the tentmaker

daily thoughts on the common lectionary

My Photo
Location: Sharpsburg, Georgia, United States

"...because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they worked together — by trade they were tentmakers." Acts 18:3. Tentmaker is a title taken by bi-vocational pastors. As such, I am both a pastor and a project manager. I am a pastor of a local congregation of moderate, accepting and affirming people who worship in the Baptist tradition. We call our church "Hope Memorial Baptist" and we are about 40 in number. I am also a project manager of major construction projects for the State of Georgia. My home and church is in rural Coweta County, between Peachtree City and Newnan, with a mailing address of Sharpsburg, Georgia.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Voice of God is heard in Paradise

On the last page of The Sign of Jonas, Merton gives us this:
What was vile has become precious. What is now precious was never vile. I have always known the vile as precious: for what is vile I know not at all.

What was cruel has become merciful. What is now merciful was never cruel. I have always overshadowed Jonas with My mercy, and cruelty I know not at all. Have you had sight of me, Jonas My child? Mercy within mercy within mercy. I have forgiven the universe without end, because I have never known sin.

What was poor has become infinite. What is infinite was never poor. I have always known poverty as infinite: riches I love not at all. Prisons withn prisons within prisons. Do not lay up for yourselves ecstasies upon earth, where time and space corupt, where the minutes break in and steal. No more lay hold on time, Jonas, My son, lest the rivers bear you away.

What was fragile has become powerful. I loved what was most frail. I looked upon what was nothing. I touched what was without substance, and within what was not, I am.
There are drops of dew that show like sapphires in the grass as soon as the great sun appears, and leaves stir behind the hushed flight of an escaping dove.

Sunday, April 30, 2006 Year B - Easter 3

Acts 3:12-19
Psalm 4
1 John 3:1-7
Luke 24:36-48

At The Witness Michael Russell is concerned that the disciples are still in the upper room. His focus is on verse 41a
While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering
He goes on to say
Perhaps it is not Jesus whom we are most tempted to treat with disbelief and suspicious pondering, but one another.
Confident as we are about God, as long as the brittleness of our inclusivity or exclusivity feed our disbelief in one another, we are still not getting Jesus' message.
Whatever it was the disciples thought about all that had gone before, or for that mater about one another, was subsmed in Jesus' opening their hearts and minds and pointing the way forward.
Wesley White at Kairos Comotion says that
As the week proceeds we prepare ourselves for a holistic peace beyond a piecemeal peace.
Brian Stoffregen at CrossMarks compares the appearances at Emmaus and the upper room and finds similarities.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Sign of Jonas... a journal that Thomas Merton kept during the years 1946 to 1952. I have been reading a few entries each day now for about a year. I'm near the end of it. There are only a few entries left before I get to the epilogue. It seems that Merton kept the journal at the request of his Abbott and then came back at a later date and added an introduction, forewords to each of the six chapters, and an epilogue.

I have tried to keep a journal on many occasions. I have not lasted long enough to see any change take place in my life as a result. I wonder what it would be like to write a page or two every day for six years and then look back at the personality of the person who wrote the first entries.

I suppose that I can see something of a growth in my spiritual life, a becoming, if you will, by reviewing my old sermons. Whenever I do so, I wonder at how naive and unpolished I was then. Some of you may think I probably haven't changed all that much.

A few nights ago, laying in bed reading The Sign of Jonas, I got to the following entry:
It is sometime in June. At a rough guess, I think it is June 13 which may or may not be the feast of Saint Anthony of Padua. In any case every day is the same for me because I have become very different from what I used to be. The man who began this journal is dead, just as the man who finished The Seven Story Mountain when this journal began was also dead, and what is more the man who was the central figure in The Seven Story Mountain was dead over and over. And now that all these men are dead, it is sufficient for me to say so on paper and I think I will have ended up by forgetting them. Because writing down what The Seven Story Mountain was about was sufficient to get it off my mind for good. Last week I corrected the proofs of the French translation of the book and it seemed completely alien. I might as well have been a proofreader working for a publisher and going over the galleys of somebody else's book. Consequently, The Seven Story Mountain is the work of a man I never even heard of. And this journal is getting to be the production of somebody to whom I have never had the dishonor of an introduction.
Then there is a break in the manuscript and the next entry on the same day begins thus: Ecce nova facio omnia! (Lat. Behold, I make all things new.)

