Sunday, October 27, 2013

Letters, We Got Letters

And in the days of Artaxerxes, Bishlam and Mithredath and Tabeel and the rest of their associates wrote to King Artaxerxes of Persia; the letter was written in Aramaic and translated. this is a copy of the letter that they sent):
‘To King Artaxerxes: Your servants, the people of the province Beyond the River, send greeting. And now may it be known to the king that the Jews who came up from you to us have gone to Jerusalem. They are rebuilding that rebellious and wicked city; they are finishing the walls and repairing the foundations. Now may it be known to the king that, if this city is rebuilt and the walls finished, they will not pay tribute, custom, or toll, and the royal revenue will be reduced. Now because we share the salt of the palace and it is not fitting for us to witness the king’s dishonour, therefore we send and inform the king, so that a search may be made in the annals of your ancestors. You will discover in the annals that this is a rebellious city, hurtful to kings and provinces, and that sedition was stirred up in it from long ago. On that account this city was laid waste. We make known to the king that, if this city is rebuilt and its walls finished, you will then have no possession in the province Beyond the River.’
The king sent an answer: ‘To Rehum the royal deputy and Shimshai the scribe and the rest of their associates who live in Samaria and in the rest of the province Beyond the River, greeting. And now the letter that you sent to us has been read in translation before me. So I made a decree, and someone searched and discovered that this city has risen against kings from long ago, and that rebellion and sedition have been made in it. Jerusalem has had mighty kings who ruled over the whole province Beyond the River, to whom tribute, custom, and toll were paid. Therefore issue an order that these people be made to cease, and that this city be not rebuilt, until I make a decree. Moreover, take care not to be slack in this matter; why should damage grow to the hurt of the king?’
Then when the copy of King Artaxerxes’ letter was read before Rehum and the scribe Shimshai and their associates, they hurried to the Jews in Jerusalem and by force and power made them cease. At that time the work on the house of God in Jerusalem stopped and was discontinued until the second year of the reign of King Darius of Persia. -- Ezra 4:7, 11-24

There's something about letters that intrigues us. It's almost like taking a peek into someone else's soul or intimate relationship with another, not necessarily intimate in the romantic sense but rather in the sense of seeing the inner thoughts of a person. Paul's letters intrigue us because we only have half the story. We have his letters to the churches but not the letters to him that sparked his replies or the responses from them to his epistles. Ezra provides us with letters from both sides of an issue, a luxury that helps fill in the gaps that might have existed had we only had one half of the correspondence.

In a way it sounds like a schoolyard thing, "Miss Jones, Billy's over there doing something bad!"  It is an appeal to authority to fix something the associates in Samaria thought was wrong (possibly threatening to them) and/or possibly a bit of currying favor.The person who alerts someone else to a potential problem or a loss of something is probably going to be considered more of a friend than they would be otherwise. Artaxerxes of Persia was undoubtedly glad to have such good friends to warn him that those Jews in Jerusalem were actually rebuilding the most significant building in their own kingdom, one that did not include Artaxerxes. They were on a kind of parole in his mind, and they were acting as if they were free!

Where would the world be without tattletales?  Of course, we have other names for them -- informants, spies, whistle-blowers -- but they all serve the same purpose. Whether for good or for ill, they pass information that helps one side of the issue and disrupt the plans and actions of the other. Many times we heartily approve of tattletales, especially those who uncover corruption in government, pass information that can affect our national security or our food supplies or who speak out about unfair business practices that victimize either the workers or the customers. But we also get those who "leak" information to others to show how powerful they, the "leakers," are and what damage they can do to anybody they perceive as a worthwhile target.

For the Jews, rebuilding the temple was not a seditious act, simply a reconstructing of the place where God was worshipped and that had been God's residence on earth, in their theology. They had returned from exile yet they weren't free of the bondage. They had not been mistreated, in fact they were allowed to practice their religion and pretty much live life as normal even though it wasn't in their homeland. Evidently the neighbors had enjoyed their absence and weren't happy when the exiles moved back in and began re-creating that which had been destroyed, hence the letters to Artaxerxes. It is interesting to note that Bishlam et al wrote in Aramaic and that Artaxerxes had been required to have the letter translated before reading, digesting and responding. I wonder -- was Artaxerxes' reply sent in Aramaic or did Mithredath and his cohorts have to find a translator for the cuneiform?  I wonder what the exchange might have looked like had it been via email --- or Tweet? 

