(Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Washington, DC, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.
Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
Now, when the Athenians made that statue entitled "To an unknown god," they were very likely erecting that statue so that this god they didn't know wouldn't get his or her nose out of joint for not being worshiped, and zap the Athenians for their ignorance. I would contend, however, that the devotees of the ancient Greek gods and goddesses were not the only ones hedging their bets against an unknown god. In a roundabout way, Christians occasionally do this, too--they only attach the name God to it, just in case.
This passage is a good reminder that knowing God in a relational sense is not the same as knowing God's title, not the same as knowing the intricacies of the liturgy, and not the same as being book-smart in theology. Now, that's not to say that those things don't help us in that relationship, it's not to say they're not part of that relationship. But they're not the relationship.
Further along in the passage, Paul throws another monkey wrench in understanding that relationship: He essentially says that God doesn't need our presence in the pews, and God doesn't need us to do good works, in order for God to be God.
But...but...but what about all the good things the church does? What about being a faithful worshiper? At first blush, this makes no sense. We want to come to church on Sundays and be uplifted by the gathered body, and it certainly feels like God is there. When we do mission, we get that warm fuzzy feeling. That can't be for nothing, right?
Again, Paul's not telling us to bag on those things. He's just saying, "Don't confuse the stuff of Christianity with your relationship with God. Don't fall prey to the illusion of control. Don't get bound up with your sense of piety and duty to the point of ignoring your relationship with the Almighty."
One of the things I've learned consistently with myself (and I don't think I'm alone in this one) is that the minute I start feeling self-assured in my relationship with God, that's the minute I start ignoring this relational aspect I can potentially have with God. Then I find myself in a very humble place pretty quick. I am less likely to enter into that relationship where I can bend and adjust to the uncomfortable complexities of that relationship.
I thought about this on the day I volunteered for a summer program several of the churches here in town also endorse. The program provides a nutritious lunch for children in the various Kirksville city parks--children who normally get the free or reduced rate school lunches. For some of these kids, the school lunch is the most balanced meal they get all day. Summer creates a hardship for families in that regard.
It's too easy to get involved in what I call the voyeuristic aspects of service. Service to others should not be a chance to check out everyone being assisted and use those observations to boost our own self-importance in the Church. It's easier to simply be a lookie-loo and notice all the dirty kids, the missing teeth and unflattering haircuts, and think, "I'm glad I'm not them," than it is to simply be mindful of the ministry as it is, warts and all.
Although I wish my work schedule would have allowed me to volunteer the whole week we covered the slots in this program, I found out early on it's simply human nature to notice the pregnant teens, the unruly kids, and the unattractive features of their parents. I realized that part of what this ministry called me to do was to merely sit and chat and make small talk with these folks. I found more similarities than I did differences.
It's no secret that one of the messages of Jesus was to comfort the afflicted. We tend to back up from that "afflict the comfortable" part of that message. May we all learn to coexist with that discomfort, while at the same time, grow.
(Photo of the eight living members of the "Philadelphia Eleven" from The Lead)
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’
I have to admit, I like that the anniversary of the "irregular" ordination of what the Episcopal Church has come to call "The Philadelphia Eleven" (the first women ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church) falls on the feast day of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. I always secretly wonder if that day was chosen on purpose or it was just an accident of fate.
From "The Lead":
The first women were ordained priests in the Episcopal Church on July 29, 1974, though General Convention had not yet passed a resolution. The "Philadelphia 11," Merrill Bittner, Alla Bozarth-Campbell, Alison Cheek, Emily Hewitt, Carter Heyward, Suzanne Hiatt, Marie Moorefield Fleisher, Jeannette Piccard, Betty Bone Schiess, Katrina Martha Swanson, and Nancy Hatch Wittig, were ordained by Bishops Daniel Corrigan, Robert L. DeWitt, Edward R. Welles, assisted by Antonio Ramos. On September 7, 1975, four more women, Eleanor Lee McGee, Alison Palmer, Betty Powell, and Diane Tickell, were ordained by retired Bishop George W. Barrett. The 1976, General Convention, which approved the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate, voted to "regularize" the 15 forerunners.
Until 1976, the canons regarding ordination were assumed to say that "men" meant male persons though according to common usage of the day "men" was the inclusive term for humankind. The women and the bishops went ahead with the ordinations before General Convention could clarify this. Elsewhere in the canons "men" and "man" was interpreted to mean "people" or a "person."
The John text for the feast day of Mary, Martha and Lazarus focuses on the resurrection of Lazarus. The passage is rich with emotion--we find grief, anger, and frustration in Martha's words. We find loyalty and fidelity in Mary's gift of simply staying home and being present. We find liberation in Lazarus arising and being unbound. (I always wonder if his first thought upon awakening was, "Huh? Whaaaaa?") We find a Jesus who trusts that God hears him. (I particularly like the Matthew version, where we see a Jesus who cries alongside us.)
I believe all of these same emotions had to be present in the events leading to the ordination of the Philadelphia Eleven, as well. There had to be so many tears shed--both before and after. There had to be anger--anger aimed square at the Church from many directions. There had to be frustration for these women. There had to be a sense of duty for the three bishops who ordained them just as intense as what Jesus felt when he set out to see Lazarus. There had to be an undercurrent of loyalty, faith, and fidelity for these eleven women to stay the course. These emotions did not end at their ordinations.
The last few days have been rather disheartening ones for me on about four different fronts. It culminated last night in having a discussion of something I had made a conscious decision to stop talking about to a person I swore I'd never talk to about it. But as it happened, I came to realize something had changed in me. I had shut myself up about this story because it became a story of my woundedness, my obsessive-compulsive nature, and the sickness that ensues because it linked too strongly to a time in my life that I was reminded of a person I had to become just to survive. It used to be a story of my shame that I could temporarily be that person again.
But I realized when I hung up the phone last night, I was telling the facts of that story, but I was telling it from a way different place--as a piece of a recovery story. It was no longer the icky stuff in the story that made me cry. It was the recognition of the subsequent miracles that came later. I was shown I was in a different place--a resurrected place, an unbound place.
I was following a Facebook thread on the ordination of the Philadelphia eleven today, and I heard a great line about holiness: "Irregular is the essence of the holy."
I do believe it is. Not just in the ordination of these eleven women, but in my own life, as I yearn to live out the full height and depth of it.
(Westiminster Abbey Choir singing Psalm 62, from YouTube)
For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.
He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken.
How long will you assail a person, will you batter your victim, all of you, as you would a leaning wall, a tottering fence?
