Forty days of fear

The most ubiquitous instruction in the Bible, we are told, is this: Do not be afraid.
And yet, its counterpart is not unfamiliar, either: Fear the Lord your God.

Ash Wednesday marks the first of forty days of Lent. It also marks the end of the first forty days of a new presidency that has engaged the emotions and spiritual lives of people within and without this country like perhaps no other.

During these past forty days in this country, we have tended to stoke our own fears and one another’s. The President has told us to fear bad guys, bad actors, bad hombres; to fear liberal activists, public bathrooms, so-called judges; to trust (almost) no one. On the other side of the political divide, we are advised to fear the President, his cabinet, climate change, corporate greed, and our own tendencies to division over diversity. Many caught in the middle already know all too well whom to fear: Jewish Community Centers are learning to dread the new Monday ritual of bomb threats called in around the country; those who have long fought for equal dignity under the law and in their local establishments wearily take up a defensive stance once more – they know the drill.

Where, in fact, does the instruction not to be afraid fall short in the face of terror attacks on our news feeds, and the uncertainty of our future together? Then again, where does the commandment to fear God, and keep God’s commandments to love our neighbours galvanize resistance to our scapegoating of one another, and a determination to persist in love in the face of any such fears?

I am dedicating my Lenten practice this year to Forty Days of Fear, not because I need extra excuses for fear in my life, but because I have a hunch that properly discerned fear might the corollary, not the opposite of that ubiquitous instruction, Do not be afraid: Fear not/fear God.

Fear the Lord and keep God’s commandments; to love God and to love your neighbour as yourself. For perfect love drives out fear, and so the fear of God, properly and paradoxically practised, might be the end of fear itself.

“Fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom;” sagacity sprinkled like salt throughout scripture.

Do not be afraid.

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Penitence

After William Wordsworth’s “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” 1800

Recollected in tranquillity,
passions burnt beyond their embers.
Unguarded breath conjures dust devils,
smoke without fire,
echoes of disgrace remembered
by the ashen light of dawn.
Dignified in variegated gray,
sifted, judiciously, of all meannness
and vulgarity,
they grace an untroubled brow.

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The sun also rises

During the recent inauguration, just last month, Franklin Graham stepped up to pray for the new president. He introduced his prayer by noting that rain had begun to fall just as the president had begun his speech to the nation. “Rain,” declared Graham, “is a sign of God’s blessing.” It appears that the new president was not too keen on that particular biblical interpretation of the signs of the sky, because he has since declared that as he began to speak, although it looked as though it might rain, it held off at God’s command, and in fact, the sun came out. That, he gave his opinion, was actually the sign of God’s blessing.

We may never know what the weather was really doing on that day in January. What we do know is that both men, preacher and politician, missed this line in Jesus’ sermon on  the mount, where he confirms what we already knew in our hearts, though we so often wish it were otherwise:  we know that the rain falls of the righteous and on the unrighteous, and that the sun rises not to single out those of God’s favour, but on the good and the evil alike.

Our blessings, God’s bounty and mercy are not, it seems, to be fenced in or parcelled out according to our ideas of merit.

If it were not so; if God granted individual climatic chambers to each of us based on our justification, then we would be locked into separate worlds. As it is, we are all in this life together, with our neighbours; even with our enemies.

The sun rises on the Roman soldier, and on his Jewish conscript, Simon of Cyrene, compelled to carry the cross of a convict for a mile outside the city. The rain falls on the fields of neighbours locked in a bitter legal dispute, suing the shirts off one another’s backs, while their crops grow side by side, and the birds and insects, free from such enmity, cross-pollinate their produce.

Once again, Jesus is still preaching his great Sermon on the Mount, and this week’s gospel selection continues from last week’s teaching about the law, which Jesus has come to fulfill. It is that law that we read in our first lesson, from Leviticus, which outlaws untruth, which demands an ethic of common justice devoid of economic influence. It is a law which pays the worker her due, and without delay, and which insists on feeding also the alien, the indigent, the unfortunate, for the sun also rises on them, and the same rain may fall on us. It is a law which spells out the prohibition of placing obstacles in the way of those already handicapped by their circumstances in life. It is a law made perfect in the dual commandment to love God, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself.

