Thursday, April 30, 2009

Shepherd & Friend

Fine friendship requires duration rather than fitful intensity. – Aristotle

How do you know whether someone is a friend or simply an acquaintance? How can you tell whether a person you first meet will, at some point, become a friend, or just another one of the many contacts you have, but not necessarily one with whom you would share your deeper thoughts, ideas, hopes, dreams, or aspirations?

How can you tell who is a friend – someone trustworthy, dependable, and faithful?

These questions puzzle me, because some people appear to be surrounded by persons they would count as friends, while others struggle to identify one person they would be willing to confide in or trust to “be there” when the going gets tough.

What are the signs of true friendship?

Aristotle would hazard to suggest that it is duration which identifies a friend. By duration, he doesn’t mean longevity, per se, or a time span; rather, he is referring to the durability of a relationship that is able to withstand the trials and tribulations that assail it from time to time.

It is this durable quality that marks a healthy relationship, and which signals the depth and strength of the friendship. Can you tell this person what you really think or feel, or what you have done (for good or ill), and will they stick to you on your journey? If you can, and if they do, then I would suspect you may have found a true friend.

Sometimes I worry that we may use certain words too loosely. Friend is one such word. For many, it is simply a word used to define those we pal around with; but if things get tough, or you find yourself in need or hurting, look around and see who is there with you in your time of need. It is probably safe to say the person by your side is your friend. They are to be embraced.

In a Book of daily meditations I use, the writer says, “A meaningful friendship is a long-term dialogue. If there is a conflict or if we make a mistake … we don’t end the friendship. We simply have the next exchange to resolve the differences. Our dialogue continues over time, and time … builds the bond.”

Consider friendship from a biblical perspective. This Sunday, many of you will read or hear Psalm 23 – the well-known “Lord is my shepherd” psalm.

While we often think of shepherds as being the sheep-boss, the shepherd of biblical days wasn’t so much the boss as the head of a peculiar family. Jesus points out that while hirelings will run away in the face of danger (to save themselves) a true shepherd does what is necessary to protect the sheep and the flock, even to the point of laying down his or her own life. How many bosses do you know who will do that for you?

But Jesus doesn’t just “talk the talk” – he “walks the walk”. He doesn’t bother to talk tough; rather he lay down his life for his sheep. He lay it down for ALL his sheep, too; Not just the good sheep. Not just the white-faced, black-faced, or mixed-face sheep. He tells us clearly that he has “sheep that are not of this fold” (John 10:16), “I must bring them also, and they will hear my voice and listen intently to what I say.”

This is the kind of shepherd and friend I can believe in, trust, and follow. This is the kind of friend typified by the 23rd Psalm, where we are told The Lord is my shepherd. For that reason, we will lack for nothing. Our shepherd is the source of our rest, food, water, and protection.

And notice one more thing: the sheep do not choose the shepherd; it is the shepherd who chooses his sheep. This is a matter of divine grace, and not of personal merit.

The same is true of friends; we do not know whom we will befriend, nor do we know who will befriend us. Ultimately, it is simply a matter of divine grace. If that were not so, we would have to earn our friends and pay dearly to keep them. That would be a fitful and intense circumstance. I couldn’t abide that at all, but I can humbly accept the grace shown by our Lord, and our God.

May God strengthen us to be reliable in all our friendships and help us to share that grace with all we meet along the way in this, our valley. Baa-Amen.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Generosity & God

The generosity of God is expressed in all kinds of physical things … the spiritual is affectionate towards me. – Anonymous

“The devil is more spiritual than God.”

After nearly forty years, I still remember those words spoken by Fr. Dennis J. Bennett (St. Luke’s, Ballard) in Seattle, where I was a parishioner. I was new to the Church and new to the Faith, and Fr. Bennett was explaining something about the importance of “the incarnation” to our faith.

I don’t remember any more about what he had said, but I was often impressed by his insights and with how clearly and memorably he was able to express many of them.

The devil is more spiritual than God; indeed!

I sometimes find myself pondering the many images we have of God: an Old Man sitting upon a Great Throne dispensing wisdom; a Rock of Ages doling out justice and judgment; a Mighty Shepherd dividing sheep and goats; and I find myself wondering if those images don’t do more to estrange us from God than to draw us nearer to his loving embrace.

