Random and not so random musings from a 5th generation NE Missourian who became a 1st generation Episcopalian. Let the good times roll!

(Nikolai Bodarevsky's "Trial of the Apostle Paul," 1875, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, Sunday, July 22, 2012) 

Daily Office readings for Sunday, July 22, 2012:

Psalm 63:1-8 (9-11), 98 (Morning)
Psalm 44 (Evening)
Joshua 6:15-27
Acts 22:30-23:11
Mark 2:1-12

Acts 22:30-23:11 (NRSV:)

Since he wanted to find out what Paul was being accused of by the Jews, the next day he released him and ordered the chief priests and the entire council to meet. He brought Paul down and had him stand before them.

While Paul was looking intently at the council he said, “Brothers, up to this day I have lived my life with a clear conscience before God.” Then the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near him to strike him on the mouth. At this Paul said to him, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting there to judge me according to the law, and yet in violation of the law you order me to be struck?” Those standing nearby said, “Do you dare to insult God’s high priest?” And Paul said, “I did not realize, brothers, that he was high priest; for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a leader of your people.’”

When Paul noticed that some were Sadducees and others were Pharisees, he called out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead.” When he said this, a dissension began between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three.) Then a great clamor arose, and certain scribes of the Pharisees’ group stood up and contended, “We find nothing wrong with this man. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” When the dissension became violent, the tribune, fearing that they would tear Paul to pieces, ordered the soldiers to go down, take him by force, and bring him into the barracks. That night the Lord stood near him and said, “Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.”

One of my favorite brands of jokes from the Blue Collar Comedy Tour is the "...and that's when the fight started..." jokes.  (They almost always involve a tactless husband who puts his foot in it by saying things that "...and that's when the fight started..." would be my next move, too, if my theoretical husband told me that!)

Well, our reading in Acts today is definitely an "...and that's when the fight started..." moment.  Paul has been arrested, not just for his controversial preaching, but because he also allegedly brought Greeks into the temple in Jerusalem.  (He had been seen in the company of Trophimus the Ephesian in the city, and some folks were stretching tales a bit.)  He had been bound by the Roman soldiers and subsequently unbound when it was discovered that he was a Roman citizen.  All the same, the tribune wanted to see what he fuss was all about, and brought him to stand before the Sanhedrin.  Paul quickly notices that there are both Pharisees and Sadducees on the council, so when asked of the charges he says he's on trial "concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead."

Paul's no fool; he knows that the Pharisees, by and large, are in acceptance of the relatively new notion at the time that there was a resurrection of the dead, and the Sadducees are not.

...and that IS when the fight started...a really ugly one, and apparently more about the possibility of the resurrection of the dead, between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, than it was about so ugly that the tribune feared for Paul's life and brought him back to the Roman barracks with him.  Protective custody, as it were.

It's a reminder that speaking the blunt or unpopular truth, even a truth told in love, is risky business, and the truth-teller can be torn to bits in the process.  Once the truth is out, things may never well be the same.  It reminds me of those truths that get told in an intervention.  A family member might finally screw up the courage to tell the raw truth of how the addict in the family has caused them harm.  It hurts.  It's painful.  A fight might break out in the family.  But when talking to folks in recovery, the story they often tell is of how those truths touched something deep inside of them, and became the nucleus for a desire to change.

So many times we enter a tense situation hoping that everyone will play nice, and only rarely does that happen.  However, even in the tension, we can hear the stories of resurrection, hope and healing.    Proclaiming the Good News in Christ with a message of inclusion rather than judgment or exclusion can sound unsettling, disorienting, or radical to people who have been steeped in the negative press clippings of Christianity.  It can put us in the middle of a tense situation indeed.  But it's the stuff recovery is made of, and the stuff our Baptismal Covenant is made of.  It challenges us to seek and serve Christ through new permutations of a two thousand year old message.

Are we ready to invite others to the inclusive, revealed truth of the resurrected Christ, even if a fight breaks out?

(Righteous Gentile certificate, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, Monday, July 16, 2012) 

Reading for the feast day of The Righteous Gentiles:

Psalm 11
Joshua 2:1-21
Colossians 3:1-4
John 19:10-15

John 19:11 (NRSV:)

Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.”

