Sunday, January 31, 2016

You are the man...

2 Samuel 12:1-25 

Of all the people in the Bible, there are a lot of people who are mentioned over and over. Names that come to mind are Abraham/Abram (294), Moses (803), and Paul (228). Of course, Jesus got 1,281 mentions, but the second-place winner (first in the Hebrew Bible) is David--shepherd, king, hero, God's choice, and tragically flawed human being.

David first came to our notice as a slayer of Goliath and a humble shepherd boy chosen by God to replace Saul as King of Israel. He was a hero, a giant of a man in a less-than-gigantic body. He was a leader, a more or less successful army general, and a man with great capacity for patience and forgiveness. He was so many things, but when he messed up, he did it pretty thoroughly. 

It's an old story: David sees a woman and gets a serious case of lust. He gets her pregnant. To cover his tracks, David summons the husband, Uriah, back from the battlefield where he had been stationed with the hope that he would sleep with his wife and then the child could be passed off as his. It didn't work; Uriah refused, so David had him return to the front with a letter to his commander, asking that Uriah be put in the most dangerous position on the battlefield. It worked. Uriah died, David married Bathsheba, and the child was considered legitimate.

Here's where the plot thickens. Enter Nathan the prophet who poses a hypothetical question to David about a rich man stealing a poor man's only lamb out of pure selfishness. David was incensed and ready to go out and tear the rich man limb from limb until Nathan revealed that it was David himself who was at fault. Suddenly the whole picture turned around completely.

We all have times when we are thoroughly convinced we are right and that everybody else is wrong. We will go to extraordinary lengths to prove or defend our beliefs and convince the world that this is the true path, idea, or objective. Then what happens when a Nathan appears and suddenly we are faced the fact that we were the ones in the wrong. It can be humiliating, but it can also produce one of those bright flashes of insight we call an epiphany, a flash of understanding or clarity that can be a total life-changer. It feels literally like a slap of the hand to the forehead and a wondering how we could have been so blind--or a blinding light that figuratively knocks us off our horse and into the roadway such as our friend Saul the persecutor experienced on the road to Damascus.

We don't like to recognize our faults. It makes us uncomfortable and smears the mirror of the persona we want the world to see in us. It is contrary to a world that expects everyone to put on a controlled demeanor, an "I can conquer the world" sort of face. We like to be seen as compassionate, strong, never putting a foot wrong, and someone everybody would like to be. Inside, though, we hide the flaws, the mistakes, the hurts, and the griefs that are part of our personality and indeed, our very humanity. Sometimes an innocent comment by a friend can suddenly bring us up short and make us feel naked and exposed to the world. And that friend doesn't even have to be a prophet like Nathan.

It is often at the height of someone's greatness or public perception of it that something comes to light that completely changes the image of that person in the eyes of those who admired and/or supported them. It is hardly enough to say that the former star or hero was revealed as a human with flaws because we seem to glory in their fall. We can't wait for the next revelation of depravity or misdoing. We seem to build people up just so we can tear them down some time later. It took Paul a while to gain the trust of the disciples at Jerusalem even after spending some years rebuilding his image to one who was as pro-Jesus as he had been anti-Christian. We know people snicker and talk behind our own backs when something negative has been revealed about us.

David went on to have another son by Bathsheba, a son almost as great as David himself. Solomon too had his flaws, proving that human frailty runs through royalty as surely as through the ordinary Joe/Jane on the streets. We are all human with flaws but it is how we deal with them that imprints our characters and moves us in certain directions. Weakness in admitting fault and not seeking to put things right, or as right as possible, leads to shame and guilt that increase our weakness even further. Strength comes from admission and repentance, followed by a change of attitude and behavior, not just to those we have wronged but to God as well.

When David was faced with Nathan's story of the man and the lamb, David's anger was apparent, yet four words stopped him in his tracks: "You are the man." That was the mirror that made David see himself in a different way. What if someone held a mirror up in front of us and said "You are the man" or "You are the woman." What would that mean? Where would we find weakness? Where would we find strength? Where would we see God?

What if God handed us a microfiber cloth and told us to wipe the mirror clean, without streaks or bits of fluff left behind? Would that encourage us to take a different path and follow God more closely?
Would that help us change from "You are the person" to "You are the person!"?

Funny how a single keystroke can change an accusation to a verbal high five, and God loves to give high fives.

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

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Jonah Moments and Ninevite Responses

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’
 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.  - Jonah 3:1-10 (Reading from the commemoration of Phillips Brooks, Bishop and preacher)

The story of Jonah is one that everybody remembers a little bit about. Jonah was a prophet and prophets frequently get messages from God that they usually don't want to hear much less follow. Jonah was told to go to Nineveh and preach repentance. If the repentance didn't come,  God was going to destroy the place. Jonah listened and then ran the other way. He got on a ship headed in the opposite direction and all sorts of things start to happen.

