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.

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.

 

Can’t we just be friends?

Ah, Valentine’s Day. Remember when romantic rejection – somebody didn’t “like” you – felt like a fatal injury? I guess I’m getting old enough to look back and… OK, not laugh, but not cringe with as much gravity. “Can’t we just be friends?” is funny now; it used to be injurious to my soul.

Rejection. I prayed Psalm 71 this morning and the word came to mind.

For you are my hope, O LORD God, my confidence since I was young. I have been sustained by you ever since I was born; from my mother’s womb you have been my strength; my praise shall be always of you. I have become a portent to many; but you are my refuge and my strength. (Verses 5-7)

The Psalms, according to Jesus himself, point to him. With that understanding, these verses are so painful; the eternal Son who dwelt in eternal glory spent his 33-ish years from conception to crucifixion on the bad end of rejection.  His fidelity to his divine nature and mission were things the world wanted to keep at arm’s length, to say the least.

The Prophets saw it coming,

He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces3d render of red broken heart om white background
he was despised, and we held him of no account. (Isaiah 53:3 NRSV)

The Evangelists recorded the fulfillment,

 He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.  He came unto his own, and his own received him not.  (John 1:10-11)

Wow, at least those we court try to let us down easy.  They offer a cool (in temperature, not social standing) friendship.  Jesus gave his heart and got the cross.

Makes today’s shenanigans seem a bit less urgent, I hope.

 

 

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.

 

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.

The John

Because of the house of the LORD our God, I will seek to do you good.  Psalm 122:9

December 27th is the Feast of St. John.  There’s plenty of scholarly publish-or-perish paper to peruse about whether John the Apostle, John the writer of the fourth Gospel, John the source of three letters to the Church (or heck, let’s argue about whether different people wrote all three!) and John the recipient of the Revelation (yes, THE Revelation TO John, NOT Revelations of John) are the same dude.

As to so much of the institutionally bulky but spiritually puny church, we might say Whatev and just feast on the Good News associated with John’s name.  It is so appropriate that his Feast falls during the 12 Days of Christmas, because where Matthew and Luke bless us with the details of Jesus’ birth, it is John who gives us the full import of the event in the Prologue of his Gospel,

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.  John 1:14

That’s the meaning of Christmas, missed by the many who skip the First Sunday After Christmas, when John 1:1-18 is the appointed Gospel (except this year, when January 1 falls on the Sunday and the Holy Name of Jesus is celebrated).  That’s The Incarnation, the establishment of the new and truest house of the Lord in the body and blood of the Christ.

John’s magnificent synthesis of Semitic prophecy with Hellenic philosophy doesn’t just float in the clouds, but walks the earth.  Because Jesus is the true house of the Lord, there is good to be done.  The same Gospel of a preexisting, divine Word calls for an on-the-ground, human application,

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (Jesus, quoted in John 13:34-35)

Throw in the three letters attributed to John and the Revelation, and the name of the beloved disciple presents a Christianity that is at once spiritual, intellectual, mystical and behavioral; steeped in past prophecy and itself prophetic of things to come.

One of my favorite passages in John is his remembrance of Jesus’ patient effort to get the truth across.  Those of us who preach and/or write  can find some comfort in the fact that the message is not easy to convey; even our Lord had to try and try again,

“A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep…”  (John 10:5-7, and when that “illustration” doesn’t seem to work he tries again with “I am the good shepherd.”)

May we come to know the fullness of God in Jesus and, because we do, love one another in this life and together enter the life to come.

The Collect for this day in the Book of Common Prayer sums it up well,

Shed upon your Church, O Lord, the brightness of your light,
that we, being illumined by the teaching of your apostle and
evangelist John, may so walk in the light of your truth, that
at length we may attain to the fullness of eternal life; through
Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the
Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Magnifying Lass

Repeat the Magnificat, making our own the sentiments expressed in it.  Always recite this canticle with special attention and meditate on it.  The Church prescribes it for us every day in the Liturgy of the Hours, at Vespers.  Since we recite it all too routinely, we know it only superficially.  (Titus Brandsma, Carmelite Priest and Martyr at Dachau.)

My soul doth magnify the Lord.  That’s how I grew up saying it from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.

To magnify is to enlarge, to make greater.  So most translations render Mary’s words something like My soul glorifies the Lord (NIV) or, in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.

I found myself rolling with Titus Brandsma’s encouragement to meditate on Mary’s song of praise, and it was the old word magnify that caught my attention.

Mary’s role as a soul that would uniquely magnify God – that is, enlarge God’s greatness – is fraught with irony:

  • The omnipresent Lord spends nine months in the confinement of Mary’s womb.
  • The Word who was in the beginning, creating all things, shares the gestational dependence and fragility of a creature.
  • The one who is the source of all things is nourished through Mary’s body.
  • The all-knowing, all-seeing Christ is carried about in the body of one who must treasure things in her heart and ponder because her understanding is not immediate.

The Lord’s greatness is magnified in the smallness provided by Mary’s being.  The greatness that is magnified is Emmanuel – God with us in Christ Jesus.  All of the “omnis” – omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence – are tempered by the magnificent love that chooses to share our mortal smallness in order to make us eternally great in God’s kingdom.

20161011_194101
Detail of an icon of Our Lady of Walsingham

What is to magnify but to take that which is small, even that which is invisible, and reveal its astounding complexity and vitality?

Think of a moth’s wings through a magnifying glass or a cell through a microscope or any of the building blocks of creation made visible by our technology.

Mary’s soul is God’s chosen instrument to magnify what Dante called the love that moves the sun and the other stars.

Hail Mary, full of grace.  The Lord is with thee.  Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.