Bubble Buster

The Epistle (ancient snail mail for readers who ain’t church geeks) for this Sunday is Romans 12:9-21.  I’ll include the whole text a few paragraphs down, with some commentary, after a short personal confession:

My immediate takeaway is how short I fall of this lesson’s call to humane, common sense, non “religious” (that is, not loaded with ceremonial or otherwise churchy jargon) behavior.

So it burst my personal bubble.  My easing into the morning over coffee stumbled into full blown confession of sin.  How little of the verse I apply, and how poorly I apply those parts at which I do endeavor.

bubbles
Pic snagged here.

Then I got to thinking about the “bubble” accusation that we all fling around gratuitously these days: White people in suburbs live in a bubble, college students live in a bubble, the mainstream media is a big bubble of the like minded, etc. etc.  My group has intellectual insight, common sense or some other form of enlightenment, you and your kind live in a bubble to reinforce your shared ignorance and malice.

This lesson from Romans (the bold sections below) can burst bubbles.  I’m not talking about nasty efforts to go popping other peoples’ bubbles, but the bursting of our own so that others might be set free to prick holes in theirs:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection – some translations say “brotherly love.”  The Greek term means affection between equals, such as siblings or friends.  It is to put ourselves on the same level as others instead of in a bubble floating apart from and above them;

outdo one another in showing honour – we’re accomplished at mocking one another.  We’re all about dank memes and mic drops and other claims to have finally and forever exposed others’ flaws.  What if we went out of our ways to honor one another, almost competing to see who could show others in the best possible light?  Can you hear the bubbles popping?

Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers – opening our wallets and doors to people, especially people unlike ourselves, has great power.  Jesus said that our money trail reveals the path of our hearts.  To reach out to others and/or to allow them into our lives means punching a deflating hole in our comfy bubble, which, as we know from balloons, makes a gross noise.  Giving and receiving can disturb us, but discomfort precedes all great gain in life.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them – What, no name calling?  No virtue signalling tweets, chants and placards?  The horror!  Yet this lesson applies to the worst possible bubble condition, when one bubble group is busy tormenting another.  It is our natural reaction to retaliate (and to justify our counterattack).  Here we are offered a supernatural alternative, to join with Jesus on the cross and bless those who are doing us wrong.  And if our hearts and minds are consumed with our just grievances?  Humanly speaking, our inner attitude will follow our chosen actions. Blessing those outside of our bubble can deflate our rage, and possibly theirs.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep – We can find common ground with people very unlike ourselves when we practice empathy for common human situations.  It is hard to stay enbubbled (<– spellcheck hateth that one) when we are laughing or crying with (not at or about) others.

Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are – We are good at proclaiming “diversity” while maintaining bubbly uniformity.  People have profound differences.  We burst bubbles by finding ways to come together across those differences, not by seeking to define them away or pound them out of existence.  It is painful to accept our own limitations or wear excellent aspects of our lives with humility.  It is a challenge to accept others’ limitations without condescension and their excellence without envy.  Bubbles burst when we know and accept ourselves and know and accept others as God’s works-in-progress.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all – The irony is that violent effort to pop bubbles tends to give them stronger membranes.  It is the gentler search for common values that makes for the peace in which bubbles evaporate.

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’  No, you’re not crazy.  There are evil people out there and, no matter your good efforts, they will ride around in a bubble bouncing violently here and there.  In this passage the New Testament quotes the Old.  There will be justice, dispensed by God.  The good you offer will not be forgotten, and the unrepented evil of those who afflict the earth will receive a sentence declared by the Lord.  To keep at the good requires this eternal point of view.  Without it, we risk being absorbed into the bubble of those we claim to resist.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  Let us pray.

O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love
our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth:
deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in
your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  (For our Enemies, Book of Common Prayer 1979)

O God our Father, whose Son forgave his enemies while he
was suffering shame and death: Strengthen those who suffer
for the sake of conscience; when they are accused, save them
from speaking in hate; when they are rejected, save them
from bitterness; when they are imprisoned, save them from
despair; and to us your servants, give grace to respect their
witness and to discern the truth, that our society may be
cleansed and strengthened. This we ask for the sake of Jesus
Christ, our merciful and righteous Judge. Amen.  (For those who suffer for the sake of Conscience, BCP 1979)

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so
move every human heart [and especially the hearts of the
people of this land], that barriers which divide us may
crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our
divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (For Social Justice, BCP 1979)

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Let’s play hide the treasure

I’ve been promoted at my day job.