The ship ran into major turbulence that got worse by the moment. The sailors drew lots to see whose fault it was, and guess who drew the short straw? They resisted throwing overboard because, after all, he was a prophet, but eventually, after Jonah pressed the issue, he was tossed in the drink and the sea calmed down immediately. The boat sailed on   and Jonah found himself inside a giant fish. Three days later the fish tossed him up onto dry land and the next part of Jonah's story begins.

God again said go to Nineveh and tell them to repent, or else. Jonah went, and there he found a city which Scripture tells us took a three-day walk  just to get to the other side of town. The place was huge! On the first day he walked all day and then stopped preached to the people to repent with sackcloth and ashes and they would be saved, every man, boy, woman, and animal, from the highest to the lowest. Prophets seldom hit a home run the first time they speak and prophesy, but somehow or the other Jonah did. From the king down to the barnyard animals, everyone fasted. The people prayed, sacrificed, and repented.

It's not in this reading, but following this prophecy, Jonah climbed the hill overlooking the city and was looking forward to watching Nineveh burn to the ground or be destroyed in some other spectacular fashion. When the people actually did what Jonah had told them God expected them to do, God cancelled the pyrotechnics and Jonah was disgusted.

That image reminds us of times in our lives when we were hurt or damaged in some way, especially if we felt we were in the right. We waited for the wrath of God to smite those who injured us, and wanted see them get what we felt was coming to them but it didn't happen. Of course, we don't want that punishment for ourselves, even if we have committed the same sort of offense. We just want it to happen those who have wronged us. Short of taking matters into our own hands, though, things don't always go as we want them to. Luckily for us, God doesn't do a lot of smiting these days, especially on request.

What made the king and people to listen to Jonah and repent? Perhaps it was that the king saw the risk and made the decision that some sackcloth and ashes were a small price to pay for avoiding oblivion. The king made his decision and the people followed. Perhaps, though, the conversion was sincere and lasting. At any rate, this time God didn't have to carry through with the promised destruction.

Each of us probably has Jonah moments from time to time. When we are hurt or feel under attack, it's not always so easy to stop everything and change directions. It's not easy to put away the feelings of wanting vindication for ourselves and punishment for someone else. Jonah wanted to see that punishment and that caused him to go outside of town, build a booth and sit there and sulk when it didn't happen. It's hard to think of someone sulking because a huge city was safe from destruction and all its citizenry were saved, but it does happen.

It's almost shameful to acknowledge that, but like so many other negative things and feelings, logic and empathy often go out the window and the urge for revenge becomes paramount, The human side of us beats the Godly side, even when we know we are not doing what God wants us to do.

It is good for us to have the Nineveh moments that counteract the Jonah ones, moments when we acknowledge God and turn to doing God's will. Perhaps the act of forgiving those who have wronged us instead of waiting gleefully for them to get what we feel is coming to them is a repentance we can do, a turning away from evil and toward Godliness. It's attainable, but not easy. But, like almost everything else, we won't know we can do it until we try.

We need to listen to the message of Jonah, just not follow his example. This time, words can speak louder than actions -- unless you're a Ninevite.

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

God's expectations

These are the descendants of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God. And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, ‘I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above; and put the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks. For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive. Also take with you every kind of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them.’ Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.  - Genesis 6:9-22

Reading God's instructions to Noah and looking at the news on the various forms of media lately, I wonder whether God's been giving any more instructions about ark-building and furnishing lately. The Prince of Wales has had his gardens washed away, people in Missouri are shown moving around like Venetian gondoliers, people in various places around the globe wade chest-high or take pictures of houses with floodwaters up to the windowsills or higher.

God promised Noah that the world would never again be destroyed by floods, but it seems selected bits of it fall outside that promise. It's hard to get images of anxious mothers carrying infants through waters contaminated by sewage and garbage. Men tow boats and canoes full of people and animals that have been rescued from the water and isolation. Even poisonous snakes are looking for places to get out of the water. Thousands of people drown in the raging waters and many more are lost in massive mudslides caused by waterlogged hillsides that simply cannot absorb any more water.

We refer to these as "acts of God" but often God has less to do with it than our own human acts. We clear-cut mountain and hill sides for the timber and leave the ground barren and unable to hold the soil together when it rains. We build houses in low-lying or coastal areas where we trust that dikes and levees will keep the sea out. Then we neglect to maintain those dikes, levees, and dams but still trust they will hold, especially when facing ferocious winds and waves.

