Tag Archives: Paul

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.

Traveling light

[Jesus] called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them. (Mark 6:7-13)

I don’t know if it’s exactly what Jesus had in mind, but I do try to travel light as I go about my business.

I’ve written elsewhere about viewing my hotel room as a sort of monastic cell. For me, the point is that I am at home wherever I happen to be. The town may be different, but hotel rooms are pretty much the same everywhere, and I pack my suitcase the same way every week.

Peter Matthiessen, author and world traveler, even turned and bowed to his hotel room as he left, as a mark of his gratitude for the hospitality he had enjoyed. He explained his practice in an interview with Jonathan White:

My first Zen teacher, Soen-roshi, always made a little bow of gratitude to the world around him, and I learned that from him. It’s a wonderful habit. Even if I’m leaving some neutral or lifeless place, like a motel room, it feels right to thank the room for its hospitality. In Zen practice, one bows to the buddha principle, the imminence of awakening, within oneself. I love that idea. A bow is a wonderful way to appreciate this moment, pay respectful attention to the world around you.

Now understand: Our voluntary simplicity as we go about the Lord’s business is not the same as the poverty too many people experience in their daily lives. Perhaps, however, our simplicity can make room for us to see what’s happening around us. Perhaps traveling light can give us the freedom to respond quickly when we recognize a need.

That same spirit of voluntary simplicity (see Acts 2:43-47) may have been working among those same disciples some years later as they considered what to do about Paul, their former persecutor, who now said he had a mission to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles. Perhaps their simplicity gave them the freedom to recognize that God was acting in a new way. Perhaps their traveling light gave them the freedom to respond to the Gentiles’ need for the Gospel.

When James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do. (Galatians 2:9-10)

Our voluntary simplicity, our freedom to recognize God acting in new ways, and our remembering the poor are ways in which we follow Jesus’ instructions to his first disciples.

God grant that our repentance and our willingness to share our lives with others will likewise bear the fruit of peace and fellowship.

Collect for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Without shame or fear

In just a few minutes, Fr. Ralph will lead us in the Great Thanksgiving as we prepare to celebrate Communion:

It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, because you sent your beloved Son to redeem us from sin and death, and to make us heirs in him of everlasting life; that when he shall come again in power and great triumph to judge the world, we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing.

“That we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing …”

But we should be ashamed.

We are citizens of a country in which black men like Mike Brown and Eric Garner and black boys like Tamir Rice are killed and the police officers who killed them are not indicted. We good citizens too often prefer to talk about the character of the victim and not the behavior of the police.

We live in a world in which at least 20% of women report being victims of sexual assault, and where 1,600 years after St. Nicholas saved girls from slavery they are still sold into sex trafficking. We well-behaved people too often prefer to talk about dress codes for young women or blame the woman for not protecting herself, instead of focusing on the behavior of the rapists and abusers.

We are part of a society in which a mentally ill man is not only not in the hospital, but is on Death Row and just a day away from execution. He was pardoned this week, but the scandal is that he was that close to being killed for being mentally ill. We who are supposedly “sound of mind” would rather not think about it.

We belong to each other, but we feel like we’re individuals. We feel alone.

And we are so afraid …

We are afraid to offer a hand to a poor person, in case a working mother uses her SNAP benefit to buy something tasty for her family. We’re so afraid that $74 billion is too much to spend, that we don’t notice she’s only getting about $125 a month for each person in her family. [FNS USDA 2014]

We are afraid that we’re not beautiful enough, or thin enough, or sexy enough, or fit enough, and we spend $60 billion each year on dietary supplements and gym memberships and diet soda [US News 2013]. Even in the middle of the recession, in 2010 we spent $11 billion on plastic surgery [Reuters 2010].

We are afraid to admit that we benefit from a strong military presence around the world, that our being able to feel secure and safe means that innocent people sometimes die in raids and drone attacks.

How long, O Lord?

We are too often blind and cheap and shallow in our daily lives, but what we’re really afraid of is dying, and what we’re ashamed to do is face up to our own failings.

Advent, far from being a run-up to Christmas, to gentle-Jesus-meek-and-mild, is as much a reminder of death as it is of life, and it confronts us with the question of judgment. Will we be forgiven?

The reading from the Second Letter of Peter is a perfect example. “What happens to the people who die?” is the question behind today’s passage.

Peter replies by saying this: “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think about slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” He goes on to say, “Regard the patience of the Lord as salvation.” (2 Peter 3:9,15)

Regard the patience of the Lord as salvation …

Peter also asks the question, “What sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God?”

That is, how should we live in the meantime?

I don’t think Peter means for us to live in shame, but rather in humility and expectation, having experienced the forgiveness of Jesus.

The author Marilynne Robinson writes that:

The one letter confidently attributed to Peter, the friend of Jesus, represents Jesus in terms of his humility and patience to suffering … Perhaps it is Peter’s memory of the moment in which he himself injured Jesus that gives such power to his description. (from Incarnation: Contemporary Writers on the New Testament)

If Peter, who denied Jesus before his crucifixion, has been forgiven, who are we to remain ashamed? If you have confessed your faults to another person, as I have, and received forgiveness, as I have, who are you to feel ashamed?

