Sunday, May 29, 2016

Words of Wisdom

With patience a ruler may be persuaded,
   and a soft tongue can break bones.
If you have found honey, eat only enough for you,
   or else, having too much, you will vomit it.
Let your foot be seldom in your neighbour’s house,
   otherwise the neighbour will become weary of you and hate you.
Like a war club, a sword, or a sharp arrow
   is one who bears false witness against a neighbour.
Like a bad tooth or a lame foot
   is trust in a faithless person in time of trouble.
Like vinegar on a wound
   is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.
Like a moth in clothing or a worm in wood,
   sorrow gnaws at the human heart.
If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat;
   and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink;
for you will heap coals of fire on their heads,
   and the
Lord will reward you.
The north wind produces rain,
   and a backbiting tongue, angry looks.
It is better to live in a corner of the housetop
   than in a house shared with a contentious wife.
Like cold water to a thirsty soul,
   so is good news from a far country.
Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain
   are the righteous who give way before the wicked.
It is not good to eat much honey,
   or to seek honour on top of honour.
Like a city breached, without walls,
   is one who lacks self-control.
  -- Proverbs 25: 15-28

I used to work with a guy named Bob. We didn't work in the same department, but it was a small,
bull-pen type place where everybody was more or less in the same room. Bob had a very dry sense of humor. He had his favorite buzzwords and replies. The one I remembered best was when someone would ask how the day was going, he would always come back with "Same stuff, different day, ground finer."  Of course, he didn't say "stuff", but it became a catch phrase for the whole office.

The lady I called Granny had similar sayings that would pop up from time to time. The first time I went to visit her,  she told me something she said she told every guest. "The first day you're here, we wait on you. The second day, you wait on yourself. The third day you start waiting on us!"  It was all in good fun, but somehow I enjoyed doing a little bit of waiting on them; it was like being part of the family.

Ben Franklin had a similar proverb or saying that was a bit more pointed than Granny's: "Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days." While Mr. Franklin was much more well-known than Granny, she had a gentility and politeness he didn't always exhibit. He did, however, have Poor Richard's Almanac, and hundreds of pithy sayings that stated general truths or pieces of advice. There's one for almost every situation, occasion, or even just for everyday thought.

The book of Proverbs is considered a book of wisdom, sayings and moral lessons that are rather pithy and which convey truths in a commonly-understood language. Granny may have had the saying about the third day, as did Ben Franklin, but Proverbs also has somewhat the same wisdom: "Let your foot be seldom in your neighbor's house, otherwise the neighbor will become weary of you and hate you." The use of similes, comparing two unlike things that usually are preceded by "like," create contrasts that point in the same direction. They become part of the culture by being short and meaningful.

Wisdom often comes in small packages. Jesus tucked a lot of wisdom in words like love, faith, believe. Love your neighbor, faith has made you whole, do not fear--only believe. How often do we forget those bits of wisdom, particularly if they make us uncomfortable or just slip through the cracks of our mental filing system. It's uncomfortable to be asked to love our neighbor, particularly if they are "different" from  us in some way. It's hard to have faith that things will work out, especially when facing things like cancer, poverty, homelessness or the like. It's hard not to be afraid when facing those same things and the uncertainty they bring. It's hard to live in a world out of control-- our control.

"Like a city breached, without walls, is one who lacks self-control." The world admires people with self-control, people who can stand on the ramparts and appear to be masters of all they survey. We reserve scorn for those we perceive to be without self-control--the addict, the obese, the homeless family living in their car, the mentally ill among others. How is this reflecting what Jesus taught in short, simple terms? How are we different than the crowd picking up stones to cast? Ben Franklin had a few words of wisdom here: "How many observe Christ's birthday; how few his precepts."

Perhaps we need to look for little bits of wisdom that are like shiny shells in the sand. They are easily overlooked and they require a modicum of effort to bend over and pick up, but there is a small slice of the world that can be held in the hand and observed. It can be a tiny piece that can be the linch pin for solving the whole puzzle before us.

Maybe it will remind us to look for the key words - love, faith, believe. And it may provoke other key words that we may have forgotten. Perhaps Ben has a final word of wisdom for this moment: "Work as if you were to last a hundred years. Pray as if you were to die tomorrow."

