Friday, March 25, 2011

The Cardinal Rule is Humility

The prophet Isaiah saw a glimpse of God's holiness and cried, "Woe is me!...for I am a man of unclean lips." King David prayed, "I alone have sinned against Thee." Paul often described himself as the "least of the saints" and the "foremost of sinners." Simon Peter said, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord."

How easily we move from the habitual humility modeled by the Biblical writers to setting up a spiritual pecking order on which we'll generously admit that we're not at the top, but which obviously includes a number of folks below us.  Seriously, isn't Charles Manson worse than I am? Osama bin Laden? Lindsey Lohan? All those pitiful losers scolded by Dr. Phil and Judge Judy? Mormons? Those prideful non-Christian "unreached people groups" who will perish if we don't save them? But, judging others is a slippery business. It's amazing the similarity between some public prayers for a "lost and dying world" and the public prayer of the pharisee, "God, I thank you that I am not like other people." On of the scariest verses in the Bible to me is in Matthew 7 where Jesus is observing how clearly we can see a splinter in another's eye in spite of the log sticking out of our own. He says, "For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you." Yikes. We have the choice of humbling ourselves and receiving God's mercy or setting up a legal system by which we ourselves will be judged. I may want justice for you, but I definitely want mercy for me! Jesus says it doesn't work that way. We are never asked to evaluate anyone else's holiness or spiritual condition. Frederica Mathewes-Green suggests that as a mental act of discipline we stick by the assumption that we are the "foremost of sinners." If nothing else, we'll be in good company.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Is the Body a Temple or an Amusement Park?

The Canon speaks of the impulses or the "passions" of our souls and bodies that were created to serve us but at times get distorted and rule over us.  Examples are anger and hunger. As in practically every area of life, there is a delicate balance of priorities. The same is true of material possessions. It feels like we own things, but we can suddenly realize that it's the other way around. St. Andrew says, "I have fallen beneath the painful burden of the passions and the corruption of material things; and I am hard pressed by the enemy. Instead of freedom from possessions, O Savior, I have pursued a life in love with material things; and now I wear a heavy yoke. Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me."

So how should we treat ourselves and our stuff?  The Bible explains that we're created in the image of God which would seem to imply that we should honor our bodies as worthy temples and "containers" of the Holy Spirit. But we're also warned not to confuse outward adornment with a pure heart and to be careful not to make an idol of our flesh. We're hardwired with a self-preservation instinct and a desire for comfort and entertainment. It's amazing how quickly conveniences (such as cell phones) become necessities in our lives.  This past week I heard St. Andrew's message from two men in quite different situations. One is a baseball coach who works for the New York Yankees and the other is a civil engineer who specializes in building bridges. The coach spends much of his time in the Dominican Republic, and the engineer works primarily in China. The coach sees young boys with athletic talent taken out of school so that they can practice long hours and hopefully pursue a career in sports. He sees them cry and beg when they're cut from the team because it was their only chance to escape poverty and help their families. The engineer sees families living in primitive housing where running water is an unimaginable luxury. Both men say their outlook has been forever changed by what they've seen.

Our possessions and pleasures are not evil in themselves, and frankly, I have no idea how to solve the problem of the widening gap in the haves and the have-nots of the world, but the words of St. Andrew ring true today. It's easy to assume that we deserve our blessings based simply on the evidence that we have them. From there it's a short step to finding ourselves with a "painful burden" and a "heavy yoke" that completely blind us to the truth. Again, the call to humility and repentance will lead us to salvation.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Forgetting to Put on Clothes

In the lyrics of today's reading there is a recurring phrase from St. Andrew, "I lie naked and alone." He uses it to describe feelings of shame for allowing sin to take away the beauty and glory for which God created him. In her commentary, Frederica Mathewes-Green is reminded of the common dream of being naked in a public place. I hate that dream. Sometimes I'm partially dressed, sometimes I'm wearing pajamas, and sometimes I forget to put on anything at all. I've always heard that it reveals feelings of being inadequate or of being an imposter, but there is definitely an element of shame involved when everyone sees the undisputed truth. Georgia humorist Lewis Grizzard explained that if you're "naked" you aren't wearing any clothes and if you're "nekkid" you aren't wearing any clothes and you're up to something. We can kid ourselves and others for a while, but the sooner we admit that God sees the truth about what we're up to, the better.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Scandal of Saints

I'll just say up front that the information in this post concerning the ancient view of saints is from Frederica Mathewes-Green and I won't clutter up the reading with a million quotation marks.

