Sunday, October 17, 2021

Fellowship: Strength and Hope in Adversity

Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falls; for he has no other to help him up. Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken. -- Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 

There is a blessing in the simple presence of another who is well-disposed toward us. The difference between a manageable problem and a disaster can be as simple as whether there is anyone there to help. Earlier this year, in freezing weather without power for several days, I was reminded of the simple reality of the need for warmth; even being in the same room with another person helps with a true survival need. Sometimes There is a phrase people use to devalue an easy job: it is called a "warm body" job, meaning that anyone who is still alive -- who has a warm body -- can do it. Being a friend is a warm body job; still it's one of the greatest blessings we can give each other. That can be literal warmth in dangerously cold weather. But the world can be a cold place in ways that have nothing to do with the weather, and a friend is welcome then too.

The difference between a bad day and a good day can be as simple as whether anyone is there to share it. Of course things are not always so simple; another person may be an enemy or a critic instead of a friend. Even at a time like that, life is a team sport: we may be able to withstand an enemy if we have the company of friends. 

It is part of our calling as people of God to be people of God together, for each other. We are called to be each others' strength, to ease each others' way. Our presence can be an assurance to others, can be that presence that keeps disaster further away. Two are better than one.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Fellowship: The gifts I have -- and those I do not have

Now there are various gifts, but the same Spirit. There are various services, but the same Lord. There are various works, but the same God works all in all [of us]. Now to each one, the Spirit's manifestation is given for benefit. To one is given a message of wisdom, to another the word of knowledge, by the same Spirit. To another, faith by the same Spirit, to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit. To another, the working of miracles; to another, the discerning of spirits; to another various tongues; to another, the interpretation of tongues. And in all these, the one and the same Spirit works, distributing to each according to his purpose. -- St Paul, I Corinthians 12:7-11

It is plain enough that there are abilities each of us has, and that each of us lacks. Even with the gift of the Holy Spirit, still we find ourselves with different gifts. Fellowship does something for us together that we cannot do apart: it gives us together the sum of our gifts, including the gifts we do not have ourselves. If my neighbor has a gift which I do not, it is no benefit to me unless I know my neighbor. One has wisdom without knowledge, and is lacking. One has knowledge without faith, and is lacking. Another has faith but little ability to communicate. Even though human nature is easily swayed to jealousy or competition, the gifts are not in competition. It is easy to worry that their gift outshines mine or lessens mine; it is easy to overlook that without each other, our gifts can easily remain unfulfilled. My gifts are not in competition with theirs, but can extend and complete theirs. And without each others' gifts, mine are lessened; theirs are lessened. Our gifts are of best effect when added together.

Lord, grant us to gladly see in each other what we miss in ourselves, and without shame or jealousy view our neighbors' gifts as blessings, and without haughtiness use our gifts to bless, and to expand the reach of our neighbors' gifts.

Sunday, October 03, 2021

Fellowship: Iron sharpens iron

Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another. -- Proverbs 27:17 

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. 

Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. 

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

Saint Ambrose and Saint Augustine. 

Saint Francis and Saint Claire. 

Professor Tolkien and Professor Lewis. 

Many people are on a quest to become the best possible version of themselves. Some even see it as a form of service or worship. But the ones who go farthest down that road often spark a special connection with another on the same road. Whether they are friends or rivals, having someone else on that level challenges people to reach deeper into themselves, to strive harder, and ultimately to reach levels that they would not have attained by themselves. 

Lord, may we bless you for the gift of fellowship. Grant that we all may meet those who sharpen us. May we delight in their companionship on the road. May we bless your name as we find those traveling the same path. May our fellowship glorify you.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Magnificat: The Pure Heart That Rejoices in God

I long for a pure heart, but can find myself struggling against despair, resentment, and other unwholesome things. Today I find myself considering the hearts of other people in the Bible. Because it is not entirely appropriate that I should compare myself to Jesus, I find myself considering mere mortals like myself. I find myself considering Mary, Jesus' mother. 

I think her heart was exceptionally pure because of what she spoke to her relative Elizabeth: 

My soul magnifies the Lord
My spirit rejoices in God my Savior
For he has seen regarded the low estate of his handmaiden:
For all generations to come shall call me blessed.
He that is mighty has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
His mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their seats
And exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
And has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy.
As he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed forever.

Mary's pure heart rejoices in God, rejoices in justice, takes strength from God's blessings -- and takes the defeat of the wicked for granted. Her worldview hinges on God's faithfulness: his mercy, his strength, his justice, his enduring promises. She views herself as God's servant; this is not the first time she has said as much. And in a few more months when Jesus is born, some shepherds come with a tale of angels announcing the birth. Mary's pure heart treasures the things that God has done, and ponders the things that God has accomplished. 

