Blueberry milkshakes

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.

Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot.

Wouldn’t you like to get away?  Sometimes you’ve want to go where everybody knows your name…

I’ve only ever had one establishment that called out my name as soon as I entered and began preparing my order before I could speak it.  It was an ice cream shop called The Little Dipper on the market square in downtown Roanoke, Virginia.  I’d walk in, the two ladies behind the counter (who were the owners) would call out agreeably, “Barkley!” and they’d immediately begin making my favorite: a blueberry milkshake.  So simple; just vanilla ice cream, milk, and fresh blueberries.  It wasn’t even on the menu, but there’s nothing in the world I’d rather have.  The ladies at The Little Dipper knew it, and whenever I was there, their smiles, their welcome, and their sacramental offering of that blueberry milkshake could turn the worst day into the best.

But there is one thing about a blueberry milkshake that can be problematic: blueberry seeds.  They are so tiny as to be almost imperceptible.  That is, until one gets caught in your gum line.  For the average consumer of blueberries, this is not a problem.  But when you eat as many blueberries as I do, and especially when the blueberries are blended into a milkshake the seeds can become an irritant.  It’s remarkable that a blueberry seed in the gum line can be completely preoccupying.  Such a tiny thing, but when it is lodged there everything else becomes tertiary.  That seed commands one’s entire attention.  Trust me.   I love blueberries.

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In today’s Gospel lesson, for the second time Jesus invokes another tiny seed—this one mustard—to talk about faith.  Jesus says, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

Most often when discussing this passage, preachers focus on the stupendous and miraculous power of such faith, but I find that seed much more interesting.  I’m captivated by the notion that Jesus would choose as his repeated example a thing so very small.

In sermons recently I’ve talked a lot about faith, about how faith is not some magic, spoken formula about Jesus that punches one’s ticket to heaven; about how faith is not some unrealistic (and unbiblical) belief that God’s going to make everything turn out o.k.; and about how faith is the recognition—the wondrous recognition—that this world is animated by God; that God pervades our waking like the very air we breathe; that God is always here, immediately with us, no matter where and no matter what, in the grandest moments and in the most mundane.

Often, the first realization that this is what faith is comes in a flash, a bare moment of insight that passes as quickly as it came.  In the 86,400 seconds that make up a day, the encounter with the reality of God may have taken just one.

And it doesn’t even have to be a knock-you-down, Road to Damascus moment.  The dawning of faith as an awareness of the presence and companionship of God may come from something as ordinary as being called by name by a smiling face when you walk through the door of an ice cream shop.

But when it happens—once it’s happened—this tiny, perhaps almost imperceptible encounter becomes like a blueberry seed stuck in the gums.  Even as those subsequent 86,399 seconds stream by, even as the demands of work, and family, and the day crowd in, the seed is still there, making its presence known, reminding one of the taste of God sweeter than a blueberry milkshake.  Its presence may even be an irritant.  One may wish it would go away, that this tiny but all consuming new thing would let life resort back to what it had been.  But it won’t.  It stays, this new faith.  It never fully recedes into the background.  It demands attention, as the smallest thing becomes the most encompassing.

Another image that Jesus uses to describe faith in the Gospels is the pearl, as if to drive home the point to the thickest of us.  A pearl is, after all, nothing other than the transformation of an irritant, a grain of sand that works its way into an oyster’s protective shell and that, once there, will not be ignored.  The oyster has no choice but to respond to the grain.  That irritant spurs the oyster on to respond again, and again and again  And slowly, day after day, week after week, that tiny grain grows into a thing of profound beauty and value.  When you think about it, I’d say that’s more miraculous than planting a mulberry tree in the middle of the ocean.

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So what does this mean for us at Christ Church Cathedral on this very day?  It speaks directly to us, I’d say, as we enter into this season of stewardship.  Stewardship is, first and foremost, a term related to the growing and transforming of things.  It is about turning fully toward those encounters, profound and mundane, in which we have recognized God.  It is about the way in which the seed planted by such encounters, tiny as it may be, lodges itself within us and will not be ignored try as we may.  It is about how that seed—that grain of sand—which may, at first, confuse or even irritate us as it tries to upend our status quo, can grow into the pearl of greatest price.

Using the language of the miraculous, Jesus says today that there are no limits to what we can accomplish when we finally give in and allow that relentless seed of faith to grow and to capture our hearts as well as our attention.  And when we express that transformation within us through our support for God’s mission in the church, there are no limits to what we can accomplish in God’s world.

In my own life, this is the experience I know most to be true.  Faith, that wonder at the reality and presence of God, is like that blueberry seed lodged in my gums.  Sometimes, honestly, I wish I could root it out, that it would just go away and let me live my life as I see fit.  But then I remember the threshold of God across which I am always called by name.  I remember the love that knows what I need even before I ask for it.  I remember the taste of grace, sweeter than a blueberry milkshake.

How should we respond?  If we each responded in the full measure of our relief, our joy, our wonder at the encounter with the reality of God, then the Cathedral’s ministry budget would be overflowing, the impact of Christ Church on this city would be miraculous, and mulberry trees would grow in the middle of the ship channel.

We can respond that way, each of us.  When we walk through these doors, we are known by name.  The face of the God of love smiles upon us.  God nourishes us with the grace we need even before we can ask.  Faith is like a blueberry seed.  It is the smallest thing, and the greatest thing in all the world.

