Monday, May 27, 2013

Duhkha - Suffering

Ancient Near East Funerary

Readings for Trinity Sunday

Three in One .....
or Side by Side      
ONE God or Three?

Yesterday was the day church fathers set aside as Trinity Sunday. The lectionary readings are at best, a bit of delicate proof texting, to create some context for engaging the deepest of all mysterious doctrinal positions of Christianity, a topic which the other Abrahamic faiths clearly find fault in. How can Christians claim to monotheistic, and claim that God is Three persons, and yet entirely one in existence?

Rather than spending time on the Doctrine of the Trinity, which preachers throughout the Church attempted to answer head on and probably will have left a flock of confused people in the wake of the final "Amen", I'm simply going to take the best of the verses, and continue looking at the idea of suffering: 

Suffering...what's it good for, and where is God in the midst of it?

In my last entry, on the passage from Romans I expressed some concern about ways people think about God being the prime mover in events which cause human suffering. This passage, also from Romans precedes the passage of last week. (I know, go figure, why is it out of order?- because..they could and did.)

"Since we are justified by faith,
we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,
through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.
And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings,
knowing that suffering produces endurance,
                           and endurance produces character,
                                                  and character produces hope,
                                                    and hope does not disappoint us,
because God's love
has been poured into our hearts through the
Holy Spirit that has been given to us." Romans 5:1-5

Let's start by acknowledging that there is a huge diversity of opinions. There are those who believe absolutely in God being always at the root of every occurrence of their life. They hold that every action in nature is the direct result of God using nature to punish or reward the inhabitants of the universe. Their own success or failure is the work of God acting upon them. These will say, in the direst of circumstances, "God is in control." hhmmm really? 

I don't think so.

Here, just to take what I most recently wrote to a former co-religionist, on the topic of God being in control is what I said to her on this weighty matter...
I have to say, although I know you claim God is in control, and I assume that really does bring you comfort or reassurance, I don't regularly find that comforting or even accurate in describing God's hand in the universe. I do believe God is always working to bring about the best possible result out of the failures of human action. But too bleeping much that occurs in the world cannot nor should not be blamed on God. I know the Muslim viewpoint strongly holds to this as well, the idea that God is always in control...but really..asteroids, earthquakes, tornados, dictators, murderers, pedaphiles, predators, ...the list so long... is God in control of all that? Freewill and chaos reign, and God is still at work trying to create order out of it all...and somehow we are invited into that miraculous divine dance of co-creation, everyone needing to choose up sides, for ill or for good. Here we are Kin-dom weaving as best we can while forces tug to try to unravel what God so dearly desires for all creation. 
If you were to classify what I believe, it probably falls more akin to Buddhist philosophy: Suffering Happens.
So to be completely honest, I have to acknowledge all this discussion falls within what I call a big word category, that of "theodicy". Being rather evangelical and non-predestinarian I'm okay not spending huge amounts of time attempting to defend God's power through advocacy of Divine Punishment being executed in this life. Instead, I need something that answers the question what's good about suffering.This passage from the letter to the Romans was Paul's attempt to answer the same question.

I wrote several months ago about the topic of theodicy and referenced a book by Ethicist and Canon Theologian for the Diocese of Tennessee, Stanley Hauerwas, (Naming the Silences, 1990). I needn't repeat what was said before. I do want to suggest a few other things, which relate most specifically to suffering as a theological framework.

Suffering is wrapped up in all sorts of packages. A pregnant mother experiences pains as the child develops within her womb and then, the ultimate endurance test, the pain of labor resulting in the birth. Pain with gain; not bad overall. 

Suffering through persecution, as I indicated in the last post, which was Paul's objective referral, was not desirable per se, but would result in a reward, not measured in human terms. The reward to be received would be at the death of the mortal body. 

As a body of believers, other people's sufferings present occasions for the surrounding community to come together, particularly as we witness during natural disasters. In addition, individuals make it through the suffering of health, economic or natural disaster through drawing upon sources of external and internal strength. 

Like gravity, which holds us to the earth, some suffering does tend to increase the capability to both give and receive support over a lifetime. It provides genuine expression and recognition of what good exists in the universe. You might imagine that compassion is a muscle, and suffering is the stimulus for the compassion response expressed by another person. Internally, making it through an experience of suffering also increases the empathic response so that we can tend to the needs of one another over the course of our lives. But, for this to occur maximally, we require some form of community. 

Nevertheless we must be cautioned that we not become callous in our acknowledgement of suffering. One much overused statement is "No pain - No gain." Research has actually proven that "what does not kill us makes us stronger" is not true. Although we like to look for examples of this, employing what is known in research as a confirmation bias, actual research has clearly demonstrated that traumas repeated over time make the individual more fragile; weakened in ways imperceptible to the human eye. 

These micro-spiritual and psychological fractures require spiritual healing, supplied only by attentive care through a cohort of trained practitioners, among them, healing prayer ministers. It also requires general support and concern from a community. This is the place where I see God being the activating source and force. Through those who have been called into the vocations of healing through rescue, first response, medicine, research, therapy, spiritual care, pastoral and liturgical forms of attending God is immanent and manifesting concern toward the broken and injured of God's creation. 

In the final analysis, there is much suffering that concludes in death, sometimes, the worst being early death of children. The body is not made for eternal immortal existence. There will be a final hour, final minute, final breathe and completion of human existence. The promise of the passage Paul presents to us is quite simple. Being accepted as "justified", in right relationship, we need not fear some torturous existence in the next and eternal realm. The life death and resurrection of Jesus is the archetype of life cycle. Jesus' resurrection is God's final proof that God does control the most important thing, what happens to the spirit at the end of our mortal days. 