And who are we to be afraid?

Another of my favorite authors addresses Paul, the other great apostle of the New Testament, who would not want us to live in fear.

Robert Farrar Capon writes:

[I]f God has really done what the Epistle to the Romans says he has, he’s gone ahead and solved all his problems with sin independently of what sinners might or might not do about it. That’s outrageous, of course; and it’s not at all what most people think a God who’s a card-carrying member of the God Union ought to do. But it is what the Mystery of Christ is all about, because by that Mystery, God’s love and forgiveness are intimately and immediately present in full force to everyone in the world, virtuous or wicked, Christian or not, simply because the Word of God incarnate in Jesus is present to everyone in the world. Nobody has to clean up his act in order to be forgiven or loved; all anybody has to do is *believe (trust, have faith)* that he’s home free already, and then enjoy the forgiveness he’s had all along by passing it on to everybody he runs into. (The Mystery of Christ … and Why We Don’t Get It)

So, to Peter’s question, what sort of persons ought we to be?

If we have been seen in our shame and forgiven for our blindness and pettiness and shallowness, can we pass along that forgiveness? Can we look clearly at the behavior of those who injure others – or kill them or abuse them or belittle them – and see them through the same forgiving eyes as Jesus saw Peter?

If we have been set free from the fear of death, how should we treat those who are still afraid? Can we defend those who do fear death – or abuse or imprisonment or hunger – because they are vulnerable? Can we protect them so that they might experience the same freedom we enjoy?

If we can see and forgive, defend and protect, perhaps then we can inspire people to repentance and holiness, as we ourselves have been inspired.

If we can help people see that the grace and forgiveness comes first, and that our repentance, our turning around, is how we respond to the freedom we’ve been given, maybe then we can inspire others to live that way, too.

And maybe then our prayer will indeed be true:

It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, because you sent your beloved Son to redeem us from sin and death, and to make us heirs in him of everlasting life; that when he shall come again in power and great triumph to judge the world, we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing.

 

Amen.

We will all be changed

Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” (1 Cor. 15:51-54)

Lay claim to Jesus

Br. James Koester offers this reflection today for Brother, Give Us a Word:

It is our time to lay claim, not just to the message of the Cross but of the Empty Tomb as well. Now is the time for us to lay claim to hope and health and life. Now is our time to lay claim to Jesus.

We will all be changed

“Hope and health and life” all describe change.

We hope for something better, something as yet unseen but witnessed by others. Like the apostles, we worry that it might be “an idle tale,” too good to be true, but over time the undeniable change in others builds hope in us.

Health is more than the absence of illness; it’s the embrace of wholeness. Where in Lent we often practice giving up things that are bad for us, perhaps in Easter we can embrace the One who is good for us — Jesus, the Son who “has life in himself” (John 5:26).

Living in Jesus is like being invited to step through a doorway with him. It’s as if we have been in the tomb, too, and we see the light shining brighter as we duck through the opening, as we are reborn, into larger life.

 

Remembering only one thing

 

Timeline-of-Church-History

At one of the noon Eucharists last week at Bexley Seabury, during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the Rev. John Dally remarked that there are now some 33,582 Christian denominations in the world.

While it is commonplace to mark the first “unhappy division” of the church to 400 CE (the Nestorians and the “Oriental” Churches) or to the Great Schism between Orthodoxy and Catholicism in 1054 CE, I wonder if we don’t actually see hints of the first division much earlier.

There’s some evidence in today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles), and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do. (Galatians 2:7-10)

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is bracketed by two feasts — the Confession of St. Peter and the Conversion of St. Paul — celebrating two men who became convinced that the good news of the kingdom of God announced by Jesus applied to both Jews and Gentiles, that is, to everyone.

But listen to what Paul describes in his letter: “we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.” Peter and Paul are, in effect, dividing the mission of the new church between them, creating two apostolates, carving out overlapping jurisdictions, however you want to describe it. They have one goal, but will pursue it in two different ways with two different populations.

Certainly Paul sees this as a happy division characterized by the “right hand of fellowship,” but I wonder if this isn’t how the whole ball got rolling. Two thousand fourteen years and 33,582 denominations later, we have gotten good at division.

Many of the divisions in Christianity are being healed by time — I just sang the same hymn “Christ, Be Our Light” with Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Roman Catholics this past week — so I wonder if in our time we could become equally good at “only one thing, that we remember the poor.”

Imagine 33,582 denominations laying aside rancor and remembering only one thing. Imagine one billion Roman Catholics and one billion of the rest of us in Christ’s Body the Church (two out of five people in the world) uniting in service for, with, and alongside the poor.

What if we extended the right hand of fellowship not only to our brothers and sisters in Christ, but also to our neighbors and all who suffer in poverty?

For the Unity of the Church

O God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP 818)

To unity, knowledge, and maturity

Ss_Simon_and_Jude

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-13).