While those are certainly biblical images, I find myself, at times, needing a different kind of God, or at least a different kind of image. I don’t want to imply for a moment that we have a variety of gods hanging in our closet, ready to be swapped out or exchanged as our needs change – the way we might swap our Sunday morning suit for a set of bib overalls for working in the garden on a Sunday afternoon.

No, God is God, and nothing I say or do will change that – thanks be to God!

But sometimes the face of God I need to see differs from one day to the next. There are some days I certainly need to see God sitting high upon a throne, and knowing that I will stand before God answering for things done and for things left undone; for my charity and for my lack of charity; for my character assets, and for my character defects. Knowing I will face God one day … no, let me change that: I know I stand under God’s judgment daily … and that knowledge keeps me firmly grounded on my knees.

But I am not sure it is God’s desire or intention to keep us solely upon our knees. While I can get a fair amount of praying done when I am on my knees (and weeding), I believe God gave us feet so we can go places, and eyes so we can see those in need of food or shelter, and ears so we can hear the cries of those in sorrow, and hands so we can comfort those in pain, and hearts so that we can be passionate and compassionate in our lives and in our living.

Ultimately, it seems to me, that “the generosity of God is expressed in all kinds of physical things”. I believe in a God with dirty fingernails.

The opening scenes of the Bible depict heaven and earth as a mighty construction site, and while God can be viewed as a General Contractor directing matters in the first chapter, we see him actually playing in the dirt in the second chapter as he brings the human race into being. Considering how thick I can be at times, I wonder if God didn’t use Central Valley clay in constructing our brains!

Be that as it may, the universe in which we live and move and have our being is a physical universe, and the One who inhabits the Universe and all of Eternity fills both with his divine presence. It is no secret, then (or surprise) that the expression of God’s affection is not to be found in wispy spirituality, but in the beauty of creation and in the fellowship of humanity, and in the substance of our lives.

God has dirty fingernails. That means God has been at work in this, our valley. Let’s see if we can’t give him a bit of a hand. And while you’re on your knees, you may as well check for litter as well. I’m sure we’ve all left a trail to mark our passing; and there’s the devil to pay. Fortunately, God brought his checkbook; His generosity knows no bounds.

Images culled from internet, copyright holders or authors unknown.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


Are you willing to be sponged out, erased,
made nothing?
Are you willing to be made nothing?
dipped into oblivion?
If not, you will never really change.

– D. H. Lawrence

Why is change so difficult?

When it comes to change, I don’t mind the coins I carry in my pocket, but I’m not so sure I want to deal with change that is truly substantive.

How do we know what kind of change is needed; what kind is good or healthy; and what kind isn’t?

For instance, your child is happy, friendly, and dependable, and then one day you begin to notice he/she is acting differently. Your daughter comes home from playing with her friends and you notice how she is now wearing black nail polish, heavy mascara, and clothing borrowed from what you can only presume to be the local crypt-keeper. She’s listening to her I-pod and you hear some sort of tortuous sound emanating from her ear buds – something akin to the reverberation of a hundred car pile-up on HWY 99 in the fog, combined with the screech of 1000 steel fingernails on chalk-board.

She has changed. Is it for the good? Is it a passing fad or fancy? Is it something to be concerned about? Do you need to put your foot down and demand she change back into the child you want her to be? Is it significantly different from when you were her age and similarly rebelled in independent lockstep with your peers back in “your day”?

It isn’t the change that bothers you, of course, as much as what the change may represent. It could be a matter of your child simply trying to find herself and to carve out a niche she can call her own – one that resonates with her soul. Or it could mean she has fallen headlong into the bowels of Satan, and sold her soul for sex, drugs, and rock and roll. How can you know which it is? How can you know for sure? What do you do with your doubts and fears?

Any major change is scary. We want to protect our children, but we don’t want to smother them. We want them to make mistakes and to learn from them, but not to the point of hurting themselves or others too badly.

One way to deal creatively with these changes is to spend time examining your own life, looking at the decisions and choices you have made over the years, and recognizing how those actions have affected yourself, your family, your friends, your job, your present, and (in all likelihood) your future.

When a person makes a major change in life, it is important to recognize that much of what has gone on before has been erased to some degree, but never as completely as Lawrence may imply is necessary. Just like a computer program or file that has been deleted or uninstalled still resides there on the hard-drive – recoverable with the proper software – so do the values and experiences of life continue to reside in and with us.

