Let us Look: Jesus Meets His Mother

For the past few weeks I have been posting reflections on the work of the artist Timothy Schmaltz which is found outside the Malvern Retreat House. The Malvern Retreat House is where my cohort of the Academy for Spiritual Formation meets every three months.

The point of the reflections have been to go deeper into the passion narrative. I have been following a pattern through these contemplations. I seek to show up, slow down, stay still, and stay with each image. Each area of contemplation has led me deeper into each image, so I have been careful to attempt to do all four steps with every meditation.

As I show up with the image, I take the time to be aware of who I am as a person. My own perspective will change the way that I see the station, so I seek to find out where I am in relation to this image as I arrive in this place of contemplation.

The first thing I am aware of in my own life is my tendency to rush past these contemplations. I believe this is partially because I want to move forward quickly, but I am also aware of my own tendencies to always rush past these types of moments. As a self-identified Protestant, I have found myself willing to rush past the passion into the resurrection. I cannot say every Protestant rushes through the passion narrative, but I have the tendency to rush.

The time that I have personally spent with the cross has been time spent either pushing a theological agenda or marching through to Easter. In my earlier days, I would describe the cross as a bridge. I would stand on one side of a giant chasm, eternal life would stand on the other, and I would describe the gap as the place where sin leads to death. A cross would be placed between the two and there would be a bridge. Theologically, I still believe that there is a lot of truth in this illustration, but I would rush over the bridge both in my own description and in my own reality. I do not enjoy time thinking about Jesus’ suffering and I do not want to ruminate on thoughts of Jesus’ suffering, even if I know that such ruminations may bear fruit.

The cross is uncomfortable as it was the place where Jesus suffered. The cross continues as a symbol of a place of sorrow and a place of pain. In today’s contemplation I find myself drawn to an understanding that I am not the only one who sees the sorrow in this moment in time. The station today is entitled “Jesus Meets His Mother.”

“Jesus meets His Mother” by Timothy Schmaltz

“Jesus meets His Mother” by Timothy Schmaltz

As I slow down with this image, I find myself drawn into the imagery. There’s a real sorrow in this station. Jesus has been held for generations of Christians as being fully human and fully divine. Jesus had a mother and today’s image has her clinging to her son’s chest in sorrow. Jesus, as her son, reaches down to hold her as well. Although Jesus holds her, I wonder if he thought of the times she had held him in his infancy and childhood. I wonder if Mary thought of the times she kept Jesus safe by holding him in her arms.

Mary can no longer protect Jesus. Jesus cannot avoid the path that he must tread. There’s a profound sorrow in this image that strikes me deeply. As I stay still with this image I find myself thinking about my own children and my own mother. Could I honestly imagine what it would be like to hold my daughter as she went to her death? The sentence has been announced and Mary will lose her son at the end of his journey. He is going to die.

Even if she has a hope in his resurrection, nobody would want to watch their son go through this kind of pain. In my own contemplation I am drawn back to my younger daughter Joy at the hospital around a year ago. She went into surgery for a tonsillectomy without any real concept of what pain she would be going through in the next few days. She thought her immunization shots were awful. I remember her cries of pain after the surgery. I remember holding her close to my chest as she wept in pain. I remember the feeling of absolute helplessness that I felt while I held her tight and wished the pain away.

Was Mary having such memories of the first time Jesus stubbed his toe, got picked on by a neighbor, or had a rough day? Did she feel the hot bruises on his body? Did she see the blood pouring from her son’s forehead? Can you imagine the sorrow she must have felt? I could not wish this fate on any parent.

As I think about what will stay with me about this contemplation, I think it is a deep appreciation for what Mary went through as a parent. I will hug my kids extra tight tonight as they go to bed. I will think about what Mary went through and I will mourn the sorrow of her pain. Thank God that Easter happens, but can you imagine dwelling in that loss for three days?

Let us Seek: The Mourning Faithful

I decided to tackle a difficult subject in today’s blog post. One of the sets of readings for today in the Revised Common Lectionary includes Genesis 49:29-50:14. This passage is one of the more poignant moments in the relationship between Joseph and his father Jacob.

Jacob had loved Joseph dearly as a child. The coat which Jacob gave to Joseph is the inspiration behind one of the most popular musicals of the last century. The affection of Jacob for Joseph was pervasive and powerful enough that it inspired artistry from ancient times until the modern day. Their separation had been ended after a period of grief and mourning after circumstances led them together again as a family in the context of a famine in the land of Jacob and abundant stockpiling in the land of Joseph’s servitude in Egypt. The struggles between Joseph and his brothers led to Joseph being able to provide for his family in a time of need. God blessed Jacob and his family through even the rough circumstances endured by Joseph. Joseph’s faithfulness saved his family. Today’s story is about the next separation between Jacob and Joseph.

Joseph was faithful. Joseph’s father still died. Jacob did not live forever. The affection and love between the two moved from a daily reality into a matter of memory for Joseph. Joseph still experienced lost despite all of his faithfulness, all of his goodness, and all of his fidelity to God.

Even faithful people experience loss. Many people see the loss of a parent, a friend, or a child as a punishment from God. Sometimes loss can feel like a punch in the gut and I would never belittle or berate someone for feeling grief. Still, it must be said that for now death is a reality which all people must face in time.

Scripture is filled with the faithful of ages past and almost every single person in the stories of the scripture experienced death both in their immediate family and eventually in their own experience. Were it not for Enoch in Genesis 5 and Elijah in 2 Kings 2, every single person in the scriptures who have been described as dying or would have died by chronological inevitability, including Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Yes, Jesus died. Yes, Jesus rose. Yes, Jesus will come again.