If you presently find yourself in the place of agnostic inquirer, I hope this will help you grasp the depths of the Christian message. I understand that it is incomprehensible by scientific method. That's why it's a faith tradition and matter of faith to accept and believe.

The Revised Common Lectionary offers something of a systematic plan of reading your way through the Bible? It is called "semi-continuous". It contains almost all books of the Old and New Testaments over a three year period. With some short breaks, and occasional slight switches in the ordering, overall, it provides a way in which the Church can be guided to read, study and be in conversation about the Word as it may be speaking to the Church in the present age.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Children of God

Romans 8:14-17

"All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, "Abba! Father!" it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ-- if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him."

What an incredibly rich text we are given in this short passage from the Letter to the Romans which Paul wrote. Children of God, Spirit of God, Suffering and Glorification all woven together to describe the Christian life.

The Bible comes to us because of the dedication, the piety and devotion of men who through the ages worked to transcribe copies of the original manuscripts. Every bit of it down lovingly by hand. In many monastic communities artistry accompanies the words, to provide what are known now as illuminated texts.
If this blog seems curious to you because I highlight specific words or phrases, perhaps you can come to appreciate it against the backdrop of the more ancient tradition of illuminated texts.

What was Paul suggesting in the idea of being Children of God, experiencing a spirit of adoption, suffering with Christ and being led by the Spirit of God?

Well, here I'm going to test your Biblical literacy a bit. Remember the story that comes from the Hebrew Bible, the leading of the People of Israel from bondage out of Egypt? The entire book of Exodus, the second book of the Hebrew Bible, (to Christians this is often called the first or "Old" Testament). This story is the framework of understanding Paul held. He knew himself to belong to the Chosen People, and that history included knowing the narrative of God's Spirit leading the way for Moses. For the Israelites, the Spirit of God was manifested through visible phenomenon. Pretty easy...see..follow..arrive at destination...wait until the next movement..follow.. and so forth.  Paul, on the other hand, does not suggest any visual aides would be necessary, nor forthcoming. In Paul's teachings to the followers of Jesus, all of this happens in an invisible, and inner way within each person. It is a spiritual action with consequent manifestations within each believer. The sense of having communication from God to believer is also implied within Paul's various writings to the communities and individuals he mentored. He refers to visions and dreams from time to time, throughout his body of writings. This too seems to be important to the concept of being led by the Spirit of God.

What does it mean to you to be "led by the Spirit of God"?

Buffalo in Yellowstone National Park

Can you recount an experience in which you were particularly aware of the sense that you were being led by the Spirit of God?

I asked someone recently how this passage spoke to the person. I wondered especially about the idea of being adopted, whether there was any vitality in this passage. As I suspected, at least for this one person, the passage sort of landed lifelessly.  In the Twenty First century children are put up for adoption for a variety of reasons. Also, with blended families, there are many marriages where children may have step-parents who adopt the child of their new spouse. How can this passage, which is intended to convey a rich and special relationship for all believers become a life-giving text when adoptions are not wholeheartedly viewed  as great events by the adoptees?^^ 

Our practice of adoption is very different from the practice of adoption which Paul used for his analogy. In Greek Mythology, adoption of Hercules was executed by Hera as a sign of his inclusion within the pantheon of Gods. Also, in ancient Rome, Emperors were known to adopt adult heirs very near their time of death to assure the continuity of the throne and power. Paul was familiar with this tradition and a concept of adoption always being a beneficent act. In the New Testament then, Paul introduces a novel idea in coining this phrase.

Paul has built upon the tradition which Jesus emphasized that God is Father of all, at least that tradition which the Gospel of John also conveyed. Paul suggests, that in choosing the life that mirrors the life of Jesus, our previously unknown relationship with God is revealed. We are children of God in order that we may fully appreciate a living and communicating relationship with God. It includes a concluding and fully consummating action, to be received from God at the end of our earthly days, when our mortal bodies fail and our spirit breaks free of the body which encased our spirit.

While there is great hope intended in this passage I think it fair to note that there does appear to be a tension within the passage. There is after all, a conditional statement, and a call for co-suffering by followers with Jesus that will be expected  which exists in the fulfillment of the promises described.

So we are challenged to consider the troubling ideas of suffering.

What are your "God-Thoughts", your theology of suffering?

Do you look at all the suffering that occurs in the world today and point fingers at God demanding answers?

Does the idea of dying for a cause, in this case, the cause of placing Jesus as the first and only Lord of your life resonate in a good, bad or indifferent way?

Paul's letter was written to address a specific form of suffering, which is best classified as political oppression. Christians were ardent in their refusal to acknowledge the ruler of earthly principalities, "governments" as the ultimate "Lord". The refusal to pay honor to the ruler or surrogate was met with harsh punishment, torture and frequently death. This treasonous behavior earned followers the extreme displeasure but the followers held tightly to their profession of faith. Martyrs were the ones who testified only to the Lordship of Jesus. These received cruel treatment for their treason, and death. Paul's letter assured these and future generations that this loyalty which resulted in death would also yield a reward which he called the glorification.

I've held missionaries in great admiration because of the cost of their discipleship. For two years, one of my ministry positions was that of serving as the congregational coordinator of missioners which we funded with the general budget of the parish. I corresponded with them, offering encouragement and shared their stories with the mission committee and members of the parish.  In order to enter the mission field, missioners hear a message directed to them in the words of Jesus, "sell all you have, give to the poor, and follow me." To do that, they divest themselves of real estate, and adopt a modified life that fits within the community style to which they go to serve. In my short term mission experiences I've always come home deeply appreciative for all the comforts of home I temporarily left behind in order to serve in a foreign location.  Insignificant inconveniences compared to the men and women over the past 2000 years who died as a consequence of their love and desire to bring the Gospel to people who did not know the message of salvation through Jesus Christ. It's folks like David and Ann Dedrick  who listened to the call to follow faithfully to serve in a foreign land that leave me recognizing how little I have actually had to endure that might be construed as sacrificial living. I haven't experienced any form of physical suffering in the cause of building God's kingdom in the present tense. But don't think I have some great desire to endure it either. I am grateful that what I've been called to do hasn't included any form of physical torture.I'm not at all certain I could endure without denying Christ. But this was the very issue which Paul wished to address in the conditional statement.