The challenge we face in life is not to accept (or reject) the changes taking place all around us, but to take a long view of life and discern what changes we need to make to get us to where we are headed. As people of faith, that would be in the direction our God would have us go – taking us toward faith, hope, charity, justice, mercy, and other cardinal virtues.

Too often we wallow in the realm of what might have been, and by so doing we fail to appreciate what we have in the here and now. Too often we grab hold of what we have in the present, and fail to take the steps we need to take in order to reach a promised land flowing with milk and honey. But life is movement, and life is change, and to stand still is to die. And so while we may not appreciate all of the changes that come our way, we can know that those changes are a sign of life.

With a vivid imagination, we may even come to find that today’s screeching fingernails on chalkboards will become tomorrow’s golden oldies in this, our valley. Of course, I hope to be six feet under by then. But then again, maybe I could change my mind. Either way, let’s keep the change and invest it wisely.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Wednesday in Holy Week

Wednesday in Holy Week is the third “lost day” in Holy Week.

I mentioned in previous posts that Monday and Tuesday, and to a lesser degree Wednesday, in Holy Week are days that are seldom referred to or reflected on, primarily because the focus has been (mostly rightly) on the heavy hitters of the week: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday.

Be that as it may, the whole week is called Holy Week, and it seems appropriate to reflect on the propers for each day as it comes in order that we might better profit from our walk with Jesus from the way of the palms to the way of the cross – and on into Easter. It is important we take our time and not rush. The Lilies will come in due season, but for now, let’s walk slowly with eyes and ears open, and hearts in tune with the harmony of the season.

The Collect for Wednesday in Holy Week

Lord God, whose blessed Son our Savior gave his body to be whipped and his face to be spit upon: Give us grace to accept joyfully the sufferings of the present time, confident of the glory that shall be revealed; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Lessons

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 70
Hebrews 12:1-3
John 13:21-32

Today, Jesus speaks of betrayal. Looking at his twelve closest associates, his most intimate friends, Jesus says,

“Amen, amen, I say unto thee,
one of you will betray me.”

Every disciple looks around aghast and uncertain; each wonders of whom Jesus could possibly be speaking. Surely it couldn’t be one of them! They love Jesus; they respect Jesus; they listen to Jesus; and they have followed him from the banks of the Jordan, to the shores of Gennesaret, to the Citadel in Jerusalem. Even now they are at his side in the valley of the shadow, in the City of Peace, ready – always ready – to do his bidding, and to live or die for him and for his kingdom.

But are they ready? Are they willing? Are they able?

In mere hours after this night, they will flee into the darkness. Oh sure, they sound tough, there at dinner, as they rattle their sabers and threaten grievous bodily harm to any who might try to challenge their king of kings. But their brave fa├žade dissipates at the first sign of trouble. Brave disciples – they cannot even stay awake while Jesus prays; how do they hope to fight when darkest night descends upon their heady little band and steals away that tiny sliver of resolve they showed around the table as they ate their bread, drank their wine, and thumped their chests?

Before we point our fingers and snarl with contempt at those who slept while Jesus prayed, or who fled when Jesus was arrested, or at the one who dared greet and betray him with a kiss, we need to ask ourselves: would we have fared any better?

Don’t we betray Jesus ever so regularly with betrayals large and small? When we judge others without having all the facts at hand, or turn a blind eye to those in need, don’t we betray Jesus even just a little? When we make decisions regarding our life’s direction, intentionally or unintentionally placing God in the back seat – He who bought and paid for us with his very own blood – aren’t we betraying him with minimizing carelessness?

“All have sinned and come short of the glory of God,” says St. Paul. The glory of God is full, complete, unabashed humility and mercy in the service of justice.

Jesus’ disciples slept, betrayed, and fled that night. This day we consider seriously the condition of our soul, and our need – our TRUE need – for a redeemer. Our betrayal is real. So is God’s mercy.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Tuesday in Holy Week

Tuesday in Holy Week is the second “lost day” in Holy Week.

I mentioned yesterday that Monday and Tuesday, and to a lesser degree Wednesday, in Holy Week are days that are seldom referred to or reflected on, primarily because the focus has been (mostly rightly) on the other heavy hitters of the week: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday.

