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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Dog Days (or yet more Jesus at the market)

So in this disorienting middle (actually closer to the end) passage of my life, I’m managing a small department at a supermarket.

God’s use of the last couple of years is coming into focus, or focuses because there are multiple insights, changes and blessings He’s illuminating.

One thing of which I’ve had to repent was some arrogance over achievements in almost 30 years of pastoral ministry.  On paper, there was some good stuff.  Every church I served grew, bucking denominational and other trends in most cases.  I provided leadership on a couple of major capital campaigns, resulting in construction of… oh, enough.  See what I’m doing here?

It was easy to rest on my laurels, which were a considerable pile.  It was tempting to look away from the simple preaching and teaching of the Word of God and exalt “techniques” of Boomer generation church growth.

So now I’m in a role where I’m not the “expert” or sitting in the Captain Kirk chair.  It is a better position to be at Jesus’ feet, learning something.  Here’s what I mean…

shopping cart
No children, no products, no sale.

July started out with rampaging success as my little department posted big numbers.  But the last weeks of the month leveled off, then went into a statistical roller coaster with some really low weekday sales alternating with strong weekends.

As inventory time approached, one of the other department managers wondered if I was ordering too much stuff to sell.  Haven’t you heard about the Dog Days of August? People are on vacation and sales go way down.

Well, no, I didn’t know that.  Life in retail is all on-the-job training.  Nobody tells you much of anything in advance; you just go along and learn by doing, and lots of doing it the wrong way before you get it right.

Yes, I’m ordering lots of stuff.  The store managers keep telling me that my department has to Keep the shelves full.  Nobody buys empty shelf space.  Stay on your people to keep the shelves full.

So we’re keeping the shelves full – people are commenting on how well we’re doing that. But now we’ve hit these dog days I didn’t know about and the stuff just sits on the shelf and in the back room.

Lesson(s): There are things beyond my control.  I can work hard and apply all the techniques but there comes a point where the final result is out of my hands.  I don’t control the public’s vacation and shopping schedules.  I can do the best work I can (as I should) but that’s only one factor in outcomes.

Jesus was blunt, No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him (John 6:44 ESV),  not, If your effort and techniques improve, they’ll all come.

My churches grew and flourished because Christ built his church and let me be a part of what His Father was doing.  Yes, hard work was necessary to good results, as even a great exponent of grace like St. Paul notes, but our work is not the story when all is said and done,

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.  (I Corinthians 15:10 ESV)

Sometimes our hard work is in sync with some great result that Christ is accomplishing sooner rather than later.  But sometimes our efforts – our brilliantly planned and executed efforts – have meager outcomes.  Happened to Paul in Athens, when he preached a technically masterful, culturally engaged and sensitive sermon to reach the people, only to be laughed off by some, given a “get back to us later” by most, and attracting so few new followers that Luke could remember them by name when writing The Acts of the Apostles,

When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.  (17:32-34 NRSV)

My discipleship is getting back to worshiping God as God, not as a projection of my desired outcomes, and to practicing life habits that are guided by His Word rather than my goals and lurking status needs.

I’ll give the last word to Paul, who learned to do dog days, too,

Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.  (Philippians 4:11-13 NLT)

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

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.

Jesus, Outfitter

2013-05-04_16-55-24_961The traditional Gospel for this First Sunday in Lent takes place in a wilderness.  For many of us, the word brings to mind forests, like the Black Hills here in South Dakota.  Wild, sure, but beautiful, spiritual, peaceful.

But the Judean wilderness in which Jesus was tempted by Satan isn’t green; it’s more like 2013-05-05_14-06-23_587South Dakota’s Badlands.  Dry, life challenging if not threatening, and suggesting the possibility of a malign visitor…

Ventures into the wilderness require an outfitter, someone who knows how to survive in the environment and can equip another to do the same.

The more I read the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, the more it appears to me that the prayer he taught his followers has direct application to our journey through a “wilderness” that is a spiritual Badlands, where we need to be outfitted against the life sapping forces of the world, the flesh and the devil.

+ In the wilderness, Jesus fasted and “was famished.”  The devil tempts Jesus to manipulate his power to create munchies, and Jesus resists by quoting Moses about not living by bread alone, but by the word from the mouth of God.

And so Jesus outfits us with the petition, give us this day our daily bread, at once a reliance upon God for the physical sustenance that protects us from rash actions born of want and a surrender to the eternal word of God versus the urgent demands of passing situations.

+ In the wilderness, the devil tempts Jesus to force a meaning on God’s word.  “Doesn’t God say his angels will catch you if you fall?  So make Him prove it.  Jump off a tower.”

So Jesus outfits us with the words, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven, an acknowledgement that God’s will, not ours, is sovereign, even in the things of this passing life.  We must not put God to a test devised in our own desires, but seek to know and obey His will as revealed in Scripture.

+ In the wilderness, the devil tempts Jesus with entitlement to all the impressive things of human life, as long as Jesus will worship the tempter – I mean, really worship by falling down in submission, an inferior in the presence of a superior.

So Jesus outfits us with the words, Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.  There is one God, the Father in heaven, the only worthy object of worship.  (If you’re in a liturgical church, note that the church’s prayers are to the Father, through the Son, in the unifying power of the Holy Spirit.)

And Jesus outfits us with the petition, thy kingdom come.  Whatever great things attract us, our “compass” must keep us on the hard trail that leads to life.  We seek the kingdom of God, and so many detours and assumed short cuts lead to destruction.