Tangled in Barbed Wire

There is a scene in the 1994 film Legends of the Fall, in which Tristan Ludlow, a Montana rancher, rides out into big sky country to check the perimeter of his ranch.  As with every scene in the movie, which won the Academy Award for cinematography in 1994, the viewer is drawn into the magnificent and sublime visual imagery.  It seems as though from outside this world.  Vistas are broad, colors are stunning, and (my wife would add) the fact that Tristan Ludlow is played by Brad Pitt only adds to the sweeping canvas.  The mythos of Montana is captured, and the viewer is very nearly drawn out of the everyday world.

But in this scene, the viewer is dragged back to earth so quickly that the experience is wrenching.  Tristan Ludlow, checking on the perimeter of his ranch, comes upon a bleating, young calf, completely tangled and bloodied in a mess of barbed wire.  The calf struggles to get free, but with each movement it draws the razor wire in on itself, increasing its entanglement and pain.  We don’t know how the calf became tangled.  Most likely it wandered from the herd, only to be chased by a wolf or some other predator.  The how doesn’t really matter.  The calf is lost.  It is trapped.  And with each attempt to pull itself free, it causes itself greater injury.

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I thought of this scene as I studied the Gospel text for today.  In today’s passage from Luke, Jesus locks horns with the scribes and Pharisees, two groups who live out their religious lives by drawing away from the everyday world.  The Pharisees draw away from the world for fear it will make them impure.  The scribes draw away from the world because they are establishment insiders who prefer to keep company only with their own social elite.

Both of these groups grumble at Jesus today, because the faith Jesus preaches is unlike that practiced by either Pharisee or scribe.  Jesus does not draw away from the world.  Rather, he is drawn to those who are in trouble, physically, emotionally, or spiritually.  He spends time being present to and offering grace to those who are in pain, and he doesn’t care how impure or on the outside the world may claim them to be.  One might say that Jesus, like rancher Tristan Ludlow, frequents the perimeters of life, seeking out the lost, those who find themselves tangled in barbed wire.

The scribes and the Pharisees don’t understand this.  So they grumble.  And in response, Jesus asks them a question this morning:

“Wouldn’t any of you,” Jesus asks, “having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until you found it?”

I think we usually read this passage assuming the scribes and the Pharisees would have nodded in agreement to Jesus’ proposition.  But that’s not so!  In an impoverished place like first century Palestine, a landowner with one hundred sheep was a rare, rare thing.  And there’s no way that such a landowner would endanger 99% of his wealth in order to save the remaining 1%.  Translated into religious terms, the Pharisees would not risk their purity to help a so-called impure person in need.  The scribes would not risk their place of privilege in society to save a single hurting soul.  And so when Jesus asks his question, the response of the scribes and Pharisees is undoubtedly, “Are you crazy?  Leave 99 sheep to save one lamb?  What kind of sense is that?  What kind of religion is that?”

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Faith, for the scribes and Pharisees, is all about drawing away from the hardscrabble world, keeping their lives neatly ordered and preserving what they have.

What Jesus knows, though, and what even the scribes and Pharisees undoubtedly know in the deepest recesses of their hearts, is that there is no such thing as the neatly ordered life.  Those—then and now—whose lives appear to be neatly put together are often those who, just beneath the surface, feel hurt and tangled up spiritually and emotionally, like that hundredth lost sheep, or that calf caught in barbed wire.

Jesus knows this because he, like all the rest of us, experienced it.  As a youth, he struggled with parents with whose expectations for him he disagreed.  As an adult after his baptism, he was tormented and tempted in the wilderness by the Devil himself.  And later, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he was so pained at the thought of the coming cross that he sweat drops like blood.

Jesus has been, in his own way, that hundredth sheep.  He may not have sinned, but he surely knows what it feels like to be starkly, desperately alone.  He knows what it feels like for the cords of life to wrap ever more tightly around him.  He knows what it feels like to hang on the cross and pray to God for deliverance.  And because of this, he knows that there is nothing more important in the life of faith than to seek out the lost sheep and bring it home.  This is what he does for us, and this is what he calls us to do for one another.

In Legends of the Fall, Tristan Ludlow rides upon the calf caught in the barbed wire.  It is, for a rancher, an insignificant thing: one small calf among hundreds of head of cattle.  It would be easy to draw away and pass the calf by.  But Tristan leaps from his horse without hesitation and struggles with all his strength to loosen the cords that cut and strangle this frightened and hurting creature.  What makes the difference?  Those who have seen Legends of the Fall know that, though Brad Pitt may be beautiful and the cinematography grand, Tristan has suffered incredible pain and loss in his life.  In other words, he knows what it is to be pursued by wolves, to be constricted with razor wire that draws in upon him at every movement.  He knows what it is and so in a moment of his strength he responds, seeking to be a blessing to one in desperate need.

 

At some times in our lives we, like Tristan Ludlow, experience confidence and strength.  At other moments, we experience circumstances in life that affect us like emotional or spiritual barbed wire, and every attempt to struggle free only brings more pain.  We cannot be delivered by our own strength, and we must receive help from outside of ourselves.

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Remember, we are in good company!  Jesus himself experienced both extremes, and he meets us in both extremes.  When we are lost, Jesus seeks us to bring us home.  When we are strong, he empowers us to become the bearers of his grace to the lost sheep.  What an awesome responsibility!  It is this of which the scribes and Pharisees wanted no part.  It is this that they could not understand.