Growing up Baptist I was taught that praying to the saints was scandalous because it was equivalent to worship of the saints.  This was one of several justifications that we used to pray for the Catholics so that they might become Christians. Throughout the Canon of St. Andrew, there are many statements praising the saints and asking them to pray for us. The early church found great assurance in the fact that through the Incarnation and Resurrection Jesus had overcome death, and thus had abolished the need to fear death. I think many modern activities are indirectly motivated by the fear of death  - using miracle wrinkle smoothing creams,  having elective cosmetic surgeries, taking vitamins and supplements, using drastic measures to prolong the life of the terminally ill. The fear of death motivator has been well marketed. We've separated ourselves from death as if distance will keep death away. We display death in funeral homes, not our own homes. The meat that we eat is processed in a slaughter house, not our house. I'm not sure I could eat a chicken if I had to kill it myself, and I'm sure I couldn't kill a cow. Of course, this doesn't stop me from eating meat. I just subconsciously pretend that it miraculously shows up boneless and skinless in Winn Dixie. But back to the saints.... 

By becoming a human being, Jesus showed that our human bodies and awareness could be bearers of the presence of God. We are likewise eternally freed from death. This means that those who have departed are still alive. The heavenly realm, which permeates the earthly at all times, is populated by saints and angels who are praying alongside us. We can ask for their prayers just like we ask for the prayers of any other friend or relative.

I admit this is a new concept for me, but I had an experience many years ago that helps me internalize the idea. As a child I had an extreme fear of death. I would lie awake at night worrying about it. I knew about heaven and had other reassurances, but it didn't help me assimilate the unknown aspects of death. My grandmother was the first person who was very close to me who died, and several months after her death I had a dream in which I felt that she communicated with me. I was sitting in the small living room of my grandparents' house. It was often bulging with company, and chairs from the kitchen were brought in so that everyone could sit together and visit. In the dream it was like many times before, a crowd of family members with my grandmother in her usual spot. She always took one of the kitchen chairs and left the more comfortable ones for her guests. It was all very familiar and comfortable and suddenly I alone remembered that my grandmother couldn't be there; that she was dead. I panicked and looked to her for help and she smiled at me and told me not to be afraid.   I'm sure there are plenty of psychological reasons for having such a dream, but the details are still as vivid to me today as they were when I awoke, and my fear of death was forever altered by her comforting presence. I love the thought that when I pray I am joined not just by all the towering figures of faith in the Bible, but by someone who still loves me very much and doesn't want me to be afraid.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Song of Zacharias, Luke 1: 68 - 79

Zacharias's Song or Benedictus, comes at the end of one of my favorite stories in the Bible. Before the angel Gabriel goes to Nazareth to talk to Mary, he visits the priest Zacharias as he is preparing for worship and speaks to him of the miraculous births of John and Jesus that are to come. Zacharias is terrified, but then starts to argue that he and his wife are too old to have a child and he asks the angel for a sign. Here is where we learn that apparently angels are not sterile, emotionless creatures. After taking the insult that his angelic presence is insufficient evidence and a further sign would be required, he replies, "I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news."  Then the sign he chooses for all to see is that Zacharias will be unable to speak a word until the prophesies are fulfilled. I guess the moral of this story is if ever confronted by an angel face-to-face, try not to smart off.

When Zacharias regains his voice (and his humility) he speaks an inspiring commentary on God's redemptive purposes and the extraordinary events that are taking place.  I'm amused by Zacharias' experience, but I can't say that I would do something any less ridiculous. I can just picture myself encountering an angel at church as I'm heading to class with my tidy Sunday School lesson all prepared. I would probably ask him to fill out a visitor's card and provide some contact information so that we could put him in our system. Zacharias is definitely not the only person who ever let religion get in the way of faith. He came around, though, and I can't think of better words than his to end this post. "By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."

The Song of Mary, Luke 1:46 - 55

This song of Mary, her Magnificat, blends the earlier images of God the warrior who brings about rescue and deliverance and God the merciful who remembers the lowly and cares for the needy. It describes salvation as a great reversal and anticipates Jesus' teachings of losing our life in order to save it; the last being first; and the meek inheriting the earth.