Their only plan is to bring down a person of prominence. They take pleasure in falsehood; they bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse. Selah
For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.
Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us. Selah
Those of low estate are but a breath, those of high estate are a delusion; in the balances they go up; they are together lighter than a breath.
Put no confidence in extortion, and set no vain hopes on robbery; if riches increase, do not set your heart on them.
Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God,
and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord. For you repay to all according to their work.
There's no doubt--sitting alone and waiting in silence can be a drag--but there are other times when that's all a person can do.
Now, despite the fact many see me as talkative--loquacious, even--there are some things where I tend to be as silent as a tomb. One of them is anyone's medical condition. I remember a time some friends of mine were gossiping about someone's illness, and had not heard anything for a few days from them. I simply sat silent. Of course I knew exactly what was going on--I'd gotten all the parts that got taken out at surgery. A few weeks later, when one of them had heard what happened, and had put two and two together, she went, "You KNEW, didn't you?" I just laughed. "Damn..." she continued. You're a real professional."
Another is I am very silent with the very important secrets of others. The problem is, when one gets a reputation for being trustworthy, it breeds more people telling you secrets. If people knew how much I knew around this place--things people look for me to tell it to, to vent, to think it through, to get feedback--it would scare some folks to death.
The problem, however, is I grew up learning to keep a lot of bad secrets, that should have been told. In the wrong circumstances, I have been known to keep mum about a fair bit of wrongdoing and abuse. Not just involving me, but involving others.
Over the years, I've discovered part of sitting alone in the silence and trusting God also means listening to when God informs me the statute of limitations has run out on those seemingly ancient secrets.
I've found myself in that kind of situation lately. I've been having a lot of dialogue with a person who is looking to understand the big picture of something that happened long ago. The inquirer sensed some time back I knew something about it, but I've never offered much up. After all, it was a place where it created some brokenness in me, too. These discussions are difficult, because the questions asked of me inadvertently become reminders of those unresolved broken parts in myself. I don't think this person meant to stumble into my own brokenness on this. But I find these conversations can only go on so long before it either becomes too intense for the inquirer or I have to drop back and mentally regroup before going on to the next place with it.
The problem for me is that part of the healing process is time allows us to forget details. The inquiries involve details that this many years later, are rather sketchy in my mind. There's a place where my involvement in the story intersects, but over the years I've come to forget the pain in it. These questions re-open the pain. But what I hear when I drop back and sit alone with God, is to let these things be unearthed.
Reconciliation, is, at best, a messy business. In our minds, the gold standard of reconciliation is "happily ever after" and "kiss and make up." I'm pretty sure that, with this situation, there will be no kissing and making up, and I'd say the odds are pretty slim that these inquiries will result in "happily ever after" for the person doing the inquiring, in this situation. What I desire most of all is to have words for this inquirer that bring hope--but I'm pretty sure what I know has no intrinsic hope in itself. I only know my version of the truth, and I know my words, whether I unleash some of the old secrets or not, will not heal. They will only illustrate. I cannot offer healing through the content of my words. I can only ask that God grant healing for this person, in which the quest for understanding the whole story is a piece of that.
It's in these times we are doing as the Psalm says--hoping in silence for God alone--because only God has the power to heal these things. I've come to understand when nothing of ours has hope, we can only trust for God to make things right, in time. I've come to understand that when there is no "happily ever after," to rely on "forever after," because, ultimately, only God has the power.
(Photo of St. Helena's church on the Island of Lundy, UK. From 1836 to 1919 the island was owned by the Heaven family, and they called it "The Kingdom of Heaven." Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
Jesus put before the crowds another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches." He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened." "The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. "Have you understood all this?" They answered, "Yes." And he said to them, "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."
Well, I'm glad the disciples understood it, because parts of it are not all that clear to me.
The first thing I did was dig through the Greek. When things are unclear to me, I often go back into the original Greek and Hebrew and try to figure out the context of the original words--not just in terms of their literal meaning, but also according to the custom of the times--the colloquialisms, euphemisms, and whatnot. I learned two interesting concepts about the words "kingdom" and "heaven" in the original Greek:
"Kingdom"--Basileia--(like St. Peter's Basilica) actually has as much to do with the right or authority to rule as it does a physical kingdom. It's as much about the management of the realm as it is the realm itself.
"Heaven"--ouranos--doesn't just mean "Heaven," it can also mean sky, air, and/or the primeval Greek god of the sky--aka Uranus. In the "birds of the air" part of this passage, ouranos is the word used, too. It's interchangeably used in this passage for "heaven" and "air."
In the pre-Galileo, pre-Copernicus, pre-Keplerian concept of the sky, it was a dome--a dome that had all the things within it--stars, the sun, the moon, and all the stuff of earth above ground level.
So in my mind, what Jesus was talking about was this interchangeable mix and match place that is made of of heaven and earth simultaneously. It's a place where the temporal (the birds of the air) and the godly coexist. It's the was, is, and is to be all rolled into one, and this "kingdom" is not just simply real estate--it's God's authority in managing the whole shebang. So what we do here has an effect on Heaven. What we do today, has an effect on tomorrow. Kinda like the Butterfly Effect. It's part of how I see passages like "the kingdom being among us" and "The kingdom of heaven is here."
The Butterfly Effect is a very accepted part of chaos theory. It's why we now state with some degree of confidence that we have little confidence in predicting the weather outside of a week or so in advance.
I've said many times in this blog that what we attribute to "supernatural" is, in reality, very likely an expression of the natural world that our finite brainpower can't understand.
What it means to me is this: What we do right now--in the here and now--has the power to change the initial conditions for a state in the universe that is striving to move to a steady state. It means that these small changes have the potential for a larger effect later on. It means we have choices in these things. It means what we do now can have a positive or negative effect on things around us that we cannot foresee. All any of us can do is try to make good choices, yet we have to let go any delusions we have that we control them once we have made our choices.
My belief is our good choices not only help those things we can see, but that it also expands Heaven in a way we cannot see, and, perhaps will only be revealed to us when we die.
Most importantly, it means every one of us has a stake--not just later, but now--in the Basileia of Ouranos.
(Photo of one of the main intersections of Hometown, PA, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
(Originally posted on Speaking to the Soul, Saturday, July 23, 2011)
He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
Our passage points out that Jesus more than likely suffered a problem anyone who ever grew up in a small town, or attended their high school reunion, can identify with--no matter how renown a person gets, set foot in your home town, and someone invariably cuts to the chase as to "identity." Chances are, the Nazarenes very likely remembered Jesus as a reflection of their own sense of history, propriety, and local gossip, rather than who he was.