Jesus’ faith, and the faith to which he calls us, is the faith that is drawn to the lost sheep and the tangled calf.  This is the faith into which I pray we will all live.  It’s my prayer that we will share the grace of God in Jesus Christ with one another in these walls, especially when those among us feel lost and alone and experience the barbed wire of life entangling us.  It is also my prayer that we will ride out to the perimeter of our neighborhoods and this great city and seek those who are lost there, too, just as Tristan Ludlow rode to the very edge of his ranch.  Some may over time have wandered from the flock.  Others we meet may have never known the grace of a loving God at all.  To everyone we meet, I pray we will offer a way home.

We don’t go alone!  Jesus himself goes with us, because he knows what it is to be lost and alone, just as he knows what it is to be strong.  He goes with us.  His love can snap any cord.  It can heal all wounds.  And it seeks us out when we are lost, even to the end of the earth.  And for that, thanks be to God.

Does Jesus really tell us to hate?

“Jesus turned to the crowd and said, ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.’” (Luke 14:26)

This passage is what biblical scholars refer to as one of the “hard sayings” of Jesus.  It’s a party-stopper.  One can almost hear the D.J.’s needle scratch across the record.

I still remember the very first time I read this passage.  I was in my childhood bedroom in Paragould, Arkansas, reading the denim-covered Good News Bible I’d been given at third-grade Sunday school graduation.  That Jesus, meek and mild, would say such things confused me and brought me to tears.  I got out of bed, found my mom, and told her I wouldn’t hate her, no matter what Jesus said.  My incredulity isn’t much less today than it was circa 1980.  In a world in which hating one another seems ever more acceptable, in which disagreement becomes tantamount to a declaration of war, do we really need Jesus pushing us in that direction?  What does Jesus mean here?

If ever a word study in New Testament Greek mattered, it does here.  When, in twenty-first century English, we say “hate,” we mean something like “mean-spirited disdain and hostility,” a loathing that ultimately writes off the other as unworthy of our consideration or care.  That is not what the word in Luke today means.  Let me say that again: That is not what the word in Luke today means.  It would be out of Jesus’ character and out of sync with the entire rest of the Gospel for Jesus to commend us to hate in that sense.  So, what does Jesus mean, and is it important to us today?

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For fourteen chapters in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has been proclaiming—and, more importantly, living—a Way.  He has shown grace, love, and mercy when no one else would do so.    He has denied custom; he has denied his family when they sought to silence him and bring him home; he has even denied the law whenever these things sought to stifle his words or actions of love and grace.  Ten chapters ago, the people of Nazareth among whom he was raised even attempted to throw Jesus off a cliff and shut him up permanently.  And yet Jesus has continued to proclaim and live the Way he knows is God’s hope for the world.  At each turn, he must leave behind someone or something he has loved—and still loves—in order to be faithful.

Now consider this (and feel free to use it as a conversation starter with your more Evangelical friends): By my count, in the entire Gospels Jesus says to those around him, “Believe in me” twice.  Two times.  By comparison, Jesus says “Follow me” twenty-two times.  Discipleship—following Jesus—is exponentially more important to Jesus than belief.  That’s not my opinion; that’s the repeated stress of Jesus’ own preaching.  And for my fellow grammar nerds, this is the imperative case, the command of Jesus, “not an ask, but a tell,” as my mother would say.  The Way Jesus proclaims and walks is not a way for him only.  It is the Way of God’s hope for the entire world.  It is the Way anyone who claims Jesus is called to walk with him.

Often when I study the Gospels, I sometimes try to imagine myself as various characters in the story, to picture in my mind’s eye what the action would have been like from the participants’ point of view.  (Try it sometime.)  As I engage in this exercise, I seem to return repeatedly to that buddy threesome from Capernaum who are constantly at Jesus’ heels: Peter, James, and John.  They are, in Luke’s Gospel, the first three people who tether themselves to Jesus.  Until Jesus meets them on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, he is a solitary preacher.  Forever after, Jesus is rabbi with disciples.  Peter, James, and John leave behind everything they’ve known to walk in his Way.  What would it have been like to be Peter, James, or John?  More specifically, how would Jesus’ hard saying today have struck them?  In order to know that, we need to look at a mountain and a garden.

First, we need to go back five chapters in Luke’s Gospel, to Mount Tabor, rising up from the Jezreel Valley.  On a different, earlier day, Peter, James, and John follow Jesus up that mountain, and on its summit they have a collective epiphany.  Jesus is transfigured before them.  The veil drops, and for just a moment Peter, James, and John see the world as it truly is, as God intends it to be, without shadow and without illusion.  It is the spiritual high of all spiritual highs.  The three friends are awash in joy and an eager desire to do something, to respond to this gift in some big and profound way.

We may never have seen Jesus transfigured, but very many of us get it on some level.  We, too, have had some mountaintop experience, somewhere along the way.  Maybe it was in church; maybe it was at a spiritual renewal weekend like Cursillo or the Emmaus Walk; maybe it was in the grandeur of nature; maybe it was at a vulnerable low point of health; maybe it was sitting in quiet solitude over morning coffee.  Regardless of the setting, we have felt so close to God, even if for just a moment, that the encounter worked its way into the very marrow of us.  It made us feel so good, so loved, so accepted that the background radiation of our epiphany has lingered ever since, so much so that it has perhaps come to define for us what our relationship with God is all about.  It’s what we want faith to be all about: a recurrence of that experience and that feeling.

