Hypocrites in Church

“Abba Elias the minister, said ‘What can sin do where there is penitence? And of what use is love where there is pride?’ “

From “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection” as translated by Benedicta Ward

I have been thinking about the nature of the church. I hold to the belief that the church is not only the house of God, but a place for the wounded to find healing. For me, it is natural to find strange folks in a church.

  • If I had a broken arm, I would go see a doctor.
  • If I had a shoe with the sole falling off, I would go see a cobbler.
  • If I had a broken laundry machine, I would call a technician to come fix it.
  • If the power line running into my house were to collapse and spark in my yard, I would call the electric company.

Why are people surprised the church has injured people in her midst? Would you be shocked if you found hurting people in a hospital? Would you be thrown if you went to look at cars at a mechanic’s shop and every car there was broken?

Thankfully, Abba Elias has a good word here. “What can sin do when there’s penitence? And of what use is love where there is pride?” There’s wisdom on how we can see the life of the church.

What damage can sin do in the life of the faithful if they are penitent? There could still be damage done. Still, consider the following idea: A person might struggle with anger. If they are filled with that anger, what happens if they turn to God for help, and seek a way forward in a church community? Things might go wrong, but they’re also in a place where the community can support and help them. If they are truly penitent, what better place to be than in a community that understands sin and seeks to be free together? If they are not penitent, that’s another matter, but if they are truly trying to find a way forward, what better place to be?

On the other hand, what happens when we look at others who struggle, see imperfection, and then cut them off? What happens when we slam the door in their face? What happens if we see that person, decide they’re a hypocrite, and walk away? To put it another way, what happens when our pride blinds us to the reality that we all need healing? The church can pour out love all day long, but if you see love as a nasty dredged up swill, will you ever stop to drink that living water?

Luke 18:9-14 shares a parable about a tax collector and a Pharisee. In that parable, two men were praying in the temple. One was a despised tax collector who approached God with humility. He beat his breast with sorrow and asked God for mercy.

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Jesus in Luke 18:9-14, NRSV

The Pharisee was someone who considered himself superior to everyone around him, especially the tax collector. Jesus stood with the tax collector—humility was far more important than the self-decreed righteousness of the Pharisee.

Would it have helped the Pharisee to tell him he was loved? Of course he felt loved—he was the apple of God’s eye. Would it have helped to offer him a place of healing? He is no lowly tax collector! I think Abba Elias hit the nail on the head when he stated that sin can be overcome with penitence, but that pride can at least seem insurmountable by love.

The story of Jesus before Herod always makes me wonder who had the right to judge in this situation? Truly the Judged was the One who had the right to cast judgment even while remaining silent…

Of course, Jesus did state that the Pharisee would one day be humbled. Was that humbling meant to bring the Pharisee to a place where he could find a place where penitence and love could find their way into the Pharisee’s life? I would imagine that Saul might tell us that there was indeed a way forward for the Pharisee. As Luke and Acts are two books connected by common authorship, one could see this parable as almost foreshadowing Saul’s experience. Of course, as my wise wife points out, that assumes the two books were meant to be read together instead of being meant as separate works. A later authorship of Acts might make this a happy coincidence instead of an intentional reference.

One of the first monastics of the desert, Anthony, is recorded as seeing the world through distraught eyes. To the left and right of the faithful there were traps and snares to ensnare. Behind and in front of the struggling there were further ways to entangle. Anthony cried out. What could possibly make a way through the challenges of life? Anthony believed humility alone could find a way.

“Abba Anthony said, ‘I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, “What can get through from such snares” Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Humility.” ‘ “

From “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection” as translated by Benedicta Ward

I know as a person that I am not perfect. Truthfully, I am grateful that I have enough wisdom to understand that my imperfection does not separate me from the love of God. I believe that love reaches out to everyone who walks through the doors of the church without exception. I pray we all find healing together.

Fleeting but precious

Today I spent my time in prayer focusing on Psalm 39. In my personal journey, today is not only the day of my birth, it is also the day when I gave my heart to God at fifteen years old. As such, spending my prayer time focusing on Psalm 39 might seem odd to many people.

I said, “I will guard my ways
that I may not sin with my tongue;
I will keep a muzzle on my mouth
as long as the wicked are in my presence.”
I was silent and still;
I held my peace to no avail;
my distress grew worse,
my heart became hot within me.
While I mused, the fire burned;
then I spoke with my tongue:


“Lord, let me know my end,
and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting my life is.
You have made my days a few handbreadths,
and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight.
Surely everyone stands as a mere breath. Selah
Surely everyone goes about like a shadow.
Surely for nothing they are in turmoil;
they heap up, and do not know who will gather.


“And now, O Lord, what do I wait for?
My hope is in you.
Deliver me from all my transgressions.
Do not make me the scorn of the fool.
I am silent; I do not open my mouth,
for it is you who have done it.
Remove your stroke from me;
I am worn down by the blows of your hand.


“You chastise mortals
in punishment for sin,
consuming like a moth what is dear to them;
surely everyone is a mere breath. Selah


“Hear my prayer, O Lord,
and give ear to my cry;
do not hold your peace at my tears.
For I am your passing guest,
an alien, like all my forebears.
Turn your gaze away from me, that I may smile again,
before I depart and am no more.”

