waiting for Jesus – an Advent-season-prayer-a-day, Day 6, Friday, December 8, 2017

Note: Advent, from the Latin, adventus, “coming”, is the Christian season of preparation for Jesus’ birth, the heart of the Christmas celebration, and, according to scripture and the Christian creeds, his second appearance on some future, unknown day and also according to scripture and Christian tradition, his daily coming through the Holy Spirit. Hence, the theme of waiting for Jesus is Advent’s clarion call.

O Lord Jesus, I wait this day for the wonder of Your Wilderness. Your herald, John the Baptizer, came out of the wilderness to proclaim Your coming. You entered the wilderness to wrestle with Satan’s temptation that You be other than the self-sacrificing, sanctifying, saving Love of God. By Your Spirit, teach me and teach me again, for quickly I forget, that You are present not only at times and in places of favor, but also and especially in the desolate spaces of life where darkness looms, where want and need are constant cries, and fear ne’er dies. Teach me, O Lord Jesus, teach me to wait in trust for You there. Amen.

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thank You, Lord

A personal reflection and prayerful meditation based on the Beatitudes (Matthew 5.1-12) on Thanksgiving Day, November 23, 2017.

The Sermon of the Beatitudes (La sermon des béatitudes) (1886), James Tissot (1836-1902)

This day, O God, I give You all praise and thanks that, through (yea, only through) the prevailing power of Your Spirit, I, day by day, more and more, know myself to be:

Poor in spirit, accepting (finally!) all that I am – my strengths and weaknesses, my wealth and want – and, in my acceptance, believing, knowing that I am not (never!) in control, and believing, knowing that You are God and I am not (ever!).

Mournful. Not melancholy, bemoaning all things (though, You know, O God, that I am a practiced, even professional complainer!), but rather caring for others; even more, knowing how much and often that I, in my brokenness, grieve others; still more, knowing how much and often I need forgiveness.

Meek; not spineless, but courageous with righteous anger, O God, about all hatred and injustice that grieves Your Spirit.

Hungry and thirsty for righteousness; insatiably desiring right relationship with You, O God, and all others You have made, including myself.

Merciful; settling for no safe-distance-sympathy and suffering no passing-moment-pity, but rather being responsible, response-able to others, striving to see through their eyes, seeking to be as they are, even, especially those most unlike me.

Pure of heart; single in purpose; wanting, willing one thing: to see You, to know You, beholding Your ever-unfolding revelation of Your Self and the meaning of life – that of the world and mine.

Peacemaking; though taking no pleasure in the dis-ease of conflict, quailing not from engaging it; striving to understand all points of view, even, especially those with which I disagree; mindful of our common dignity as Your creations and our common destiny to dwell in Your peace that passeth our understanding or to destroy and die in our divisions…

(and knowing, believing, O God, Jesus’ teaching to be no multiple-choice, but rather an all-inclusive list; accepting, embracing the last and, for me, hardest of all)

Persecuted; willing to sacrifice my comfort and convenience, yea, my well-being for the sake of standing in commitment to You and Your kingdom.

For all this and more than I can know and name, on this Thanksgiving Day and day by day, in the words of a song, I: Thank You, Lord, I just want to thank You, Lord. Amen.

 

Illustration: The Sermon of the Beatitudes (La sermon des béatitudes) (1886), James Tissot (1836-1902)

the politicization of death

On October 4, 2017, Staff Sergeant Bryan Black, Staff Sergeant Jeremiah Johnson, Sergeant La David Johnson, and Staff Sergeant Dustin Wright, members of a 12-man unit on routine patrol in Niger, were ambushed and killed by a larger force of ISIS militants.

This past week, we have borne witness to what I consider the sordid politicization of death.

First, believing no two people ever mean the same thing when employing the same words and, thus, as the firmest believer in the necessity of defining one’s terms, I digress.

Politicization, in my lexicon, is the act or process of becoming politically conscious. Here, I understand “politically” in the primary sense, derived from the Greek polis (city) and, broadly applied, the human community (which is as expansive – locally, regionally, nationally, globally – as one’s imagination allows). Thus, to be politicized is to be aware and to practice with effective, respectful care the art of human relationships.