When my daughters were young, one of my favorite lullabies to sing to them was "Here in My Heart," a song written by Betsy Hernandez and sung by Jodi Benson (Disney's Little Mermaid) on an album called Songs from the Beginners Bible.  I can't remember all the words, and I've searched every lyrics website I could find with no success, so to find them again I may  have to purchase the CD (since the original cassette tape is long lost).  The words from Mary were not lofty and theological sounding, but were the words of a new mother who is in love with her child. The phrase that sticks in my head is "One day you'll go, and I'll miss you so, but I'll keep you right here in my heart." Now that my girls are independent and gone, it's as true as the song said it would be way back then.  I hope that doesn't sound too corny, but just because something is corny doesn't mean it isn't true. Every minute, I keep them right here in my heart.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Aerobic Worship

Orthodox Christians all over the world completed a recitation of the Canon of St. Andrew today. For over 1000 years it has been a part of the first four days of Lent. (The Orthodox observance started on Monday instead of Wednesday.)  In contrast to the usual standing, these services include bowing to touch the floor and kneeling to touch the floor with one's forehead as a physical manifestation of the theme of repentance. There are over 200 opportunities to bow before God, hence the cheerful nickname of "Aerobic Worship." Most folks don't take every opportunity, and there's no pressure to bow at all. The Canon is beautiful simply as a hymn or poem, but according to Frederica Mathewes-Green there are other features that are lost in the translation. The first verse of each canticle refers to the Biblical Canticle that it corresponds to and also establishes a metrical pattern that is sung to a particular melody. There is a new pattern with each new canticle. It's an elaborate structure that I wish I knew enough music theory to understand. But even at the elementary level at which I participate, it presents a refreshing view of repentance. Instead of self loathing and miserable guilt, repentance simply means seeing the truth about ourselves and God. Like the father of the prodigal son, God knows the truth and still loves us. Sin is like a pervading sickness or a self-inflicted wound. It's only by allowing our sickness to come to the light that we can be healed. It's a call to humility. It may not be an easy experience, but it's a positive one.  F. M-G says, "The more we trust His love, the more we are able to repent; the more we repent, the more powerfully we experience His love. Repentance is joy."

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Mother and Child

Today I returned to St. Luke's Orthodox Church for one of four services that incorporates the Canon of St. Andrew. All the sights, smells and movement of Orthodox worship along with the chants and songs make the experience a total immersion into a state of awe. Or maybe it just feels that way to a Baptist.

I must admit, though, that today I was prepared for the words of St. Andrew, but left with another image altogether. Among the many icons displayed in the church there are several of Mary and a young Jesus. At the service was a devoted mother with her beautiful young son. There is no nursery in the Orthodox Church. Everyone is together, and if the children need a snack or want to walk around, well everyone else just goes with it. For the surroundings to be so elegant and ornate, it's a surprisingly kid friendly atmosphere. The child present today was very well behaved, and no one minded the occasional whiff of his Funyuns along with the candles and incense. After the service, I went to the hospital to visit a friend whose young adult son has been in intensive care for over a month. As hope for his full recovery diminishes, her anguish increases. No heartache seems to exceed that of watching one's own child suffer. All day the image of these three mothers and sons have been in my mind.  I don't have eloquent words to explain my feelings, but it my thoughts kept coming back to the fact that God chose to make Himself known to us not as a king or warrior, but through membership in a family. Every family is a holy family.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Songs of the Three Young Men, Daniel 3: 26 - 88

These sequential verses from the Apocrypha represent two songs, but I'm going to combine them for this post. In the Hebrew version of the book of Daniel, we find the familiar story of the three young men who are tied up and thrown into a furnace for refusing to worship Nebuchadnezzar's statue. The king peeks in and sees four men walking around unbound and unharmed. In this Greek version, we get more details about what was going on in there. They were singing and praying and had a visit from an angel of God who "made the inside of the furnace as though a moist wind were whistling through it." Sounds kind of like summertime in the South right after a thunderstorm, doesn't it?

I love stories of courage. I wonder if anyone can know in advance of a calamity if he is courageous. Would I be strong, or tuck my tail and run?  Or would I respond to a real disaster by being unable to run or scream? That's what happens in a recurring dream that I have.  As these young people faced certain death, they stood their ground. How long did it take for them to realize that they weren't on fire? How long after that did they start singing and enjoying themselves? In the song, they thank God for everything they can think of, even for fire and heat. They're as giddy about the rescue as Moses was about the Red Sea episode.