Psalm 39, NRSV

Consider the words of the Psalm and there are passages which you will probably not find within a card on a rack in your local store. Well, some of them might end up in a “dark humor” section:

  1. “Surely everyone goes about like a shadow. Surely for nothing they are in turmoil; they heap up, and do not know who will gather.” (vs. 6)
  2. “You have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight. Surely everyone stands as a mere breath.” (vs. 5)
  3. “You chastise mortals in punishment for sin, consuming like a moth what is dear to them; surely everyone is a mere breath.” (vs.11)
  4. “Turn your gaze away from me, that I may smile again, before I depart and am no more.” (vs. 13)
  5. “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry; do not hold your peace at my tears. For I am a passing guest, an alien, like all my forebears.” (vs. 12)
  6. “Lord, let my know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.” (vs. 4)

So, why would I spend my time contemplating this passage of all passages on my birthday? Why would I make the choice to pray about these words on the day I felt my heart strangely warmed and felt an assurance of my place in God’s love?

My heart was captured by the fourth verse of the Psalm. “Let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.” As I spent time with these words, I thought about the tea in the wooden bin on my counter. I switched back to primarily being a tea drinker as part of my plan for 2019, and I checked our stash of tea to find it empty. A new bag of fair trade tea will arrive in a few weeks, so I am left with what is in the bin.

When the bin is full, there are many pots of tea ready to be made. A cup of tea is just a cup of tea. The tea may be enjoyable, warming, wonderful, and flavorful; however, it is still just one cup of much once brewed. When the bin is nearing emptiness, each cup is to be savored. When the bin is almost an empty box, every sip is a gift. There is something wonderfully deep about the paradox that scarcity makes something all the more precious.

The tea runneth low…

Yes, my life is fleeting. Yes, even though today is a day of celebration in my house, it is healthy to remember that there will be only so many of these celebrations before I celebrate on another shore. Yes, these days are like a shadow, but the shadow shows me that there is life. Yes, what is dear to me on earth will eventually break down, rust, be eaten by dogs, fall prey to overactive kids, or just wear out; however, those things are just stuff.

I may not agree with the expressed sentiment that “God is punishing you by taking away everything you love.” I believe the 11th and 13th verses were likely born out of a dark place although there are moments when chastisement may be the only way forward. Many folks recovering from addiction have pointed to low points in life as moments when they were given a chance to recover and rise from “rock bottom.” It is not beyond the realm of possibility that some assistance is occasionally required to find that place of possibility. I would say sometimes things break and that may not be God punishing. Sometimes we have a bad day and it is not always the case that our days is terrible because God is glaring at us—I often find the opposite is usually true.

Despite my grief for the struggles endured by the Psalmist when composing Psalm 39, I am grateful for the reminder that this day is precious despite being one of many days. I am grateful for this life as fleeting as it may pass. One day, my time will come, and I hope people will realize I was grateful for what I had even as I sometimes struggled with the challenges. Today, I choose to read Psalm 39 with gratitude. I pray you find reasons to enjoy the precious nature of life.

Faith, goodness, knowledge…

“While the daily onslaught of words can numb us, God’s words can warm those who listen.”

Dr. Michael Jenkins in the January 5th entry of the “The Upper Room Disciplines 2019”

Tomorrow morning we are celebrating Epiphany at the Maine Federated Church. Our liturgy and message partially rely on the later part of the first chapter of Second Peter. I have not preached much from Second Peter over the years, which is really a shame. In my opinion, Second Peter is an interesting book with wisdom that is clearly stated and applicable to life.

As an example, take a portion of the same chapter we are using tomorrow. Second Peter, chapter one, verses three through nine. There is solid advice in these words. There’s assertion about the world, a recommendation for response, and a rationale about why we would act in certain ways. The passage is succinct, clear, and helpful.

“[Jesus’] divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature. For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For anyone who lacks these things is short-sighted and blind, and is forgetful of the cleansing of past sins.”

2 Peter 1:3-9, NRSV

The world is ascertained to be a world that has been blessed by the presence of Jesus. Think about the words of this letter. We live in a world where Jesus’ divine power has already made available everything needed for a life lived with godliness. By Jesus’ goodness and God’s glory, we who have been called have what we need to escape a world of corruption and lust.

Now, I think it is still close enough to the New Year to state that in this new year, there may be things we want. The things we want often differ from what we need. I might want a Ferrari in my driveway, but I do not need a Ferrari. In fact, no offense to the people who would make that imaginary Ferrari, if I had one, I would likely be selling it as soon as possible as it is unnecessary for the life I seek.

There are many things we may want, but that does not mean those things are needed for a life in a world that is often driven by desires for power, wealth, stuff, and desires for people which often treat those people as things rather than individuals. Second Peter says that we have what we need to escape from the snares of that world. Jesus has already made available what we need. We may live in a sickened world, but the medicine is right there with us!

What does Second Peter recommend? Rather than passivity, the letter calls for action. Rather than being forced into submission, the letter calls for active rebellion from a darkened world. What does that look like?

  • Faith supported with goodness.
  • Goodness supported with knowledge.
  • Knowledge supported with self-control.
  • Self-control supported with endurance.
  • Endurance supported with godliness.
  • Godliness supported with mutual-affection.
  • Mutual affection with love

What happens when these things enter into the life of a person? Life becomes better. What happens when they keep on increasing? They keep a person from being ineffective and unfruitful. Second Peter calls the people to make every effort to engage on this journey founded in God’s grace.

Second Peter goes further to state that anyone who lacks these things is “short-sighted and blind.” They have forgotten the grace received from God. At first, that seemed a bit harsh to me, but thinking back through my own experience, I think there’s truth in these words.