Although this feast day actually honors the 23,000 known individuals who helped relocate Jews in Nazi-occupied countries during the Holocaust, five particular people are set apart on this day by example:  Raoul Wallenberg, Hiram "Harry" Bingham IV, Carl Lutz, Chiune Sugihara, and André Trocmé, who in many ways emulated Rahab the prostitute in our Hebrew Bible reading today.  Like Rahab, each was an unlikely ally in a subterfuge where the end result was the sparing of many lives.

Out of these five people, I find Chiune Sugihara's calls to me most.  Sugihara (and his wife Yukiko) somehow found within themselves to generate, by hand, a month's worth of paperwork a day, for 29 days, in the form of transport visas, that would save the lives of roughly 40,000 Jewish refugees.  It's an amazing story that illustrates the paradox between a call to obedience vs. a call to righteous living--and how a single life can possibly hold the trump card in the balance.

"Obedience" had most likely been ingrained in Chiune Sugihara's maternal DNA for generations.  He was from a samurai family who adhered to the code of Bushido, which stressed loyalty to country and family above all else, and ritual suicide for acts that shamed either authority.  Yet, even before he became the Japanese consul general in Kaunas, Lithuania, he had experienced several tests of that loyalty.  A brilliant student, his father wanted him to pursue a career in medicine.  Sugihara went against his father's wishes and studied literature, English, and later, Russian.  While studying Russian, he once again displayed an individualistic streak and converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity.  He rose high and fast in the ranks of the Diplomatic Corps as a result of his disciplined, obedient character.  Yet, when faced with a crowd of Jewish refugees, desperate to flee the Nazis, at the consul gates in July 1940, he chose to disobey his superiors and help them.

Three times he wired Tokyo for permission to issue transit visas.  Three times he was denied.

Sugihara, after discussion with his family, decided to issue them anyway, and issue them he did.  He and Yukiko filled out visas by hand and registered them, over 300 a day, for 29 days, barely eating or sleeping, hands aching from cramps and spasms, until the consulate closed.  He was still filling out visas from the train window as it was pulling out of the station, and in a final gesture, gave his visa stamp to a refugee who used it to save even more refugees.

What tipped the balance for Chiune Sugihara, between obedience to worldly authority and obedience to a higher authority?  Historians believe it may well have been an eleven year old boy, Zalke Jenkins (also known by the anglicized name, Solly Ganor.)  He met the boy in a chance encounter at his aunt's store, and had given him two Lithuanian lit (two Lithuanian dollars) as a result of overhearing his desire to go see a Laurel and Hardy movie.  The boy was so touched he invited Sugihara's family to celebrate Hanukkah with his family.  The Sugiharas were so delighted and touched by the celebration they became good friends with the family.  Ironically, when Sugihara started issuing visas, Zalke/Solly and his father could not use them--they were Russian, not Lithuanian, citizens.  They were sent to Dachau, and, in another twist of fate, survived--moving to Israel after the war.

As a result of his actions, Sugihara and his family did suffer disgrace.  He was unceremoniously dumped by the Japanese Diplomatic Corps in 1947, and worked many tedious and menial jobs for the remainder of his working days, even selling light bulbs door-to-door for a spell.  He never regretted his decision, and said so publicly many times.  Although he was granted the honor of "Righteous Among the Nations" in Israel, at his death, his neighbors had no idea what he had done until a large Israeli contingent showed up at his funeral.

Sugihara's story is a reminder that any of us may be called at any moment to obey a higher authority.  Are we open to that possibility?  Are we also open to the possibility that what we often dismiss as "chance" is not chance at all, but Divine intervention?  Finally, are we open to the possibility that we might be the agent of change, the one who tips the balance, in someone else's moral dilemma, when we act in a spirit of truth?


(Deer crossing the road in Michigan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, Sunday, July 15, 2012)

Daily Office readings for Sunday, July 15, 2012:

Psalm 148, 149, 150 (Morning)
Psalm 114-115 (Evening)
Joshua 1:1-18
Acts 21:3-15
Mark 1:21-27

Mark 1:21-27 (NRSV:)

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

You know, I've hardly ever seen just one deer when one runs across the highway.

