28 February 2021

Sunday of the Prodigal Son 2021

             This past year we lost a great songwriter and singer—John Prine. One of the last songs he wrote is called “Summer’s End”…a song he dedicated to those who have died of drug overdoses. The refrain of that song captures the heart of today’s text; you could hear the waiting Father say this to his wayward son: “Come on home; come on home; you don’t have to live alone; just come on home.”

            Those are the words our heavenly Father addresses to us at the beginning of Great Lent. They imply that we’ve wandered away, and all of us have. “All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way.”

            Which son are you? Are you the younger son, who took his inheritance and went to a far country and wasted it on worthless things? Have you been starving to death, trying to satisfy that inner hunger with anything—even pods fit for pigs?

            Or are you the older son—close in body, but far in soul from the waiting Father?—the son who worked hard every day, and justified himself to himself—who, like Little Jack Horner in the nursery rhyme, said to himself “What a good boy am I!”

            Maybe, like me, you’re a mixture of the two. The worst part of Covid hasn’t been the number of deaths, though they’ve been great. It isn’t the lost jobs, or the crashing economy, though they’ve been hard. No; it’s the way that our hearts have been laid bare like the framework of an old house after a hurricane blows through. 

            If you think about it, both boys in the parable were dead to their dad. When the younger one wished for his inheritance, he was as good as wishing that his dad would die. And when the older boy sulked and complained, he showed his own rebellion—less obvious, but no less deadly.

            And yet the Father is not dead toward them. Every day he waits for the younger son’s return. When the older son sulks and separates himself from brother and father, the father talks to him. To both of them, and to us this day, he has the same theme: “Come on home; come on home; you don’t have to live alone—just come on home.” Or, as Isaiah of old said it: “Seek the Lord while He may be found, Call upon Him while He is near.  Let the wicked forsake his way, And the unrighteous man his thoughts; Let him return to the Lord, And He will have mercy on him; And to our God, For He will abundantly pardon.”

            And Isaiah says, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; but the Lord has laid on him—Christ—the iniquity of us all.” In other words, the fare for our return trip has been paid. The father in our text killed the fatted calf; but our heavenly Father gave his own Son to bear our curse and taste death for us. The father in our text gives his son a fine robe; but our heavenly Father wraps us in the robe of Christ’s righteousness. The father in our text places a signet ring on his son’s finger; but our heavenly Father seals us with the gift of the Holy Spirit.

            When you get down to it, repentance isn’t about feeling miserable—wallowing in our passions or pridefully claiming that we’re smarter than our heavenly and earthly fathers. Repentance is about turning away from ourselves, and turning toward God and each other. “Come on home; come on home; you don’t have to be alone; just come on home.”

 

            

09 January 2021

Maxims

 In this space, I will from time to time post maxims--short sayings that bear reflecting on. I make no claim that these originate with me; indeed, I am skeptical of anything I think of that has not been thought of, and tested, before.

These maxims occur in no particular order.

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1. Any weapon you fashion and/or use against another, will be used against you.

    "Those who take up the sword, will perish by the sword." 


2. In this life, things are hidden under their opposite.


3. What people notice in a situation reveals at least as much about them, as it does about the situation.


4. Greater harm comes from the overcorrection of an error, than from the error itself.


5. We do not know as much as we think we know.


6. Suffering provides the opportunity for wisdom and salvation; ease provides the opportunity for folly and damnation.


7. The world is far more chaotic than our maps of it suggest. All our maps lie.


8. Stupidity is an equal opportunity employer.


9. What you fear will happen, will happen. Choose your fears wisely.


10. Most revolutionaries are broken-hearted lovers.


11. When narrative drives fact, problems quickly spiral out of control. (Chernobyl)


12. When power is concentrated, more progress is made. The question is, progress in which direction, and to what end?


13. One is never so close to sight as when one says, "I don't see." One is never in such deep darkness as when one says, "I see." (John 9; Socrates)


14. Truth stumbles, error marches. Truth whispers; error shouts. 


15. He who discovers how death is overcome, never fears.





06 January 2021

The Shepherd and the Thief

     The holy fathers teach that we know a thing's essence by its energies. We know that Christ is truly man because he wept, he ate and drank, he slept, and he suffered. We know that Christ is truly God because he forgave sins, raised the dead, healed the sick and so on. (Others have also done those things, but in his name.) When St. John the Forerunner called people to repent, he told them to "bear fruit worthy of repentance," because repentance is manifest in actions. To use an everyday example, if I am in a room and hear laughter coming from the hallway, I can be sure that somebody is out in that hallway. The energy (laughter) is an infallible sign of the essence (a human being).