In the clutch of human selfish self-interest, politicization can be distorted. An example: One’s negative description and definition of the word or action (or unspoken word or untaken action) of another so to depict, so to diminish that person as lacking in character or virtue or falling short of accepted ethical norms.

This, for me, is when politicization is made sordid. This is what we witnessed this past week.

President Donald Trump telephoned Mrs. Myeshia Johnson, wife of Sergeant La David Johnson, to express his condolences and those of a grateful nation, saying, in part, as it has been reported, “He knew what he signed up for, but it still hurts.” U.S. Congresswoman Frederica Wilson of Florida and a friend of the Johnson family criticized Mr. Trump as lacking empathy. Mr. Trump defended himself, denying Representative Wilson’s characterization.

I am no fan of Donald Trump. I consider him zealously egoistic and injudicious in speech and action, at times, dangerously, given his role and responsibilities. (However, I am not one who claims, “He’s not my President.” I am an American. Mr. Trump is the American president. Therefore, he is my president.)

I also am less than sanguine about Representative Wilson’s public and repeated declarations of her discontent with the content of Mr. Trump’s words to Mrs. Johnson. For her criticisms, in my view, precipitated a furious round of point-and-counterpoint because of which the primary attention has been given to the politicization of death and not on the lives and legacies, the memories of and the memorials to the dead.

I never served in the military. In World War II, my father, William, served honorably in the army in the Philippines. Through his recounts of his experiences and his revelations of the scars he bore, some invisible, but no less abiding, I, at an early age, learned to honor the sacred sacrifice of all who wear the uniform and bear arms, whether near or far, to maintain the liberties Americans enjoy (though, yes, it must be confessed, imperfectly and unequally).

Thus, this day, I want to – I will – do nothing but pray:

O gracious God, Sovereign Source of all life, Supreme Solace for the dead, I pray You receive into Your nearest, dearest Presence in Your heavenly habitations the souls of Staff Sergeant Bryan Black, Staff Sergeant Jeremiah Johnson, Sergeant La David Johnson, and Staff Sergeant Dustin Wright: Heal their wounds, bind them fast and forever in Your peace. And, by the living breath of Your Spirit, comfort, come with strength upon the families and friends of these fallen brothers in arms, guiding them through the shadowy valleys of their grief with the grace of the light of Your everlasting love; through Jesus Christ. Amen.

continuing becoming…

“Honey, is something the matter with me?”

This is the question I asked Pontheolla after another restless, sleepless night channel-surfing among CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC following, fretting over the news of Hurricane Harvey’s relentless approach to the Texas coast, then, making landfall, stubbornly, punishingly, injuriously, fatally dumping catastrophic amounts of rain…

And this after equally fretful, restless, sleepless nights following the August 11-12 unrest in Charlottesville perpetrated by an unabashed and public display of vociferous and violent white supremacy and neo-Nazism…

And this after equally restless, sleepless nights and weeks and months of following what I view to be, at its heart and in its soul, a feckless, reckless presidential administration driven by the impulses of a man enamored by the self-manufactured mythology of the power of his personality.

Me: Honey, is something the matter with me?

Pontheolla: Why do you ask?

Me: I’m struggling. It feels like…it is like everything troubles me.

Pontheolla: What do you mean?

Me: Down in my belly and in my bones. I’m angry, but mostly sad.

Pontheolla: About what?

Me: Not what. Who.

Pontheolla: Who then?

Me: Those…all those hurt by the force of nature and human hands.

Pontheolla: Nothing’s wrong with you. You’re becoming who you were meant to be.

For 40 years, since my ordination in 1977 as a deacon in the Episcopal Church, then, in 1978, as a priest, I have served as a Christian minister. Knowing that I possess (or…and am possessed by!) an irrepressible selfish streak (ask Pontheolla!), oft I’ve thought, somewhat self-deprecatingly, that God called me into ministry knowing that the self-sacrificial nature of the work would…just might be a sanctifying, sanity-inducing balance to my overweening egocentricity.