I am a United Methodist minister and I am very United Methodist in my theology. I appreciate and draw a lot out of other Christian traditions, but in my heart, I am thoroughly United Methodist. Of course, I see United Methodism as one stream in the branching delta known as Christianity that follows God’s grace in Jesus Christ in the sea of God’s love, but I still love swimming in my waters with my beloved family in Christ.

Despite that love, there have been moments when I have come across United Methodist family who do not insist on these things. The church has had friends within her walls who have been quite cruel and forgotten their way. As an Elder I have studied our history and found examples of the church abusing folks when the way was lost. As a person I have experienced folks filled with anger rather than the love and mutual affection described in this letter. I have seen hatred, anger, and even lust for power blind people to what they are doing to others.

I have also met people from those other streams that I absolutely adore even though we are theologically very different. We would probably argue and have argued at times for hours about theological points, but we hold in common these desires. Their faith is connected with goodness, their goodness with knowledge… As such, we can completely disagree while still remaining in relationship with each other. In fact, I often find some of my strongest friendships have come about from such weird relationships with those who share in that common love that comes from Jesus.

I do not know about you, but I want to remain fruitful. The banner that sits at the top of my blog is a banner I often do not point out in blogs, but it is a picture I took on a mission trip. The flowers are growing on the barbed wire between two yards on the interface between Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods in Northern Ireland. If flowers can grow on barbed wire, then we can live lives which bear fruit. We already have all we need even if we sometimes want more. Let us live in that knowledge and keep seeking after goodness and hir friends.

Barbed wire with flowers on the Springfield Road in Belfast, Northern Ireland

Thank you to some generous drivers approximately 80 years ago

Today was my wife’s grandmother’s memorial service in Olean. She’s being interred out west, so this was my family’s chance to formally pay our respects. The affair was meaningful, deep, and faithful. Grandma Betty was a really wonderful woman and I learned a lot about the woman whom I sat next to for many a holiday meal. Apparently her stories were not done catching me off guard even after she crossed to that other shore.

This evening I sat at our kitchen table and contemplated Ephesians 3:1-4. In particular, I was drawn to the concepts of mystery and grace. The contemplation was deep as I spent my time with these words. As I contemplated the growth of this one moment in time, I found myself caught in a million questions as I lifted questions to God in my heart.

“…for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation…”

Parts of Ephesians 3:2-3, NRSV

Contemplation roamed for quite a while on questions of whether this commission of God’s grace would be received well in today’s church. Would we welcome one of the villains of our stories into the doors of our church if he were to come in repentance? Would we welcome a former persecutor into our midst? Would we welcome someone who was passionately into another culture that many would consider counter-Christian into our midst? Would we have the grace to walk with them through transitions which are usually less dramatic than that of Paul?

I contemplated these questions for a while, but I kept being drawn back to the concept of mysterious grace. The early church was blessed by the unexpected life story of Saul of Tarsus. I have been blessed by unexpected stories too. I learned of a new unexpected story today at the memorial service in Olean.

My contemplation candle holder… It burns often on my table.

I heard the story of a hitchhiker in the west who went to play at a tent revival with some friends. A local girl found God at that tent revival and hitchhiked to the Bible College where that hitchhiker attended. This young lady was a graduate of a class of 12. This girl from a very small area was married and had kids. Those hitchhikers were my wife’s grandparents.

Hope was not falling asleep easily tonight, so I was holding her as she settled while I prayed and contemplated. I realized in the middle of my contemplation that if it were not for some random person picking up a hitchhiker on the other side of the country nearly 80 years ago, my daughter would not have been in my arms. It was a powerful moment of realization. My blessings in this world would be very different if it weren’t for a hitchhiking evangelist getting a ride to a small town with a graduating class of twelve to lead a tent revival. My blessings would be different if those evangelists decided the small town was not worth their time.

Earlier today on the ride back from Olean, my daughter and I were listening to the audio book for “The Good Doctor” by Juno Dawson. In that audio book, the eponymous Doctor of Doctor Who made the statement: “There’s only two things I don’t believe in, and one’s coincidence…” Apparently, being a time-traveler makes you skeptical of randomness.

Now, I am definitely not a predestination proponent, but there’s something powerfully moving when you realize that your daughter possibly wouldn’t be in your arms if someone had not decided to give one of her great-grandparents a lift, but I would rather contemplate something besides an argument that has raged for centuries like predestination versus free will.

What I contemplated was the fact that there a lot of people out there who often look in the mirror and do not know where their life is headed. They see coincidence and fear stepping out of even partial safety to see what might lay outside their door. There are scary things out there in the world which are far more frightening than hitch hiking. People can become paralyzed by fears both of what might happen and what is happening. Here a few off the top of my head:

  • A person lives with someone who is physically abusive. Zie wishes to walk away, but what if zie loses his chance to see hir kids?
  • An alcoholic wants to stop drinking, but all of hir friends drink every weekend. What if zie ends up all alone?
  • A person wants to stop working at a job that is literally physically, mentally, or spiritually killing them. What if zie quits and ends up losing everything?
  • A person has a loved one (friend/child) who is doing something awful that might end up disastrously bad. Maybe it already has gone bad. Zie wants to say something or do something, but what happens if hir loved one walks away from zie forever?

These examples are but a few examples of how life can throw challenges that cause us to stop dead in our tracks in fear. What if our inability to move causes things to go awry? What if someone we do not know in 80 years will be a completely different person if we do nothing?

I don’t know who the person was who gave my wife’s grandparents rides across what sounded like a good portion of the western half of this country, but I am so grateful that they did. If you’re living in fear of doing something that might seem just as crazy, I invite you to have a conversation with a local religious leader, a counselor, or even a good friend. If necessary, speak to the police for an intervention or go to a support group to find help. Your bravery just might change the future.