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Sunday April 23, 2006 Year B - Easter 2

Acts 4:32-35
Psalm 133
1 John 1:1-2:2
John 20:19-31

Beholding Jesus — in the Flesh

When Jesus was arrested, all the disciples, except Peter, fled. Peter, who followed behind, eventually fulfilled his Lord's prophecy by denying any knowledge or alegience to him three times. He could not bear Jesus' penetrating look and bolted from the courtyard of the high priest. Outside the gates of the compound, he fell on his face, sobbing uncontrolably. Eventually he made his way back to the upper room where the rest of the disciples had gathered.

Throughout the ordeal of the crucifixion, the disciples hid from the authorities for fear that they, too, would be hauled off to be nailed to a Roman Cross. Cloistered away from the world as they were, they had about thirty hours to sit trembling in the damp room, thinking about what had happened, what they had done, what they had lost. They had given up their own lives and livelihood to follow this self-styled prophet. They believed in him, in what he said, in what he did, in who he was. Peter had called him the Messiah, hadn't he? What a Messiah! He ended up getting himself crucified like a common criminal or traitor to the Roman Empire. And what an army they had been. They had fled at the first sign of trouble. If Jesus wanted to start a revolution how could he have put so much trust in men who could not, or would not, stand and fight. Their shame was matched only by their fear.

Then the women came. How hysterical they had been. They actually believed that this man had risen from the grave. They had seen people crucified before. It was Pilate's favorite past time. He particularly liked to line the roads leading to the city with crosses at Passover time.

Jerusalem at Passover time was filled with pilgrims making their pilgrimage to the Holy City to sacrifice at the Temple of the One True God. Pilate wanted them to remember who was incharge. He didn't want them getting any ideas that this god of theirs would actually be able to do anything to thwart the power of mighty Rome.

But the women were insistent. Peter and John had gone to the tomb and had come back verifying that the body was indeed, missing. But that was many hours earlier. That was at dawn and now it was evening.

The disciples had locked themselves in a room because they were afraid. I wonder how long they planned to stay there and whether or when they planed to get on with their lives. The locked room was like a tomb where Jesus' friends were huddling together, paralyzed in their inactivity and hopelessness. I always picture this room as hot and cramped, a place that is no-place, with mortal fear lurking just outside the door.

My own experience of hiding is limited to the time spent in a small bomb shelter in Vietnam. In the middle of the night there came a mortar attack. The siren sounded and woke us all from a light sleep. Eight men clad only in our underwear huddled in this bunker listening to the sounds of mortars exploding nearby and the sound of rifle fire in the near distance. I can only imagine what it must be like to listen breathlessly for footsteps and to wonder if my fragile cover will be ripped away in the next moment. My experience was nothing compared to the plight of the Jews in Nazi Germany and Poland, who hid themselves behind false walls trying to make no sound as the house was methodically searched by the gestapo looking to send them to the camps. But that is exactly the kind of fear that infected the souls of the disciples.

Suddenly Jesus was there. John doesn't tell us how he entered; he is simply there. The disciples must not have recognized him, for he identified himself by showing them his wounded hands and side. This is a common thread through the resurrection stories: Jesus appears in the midst of those closest to him, the people who know and love him, and they don't recognize him. Mary Magdalene mistakes him for the gardener until he calls her by name. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus do not recognize the risen Christ until the end of the journey, when they share a meal with him. Only belatedly do Peter and John realize that the stranger on the shore, directing them to an astonishing catch of fish, is their teacher.

Thomas was not present in the closed-up room at that first meeting. Later, when his friends told him, "We have seen the Lord," he refused to believe unless his eyes could see and his hands could touch and probe Christ's wounded body.

This scepticism earned Thomas the nickname: Doubting Thomas. But he was no more skeptical than the other disciples. They too were not convinced until they were able to place their hand in the nail-scarred hand.

The scriptures are silent about what happened in the ensuing week. But one week later, on Sunday, the first day of the week, they were still hiding in the upper room with the doors locked. And Jesus appeared to them again, just as He had before. He called Thomas to him and invited him to "put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side." This is a powerful invitation. It is an invitation to come close and to experience Jesus’ physical presence, his physical realness. He is saying, "Look closely. Be at home with me. Don't be afraid to touch me--you will neither hurt nor offend me."