"Hey, aren't you Mary and Joseph's boy? I remember you. Precocious little feller. Didn't you run off from your parents for several days when y'all went to Jerusalem, and they couldn't find you, and they found you, bold as brass, sittin' with the Kohenim? I'm tellin' you, if you'd have been my boy, I'd have whupped you silly all the way from Jerusalem to Nazareth."
It was probably things like that, the Nazarenes remembered, rather than choose to accept Jesus' divinity. After all, nothing good ever comes from here. People have a tendency, especially when it comes to healing, to think "the good stuff" is over there. Small town folks swear the local doctors are quacks, and the good ones are at the University. People who work at the University Hospital say, "I wouldn't take my dog there," and use the private hospital in town. Then, of course, there's that crowd that knows for a fact that no one for miles around is any good, and it's the Mayo Clinic or Sloan-Kettering or Barnes-Jewish that cornered the market on "good" doctors.
At any rate, the effect was almost like Kryptonite on Jesus. He healed a few people, but overall, it was not a very rewarding homecoming. In short, most of the locals simply couldn't believe that "Mary and Joseph's boy" could even be close to anything resembling the Son of God. Didn't Mary get pregnant kind of mysteriously? Didn't Joseph get ripped off on the marriage deal, but married her anyway? What was that all about, anyway? And Jesus--he was all set up to take over his daddy's carpentry shop, and he just up and took off--running around with no money, teaching and preaching. What kind of fool would ever think he's even a prophet, let alone the Messiah?
I can only imagine the dismay and frustration Jesus must have felt over this "welcome," as well as the bewilderment and aggravation his family must have experienced over his reply about "prophets without honor." (In fact, I can hear my late grandmother's classic retort to any time I seemed just a little too cool, just a little too superior: "Who do you think you are, Lady Astor's horse?")
Our Gospel story serves as a very important reminder that there are times, no matter how much we love someone or something, no matter how right we feel or excited and committed we are about something, there are times that we are simply not the one called to do the job. There are times our best efforts won't be heard or understood, whether it's at home, at work, or in the life of the parish. Rather than obsessively beat our head against the wall, or pout in the corner licking our wounds, we should take our cue from Jesus in this story--find the ones who are called to do the job, send them out with our best instruction and our blessing, and rejoice in the good that they have accomplished.
(Gustave Dore's "The Stoning of Achan" courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
But Jews came there from Antioch and Iconium and won over the crowds. Then they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. But when the disciples surrounded him, he got up and went into the city. The next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe. After they had proclaimed the good news to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, then on to Iconium and Antioch. There they strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith, saying, “It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God.” And after they had appointed elders for them in each church, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe. Then they passed through Pisidia and came to Pamphylia. When they had spoken the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia. From there they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had completed. When they arrived, they called the church together and related all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles. And they stayed there with the disciples for some time.
I was really surprised, when I researched this passage, both in my Access Bible and my New Interpreter's Study Bible, that the comments made no mention of what I thought was the most interesting thing in this passage from my Daily Office reading--namely, that Paul had been stoned, dragged out of town, and left for dead!
Stoning is a form of execution I have to remind myself of the details. The engraving I posted above of another stoning, the stoning of Achan, reminds me that it wasn't like what one saw in the movies (Good looking woman gets some rocks thrown at her but her face is still beautiful and very much intact.) When someone got stoned, it wasn't like the crowd threw driveway gravel at them, they threw some pretty good sized rocks. In the more "official" types of stoning, the prisoner was bound at the foot of a tall tower and literally, small boulders were dropped on them. In the more "spontaneous" forms, (as this one was) people just more or less grabbed whatever sized rock they could heft and started throwing.
But at any rate, this story is a reminder how fast the "crowd mentality" can take over. These were people who, at first, were inspired and excited by Paul's preaching. But when the religious authorities showed up, whatever they said got the crowd whipped into a frenzy, and, when we read about the various stonings in the Bible, many times, we discover that in many of them, the emotions of the fickle and easily excitable crowd start to take on forms of vigilante justice without a second thought.
We like to think that we are much more sophisticated than this, but the harsh reality is this: Although the crowd mentality may no longer, in modern American life, result in the physical stoning of people, we certainly are capable of psychologically stoning them. E-mails go viral, groups succumb to the will of the gossip mill, and schools experience the "piling on" effect of bullying.
We may no longer physically leave people for dead, but we certainly psychologically leave them for dead, blocking them out of our mind and shunning them.
I can barely imagine what a physical mess Paul must have been, to have been dragged out of town and left for dead, literally, to "die in the ditch." He was certainly comatose. His breathing must have been virtually nonexistent. His face must have been a bloody pulp. Yet, somehow, he survives what must have been a horrifying experience to him--imagine things appearing to be to meet a death exactly like what he not only witnessed with the stoning of Stephen, but holding the coats of the ones doing the deed.
Not only does he survive, he bounces back and immediately starts preaching again. My guess is that his witness is more powerful than ever, disfigured and still with bits of dried blood sticking to his flesh and covered in cuts and contusions.
I am reminded of the book, St. George and the Dragon and the Quest for the Holy Grail, by Edward Hays. If you've never read the book, you ought to. George meets a dragon named Igor, and discovers something very important about this dragon:
"From my position high on the dragon's back, I noticed that the dragon's body was covered with old wounds. Whenever the dragon breathed forth fire to light the path in front of us, I noticed that the wounds glowed golden-red in the dark. When I asked about them, the dragon replied, "Oh, my friend, I have been slain a thousand times, but I have always arisen again. These old wounds are the source of my power and my insight. Our greatest and worst enemies are not the monsters who roam the forest or even wicked witches or evil wizards. No, it is our scars, our wounds, and old injuries that we must fear. As we journey through life we have all been injured--hurt by parents, brothers or sister, schoolmates, strangers, lovers, teachers. Each wound has the power to talk to us, you know. They speak, however, with crooked voices because of the scars."
The Holy Spirit, I believe, does not work so much through our goodness, but instead through our scars, making them glow much like Igor the Dragon's scars did. When people see the light of the Holy Spirit in us, are we embarrassed that it is our scars that glow, or accepting of it? When we are left for dead by the roadside, do we lie there, fearing our ugliness from the beating, or do we bounce back and start letting the Holy Spirit guide us? Once we allow the light of the Holy Spirit to shine through our scars, it's amazing what love and grace others can see in a broken world.
