Monday, February 28, 2011

Bargaining Prayer

What do your prayers sound like? Many of us actually pray silently, forming words only in our minds, producing no sound at all. A few of us actually pray without any words—silent or otherwise—just sitting before God in empty meditation. What about you? What do your prayers sound like?

Sometimes our prayers are simple petitions: “God, please help me be nice to my mother-in-law even though I want to strangle her.” Sometimes we pray words of thanksgiving: “God, thank you for this beautiful morning.” Often we utter words of contrition: “God, I’m sorry for so thoroughly screwing up.” One of my favorite prayers involves bargaining: “God, if you’ll help me get this job, I’ll go to church every week for a year.” I like to label that form of prayer as “the prayer of the desperate sixth grader,” because it sounds like something I would have prayed when I was 12—“God, if you can just make her like me, I’ll never be mean to my little brother again.

Whenever I talk or write about bargaining prayer, I usually do so in disparaging language, since it seems like such a ridiculous way to approach God. But there are examples of bargaining prayer in the bible (e.g. Exodus 32:11-14). In fact, I wonder whether all my prayers might be forms of bargaining with God. I wonder whether any “spiritual maturity” I may have gained in my prayer life might actually be an illusion.

In today’s lesson from the Gospel (Matthew 6:7-15), Jesus says to his disciples, “In praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” Have you ever taken that seriously? Has any of us ever really believed that God already knew what we needed before we asked him? If we do, it transforms our entire approach to prayer.

If God already knows what I need and loves me without reservation, any words I try to put on prayer are superfluous—at least as far as God is concerned. Neatly enough, this also ties in with a high doctrine of God’s impassibility (see the Sunday school lesson to be posted later this week). God doesn’t need me to pray. He’s already going to take care of me whether I ask for help or not. Therefore, any words I utter to God are just my attempt to convince myself that I deserve whatever God will give me—bargaining of sorts.

Actually, there isn’t anything wrong with bargaining with God. God isn’t going to change. The only part of the relationship that is dynamic is us. When we bargain with God, we’re bargaining with ourselves. Whether we realize it or not, we’re preparing ourselves either to receive with thanksgiving what God will grant us or to release with comfort what God will withhold. Praying shapes us—not God. But there’s comfort in that, and that’s the reason we pray. We pray so that we might be changed—shaped, molded, stretched by degrees until our will aligns with God’s will. That’s why the prayer Jesus taught us is so simple and asks only what we need to get through another day.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Failing Hindsight

I think St. Matthias, whose feast we celebrate today, reveals that hindsight isn’t always 20/20. Often, it may be, but sometimes was can’t figure out the reasons behind an event or a decision even centuries after it happened.

Judas Iscariot was chosen by Jesus to be one of the twelve—part of his inner circle. Ultimately, of course, Judas betrayed Jesus, and much has been written over the years about why Jesus would have invited a traitor into his company. Hindsight helps us make sense of that decision as we now understand that Jesus’ victory over death depended upon his death on the cross, which Judas facilitated through his treachery. We might not fully understand the reasons behind Jesus’ choice, but we can use hindsight to figure it out well enough to move on.

St. Matthias, who was chosen by lot to replace Judas in order to reconstitute the twelve apostles (Acts 1:12-26), took a rather tarnished seat at the apostolic table. I wonder whether he felt any pressure to perform. Not only had his predecessor been the one to betray the King of Kings, but he was every bit a “Johnny-Come-Lately,” as the other disciples had been doing this for a while. As the lots were cast and the lot fell on Matthias, I doubt anyone knew exactly what would happen in the days ahead. I can imagine one of the twelve saying under his breath, “Matthias, huh? I figured it would be Barsabbas, but go figure. Well, we’ll see how this goes.”

The only problem is that we don’t get to see how this goes. After his selection as the twelfth man, Matthias is never heard from again—at least not in the record of scripture. We don’t ever get to see why Matthias worked out. We don’t get the benefit of hindsight in this case. And that tortures me. If the disciples trusted the Holy Spirit to guide the casting of the lots, shouldn’t we get to see evidence of why the divine choice of Matthias worked out in the end? Shouldn’t the writer of scripture have filled out the story in a way that satisfied that urge in me that wants everything to wrap up?

Usually, scripture—including prophecy—is written from the perspective of hindsight. The Old Testament lesson that is appointed in the Daily Office for this feast day (1 Samuel 16:1-13) is the anointing of David by Samuel. In that story, we read that God has rejected King Saul and that Samuel is sent by God to select the youngest shepherd-son of Jesse—a youngster whom no one at the time could have picked as Israel’s next king. But, by the time the account is written, David’s identity as God’s chosen servant (as well as Saul’s identity as God’s rejected leader) had been revealed to all of God’s people. And today’s story is recorded because it helps us see how God’s providential hand had been a part of the story even before anyone else could see it. In scripture, hindsight is a given. It’s how we understand God’s will for the world.

Matthias’ story, however, is different. The author of Acts included in his account the selection of Matthias even though we never get to see why God’s hand had been upon him. Maybe Luke himself didn’t know how the story ended. Since we don’t get to read “the rest of the story,” we are forced to remain unsatisfied, ignorant of how hindsight may shape our understanding of Matthias’ election. And maybe that’s the point. Sometimes I don’t get to see how or why God works in the world. He’s working in so many ways that I will never be conscious of. St. Matthias teaches me to allow God to work in ways that never make sense, encouraging me to trust what I can’t and might never be able to see.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Name Change

I can’t remember if it actually happened to someone I know, but I’ve heard stories about parents who wanted to wait until after their baby was born to figure out what to name it. For some, finding the right name has as much to do with the baby’s personality (whatever that means for a 3-day-old blob) as with the family’s ancestry or the parents’ preference. Whatever the reason behind it, I’m sure some parents wait to see their child and then try to discern what to call it.

Other people are given names that they grow into. Growing up, I only knew one guy named “Hayden,” and he did a pretty good job of becoming the “Hayden” he was named to be. The same is true for Mickey and Kara and Ashley. Sometimes I meet someone in their adult years and, when hearing their name, think, “Yep, that’s the perfect name for this person. He really looks like a…”

In the bible, sometimes circumstances require that an individual change his or her name—Abram becomes Abraham, Jacob becomes Israel, Simon becomes Peter. Usually, those moments of change reflect a newfound closeness to God. Those three examples demonstrate how an individual’s life can so thoroughly change after an encounter with God that even their names change. This morning’s Old Testament lesson (Ruth 1:15-22) includes a name-change that I hadn’t remembered. After losing her husband and her two sons, Naomi returns to Bethlehem in the land of her ancestors and declares, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty.”

If you were to change your name based on your experience of God, what would you call yourself? I’ve never thought of that before, and I’m pretty sure it would take a rather vivid experience to inspire a name-change. What amazes me about this passage from Ruth is that Naomi changes her name (a fundamentally religious expression) in response to her bitter experience of God’s absence. Her new name, Mara, means bitter. And even though God must have seemed absent—or at least far from her needs and wants and wishes—she stays connected with God through the whole process. She doesn’t say, “God abandoned me. He no longer exists. He is dead to me.” Instead, she says, “The Lord has brought me back empty.”

If I changed my name in response to that sort of experience—loss of spouse, children, and any hope of financial independence—I would do so in order to escape. I’d want to disappear because the misery of a life that I had left would be something I’d rather hide from those who knew me. Naomi, though, stays connected—with God and with her community. She doesn’t run from her crisis. She changes her entire identity in response to it. That’s faith.

