Christmas in May

Sunday morning I drove up the interstate to preach at a storefront church about two hours north of where I live.  I haven’t been at the altar or in the pulpit since last November.  Been recovering from some nasty emotional blows.  So being called back into action by God and God’s people was like a Christmas-in-May present.

20160529_091828
In Watertown, South Dakota

On top of that, it was a tourism bureau (or maybe realtors’) dream day here.  The beauty of earth and sky is hard to write up without typing a string of platitudes.

The embrace and perfume of earth and sky was another Christmas-in-May gift.

The Psalm appointed in the Revised Common Lectionary was 96, which included

Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea thunder and all that is in it; let the field be joyful and all that is therein. Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy before the Lord when he comes, when he comes to judge the earth. (Psalm 96:11-12)

That Christmas hymn?  You know, the one where “Heav’n and nature sing, and heav’n and nature sing,” etc.?  Like so many of the traditional hymns, it has sound Biblical foundation.

The whole creation rejoices in the Spirit that brought life giving order out of primal chaos; the Father who made it fruitful and called it “good,” and the Son who chose to share it’s suffering under sin and is coming again to make it new forever.

Heav’n and nature sing.  Sky, water, plants and animals recognize and rejoice in the Creator, even as we, the creatures made in His image, ignore Him and pollute the creation with sin.

But the gift is greater, at Christmas, in May or anytime, because the Word through whom all things were made intercedes for us as heav’n and nature lead cheers for His saving work.

The Problem is…

Wedding portrait
May 26, 1990

My wife and I just celebrated our 26th wedding anniversary.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to marriage today is the combination of a) the lack of social respect for it and b) the ironically high expectations placed upon it. We’re told by our betters that it’s just a temporary option yet it is supposed to provide uninterrupted happiness and do magical stuff like turning out perfect kids (or accepting all the blame for any “dysfunction” they manifest).

I found this reflection by Shekhar Abnave (reblogged below after my thoughts) helpful, at least in terms of poking the “perfection” myths.

…there’s no right person, just different flavors of wrong. Why is this? Because you yourself are wrong in some way…

Wow, that’s so on target.

The old “Are we basically good or basically evil?” parlor debate never winds up with a truly Christian answer. We are fallen (rebellious, sinful, evil) creatures who are still loved by our Creator. We are loved. And love isn’t all pretty, romantic stuff, it’s

patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 ESV)

In marriage, love isn’t about wrenching our happiness out of our spouses’ souls, it’s about subduing our needy and greedy natures to care for each other,

submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21 ESV)

because Christ identified himself as a “groom” awaiting our hand in marriage. And he courts us, not with pricey trinkets and good looks, but hanging on a cross and calling us to join him on the sacrificial path that leads there, and from there to true and unending happiness that only God, not our poor, long suffering human spouse, can provide.

Anyway, go read this, and love your spouse as he or she is, please:

shekhar's Digest

“We’re all seeking that special person who is right for us.
But if you’ve been through enough relationships, you begin to suspect
there’s no right person, just different flavors of wrong.
Why is this? Because you yourself are wrong in some way,

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Balaam’s Cat

Bible readers know that the animal story about Balaam involves a donkey (Numbers 22).  God gave the critter power to speak when its master was riding into trouble, a situation set up by Balaam’s forging ahead on his own terms rather than God’s.

Out of physical exhaustion, sloth, moodiness (are those all related?) or something else, I’ve been forging into recent days without the morning prayer and Bible reading that are a precious part of my relationship with God.

When I do start the day in prayer, it’s at our dining room table.  Our dog and cat come and curl up close by, suspending their demands for food and trips outside to let me take in the Word of God and lift my praises and petitions before the problems of the day intrude.

This morning I continued to blow off prayer time and was surfing the internet.  The cat started meowing.  I went into the dining room to see if she was all right and she was rubbing against the legs of the chair where I sit for morning prayer.  It was the affectionate rubbing that she gives my shins before settling down like the Sphinx to let me pray.

I have to admit that I was moved by her antics.  If the prayer time imparts an intangible, positive something that even dumb animals desire, can’t I spare the few minutes?

Unlike Balaam’s donkey, the cat wasn’t sounding a warning.  It wasn’t that God was angry at me for not plopping down to appease him with a morning sacrifice.  Rather, God was reminding me of the good that prayer brings into the creation and, more than this, of the pleasure he takes in his children.