(Drawing of the re-animation of a zombie courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
(Originally posted on Speaking to the Soul, Sunday, July 17, 2011)
O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Ever notice how certain creatures of the night get renewed popularity in popular horror films? It's striking that the two most popular "horror movie creatures" seem to be vampires and zombies these days. The renewed interest in vampires started with the Anne Rice novels. Lately, it seems that zombies are becoming all the rage. It makes me wonder what underlying statement we are making culturally about a basic fear--the fear of re-animation without animus--that we, as a culture, fear being ambient and responsive to stimuli, but bereft of self-awareness and a collective consciousness. We fear being controlled by the zombie master--submitting to a will in which our own ability to align our will is extinguished.
Paul speaks of something similar in this passage when he talks about not being conformed to the world but being transformed by the renewing of our minds. The Greek word used for transformation in this passage is metamorphoo--the basis of our word metamorphosis. We commonly use this word in describing the transformation of a caterpillar to a butterfly, and the prefix meta- is a very common word in medicine both to the positive and to the negative--metaplasia, one tissue type being transformed to another in response to an injurious stimuli to protect it--and metastasis, the spread of a primary tumor to distant organs.
The ambiguity of metamorphoo is a good reminder that change in our lives is a process, not a single event--and that there are both choices and things beyond our choices that shape this transformation. The ultimate choice for us, however, is the choice to align our wills with the source of all that is holy. Transformation in the Christian journey is not a re-animation by God the Grand Zombie Master. Because God desires relationship with us, as illustrated again and again in the Bible, God desires our awareness and consciousness to both the divine, and to the collective consciousness of all souls, both in this present existence and in the plane of existence of the company of Heaven. We are allowed the freedom to make both positive and negative choices in this process of metamorphoo.
How has metamorphoo entered our lives this week? Has it been full of consciousness or devoid of it? What choices can we make that allow us to move from caterpillar to butterfly to those around us rather than be like a metastatic tumor, burdensome, beyond our control, and eventually fatal to our spiritual growth?
(Woodcut illustrating the Parable of the Talents courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
One of the things I've come to realize is all of us have a certain level of discomfort with our talents, and the sad thing is we have a tendency to bury them in one way or another.
I had heard from an old acquaintance from high school who I have reconnected with on Facebook. She was wanting to get together with me for lunch and catch up, and in this interchange, she had a strange admission: "I wish I had gotten to know you better in high school but you were so intimidating because you were so smart." I told her that I had never really thought much about my intelligence, because I thought it was like how some people have brown hair or blue eyes. It was just there.
I thought about another conversation two of my other classmates had. One thought the other was "gorgeous, but stuck up." The gorgeous one replied, "Stuck up? You're kidding! I was so incredibly SHY, and it made me uncomfortable when people told me I was pretty, so I just clammed up!"
Well, the more I thought about my statement to my classmate, the more I started to realize that there was some truth to what I had told her, but something else piled on top of it. I sort of knew that my intelligence was intimidating to people, and it was my tendency to withdraw when I could feel that tension in the room about it.
The classic story went like this:
I have always been bad about "impulse control" when the light bulb in my head turned on. It's like the light comes on, and I start rattling on about things no one ever thought of, or dared say, or wanted to put out there, but for me, it has always been like the sheer momentum of this knowledge building in my head created this pressure behind my teeth that I had to spill it out of my mouth to get relief. This is like some kind of giant force that I can't control. I have even wondered at times if this is what it feels like for people with Asperger's or one of the autism spectrum disorders--this feeling that one might explode if he or she doesn't just say it.
So out it came.
Sometimes, then, I'd look around the room and get "the look." This look like "Where'd that come from? And what are we going to do with it? Are we supposed to do something with it? Or not?"
But over the years, it created this oddly comfortable space for me in groups. The Smartest One in the Room. It was kind of like, "Okay, once we have established I'm The Smartest One in the Room," I have a space, and I don't really plan to lord this over anyone, or necessarily have my way with it. I just want to claim my space as The Smartest One in the Room, okay?"
I found it was very very hard for the group to function after that, sometimes, because it put other people on edge whether I approved or disapproved. What made comfort for me intimidated them.
So, over the years, I learned to bury this. I learned to keep my knowledge to myself. I learned to hoard it. But if I just shut up and let others do their thing, I became resentful. Resentful they didn't bother to ask me. Resentful when they screwed something up and all they had to do was ask me, and I would have told them. But I learned that "working in groups" meant to shut up and take what everyone else had and swallow it to get along. It was all flipped around. Like the gorgeous person who was shy, not stuck up at all, I was the one who was intimidated!
I have learned that when I am not The Smartest One in the Room, or if I'm not sure whether or not I am The Smartest One in the Room, my tendency is to try new things alone first. I am very intimidated by doing things with no knowledge or experience. Take my recent trip to Joplin to volunteer after the tornado. I would never have felt comfortable going with a group for the first time experience. I knew I was not The Smartest One in the Room. My biggest fear is "looking stupid." Now that I have a little experience in volunteering there, I would be more comfortable going with a group, and being led, or even leading a group. Over the years I've gotten over needing to be THE smartest one, but it morphed to a place where I still can't dare be The Dumbest One in the Room.
Yet, when I do that, I've buried a talent--my talent for being able to adjust to almost any situation--which is a marvelous talent for groups in conflict or turmoil. When I get too worked up about not looking stupid, I create more tension in an already tense situation. I squander my talent.
I've come to realize our talents are not ours--they're God's. When we bury them, we cut ourselves off from aligning with God's desires for us, and with a means to serve God's kingdom. Because we are afraid of losing our talent, we bury it, when God wants us to spend it.
I've thought many times about how one good bout of encephalitis, or one good car wreck with a brain hemorrhage, or one good stroke, and POOF! All that I see me as "me"--i.e., my sense that I am intelligent--is gone. Yet I know God would still love me just the same. I am convinced God loves people of limited intelligence just as much as me--I've always been convinced of that. Oddly, sometimes I am jealous of those people because I think they get to see God in a way that all my so-called brainpower obscures.
I seriously doubt I am solo in these feelings. I'm sure that "whatever our talent is," we all have these weird feelings of insecurity about them. It's a lesson in trust. We come at it from the point that if we lost our talent, God would be angry with us, so we hoard it instead, when it was meant to be spent. Our parable today tells us that hoarding is probably not the right thing to do. We don't entertain the possibility that even if we spent it and it was gone, God might trust us with a new talent to start over. We forget that the Bible has story after story of do-overs with those God loves.
We don't want to entertain the possibility of do-overs, I think, because being at the do-over place implies we failed somewhere. Our fear of not failing creates a hoarding mentality.
What would God's kingdom be like if we could let go of our fears of failure?