Proverbs -- words to live by.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café on Saturday, May 28, 2016.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Gaius, Diotrephes, and the Elder

The elder to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth.
 Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, just as it is well with your soul. I was overjoyed when some of the friends arrived and testified to your faithfulness to the truth, namely, how you walk in the truth. I have no greater joy than this, to hear that my children are walking in the truth.
 Beloved, you do faithfully whatever you do for the friends even though they are strangers to you; they have testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on in a manner worthy of God; for they began their journey for the sake of Christ accepting no support from non-believers. Therefore we ought to support such people, so that we may become co-workers with the truth I have written something to the church; but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing in spreading false charges against us. And not content with those charges, he refuses to welcome the friends, and even prevents those who want to do so and expels them from the church.
 Beloved, do not imitate what is evil but imitate what is good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God. Everyone has testified favourably about Demetrius, and so has the truth itself. We also testify for him, and you know that our testimony is true.
 I have much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink; instead I hope to see you soon, and we will talk together face to face.
 Peace to you. The friends send you their greetings. Greet the friends there, each by name.  - 3 John 1-15

We don't get many letters anymore, except maybe overdue notices from bill collectors and charities, or perhaps some invitations to test drive new cars or establish a new bank account. The art of letter writing has really gone by the wayside, and for the most part, replaced by electronic transfer of information via email, Facebook, or Twitter, or the like. We don't write many letters anymore, and the ones that we do are usually thank-you notes, letters of introduction, cover letters for resumes or letters of resignation from a job or position. The Bible, however, has a number of letters in the New Testament; Paul wrote a bunch of them, but we are really not totally sure who wrote the rest.

Case in point, the letter in 3 John, to a man named Gaius and ascribed to someone who may or may not have been named John., In fact, however, the only identification the writer gives is the title of  the Elder.

The Elder's letter is basically to commend Gaius is for good work among his people, their good work in the community, and especially their hospitality to missionaries and evangelists sent to them from outside. The Elder calls them coworkers in the truth. Not everyone, though, came in for acclaim and appreciation. Some of the people were doing just the opposite, to the detriment of the word and the message.

One of these people was named Diotrephes. Evidently he was a leader of a group that was the opposite of Gaius. Diotrephes was rather arrogant, and against the authority of those who sent out the missionaries and evangelists. Evidently the Elder believed that Gaius was Orthodox in his teaching and in the beliefs of the community, partly based on hospitality to the itinerant emissaries. Diotrephes refused to offer hospitality and demanded that others not assist in any way.

There is an unattributed statement that I found somewhere that goes something like "When the other fellow is set in his ways, he is obstinate. When I am, it's just firmness." These days it seems like that little saying is more true than ever, although Gaius and Diotrephes seem to have a touch of it as well.

We welcome those who think like we do or believe like we do, and tend to reject those who don't. We find it in politics and in religion, both subjects which usually don't get discussed at the dinner table. They are threats to our security, our peace of mind, and even our very being, or so we think.

Gaius  was trying to teach his people to accept those who came preaching and who brought them new ideas and new teachings from the group in Jerusalem and other apostolic churches. The Elder warned against those who rejected the message on the belief that theirs was the only right way.

What we want to do is welcome people into our churches, and often we put something outside the door that says "Welcome" or "We welcome everyone!" There are people outside who want so much to believe this is true, but they have been wounded by churches who initially welcomed them but then turned against them for one reason or another.  It's unfortunate, and more than unfortunate, it is tragic.

It is like hundreds of people being hungry and the food kitchen can only feed ten of them. We've got to find a way to stretch the table and reach more people who are hungry, not necessarily for ham sandwiches or stew, but for a place where they can be who they are, without shame and without further trauma. That is what Jesus wants us to do, to welcome God's children into God's house.

In the letter, the Elder reminds people that another man, Demetrius, has been sent to them as a teacher and a witness to the truth. The people are asked to welcome him. They are also to imitate the good that they see and to reject the evil. That is something we should all be looking for. The Elder and the latter by saying he has a lot more to say that he couldn't or would rather not do in a letter.

