(Song: "Happily Ever After" by He is We)
2 Corinthians 21b-33:
But whatever anyone dares to boast of—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman—I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus (blessed be he forever!) knows that I do not lie. In Damascus, the governor under King Aretas guarded the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands.
This was one of the Daily Office readings a while back. Several things popped in my head while I was driving on my monthly trip to two of my "country hospitals."
You know, back at the time the Epistles were written, "letters" were just a lot different sort of thing than they are now.
Electronic communication has made it so we can literally have "conversations" across the world that are very close to approximating real conversations--at least, in most cases, "close enough for government work."
But 2000 years ago, a letter was a very big deal.
Think about this one along with me. People of that era had to accept that we might meet people once. They might stay with us for a time that would now be excruciating (weeks to months!) But when they went on their way, it was a very real possibility the guest would never be seen again in the host's lifetime. Disease, robbers, wars, the Roman way of doing business, and short life expectancies were very closely held realities--especially if one belonged to a new religious sect whom the Roman Empire didn't like very much.
So for them to care enough to write a letter, that really meant something.
Also, it wasn't like these letters could be dropped in a mail slot and be guaranteed delivery. The Epistles were carried by messengers. People had time on their hands. They could be copied. They could be copied badly. The originals could get damaged and the copies used as "the" letter. Education wasn't standardized. People who could not read or write had to depend on other people to translate sentiments correctly. Language varied from region to region.
In short, a lot could go wrong--much as how it goes when we played "telephone" or "gossip" as a child. The message could get pretty garbled. These facts alone are why I am not a Biblical literalist. At best, when we read the Epistles (or any other book in the Bible, for that matter,) we are given a glimpse of the author's sentiments but anything beyond that, can't always be taken at face value. People also circulated the news by circulating a copy of the letter. More chances for poor copy quality.
It also meant the letter writer had a lot to say...and that since the possibility always existed they would never see each other again, the writers tended to be a lot more "emo" than we are used to seeing in letters. Sometimes the writer's emotions got the best of him or her, and we find situations where the writer might be ranting about something that happened months to years ago, and any response to that rant would have a similar delay--so misunderstandings could fester and brew in a way different than the way you and I would nurse grudges or have spats or feuds.
I used to be upset about all the stuff in Paul's letters that dissed women, and I still get mad at how fundamentalists use parts of it to bash gays and lesbians in committed relationships. But the more I understand the nature of these letters, the more I come to believe Paul was simply a dedicated, passionate guy, and all of us, when we truly love what we are called to do or be, can be overcome now and then by "temporary madness." I've come to give Paul the benefit of the doubt for all the things he said that irritate or inflame me, and not even engage in fights with fundamentalists about it, other than to state my above premise about temporary madness.
Reading this passage in 2nd Corinthians reminds me of one of the Desert Fathers who was also prone to whipping people with the "Look what all I've done for YOU," stick--St. Jerome.
St. Jerome was notorious for writing very angst-filled letters to his friends in this vein. But both men had a real habit of going, "Look what all I have put up with for your sake, dammit! Then you all act like you don't even care!"
One wonders if St. Jerome's friends, and in Paul's case, the church in Corinth, didn't scratch their heads over these sorts of letters, knowing it was not months later and barely remembering what someone was upset about to begin with. Nowadays, we'd pick up the phone and try to hash it out, or meet for coffee, and we could at least work on what's ailing the relationship within minutes to hours, not months to years.
One wonders if, as these letters got circulated, what the different churches said to each other. "I don't get it! He likes the church in Rome! But he chewed us a new one!"
Or maybe the reverse happened. "Ha, ha ha! He likes us better'n you!"
But the Epistles are wonderful windows into a facet of human nature--what really affects people. What hurts them. What grieves them. What gives them joy. What gives them hope. We see Paul lay himself bare because of the times he lived and the nature of communication then, in a way we would not do in the 21st century. Oh, we might have those kind of conversations. But we would probably not put them in the format of a lengthy letter.
It serves two purposes.
One purpose is to be reminded of our own rawness when we truly love something but don't always understand our own emotions in it. I think about all the consternation that can happen in families, even families in which the members love each other very much. I think back to the tales that get told at everyone's family reunions, where family members ended up never speaking again over some totally little, ultimately stupid thing. The rawest splits in families sometimes occur over the tiniest details. Not to mention we carry our family baggage everywhere we go in our non-family world.
So it's not surprising that the early Church had problems the minute it switched from being a group of disaffected Jews to a hodge-podge of Jews and Gentiles. It's not surprising that the cultural milieu of Galatia was different than the one in Corinth.
That brings up the other purpose. It teaches us that it's easy to feel victimized when we are passionate about something.
I think about my own diocese.
The Diocese of Missouri is long but not very wide. It is the entire eastern half of Missouri. It is headquartered in St. Louis. It stretches from St. Louis to Columbia/Jefferson City/Rolla in the "short" direction, and from Kirksville to Poplar Bluff in the "long" direction.
Now, truthfully, our diocese is a relatively calm, happy diocese in the Episcopal Church. I am very fond of our Bishop. I am convinced he takes his role as Chief Pastor of the Diocese very seriously.
The geography of our diocese is big enough, though, that it is very easy for one part of the diocese to feel "disconnected" from another. Up here in Kirksville, I can barely imagine Poplar Bluff even being in our diocese. I can't imagine what is the same about us or different about us, and of course my tendency is to think "Oh, they're much different than us, and they can't possibly have much in common with us." The same goes for when I imagine the parishes in the Ladue/Clayton area as opposed to us. They're in a well-heeled part of St. Louis. We're out in the sticks. How can they possibly care about us and us about them?
Then of course, there's the most convenient way to feel disconnected from the diocese--we can play the "outstate Missouri vs. St. Louis" card. All of us outstaters are prone to that one, simply because it seems the bulk of the "action" in the diocese is in the St. Louis area--most of the cool discussions, workshops, retreats, etc.
But you know, in so many ways, we really can't play those cards in good conscience like we used to, and maybe we shouldn't be so quick to do that (myself included.) I certainly agree there are times they should be played. Just not as much as we historically played them.
For one thing, even with a small budget, our diocese has been able to offer online book discussion and study groups through the Episcopal School for Ministry, even with a distinct lack of funding. They've been resourceful in using available free/inexpensive technology for that. No, it's not the same as the real thing. It's not Blackboard. But it is good enough to plant the seeds of more communication among the faithful for purposes of sharing and participating.
Another ace in the hole is that we have a wonderful diocesan communication director. I just got my iSeek in my e-mail yesterday, and I am always amazed at how much I learn about what's going on in the diocese from it. I can honestly say that iSeek has been a major player in my life for feeling "connected to the diocese."
Finally, we have social networking. Probably the #1 thing that has connected me to the diocese is Facebook. I think about how I know so many more people in my own diocese than I used to as late as two years ago. It started when I got brave enough to befriend "friends of friends" in the diocese.
But what I am seeing is a way of building the church in a healthy way--without episodes of "temporary madness" like Paul was prone to--that connects this diocese together in a way the early Church could not even dare to dream. It puts us poised to create real relationships and do real live mission in the diocese in a way that could not be done in traditional models of mission.
It's exciting to me, frankly, and I find myself wanting to learn more and more from those who are pioneers in it.
Like the "He is We" vid I posted with the song "Happily Ever After" says--we all have a story to tell. Why aren't we telling it to each other more than we are?