Fast forward thirteen chapters in Luke’s Gospel, leapfrogging over today’s hard sayings at the halfway point, and Peter, James, and John again find themselves alone with Jesus in a garden called Gethsemane on the down slope of the Mount of Olives.  Their encounter in the garden has none of the hallmarks of the earlier experience on Mount Tabor.  Jesus is not transfigured.  Rather, now Jesus is starkly, abjectly alone.  Jesus has reached the destination to which walking in God’s Way has taken him, where his willingness to walk away from all the things in his world that push against God’s hope has taken him.  In the garden, Jesus doubles over in anguish so intense that Luke tells us, “His sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground.”  Jesus seems horribly, pitifully human, and the scene is worsened when the mob shows up and drags Jesus away from his friends.  This is not the big and profound way Peter, James, and John had hoped—had believed—things would go.  And suddenly discipleship isn’t academic.  These three must decide if they can and will continue to walk the Way of Jesus, the way of grace, in the face of everyone—the mob, Pilate, the Jewish leaders, their families—who pressure them otherwise.  They will hesitate.  They will falter.  They will temporarily forget the joy and power of the Mount of Transfiguration as they are overwhelmed by the anguish and sorrow of the Garden of Gethsemane.  Now realizing that the way of grace requires sacrifice, and discomfort, and loss in addition to feelings of warmth and joy, Peter, James, and John must decide whether they will still walk the Way of Jesus.  Imagine yourself as Peter, James, or John, and imagine the jarring disconnect between the high on the Mount of Transfiguration and the low in the Garden of Gethsemane, from rapturous joy to stunned and hollow sorrow.  And only then return to a consideration of the hard saying in today’s Gospel passage.

The Greek word for “hate” that appears in this saying of Jesus–miseo–does not, it turns out, mean mean-spirited hostility.[i]  It means, rather, that in the case of conflict between Jesus’ call of discipleship and anything else, including our most cherished relationships in the world, followers of Jesus must choose the Way of the Gospel, which is always the way of love and grace.

The hard lesson learned by Peter, James, and John is that the gift of the heady and sublime experience on the mountaintop, which does indeed change us, is not given to us by God simply to uplift our spirits and buoy us through the world.  The mountaintop experience is given to us so that we have the strength still to follow, still to remain faithful, when the pressure, and sorrow, and anguish around us and in us becomes so intense that we sweat like drops of blood.

The mountaintop experience reveals to us that we are created in love and showered in grace.  And it compels us to live through love and shower the world in grace always, and especially when the political, social, familial grain would have us do otherwise.  The Garden of Gethsemane always eventually follows the Mount of Transfiguration.  They are forever tethered in this broken world.  We should rejoice in the mount and thank God for it, but we must always remember that the mountaintop experience energizes and sustains us so that we have the strength to follow Jesus through the garden.  These days, the Garden of Gethsemane seems to have extended from the down slope of the Mount of Olives out across the landscape of the whole world.  These days, it is so easy to despair of so much hatred, and selfishness, and vitriol that we sweat in sorrow like drops of blood.  But the world as God hopes it to be is also right here, just on the other side of the veil.  We have seen it in glimpses; we have been empowered by the gift of that vision; and we are called to follow the Way until the love and grace of God transfigure the whole world.

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[i] The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IX, pg. 292.

Maggie the Pseudo-Beagle

“Look at those spots.  I think she may have blue tick hound in her!” I said to my friend Bill H’Doubler, a fellow bird hunter and dog lover, as we sipped bourbon on my back deck.  If Bill was skeptical, I didn’t notice.  My family are beagle people, and since our beagle, Wrigley, was entering her twilight years, I’d decided it was time to add a puppy to our brood.  Strangely, there were no beagles available anywhere near our home in Roanoke, Virginia, so I began casting a wider net.  I purchased this puppy–advertised as a “beagle mix”–off of Craigslist.  (And thus was born one of Jill Thompson’s maxims of life: “Never buy a dog off of Craigslist.”)  I drove more than two hours from Roanoke to Bristol, Tennessee to retrieve her up from the back of a pick-up truck of a nice, vaguely methed-up fellow in camouflage.  He was late, so he knocked ten dollars off the purchase price, and I had the pup for $60.

We named her Mary Magdalene, because she seemed possessed of at least seven demons (Mark 16:9).  We called her Maggie.  As Maggie grew, it quickly became  apparent that the “mix” in her was not blue tick hound.  Her frame was thin, compact, and wiry.  Her disposition was fidgety and high strung.  There is, of course, another breed distinguished by its blue-gray spots, and there was no denying that Maggie’s non-beagle half was rat terrier.  And in Maggie’s case, the delicate nuances of her breeder (the methed-up Bristolite) seemed to ensure that she inherited the worst traits of both breeds.

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When Maggie was six months old, I accepted the call to serve as dean of Christ Church Cathedral in Houston.  I made the move in February, and Jill and the kids wouldn’t join me until school was out in May.  I loaded up my Honda Element with a camp cot, Book of Common Prayer, shotgun, and Maggie.  For four months, she was my only and constant home companion.  I would come home after long days, she would greet me, and we would sit together on the kitchen floor as I ate microwaved chicken pot pies for supper.