Avoiding Heresies - Adoptionism

This week's topic, Adoptionism, represents a change in focus from the previous four classes. Those four dealt with the church's developing (chronologically and theologically) understanding of the two natures of Jesus' Christ and their union. Now, switching gears, we look at that theological thread that attempts to explain Jesus' divine Sonship through adoption, a thread which has stretched through every century from the second through the current.

Adoption (hence the name) might be an over-statement of the errant theological explanations for Jesus' Sonship, as the various historical attempts that have been ruled heretical and labeled "Adoptionist" don't always involve adoption. More generally, any attempt to say that Jesus became, grew into, was chosen for, earned, or developed in his divinity can be categorized as Adoptionism. The orthodox position, therefore, asserts that Jesus was fully the divine Son of God from the moment of the Incarnation.

It's easy to like the Adoptionist perspective as it explains pretty well (though heretically, as we'll see below) how a human being can be called the Son of God. Jesus Christ, identical with the second person of the eternal Trinity, didn't exist from before time. Jesus had a birthday (not 12/25/00, but close to it). The Son of God did not (no, 00/00/00 doesn't count). How, then, can Jesus Christ be the Son of God unless he was chosen to be at some point in his life (even in utero)?

For me, the most exciting part of Adoptionism was a renewed emphasis on the Virgin Birth--a doctrine that has been out of favor among intellectuals for centuries (especially after the Unitarian movement and S. T. Colridge took hold in 19th-century Christian thought). If we discount the Virgin Birth (and to be honest it's a pretty far-fetched claim), then how else does Jesus become the Son of God except if God adopted him as such at some point after the conception? That means that people like me, who are more interested in avoiding Adoptionism than worrying about the Virgin Birth, actually get a fresh and double-dose of orthodoxy as I can't really figure out how to side-step Adoptionism without clinging to the Virgin Birth.

Why does Adoptionism hurt our faith? Why is our understanding of who God is diminished if we use an adoptionist explanation? In other words, why does this matter? The central problem with Adoptionism is that it (like all the other heresies we've studied) undermines salvation. If Jesus was chosen/adopted as God's divine Son (assumed by the second person of the Trinity) at some point in his life, then we are left with a savior who achieved something in order to become divine. We all hope to have our human nature yoked to the divine nature, but, if Jesus only got there by being perfect, sinless, or super-human, then we can only get there through the same. That is, unless Jesus was the divine Son of God from the very beginning, we again get an Incarnation that doesn't really matter--a God who doesn't become one of us in order to save us but a God who waits on humanity to achieve salvation on its own. And that's just empty hope.

The slide show below addresses the various forms of this heresy throughout the centuries, and it highlights several scriptural passages that cause problems for both sides of the orthodox/Adoptionist "debate." Most notable among them is Mark 1, some manuscripts of which omit the term "Son of God" until the moment after Jesus' baptism--the classic proof-text for the Adoptionists.


Monday, February 21, 2011

Searching for Blessings

A few weeks ago, I was speaking with a noonday bible study about cultural phenomena that shape a people’s religious identity. If I remember correctly, we were reading from Isaiah and discussing how the prophet instructs God’s people that the correct social institutions (those that care for the poor, orphaned, oppressed, etc.) help instill a right understanding of who God is and how he cares for his people. The contemporary example of this culture-first, religion-second pattern that we explored was the use of the term “blessed.”

In my experience, there are people I meet in my daily life who like to use the word “blessed” to describe how they are doing or how they hope to be doing at any particular point in time. When I ask, “How are you doing today?” I often get the response, “I’m blessed.” Or, upon bidding someone farewell, I sometimes hear, “Have a blessed day!” To be honest, my initial response to these expressions (prayers for?) divine favor is distaste. They usually sound hollow and poorly thought out, and I don’t particularly care for them. But, upon further reflection, I think they might be indications of a cultural reality that has shaped and continues to shape a people.

Although this might be short-sided, I usually think of people who throw around the word “blessed” in this manner as members of the evangelical (often Baptist) Christian community, many of whom are black. Most often, I hear these expressions of blessing either at the beginning or at the conclusion of an appointment with an applicant for financial assistance from our parish. “How are you doing today?” I ask. “I’m blessed…but I need some help with my power bill.” And again at the end of our appointment, “I know you still have a long way to go. Take care of yourself,” I say. “Have a blessed day!” is frequently offered in return.

The other day, after a lengthy conversation with a gentleman I’ve gotten to know over the past 18 months, we walked toward the office door. Although he used less familiar words to bid me goodbye, he spoke in the familiar pattern, “I hope God continues to bless you.” My response, perhaps to the unfamiliar phrasing of the same-old sentiment, was unrehearsed: “Well, God will continue to bless me. And if I look around hard enough, I’ll be able to see it.” I didn’t think much of it at the time. When I said it, the words were as shallow as any other “I’m blessed” remark I hear. But it stuck with me. It took root and grew inside my heart and in my mind. What does it mean to be blessed? What does it mean to search for God’s blessings?

Today’s gospel reading from the Daily Office (Matthew 5:1-12) is the Beatitudes. Jesus addresses the crowd, saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” His list includes lots of people whom we normally think of as being un-blessed—those who suffer, those who are in pain, those who are lacking resources either spiritual or material. Yet Jesus says, “Blessed are you…” That’s the kind of blessing I must search for in order to see it.

When people say, “Have a blessed day!” they might not really mean it. They may not have ever given thought to what it actually means to be blessed. When someone answers, “I’m blessed,” they might not really feel it. In fact, those who come to me in a state of financial ruin might not have any idea how God is blessing them in their poverty, yet they say it anyway. And I believe that what might appear to me as an empty remark has the ability to take root. That which starts with “I’m blessed” just might grow into a realization of those blessings that otherwise would go unobserved. My theology of blessing starts with the premise that God is blessing the whole creation without ceasing. In those moments in which we become conscious of that blessing, the benedictional presence of God in our lives becomes real. Unless I’m searching for evidence of God’s blessing, I won’t be able to see it. And sometimes that search begins with a well-worn word or phrase.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Spirit Stopped

At Anna Russell Friedman’s ordination to the presbyterate today, the Old Testament reading was from the book of Numbers (11:16-17, 24-25 omitting the final clause). Usually at the ordination of a priest, I hear the reading from Isaiah—man of unclean lips, angel, live coal, tongs, sin blotted out, hem filling the temple, etc.. Today, though, the reading was from Numbers, and I loved hearing it. But I loved it even more when I noticed what the prayer book designates as the reading.

On page 528, it reads, “Old Testament: Isaiah 6:1-8 or Numbers 11:16-17, 24-25 (omitting the final clause).” Naturally, upon noticing that the final clause was to be omitted, I looked it up. Often, those half-verse omissions get left out because they are related to something else that is going on the background or add an unnecessary detail. This time, the final clause is dropped for reasons that become clear instantly: “And as soon as the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied. But they did not continue doing it.” The first ninety-five percent of these verses is perfect for an ordination—the Spirit that had dwelt in Moses was divvied up among the elders (“presbyters”), who shared in the Spirit’s gifts. That last five percent, however, blows a gaping hole in the spirit of an ordination service.

But they did not continue doing it. The elders exercised the Spirit-given gift of prophecy for a time—long enough to gain notice—but then they stopped. Did the Spirit dry up? Did the people get tired of hearing prophecy (see earlier post in this blog) and ask them to shut-up? Did they get tired of speaking in the Spirit and take a break from time to time? Once the prophecy ceased, did it ever start back up again? All of these questions, which race around in my mind thanks to this reading’s place in today’s ordination service, boil down to one query: “When the elders stopped prophesying, was it a good thing or a bad thing?”