Northeast Missouri is simply crazy thick with deer these days, and preventing car-deer accidents can be a major part of an early morning or early evening drive.  One of the things we train ourselves to do around here is, if a deer runs across the road, to start looking in the direction of where the deer came from, and get a visual bead on just how many more deer are liable to run across the road.

Like the legions of deer around here, it's striking that is what we also see in the man in our Gospel.  Mark's Gospel states that the man is possessed by an unclean spirit, but when the spirit reveals itself and has voice, it's clear it is not just a solo entity but a collective.  The other thing strikingly clear in this story is that this embodied form of evil knows God on sight, and is quite understanding that God's power trumps any power it might have.  It knows from moment one God has the power to toss it from this poor tormented man.

Yet we see it puff up and hiss at Jesus all the same, and it's kind of scary.

The nature of change is that it IS scary--not necessarily that the changes are bad (in the case of the man in our story, being emptied of uncleanliness and filled with the Holy Spirit is definitely, in the long view, a good thing,) but I'm sure for this unfortunate man there was a resignation and a familiarity coexisting with his legion of unclean spirits.  To change without being able to envision the end result would be near-impossible.  Yet when Jesus shows up, change happens--ready or not.

Finding room for new possibilities before change occurs doesn't just challenge us at an individual level--it's something we've just recently seen being wrestled with at General Convention.  Human nature being what it is, our tendency is to reveal them and name them in everyone else (which can feel rather satisfying at times,) but also allows us to put on blinders to our own unclean spirits.  As the Twelve Step community likes to say, "Denial ain't just a river in Egypt."  The ones we can bring ourselves to name, we often oddly tend to prefer resignedly living with them in an uncomfortable coexistence, or we don't look at them too long for fear that, like those deer running out on the highway, we might see more where that came from.  We have places to go and things to do.  Looking at them too long could slow us down, and rather than let them cross our path, we speed up and hope we can get past them and not have to worry about them.  If they do manage to hit our car, we blame them.  After all, they shouldn't have been out in the road, right?  Never mind we didn't bother to look hard enough to see them.

Also, human nature is to bristle at change, to flare up, and to bluff a certain level of invincibility--but when we do this, we are already subconsciously recognizing it has more power than we do, whether we admit it or not--and much like change in real life, our Gospel story does not tell us what happened to this man after he had been healed.  Other than the occasional immediate reaction to the change, the ultimate outcomes of the people healed by Jesus are lost to us.  If we knew, would we approve?  Would we like the story less or better?  Would we pass judgment on its efficacy?

What we are told, however, is that those in attendance were amazed--and perhaps that is the crux of the message of all healing stories.  Healing doesn't just change the recipient, it changes those in attendance.

How have you been changed by the healing of someone else?


(Hand-operated cream separator courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, Tuesday, July 10, 2012)

Readings for Tuesday, July 10, 2012:

Psalm 5, 6 (Morning)
Psalm 10, 11 (Evening)
Numbers 35:1-3, 9-15, 30-34
Romans 8:31-39
Matthew 23:13-26

Romans 8:31-39 (NRSV:)

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Many of us learned at a very young age that separation is simply a fact of life--the norm, actually.  Even the common task of preparing a meal affirms it.  (Can you tell I was working on supper when I was thinking about writing this reflection?)  Cooking a meal might well involve separating pits from fruit, potato peels from potatoes, or lean meat from fat, gristle, and bone.  So at one level, Paul's claim in today's Epistle that we are inseparable from the love of God almost seems to run afoul of the laws of physics (or at the very least, the laws of the kitchen.) 

It definitely runs counter-intuitive to our histories when it comes to relationships.  In fact, it's these separations that define us from the time we are born.  The emergence of teeth begins the process of being separated from our mother's breast.  The first day of school plunges us into the world outside our home.  Graduations separate us from the comfortable relationship of being a senior student.  Relationships fizzle and romances burn out.  Each of us will, someday, be permanently separated from all that we know and all that we think we are, by that vast chasm called death, and others we love will beat us to that one.

In fact, the whole chapter of Romans 8 is flanked by two seeming impossibilities--the chapter holds us smack in the middle between "no condemnation" and "no separation"in the Jesus-centered relationship with God.  Our rational mind just spins and spits if we try to work this one out in our head.