As an adult dog, Maggie was alternately fearful and fearless.  Thunderstorms terrified her, but at our place in the country she would harass and chase cows–and a bull–with reckless abandon.  Over the years, we learned that there were three constants related to Maggie: She had occasional seizures, she considered other dogs’ poop to be a delicacy, and she loved me unconditionally.  And I loved her.  She was so odd and seemed so out of place in the world that she endeared herself to me.  Her nickname became “L.D.,” which stood for both “Little Dog” and “Lovey Dovey.”

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Maggie and Mira

 

For the past several days, Maggie had been acting a bit off.  She ate her food more slowly, and she seemed, at times, almost depressed.  But she still loved walks; she still instigated wrestling matches with our other dog, a rescue named Mira; she still wanted my constant attention.  Then, around noon yesterday, Maggie began losing strength.  By 3 p.m. she couldn’t go up and down stairs.  By 3:30 she couldn’t stand.  By 4 p.m. we were in the car to the emergency vet.  With one look at Maggie’s gums, the veterinary staff rushed her to an exam table.  A quick syringe to her abdomen revealed that her gut had filled with blood.  Something inside her had ruptured, most likely an undetected tumor.  There was nothing the vet could do.  By 5 p.m, Maggie had died.

The apocryphal Book of Tobit was written around 200 B.C.  So far as I can tell, Tobit is the only biblical account–and surely one of the earliest written accounts anywhere–of a dog as a faithful human companion.  In the book, Tobias must make a long and treacherous journey.  Thankfully, God sends Tobias the Archangel Raphael as a protector and traveling companion.  But apparently even an archangel isn’t enough.  To make it in the world, Tobias needs a good dog.  The author tells us, “The young man [Tobias] went out and the angel went with him; and the dog came out with him and went along with them.” (6:1-2; 5:16 in the RSV)  Five chapters later, Tobias’ faithful, four-footed friend is still at his side.

From that ancient day to this, we love our dogs so.  I have read that dogs are the only truly domesticated animals, which means when given the free choice, dogs choose to remain in the company of humans rather than be on their own in the wild.  They are part of our families.  They are our friends.

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The last photo I took of Maggie, a few days ago.

In the Thompson household, we’re very sad.  My daughter, who loved Maggie as much as I did and who Maggie also loved, is especially so.  Last night, Mira laid down on Maggie’s blanket, confused about where her friend had gone.

When I was in seminary, my classmate Bonnie Malone and I debated one another whether dogs go to heaven.

“Heaven is where we go to achieve our perfection,” I argued, “and since dogs are already the perfect embodiment of ‘dog,’ they don’t need heaven.”

“But Barkley,” Bonnie retorted, “It’s not heaven if my dog isn’t there.”

Bonnie wins.  Take wing, Maggie.  Chase haloed cows.  I miss you.

Tune our hearts

I learned to play guitar as a seminarian nineteen years ago.  I was in my late twenties but looked like I was eighteen, and my pastoral theology professor, Charlie Cook, counseled me that most likely some parish would eventually hire me to be the youth minister.  “If you can’t strum three chords on a guitar, Mr. Thompson, you need to learn,” Charlie advised.  So I went to a music store and purchased the most inexpensive guitar I could find.  Each evening, I sat on the front stoop of our rental house in Austin, attempting to learn the muscle memory required to fret chords and maintain a rhythmic strum pattern.  At first it was difficult.  Neighbors kept stopping by the house to see if I was torturing a cat.  Eventually, though, I figured it out.  The transition from a G to a C to a D became fluid, and with great joy I learned to strum songs.  I never did become a youth minister, but playing guitar became a therapeutic and relaxing activity.  I was grateful that Charlie Cook spurred me to learn.

Years later, my daughter Eliza, who is much more musically talented than I am, taught herself to play the ukulele.  She and I would teach each other songs, and we’d spend glorious father-daughter time playing together.  But as often happens, life got in the way.  I now own a nice Taylor guitar, but it mostly sits in the corner of my bedroom unused.  Last week, when I had a rare moment to spare, I picked it up.  I was so out of practice that as I fretted chords, my fingers ached and my hand cramped.  When I took my guitar into Eliza’s room, and we began to play in tandem, Eliza said, “Daddy, you’re way out of tune.”  So I was.  Our music was dissonant, and I hadn’t played in so long I couldn’t even hear how flat I was until I attempted to meld my music with Eliza’s. Only after I carefully re-tuned my guitar did our music resonate and harmonize.

Barkley and Eliza playing guitar

Switching gears for a moment, here we are at the beginning of another semester, a new program year of Cathedral ministry.  It’s gotten me thinking about beginnings—origins—especially about how God begins, how God creates.  There are different theological ideas about God’s creative act.  One prevailing notion is that God is like a sculptor or a painter, and the cosmos is God’s canvass or lump of clay.  On one level I like that.  I have seen painters and sculptors work, and I have witnessed the passion and love with which they make their brush strokes and mold the clay into something beautiful.  There is a relationship between the artist and the art which does bear some analogy, I think, to God’s relationship with us.  But even so, there is also a separation between artist and medium in these instances.  If Rodin walks away from the Thinker, there the sculpture still is.  The connection between them was real, but it was also transitory, and in a concrete way they were never part of one another.

The great medieval theologian and mystic Meister Eckhart offers a different model for God and creation.[i]  Eckhart says a much closer analogy is that of singer and song.  The song is never apart from the one who sings it. It is made of the very breath exhaled from the singer’s lungs, and the vibration of the singer’s own vocal chords.  The song comes from the diaphragm, from within the very center of the singer.  It is literally, rather than metaphorically, part of her, and always so.  The moment the singer stops singing, the song is gone.  The song has no existence apart from the singer’s continued singing.  It is always of her, emanating from her, and only because of the continuing movement of her breath does it endure.