I think.

I was offered the new position almost a week ago.  At that time, the message was, “We don’t have the compensation numbers handy but will let you know shortly.”

Like I say, a week ago.

I went to HR at midweek and asked – nicely – if I might know what’s coming my way for stepping up in responsibility.  Basically got a get right back to you reply.

Still no word.

As I stewed about my offended dignity over the compensation non-reveal, the Spirit made me aware of a line from the wicked and slothful servant in one of Jesus’ teachings,

I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.  Here, you have what is yours.  (Mattewh 25:25 ESV)

An excuse, an evasion of responsibility, and then a grudging effort.

I am not tolerant of my employer’s excuse (Hey, it’s a busy week), evasion (We’ll get back to you) and, when the reveal takes place, I’ll resent their offer coming from necessity rather than respect.

BUT, very often, our reactions to annoyances and even real injuries inflicted upon us reveal the very ways in which we sin against God.

Where am I making excuses for direct disobedience to God’s Word?

Where am I evading responsibilities entrusted to me by the Lord?

Where am I planning to give pro-forma, grudging efforts instead of offering my self in love to the people and work God sets before me?

That’s what I’m praying about this weekend.  A good place to start such prayer is Christ’s Great Commandment,

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.

(Jesus’ words used as The Summary of the Law in the Book of Common Prayer.)

I have a feeling I’ve been pleading too busy, get back to ‘ya, and OK, did that thing you asked, burying the treasure that God has placed within me rather than investing it liberally in his service.  And I think that is being revealed while I stew about a hidden dollar figure.

Go in peace, friends, and pray for me, a sinner.

Tracts with Legs (moved by brains)

Do not let the men deceive themselves and others with the assertion that the “Man of the Lord,” as they call Him, Who is rather our Lord and God, is without human mind”…

…If anyone has put his trust in Him as a Man without a human mind, he is really bereft of mind, and quite unworthy of salvation.  For that which He has not assumed he has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved…

…But if He [Christ Jesus] has a soul, and yet is without a mind, how is He man, for man is not a mindless animal?

St. Gregory of Nazianzus, 4th century

In the first few centuries of the church, some argued that the Christ came factory equipped with a divine mind so he automatically made the right choices, no big.  Yeah, he had flesh that could suffer and die, but the divine mind had it all under control.

Gregory of Nazianzus fought for the the position that Jesus, in order to save every aspect of human nature, assumed (took upon himself) every aspect of our humanity.  If he did not assume it, it couldn’t be healed and saved in Him.  He could not redeem our brain and transform it to know and carry out God’s will if he did not take it with him to the cross, through the tomb and back to the throne of the Almighty.

Across the millennia, Christians have from time to time disowned the mind.  Ecstatic visions, personal experience, ethnic/cultural/national traditions, feelings and other aspects of our humanity have been identified with the presence of God while the work of the mind has been discounted.

The tendency to disown the mind in our worship and service of God is a denial of the Biblical revelation of Jesus Christ.  It is to miss the reality that he saved us by taking to himself every aspect of our humanity, including our mind, with all of its challenges,

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  (Hebrews 4:15, ESV)

To divorce our faith from the work of the mind is to deny the full import of the Incarnation of Christ expressed in John 1:14,

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.  (KJV)

If we infer that he did not have our gray matter, or that our gray matter is irrelevant to our life as his disciples in this world and as his transformed brothers and sisters in the next, we deny the Incarnation and do the work of the enemy,

By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world. (1 John 4:2-3 NASB)

I have a brother in Christ who is taking up this challenge in the context of contemporary American Evangelicalism, where cultural conventions and feelings-based-and-targeted techniques have disparaged the devotion of our minds to God.

He goes so far as to call this a sin needing the church’s corporate confession and repentance.