Pontheolla’s incisive observation has helped me to see that one of my prayers truly, painfully has been answered…

During this past Lenten season, as a personal, spiritual discipline, I wrote a prayer a day. On Saturday, April 8, 2017, the 34th day of Lent, reflecting on Colossians 1.21-24,[1] I wrote, in part:

O Jesus…seeing You more clearly, I now know more surely that what is lacking in Your afflictions for my sake is my sharing in Your suffering for Your sake…For though I claim and call You as my way, my truth, my life, I…love to go my own way…so to liken my life unto mine own image. O Jesus, I pray You, by Your Spirit, bind my wandering mind, bend my wayward heart, bolster my wavering soul, break my willful spirit that I now, at least, on some days and moments of days, may…can…will sacrifice my self wholly unto You. Amen.

With joyous pain and painful joy, I believe that Jesus has answered my prayer. And though I also believe that I cannot be rid of all of my, at times, selfish self-interest, for such is the character and curse of the life of the flesh in this world, I pray that I, down in the depths of my belly and bones, continue to become, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s[2] description of Jesus, “a man for others.”

 

Footnotes:

[1] Colossians 1.21-24 (my emphasis): And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, (Christ) has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him; provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel. I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), German Lutheran pastor and theologian executed by the Nazis for resisting the racial and military policies of Adolf Hitler’s totalitarian regime. In Bonhoeffer’s self-sacrificial living and dying, as he described Jesus, so he was, too, “a man for others.”

Lord, show us a sign!

a sermon, based on Luke 9.28-36 and Exodus 34.29-35, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6, 2017

Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “The Messiah of God.”[1] His identity confirmed it was important for Jesus to declare what kind of Messiah he was: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering…and be killed, and on the third day be raised”[2] and, therefore, what kind of disciples they were: “If you want to be my followers, deny yourselves, take up your cross daily, and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”[3]

Hard words to hear. Harder to heed. The disciples had left everything to follow Jesus. They had heard his great teaching, beheld his grand miracles, experienced his wondrous love. Now this! The promise of his suffering and death and their self-sacrifice. What on earth would, could compel them to keep going, to continue following? Perhaps nothing on earth, but rather only a heavenly sign of their destination, their destiny.

The Transfiguration (1518-1520), Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael), 1483-1520

“Jesus took Peter, John, and James and went up on the mountain to pray.” There, the first sign. Jesus is transfigured; his face and clothing blindingly bright. The Greek indicates that Jesus does not reflect, like the moon, like Moses on Mount Sinai whose face shone, mirroring the glory of God, but rather, like the sun, radiates light. His transfiguration is effulgent; the external emanation of his internal glory of God.

Second sign. Moses and Elijah, chief representatives of God’s Law and the prophets, appear, speaking with Jesus about his departure, his death, resurrection, and ascension that he will accomplish in Jerusalem thus, confirming the truth of everything Jesus has told his disciples about his suffering and death and their self-sacrifice.

Third sign. If the disciples want or need additional proof of Jesus’ identity, the vox Deus, the voice of God resounds from the heavens: “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!”

One of our Epiphany season hymns of praise to Jesus glories in his transfiguration:

Manifest on mountain height, shining in resplendent light,

where disciples filled with awe Thy transfigured glory saw,

When from there Thou leddest them steadfast to Jerusalem,

cross and Easter Day attest God in man made manifest.[4]

There on that mountaintop, for Peter, John, and James, there is no doubt. Jesus is the Messiah, the revelation, the revealer of God!

So, now what? What do we do with this story? We weren’t there. We didn’t see it. And that’s a good thing.

Peter had an idea: “Let’s build houses!” We can’t blame him. We’d want to stay, too. But funny thing about this and any other mountaintop transfiguration when God’s glory unmistakably is revealed. They don’t last. Transfigurations, appearing in numerous ways – a ray of sunlight through dark clouds, a brilliant rainbow after a storm, a kind word when we’re discouraged, a tender touch when tired, forgiveness when we have offended, acceptance when all we see is the worst about ourselves – come and go as splendid serendipity, beyond our power to command or control, encouraging us to keep going, continuing to follow Jesus.

Transfigurations don’t last. But “on the next day, when they had come down from the mountain”, a man begging that his ailing son be made well approached Jesus, who healed the boy.[5]

This is a sign that the mountaintop transfiguration, whilst never enduring forever, can be repeated in our daily living. Wherever, whenever you and I, through word and deed, transform discord into harmony, despair into hope, disappointment into forgiveness, sorrow into joy, there is a transfiguration moment when we become signs, revelations, revealers of the glory of God.