One of the promises in life which is clung to by many of the faithful is that death will eventually be no more. I look forward with anticipation to being with my mother and my grandparents again on the distant shore which I will reach when I have passed from this life or Christ comes again, but neither of those moments have yet to pass in my life. For now, death is a reality which we all must face, whether we are Jacob, Joseph, or even my own children.

I believe that Joseph’s journey can teach us some things about our own journeys of grief. First, I think there is something wise in the concept of leaving room for our own grief. Joseph not only goes about the task of preparing his father’s body—Joseph enters into grief. He takes time to go on a journey to the land of Jacob and he spends time there in mourning. He accepts his sorrow, laments what has happened, and spends seven days in grief. He does not simply rush through the motions—Joseph takes time to grieve.

Second, Joseph does not shun his loss or pretend it does not happen. Joseph goes to Pharaoh, explains his promise, and takes time away from his responsibilities. Joseph did not live in a time where he earned paid time off for his service to the Egyptian monarch. Joseph had to intentionally ask for space. His request could have serious consequences (like those experienced for rejecting another man’s wife earlier in his life), but Joseph is willing to risk the consequences because he has accepted the value of what must happen. His grief might have a cost but Joseph is willing to pay the cost, even if it causes him influence, pride, or even prestige.

Third, Joseph eventually returns to life. In time, after he has paid all due respect and has cared for his responsibilities, Joseph goes on with life. Joseph returns to Egypt and resumes the tasks which have been set before him by the Pharaoh.

In time, we all enter places of grief. In time, we all struggle. Even the most faithful of individuals eventually has to face the journey to the other shore, whether in the life of a loved one or on our own journey. As you inevitably face grief, I pray you find the tenacity, courage, and eventual ability to move forward that was modeled by Joseph.

Let us Seek: “If it had not been…”

One set of today’s readings from the Revised Common Lectionary includes Psalm 124. Psalm 124 is one of my favorite psalms from a rhetorical perspective. I adore the repetition of the phrase “If it had not been for the Lord who was on our side.” The phrase is used twice in the first two verses of the psalm. They are only separated by the phrase “Let Israel now say” in an attempt to compel the people of God to join in the chorus.

The psalm reminds me of countless worship services, concerts, and festivals where I have heard a singer invite the audience or congregation to join in the music. While this is not a call and response situation, the power of the phrasing brings to mind the same compulsion to join in the song of the faithful. Robert Altar notes that he shares this impression in his translation and commentary “The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary” (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007). Altar writes: (443)

“The second of these two versets is a formal exhortation, probably on the part of a choral leader, to the community of worshippers to chant the words of the liturgical text that begins in the first verset and continues in verse 2 through to the end of the psalm… The Hebrew, with its abundant use of incremental repetition, has a strong rhythmic character that would have lent itself to singing or chanting”

I am glad Altar agrees with my reflections and my tendencies with this psalm. One reason that I am glad is that I always appreciate being verified in my assumptions by a respected scholar like Robert Altar. The second reason that I am glad is that psalms like this psalm always strike me as invitations.

What if this psalm is an invitation to look at our own perspectives and experiences with a similar lens? The Psalmist claims the help of the Lord in the midst of challenges within this psalm. The Psalmist looks at the circumstances of challenge in life and notes God’s presence has made a difference in the life circumstances of the congregation. This invitation is especially powerful when we consider that the community as a whole is invited to join in the proclamation.

If I were a Hebrew man who was joining in this psalm, what might I think about as I talk about the powerful and salvific presence of God? Surely, I would consider the events of the Pentateuch and the salvation of the Jewish people, but I might also consider the times when I was sick and I felt God draw me out of the darkness. Surely, I would consider the events in the lives of the prophets, but I might also remember the times I stood by listening to my wife screaming as a child was brought safely into the world. There might be many thoughts on my mind as I joined in the psalm if I were a Hebrew man in the great congregation of the faithful.

So, what do I think of when I consider this psalm today? If it were not for the Lord, would my kids be healthy and safe? Surely, I am blessed by the world where my children live, but let us be clear. My children bear my genes and often my idiosyncrasies. I am surprised enough to have survived my own silliness and to have lived into the life I now lead. I am even more surprised it appears to be happening again! If it were not for the Lord, would I be here today? If it were not for the Lord, would my kids be safe and happy? I believe God has had a role in the lives of my family. If it were not for the Lord, my own silliness might swallow us up. Thanks be to God!

Where do you feel blessed by the Lord? What places in your life might have turned out differently if it were not for the Lord?

Let us Ramble: On Unity

Unity is currently an interesting word within United Methodist circles. The United Methodist Church is currently in prayer for “The Commission on a Way Forward” (hereinafter, “Commission”) The Commission was established by the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church by the General Conference delegates at the request of the Council of Bishops. Conversation has revolved around concepts like unity as the Commission has continued to meet over the past year.

As a result, of this conversation, my eyes have been drawn to the word “unity” when I have come across it both in my reading and in my study. I was drawn to thought when I came across the collect “For the Unity of the Church” in “The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other RItes and Ceremonies of the Church: Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David according to the use of The Episcopal Church” (hereinafter, “BCPASORCCTPPDAUEP” (just kidding)). The collect reads: (certified 2007)

“Almighty Father, whose blessed Son before his passion prayed for his disciples that they might be one, even as thou and he are one: Grant that thy Church, being bound together in love and obedience to thee, may be united in one body by the one Spirit, that the world may believe in him whom thou didst send, the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the same Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen.”