Shadows and Light

Last night I posted a poem called “Pastoral Ghazal.” The poem was inspired both by events in my pastoral ministry and in my reading for yesterday in the “The Upper Room Disciplines 2019” and specifically in the reflections of Dr. Marshall Jenkins. In the reflection for January 2nd, Dr. Jenkins contrasts the common imagery of justice being blindfolded with the conception of God reaching with both open eyes and mercy. The contrast was a powerful contrast. In my copy of this year’s Disciplines I highlighted the phrase “God, who wears no blindfold, insists on mercy in justice.”

Dr. Jenkins focuses greatly on how this conception of a God with open eyes affects our view of the social and moral order of our world. I appreciated his focus, but I was drawn into a different realm of contemplation by the reality of my daily ministry. While Dr. Jenkins view was broad, my focus was tightened by a number of things:

  • Administration: Our church’s Annual Meeting is fast approaching and there is paperwork that needs to be prepared.
  • Building and Grounds: The church is continuing to aim towards having greater accessibility while maintaining safety. One office day into 2019 and both of these areas came up in conversation.
  • Community: Situations arose where both relationships blessed my ministry and caused me to want to hide in a desert. Occasionally, those conversations were simultaneous.
  • Dreaming: Situations arose where I took the opportunity to “vision cast” different futures and alternative perspectives to people in my circle of influence.
  • End of Life Conversations: Self-explanatory
  • Fatherhood: My one year old kept me up until five in the morning when my alarm was set for two hours later…

To be honest, I could probably continue with this acrostic list, but I faced no alien xenomorphs and had no reason to visit the zoo. Ministry is a varied and challenging calling which often leads you up and down an acrostic list of challenges on a regular basis. This grounding in the daily activities of ministry drew me into a different sphere of contemplation. My contemplation led me to ask a very simple question: Does God see?

Theologically, let’s be clear: I do believe that God sees. The challenge is that the knowledge that God sees is a form of head knowledge. Life requires heart knowledge. There is often a great difference between seeing with the head and knowing with the heart. Some of the things I experienced reinforced both my head knowledge and my heart wisdom. Other experiences were unsettling.

I was reminded of the ancient philosopher Plato’s allegory of the cave. In the allegory, there were a bunch of people who spent their lives sitting in chairs unable to turn around. Behind them was a fire and all they ever saw was the shadows cast on the wall. Those shadows became all of reality to the folks in the chairs. Plato’s allegory delved into what would happen if those people ever were released from those bindings or came across someone who knew that there was more than shadow, but for my purposes, the image of folks strapped into chairs facing shadows is enough for my purposes. Honestly, the image of firelight and shadow is what stuck in my mind.

Light Dark Atmosphere Candle Night Lantern Shadow

The challenge I recognized yesterday during my devotion is that any life has places where the reality of life impedes that journey from head knowledge to heart wisdom. I believe that God’s light fills the universe and will shine in the midst of the darkness; however, there are places where challenges create shadows. I cannot always see that light shining, sometimes only find the shadows, and occasionally cannot even see the shadows.

This reality of life is where my poem found life yesterday. Dr. Jenkins was focused on the vast, but I kept seeing places where I saw others struggling to see beyond the shadows. In that beautiful picture above, it would be as if I were sitting in the light with those who sat in shadow. Inches might separate us, but one place was a place of brightness while another was a place of darkness. Wisdom told me there are likely places where I sit in darkness surrounded by others who see beyond what my eyes perceive.

All of this is to say that I think we all have places where we sit in the shadows just as we all have places where we see the light. How do we compensate for this challenge? I believe the answer can only lie in community. Whether that community comes through family, neighborhood, or church, we all are made better by our relationships with others.

Are all relationships healthy? No, but I truly believe that there is a wisdom to living in community with those who will lovingly walk with you in your shadows while holding out their hands when they need help with their own dark places. Where do we see this in scripture? Here are a handful of examples…

  • Proverbs 27:17 tells us that one person can bless another just as iron sharpens iron.
  • Hebrews 10:25 reminds us of our calling to remain in community in a spirit that encourages our faith community. When we consider the challenges faced by the early church, this encouragement likely held some of the early churches together through persecution and troubles.
  • John 21 shares the story of how the community stood with Peter as he faced the challenge of his own past and the events of Good Friday.

I share these things to encourage you to remember the value of community today. There are days when it seems as if the universe is a cruel and awful place. Those days are exactly the days when it is helpful to remain with those who can walk with you through your shadows into the light.

“The Blessing of the New Year” circa 1900

Well back in 1900, Mr. Alexander Carmichael published the Carmina Gadelica. Well into the public domain, I wanted to take some time to look at an old poem this week. The poem appears under the title “The Blessing of the New Year” and according to Mr. Carmichael it was “repeated the first thing on the first day of the year.” Here is how the poem goes:

God, bless to me the new day,
Never vouchsafed to me before;
It is to bless Thine own presence
Thou hast given me this time, O God.

Bless Thou to me mine eye,
May mine eye bless all it sees;
I will bless my neighbour,
May my neighbour bless me.

God, give me a clean heart,
Let me not from sight of Thine eye;
Bless to me my children and my wife,
And bless to me my means and my cattle.

“The Blessing of the New Year” in the Carmina Gadelica, 1900 CE

Looking closely at this poem and prayer, there are several things which show in the form and content of this work. There are directions to this prayer both in scope and focus.