In referencing suffering let me can suggest that Paul surely felt there is a gigantic distance between intentional evil, illness and mortality which is anchored in the temporariness of the human body, and the visitudes of life, which include natural disasters. All of these can be referred to today as sources of suffering. But, to find personal meaning in this text, and to avoid the temptation to propose what are truly abusive theological claims, it will be more wholesome if we replace the word suffering with the phrase and notion of "sacrificial living". Sacrificial living is a faithful life not centered in self but in the desires of God for all to experience wholeness of life. This is the heart of the message Paul presents to the church today. 

Frankly, the thing that troubles me is the plethora of negative theological reflection that occurs around the idea of suffering in the present age. Every time a disaster hits, or a terminal diagnosis is rendered statements are made right and left as to how God has caused or intended specific events as a source of punishment or judgment. But, if one stops and simply asks the question what could Paul have possibly wanted to convey to the early church, the people in Rome and beyond, about suffering, we clearly cannot draw out an intention to communicate some form of fierce and judgmental God. PAul was instructing and communicating an intimate and loving relationship that exists between believers, Jesus, God the Father and the Holy Spirit. Out of the conditions of his time Paul constructed a narrative of the path for Christians to achieve "glorification".

Glorification is both exceedingly direct and yet quite mysterious. Its' mystery is in not being capable of proving  with scientific certainty that something happens to our essential spirit, the "soul' after our body ceases to function. Belief and faith are what we must operate upon. Glorification is the final stage of  the Christian salvation, which includes life in heaven.

Now, because of the construction of the last verse, which includes conditional statements, we who are followers of Jesus Christ must wrestle with this. I end up asking myself, "how can I suffer with Christ" in order that I will "inherit" the promise Paul has spoken of? This very same question has been carried in the minds and hearts of an untold number of Christians, from the first century all the way to the present day. It has sparked some spiritual practices that have included forms of self-flagellation. Honestly, I don't ascribe to the idea that was the intention of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Living in each day as a vessel of the Holiness of God places a new awareness within us. It draws us into a place where, in spite of difficult circumstances followers of Jesus Christ are able to pull through each day strengthened and sustained to bring about greater good in the world. Each day of this form of living brings glory to God. It evokes praise and wonder out of others.

The take away from this passage:

Know that you are dearly loved by God as one of his own children. Then, in response, glorify your Father in Heaven through  your daily life of self-sacrificial living so that you may see, at the end of your life, your own glorification, which is life eternal in heaven.

Tomorrow is Trinity Sunday. You can find the texts for that and the entire quarter here

^^ Adoption is a sticky topic.  The statistics and the process for present day adoptions could distract us from the real message being delivered by Paul through all ages.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Picture Pentecost

Pentecost......The Artistic Renditions

Well, I couldn't not dig into this topic because for more than 1500 years so many people learned the stories of our faith through pictures rather than words...

When you pick up the Bible and really begin to read, slowly and with meditative intention, perhaps using the form of reading called Lectio Divina, it becomes more evident that there are some varying accounts and even perhaps puzzling contradictions which people of faith must work their way through.

Let me also say, before I go further, that I wouldn't even begin to preach on this topic, and that of course is why I established this blog in the first place. This is not sermon material, it is study material.

I'm intrigued, and maybe you will be also, by what my reading eye sees in words versus the images used to create an account of the day of Pentecost.

I was reading articles on Sunday afternoon and came across a pictorial of stained glass windows depicting Pentecost. These inspired works of religious art date from the 13th century and later. This reminded me that the traditions and teachings of the Church were in large part visual and auditory rather than textual for the majority of people. Literacy was very low, a prerogative of the wealthy and few. In the Roman Catholic Church auditory access even remained very difficult right up to the pronouncements of "Vatican II". In that major changes went into place, establishing vernacular (common tongue of the local context) rather than Latin as the approved language of worship.

All in all, for a very long time, people learned the stories and traditions of the faith through the images that were included within the place of gathering for worship. The same is still true.

So let's begin the exploration today.

Look at each slide and ask ....what is the location... how large... or small?
Look also and ask yourself how many men and women in each figure carry the mark of a flame or dove above their head, or a nimbus (the golden glowing disk of the head).

Then look again at the Lectionary text for this week (following below), coming from the Book of Acts (written by Luke, the author of the Gospel of Luke). This story is widely held to be the principle account of Pentecost:

When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs-- in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power." All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine."
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
`In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.' "
I noticed the following in reading the TEXT:
They (the disciples) are in one place, "altogether". The number of all which is referenced being altogether is not specified. Only when it comes to describing Peter's address to the crowd is the disciples count listed, eleven and Peter. Twelve in total. You may or may not remember that one disciple hung himself the same day Jesus was arrested. So, who was the eleventh disciple that is being referenced in Acts 2? Was it a male or female? Although the word is "house", I think our mind tells us little when it really is a reference to House of the Lord; the Temple.

Here is what I noticed in the slideshow: 

6 of the 20 slides depict an intimate or semi intimate setting, rather than a large building.

This is significant because when we consult the original Greek text the word used is oikos. Consulting Geoffrey W. Bromiley's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament we do learn that this Greek word means house or dwelling. It was used to refer to a variety of settings, from "a cave, a temple, a palace or even a grave." (674).