I suppose we're all facing certain death. We might as well enjoy the gift of life that God has given us and fill it with as much singing and thanksgiving as possible.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Song of Jonah, Jonah 2:2 - 9

If ever the phrase "steals the show" was appropriate, it applies to the fish in the book of Jonah. There are only three verses in the entire book that mention the fish. In 1:17 God sends a fish to swallow Jonah; in 2:1 Jonah is inside the fish when he prays "The Song of Jonah;" and in 2:10 the fish spits Jonah out. That's it. Yet, as bit parts go, it has to be one of the most memorable in history.

These songs referenced in the Canon of St. Andrew are variations on the theme of salvation. Here, there is an interesting double rescue of both Jonah and the people of Nineveh. A quick recap of the story... God told Jonah to go to Nineveh and proclaim a message of repentance and salvation. Jonah, who was not particularly fond of the Ninevites and would just as soon see them perish, hopped a boat in the opposite direction. When a vicious storm tosses the boat around, Jonah admits to the sailors that it's his fault and sacrifices himself for the others in spite of their great reluctance to throw him overboard. Next comes the fish (often upgraded to a whale) incident. Afterwards, Jonah gives up and goes to Nineveh where he preaches a truly uninspired sermon -- all judgment, no hope -- yet the people respond. In a lovely ironic twist, God uses the man who cannot repent of his prejudice against the Ninevites to bring about their repentance on a national scale.  We're told that everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth and humbled himself before God and experienced salvation.

Jonah, like all of us, is an interesting mix of righteousness and selfishness. He was willing to give his life to save the Gentile sailors, but couldn't bear the thought that God could save the Gentiles in Nineveh. In fact, Jonah is so angry over God's mercy towards Nineveh that he says he'd rather be dead than see it. I once heard someone sum up the Civil Rights struggle as follows: White people in the South hate black people as a whole, but like them as individuals. White people outside the South do just the opposite. That's obviously an oversimplification, but it's exactly the situation in which we find Jonah. He couldn't hate the sailors as individuals. As difficult as I find all the "wrath of God" passages in the Old Testament, I must admit that sometimes it's easier to think about God hating our enemies than loving them. When Jesus said that we should love our enemies, too, well no wonder that caused problems! God's mercy is not limited by our prejudices. Thank goodness.

The Song of Isaiah, Isaiah 26: 9 - 21

This song of victory again touches on the themes of salvation for the righteous and destruction of the wicked. It's no wonder that hellfire-and-brimstone is such a prominent image of religion. There sure is a lot of it in the Bible.

The verses that stand out to me in this song are verses 17 - 18: "Like a woman with child, who writhes and cries out in her pangs when she is near her time, so were we because of you, O Lord; we were with child, we writhed, but we gave birth only to wind. We have won no victories on earth, and no one is born to inhabit the world." Whatever role the Bible conveys for women, the indisputable fact remains that only women can give birth. It's the creative act allowed to humans that is most closely related to the creative power of God. Being blessed with the ability to bring forth life is a miraculous gift, but as the verses indicate, it's not without pain and heartache either. I was taught a rather one-sided view of this blessing. Eve's punishment was to be cursed with the painful childbearing chore. Not much was suggested about the flip side of her misfortune. Around Christmas we acknowledge that the blessing given to Mary is a supreme form of the one generally conferred "among women," but then we move on to shepherds and wise men.  The Reverend Billy Graham once said, “We evangelical Christians do not give Mary her proper due.” Or for a more colorful quote, consider Sojourner Truth's opinion on the role of women, "Then that little man in black there, he says women can't have as much rights as men, 'cause Christ wasn't a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him."

When Isaiah seeks to convey the highest aspirations and ultimate creative effort, he uses the metaphor of a woman in labor. To describe devastation upon failure, he says they "gave birth only to wind" and "no one is born to inhabit the world."  My mother had two normal, full term pregnancies that ended with the death of the infants. Mom is a strong woman, and not given to self pity. She talked about the babies sometimes and would take flowers to their graves. I'd known all my life that I had a brother and a sister who died, and wondered occasionally what it would've been like to grow up with them, but the facts were not made real to me until the day I held my own newborn in the hospital room while by mother sat close by. Although my daughter was not yet a day old, I felt like I knew her and my capacity of love for her was shockingly enormous. In the presence of my mother and my daughter, I understood my mother's experience for the first time and the emotion it stirred was overwhelming.  As Mom and I cried and mourned the life lost over 25 years ago, her pain seemed fresh and intense. Isaiah could not have chosen more powerful words to express the deepest sentiments that are humanly possible.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Song of Habbakuk, Habbakuk 3:2 - 19

This prayer of the prophet repeats some of the earlier themes of God's deliverance of His people. It differs in its use of imagery concerning the creation of the world. "In the beginning" there is cosmic chaos represented by turbulent water which is brought into order as creation blossoms with mountains illuminated by the sun and the moon. Beautiful.