And he’s come up with a provocative approach to starting the discussion in our daily encounters…

Tracts with Legs

Give it a look.  (Even on Facebook). You might wind up a walking tract for our times.

Emancipation Population

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.  Random House, New York, 2017

20170627_081048Well, this novel has an endorsement from Thomas Pynchon on the jacket.  Given that, I’m sure that the world is panting in anticipation of my review.

Lincoln in the Bardo unfolds over a single night as President Abraham Lincoln mourns the death of his young, much loved (even favored) son, Willie.  The story is a wild ride through the supernatural and paranormal – like a complex bottle of wine it has strong notes of Dante’s Divine Comedy, “Walpurgisnacht” from Goethe’s Faust, Wilder’s Our Town, Shakespeare’s Macbeth and a hint of Disney’s Haunted Mansion (the ride at Disneyland.  Can’t vouch for the movie).

The concept of Bardo is Tibetan and refers to a state of existence between one’s initial earthly life and a rebirth to new life.  It has affinities with Catholic ideas of Limbo and/or Purgatory.

In the cemetery where the emotionally crushed President has come to be near his son’s recently interred body, an array of the dead and buried (who have not come to terms with the fact that they’re dead and buried) spend the night in their active, interim state.  Three are the primary narrators and protagonists in the goings-on; many others appear.

The brilliant subtlety of the book is the interplay of spiritual bondage with the historic reality of “The Great Emancipator,” who is bound up in personal grief and the overwhelming national crisis.

All of the denizens of the cemetery are bound – bound by their lack of insight into the fact that they’re dead (back to my bottle-of-wine simile; here’s a taste of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave); bound to whatever dominated them at the moment of death (they manifest with physical exaggerations, such as one character who lived so much through his sensual appreciation of the world that he appears as a living mass of eyes and hands); bound by past excesses requiring acts of atonement; bound by the iron fence of the cemetery and by the arrival of daylight; bound up in the ultimate illusion that continuing fruitless old habits will result in a hoped for outcome.

Lincoln and Willie are arresting figures who break through the binding boredom of the Bardo.  The cemetery residents are as taken with the Lincolns as is the divided nation.  Coming first to gawk at them as a diversion from the nightly routines, the spirits are moved by the Lincolns, and, to the very limited extent that they are able, move them.

This sets the stage for a wild matrix of possible liberations.  Can the spirits accept the feared burst of light that hearkens a new existence?  Can Abraham and Willie Lincoln, if only for a moment, reach some kind of peace across the separation of death?  Can the nation out in the dark beyond the cemetery emancipate those it oppresses and free itself from its devouring battlefields?

The book unfolds almost as a play, with the narration carried by succeeding character voices, and scenes set by historical quotes from Lincoln contemporaries and subsequent historians’ works.  Saunders’ distilled breadth of reading on Lincoln and the culture of the times is a treasure within the other riches of this novel.

Saunders does a masterful job of leaving open the spiritual questions while engaging them with refreshing respect.  A key Christian character must grapple with the fearful mystery of a sovereign God, yet never doubts the tenets of the faith and… well, I need to stay away from a big spoiler on this.  I’ll just say that while this is not a Christian novel, a Christian operating as a Christian has an honorable impact upon what unfolds, and what unfolds honors his faith.

This is a great novel on so many levels, including imagination, history, spirituality, engaging characters (even the plethora of minor ones who show up), emotional punch (I was reading it in the break room at work and had to hide that I was weeping at one point) and wit.

Once you follow Lincoln into the Bardo, you’ll be hard put to do anything but keep reading.

Don’t click away just ‘cuz it’s about “love”

As I reflect upon Sunday’s Gospel from the Revised Common Lectionary, I think that Televangelists with great hair are a better testimony to the majestic power of God,

And even the hairs of your head are all counted,

20160529_091828<<<<< than am I. Oh well. Just a musing, not my main point.

Back to Sunday’s Good News,

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

It is a troubling passage. After all, the Lord also says that our love of others is part and parcel of the Great Commandment, as necessary as loving God if we are to please God. Sure, he calls love of neighbor the “second” but it is “like the first.”

