Category Archives: Life in the Spirit

Steadying the Ark (2 Samuel, Matt. 8:24-27)

There is a brutal little story tucked away in the book of 2 Samuel. I encountered it for the first time as a child, when my grandmother was reading the Bible aloud to me, as she often did. I stopped her when I heard it and wanted to know “why?” It seemed to me so ruthless and unjust. It still does rather.

King David was bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. The progress was surrounded with great joy, with the king and all the house of Israel dancing and singing before the oxcart that carried the sacred ark, accompanied by diverse instruments. And then in the midst of the fun disaster struck:

“When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen shook it. The anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him there because he reached out his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God” (2 Samuel 6:6-8).

It says that David was “angry because the LORD had burst forth with an outburst upon Uzzah,” and we too are bound to find the story disturbing, to say the least.  And it doesn’t help a great deal for us to be reminded that for ancient Israel the ark was the preeminently sacred object, the seat upon which God was thought to sit, the symbol of his presence with his people. It was surrounded by the strongest taboos. When it had to be carried, it was lifted with long poles, and under no circumstances was it to be touched.

But the oxen stumbled. The ark swayed. What if it had fallen? Uzzah thought he was responsible for it, and he reached out to steady the ark to save God from indignity of seeing his throne crash to the ground in a pile of rubble. If you have been around churches as long as I have, beloved, you can imagine what sort of person Uzzah must have been—in charge of the property, a bit possessive and officious, kind of a fuss budget, actually.

In any case he reached out and touched the ark and the fury of the LORD burst out upon him. A moment later he lay dead. As a child, his story both fascinated and appalled me. I asked my grandmother if he had been electrocuted. She said “sort of.” I wanted to know “why?” It all seemed to me so grossly unfair of God. That someone could be struck dead for trying to be helpful. This is certainly not a story for children to whom you’re trying to teach responsible behavior. Nor is it likely to show up in any Sunday school curriculum with an accompanying picture to color.

But it is an adult story and speaks to an adult problem. Those of us who love the church are often feel dismayed and helpless by the disarray into which it has fallen. It is a mess; who can deny it. Looking at it, we feel humiliated for God, and we would like to save him the embarrassment of the Church as it is. Not that we ever could—in our hearts we know that–but we try anyway, criticizing, worrying and fretting, getting fussy over small things, treating the church itself as an idol. That’s what Uzzah in the story did—he treated the ark as an idol, not a seat for the invisible omnipotent God, but a thing made with human hands to be worshipped in itself, and he reached out his hand to steady his god.

But the living God does not want or need to the saved by us.  He can take care of himself. Uzzah didn’t need to steady the ark. God was always in charge; there never was any real danger of its falling. In this regard you will recall another story, this one about a storm that came up suddenly on the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 8:24-27). The disciples were terrified by the wind and the waves, but we are told that Jesus was fast asleep. So they woke him to say, “Lord, save us!  We are perishing!” But they really didn’t need saving. They were safe—as long as they were in the boat with the Lord. And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you little faith people.” Then he rebuked the winds and the sea, and we are told that there was a dead calm.

These days Church is being tossed about in rough seas—I’m sure you’ve noticed that. The ark is shaken by controversy and scandal. There is a fussy part of us that feels that we should be doing something about it. But we are at a loss as to exactly what. We lament that things are no being done as they used to be. We lament the indifference of the young and the shortcomings of the clergy. We think that if we were in charge things would be better. We feel as if we should steady the ark or wake the sleeping God to keep the boat from sinking.

But what we need to remember that at the threshing floor of Nacon the oxen stumbled, but the cart didn’t overturn nor did the ark fall. And on the Sea of Galilee the boat was tossed by the storm but it did not capsize. “We have this hope,” as the writer of Hebrews says, “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul. . .” (6:19).  And reliant on that hope we need to calm ourselves to let God take care of himself and his coming Kingdom in his own way. He is our Savior—not the other way around. He gives each of us something to do, and we should by all means do it, but with the recognition that we can’t do everything or even what is most necessary. Only what we can as well as we can.

In 1906 Winchester cathedral was in danger of collapsing. The south and east walls of the great building were sinking slowly into the ground beneath, which consisted principally of peat. Great cracks had appeared in the fabric of the building. But there was a dilemma. In order for bricklayers reinforce the foundation, the groundwater first had to be lowered. And without support, the removal of the groundwater would cause the complete collapse of the building.

The problem was solved with the help of a quiet bravery of professional driver by the name of William Walker. 235 pits each about twenty feet deep were dug around the walls of the cathedral, and they immediately filled with turgid water. Walker descended into each one of those holes and using 25,000 bags of concrete, 115,000 concrete blocks, and 900,000 bricks he shored up the walls of the church so that the water could be pumped out and the job completed by masons. He worked in complete darkness owing to the sediment suspended in the water. The job took years.