The disciples, and especially Thomas, were urged to look at his wounds to make sure that they were in the presence of Christ--not some ghost or imposter, but their friend and teacher. Were the disciples brought up like most of us? Were they taught that it's not polite to stare, particularly not at the hurts, wounds and distortions that afflict others? Were they, like us, schooled to be cautious about touch? Jesus urges them to probe his wounds. This is not a tentative little poke, but the kind of rough, exploratory touching that we experience from babies and small children.

Good mothers tend to be a little bit messy, don't they? At least, their grooming isn't perfect. The touch of a small child, seeking assurance of safety and love, should not be hampered by warnings not to spoil makeup or displace carefully arranged hair. Jesus, our good Lord and our good friend, would pass this test for a loving, embracing presence. He wanted the disciples to go beyond appearances and know him as he was. He was not a “look but don’t touch” kind of Savior.

Most of us present carefully prepared façades. The self that we offer to others is not the product of conscious deception, yet we want no one to disturb the meticulously maintained surface. The message is implicit: Don't look too closely at my wounds, please. By all means feel free to touch me, but don't do the spiritual equivalent of spoling my makeup or mussing my hair--of cracking my surface. You see, my fear is that if you knew what I was really like, you would not love me.

But Jesus is saying, "Be at home with me, and don't be afraid to touch me. You will neither hurt nor offend me." He is setting us an example, but at the same time inviting us into ever greater intimacy with him. He greets our fear and disbelief with loving acceptance, assuring us that he doesn't mind our questions and our probing. This gospel is no ghost story, no holy twilight zone divorced from physical reality or from everydayness. It is an invitation to come close, close enough to see the wounds and feel his risen presence.

Jesus' appearance in the midst of his frightened friends is a story of incarnation, and reminds us that God became one of us and he still comes among us, experiencing and loving our humanity. We are aware of this at Christmas, when we hear that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth." Then the churches fill, and even nonbelievers are drawn instinctively by the powerful image of God coming among us in the perfection, loveliness and vulnerability of a little baby boy.

Yet Good Friday is about the incarnation too. Jesus crucified on the cross is a symbol of suffering. It is a powerful statement about human flesh and about its terrible vulnerability. And His Passion reminds us of mankind's almost infinite capacity to both inflict and suffer hurt. Easter comes as a real relief from the uncomfortable physicality of Good Friday.

The resurrection can be a pleasant abstraction: we can ring bells and surround ourselves with lilies and joyous music as we distance ourselves from his broken body. But the risen Christ did not appear to his followers in dreams or visions: he came among them in the homeliness and everydayness of shared walks and meals.

He still comes in everydayness. He still says: see my hands and my feet. Don't avert your eyes from my wounds out of politeness or disgust. Look at them. Put your finger here. Don't be afraid. Remember the incarnation. I came among you first in human flesh--flesh that can be hungry and fed, flesh that can be hurt, even killed. Flesh that can embody God's love.

He comes among us still, mediated through human flesh. See his hands, his side. Touch him, and see.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Wednesdays with Thomas Merton

The Seven Story Mountain
Chapter 2

How did it ever happen that, when the dregs of the world had collected in western Europe, when Goth and Frank and Norman and Lombard had mingled with the rot of old Rome to form a patchwork of hybrid races, all of them notable for ferocity, hatred, stupidity, craftiness, lust and brutality—how did it happen that, from all this, there should come Gregorian chant, monasteries and cathedrals, the poems of Prudentius, the commentaries and histories of Bede, the Moralia of Gregory the Great, St. Augustine's City of God, and his Trinity, the writings of St. Anselm, St. Bernard's sermons on the Canticles, the poetry of Caedmon and Cynewulf and Langland and Dante, St. Thomas' Summa, and the Oxoniense of Duns Scotus?

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Sunday 4/16/06 - Easter Sunday

Sunrise Service
John 20:1-18

I don't know how to love him,
What to do, how to move him.
I've been changed, yes, really changed.
In these past few days when I've seen myself
I seem like someone else.