The intimate space pictured might be an upper room of a house where "the disciples hid behind doors". This is in keeping with the account John the Evangelist gives as the place the disciples experienced the risen Lord within the week following the empty tomb, and the time at which Jesus "breathed upon them." These all illustrate one scriptural version, attested to as the tradition for one community of people who followed in the way of Jesus, but not that described by the Book of Acts.

Notice in particular that all of these place a female as the central figure. We can wonder, would that be Mary Magdalene, or Mary the Mother of Jesus? I would venture to guess the artist has this being the Mother of Jesus, just because of the time period of the artwork. By this time tradition was deeply embedded for adoration and access to God through Mary, the Holy Mother of God.

Notice that only one, slide 20, the Greek Icon at the end, does not include a recognizably female figure.

In total 14 out of the 20 slides place a woman I will call "Mary" as the central figure in the art.

AHHH... what happened to Peter in the visual representations? Peter who "stood with the eleven" in the written account? It seems we must look very closely to decide which of those many men would be Peter, since he hasn't been made visually central. Isn't it amazing how the Holy Spirit inspired a correction in the account!! Although the words of the text from Acts makes no reference to gender until the Prophet Joel is cited in Peter's loud address to the crowds, the inspired artwork seems consistently to make a visual correction to the story. Call that #SneakySpirit if you will. It fascinates and excites me to see this work in play across the ages.

In seminary Professor Gregory J. Riley often used the analogy of eyewitnesses to a car wreck for understanding the varieties of accounts in the Gospels. From any angle every witness would see more or less of the actual event. What each person told may differ widely from that of another person because of personal observation and perspective.  It is good to hold that frame of reference when reading scripture.

The differing images address the important role that women carried in the continuing community and especially the special place that the Mother of Jesus attained in Church. Among the Eastern Orthodox, she attained the title Theotokos, "God-Bearer", and to this day veneration of Mary is widely practiced.

Communities form their own stories to fit within the greater story of the ages. Art and Archeology demonstrates the way the Holy Spirit has helped inspire, equip, correct and embolden the people of God to bring about God's Dream for all humanity. That work occurred over time. In each community  artworks were commissioned to create visual pathways to the Divine. The newest of images seem to express great invitations to the Red Hot Holy Dance with the perichoretic nature of God, enlivened by the Holy Spirit. That work continues to this day.

We form our stories for who we are as the people of God by both words and actions which aide our remembering. We form community around a statement of belief, of cherished values, and of a hope for the present age, or for the future. 

What is the "Take Away"  from reading and marking? What might you or I want to "inwardly digest'?

Here is what I think might be valuable, in question form:

The question for us, whether we assume a place in a community of faith or not, is what vision and image of the future has God given you? And how will you convey that vision to others? Will you seek to belong to something that continues the work of breaking down barriers which started even before the first Pentecost? or will you continue move through life only as if you live entirely in the past past, bemoaning any change that draws us closer to the image of God and the full reign of God? Does the Word speak a word of hope to you for the present and future? Will you allow yourself to be known and loved by the Most Holy and therein receive the power of the Holy Spirit so that you can be co-creators with the Holy and Undivided Trinity, regardless of your gender, race, economic status, or any other human means of creating false divisions among ourselves.

What do you think?

Shalom Pax Salaam Paz Paix

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Tongues of Fire

Mexican Icon
Whitsunday Texts

Humans are meaning making creatures. We have encounters and experiences and attempt to make sense out of the event. If you don't believe me, just think about what you said to yourself the last time you saw a tragedy. It could be any tragedy, or even a near miss of a tragedy. What were the first thoughts that went through your head?  I will bet that one of the first thoughts was something along the lines of "What did they do wrong to deserve that?"  A turn for the worse in our own lives sparks a series of "why me's?" and often begins to look for something to point to as the cause.

Reading the Bible is reading a long continuing saga of some of humanity wrestling with all the events of past, and present in order to create meaning for themselves. In it is woven the people's attempts to name something completely different, powerfully experienced and intrinsic to their own sense of self. Every book has been written with inspiration from the Holy Spirit, but each book has had one primary author or redactor who molded the content to address the issues of their time. Some Christians will say that my view is heretical because I do not claim that "God wrote it", nor that it is infallible or without error. I do believe that the Bible contains everything necessary for salvation, and that it provides a wonderful framework for reflecting on what it means to live a faithful life as a member of the catholic (universal-worldwide) Church. The ancient creed says that the Holy Spirit "Spoke through the prophets." That signals a filter to me.

Today is one of the major feast days for the Church, Pentecost. The day marks a singular occasion fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus. It also is claimed as the "birth of the Church".

Isn't that a funny phrase? "Birth of the Church".

Having experienced childbirth twice myself, I confess my mind momentarily becomes rather literal when I hear this phrase. Everyone of sound mind and minimal scientific knowledge knows that births occur through the culminating actions of a woman. Mother God could no longer be contained.

Sorry, I mean not to offend your masculine bound language surrounding God. But it just seems to me that the fertile spilling of tongues like flames and all that creative activity has to be more feminine than masculine. The milk of heaven is the Holy Spirit, enriching and strengthening all who call upon the Divine, the Most Exalted One. Julian of Norwich called Jesus "our true Mother" in her inspired showings. Well, that was many centuries before this day, in a time when before the great breaking forth of the Holy Spirit. All this is to remind you that God truly does not have singular gender or form, and that in our describing of God at work in the world we do our selves a disservice to get hung up on attempting to nail God down to a singular gender.

The significance of the day is huge for me. The power and outpouring of the Holy Spirit has been manifested on numerous occasions in my life. Leading worship and preaching on Pentecost is the absolute best! It is Easter Plus!