Ah, but that's where another concept of the kitchen comes in.  It only becomes believable when we account for the possibility of transformation.  What starts as flour, water, milk, yeast, salt, sugar, and shortening, with mixing and kneading and heat and time, becomes bread.  Those individual things are no longer separable.  I've never seen anyone successfully pull the salt out of bread, have you?  Good luck with THAT.

In this reading, it's a pretty safe bet that all the items on that laundry list of potential separators in the final verse of this reading were all things that had been part of Paul's experiences in his travels to the various churches and in preaching the Gospel.  But as Paul himself became transformed by a life in Christ, these things began to lose their power to separate--in fact, quite the opposite.  They all became important ingredients in being the transformed Paul.  Paul would not have been Paul if any of them had been missing.

We see that in recipes too.  I don't know how many times I've looked at a recipe for something sweet and said to myself, "Really?  That much salt?  I want this to be sweet--how's that not gonna make it more salty and less sweet?"  I've thought I knew better and left out the salt--and discovered in the end it didn't taste quite right.

All of the flavors and textures in our world--the sweet, the salty, the bitter, the sour, the fleshy, the gritty, and the smooth--contribute to the bread of the Body of Christ.  Leave one out and it would not be the same.  That person that grates on us constantly is a vital ingredient.  Those things we don't like about ourselves are not unworthy of being added to the mix--in fact, it's essential they be added so that they be transformed.  Rather than analyze the ingredients and try to figure out what's in the recipe, can we simply trust that God knows how to cook?

(Midwifery manual, adapted from Aristotle's "The Midwife's Vade Mecum," courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, Monday, July 9, 2012) 

Readings for Monday, July 9:
Psalm 1, 2, 3 (Morning)
Psalm 4, 7 (Evening)
Numbers 32:1-6, 16-27
Romans 8:26-30
Matthew 23:1-12

Psalm 7 (NRSV:)

O Lord my God, in you I take refuge;
save me from all my pursuers, and deliver me,

or like a lion they will tear me apart;
 they will drag me away, with no one to rescue.

O Lord my God, if I have done this,
if there is wrong in my hands,

if I have repaid my ally with harm
or plundered my foe without cause,

then let the enemy pursue and overtake me,
trample my life to the ground, and lay my soul in the dust. Selah

Rise up, O Lord, in your anger; lift yourself up against the fury of my enemies;
awake, O my God; you have appointed a judgment.

Let the assembly of the peoples be gathered around you,
and over it take your seat on high.

The Lord judges the peoples;
judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness and according to the integrity that is in me.

O let the evil of the wicked come to an end,
but establish the righteous, you who test the minds and hearts, O righteous God.

God is my shield,
who saves the upright in heart.

God is a righteous judge,
and a God who has indignation every day.

If one does not repent, God will whet his sword;
he has bent and strung his bow;

he has prepared his deadly weapons,
making his arrows fiery shafts.

See how they conceive evil,
and are pregnant with mischief, and bring forth lies.

They make a pit, digging it out,
and fall into the hole that they have made.

Their mischief returns upon their own heads,
and on their own heads their violence descends.

I will give to the Lord the thanks due to his righteousness,
and sing praise to the name of the Lord, the Most High.

Decades ago, when all my friends were in that period of life when they were starting their families, one of my friends in particular had what could have most optimistically been called "a miserable pregnancy."  She was rather slight of build, and she wasn't too many months along before she was walking around looking like she had been smuggling items from the sporting goods store--first it looked like she was smuggling volleyballs, then basketballs, and towards the end, beach balls.  Worse yet, she was scheduled for an early fall delivery--which meant she had to endure the final few weeks in the 105 degree, 100 percent humidity that we knew as "summer in Missouri."  She had to work up to the last couple of weeks, and things as simple as finding clothes to wear on the job became a chore.  Her baby was also an incredibly active one, doing somersaults and flip-flops at a moment's notice.  We'd watch her unborn baby suddenly distend her huge belly out even further, and it didn't help that the movie "Alien" was one in our recent memory.  For the latter half of her pregnancy, she struggled through chronic lower back problems, dealing with a bladder that seemed to be always full, and night after night of unrefreshing sleep because no position in bed was comfortable.

