Life is hard these days

an old diagnosis has reappeared with a vengeance. prayers are requested for your humble host…


A long overdue addition

There’s an amazing “conversation” that has developed over the past weeks regarding “morality” and the “the Christian life.” Here’s a nice rejoinder and summation commended to all.

Memorial Day & Trinity Sunday, 2013

This is Memorial Day weekend. And today is Trinity Sunday. It occurred to me that there are some interesting connections… Memorial Day, if you’ll allow me to speak idealistically, is about remembering and giving thanks for those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our nation. Whether a soldier agreed with or even understood the policies and politics of what was going on at the time, they stepped out and went forth and died for the highest ideals which our country is built upon: e.g., democracy and equality, liberty and life; freedom of expression and of belief. We hold them and their sacrifice in our hearts and we are grateful. Their offering of themselves affords us the opportunity to continue to enjoy the rights they died to preserve.

And we know that without our vigilance, our devotion, our gratitude, and our remembrance of their sacrifice we stand to lose what was so hard-fought for and won. If we ignore or neglect our freedoms, we will lose them. At least: they will be taken away; at worst: they will atrophy. Either way, we will be lost…

The doctrine of the Trinity is in similar straits. It is the core of Christian belief that without our vigilance, our devotion and gratitude, without our remembrance, we stand to lose what was so hard-fought for and won and which defines us.

There is One God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Now I could speak philosophically and at length and find myriad quotes about freedom and democracy, liberty and equality. I could speak theologically and at length about the Trinity. For instance one of the most succinct statements about the Trinity is from Sergei Bulgakov: “God is one in his holy trihypostasizedness.” His essence or beingness is threefold… But eyes would glass over and snores might rise. Isn’t it better when we offer examples of these things? Isn’t it more helpful to illustrate and demonstrate than pontificate?

So let’s show how the Trinity is applicable. There is pragmatic reality and consequence to believing the Trinity. For instance I strive to use the Trinity to guide how I live my life, understand my job, celebrate the Sacred Mysteries, and worship God in the fullness of His beauty.

In my public life: I try to think of economics and politics with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as my grounding: The Father is the source of a morality of love, Jesus is shows a morality of self-sacrifice and the Holy Spirit instills a sense of altruism.

In my vocation, which includes social work & “ministry”: Hope is the ground of all my labor. God did not give up on His creation. “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…” But I fall short of that love and come under indictment: Jesus said “if you love me you will keep my commandments.” While forgiveness through Jesus Christ is given, that is not enough to motivate me and so Jesus says “the Holy Spirit will remind you of everything and inspire you to do more…” If this is how God treats & leads me, shall I not do the same for others?

In my worship: Worship is all about how we honor and respect and love God. It is the worth that we place on our relationship with God. Typically we refer to the major liturgical styles as “high” or “Anglo-Catholic/Orthodox,” “evangelical,” and “charismatic.”

At its very best, high church worship with its majesty, its jewels, precious metals, and incense, its ceremony and ritual, trumpets and chants, at its very best, high church worship is an enthronement service for God the Father.

At its very best, evangelical worship with its unapologetic proclamation, the appeal and invitation for Christ the King to become Lord of our lives, the invitation to ask Jesus into our hearts, the preaching of the word of God: Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. At its very best, evangelical worship is the exaltation of God the Son.

At its very best, charismatic worship is about the enjoyment, the sharing, the spontaneity and the manifestation of the gifts and the fruits of the Holy Spirit. The healing, the compassion and guidance, the power, the freedom, the joy: at its very best, charismatic worship celebrates the presence of God the Holy Spirit.

Christians believe that God is eternally revealed as Holy Trinity: One in Three and Three in One—God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. So if we would worship all of God, we must honor the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Otherwise we must decide what part of God, do we not want in our worship?

The ramifications of this are profound. Without the Holy Spirit, high church worship for all its splendor, can become rote ritual. Without the Holy Spirit, evangelical worship can become legalistic and puritanical.

Without God the Son, so-called Spirit-filled worship, with all the freedom and joy, is susceptible to being ungrounded and individualistic. Without God the Son, high church worship for all its splendor can become merely precious.

