Sunday, June 29, 2014

Whose Truth?

Commemoration of Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons and Theologian
Error, indeed is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced more true than truth itself. -- Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, Book 1 Preface, Para. 2

In most churches and denominations, Sunday school consists of learning Bible stories and verses. This is continued if and when people choose to attend either adult Bible studies or other formational events. Seldom is there a lot of mention about church history once we get to Revelation in the Bible or the period a few decades after the destruction of the Second Temple.

Doing the third year of Education for Ministry (EfM) began to rectify that with a thorough run-through of church history from the time of Jesus to the present day. There are lots of names and changes of direction, tons of heresies (I always wondered why they weren't his-esies since men were invariably the ones either creating or arguing them) and more philosophy than I ever wanted to know. The most recent textbook for Year 3 is Diarmaid MacCulloch's magisterial History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, over 1,000 pages of names, dates, trends, philosophies, heresies, and current events that had some bearing on the history of the church and, in fact, the world.

One of the "big" names in church history is the man we commemorate today, Irenaeus of Lyons. James Kiefer gives a brief summation of his life and theology which is good because even after reading MacCulloch's book twice plus reading half a dozen other books on church history, I still can't keep my heresies and doctrinal shifts much less my theologians straight. I wish my brain were as quick as it was when I was in my twenties and thirties; I might remember a lot more than I do in my late sixties. I do remember, however that Irenaeus was noted for his opposition to Gnosticism, the philosophy that there was hidden knowledge available only to a few and that that knowledge was the unmitigated and total truth which lesser people would never understand or accept. Gnosticism was denounced as a heresy, a belief or opinion not shared by the orthodox religious bodies or one which profoundly differed from the generally accepted theology. He lived at a fascinating time in church history, a time when the original apostles were gone and the church was left to grow as it could from the root stock they had planted.

Church growth is like the growth of anything organic; there are times it seems to spurt, other times it takes a long time for anything to happen. In the meantime the middle bulges and the two ends try to pull apart, orthodoxy on one end, another kind of orthodoxy on the other. Each end believes it has the truth and tries its best to wrap it all up in a nice lovely package that everybody will buy into. It doesn't work that way; it never has and never will. Some will be convinced, others will totally reject one side or the other. Meanwhile the middle will continue on, trying to make sense of it all and not always succeeding in unwrapping the pretty packages and seemingly comforting words to find the real truth that lies under it.

We do the same thing with life outside the church. We are presented smooth advertisements and clever soundbytes that encourage us to do the "right thing," to support the "right" (orthodox) position and "see through" the wiles of the opposing party. Each side accuses the other of clouding the issues, lying about their "real" objectives and demonize those who were right-thinking and plainly transparent about their desire to serve and support the people. The thing is, just who are the people they're wanting to serve and support? Once that question can be answered, it can be measured against a standard, preferably the one Jesus taught.

Jesus said, "‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matt 10:16)." When Jesus spoke those words, he was telling his disciples that they were going out into a world where things weren't always what they seemed. We live in a more complex world but the saying is just as true today as it was then. We are supposed to trust God and the things that come from God but that doesn't mean we have to trust whatever someone or something says comes from God. There's a difference. We have to be wise enough to know whether it is the truth or not and innocent enough to be open to whatever God truly sends.

Irenaeus needed both wisdom and innocence to thread the delicate balance between parties in order to bring about a peace if not a total agreement. Whether the arguments are about the proper date for Easter or whether we ought to send troops into harm's way, we have to look to see where God is in whatever it is. Is it true or is it something dressed up as truth? How do we know?  Are we being wise or innocent or both? Is it what Jesus taught or what someone else said Jesus taught?

The Bible was written thousands of years ago and we still find it useful, authoritative and compelling, but we can also read writers such as Irenaeus and find words of wisdom that speak to us today just as they did to the people for whom they were originally set down. I think Irenaeus has raised my awareness a bit, making me more conscious of what I hear and see and calling me to examine them for truth -- God's truth.

Will it make me more wise or more innocent? I don't know yet, but I'm willing to try to find out.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café, Saturday, June 28, 2014.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Seeing the Creation Differently

Commemoration of James Weldon Johnson,


And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I’m lonely—
I’ll make me a world.

And far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.

Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said: That’s good! --
from The Creation*

Every culture has a legend of how things came to be. It is a foundational story of their origins, their roots, and it helps them feel integrated into the community who shares the legend. We hear the creation story from the Hebrew Bible in our Christian church at least twice a year and it reminds us that we had a common story of how things came to be and where our history began.

It's interesting to read creation stories from other cultures. The Yoruba legend from southwestern Nigeria and southern Benin featured a god climbing down from the sky on a golden chain with a number of things such as a snail shell, sand, a rooster and a black cat. The Navajo began in a small underground world with four seas and an island in the middle and progressed up through two more worlds until they reached the fourth world they inhabit now. The Chinese have a number of creation stories, one of which features Phan Ku who was contained in a cosmic egg along with yin and yang, all things that were opposite each other. He grew and finally split the egg open, taking the yin and the yang, the dark and the light, the earth and the sky, the male and the female, and separated them (human beings came from the fleas in his hair). The Babylonian legend, called the Enuma Elish, begins with Apsu (representing sweet water) and Tiamat (representing salt water) mix at the origins of the Tigris and Euphrates, producing two other entities (male and female) representing mud or silt, who produced two more representing earth and sky who produced to more... and so it goes.