Be that as it may, the whole week is called Holy Week, and it seems appropriate to reflect on the propers for each day as it comes in order that we might better profit from our walk with Jesus from the way of the palms to the way of the cross – and on into Easter. It is important we take our time and not rush. The Lilies will come in due season, but for now, let’s walk slowly with eyes and ears open, and hearts in tune with the harmony of the season.

The Collect for Tuesday in Holy Week

O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life: Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ, that we may gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Lessons

Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 71:1-14
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
John 12:20-36

In the Gospel reading, among those who had gathered in Jerusalem to worship were some Greeks. They came to Philip, one of Jesus’ disciples, and they said they wanted to see Jesus. For what purpose?

Following Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, were they looking to hitch their wagons to a warrior Messiah, a new Judas “The Hammer” Maccabee, or a Jewish Alexander?

Or, as people from the land of thinkers and philosophers, did they simply want to check out this itinerant rabbi and compare him to their own Hellenistic top guns – Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the like?

Whatever they were hoping to see, I have no doubt they were taken aback by the Great Reversal of Jesus – that the way to the glory of God is not through power and might, but through humble service:

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

The Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi is a marvelous piece upon which to center your life in meditation this day. The version that follows is taken from Wikipedia:

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Monday in Holy Week

Monday in Holy Week is mostly a day lost in Holy Week.

We know what’s coming – especially if you went to Church on Palm Sunday (which is really Passion Sunday these days, but some traditions are SO hard to change).

In the minds of many people, Holy Week consists of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and then Easter – the Grande Finale! In some places you might find Tenebrae (the Office of Shadows) on Wednesday, but many places ignore that noble office as folks find it too quiet, somber, long, and (for many) boring.

It’s too bad, for it is a powerful service of lessons and psalms and dramatic power. But that’s Wednesday, and this is Monday in Holy Week. It is a quiet day, a lost day, an ordinary day for those who are walking the Via Delarosa with Jesus this week.

Why is that? Why do we gloss over this day so often? What screens it from our view?

The day’s Gospel (John 12:1-11) begins with a meal, as do so many of our Jesus stories. Jesus is in Bethany, having supper with Lazarus (whom he had raised from the dead), Martha, and Mary (sisters of Lazarus). Mary anoints Jesus with a fragrant perfume made from pure nard. Mary uses a pound of the stuff, and anoints Jesus’ feet, and wipes them with her hair.

Judas was incensed (no pun intended) at the extravagant waste, and who can blame him? Mary’s act of devotion cost nearly a year’s wages. Think of it; look at what you bring home over the course of ten months, and that’s what it cost her.

Judas had no love for the poor, says John, and isn’t it ironic? In his exasperation Judas says, “Why was this perfume not sold for 300 denarii and the money given to the poor?” In suggesting the money would be better spent being thrown away on the poor, he demonstrates that he has no real love or respect for Jesus, either. In fact, Judas’ life as a disciple is and has always been a sham. He’s in it for what he can get out of it. As John says, “He (Judas) said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used it to steal what was put into it.”

We come to Monday in Holy Week and I suggest it is a good day to reflect on the characters in the Gospel – each of them – and ask how our own lives may be mirrored in this story.

1) How have we (like Lazarus) invited Jesus into our homes, as One who has restored us to life, that we may live and worship Him forever?

2) How have we (like Martha) found ways to simply be of service; asking nothing more in return than the grace of Jesus’ spending time with us?

3) How have we (like Mary) placed ourselves at the feet of Jesus in complete love and devotion, seeking only to elevate Him in honor?

More darkly:

4) How have we (like Judas Iscariot) been shallow in our own discipleship, judging and begrudging the generosity and integrity of others, and placing the desires, thoughts, and manipulations of our own hearts over and above the will of the One we call “Lord”?

5) How have we (like the chief priests) operated out of fear or jealousy, seeking only to destroy that (and those) whom we fear or do not understand? How have we impeded the Gospel by the smallness of our thoughts or actions?

Holy Week reminds us that Jesus did not live and die for us because of our noble and sterling qualities, but because in the frailness of our own humanity, defects of character, and sins, we ALL need a savior; and each is in need of what only God can (and does) provide through Jesus Christ, his Son, our Lord.