The first thing I see is a shift of focus from the unknowable, to the seen, to the loved. In the first section there is a focus on God’s blessing for the new day, which makes sense as this is a prayer for a new year. Unstated is the reality that the year ahead is a mystery.

The poet marks that the day (or time) ahead has never been vouchsafed. Vouchsafe is a word that can have several connotations. Whether the meaning in this case is that the knowledge of what the day ahead might hold would be gracious, condescending, or a special favor, the poet asks for a blessing even without that knowledge. The poet desires a blessing understanding that their time ahead should bless God.

In truth, this prayer contains a leap of faith. Who knows what the year ahead will hold? The prayer begins with a request that has no real context. A blessing of plenty of drinking water is a different blessing in the midst of a desert than it is on the shores of a clean freshwater lake. The petitioner does not know what is to come but seeks blessing.

The prayer shifts in the second movement of the prayer. The request is made that everything which falls under the gaze of the eye be blessed. Beyond the unknown of where one’s path will lead, for most the world will be somewhat reliable. Neighbors will remain neighbors.

There’s an old phrase that says “Familiarity breeds contempt.” Often, after several years of living in the vicinity of a neighbor, what once was innocent can often become a source of great frustration. Music can be played too loud, barbecue scents fill a house if you are downwind, and occasionally neighbors have children who can cause a ruckus. I imagine this was an even greater challenge when one’s neighbors were more constant in the times leading up to 1900.

The prayer leans into this reality by proposing that the year ahead will include a blessing of one’s neighbor. Even before receiving a blessing, the petitioner sets off to be a blessing. While the petitioner asks that the neighbor bless them as well, there’s a mutuality there. In a time before cars and modern conveniences, the neighbor might be a blessing which could make the difference between life and death.

Finally, the prayer moves into the heart. It lifts family and means of provision up in this last section of prayer. We may find cattle to be odd, but consider that for some a healthy cow might mean the difference between living through a winter and starving through the end of the cold months. Prayers for wife and children are definitely patriarchal in composition, but this is a prayer from 1900. Leading into all of these relationships is a call towards God for a clean heart and to remain in the sight of God who sees all folks.

Consider that bit for a moment. There is no prayer here for God to turn away while there is abuse in the home or a lapse of judgment. There is a call for God to be near and to watch. The heart out of which all things flow is kept in the eye of God. That’s actually a pretty bold request.

So, what can we sum up from this prayer from 1900? Sometimes the best prayer begins with admitting you do not know what will happen, but seek to live with trust first and foremost. Similarly, even when we have had a rough past which included mistakes (which most of us will admit), there’s still a greatness to praying that God would keep an eye on us and grant us a better future. There’s also just something beautiful about a prayer that intentionally does not close one’s eyes to one’s neighbor.

If I were to rewrite this prayer for today, I wouldn’t focus on cattle, but I would remember how God has helped me find ways to bring food to my table. If I were to rewrite this prayer for my circumstances, I might not see my neighbor in exactly the same light as someone from 1900 who might see only this person on days of miserable weather, but I would consider that our neighbors are often the people we look beyond when we consider the problems of the world. If I were to rewrite this prayer, it would be different, but I hope that it would maintain the same movement of trust in God from the unknown future, to the parts of my life I see, and finally to the beloved parts of my life.

Darkness and Light

Breakfast scent reaches far—
Wafting through all warm safe homes…
A shared moonstruck myth.

Rev. Robert Dean

Today marks the beginning of a new year. 2019 is here. I have many hopes for this new year, but I found myself unwilling to answer a question my wife asked our family at breakfast this morning. My wife asked “What are your hopes for 2019?”

My problem with her question was not that I had no answer. I have many answers for her question. I would love a great many things to happen over the next year. I would enjoy a happy year for my children and for the healing of some wounds that came to the surface in 2018. I would feel blessed if my ministry thrived and if I could see tangible results of God’s work in my life. I would enjoy many of these things a great deal.

My challenge with her question comes from the fact that 2018 helped to inject my theology and my thoughts with the wisdom of different centuries of Christianity. Would I be happy if my ministry thrived at the expense of another group of sisters and brothers in the faith? Would I find meaning in my children being blessed while other children nearby continue to suffer through the belief that nobody cares for them?

It clarified my thoughts on these matters as I entered my devotion this morning. I am working through Upper Room’s resource “The Upper Room Disciplines 2019” and found myself working through the reflections of Dr. Marshall Jenkins. The book describes Dr. Jenkins as an “author, spiritual director, and licensed psychologist.”

Today’s reflections were on finding the light in the darkness’s midst and revolved around Matthew 25:31-46, which is the story of the division of the sheep and goats at the end of things. While reflecting on this passage, Dr. Jenkins wrote intriguingly about the light and the darkness.

The first thing that caught my eye was that we must find light by first finding darkness. This idea caught my eye as someone who has struggled in the past and is continuing to struggle with eye issues. In particular, it reminded me of the time they removed my eye patch after my corneal transplant.

When the eye patch was removed, everything was bright. I had spent days with my eye covered and everything was bright. My eye had become so accustomed to the darkness that everything I saw, from the smallest led light to the intensely bright light shining through the clouds sent pain through my head. I do not believe I realized how bright headlights truly were until we went for a ride that evening.

I did not understand how powerful light was until that period of darkness. In the same way, it can be very difficult to find light in this world if we do not first see the darkness. Dr. Jenkins points out in the passage in the Disciplines that we instinctively avert our eyes from the darkness.

In my experience as a minister, that reality is true. When I was minister of a church that hosted an Alcoholics Anonymous group, I often heard more in conversation around the state of the fellowship hall after meetings than I did about how brave the women and men were facing their struggles. Ironically, I think the AA group left the hall cleaner than we did on Sunday mornings!