We try to learn to circumvent the "acts of God" and sometimes we are able to give warnings or lessen the impact, but in more cases than not, nature wins. I don't think God has a big switchboard in the sky and that buttons get pushed to cause a drought here or a monsoon rain there and an earthquake somewhere else. I don't think God uses these things to test us, but I do think God wants to see us do what we can for those who are victims. I think we're also supposed to look after the earth, replanting what we have harvested, planning communities that take natural features and potential hazards into consideration, even if that potential hazard is a one-in-100 year event. It may happen next year or not for 500, but it needs to be planned for.

And that brings us to Noah, his ark and his mission. What were his chances of encountering a flood such as God told him was coming? I'm sure the city planners, engineers, and meteorologists of the time had no clue. And what if we encountered a modern-day Noah who, answering a call from God, started to build an ark in his back yard with no HOA, planning and zoning, and engineering approvals? What would the neighbors think?

We aren't called to wail and weep if misfortune strikes us, whether flood or other catastrophe, but to look for ways to help not only ourselves but our fellow human beings. We are also called to care for the earth that nourishes and sustains us. I think God expects us to do our very best, to help others and all creation to the benefit of all. I don't think God is taking notes of who has been naughty, nice, or has not come up to God's expectation. That's maybe Santa Claus's criteria but not God's, or, at least, that's what I believe.

The God that spoke to Noah also speaks to us, if we take the time to listen. We are shown things that need fixing every day, but we don't really see them as something we could do. Singly, maybe we can't, but if we find others who are called as we are to do something, then success is much greater. God doesn't need for each of us to try to be a superhero, just a helper who cares enough to try.

We don't have to wait for a flood warning in our area either. Just look around.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, January 16, 2016.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

"Pray for the peace of Jerusalem..."

I was glad when they said to me,
"Let us go to the house of the Lord."

 Now our feet are standing
within your gates, O Jerusalem.

 Jerusalem is built as a city
that is at unity with itself;

To which the tribes go up,
the tribes of the Lord,
the assembly of Israel,
to praise the Name of the Lord.

For there are the thrones of judgment,
  the thrones of the house of David.

 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
"May they prosper who love you.

Peace be within your walls
and quietness within your towers.

For my brethren and companions' sake,
I pray for your prosperity.

Because of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek to do you good."
    - Psalm 122

Music has always been an important part of my life. I've been singing since I was very young child and I began playing the piano at age 3. Until I went to school all my singing were basically things I learned at church or commercials. I've forgotten most of the commercials, but I do remember the church songs which, quite often, were psalms or scriptures. They made the words very easy to memorize. Many times I've had one or another of them running through my head at very opportune times, times when I've needed that particular bit of reassurance, praise, or whatever. I loved learning to chant the canticles of Morning Prayer, knowing I could call them up in my memory at will and not have to resort to a prayer book or Bible.

While reading Psalm 122, a musical arrangement that I had learned a number of years ago started playing in my head. This psalm itself had been used as an entrance anthem in every coronation since that of Charles I of England. There have been a number of versions written for coronations by some of the greatest musicians in English history. The version that runs through my head was written in 1902 by Sir Hubert Parry. It's a grand anthem for double choir, and has also been used at other events such as the weddings of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer and the Duke of Cambridge and Kate Middleton. It's a celebratory anthem beginning with the words, "I was glad when they said unto me, 'Let us go into the house of the Lord.' "

It wasn't written for a coronation but rather as a pilgrim praising a visit to the holy city of Jerusalem. It celebrated safe arrival of the pilgrim as well as the greatness of the city with its strong walls and members of every tribe of Israel mingling together within those walls. It had been the capital city of David, and the throne of David was seen as a throne of judgment and justice. The Temple was the place of sacrifice and the home of God on earth, a humbling but uplifting place in the hearts of the people, and the place where strife and bitterness between tribes could be set aside so that peace would reign and not hinder the worship of God.

The line that strikes me is that which says , "Peace be within your walls and quietness within your towers." Jerusalem has been a city far from peaceful for generations. Once lost to the Jews after the fall of the Temple in A D 70, it passed into the hands of others until 1945 when Jews displaced in Europe returned to claim their ancestral homeland. Since then it has been a nation and a city in turmoil with short periods of quiet where Jews, Christians, and Muslims could live and worship in safety. That fragile peace has often been shattered and fear has taken its place.

The psalmist declared, "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: 'May they prosper who love you.' " We pray for the Jerusalem we see as a center of our faith tradition. We are praying not as much for the nation of Israel as we are for the spiritual home and health of the many people who look to Jerusalem as a foundation of faith. We sing hymns praising Jerusalem and seeing her as an important place in the life of our Lord and the early church, yet we watch the news and see the destruction and bloodshed almost passively. We have seemingly no time to even pray for peace much less work for it.