And, as is becoming his habit, Jesus, in his exposition of this law to his disciples and to the crowds that surround them, goes one huge step further. Already, we know from Leviticus that our neighbour extends beyond the people we know. We are to care even for the alien, and the anonymous poor. So you have heard it said, says Jesus, and now I tell you, love even your enemies.

Love your enemies.

The love which Jesus describes is not a warm, fuzzy feeling towards those with whom we disagree.

It is a practical, active, defiant love which insists on doing right, right in the face of those doing wrong. It challenges abuses of the law by its stubborn and stoic resistance. I have this movie in my mind, rightly or wrongly, of the Jewish conscript forced to carry the burdens of a Roman soldier for a mile. Reaching the marker, the conscript says, now, this second mile is for me, and as I have heard your command to me, you will now hear the commandments of my God. And for a second mile, for just twenty minutes or so, the conscript becomes the conduit, God’s chosen people the messengers of God’s love to the world, reaching even into the conscience of a Roman imperial regiment.

Or maybe the man says, “Tell me about yourself. Tell me about the land you have left behind,” and perhaps they part, not as friends, but as fellow humans at least, locked in this journey together, under the same sun.

Love leads by example. A friend of mine, an Episcopal priest in a town on the north eastern coast, returned from vacation this week to find that someone had spray painted a swastika onto his car. “Blessed are you [my friend], when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt.5:11-12)

Rejoice, and be glad. Love even your enemies. Because love leads by example; and because he is a good man, and a fine priest, even so warned, this man will show up this morning at his parish and he will persist in proclaiming this gospel, this gospel that insists that no one is excluded from the love of God, and he will celebrate the sacraments of the love of God revealed in Christ Jesus; because this is how evil is overcome.

It is overcome by persistent justice, unflinching mercy, unrelenting righteousness. It is overcome by fierce, determined, deliberate love.

The love that Jesus describes is unflinching, unafraid, and it is relentless. Rebuked and reviled, love nevertheless persists. It refuses to be overcome. It will not give way to injustice. It turns the other cheek.

When Jesus was killed, and when he rose again, and presented his face to the Roman soldiers stationed outside of his tomb, they fainted away (Matt. 28:4). They fainted away at the sight of such love.

This love is not soft, or small. It is as old as creation. It is stronger than death. It reaches into every aspect of our lives, even those we thought were hidden in the tombs of our hearts. It roots out enmity. It rises on the good and on the evil, and love alone can tell them apart.

So go, be holy, for your God has made you holy. Go, be perfect, as Jesus has commanded. Tell the truth. Persist in doing justice in the face of chaos. Insist on mercy instead of instilling enmity.  Know that love wins, that the love of God has already shaped this world, and continues to bend it towards God’s kingdom with every small act of love that endures, each day that the sun rises.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us of that love, perfect and holy. (Eph. 5:2)

Amen.

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For the love of libraries

Yesterday was the commemoration of Thomas Bray, who founded scores of lending libraries and founded the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge and the Society for the Promulgation of the Gospel. The gospel reading appointed for his festival is Luke 10:1-9, the sending of the seventy(-two). I was invited to preach at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral’s Evensong.

When I was a child, the public library was a place of great power and influence in my life. It was a place of discovery and of purely voluntary adventures into knowledge; where curiosity was encouraged and questions were not considered talking back. It was a place where a child received recommendations without coercion, and direction without correction. It was a place where the choices, decisions, predilections even of a child were respected and accepted. It was a secret hotbed, a nursery, a hothouse for independence and agency, for a child’s dignity.

The library was my weekly ritual, my Saturday morning church before I ever stumbled across the Sunday morning sacrament. I wonder whether, without that grounding, I would have found my way as a child alone into the church, or had the courage to cross its imposing threshold, had I not been encouraged, admitted, and welcomed as a child with her own agenda and will into the great cathedral of learning that was the children’s room in the basement of the Penarth Public Library.