(Photo of medieval Heretic's Fork courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Read more about how the Heretic's Fork was used on Wikipedia.)
He drew a circle that shut me out-- Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But Love and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle that took him in!
--"Outwitted," by Edwin Markham
One of my favorite writers on the Patheos site is Elizabeth Scalia, who writes in the column, "The Anchoress." Now, even though I'm an Anglo-Catholic Episcopalian, and she's definitely a Roman Catholic, I find a lot of overlap in what she has to say. Her recent column on heresy struck a chord with me. I invite you to read it before going further in my blog post.
She brings up something that is very common today that I see in both political discussions and discussions on religion--the backhanded compliment that is actually a very strident accusation of heresy. Consider the quote she read that a prominent person in the "pro-life" arena posted about the death of Betty Ford:
“While I empathize with the loss Betty Ford’s family and friends must be feeling at her death, I do not lament the passing of any unrepentant leader of the pro-abortion movement, bluntly speaking. The world is a safer place for children with one less person facilitating their murders.”
Statements reeking with false empathy, which at the same time bolsters one's own position while accusing another person of heresy, are pretty standard fare in web page article comments these days.
When I was a kid, the only heretics I knew about were the ones in the Middle Ages, and really, they were more about being accused of heresy rather than actually being heretics. Thanks to the Internet, it appears heretics are everywhere, and some folks are quite strident about pointing fingers and naming names, and others are quite strident in engaging the strident ones.
I am reminded of another quote, one by William Shakespeare, from A Winters Tale:
"It is a heretic that makes the fire, Not she which burns in it."
I've made an executive decision.
Whenever I hear or read a statement that leads to an accusation of heresy, I'm going to think about what lies under that statement, rather than the statement itself. Simply back up and think and reflect on the big picture of that statement.
You see, I am thinking that perhaps Christianity is the biggest heresy of all. I'm starting to come around to the notion that following Jesus is a form of heresy in and of itself, when you look at our world, and Jesus was the grand poobah of heretics.
I mean, look at the guy. He healed on the Sabbath. He was constantly invoking the ire of the Kohenim. He told people to hate their parents in order to follow him. He said things like "sell all you have and give it to the poor." People were taking rocks up to stone him. People were running him out of town for doing things like being around when herds of hogs committed mass suicide by running off cliffs and drowning in the water below. People in his own home town thought he'd risen "above his raisin's."
So why should we be surprised that notions like ordaining women, or electing gay bishops are met at times with cries of "Heresy?" Why should we be surprised that a Jesus-based tack for "why we need universal health care" or revising the tax code should be met with cries of "Heresy?"
But perhaps the most convincing reason why we should not shrink from what seems heretical or even sacrilegious at first glance is explained in Lowell Grisham's story in the Speaking to the Soul blog. It's the story of a church organist who discovered, while practicing, that a woman had come in off the streets and was diapering her baby on the altar.
Imagine the collective shudder that would happen in a typical parish witnessing such a thing! Changing a baby's wet or poopy diaper on the fair linen--something ready made to throw any grand poobah of the Altar Guild into apoplexy.
The organist quickly shooed her off...but then, as he got to thinking about it...what did it say to shame her out the door of the church for placing her baby on Ground Zero of a religion whose key character was born in a humble, rude stable and whose first bed was a feed bunker?
We might be surprised to discover what we'll find, walking over that line called "Heresy."
(O noblissima viriditas, courtesy of YouTube)
O most noble greening power,
rooted in the sun,
who shine in dazzling serenity
in a sphere
that no earthly excellence
You are enclosed
in the embrace of divine mysteries.
You blush like the dawn,
and burn like a flame of the sun.
--English Translation of "O Noblissima viriditas," by Hildegard von Bingen
"Being a monk in the world means for me to live slowly in a fast-paced culture, to treasure the gift of being in a world that says my value comes from doing, to linger over life’s moments and recognize that what I seek most deeply is already here waiting to be revealed.
"Summer calls me to relish the gifts of slowness, attention, and wonder. The season immerses me in the sacramental imagination – the recognition that everything is holy, everything shimmers with the sacred presence if we only slow down enough to see." --Christine Valters Paintner
Here in northeast Missouri, we are in a hot spell.
The last few summers here have been unseasonably cool and unseasonably wet, but this summer we seem to be back in our normal temperature and humidity zone for July for the most part...but a little on the wet side. Kirksville lore always claims that it tends to be hot right around the time of the N.E. Regional Fair, and this year is no exception, with "Fair week" temperatures predicted to be over 95.
On an even more "local" level, I continue to be without air conditioning, as I continue to be infested by my contractors working in the house. I have been dealing with living in my temporarily non-A/C'ed house in some of these 90+ degree days. This is not a new experience--we didn't even have air conditioning at home until I was 12 years old, and I've suffered through summer home repairs/remodeling before in recent years.
What I've noticed is an actual "slowing" of my body. I literally am not feeling inclined to work very hard, things don't seem as important to get done quickly, I work at eating meals that don't need to be cooked, and in the hot evenings and weekends, I simply lie around a lot and don't do much. I snooze and lounge outside in my hammock, drink cool drinks, and honestly, have pretty much been a slug. My brain feels slower, and my body feels lazier.
It's a good time to ponder Hildegard's concept of "greening," in these long summer days and quiet, humid, still summer nights.
The abbess Hildegard von Bingen, in her day, was considered more or less a saintly healer and a "medicine woman." In fact, she has sometimes been considered one of the first female physicians. By today's nomenclature, I'd say she was pretty much a naturopath. She understood quite a bit of economic botany and the botanic pharmacopoeia of her day. This botanic knowledge also spilled over into her spirituality, and it's interesting to consider her thoughts on "greening."
Much of the understanding of the physical world in the Middle Ages was rooted in the four elements: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water--and most of medicine in that era revolved around an understanding of the Four Humors--Blood, Phlegm, Yellow Bile, and Black Bile. Hildegard's own fascination was with the rhythms of the cosmos reflected in nature, and vice versa. Only one copy of her medical text, Causae et curae, remains, but this passage gives some insight on her physical and medical world view:
The firmament contains stars just as a man has veins that hold him together. . . . and just as the veins go from head to foot, so the stars are scattered throughout the sky. And just as blood moves in the veins and moves them with the pulse, so does the fire in stars move them, and emits sparks like the pulse. . . . And the stars give beauty and heat to the firmament just as the veins give blood and heat to the liver. They are scattered throughout the firmament, both in the day and in the night, but we see them not in the day because, like peasants in the presence of princes, they cover themselves in the presence of the sun.