But before he died of Spanish flu in 1918, Walker was credited with having laid the foundation of the whole cathedral, which stands today as a monument to his courage and determination. I have a photograph of William Walker in his diving helmet, rubber suit, and weighted boots hanging over my desk. It reminds me that the Church has to be shored up from below by men and women who do what they can do, diligently and in obscurity. But they don’t delude themselves into thinking that it depends upon them. They don’t fuss. They do what they can. They feed the hungry and care for the down and out, and preach the good news, generally keep the world from ending, which it would if it were not for them.

But it is the Lord the Spirit that gives permanence to the Church, not human beings. As St. Paul writes: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; and that foundation is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11).  And we need to pray that the Spirit will save us from our all too human tendency toward fussiness, that presumption that makes us want to steady the ark when we see it shaken. It will not fall, and we couldn’t stop it if it did. In that regard we are as helpless as we feel. The Kingdom does not rest upon us. What does depend upon us are the things, great or small, that we called to do in the Kingdom—that’s all and that’s enough.

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What Became of Shame?

 

“Then the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons” (Genesis 3:7).

Whatever else may be true, beloved, it is obvious that we are not sewing fig leaves together anymore. It’s all out there, on the record, in language you never heard in the Bible. The barriers of what is acceptable in public speech and personal conduct have been eroding for some time now, but under this administration they have all but collapsed. There is no point in arguing that this is so. The question is—How did we as a nation lose our sense of shame?

The answer is not as complicated as we might think. In fact most of us can recall the decline and fall of shame because we played a part in it—not a starring role, perhaps, but we were part of the mob scenes. I know I was there to swell the crowd when shame died. And because I am partly to blame for it, it is incumbent upon me to do some small thing to rebuild the fallen barriers.

Shame is a very basic, and one might say, a primitive emotion. The scriptures trace it all the way back to the Garden, where Adam and Even ate the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Immediately their eyes were opened, the Bible tells us, and they were confronted with the awful consequences of their disobedience. They felt shame, which is, simply put, the humiliating awareness that we have committed some terrible transgression of the rules.

Guilt is a different thing all together. Guilt is self-condemnation, a profound unease because of what we are, independent of any particular action. It is the deep-seated suspicion that we are by nature bad in ourselves. Shame on the other hand is the consciousness that we appear bad to others. It is a state of moral undress, the awareness we have been caught, judged and condemned for what we have done by another person, by the community, or by God.

Shame is measured by the transgression and the transgressor. Where the transgression is small the shame is—or should be—proportionate.  Where the transgression if terrible, shame can be overwhelming—except when the transgressor feels no shame. Then he or she will not scruple to disguise the shameful act with a lie. So in the story of the children of Adam and Eve, when Cain killed his brother Abel, at first he trusted that no one had seen him. So when the LORD asks him, “Where is Abel your brother?” he replies, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” But the LORD says, “What have you done?” (Genesis 4:9).

What have you done? Honestly admitting shame is the only remedy for it, honestly confessing the transgression, accepting forgiveness and resolving to do better. Shame can become twisted, cruel, and destructive, but it is not a bad thing in itself. It is in fact the foundation of conscience, which is simply the internalization of honest shame.

The other day, while the United States Senate narrowly voted—50 to 51–to begin debate on a repeal of major parts of the Affordable Care Act, protesters in the gallery chanted “Kill the bill, don’t kill us!” and “Shame, shame, shame!” At least they had the right idea, but one cannot help but wonder what if anything the word “shame” means anymore in the public realm, things having been brought so low by brazen shamelessness of this administration and the paucity of honor among those who are supposed to serve us.

Because the opposite of shame is the pagan virtue of honor and its Judeo-Christian equivalent, righteousness. Righteousness and honor go hand in hand with modesty–not thinking too highly of yourself–and restraint–the inherent dignity of the person in victory and defeat. But in the Age of Trump does honor or righteousness, let alone modesty and restraint, retain any real value in the public realm when compared with money and power?

Oh, yes there are still examples of honor out there. John McCain comes to mind. But in his integrity, independence, and willingness to compromise he appears like a dinosaur on the floor of the Senate. And Jimmy Carter goes on modestly building Habitat for Humanity houses and teaching his Sunday school class. But the consensus of the Principalities and Powers seems to be the honor does not matter anymore than its opposite, shame.

So how did this come about? What became of shame?  The responsibility for its decline must be shaded as widely as possible.

