There’s only two kinds of people…

How many jokes rely on the “two kinds of people” opening?

Our Gospel this Sunday isn’t funny, but Jesus presents a story in which humanity is divided into two kinds of people: children of the kingdom and children of the evil one.

In today’s Gospel story, Jesus represents the children of God’s kingdom as wheat and the children of the evil one (that is, the devil) as weeds. You can’t tell them apart much of the time. The wheat and the weeds of the time and place where Jesus first told this story look alike until the weeds bloom and can be identified as a toxic plant.

We are prone to shrug off some types of evil and say, “Hey, I’m (or he’s or she’s or they’re or we’re) only human.” The plants in the field in Jesus’ story are like that – they all look like wheat until a ripe moment in which the true nature of each plant is revealed.

Because of that, Jesus warns us against trying to rip out the weeds too soon. When the slaves (they represent the church, by the way) want to go pull the weeds, Jesus says, No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.

Jesus promises a day when he will give the order to angels to separate the children of the evil one to go “home” to the fires of hell, and preserve the children of the kingdom in “God’s barn,” the peaceful and abundant heavens.

Meanwhile, we are to be patient and gentle in dealing with the human race, knowing that some sinners will turn out to be saints and some saints will turn out to be sinners beyond salvage.

While we wait for the great revealing, there are some qualities for which to watch in ourselves and others, indicators of those who are bearing the good fruit of the Spirit as children of the kingdom and those who are toxic with works of the world, the flesh and the devil.

Drawing from our lesson from Romans and the Gospel, here are some of those qualities:

  • Children of the kingdom are led by the Spirit of God; Children of the evil one live according to the flesh.  The Apostle Paul explains this in detail in Chapter 5 of his Letter to the Galatians,
    • Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.  By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
  • Children of the kingdom often suffer while doing right – Paul says we share Christ’s sufferings; children of the evil one seem to get away with murder.
    • They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills.  Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence. (Psalm 73:4-6)
  • Children of the kingdom long and hope for the kingdom, in fact, we pray thy kingdom come every time we offer the Lord’s Prayer to our Father in heaven;  children of the evil one care only for their current gratification, as the struggling and misguided priest in the British series Grantchester preached in a disastrous sermon, This is the life we are here for, we owe it to ourselves to live it.
  • Children of the kingdom practice patience, going gently in the world as we wait for Jesus to return and render the justice that he alone is fit to dispense; children of the evil one inflict all kinds of harm on the world, often while claiming to do good, even justifying their actions as “the will of God.”

That’s stuff we can see in the here and now.  We won’t see the final verdict until Our Lord returns.  At that time,

  • The children of the kingdom will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father; the children of the evil one will burn in the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

I had a visit from a long time friend last week.  He shared about his experience in a church that appeared to be full of children of the kingdom – and, in fact, probably is – but which also practiced the rash judgment against which Jesus warns.  It was one of the Protestant churches that is harshly anti-Catholic.  My friend had a Catholic grandmother who, by his new church’s statements, was an idol worshiping child of the evil one.

His objection, although not in these exact words, pointed out how his grandmother showed all the signs of a child of the kingdom:

  • She was led by the Spirit, starting every day early with prayer, especially prayer for other people.  Yes, she prayed using Rosary beads.  But her daily routine and attitude were clearly fruit of the Spirit.
  • She suffered while doing right.  Illness and age took a toll on her, but her focus remained on the well being of others.
  • She longed and hoped for the kingdom, praying daily for it’s arrival and inviting others into the Christian life as she understood it through the Roman Catholic Church.
  • She was patient and gentle in a world of family squabbles, harsh judgments and her own pain.

My friend and brother in Christ understood intuitively (or, more accurately, in the Spirit) that his grandmother was one who would shine like the sun in the kingdom of the Father – in fact, that light was shining from her mortal life as well.

May we be guided by the Spirit to hear Jesus’ story and Paul’s teaching and live our lives in the Gospel’s truth, with acceptance of our share of suffering, even when it seems unfair, with hope for the kingdom to come and with patient gentleness toward others, praying for them to shine like the sun in the perfect kingdom without end.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

On the other hand, there’s Clint’s advice,

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.

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.

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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.

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.

“…regarding prayers for the President.”

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

head-pain-demon
Head Pain Demon by The Gurch

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

So, should we pray for the President?

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

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

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

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

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

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Bishop Michael Curry. Photo by Jim Steadman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Isaiah 42:1-6 RSV)

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

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

Maybe, just possibly, good news?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

creche

Look upon Him indeed.

Be delivered.

Be radiant.

Be refreshed and renewed.

And don’t be ashamed.

Unresolved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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