Monthly Archives: February 2015

Avoid stupid controversies

Can anything good come out of Nazareth? (John 1:46)

Nathanael might have been reading Philip’s status update on Facebook, for all we can tell. His reply sure sounds like the snarky comments we post when we read something we don’t agree with.

The dismissive behavior we display on Facebook and Twitter is really nothing new; in the second-century letter to Titus (c. 110 AD) we hear the writer’s strong warning to Christians against the kind of behavior we engage in so often, a verse worth memorizing because it stands the test of time.

Avoid stupid controversies … (Titus 3:9)

But why? The writer expands on his idea. “Avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.”

Worthless

Arguing about stupid Episcopal Church controversies, trying to prove a point by citing the canons, stirring up partisan passion about how misguided the leaders at 815 are, debating who’s right and who’s wrong — none of these things communicate the inspiring truth about what God is doing in the world.

And it’s not just our internal church controversies that are stupid.

You don’t have to have an opinion about every story, every commentary on the evening news. You don’t even have to watch the news.

Your compelling evidence, exhaustively cited, won’t change the mind of that guy on Twitter. Besides which, no one wants to read your 57 nested tweets on the same subject (unless it’s #AddAWordRuinAMovie or #LentMadness).

Your dismissive comments on Facebook about Obama or Bush, gun control or transgender rights, Palestine or Israel, Guy Fieri or Anthony Bourdain — and your obsessive sharing of political posts (left or right) do not change anyone’s mind.

Usually, they just make you look like a jerk.

Unprofitable

Not only is it a waste of time to engage in stupid controversies, it doesn’t actually help.

How does your arguing reflect the God we Christians worship, who hates nothing he has made and forgives the sins of all who are penitent (BCP 264)?

How do your opinions demonstrate your “new and contrite heart” and the humility of one who remembers “that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”?

How does your evidence against someone point to the God of all mercy and the “perfect remission and forgiveness” he offers for everyone?

How do your dismissive comments acknowledge your own “wretchedness”?

Pro tip: They don’t. Srsly.

Eager, not anxious

On Saturday mornings, we pray “that we, putting away all earthly anxieties, may be duly prepared for the service of [God’s] sanctuary” (BCP 99).

We are anxious about so many things, and the news cycle and social media feed that anxiety. We feel like we have to be up-to-date, have to weigh in, have to have an opinion on everything.

What if we were instead eager for one thing?

What if we were eager to rest in God’s grace, so freely given to us, so freely shared with everyone?

What if we were eager to share that grace ourselves?

What if instead of arguing, we tried listening? Instead of offering opinions, we shared experiences? Instead of listing the evidence against, we tried hearing the evidence for? Instead of dismissing, we tried admitting?

What if we admitted other people into the rest we share? What if we admitted them into the sanctuary?

What if, instead of Nathanael’s snarky “Can anything good come from there?” we offered our humble invitation: “Come and see”?

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Bearing and being changed

In one of the talks in the online course related to his book Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, Richard Rohr describes the process of recovery in the words of Thérèse of Lisieux:

Serenely bearing the trial of being displeasing to myself.

And listen to Joan Chittister on the centenary of Thomas Merton’s birth:

What Merton calls us to do as part of this slow but fulfilling process [of spiritual development] depends on the raw and ruthless debunking of the self to the self that is the ground of humility.

In these last days of Epiphany, we approach the season of Lent, a season that the Church invites us to observe “by special acts of discipline and self-denial,” and we pray:

That we, beholding by faith the light of [Jesus’] countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory (BCP 217).

Being displeasing to ourselves is not the point; being raw and ruthless in our debunking of ourselves is not the point.

Being changed into Jesus’ likeness is. Being changed from glory to glory is.

Lent is the season where we deliberately turn our gaze toward the crucified and risen Christ of Easter, the one to whom John the Baptist points us in this morning’s Gospel reading (John 1:19-28). But in Lent we are also made more keenly aware of “every weight and the sin that clings so closely” (Hebrews 12:1).

We commit ourselves once more in Lent to the helpful practices of the faith, knowing with the ancient Israelites that “if we diligently observe this entire commandment before the Lord our God, we will be in the right (Deut. 6:25). But on Ash Wednesday and throughout Lent we are also reminded of “our self-indulgent appetites and ways” (BCP 268).

Thérèse of Lisieux offers powerful wisdom in this situation, for we find our serenity in bearing our trials and continually returning to God’s pleasure in us. “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,” we pray.

Merton’s words ring true, too, for desiring abundant life in God, we can be ruthless in ridding ourselves of everything that holds us back. “Grant me the courage to change the things I can,” we pray.

And finally, it is only with our gaze on “God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart” (John 1:18) that we have a prayer of receiving “the wisdom to know the difference.”

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
the courage to change the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Day by day I will fulfill my vows

So will I always sing the praise of your Name,
and day by day I will fulfill my vows. (Psalm 61:8)

Nineteen years ago today, I was ordained as a deacon in the Episcopal Church. About four years before that, however, I really became serious about reading the Bible.

