Let us Ramble: Bookmarks

I love to read and yesterday I had a few fleeting moments of free time in the middle of my day. A few weeks back my children helped me glue together fancy pieces of paper with old fashioned glue sticks so that I could cut them up and laminate bookmarks for the plethora of books I am currently juggling. I go through a lot of bookmarks between Academy books, science fiction anthologies, short stories, and the occasional need for several bookmarks in a given Bible during a given service. I prepared to make a lot of bookmarks.

The goal was that the glue would hold the paper together so I would not get any annoying slivers of the back of one piece of paper on another. I had nice pumpkins on the side of one of the bookmarks and a nice brick wall motif on the other side. It looked kind of nice as the earthtones of the bricks went nicely with the orange of the pumpkins. I was looking forward to lots and lots of earth tones.

I sliced, I diced, I julienned… Okay, I am kidding. I just used the paper cutter. I cut them all into perfect shapes so that I could put together the perfect set of bookmarks for the fall. I have a new kid on the way, so I know I will need a lot of bookmarks as I dive into the collection of books while rocking. I laminated with exactly a quarter inch of laminate around each bookmark. They were going to be perfect.

I looked down and saw a bunch of bricks peeking out from under the desk. I thought I might have an extra bookmark, but… no pumpkins on the other side. I whipped through the bookmarks. There was a pumpkin bookmark with a glaring-white back in the midst of my perfect bookmarks. Ugh… I was so close to getting everything right! Perfectionism demanded I throw it away!

So close to perfection…

So, realizing my heart was telling me something important, I stopped. Why did it need to be a perfect bookmark? Wasn’t it a laminated bookmark? Wouldn’t it hold the page just fine? Didn’t I love pumpkins? What is wrong with a white back anyway? Why was I so upset about a bookmark not matching the rest?

I slowed down and realized that I was getting carried away. Nothing in life is perfect. Nothing is absolutely, completely, 100% according to plan… What seems to truly matter is what we do with our imperfections. If God can work in my life and I am not perfect, couldn’t I give this poor bookmark a chance?

I still have the bookmark. It won’t be the first one I choose, but I still have it. The bookmark will be a reminder to me that I need to work with the imperfections even as I ask God to work with my imperfections. To put it another way, I can ask God to forgive me my trespasses, even as I forgive the trespass of this poor bookmark.

May you find room to live into the imperfections today. May that space bless you.

Let us Ramble: “Blessed are we who are poor”

Today I would like to address why I took a break from blogging for a few weeks. I would like to preface that conversation with a quote from Simon Tugwell. The quote appears in “A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants” by Upper Room Press. The quote is sourced from the work “Prayer.”

“Blessed are the poor! How easily we take that always to mean somebody else. Yet if we want to be with God, we must learn to hear it as ‘blessed are we who are poor’, we who have not got anything very impressive to give to anybody, whose giving may very well be rather a nuisance, but who still have not given up giving.”

I took a break from blogging because my poorness came to my surface. I was burning the candle at both ends both professionally and personally. Church ministry required 110% as the fall kicked into high gear. There were campouts, meals, sermons, prayer ministries, and countless places where God’s grace was needed. I tried to be everywhere at once, which was the problem as my children seemingly moved from being children in attitude to being tweens overnight. Neither has reached double digits, but they both have the attitude. When you add in the needs of my pregnant wife, there was a lot to do at home.

I found myself running from place to place constantly. I was trying to be all things to all people and I needed some time to find peace. Everyone has moments when they need to focus on the divine for more than a few moments. Jesus spent time continually seeking after God in isolated places. I needed some space to simply focus upon my own time and relationship with God, especially as church and family needs have remained constant.

From here out, I am going to attempt to find a better balance. The process of learning to say no, to setting boundaries in healthier places, and in finding places of quiet may not be an easy process, but I believe that it will be a good process. Thank you for your patience with me during these moments of silence.

Let us Ramble: Anthems and Priorities

I am just concluding taking a short break from blogging. I will post on the reason for that break tomorrow, but today I feel compelled to speak a word into the world in which I live. I am a member of two nations. During this life on earth, I am an American citizen. Throughout this life and into the next, I am a citizen of Christ’s kingdom through the grace of God. What is more, as a minister I am expected to follow God and to teach the truth even when it leads to persecution, which this post might.

Balancing between the role of being a citizen in an earthly nation and being a citizen of Christ’s kingdom is a bit difficult at time, but actually most of the difficulty is social rather than ethical. Ultimately, my citizenship through Christ is what matters most to me. As I was reading through Psalm 86 this morning I found myself agreeing with the psalmist time and time again.

In the Common English Bible, verse 11 says “Teach me your way, Lord, so that I can walk in your truth. Make my heart focused only on honoring your name.” Verses 14-15 say “The arrogant rise up against me, God. A gang of violent people want me dead. They don’t give a thought for you. But you, my Lord, are a God of compassion and mercy; you are very patient and full of faithful love.” Verses 8-10 say “My Lord! There is no one like you among the gods! There is nothing that can compare to your works! All the nations that you’ve made will come and bow down before you, Lord; they will glorify your name, because you are awesome and a wonder-worker. You are God. Just you.”