One version of the creation story that captured my imagination as a young adult was actually a poem and a sermon and a lesson in seeing things in a new way all at once. The poem, The Creation, was one of seven sermons in verse written by a man named James Weldon Johnson. The poem, written in the style of a Southern African American preacher, showed God doing things as well as speaking them. His imagery is of a God physically rolling a ball around in his hand and then flinging the moon into the darkness with tiny droplets flying off like tiny droplets of paint. These became the stars. The poem builds until we see God, getting down in the dust and molding a figure and then breathing life into it. With that, man came into being, created from the most common of materials but in the image of the Almighty God and bearing the breath of that same God within it. The imagery for me is poignant and spine-tingling.

I don't think we ever really conceive of God having fun. Sometimes we joke about it when we see funny-looking animals like aardvarks and platypuses, even familiar and beloved ones like elephants and giraffes, but we do so almost with glances over our shoulders to see if God isn't sending a fireball after us for giving God a very human enjoyment of creating something amusing. Perhaps it is heresy or blasphemy or something, but I do think God had fun during creation. "I think I'll add a few more inches to this nose,"  "Hmmm,  big flippers at the front and small ones at the back," "I think I'll add a purr to this vocabulary." When it came to humankind, though, God changed from having fun to something else. Johnson portrays God as like a "...mammy bending over her baby," a very intimate and gentle action like the woman with her newborn, utterly, completely, totally in love with it. That's a very different portrayal of God from the usual ones of the punishing, judging, angry God or even the one we hear about who loves us but that we don't really accept because we know we are so flawed so how could a perfect God love us? 

Johnson's poem is a story told by a master storyteller, born of a tradition of preaching that regarded stories as integral parts of the lesson. It isn't a story to be read in a monotone or even with well-modulated restraint. It begs us to read it with passion and to hear the passion in it. The phrases rise and fall like waves on an ocean, building to a peak and dropping away so that often the most important phrases are almost whispered. The intensity builds within each aspect of creation but then, softly, "That's good" appears. It is God's affirmation, a word of completeness, an appreciation of what has taken place. Like the sun breaking through the clouds after a violent storm, it reassures us and makes us think, no matter how briefly, of how good things really are, and how quietly they can be appreciated before we go back to business as usual.

We know the creation story, most of us from childhood. We grow up with it and it never really changes much for us. Then we read a new translation of it or hear something like Johnson's poem that puts it all in a different light and we grow a bit in the process. We open our eyes to something new and we are changed, ever so slightly, perhaps, but changed nonetheless.

I've loved this poem for years. I've never been able to memorize it but I've never forgotten it. Now and again I pull out that book and re-read it, taking the images into my mind and somehow feeling better about things as I read about a rainbow curling around God's shoulders.

James Weldon Johnson was more than a poet; he was also an educator, a successful diplomat with the gift of bringing divergent voices to the table for discussion about difficult subjects, a collaborator with his brother on lyrics and music for Broadway and a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a cause to which most of his life was dedicated. But it is as a poet, a preacher, and an exemplary human being that I celebrate him today.

In my mind's ear, I hear James Earl Jones' sonorous and glorious voice, "And God said: That's good!" Somehow I think God gets a kick out of it too.

* Johnson, James Weldon, God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, (1955, paperback ed.) New York: Penguin Books (17).

For more about James Weldon Johnson, see James Kiefer's biographical sketch.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Wednesday, June 25, 2014, under the title "James Weldon Johnson."

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Lie of the Land

Then the men who had gone up with him said, ‘We are not able to go up against this people, for they are stronger than we are.’ So they brought to the Israelites an unfavourable report of the land that they had spied out, saying, ‘The land that we have gone through as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are of great size. There we saw the Nephilim (the Anakites come from the Nephilim); and to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.’
Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron; the whole congregation said to them, ‘Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become booty; would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?’ So they said to one another, ‘Let us choose a captain, and go back to Egypt.’
 Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before all the assembly of the congregation of the Israelites. And Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had spied out the land, tore their clothes and said to all the congregation of the Israelites, ‘The land that we went through as spies is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Only, do not rebel against the Lord; and do not fear the people of the land, for they are no more than bread for us; their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them.’ But the whole congregation threatened to stone them.Then the glory of the Lord appeared at the tent of meeting to all the Israelites. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘How long will this people despise me? And how long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? I will strike them with pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.’
 But Moses said to the Lord, ‘Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for in your might you brought up this people from among them, and they will tell the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, O Lord, are in the midst of this people; for you, O Lord, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go in front of them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. Now if you kill this people all at one time, then the nations who have heard about you will say, “It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land he swore to give them that he has slaughtered them in the wilderness.” And now, therefore, let the power of the Lord be great in the way that you promised when you spoke, saying,
“The Lord is slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love,
forgiving iniquity and transgression,
but by no means clearing the guilty,
visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
to the third and the fourth generation.”
Forgive the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have pardoned this people, from Egypt even until now.’
Then the Lord said, ‘I do forgive, just as you have asked; nevertheless—as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lordnone of the people who have seen my glory and the signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have tested me these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors; none of those who despised me shall see it. But my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me wholeheartedly, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it. Now, since the Amalekites and the Canaanites live in the valleys, turn tomorrow and set out for the wilderness by the way to the Red Sea.’ - Numbers 13:35 - 14:25

One of the series of books I enjoyed as a young adult was written by Dorothy Gilman featuring a lady named Emily Pollifax whose dream was to become a spy for the CIA. Who would suspect an elderly lady from New Jersey of being a spy? It seemed like a glamorous occupation but it was fraught with danger and needed all Mrs. Pollifax's quick wits (not to mention her brown belt in karate) and innocent appearance to pull it off. I never wanted to be a spy myself, but I certainly enjoyed reading those books.