Without God the Father, evangelical worship can become rule driven and reward focused. Without God the Father, charismatic worship can become chaotic, detached from Truth, and far too subjective.

This isn’t just a matter of taste or style. And it sure isn’t about just what we like; there are practical repercussions. One of the most important goes back to the principal reason for why Jesus came to die for us in the first place, and what we accomplish when we come together to worship Him. He came to save us from our sins. His sacrifice provides us with the possibility of a personal relationship with God, and to make our union Him and with one another a reality. This is why we worship regularly and frequently together. And this is why liturgical worship is not democratically or dictatorially derived. As faithful worshippers and followers of Jesus, we need ancient hymns: their very deep theology and the connection they preserve for us with our ancestors. And we also need new songs. Every generation has to write its own affirmation and love song to God. I’ve noticed that most ancient hymns tend to speak about God and about our faith; whereas many new hymns tend to sing to God, and address God as “You.” A steady diet of either, and either without the corrective of the other, is problematic. We need the grounding and we need the relationship. We need the strident majesty and subtle beauty. And we need the exuberant praise.

At its heart then, Christian worship is all for God and affords us the opportunity to express our relationship with Him in the community of brothers and sisters. I want to worship all of God. I want to experience God in His fullness. I know that our personal tastes don’t plumb the depths or exhaust the range of all that the Lord wants us to know or experience.

So the last manifestation of the Holy Trinity is the patience and love and humility we all need to respect one another in the myriad idiosyncrasies which we manifest in our worship. Some stand, some sit, some kneel. Someday someone may dance. Some fold their arms. Some fold their hands. Some lift their hands and raise their arms. Is any of this wrong? Does any of this not fit? I don’t think so. Is there room for variety, for differing expressions? I hope so. Without it, we run the risk of missing the Kingdom of God and not noticing Heaven in our midst.

May the Lord bless us each of us and all of us as we seek ever more faithfully to serve and worship Him in the fullness and the beauty of holiness: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


‘Tis still Advent

I was struggling with thoughts of Mary’s obedience and with the world being turned on its ear as I stood in my backyard last night. The moon had only been up a little while. Shining there in the unusually clear, night sky, I thought about how the moon was created to reflect the brightness of the sun, and what Christmas might mean if we were as obedient as the moon, if we fulfilled in each of our lives the work, the mission of what we were created to be as well as the moon does what it was created to be. The moon is the light in the dark; according to the Bible, its only purpose is to reflect the light of the sun.

When this Christmas season finally does come upon us tomorrow night, perhaps we can remember in Whose image we were created and how we’re to reflect the light of His Son in our lives, how to be His light in the darkness of the world. That’s what the obedience of Mary accomplished. And in our obedience to the Lord, we, too, will see the world undergo an unexpected upheaval; because then the light of the Lord will shine in the darkness, and the meek will inherit the earth. Just as Mary knows that God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. We can expect unusual things when God is borne in our lives and when we answer, “be it unto me according to Thy word.”

Epiphany 6B, 2012

Sunday, February 12, 2012 BCP lectionary

Her name was Susan. She’d left home and college in Ohio to move to Minnesota and marry “an artist”: a man twice her age, twice divorced, with a history of joblessness and alcoholism. It went swimmingly for the first few months and then when the routine settled in, he began drinking again. That’s when the abuse started. She thought, as many think, that a child would help. 9 months later she gave birth, alone in the hospital, to a baby girl. She was more alone than not over the next year, and that wasn’t all bad, since when he came home he took advantage of her and hurt her. She cobbled together odd jobs to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. She thought she would survive.

But one day, her daughter wouldn’t nurse from her right breast. The left side was fine. This went on for a month and she took her daughter to pediatricians and clinics and they couldn’t find anything wrong. Finally she went to the doctor herself.

Fourth stage breast cancer.

She left Minnesota and moved back in with her parents. She went to the Cleveland Clinic and they tried one treatment after another. They ran out of options. Finally they told her that the last recourse was to do a complete bone marrow transfusion. It would require complete isolation for months in the hospital. She prayed about it with her parents. Their assistance was critical. The church rotated bringing food and making sure her parents had all the support they needed in the caring for the granddaughter. The rector of the first parish where I served and I visited her every other day. I remember having to scrub in and the isolation suit I had to wear to be near her. I remember her crying once and I asked her if she was in pain. She said what was worse than the pain was how utterly alone she felt. That is the feeling that Naaman and the leper in the gospel must have felt. Utterly alone.