    In John's Gospel, Christ told the people, "I am the good shepherd. The thief comes only to steal, and kill, and destroy; I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly." We can tell the difference between the Shepherd and the thief by the fruit they produce. You can be sure of this: where theft, and murder, and destruction is present, it has come from the Evil One. 

    So let me give to others freely, but not take from them by force; let me lay down my life for love of neighbour, but never wish his hurt or death, much less cause it; let me build up the lives of those around me, and not tear them down by words or works. "But they have wrong ideas!" Their wrong ideas will cause you no harm (unless you let them). "But they act wrongly!" They, like you, act for what they think is best. Pray for them, act kindly toward them, try as hard as you can to understand them. Choose wisely whose will you enact: the will of the Shepherd, or the will of the thief.

28 December 2020

Four filters

    Imagine how things appear to a newborn baby. The world he knew before was confined, ordered, peaceful. Then, in a matter of a few moments or hours everything familiar was lost. After the trauma of birth, a confusing complexity awaits his relatively untested mind and senses: loud sounds, strange colours and shapes, smells both pleasant and unpleasant... The task ahead is to bring order out of the chaos. It is a tribute to how "fearfully and wonderfully made" we are, that even before we are fully able to speak our world is mostly ordered.

    One of the most useful tools for finding order is the use of filters. In the technological field, a filter serves to make distinctions. Filters are used to sort by size. They are used to let the coffee out, while holding the grounds back. When I clean my room, I use filters such as "What is now, where it doesn't belong?" 

    Filters carry with them an inherent danger: if they are not well chosen, they may filter out something that would be important for us, or allow in something that would be harmful to us. Over forty years of ministry I've seen a number of marriages fail because, when the wife says "We have a problem," the husband filters the words out. Only when she says, "I've filed for a divorce" does he hear her; but by then it's usually too late. Likewise, when someone we value says something harsh or cutting, and we do not filter it out, words thrown out casually or in passing can do lasting damage to our self-understanding. The "narrative fallacy," in which people accept information that fits what they already believe, and reject information that goes against it, is another example of a filtering problem.

    Everybody has filters. It would be impossible to live without them. The only question is, which filters best help us navigate this brief time we have in the light?

    Here are four filters I try to use, as I approach life. Perhaps they may be of use to others.

(1) The Stoic filter: I make a sharp distinction between things that are under my control, and things that are not under my control. When I encounter a situation, I ask myself, "What, in this situation, is something under my control, and what is not?" I have no control over the words or actions of others. I only have control over my own choices. So I ask myself, "What can I do?" If there is something I can do, that will improve the situation, I will do it. If there is not, well, one can always pray. I don't dwell on things that I can do nothing about, because there's no point to dwelling on those things. I always have a choice before me--even if that choice is to die with courage.

(2) The Coolidge filter: Calvin Coolidge is famous for his taciturnity. Once when a woman told him, "My husband bet me I couldn't make you say more than two words the whole night," he responded, "You lose." Coolidge famously said that he never had to apologise for words he didn't speak. When I encounter a situation, I ask myself, "Is my input needed?" If the answer is "no," I try to keep silent. (I find this very difficult.) If the answer is "yes," I strive to say what needs to be said, as briefly as possible. (When I was confirmed in the Lutheran church, my memory verse was these words from James: "Be quick to listen, but slow to speak, and slow to become angry; for man's anger does not accomplish God's righteousness.")

(3) The Publican filter: We waste a lot of time trying to justify ourselves, which inevitably involves comparing ourselves to others. The biblical story of the Pharisee and publican is instructive. The Pharisee, in praying, compares himself to the publican (tax collector). When he leaves the Temple, the Pharisee has justified himself. The publican says, in his prayer, only these words: "God, be merciful to me, a sinner." He does not compare himself to others. He does not seek justice from God--only mercy. And Jesus comments, "This man went home justified." In my relations with others, it's a waste of time to explain. It's far better to admit my own fault. This is the "soft answer" that turns away wrath.