In a similar manner, I was drawn into prayer and contemplation by the first full paragraph of the letter “From the colony of the Church of God to the colony of the Church of God at Corinth, called and sanctified by the will of God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” which is found in “Penguin Classics: Early Christian Writings” as translated by Maxwell Staniforth and revised by Andrew Louth (New York: Penguin Books, 1968). The paragraph which caught my eye reads:

“Because of our recent series of unexpected misfortunes and set-backs, my dear friends, we feel there has been some delay in turning our attention to the causes of dispute in your community. We refer particularly to the odious and unholy breach of unity among you, which is quite incompatible with God’s chosen people, and which a few hot-headed and unruly individuals have inflamed to such a pritch that your venerable and illustrious name, so richly deserving of everyone’s affection, has been brought into disrepute.”

The concept of unity caught my attention sharply in both of these readings. I was sharply caught by the ideas in the letter from Rome to Corinth, which is generally considered to have been authored by Clement of Lyons, the bishop of Rome at that time. Clement’s words were very strong. Disunity is described as having brought the name of the church in Corinth into disrepute. Indeed, of all of the struggles being faced by the church in Corinth, the disunity in the community is the very first thing that the church of Rome brings to the forefront for conversation.

Certainly, there is a brief statement of thanksgiving and blessing as per the custom of letter writing in that era. The church in Corinth is acknowledged to be called and sanctified. Indeed, before the letter writer enters into our quote, the writer also expresses the blessing, “All grace and peace to you from God Almighty, through Jesus Christ.” The combination of these statements is very brief and Clement is very clear that this is a situation that deserves to be addressed even as the church in Rome has her own situations to work through in her journey of faith.

Indeed, Clement was very concerned about the disunity of the church. The very next sentence Clement writes is, “There was a time when nobody could spend even a short while among you without noticing the excellence and constancy of your faith.” The connection that I make in this reading is that the disunity of the church in Corinth has led to others seeing their faith as being inconsistent and less than excellent. There’s a high opinion of unity in Clement’s writing.

Indeed, the high opinion of unity is seen in the collect. The collect asks God for unity within the church so that the world might believe in Jesus Christ. The church is called to unity in the collect through the binding together of the church by both love and obedience. Love and obedience are seen as reasons for unity within the life of the church even as that unity is seen as a converting witness.

Indeed, Jesus prays in John 17:11, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Jesus prayed that we would have unity as a people. There is a strong emphasis on the importance of unity in Clement, in the prayers of the church, and in the scriptures themselves.

So, if unity is so important, why is it ignored so often? Why do we engage in behavior like gossip if we know that there is almost no quicker way to stab unity in the back than to engage in gossip? Why do people hop from community to community looking for people like us if we know that we are called to be in community across the spectrum? Why do we do the very things that we do?

In many ways, the struggle of the church over questions of unity throughout the centuries reminds me of the writings of Paul. Ironically, while writing to the church in Corinth, Paul describes a struggle that he has faced in 2 Corinthians 12. Paul describes how there is a thorn in his side which has forced Paul to his knees in prayer repeatedly. Paul uses that thorn as a reminder of his weakness, a reminder of his dependency on the grace of God, and as an invitation to contemplate the power of Christ.

I wonder if our ongoing struggle with these concepts is continual because we are in need of a reminder of our weakness. I also wonder if our ongoing struggle with gossip is a sign of our unwillingness to let go of this most basic of sinful behaviors. Indeed, the works of the flesh listen in Galatians 5 include such sinful vices as dissensions, factions, strife, enmities, and other behaviors which should be excised from the life of the faithful. As Paul states in Galatians 5:21, those who do these things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Unity is a concept that I believe we all need to be in prayer around as a community. God’s call is for us to be one. It deserves to be noted that God does not call for uniformity among the church. God’s call is for us to be united in Christ and unity does not require absolute conformity.

Paul seems to agree with this assertion that unity is important. Clement seems to agree with the assertion that unity is important. The collects and prayers of many modern denominations seem to agree with this assertion that unity is important as well. With such a great cloud of witnesses inviting us to see the importance of unity, it is crucial that we be in prayer both on obtaining unity and understanding what unity might actually look like in our context.

Let us Look: Jesus falls for the first time

One of the blessings of the Academy for Spiritual Formation is that the session I am attending is located at the Malvern Retreat House. The Academy is located in some fairly beautiful scenery. For the past few weeks I have been journeying into the concept of contemplation by spending time with the Stations of the Cross located near the Retreat House. In particular, I have been trying to explore how the statues in that particular set of stations lead me to go deeper into the scriptural narratives of the passion narratives of the four gospels.

This week I am spending time with the third station on the journey. I have previously blogged about the first station which depicts the condemnation of Jesus. I have also blogged about Jesus taking up his cross for the first time. This third station on the journey was also created by the artist Timothy Schmaltz. I will admit that I think this particular statue is a bit…cartoony in the depiction of Jesus’ fall. I continue to be unable to see how it would be possible to fall in the particular method depicted. This week there are two angles we can use to ponder the image.

Statue by Timothy Schmaltz outside of Malvern Retreat House

Statue by Timothy Schmaltz outside of Malvern Retreat House

As previously stated, the four stages of contemplation that I am using for this particular exercise are as follows:

  1. Show up
  2. Slow down
  3. Stay still
  4. Stay with

As I show up with this meditation, I find myself drawn in memory to a conversation with a friend I made at the last session of the Academy. We had conversed about how the statue did seem a bit humorous. Jesus is flying through the air in this statue. The cross has struck him right in the gut.