One of the gifts of this Evensong service is the opportunity to explore the examples of the holy women and holy men who went before us as pioneers and pilgrims of the faith. It’s like being back in the basement of the public library, where I read every biography of every classical composer on the shelves. Now I get to pick up and read people like Thomas Bray, whose bookish activism earned him accolades as a father of the modern public lending library.

It is apparent, from Bray’s own writings, that he recognized that democratic levelling of libraries that affected my childhood, since he said,

This is certain, that Knowledge does more to distinguish the Possessors of it, than Titles, Riches, or great Places;

so that his plans to extend the network of libraries in the colonies under his care beyond private collections to publicly useful lending libraries were intended to extend the learning and the status of persons beyond those who might normally be expected to afford a library: the landed and the gentry. His provision for his English countrymen in the colonies did not, either, limit his vision for the education and instruction in the gospel of their slaves, and of the Native Americans on whose lands they made their plantations.

Still, Bray was not himself a librarian, but a priest, and his devotion to learning began and was founded in the gospel. He argued not only for providing books to Maryland and the other areas of the country that he found to be in need, but also pastors, priests, and missionaries. He considered it incredible, for example, that Newfoundland had been abandoned by the church, writing,

Can any one believe it, when he is told, that … so little Care has been taken, with respect to such a Colony, that there never was, nor yet is, any Preaching, Prayers, or Sacraments, or any Ministerial and Divine Offices, performed on the Island; but that they should be suffered to live as those, who know no God in the World!

Thomas Bray, the Doctor of Divinity, was not content with the Saturday rituals of the library; he wanted the Sunday sacrament to be provided to all who might have need of it. No one, he felt, should need to live “as those, who know no God in the World.”

He must have suffered his fair share of colonial myopia. Missionary zeal is not in itself a bad thing; but it has tended, over the centuries, to be misapplied in many cases.

Still, the Christian missionary movement itself might be said to have started with Jesus himself, sending his disciples out ahead of him to the places where he intended to follow. It was this vision that inspired Thomas Bray: that his clergymen would be wise and helpful guides to their American flocks; and that they would assure the people that the kingdom of God is near; that Jesus is coming, and already is not far away.

The disciples are told to travel light; to hold themselves accountable not to their own baggage, but to the people whom they encounter, and visit, and serve. They are encouraged to receive as well as to give, and to live in peace with all, as far as they are able. They are to get to know the people to whom Jesus is coming, in their own homes, in the midst of their everyday lives. They are to breathe their air, eat their food, share in the risks and rewards of living on their land. They are not to hold themselves apart.

They are not to hold themselves apart.

It was said of Thomas Bray, that he was, “a striking instance of what a man can effect, without any extraordinary genius and without any special influence;” which is a description that might be applied also to any one of those disciples of Jesus, the twelve, the seventy, those of us gathered today, with appropriate apologies to the extraordinary geniuses in the congregation.

To be Christ’s emissaries in the world, to go where Christ intends to follow, we are called not to be exceptional, nor to hold ourselves apart, but to occupy those very public spaces where all may meet on level ground; and to place ourselves at the service of those we find there. We are to greet with peace those with whom we find ourselves in line at the coffee shop. We are to share in the hunger and the reward of those who seek learning in the libraries. We are to offer our selves and our service to those we pass in the supermarket aisles, and on the sidewalks, recognizing each one as sacred, a child of God, created with dignity, and agency, and love.

We do not reserve our reverence for one another, as fellow children imprinted upon God, only for the Sunday sacraments; but we find the gospel, we borrow and lend it to the Saturday rituals, the secular spaces, the cathedrals of our common, oh so common life.

For this is just where Jesus will come to, and is to be found: at the bottom of the basement stairs; in the imagination of a child; in the welcome of a stranger; in the unexpected grace of a greeting of peace, offered almost in passing; the touch of the divine in the middle of an ordinary day.

