Saturday, September 22, 2018

A Promise Jesus Made

The Gospel of John has always been something of a mystery with a mystical bent to it, at least, to me it does.  Jesus does not come out and positively state everything clearly. He refers to things tangentially, and the reader or the hearer should be able to make a connection in some way. Sometimes that’s hard to do, given that it was attributed to a person who lived two millennia ago, understood the world somewhat differently than we do, and who lived in a very different world. But in spite of it all, there are words of wisdom and instruction in the Gospel of John to which we as Christians need to pay attention.

Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me.” That appears to be a circular phrase, implying to believe in me but don’t believe in me; believe in the one who sent me. I wonder how people who did not fully understand the divinity of Jesus would take that statement. Would they be looking around to see who Jesus was referring to, or had they listened enough to know that he was referring to God?

“I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in darkness.” He had just announced that he was the light of the world and that light would destroy the darkness. But he makes a statement following this that I think I sometimes miss in my rush to simplify the gospel and make it more related to the light metaphor he just used. “I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.” Jesus’s duty and ministry were to save people, not condemn them. That’s not to say that he didn’t give us some idea of who might or would be condemned by God at some point, but only (at that time, anyway,) that he was not the designated one to do that. That was God’s providence entirely. Jesus had his mission, and he did his best both human humanly and divinely, to make that mission successful.

“The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge, for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak. Eventually, Jesus’s words will judge, but only after being given direction to do so by God.

“And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I speak, therefore, I speak just as the Father has told me.” Jesus will speak the final word of judgment, but that word will come from God, very much as a monarch would submit a declaration or decree, that would be read aloud by a high official or clerk and accepted as the monarch’s will.

The line that I connect with is, “And I know that his commandment is eternal life.” This part of Jesus’s words is something I have been taught to believe since I was a small child. One had to “join the church” and accept Jesus as a personal savior to be admitted for baptism, which was the initiatory rite for becoming a Christian. Other denominations had other ways of marking such a step, but it always begins with baptism as the rite and the ritual conferring membership in the Christian faith and one’s train ticket to heaven as it were. The ticket does not designate whether it is a first, second, or third class because baptism does not confer rank as titles and honors do in our world. One is a Christian, plain and simple. The kind of Christian life I lead depends on how I live my life. Whether I believe Jesus, whether I think that my status in this life and the afterlife will be dependent on the will of God is something that I have to consider on a day-to-day basis.

The part about eternal life, for me, this week, has been a matter of consideration. Just a few days ago I marked an anniversary that I’m glad I had but wish I hadn’t. Eternal life becomes more than just a phrase when I first heard, “You have cancer.” The world stops, and suddenly eternal life, as well as mortal life, become two glaring headlights at which I remember staring as if I were a deer on a dark road. It took a while to get comfortable with the implication of an impending end of mortal life, even though I had no real knowledge whether that would be a short time or a prolonged one. Even at six years, I don’t feel comfortable calling myself a survivor, because I don’t know if and when that cross is going to be placed on my shoulders again.

The good news is that I can contemplate eternal life and work towards that end by being the best me I can be. I can’t say I lead a perfect life. The Lord himself knows that I have a considerable number of flaws, a few that I have managed to conquer, but an awful lot that remains to work on. I don’t have to be in perfect health to work on those things, and I find that they are often much easier to work on if, as Dr. Martin Luther King said, I should “Keep [my] eye on the prize.”

I mean to take Jesus at his word. I’m going to act as if, in the twelve-step parlance, I had absolute safe, total, and complete confidence that everything Jesus has told me is factual and doable. Sometimes it takes a stretch, but then all life consider consists of a series of stretches that have to need to be made to achieve anything. I believe because I have no reason not to. If I’m wrong, I’ll find out at some point in time. If I’m right, I will also find out at some point in time. I can do nothing to delay or hasten that final discovery. All I can do is to my best, believe in what Jesus told me and taught me, and work, in sickness and in health, to forge my union with Christ so that I have a map, a guide, and an ambition. Whatever else comes, Jesus and I’ll handle it. I have faith in that.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, September 22, 2018.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Cyprian's Choices