Of course, as luck would have it, she and her husband didn't exactly have a picnic after their daughter was born, either.  Young, inexperienced parents, first baby, fussy, colicky, and rather impressive at spitting up her meals--you get the picture.  I can only hope that years later, she's enjoying her grandchildren more than she enjoyed being a first-time parent.

It's interesting that even though we are in general agreement that males authored the various books of the Bible, that pregnancies figure strongly in the narratives, and it is rich with pregnancy imagery.  Psalm 7 has a real attention-getter in that vein--"pregnant with mischief."  Additionally, it's interesting that our psalm describes people filled with evil in such intimate terms--as intimate as sex, and with the power to conceive and bear offspring.  It implies that the circumstances that we can become impregnated with sin are myriad.  It could be via forcible victimization, or it could be what is best described by the classic line we've heard many times by unfortunate unwed mothers--"Well, it seemed like a lot of fun at the time."  Perhaps we were young and naive--or perhaps we thought we took precautions and ended up being pregnant with mischief anyway.  Maybe we knew exactly what we were doing at the time and didn't care.  Maybe we were a little too tipsy and did something we wouldn't normally do had we been sober.

But when it's all said and done, none of us ever escape the experience of being pregnant with mischief, at least now and again--and what a miserable pregnancy it can be!  We can be up nights racked with guilt, and our sleep is not satisfying.  We can be slowed by the pain of regret.  Even when we are no longer spiritually pregnant, we may be burdened with the care and feeding of a less than optimal situation.

However, the other appointed psalm for this evening, Psalm 4, reminds us that God is present in our misery, and actually resides in the middle of those difficult, miserable places.  Can we trust the possibility of experiencing God's presence as a calm midwife who's seen it all and done it all, and can help us to breathe in the rhythm of the labor of bearing and birthing our burdens?

(Acrobat on ancient Greek pottery, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, Sunday, July 8, 2012) 

Daily Office readings for Sunday, July 8:
Psalms 146, 147 (Morning)
Psalms 111, 112, 113 (Evening)
Numbers 27:12-23
Acts 19:11-20
Mark 1:14-20

God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that when the handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were brought to the sick, their diseases left them, and the evil spirits came out of them.

Then some itinerant Jewish exorcists tried to use the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit said to them in reply, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?” Then the man with the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered them all, and so overpowered them that they fled out of the house naked and wounded. When this became known to all residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks, everyone was awestruck; and the name of the Lord Jesus was praised. Also many of those who became believers confessed and disclosed their practices. A number of those who practiced magic collected their books and burned them publicly; when the value of these books was calculated, it was found to come to fifty thousand silver coins. So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed.
--Acts 19:11-20 (NRSV)

One of my favorite circus acts when I was a kid (next to the wild animal acts) were the acrobats and jugglers--particularly the ones who spun plate after plate on sticks, while doing things like riding unicycles or tumbling, passing the whirling sets of dinner plates back and forth to each other.  The ringmaster always cautioned, "Children, don't try this at home!"--and of course, I always DID try it at home when I thought no one was looking, but at least I was smart enough to use the Melmac polymer resin plates.  Deep down inside, I knew there probably wasn't a very strong career track in northeast Missouri for professional plate spinning acrobats, but I still knew I could have some fun "playing at it," and could get a little bit of dexterity acquiring at least the basic skills.  Probably about the most I got out of that activity was in my medical clinical training years, when we were standing around looking bored, waiting for rounds to start, I would entertain the team with my skill at spinning my reflex hammer on my finger and tossing it into the air, or balancing my tuning fork on my nose.

Our itinerant exorcists in Acts today, however, didn't really understand the difference between playing at Christianity vs. actually doing it, and the result was being beaten to a naked, bloody pulp by someone possessed by an evil spirit.  Those seven sons of Sceva the High Priest had probably seen some of the real miracles that were occurring through Paul and the apostles and they thought, "Hey, we could have some fun with that, and who knows?  Maybe we'll make a little money at it, besides.  It's a lot more fun than sweeping up in the temple."  They were probably thinking otherwise while they were licking their wounds and enduring the local gossip about their failed endeavor.

But something interesting happened as a result of this story making the rounds.  Many other people who were just playing at miracles became true believers, and part of their evangelism as Christians was to confess that they were fakes and charlatans. They began to put away the tools of their old self and start their new life in Christ.