Hildegard's study of botanical pharmaceuticals created a merging in her mind of the greening of plants (viriditas) with the complexion of healthful vigor--the healthy pink of humans in good physical condition was our "greening." Likewise, the healthy soul also possessed a form of "greening." A soul aligned with the nature of God also was "green" and flourished. A healthy soul also shone with a viriditas all its own.
We tend to forget, I think, that part of what makes things grow in us, like crops, is a slow unfolding under the long summer days and a warm temperature in the "ground of our being" at night. To simply bask in the sun and do very little is not an unproductive thing, even though we feel slow and things move slowly. It lets our spiritual imaginations grow and flourish and stretch broad green leaves skyward...Godward.
I've thought about how much faster paced my life has been in the past ten years, even in the slower locale of Kirksville. I can whip out my smart phone and find most anything I want in seconds. Something that was different in this last Kirksville summer storm compared to only a couple of years ago for me was I have the weather forecast at my fingertips. Thanks to social networking, I never have to be alone if I choose not to. I've thought about how when I was a younger adult, to do anything but "go, go, go" seemed lazy and wrong.
But these days, to lie around the yard, to lounge, to daydream, to simply connect to God and be--is not so much a treat (like ice cream) but more like air--I must have it to live. When I don't get it, I feel as if I'm suffocating. I am happy with my comparatively laid back work life than the one when I was a young attending at the University of Missouri. I've thought about how I don't regret the years I kept trying to go up, up, up the academic ladder and I really don't regret the move to step off the ladder, although at times my ego pokes at me that I am not famous, not the "expert in something" I envisioned I'd be, not the big cheese in the big cheese factory. Oh, I suppose I am a little bitty big cheese, but it's a pretty small cheese operation! I'm doing what would have been unthinkable twenty years ago--contemplating being less of a big cheese. Being more of the me God intended for me to be and less of the me I am expected to be.
It feels slow. Very slow. Sometimes I do get irritated with the slowness. But this week, I'm happy to soak in the sun in these very long days and feel myself being slow and open to the rhythms of nature and to the slow nature of the Divine in this long green season.
(John Dean's memo to staffers regarding the Nixon Administration's political enemies, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love
our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth:
deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in
your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
--Page 816, Book of Common Prayer
Now, I am sure most of you are having the response to this post that I would have if I wasn't the one writing it..."Naw! I don't have any enemies. I mean, okay, I'm kinda p.o.'ed at people now and then, and yeah, I have some broken friendships and broken relationships, and yeah, I know at least two people that still probably wish me dead if they saw me on the street...but naw, I don't really have any enemies..."
These days, in our more politically correct world, the word "enemy" is a bad word. It implies global thermonuclear war, or intent to commit murder. But by the dictionary, an enemy is simply, "One who feels hatred toward, intends injury to, or opposes the interests of another; a foe." Simply speaking, an enemy can be something as minor as anyone who stands in the way of our interests or anyone we'd stand in the way of theirs. Granted, most of our enemies are minor, and some are temporary...but yeah, anyone who, on the way to work, we might be talking to ourselves, grousing about that person bugging us, or nosing into our business, or talking trash about us...yeah, that's an enemy.
It's odd. We have no problem saying, "That person is difficult. That person is being oppositional. That person is being obstructive." Yet we can't quite get to the "E" word. My Facebook friend K. Jeanne Person found a great quote from an ancient (1968--that's ancient these days, right) issue of The Living Church--"In flashes of anger, pride, unearthed prejudice, envy, or disappointment, even our dearest friends can be enemies for a moment."
I recently followed a different Facebook conversation where I could tell the person was very wounded by the words of someone, but they insisted, "Oh, I'm not angry." They were wounded enough to make the difference of opinion "Facebook public" and they were poking the fork in it by laying out humorous things they wanted to do to mock the other person's opinion...and I'm thinking, "Naw...you're not angry...not like in your face angry...but you were HURT...and I'm sorry, but sarcastic humor, or snarkiness, or sticking a fork in something, even if it's in a joking fashion...yeah, that IS anger. Just not overt anger. Covert anger."
I know this because one of the things I continue to learn to do better is admit my hurt and let it go rather than cool-headedly "get back" at someone, or "utz" them or their situation.
One of the things I've had to learn to get over myself about is to learn not to dream and scheme in that "revenge is a dish best served cold" sort of way. I am a big one to go out of my way to continually annoy those who have hurt me. If we had a falling out, and you can't stand to see me on the street, I'll wave at you great big. I'll park next to you in the parking lot, I'll make sure I speak to you first on the street; whatever it takes to make you feel grouchy and resentful of our falling out, I'm on it.
But I learned a really good lesson about that.
I once admitted that to someone, that I was like that. Then, as luck would have it, the person I admitted that to, and I, had a falling out. That person's knowledge of this tendency in me has pretty much shot me in the foot for ever reconciling with this person, I think. I believe when I have been earnest in trying to reconcile with that person, their knowledge of my love of utzing is always in the back of their mind, and they can't accept I am being earnest. That facet of myself made me pretty much forever untrustworthy in the eyes of that person.
I would have been better off displaying honest feelings to others when I was hurt. But I couldn't, because I dared not show my vulnerability.
I like this prayer, simply because it doesn't say, "Make them see it my way."
The more I ponder these things, the more I admit I both have enemies, and I am capable of seeing others as enemies, the more I become willing to at least understand why they might see it their way. Reconciliation, it seems, is not for me to necessarily give up my way, but more about letting them have it their way. One of the hardest things I had to do with that situation I told about earlier was to give up trying to get the other person to see it my way. I was just making myself crazy trying, and angry when it wasn't happening. It was only when I began to allow others to see it their way, even if their way meant for the opposite opinion to be that I am an insincere utzer and a sick jerk, that I began to heal. It felt weird, because at first, "heal" meant "to calmly not care." To detach.
Yet, we are called to love our enemies. I had to think about what that meant.
I wanted it to be "we made up." I don't think that is likely to ever happen, after some recent input I had. But it is not an either/or proposition for me to love the person who can't stand me. It does not require me making up with them, and it does not require some weird martyrdom that will only make me resentful. It only requires my willingness to pray for them, to wish the best things of the world for them that I wish for myself, and to wish the joy of a closer relationship with God to enter the other person's life.
Loving my enemies requires learning from my mistakes with this person so I will make fewer ones in the future. Perhaps it is what reconciliation is all about--that we can learn from our mistakes, and the next people we meet won't suffer the same fate in a similar circumstance. Perhaps, "standing reconciled" simply means we stand with new knowledge and a different heart.