I am struck by the power and influence of memory upon contemplation. There is absolutely no way that I could contemplate this image without acknowledging the laughter and joy that came out of the conversations revolving around this statue. There certainly is a point where laughing at a depiction of aa serious event like this seems sacriligeous, but the laughter comes from a place of joy and connection. Acknowledging the distraction is part of showing up in this moment. It is also important to realize that when you try to avoid thinking about something, it invariably is the only thing you can think of in the moment.

Distractions are a regular part of my devotional life in general. In my devotions I copy out the scripture of the day by hand into a journal to make sure I am being mindful of all of the words before returning to read the passage aloud. In copying scripture I often find myself thinking about other things, much like I am thinking about how it is possible to fall in the way Jesus is portrayed in this statue. I learned to acknowledge my distraction, make a note if needed, and then set it aside. Distractions come in a life of faith. What is important is how we deal with them when they arrive.

I am still drawn to the humor as I slow down into contemplation, but my focus changes. How could such a thin cross cause such an effect? How could it throw Jesus in such a manner? Perhaps Jesus is thrown so violently as this is the moment when the weight of what is coming to pass finally falls. There will be no avoiding the effect of this journey—Jesus’ strength will fail and Jesus will die at the end of this journey.

Perhaps the person who should be struck in the gut hardest by this moment is the person who views this statue. As light as the cross appears, to fly through the air and land on one’s back is a pain most of us have experienced. Most of us know how it feels to be absolutely out of control, flying through the air with no idea how we will land. These are the things that Jesus went through in those hours. Jesus had events go out of his control. The cross would force him to the earth three times.

I stay still with this idea of helplessness. As spectators, we can no more control what Christ went through than the Jesus who is flying through the air. The God of the Universe comes down to earth, enters into creation, lives into adulthood, and ultimately is brought to a place where the creation God loves looks on while loading Jesus with uncontrollable and ultimately uncarryable burdens.

This helplessness comes about at God’s own choice. God’s love for creation and for me was so great that Jesus underwent this helplessness to fulfill all righteousness. The great high priest of Hebrews brings the sacrifice and the sacrifice is personal, costly, and painful. Although Jesus will come to sit down with the job completed at the end of this journey, at this moment Jesus, who prayed for this cup to pass, is helpless as much before God’s love as the weight of this cross.

Perhaps the cross is so thin because it is not really the cross that is the heavy burden Jesus must carry. God’s love demands that Jesus give all in this moment. What heavier burden is there in this life than to lay down one’s life for the very people looking on with anger because you love them?

As I consider what will stay with me this day, I think the thing that will stay deeply and closely with me will be the very idea that God’s love is what bore Jesus to the ground. As much as I sometimes get caught up in the world around me, I find myself hoping that I am not the one who sits on the edges of the crowd. Are my frailities and faults part of what bear Jesus to the ground? What greater love is there than the fact that God loves me enough to not only forgive my weakness but to welcome me home?

Let us Ramble: Stilling hunger

I was not hungry as I began my devotions this morning. A parishioner had a bumper crop of hot peppers which she recently shared with me. I was not hungry for food at all as my stomach was filled with an omelette that was stuffed with spicy goodness.

I was not thirsty as I began my devotions this morning. I had an ethically-sourced cup of coffee which sated my thirst quite nicely. The cup of coffee was a good cup of coffee with strong flavor.

I was neither hungry nor thirsty as I began my devotions this morning, but that state of being changed as I spent time in reflection. I came across a quote from Henri Nouwen as I was working through my favorite devotional book “A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants.” This quote from Henri Nouwen is sourced by the Guide as coming from “Reaching Out”:

“The Gospel doesn’t just contain ideas worth remembering. It is a message responding to our individual human condition. The Church is not an institution forcing us to follow its rules. It is a community of people inviting us to still our hunger and thirst at its tables.”

As I came out of the reverie, contemplation, and depths of my devotions, I found myself wanting to share this quote with others. There were deeper matters in my devotion this morning, but this was a word I felt needed to be shared for a simple reason. I am not certain the world sees the church in this light.

A Powerful Pair

My devotional and one of my Bibles

 

I grew up in a northern home in a house that was very Protestant. My mother had been Roman Catholic but had become United Methodist when she married my father. We went to a United Methodist Church every Sunday and were taught things like “God loves all people.” There were moments when my family struggled with racism, but I do not believe that is a unique situation. On the whole, we were taught that the church was open to people of all races and ethnicities. My general thought process was that if God welcomed people of every variety into the family, shouldn’t we? Even in the extremely European communities where my family lived, seeing someone of another race was not the kind of thing that made one exclude and hate, so much as just being the kind of thing that made you say “Oh, hey. That’s different. Whatever.” I was not the most enlightened of kids, but at least I was not malicious. I was more ignorant than anything else.

When the time came to be educated about the past of our nation I remember reading stories of the activities of the KKK with horror. I was not just horrified about the way that people treated the “other” in these stories. I was offended by someone burning a cross as a symbol of hatred. I was furious that they would try and use a symbol of love and inclusion to threaten people! The behavior I was learning about was simply unacceptable.

I saw the church as a place where God’s love leveled the playing field of life. I saw the church as the place where we could look beyond our differences and find community. I saw the church as a place where even ignorant kids like me could find a home as we grew. I was absolutely horrified by what I learned. I began to ask questions of youth leaders and my good friend Jim Patterson who was an elder in an urban Presbyterian Church invited me to think deeply about what united us with different people.