James Bond has given several generations a taste of the world of the spy, or at least, the Hollywood version of it. There's excitement, romance, adventure and more than a little danger. I have a feeling, though, that the real world of espionage is a rather different; there might not be exceptionally clever gizmos around to help save the day if things get dicey and there might not be a rescue team if the agent is captured. Real spies have to be chameleons, blending into the scene so that they appear to have a very real and reasonable reason for being there while seeing and hearing as much as possible that can be used against the people they are secretly observing.

Two sets of spies set out from the Israelite camp, each with the commission to find out as much as they could about this promised land they were heading toward. Twelve men, each a representative of his tribe, went out and for forty days (there's that number again!) they did what good spies do; kept a low profile, took mental notes of what and who they found and avoided getting caught spying. What they found was a good place with good land for growing crops and tending herds. They also found the occupants of the land, and there is where the trouble started. Most of the spies seemed to feel that the occupants were too big, too numerous and too powerful to overcome. They described them as giants and intimated that they, the Israelites, would be squashed like bugs if they tried to take over the land. There was real fear, fear of the unknown and fear of having to prove themselves, even though God had pointed them in this direction and with a promise of success.

Once again the Israelites thought of the comforts of home in Egypt and with much fear, wailing and griping, they were ready to choose a new leader to take them back to the place they had been just escaped. Two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, however, stood up and, ripping their clothes to show their sincerity, spoke to the people about trusting that God had promised them the land, hadn't brought them all this way for nothing, and wasn't going to let them be defeated. The news wasn't met with overwhelming success. If ten people say one thing and two say something to the contrary, it is usually the ten who are believed. The faithless Israelites, despite having seen so many miracles and deliverances, still felt they would be better off returning to Egypt rather than pressing on to the promised land God was giving them. Caleb was being prophetic in his assertions, and prophets aren't always appreciated or believed.

Prophets are like first responders: they charge in when everyone else is heading out. They tell the truth even when it is unwelcome or unpopular. They point out what is wrong when everyone else feels things are just fine. Caleb's prophetic testimony was in his reiteration of the promises of God and that God hadn't let them down yet despite all their own faults and faithlessness. It wasn't popular and it could have cost Caleb his life right there. Instead, it gained him entrance into the promised land, unlike most of the rest of his spy-companions and most of the people who were ready to stone him.

Courage, I think, is a kind of faith, a belief that one person can make a difference, even a small one and even when the odds seem astronomically the other way. Faith kept Joan of Arc focused on what her visions told her and got a French king crowned even though those visions ultimately cost her her life. Faith kept Paul going even when the Jerusalemites and the Gentiles to whom he went wanted to sever both the connection and the person -- permanently. Faith sent Fr. Mychal Judge and firefighters rushing into the Twin Towers when everyone else was trying their hardest to get out. That faith that one person can make a difference, whether it is in an idea, a vision, a goal or even a belief that it is what God wants can sometimes make all the difference in the world.

Spies return to their masters with the information they have gathered along with their interpretations and impressions based on their own experiences. The Israelite spies were no different; their reports reflected their relative courage (or lack thereof), their judgment, their imaginations and their faith. The twelve spies could be any group of twelve -- including disciples. Some might see giants while others might see opportunities. Some might see bounty and some might see conflict. Some would have faith that God wouldn't let them be defeated and others would simply report the lie of the land. The Israelites had to decide for themselves who to believe, who was telling the truth and who was misreporting. Who had faith and whose was a bit shaky?

Where is my faith when I'm offered a glimpse of a promise? Do I believe and move ahead or do I see giants in the way?  How do I determine the lie of the land? And do I have enough faith to continue on or am I going to turn back to safer, more familiar paths?

I think I will have to walk with Caleb a bit. It might be a good thing to have his prophetic vision about what lies ahead. I think he'd be a lot more believable than James Bond...

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 21, 2014 under the title "Spies and the Lie of the Land."

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Fulfilling Moses' Wish

 Reading:  Numbers 11:24-35

I’ve been a churchgoer most of my life, and I admit I’ve never really thought much about prophets. Truthfully, I never really thought about prophets at all except when the occasional reading crossed my path. Oh, the story of Ezekiel and the dry bones always seem to get my attention and my connection with John the Baptist focused almost as much on the locusts and wild honey as it did his prophetic message. Most of the time prophets seemed to be people who were either chronically depressed, cynics, or on some mind altering substance that made them see chariots flying through the air or something of that nature. Other than that, even as often as I heard about prophets in church, I really didn’t pay much attention.