The readings this morning were a great blessing, affirming some new directions I’m taking and also giving guidance in the face of some challenges.

20160524_064559Her duty done, the cat indulged her bird watching hobby.

Did I mention that her name is Sophia, which means wisdom?

Although nothing in this fallen world is pure.  She’s actually named for an object of lust.

Any ways that God is meowing or otherwise calling to you through his creation?  Keep your ears, eyes, other senses and most of all your heart open.

 

Teresa Benedicta of the Cross: The More an Era is Engulfed in Estrangement from God, the More it Needs Souls United to God

A convert from Judaism who still accepted death in a Nazi concentration camp wrote these worthwhile thoughts, always a well of encouragement in disorienting, harsh times.

Enlarging the Heart

The divine light, the Holy Spirit, has never ceased to illumine the darkness of the fallen world. He has remained faithful to his creation, regardless of all the infidelity of creatures.

And if the darkness would not allow itself to be penetrated by the heavenly light, there were nevertheless some places always predisposed for it to blaze.

A ray from this light fell into the hearts of our original parents even during the judgment to which they were subjected.

This was an illuminating ray that awakened in them the knowledge of their guilt, an enkindling ray that made them burn with fiery remorse, purifying and cleansing, and made them sensitive to the gentle light of the star of hope, which shone for them in the words of promise of the “protoevangelium,” the original gospel.

As were the hearts of the first human beings, so down through the ages again and again human hearts have…

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Obsolete

In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. (Hebrews 8:13 ESV)

This passage can make us big headed.  WE replaced THEM.

20160510_084311THEY are like this box in the garage.  (I heard Jerry Seinfeld opine that once an item moves from a closet to the garage, it’s ready to vanish away.  It aiiiiiiin’t coming back.)  THEY used to be leading innovation, now THEY’RE history.

We need to be careful.  Yes, Jesus fulfilled and thus eliminated the blood sacrifices of the Jerusalem Temple.  But the words of the Old Covenant are not vanishing away.  They continue to help us know and follow him,

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. (Luke 24:44-48 ESV)

We are old and passing away too, truth be told.  Familiar Christian trappings that helped people of one generation learn and practice the faith become nonsensical and are replaced.

The “mainline” denominations of America are an example.  Lutheranism served well to revitalize the faith of various nationalities and went with them to spread it in other parts of the world.  Here on America’s Northern Plains, it continues to run on ethnic fumes – there are large numbers of people here who are of Norwegian descent and will tell you that they are Lutheran. They seldom if ever worship in the church and certainly don’t pray, read Scripture or keep any other forms of intentional discipleship.

The average age of my own Episcopal Church membership seems to fulfill Hebrews 8:13.  As much as the spirituality of The Book of Common Prayer shapes me and will be with me until I die, the denomination itself is passing away.

Taken as a collective, the mainline churches served to form a broad Christian consensus that gave America social cohesion while generating resources and influence that helped the growth of churches around the world.  It is agony to watch the denominations as that reality breaks down.  We fragmented to sign up as chaplains to the antagonists of the “culture wars.” Seeking to hold our status as arbiters of national consensus, we watched the ascendance of the LGBT movement and tried to go all in for that influential but tiny portion of the population, with predictably fruitless results.  We came out of the closet only to wind up buried in the garage.

But this stuff happens.  Powerful rulers helped Christianity spread in pagan lands and later defended it from deadly threats.  But the “Divine Right of Kings” is out in the garage.  Eastern Christianity had the Byzantine Empire.  Orthodoxy is still with us, but that earthly form went to the garage.

One could type such examples for days.  Maybe for months and years.  Fruitful incarnations of the Christian faith come and go.

That’s because the flesh comes and goes, and the church on earth is an assembly of redeemed flesh that must pass away to stand in eternal glory.  We all pass through the garage.

It is fitting that John of the Cross died with his great volume on union with God, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, unfinished.  If it were complete and passed around as the how-to manual of Christian life, it would undo his central point, that the “goods” of heaven and earth are not God and must be seen as nada (nothing) if union with God is to be attained.