To be clear, at the church I once served, the complaints were few and far between, the church never talked about removing their access to the space, and they did their best to make sure AA could continue meeting in the church’s space. The point I am attempting to make is that it was far easier to discuss a trashcan accidentally left full than it was to talk about how amazingly brave the folks were who came to face their struggles. Like Dr. Jenkins said, it is human nature to avert our eyes from the darkness and churches are filled with humans.

Dr. Jenkins also does a wonderful job at pointing out that the places of darkness are where this passage states we will find Jesus. He states:

“Jesus himself told us where to look: among the hungry, thirsty, alien, vulnerable, sick, and imprisoned. From their dark predicament, their faces will reveal the light… the light of Christ appears to those who step into the night with the lowly.”

Dr. Jenkins in “The Upper Room Disciplines 2019”

What Dr. Jenkins states tracks with the passage. Jesus says in Matthew 25:40: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

All of it begs a question for me. If you’re wondering where Jesus is in this topsy turvy world, have you looked among the least? If you’re wondering how you can make the world a brighter place amid a world filled with darkness, have you brought your light into the life of people like those listed in Matthew 25?

Let’s be clear, I’m not recommending giving money for others to do the work, although I am certain that is a blessing. I am not even recommending that you send money to the church to support our ministries because that is not my goal. I am asking if you personally have walked alongside the kind of folks where you might find the light of Jesus? Have you faced the darkness enough to recognize the light?

All of this calls to mind the words of Dr. Amy Oden that I was reading the other day in “And You Welcomed Me: A Sourcebook on Hospitality in Early Christianity.” She writes:

“Christians of the first three centuries certainly understood themselves to be aliens, pilgrims in this world with citizenship in another. Given their political location in the Roman Empire, it is not surprising that stranger status would be a primary way Christians understood themselves and their place in the world. These Christians frequently remind one another that their true allegiance is not with the powers of this world and they must hold a sort of double consciousness, seeking to be good citizens in their communities yet never fully at home in the world.”

Dr. Amen Oden in “And You Welcomed Me: A Sourcebook on Hospitality in Early Christianity”

Perhaps it would be easier to see the darkness if we were to more fully grasp this understanding of our reality. In my experience, church folks tend to look at those who struggle in darkness and say “How can I help them out of their struggle?” We might do well to ask how their journey is similar to our journey. We may be blessed to ask how our journey might intertwine with their journey. Perhaps we should see ourselves less as those who have everything together and instead as people who are on our own journey as pilgrims and aliens through this world.

The first rays of Advent

Today I began one of two Advent devotionals I am undertaking this holy Advent season. I pulled out my copy of “Mandalas, Candles, and Prayer” by Rev. Sharon Seyfarth Garner. I grabbed my colored pencils, arranged my “wreath,” and tried to enter a place of stillness. There will be more on stillness and having children on another day.

Tonight, as my wife was on a conference call, I sat in front of my Advent wreath and colored a mandala while undergoing the spiritual practice of the examen. Gregorian chants played in the background as I prayed and colored.

This week’s mandala is beautiful in construction. Rev. Garner must be very well connected. As the work is under copyright, I will try to explain the design. There are four steps to the examen proposed in the book by Rev. Garner. We begin with contemplation of Emmanuel, journey into gratitude, explore areas for growth, and conclude with seeking seeds of hope for the next day.

The mandala centers on a star which stretches center to edges. I colored as I prayed about how God is with us in this season. I tried to shade the colors of my imaginary sun. I believe I attempted this because I wanted to look back tomorrow and shake my head at myself. Rev. Garner may believe everyone can color, but there is a part of me that wonders if she knew I was coming.

As I colored and prayed about my day, I examined places where I found gratitude today. I thought of relationships with friends, family members, parishioners, myself, and my calling. I went deep with the prayer. I went deeper than expected.

Take my section in what we’ll pretend was stainless steel gray. As I colored, I thought about the dinner I prepared for my family. What did it mean that Emmanuel was there as I cooked a meal? My mother died in December when I was a child. Sometimes holiday meals were “golden brown!” Was God with us as people came alongside me to show me how to use the pans in my kitchen? What did it mean that on the other side of one ray of Emmanuel there was a section where I prayed for my wife who helped me learn? What did it mean that it bordered the color of my clergy shirt over the other ray of Emmanuel? Prayer for my cooking led into prayer for one of my favorite cooking instructors on one side and for the church where I lead a study on the spirituality of baking bread on the other side. Prayer went deep.

As I prayed through the areas of growth around those blessings, I borrowed colors as areas of blessing sometimes came into conflict with other parts of myself. I prayed about how my desire for personal growth occasionally conflicted with my parenting. I grieved how my calling as a minister occasionally led to pain in my marriage as I prayed about missed dates, anniversaries postponed, and vacations shortened. I grieved how being a loving husband occasionally meant I would try to listen to a parishioner while wrestling down reactions coming from my own relationship. Prayer grew really complicated.

Suddenly, there were other colors. There were colors for places of grief where my anger caused me to make mistakes. There were places where the authority of my ordination aided in some places and damaged others. There were places where colors blended and battled. My prayers became complicated. I did not expect this to be so hard!

Suddenly, the flickers of red appeared. I’d put dots of red amid the places where I was grateful to represent the Holy Spirit. Suddenly there were red the stained glass of connectedness were brought into relationship through the Holy Spirit. Suddenly gold appeared as I noticed places where Christ the King stood in my midst and brought healing.