Communications back then was serious business. They took time and if it were a pressing matter requiring an immediate answer, the questioner was probably out of luck. Letters used to be a big thing, even up until a decade or two ago. It was how people kept in touch and governments did business. Nobody really expected a return epistle the next day after it was sent, and most likely they didn't expect that return until they saw a messenger arrive in town. It took time to write, time to get it to its destination, time to consider a response and then write it and then more time for it to make the return trip. In a way, it was better; there was less chance of an instantaneous response to a perceived threat or inconvenience escalating into immediate hostilities or even annihilation. With our modern communications, we're way too close to pushing the button before we think through the process completely -- and so are other parts of the world.

Even though we have learned to rely on media to give us information instantaneously and we fire off emails and tweets to friends and business associates alike at 70+ words per minute, we still depend on things like the Bible to give us answers and directions. We pray for answers from God and often we find them somewhere in those pages. Some of the writings in the Bible are truly letters, like Paul's or even the recounting of the letters to and from Artaxerxes, but the Bible is a series of stories like you would find in a letter, sometimes a bit ornamented and sometimes rather stark, but each conveys some kind of information to those who were not present but who could benefit from reading what was sent.

The letter from Artaxerxes only halted the rebuilding of the temple and Israel for a few years.  Far from being a perpetual reminder, the memory of the captivity and the centuries in Egypt centuries earlier didn't stick well enough to keep the Jews from straying away from God yet again. It's as if the letters and the information was tucked away somewhere like in a family Bible and were only taken out when it was necessary to record a new birth, marriage or death in the family or someone was curious about the pieces of paper tucked between the pages. It's a cautionary tale that we still need to be reminded of again and again ourselves. It's too easy to let it slip into the background until something catastrophic happens and we need instant reassurance or instant relief.

When was the last time I really communicated with God, something more than an arrow prayer that I sent up in desperation? I used to write letters to God rather regularly, both actual letters and oral prayers, but sometimes I get busy and forget to keep God posted (even though God knows all that stuff anyway). I may not do it for posterity or for the possible information or inspiration of others, but it should be a necessary part of my being a member of the family of God. It needs to be more than on the level of compulsory thank-you notes for Christmas and birthday presents; it needs to be a sustained communication that will open me up for responses I won't find in my mailbox. And I won't have to pay a translator or even the Post Office.

To get a letter from someone I want to hear from I first have to write one.

Originally published at href
=""> Speaking to the Soul on href=""> Episcopal Café, Saturday, October 26, 2013.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Greatest and the Prophet

 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.”
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence,
and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen! -- Matt. 11:7-15

I'm not a boxing fan, but I'd have to have lived in a cave in some very remote area to have gone through the 1970s and 80s without hearing the name Mohammed Ali, a fighter who was born Cassius Clay but who found his religious path in Islam. He was considered the greatest heavyweight fighter in the history of professional boxing, and he wasn't shy about proclaiming his prowess. He is quoted as saying "I am the greatest. I said that before I knew I was." He had a lot of confidence, and, during most of his career, he had the skills to back up that confidence. Wherever he fought, people came from all over to pack the arena just to watch the professional in action.

People seemed to have come from all over to see John the Baptist too. While Ali entered the ring with satin robes, a trainer beside him and a retinue waiting in the wings, JB entered his arena in coarse cloth and rope belt with some followers among the crowd. Ali proclaimed his greatness, JB denied any greatness at all.  Ali had skills, but JB had a message. JB wasn't some heavyweight champion, Hollywood star or even a person who seemed to shift with every passing breeze. He had a mission, stayed on point and kept repeating it, evidently with some positive results.

The Jews had been waiting for Elijah to return as a signal that the Messiah would be close behind. Jesus, however, proclaimed that JB was indeed Elijah the messenger. Of course, we see it as Jesus' veiled announcement that he was the messiah for whom they had been waiting and that JB as Elijah had come before him just as the scriptures said.  I wonder what kind of reception that statement got once the people unpacked it, as we would say today.

The Jews have been waiting for Elijah for a very long time. There are stories about people who have celebrated Passover faithfully for years with the traditional full wine glass and open door in case Elijah comes by and their discouragement that he never shows up. The stories usually go on to say that a rabbi tells them to do something for other people, like taking food boxes to the poorest house in town and celebrating with them. When the person does that and still no Elijah appears at the door there is more disappointment until they visit the rabbi, complain and are told that to that poor family, the person himself is Elijah. I wonder, was that a tradition in Jesus' time?

While the Jews wait for Elijah, Christians wait for Jesus to return and usher in a new age, an apocalypse, a rebirth.  For Jesus, though, that second coming wasn't about a rapture or a mass exodus to heaven for both the living and the dead. It was about recognizing the kingdom around them and doing the work to make it so. It was about belief in the here-and-now, not necessarily the hereafter. It was about seeing the Messiah present with us and Elijah in every person we see, including ourselves.

