Sunday, December 14, 2014

When Gabriel came

There are only a few times in the Bible in which an angel is named. Gabriel is named twice in the book of Daniel, and twice in the book of Luke. In Daniel, he famously introduces the prophecy of the "seventy sevens" -- the 490 years until the coming of the Anointed. Daniel meets Gabriel in this way:

While I was still speaking in prayer, the man Gabriel whom I had seen in the vision at the beginning, flying swiftly, touched me -- it was about the time of the evening sacrifice. (Daniel 9:21)
In Luke, he is first seen telling Zechariah the priest that his prayers have been heard, that he and his wife will have a child:
According to the custom of the priest's office, his [Zechariah's] lot was to burn incense when he went into the Temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the time of incense. And an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. ... And the angel, answering him, said, "I am Gabriel" (Luke 1:9-11; 19)
Zechariah is told that his child, not yet conceived, will fulfill the role of Elijah in the prophecy of Malachi: his child will be the forerunner of the Messiah (compare Malachi 4:5-6 to Luke 1:17).

These are not the only appearances of Gabriel, but they have some interesting similarities: Both times, Gabriel is given the honor of bringing good news related to the coming Messiah. (This occurs again when Gabriel announces Mary's blessing to her, to be the mother of the Messiah.) I wonder if Zechariah, when he found he was talking to Gabriel, might have remembered that Gabriel's last known appearance was the prophecy of the time til the coming of the Messiah, a time he would have expected was reaching its fulfillment. The similarity would have been made stronger in his mind by another aspect of the timing: Gabriel had appeared to Daniel at the time of the evening sacrifice. Here again, Zechariah seems to have been performing either the evening or morning sacrifice (when the incense is offered) at the time that Gabriel came to him. Do angels favor the time of prayer for visiting? For revealing the answer to a long-sought prayer?

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Spiritual health checkup: based on "If" by Rudyard Kipling

"If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you ..." 
So begins Kipling's famous poem. Kipling's poem is said to be an homage to a man he admired greatly, who got a raw deal and handled himself admirably. It's also part of a long tradition to figure out what it means to be fully human, to live up to the human potential.

I like Kipling's approach, to draw an image of such an ideal man, and hold it up to us, and let us figure out how our reflections measure up, or whether to simply admire and grow from it. While I wouldn't reduce the gospels to it, still the writers of the Christian gospels took much the same approach with Jesus. Confucius took a similar approach with his writings on the ideal gentleman.

If Kipling's poem were a starting point for a checklist, what would that look like? It might go something like this:
  1. When I am blamed for things that are not my fault, I generally clear the air calmly. 
  2. When I am blamed for things that are my fault, I tend to apologize and fix the problem. 
  3. I trust myself. 
  4. It bothers me when people doubt me. 
  5. I have learned from constructive criticism. 
  6. I have lied about someone who did me wrong. [This one hopes you answer "no"; I'm hoping those are plain enough to the read, & I won't always indicate it.]
  7. I really hate people who treat me with contempt. 
  8. My dreams are still alive. 
  9. My dreams take priority over other things. 
  10. I like to think things through and understand the situation. 
  11. I pursue thought for its own sake; I don't often act on my thoughts. 
  12. Life's successes do not go to my head. 
  13. Life's setbacks do not get me down. 
  14. Sometimes I lose my moral compass when I'm among friends, or in a crowd. 
  15. If I had a chance to make it big, I would miss my friends but I could move on. 
  16. It is important to be down-to-earth. 
  17. I think other people's opinions are worth hearing. 
  18. Other peoples' opinions can make me doubt my goals. 
I know there are other items in Kipling's poem that might be reworked as part of a spiritual health checkup. But this serves my purpose for today.

I'm currently wondering: What other things would make good a good basis for a spiritual health checkup?

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The God who kindles a spark

Before, we've looked at how the beatitudes reveal God as the one who blesses, and as the one who sees our need: the one who acts in compassion.

The beatitudes also show him as the God who kindles a spark. He sees humility, or mercy, or a peacemaker, or a pure heart, and he blesses them. He makes us hunger and thirst for righteousness. He encourages those things within us. What he starts in us is a flame, a dim reflection of him. He rebuilds the image of himself within us. The beatitudes create that desire within us to become that living embodiment of a divine spark. "The smoldering wick he will not snuff out"; instead he coaxes that ember back to life. If the image of God was originally put into us by the Word of God, then he again uses the Word of God to renew that image inside us. That is what we find happening when we read the beatitudes.