At some point in time a book called Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann showed up on my reading table and suddenly there was a whole different world, a world that included prophets not as people who foretold the future like Madam Zuzu in the storefront down the street who, for a fee, will read your palm and assure you of long life, good health and the like. Kings and emperors have had prophets on staff to do the same thing as Madam Zuzu, namely to tell them that they were great, that things were going to be fine and if by chance they didn’t or things went badly, the king or emperor just got a new staff of prophets. With Brueggemann though, I started to gain a new understanding of what prophets were and suddenly they were not such alien creatures after all. To my surprise I found I recognized a number of people who were prophets (without the title) and I even personally knew one or two. These prophets were those who looked around, saw the world as it was, visualized the world as it could be, and spoke to the people about how to get from one to the other.

In this morning’s reading, Moses gathered up 70 elders and God is poured out prophetic gift on them. Two men, Eldad and Medad, it stayed in the camp but were also prophesying, which made some people nervous. Like kids running to tell the teacher did Billy or Jane was doing something wrong, they couldn’t wait to tell Moses about Eldad and Medad. Then Moses said something astounding, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” Moses was not only chastising the fault finders, it was uttering a prophetic wish of his own. He wished that all the people heard and spoke the words of the Spirit as Eldad and Medad did. That line struck me several weeks ago when I was practicing portion of this morning’s reading for my stint as a reader on Pentecost at church. When I encountered it again this morning, I have had the benefit of several weeks of contemplation and a whole new perspective gained from a very wise and timely source.

On Pentecost the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, my parish, was honored by the presence of the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, the Most Rev Katharine Jefferts Schori, as our presider and preacher. In addition to the celebration of Pentecost, we celebrated the confirmations of 15 teens and adults by our Diocesan Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Kirk Smith, so it was celebrations all around. In her sermon, Bishop Katharine noted that we were authorizing prophets and sending them out into the world to spread the good news. That was a wake-up call right there.

Prophets have several jobs to do. The one we probably think of most often is exhortation, telling people what’s wrong and why they need to fix it. People are often wrong-headed or selfishly oriented so a prophet needs to speak to them, whether they hear it or not. Most choose not to because, after all, who wants think they’re wrong? As a result, we usually think of prophets as dour, gloomy, bad news kind of people who often seem to be hitting us over the head with threats of destruction, famine, war, and anything else bad they can think of. But prophets often remind us of good things, of things we have forgotten or visions we need to share of beautiful things, peaceful things, comforting things even when times are hard or bad. Prophets were as much about speaking to people in exile about “the crooked made straight, and the rough places a plain” (Is. 40:4c) as they were about reminding people why they were in exile to start with, namely forgetting God and doing what they wanted instead of what God asked them to do.

The Presiding Bishop gave a quotation from Garrison Keillor, “Who wants to be a prophet? Nobody wants ‘em around. Prophets don’t get invited to birthday parties or wedding feasts.”[i] Too often we think of prophets as people wandering around with signs on sticks, a Bible tucked under one arm or is to in one hand, and exhorting rather loudly the message,” Repent! Repent! REPENT!” like a street-corner preacher. Somehow in my imagination I see that kind of person as a sort of modern day image of what they think John the Baptist would look like if he were around today. That way of doing things isn’t really conducive to invitations to celebratory occasions. But John didn’t just talk about repentance; he had a good news message to bring and that was that a Messiah was coming. He was telling people to clean up the house, put out the best linen, breakout the best food and wine and prepare to welcome a most honored guest. To me, that’s good news, a kind of prophecy I can deal with.

 “Baptism is an invitation to become a truth telling prophet,”[ii] Bishop Katharine reminded us. Later we all read from the Prayer Book: “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?... Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?... Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” to which we responded, “We will, with God’s help.”[iii] We restated, reaffirmed and recalled the vows we made or which were made on our behalf at our baptism, renewed at our confirmation and remembered during the several times each year when we as a congregation witness a baptism or confirmation or simply repeat them as part of a Sunday morning worship. I, probably like a lot of people, have restated those vows time and time again but never really connected them with the notion of being a prophet, but now that I think about it, they are a prophetic charge.

Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” God has put God’s spirit on all of us and we have accepted it as we have accepted baptism. God has made us prophets, so now we have to go out and use that gift wisely and well. It’s kingdom work and there’s room for all the prophets who will respond to the call.

That would be the fulfillment of Moses’ wish and, I’m pretty sure, the message Bishop Katharine wanted us to get. It’s also the will of God. That trumps wedding feast and birthday party invitations and the results would change the world.

 Now to go out and be the prophet I’m supposed to be. I will, with God’s help.

[i] Jefferts Schori, The Most Rev. Katharine, sermon delivered at the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, North Scottsdale, AZ, June 8, 2014, quoted in Episcopal News Service, accessed 6/9/14.
[ii]  Jefferts Schori, Ibid.
[iii] Church Publishing Corp, ,The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p. 305

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Wednesday, June 18, 2014.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Following in the Footsteps