In college I studied with Dr. Middleton who brought a global perspective to my theology, although it was still very much a western perspective. When I went to seminary I studied African religious history and African American religious theology. I was enthralled because the words I was reading were far different than those in my own heart. I literally read “Stony the Road We Trod” to my daughter as an infant on the day she was born because I did not want to fall behind and because she liked the sound of my voice as she napped against my chest. I read, I pondered, I made friends, and I tried to know more and more about how the Bible looked to people who were not like me.

For me, the church had become a place where I could safely challenge my own assumptions, grow deeper in my faith, and help the world to become a better place. When I hungered for knowledge, there was almost always a wise colleague or friend who could help me go deeper. When I thirsted for righteousness, there was almost always some place I could go to work towards a better world. When I had a need to belong, to grow, to work, to live, and to be a part of something greater than myself, the church was there to push me forward.

I do not think the world sees the church in the same way, especially when sometimes the first exposure people have to Christianity is images of burning crosses, abortion protestors with horrifying pictures, or bullhorn wielding “prophets” telling everyone they are going to burn in hell. Not everyone is lucky enough to have been nudged into the path of knowledge, faith, and blessing which I was blessed enough to find in my own life.

I am hungry and thirsty. The coffee still takes care of my natural thirst and that omelette is doing remarkably well at holding off my hunger, but I am hungry and thirsty for other things. The world does not see what a blessing the church can be in the midst of life. I want people to see a world where the church can be a place more concerned with community than regulations. I want people to see a world where the church is more concerned with bringing good food to the table than in meeting the budget so we can have fancier napkins. I want people to know that the church exists to be a blessing. All of our lives are made better each time someone joins in at the table. I wish people understood the power of the church fully active and empowered. Indeed, Irenaeus, the glory of God is humanity fully alive in Christ.

Let us Ramble: Contemplations on being Contagious

Once again, I have been drawn into deep thought by my children’s favorite podcast. My kids adore the NPR Podcast Wow in the World with Guy Raz and Mindy Thomas. Last week my kids asked to listen to the podcast while we were running an errand to the grocery store in Johnson City. The podcast was entitled “A Case FOR the Giggles” and revolved around a study out of Georgia State University. The study was on the health benefits of laughter.

The podcast was very amusing. The podcast was full of laughter which spread throughout our van as we drove through the hills outside Binghamton. The podcast also caught my attention when it began to speak about the idea of contagious laughter. Laughter, much like yawning, is contagious. Simply being around another person who is laughing can cause a person to smile if not laugh,

As I contemplated contagious behavior, I began to think about other behaviors which are contagious. The creators of the podcast suggested a social experiment where we look at how other behaviors might be contagious. The study suggestion was to see if people would engage in mimicking your behavior. I thought back through past situations in my life and here is what I came up with:

  • Stress is contagious. If you enter a room and you are filled with stress that stress is extremely contagious.
  • Body language is contagious. If you are in a deep conversation and lean towards someone, they will lean in like you. If you cross your arms and sit back, they may do the same thing.
  • Panic is contagious. If one person begins to panic in a crowded place, things can go downhill quickly.
  • Anger is contagious. I do not go out on Black Friday as a result of this contagion.
  • Greed is contagious. If there are a limited amount of resources and you hoard as much as you can, others will likely follow suit.

I noticed that a lot of the examples I could come up with for contagious behavior revolved around pretty negative things. Yawning, body language, and laughing may be neutral activities, but anger, panic, greed, and stress can be pretty negative. I was contemplating this idea when I thought back to my time at the Academy this last session.

I remembered that when people smiled, grinned, and even made space for each other, the space was transformed, even in the midst of absolute silence. There were a number of periods of silence each day and what I discovered was that silence was not the end of communication. The sense of peace, welcome, and grace filled the room.

So, is peace contagious? Yesterday in my private devotions I was reading through Luke 10:1-12. In that chapter Jesus says the following to the seventy disciples that he is sending ahead of him: (Luke 10:4-7, NRSV)

“Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals, and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there that shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move from house to house.”

What if what Jesus is telling the seventy disciples is to be contagious with their peace? He tells the seventy disciples to share their peace widely as they go. Each home they enter should be offered peace. As they preach in these towns, Jesus tells them to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal those who are ill, but only if they are welcome. If they are not welcomed, they are invited to knock the contagious dust off their feet and move on.

What if the invitation to the seventy disciples applies to us? What if we are to offer our peace to people when we enter into their lives? What if we are to begin our relationships with others through the gift of peace? We live in a world that suggests fear and carefulness is the correct response to strange folks. What if the very first thing we are called to do is to offer peace? What if we have been going about things all wrong?

Can you imagine a world where the peace of God spreads like a contagion? Can you imagine a world where it inoculates us from things like fear, hatred, and angst? Can you imagine a place where grace and kindness spread like the joy of laughter? While I do not like being contagious when it comes to a cold or sickness, there is something powerful about the idea of being contagious with God’s grace.

What if all of the fruits of the Spirit were such contagious things? Perhaps the very contagious nature of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control that is why they are described as fruit filled with seeds. I hope they are contagious, because I know the people I know and the whole world could use more of these gifts. May they spread like wildfire among the saints and those people that they love.

Let us Ramble: Transients

I struggled to finish my sermon this weekend at the Maine Federated Church. The subject was challenging, but I was prepared. I struggled to finish my sermon because the cold of the previous week had beaten my voice to a pulp. We were preaching on baptism and how baptism was opened to people of all races. We shared that God loved all people. I publicly declared that God does not think of one race as superior to another. We spoke of deep things even as my voice started to crack.