The Word of God is so much more than information for intellectual study. Rightly handled, it is transformative, planting the seed of the new creation, creating the image of God in us. That is the true work of a Bible study, or private reading, or a sermon. If the Word of God is the agent of creation, then the Word of God can be expected again as part of our renewal. The living word has in it the power of God to make us whole again. We find that at work in the passages that draw us to them.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Better Thanksgiving spiritual prep (the relatives)

For years I've been working to be better prepared for the annual Thanksgiving gathering in a family where the simmering tensions are a given. And the preparations have been helping, though again I'm hoping to take it one step further this year. This year I taking the "do unto others" approach: where I wish other people would remember any decent or good thing I've ever done and treat me accordingly, I plan to remember a decent or good thing each person there has done, and try to find an opportunity to work that story into the conversation. So this year, I hope to uplift the people there with memories of how they:

  • made really amazing pumpkin pies
  • used to hem pants for my grandfather
  • whenever the grandparents were in the hospital, used to cheer up youngest generation with balloon-games with the hospital gloves
  • was a favorite substitute teacher
  • earned "world's most patient" status during her husband's declining years
  • danced along with the staff at Chuck E Cheese parties and made everybody smile (someone who is now old enough to appreciate that rather than be embarrassed by it)
  • followed his own sense of direction in a career choice, rather than doing what was expected
We'll see how many of these I can work into the conversation this Thanksgiving. 

I'm also reviewing some of the holiday preparations from prior years:

Though when it comes to backhanded compliments, it seems that ultimately, if I'm expecting backhanded compliments, I should go armed with honest and earnest compliments about the others, or stories that build up the other people. It might set a better tone and prevent the insults, or (if not), still "bless those who curse you".

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Seeing God ... and seeing anyone at all

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. - Jesus

The most beautiful of all blessings is reserved for the pure in heart: seeing God.

Here, among all the blessings that Jesus proclaims, is one blessing that I do not think could possibly be any other way. If we are small and self-centered, we don't even see the people around us, not really. If our lives are all about ourselves, then it's not just the words of God that we don't hear, but even the words of the person talking to us. "He who has ears, let him hear" could be a fair warning whenever anyone is talking to us. Whenever we are self-centered, we do not see our neighbor, we do not hear our own family, we do not notice the person sitting next to us. The beginning of a pure heart is to love our neighbor. The stronger we become in love, the more we are able to see what is around us -- to see who is around us. (There are ways in which love is blind, but hatred is much blinder. And indifference is nearly defined by willful blindness.)

As for seeing God: God's presence is all around us, but when we become impatient or frustrated we do not see it. It is in our quieter and kinder moments that we notice it. Even in this world, the pure in heart see more.

And in the world to come ...

Sunday, November 09, 2014

The God Who Sees Our Need

Before we've looked at the Beatitudes and Jesus' message of the God who blesses. The Beatitudes are also Jesus' message of the God who sees our need. The beatitudes show God's focus on the downtrodden and burdened, on those who mourn, on those who hunger and thirst for righteousness -- on those distressed by the injustice of the world, on the persecuted. Luke's edition shows God's focus on the poor and hungry. Jesus does not begin his preaching with a message of God's commands. He does not begin with a message of our guilt or our need for reform. He begins with a message that God knows our sorrows, that he sees our affliction. He proclaims God's concern and God's love. More than that, he proclaims God's promise of restoration.

The basis underlying so much of Jesus' teaching is the coming kingdom of heaven. One parable after another seeks to capture the image for us, to explain some aspect of what the kingdom of heaven is like. But here in Matthew's gospel, Jesus is shown beginning his teaching ministry by explaining the kingdom of heaven in plainer words. He proclaims a new creation, and a world filled with the blessings of God, where injustice and hunger and mourning are a thing of the past. For here and now, we have Jesus' word that God knows what it is we endure.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Controversies in the Church: Is there a purgatory? (The dilemma of indulgences)

In this post, rather than directly tackling the question of purgatory, I'm instead exploring how it ties into the related practice of granting indulgences. Why would I approach purgatory from the side issue of indulgences? Because the questions in my mind show that there are some things about the doctrines that I simply don't understand. It seems best if I should try to find understanding with the questions that I already have, before moving forward with a next step. 

So "purgatory" (roughly speaking) is a place where, according to Roman Catholics, those who die in the Lord go to be purged from the stains of earthly sins. I have heard it explained as a penalty for sin or as a purification to cleanse the soul (or both). We'll come back to that in a moment, after we look at "indulgences". I should also mention: Purgatory is often portrayed as unpleasant or painful. 

And "indulgences" are the Roman Catholic church's grant of remission or pardon, including shortening the time in purgatory for the dearly departed. 

Here are the things that don't make sense to me, looking at those two doctrines side by side: 

If "purgatory" is necessary in order to cleanse the soul, then how can that time be shortened and still do the necessary job of purification? If someone were released from purgatory before being thoroughly cleansed, could they enter paradise? Or if the necessary job of cleansing the soul were complete, why were they still in purgatory? We might even ask, if they were still in purgatory after being cleansed, was it simply as punishment? And if they remained as punishment, then where is the forgiveness of sins? 

Or if someone were to say that purgatory is not painful or unpleasant -- then where is the benefit of indulgences at all? Why would we want early release, if purgatory were not painful? 

So to sum up: If we say the time in purgatory is endured out of necessity, then how can there be any change in the duration? Or if a change in duration is a mercy that can be done and still meet the need, then why is that mercy not always shown, since we've already agreed it meets the need? If we say that time in purgatory is not endured out of necessity, then why is it done at all? 

These are the questions in my mind about purgatory that are raised by the church's claim to grant indulgences.