This is the lineage of Aaron and Moses at the time when the Lord spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai. These are the names of the sons of Aaron: Nadab the firstborn, and Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar; these are the names of the sons of Aaron, the anointed priests, whom he ordained to minister as priests. Nadab and Abihu died before the Lord when they offered unholy fire before the Lord in the wilderness of Sinai, and they had no children. Eleazar and Ithamar served as priests in the lifetime of their father Aaron.
 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Bring the tribe of Levi near, and set them before Aaron the priest, so that they may assist him. They shall perform duties for him and for the whole congregation in front of the tent of meeting, doing service at the tabernacle; they shall be in charge of all the furnishings of the tent of meeting, and attend to the duties for the Israelites as they do service at the tabernacle. You shall give the Levites to Aaron and his descendants; they are unreservedly given to him from among the Israelites. But you shall make a register of Aaron and his descendants; it is they who shall attend to the priesthood, and any outsider who comes near shall be put to death.
 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: I hereby accept the Levites from among the Israelites as substitutes for all the firstborn that open the womb among the Israelites. The Levites shall be mine, for all the firstborn are mine; when I killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated for my own all the firstborn in Israel, both human and animal; they shall be mine. I am the Lord. -- Numbers 3:1-13

I remember looking at my newborn son and wondering how he was going to turn out. I made lots of mistakes raising him, but he still turned out to be a fine, hard-working man with a good job, a wife and a life that seems to work for him. I bet Aaron did the same thing when each of his sons was born, only he probably knew they would follow him into what amounted to the family business of being God's priests.

For much of human history, it has been a given that a son would follow his father into the same trade or business. Jesus was the son of a tekton, what we would call a carpenter but who actually was involved in the building trade, so he was expected to follow that profession (what a surprise for his family when he struck out for an entirely different job!). Aaron was a priest and so it was expected that his sons would also be priests -- which they were. Aaron's first two sons died childless, a terrible thing in those days. Jewish interpretation of just why they died varies. Some say they were so holy God took them before they had children, else they would have had to stay on earth in order to provide for those children while others say they exceeded their orders from Moses and, in an excess of zeal, brought unauthorized fire and incense before the Lord for which God in turned burned them to pay for their sin of exuberance. 

Aaron still had two sons, though, who did live, multiply, and serve as the priests, the kohanin, while his kinsmen, the tribe of Levi, were called to defend the tabernacle, care for it and its furnishings, and to assist the kohanin and people (Yisraelim) in their duties to God. God had originally planned for the firstborn son of each household to be dedicated to God's service as well as the firstborn animal to be for a sacrifice, but once the slaughter of the firstborn in Egypt took place, God accepted the Levites as representing the firstborn of each Jewish household. The name Cohen today often means a direct descent from Aaron.

Today we do not have a hereditary priesthood. That priesthood died with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70AD. Instead we raise people up from our various congregations and help them discern their call from God and to what level of service. We give them a course of study and, after a successful completion of that, we have them ordained by a bishop. Their duties are primarily sacramental which includes presiding at the Eucharist, performing baptisms and teaching, but they also are expected to be something like the CEO of a small company or corporation. The laity usually does things like care for the cleaning of the sanctuary if not the whole building, caring for the altar and its accouterments, arranging flowers, reading, ushering, teaching Sunday school and the like. We generally leave pastoral visits to the sick and shut-ns to the clergy.

Yet we are all priests by virtue of our baptisms. Look at our Baptismal Covenant which we renew every time there is a baptism during the worship service and at least twice a year if there are no baptisms at all. We agree, with God's help, to continue the teachings and fellowship including participation in the Eucharist and the prayers, to resist temptation and consciously repent of our sins, proclaim the word and example of Christ, to seek to serve Christ in all persons, and strive for justice and peace for all people. Our priesthood might not entitle us to consecrate the sacraments but there's not a lot else we can't do as priests, including teaching, sometimes preaching, serving at the altar in some capacity other than presider, and make visits to those who cannot otherwise come to church. In short, we are all the equivalent of the Levites, set apart by God to serve God and God's people, whether or not we are the firstborn or even the firstborn son. God has chosen us for this work and we promise to do it with every repetition of the Baptismal Covenant.

Jesus called people from several professions, tribal affiliations and villages to the service of God; he would teach them the things they would need to know and do. There was no need of a second priesthood as the Temple was still standing and used for the required sacrifices. The priesthood Jesus conferred on the disciples was as shepherds, teachers and witnesses, roles which he wanted them to pass on to their own disciples. We recognize it as the priesthood of all believers.

We don't all follow in the professions our fathers practiced, but in the case of Jesus, we are expected to follow in the path he showed us even if our normal work is as a lawyer, bookkeeper, teacher, sanitation worker, or any other profession, including that of parent. By God's own grace and the sacrifice of Jesus, we are called to practice our priesthood in the world. Jesus our kinsman and high priest has given us this duty and we are expected to accept it and actually do something with it.

We may not all be great, sometimes we will be very flawed vessels indeed, but we can do Kingdom work in whatever calling we have, whatever profession by which we earn our living, and by what passion we have that meets the world's needs. By keeping our eyes on the job our Father has set for us, we can serve out our priesthood in service to God and others, which is a pretty good thing.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 13, 2014.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Voice of Wisdom

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favour to the skilful; but time and chance happen to them all. For no one can anticipate the time of disaster. Like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare, so mortals are snared at a time of calamity, when it suddenly falls upon them.
I have also seen this example of wisdom under the sun, and it seemed important to me. There was a little city with few people in it. A great king came against it and besieged it, building great siege-works against it. Now there was found in it a poor, wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city. Yet no one remembered that poor man. So I said, ‘Wisdom is better than might; yet the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heeded.’
The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded
   than the shouting of a ruler among fools.
Wisdom is better than weapons of war,
   but one bungler destroys much good
. - Ecclesiastes 9:11-18

Ever since humankind discovered fire and used it to keep the darkness and wild animals at bay, night fires have been places for telling stories. I remember Girl Scout and church camp evenings spent around a campfire, hearing and telling the scariest stories we could think of. The best stories were the ones told by our counselors, maybe because they had more practice but maybe because they remembered what scared the bejabbers out of them when they were our age and wanted us to have similar experiences and memories.