One of the things common to those we call “Saints” is that they espouse unpopular causes or an unpopular faith. Quite often, there may be only a few solid objectors who disapprove of the action of those we call Saints, but others will go along rather than tried to block the tide as it were. In this hurricane season, what happens when you usually tried to span the flow is that you’re faced with a choice of staying or going. If you remain, you risk becoming trapped under a pile of rubble or a fallen tree, shredded by shards of glass, or submerged in water and need to reach the roof of the house quickly and hope that the water doesn’t come up that far. Most people, faced with such a prospect will do what they can to board up and sandbag their houses, and the really smart ones will leave town as soon as possible.

There will always be people who feel that they are nearly invincible, well able to withstand whatever nature can throw at them, and save their houses and possessions without lifting a finger. Unfortunately, that can be a big, fatal mistake. The Saints had to use their best judgment when it came to similar situations, even if not meteorologically, and choose to remain faithful or follow the majority.

One such saint was a man named Cyprian, who was born a pagan in Carthage. He was a lawyer who presented cases in court and also a teacher of rhetoric or the art of persuasive speech-making.

Cyprian was about 46 years old when he became a Christian, and a mere two years later he became the Bishop of Carthage. Hopefully, his first year was rather peaceful, because Emperor Decius began a persecution of the Christians in about 450 BCE, forcing many into hiding, including Cyprian. At the end of the oppression, things still were not calm and peaceful. Arguments broke out about what to do about those Christians who had not remained faithful to Christianity and who had denied it under threat and stress. One group wanted to close the door to those who had broken communion by denying the faith. Another group favored bringing the apostates back into the fold with no probation or penalty. Cyprian was a moderate of sorts in this particular situation. He placed strict rules on people who were venerating uncanonized martyrs of the persecution. This position made him appear to lean towards the total forgiveness of the lapsed who had denied the faith and made him look very bad in the eyes of those who supported the reverence.

One other rather significant controversy in which Cyprian was involved was that of whether or not those involved in the schism and who denied the faith should be received back into the church and under what circumstances. Carthage had an ancient custom of reception via means of anointing with oil. Rome and much of North Africa also supported this practice. Carthage, however, had turned to a tradition of receiving the apostates by re-baptism. The Pope was very much against this, and Cyprian’s party of re-baptism failed.  So far, Cyprian was far from winning the pennant for his division.

And then came the plague. Cyprian did his best to set up shelters and medical relief for all who were afflicted, but unfortunately, many saw the epidemic as a sign of wrath from other deities who were anti-Christianity.  It sounds somewhat like what we hear today, where both sides claim to be the saints and the opposing party being the heretics and, quite often, the causes of all the disasters.

Cyprian had run away and hidden during the previous persecution, earning the wrath and displeasure of those who had stayed and remained faithful in the very face of danger.  This time, though, Cyprian stayed put and was arrested for his pains.  He was imprisoned, tried, and beheaded in 258 AD. 

Persecutions are like natural disasters, only abuses usually last longer and have a very definite human origin.  With a natural disaster, there is often a clear sign of its appearance, and there is always a choice --- stay and take one’s chances or go and significantly raise the chances of getting out of it alive.  In the case of the persecutions in Cyprian’s time, the choice was to remain faithful or swear allegiance to a god or gods and escape potential death.  

We still have the choice to remain faithful or to turn our backs. We have so many opportunities to choose how we will respond to life and potential disaster. We also have the responsibility of accepting the consequences of our choices, as Cyprian did.  Sometimes those consequences can mean public displeasure and disapproval, while other times it can result in death by trying to do good.  Jesus chose the way of death to bring us life. That is a model we can always look to, even in the worst of times.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café, Saturday, September 15, 2018.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Listening God