On the one side liberal politicians and intellectuals and ordinary folks—like myself–with progressive ideas have for many years now made the proverb—“To understand all is to forgive all”—our motto. It was a big mistake and I confess it.  But for most of my lifetime the liberal establishment has excused violence and sexually irresponsibility as justified by circumstances or explicable because of economic influences. It isn’t. But when you cut people the slack they do not deserve, when you excuse the inexcusable, when you lower the barriers of what is acceptable to the place where everything is acceptable, you make yourself an enabler in a society where nothing is shameful.

Teaching shame—that wrong is wrong in the eyes of God and the community–is part of a moral upbringing. What we say and do have consequences in the real world. But when we give a pass to bad behavior as a result of a bad environment, when we justify what we should condemn and approve what we should disapprove the consequences will crowd in upon us.

We are not taking about forgiveness now. Forgiveness is another thing altogether. Divine grace does not make excuses for sin; it demands righteousness, or at least its pursuit and it presupposes shame and repentance.

Conservatives have until very lately been the bemoaners of moral laxness and the self-appointed champions of responsible behavior. Not anymore. The self-styled defenders of traditional values went for Trump in a big way, knowing full well that a vote for Donald Trump was a vote for shameless coarseness and leprous morality. Everyone knew that from the get-go. And we got exactly what they wanted. And why? Partly because he wasn’t Hilary Clinton. Defeating her justified any means.

But it was more than that. Trump speaks to and for a deep, latent violence in America and out of a shadowy background of racism. His Fundamentalism of Money and Power speaks to other forms of Fundamentalism, evangelical and materialistic. And he is a bully, and bullying is the new correctness. Shame may be dead—or at least dying, but the same cannot be said for bullying. Tweet-shaming is being practiced everywhere—from high school to the Oval Office—and with the same aim in mind—destruction of the enemy. And the enemy is us, beloved.

So liberals and conservatives—both the “talking heads” and the “hoi polloi”—in their own ways share the responsibility for the new shamelessness and its nasty results. So is this the way it is going to be from now on? Or will it get worse in ways that we cannot even anticipate now? Well, beloved, that is in a small but real way up to you and me. We have to decide whether or not to call scurrilous language and antisocial behavior what it is. It is easy to condemn those in high places for their brazen shamelessness, but it is more difficult to acknowledge how we enable their bad behavior by excusing the inexcusable. It is easy to censure Donald Trump for his vulgarity, coarseness, and laziness, but it is harder for us to condemn the culture of excess, which he represents and in which each play our part.

The righteous life must be lived in the world among other people, which is what makes it so difficult. Some of them think as we do, others do not. In the end integrity is a lonely business. It takes courage and a degree of recklessness to pursue it because whatever you say and do in its pursuit will never please other people. But its reward is an awareness of having lived honorably, which in the end is the only thing worth having. So, beloved, we need to take those words from the hymn seriously:

Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.

Let the search for our salvation be our glory evermore.

And may the Holy Spirit answer that prayer.

 

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Whence comes all this beauty. 1 Chron. 16:29

We are having a really frightful time of it, beloved. It seems as if lately the shocks just keep on coming—Boom! Boom! Boom!—one right after another, and you and I are forced to seek out whatever shelter we can find from the shocking venality of our government, from the appalling vulgarity of our public discourse, from our muddled, messed up lives. So in this frightful time what comfort is available to us?

Well, none at all, if we choose to focus our attention on the nasty business that confronts us daily in the newspapers and on television.  If we set our eyes on the destruction of the natural world upon which humanity seems so hell-bent, or if we listen only to the “organ concert” of our infirmities and diseases, there would indeed no hope. Ugliness—moral and physical–is inescapable. But if we make a decision to see it, the beautiful is also all around us. Whether we find the comfort that it offers is up to us to decide; whether to see the world as a hideous mess or suffused with eternal grace depends upon whether our eyes are really open.

There is a wonderful passage about—of all things—the flowers in “The Naval Treaty” by Arthur Conan Doyle. In the midst of solving a particularly puzzling case, the author has Sherlock Holmes pause to indulge in a very uncharacteristic meditation:

“He walked past the couch to the open window and held up the drooping stalk of a moss-rose, looking down at the dainty blend of crimson and green. It was a new phase of his character to me, [says Dr. Watson, Holmes’ fictional biographer] for I had never before seen him show any keen interest in natural objects.

“‘There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as religion,’ said he, leaning with his back against the shutters. “It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.’”

So what hope does the great detective derive from the rose? In practical terms its beauty is useless–useless but not meaningless. It is “an extra”—not a necessity but “an embellishment of life,” a necessary unnecessary. It will not feed us or satisfy any of our ordinary physical needs or desires, but its beauty is a powerful sign of something beyond itself. It is not good for anything, it is good in itself and its goodness comes from outside itself, from what Sherlock calls “the goodness of Providence.”