As a priest, I’m biased, but I like to think of this as a good thing. Because of that, I’d like to see the whole bit included in an ordination service—“not continue doing it” and all. As priests, we aren’t supposed to go on prophesying all the time. We need a break, and everyone else needs one, too. And that’s not just for the gift of prophecy. Although the Spirit’s portion rests indelibly on those who are consecrated as elder, the outpouring of that Spirit and the gifts that come with it need not flow continually. I’m allowed to take a vacation. Anna Russell should be, too. More importantly than that, we all (priest and laity) need to remember that there are limits to what we can do and to what we can expect others to do.

Ordinations are a wonderful time to remember the vows one took when one became a priest. I take delight in watching a newly minted presbyter stand in front of her congregation and bless the people in God’s name. I love imagining what her ministry among the people of St. Paul’s, Carlowville, will be like. And, in the midst of all of that, I also enjoy thinking about the ministry I share with those in my congregation and the mission to which we have jointly pledged ourselves. Given the magnitude of that work, we need to pause every now and then to regain our perspective of the task ahead of us, which enables us to recommit ourselves to the work and begin it all over again.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

'Til Death Do Us Part

Upon learning that his friend had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer and only had three months to live, a cagey old veteran quipped, “You should marry my ex-wife. It would be the longest three months of your life.” When I read this morning’s gospel lesson (Mark 12:13-27), that story sprang to mind. I wonder how many ex-spouses give thanks that “the dead…neither marry nor are given in marriage” and so can avoid eternity yoked to someone they loathe.

For most of us, though, the thought of “until we are parted by death” isn’t one that brings joy. Standing at the grave of a beloved spouse is painful enough without being reminded that there is no marriage on the other side of this earthly pilgrimage. After reviewing the vows in the prayer book during premarital counseling, more than one couple has asked me whether marriages really end at death or whether there’s a chance they could continue in heaven: “You mean I’ll share the best years of my life with the partner I love only to spend eternity as a single person?” Well, not exactly.

It isn’t easy convincing a 25-year-old bride or groom that there is something even better than marriage waiting for us in heaven—something so wonderful that marriage itself would be a detraction from the heavenly bliss that awaits. In fact, it’s hard to explain to anyone (except, perhaps the bitterly divorced) that heaven could involve a level of intimacy with God that renders human marriage obsolete. In heaven—and I use that term loosely—we are all married to God.

As far as the church is concerned, marriage is designed 1) for mutual joy, 2) for help and comfort in adversity and prosperity, and 3) for the procreation and nurture of children. Likewise, marriage images for the world the selfless love that God has for all of creation. What good is any of that when God’s love and will for creation have been fulfilled? As the BMW commercial states, why drive something that’s a lot like a BMW when you can drive the real thing? Why image God’s love for creation when you are already immersed in the real thing?

It’s hard, though, for me to let go of my view of my marriage as a telos or end in and of itself. It feels more important to me than a mere passing fancy. And it does fulfill an important earthly purpose...for the time being. But the real challenge for me (and for the couples who come into my office for counseling) is to realize just how much bigger and grander and fuller our marriage to God will be in God’s kingdom.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Hello, My Name is...Wicked Tenant

Not that long ago, I reflected in this space that I enjoy challenging passages that defy easy interpretation. Well, today’s parable in the gospel lesson (Mark 11:27-12:12) is so tough than any pleasure I exact from it only comes with masochistic pain. I’m confused, and I’m not sure there’s any easy way out.

Well, actually, there is an easy way, but it’s the way that the anti-Semitic face of Christianity took for centuries and so is utterly unacceptable. In the parable, the landowner takes great care in preparing his vineyard before leasing his property out to some tenants. When the time of the harvest comes, the landowner sends a servant to collect the appointed portion of the harvest, but the tenants beat him and send him away empty handed. The owner tries again, but the second servant is wounded in the head. A third time, the owner sends a hired-hand to collect his due, but this time the tenants kill him. “And so [it was] with many others, some they beat and some they killed.”

At last the owner sent his own beloved son, thinking that the tenants would respect his heir, but, of course, they beat and kill him, thinking that they will gain the inheritance for themselves. “What will the owner of the vineyard do,” Jesus asks his audience? “He will come and destroy the tenants, and give the vineyard to others.” And so, as the reprehensible allegory goes, God sent to his chosen people Israel prophet after prophet, teacher after teacher, one anointed leader after another until, at last, he sent them his own son, whom they [eventually] rejected and killed. Naturally, since Israel has rejected God’s son, God will destroy them, take away from them the vineyard, and give it to someone else…like the Gentiles. (Hooray for us!) Wrong.

That can’t be right. God doesn’t choose his beloved people and then reject them no matter how many times the turn away. That’s the most consistent theme in all of scripture—God’s consistent love and mercy despite his people’s stubborn sinfulness. No, the way to sort through this parable isn’t as easy (or ugly) as that. I think that there’s a better way, and it hinges on the tenants evil plot.

Who is it that defined insanity as performing the same act repeatedly and expecting different results? Einstein, supposedly. Yet God is foolish enough to send one servant after another—even sending his own son—even though his people keep beating or killing them. That’s extravagant, ridiculous, foolish, insane love. But the tenants’ response is also foolish. They convince themselves that if they kill the owner’s son they will get to keep the inheritance (vineyard) for themselves. But that was never going to work. As crazy as God’s love might seem, God doesn’t work that way, and neither, of course, does the world. One doesn’t get to kill the heir and keep the inheritance for one’s self.

Yet that’s exactly what we try to do every single day when faced with the extravagant foolishness of God’s love. God reaches down to us time after time with expressions of endless love and mercy, and, when we encounter those moments of generosity, we respond by killing the gesture. We murder God’s infinite goodness and love over and over again. We can’t handle love that big. We’d rather put it in a box and try to keep it for ourselves. We refuse to let God be as foolishly merciful as he is, and so we try to steal the inheritance that was already given to us and keep it only for ourselves.

How many times a day do we look at someone in judgment? We might not always put words to the feeling, but how often do we react to someone or something as if they didn’t belong in God’s kingdom? How many people do I feel better than? How many people would I prefer to leave out in the cold? And when I do that, when I look at God’s foolish love and think it can only be for me, I’ve already murdered God’s son, foolishly thinking I could keep his love all to myself.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Avoiding Heresies - Eutychianism

First, let me remind you of something I mentioned in the first post but haven't made explicit since. I am basing the structure for this class on Heresies and How to Avoid Them, a collection of sermons on the topic edited by Michael Ward and Ben Quash. I often pull directly from the sermons in this book and indicate that when I do (usually in parentheses). It's a great book--excellent resource for preachers and pastors on heresies as it (mostly) presents them from the pastor/preacher perspective.

Now, on to class #4...
The first four heresies in this series (Arianism, Docetism, Nestorianism, and now Eutychianism) form a mini-section of the class. These four help establish some important theological boundaries for what we can and can't say about the nature of Christ. With these four heresies (and the Ecumenical Councils that accompany them), we establish that Jesus Christ is fully divine & fully human and that those two natures are fully united in the one person of Jesus Christ yet also remain fully distinct. How's that for a mind-full?