Mary does not speak of it as an incomplete or partial victory in an occupied territory under the Roman Empire, where the tax collectors are greedy and the judges are corrupt and the other people take all the room at the inn, leaving her to give birth in a stable. The angels are not too proud to rejoice; neither is Mary. She does not invite the darkness or mislabel it as "realism" to take the shine off every victory. She takes for granted that the days are numbered for the proud and the mighty who leave others hungry. She believes that what lasts from generation to generation is God's mercy, along with the blessings that God has given the world.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Blessings that shape our hearts

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus' first time teaching in public begins with a series of blessings that have comforted, inspired, and strengthened his people ever since they were first spoken. These blessings have turned the hearers into his people ever since they were first spoken, as he directly addresses the broken places in life with a healing touch. 

And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying, 

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you, when people shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so they persecuted the prophets which were before you.
(Mathew 5:2-12)

These are blessings that shape our hearts and kindle our desire for holiness. Here we see that any hurt in this passing world is met with compassion by God. Our small and futile-seeming efforts are folded into God's own blessing of the world in a way that renews our hope and faith in the goodness of God. 

To hold those blessings more steadily in my sight, I have reworked some parts as a prayer: 

Let me be humble.
Let me hunger and thirst after righteousness.
Let me be merciful.
Let me be pure in heart.
Let me seek peace and pursue it. 

When I am spiritually poor, may I hope in your promise of the kingdom.
When I mourn, comfort me.
When I face persecution, remove bitterness from me. May I be mindful of those who went before me, and rejoice in your faithfulness. 

At other times, I may find it more helpful to see them a mission statement or vision statement for the followers of Christ in this world. May it be more and more true, as I grow in Christ, that: 

I am humble.
I am hungry and thirsty for righteousness.
I am merciful.
I am pure in heart.
I am a peacemaker.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

The thirst for holiness in 2021

Holiness is a deeply beautiful thing. Awareness of holiness distinguishes the sactuary in many churches from a mere stage in others. Holiness is sometimes reduced to being separate. But separate from what? From from hatred, from malice, from greed, from factions, from any number of other stains on our souls that trouble us. But separation from everything leaves nothing; there is more to holiness than that. Holiness in Scripture is often associated with beauty, and in the presence especially of nature's beauty we may more commonly feel the sense of holiness. Holiness is quiet, awe-inspiring, purifying.When in the presence of the holy, we have a natural tendency to reverence. A certain kind of separation makes space for better things, clears away the hardness in our hearts, prepares the way for the Lord. "Let every heart prepare him room."

A profane culture is a desert. There is a promotion of hatred, greed, lust, malice, factions, envy, discord, strife. "Irreverence" is seen as a virtue, used as a praise-word. Anger is used as a substitute for righteousness. I have even met people who defend hatred. (They do not profess to be Christians.) The public square is a wasteland, and the culture war has gone scorched-earth. 

Even now I believe there are many who would prefer another way. A fast from hatred, a fast from greed, abstaining from malice or divisions. Offering a kind word to a neighbor. 

I have listened to many people who have a feeling that the divisions among us -- simmering for many years -- are at risk of coming to a sudden catastrophe (not of the natural variety). For things to get worse, neighbor would have to turn on neighbor, friend against friend, family against family. But haven't we already? Before the match drops, may we take a moment to remember our neighbors, our friends, our families. If our generation is the one that sees the next earth-shaking event, and if we want to get through this together, mending our bridges may be a priority. (And looking down on each other doesn't make us better; it makes us arrogant.) 

I believe we share a thirst for holiness. All of us cry out for the world to be filled with better things, for peace and beauty and healing. May our prayers unite us.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

The Sermon on the Mount and the Goodness of God

God is good. That is one of the most basic messages of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount.

What does Jesus teach us to have in mind as we pray? That God is good. 
When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, we remember the words of that prayer and pray them. But first he made sure they understood why he taught us such a bold but simple prayer:
"Your heavenly Father knows what you need before you ask him" (Matthew 6:8).
Jesus taught us to call God "Father" when we pray, so that every time we pray our first thought is that our heavenly father knows what we need before we ask him.
"If you, even though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him?"

Why does Jesus urge us not to worry? Because God is good. 
"Look at the birds of the air. They do not sow crops or harvest or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?"
"See how the lilies of the field grow. They neither toil nor spin (neither work nor weave). Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was arrayed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field that is here today and tomorrow used for fuel, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?"
"So do not worry, saying 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' The pagans run after these things, but your heavenly Father knows that you need them."

How can Jesus tell us to be good even to our enemies? Because God is good, even to the unrighteous.
"I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. ... Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

Because God is good, we need not worry. Because God is good, we can pray. Because God is good, we love our neighbors. 

"This, then, is how you should pray: 'Our Father in heaven ...'".