Invite me into a time of praise that includes Come Holy Spirit and I experience the warmth and joy that can only come from being in God's presence. As John Wesley would call it, my heart becomes "strangely warmed", and although it may seem contradictory, tears flow on many occasions. Tears of shear joy, not sorrow.  

Well to get down to reading the texts for this Sunday, I confess this has been more sermon and testimony than study so far. I hope you'll forgive me today.  But then again, engaging in testimony is exactly the context  which the author Luke was attempting to document for all future generations when he wrote the the account found in Acts 2:1-21. Our present institution sprung forth with rapid speed at the beginning, and continues to grow, in spite of all dismal reports otherwise, because God works in every age to empower people in both gigantic and small ways to draw people into the red hot dance of holy living. That brilliant red hot dance has no equal, no matter what others will try to tell you. It's a barrier removing dance, just as on that first pentecost many of the followers were gifted with the ability to impart testimonies to the dispersed Jews who had made the trek to participate in the Spring Festival and present their yeast loaf offerings of thanksgiving. The significance of the audience is at least as important as the speakers. The text says
"And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs
Those who came to present their offerings according to the ancient customs must have been exceedingly devout men and women. They were descendents of the diaspora, the remnant of the many who were sold off at the time of the Babylonian Captivity, which took place more than 400 years earlier. These who gathered on the day of feast of weeks had retained the teachings of Moses in spite of their isolation from Jerusalem, the temple, and the remaining members of the tribes of Israel. They understood their connection to the long since established history as God's Chosen People and continued to hold fast to the promises and God.

Even more important to the story is the response which took place after Peter placed their experience back into their long story of who they were as people of God. Peter reminded the locals, Judeans and Jerusalemites that this experience was the fulfillment of words from the Prophet Joel.

The prophet Joel indicated that God's way of doing things would change in time. A time would come in which it would not matter that a person belonged to a particular clan, or tribe. It also would not matter the gender of the recipient of power to prophesy.

Herein is a rub for the conventional power brokers of the establishment, both then and now. Women and men would be gifted in the same way. No barriers,  no divisions, and no partiality. Prophesy, and the outpouring of God's Spirit on both men and women. I think that was tough word from God for a lot of people to swallow without choking on.

As a woman who continues to be deeply embedded within the institutional church, I wonder when the men and women of all denominations will finally recognize the fulfillment of the prophet's words are indeed happening when women receive anointing by the Holy Spirit and a call from God to ordination as an elder of the church. Granted, some do. But so many more don't. Even worse, a large number of denominations also approve of forms of abuse from husbands toward their wives, and general dismissive behavior toward women on the basis of their selective reading of scripture. I am so grateful to now be back within the Episcopal Church, which has worked hard to remain relevant to the present age while retaining the beauty of our ancient liturgical traditions and the Apostolic Succession.

So, in this week, I invite you to look again several times at the texts and think now about the significance of the short passage from the Book of Romans. This passage was written by the Apostle Paul. Notice how Paul has, just as Jesus did, refered to God as "Abba! Father!" This is an endearment term, tender and familiar, like "Papa" might be to us. I invite you to take a bold move if you have "Father Figure" issues. Use Amma, or Abuela, Abuelita or Mamacita, if that can connect you to the nurturing and loving relationship God desires to establish with you.

Shalom! Have a blessed week.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Easter 7C

The Texts

for Easter C7

The Gospel this week comes from John 17

"Jesus prayed for his disciples, and then he said. "I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
"Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them." John 17: 20-26

Nesting Dolls

WOW.. here is a text that really sends the mind in a swirling tizzy, doesn't it?   I couldn't think of any image better to raise up from the Christian Traditions than the celtic triquetra to open up the discussion on this scripture text. The Triquetra represents the trinity in what is also referred to as the Perichoretic dance. There is neither an end or beginning to the great entwining symbol.

Can you follow the rhythm and feel the motion? Do you hear that the prayer speaks of a present and a future life for the ones which Jesus is praying for?  The first sentence marked with two purple clauses not only (these), but also (those who will believe in me through their word). Can you dare to accept that this prayer has laid the foundation for you and I to be connecting at this very moment so that you, if you never have before believed, will come to believe in Jesus?  Startling and exciting! That's what I think every time I hear this passage.

We use a phrase, "before the foundations of the earth were laid" to describe the existence of the Creative Divine Spirit at work in the universe. There are so many different ways to refer to the Ultimate reality including "Almighty God", "Heavenly Father", and "HOLY ONE" in this day and age. From the Hebrew Scriptures there is El Shaddai, and Adonai, as the most popular names used throughout the Hebrew Bible*. Jesus in his prayers used Abba, which in the Aramaic language meant something much more intimate, like daddy. It really recast the communal understanding of God as a caring benevolent creating and governing force. In my own personal practice I often opt out of the use of Father in public prayer because I understand that a significant number of people have been denied the experience of a wholesome loving relationship with an earthly father. "Father" creates barriers to intimacy with God for them. While Jesus uses Father in this prayer, nevertheless, what I experience in reading it is quite ethereal. I find that this passage suggests something utterly transcendent, wholly different from the sense of organic human relationships. It's charged with electricity! In fact, in all the motion of the text the relationship Jesus describes sounds more like molecular physics. I completely failed chemistry and never moved forward into Physics while I was in high school, although now I have a grudging appreciation for. Atomic diagrams with the elements; protons, neutrons and electrons all steadily bound and swirling together dancing might be the best way to imagine the simultaneity of the Trinity. The triquenta captures God's unity perfectly for me.

Are you with me so far? Does the beauty and meaning of the prayer Jesus has spoken begin to take root in your unfilled "God Spot"?  I do hope so. I hope that you will receive the gift of realizing yourself as being anticipated and loved from the very beginning of time. You are a fruit, substance and being, a part of God's wonderful continuing creative energy at work in the universe.