Like most cradle Episcopalians, I grew up in the church hearing Scripture read Sunday by Sunday. I was in Sunday School every week. No choice, really, since my father was the parish priest.

I was six when I started serving as an acolyte, and I was 12 when I first read a lesson in church — the story of Creation (Genesis 1:1 — 2:2) at the Great Vigil of Easter.

I knew from an early age that I would eventually be ordained to serve the Church.

After I married my Lovely Wife in 1989, we attended her Seventh-Day Adventist church on Saturdays with her mother and sang in the choir of my Episcopal church on Sundays. Among the Seventh-Day Adventists I was confronted with the truth that though as an Episcopalian I was familiar with the Bible, I really did not know my way around it at all. I had heard it all my life, but had never really read it.

By 1992 I was in the discernment process that leads to ordination, about a year from beginning Deacons’ School, and that lack of knowledge of the Bible troubled me.

So I resolved to begin reading the Bible in a more disciplined way. The first thing I did to jump-start the project was to read the whole Bible in a year, and two books helped me do that.

The first was Edward P. Blair’s Illustrated Bible Handbook, which includes a plan for reading the books of the Old and New Testament in an order that makes sense of the Scriptural story rather than just beginning “in the beginning.” Though Blair’s book is long out of print, I have found inexpensive copies on Amazon over the years (since I keep loaning mine out and having to replace it!).

The second was the Revised English Bible, the translation recommended by the Book-of-the-Month Club for its readability. The fresh English translation (at least it was fresh more than 20 years ago) makes reading the Bible feel like reading a novel — the stories feel less stilted and reading flows more naturally.

However, the most important Bible reading resource I ever found is The Prayer Book Office by Howard Galley. Sadly, this introduction to the Episcopal Church’s Morning and Evening Prayer is also out of print. Copies are hard to find and precious.

The primary way Anglicans and Episcopalians read Scripture is in the context of our worship. We organize Scripture readings not only for our Sunday services of the Holy Eucharist, but also for the prayer book services of daily Morning and Evening Prayer. The tables of readings that we organize for Sundays and for weekdays are called lectionaries. In the Book of Common Prayer you will find the Sunday lectionary starting on page 888 and the Daily Office lectionary on page 934.

After I had read the Bible through in a year, it was the Daily Office that proved to be the mainspring of my spiritual practice.

In the Daily Office lectionary, we read through the bulk of the Old Testament once every two years, the New Testament every year, and the Psalms every seven weeks.

That means in the 22 years or so since I began praying Morning and Evening Prayer regularly, I’ve read through the Old Testament at least 11 times, the New Testament 22 times, and the whole Psalter more than 165 times.

And that doesn’t count all the Bible reading I did for three years in Deacons’ School, or every Sunday since then in church, or for four years now as an Education for Ministry (EfM) mentor rereading the Old and New Testaments with my students each year.

This is honestly not about boasting (as St. Paul might say), but about beginning.

The rector of the parish where I now serve as deacon, St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Menasha, Wisconsin, reminded us last Sunday that you can read the Bible in a year anytime. If you missed starting on New Year’s Day, you can start now, and when February 2 of next year rolls around, it will have been a year!

I simply urge you to read the Bible as much as you can. Perhaps you’ll follow a one-year plan like the Bible Challenge, perhaps your favorite translation is the New International Version or The Message, perhaps you’re not Episcopalian but your denomination also has a lectionary you can follow.

Whatever else may be going on in your life, begin.

Start reading the Bible. Day by day, let the Scriptures work in you. Week by week, make Bible reading part of the rhythm of your life. Year by year, let the Scriptures teach you what it means for you to sing the praise of God’s Name and to fulfill your vows.

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Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

On them he has set the world

He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts up the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor.
The pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
and on them he has set the world. (1 Samuel 2:8)

In Rembrandt’s depiction of the Presentation, the aged Simeon is worshiping God in the Temple as the child Jesus is placed into his praying hands.

Simeon is one of the “pillars of the earth,” a devout person who can say with the Psalmist that:

The Lord grants his loving-kindness in the daytime;
in the night season his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life. (Psalm 42:10)

Into his outstretched arms, onto this pillar of the earth, Mary and Joseph set the world.

Just as Simeon is no mere old man, the child Jesus is no mere boy. The Word made flesh, without whom nothing was made that was made, rests in the praying arms of a strong tower, if we but had the eyes to see it.

What child do you know who is more than just a child, who represents the hopes and fears of a family?

What older person have you met whose strength, whose faithful wisdom, is hidden from view?

The Psalmist asks the question we might ask in our blindness, and then answers the way Simeon, a pillar of the earth, might answer.

Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul,
and why are you so disquieted within me?
Put your trust in God;
for I will yet give thanks to him,
who is the help of my countenance, and my God. (Psalm 43:5-6)