Storytellers became very important and welcome people. They were the custodians of the history of the people. Whether around a fire in front of a cave or tent or on a hearth in a cozy home or great hall, they told the stories of how the world came to be, how things got their names, and why the people did certain things a certain way. This is how the children learned and how the adults were reminded. Besides, there's nothing like a good story to convey a message in a way usually more memorable than just plain lists of don'ts and dos. Jesus was a master storyteller, conveying fundamental truths with imagery that people could identify with, making the truths more easily remembered.

Most storytellers were elders with years of experience as well as a knowledge of the tradition. Gradually, though, rich  and powerful people became the adjudicators and the leaders. The poor, however, often still continued to look to elders and wise men and women for guidance. Sometimes, though, like  in the story in the reading, the wise are ignored while the powerful are heard, much to the detriment of all.

Wisdom is defined as the possession of good judgment, experience and knowledge but not all who possess those things are really wise. Perhaps wisdom comes with another tool or two, like vision and understanding. Wise people look at the world through their experience and knowledge, understand what they are seeing, have a vision of the future can be made better and brighter, and make judgments based on the combination of all of these.

There is a group of people called The Elders. Founded by Nelson Mandela, it brings together people of vision who also happened to have been leaders of different nations and whose expertise span a number of topics from world peace to gender issues. The focus of The Elders is making the world better in a way we would consider prophetic. They see the world as it is, have a vision of how it could be and encourage right action and judgment in order to make it happen. It is a quiet group, but its voice is worth heeding, like the voice of the wise man in today's story. They may not be conventional storytellers but they are a council of people, both men and women, who speak truth quietly but with authority, weaving the stories of their own experience as well as those of others into conversation on topics that affect all of us, directly or indirectly.

Jesus saw the world as it could and should be. His prophetic teaching echoed those who came before him and those who lived and still live after him. The complex problems of his time are somewhat akin to the complex problems of our own period -- hunger, homelessness, oppression, imprisonment for expediency's sake, rampant illness, death, the sense of entitlement on the part of some whose words and actions ignore the humanity of many others who they see as of lesser value than themselves. Jesus's answer was to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. Seems like a simple solution, but we haven't managed to do more than scratch the surface of it in the past 2000 or so years. Groups like The Elders remind us of this, even without ever using the name of Jesus or even referencing a specific religion or religious practice at all. Still, the message is distilled: if we treat our neighbor as ourselves, we will empower them and enable them to be the best they can be, with all the privileges and obligations we ourselves have. We will have eliminated poverty, conflict, hunger, desperation and all the things that accompany them.

The voice of wisdom is frequently quiet but often grows louder. Voices like Mandela, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Jimmy Carter, Kofi Annan, Graca Machel and Desmond Tutu  echo the messages of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez and a multitude of others leading back to the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. The more urgent the situation, the louder they have to speak to be heard over the false prophets who seek their own welfare and well-being while ignoring the plights of those without their resources or ability to protect themselves.

We claim to revere the wise but we usually choose the ones who most agree with us on topics that matter. Real wisdom seems elusive -- and unpopular. Preserving the status quo and personal rights take precedence over the well-being of all. Examples are all around us, and we think that because the voices that are speaking to us are wealthy or powerful they are speaking the truth and we have no need or ability to change. Perhaps we need to seek out the quiet voices, the ones who are seated around a figurative campfire, waiting for us to join the circle, hear the stories, think about what is really true and important and then rise to make it so.

I ask myself to whom am I listening and what am I hearing?  Am I tuned in to the right channel? Am I hearing the message I want to hear or the one I should hear?  I've known a lot of very wise people, soft-voiced people, over the course of my life. What have I learned from them and what do I need to teach those who are coming after me? What have I done for the least of my brothers and sisters, to make their world a better place?

Time to seek the quiet voices of wisdom and really hear what they are saying. The Kingdom depends on it.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul  on Episcopal Café Wednesday, June 11, 2014.

Sunday, June 8, 2014


Eve of Pentecost


Once you were not a people,
   but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
   but now you have received mercy. - 1 Peter 2:10

I remember my first day at college. After over 12 years of going to school with kids I had grown up with, here I was, 250 miles from home, sitting in a dorm room with two people I didn't know from Adam's pussycat. It didn't help that they had grown up together and had their own common experiences and conversational shorthand. It was probably one of the loneliest days of my life. It got better when I made my own friends and we began to build our own common experiences, but I still faced going back to my room and not really being part of the conversation.

There are times when it is lovely being alone: there isn't anyone else that has to be accommodated, a person can spend the whole day in pajamas and nobody cares, dinner can be a peanut butter sandwiches rather than meat and two veggies, and there are no fights over what TV program to watch. The flip side is that there's no one else to pick up the clothes at the dry cleaner, take the cat to the vet, run to the store for a forgotten item, or get out the ladder and change a light bulb. It's also more dangerous being alone; safety can depend on being more careful about locking doors and being more alert while walking to a car after dark. Its not as much fun going to a movie or dinner alone, and people isolated from others are more at risk for health problems, anxiety and depression. For every upside there's a downside, and for every in there's an out somewhere.