That, friends, is the closest explanation we’ll ever hear to our relationship with God.  God is not a Deist sculptor who molds the clay of the world and walks away.  God is the singer whose Spirit—which in both Old Testament Hebrew and New Testament Greek is the same word as breath—becomes, in each and every moment, the song that is creation.  If God ever for a moment quit singing, we would cease to be.  Blessedly, God’s song goes on.  The world, including us, emanates from God.

breath of god

Ekhart takes his model of creation an important step further.  We, as human beings created in God’s very image, are rightly to be reflective of God’s song, to be the echo chamber of God, the steel drum that sings the song of creation back to God.  That is our purpose and role in the world, and to do it—to reverberate with God’s own song—we need to be in tune.

For many of us, the summer has held other attentions.  Our thoughts may have strayed from grace and God, and God’s song may have become faint background music.  Like the muscle memory in my guitar-fretting hand, we may have lost some of the soul memory that comes with regular fidelity to worship, prayer, and one another.  In the observance of our faith, we may be out of practice and out of tune.  How do we re-tune our hearts to God’s song?

The Gospel tells us today.  It gives us the scales to practice and the exercises to rehearse.  In this passage from Luke, the Pharisees, who are so out of tune with God that they cannot even hear the dissonance, indict Jesus for easing a suffering woman’s pain on the Sabbath.  In response, the notes of Jesus’ song are like a symphonic crescendo!  Acts of humanity, service, adoration, and grace are the very way we tune our hearts to God, Jesus says.  They are the steel drum reflection of God’s own song.  The reverberation of our acts of love participate in God’s creation of the world.  Through such acts, we are re-tuned, and our lives move in harmony with God.

In Robert Robinson’s beloved hymn, we sing:

Come thou fount of every blessing,

Tune my heart to sing thy grace!

Streams of mercy never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise.

Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above.

Praise the mount! Oh, fix me on it,

Mount of God’s unchanging love.

 

Our hearts are retuned in the doing. By coming together with our fellow parishioners in worship, formation, and service; by standing and kneeling and approaching the altar rail; by the work of our hands by which the pain and hunger of suffering people is eased; we regain the soul memory of adoration for God.  We retune our hearts, so that they resonate with grace and our lives move in harmony with the God of love.

I am excited about all that will happen at the Cathedral this year, most especially what will happen immediately following this Holy Eucharist, as we pack 100,000 meals.  I’m limbering my soul, and I hope you will, too.  This fall at the Cathedral we’ll tune our hearts to sing God’s grace.  Together, we will reflect the song of God.

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[i] Smith, Cyprian.  The Way of Paradox: Spiritual Life As Taught By Meister Eckhart, pp. 58-71.

What is faith?

Today’s epistle reading is from the Letter to the Hebrews, that most mysterious of New Testament books.  No one knows—has ever known—where it came from.  Neither Paul nor Peter nor John is its author.  The early church father, Origen, famously said eighteen hundred years ago, “Who wrote Hebrews?  Only God knows!”[i]  Throughout the centuries, some people have wished to kick Hebrews out of the bible altogether, but the richness of its content has always won out.  It is Hebrews that connects Jesus to the obscure Old Testament character Melchizedek.  It is Hebrews that mentions the great “cloud of witnesses.”  And, it is Hebrews that gives us our most succinct and, on the surface, clear definition of faith.

The author of Hebrews defines faith for us at the beginning of the chapter from which today’s reading comes.  He says faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Christians have often interpreted this to mean that faith is a dogged belief that things will turn out well, that we will eventually receive what we want and need, no matter how bad or unlikely circumstances may seem in the present.  If only we will believe hard enough; if only our faith remains stalwart and strong; if only we have enough faith, then our hopes will come true.  Today, perhaps more than ever before, a major strand of American Christianity, called “the Prosperity Gospel,” markets this definition of faith.  Does it sound familiar to you?

Image result for prosperity gospel

If only I have enough faith…

There is an admitted utility in this interpretation of Hebrews’ definition of faith.  It can provide the kind of spiritual muscle that helps us keep going when times are tough.  The brass ring of such faith—the lingering image of the thing we want or need that will eventually be ours, if only we have enough faith—always hangs out there, moving us forward in life.  But I have to tell you, these very pews this very day are filled, and the world outside these walls is filled, with people who don’t buy it.  If this is what faith is—the belief that sooner or later our ships will all come in, that every cancer will be cured, that every estranged relationship will heal, that the financial windfall will ultimately arrive, that the world will finally recognize our genius and shower us with accolades—if faith is doggedly hanging onto such belief through a forced and cracked smile, behind which lurks secret but crippling doubt (which we’d better not let anyone detect, or else our faith will falter and these good things won’t happen), then very many folks want nothing to do with faith.  Indeed, many have walked away from Christianity entirely because they have discovered this notion of faith to be a sham, escapism from the hard and sometimes unrelenting reality of life.

But is this what the Letter to the Hebrews means by faith?  Is faith the dogged belief that all our wishes will be fulfilled, regardless of evidence to the contrary?  It may help to look at the portion of the Letter to the Hebrews assigned today, where the mysterious author gives us a litany of exemplars of faith, those he calls the “great cloud of witnesses.”  Among the list, the author reminds us of Rahab, and Samson, and King David.  Their faith, we are told, was strongest of all, and so our definition of faith must be derived from the faith they embodied.  Who were they?