Love for others is fruit of the Holy Spirit, by which Jesus says those who truly represent him can be identified.

The Apostolic letters of Christ’s New Covenant command love within families and among church members.

We can wax glib (which really means we’re on the wane, IMO) and say, God first, family second, work third.  But such slogans run the risk of Christ’s rebuke, Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 

The Father’s will is revealed in the Greek word for love that Christ speaks here.  It is philon, the word for affection between equals, as between siblings or friends.  It’s not about passionate feeling or over-the-top sacrifice or miracles,  but about the work-a-day bonds of life that manifest our priorities.

This is continued in the Apostolic teaching of James 4:4,

You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship (philia) with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend (philos) of the world makes himself an enemy of God.

Leading “normal” life attentive only to the people and stuff we enjoy, without attentiveness to Christ as a friend alongside us, is the adulterous friendship with the world against which James is warning.

So our ueber-friendship with God is not to plunge into religious zealotry, manifested in public displays of piety or “spirituality.”  Rather, it is to take up the cross (daily, as Luke reveals), walking in sometimes uncomfortable friendship with Jesus with the same attention to efforts, empathy and reactivity that we invest in family relationships and friendship bonds.  It is to treat our friendship with Jesus with at least the same intensity that we have for those we enjoy most in this world.

It is to be “on” all the time, not in some “religious” venue apart from the rest of our daily lives.  This friendship with Jesus is loaded with honor,  support and practical direction supplied by the Word of God, 

No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends (philouos), for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.  You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.

I bolded that last love because in this verse Jesus uses the term agapate, escalating from simple friendship to affection that manifests as self-sacrifice.  As Sunday’s Gospel puts it, Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

The Good News is that if we walk as friends with Jesus, his power, not our anxious, straining will and effort, can take our love for other people to a supernatural level.

Reflections on Retail

After a catastrophic season of burnout, I stepped away from parish ministry and took an available job in retail to help maintain insurance and pay the bills.  And to see if I was the POS (pardon the coarse self-reference, but it’s what I felt at the time) I’d come to perceive or if I really did have anything worthwhile to lend to other people and organizations.

Long story short, I’m back to active ministry within the structures of the church, and I’m still with the retail gig.  I’ve received a good bit of healing.  God’s had a hand on everything in this strange passage of my life.

Working in a retail environment provides considerable insight that helps me better understand and witness to the message of Christ.  This week, the Revised Common Lectionary appoints a portion of Matthew 9, including

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

customer-e1278861373711
Lifted from here.

Working in retail camps me out among the harassed and helpless, for whom Jesus feels compassion.  It’s helps me “sit in the pews,” mentally, recognizing more of the stresses and strains that people bring to church.  I still don’t like the toxic ways in which they act them out, projecting them onto the clergy in particular and very often onto the other lay people, rather than receiving the transformation that Jesus offers them.  But I have more compassion than I did a couple of years ago.

I know what it is to give a long week’s effort for a few hourly bucks.  Yes, clergy are way underpaid – but so many folks in the “secular” workplace toil under more stressful, less uplifting conditions for longer hours for as little or less compensation.

I recognize that it isn’t only churches that that suffer busts having little to do with the quality of their efforts.  Folks in retail can do sustained, quality work only to watch hundreds of customers and thousands of dollars leave for a flashy, cheap or geographically convenient place that opens up a few miles away (or on the internet).  And I see how the “losers” in such shifts are helpless against harassing feelings of failure.

I watch managers in the retail setting and realize how much more harassed they are than I was as a congregational pastor.  Pressure from “corporate” to bring in more sales; pressure from customers aggrieved by this, that and the other thing; pressure from well intended laws and policies that force them to be accommodating to even their most lazy and incompetent employees; the normal human pressures from within themselves and their relationships.

I’ve gained respect for the South Sudanese members of one congregation I serve, many of whom work in a meat packing plant for long shifts and still manage to clean up and get their families to church.  I know more of how a work week can exhaust people, and what a precious offering working folks make to take part in worship, let alone all kinds of mid-week church stuff.  And retail is especially guilty of the diminution of Sabbath in our culture – we’ve turned so many aspects of not working into a feeling of added work.