As we wrap up this mini-section, it's important to realize how they naturally progressed one after another. This week's heresy (Eutychianism), which popped onto the scene almost simultaneously with the previous heresy (Nestorianism), is a fervent anti-heretic's overreaching attempt to combat what was misstated in the previous heresy. Nestorius and his followers argued that Christ's human and divine natures must be separate and distinct to the point of existing as two separate realities. The more he emphasized the "two-ness" of Christ's natures, the more Eutyces and his followers pulled their hair out, shouting, "No! One, one, one!"

Eutychianism is the heresy that followed, and it asserts that Christs two natures come together in a union that makes it impossible to distinguish between the two. That's extreme Eutychianism--a theological terminus that Eutyches himself never quite attained. He stopped a little short, instead asserting that Christ was "of two natures" but after then incarnation was only "in one nature." He's the guy who used the "drop of honey dissolved into the sea" image to convey how those two natures came together. But, as committed to orthodoxy as Eutyches tried to be, he was a heretic.

Christ must be in two natures that are fully united yet fully distinct. That's the only way our salvation makes any sense. Otherwise, as Marcus Plested pointed out in his sermon in the aforementioned book, our human nature, once united to the divine through baptism, must ultimately disappear as Christ's did. And that would result in a humanity-less resurrection. In other words, that leads to nothing more than death itself--blinking out of physical, created existence to be resubsumed by the divine. Heresy, heresy, heresy! Aren't we more interested in being saved as we are--the created humanity that was made in God's image?

Below is the slide show from this week's class. It explores some relevant scripture passages (including a remarkable look at Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4) and some other dire consequences of Eutychianism. Also, and certainly not least, my favorite credal statement--the Chalcedonian definition, which can also be read here. Enjoy!

Ready or Not

We encounter one of my favorite miracles in this morning’s gospel lesson (Mark 11:12-26)—the withering of the fig tree. It grabs my mind with its enigmatic quality, and it touches my heart with its passionate emotion. If it’s not the most difficult miracle to explain, it’s near the top of the list, and I remember well needing to rely heavily on Jeffrey John’s book The Meaning in the Miracles when I taught this miracle in a weekday bible study.

In this chapter of Mark’s gospel account, we have arrived (at last) in Jerusalem. Earlier in the chapter, Jesus had entered the city for the first time riding on the back of a colt, and today he returns. On his way from Bethany into Jerusalem, a hungry Jesus sees a fig tree in leaf and, upon discovering that the tree had no ripe fruit, he cursed it, saying, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!” As the story continues, Jesus and his disciples continue to the Temple, where Jesus’ anger spills over at the money changers, whom he chases out God’s “house of prayer for all the nations.” As the band of misfits leaves the city and passes back by the fig tree, Peter remarks, “Master, look! The fig tree which you cursed has withered.”

For me, the whole story—and by that I mean that the miracle of the fig tree and the cleansing of the Temple are inseparably linked—hinges on one impossible verse: “When [Jesus] came to [the fig tree], he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs.” Well, what did he expect? Did Jesus think the fig tree would have fruit even though it wasn’t the right time of year for figs? Actually, yes—he did.

Some look at this miracle as an expression of Jesus’ petulance—a hungry and impatient messiah doesn’t get what he wants and so curses the poor fig tree, withering it to its roots. If that were the case, I would have hated growing up with the teenage Jesus, who must have withered several of his adolescent rivals to their roots when he didn’t get his way (cf. III.1 in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, a gnostic gospel in which that really happened). In similar though, for whatever unjustified reason, less shocking fashion, some interpret the cleansing of the Temple as Jesus’ complete rejection of the Jewish religious apparatus of his day—a scathing and supersessionist messiah views the sacrificial system as irreparable and so turns the Temple on its head. As you can tell, neither of those approaches works for me.

As I read it, the fig tree and the Temple scene inform each other, allowing both to make sense (and if I remember correctly, I’m borrowing heavily from J. John here). Both stories, which have been sandwiched together by Mark for an instructive purpose, involve a failure to fulfill a divinely appointed purpose. The fig tree, though out of season, was created to bear fruit. The Temple system, though broken and waiting for spiritual renewal (cf. the Minor Prophets, particularly Malachi 3), was ordained to bear spiritual fruit. Even if neither has reached the appointed time for achieving its purpose, Jesus and the kingdom of God which he has come to establish cannot wait any longer.

Jesus’ message to his disciples and to us though the withering of the fig tree and the cleansing of the Temple is this: God will not wait for us to bear fruit—we must do so now. We cannot escape our divinely appointed purpose simply by claiming that we’re not ready yet. So often I pretend that I need more time and practice and spiritual growth before I’ll be able to be the sort of Christian God is asking me to be. Regularly, I tell God that I’ll happily do those difficult things (e.g., sell all that I have and give it to the poor) when the timing is right. But God isn’t willing to wait on me. He doesn’t allow me to decide when I’m going to bear fruit. The time is now whether I’m ready or not.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Red Shirt

Normally, I would let Valentine’s Day pass without comment. In many ways, this “holiday” represents the fullest example of something pagan being mixed with something Christian and resulting in something purely commercial. For more reading on this, check out the NPR piece on the origins of the holiday, which can be found here.

As eager as I usually am to skip over Valentine’s Day, something in the Old Testament reading this morning (Isaiah 63:1-6) caught my eye and drew me back into the holiday. As the passage begins, the prophet asks, “Who is this that comes from Edom, in crimsoned garments from Bozrah, he that is glorious in his apparel, marching in the greatness of his strength?”

This morning, I got my son dressed. Whenever that happens, I always try to get my wife’s opinion on my sartorial selection before I actually put the clothes on his body. Too often, I have picked out what to my eye is the perfect outfit only to learn that I have chosen pajamas for my son to wear to school. So I yelled across the house, “What should I dress him in?” only to answer my own question in a mocking tone, “Yeah, yeah, I know: ‘Something nice enough for school.’” Helpfully, my wife mentioned that some of his blue jeans and shirts were fresh out of the dryer and still sitting in a laundry basket. I fished out an outfit but paused…I wonder if he has something red to wear. It is Valentine’s Day, after all. Just because I prefer to ignore the celebration doesn’t mean that I should deny my son the opportunity to “fit in” with his classmates by wearing appropriately tinted clothes.

I chose a bright red long-sleeved shirt that was way too big. I bought the shirt from Wal-Mart on Christmas Eve last year in an attempt to provide something red for him to wear underneath a winter-white jumper to that night’s service. It was the only red shirt Wal-Mart had even close to his size. When I proudly produced it for my wife to see what I had accomplished, she confirmed my fears—unwearable. It’s still too big, but it’s not as bad as it was in December. I took a risk and put it on him without first checking with the boss. She didn’t reject my selection, rolled up his sleeves, and took him off to school wearing a shirt that declares, “I’m ready for my Valentine’s Day treats!”

God, too, it seems is wearing a crimson shirt today. In his answer to the prophet’s question, God declares, “It is I, announcing the vindication, mighty to save.” Not knowing the reason why God has chosen to wear red garments, the prophet inquires and receives this reply, “I have trodden the wine press alone, and from the peoples no one was with me; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their lifeblood is sprinkled upon my garments, and I have stained all my raiment.” Apparently, God’s clothes are blood-red…literally. At this point in Judah’s history, they have returned from exile and have begun to rebuild the city of Jerusalem, and their principal enemy is now known as Edom. And in dramatic fashion, God has marched through the enemy’s city (Bozrah) and trampled upon its people, splattering their blood on his clothes.

How can the God of love, whose limitless mercy extends throughout the whole world (and even universe), be described as having slaughtered so many? How can we put onto God’s lips the words, “I trod down the peoples in my anger, I made them drunk in my wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth?”