It is a glimpse into another world which makes sense of this one. If our eyes are really open we cannot help but ask—Whence comes all this beauty? In the Nicene Creed we profess our faith in the God who is the maker of all things, “seen and unseen.” The real world—the night sky, the birds, the flowers–transmits the beauty of the unseen world behind it, the Really Real, where this world’s meaning is revealed. We presently see it “through a glass, darkly,” as St. Paul writes,  but it holds the promise that that eventually we will see that meaning “face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

If I were given a choice among all the most beautiful places I have ever been, I would choose Sainte Chapelle in Paris. It was the chapel of the early French kings, and it contains the most extensive collection of 13th century glass in the world. The effect of the sun shining through those windows into the gilded interior of the chapel is nothing short of heavenly. But the guide will tell you that the chapel was used as an administrative office during the French Revolution, when its windows were obscured by enormous filing cabinets. The cabinets both hid them and saved them. And in the same way our view of the beautiful is often obscured by the ugly realities of our human situation. The light behind the windows, however, continues to shine.

It shines whether we see it or not. Beauty is not simply in the eye of the beholder—it comes from somewhere else, beyond the world of the things it illuminates. Evil does its best to soil and destroy it, and it often succeeds. But beauty is both fragile as a rose and as tough and resilient as the roots of wisteria vines which cannot be rooted out. It keeps coming back and back and back for more. It no sooner does it die in one place than it breaks through somewhere else.

At this stage of my life my calling, as I see it, is to give hope to the perplexed—most particularly to myself–and encouragement in a world that seems to have gone mad. Hope for what exactly? Hope that things that currently seem to be falling apart will eventually come together in a more harmonious form. Beauty is a product of fitness and rightness in nature and art, every part of something working together to make a graceful whole. That’s what beauty is. A rose. A sunset. A common butterfly. A rare bird’s wing. The windows of Sainte Chapelle. A concerto for strings played there. It makes no difference. And to those who see it and give thanks for it, the beautiful offers the promise that things can and will someday work together that way, in harmony. And  that which seems to be falling part is really coming together in a more apt and fitting whole.

But we are helpless to make that happen, beloved. On one level you and I are called to change things, but the beautiful silently it asks us–Can you separate what is precious from the desire to possess it? Can you smell the rose without plucking it? Can you let it bloom on the bush? Can you be patient and let God, the original artist, finish his work? Can you be content to wait until the Really Real is fully revealed? The beautiful is a glimpse of that a transformed world. It is, like goodness and truth, a form that eternal grace takes. Without it this world would be hell, beloved, but filled to over-bursting with beauty, it indeed gives us “much to hope for.”

 

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Loving our Neighbor in Contentious Times