I wonder what the psalmist would say if he were to visit Jerusalem today. The great Temple is gone and is replaced by a mosque with a golden dome. The remaining wall around Temple Mount is a place of prayer and yet a place of division since women and men are not permitted to pray side-by-side. Churches in the Christian quarter suffer damage and destruction because they are seen as threats to both Jews and Muslims. Yet from the hills surrounding Jerusalem, the view is of beautiful city and one blessed by God.

In his anthem, Parry did not use all the verses of Psalm 122 but he gives us the flavor of the psalmist's intention. Even though reality is different than the poetic anthem of the psalmist, as it runs through my head it reminds me to continue to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, that there may be quietness within their towers, and that they may prosper under God's watchful care. God still is present in Jerusalem even though the Temple is gone, just as God is present in other places of strife and warfare. God is present in our cities and towns, in peace and in turmoil.

May we continue to pray for peace, safety, and prosperity for ourselves and for all the world's people, God's people. All are God's people, regardless of the name they use when they call on God or even if they use no name at all.

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

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Who are you?

 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ He said,
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord”
as the prophet Isaiah said.

 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.  - John 1:19-28

Among the first things a baby learns to say beyond "Mama," "Dada," and "No" is often the word "Me." It becomes a very important word even if not used in the grammatically correct way. "Me" is key to identity, like "I" as a personal identifier. It's all wrapped up in our makeup and how we see ourselves. Freud had lots to say about identities, but we don't need to do a rehash of the Freudian psychological profiles right now

As we grow older we began to identify ourselves in a number of different ways. Beyond learning to respond to our name, we learn that we are the child of our parents, what our address is, what grade and school we attend, and so on. As we grow up we learn to identify ourselves in terms of new relationships: we are someone's husband or wife, mother or father, someone's friend, or acquaintance. We also identify ourselves by what we do: CEOs, secretaries, nurses, professional people, auto mechanics, and all shades of the spectrum of employment that earns our livelihood. We identify ourselves by our social standing, whether we are members of this country club or some organization. We also tend to identify ourselves by our economic standing in the community: we live in this gated community, or drive that particular make of car. Our children go to expensive colleges and universities, and we brag about how much we paid (or got a great deal on) our house or our boat or some other possession. All in all we're conglomerations of identifications. Sometimes it's a wonder we know ourselves at all.

John the Baptist was asked "Who are you?" by groups of religionists and hierarchs of the Temple.  They wanted to know because they were curious as to whether he was the one that was promised. He answered them that no,  he wasn't. They kept asking, was he Elijah? Was he this person or that person? His answer was still no. John's job was to be the forerunner of the coming Messiah. He had possibly known of this since childhood, or maybe not, but at this stage in his life he was very clear in his understanding of just who he was. He was a prophet, and that was that.

Each one of us has to learn to be precise in our identification of ourselves. It is easy to describe ourselves by what do, or what we earn, or to whom we are related. But to really answer the question "Who are you?", that takes a little more doing.

To learn who we are requires a lot of soul-searching and a lot of thought. Are we a member of this or that profession, organization, family, or church? Is that all we are, or is that all we see ourselves as being? What about our abilities? How do we use them to describe who we are?  Are we successes or failures or something in between? What is it that makes us individual, different from everyone else even if we are similar in many ways. We are who we are, and one of the steps to maturity and wisdom is knowing that and accepting it or, if it can't be accepted, then changing it.

We all say that we are children of God. That is part of our identification, part of what makes us Christian. Some will identify as Christian first and members of some denominations second, or others will introduce themselves as a member of the denomination and expect people to know that they were Christian. It's a puzzle that needs to be well thought out.

Christmas is a time when we think about the birth of Jesus, a baby who, like all babies, had to learn to say mama, dada, etc. He wouldn't have truly been a human being had he suddenly appeared from Mary's womb speaking  perfectly correct 16th-century Shakespearean English. He had to go through learning process in order to be human; he already  knew what it was like to be God. Now he had to learn to be human even though he was still God,  just clothed in human flesh.
Jesus had to learn who he was so that if someone asked him, he could answer an answer correctly. Possibly learning he was the son of God came to him early on in life, but perhaps it is also a slow learning process where he found that as a child he enjoyed hearing Scripture and learning them and then talking with the rabbis about the meanings of those scriptures. He must have caught on pretty quickly, but he had to go through a learning process. He knew who he was.

So how do we answer "Who are you?"

We, like John and  Jesus, need to know who we are. We need to take time to stop and think about it, look at the various ways that we use to identify ourselves, and then see where we may be cutting ourselves short or maybe giving ourselves too much credit.

Most of all, we need to learn who we are in terms of our relationship to God. It's probably one of the most important identifications we can claim - or aspire to. Once we figure that out, we have an answer to "Who are you?" 

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturrday, January 2, 2015.