In Biblical times, to not belong was unthinkable. That was one reason people could recite their genealogy: to prove they belonged to a family or tribe or clan and precisely where they fit on the family tree. Everybody had a place and knew it. Strangers could mean danger, possibly attack, so caution around unknown or unrelated persons was advisable.

We aren't 100% certain who wrote 1 Peter, but it was written to Christians who were Gentiles rather than Jews. Jews had been considered as belonging to God since the time of Abraham, even when they forgot about the covenant and forgot about God. Gentiles, however, were a different story; they didn't have the historical connection with God that the Jews did and so they didn't "belong" in the same way. The writer, however, wanted them to know that just because they weren't Jewish didn't make any difference to God. They were Christians, followers of Christ, and, as such they were God's people. They may not have been part of the root stock of Christianity but they had been successfully grafted. And that graft flourished.

We are all God's people. We belong to God but we also belong to each other. We have to be careful, though, because we might feel our belonging is only for us and that isn't necessarily so. People go to a specific church or denomination because they think and feel it is the right one, the one with the answers to their questions and with the right connection to God. Jesus reminds us that "I have other sheep, not of this fold" (John 10:16), so in our quest for belonging we might exclude others who also belong but perhaps not our particular church or denomination or even faith.

I've had a number of times in my life when I felt I didn't belong, beginning from early childhood through last week. One thing I sometimes feel is that I don't know if I truly belong to God, but I always come back to the realization that I do and always have.

I also have to remember that God gets to choose who belongs to God and who doesn't.
It's way above my pay grade to make that decision. Thanks be to God for that!

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 7, 2014.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014


Reading for the Commemoration of John XXIII (Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli), Bishop of Rome

Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed, I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it—not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away. - 1 Peter 5:1-4

Think of a flock of sheep and what image comes to mind?  A green hillside with a lot of fluffy white figures peacefully grazing?  It's the kind of picture a person would see posted on the wall of a Sunday School room. It's comfortable, it's pretty -- and it's not terribly realistic. See a flock of sheep and they're usually dirty and a bit matted. They can't just be left alone or they'll wander off in all directions, get caught in thorn bushes and be trapped, and sometimes fall down a chasm or off a cliff. If no one is watching them, they can get into all kinds of trouble. That's why there are shepherds.

People aren't always a lot different from sheep although they have more brain power, more ability to reason and to get themselves out of most jams they get themselves into. Still, a bit of leadership, a shepherd, can often guide people and sheep away from problem areas, help them untangle themselves and get a hand up from the crevasses and from between the rocks. The shepherd has to be invested in the sheep. The shepherd has to put the welfare of the sheep first, his own wishes and wants second. If a ewe is in difficult labor, even at three o'clock in the morning on a cold hillside, the shepherd can't just push the snooze alarm and turn over. If a person is facing a crisis, they need a shepherd, someone to advise, to warn, sometimes just to listen without offering any comment. A wise shepherd knows what approach to use -- and when. That's what Paul was talking about.

The church has always used the image Jesus used for himself as the Good Shepherd as the model for leadership. First there were the disciples, then elders and deacons. The church grew and so did the hierarchy. Sometimes the hierarchy worked well, guiding the people justly and rightly.  At other times, the opposite was true; there can be bad shepherds as well as good ones. Shepherds are human beings with very human faults and foibles. it's to be hoped, however, that the good will outweigh any faults and foibles.

Angelo Roncalli was born in poverty but died as one of the most powerful religious figures in the world. The world knew him as John XXIII, the 268th occupant of the Chair of Peter and Bishop of Rome. Although his pontificate was short, he is credited with opening the window of the Roman Catholic Church to changes, most notably in the areas of liturgical reform and ecumenical relations. He was an advocate for the poor and a mediator both between church factions and internationally as one of those most closely involved in the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

Probably his most notable achievement, however, was calling a council of the church which involved not representatives of the Roman Catholic Church but also from other denominations and faiths, ushering in a time of increased recognition and involvement in interfaith relations. He never got to see the results of Vatican II which continued for several years after his death, but the Roman Catholic Church bears the imprint of his vision and Protestants, Anglicans, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews have benefitted from the increased collegiality and discussion.

For Roman Catholics, the Pope (Bishop of Rome) is the supreme head of the church and whose words, those spoken ex cathedra, can become doctrine binding on every Roman Catholic. His significance, though, for the remainder of Christianity is that of a shepherd. People tend to see religious leaders that way, and sometimes the leaders they choose to follow are less than good shepherds. Even Christians listen to the words of  the Dalai Lama and see in him an example of humility, wisdom and exemplary living. Archbishop Desmond Tutu's teachings on forgiveness and his apparent joie de vivre earn him multitudes of followers who see him as a shepherd to follow. There are thousands and thousands of lesser- or un-known shepherds, wisely and gently leading their flocks.