Jesus said: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).
One of the ugliest aspects of the contentious time in which we find ourselves is the strong, indeed overmastering encouragement it gives us to detest those with whom we disagree politically. America is in fact two nations, one to the left of center, the other to the right, and there is no foreign power each detests as deeply the other. We have become the enemies of ourselves, beloved.
Of course, vehement differences of political opinion are nothing new. America always has been a polarized society–our two-party system is based upon that reality. But under this present administration the two-edged sword of partisan politics has been honed to a razor’s edge, while our public discourse has fallen to a new level of coarseness. Respect for government has vanished. And should we be surprised? When the one who occupies the highest office in the land uses that office to excoriate and ridicule his enemies, both real and imagined, in the most vulgar and cruel ways, how great is the temptation for all of us who differ from him to see the Abomination of Desolation set up in the White House and to demonize those who support him.
And there, you see. Off I go. I am as guilty as any. It is part of the profound tragedy of our American moment that the present administration has imparted its chaotic and vitriolic character to the whole nation, beloved. As a nation and as individuals we act as if we have received permission to be our worst selves. Yet in our hearts you and I both know that this is not right, let alone righteous. The loathing and denigration of others stand in opposition to the law of love that Jesus taught and lived. Such may be common currency these days, but they are still profoundly anti-Christ.
So what should we do, beloved, for the sake of our souls? If you have dealt with the problem to your own satisfaction I hope it goes well for you. But I myself am perplexed. And it is not enough to tell myself that detestation of those from whom we differ is nothing new. It comes as naturally to us as having beliefs and opinions to despise those who ridicule them. And for me it makes it no easier that on the crucial matters that face our nation and our world–health care, human rights and climate change–I firmly believe that I am right. But my sense of my own rightness only throws fuel for the fire. It may come naturally to detest as we are detested, to loathe as we are loathed. But the Lord summons those of us who call upon his name and want to be called by it to live beyond and above what comes naturally.
“Love one another. . . . By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Like all the commands of Christ, love it is not impossible, if you understand it concretely and practically, as a matter of doing rather than feeling. Back home in North Dakota my father was a yellow dog Democrat, and yet his best friends were the dyed-in-the-wool Republicans who lived around us. When they met after church or on the street they talked about the weather and the crops. They all knew each other’s political opinions, but they suffered and rejoiced together. They helped each other. They respected one another. The struggled together against the powers and the elements. They were neighbors, and they rose above politics to regard each other as such. They made a decision to live in unity. And dispassionate civility of that kind is a gift of divine grace, beloved, coming directly from the Holy Spirit.
But things were different fifty years ago. In our time when truth is so degraded by fake news and civility so compromised by the power of a bad example, it may no longer be possible to practice that that kind of enlightened detachment. With the issues of immigration, health care, the equality of rich and poor before the law, and the warming of our planet pressing in upon us, it may be morally impossible to remain silent and inwardly seethe. We live in an apocalyptic moment, at the end of something and the beginning of something else. This is time to tell the truth and live the truth you tell. In such times, writes the prophet Joel, “your sons and daughters will all prophesy, your old men will see dream dreams, and your young men will see visions” (2:28).
How you go about living prophetically is a matter for you and Holy Spirit to decide. For myself, this writing is a start. And furthermore I have decided to examine some of the more divisive issues coolly and without passion, issues that I had once considered closed, to see them in their complexity, recognizing that people of intelligence and sound conscience come down on both sides with great furor.
Abortion, for instance. No other issue cuts so deeply to the center of what we believe and no other issue stirs more dissention between right and left. But if we are pro-choice, while affirming a woman’s control over her own body, we need to consider the creeping—and creepy—technology-driven nightmare of eugenics. What is the next step beyond freedom? A more profound bondage? Do we really want to live in a world where imperfect fetuses are routinely culled?
And if you oppose abortion as a choice, if you are pro-life, have you considered what you would do if your daughter or grand-daughter–sixteen years old say—were being forced to give birth to an unwanted child. And what if that child were the result of rape? Or if the fetus were already dead in the womb? What then? Would your emotional and theological arguments melt like lemon drops in the heat of the situation?
Life is complicated, beloved. The truth is complex, more complex than anyone can conceive. And no one is completely right about anything. It is the recognition of that simple fact that forms the foundation of the kind of human connection the risen Lord is talking about when he commands us to love one another. He calls us to approach each other, even those from whom we differ most deeply, with a measure of Christ-like humility and treat them with a courtesy that has become uncommon in our time.
But at the same time we are summoned out of the world to tell the truth with boldness. There is the greatest spiritual danger in surrendering one’s own sense of the right and maintaining an angry silence. We each have a prophetic role to play. In this regard the collect we prayed in church a few weeks ago impressed itself upon me: “Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion…”
Boldness and compassion–that is not easy tension to live in, but that is what love means in this time and place, not a childish affection but a difficult decision. We may be solely tempted to detest those from whom we differ in this deeply polarized nation. But at the same time we need to recognize that to have compassion on those who differ from us is to have compassion on ourselves. We are all what we are–trapped in this corrupt human nature. But that does not nullify to call to righteousness, to speak the truth with boldness and to live above the standards of a debased and soiled world.

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The Lord’s Prayer…..Thy Kingdom Come

Right here. Right now.

Hurricane Matthew is passing over Savannah at this very moment. People’s lives are being uprooted by the wind. Dark sea waters are rising in empty streets. From this distance I can only hope that no one has been left alone and frightened with the storm howling outside. I can only pray that every inhabitant of that lovely city is somewhere safe and in the arms of God right now–and that every one of those people is aware how much more precious each single moment of life is than houses or furniture or any other material thing.

Because this is where we find our real life, beloved—in this present moment. This is where we meet God and find out how much we are loved.

We all live an unreal life too, of course, which is the sum of all the time we waste looking off into the distance, enclosed in our own concerns, trapped in our own minds. In fact we spend most of our lives staring at that far horizon, waiting for dark clouds that never rise or for that ship that never comes in. Then we arrive at the point where we look back with regret upon all those individual moments that slipped away while we were too distracted to notice.

Oh, yes, we all have done it, beloved, wasted too much of our time looking forwards or backwards. That’s bad news, and who needs more of that? The good news is that it is never too late. The kingdom of God is right here, right now, available in every moment, within us and around us. It comes every time we stop and become fully aware of the love of God and the caring presence of other people.

So when we pray—Thy kingdom come—we are not just looking forward toward that new creation in which God’s plan will finally be finished and done and ready for inspection. We are not just looking toward the horizon of hope in heaven and beyond. We are also asking that his kingdom may come in the exquisite beauty and grace and sadness and joy of this present moment right now.