JB as Elijah didn't have a fiery chariot kind of exit. His was much bloodier and more public. As great as he was to his followers and to Jesus, JB died at the hands of a bitter woman, a girl child and a man who didn't see a prophet like Elijah but only saw a troublemaker. Prophets are often seen as troublemakers. The Old Testament is full of them, yet we can read their messages and hopefully take them to heart as they too are a part of the kingdom work we are supposed to be doing. Jesus' first coming didn't put a stop to that work, only refined and redirected it. The Elijah/JB in us needs that same refining and redirection. 

Come to think of it, maybe I should start looking for a bit of JB/Elijah in me as well. There's a world out there that needs a lot of kingdom work before Jesus comes back. No special ordination is necessary, no campaign chest, no public relations firm or even a lot of chutzpah, just a quiet, steady something that will make the world a better place for everyone. Maybe I can also be just a bit of an example to someone else to look for their inner Elijah and stop in somewhere for a glass of wine and a message of hope for people who could sure use it.

Originally published at Episcopal Café Saturday, October 19, 2013.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Teachable Moments

Adversity sometimes brings with it what is now known as a "teachable moment." This story certainly has that slant. There is a nomadic people forced by an advancing army to seek shelter in a strange environment, there is a temple, a friendly neighborhood prophet and an audience of locals who need to be taught a lesson. It has all the requisite components.
The Rechabites were nomads, descendants of Rechab who was probably either a member of the same tribe as Jethro (or Reuel), the Kenite father-in-law of Moses, or was somehow related to the Kenites. Being nomadic forces a group to live close to the land but without being bound to any one small part of it. They didn't own land and have to defend it, till fields or vineyards and have to maintain them or erect houses. Their very presence in Jerusalem gave testimony to the threat from the approaching armies. For safety's sake they entered a strange and probably somewhat overwhelming shelter. It must have been almost claustrophobic for them being inside the city walls when they were used to open fields. They also had to deal with all the bustle, noise and smells of a city when before they had nothing but pure clean air and silence broken only by the wind, the sounds of their clan folk talking or the animals they herded.
Enter Jeremiah the prophet. In his teaching moment, he brought representatives of the Rechabites into the temple and offered them a jug of wine. Most people would consider that good hospitality but to the Rechabites, it was not. Their ancestor Rechab had set the rules and they were to follow them. Those rules were designed to make them an independent people, dependent only on themselves and God. They rejected Jeremiah's offering and here came the teachable moment. For them, the fact that their ancestor had given the orders was enough. On the other hand, God had given instructions to the Israelites time and again but the people had been unfaithful not just to the law but to the law giver as well.
Jesus taught that there were rules and he boiled them down from ten to two -- love God and love your neighbor as much as you love yourself. How much simpler could it get? And how much harder could it be to live into those two?
It seems there are often two perspectives of the law, whether it's local, state, federal or even God's. One view is that the law is meant to be obeyed and that the safety and well-being of everyone depends on adherence to those laws. That's one function of law anyway: to set boundaries that protect people, property and, in fact, creation itself. On the other hand, the opposing viewpoint sees the law as irrelevant to their lives and an imposition on their freedom to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, no matter who gets in the way. Most folks are somewhere in the middle; they want their rights protected but they also want the right to skirt, bend, stretch or even outright break the law if they don't think it applies to them or it's just plain inconvenient. Oddly enough, if the shoe is on the other foot, that's a whole different story. You can see it play out on every freeway or street corner. There are those who go the speed limit and there are those who don’t, those who use crosswalks on city streets and those who dart across in the middle of the block.
Rechab’s laws gave them boundaries as well as protection. The people obviously felt they were good laws or they wouldn’t have continued to obey them many generations later as their sacred duty to their ancestor. The laws governing Israel and Judah were also set up for a reason, but, unlike the Rechabites, the people of Israel decided that the laws weren’t important to them any more than the close relationship with God. It got just too inconvenient for them.
Jeremiah’s teachable moment for the people of Jerusalem was also a teachable moment for me. How can I expect others to respect the law, any kind of law, if I don’t respect it myself? That brings up a whole new set of problems. A case in point is immigration. The people who live in the area where I live frequently scream loudly that some immigrants are breaking the law by not entering the country legally yet they hire those same undocumented workers to do jobs at a cheaper rate than those who have the legal documents. The law only applies when they want it to, so it seems. They haven't had their teachable moment yet, most likely, otherwise they might have what a 12-step program would call a "spiritual awakening” or even just a plain awakening. Both have their purpose.
A co-worker wrote an editorial in the local paper the other day about her teachable moment. It came during a stop-smoking public service announcement featuring a woman with no hair or teeth and a stoma, the result of having smoked for a number of years and gotten cancer because of it. The co-worker, a dedicated smoker who has tried unsuccessfully many times to quit, saw that announcement and it hit hard; she is now up to 50+ days of no cigarettes. She said that when she gets a craving, she remembers that woman and is even more determined not to have that same scenario play out in her life. Sometimes it takes someone else's tragedy to make us wake up and change direction.
God has given us a number of teachable moments, just as he did the people he chose all those millennia ago. When they remembered those moments things went well for them but when they lost sight of them through laziness, greed or impatience, they paid for it, sometimes very dearly. Yet as soon as things got better they went on their way again, forgetting God, the commandments, the covenant and the lot until the next catastrophe. At that moment, suddenly God got very important. Amazing how many things haven’t changed at all over the centuries.
Teachable moments don't announce themselves ahead of time; they just sort of happen when they are supposed to happen and it is up to me to pick up on what it is I'm supposed to learn from it. Mostly, right now anyway, I think I need to concentrate on looking for the ones that point me to a more spiritual life, not necessarily as a Bible-thumper but as a citizen of the kingdom of God. That citizenship isn't a superhighway to speed along but rather a winding path with rocks and gullies and streams of water to navigate, strewn with teachable moments that I need to heed.
If I keep my eyes too much on the skies, though, I trip over the things under my feet. If I keep too much attention on my feet, I miss the rainbows. Life, like the law, must be held in a fine balance. Too much either way and I can lose my footing altogether.
Originally published at"> Speaking to the Soul
on <a href=""> Episcopal Café Saturday, October 12, 2013.