I love Psalm 86. I will admit that I am definitely a monotheist in my heart, soul, and mind. I love God and deeply believe in the words, the mission, and the person of Jesus Christ. I am dedicated to God.

My dedication to God means that I pledge allegiance to Christ alone. I respect the land where I live, but ultimately that land is land. What matters to me first and foremost is God and I care about what matters to God.

What does Psalm 86 say about God? God is patient and loving. If I want to be like God, I will be patient and loving. God is compassionate and merciful. If I want to be like God, I will be compassionate and merciful. If imitation is really the sincerest form of flattery, I will take these attributes and work them into my life.

In honesty, as a Christian and as a minister, I sometimes find myself stunned that there are people who claim the name of Jesus who believe that we can do anything less than seek to be like our compassionate, merciful, patient, and loving God. The logic of claiming to follow Jesus and seeking to act contrary to the teachings of Jesus seems absurd. We are called to love God with all of who we are and to treat other people like we would like to be treated!

These concepts are some of the most basic in Christianity. These things are part of the life we are called to live…

So, how can we get mad at people who kneel to bring an awareness to a need for compassion, mercy, patience, and love? If we love a God who is just, how can we get mad at people calling out for justice? If we believe that God reached out to the suffering Israelites in Egypt when they called out to God for justice, why do we believe God would not do the same in the midst of this time and in our midst?

A lot of people seem incredibly mad at a bunch of wealthy NFL players calling out for justice, but I can tell you from personal experience that people who are desperately in need call out for justice who are neither wealthy nor famous. Our country has problems and God hears the call of the needy even if we ignore it. We are angry about people not paying enough respect to a song while there are people who are suffering silently without any other voice that are people loved by God and created in the image of God. How does that compute? Are we angry they are using their voice or angry that we cannot ignore it?

Would the conversation be different if the President of the United States led the way in pointing out the injustice instead of tweeting against the free speech he is expected to preserve? Would things be different if he led from a place of principled leadership instead of from a place of stirring up anger and hatred? Would things be different if he were to put on sackcloth and ashes instead of planning military parades to intimidate others? I am not certain that the conversation would change greatly as racism and prejudice are unfortunately deeply ingrained in our culture, but I will remember moments like these the next time I vote and make choices in my own life. I will probably need to remember these moments for the rest of my life. The arc of history is certainly long… Thankfully, patience is a part of my curriculum as a disciple of God.

All of this to say, I am going to keep working on my own life. I will continue to look for ways to embody compassion, mercy, patience, and love. I will seek justice. I will do all of these things because Psalm 86 is correct. The Lord is God. Just the Lord.

Let us Look: Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus

Today’s blog post is a continuation of the series on the Stations of the Cross crafted by artist Timothy Schmaltz which is located outside the Malvern Retreat House where my cohort of the Academy for Spiritual Formation meets for our sessions. Today’s image is one of the more difficult for me as a Protestant, as the event has no record in the canonical gospels.

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Station of the Cross by Timothy Schmaltz

The image is based on the concept of St. Veronica wiping the face of Jesus. The format which I have been using to contemplate these stations is to show up to the contemplation, slow down into the contemplation, stay still with the contemplation, and finally stay with the contemplation as I go out into the world.

Showing up to an image of Veronica requires me to honestly state that I do not understand the need to add to the Biblical accounts with apocryphal stories. A friend gave me a copy of a book retelling the folk-tale of the “Three Trees.” The story was a beautiful story, but it was a story. The story was an interesting parable and commentary on self-image/self-worth, but it was a story. To honestly approach this text requires me to state that I struggle with apocryphal stories. In the case of adding these stories, I find myself protesting (and being very Protestant) internally.

Slowing down into the story requires work for me, but as I slow into the image, I find myself appreciating the compassion that the folklore around St. Veronica’s tale contains. Was Veronica the woman healed by Jesus after touching the hem of his garment? Did she come back to Jesus and share compassion after his compassion was shown to her? If so, do we have a parallel in story to the Samaritan leper healed with nine others in Luke 17?

The thing about the leper’s tale is that the leper could have easily walked away from Jesus after Jesus had done what was asked of him. The other nine lepers walked away and the story of Luke’s gospel neither records ill-effects or curses upon the other nine. The Samaritan leper is told by Jesus that the leper’s faith has made the leper well. To hear such words from Jesus would be seen as quite a boon to the folks receiving the gospel account—they will never hear those words or that voice in this life until Jesus returns or they cross to the distant shore. The Samaritan leper is blessed.

Perhaps one of the valuable parts of Veronica’s inclusion is the invitation people have to see reciprocal compassion shared into the life of Jesus. The life of Veronica is one which legends seem to indicate was neither easy nor pleasant. If she is the one who has been bleeding for years, that could not have been pleasant, healthy, or even acceptable in that society. She was unclean. The legend allows Veronica to return love to the one who freed her from that state.

Perhaps the value of staying still with Veronica is the understanding that we all have our broken places where we bleed. We all have places where we sometimes feel unclean and unworthy of God’s love. What if the wonderful part of being still with the concept of Veronica is understanding that we might be invited into similar places of acceptance, compassion, and even reciprocity with this saint. Perhaps one day in this life (or definitely on the other shore) we might see our love returned (face to face) to the one who first loved us.