Because this is it, beloved. This is not a dress rehearsal for life. This is it. And it is what we do and what we say right now that matters. Now is moment upon which everything hangs.

The evangelist Luke tells us that a certain thief who was crucified with Jesus. And in his agony of despair he cried, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And the Lord replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” The kingdom of God where Jesus reigns as Lord is not off somewhere in the distance at the end of time. It comes to us when we stop staring into the future with anticipation or fear and into the past with regret or longing and look around us at the people who are near us, the people God has given us to love and care for. It comes when we forgive them and receive their forgiveness. It comes went we sit beside them in silence and hold their hands. Because this is where God meets us. This moment is when his kingdom truly comes among us.

Right here. Right now.

 

 

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Life inside the Trinity. John 16:23-33

The risen Lord says to his followers—and to us, by the way: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

Because the national news has been so disquieting lately, I often find myself taking refuge further back in the paper. Here in Florida the homegrown stuff is liable to be rather bizarre and garish—but that somehow seems reassuring in troublous times. It usually consists of the familiar litany of opulent drug busts, alleged vampire attacks, and naked liquor store heists. Just business as usual here in the Sunshine State. Then every once in while a local story comes along that is in its own way even more troubling than the national news, because it represents such intimate, recognizable human suffering. You feel as if you might well know the people involved personally, and you are forced to grieve for them.

For instance in last Sunday’s paper there was the story of the murder-suicide of a St. Petersburg couple. They belong to a type familiar to us here–Florida has more than its share of such vigorous, affluent senior citizens living out their dream down here where everyone knows that 60 is the new 40. The husband was in fact 69, a longtime, much-decorated St. Petersburg police officer who had reinvented himself and found a lucrative and interesting second career as a financial adviser. The wife was 72, a business consultant and guest columnist for the Tampa Bay Times. Over the years she had contributed over a hundred articles about business and career development. She was the president of Strategic Communications, a consulting firm she founded in 1985 that specialized in public relations, marketing, and employee motivation. The husband was an associate vice president for investments at Raymond James. He told a friend that did not intend to retire for another six or seven years. He loved what he was doing. They were prosperous, well-liked and much-admired–poster children for “the new old.”

Then almost overnight everything fell apart. The husband suffered an accident at the gym that left him unable to walk without a cane, and then only haltingly. The wife learned that a hip injury she had suffered would eventually leave her dependent on a walker or a wheelchair for the rest of her life. “If you don’t have health, you don’t have anything,” the husband had told a friend back when he was still “a picture of health.” So when their vigorous good health abandoned them, everything else they had meant nothing. They experienced what all of us will if we live long enough—they went from being healthy and independent to being feeble and infirm quite suddenly. It was the greatest shock of their lives. They had always expected their bodies to obey them, and then all at once their bodies declined. They felt betrayed, empty, at the end of their rope. They had no other life. The husband was especially depressed by their declining physical condition—he was very “down the dumps” the friend said afterwards. It had occurred to the friend to suggest professional help, but he hesitated, as we all might. They were such self-sufficient people. They had never needed any help.

Then one day last week, their daughter in San Francisco tried and couldn’t get in touch with them, so she called a neighbor. When his knocking was answered only by the barking of couple’s dog, he called the police. The husband’s body was found dead in the front hall. His wife’s in her home office. He had apparently shot her, and then used the same handgun to end his own life.

I repeat this story not to sadden you, beloved—although it is a very sad story—but to give us both pause. It is a story the demands our attention. As someone with a firsthand knowledge of depression, I can never bring myself to pass judgement on those who come to such a terrible place as those people did. I pray for their souls, but I don’t venture to pronounce sentence on their actions. None of us are really that much stronger than the rest of us, beloved. And no one knows the darkness and emptiness of the hell into which people not so unlike ourselves can sink. Only Jesus knows.

But at the same time we have no business judging, we also have to say clearly that this is not where we are intended to end up, driven to a despairing act that repudiates everything good that has gone before it. Our end should offer us and those who survive us peace and resolution and a sense of balance. It should be the part of our lives that makes sense of their whole.

Because in every part of our lives—but especially at their ending–the difference between hope and despair, between order and confusion, the distinction between purpose and meaninglessness depends upon where our souls are situated. We have to have another life—the one we live in these fragile bodies is not enough. Either we are also living inside the Trinity of Three Persons, as part of the eternal life of God, or we are in trouble.

But it isn’t a simple matter, living inside the Trinity. Some people talk about “being saved” as a once and for all, cut and dried arrangement they strike up with God. They accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, confess and receive forgiveness, and then ride off like Judge Roy Bean to condemn the rest of humanity from the saddle of their high horses. But their self-righteousness and unkindness reveal the truth. It just isn’t that simple. The judge is just as guilty as the defendant. As sinners we are condemned to complexity, beloved. Life inside the Trinity can never be reduced to a tract entitled God’s Plan of Salvation with four points and a prayer.