Of course we still have to grapple with the whole idea of continuously spreading forward through time. Finding an image for that is both easier and harder to grasp. I've heard others use the idea of ripples spreading out from a pebble or stone cast into the waters. That seems a bit problematic simply because bodies of water have edges which block the ever expanding forward spiral.

The Nesting Dolls is a classic image to more aptly capture the telling of generations progressing through the ages. Considering that every being starts with sperm and egg to become an embryo which contains within it everything that will become life in the future I begin to grasp that the seed of the Holy Spirit is just as much potentially present within each and every one of us in this age, and resides dormant for the future generations within our being. Okay, I know, the Genome Project doesn't actually include any mapping of our metaphysical/ spiritual nature. That doesn't mean it isn't a possibility.  Wrestling more with this idea even leads us into the deep ethical waters around the question of "When does life begin?".

During my years in the United Methodist Church I discovered and received with great joy a new hymn, called the "Hymn of Promise"^^.

In the bulb there is a flower;
in the seed, an apple tree;
in cocoons a hidden promise: butterflies will soon be free.
In the cold and snow of winter, there's a spring waits to be,
unrevealed until it's season, something God alone can see. (Verse 1)
(Natalie Sleeth)  

This song speaks to me of the beautiful unfolding of all creation. Its theme is labeled Death and Eternal Life, but is clearly also speaks of hope, of connection and creation calling forth out of creation. It kindles awareness of God's hand at work in and through all things. God, which Paul reminds us is our embryonic fluid, "the one in whom we live and move and have our being" desires only good, and unity for all creation. May it be so.

But the harsh reality is we are still moving and living in an imperfect state of being.
Even within the church universal, we are not all of one mind. We war and fight and jostle for the place of authority. We fail to see the goodness of God dwelling in one another and engage in bickering of both petty and grand scope. That must have been what Jesus anticipated in his prayer that John recounts to us.

Sad but true, we are living between times.

Jesus has long since suffered death, been buried, raise and ascended  to heaven. And the Holy Spirit has been poured upon all the first believers as well as countless people and generations since that first Pentecost. We are even living in the hope (no, not fear) of Jesus' coming again, and the time of judgement; the end of the Age.

We are walking day by day approaching the end of our mortal days. For me it is a quiet hope, that holds both excitement and mystery. Excitement in the present age and something completely unimaginable for the future.

That is why this week's collect is especially poignant..  Between the Ascension and the End of the Ages we must live by faith led by the tangible experience of life in Spirit. However you like to refer to third person of the Trinity; Paraclete, Advocate, Holy Ghost, Holy Spirit, Spirit of Truth, Sustainer, whatever that may be that resonates most deeply within you, the Feast of Weeks for which the first disciples waited in Jerusalem to commemorate does truly mark a new way of being in relationship, both with God and Humanity. All creation groans with yearning for the fullness of relationship which can only barely approximate unity in the spirit at the conclusion of our earthly existence. 

O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Have a blessed week...

P.S. If you are a woman, interested in meeting together for an interesting look at the Hidden tradition of Friendship of Women in the Scripture, check this out. First meeting May 18, 2013

*Hebrew Bible : Christians hold that the Hebrew Bible is divinely inspired and contains Spiritual Truth.
^^Hymn 707 United Methodist Hymnal, 1989

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Ascended into Heaven

Icon of the Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Thanks to the patrons of the arts, this Icon can be viewed in San Diego at the Timken Museum of Art. 

Today is the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus.

As the ancient Creed attests, Jesus ascended "to sit at the Right Hand of the Father".

The scriptural accounts for Jesus' ascension are found in several traditions of the Gospels.

Although the "short version"of Mark did not include an ascension of Jesus, the longer version, does.
The remaining three Gospel accounts  offer some form of anticipatory teaching about the future place of Jesus: 
Matthew 26:64 - Jesus tells that He will be seated in the heavens at the right hand of God
Mark 16: 19 "So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, He was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God."
Luke 24:31; Acts 1:1-11.
The fullest account of the Ascension of Jesus which includes many preparatory statements, are found in the Gospel of John; John 6:62; John 7:33; John 14:28; John 16:5; John 20:17.

The sky was perfect today to commemorate the special feast day. It perfectly fit the image I carry in my
mind for the story in the Book of Acts.

I love the passage in the Book of Acts.

It makes me think of the Television Series and Movies of Star Trek.."Beam me up Scotty!" Sorry, it's true. 

The disciples are getting their farewell lesson from Jesus, and then, he's gone. They are standing staring up into the heavens and then they hear "Why are you men staring at the Sky?" Well, duh.. I think to myself whenever I read that line. They were baffled, perplexed, overcome with joy and yet petrified probably.
Why indeed! Because now they had to face the world without the master. They were days away from Graduation and Commencement of their new life, without any idea how things would turn out.

I've never spent a great deal of time studying scripture in relation to the Ascension of Jesus. In may ways I feel that it's a feast I've never really fully commemorated, primarily because of many years spent away from the Episcopal Church and my own time commitments. I think I must have opted to preach on the Epistle Lessons almost every year. I find myself feeling like the disciples after the resurrection, before his ascension, in need of a hefty "mind opening to all that was written in the scriptures."

Now I also wonder, why didn't I?

Well, perhaps it boils down to two reasons


I've always simply claimed the statement of faith at face value and recognized the basic "facts" of scripture, as you find in the texts listed above.


I've always been far more Holy Spirit Centered. I understand that mystery as MYSTERY far more comprehensively.

Fundamentally, I've accepted the beautiful mysterious "truth" that is contained in scripture and sleep easy resting in the awareness of Christ being present now and in every age through the Body of Christ. I know that the ascension of Jesus is a counterpoint, perhaps an apologetic device, to match the traditions of Elijah and Enoch. I'm okay with that.