A wise shepherd leads; the shepherd doesn't follow behind the sheep using a stick to strike them to get them back in line. Granted, shepherds today generally do come after the sheep and often have dogs to help keep the flock going in the right direction, but the Biblical model of Jesus as shepherd puts him in front, not behind, his flock. It's difficult if not impossible to lead from the rear. That can lead to mistakes, false directions and potential catastrophe. One who steps out in faith, with confidence and with an eye on the good of the flock, will be the best shepherd.

Angelo Roncalli undoubtedly had faults; everyone does, whether a Pope or the poorest of the poor. Yet as pope he looked at his flock and saw the need for greater conversation and a change in direction for not just a local church but a global one. He sought peace in the world and opened the door a crack for a more inclusive rather than exclusive view of Christianity.

Jesus called Roncalli to be a shepherd but that shepherd knew to keep his eyes on Christ who was his own shepherd. Jesus calls each of us to be part of his flock, not necessarily his point guard or Judas goat. He expects us to care for our neighboring flock members which might include far more than just those in our own church, neighborhood enclave or political group. We may not all become popes or archbishops, but we can serve by our leadership, no matter how small, and by following the example of the Good Shepherd.

It's that easy -- and that hard.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Passion, Prayers and Promises

Reading for the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary
There was a certain man of Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. He had two wives; the name of one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.
Now this man used to go up year by year from his town to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the Lord. On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went on year after year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. Her husband Elkanah said to her, ‘Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?’
After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. She made this vow: ‘O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants,* and no razor shall touch his head.’
As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. So Eli said to her, ‘How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.’ But Hannah answered, ‘No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.’ Then Eli answered, ‘Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.’ And she said, ‘Let your servant find favour in your sight.’ Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband,  and her countenance was sad no longer.
They rose early in the morning and worshipped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the Lord.’  1 Samuel 1:1-20
The story of Hannah is like the story of the matriarchs. Like Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel, she was what was considered almost cursed in her culture. Sarah was over ninety when she conceived Isaac. Rebekah was barren for some time before Isaac pleaded with God and Rebekah became pregnant. Rachel had to put up with her sister Leah who had son after son. Barren women must have displeased God in some way by being sinful or were not of good character; they were defective. No matter how much their husbands loved them, they still were inferior to any wife or concubine who could produce living children, particularly sons.
Hannah’s husband went up to Shiloh each year to offer worship and offer sacrifices to God. He always brought part of the sacrifice home to his wives and children so they might share the blessings. Everybody ate and drank very merrily except for Hannah; all she could do was cry and turn away from the sight of all the children, none of whom were hers, and the smirking, sniping cruelty of the second wife. So she did the only other thing she could think of doing.
She went to the temple and started to pray once again. She’d done it many times before but without success. Yet she had to keep trying. Maybe she stood or maybe she sat. Perhaps she knelt or even prostrated herself. She could have held her hands out, palms up asking for a blessing from God, or stretched out her arms in entreaty. She moved her lips but there was no sound coming out yet the words were probably screaming in her brain and her heart. Hannah was totally oblivious to anything and anyone around her so focused was she on her desperate plea to God for a son, just one son, not multiples, not a quiver full, just one son that she would dedicate to God’s service.
Eli the priest thought that Hannah had had too much wine. He spoke to her rather sharply about the fact that she shouldn’t be in a holy place and attracting the wrong kind of attention because she was so drunk. I imagine that if we saw someone today behaving as Hannah did, we would probably think they were either mentally disturbed, on some kind of mind altering substance, or just plain drunk. We judge based on what we see, which is what exactly what Eli did. Hannah explained the situation to him and immediately Eli saw the error that he had made. He blessed Hannah and sent her home. She must have felt confident that God had finally heard her as her mood seems to be a bit lighter and, shortly after her return home with her husband and family, Hannah became pregnant.
Even today some women find themselves in Hannah’s situation. They desperately want children but are unable to have them. There were no doctors for Hannah, no clinics specializing in infertility problems where corrective action could be taken mechanically or pharmacologically. She took the only recourse she could think of which was to plead with God. God heard and God answered.
I wonder, how many of us would think of doing what Hannah did, namely seek out as a sacred place and pour out our hearts to God with our deepest desires and with the utmost faith that it would happen, not just doing this once but again and again. Would we risk being seen as intoxicated? People judge so quickly on what they see, usually without knowing anything about the situation other than what happens before their very eyes. Even then sometimes they don’t understand what happened any more than they did if they had just heard about it on the TV news. The people like Hannah who have a passionate desire for something often do what Hannah did which was to make a deal with God. “Give me a son and I will give that son back to you.” For a woman who had been barren for years to make such a promise was truly an indicator of her great desire to be a mother and to demonstrate her faith that God would make it happen.
It must been hard for Hannah. Because of her promise she knew she would only have a short period of time with her child. She was willing to trade her right to watch him grow and marry and have children of his own for the joy of bearing and raising him until he was weaned before taking him to Eli to be raised as a nazirite and a servant of God in a holy place. Two, maybe three years of watching over his firsts -- first smile, first tooth, first unsteady steps – and then he would be gone and she would only see him from year to year when the annual sacrifice was made.
Hannah promised God something over and above what almost any of us would. I have to ask myself, how much passion do I put into my prayers, especially those asking for guidance or what I most deeply desire? What promises have I made that I haven’t kept, especially those I made to God? What am I really asking God for, and how much faith do I really have? 
It’s a question to consider today as I think about Hannah’s passion, prayers and promises.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, May 31, 2014.