It reminds me of the old saw of how "Mission changes the missioner."  I imagine that many of us somewhere along the spiritual growth curve, have had experiences in the process of doing mission work where we realized up to a particular moment we had only been playing at it.  For some odd reason, when we imagine ourselves doing things like volunteering in disaster areas or feeding the hungry, or finding and distributing items to the needy, our "do-gooder" gene seems to block that part out about actually being affected by what we see in the process.  We don't really process all the realities of the people we are helping.  Then all of a sudden we begin to get a glimpse what the people we are helping are going through, or we begin to see just how oppressingly overwhelming a natural disaster or poverty-ridden situation really is, and we feel pretty small and hopeless about our ability to change a single thing.  We begin to feel a little naked and bruised about no longer being a tourist, but being emotionally involved in a deeper way than we intended.  We begin to experience a certain degree of futility about things.  In fact, a recent study showed that 80% of volunteers in natural disasters will be emotionally affected by their care-GIVING experience, and experience some (usually) temporary symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of their volunteer work.

Well, the reality is that much of it, we can't change.  Hurricanes will still blow, and slums will still exist, and people will be tragically affected by our broken world.  But what we can do is what the repentant magicians did--tell our stories.  Rather than try to fit that mythical mold of shiny, happy, cookie-cutter Christians, we can tell the truth about how the brokenness we see in our mission efforts affect us.  We can emotionally and prayerfully support those who do mission as well as financially support it.  We can simply be with the rawness of those suffering from the pain in the world when our heart of hearts knows we can't fix a thing.

What can others learn from your stories of learning to live the Gospel rather than just playing at it?

(Woodcut of the story of Balaam, his ass, and the angel, from the Nuremberg Chronicles, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.) 

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, Tuesday, July 3, 2012) 

Daily Office readings for July 3, 2012:

Psalms [120,] 121, 122, 123 (Morning)
Psalms 124, 125, 126, [127] (Evening)
Numbers 22:21-38
Romans 7:1-12
Matthew 21:23-32

So Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey, and went with the officials of Moab.

God’s anger was kindled because he was going, and the angel of the Lord took his stand in the road as his adversary. Now he was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him. The donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand; so the donkey turned off the road, and went into the field; and Balaam struck the donkey, to turn it back onto the road. Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it scraped against the wall, and scraped Balaam’s foot against the wall; so he struck it again. Then the angel of the Lord went ahead, and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it lay down under Balaam; and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff. Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now!” But the donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?” And he said, “No.” Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed down, falling on his face. The angel of the Lord said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? I have come out as an adversary, because your way is perverse before me. The donkey saw me, and turned away from me these three times. If it had not turned away from me, surely just now I would have killed you and let it live.” Then Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now therefore, if it is displeasing to you, I will return home.” The angel of the Lord said to Balaam, “Go with the men; but speak only what I tell you to speak.” So Balaam went on with the officials of Balak.

When Balak heard that Balaam had come, he went out to meet him at Ir-moab, on the boundary formed by the Arnon, at the farthest point of the boundary. Balak said to Balaam, “Did I not send to summon you? Why did you not come to me? Am I not able to honor you?” Balaam said to Balak, “I have come to you now, but do I have power to say just anything? The word God puts in my mouth, that is what I must say.”
--Num. 22:21-38 (NRSV)

Once again, my three long-eared equines--donkeys Miss Sylvia and Miss Topaz, and Mel the Mule--would be very disappointed in me if I did not base today's reflection on the story of Balaam, his donkey, and the angel.  (They'd probably pin me against the feedlot fence and go, "Oh, sorry--saw an angel...heh heh.")

Yesterday's reading from the Hebrew Bible lays the background for our reading today.  Balak, king of Moab, is somewhat afraid of the Israelite's reputation in battle, so he is looking to hire professional help in cursing Israel.  If he'd had Craigslist, the ad would have probably been something like, "Wanted for hire:  Will pay choice from my house full of silver/gold for respectable prophet/seer for the purpose of cursing one of my more worrisome enemies.  References with examples of previous curses performed with optimal results requested.  No posers or seers with lackluster reputations need apply."  Balaam was simply a gun for hire--so imagine his confusion and consternation, when he, a Mesopotamian, starts getting instructions from the Hebrew God not to curse the Israelites.  Imagine the nervousness of Balak's servants when Balaam admits as much.  No wonder it's a good reason to get out of town quietly before Balak gets wind of it.