This concept of sharing that love and having it accepted is what shall stay with me as I go forward. May God lead me to such a blessed moment as Veronica’s moment in this legend.

May my Roman Catholic friends have compassion with me as I continue to work my way through these stations. All worldviews evolve over time. Thank you for your patience.

Let us Look: Jesus is helped by Simon

Today’s blog post is a continuation of the series on the Stations of the Cross crafted by artist Timothy Schmaltz which is located outside the Malvern Retreat House where my cohort of the Academy for Spiritual Formation meets for our sessions. The series is predicated on the concept that Jesus’ crucifixion is pivotal both in the story of the life of Jesus Christ and in the stories of those who follow Jesus. Romans 6:3 states that everyone who was baptized into Christ’s life were also baptized into Christ’s death. Jesus’ passion narrative has become part of the narrative of our own salvation.

The format which I have been using to contemplate these stations is to show up to the contemplation, slow down into the contemplation, stay still with the contemplation, and finally stay with the contemplation as I go out into the world. Showing up involves not only taking the time to contemplate the imagery but also taking time to center upon contemplation in that moment. Slowing down with the image means lingering into the contemplation past the initial things that are noticeable. Staying still involves pondering the deeper questions that arise, which may or not be comfortable to sit win in the moment.

By my very nature, part of my showing up to a scripture is going through the steps of analyzing the subject. I cannot focus on contemplation until I spend some time going through my preconceptions. As such, a bit of scriptural analysis is the first bit of preparation that I do before going deeper into contemplation.

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“Jesus is helped by Simon” by Timothy Schmaltz

Today’s contemplation takes place within the synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John actually states that Jesus carried the cross by himself in John 19:17. To be fair, the gospel of John does not mention Jesus falling either.

In the earliest gospel, Mark 15:21 says that a passer-by named Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus, is compelled to carry cross in the verse directly after Jesus is led forth to be crucified. There is no mention of Jesus falling or struggling. Matthew’s description is likewise spartan. Jesus neither falls nor struggles before the soldiers compel a man from Cyrene named Simon to carry the cross in Matthew 27:32. Luke does not describe Jesus as falling before the description of Simon of Cyrene is forced to carry the cross behind Jesus in Luke 23:26.

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“Jesus is helped by Simon” by Timothy Schmaltz

In fact, Jesus is not described as falling in any of the canonical gospels. Simon is simply compelled to carry the cross, which presumably happens because Jesus is struggling. One of the challenges that Protestants often have with the stations of the cross is that there are large portions of the stations which are not described in the scriptures. The stories which are passed down from generation to generation often are not seen as binding or authoritative as the canonical scriptures.

This place of struggle with what is canonical and what is inspired by oral tradition is where I find myself as I show up to this station. I did not mention that neither of the previous stations were outside of canonical scriptures for the past two weeks, but that has been weighing on my mind. As I slow down in this moment, I find myself drawn to contemplation around both the idea of what is canonical and what is important to know as we seek after Christ’s face.

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“Jesus is helped by Simon” by Timothy Schmaltz

Pondering these three images of this station of the cross, I find myself drawn to the imagery. Simon of Cyrene is compelled to help Jesus, but Simon does not seem angry about this task in Mr. Schmaltz’s depiction. Simon seems willing to help a man who is already about to collapse. He seems willing to use his strength, which is a good thing as all of the gospels depict that Jesus has already been through a lot on this journey. He appears bent over by the weight of the cross and it is a minor miracle Jesus does not fall every other step with the robe that Mr. Schmaltz has placed upon Jesus. He ’s bent over by the weight of things.

We are often obsessed with the canonical story as Protestants. We are a people born of a strange time in the history of the church. We are a bit sensitive about these matters, but some of these stories make sense. If Jesus really is fully human, would it not make sense that he would fall after what he has been through? If Jesus really is fully human, would it not make sense that he would need a hand? I was taught in seminary that Jesus died fairly quickly as some crucifixions could last days. The evidence of time shown in the scriptures shows that Jesus was already in a fairly dicey condition.

As I stay in this moment, I am drawn to contemplate the reality of things. Jesus taught his disciples to do for other people what we would like them to do for us. Jesus has a moment here in his passion narrative where the great teacher has his teaching lived out in his own experience. Who wouldn’t want a hand in a moment like the one Jesus is experiencing? Who wouldn’t be grateful for the gift offered by the man of Cyrene named Simon?

I think that is perhaps what will stay with me as I leave behind this period of contemplation. We are taught to do for others what we would like them to do for us. Simon of Cyrene blesses Jesus by doing something that Jesus is unable to do. He offers Jesus a treasure of a gift, even if it might have been compelled.

Perhaps our role as grateful Christians is to pay forward the kindness of Simon of Cyrene. I wonder what burdens people are collapsing under in the lives around me. How could I be a blessing like Simon of Cyrene in my community, in my family, and in my world? How can I use my strength to do for others what I wish someone would do for me if I were in their shoes?

 

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?