(Attributed to Bartolonus da Novara, “Saul offering his armour to David”, fresco, ca 1450-60, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
1 Samuel 17:31-49:
When the words that David spoke were heard, they repeated them before Saul; and he sent for him. David said to Saul, “Let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God.” David said, “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” So Saul said to David, “Go, and may the Lord be with you!” Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. David strapped Saul’s sword over the armor, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.” So David removed them.
Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine. The Philistine came on and drew near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. When the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was only a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. The Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field.” But David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand.”
When the Philistine drew nearer to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground.
The story of David and Goliath is one we most likely have heard since before we could read, if we ever were read to from a book of Bible stories, or attended Sunday School as a small child. But it was only as an adult that I discovered the "other story" in this passage--what happened before the big showdown.
Saul was trying to be helpful, offering David his armor and sword. I'm sure in Saul's mind, there was no way to face Goliath other than being armored up to the nth degree. The size differential between the two alone must have been formidable. How could anyone possibly take on this behemoth of a warrior without those items, and then some?
However, the more David clanked around in Saul's armor, the more he knew this wasn't going to work. Fortunately, at the last minute, David went with his gut and it turns out he was right.
One of the most incredibly difficult things we do as human beings is when we discern to go against the advice of those we care about, or what the majority tells us to do, when we are pretty sure we are hearing the "small, still voice" loud and clear. Granted, that doesn't happen very often, but most of the time, when it does, it's pretty unmistakable, and that voice may be small and still, but it is very, very persistent.
I think back to the times people loved or cared for me very much--and their advice was as wrong as wrong could be.
"This is what you MUST do to pass your specialty boards." It wasn't. I failed them the first time out. I got more objective advice from professionals, and stuck to it, and was rewarded with success the 2nd time.
"You can't go home again. Moving back to Kirksville is the dumbest move you'll ever make." It wasn't. I did go home again--but with new eyes and a new awareness, and my heart was transformed.
I could go on, but those are the two biggies.
There are times when we recognize our feelings are more than feelings, and our choices are bigger than ourselves. The small still voice, usually elusive, suddenly becomes a gnat that won't leave us alone. It makes us uncomfortable--not just in its persistence, but in what we hear it telling us to do. What it tells us in these times is often exactly the thing we do not want to do--at first it seems flatly counter-intuitive--and we can't even imagine ourselves doing that thing. It often asks us to approach the giant seemingly vulnerable, disarmed, and un-armored. We may well recognize that a great risk is involved. Yet, over time, it works on us.
On the other hand, just because a feeling seems strong, the strength of the feeling does not guarantee accuracy in our ability to assess the situation. That strength of feeling could come from obsessions or compulsions. It could come from old patterns in our lives that are no longer applicable. If the strong feeling is laced or rooted in fear, it is most likely an inaccurate feeling, although there are notable exceptions to that.
How do we discern these moments of "strength of feeling?" How do we move beyond feelings and our will to allowing ourselves to be instruments of God's will?
These things require prayer and, when possible, time. They require self-awareness. They require overcoming our default mechanisms of craving sameness and avoiding the siren song that these things will result in the fulfillment of self-expectations. I have found for myself that there is a difference in hearing the gut that is tied up in knots (a sure sign that I am reacting to an old trigger--one that I need to be awakened to what that trigger is) and hearing the gut that is calm, but very persistent all the same.
What do we hear, when we listen to our gut? What do we see, when we open our eyes to possibilities beyond what we think we know, or what those close to us swear to be "the way to do it?" What happens when we wait on our decisions to unfold, rather than to force them with our wills?
I only have one bit of advice--pray on it and find out!
(Photo from culturallyspeaking.net)
(Originally posted on Speaking to the Soul, Sunday, July 10, 2011)
For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.”
For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” But not all have obeyed the good news; for Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?” So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.
In the beginnings of my pathology residency, as I was beginning to turn pink and purple blobs under the microscope into recognizable diagnostic cues, I never forgot something one of my mentors told me:
"The eye cannot see what the mind does not know."
It was his urging to simply "spend time in the slide box," looking at the most obscure and rare cases, as well as the "bread and butter" cases, and reading about the obscure stuff--that taught me to be a better surgical pathologist with the day to day stuff. Exposure to the obscure creates an awareness for the mundane, and allows us to not become too focused on the tiny details. Knowing the obscure made the mundane jump out and be seen for what it was. Becoming comfortable with the mundane made the "Aha!" moment possible. Each feeds on the other, and cultivates the "whole."
"Salvation" might be described in the same vein. "The mouth cannot speak what the heart does not feel."
Salvation might be the most written about New Testament topic in all of Christiandom. Like art, people tend to claim they "know it when they see it," but any attempts to define "it" tend to lead to very obscure, arcane, and circular statements.
This passage is the lynchpin of those who interpret "being saved" as the definitive entry point into Christianity. But, if the heart is asleep to the salvation that already resides in us through Christ's death, burial, and resurrection, the words, "I confess that Jesus is the Christ," are simply words. Compare that to Peter, when the disciples were asked, "Who do you say that I am," his modern day response would be something like, "Well, DUH! You're the Christ! EVERYBODY oughta know THAT!" What must have been looked upon by Peter's contemporaries as boorish and impulsive, was, in reality the purest form of confession--a confession straight from the heart--raw, effusive, and under a power of its own.
Yet, a quick Google search ("How to be saved") reveals that the contemporary expressions of Christianity that ascribe to "being saved" as the definition of "Heaven-worthy," focus on the lips, not the heart--right down to having the reader pray a suggested "sinner's prayer." (Aren't all prayers by all humans "sinner's prayers," when we get right down to it?) If we are looking for a formulaic punch card for a ticket to Heaven, look no further than Google, eHow, or ask.com.
However, this passage also points out the obscurities that remind us, "It's just not that simple." It also admonishes us not to spend a whole lot of time figuring out "who is, and who isn't." (“Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).") It tells us salvation is a "factory installed" part and parcel of the human condition as much as our genes and our mitochondria (“The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.") It also states salvation freely crosses boundaries of ethnicity and religion ("For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.")
In short, this passage appears to be more about already being saved than it does about "getting" saved.
Finally, the instruction to "...confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" is not an exclusionary statement. This statement is not followed by, "or else." To believe in one's heart that Jesus is Lord, and to have it come rolling out much like how it did for the apostle Peter is certainly one manifestation of it. The passage actually leaves the door open for many, many more manifestations--manifestations that include the works of our hands and feet in service to the hungry, lonely, ill, or incarcerated, study and discussion of the Bible, or living lives of quiet faith rooted in the hearing of the Word and receiving the Sacraments.