After all, who am I to doubt the power, means or purpose of God Almighty?

The teaching is easy:
After the resurrection of Jesus, he remained on earth for 40 days, and then, ten days before the great feast of weeks which we call Pentecost, Jesus Ascended while in the presence of the disciples.

But this week I thought it would be worth spending a little time researching.

I found this link online about the prediction about Jesus' Ascension to heaven from the Hebrew Scriptures.

Now recently I was in conversation with several Muslims, students attending the Leadership Studies at Claremont Lincoln University. One of the students informed me that the Qu'ran testifies that Jesus ascended without having died, been buried, or resurrected. This was really astonishing news to me.

So I have a question for other Christians:

How would it alter your faith if the teaching of Islam about the Ascension of Jesus was the "True" story?

There is no science that can prove or disprove. Only experience, which John Wesley included as the fourth leg of understanding (Scripture, Tradition, Reason, Experience) for faith. The inner conviction that arises within the heart that is a stirring of the Holy Spirit is "experience" and no other thing can replace or supplant that for myself. 

My answer to this question for myself, is that I refuse to accept that the doctrine I've been taught is in error. I believe that if it were in error, the Holy Spirit would have convicted me of the error in the teaching.  That is sufficient for me. I accept that the Holy Bible contains the necessary and inspired teachings about the life death, resurrect and ascension of Jesus, and all things necessary for Salvation.

Call me simple minded on this issue if you wish. "Jesus is the Way" for me, and there is simply  no option for me to accepting the statement of Faith.

Come again Lord Jesus, Maranatha!

May 9, 2013

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Visions and dreams

The Story from the Book of Acts found in this week's lesson holds an important tradition, the significance of visions and dreams to the people of God over time and through the ages. I also admit, that my inner feminist critic is sparked a bit by this particular example of the tradition. As the story is written, we hear
"there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." 
One would assume that upon arrival at Philippi, Paul would start looking for someone who looked like the man in his vision. Well, at least I assumed that as I read the text. However, as the story continues within this short passage we observe that according to Luke (the author of Acts as well as the Gospel of Luke), Paul actually took the following course of action upon his arrival.
"On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there."

Now I have read this passage annually, if not once, multiple times, over the course of my Christian life, which now spans 44 years. Until this year, I never really gave much time to questioning who the characters were in the story. I figured that "the man" in the vision was actually the image of a living Macedonian male. I also didn't catch the irony of the following event; Paul encounters women, not men, as his first audience for proclamation to the Macedonian community.  So this year as I began to look at the text again this question arose in my mind:

Q. Would Paul have responded to the plea of the Macedonian if it had been a woman in his vision, instead of a man?

No, I don't have an answer to that question.

Instead I have another thought, another possibility to the representation of the person in the dream.
Perhaps, in fact, Paul felt that the man was truly the LORD calling Paul directly to aid in the spreading of the Gospel to the region of Macedonia.

And this takes me on a bit of a tangent, rather than to directly address the story of Lydia, because there is a significant issue for the present age that should not be overlooked during the month of National Awareness of Mental Health .

Visions and dreams are powerful motivators among spiritual people. At one time people who experienced visions and dreams were considered special spiritual guides of the community. Once upon a time...

But not so much any more.

Now, people who tell other people that they have had visions are considered quite seriously to have a mental illness. Women have always been especially subject to diagnoses of mental instability if they openly discussed having received visions. In her 2003 Madleva Lecture on Spirituality, Sidney Callahan thoughtfully examines this issue. Her monograph*, Women Who Hear Voices: The Challenge of Religious Experience is on my highly recommended reading list. She writes from her position as a Psychologist and Christian Ethicist. Her monologue nuances the differences between religious experience and pathology.  She sums her agenda in this way.
"My personal agenda in taking on this intellectual challenge is twofold. While respecting the scientific validity of modern psychiatry, social psychology and cognitive science, I would like to be able to demonstrate that the general and automatic suspiciousness of women's religious experiences as illusionary and inauthentic is mistaken. I contend that there is growing evidence that human beings are innately religious, innately capable of intense religious experience and that this is normal and positive psychological capacity. While cases of mental illness can exhibit religious themes and content, authentic religious experiences exist and further the flourishing of humankind." (41, )
Imagine if Julian of Norwich were simply viewed as mentally ill all those years of her life as an anchoress. If her writings about her understanding of the appearings would have been tossed aside as the drivel of a madwoman we would be stripped of such great words of consolation as "all will be well" would be lost to us and the scores of men and women who sought her counsel would never have seen in her the gifts she possessed for the edification of the Church.

Sorry, just a bit of pondering.

Back to the text..

This interaction of engagement, proclamation, acceptance of the word, baptism, and conversion set an important pattern for the missionary work of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. It was however a pattern that had to be adjusted to recognize new cultural conditions.

Women's missionary societies were formed in many denominations, including the Protestant Episcopal Church of America. Methodist and Presbyterian women formed their own organizations as well for one purpose, to fund women who felt called to evangelistic endeavors to women in foreign lands. The Missionary movements recognized the cultural barriers of Men connecting with Women in traditional cultures, especially those of Islamic tradition. Women on the other hand would be free in move among women and from those interactions they would be free to share the gospel message.

Lydia, a powerful and resourceful woman of her community, brought her household into the body of Christ then and serves now as a model for women in the Church for stewardship and mentoring of others into the fullness of Christ.

We cannot see the alternate history that would have evolved if two things occurred instead;
1. Paul not responding in faith to the vision that sent him to Macedonia.
or going but then 
2. Paul refused to speak with the women, denying their innate worth and worthiness to learn about the Lord Jesus Christ, instead focusing on find the "man".

Nor will we ever know how diminished the Church would be today if the account of this conversion were not contained within the Christian Traditions and Scriptures.