Rahab was a prostitute in the ancient city of Jericho.  Rahab is remembered because, when Joshua led the Israelites against Jericho, she protected his spies and was thus spared when Joshua conquered the city.  Even so, when we last hear of Rahab, as she and her family are being incorporated into the Israelite camp, she is still referred to as “Rahab the prostitute.”[ii]  Her location changes, but essentially her life does not.

Samson, who may be more familiar to us from our childhood Sunday school, was the judge of Israel who had the strength of Hercules.  But Samson was bewitched by Delilah, who cut his hair and thus sapped his mighty power.  Samson prayed to God, but the outcome of his prayer was an act that resulted in Samson’s own death along with the death of his enemies, as the temple of Dagon crashed down upon them all.

Samson

Samson

And King David, on the one hand the paragon of faith, was also a man plagued from beginning to end with as much tragedy as triumph.  One of his children died in infancy, while his favorite son Absalom was killed attempting to overthrow his father.  The image we have of David at the end of his life is of a pitiful man covered in blankets who cannot get warm, with palace intrigue swirling around him until the very moment of his death.

In other words, the models of faith Hebrews provides to us today are not people whose faith was defined by a dogged belief that everything would be o.k. in the end, and for none of them was everything o.k. in the end.  Throughout their lives and right up until their deaths, they knew doubt, confusion, betrayal, hurt, regret.  They were, in other words, a whole lot like us, with all of our flaws and disappointments.  And so, faith must be something different.  When Hebrews tells us that faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen,” what else might it mean?

For Rahab, Samson, and David faith was not the strained and nervous hope that everything would come up roses.  They and the other exemplars of faith the Letter to the Hebrews cites—and who Hebrews acknowledges were mocked, imprisoned, and tormented—were far too realistic for that.  Faith was, instead, the decision to walk through the world, whether or not the world provided positive outcomes, with God.  That is what rendered these different from other people.  That is how they “won strength out of weakness.”  That is how they faced challenge and endured hardship and failure, not because they believed God would bring all good things to them, but because they knew that God was with them even when the good didn’t prevail.  That’s a very different understanding of faith.

So, here it is: Faith is not wishful thinking.  It is not the dogged belief that everything will turn out well in the end.  Rather, faith is the perspective that sees the world, despite immediate evidence to the contrary, as infused by the presence of God.  Faith is, then, truly a binary choice: We either encounter the world as dead, inert, unenlivened—at best apathetic toward our lives or at worst brutishly assaultive of us—or we encounter the world as God saw it at the creation: as good, and as pervaded by God’s very presence and grace.   And so, one cannot have more faith or less faith.  It is like that elementary school drawing where from one angle one sees a young woman and from the other one sees an old woman.  The only difference in what we see is the shift in our own perspective.  So it is with faith.  We either encounter a world saturated with God, or not.

Image result for picture of old woman and young woman in same picture

“The only difference in what we see is the shift in our own perspective.  So it is with faith.”

I sometimes encourage parishioners to engage in an imaginative exercise.  Every time you go outside, imagine that it is a misty day, and that the mist has the sheen of silver and gold.  That mist is the milieu through which you walk, and move, and breathe.  And that mist is God.  Do this faithfully for a month, and the effort of imagination will no longer be required.  You will see previously unnoticed evidence of grace.  You will see beauty in people and things you did not see before.   Your hope will cease resting in specific outcomes and instead find its conviction in the lived realization that we are never apart from the God who creates us in love.  God is above, below, surrounding, and within.  Always.

Faith is knowing that the world is God-infused and encountering it that way.  It doesn’t mean all good will happen, but it does change the character of everything.  The Red Sea becomes a path to life rather than certain death.  Walls, like those of Jericho mentioned by Hebrews today, become things to take down rather than build up.  And in our own lives, the classrooms teachers and students are about to reenter, the lawyer’s courtroom, homeless shelters, businesses, hospitals, homes…all become crucibles of hope because all rest in God.  In faith, we walk through them differently.  In faith, we see the people who populate them differently.

Through faith we win strength out of weakness, because God is with us and in us, as near as the air we breathe.  Have faith, friends.

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[i] https://zondervanacademic.com/blog/who-wrote-the-book-of-hebrews

[ii] Joshua 6:17

What we do when we pray

A new Sunday School teacher was struggling to open a combination lock on the classroom supply cabinet. She had been told the combination, but she couldn’t quite remember it. Finally she went to the rector and asked for help. The rector came into the classroom and began to turn the dial. After the first two numbers he paused and stared blankly for a moment. Finally he looked serenely heavenward and his lips moved silently.  Then he looked back at the lock, quickly turned to the final number, and the lock opened. The teacher was amazed. “I’m in awe at the strength of your prayer, Father,” she said. “It’s really nothing,” the priest answered. “The combination is written on a piece of tape on the ceiling.”[i]

Christians pray a lot.  Episcopalians pray more than most.  My goodness, we’ve already prayed the collect for purity and the collect for the day in this service, and we’re not even to the halfway point yet!  The book with the cross on it that we treat as if it were the Bible’s big brother is called, of course, the Book of Common Prayer.  Yes, we pray all the time.  But when we pray, what exactly are we doing?