Then there are the experiences that give me thoughts like, “OK, maybe I went a little nuts, but it’s not like the church isn’t a bit of a crazy-maker.”

There’s the reality that “I’ll pray for you” means more when I say it to folks in the retail store than when I said it as the expected (and often unappreciated) thing in church.  I used to keep a discipline of calling church members on their birthdays and asking, “What should I be praying for in your life?”  It became one of my most deflating and eventually abandoned practices, as time and again the reply was something like, “Oh, nothing.  You save those prayers for the people who really need them.”

Now, when I offer to pray at the store, I find myself and the person who wants the prayer huddling between teetering pallet loads of merchandise as our sanctuary.  I see tears in others’ eyes.  I hear sincere “God bless you”s in return for my fumbling words.  I got a heartfelt “God bless you” just this morning for doing a minor favor to help out a coworker.  The apt sharing of Scripture seems to reach people at the store whereas it often bounced off of people in the church.

This Sunday’s Gospel goes on to reveal that where people are harassed and helpless is exactly where Jesus wants his church,

Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Working the retail job seems to drop me in that harvest field in a way that the church itself resists.

Now, let me be clear.  I’m not rejecting the church; I believe that it is Jesus Christ’s body at work, the Holy Spirit’s Temple on the earth; the royal priesthood ministering to the Heavenly Father. Christians affirm the church as an expression of the reality and mystery of God in our Creeds, and I’m not finding excuse to deny that (which would be heresy on the way to apostasy).

I guess what I’m saying is that this retail job continues to raise questions even as it gives fresh perspective.

I welcome your prayers that I see and speak more of what Christ calls forth, and that I do so as a living member of the church he desires.

Defective Elephants

 

“Elephants never forget.”  There might be some truth in that:

African Elephant Amboseli Kenya
From the linked article.

Their superb memories help elephants stay alive in ways that go beyond just recognizing threats. Matt Lewis, a Senior Program Officer with the World Wildlife Fund’s Species Conservation Program, tells mental_floss that one of the best examples of elephant cognition “comes from desert-adapted elephants, where the matriarchs remember where reliable water can be found and are able to guide their herds to water over very long distances, and over the span of many years. This is a pretty clear indication that elephants have a great ability to remember details about their spatial environment for a very long time.”

Humans have impressive memory as well.  Just have a fight with your spouse, and marvel at your ability (and your spouse’s) to remember every bad thing (and many good things reinterpreted as bad) over decades of marriage.  We use our memory to exalt the self rather than build the common good. We are like defective elephants.

Right now I’m attending a church with a mainly immigrant population.  One of the groups there was asked to leave because they were getting into violent confrontations over issues in their homeland.  Both factions remembered all the details of the division – interpreting them differently, of course – vividly enough to demonize the other group.

Now that they are gone, the remaining group (a different ethnicity) is encountering the same problem.  My charismatic friends would suggest there is a malign spirit at work in the place.

Maybe so, but all that spirit would need to do is exploit our existing capacity to use our prodigious memories for evil.  Although made in the image of God, we are fallen creatures, as much as much contemporary thinking feeling would like to deny that.

We need to look to God, who has the ultimate memory but also a great capacity to forget.

God remembers with love:

Yet Jerusalem says, “The Lord has deserted us;
    the Lord has forgotten us.”

 “Never! Can a mother forget her nursing child?
    Can she feel no love for the child she has borne?
But even if that were possible,
    I would not forget you!
See, I have written your name on the palms of my hands.
    Always in my mind is a picture of Jerusalem’s walls in ruins.
Soon your descendants will come back,
    and all who are trying to destroy you will go away.
Look around you and see,
    for all your children will come back to you.
As surely as I live,” says the Lord,
    “they will be like jewels or bridal ornaments for you to display.  (Isaiah 49:14-18, NLT)

And God is practiced at forgetting bad stuff,

For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more. (Hebrews 8:12, ESV)

Christ Jesus uses his cross as an eraser so that much is forgotten,

Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross… (Colossians 2:14, KJV)

Let us pray that our memory be surrendered to the One who willingly forgets our sin and remembers us with loving favor.