So, despite God's instructions to stay, Balaam sets out with his two servants and his donkey.  However, God has other plans, and dispatches an angel to block the road--not one of those happy little gift shop Tinkerbell-looking angels or a Precious Moments one, mind you, but a Viking-oid lets-get-ready-to-rumble angel with a Conan the Barbarian sized sword, which, at first, only Balaam's donkey can see.  Our donkey friend is no fool (interestingly, the Bible doesn't tell us if the donkey is a jack or a jenny; I'm going to take liberties and show my preference here.)  She first turns away in the field, whereupon Balaam takes a switch to her hide and urges her forward.  This time the angel stands in the narrow walled gap before them and in the donkey's haste to turn back, she crushes Balaam's foot against the wall (an experience any equine owner can relate to as "not fun," second only to near-decapitation by limbs,) and he thrashes her again.  He pushes her forward again, and yet again the angel is standing ahead in another narrow spot, this time so narrow there's no room to turn around--so our long-eared equine friend, who's definitely had enough this time, simply lies down.

However, this time, as Balaam begins to administer yet another beating, the roles are suddenly reversed--the prophet who's behaving like an ass, hears wisdom from an ass who speaks like a prophet!  Only then does Balaam see the truth of the situation, and it's enough to convince him to return and do the job God has lined out for him rather than Balak's job for hire.

Our story is a reminder that, when we are in positions of authority, to heed the voices of those who bear the burden of what we are charged to do.  We may well be visionaries and prophets when it comes to the big picture, but it's a lonely, self-centered place if we believe too much about our own press clippings.  It's seductively easy to slide into believing in one's self as prophet rather than to believe in our skills at hearing the full meaning of our visions and committing to doing the work of change with a humble and contrite spirit.  Sometimes it takes hearing the truth as the people in the trenches see it, and God bless the ones who speak out to authority when it saves lives even at the risk of a beating. 

One of the things I caution new equine owners is that the human-equine relationship is a partnership.  One does not get on the back of an equine and expect to drive him or her like a car.  It's the merging of two thinking beings accomplishing a common task. Yes, the one holding the reins gets to call the shots.  But when one's normally tame mount keeps engaging in an unexpected, untoward behavior, it's time to get out of the saddle and see what's really going on.  Is it a rock under a shoe?  An unexpected danger in the road?  If not, it's the rider's responsibility to de-condition the equine to the object he or she finds fearful, or it will be fearful of it forever.  I spent hours once with a plastic grocery bag on a stick de-conditioning my mule when one spooked him on a ride.

It only stands to reason that our power-based human-human relationships deserve as much.  Perhaps our Gospel reading today provides the message.  As righteous as we might well feel of our positions in power in this life, the "tax collectors and the prostitutes" will be allowed in line before us in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Now might be a good time to practice that skill!

(Photo, "Children Sleeping in Mulberry Street," 1890, by Jacob Riis, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, July 2, 2012)

Readings for the feast day of Walter Rauschenbusch, Washington Gladden, and Jacob Riis, Prophetic Witnesses, July 2:

Psalm 72:12-17
Isaiah 46:8-11
James 2:14-18
Matthew 7:7-12

Out of the three people commemorated in this feast day, the one that I was most drawn to was Jacob Riis. Although his photography exposing the realities of slum life in the ethnic neighborhoods in New York City of the late 1800's made him one of the most famous men in America (particularly his book How the Other Half Lives,) the early years of his life were marked by extreme poverty and periods of homelessness. Rather than make his fortune in America, say "I've got mine," and go on his merry way, he devoted his life and his craft to the hope that exposing the unhealthy and unsanitary conditions of New York City's tenements would plant the seeds of change.

Because of the darkness of the alleys and tenement dwellings (court cases at the time regarding living conditions in the tenements ruled, interestingly enough, that people did not have a right to fresh air or light) he ended up being one of the pioneers of flash photography. Indeed, one of his most popular and often shown work is the photo Five Cents a Spot. Judging from the looks on the faces in the picture, the light generated from Riis' magnesium flash powder may well have been the most light the walls of the flophouse had ever seen.