Since the letter of  3 John is the shortest of the Johannine letters (something like 242 words), it would be interesting to see what else Elder had to say to Gaius and his community. Unfortunately, like a lot of the letters that we read in the New Testament, we will never know the other half of the conversation, nor will we know that the outcome is. That's one thing about Bible stories: they don't always have neat and tidy endings, leaving questions and no real sense of what happened next. I have a feeling that in a way that is a good thing, because it creates for us an opportunity to read the story, put ourselves into it, and then make our own ending by the way we think, believe, and act. That's the value of such an inclusion in our sacred texts.

What I take away from 3 John is to listen for authenticity  and scrutinize those who wish me to pay attention to them. I must listen for truth and not just for the stories or neat packages of plots. There's a world out there that needs many things, authenticity and truth among them. Will I follow Gaius' truth?  How I act will make that determination, both for me and for those with whom I come in contact. It may be a tough row to hoe, but no one ever said life was going to be easy.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, May 21, 2016.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Volcanoes of Pentecost

Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.’
So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. The people all answered as one: ‘Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.’ Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord
On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God. They took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder. When the Lord descended upon Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain, the Lord summoned Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.
- Exodus 19:3-8, 16-20

There’s been a note in the news lately that Mount St. Helens in Washington has had a swarm of small earthquakes which seem related to the filling of the magma chamber inside the volcano. While it’s a long way from a full-blown earthquake/eruption, it’s still a thing to keep an eye on.

This week marks the 35th anniversary of the last major eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18th, 1980. I was living in Oregon, about 175 miles from the scene of the event. My apartment building overlooked the Columbia River with Washington on the other side. That morning I got up and turned on the TV. All I could find on any channel's coverage was of a volcanic eruption. Having never experienced one of these, it was kind of an interesting experience.

Inside my apartment I didn't see anything, didn't feel anything, and I hadn't heard anything, but not many miles away, to the north of me, ash was falling from the eruption. I went outside and looked up to find that the sky was a brilliant and cloudless blue, at least over my head. I looked towards Washington and I noticed that from about the middle of the river and extending to the north sky was black like some someone had come along and just painted the sky a dark, grayish black. The line was so straight and the color so even that it seemed surreal.

I thought about that is when I read the reading from Exodus where Moses and the Israelites were parked at the base of Mount Sinai. They were gathered because Moses had been told by God to collect the whole group, and to give them certain instructions. The interesting part comes on the third day when there was thunder, lightning, and cloud on the mountain with an increasingly loud trumpet blasting and shaking ground beneath their feet. That’s where the image of the volcano erupting crossed my mind.

 Some volcanoes produce thunderstorms and very visible lightning as they erupt, while some others of them spew fiery sparks. Yet others send out in clouds of smoke and ash. To me, the passage sounds like Moses and his people were in the presence God manifested as a terrifying eruption.

Thinking of eruptions where bright sparks and sometimes bright columns of yellow and red come from the top of the mountain, I thought about the tongues of flame that appeared on the disciples’ heads on the day of Pentecost. The approach of the Spirit on that day was like a mighty wind blowing and a trembling of the earth. At that time, the tongues of flame over their heads, appearing as though there was an eruption going on, an eruption that would change the landscape of their lives forever.

 It must have been somewhat frightening to suddenly begin speaking in other languages, and I’m sure the disciples weren’t the only confused ones. Still, it was the gift of the Spirit to help with the spreading of the word of God, just as the eruption on Sinai was to get their attention.

Pentecost invites all of us to place ourselves in the path of the great wind and earth shaking of and by the Spirit, the place of awe and attention to what God wants of us. Sometimes it might take something on the magnitude of a virtual volcanic eruption to do that.

The reports that Mount St. Helens is awake and the magma beneath it is building up gives us a foresight that sooner or later it will blow up again. Other volcanoes around the world have been erupting, some quite violently and others just as dangerously but with clouds of ash instead.  I wonder if God is giving us a message, and waking us up to go out and teach and preach and live so that others will see and marvel.

Now I don't think we are meant to be human volcanoes, much less disciples with little pinpoints of flame coming out from our heads, but I think there can be a spiritual glow indicating the presence of the Spirit within which might be an indicator. I didn’t see St. Helens erupt in person, but I have seen people on whom I could almost see tongues of flame above their heads. Really.