(4) The Resurrection filter: At the root of all the things I believe most deeply is this: a tomb just outside the city walls of Jerusalem in the first third of the first century, is empty. Christ's resurrection from the dead is the bedrock filter by which I judge everything else. I didn't always think this. My faith has passed through the furnace of doubt, to use Dostoevsky's expression. But a careful examination of the evidence convinced me. Only the resurrection can explain how a cowering band of friends could become a courageous group of confessors, within 50 days of Jesus' crucifixion. Only the resurrection can explain how Saul the persecutor became Paul the apostle. Only the resurrection can explain the founding and growth of the Church for the past 2,000 years. Since Christ is risen, life has meaning and death need not terrify.

These are the filters I use. What filters do you use? How do you make sense out of the chaos into which we're thrust at birth?

13 December 2020

             Our choices embody our priorities…indeed, we could almost say that what we are today is the total of what we chose yesterday...for good and for ill. What we choose is not a part of our life; it is our life.

            The men in today’s gospel made choices. One chose to buy a field. Another chose to buy some oxen. Still a third chose to marry a wife. Now there’s nothing wrong with fields, and oxen, and getting married; but these choices came at a very high price. Their choices embodied poor priorities. They chose these things over the King’s gracious invitation. They chose what is earthly, over what is heavenly. They chose things that bring worry and care, but they passed up on the one thing that brings everlasting joy. They got what they chose…but oh, what they lost!

            Not so with the men and women we commemorate today: the holy ancestors of Christ our God. Oh, some of them were wealthy, some had great power, some were great warriors. But they counted all these things as loss, for the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus. They traveled through this life as pilgrims, and kept their minds fixed on the coming of enfleshed God. And so they became partakers of the table of God and of the Lamb.


            Beloved, we think of time wrongly when we think of near and distant past and future. Really there are only three days: yesterday, today, and tomorrow. 


            To yesterday belong the holy ancestors of Christ we celebrate today. To yesterday belong our departed loved ones, and those they loved. To yesterday belongs all our own life that has passed so far. You mustn’t think that the ancestors of Christ are somehow more remote and harder to access than last night in your own life. Neither is further removed from us than the other. Both alike are completely inaccessible to us.


            To tomorrow belongs what will happen to the people we love and live with…to our neighborhoods and to our nation. You younger folk don’t realize how quickly the time goes. To tomorrow belongs the return of Christ in glory, and the judgment of the nations; the sending of the goats to eternal judgment, and of the sheep to eternal life. We err when we think of Christ’s return as far off in the distant future. It’s just tomorrow, my friends. 

Tomorrow will come. But for now, it’s just as much out of our hands as yesterday. How foolish to live as if it never will come!


All we really have, is today. And we realize that every liturgy in the Precommunion prayer: “Like the thief will I confess thee: Remember me when thou comest in thy Kingdom.” We live, each of us, like that thief suspended on the tree beside Christ. We have our yesterdays, full of things to regret and be sorry for; we have our today, with its share of grief and suffering; and we have tomorrow, when Christ returns in glory. We don’t have time to delay. We do have time, right now, to repent; to turn to Christ and beg that he remember us in his Kingdom.

Do you remember how Christ answered the plea of the thief? He forgave his “yesterday.” And he turned his “tomorrow” into today: "Today you will be with me in Paradise."

Beloved, this is the day of salvation. Our King invites us to his feast. Let nothing else come first. Let us choose wisely, while it is still called “today.” Eternity begins today, here and now.

12 December 2020

Don't just do something...sit there.

     The Supreme Court has declined to hear the lawsuit filed by Texas in the matter of the recent presidential election. For all intents and purposes, this means that the legal controversy over the election is over, and Joe Biden will be inaugurated as our 46th President on 20 January 2021. 

    I recognise that there is a microscopically small chance that something could happen when the Electoral College meets on Monday, or when the Congress meets on 6 January (!Theophany!) to ratify the Electoral College's vote. But let's assume, for purposes of this post, that nothing happens then.

    Partisans on both sides of the issue are clamouring for further action. 

    Some who supported President Trump are holding on to those microscopically small chances. Within that group, some Christians speak of a divine intervention to produce a second Trump term. (Are there stirrings in the soil around Simon Bar Kochba's grave?) Other Trump supporters want to have protest marches, or perhaps even darker responses.