Rather than carry on with words, instead I invite you to, after reading today's readings, simply browse the photographs in the links (here and here) quietly, thoughtfully, and prayerfully, inviting the Light of God to define the shadows and borders of how "the other half" in today's America lives.

What words come to mind as you view the photographs?

How is God asking you to throw light onto the darkness of poverty and despair?

What is God calling you to do in bringing God's realm closer to this realm in our broken world?

(Photo of Amish man and horse-drawn machinery, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, Sunday July 1, 2012) 

Daily Office readings for Sunday, July 1:

Psalm 118 (Morning)
Psalm 145 (Evening)
Num. 21:4-9,21-35
Acts 17:(12-21)22-34
Luke 13:10-17

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing. (Luke 13:10-17, NRSV)

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus heals a woman with a spirit so crippling that it causes her to walk hunched over. That notion of a crippling spirit catches our attention, because it can be taken so many ways beyond the notion held in Jesus' day that ill people were possessed by spirits. The Greek words used--Pneuma for "spirit," and Asthenia for "crippled"--literally connote a spirit of infirmity. One can almost imagine it breathing, when the connection of pneuma with modern medical words like "pneumonia" come into play. There's actually a loose parallel in our modern medical terminology--Da Costa's syndrome. It used to be known by such terms as "neurocirculatory asthenia" and "soldier's heart"--often seen in soldiers on active duty in wartime, it's characterized by increased susceptibility to fatigue, difficulty breathing, dizziness, chest pain that mimics a heart attack, and anxiety. It's not exactly like our woman who is bent over, but it certainly gives us some insight in how fear and victimization can breed and beget hopelessness and infirmity.

But, other than the woman's excitement over being healed, turns out the big drama is that Jesus healed on the Sabbath.

Shades of "But we've never done it that way before!"--the fabled Eight Words of Doom in the Episcopal Church (with "But my mother donated that to the church!" running a close second.)

Our Epistle illustrates another apocryphal truism in the church in the story of the Athenians creating an idol to an unknown god, simply to hedge their bets. How many times in our parishes do we keep doing what we're doing, "because we've always done it that way," and never step back and ask why, or whether continuing to do it helps us grow as Christians and as a community of believers? (I always think of a former vicar who was 6'7" and had a bad back, so we got in the habit of sticking our hands up in the air as we knelt to receive Communion. I had this vision that 100 years later, people in my parish would still be putting their hands in the air, no matter what the height of the priest, and that they would have contrived some plausible legend as to "why." "Oh, we put our hands up because we're praising God and are especially reverent. That's how we've always done it. Everyone else does it wrong.")

Now, most of these things are little things. "We always do Eucharistic Prayer B during Advent." "I can't imagine not having the Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper fundraiser, even though no one wants to be in charge of it anymore." "Choir practice has always been at 5:30 on Wednesday."

But if we're not careful, all these little things can be church-cripplers.

If we start to self-identify with too many of these little things as a community, they become just like the deadly serpents in our reading in Numbers today, biting even the most faithful when they slither out among the pews. No doubt--we humans crave a certain amount of sameness (some of us more than others.) It's very unsettling when new leaders, lay or clergy, enter our doors and start to change things. Unfortunately, the reaction can also be as deadly as venomous snakes. Instead of using the changes as a challenge to delve deeper into the new things we can learn from the changes, instead the reaction can be to bite the person we deem responsible for the change.

Perhaps the answers for how to meet the challenge of change lies in the responses of all three of our readings today. God's response to Moses was to take the rendering of the very source of our venom, put it on a pole, look at it as an icon of itself, and find healing. Paul's response to the Athenians' idol to an unknown God is to challenge them to search and grope to make God known to ourselves by trying to see God in everything. Jesus' response to the indignant attitude of the leader of the synagogue is to remind him that we water our animals on the Sabbath, why not tend to what our weakened, asthenic spirits cry out for in hunger and thirst?

What crippling spirit can you identify in your life today, where you can apply these three principles?



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I'm a longtime area resident of that quirky and wonderful place called Kirksville, MO and am wondering what God has hiding round the next corner in my life.

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