Mercy over memes

In those days when there was again a great crowd without anything to eat, he called his disciples and said to them, ‘I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. (Mark 8:1-2)
 
This was part of tonight’s lesson at Evening Prayer. Jesus had compassion on the crowd that followed him. These looky-loos generally misunderstood him and, although they wanted a savior, they had a desperate, short term vision of what a savior would do (see John 6:10-15)
 
Still, he had compassion on them in their need, not because it would do him good, but because he was, is and will always be the perfect expression of God.
 
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From Church of the Beatitudes

We have opportunity to grow in his likeness when we have compassion on those grabbing here and there for the wrong kind of savior, and those who don’t get what we’re about and will turn away in disgust when we are not useful to their view of what’s needed.

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“…regarding prayers for the President.”

The grim culture war demon continues to harass the church.  It flogs the brothers and sisters into howling arguments as to why voting for or against a candidate, in particular one seeking the symbolically loaded office of the President, is an absolute Christian duty.

head-pain-demon
Head Pain Demon by The Gurch

It must cause the demon a spasm of pain to read a sober response from a reliably ideological American mainline denomination.  Presiding Bishop Michael Curry of The Episcopal Church issued a plainspoken Statement regarding prayers for the President,

So, should we pray for the President?

We can and, indeed, I believe we must pray for all who lead in our civic order, nationally and internationally. I pray for the President in part because Jesus Christ is my Savior and Lord.  If Jesus is my Lord and the model and guide for my life, his way must be my way, however difficult. And the way of prayer for others is a part of how I follow the way of Jesus.

Anglican liturgies usually include prayer for those in public authority.  I’ve found it salutary to include the names of office holders in corporate, public prayer, because when there is a transition the prayer goes on no matter what person or party is named.  It is somewhat subversive, in my view, as it highlights the abiding kingdom of God over/against the passing kingdoms of the world.

And, as Bishop Curry says, it is our duty.  He cites 1 Timothy 2,

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.  (NRSV)

This Spirit-breathed, Apostolic exhortation lays out a duty which includes interceding for the well being of public figures and finding something positive or at least redeemable in them for which to give thanks, even while we might beg God to correct them via our supplications and other prayers.  More from Bishop Curry,

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Bishop Michael Curry. Photo by Jim Steadman.

I grew up in a historically black congregation in the Episcopal Church. We prayed for leaders who were often lukewarm or even opposed to our very civil rights. We got on our knees in church and prayed for them, and then we got up off our knees and we Marched on Washington. Following the way of Jesus, we prayed and protested at the same time. We prayed for our leaders who were fighting for our civil rights, we prayed for those with whom we disagreed, and we even prayed for those who hated us. And we did so following Jesus, whose way is the way of unselfish, sacrificial love. And that way is the way that can set us all free.

At the same time, I think the Bishop underplays a dimension of the 1 Timothy passage.  We are to ask God’s favor on leaders so that they will be chill.  That’s right, so that they aren’t rampaging, stumbling, or otherwise trampling over the world in some messianic effort to recreate it.  We want their steadiness in humdrum governance which lets God’s people grow in our true identity as citizens of a kingdom not of this passing world, as we await its true and only Savior.

This doesn’t mean passivity on our part.  In the Acts of the Apostles, there is an episode of injustice within the church itself,

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. (Acts 6:1 ESV)

The complaint is not ignored.  A solution agreeable to the whole community is sought.  But a priority is maintained – the urgent is not allowed to eclipse the essential,

And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (6:2-4)

The culture war says that prayer and ministry of the word must take a back seat to the resolution of issues.  Cries for the state to impose “values” or a model of “justice” on an unwilling population, and for the church to leave God out of it and just provide money, meeting spots, statements and volunteers to this or that agenda, inverts the New Testament witness.  And makes the demon’s head stop hurting.

One of my favorite readings came up this week.  It tells us that justice is coming, but that it will not be secured by human volume or violence.  We will solve a problem, temporarily, here while making another one over there, but all the while what the righteous long for is coming to be in ways our overwrought senses tend to miss,

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be discouraged
till he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his law.

(Isaiah 42:1-6 RSV)

It is the church’s work to bear witness to that servant until he returns in the fullness of Lordly power to make all things new and complete.  Even if our witness is ignored and things stay old and corrupt in the meantime.

Praying for kings is a Christian duty; making or unmaking them is always an exercise in compromise with a fallen and passing world.  The culture war demon wants us chained to those compromises, ultimately making them into idols as the objects of faith and ministry rather than its occasional, provisional expressions.

Maybe, just possibly, good news?

My thoughts this morning were on refreshment, renewal and other such happy life passages.  I was in the perky place because of my dog.  I’d shared the following on Facebook,

Our Black Lab is aging, but last night she had a shining moment of reclaimed youth.