___________

Photo: Penarth Public Library, by Jaggery [CC BY-SA 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

Bernard C. Steiner, “Rev. Thomas Bray and his American Libraries,” in The American Historical Review, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Oct., 1896, Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Historical Association), pp. 59-75 via jstor.org

“A Memorial Representing the Present State of Religion on the Continent OF North-America”, by Thomas Bray, D.D. (London: Printed by John Brudenell, for the Author, 1701), via Project Canterbury

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Healing Spiritual Wounds, by Carol Howard Merritt (Book Review)

I love a good story, and Carol Howard Merritt’s book, Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God after Experiencing a Hurtful Church, is full of them. But it is not just a memoir of leaving one theological tradition for another, nor is it simply an anthology of pastoral problems and solutions. The book uses the specificity of individual’s stories to draw out insights and ideas for healing a multitude of spiritual wounds that leave their mark on the soul and the body, and on the body of Christ.

Helpfully, Merritt states up front that she is “not interested in defending Christianity.” We each wound ourselves in our own way when we try to gaslight our own twisted experiences of a false gospel. Instead, Merritt is content to let God be God, and to encourage, coach, and accompany those who want to find their way back to loving God, and loving themselves into the bargain.

Neither is she interested in converting, or reconverting, those who have simply had it with God and the gospel, saying,

No doubt this works for some people, but others see the world through an irremovable religious lens. … Some of us have a spiritual or theological orientation, and to eschew that would make us incomplete.

I can definitely relate to that.

Through experiences of her own and the conversations she has had with others, Merritt addresses issues of money, sex, body image, gender and sexuality, guilt and shame, and family. Each chapter includes stories and reflections, and exercises to begin to think through some of the wounds that the reader might carry within themselves.

I’m not big on books with exercises in them, to be honest, but I did use an exercise for “healing our image of God” already with my Centering Prayer group, and it was well received. I can see using this book in my pastoral practice, not only with those who carry deep scars, but also as a way of broadening those images, and deepening connections between our stories and our image of God.

There are so many moments of connection in this book, which I think speaks to the strength of its storytelling. From the woman who had the affair, to the woman whose husband told her whole world of his own faithlessness; from the bible college dress code and its insidious misogyny to the shame of barely making ends meet; from the scars of an abusive home to the scabs of an abusive theology;  I know that I will be pulling this book off my shelf often, to make those connections and reaffirm a shared experience: to say, you are not alone.

And I am ordering a second copy for that moment that I know is coming, when I need to give mine away to someone who needs to it and keep it, for the sake of their own shalom.

*Disclosure: I received an advance review copy of Carol Howard Merritt’s book, Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a loving God after experiencing a hurtful church (HarperOne, 2017)

 

 

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Truth, love, and justice

A sermon for the sixth Sunday after the Epiphany.

Jesus said, “If you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement. If you say, ‘You fool!’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”

Pretty strong language, and for anyone who has indulged in social media, the consumption of news and opinion journalism, or had a conversation lately, language that is liable to make us just a little uncomfortable.

It’s probably worth remembering that we are still listening to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount – that seminal address to his disciples and early followers that began with the Beatitudes: blessings for the meek, the peacemakers, the persecuted, the lost, and the lonely. This is the same Jesus, and this is the same day, the same hour, the same message that he is preaching, believe it or not. This message will continue even into next week. We have stumbled into the middle of his sermon today, and that in itself might give us pause to remember just who it is who is speaking to us, and just what his framework for speaking is.

His framework, of course, is the overarching, overwhelming love of God, which redeems and refreshes God’s people; which receives and reflects their devotion; which engages and affirms their worship. This love, steadfast, merciful, and all-encompassing, is the context for Jesus’ difficult words about anger, adultery, and oath-taking.

It is as those called and fashioned to be salt for the world and light for the nations that we hear his admonitions for righteous living, and his commandments for our common life together.

Jesus is addressing those whom he has just blessed: the merciful, the peacemakers, the pure of heart. He is exhorting these blessed disciples to prove their blessedness in the way that they live together, and in the way that they live with the world. They are not to repay blessings with curses, but they are to live within the law of the Lord, loving God and loving their neighbours with all of their being: body, soul, words, hearts, and minds. They are to live out their blessedness by becoming a blessing to the world: salt for the earth, light for the world.

