smattering of applause, some laughs or maybe even some tips (and not the kind that tell you to lay a fiver on #8 in the third race). Add a healing and suddenly it's a whole different ball game. That tends to attract attention, sometimes attention you really don't want. That seems to be what happened to Peter and John in Jerusalem. Their healing of a man lame from birth caught the eye of some priests, Sadducees and a temple captain who got them arrested and taken before the big wigs, not just for healing the guy but for preaching about the resurrection of a man the temple authorities thought they'd gotten rid of for sure, an itinerant preacher and rabble-rouser named Jesus.

The whole temple crowd, including the big wigs, met and looked Peter and John over. They weren't overly impressed with their educational or social credentials, much as had been said of Jesus, "Can anything good come out of Galilee?" These were ordinary men, working-class guys, unsophisticated and probably almost illiterate, in short, there was nothing to set them apart except for the message they were preaching -- and the fellow standing next to them on perfectly sound limbs but who, until recently, had had to be carried everywhere he needed to go because he had legs that hadn't worked.

Sometimes important messages come in unexpected and unpretentious ways, like Galilean disciples preaching on a Jerusalem street. Earth-shattering news can come in very small packages, envelopes or telephone calls: a pink slip from work, a pathologist's report, a rejection notice from a college or prospective employer or publisher. Good news can come from unexpected things too, like the telephone call from an offspring to report a major promotion, a new addition to the family or even a slightly larger tax refund than expected. Often we go to church, though and hope to hear good news; that's what the gospels talk about and even what the very word means, but oftentimes what we hear (or what we preach) is anything but. I've sat through a whole lot of sermons in my life where I (as well as everybody else in the congregation) were pointed to as miserable sinners, totally unworthy of the sacrifice of the crucifixion of the Son of God and without hope of salvation unless we grovel before God, say the proper words, and, in essence, surround ourselves with sackcloth, ashes and long faces to prove we're not being frivolous or sinning by enjoying things too much. It's one thing when the General Confession from the 1928 prayerbook told us to recite that we were miserable offenders, but on the whole, I'd rather tell myself (and God) that I'm one rather than have someone preach at me using the same terms.

Peter and John brought good news to Jerusalem, the same Jerusalem that had been the host of good news before but who had witnessed the ruthless stamping out of that good news on a hill just outside the town on the day before a sabbath and a holy time. But here they stood, giving good news again and, if their words weren't enough, healing the man who everyone knew had been unable to walk since birth certainly ramped up the emphasis.

If I look for good news, it's more likely to attract my attention if there's something good going on at the same time, like a miracle, even a very small one. How often, though, do I overlook the very small ones in everyday life that should be reminding me that there is good news and that like all good news, needs to be passed on to others. It's odd, but good news often travels slower than bad instead of the other way around. It would seem that I would be more eager to pass on good stuff than bad, perhaps because I need comfort when there's bad news but can rejoice and be happy all by myself when it's good? Of course, if I have someone to share it with, then there's twice as much happiness and that can't be a bad thing at all.

I wonder, do I need to stand on a street corner preaching about the good news?  Do I have to produce a miracle? What do I have to do to pass on the good news I read in the gospel and in stories like this one?  Evidently a sizeable number of those who heard Peter and John got the idea of the good news even if the temple higher-ups didn't, but alas, I'm not a street preacher, unlike a friend of mine who started his clerical life doing just that -- and probably rather successfully, judging from the quality of the sermons I heard from him in his later years. Now, he could put out the good news! But you know, his wife did much the same thing in a much quieter way. She knew the message and lived as if it were the most important thing in the world. Perhaps that's the thing -- living it.  No miracles needed, just a simple passing on the good news as if it were the most important thing in the world.

You know, I think it might just be the most important thing in the world. 

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul  on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 6, 2013, under the title "Good News on the Street Corner."


Saturday, April 6, 2013

Changing the Familiar

I had the radio on last night, listening to my favorite classical station as I tried to drift off to sleep. The announcement came over the air that the next selection would be the perennial favorite, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.  Oh, great, I thought.  Just what I need. That old hack I've heard so many times I can practically sing along with it. In fact, that's precisely what the announcer suggested. I turned over and tried to pretend I was in the Cotswolds or perhaps down by the river back home, anything to take my mind off that impending da-da-da-BOOM.

Then the music started. My eyes shot open and so did my ears. Yes, all the notes were familiar, familiar enough to sing along with, but they sounded so different.  The conductor had done something I hadn't heard before; he had speeded it up! Instead of the more usual ponderous pace, the music almost danced. It bounced instead of plodded, seemed bright instead of dark and dense, and it even seemed to be a half-tone or so higher in pitch. I can't remember when I've enjoyed hearing that piece more. I forgot about going to sleep, I was mesmerized instead. Who would have thought that a few beats per minute could make such a difference!

This morning I couldn't shake the thought of how different an old hack could sound with just a small bit of change and the imagination (and courage) to actually take the chance. Then I thought, if Beethoven's Fifth can sound so different, what other things that seem sort of hackneyed and ponderous or even just too familiar might be dragged out, brushed off, shaken out and set down in a different way? 

I thought about the gospels. Why the gospels I don't know, but the thought popped into my head and stuck. Now, I've heard a lot of sermons based on the gospels, some better than others, and none particularly memorable except for one that dealt with the mathematical computations of precisely how much wine Jesus made from water at that wedding in Cana. Quite a few of them took the same track: Jesus taught about what God wants of human beings, healed the sick and broken and died for the sins of the world so that those who believed (or believed the right things) would go to heaven and play harps when they died, otherwise they would go to hell and be crispy critters for all eternity, or thoughts to that same effect. Gospels are supposed to be good news, but it seems it is only good news if one follows the doctrines and dogmas of the church, says the right prayers, does the right actions, supports the church physically and financially and tries to convert the whole world to one's own particular brand of theology. Where's the good news there?  "Join us, accept Jesus and get your ticket to heaven punched, trains leaving every half hour on the half hour from Track 42."

Not being a priest, preacher, Biblical scholar or even theologian, I can't tell anyone how to make the gospels pop the way that conductor did with Beethoven's Fifth. Maybe it would be by presenting them as really good news -- news that gets people excited (like winning a lottery) or make the heart feel good (the rescue of an endangered child or pet).  Maybe it would be stressing that Jesus didn't go around condemning people or asking them to repent before healing them or informing them that they weren't beyond God's love -- if.  Maybe it could even be that repentance really follows belief, not the other way around, and that the repentance is something that people really want to do once they believe, if they only have a good reason to do so. 

Maybe a few beats a minute doesn't mean much (unless its a heart that's already in trouble), but it can make all the difference in pulling back the dusty velvet curtains and letting the sunlight into a piece of music. Maybe giving people a reason -- or an example -- of what difference there can be in their lives if they hear a gospel that really is good news. Maybe if we got back to the Christians in the earliest days of the church who follow the words of Jesus, "[E]veryone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  (John 13:35).  There's nothing there about pounding people over the head with the Bible to prove to them what sinners they are, nothing about having to say the Jesus prayer or go about in sackcloth and ashes or with a whip called a "discipline" in hand. All it is a commandment to love -- and if that happens, the rest will fall into place like the familiar notes of Beethoven's Fifth.

Originally published at Daily Episcopalian </a> on Episcopal Café Friday, April 5, 2013.