The story of Job is probably the oldest part of the Bible. It’s a story that we’ve been reading in the Daily Readings, and we come to see that sometimes being the good guy doesn’t pay off. When the Shaitan, which we often call Satan, makes a wager with God and God accepts, Job becomes the pawn in a giant chess game. Job is set up to lose if he curses God for killing his children and animals, plagues him with boils, and makes his life generally miserable as he sits on an ash pit scratching his sores, using pieces of pottery that were once used on his own table. We feel sorry for Job, mostly because he is an innocent. All of this happened to him not through any fault of his own but because of a wager, a wager between God and the adversary that seems a bit strange.
Usually, good friends will come and commiserate when bad things happen. They’ll bring flowers, a casserole, an offer of prayers, or to do something that the afflicted person is unable to do for themselves. Well, Job had three friends, and those friends were what we call Job’s comforters, although we wonder if comfort was actually what they were offering. They did their very best, in long passages, to expound on how Job must have been at fault for doing some vast wrong that would make God punish him this way. One after the other they took up the topic of Job’s unfaithfulness or perceived unfaithfulness. Instead of trying to help, what they were doing was making things worse while trying to make Job see the error of his ways.
Job finally got a chance to respond to Eliphaz.  He did not acknowledge wrongdoing because he had not done anything wrong. He was merely confused as to why this was happening and wondered where God was so that he could go to God and plead his case. I bet any person finding themselves in a similar situation would do the same thing.
When things happen, people always want to know why. The eternal question seems to be, “Why me?” Most of the time there is a pretty simple answer: it happened because I did something wrong, something stupid, or even something that I knew I shouldn’t do but decided do anyway just for the heck of it. Sound familiar to anyone? I bet that at some point in time, each one of us can say we had asked “Why me?” when in actuality we really knew the answer but honestly didn’t want to hear it. Job didn’t want to listen to the spiel of his friends because they weren’t listening to him. They focused only on their agendas and preconceived notions of what the problems were. They didn’t hear when Job tried to explain what he thought and knew. What good is a friend who doesn’t listen?
What Job didn’t realize was that God was listening to us the whole time. That is something that we often forget when things go sour for us. We send our prayers to God and hope for an answer, but sometimes there isn’t an answer. I know a 29-year-old young woman who was diagnosed with cancer several weeks ago, and who, as a result, had to go through surgery to remove the disease from her body.  It impacted not only her, but also her husband, very young son, and her entire extended family. I’m sure she asked, “Why me?” I have a feeling most of us, at some point in time, especially if we faced life-threatening illnesses, have asked the same question. Like Job, we want to present our case to God as to why this really shouldn’t happen to us, and we wait for an answer that may or may not come – at least with a clarity we want and feel we deserve.
One of the purposes of prayer is not just to place petitions before God but to also be able to verbalize to ourselves what it is we want, need, or question. Prayer is as much for ourselves as it is an appeal to God.  When we confess wrongdoing to God or another person, it is as much for ourselves as for the other person. We need to acknowledge our fault to ourselves, with no equivocation or blaming of others.  In the case of Job, he didn’t need to confess a weakness because he had not committed one. What he didn’t realize was that God was listening to him the whole time and had unshakeable faith that Job would not waiver in his faithfulness. The Adversary had lost before the game even began; in his arrogance, he couldn’t conceive of losing.
We may never be in the situation Job is in, but as the young woman, it isn’t always the guilty who have to suffer. Granted, I’m sure she sent up lots of prayers and also has had lots of us praying with and for her. God doesn’t say it’s not okay to storm heaven with prayers because God hears all prayers. If the result turns out well, God gets the credit; if it turns out badly, it’s laid down to God’s will. But is it really?
Job went through his ordeal, suffering and yet continued to trust in God.  In the end, Job was the real winner as his trial was over, and his losses restored many times over.  In the end, the young woman will experience greater faith and greater trust in God. She will cherish her life even more than she had before, and will be grateful for God’s blessings. It may take a while, but it will happen. I have faith in that.
You see, I know God is listening to, loving, and supporting all of us, without qualification or reservation. God wants us all to know that to the deepest fiber of our beings.  “Why me?” Maybe it is because those in some form of trial need that love and support the most. That includes sinners, those in pain, grief, as well as the righteous, all inclusive, 100% guaranteed.
Believe it. 
God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, September 8, 2018.