We hear a lot of noise lately, heat and light, sound and fury, sometimes with little sense. We hear the hurled insults flying like bricks between those even whom we trust to work together for the good of the people as a whole. We know that such noisiness is not helpful, nor is it loving, nor is it godly. We try not to get caught up in it, but it is difficult to know how to stand against the sound of the storm.

Jesus has some advice: tell the truth. Let your yes be yes, and your no be no. Do not bluster, do not brag. Tell the truth, says our Way, our Truth, and our Life.

Don’t share fake news, or alternative facts. Do not repeat rumours, but deal only in truth. Luther, in his Small Catechism, puts gossip and slander in the same category as murder, since it kills a person’s character, and assassinates trust between those who share its poison.

Tell the truth.

Furthermore, Jesus says, do not let your lust, your greed, your restlessness undermine the faithfulness of your relationships with God or with one another.

This teaching is hard, and it can be hurtful to those who have undergone a divorce; but read in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, it may be less about the rules themselves than it is about the way that we treat one another.

In the context of Jesus’ time, when marriage was more transactional than the way in which we tend to use it, and set side by side with the warning against lustful looks, the teaching about divorce defends against treating people as disposable goods; against treating women as objects only of desire; against the conspicuous consumption of those whose very lives become commodities to the rich, the powerful, the predatory.

Jesus is explaining that we may not treat as disposable, or as less than human anyone who is made in the image of God. We are to demand justice for the powerless, the vulnerable, the poor. We are to remember that we are made in God’s image, and to look upon each other with respect, with all of the godliness and good that we can muster. Remembering that Christ himself became human, became our brother, we are to seek and serve that Incarnation of the image of God in all people, loving our neighbours as ourselves.

Which brings us back to anger, injury, and insult.

We know that we live in divided and divisive times. Our political context is fraught with anger and insult. It overflows into our news streams, our coffee shops, our conversations, poisoning the word supply. If only, we think, we could all live by Jesus’ instructions, to love God and one another, to refrain from anger and insult!

If you want to know a dirty little secret, though, it turns out that Jesus himself, later in Matthew’s gospels, uses that exact word to express his anger against his brothers in faith, the Pharisees. Not to mention that time he yells at Peter, telling him to, “Get behind me, Satan!”

So remembering that Jesus himself called the Pharisees blind fools, and Simon Peter, Satan, we might gently reframe our own judgement of ourselves and of one another.

Refraining from angry insult does not have to mean acquiescing to every foolish opinion, nor does it exempt us from arguing against injustice and immorality. It is not about making nice, and it is not about speaking peace where there is no peace. We hear, often, “Judge ye not” (Matthew 7:1) as an instruction to shut down argument, but moral theologian Stephen Holmgren has another take on that instruction:

It is usually quoted in situations where a person or group is admonished not to criticize the behavior of others. However, it is likely that the kinds of judgments that Jesus forbids are assessments of the final state of another’s soul. … This is quite a different matter from using reason and reflection to assess the structure and moral character of acts that we witness on an everyday basis. – Stephen Holmgren, Ethics After Easter (Cowley Publications, 2000), 143-4

In other words, giving up angry insults does not mean giving way to unjust agencies, nor appeasing immoral opinions. It does mean that we base our arguments and our judgments on the foundation laid out by Jesus: love God, love your neighbour as yourself. Deal in truth. Remember that every person is made in the image of God, and treat them accordingly.

In this way we can be salt for the earth, and light for the world. Grounded in truth and framed by the gospel, we can resist the noise, the fury, the storm of meaningless sound.

If we act as those who are blessed to know that we are loved; if we act as those who know the truth, that we and every one else is made in the image of God; if we will remember that we are blessed to hunger and thirst for righteousness, then we have nothing to fear from Jesus’s strong words and hard challenges.

For he has already called us blessed.

Amen.

 

 

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Bitter

Stone on my tongue
cold and bitter
grit rasps my teeth
sets them on edge
sharp and dangerous;
my heart is in my mouth.

Take this heart of stone
the bitter grit;
feed me sweet flesh
feed me sweet honeyed
words of kindness.

Soothe my sour tongue.
Let me speak love.

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