Last night, as my daughter was picking out which Valentine’s Day cards to give to particular classmates, I flashed back to my own childhood, when certain people received favored cards from their peers while others received the leftover expressions of affection (or no card at all). Though I don’t think my daughter is old enough consciously to prefer one friend over another, she has already begun to discriminate—at least enough to decide that Friend X would like an Ariel card while Friend Y should get a Jasmine card.

For the people of Israel, God is their Valentine. They choose him and hope that he chooses them back. So, when they write down their history, they talk about God as I might have described my Valentine from elementary school: “She gave me the biggest Valentine of all and didn’t give one to anyone else because she loves me best of all.” Isn’t that what the prophet is saying? God is wearing a crimson, blood-stained shirt because he loves us most of all. It doesn’t matter that he actually loves the whole world and everyone in it, but we want to be God’s Valentine.  

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Aural Rash

In this morning’s New Testament lesson (2 Timothy 4:1-8), Paul uses one of my favorite images to characterize those who turn away from the truth: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings.” I think Paul’s critique was genuine and serious, but I still sense a playful tone in his description. Unfortunately, I know almost nothing about the etymology of the phrase “itching ears” and so can’t say whether it was a common label or whether it was used harshly or in jest. To me, though, it says a lot about human nature and the role of prophetic preaching in the world.

This is one of those verses of scripture that I think might be quoted at me by someone who was making a passionate argument about the future of the church. I can almost hear someone using strained tones, voice close to quivering, as he says, “The church is in crisis. St. Paul was right. The time is coming and now is here when people will have itching ears…” And he might be right, but I don’t think that’s anything new.

When was the last time someone was excited about hiring a prophet? When was the last time a church accumulated for itself teachers that didn’t suit their own likings? I think we can handle the prophet’s message but only in passing. Prophets don’t usually have a well-established life in a particular place. Instead, prophets are mobile. They move from place to place seeking a community that will hear their message for a time before shooing them (sometimes quietly, sometimes violently) down the road to their next pulpit. Prophets, by nature, are difficult to hear—no matter how conservative or liberal they or you might be. That’s because a prophet is articulating a message that a community couldn’t attain on its own.

We need prophets to point out the things we don’t want to see about ourselves. We need them to bring the sharpness of God’s word to our place of comfort. All of us need to be shaken from our complacency because all of us prefer to surround ourselves with teachers who suit our own likings. Think about the ministers you’ve known and loved throughout your life. In my experience, the men and women whose ministry a community relishes are those who challenge and stretch but love and support the church at the same time. Their success is a combination of comfort with the familiar and appropriately aimed challenges. Likewise, those clergypersons that haven’t been so loved and respected have often had a message or theme that was out of step with the community they were serving—too liberal, too conservative, too angry, too demanding.

We can’t handle prolonged contact with a prophet’s sword. Instead, we need isolated but genuine moments of contact with the deepest challenges that God’s word can bring. Part of our human nature is to prefer gentle prompting over prophetic bludgeoning. And it’s ok that we usually seek teachers and preachers who suit our own liking. But since we do—since all of us do—we all need to remember to find ways to enter the company of a prophet’s whose message we don’t want to hear but need to hear. My ears itch. Don’t yours?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Tithe or Burn

This morning, I went to Holy Cross Episcopal School, where I help lead chapel fairly regularly. In order to help teachers, staff members, and the local clergy unify their theological efforts, we have designed a chapel schedule for the entire academic year, designating a different theme for each week. I love it when the reading from the Daily Office coincides with the theme at Holy Cross. When I opened my office book and read the gospel lesson (Mark 10:32-45), I rejoiced. This week’s focus in chapel is stewardship.

Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Why did he say that? Why did Jesus think that rich people will have a hard time getting into heaven? The answers I got from the students all shared a common thread. “Because they are selfish and greedy,” one child answered. “Because they have too strong an attachment to their material possessions,” a precocious sixth-grader replied. “Because they are rich and aren’t willing to give their money away and so don’t have much faith in God,” an insightful student suggested.

If we take Jesus at his words (usually the best way of reading the gospel), we discover an unavoidable and inverse relationship between riches and God’s kingdom. There’s something about being rich that makes it harder (almost impossible) to get into the kingdom. Some pseudo-scholars (cf. today’s Forward Day by Day meditation) like to mention a famous gate in Jerusalem called the “Eye of the Needle,” but I am unconvinced that Jesus had that in mind. (Wasn’t that gate only so named long after Jesus lived?) In fact, to suggest that he was referring to that gate undermines the real power of his teaching and reveals a tendency on our part to avoid real stewardship if at all possible.

The real shocker of this passage comes when we realize what it means to be rich. “Who here is rich?” I asked the students in chapel this morning. No hands went up. Although I’m not sure my message got through, I tried to convince everyone there that all of us are rich by Jesus’ standards. Since we have money to buy food, clothing, education, transportation, medicine, and other necessities and luxuries, we are the rich men and women whom Jesus imagines trying to push a camel through a needle’s eye. The question this passage raises, therefore, is much more personal: “Why does Jesus teach us that it is so hard for you and me to get into heaven?”

As relatively rich people, we have the ability to sustain ourselves with our financial resources. Food to eat, clothes to wear, and shelter to inhabit—those essentials of life which we are able to provide for ourselves inevitably convince us that we are able to do it—to live this life—on our own. And that’s the attitude that keeps us from entering the kingdom. As long as we operate under the delusion that we are self-sufficient, we cannot get to heaven. If nothing else, God’s kingdom represents a complete reliance on God, meaning there’s no room in heaven for “I can do it on my own.”

Stewardship isn’t about raising money for worthwhile causes. We don’t tithe in order to help those in need. We dedicate the first ten percent of our income to God in order to help ourselves understand that only through God’s sustenance are we able to survive. By giving away the first ten percent of our resources, we force ourselves to survive on less, and, in so doing, we discover that we can’t do it on our own. We learn again that everything we have—the first ten percent and the remaining ninety percent—are all gifts from God. Until we get to that point—until we can respond to Jesus’ instruction to the rich man by selling all that we have and giving it away, we can’t enter the kingdom of God.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A Theory of Relativity

Sin is a tricky thing. As children, we are taught that sins are the bad things we do and that God doesn’t like it when we sin. To be honest, that’s probably a lot easier that trying to describe the human condition to a four-year-old. As we grow up, however, that notion of sin continues, but I’m not sure it’s a completely accurate portrayal of the theological concept.

Today’s Old Testament lesson (Isaiah 59:1-15a) begins,

Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot heat; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you so that he does not hear.

To me, that’s a much richer portrayal of sin and how it actually affects our relationship with God. For starters, it reminds us that God isn’t affected by our iniquities. It’s not God who is unable to hear us; it’s we who have separated ourselves from God. Contrast that with the image taught to most children. I grew up thinking that my sins made God angry with me or, at the very least, hurt God’s feelings. Why? Because that’s what happens to my mother or father when I do something bad. They get angry at me or get their feelings hurt. Why wouldn’t it be the same with God? But, of course, that’s not how God works. God isn’t influenced or affected by sin. He’s God—he’s bigger than that, impervious to sin. (Otherwise, our hope of salvation would be empty.)