Sunday, October 6, 2013


I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.

Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.’ We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it. -- 1 Cor. 10:1-13

In the journey of the exodus, Moses and the Israelites were witness to (and recipients of) a number of miracles. In one episode of their saga, they arrived at the Red Sea (or the Reed Sea), closely pursued by Pharaoh’s army. It was a miracle to have the waters part, leaving them a dry pathway to walk to the other side without getting a drop of water on them anywhere. For Paul (and probably for others), that constituted a “baptism.”

The Christian way of baptism is to be either bent over or held over a basin and have water poured on the head or else to be fully immersed, but how can Paul call walking between two reservoirs of water held apart by miraculous means be called a baptism,  and how they be considered “baptized” without getting wet? I’ve heard the expression “baptism of fire,” a severe ordeal a soldier or civilian experiences for the first time when facing a traumatic experience like the first taste of combat. There’s also a “baptism by desire” where someone who repents of their sins, tries to make amends but who dies before the water of baptism can touch them and who are seen as receiving the heavenly benefit of true baptism. I guess there can be baptism (of sorts) without getting wet, but I believe there is more to be learned from digging into this passage.

As I was thinking about this “baptism without getting wet” I asked my priest about it. Her response was that it was a transition between two states. For the Israelites it was the walk between the waters of the Red Sea that symbolized the transition from an old life of slavery and death to a new life of freedom.  It was that time of transition that signified their baptism and their commitment to a new life following Moses to a land promised to them by God.

The journey through the Red Sea reminded me of stepping stones, a pattern of flat places with something between them like sand, loose gravel or even running water. We walk from stepping stone to stepping stone, trying to stay on the path without losing our balance. The time between when we take one foot off one stone and onto another and then follow it with the second foot is like a miniature version of the journey through the Red Sea where they had to step off the dry land to a place where a moment before had been water. When we move from one stone to another, we are recreating that same moment in microcosm. When we rest on the next stone before going on further, we aren’t exactly the same person we were when we crossed that tiny midline between the two stones and neither were they. Some cells have died, maybe some new thoughts or inspirations have happened, some new cells have been created, but even on the microscopic level, we are changed, even if an ever so tiny a change.

In the reading, Paul was reminding the Corinthians that they had undergone a baptism in Christ, a transfer of allegiance from the world to Christ and that it should call them to a more righteous life. They should not let things in the world lure them into sin. The writings of Paul generally incorporated his belief that the end of the age, the period before the second coming, was imminent and therefore people should be prepared for it. For Paul, that meant avoiding sin including everything from complaining to sexual immorality. It was their duty as Christians to live into the promise of their baptism.