Jesus outfits us with the prayer, forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.  This is a radical rejection of all the impressive things that allure us deeper into the deadly wilderness and away from the eternal kingdom we seek.  To ask forgiveness is to drop the dead weight of our own self-important achievements and “travel light,” reliant on the mercy of God revealed in Christ Jesus for our life. To forgive others is to reject the power to arrange the world around ourselves.  It is to fast from our sense of entitlement to a “splendid kingdom” of this world, and to equip others with the mercy that can help them out of the wilderness in which they, too, are struggling to survive.

+ Finally, Jesus closes his outfitting prayer with words that seem to come straight from his time in the wilderness, And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.  It is a solemn prayer that God not leave us on our own in the wilderness, but equip us with all we need to resist the tempter.

More than that, it is a profound plea to make our time in the wilderness an outpouring of devotion to God.  Jesus’ final rebuttal of the tempter is, Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.  At these words, the devil retreats, and angels come to refresh Jesus.

Then, he goes out to begin preaching his Good News.  Deliver us from evil is not just a prayer for relief, it is a petition for the freedom to traverse the wilderness with all of the marvelous equipment that the Holy Spirit apportions to us, and to do so as part of an expedition, because no one can bear all of the equipment for the journey.  It must be made with others.

Which is why Jesus outfits us with a prayer to Our Father to provide for and protect us.

Rocks in my head

My current evening lessons are in the Gospel According to John.

Tonight, Jesus gave Simon the fisherman that “Rocky” nickname,

(Andrew) brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).  (John 1:42 NRSV – Cephas/Peter are words for “rock.”)

Peter, famous for vacillating again and again, seems unworthy of the name.

I’ve heard preachers suggest that Jesus was poking gentle fun at Simon, recognizing His follower’s penchant for emotion driven reactions, but this seems inconsistent with Jesus’ later invocation of the name as a foundation of the church,

Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.  (Matthew 16:17-18 NAB)

A few moments later, Peter would evidence his passionate instability by arguing against Jesus’ announcement of His necessary suffering and death, for which Jesus snapped at Peter and called him “Satan.”

Yet Peter would come to understand “rock” as an affirmation of Peter himself and all members of the church as Jesus’ chosen building materials, humbly recognizing Christ as the cornerstone of an ever growing temple,

As you come to him [Jesus], the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says:

“See, I lay a stone in Zion,
    a chosen and precious cornerstone,
and the one who trusts in him
    will never be put to shame.” (I Peter 2:4-6 NIV)

John would see another expansive vision of building stones in his vision,

So he took me in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and he showed me the holy city, Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God and sparkled like a precious stone—like jasper as clear as crystal. The city wall was broad and high, with twelve gates guarded by twelve angels. And the names of the twelve tribes of Israel were written on the gates. There were three gates on each side—east, north, south, and west. The wall of the city had twelve foundation stones, and on them were written the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.  (Revelation 21:10-14 NLT)

All of us who are in Christ, with our flaws that the Lord sees, comprehends and forgives better than we, are His building material.  He knows our part and place in what he is building, and has a name for us that we will receive once we are completed in it,

To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone,with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.’  (Revelation 2:17 ESV)

Here’s a video because I needed something with “rock” in it and didn’t want to do a predictable hymn or something.

If anybody says anything…

…it’ll probably be this,

Hey, buddy, you got dirt on your head.  Yuck yuck yuck.

20170228_172409

To which I’ll reply, Yep.  Glad you can’t see into my heart and mind, too.  Pretty much a total mess except what Jesus is making with it.

Or maybe some people will just ask, So, what’s that thing on your head mean?

To which I’ll answer, Dust is what I am and all I’ll finally be on my own. But Jesus has marked me as HIS own, and so I’ll be much more.

Hopefully, that will invite more comments and questions.  But about Him, not me.

The new Black Mass

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and…

went on social media and posted a meme that showed the hypocrisy of the rich fellow and his religion;

got in a cutting last word as the man walked away, then gestured a mic drop;

followed the rich guy down the road, yelling at him about living in a rich people bubble and questioning his sanity;

militated for a law to limit the possessions held by any one person;

organized his disciples to picket the man’s house and boycott his businesses until he agreed to liquidate his holdings and give to the poor.

Bible readers know that Jesus did none of the above.  The honest among us might confess to having dabbled in one or more of those behaviors.

The striking thing about this lesson is the non-coercive example set by Jesus.  He doesn’t do anything to compel the rich man to do the right thing.  He allows him to walk away.

And, although he says some very clear things to his disciples about how riches can keep people out of God’s kingdom, Jesus frames this as concern for the spiritual hardship faced by the affluent.  He doesn’t mock the man who walked away, he worries about him and holds out hope that God can overcome the man’s enmeshment in passing possessions.

The culture wars, in which the church has chewed up so much time, treasure and so many people, are based on proving “our side” right and the other wrong.  More emphatically, it is a quest to justify our side and demonize theirs or, to put it in secular speak, to demonstrate our enlightened state and their stupidity (or even insanity).

What “victory” can Jesus have when people fight on terms dictated by the world, the flesh and the devil?  As St. Paul warned the church,

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.  (Galatians 5:13-15)

From here.

The culture wars are yet another mockery of the Eucharist, a “Black Mass” in which we bite and consume others to exalt ourselves as righteous rather than share the bread and the cup that proclaim the self-sacrifice of Christ for sinners, including ourselves and our perceived enemies.