In this passage, Isaiah also reveals how sin affects us. It creates a perceived distance between us and God—not because God has withdrawn from us (“his hand is not shortened”) but because we’ve pushed ourselves away from him (“your sins have hid his face”). That means that when I’m surrounded by my sins, it’s difficult for me to appreciate the fact that God is still able to save me. And that makes sense. In a life that is plagued by transgression and iniquity (“We grope for the wall like the blind”), we can’t see that God is near us. He feels distant if not completely absent. That means that sin is that which makes me feel separated from God and God’s saving love. It doesn’t matter that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38-39). When immersed in sin, God feels light years away.

And that leads me to a place of deep theological challenge: is sin relative? If God’s hand really isn’t shortened and if he’s really able to reach out and save me no matter how far I’ve strayed from him, doesn’t that mean that the perceived separation between me and God is only an internal construct? I’m thinking about 1 Corinthians 10:23-30—“I do not mean your conscience, but his.” Isn’t sin, which doesn’t in any way affect God’s end of the human-divine relationship, purely a psychological construct? In other words, if some action or behavior or pattern makes it harder for you to known God’s saving love (sin), then you should avoid that. But, if something others might perceive as “sinful” (e.g., eating meat sacrificed to idols, wearing garments of mixed fabrics, engaging in same-sex partnerships) doesn’t create any perceived distance between you and God, should you think of it as sin?

I believe there’s a role for community in this question. Just as Paul wrote to the Corinthians that they should abstain from certain practices if it caused another to stumble, so, too, do I believe that we should refrain from plowing ahead with the sanctioning of particular sacramental rites if they are causing those within our community to perceive increased distance between themselves and God. The time might not be right for changing what the “books” say about what is sinful and what is not, but I do believe that the time is coming when we admit that our community isn’t damaged by certain things that once seemed to harm us. Surely sin isn’t completely relative—at least not on an individual basis—but God and God’s love are a lot bigger than any distance I might think I’ve created between myself and him.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Avoiding Heresies - Nestorianism

This week's heresy is Nestorianism. As we progress through these Christological (i.e., having to do with the nature of Christ) heresies, we take a logical path, following the 3rd-5th century Church's path of discovery. This whole time, we're asking the same question: "Who is Jesus Christ, and how does that affect our salvation?"

With the Arian heresy, the Church struggled with the question of whether Christ was fully divine, and they concluded that in order for him to offer humanity any salvific benefit he must be. Then, the Church asked whether Christ was fully human (Docetism/Appolinarianism)--the logical outgrowth of the Arian debate. Concluding that Christ must truly be fully human, the Church articulated its belief that God didn't just take the form of a human but God actually became human, and that also was essential for salvation. This week, having established that Christ is both fully divine and fully human, we turn to the question of how those two natures become united in the Incarnation. And that was the question of Nestorius and his followers.

The debate began with the question of Mary--the one who gave birth to Jesus Christ. For centuries, the Church had understood her as Theotokos or "God-bearer," but Nestorius (and Theodore and others) took issue with that designation. How, they asked, could Mary have given birth to the divine? If in the Arian debate we established that Christ, as fully divine, is coeternal with the Father, how could Mary have borne God the Son? Instead, he suggested that Christ's two natures (fully divine & fully human) be united but also held distinctly separate, saying that Mary gave birth to the human nature ("Christotokos") but not the divine nature. As that theological conversation continued, the result was a Christ with very split natures. (Actually, Nestorius chose some poor language to describe the union, offering words that implied that Christ might have been two persons. Cyril of Alexandria latched on to this use of language and took Nestorius to the cleaners for it--even though that was likely a distortion of Nestorius' actual teaching.)

Convinced of his correctness, Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople, called for an ecumenical council, and in 431 CE the Council of Ephesus was held. Unfortunately for Nestorius, Cyril's polemic against him was too strong, and Nestorius and his followers were anathematized. Mary was declared Theotokos, and the union of the divine and human natures in the person of Christ was declared to be ontological ("really real") rather than simply accidental ("just because").

Why bother with the Orthodox position? Are we really just worried about the BVM getting offended because her title changes? Not at all! This is a heresy that, like the others we've covered, focuses on salvation. If the human and divine natures were not fundamentally (ontologically) untied to each other, then the only way they hold together in the person of Christ is as a result (accident) of Christ's will. In other words, unless the natures are fully bound to each other, it's up to the Jesus, by the sheer power of his will and self-control, to hang on to both. If that were the case, the only way our human nature could be bound to God's divine nature (essential for salvation) is if our wills were as powerful as that of Jesus. But, of course, they aren't. We fail to align our will with that of God (a state called "sin") all the time. Only if in Christ the human and divine are fully united can we have our human nature fully united to the divine nature. And that's how salvation happens.

When our human nature is united to the divine (by virtue of our baptism into Christ's death and resurrection), something happens to our humanity. It changes. It is refined. It is purified by its union with the divine nature (which, by definition, cannot be changed or soiled by its union with our human nature). As a result, the Council of Ephesus affirmed that our salvation is accomplished in the Incarnation--when the human and divine are fully united.

Here's the PowerPoint slide show from this week's class. It explores this in more detail, including the place of scripture in the debate. Next week, we turn to Eutychianism--the next logical question about Christ's nature. In that class, we'll ask more about the nature of the union of Christ's two natures, exploring what happens to the two natures when they come together so fully.

Sunday's Sermon - 5 Epiphany A (02/06/11)

February 6, 2011 – 5 Epiphany A

© 2011 Evan D. Garner

You can listen to this sermon here.

A while back, I knew a father who was having difficulty relating to his youngest son. He had never really had a close relationship with any of his children, but, as he had gotten older, he seemed to have even less patience to deal with this latest installment of rebellion and angst that any adolescent boy directs at his father. Although his love for his son was genuine and unreserved, there remained a distance between father and son that left both feeling uncomfortable whenever they were alone together. For whatever reason, this youngest child had never developed the confidence that his older siblings possessed, so, when his father asked whether he had studied for a test or remembered to do a chore, the son always took it as an expression of doubt rather than as good-natured parenting.

Finally, the unspoken tension between the two became too much for the son to handle. He came home from college and confessed that he wasn’t sure of anything anymore. His grades, although decent, were not spectacular, and his looming graduation with no specific plan beyond that had created within him a feeling of desperation. He wasn’t quite able to put it into words, but his conversation with his parents revealed that he felt like he had failed them. Over and over, his father had asked him about medical school, probing to see whether a long-ago expressed dream might come true. The father was trying to encourage his son to make that childhood aspiration a reality, but the boy felt pressure rather than support, and the conclusion that his academic performance probably didn’t merit an admission to medical school had sent the son into a tailspin.

Beneath the surface, the father loved his son more than anything. And he loved him without regard for his son’s successes or failures. Ultimately, it didn’t matter to the man what his son did. Whether he went to medical school or nursing school or ski school, his love for the boy was certain. But the son didn’t know that—at least not for sure. Perhaps, if he thought about it long enough, the boy could convince himself of his father’s unwavering love, but that love was hidden within a world of paternal expectations.

How do you convince a teenager that you love him no matter what? That question first occurred to me ten years ago, when I sat in the office of an experienced youth minister. At the time, I was exploring a possible call to ordained ministry. And, since I didn’t know a whole lot about what goes on in a parish office, I took turns meeting with various staff members at my church to see what it was that they did all day. When I asked the youth minister to tell me about his job, he replied, “My job is to convince kids that God will love them no matter what they do even though their parents are constantly telling them that there are consequences for their actions.” I was amazed. I had only recently finished my teenage years, but no one had ever pointed out to me that God’s unconditional love and my parents’ desire for exemplary behavior might be in conflict.