It is complicated because we have to live it out in the world, and the world is a complicated place. We may want to love God single-mindedly with our whole heart, mind, and will, but our desire for him is constantly being muddied by our all-too-human lack of concentration. We are easily distracted. We get confused. We waffle. We get angry, and then we get sad. We chase our own tails. Then our tails turn and chase us. We worry about ourselves, and when we tire of that we worry about other people. Then we just worry. We get so caught up in what Jesus in the Gospel calls “the world”–which is roughly half gorgeous spectacle and half ghastly nightmare—that we lose our focus upon what is Really Real.

But then quite suddenly and unexpectedly we stumble upon that Really Real again, because it is prevenient, always there, and grace enfolds us like the cloud of glory enfolded Moses—but not for long and never permanently. The grace of God never leaves us, but we are constantly leaving it to dwell in our own selfishness. We step in and out of that magic circle of grace–the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is better imagined as an endless circle of being and loving rather than as an equilateral triangle as it is often pictured—every day of our lives and sometimes several times each day.

But it is always there–that’s whole the point. The life of eternal grace is there for us to step into. The fullness of joy is always possible to those who ask. “Ask, and you will receive,” the risen Lord says, “that your joy may be full.” Our goal in life is not to understand the Holy Trinity, which would be an exercise in futility, but to experience it from the inside. And the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ makes that possible for us. “I have overcome the world,” the risen Lord says to his followers. Jesus died on the Cross and rose again that he might offer us those worlds of light that live inside the Trinity. It did all that so that we might have another life.

And that’s what makes the tragedy of that murder-suicide in St. Petersburg so heart-rending. That couple, who had everything else, only seem to have had one life, the life they lived in their bodies. That is not to say that that life meant nothing–no love or compassion is ever wasted, beloved. Whatever was good in those people survives. I believe that. But when push comes to shove—as it always does—life in the body is not enough.

It lets us down. In the end our bodies always leave us alone, even when we are surrounded with an admiring crowd, even when we are in the arms of those who love us best, we are abandoned. That is our condition. Jesus calls it “tribulation,” the confusion of ordinary human life. “In the world you have tribulation,” he says. “But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

Peace versus tribulation–that is the conflict in which we have to live out our lives—in the tension between the chaos and confusion of life inside our bodies and the calm and stillness of life inside the Trinity. It isn’t always a very comfy place to be—pulled as we are in two directions. We know that, don’t we, beloved? But as my dentist said to me recently in a moment a considerable discomfort—“Don’t worry now. This isn’t going to last forever.”

 

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Terrible Reckonings: Luke 20:1-19

The New Zealots and the Golden Carriage              Luke 20:9-19

“Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my own beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’ But when the tenants saw him, they discussed it among themselves and said, ‘This is the heir; let us kill him so the inheritance will be ours.’ So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them?”

What indeed? Jesus ends his parable with a question, but he doesn’t wait for an answer. He hastens to supply one himself —the owner of the vineyard “will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” The Lord’s message is clear—upon those whose lives are motivated by hatred and violence a terrible reckoning is coming.

In Jesus’ time the Palestinian countryside was seething. Absentee landlords controlled most of the land, and they were fiercely resented by their tenants. Independent and proud of their labor, leaseholders found themselves denigrated into share-croppers, forced to render a portion of their produce to land-owners who had done nothing to earn it. Often anger with the establishment erupted into acts of violence. Revolutionary feeling burned hottest in Jesus’ own district of Galilee, which was the headquarters of the Zealots, a radical party responsible for numerous terrorist attacks upon the landed big shots. Jesus knew the situation first hand. There was even one of these revolutionaries among his inner circle. The gospels number among his disciples one Simon, called “the Zealot.”

Now that was long time ago and a world away, but the first-century situation closely parallels our own in some interesting ways. There are many people in our own country who fume and seethe with anger against the establishment—the government or Wall Street or whatever–and for many of the same reasons those Galilean tenant farmers did. They are the folks who complain about the size of the plates at the salad bar. They feel short-changed by the system that seems rigged against them, like share croppers in their own land. And certain media outlets—they hardly need to be named—have long fed their rage and resentment on a diet of raw meat.