I don't know how to take this
I don't see why he moves me.
He's a man, he's just a man.
And I've had so many men before
In very many ways:
He's just one more

Should I bring him down? Should I scream and shout?
Should I speak of love - let my feelings out?
I never thought I'd come to this - what's it all about?

Don't you think it's rather funny
I should be in this position?
I'm the one who's always been
So calm, so cool, no lover's fool
Running every show
He scares me so.

I never thought I'd come to this - what's it all about

Yet, if he said he loved me
I'd be lost, I'd be frightened.
I couldn't cope, just couldn't cope.
I'd turn my head, I'd back away,
I wouldn't want to know -
He scares me so.
I want him so.
I love him so.
Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Lyrics: Tim Rice.
Show: "Jesus Christ superstar" (concept album 1970, first performed 1971).

Morning Worship Service
Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
I Corinthians 15:1-11
Mark 16:1-8

Of Stones and Crosses

Easter is the cornerstone of the Christian Faith. Without Sunday morning, the events of Thursday evening and Friday would have faded into oblivion. The little band of fanatics would have simply crept back into the woodwork from whence they came. Instead, we have the beginnings of a world-wide religion. But more than that we have a Faith that keeps us going in times of stress and distress. We have a Savior that warms our hearts and fills our souls with joy.

It had only been about thirty hours. And yet it seemed like an eternity. Jesus had been taken down from the cross and laid in someone's tomb nearby the cross. They had been in shock, but even so, they rememberd where they laid him. They had seen the large stone that was placed in front of the opening to the cave.

Peter and James and John and all the rest of the men had fled for their lives. The Sabbath, a Saturday much like yesterday, should have been a time of joy. It should have been a time when they went to synagogue and worshipped their God with others in the community. But they were in a foreign city. They were in a foreign place in their souls. And their hearts ached for the loss of their master, their friend, their hope.

On Sunday morning the women approached the tomb. They had come to complete a proper burial for their friend and would-be-messiah. How would they remove the stone? Dread and sorrow filled their hearts. How like women everywhere, in every time. They came simply to do what must be done. This man Jesus, who had gone beyond merely making the lame walk. He had proclaimed the forgiveness of sins and had spoken of a new life under the reign of God. But now he was dead. It was the end of a dream -- His dream -- their dream. Their dream of salvation and deliverance.

And then they looked up and the scripture says they "saw that the stone, which was very large, had ALREADY been rolled back."

Perhaps their first thought was thankfulness. After all, they did not have that dreaded obstacle in the way of doing their appointed task. But soon the grattitude turned to fear. Had something happened to the body? The body was gone! The scripture says the women were amazed. That word amazed, again it means bewildered, perplexed, astounded, surprised and confused.

They looked in the tomb. There was a young man. Who was he? Remember that Mark tells us of another young man who followed behind Jesus and the mob after he was arrested. Is this the same young man? Is this an angel as reported by Matthew and Luke? He was dressed in white. He said to them, "Do not be amazed; [bewildered, perplexed, astounded, surprised and confused] you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is not here! [He is not here? Where is He then? Who has taken Him? No!] He is not here! HE IS RISEN!"

Filled with so many contradictory emotions, fear and joy, dread and hope, disbelief and wonder, shock and amazement, the women fled. The scripture simply and understatedly, says they were afraid.

Ah, but the Good News is SO good this morning. Is it not? It is so good that we can scarcely comprehend it. The stones that get in our way. That get in the way of our living a resurrected life. They are so large. They are so intimidating. They are so seemingly final, and so frightening. We keep our heads down, don't we. We keep assuming that the stone in our path is simply unmovable. This morning, we are invited -- No! We are compelled -- to look up and see the miracle of Christ. That miracle is that the stone in our life has ALREADY been rolled back.

It is no accident that the crosses we display in most of our churches are empty. Christ does not still hang on the cross. He is gone from it. The mighty act of salvation has been accomplished. It has been completed once and for ALL. The God who loved us so much, that God's only Son, God's very self, died on that cross for us -- You and Me. And now he is risen. His death at the hands of the Roman infidels was the scandal of the ages. But the empty cross is not a scandal to us. The empty cross is our symbol. It is the symbol of God's declaration. For the empty cross is God's declaration that the stone has ALREADY and FOREVER been rolled back.