Some people walk around as if they had a little grey cloud over their heads, or maybe it's volcanic ash. I wonder what we would think if we saw a little flame instead?

I will remember those tongues of flame the next time I see a picture of an erupting volcano, or perhaps the next time I see someone with a particular glow that indicates the fire of the spirit inside them. It's a good thing to look for, and much better for the environment.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, May 14, 2016.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Mother Church and her children

 Commemoration of Harriet Starr Cannon, Religious

‘Mother, embrace your children; bring them up with gladness, as does a dove; strengthen their feet, because I have chosen you, says the Lord. And I will raise up the dead from their places, and bring them out from their tombs, because I recognize my name in them. Do not fear, mother of children, for I have chosen you, says the Lord. I will send you help, my servants Isaiah and Jeremiah. According to their counsel I have consecrated and prepared for you twelve trees loaded with various fruits, and the same number of springs flowing with milk and honey, and seven mighty mountains on which roses and lilies grow; by these I will fill your children with joy. ‘Guard the rights of the widow, secure justice for the ward, give to the needy, defend the orphan, clothe the naked, care for the injured and the weak, do not ridicule the lame, protect the maimed, and let the blind have a vision of my splendour. Protect the old and the young within your walls. When you find any who are dead, commit them to the grave and mark it, and I will give you the first place in my resurrection. Pause and be quiet, my people, because your rest will come. - 2 Esdras 2:15-24

There are a group of books in the middle of Episcopal Bibles (and some Protestant ones) that usually get glossed over. They've never been added to the canon, the officially sanctioned books of the Bible that are considered authoritative (genuine) and useful for teaching and direction. The books in the middle are called the Apocrypha, books not accepted by several church councils, including the one at Laodicea in 368AD. They were considered not genuine and therefore not suitable for reading in church. Now and then, though, we read snippets of some of them, and we find something of value in them.

The writer of 2 Esdras, whoever it might be, is speaking for God who advises mothers to cherish their children and bring them up to be strong people. Of course, Esdras is speaking metaphorically about the church as mother. The tip off is the reference to the twelve trees and springs along with seven mountains, the very numbers themselves representing the twelve tribes of Israel, twelve disciples, and seven as the number of perfection or completion.

The tasks that follow are those which God, prophets, Jesus and his disciples urged the people to remember to do, namely taking care of those who were, in the words of the Prayer Book (1928), in  "...[T]rouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity." Granted, the prayer asks God to "comfort and succor" the afflicted, but the entire Bible urges us to do those jobs in God's name.

Mothers teach their young ones basic rules like sharing their toys, not hitting their brother or sister or friend, saying "Please" and "Thank you," and being nice to people. Those basic lessons are parts of the list that Esdras set out in his list beginning with "Guard the rights of the widows, secure justice for the ward...." And Esdras is just repeating what God and the prophets had been saying for generations.

The church emphasizes the same qualities; indeed, we call it "Mother Church" because it is a place of nurturing and learning as well as a place to worship God and have contact with others of similar belief and purpose. It is a place where all should be equal and all should be welcomed and cherished. Is it a place where people in ragged denims are as welcome as those in Armani suits? Where a dirty,  rusted truck can park unashamedly next to a shiny BMW? Where troubles can be forgotten for a time and the mind can focus on community in Christ? It should be--and in many times it is. If it isn't, though, Mother Church fails because her children fail, and no mother wants her children to fail.

What does failure look like in this scenario? Failure is ignoring the stranger who is not dressed as nicely or as cleanly as those with whom he/she asks to worship. Failure is paying more attention to the big givers, as important as they are to the church, and not being as welcoming to those without the material resources that make that possible. The sermons tell us to welcome the poor, and care for the needy, but there are times this part of the sermon is forgotten before the people go out of the door.

On Mother's Day, mothers are particularly welcomed in our churches. Often they are presented with flowers as thanks for their work as nurturers and teachers of their children. Mother Church uses this occasion to remind us of the sacrifices and sometimes outright hardship some mothers face, as well as giving thanks for their continued presence in our lives and in our pews.