Sunday night, I watched my Facebook feed explode with statements from pastors and committed Christians from across the spectrum. The vast majority of them were incredibly clear. “Racism is bad.” “God loves all people.” A few of the statements were provocative. A few statements seemed more concerned with politics than with what was actually happening. My public statement on Facebook was to reblog a “Litany against White Supremacy.” I will admit, I was still exhausted by my cold, so I was willing to let that stand for a day or two until I could get a good night’s rest.

Well, I am rested now. I have a cup of hot coffee to sooth my throat muscles, I have spent some time centering myself in my daily devotions, and I am prepared to enter into my pastoral role as one of the resident theologians in my community. So, let’s lay out the theological argument I wish to make. I will not be pulling punches today.

  1. It is a Christian’s duty to live with a sense of humility
  2. It is a Christian’s duty to love people like Jesus
  3. White Supremacy should be considered an abomination

I believe that it is a Christian’s duty to live with a sense of humility. I believe that is a belief that long predates Christianity, has been passed down from our Hebrew forebearers, and should be passed along from generation to generation. I believe that pride has been an issue for the church for nearly the entirety of our history and must be fought with all sincerity.

In my own studies I have been reading through “Penguin Classics: Early Christian Writings,” which is a translation by Maxwell Staniforth (revised by Andrew Louth) of some early letters of church leaders. One letter translated was from the church in Rome to the church in Corinth. It was written by one of the early church leaders in Rome named Clement and is generally considered to have been written during the last decade of the first century with a high probability of having been written around 96 CE. A passage from this letter from one church to another strikes me as fitting and applicable: (¶30)

“Since then we are the Holy One’s own special portion, let us omit no possible means of sanctification. We must bid farewell to all slandering, lewd and unclean coupling, drinking and rioting, vile lusting, odious fornicating, and the pride which is an abomination. God, it says, opposes the proud, but he gives grace to the humble; so let us attach ourselves firmly to men who have received this grace. Let us clothe ourselves in a mutual tolerance of one another’s views, cultivating humility and self-restraint, avoiding all gossiping and backbiting, and earning our justification by deeds and not by words… Self-assertion, self-assurance, and a bold manner are the marks of men accursed of God; it is those who show consideration for others, and are unassuming and quiet, who win His blessing.”

So, Clement was very opinionated. Clement uses several words and makes several claims that I am unwilling to make throughout his letter, especially on the role of women in their homes. I am very glad that this letter is not a part of our scriptures for several reasons, but there are some gems to be found in this old letter.

First, there seems to be a strong opposition to pride in Clement’s worldview. In some places, such as Clement’s insistence on quiet obedience of women, the adoption of humility as a driving force of church life is less than ideal in a modern context, In other places, such as the passage above, there’s a real sense of force behind Clement’s words. Looking through the list of sins Clement lists, the one which is singled out for being especially onerous is pride. Pride is the thing which Clement nails over and over again throughout his letter.

  • ¶16 “Christ belongs to the lowly of heart, and not to those who would exalt themselves over His flock. The coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Sceptre of God’s Majesty, was in no pomp of pride and haughtiness—as it could so well have been—but in self-abasement…
  • ¶35 “Wickedness and wrongdoing of every kind must be utterly renounced; all greed, quarreling, malice and fraud, scandal-mongering and back-biting, enmity towards God, glorification of self, presumption, conceit, and want of hospitality; for men who do these things—and not only men who do them, but men who consent to them—are held in detestation by God”
  • ¶39 “Men who have no intelligence or understanding, men who are without sense or instruction, make a mock of us and ridicule us, in their wish to raise themselves in their own esteem. But what is there that anyone who is mortal can really effect? What force is there in anyone born on this earth?”

Clement was very clear in his letter that pride was a serious issue. It can be inferred that Clement speaks out of the worldview of the early church. The conception of pride being an issue and the value of humility was nothing new to Clement or the church in which he lived. We can head back to the end of 1 Chronicles to see King David share similar sentiments. David says in 1 Chronicles 29:10-18: (NRSV)

“Blessed are you, O Lord, the God of our ancestor Israel, forever and ever. Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours’ yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. Riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might; and it is in your hand to make great and to give strength to all. And now, our God, we give thanks to you and praise your glorious name.

But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able to make this freewill offering? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you. For we are aliens and transients before you, as were all our ancestors; our days on earth are like a shadow, and there is no hope. O Lord our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a house for your holy name comes from your hand and is all your own. I know, my God, that you search the heart, and take pleasure in uprightness; in the uprightness of my heart I have freely offered all these things, and now I have seen your people, who are present here, offering freely and joyously to you. O Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, our ancestors, keep forever such purposes and thoughts in the hearts of your people, and direct their hearts towards you.”

At this moment in the story of scripture, David has prepared the way for his son Solomon to build a temple in Jerusalem. David has accomplished a great deal in his life and is approaching the end of his reign. David has led imperfectly but is completing his reign in peace, which is a blessing few of his descendents would know as the generations would pass. Here at the end David gives thanks to God through an honest lens that gives thanks to God and puts his life in perspective.

David sees himself as a transient in these words. He does not claim the right and power over all that he had done and all that he has gained. He seeks humility. He states that all of God’s blessings are from and ultimately are for God’s purposes. He lives out the humility that Clement claims we must seek. Clement is echoing David’s statement on human transience in this life when he asks what real effect the proud can have in this world. The people of God are here in this world for a moment. The people are being invited to live in humility by both Clement and David.