Because it’s so cold, I stand in the garage and let her go out on a 25′ training leash (which never seemed to train her back in the day).

All of a sudden she growls, barks and just about drags me out the door and across the yard.

She’d spotted a deer in the shadows across the street and wanted to go after it. Needless to say, I didn’t let that happen in the subzero night. I restrained her with some effort and we just watched the deer bound away.

But I gave Lily a lot of praise and a treat back in the warm house.

I’m sure she had a great hunting tale to tell the cat.

We have these flashes of the good times now and then.  I was getting ready for Morning Prayer and the Biblical passage about “getting back to your first love” ran through my mind.  Last year, in the midst of some struggles and changes, I got back to my old habit of reading Morning and Evening Prayer (I’ll let the italics do the talking), using a schedule that offers the entire Book of Psalms every month.

It was a return to first love – the privilege and pleasure of time with God instead of capitulation to all of each day’s passing urgencies.  I began to linger in prayer instead of “getting it done.”  I was blessed to wander back into adoration, enjoying the reality and presence of God without any agenda of stuff to fix or fret over.

So what comes up as the New Testament reading this morning?

But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.  (Revelation 2:4-5)

Now, being who and what I am, I read that with a momentary thought of Wow!  Cool!  but then got down to stressing and straining over what me, myself and I needed to do.  What was it I had abandoned and needed to rediscover?  How could I please God again after falling so far from… from…?

A gentle but terribly subversive awareness intruded.  What if that passage coming up just after I’d been thinking about it (rather, having thoughts about it just before it came up) was an affirmation from God?  What if it was good news via the Holy Spirit from the One who sent his Son into the world to save it?  What if (No!  Stop!  Perish the thought!  Vanity of vanities!) it was God expressing pleasure in me for having accepted His invitation to spend more conscious time with Him?

I realized that my self accusing thoughts were most likely The Accuser’s (that’s what the title Satan – in Hebrew The Satan – means) blather and lies, urging me to seek the good in me, myself and I rather than in the free gift of God.

That 30-day Psalm cycle came to the rescue, as a verse I took with me to bed came back into my mind:

I sought the LORD and he answered me and delivered me from all my terror. Look upon him and be radiant, and let not your faces be ashamed. Psalm 34:4-5

creche

Look upon Him indeed.

Be delivered.

Be radiant.

Be refreshed and renewed.

And don’t be ashamed.

Unresolved

I’m not alone in questioning the utility of New Year’s Resolutions.  Here’s a good piece by a rising Evangelical star.  

I had some blessed quiet time to read this weekend and found this among piles of jewels from perceptive, expressive souls,

A life is seen now not as the story of an individual’s strengths and weaknesses, but as a story of God’s mercy. (John Welch, O. Carm., in The Carmelite Way)

20170101_112849New Year’s Resolutions shift the focus back onto the clashing power and paucity of me, myself and I.  And magical thinking is lurking there in the idea that the flip of a calendar page releases glittering pixie dust to change our hardened habits.

The Christian proclamation, in almost all of its fragmented expressions claiming the title church, always comes back to the centrality of what God has done, is doing and will do.

I fight that with the best of resolution makers, wanting to take up my lance and attack windmills in hopes of – validating?  requalifying for?  earning? maybe even replacing? – God’s favor poured over and into my life.

Lately I’ve had some living reminders to drop the lance, the projection of my own wishes and fantasies, and take up the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

I have an active and elaborate prayer life, but I’ve noticed my wife progressing and changing with a simple recollection of Psalm 51:11, Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.

I think the power there is in the Hebrew verb for create, which in that verse is the same as in Genesis 1:1, a verb reserved for actions of which only God is capable.  Resolve what we might, there is change that only God can accomplish.

20170101_103502Lately I’ve been assisting (not leading – they lead themselves quite well) a Dinka (South Sudanese) congregation here.  Their Deacon came to the house yesterday to help me learn some of their hymns.  He was gloriously patient – it must have been like teaching a child new words but he stuck with it and now I can throw my heart, mind and voice into verses like Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty in Dinka.  (And like Hebrew having a verb for creation reserved to God, Dinka expresses God’s might via a combination of singular and plural nouns something like “power greater than any other powers”).

I had to get out of my own way to learn from Deacon John, gracious as he was.  My head was filled with thoughts of “performing well,” getting praise for my ability to learn and providing paternalistic proof of my cross cultural munificence, etc.

So I prayed to God, extolling him as the Lord of language, the one who spoke all into existence, confounded vanity at Babel and sent power to preach Good News at Pentecost.  I prayed to get out of the way so I could learn the words and tunes to the extent that they brought Him glory and blessed His people.

The Dinka liturgy is about 2 hours from now.  I’m practicing and all that, but it’s less about my nervous and ego saturated resolve to sing in a new language then about loving God and neighbor in worship.  And before and after worship.

Which I won’t resolve to do because it’s beyond my doing.