Can you convince a teenager that he or she is loved unconditionally and still put conditions on that love? In a Sunday school class a while back, we toyed with the notion of how to be a responsible parent and still embrace a grace-over-law philosophy that says to a child, “You can do anything, and I’ll still love you.” We came up with a great summary situation for the dilemma—that of prom night. Right before your child walks out the door, would you say to him or her, “I will love you no matter what you do tonight?”

Unconditional love means that nothing you could ever do would ever change, diminish, inhibit, restrict, or limit the love that I have for you. It means that our relationship, which is built upon that love, will never be damaged no matter how badly you mess things up. And that might be true in many households, but often that truth is buried deep beneath a surface which says, “I’m watching you, and I’ll be disappointed if you screw this up.” How many of us grew up with parents who routinely uttered the phrase, “Remember who you are and whom you represent?” How many of us say something similar to our children? But is that grace? Is that unconditional love?

When I read this morning’s gospel lesson, I find myself transported back to my childhood. Jesus speaks to the crowd much as my father or mother once spoke to me: “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored. It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.” My parents did a good job of reminding me both that I could do anything I set my mind to and that they expected me to do great things. That created a good balance in our home between recognizing one’s potential and then living up to the expectations that accompanied that potential. But that combination of encouragement and obligation could have been disastrous. Had I bumped up against any real adversity or had I ever felt as if my parents’ love for me was conditional on my success, I could have been paralyzed by the pressure of earning their love and affection.

How do you hear Jesus’ words? This week, as I’ve read and reread this passage, I find that it hits me in two very different ways. Is Jesus offering us the assurance of unconditional love, or is he chiding us with paternal expectations? Parts of this passage are so full of hope and promise that they seem to liberate us from any doubt or anxiety: “You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world.” But the rest of Jesus’ teaching seems to question whether we’ve lived up to his expectations of us: “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket…Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Which Jesus is it? Can his love for us be unconditional if he sets conditions on his love?

It’s a difficult passage, and I admit to you that I don’t have an easy answer for the questions it presents. But I do believe that God loves me no matter what—even more so than either of my parents. And I also know that it’s easy for me to invent divine expectations where they don’t actually exist. That’s because I look at God a lot like I view my own father. I can’t help it—he’s the only father I’ve ever known. And, more than anything else, I want my father to be proud of me. That’s not because I’m worried he won’t love me if I screw things up—though there is a little bit of that mixed into our relationship. Mostly, I want him to be proud of me because I already know that he loves me. When someone tells you that they love you, you want to live up to that.

For me, finding grace in this gospel lesson is the same as finding grace in parental expectations. In order for either to be redeemed, we must begin with an unquestioned belief in our belovedness. Only when we are fully confident that Jesus loves us can his words come across as an expression of unconditional love. Likewise, only when we trust completely that our parents love us without regard for our actions can we receive their expectations as an expression of unqualified love.

When Jesus tells us that he expects great things from us, his commandments would be too much to bear unless he had already demonstrated beyond a doubt his unwavering love. As Christians, you and I don’t need to worry whether Jesus will love us no matter what. The cross upon which he died is the ultimate expression of his selfless love. Remember that he died for you even though you are imperfect. In fact, he died for you because you are imperfect. Our response to that love is a deeply felt desire to please God—not out of obligation but as a gracious response to God’s overwhelming love. What that means is that your faith begins when you hear Jesus say, “You are the light of the world,” and you actually believe it. Amen.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Last Resort, Only Resort

Today’s gospel lesson (Mark 9:14-29) features Jesus, Peter, James, and John returning from the Transfiguration mountain top to find a man and his demon-possessed son waiting for him. The other disciples were unable to cast out the demon, which had thrown the boy into fire and water all his life. The “dumb spirit,” Jesus says, could only be cast out by prayer. That makes me wonder what sort of technique the disciples were using.

There are many things that can only be changed through prayer. Often someone will present me with a desperate situation, and the only thing that can be done is prayer. In moments like that, when an individual faces an insurmountable challenge, prayer might seem like a flippant, ineffectual response, but I believe that prayer has power in situations when ordinary tools (modern medicine, etc.) do not. What power it has, however, is a little harder for me to understand. Do I believe that sometimes miraculous healings occur when modern medicine has all but given up on a patient? Yes, I do. Do I trust that prayer can accomplish a reconciliation in a broken relationship when nothing else will work? Yes, that’s how reconciliation happens. Do I believe that God intervenes in human affairs in supernatural ways that modern science could never explain? Well…maybe not.

Prayer works, and it may be the vehicle for God’s miraculous will to be exercised on earth, but it isn’t magic. The laws of physics and nature do not cease when someone opens their mouth to pray. Instead, prayer works by changing the framework in which a situation occurs. There is a sign in the Wintzell’s Oyster House in downtown Montgomery that expresses a well-worn spiritual truth: “Prayer doesn’t change the world. Prayer changes people who then change the world.” I think that’s true. Prayer creates shifts in our perception. It makes it possible for us to see what is possible when previously nothing seemed possible.

When Jesus and his inner circle descend from the exalted mountain top and return to the busyness of life, they are confronted by a conundrum—a circumstance that represented “being stuck” without hope. The father’s initial request reveals just how immovable the situation had appeared: “[I]f you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Often when I snap back into reality, having left a place of spiritual connection, I find myself dazzled by just how real the world around me is—how stuck it can be and how stuck I am in it. Prayer frees up the world around me, making space for God’s action, because prayer opens me up to see how God works in the world. The only way I can ever be an instrument of God’s will and perceive myself as such is through prayer.

Friday, February 4, 2011

One Fabulous Fruit

I don’t like being wrong. And, while that’s probably true of just about everybody, I’m guessing that I’m up there in the top decile of people who react most poorly when someone else points out that they’re wrong. Maybe that’s why I can remember fairly vividly those moments in my life when someone has pointed out just how wrong I was. One of those moments involved fruit.

I think I was either in seminary or about to go to seminary, and I was speaking with my mother about Paul’s letter to the Galatians—specifically that part that is our New Testament lesson for today (Galatians 5:16-24). I mentioned that I had recently heard a good teaching on the “fruits of the Spirit.” “Fruit of the Spirit,” she quickly corrected (and in that loving yet definite tone that mothers know so well). “What?” I asked. “Fruit of the Spirit,” she replied. “Go look it up.” At the time, not willing to fully embrace my wrongness, I couldn’t see much difference—fruit or fruits. Whatever. I didn’t give it much thought, but the incident stuck with me for a while.

Years later, when taking part in a youth event, I heard a youth minister begin a teaching on the same passage. She had drawn various pieces of fruit on a flipchart, and she invited the youth to come and pick whatever fruit went with each of the various “fruits of the Spirit.” (Kiwi was a popular albeit ecologically discouraged choice.) I didn’t say anything, but I thought it. “Fruit of the Spirit”—singular—and for the first time I got what my mother was saying.

We don’t bear one or two of the fruits of the Spirit. We bear all of the things Paul lists as the (singular) fruit of the Spirit. That is contrasted with the works of the flesh, which as a plural expression, may include any number of the things Paul cites (“fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissention, party strife, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like”). Notice how Paul concludes that rather exciting list of sinful works—“and the like”—as if to suggest that the list could go on and on. The fruit of the Spirit, on the other hand, is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” When the Spirit is in you, you bear fruit, and that fruit will be those nine things.