Going back further we see a real sense of a call to humility from the earlier tales of faith. When Abram was called in Genesis 12:2-3, the following words are shared (in the New Revised Standard Version) with the one who would become Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”

From the very beginning, the call of God comes with an understanding that the blessing that will come to Abraham is for the very purpose of Abraham becoming a blessing to all the families of the earth. His call is to head out into the world as a transigent. His call, the call to create a nation, will begin with him being an immigrant in a strange land. The call of Abraham is not into a castle or highly advantaged place in society, but to live as a stranger in a strange land.

Throughout the scriptures, God calls the humble time and time again. Even figures like Jacob, who was not humble, had to go through humbling circumstances before they were fully ready to take their place in the story of God’s life-bringing and grace. Being a Christian is a call into a tradition which has been marked by a strong need for humility. Jesus told a parable in Matthew 26 about an employer who hired servants throughout the day and paid each the same amount to each. The ones who began earliest in the day believed they deserved more, but it was the employer’s choice to be generous. All who follow Christ are called to understand that by God’s choice the first may become last just as the last may become first.

I also believe it is a Christian’s duty to love people like Jesus. When Jesus came across the other, Jesus acted with compassion. It is true that Jesus called people to repentance and expressed extreme disappointment and occasionally foretold woe for cities that refused to repent like those in Matthew 11:30-34 and the Samaritan village in Luke 9:51-56. Jesus also expressed hope for those of other races than those of Jewish descent when we shared the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37, shared a story of a faith-filled Roman Centurion in Matthew 8:5-12, and told the story of the Samaritan woman in John 4:1-42. Jesus seems less concerned with where people are from than how they react.

Jesus’ love was not bound to one race or one people. The very call of Acts 1:8 is to make disciples by witnessing to the ends of the earth. The very call of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20 is to go out and make disciples of all nations. The call of God is to reach out to all people because God called for all people. Jesus’ compassion was for every people of earth—that is why are were sent out to share the good news in the first place.

This should go without saying, but this love informs us. If we want to live a life with Jesus, we will be remade through and like Jesus. Paul wrote to the church of Romans in 8:9-12:

“But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

Later on the effect of God’s Spirit and Christ’s love is further laid out by Paul in Romans 10:10-13:

“For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says. ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek—the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him, For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

So, let’s be clear on these points. Our life, our eternal life, comes from God. Jesus’ Spirit comes into us and gives us life. The Spirit of Christ who loved faithful people of different backgrounds has opened salvation to all who call on the name of the Lord. The God of the Jewish people is the same God as those who are Greek, Roman, African, Asian, or any other form of human.

With all these things in mind, I have to say that I firmly believe that white supremacy is an abomination which must be resisted with all of our strength, all of our willpower, and all of our heart. White supremacy claims that one race is superior to other races, but God has called us to humility. To claim an inherent greatness for people of one skin color is to walk in the exact opposite direction of where Jesus walked. To claim an inherent inferiority for people of other ethnicities is abominable for many reasons, but especially because it stands in direct contradiction to the teachings of Jesus.

In Luke 14:7-14, the following is shared by Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith:

“When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host, and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’”

When teaching on humility, Jesus first told people to choose the worst places at the table. To be certain, there is a chance that this is a story about practically putting oneself in a place where someone could be honored by the host when they are asked to move up, but there’s also a real sense of Jesus noticing what is happening around him and inviting people to a place of honest humility. Jesus states that a person or people will be humbled when they seek to their own exaltation.

Is there any more clear description of self-exaltation than to say that your race is inherently superior to all of the others? Is there any more clear way of looking at this situation than as an invitation to being humbled for your actions? Is there really something so special about being white that leads people to believe that they alone are exempt from the call to humility? As a white male, I have to say that whites are no more exempt from this rule than men—any attempt, whether based on gender or race, to say that my people are superior to other people (either as men or as people of European descent) is foolhardy and an abomination.

Who should come to the banquet of celebration? The other is to be invited. We are called to humility and hospitality in life, Events like those in Charlottesville this past weekend are incompatible with Christian teaching. People who live out their faith through terrorism and violence do not exemplify the Christian life and they are certainly not acting on behalf of Christians who hear our call as a people to humility, repentance, and community.

A Litany Against White Supremacy

A beautiful creation for a day of challenges. I lift prayers for folks down south today.

Pastor Jennifer Preaching

http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-white-virginia-rally-20170811-story.html

As Charlottesville, VA becomes the focal point of white supremacy and those who stand against it, this litany was prepared by myself and Pastor Elizabeth Rawlings for use in worship.

Litany against white supremacy

Gracious and loving God,

In the beginning, you created humanity and declared us very good

We were made in Africa, came out of Egypt.

Our beginnings, all of our beginnings, are rooted in dark skin.

We are all siblings. We are all related.

We are all your children.

We are all siblings, we are all related, we are all your children.

Violence entered creation through Cain and Abel.

Born of jealousy, rooted in fear of scarcity,

Brother turned against brother

The soil soaked with blood, Cain asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?

We are all siblings, we are all related, we are our brothers keeper.

When your people cried out in slavery,

You heard them…

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Let us Look: Christ takes up His cross

 

As previously stated, one of the blessings of the Academy for Spiritual Formation is that it is located at the Malvern Retreat House. Our stay while at the Retreat House is at the Family Life Center. There are wonderful walking paths near the Retreat House for contemplative walks. One of the paths includes a set of fifteen Stations of the Cross. Yes, I said fifteen. It is a unique set of Stations.