Perhaps the question is not, "Am I saved?" but "How did my life today reflect the salvation that already lives within me?"
(Set of antique kosher meat dishes from the Jüdisches Museum in Berlin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
I woke up this morning with an odd thought. I woke up thinking, "I am really looking forward to going to the Pink Picnic Sunday."
A little background--The Pink Picnic is the premier LGBT event in Kirksville. (Well, um...it's probably the only LGBT event in Kirksville. If the Pride Parade in St. Louis is the largest LGBT event in the state, the Pink Picnic is the smallest.) It's open to all, but I've only gotten to go once, and even then, I didn't make it until it was almost over, because of a time conflict.
But getting to this place, this place where I look forward to the Pink Picnic, made me think about this reading today in the Daily Office in an interesting way.
It must have been a strange thing for Peter, after having that dream, to actually sit down for the first time and eat something that he had been told all his life was unclean. We are shown in the book of Acts how Peter figuratively takes this dream seriously, and are taught a good lesson in it, but we are not really shown the first time he sat down to a big dinner with a pork chop in the middle of his plate. Did he worry he would gag on it? Did he sort of sniff it suspiciously? Did he eat it gingerly at first and wait to see if he would be sick to his stomach over it? Did he fret the next few days, thinking, "Oh, man, I'll surely die?"
But what I really wonder about was if this happened in the presence of other people, and he sat there, looking around, thinking, "Oh, man...everyone's gonna look at me and think I'm a Gentile."
It reminds me of the first time I attended an LGBT event.
Now, for the record, I'm straight. But as my blog friend Elizabeth once commented to me on Facebook, "If the Lesbian Police came a knockin', you'd be in jail, and I'd walk." (But then she assured me there would be many lesbian chaplains that would come minister to me in my hour of need. LOL)
She's right. Until people get to know me, they make assumptions about my orientation that are not accurate. I've never truly totally worried about it for the most part, other than the fact I never want to "lead anyone on" relationship-wise by accident. It was that fear that delayed making friends with my blog friend Lisa as long as I did. (The laughable moment was discovering she had delayed making friends with me, more or less because she did not want to appear she was "coming on to me," which led to the "How stupid are WE?" conversation, because we are both so connected to the Episcopal Church and the liturgy, and especially bright shiny liturgical objects.
But I remember the first time I actually attended an LGBT event. I wanted to go to support my friends who had invited me. But for the whole day before I did fret on one thing...
"Oh, man, I'm gonna go to this thing, and everyone who sees me is REALLY gonna assume I'm a lesbian now."
But, the fact was I went to the event, had a wonderful time, and met some really, really good people, some of whom I've gotten to know better.
Yet, I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I made sure this first experience was outside of Kirksville.
I never really came totally out in the open about locally being a LGBT ally until we did the Taizé service on bullying in October 2010. Locally, I had always been a very quiet ally. I had this notion in my head that going vocal on the topic of bullying gay youth, would just basically draw all this attention to me with my Kirksville friends, and somehow, my Kirksville friends would abandon me. I'd sit and stew that I'd never have any chance at all, the rest of my life, of ever getting a heterosexual date in Kirksville--that no guy would ever have a secret crush on me around here ever again, that some of my friends who are a little more fundamentalist would disown me, that I'd get a rock in my window or flattened tires or some other awful fate.
But two things happened--one about a year prior to October 2010, and one shortly before.
One was that I, like Peter, had a dream--a dream that, although not as cool as his, was still, now that I look at it, rather prophetic and cool.
I dreamed I was watching a parade on Rollins Street in Macon. That's the street all the parades in town end up. I was watching it on the side of the street where the now-defunct St. James Episcopal Church is. As the floats went by, across the other side of the street, was this little gaggle of very stereotypical looking lesbians. (I sort of laugh now that in my dream, they all were wearing comfortable shoes and flannel shirts and were all um...a little chunky.) Well, in my dream, I'm wearing a t-shirt, and I admit, I do always wear comfortable shoes. Even in my dreams.
But as the parade went on, I noticed that the other parade watchers were staring at them with dirty looks. It made me uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable. So when there was a break in the floats, in my dream I hot-footed across Rollins Street to the "lesbian" side of the street. In my dream, the discomfort didn't abate, because now the "dream lesbians" were staring at me. After all, wasn't I on the side of the street giving dirty looks?
But in this crazy dream, I looked at them and blurted out, "Hey, I just decided I don't want to be on the side of the street doing the staring, and if they want to stare at me now, the hell with them." Then (sit tight--here comes the prophetic moment...) I pointed at the cupola of the old St. James Episcopal Church and said, "I knew if I was standing on the side of the street where I could see the church, it'd be okay. That's the side of the street I want to be on."
That statement woke me bolt upright out of bed.
I thought about that dream a long, long time.
The other story was just prior to our October Taizé service. I was sitting out by the chiminea with one of my friends, and I admitted, "You know, I'm having a funny feeling. I feel really committed to this business of Kirksville being a safe place for GLBT folks. I have been an ally for more GLBT medical students in 20 years than I can shake a stick at. But I'm ashamed to say I'm worried coming out in the foreground on some of this will just get townie people to thinking I'm a lesbian when I really am straight, and alienate me with some really good people."
She looked at me like I had two heads.
"What the hell?" she said. "I hate to tell you this, but 2/3 of Kirksville already thinks you're a lesbian. But nobody's gonna say anything because this is Kirksville and we're all too polite to say it. So you can just get over that one. That train left the station years ago."
"Think of it this way," she continued. "LGBT people walk around town all the time and people assume they're straight. You're not dealing with anything they aren't dealing with, and it's all the more reason why you should be out front. And didn't you tell me you at times have held off befriending lesbians because you didn't want to "lead them on?" Jesus, everyone knows you're this hermit. Neither faction is going to come on to you because you are called to be this single, quirky hermit who is oddly social at times and loves everyone she meets in this really cool, special way, and you are stressing out over this? Man, you kill me. You are the only person I know who worries about alienating straights and gays over who you are, when "who you are" is this cool, one-in-a-million kind of person. You're a trip, did you know that?"
That bluntness created this wonderful, almost instantaneous transformation in me. What I have come to realize I am on a journey in the second half of my life to really be "who I am," and part of this means to fearlessly eat pork chops in the middle of a kosher town square and let everyone else ask the questions and deal with their judgment issues while I have a fulfilling life being the me that God desires to get to know better.
So, it's okay to sniff that pork chop. It's okay for things not to feel kosher at first. But when we do, like Peter, our world expands to fit the size of the kingdom of Heaven.