Unity

We often hear in the Church the old saw that “unity does not mean uniformity.” What we are trying to express, I think, is that we don’t have to march in lockstep, we don’t all have to be believers in the same exact way.

The Church is gifted — not only with those who guard the faith (apostles) but also with those who upbraid the faithful (prophets); not only with traveling preachers (evangelists) but also with local leaders (pastors and teachers). We all have the same purpose, though: to equip the saints for the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ.

You may serve in the food kitchen, you may lead youth group, you may knit prayer shawls, you may provide pastoral care, you may give generously, you may go on mission trips, you may host a fellowship group in your home, you may advocate for political change, you may lead a Bible study. As David Allen says, “you can do anything, but you can’t do everything.”

Whatever you do, then, do it in order to equip the saints and to build up the body.

Knowledge

My own particular interests are in teaching the Bible and the practice of the Daily Office.

Isaiah has harsh words in today’s Old Testament lesson for religious leaders who teach nothing more than “precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little” (Isa. 28:10).

That is to say, teaching only Bible facts without teaching saving wisdom is no help in equipping the saints. It puffs up the teacher (as Miracle Max would say, “hoo hoo hoo, look who knows so much!”), but it does not build up the learner.

How do the words of Scripture become “living and active” in our lives? How do they soak into us until they are there when we need them?

One reason I teach about the Daily Office is that it is a method for reading Scripture in the context of worship that has helped Christians throughout the centuries to “inwardly digest” the Scriptures even as they “read, mark, and learn” (BCP 236) them in Bible studies and other forums. Again, no one method is complete or self-sufficient; each has a particular purpose.

Maturity

The gifts given to the Church are “for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”

“Equipping the saints” ultimately means enabling them to stand on their own two feet — to help learners become believers, and to help believers become ministers themselves.

Another program I’m involved in is Education for Ministry, a program of theological education for lay people created by the School of Theology of the University of the South. This year there are 11 students in my group at St. Thomas Church.

Along with the study we pursue in the four-year curriculum — Old Testament, New Testament, Church history, and theology — we also engage in a process of theological reflection, learning to identify where our beliefs and positions come from and how to turn our insights into action.

As we share our “spiritual autobiographies” with one another, we start to trace how God has acted in our lives. As we study the Scriptures, we learn about how God has acted in the life of Israel and of the Church. Reading church history is a humbling exercise in seeing how we keep getting it wrong, over and over again. And our study of theology is no academic exercise, but an attempt to go from “milk” to “solid food” (1 Cor 3:2) as we serve in our various ministries.

Being “lifelong learners” is wonderful, but as St. Benedict puts it, “the Lord waits for us daily to translate into action, as we should, his holy teachings” (RB Prologue).

Collect of the Day

O God, we thank you for the glorious company of the apostles, and especially on this day for Simon and Jude; and we pray that, as they were faithful and zealous in their mission, so we may with ardent devotion make known the love and mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (BCP 245)

 

The roads to Zion mourn

Twin Towers 9-11 by William Wray -- http://williamwray.blogspot.com

Twin Towers 9-11 by William Wray — http://williamwray.blogspot.com

How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal. She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies. Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress. The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter. Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper, because the LORD has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions; her children have gone away, captives before the foe. (Lamentations 1:1-5)

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In his course this fall at Seabury titled “This Dangerous Book: Strategies for Teaching the Bible,” John Dally suggests that the Bible is organized around two 9-11’s.

The Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament, was compiled into its final form after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE and the exile of the Jews into Babylon.

The New Testament is the record of the Church’s attempt to understand the disaster of Jesus’ crucifixion.

Notes from the first session of John Dally's "This Dangerous Book: Strategies for Teaching the Bible" at Seabury.

Notes from the first session of John Dally’s “This Dangerous Book: Strategies for Teaching the Bible.”

The passage this morning from the Book of Lamentations captures the despair of the people of Judah over the destruction of the Temple. In the juxtaposition of this lesson and the canticle appointed for today (Canticle 13), we can see the seeds of Israel’s judgment on itself — “God is worthy of praise; this disaster must be our fault.” An empire has crushed the hope of God’s people.

The story that becomes clear throughout the Hebrew scriptures is the story of God seeking the people of Israel and their turning away from him again and again. In the New Testament, we see the same story written in small letters, but on a cosmic scale.

The New Testament story concerns Jesus of Nazareth — “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21).

Not only did God come into the world he had created, but once again we turned away from him. Even when some came to accept him and place their hope in him, they had their hopes terribly dashed when he was killed by the Romans. Yet again, an empire crushed the hopes of God’s people.

In both cases, however, as John Dally observes, the people of God had their belief shattered and kept on believing.

Paul sums up the Christian understanding beautifully: “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, so will we bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Cor. 15:49).

Though the Bible is organized around two disasters, they are not the point of the story. The point of the Biblical story is the unswerving love of God for the people he made. Just as the Jews in exile came to understand that God was with them in Torah rather than Temple, the early Church came to realize that not even death could separate them from the love of God or stop the plan of salvation that Jesus had set into motion.