There was a time when these New Zealots appeared to be just a bunch of wing-nuts. No one in either political party took them seriously. But lately their appeal has greatly widened and consolidated under the leadership of a certain charismatic if half-baked candidate for president whose name hardly wants mentioning. Donald Trump has arisen to become of the hero of those who feel themselves pinched by system under which the rich get richer and everyone else gets the shaft. And Trump, who has done as much as anyone to create that state of affairs, has succeeded in galvanizing these disparate malcontents into a movement, making revolutionary anger fashionable even among those who have no particular reason to feel it. Zealotry has become the new shabby chic.

This sort of thing is nothing new, of course.  In October of 1795 the gilded coach carrying King George III was surrounded by an angry mob as it made its way through the streets of London to the opening of parliament. It was a mixed crowd–honest, hardworking tradesmen as well as indigents, and even a scattering of the ladies–all united by their feeling of having been ill-used by the powers-that-were. Britain had for years been at war with revolutionary France, and as the conflict dragged on, it had become ever more unpopular because of the economic pain it caused to ordinary Britons. Some people, as usual, were making a lot of money from the conflict. But many others were hungry, and protestors called out for “peace” and “bread.” Others, however, inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution, cried, “Down with George! No king!” Stones were thrown at the carriage, and one shattered the window inches from the royal head.

It was a well-aimed shot propelled by popular outrage. The mob saw their corpulent, simple-minded monarch as the image of the bloated power of a state controlled by the rich and the well-placed for their own benefit. And his golden carriage provided for them a symbol of a government insulated by privilege and indifferent to the suffering of its subjects. The newspapers of the time expressed shock. Some hoped and others feared that the attack on the golden carriage might be the prelude to a British Revolution along the lines of the French. But no popular leader arose to lead it. Fervor drained away and no guillotine was set up at Charing Cross. Revolutions depend upon a charismatic leadership to kindle the blind anger that fuel them.

And anger really does deserve to be called blind, because those who are possessed by it are able to overlook almost anything in their search for a hero. Even so what I find hardest to figure out about the Trump revolution is its appeal for so many evangelical Christians. Here is man who can only be described as a moral leper—an unrepentant adulterer, an exploitative employer, a compulsive liar, an outspoken bigot, and God alone knows what else. So what exactly is his attraction for the twice-born? Could it be that bigotry, hatred of the outsider, and a shared love of bad music is what really musters and motivates them rather than love for Jesus? Could it be that Trump’s rhetoric connects with something deeper than their Christian faith–a deep-seated sense of having been wronged, a burning resentment of those different from themselves, and a self-righteous belief of their own version of the truth to the exclusion of all others? His is a Zealot message, aimed at those who feel themselves reduced to share-croppers in their own land, those who itch to pitch a stone at the golden carriage. It has already stirred them violence. Now I am no prophet and no prophet’s son, but even I can see that this movement is going to get even more vicious.

The attractions of evil, beloved, should never be underestimated. It is powerful because it calls out to something in each one of us. You can detect the presence of evil by the way that it brings out the worst in everyone with whom it comes in contact. Have you listened to any of these so-called debates I wonder? Well, it is always good to know what tunes the devil is playing, but I couldn’t advise it. But if you have watched them, however, you have seen how they degenerate into nasty, ill-mannered, irrational schoolyard free-for-alls. That is what is happening to our country, beloved. This man and his words are bringing out the worst in us, just as he brings out the worst in those other candidates with whom he shares the political stage, just as he brings out the worst in his supporters–and also in his detractors. He calls forth anger in all of us—myself included.

I know it, and I am afraid, beloved. Afraid for us all. It seems that a sizable portion of the American people, including a large number who call themselves Christians, would prefer to junk the democratic process and be ruled by a tyrant rather than by a duly elected government that does not share their particular cultural values. So does the rise of Donald Trump in this election year portent the beginning of the Anti-American Revolution? Who can say?

But our concern, yours and mine, must be for our own souls, first of all, to guard them against hatred. Because hatred is simply the ripened fruit of anger. Now there is certainly plenty for all of us to be angry about in this annus horribilis. But anger never moved anyone to make a righteous choice or gave anyone a peaceful night’s sleep after making it. It is the just the music the devil plays to make us dance. And from violence and hatred always come a terrible reckoning.

What then will the owner of the vineyard do? Who knows? And what will be the future of Donald Trump–snake-oil salesman, unreality star, and would-be emperor? Well, we shall see, won’t we? But what you and I must do in the meantime is guard ourselves at all cost from the hatred he inspires and pray that God’s will be done in our nation and its political life.

From Book of Isaiah (21:11’-12) come these haunting words: “He calleth me out of Seir, Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night? The watchman said, The morning cometh, but also the night.”

In other words the future is uncertain. There is cause in the news for both fear and hope. But to some degree what shall be depends upon each one of us and the degree to which we are able to banish anger from our lives and embrace decency, order, and tolerance. And whether in the face of evil we are able to stand up and tell the truth.

 

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