I believe in resurrection because I have experienced it. Encountering a stone in my life that I could not remove on my own. Surrendering to a God who's power can move mountains (and stones). Then receiving the life God wants for me. That is the power of the resurrection. But I must, one day at a time, do as those women did on that cold Easter morning: I must continually look up, and see, and believe that the stone has ALREADY been rolled back.

Just as surely as Jesus called to his friend Lazarus to "Come out!" of his tomb, Jesus called me to come out of my tomb of sin and guilt and shame. He called me to come out to accept and love that part of me that he ALREADY accepted and loved. If I would only look up and see that that stone had ALREADY been rolled away, I could have a new life, a more abundant life. That resurrection changed my life. I thought I would never, ever forget.

But being human, I do forget, from time to time. I forget that God has accomplished the most amazing thing in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Something cosmic, and yet personal and individual. And God is always calling me back when I encounter stones in my way. He always reminds me to stop, look up, and see that the stone has already been rolled away. Oh, if I would only see what God has accomplished. If I could only surrender to it, surrender and be changed. I would be empowered by it.

No wonder the women went away afraid. Dear God, what if it WERE true, that he was alive. What if it were true that God had rolled away the stone, not only in front of the tomb, but also in the paths to their own resurrected life? Their lives would never be the same. They weren't. And neither is mine. And neither will yours be the same.

Just as surely as Jesus called to his friend Lazarus to "Come out!" of his tomb, Jesus calls you to come out of your tomb of sin and guilt and shame. He calls you to come out to accept and love that part of you that he has ALREADY accepted and loves. If you would only look up and see that that stone had ALREADY been rolled away, you could have a new life, a more abundant life.

Surrendering to the truth and the power of the resurrection means embracing the cross. It means embracing the knowledge that there is no good excuse any more. No excuse for letting those stones get in the way. The stone has been rolled back! Now the hard work of living a resurrected life begins for each of us. Living our lives in that truth means doing courageous and mighty things in Jesus' name. And it means doing small and insignificant things in Jesus' name. Surrendering to the resurrection means letting go of all the anxiety and fear that can so easily grip us and rob us of our power that keeps us from experiencing the joy of the resurrected life. It means living our lives with "the peace that passes all understanding" in our hearts. And it means stopping each and every day, one day at a time, to look up and be reminded that the stone has ALREADY been rolled away.

Thanks be to our great God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!
adapted from The Missing Stone and the Empty Cross, by V. Gene Robinson, in The Witness,
Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Friday, April 14, 2006

Maundy Thursday

The Apostle Paul is the first to write about the events that took place on the Thursday evening before Jesus was arrested, tried and crucified as a traitor.
I Corinthians 11:23-26

Most of us have known people, perhaps even loved ones, who have been told by a doctor that they are going to die. But the impact on us is not the same as the impact would be if those words were spoken to us. If we knew we were going to die in the next twenty-four hours, how would that affect us? What would we do?

When Jesus met with his disciples in the upper room he knew he was going to die. He knew when he was going to die. He knew how he was going to die. And yet he was calm, kind and generous to his disciples. He joined with them to eat the Passover meal.

I am convinced that from the time Jesus was in the wilderness those 40 days, fasting and discerning his mission, he knew that he would die. From the moment, in Galilee, when he set his face toward Jerusalem, Jesus knew he was going to die there. As they passed along the way, he and his disciples could see the crosses that lined the road into Jerusalem.

When he got to Jerusalem, he began his death march with a ride on the back of a donkey. Like King David before him, he entered the Holy City and was hailed by a great crowd of people to be King of the Jews. As soon as he arrived at the Temple mount, he dismounted and went into the Temple courts. After he surveyed the scene he began to challenge and disrupt the Temple cult. He turned over the tables of the money changers and the sellers of sacrificial animals. He drove out the men who were conducting the priests business. "My house is a house of prayer and you have made it a den of thieves." It was not only the money changers and the animal sellers who were thieves in a house of prayer. His indictment was for the Priests and their whole sacrificial cult. For they were selling forgiveness where there was no forgiveness. have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Psalm 51:16-17
Jesus spent Monday through Thursday going to the Temple in the day and to Bethany at night. He knew that the Chief Priests could not continue to allow his challenge to go unanswered. He knew that the most likely time to be arrested was Thursday evening, for the deed had to be done no later than Friday morning in order to avoid the Sabbath.