Friday, September 7, 2018

The Humanity of Heroes

I spent part of the morning today looking at film clips of something I watched live a long time ago. It was May, 1973. My son was about 7 months old, and we lived on a small military base on the South China Sea.  Armed Forces TV was broadcasting a very special event that day from the Air Force base about an hour south of us. Even through the TV I could feel an edgy excitement as I watched the crowd at the Air Force base gathered to greet three military flights.  It was the day the first of the prisoners of war who had been held in Vietnam for varying lengths of time were going to finally touch down, completing the first leg of their journey home at last.

It seemed to take forever for the plane to taxi down the runway and finally pull up parallel to the crowd who burst into cheers. The door opened and the first man walked down the steps to a microphone. He addressed the crowd and the dignitaries gathered there to honor him and his fellow soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen. He gave a simple speech, mostly about how grateful they all were to be free and heading home. The one time his voice trembled was when he uttered the concluding words, “God bless America!” There probably wasn’t a dry eye anywhere on the runway, the gallery, or the audience watching the proceedings.

Twice more the ceremony was repeated, once for each of the other planes. All in all, there were probably 300+ men tasting their first real breaths of freedom that day. I can’t say I remember any of them specifically, but among those being greeted was a thin man, walking with a slight limp and greying hair. He was John Stanley McCain III, a lieutenant commander and bomber pilot, who had been shot down over Hanoi in 1967. It was a high point in an otherwise frustrating and frequently unpopular military conflict.

In 1981 I moved to Arizona.  Within a few years, a new but familiar name came on my screen as a newly-elected Congressman. After 2 terms, McCain ran for the Senate and won a seat, which he held for a further 30+ years. He became a household name, and one of the most frequent words used to describe him was “hero.” This was not just because he survived 5-1/2 years of captivity. He continued to display discipline, and love of country over party throughout the rest of his life. Granted, he had his low moments, times when he made serious mistakes in judgment that affected many others, but he also wasn’t afraid to acknowledge it when he was wrong, wasn’t afraid to speak his truth as he saw it, and was not afraid to extend his hand across partisan borders in order to achieve a greater good. A man of great faith, he wasn’t afraid to acknowledge that faith as something that helped him through his life, through the torment of captivity, and his life since his liberation.

We quite often put people on pedestals and call them heroes, although not always for the same reason McCain was put on a pedestal for his heroism in Vietnam and in the US government. We love to build people up only to enjoy equally tearing them down when a flaw is discovered in their dealings or their character.  Noah, Abraham, David, Paul, and countless others were put on pedestals and then seemingly knocked down. We have to have our heroes, but we really don’t want them to be “better” than we are. We take these people, make saints and idols of them, and then when we discover their feet of clay, it’s all over but the shouting. We don’t seem to want to take into consideration that they are people too, just like us. We want to use their humanity to make us feel better when we too fall down.

Jesus came to earth to be a human pointer to God. As long as he performed miracles, crowds loved him. Those same miracles, as well as the messages Jesus brought, irked, irritated, and angered the hierarchy from both Rome and Jerusalem. The pedestal they knocked him off of was actually a cross that led to his death.  From that day, Jesus ceased to be a human being and became visibly and actively the Son of God in his full glory.  After that, people tended to forget his humanity and focus only on his divinity, from the day of his conception to the day of his resurrection.

It is time to recognize humanity in all people, especially the ones we look up to and want to emulate. It’s so easy to fall, so easy to make a mistake that causes the whole tower we have built to crumble like dry sand.

To remember only Jesus’s divinity is to negate the humanity that was so necessary to his message.  McCain was very human, clay feet, flaws and all, and with a message that transcended party lines and bickering.

Perhaps we should remember our own humanity and foibles as we try to judge others for theirs. That’s something Jesus wanted us to learn from him. We are all children of God, all of us, no matter what. And we are all human, subject to failure, but with a loving and supportive God beside us to help us get up and try again.

Rest in peace, Senator McCain. Thank you for your service both in the military and in civilian life. Rise in glory to the throne of God where surely you will be welcomed with “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, September 1, 2018.