We live in a highly medical culture, a culture that tends to see illness as the presence of a disease. In our quest for control and perfection, we want to be able to identify a “bad spot” in someone’s body or mind so we can cut it out or cure it. But sickness and suffering are usually much more complex than that. How illness manifests itself depends on many factors, some historical and some relational. Just like salvation, suffering is personal; it has to do with the meaning that an illness (and a treatment) holds—for this person. A key ingredient of suffering and illness that we’re beginning to rediscover is how a person’s whole world changes with the onset or protracted nature of certain problems. That is critical to understand in hearing today’s gospel.

From a medical perspective, when Jesus heals the leper today, He’s simply ‘the great physician’ who breaks into our lives and miraculously removes the bad spot—in this case leprosy—in order to return a person to health… Of course, the healing was a compassionate act that freed a man from his disease—and at this level we can compare contemporary medicine to Jesus’ action. But there’s more to it; Jesus doesn’t stop at merely curing. The man’s illness didn’t just make him sick, it made him “unclean;” as a pariah, he was unable to participate in life. By touching him, Jesus doesn’t merely cure the man’s sickness; He heals him as He enters into and transforms the man’s stigma and social isolation. By ignoring the social exclusion of those whom society had marginalized, Jesus shifts the margins: those previously marginalized people come to form the heart of God’s Kingdom. When Jesus enters into a relationship with the marginalized and shares in their ‘social death,’ He initiates a whole cloth process of healing for people like this man with leprosy. Because of Jesus they become full persons and are reintegrated into the community. And when they reenter the community, the community is transformed.

Diseases still marginalize people today. Last night two people felt under the weather and they didn’t feel they could come to the new-comer dinner. Imagine that condition, first not being voluntary and then extending over a period of years. People with mental health problems are alienated, stigmatized, often friendless, and, interestingly, often prevented from expressing their spirituality. They’re often not welcomed in churches. Bipolar disorders, alcoholism, AIDS, leprosy:  someone with the flu or the measles is tolerated if we know they’re not contagious. But a person with a diagnosis often loses their identity because people associate them with their illness: we have a tendency to label. We see them, even their spiritual experiences, through the lens of our cultural assumptions about their illness. Couple that with the fact that many mental health professionals exclude spiritual expression as pathological and so they actively seek to disengage spirituality from the therapeutic process and we not only isolate people, we actually encourage their dis-integration.

In the midst of this chaos that sickness brings on, our parish can become a place of healing. Besides praying with and for people, we can stand with people who’ve been isolated from others by mental or physical diseases. Forming friendships with people who are marginalized and different isn’t easy (e.g., the children from St Jude’s). Yet, if we can be a community where there is a ‘safe space’ for them to develop such friendships, even if these friendships are fleeting, then we will have moved towards faithfulness and Christ-likeness.

Naaman was a powerful man who suffered from leprosy; through his healing he came to joyful faith in God. The leper in the gospel was made clean and was able to rejoin society. Some say that he is the same Simon the Leper of Bethany who will host Jesus at a dinner in Mark 14. My friend Susan was healed of her breast cancer. She celebrated 20 years of being cancer free a while back; and she remembers how her parish swept her and her family up in their collective embrace and cared for her. But what she remembers most is how she was visited and helped through the awful isolation. She experienced true healing in the communion of the Body of Christ.

Thomas’s faith

Let me begin by saying the translation here in the NRSV is bad. John doesn’t use the word “doubt” here. The word Jesus uses in talking to Thomas is faithless[1]. But the thinking that lies behind the NRSV committee’s choice of words here is what has contributed to Thomas having been given short shrift by the world with respect to so often being remembered as “Doubting Thomas.” He deserves to be respected for his faith. He was concerned to not be duped and if that’s what it means to doubt: then his doubts had a purpose—he really wanted to know the truth. Thomas didn’t idolize his doubts as some do. He gladly believed when given reason to do so. He expressed his doubt fully and therefore he was answered completely. Doubting was his way of responding, rather than his way of life.

