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.

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,

View original post 116 more words

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.

 

The joy of dishonour

The Anglican tradition in which I was raised is freighted with a “state church” history, which in America translated into a “mainline” church of cultural consensus.

In the breakdown of that consensus, the Episcopal Church (the historic Anglican province in the United States) suffered an ugly identity crisis, bouncing from chaplaincy to a social elite and labeled  “The Republican Party at prayer” or “Catholic lite” to a limousine (or, today, alternative fuels) liberalism reflexively siding with any movement opposed to traditional Christianity.

Can Anglican Christians in North America rediscover a discipleship that isn’t saddled with social status and approbation?  That’s not unknown.  The “Oxford Movement,” quaintly aesthetic as it now seems, was at first a protest against the Church of England’s cultural captivity and a quest to reclaim identity with the transcendent kingdom of God.

Tonight my course readings in the Book of Acts ended with this intriguing passage,

…and when they had called in the apostles, they had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonour for the sake of the name. And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah. (Acts 5:40-42 NRSV)

ThumbsDown650They rejoiced because the cultural powers-that-were mocked, abused and rejected not only them but the Lord in whose name they taught and preached.  They were not concerned with positive reviews from those considered their cultural betters.

The Daily Offices of the Book of Common Prayer (USA 1928 and 1979 versions) include Psalm 100 as canticle in response to a Bible lesson or an invitatory to start the day.  It is a song of joy, based on the greatness of God and the peoples’ unique identification with Him:

Be joyful in the Lord, all you lands; serve the Lord with gladness and come before his presence with a song.  Know this: The Lord himself is God; he himself has made us, and we are his; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.  (Rite II, 1979)

BE joyful in the LORD, all ye lands: serve the LORD with gladness, and come before his presence with a song.  Be ye sure that the LORD he is God; it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.  (Coverdale Psalter, 1928 version)

A church on the margins, not counted among the respectable or at least tasteful, is not the usual Anglican/Episcopalian comfort zone.  Can North American Anglicans rediscover joy in dishonour?  (I put the “u” in despite spell check.  Anglicans got to represent, after all.)

Traffic Jam

An incident in Jesus’ ministry is reported uniquely and briefly in the Gospel of Luke:

Soon afterward he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him. As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!” And this report about him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country. (Luke 7:11-17 ESV)

It is one of three passages in the Gospels in which Jesus previewed his resurrection power by raising someone from the dead (the others were Lazarus, recorded at length in John 11 and a preteen girl brought back in Mark 5.  In the Book of Acts Jesus’ apostles use his name and power to raise the dead as well ).*

solomonic gate
Solomonic gates excavated at Beer Sheva and Dan, diagrammed by Biblical Archaeological Society

Part of the power of Luke’s description is a traffic jam.  The text mentions a gate, indicating a walled city.  For defensive purposes, such cities often featured a “Solomonic gate” which constricted movement and forced attackers to squeeze through in small numbers under flank attacks from the defenders.

 

Exiting through this gate is a procession of death.  The residents of Nain are trekking out to bury a dead body.  This procession exudes not only the sadness of death, but the affliction of life as a widow has lost her only son and, with no male to establish her standing and well being in the culture, faces impoverishment and the real risk of being exploited in order to survive.

Coming the other way is a procession of life.  Jesus is heading toward the gate, accompanied by a great crowd inspired by his recent preaching and awed by his power to heal.

The opposing traffic meets in a jam near the gate. One group is going to have to give way.

Jesus wades into the funeral procession, going against traffic, and seeks to comfort the widow.  Then he stops the group entirely, halting the “hearse” and, with a word, restoring life to the dead man.  With both processions stuck, the only movement is Jesus bringing the son back to his mother, restoring not just physical life but a family’s hope for the future.

The two processions now unite in an outburst of praise to God, and, we assume, join in the same direction into the city to celebrate the miracle and hear the teaching of the one who ended the traffic jam by asserting life against death.

May Jesus come against the procession of sins, errant thoughts, wounded emotions, damaging situations, spiritual foes and all other forces that would waddle you toward eternal death.  May His compassion stop the traffic and turn it all around, parading you to a joyous welcome in the heavenly city.

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* The Prophet Elijah prefigured Jesus’ ministry and resurrection hope in a miracle with affinities to what happened in Nain.

Are we having fun yet?

I just read Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ thoughts on Purim.  His contemporary application of the raucous Jewish celebration is worth general appreciation in the current climate of terror:

The Jewish response to trauma is counterintuitive and extraordinary. You defeat fear by joy. You conquer terror by collective celebration. You prepare a festive meal, invite guests, give gifts to friends. While the story is being told, you make a rumbustious noise as if not only to blot out the memory of Amalek, but to make a joke out of the whole episode. You wear masks. You drink a little too much. You make a Purim spiel.

Precisely because the threat was so serious, you refuse to be serious – and in that refusal you are doing something very serious indeed. You are denying your enemies a victory. You are declaring that you will not be intimidated. As the date of the scheduled destruction approaches, you surround yourself with the single most effective antidote to fear: joy in life itself. As the three-sentence summary of Jewish history puts it:

“They tried to destroy us. We survived. Let’s eat.” Humour is the Jewish way of defeating hate. What you can laugh at, you cannot be held captive by.

Anything here that can flow into the Christian branches of faith?

On the Christian calendar, today is Maundy Thursday.  Followers of Jesus commemorate his institution of what is now shared as Holy Communion with Him.  He speaks two commands (mandates, hence “Maundy”), Do this in remembrance of me and Love one another as I have loved you.  He offers an example of humble service by washing his disciples’ feet.

Most Christian services on this day go in one of  two directions.  Traditional liturgy is quiet, reflective and carried out in the gathering gloom of Jesus’s suffering and death on Good Friday.  Non-traditional churches are already whooping it up, holding their early “Easter Services” to preempt Sunday seating problems.

What Rabbi Lord Sacks says, As the date of the scheduled destruction approaches, you surround yourself with the single most effective antidote to fear: joy in life itself, might help Christians find balance.  As the darkness that rules the present age seeks to extinguish what little light God keeps shining, rejoice.  But as we rejoice over the empty tomb, we do so knowing that we are still in a mad world bent on refilling it and sealing it up again.  

Gathered to dine with his disciples that night in Jerusalem, facing his great struggle, Jesus taught them, encouraged them and prayed for them.  Why?  According to Him,

I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.  (John 15:11 NRSV)

Sitting in a prison cell, the Apostle Paul saw beyond the surrounding walls to surrounding joy,

Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice!  Let everyone see that you are considerate in all you do. Remember, the Lord is coming soon.  (Philippians 4:4 NLT)

The tried to destroy us.  We survived.  Let’s eat.  To rejoice in the Lord as a Christian is to hear those words as Christ’s own – “They tried to destroy me.  I survived.  Let’s eat.”  Because the life in which we rejoice isn’t only the one gifted to us in the here and now, but in the new heavens and new earth He brings despite all of the currently deadly but infinitely mockable efforts to stop Him.