 

Illustration: The Transfiguration (1518-1520), Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael), 1483-1520. Note: The Transfiguration is depicted in the upper part of the painting. Jesus floats aloft, with Moses and Elijah, bathed in an aura of light and clouds, as, below, Peter, John, and James, bowed and supine in fatigue, shield their eyes from the radiance. (The two figures kneeling to the left of the mountain top are said to be St. Felicissimus and St. Agapitus, two 3rd century Christian martyrs.) The lower part of the painting portrays Jesus’ disciples seeking, without success, to cure the demon-possessed boy (Luke 9.40), who, in his agony, is naked to his waist, his flesh pale, his body contorted, his arms outstretched, his eyes rolled upward.

Footnotes:

[1] Luke 9.20

[2] Luke 9.22

[3] Luke 9.23-24, paraphrased

[4] From the hymn, Songs of thankfulness and praise, Jesus, Lord, to thee we raise, The Hymnal 1982, #135, verse 4; words by F. Bland Tucker

[5] Luke 9.37-42

dying to live

 

Epiphany 1-22-17 a sermon, based on Genesis 22.1-14, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 4th Sunday after Pentecost, July 2, 2017

 

God said to Abraham, “Take your son…Isaac…whom you love…and offer him…as a burnt offering.”

A bit of the back story…

God called Abraham to leave his home and go to a land that God would show him, where he would become a progenitor of nations. But Abraham and Sarah, his wife, were old and childless.[1] Without at least one child, it would be impossible for them to be the forebears of multitudes. Finally, when Abraham was 100[2] and Sarah 90,[3] Isaac was born.[4]

Then Abraham, with Sarah, having left their homeland, sacrificing their past for God’s sake, is told by God to kill their son, thereby sacrificing their long-hoped-for present, now fulfilled, and the promise of their future. For to kill their one child would make it impossible for them to be the forebears of multitudes.

Nevertheless, “Abraham rose early in the morning…and set out” to do as God had commanded.

What? Suppose any of us who are parents heard what we believed was a word from the Lord or whatever higher authority to which we ascribe ordering us to murder our children. What would we think, feel, do? Or suppose, as a child, we heard what we believed was a word from the Lord or whatever higher authority to our parents commanding that they kill us. What would we think, feel, do?

Sometimes when I reflect on this story, an image comes to mind of Sarah watching her husband and son walk toward the horizon with wood for a burnt offering, but no animal for the burnt offering and wondering, fearing what was to be.

The Sacrifice of Isaac (1657-1659), Juan de Valdés Leal (1622-1690)

Now, God’s command was intended as a test of Abraham’s love and loyalty. A test, we are assured that God had no intention of seeing through to its terrible end. A test that Abraham, in his willing obedience, passed.

Nevertheless it was a test, at first and second glance, monstrously cruel.

It may not assuage the sensitive human conscience to claim that this story is a biblical protest against the ancient practice of child sacrifice. Nor might it be comforting to claim some theological justification for God’s aggression. That God’s command to Abraham to kill his only son is a portent of the sacrifice of Jesus, the only Son of God, to redeem the world. That the sacrifice of Jesus is foreshadowed in Abraham’s response to Isaac’s wonderment about the whereabouts of the sacrificial animal, “God will provide the lamb.” That this explains why we Christians, thankful for the sacrifice of Jesus, pray, “O Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”

But sacrifice is sacrifice. Violence is violence. And in a world, whether ancient, modern, or post-modern, filled with gratuitous cruelty, how can this story appeal to wounded human conscience? How can this story assuage souls ravaged by the brutalities of humankind throughout history?

Maybe it can’t!

Or maybe this story is meant to be a biblical wide-eyed, unblinking stare, glare at us demanding that we answer this question: For what greater good are we willing to sacrifice our lives?

In two days, we Americans will celebrate the 241st anniversary of the birth of our nation. A nation established on the foundation of great ideals – human equality (though honesty compels the confession that we alway need continue to expand that definition from its original intention; for, our founding fathers, in their time of their dreaming and writing, had not in mind women or me as an African American!) and the Creator-endowed “certain unalienable Rights…(of) Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” An establishment involving the sacrifice of life against the might of an empire to secure liberty long-sought.

In the bright light of our celebration, again I ask: For what greater good are we willing to sacrifice our lives?