I’m reminded of that great, climactic scene in the Jack Nicholson-Tom Cruise movie “A Few Good Men.”  Nicholson is on the witness stand, and Tom Cruise is interrogating him.  “You want answers?” Nicholson growls.  “I want the truth!”  Tom Cruise cries in reply.

That captures in a nutshell what we want from prayer most of the time, I think.  We want answers: solutions to the things in life that vex us and those we love.  If my loved one lies weakened in the hospital, I want the cure that will restore her to wholeness and health.  If my job is a slog, I want the message that will tell me how to endear myself to my boss, or at least to smite him in front of my co-workers.  And if I’m a student struggling in school, I pray for the actual, literal answers for the Scantron bubble sheet on the desk in front of me.

Bubble sheet

I’m happy to report to you that these kinds of prayers are legitimate.  (Well, maybe not the one about smiting one’s boss.)  The catechism in the Book of Common Prayer names them as prayers of intercession, where we pray for answers for those around us, and prayers of petition, where we pray for ourselves.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives us the very paradigm for Christian prayer.  He teaches the disciples what we call the Lord’s Prayer, and it bears a closer look.

There is petition in the Lord’s Prayer, but only a little, and it has a different character from the prayers I described above.  Jesus encourages us to ask for only two things: our daily bread and help resisting temptation.  A couple of years ago Pope Francis helpfully offered a thought on the line about temptation.  “Lead us not into temptation” is “not a good translation,” the Pope said.[ii]  “Do not let us fall into temptation” is better, or, “When temptation threatens, lend us a hand.”  I like that.

Daily bread can be construed literally or metaphorically.  It means, in essence, “God, grant us the strength to persevere through another day.”

By way of petition and intercession, that’s about it.  The weight of the Lord’s Prayer is elsewhere, and the key to grasping how it encourages us to pray is in those following verses of Matthew, most remembered by Episcopalians in the hymn we sang just before the Gospel reading: “So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

At first that reads as if we are, once again, searching for answers.  But walking through a doorway, across a threshold (which is the prevailing image in Jesus’ words) is not the same thing as solving a puzzle or being given an answer, is it?  What is it like?

Let me tell you a story.  I am originally from Northeast Arkansas, and a couple of hours west of my hometown one reaches the Ozark foothills.  There, the Spring River runs swift, and throughout my childhood my grandparents took my siblings and me camping on its banks.  Once, when I couldn’t have been more than five or six years old, my grandfather Pop took my brother Robert and me by hand and waded with us into the river.  He turned with us against the current and said “Walk,” and we, with our spindly legs, tried to push against the flow of the stream.  It was physically difficult, but more than that, it just felt wrong, as if we were pushing against the force and tide of how the river was supposed to go.  Then Pop looked down at us with his shock of white hair and wise smile and said, “Now, turn around.”  We did, and Pop led us forward with the river’s current.  The difference was, of course, immediate.  The struggle relented, and we were moved along with the river’s flow.  There was still effort required, of course, not to lose our footing and be swept along too quickly, but it became an effort that felt right, in concert with wherever it was the river sought to move.

I believe that is what prayer rightly and most often has as its purpose and goal.  Prayer is that posture of body, mind, and spirit whereby we turn around in our lives and orient ourselves to the flow of God’s Spirit.  It is not, after all, primarily about getting things from God but about shifting ourselves from the attitude of “I want answers!” to being buoyed along with God’s own hopes for us and for the world God has created.  Prayer is a letting go into the current of God.

Pop in his shop

Pop, in his wood shop

The Lord’s Prayer begins with “hallowed by your name; your kingdom come.”  It ends, as we’ve already said, with “Do not let us fall into temptation,” which is another way of saying, “Help us not to turn against your current, but to walk with it, and thus with you.”  This is adoration and oblation, which are the two kinds of prayer with which the Prayer Book catechism’s explanation of prayer actually begins and ends.[iii]  A prayer of adoration expresses our love and joy for God for its own sake.  It says we adore God, which is the first and necessary requisite for any prayer.  A prayer of oblation offers ourselves to God.  It says, “I want to move into the current of your being,” which is, of course, love.

One more story.  Joy Sylvester-Johnson is a friend of mine, a brilliant pastor and teacher who knew all there is to know about prayer.  And then her husband died unexpectedly and tragically from a head injury after falling on the ice.  John lingered for weeks, and no prayer of petition or intercession led to physical healing for John’s wounded brain.  Nevertheless, as Joy sat with John she prayed, and she chronicled daily the ways in which her prayer was transformed and thus she herself was transformed in the process.  On day thirty-four after John’s accident, Joy wrote this:

“Here is what I know: at the darkest point of the night when there was no sound except my own breathing, the presence of our Comforter [was] with me.  It prepared me—regardless of the outcome—to be at peace…Over the last thirty-four days I have had time to remember and to dream, but most of all I have had time, without any distractions, to be in the presence of the One who loves John more than I do.”

For Joy, petitions and intercessions—the need for answers and solutions—receded, and she walked through the door, across the threshold, to something much deeper, something that she sought even before she knew she was seeking it.  She turned from walking against the flow of God’s Spirit in her own need and found the buoyant peace that comes when we enter into the current of God’s love.

Seek and ye shall find, says the Lord.  The current of God’s Spirit is all around us.  We need only heed the voice of God that says, “Now, turn around.”

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[i] Found on the internet, where else?

[ii] https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/lead-us-not-temptation

[iii] Other than the bookend of petition and intercession, which we’ve already discussed.