    On the Biden side, some are seeking reprisals against the congressmen who joined Texas' lawsuit as amicus curiae. There are claims that by joining the suit, these representatives have acted treasonously against the Constitution; therefore they should not be seated, or they should be prosecuted. Others are seeking reprisals against those who supported President Trump, either by public endorsement or even by voting for him.

    Both sides seem to agree that the old saying, "Don't just sit there...do something!" is the way to go. But I'd like to propose a different course of action: creative inaction. "Don't just do something...sit there!" 

    The Taoist tradition speaks about wu wei, or "effortless action." The Tao te Ching says that the sage "... anticipates things that are difficult while they are easy, and does things that would become great while they are small. All difficult things in the world are sure to arise from a previous state in which they were easy, and all great things from one in which they were small. Therefore the sage, while he never does what is great, is able on that account to accomplish the greatest things."

    The Stoic philosophers tell us to distinguish between things that are under our control (our own opinions and actions) and those that are not under our control (everything else: body, property, reputation, vocation). They tell us to focus on what is under our control, and forget about what is not under our control.

    And the Sacred Scriptures teach the value of hesychia, or stillness.  

 Isaiah 30:15 "For thus the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, has said, "In repentance and rest you shall be saved, In quietness and trust is your strength."

Psalm 131:1 "O Lord, my heart is not proud, nor my eyes haughty; Nor do I involve myself in great matters, Or in things too difficult for me. 2 Surely I have composed and quieted my soul; Like a weaned child rests against his mother, My soul is like a weaned child within me. 3 O Israel, hope in the LORD From this time forth and forever."

1 These. 4:11-12 "Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you; 12 so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need."

When God delivered Israel from the hand of Pharaoh, Moses told the people, "Do not fear! Stand by and see the salvation of the LORD which He will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you have seen today, you will never see them again forever. 14 "The LORD will fight for you while you keep silent." (Exod. 14:13-14 NAS)

God entered the world in silence.  "For while gentle silence enveloped all things, and night in its swift course was now half gone, 15 thy all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne, into the midst of the land that was doomed..." (Wis. 18:14-15 RSV) And Mary's response was silence: "But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart." (Lk. 2:19 RSV)

God redeemed the world in silence. We sometimes speak of the "seven words from the Cross," but have we reflected on how little Christ spoke during those long hours on the Tree? All seven sayings, together, would take well under a minute to speak.

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So, while the country descends into frenzy and madness, let me recommend creative inaction. Be still. Listen; renounce the attempt to be understood, and try your best to understand. Pray. Love...especially those who are not like you.  Repent of deifying politics and politicians. Believers do not live in a Republic; we live in a Monarchy. We always have. We always will.




04 December 2020

I am a conservative

 This morning, I posted a comment on my FB page. As I thought about what I had written, I realised that it sums up things I have thought for a long time. Perhaps it expresses what some others think, too. Here it is:


I AM A CONSERVATIVE

I am a conservative, that's true.

 I'm a conservative because I don't believe we're as smart as we think we are. (We're certainly not as good as we think we are.) 

I'm a conservative because in a broken world, things which have stood the test of time should carry some weight. 

I'm a conservative because history is littered with the corpses of those who thought themselves wise, right, or indispensable. 

I'm a conservative because when I was little, I used to take things apart...and could never quite get them back together again. 

I'm a conservative because I believe that people who can't get the hang of cleaning their room, or caring for their own families, probably shouldn't be trusted with cleaning the world or caring for others' families. 

I'm a conservative because the price of being left alone by others, is to allow them the right to be left alone by me. I don't want to rule the world. I don't even want to rule others. Life is the most wondrous game, and I'm content to let everyone in it try to figure it out as best as they can. 

I'm a conservative because I watched the Wizard of Oz, and read "The Emperor's New Clothes," and discovered rather early that we are masters at fooling others and ourselves. 

I'm a conservative because I respect people who have skin in the game (parents, soldiers, entrepreneurs) more than people who don't (scam artists and many politicians). 

I'm a conservative because even when people correctly spot problems, they aim too high (perfection/utopia) and are too committed to their own solutions (the narrative bias affects everybody) to actually fix what they see is broken. 

So, yes, I guess I am a conservative.