The Christian life isn’t a fruit salad, of which you can take or leave your favorite parts. When God dwells in you, certain things happen. It’s unavoidable. Unlike the gifts of the Spirit, which may be parsed out on an individual bases, the fruit of the Spirit is something we share. And it’s something to celebrate. Don’t ask yourself which “fruits of the Spirit” are manifest in your life. Ask whether you are fully bearing the “fruit of the Spirit,” but don’t write off any of them as “not for you” or “something you’re not good at.” As a Christian, you bear them all—no matter to what degree.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Spiritual Obesity

Our nation, it seems, has a problem with childhood obesity. The First Lady has made combating that epidemic her top priority. As I read today’s Old Testament lesson (Isaiah 55:1-13) I wonder, though, whether the problem has more to do with human nature than with childhood eating habits. Through the prophet’s words, the Lord asks, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”

The question is one many ask of today’s generation: “Why do overweight people eat unhealthful foods? If they’re dying of obesity, why don’t they stop eating? Why do they keep going to places like McDonald's rather than eating more sensibly?” Although Isaiah was using food as a metaphor for spiritual sustenance, I think the reply to the question is the same then as it is now: “Because it tastes good.” People eat unhealthful foods (and practice other harmful habits) because it feels good. It doesn’t matter that I know better. I also know that a tub of ice cream tastes good, and that reality is a lot easier for me to grasp than the concept of calories and weight gain.

Even though he already knows the answer, God wants to know why his people keep chasing after those things that cannot satisfy them. And the image of “spending money for that which is not bread” is the perfect way to convey that human predilection for false nourishment. Imagine this: a mother surprises her six-year-old son by giving him a $100 bill and telling him to go buy the family’s groceries for the week. With what sort of goodies will he return? If given a choice (and long enough to screw it up), human beings will always make the wrong choice. Part of the human condition is preferring what feels good over what is good for us. (Welcome to humanity!)

But in the lesson from Isaiah, God seems to have something else in mind. He declares to his people, “[H]e who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” Buying things without money sounds a lot like not buying something at all. It sounds like being given something. To me, it seems as if God has decided to circumvent that side of the divine-human exchange that involves us—at least that part of us that pretends to know what’s best for us. Instead, God offers, “I will make with you an everlasting covenant.” Not a covenant that will continue only as long as you make good choices. Not an agreement that depends upon your contribution to the exchange. Instead of allowing humanity to choose God, God is making a covenant with his people that only involves his choice of us.

I wonder whether the cycle of poor choices breaks down when we hear someone say, “No matter what choice you make, I still choose you.” In that case, we no longer find ourselves needing to make a choice at all. Sure, we can make a choice. We can even make a bad choice—and we do…all the time. But God has already chosen us. He isn’t waiting on us anymore. That hasn’t worked for a long time.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Bundle of Joy

Two days ago, friends of mine had a baby—their first. Last night, for the first time, I saw a picture of the sweet little girl, and I was amazed (again) at how tiny newborn babies are. At the time, I noticed that the person holding the baby in the picture was a mutual friend—not either of the parents—but I didn’t give it much thought…until today.

From the Gospel lesson for the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple: “Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying…”

If you’ve spent much time at an Episcopal camp or hung out with an EYC group or said the service of Compline with any regularity, you know the words that follow. In fact, they’re so ingrained in my experience of the tradition that I almost forgot what happens right before Simeon begins his famous song. Before he opens his mouth to exclaim the words of consolation, he takes the baby Jesus into his arms. He holds the baby. He looks down at the 40-day-old boy, smiles as only one holding a baby can smile, twirls around, and exclaims, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace…”

Something special happens when you hold a baby. That’s definitely true when it’s your own child you’re holding. But I also think something happens to friends or extended family when they hold a tiny little bundle of new life in their arms. I’ve seen grown men wilt with sensitivity. I’ve seen women tear up with emotion. I’ve seen teenagers and older children display a unique combination of excitation and fear when they cradle such vulnerability against their chest. And when a new, first-time parent hands over their most precious possession to a loved one, something changes within them as well. They experience a new sensation—sharing their deepest love in bodily form with someone else they care about. It’s a moment of pride, joy, connection, anxiety, and celebration all wrapped in a little blanket and capped with a pink or blue hat.

I forget that Mary and Joseph hand over their little boy to this border-line crazy man, Simeon, who has been waiting in the Temple for a long time—waiting for the messiah to come. I forget that these new parents watch this ancient stranger take their baby in his arms and dance (perhaps gingerly) around the Temple courts with the joy of a love-struck teenager. I forget that this story involves the most powerful interchange a mother and an outsider can have—the sharing of a little child.

When I read this story this morning, I found myself wondering why we celebrate the Presentation. It was a Jewish obligation to come and offer sacrifice and dedicate a first-born to the Lord. But what does that mean for me? So what if Mary and Joseph did their duty and brought Jesus to the temple forty days after his birth? And then I thought about the picture I saw last night. I remembered again the look on that mutual friend’s face as she held this tiny little baby, and I felt again that sensation I felt last night—that nervous joy as if I were able to hold that newborn daughter. When Simeon takes the baby in his arms, he invites all of us to hold the baby Jesus. He reminds us that Mary and Joseph hand over this child even to a stranger—even to you and to me.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Mistakenly Unimpressed

Is anyone else disappointed with today’s miracle story from the Gospel lesson (Mark 8:1-10)? Only a short while ago, Jesus fed the five-thousand with five loaves and two fish. Now, he’s feeding four-thousand with seven loaves and a few fish. Not only is he feeding fewer people with more starting materials—he’s also doing the same miracle twice! Hasn’t he learned how to be a performer yet? A miracle worker isn’t supposed to do the same miracle twice to the same audience—especially if the second time around isn’t as impressive as the first. Perhaps, had he fed ten-thousand people with only two loaves and one fish the second time around, maybe that would have been ok. But this?

My reaction, of course, is a bit hyperbolic…but not totally inaccurate. And that says a lot about how easy it is for me to miss the point of the miraculous. I confess that I want Jesus to put on a show. I want him to amaze me with his “magic.” I want to look at the extraordinary and be overwhelmed by his power. But that’s not why Jesus performed his miracles. Each miracle reveals something previously unseen about who God is and how he works in the world. Jesus often chose expressions of power to disclose those truths, but I believe he did so because no one was noticing the disclosures that came in every-day packages. I argue that, had the world realized who God is and how much he loves the world, the “miracle show” wouldn’t have been necessary.

Yes, Jesus works his breathtaking feats of amazement partly because he was the Son of God and able to do things that no other human being could do, but he never performs a miracle simply for the sake of “wowing” an audience. He’s inviting them in. He’s asking them to consider the bigger picture. He wants the crowd (and us) to ponder what the miracle says about God and his kingdom. When I find myself gaping at the magic show, clapping my hands like a little child, saying, “More, more!” I know I’ve missed the point. In those moments—like when I initially read this morning’s lesson—I’m more interested in the content of the miracle than in the context into which it was wrought.

Feeding four-thousand with seven loaves and few fish is Jesus’ answer to his disciples’ question, “How can one feed these men with bread here in the desert?” And his reply isn’t just to provide a miraculous quantity of bread—seven baskets full leftover. Jesus uses the miracle to show them (and us) that in a place of wilderness and desolation he can still feed us. And he does it a second time to set us free from the historical moment of the event and to demonstrate that his ability to sustain the weak and weary isn’t confined to any specific time or place. First time, second time, any time—Jesus offers to feed us in ways we didn’t think were possible. If I only care about loaves and fish and five-thousand or four-thousand, I’ll never understand that.