I find only this question worth spending some time in reflection and prayer:

What if all men today treated all women with the same dignity and worth as Paul did Lydia, regardless of their wealth, and stature in the community as power-brokers. How then might the Kingdom of God grow into the fullness of God's Dream for us?

What if?

*Paulist Press, 2003

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Easter 6C

For those who are confused by the idea of a "Liturgical Calendar" you may think it funny that I reference to Easter "Six" but it makes great sense as the tradition helps retain the context of the first followers of Jesus.

You see, after his death, and resurrection, the first followers almost all of them being Jews, returned to the patterns of their ancestors, including the feasts instituted under the leadership of Moses and Inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  Shavuot followed fifty days after the feast of Passover. Our liturgical calendar, and consequently the lectionary readings, take this historical fact into account as we re-member each major event in the life of Jesus of Nazareth and the early church which God called into existence following the resurrection and ascension of Jesus.

Easter season is almost to the end...well at least in the "Western Church". Eastern Orthodox Christianity is just now celebrating Holy Week.

Easter which is the Resurrection Feast is past. The Ascension feast is just within reach to be followed ever so quickly by the great feast of Pentecost (a word that means literally 50th) .. Pentecost will conclude the "week of weeks".

In the Episcopal Church as in the Church of England we use the Book of Common Prayer  which contains a Collect (a short prayer) that sets the intention for the worship of the community gathered throughout the world. The sense of belonging to the united Body of Christ, not simply one person alone and wavering through this world, wandering for no particular purpose or end is part of what holds me within the Episcopal Church.

You can find all the readings, including the Collect for the week on the link immediately below. Notice that this Sunday offers options for the Gospel Reading.

 The Texts This Week

Could you pray this prayer in the company of other people and say AMEN?

 O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

This isn't an idle question.

Could you pray this prayer in the company of other people and say AMEN?

If you embrace the idea that God is the source of all good material things as well as the ultimate source incomprehensible good the "Amen" comes with ease.

However, if you are in place of doubt, still skeptical about the nature of God, this may not be such an easy prayer to enter into and conclude with a strong acclamation of ascent to the requests.

Worship is about coming together to join "as one Voice" to offer praise, adoration and thanksgiving to God as well as to ask for outcomes from God (supplication and intercession). This prayer rests on the foundational principle that God is able to provide greater good for each of us than any of us could ever imagine.

In this prayer we have an assumed relationship that works both Vertically and Horizontally. Love flows from God ("you"), the source, so that we can extend that love toward others but most importantly to keep God as the highest priority as the object of our affection.

It also sets up something of a conditional relationship which describe mysteries of the Christian life but is described in two ways: "such good things" and "promises"
"Surpass our understanding" and  "which exceed all that we can desire".
As I meditate on this relationship which was established in the prayer, I note that there is nothing outside of love that is required. The only transaction required is a transaction of the exchange of Love.

  1. Receive love ("pour into our hearts')
  2. Love God in all things 
  3. Love God above all things
  4. Receive "promises".

Since this is a prayer for the entire church to focus their worship for Sunday and to carry into the coming week, the deeper question which remains is to put into more detail what the promises are which we can anchor our hope upon. To fully comprehend the content of the "promises" I find a lifetime of study of Scripture may never completely answer. But that is where the answers are most readily found. Not very many women or men of God have been graced with visions that contain the answer.

What I find most delightful in these steps is #2. Love God in all things.  Big questions pop into mind. Whatever I see, or know about, whomever I come into contact with in some way carries God within them.  In yoga practice, the divine embedded in each person is acknowledged at the close of each session with a simple one word greeting ,"Namaste". Namaste is translated as "the divine in me acknowledges the divine in you".

As you read the lessons from the Gospel of John I hope that you will begin to see this pattern of acknowledging the divine being recognized in many ways. 
It also magnifies an important point as we read the Gospel Lesson found in Chapter 5 of the Gospel of John.

We have a healing story in chapter 5, which serves to reveal the nature of God through the ministry of Jesus which also serve as a model for healing ministry of the church in the present age.

A man was there at the pool of the sheep gate when Jesus walked by...did you catch that the day was the Sabbath? 

Archeologists tell us that the pools at the sheep gate was a religious shrine area of the god Aesclepios. It was an Aesclepion, a Greek "hospital" based partly on miraculous healing by divine intervention. 

Jesus, walks into the middle of the hospital, disrupting and exposing a failed cult

Jesus asks a simple question.  "Do you want to be made well?"

The reply the man gives sounds like a bit of blaming, self-pity or excuse making. In truth, presumably it was a real catch 22. He apparently lacked social support. No one cared enough about his well-being any longer to assist him into the pool at the right moment. Perhaps he was a malingerer... but I doubt that. I believe he truly did have desire enough to see his condition relieved.

I wonder how often today do people go to the doctor with a complaint; they receive instructions from the doctor which contain relatively easy lifestyle changes, but they disregard the instructions to their own detriment.

I know this happens. Too often. Clinicians know first hand that it happens and lament their efforts to establish a change of behavior.

In the healing ministry in our parish we always recommend that people consult doctors and others from the field of medicine. If they "want to be made well", they must seek proper diagnosis and treatment.They also need to follow the advice and treatments with a recognition that God has called into being a vast array of healing ministers, which carry special titles (doctor, nurse, therapist, etc) with expertise to bring comfort, relief, sometimes cure, and more often management of chronic condition. The healing ministry team reminds them in the anointing and prayer spoken of the ultimate promises of our faith.

Jesus had access to the Father and to the Holy Spirit in his earthly ministry, which in turn allowed him to speak with the greatest authority imaginable.

Simple prescription: Pick up your mat.

ok, perhaps not so simple...

the man did have to trust ...

and obey.