Not all have had such wonderful mothers; there have been abusive mothers as well as neglectful ones. Some have abandoned their children (for any or all of a myriad of reasons) but others have taken in children not their own and made them members of the family, showing them the same love that their own children received. Paul, in his letters, said that we were adopted members of the Body of Christ, grafted on the tree of salvation. We become members of Mother Church through the adoption we receive at baptism. We are welcomed and we are accepted.

Mother Church continues to teach the exhortations that God expects of all of us, words that come to us from the prophets and from Jesus as well as those of 2 Esdras written in somewhere in the 200s CE. With that many repetitions, it seems we should pay attention. Mother's Day might be a really good time to do just that.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, May 7, 2015.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Christ Light

People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within. - Elizabeth Kübler-Ross

It's a gray day outside. Living in Arizona, we don't get many of them. Some people with severe Seasonal Affective Disorder, though, can almost immediately get depressed even with a few hours of gray-ness. Me, I love gray days. Growing up back east we had them often, usually accompanied by rain, soft, gentle rain that made everything lush and green and beautiful. Here, though, we have what seems like 360 sunny days a year although the latest figures I can find indicate the number is 296, including partly sunny days. Be that as it may, I still like gray days if for no other reason than it makes me look at the world a bit differently.

Maybe my love of gray days leads me to love Gothic cathedrals. Great stone walls and piers reaching toward the sky with vaulted arches spanning wide spaces are like a giant gray forest with a canopy overhead. It's a worshipful place, a place where I feel God in a very immediate way. But there's even more there; the tall cathedral walls are punctuated with pieces of glass, colored glass. The glass glows when the sun shines and at night, when the lights are on, the world outside can look to the cathedral and see a bit of beauty, maybe a bit of heaven and be comforted by it.

The thought struck me that Christ is like a cathedral--strong, great, solid, and beautiful. Those who live in Christ see the glory of God shining through the stained glass pieces of the windows, casting patches of colored light around like a warm quilt. Christ draws us in to the beauty and the glory within himself, and leading us to the altar of God to celebrate this communion. It's a mystical moment, a place where time is suspended and all that matters is the calm, quiet, and closeness.

For those outside, Christ is like the cathedral at night, lights blazing. Like the beacon on the hill, it shines out into the darkness and draws people to it, people who are hurting and need comfort. It's a thing of beauty in a world of ugliness and squalor.

There are people who are definitely in Christ. It shines out of them, this Christ-light, and it extends outward to a world that needs to see that light. They are people of goodness, people who care about their fellow human beings and want, in any way they are able, to bring the light they have to those in darkness and gray days. Watch Archbishop Desmond Tutu's eyes as he talks. No matter what he is saying, the light of Christ shines from his eyes. His joy shows in his smile, his dancing. He has been through experiences that most of us will never have to face, yet Christ is in him and works through him to show the rest of us what it can be.

Probably we each know at least one person who is a light in our shadows and grayness. The friend who is always there and who knows, instinctively whether we need to talk or just need someone to sit with us in silence. We see someone answering the needs of the world and finding joy in it, like the man who works to fill backpacks of food and supplies for school children who otherwise would go hungry and lack educational tools. We see congregations helping to build houses for the poor so that they can have a safe place to live for themselves and their children. It's the Christ-light that shines through these helpers that show us who Christ is and what his message is all about.

Christ is always there for you when you need him, shining his light around and through you. I saw it in a Russian Orthodox priest I met once. I couldn't speak Russian, he couldn't speak English, but there was something about him, an almost tangible aura that shone around him and through his eyes. I had no doubt he was a Christ light.

For whom can you be a Christ light? It isn't enough to accept the light coming into the heart and soul like sunshine through a window, but it also has to go somewhere, be something that motivates a person do something for others, even and especially if it comes without strings or expectations of thanks or glory. Christ never asked for glory for himself, only for God. Perhaps that is the clue we often miss. Perhaps that is why we stifle that Christ light in ourselves.

So let us go out and let the glory be to God. Then let the Christ light shine so that the whole world is illuminated. It will be a much better place--and Lord knows, we need that.

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