Speaking always and only for myself, I am a Christian. I am a follower of Jesus. Jesus who died for his cause, proclaiming, embodying the kingdom of God’s unconditional love and justice. O’er many years, daily I have prayed, in the words of the hymn, to see Jesus more clearly so to follow Jesus more nearly so to love Jesus more dearly.[5] And I am convinced that real living, living in liberty, living unfettered and free from undue restraint – whether without by another’s hand or force or within from fear of loss – so to be and to become who God created me to be is a matter of doing what Jesus did. To be ready and willing to lay down my life. And, in the words of another hymn, as I daily decide to follow Jesus,[6] his cause is my cause. For the sake of loving and being just with you and all people, I am willing to die.

For what are you willing to die, so to live?

 

Illustration: The Sacrifice of Isaac (1657-1659), Juan de Valdés Leal (1622-l690)

Footnotes:

[1] See Genesis 12.1-4.

[2] See Genesis 17.17, 21.5.

[3] See Genesis 17.17.

[4] See Genesis 21.1-3.

[5] A reference to the words attributed to Richard of Chichester (1197-1253): Day by day, dear Lord, of Thee three things I pray: to see Thee more clearly, love Thee more dearly, follow Thee more nearly, day by day.

[6] Words ascribed to an Indian prince of Garo, Assam:

I have decided to follow Jesus (sung 3 times); no turning back, no turning back.

Though none go with me, I still will follow (3); no turning back, no turning back.

My cross I’ll carry, till I see Jesus (3); no turning back, no turning back.

The world behind me, the cross before me (3); no turning back, no turning back.

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 36, Tuesday in Holy Week, April 11, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

On a day’s reflection on the restlessness of yesterday’s early morn: O Lord, I feel afresh my frailty. I, whether joined with others or alone, do not have the wealth of strength or sense or substance to serve all of my sisters and brothers, whether near or far, in great and grave need. Yet I remember the words of Your Son, my Savior Jesus, “You always have the poor with you and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish.”[1]

O Lord, through Your Spirit, alway pour Your Love into my heart[2] that I have kindness for those who suffer and that I may be kind, doing whatever I can with whatever resources I have at whatever occasion arises for whomever is in need.

By Your same Spirit, O Lord, lead me and guide me to believe and to trust in You that You, with whatever I offer, great or small, all of which You first have given to me, will bring good fruit.[3] Amen.

Footnotes:

[1] Mark 14.7. To view and interpret this saying in its context (see Mark 14.1-9), this was Jesus’ response to those who were angry at what they considered the waste of costly ointment with which a woman had anointed him. They had professed a desire to have sold it and the money given to the poor. Jesus prophetically perceived that he had been anointed for his burial following his soon coming crucifixion and death. In his recognition and acceptance of his destiny (see the full verse [my emphasis]: “You always have the poor with you and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me”), he graciously received the gift of the woman’s kindness.

Here, as I employ and pray this Jesus-saying, I recall that over generations some have interpreted this verse to suggest that as the poor always are present nothing need be done to help them insofar as poverty is an insuperable condition of life in this world. I, rather, believe that the ever-presence of sisters and brothers who are poor and the systems and institutions of avarice that create and maintain economic imbalances constitute a constant call to render sacrificial service to, for, and with those in need. To put this another way and succinctly, the “whenever” to show kindness is always!

[2] See Romans 5.1-5 (my emphases): Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Concerning “sufferings”, the Apostle Paul most likely refers, specifically, to the trials he endured in his life’s vocation of spreading the gospel and, generally, to the tribulations common to any human life. Regarding the latter, I include the sympathy one can have for another undergoing suffering.

[3] Here, I think of the spiritual and material principle that undergirds the Apostle Paul’s teaching about the primacy (or rather its lack, for only God is supreme!) of those who seek to do God’s will and work: I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3.6-7).

I also am put in mind of John the evangelist’s version of the feeding of the 5000 (6.1-14), particularly verses 5-11 (my emphasis), which bears a detail the other evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke do not: When (Jesus) looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.

In the face of manifold need, I often feel (indeed, I am!) like that boy; my provisions and resources of self and substance being woefully meager. Yet, by my faith in God, I trust that God, Who has given me whatever I have to offer, will use whatever I have to offer.