It is unfortunate that creation has come to be a source of conflict between the church and society. Actually, "the creation story" itself is a misnomer since the Bible contains several creation narratives. The account in Psalm 104 predates Genesis, and the New Testament declaration of  "In the beginning was the Word" in John 1 is familiar to all Christians. I was surprised to learn a couple of years ago that even Genesis contains two creation stories. Go back and read Genesis 1 and 2 again. It's not one story continued; it's two stories. And very different stories at that. Genesis 1 begins with water chaos and has male and females created at the same time. Genesis 2 begins with drought and has man created first. The purpose of creation in Genesis 1 is the worship and rest of the Sabbath. "The fall" is a major theme of Genesis 2. It is possible to convolute the details and make one big story out of the two chapters, but scholars are certain that there were two different authors who wrote two independent accounts of creation and both were valued enough by the ancient Hebrews to be included in scripture. Neither account was intended to be a scientific description of how the world came into being.  Rather, their concern was why. And could any one story ever answer that? We were created in the image of a God who brings order out of chaos and finds joy in the act of creating.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Song of Hannah, 1Samuel 2 : 1 - 10

Hannah's poem is reminiscent of Mary's song in the New Testament. Both are contemplating relief from oppression through the eyes of motherhood. In Hannah's case, she had been scorned for her inability to bear a child and after the birth of Samuel she gushes with thanksgiving. Her words echo the Old Testament theme that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. It does work that way sometimes, but the Bible has many variations on the theme. The Psalms contain rants of those who are discouraged and angry at God.  The "all is vanity" approach taken by the book of Ecclesiastes is so similar to Buddhism that it is often suggested as a starting point for Christians to evangelize Buddhists.  And even people who don't know the Bible are aware of the "patience of Job", an undisputedly righteous man who suffered extensively.

I suppose that the problem of suffering is the largest roadblock people face when trying to figure out what it means to follow Christ.  When Jesus' disciples saw a blind man they asked whether it was the man himself or his parents who were being punished. Since the man had been blind from birth, if he were being punished then he would've had to have been reincarnated from some previous existence. Maybe the disciples were actually asking about karma. Who knows?  But Jesus says that suffering is not always related to punishment. Then he makes a quite unusual observation. He says that within suffering the works of God can be displayed. (Cue Vestal Goodman belting out "I wouldn't take nothing for my journey now.")  It's hard to understand, but we do have a model. Easter celebrates One who suffered, entered into death, and destroyed it by filling it with life.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Second Song of Moses, Deuteronomy 32:1 - 43

As Moses' life is drawing to a close, he gives this "Last Lecture" to Israel. He warns they will face stronger temptations in a time of peace and plenty than during times of struggle in the wilderness. It will be during the prosperous times that they will turn to idolatry and the worship of strange gods. As punishment, they will experience defeat and destruction through their enemies who in turn will face their own judgment from God for carrying out the punishment. There are no real winners here, yet the following chapter records a blessing from the dying Moses for Israel that expresses great hope and love.

A few years ago, a professor named Randy Pausch gave his "Last Lecture" at Carnegie Mellon University. This is a tradition at some institutions where a scholar of note gets a chance to sift through all his work and decide what matters most and then present it in lecture form to a university audience. This one was noteworthy beyond an academic audience because 46-year-old Dr. Pausch found out shortly before the lecture that he was dying. Someone recorded the lecture and it went viral from YouTube and ended up as a book. Dr. Pausch made multiple TV and media appearances before he died. The title of his lecture was "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams" and it was based on a list that he had made at age 8.  The book is a touching and humorous account of his life from nerdy kid to innovative computer science professor. For all his achievements, his final conclusion was the importance of living life "the right way" with each decision and action. His motivation was the legacy that he would leave for his children.

The similarity of the words of these two men is interesting.  While there is nothing specifically spiritual in Dr. Pausch's book, both he and Moses speak of the joys and heartaches of life and how the decisions and choices that are made send waves across generations. If there's a handy cliche to end this post, I guess it's "The more things change, the more they stay the same."