Suddenly I understood that some of my troubles come from not just letting one bit of me stay where it belongs instead of jamming it into another place. To be clear, I never invited my wife on a date to Church Council, but sometimes my work with church members has swallowed the dinner conversation on a date with my wife. Something healthy in one part of my life needed to stay in that one part.

Strangest of all, there were spaces that were left blank. I prayed about what it meant. Suddenly, I realized there are parts of me that I cannot see without help from others and help from God. My soul really is a kaleidoscope of strangeness and beauty.

In the coloring there was realization, contemplation, and even places of healing as I prayed. In the midst of all of this, the rays of Emmanuel poured out from Christ from the center of the season into the rest of my heart.

Around all of this were seeds of hope for tomorrow. I had expected them to all be red for the Holy Spirit, but there was gold! Christ the King claiming my tomorrow as I prayed. If I had socks on my feet at the table, they might have been blown off.

I recommended this book to church members and bought a few friends copies because it looked like it would be interesting. I may not have expected it to be so deep. It is funny how that sometimes happens. We slow down for one moment and we are suddenly caught off guard by grace. I have no idea what my mandalas will look like for the rest of the week, but I can say that my eyes are opened. This practice might be far more intense than I expected.

Ancient Advice for Thanksgiving

So, it is almost Thanksgiving Day in the United States of America. Many forks are preparing to gather with loved ones for a day of feasting, conversation, and merriment. Thanksgiving is a blessed day for many people.

Not everyone likes Thanksgiving. Some people are dreading Thanksgiving this year. There are challenging conversations which may take place over pie. United Methodists risk conversations about the Special Session of General Conference and other church dramatics. Citizens risk discussions of politics, voting choices, and future outlooks. Many folks know there are traditional arguments over family matters, cooking styles, or other matters. Conversations can be difficult on Thanksgiving.

On a personal level, some folks dread Thanksgiving because of what it will tempt them to eat. Will power is a necessity for many on Thanksgiving. Exercised muscles and hard earned toning will face the hordes. They cry out things like “It is a holiday!” Invitations to live a little often correspond with an expectation to consume a lot.

I wanted to bring ancient wisdom into this conversation. I have been enjoying the Desert Abbas and Ammas a great deal over the past year, but do not limit my reading to these ancient words. For your edification, I bring to you a quote from Benedicta Ward’s “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection.” I also bring a quote to you from “The Epistle of Barnabas” in “Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers” as translated by Andrew Louth.

Let us begin with the Desert Abba, although it is likely that the epistle predates the sayings of the Abbas and Ammas. Here’s the quote for you today: (pg. 104)

“A brother questioned Abba Hierax saying,’Give me a word. How can I be saved? The old man said to him, ‘Sit in your cell, if you are hungry, eat, if you are thirsty, drink; only do not speak evil of anyone, and you will be saved.’ “

I want to stretch our understanding of what Abba Hierax says by breaking the passage down into three concepts. The brother sought a word about salvation. We are not seeking salvation in the eternal sense this Thanksgiving. Still, there is wisdom in seeking God’s salvific power to fill every day of our lives.

So, the first idea! Beloved, stay in your cell! For the Abbas and Ammas, the cell was the place they rested and prayed. The cell was a challenge to some and a a blessing for others. One could find out a lot about their being by remaining in their place. The cells had space for introspection. These places had space for rest. These rooms space for blessing.

Beloved, stay in your cell! When invited to a seat, enjoy that seat! You may not enjoy everyone around you in that place, but there may be room for blessing in your seat. Is your neighbor getting your goat? How is that neighbor getting your goat? What does that tell you about yourself? Why does that neighbor get your goat? What does that relationship tell you? Is your neighbor a challenge or a mirror for reflection? Is your neighbor an irritation or someone trying to connect? What if they only have certain tools and just need encouragement? Maybe something like sarcasm is almost their native language? Is this trouble is an opportunity to show love, to show grace, and to open a doorway to a better relationship?

Now, I strongly recommend that you do not stay if you are being abused. Be aware there may be possibility for personal growth growth if you figure out how it simply irritates you, annoys you, or frustrates you. You may leave your seat blessed beyond your imagination. Thank you Abba Hierax!

So, the second idea. Beloved, if you are hungry, eat. Beloved, if you are thirsty, drink. Sitting at the table is an opportunity to find sustenance for your body and soul. You may not like everything, but that is okay. There may be something at the table that will do more than sustain you. You may leave the table inspired to eat more of something strange. What if you do like that weird looking Brussel sprout dish? What if that one taste opens a door to a lifetime of new experiences? If you are hungry, eat.

Now, let’s be clear. Few of the Abbas would say to eat or drink to excess. Many of the Abbas and Ammas were clear that a person should engage in intentional moderation. So, if you are hungry, eat. When you have had enough, you may no longer be hungry. When thirsty, a glass of water may quench that thirst. If you eat when you are hungry and drink when you are thirst, you may leave your seat blessed beyond your imagination. Thank you Abba Hierax!

Finally, beloved, let us take this final word from Abba Hierax seriously. Beloved, do not speak evil of anyone. I saved the quote from the Epistle of Barnabas for this point in the post. The epistle says: (pg. 159)

“The principles of the Lord are three in number. Faith begins and ends with Hope, hope of life; judgement begins and ends with Holiness; and the works of holiness are evidenced by Love, and the joy and gladness it brings.”

If we are a people of faith, this epistle would recommend that our faith requires us to be a people of hope. We hope for life. When we speak evil of others, that never brings life into the equation.