Our lesson here is that all creatures [Note: this would include all earthly expressions of the Christian religion] are like crumbs that have fallen from God’s table.  Those who go about feeding on creatures, then, are rightly designated as dogs and are deprived of the children’s bread because they refuse to rise from the crumbs of creatures to the uncreated Spirit of their Father.  (A gloss on Matthew 15:26-27, in The Ascent of Mount Carmel I.6.3, Kavanaugh/Rodriguez translation).

An old, incontinent dog finds it’s bed set up in the garage instead of inside its human owner’s rooms.  That’s where it awaits the rolling up of the door, the flood of new light, and the time to bound out with senses made new and fully alive to the true master’s beauty and joy.

 

Help from the East

The Jesus Prayer is a staple of Eastern (primarily Greek Orthodox) Christianity.

 

Jesus Prayer
Lifted from Methodist Church page.  I’m just so ecumenical.

Seeing it pop up on social media tonight gave me pause, as the prayer is a surprise guest in my  life of late.  I’ve been in a challenging season of changes, and there’s been considerable spiritual struggling.  In the midst of late night assaults of anxiety, doubt, shame and fear, this prayer (of which I’ve been aware but not a practitioner) asserted itself and gave me respite in God’s presence.

I’ve been seeking some guidance on the prayer, and found the website Chotkiwhich includes The Jesus Prayer Resource Library.  There are links to articles and books by recognized Orthodox authorities, such as the late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, who oversaw Russian Orthodoxy in Great Britain.  He wrote,

…the Jesus Prayer aims at bringing us to stand in God’s presence with no other thought but the miracle of our standing there and God with us, because in the use of the Jesus Prayer there is nothing and no one except God and us.

That evokes what the prayer brought me on anxious nights.  It stopped my fixation on passing circumstances, silenced accusing and fretting thoughts, and gave me rest in the eternal and merciful God.

I’m not out to make it a fetish – The Lord’s Prayer is what Jesus gave us and is sufficient.  But The Jesus Prayer has been a precious gift in a time of need, so I share it not as an exhortation to do anything but to praise God for such kindness to me, a sinner.

The real “welfare state”

This piece will start out like a political rant, but I’m coming to a moral point.  Or at least the first stirrings of a moral point.

A physician friend shared an analysis/opinion piece about the surging bureaucratic population of the medical field.  Here’s the graphic from the piece, lifted from government data:

Admins in Medicine

By now some of you will have clicked away, harumphing about “conservative” anti government propaganda.  But here’s the evidence of how the ostensibly “private” sector gets government dole (small snip of a very long list):

Bailouts
Column 4 = total government handout; Column 5 = amount for which taxpayers are still on the hook (red shading = increased public liability because company failed to turn a profit)

How about what President Eisenhower dubbed the “military-industrial complex” (relevant video preceded by advertising, of course)?

How about a so called “women’s health” provider that fights for government funding (and contributes to campaigns to keep it coming)?

PP salaries
Read more about this.

“Conservatives” in particular grouse about “welfare,” but take aim at programs for the poor, marginal and vulnerable.  It seems to me that the real “welfare,” in the pejorative sense of that word, is the gazillions of dollars taken from working people and transferred to educated, affluent and powerful people in both private and public sectors.

More and more, I wonder if big government, the bureaucratic state and cronyism (the doling of public money to favor private interests) isn’t just extravagant welfare for people who have the intelligence, energy and gifts to make a living, but choose instead to have their hobbies, ideologies and vices subsidized by the rest of us.

St. John Chrysostom, who wound up dying in exile in a labor camp for criticizing the elites of his day, challenged people to use their resources to help the truly vulnerable poor:

Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours but theirs.

His moral point is based in his theology; all that we have is given by God so that we can share in God’s revealed work.  Simply put: we have money so that we can care for others who are in need.

But the bloated state takes this money to make high paying, protected positions for people who have the resources (human and material) to make their own way.

That’s the “welfare state” that we should protest.  That’s the elitism upon which Elijah declared God’s curse when the governors of his time were self-enriching at the expense of the people:

  As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead, Jezebel said to Ahab, “Arise, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money, for Naboth is not alive, but dead.” And as soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab arose to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it.  Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, “Arise, go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, who is in Samaria; behold, he is in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession. And you shall say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD, “Have you killed and also taken possession?”’ And you shall say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD: “In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick your own blood.”’” (1 Kings 21:15-19 ESV)