On Thursday he arranged not to travel to Bethany, but to stay in Jerusalem. He arranged to have the Passover meal in the upstairs room of a house in Jerusalem. This house was probably the house where John Mark lived with his mother. (Acts 12:12) There the meal had been prepared and was covered with a cloth to protect it from the elements. Jesus arrived first. He walked over to the table and took the cloth from the table and with it washed the feet of his disciples as they arrived.

After the meal Jesus took the bread and blessed it:
Father when we were wandering through the desert without food we grumbled to you and you gave us the manna, the bread from heaven. Bless this bread we eat tonight and remind us of the bread of life, that all those who eat that bread will never be hungry.
He broke it, reminiscent of the feeding of the 5,000 people in the wilderness of Galilee. He offered it to His disciples and said, "take, eat, this is my body which is broken for you. As often as you do it, do it in rememberance of me."

Then he took the cup and blessed it:
Father, in the wilderness when we grumbled about the tasteless bread you gave us meat, and we continued to grumble because we had no water and you sent Moses to the rock to strike it with his staff. Out of the rock came the clean fresh water. And when Jesus was at Jacob's well in Samaria, he told of a living water, that whoever drinks of that water will never thirst. With the Samaritians we ask that you give us that water, always. Bless this drink that of which we are about to partake. Help us to realize the true suffering that it represents and the pure love and grace that it makes available for us.
He said to his disciples, "drink, this is the new covenant in my blood, blood that will be spilled out for you. As often as you do this, do it in rememberance of me."

The scripture says they sang a hymn and went out.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Wednesdays With Thomas Merton

The Seven Story Mountain

Chapter One

Here are some of the passages that caught my attention:

The integrity of an artist lifts a man above the level of the world without delivering him from it. page 3

Neither of my parents suffered from the little spooky prejudices that devour the people who know nothing but automobiles and movies and what's in the ice-box and what's in the papers and which neighbors are getting a divorce. page 3

...but any fool knows that you don't need money to get enjoyment out of life. page 4

Churches and formal religion were things to which Mother attached not too much importance in the training of a modern child, and my guess is that she thought, if I were left to myself, I would grow up into a nice, quiet Deist of some sort, and never be perverted by superstition. page 5

There were many ruined monasteries in those mountains. My mind goes back with great reverence to the thought of those clean, ancient stone cloisters, those low and mighty rounded arches hewn and set in place by monks who have perhaps prayed me where I now am. St Martin and St. Michael the Archangel, the great patron of monks, had churches in those mountains. Saint Martin-du-Canigou; Saint Michel-de-Cuxa. Is it any wonder I should have a friendly feeling about those places? page 6

It is a law of man's nature, written into his very essence, and just as much a part of him as the desire to build houses and cultivate the land and marry and have children and read books and sing songs,that he should want to stand together with other men in order to acknowledge their common dependence on God, their Father and Creator. page 13

Mother had stomach cancer. page 13

And since I was destined to grow up with a nice, clear, optimistic and well-balanced outlook on life, I was never even taken to the hospital to see Mother, after she went there. And this was entirely her own idea. page 14

Truro. It was a name as lonely as the edge of the sea. page 17

...I had learned how to draw pictures of schooners and barks and clippers and brigs, and knew far more about all these distinctions than I do now. page 17

You could already see the small white houses, made of coral, cleaner than sugar, shining in the sun, and all around us the waters paled over the shallows and became the color of emeralds, where there was sand, or lavender where there were rocks below the surface. page 18

this terrible situation is the pattern and prototype of all sin: the deliberate and formal will to reject disinterested love for us for the purely abitrary reason that we simply do not want it. We will to separate ourselves from that love. We reject it entirely and absolutely, and will not acknowledge it, simply because it does not please us to be loved. Perhaps the inner motive is that the fact of being loved disinterestedly reminds us that we all need love from others, and depend upon the charity of others to carry on our lives. And we refuse love, and reject society, in so far as it seems, in our own perverse imagination, to imply some obscure kind of humiliation. pages 23 & 24