Baptism is a one-shot deal; once done it is forever. It isn’t like one of those immunization shots from the doctor’s office for specific diseases because baptism does not offer immunity for the duration of one’s life or even a specific amount of time.  It isn’t a magic potion or spell that makes a person sin free or even really more able to resist sin, although that might happen. Baptism is a starting point but it is periodic injections of prayer, community, worship and self-control that keep us going. How successfully we keep going is a variable and each of us has to answer for our own spiritual health, including asking for help when we need it. The church in its wisdom, though, has given us opportunities several times a year to repeat and renew our baptismal covenant, a sort of booster shot in a way.

As with all promises, it’s good to remember them on my own without having to put them in writing on the calendar on the refrigerator or have a computer program remind me at specific times. With the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed, those statements of faith made person by the use of “I believe”, I know that I also need that periodic injection of “Will you…?” and “With God’s help” from time to time. It also helps me put a contemporary context to the ancient words through reminding me of the importance of my duty and commitment to God, to myself, to my community and the world. 

It’s like a little baptism all over again – but without getting wet.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, October 5, 2013.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

An Epiphany

I had to clean the debris out of my purse again recently.  It seems to get cluttered up with bits of paper, essentials like my iPod, Kindle and cell phone, pens, ChapSticks and just about anything else that will fit in there.  In the process, I ran across a small printed piece of paper that’s been in there for who knows how long. I have no idea where I got it, but there it was. 
I was hungry and you formed a humanities club and discussed my hunger. Thank you.
I was imprisoned and you crept off quietly to your chapel in the cellar and prayed for my release.
I was naked and in your mind you debated the morality of my appearance.
I was sick and you knelt and thanked God for your health.
I was homeless and you preached to me about the spiritual shelter of the love of God.
I was lonely and you left me alone to pray for me.
Christian, you seem so holy; so close to God But I'm still very hungry, and lonely, and cold... 

John Stott wrote this based on a passage from Matthew 25, and it almost defies the reader to ignore it. Now, when it seems that the safety nets of the poorest and neediest of our citizens are being swiftly cut it seems more applicable than ever. What in the world are we doing?

Some insist we are a “Christian” nation but how can we be if we ignore the very people Jesus spoke about the most – the poor, the ill, the widows and orphans? How can we claim it if we enable the rich to get richer while the poor only get poorer? Whether we are Christian, a member of some other religion or no religion at all, we all bear a share of the blame.

The health of our nation depends on the health of its people, and our score right now is low and getting lower. Cuts to education, the elderly, the working poor, the children and the marginalized are weakening us on many fronts. Involvement in wars in other countries doesn’t win us many friends abroad as we penalize the soldiers and veterans who do the fighting by cutting their housing, training and benefits which doesn’t win us many friends at home. Our children are less able to excel in the world education standings and our old people are treated almost like freeloaders and nuisances. The homeless are almost invisible, even as they lie on the sidewalks and park benches. Who cares? Obviously not big business or even our own elected officials.

Matthew records Jesus’ words about the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned and the marginalized but he also recorded something that should be uppermost in the minds of any Christian, “Whatever you did to the members of my family, you did it to me.” Of course, the ones who ignored those same people received the opposite message and a condemnation. It seems we pick and choose which instructions from Jesus we want to follow and too often the ones we look at are the ones that line up with our personal wants and desires.

Some preachers preach against the “social gospel,” preferring to encourage the “name it and claim it” or “prosperity gospel” instead. They put the focus on “I/me/mine” rather than “ours.” There are also some politicians who seem to put the prosperity gospel ahead of the social one when they hang on to the benefits they receive as elected officials while cutting the possibility of those same kinds of benefits for others. Christianity, whether preached by ministers or practiced by politicians, isn’t about “I/me/mine,” just as Christianity practiced by so many ordinary folks. Jesus didn’t restrict his teachings or his healings to people who voted for him, gave him big campaign contributions, practiced Judaism or even were from his own family or town.

I wonder what Jesus would say if he walked around our country today? He’d probably thank us for our prayers for the poor and suffering but ask what were we actually doing to fix the problem. He’d probably want to disown the lot of us because we’re all part of the problem unless we’re part of the solution. That being part of the solution is the tricky part, though. It means giving up some of the “I/me/mine” and handing it out to the “them,” in short, making the “I” “us.”

It occurs to me that I have a responsibility to do something, anything that can make even the smallest difference. The epiphany produced by Stott’s words need to have an action to complete it.  What am I willing to do about the problem?  And what are others willing to do in turn?  Our future hangs in the balance. And Jesus is watching.

Originally published at Daily Episcopalian on Episcopal Café Thursday, October 3, 2013.