We were invited to consider kataphatic contemplation while at the last session of the Academy. Kataphatic contemplation uses works of art or bits of nature as invitations to contemplate the divine. I was drawn to the fifteen (yes fifteen) stations of the cross which were created by the artist Timothy Schmaltz. They are quite beautiful and have been rather interesting to ponder.

Last week’s reflection was on the first station of the cross entitled “Jesus is Condemned.” The post ended up reflecting on how we all must choose how to react to Jesus.

“Christ takes up His cross” by Timothy Schmaltz

This week’s image is entitled “Christ takes up His cross” and was dedicated to a gentleman named Bob Ashman. As previously stated, the four stages of contemplation that I am using for this particular exercise are as follows:

  1. Show up
  2. Slow down
  3. Stay still
  4. Stay with

As I show up with this piece of art, I find myself drawn to the imagery of the Roman soldiers surrounding Jesus. The soldiers are strong and burly men. Jesus’ arms are being lifted up to hold the bottom of the beam which will eventually be attached to his wrists. They seem strong. Jesus seems to need help raising his hands to the beam. Jesus is looking up towards heaven. If I stood in front of the piece, Jesus would be staring right at me. When I was at Malvern, those eyes seemed a bit haunting to me. Here is the beginning of Jesus’ last journey before his death. It is an emotional image.

As I slow down I start to think about what I am seeing in this sculpture. I look to details like the strong muscles on the soldiers, the slighter appearance of Jesus, and it makes me begin to feel a bit perturbed. I notice a detail that tells me a great deal about the story which is untold in image, but familiar to those who have studied the stories.

Unlike last week’s representation of Jesus, this Christ has a crown of thorns. Last week’s sculpture was poignantly without a crown of thorns, which indicated a strong connection with the account from Luke, the only gospel without a mention of the crown of thorns. The crown shows up in Mark 15:17, John 19:2, and Matthew 27:29.

In fact, if a person were to isolate one scripture as the basis of this scene in this scenario, it would likely be the Matthew or Mark passages. Why? In the Matthew passage, Jesus receives the crown of thorns after Pilate’s judgment and before he goes on the journey to the cross. John has Jesus don the crown of thorn before Pilate concludes his questioning.

Mark and Matthew are both filled with events which take place between these two stations. In Mark, here’s how verses it reads in chapter 15, verses 16-20: (Common English Bible)

“The soldiers led Jesus away into the courtyard of the palace known as the governor’s headquarters, and they called together the whole company of soldiers. They dressed him up in a purple robe and twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on him. They saluted him, ‘Hey! King of the Jews!’ Again and again, they struck his head with a stick. They spit on him and knelt before him to honor him. When they finished mocking him, they stripped him of the purple robe and put his own clothes back on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.”

The detail of the crown tells me that Jesus has had a hard journey between stations. In all honesty, these actions are the kind of actions that make me want to do anything but watch a passion play. The taunting, the sorrow, the pain, and the brutality of it. To hit someone in the head with a crown made with thorns or even spiky leaves (there is a controversy here which I am not going to wade into), is to do something incredibly brutal. As I slow down and let my knowledge parse what I see, I am brought into a deep place in my heart.

As I stay still with this image, I remember the eyes. The hands may have become too heavy to lift, but the eyes are staring upward in pain. They faced me as I walked that path. They faced me as I walked away from that station. The stillness with those eyes has been deepened by a knowledge of what Jesus has already been through. There is a sense of frailty to Jesus.

As a Protestant, I have this strong idea in my head of Jesus as victor. When I think of Jesus I think of the teacher and the miraculous rabbi. I imagine Jesus calming a storm or confronting legion. I do not tend to focus on these moments. “Let’s rush to the resurrection! Let’s even rush to the tomb.” This place of pain in the life of Jesus is uncomfortable. Even as I write this blog I want to do anything but dwell in this place where Jesus arms, the arms of the Good Shepherd, are raised up to hold a cross that will soon cause him to stumble and fall.

As I sit with this image I think of all the places where I try to run past the difficult parts of my own journey. I think of the times places where I fall short but try to run on past. I think of these moments and I mourn what happened on that day.

As I decide what I will stay with as I go forward, my mind is drawn to a scripture that I read earlier in this week as a part of my personal devotions. 2 Peter 1:3-8 says: (CEB)

“By his divine power the Lord has given us everything we need for life and godliness through the knowledge of the one who called us by his own honor and glory. Through his honor and glory he has given us his precious and wonderful promises, that you may share the divine nature and escape from the world’s immorality that sinful craving produces.

This is why you must make every effort to add moral excellence to your faith; and to moral excellence, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, endurance; and to endurance, godliness; and to godliness, affection for others; and to affection for others, love. If all these are yours and they are growing in you, they’ll keep you from becoming inactive and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

There is a very large part of me what wants to dwell in this image and find a place of sorrow to dwell within forever. Peter’s letter invites me to see things differently though. Jesus has given us everything we need for life and godliness. We are invited to share in life through Jesus.

As Jesus looks upon me, even in weakness, there is still a question of how I will respond. Will I find a reason for shame or an invitation to faith? If I have that faith and put it into practice, might the eyes carry an invitation if I add to my faith this alternative conception of what Paul might call the“fruit of the Spirit?” What would the eyes say if I were to let these things grow in me? What would the eyes say if I were transformed by this act of love?

This journey of contemplation is just beginning. Next week the third station will be posted on Saturday. I invite you to journey and ponder along as we head through these fifteen opportunities for contemplation.