The Collect for Monday in Holy Week:

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Lessons for the Day:

Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 36:5-11
Hebrews 9:11-15
John 12:1-11

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Valley of the Shadow

What is obvious to me is that we did not create ourselves … life is something inside of you. You did not create it. Once you understand that, you are in a spiritual realm.
– Virginia Satir

Palm Sunday: I wonder if Jesus ever regretted riding into Jerusalem that day?

I wonder how I would have handled the accolades of the crowds, or the derision of the Jewish and Roman leaders – those “in authority” if it had been me instead of him?

I wonder if Jesus knew he was going to die – knew in that sense of godly omniscience, where a godly prophet knows all, hears all, sees all, and feels all – or if he knew he was going to die the same way any mortal human knows: that when you mess with the powers that be, you’re going to lose, and you’re going to lose big?

I wonder if Jesus knew that the crowds that cheered him with “Hosannas” as he rode into Jerusalem would jeer at him with derision as he stood before Pilate that fateful Friday following?

I wonder if Jesus knew that the palms raised high in the air, waving back and forth – the palms of the people, and the branches of palms from local trees – were little more than an ironic foreshadowing of the day soon coming when his own palms would be nailed fast to the limbs of a locally manufactured tree?

I wonder if Jesus deliberately chose to ride into Jerusalem on the back of a virgin colt, just he had come into the world, the son of a virgin – deliberately choosing, in purity, to face the music with those who hated the tune he was singing?

What tune was Jesus singing?

“My father’s house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves!” - Religious Leaders, do your ears not burn?

“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter into heaven.” - Wall Street Moguls, do your ears not burn?

“Woe to you: you are like white-washed sepulchers – clean and pretty on the outside, but inside full of dead men’s bones.” - Huddled Masses, do your ears not burn?

Is there anyone NOT standing under judgment?

At first blush, these may not look like the words of one who preaches love and tolerance. These do not look like the words of a man who beckoned children to come sit in his lap; or who asked women to get out of the kitchen so they could spend time with him; or who asked a rag-tag group of fishermen to stop fishing for flounders, and to begin fishing for those who are floundering in life.

But I would beg to differ, because I think these ARE the words of a man who understands ever so clearly how well the people of the world and the children of faith can take all of the good that God has given them and turn good on its head and use it badly and selfishly – even if meaning well in the doing.

Jesus is very much a man aware; aware of the human propensity to do good, and to intend good, and yet producing consequences both unintended and vile.

Do you think the Jewish and Roman leaders were more evil than us - you and me?

That there was corruption I have no doubt, but I am sure it fell within societal norms. That doesn’t make it right, but it would have seemed foolish in the extreme to be a governor, ruler, or judge and not profit from the position – just as it would be most unseemly and weird for a prostitute to not seek payment for services rendered, or a tax collector to not strong-arm his neighbors, or a butcher to weigh meat on scales that weren’t rigged in his favor.

That’s the world Jesus lived in, and lives in today. The leaders simply did what leaders everywhere have always done in order to keep the peace. In their thinking, there is nothing evil to be found in executing a rabble rousing rabbi – any more than there is in lopping off the hand of a common thief - physically or metaphorically.

Is it any different with us today? Would Jesus approve of the hatred and bigotry made so evident in the many letters to the editor we read each day? Would Jesus approve giving billions of dollars to institutions “too big to fail” while men, women, and children of every race and tongue are without adequate food, shelter, or even the most basic medical care so many of us take for granted?

No, Jesus looked with compassion upon the whole human race, with all of its greed, with all of its corruption, and with all of its self-will run riot; and then he cried.

But it is not enough to look and cry. It is not enough to cluck one's tongue in disapproval. It is not enough to wag one's finger in disgust. Symbolic gestures are not enough. Compassion must find its expression in action, and in the flesh, and so he acted.

Jesus looked, and as he rode into Jerusalem that day, he said, “It is God who is too big to fail.” He did not wonder what he would do, or worry about who he would meet, or shy away from the challenges he would face.

He rode into the valley of the shadow of death: evil he did not fear.
He rode into the valley of the shadow: your life and mine to bear.
He rode into the valley of the shadow: in his palms we’re held so dear.
He rode into the valley of the shadow: our path to God to clear.

He rides in the shadow still in this, our valley: Palms stretched out … for all. Once we understand that, we are in a spiritual realm, and this week may yet be holy. Peace!