But let’s turn to Scripture and see if we can bring Thomas to life. We meet him first in Jn 11:7–16. Jesus says, “Let us go back to Judea.” The other disciples immediately warn against it, reminding Him of the great danger of returning to the area of Jerusalem where His enemies were ready to kill Him. Only Thomas, demonstrating unselfish courage and unquestioning loyalty to Jesus, said, “We’d better go too, so that we may die with him.” Then in Jn 14:4–7 we find an inquiring Thomas. After listening to Jesus, but not understanding His words – “Where I’m going, you know the way.” – Thomas asks, as quite many of us might well have, “Master we don’t know where you’re going, how can we know the way?” Thanks to Thomas, we get the answer, “I am the way and the truth and life.” Thomas didn’t hesitate to follow Jesus. Although he doesn’t appear in any of the arrest or crucifixion passages, he doesn’t disown Jesus like Peter, and he didn’t betray Jesus like Judas. But he’s not mentioned until his absence is noticed today in John’s gospel.

We don’t know why Thomas was absent the first time Jesus appeared to the disciples after the resurrection, but we do know he was reluctant to believe them. Not even ten friends could get him to change his mind! He wanted to be sure. Jesus isn’t saying that this was wrong: Jesus is saying that being faithless is wrong. Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith and can lead to faith. Fear and indecision that lead to a failure to follow God: that is the opposite of faith.

We can doubt without having to live a doubting way of life. Doubt encourages rethinking—which is absolutely ok. Its purpose is more to sharpen the mind than to change it. Doubt can be used to pose the question, get an answer, and push for a decision. But doubt was never meant to be a permanent condition. Doubt is one foot lifted and poised to step forward or backward. There is no motion until the foot comes down.

When you experience doubt be encouraged by Thomas. He didn’t stay in his doubt, he allowed himself to believe. Be encouraged by the fact that countless other followers of Jesus have struggled with doubts. The answers God gave them may help you, too. Don’t settle into your doubts, but move on from them to decision and belief. Find a compassionate priest with whom you can share your doubts. Thomas expressed his concern and look what happened. Silent doubts rarely find answers.

Look at the other doubters in the bible: Abraham doubted God in his old age about being a father. Sarah doubted God in her old age about being a mother. Moses doubted God when the Lord told him to return to Egypt to lead the Hebrews. The entire Israelite people doubted God when they were faced with difficulties in the wilderness. Gideon doubted God when told he would be the judge and leader of the people. Zechariah doubted God when he was told he would a father in his old age. John the Baptist doubted while he was in prison. All of the disciples doubted in Matthew 28.17. And Thomas doubted when he was told Jesus had risen from the dead. So, if you doubt, you’re in good company.

As to the life of Thomas after what is recorded in Scripture, I learned that of all of the other Apostles, his ministry was the most active and that most of it took place beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire. The Tradition says that he evangelized what became part of Eastern Turkey, as well as Armenia, India, Iran and Southeast Asia. He was even given the title, “Apostle to the Orient.” It is believed that the Apostle arrived in India in AD 52 and was martyred in AD 72.

Finally I remind you of the summation of the entire Theology of Anselm (April 21, 1109): Anselm wrote that he did not understand so that he could believe. He said that he believed so that he might understand. Dear friends, believe. Have faith. Take courage. Be not afraid and live the life of faith that God wants for you.

[1] ἄπιστος  1) unfaithful, faithless, (not to be trusted, perfidious) 2) incredible 2a) of things 3) unbelieving, incredulous 3a) without trust (in God)

Epiphany 8A (Matt. 6.34)

…Don’t play the world’s game, Jesus says. I have come to let you live by a different set of rules. Be salt. Be light. Be perfectly satisfied that God, in His infinite care for you, will bring about what’s best. Don’t be afraid. Don’t worry about your life, says Jesus.

So let our worries and anxieties be an indicator of how reliant we are on God or how separated our lives are from God. When the “worryometer” indicator goes up, pray more. When anxiety rises, trust more. How do we trust more? Pray. Hope more. Help more. Be more in the Kingdom of God. Let’s live more like what we believe is true.