If we must speak out of a place of judgment, the epistle would also ask questions of us. Do our actions begin in a place of holiness? Do our actions lead to a place of holiness? Remember, in this model holiness are evidenced by love, joy, and gladness. If love, joy, and gladness are not present when there is a temptation to be judgmental, then we should stop ourselves. If love, joy, and gladness are not the ultimate result of our actions, then we should stop ourselves.

Speaking out of a place of evil never does us well. Matthew 12 records an exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees where he was accused of acting out of an evil place. Jesus was charged with casting out demons by the power of Beelzebul. Jesus pointed out that this is madness. Jesus could not have acted out of an evil place to conquer evil—such actions would not stand the test of time.

If we are to be like Jesus, we should never meet evil with evil. We should never speak evil of anyone. As it says in 1 John 2:6, “Whoever says, ‘I abide in him,’ ought to walk just as he walked.” If speaking an evil word about another person is something you think would be unimaginable for Jesus, then you should seek to never speak such words. Thank you for the reminder and invitation back into truth and faithfulness to both Abba Hierax and to the author(s) of the Epistle to Barnabas.

In conclusion, I hope this little journey into obscurity encourages you this Thanksgiving. It is doubtful any of these authors would have understood at first glance our celebration of Thanksgiving. Still, one last aside. Abba Anthony once entered conversation with a hunter where the hunter became afraid that drawing his bow too many times would damage it. I’m sure the same thing is true of basting your turkey. Keep that oven door closed!

 

I made a diagram! Little victories are still victories!

“Supper Table” Questions

Today I began reading a new book I have been anticipating. I picked up a kindle version of “Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne” by Dr. Wilda Gafney. I have to admit that I am excited by the voice Dr. Gafney uses in her writing. It will be no surprise to most that I immediately caught on to her conversation around the kitchen table in her home. I love this quote: (Gafney, p. 2)

“All are welcome at this table, and as a sign of that welcome I offer not only dishes I like; I try to meet the dietary needs of my guests—which is not the same as cooking exactly what they want exactly the way they want. I am no short-order cook…”

Dr. Gafney proposes to use the narrative of the supper table as a structure for her book. Even reading through the introduction, it makes sense. Her conversation intends to: (Gafney, p. 7)

“[affirm] the interpretive practices of black women as normative and as holding didactic value for other readers, womanist interpretation makes room at the table of discourse for the perspectives of the least privileged among the community and the honored guest of any background: the child who is invited into ‘adult’ conversation around the table with ‘Baby, what do you think?’ and the extra place at the table for whoever may come by.”

The concept of the extra place at the table excites me. As an introverted person, one of my favorite things to do is sit down with people I respect and listen to their conversations. I probably spoke too much in seminary. A few years out with a few years of pastoral experience, I wish I had spent more time listening, especially to the strange voices I did not understand.

I am enjoying this book. I feel as if there is plenty at the table. Let me give an example of how Dr. Gafney asks some amazing questions. I plan to chew the ideas over for a while and will hopefully encourage you to pull up a chair at the table.

Here‘s my personal example of how this book inspires questions. It is a few weeks before Advent. We are facing the same story that is retold time and time again. I could easily polish an old sermon, but who likes reheated leftovers in a season of feasting.

Instead, what if I were to look at some principles Dr. Gafney presents (p. 8) and ask myself hard questions? Have I given voice to Elizabeth in the past? Have I ever deeply pondered her place in the story? Is there room for a woman’s story in this season focused around the coming of Christ? Have I made room for that story? Have I checked to see if that story honors the African roots of the text?

These questions are powerful. I admit these questions are convicting. If I look at Dr. Gafney’s four womanist principles, the well draws deeper (p. 8). Do my words as a European male legitimize other voices including the biblical interpretation of black women? Does my ministry allow for the inherent value of each person in the text and in the community interpreting the text? Do I allow conversation with the text so that there is room for conversation outside of my personal cultural sphere? If we don’t make that room, can we rightfully expect diversity in our churches? Dr. Gafney does not ask this outright, but If we do not make that healthy room, should we hold ourselves accountable for that failure?

I believe these questions are especially important for me as a European male minister in a very homogeneous ministry setting. I am appointed to serve in a town surrounded with roads where someone from outside the hamlet will likely pass Confederate flags or road signs tagged with swastikas to reach the church. I serve in a town where you must travel by car to find any significant diversity in population. Who will ask these questions if I abstain?

Truthfully, I am a bit intimidated by Dr. Gafney’s book. I do not want to engage in cultural misappropriation. I respect her research and words. I want to honor her work and enjoy her scholarship as someone who at least tries to share the table. To paraphrase Dr. Gafney, I could go back and keep doing things the way I always have. I do not want to keep doing the same thing! I want to learn and experience new things!

There are moments already in my reading where I feel like I might belong at the kids’ table. Although, I will honestly say I do not sense there is a kids’ table in Dr. Gafney’s home. Maybe that is an American custom of European descendants? I do not know. I know I am looking forward to spending time with this book and recommend it to other folks who are interested in broadening their horizons.

Side note: Dr. Gafney (noted in the acknowledgment which doesn’t have a page number on my kindle edition) notes that Dr. Mark Brummitt helped to coin the phrase “womanist midrash.” If it is the same Dr. Brummitt, he was one of my favorite seminary professors and at one point offered to be an emergency midwife if my wife went into labor the semester she was in his course while pregnant. If it is the same Mark Brummitt then it is a small world.

Today’s “Snowy Day” blogging vista! Those neon tetras really like the cover of Dr. Gafney’s book! If they keep this up, they’ll take my job…