The devil is no fool. He can get people feeling about heaven the way they ought to feel about hell. He can make them fear the means of grace the way they do not fear sin. And he does so, not by light but by obscurity, not by realities but by shadows; not by clarity and substance, but by dreams and the creatures of psychosis. And men are so poor intellect that a few cold chills down their spine will be enough to keep them from ever finding out the truth about anything. pages 26 & 27
Picture credit:
St Ives, Barnoon Hill (1910)
Owen Merton
Collection of the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu
Gift of James Jamieson Family, 1932

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Sunday 4/9/06 Year B - Passion Sunday

Isaiah 50:4-9
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Mark 14:1-15:47

Will You, Too, Fall Away?

When Jesus was arrested, all the disciples abandoned Him and fled for their lives. In our own self-righteousness, we feel disgust for their cowardice. Like Peter we boast "Even though all become deserters, I will not. Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!" [Mark 14:29 & Luke 22:33] But, are we?

Jesus predicts the falling away of his disciples in Mark 14:27
And Jesus said to them, "You will all become deserters; for it is written, 'I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.'

The word translated here in the New Revised Standard as "deserters" is the greek word σκανδαλιζω. The King James has "be offended." The old Revised Standard has "fall away." It is the root of our English word "scandalize." Father Raymond Brown, in his two volume work, Death of the Messiah, translates the word "scandalize." Webster defines "scandalize" to offend the moral sense of , or to shock. Bauer gives the word to mean "let oneself be led into sin, fall away." but Father Brown says "While the word has the general sense of stumbling, falling and hence sinning, the absolute usage can connote a loss of faith."

Truly the disciples were shocked, scandalized and they ran for their lives. They all fell away and even lost their hope and their faith. Peter did, in fact, follow behind, which was more than the others who fled to places unknown. But, even Peter fell away and was bitterly remorseful. He too, lost his hope and his faith. Luke tells us [22:60-61] that "At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed, the Lord turned and looked at Peter." How often we mistake the meaning of a look because we bring to its interpretation all of our own internal baggage. For Jesus it was a look of compassion. For Peter, it was a look of judgment. Peter remembered Jesus' prediction, his vehement denial and ultimate fulfillment of Jesus words.

All the male disciples hid out and did not show their face in public again until after the announcement of the resurrection. Only the women were present at the cross. Only the women were among the embalming party on Sunday morning. Now, I don't think this difference in behavior between the men and women disciples is intended to make a judgment about the relative faith of the women versus the men. I think it tells us something of the society in which they lived, that the women could move about freely, unafraid of being harassed. Because of their status as non-persons, they were not a threat to those who opposed Jesus. But there it is! Of course, we have overcome that kind of bigotry haven't we? No. We have only displaced it onto a different group. It used to be the African-Americans, now it's the gays, the aliens, the homeless. And still, in the Church, of all places, women are regarded as less capable disciples than men. In the words of John Denver, "Oh when will they ever learn? Oh when will they ever learn." Indeed, when will we ever learn!

Unless we have walked in the disciples shoes, we have no right to be their judge or to boast about what we would have done in their place. Jesus, Himself, didn't judge them. He had compassion on them. He didn't need them to defend Him. But He knew the emotional pain and anguish they would experience at the loss of their leader. He knew they would be in shock. He knew they would lose hope in what He had taught them. He knew they would lose their faith.

Again it is Luke who tells us more of the details [22:31-32]. Jesus said to Peter, "Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers." Even as he was about to be crucified on a Roman cross, Jesus cared for the well-being of his disciples. And Satan still demands to sift us all like wheat.

When we lose our hope and faith in the one or the thing that is the source of our security, we too fall into great despair. The whole world seems black as night. All is lost. We lose our desire to live because we think the rest of our lives will be filled with the same lonliness and pain of the present moment. It might be a parent, a partner or a spouse, or other loved one in whom we have vested our hope and security. It may be a job or a certain level of income that brings meaning to life and a sense of self sufficiency. Maybe it is membership at the club or inclusion in a certain segment of society that gives you fulfillment. For many of us the loss of these people or these symbols of status bring the loss of hope and sometimes the loss of faith. We are left in shock and wonder at how we could have been duped into trusting in this or that or the other. And we are in further despair over what to do next. When all of our symbols of security die, we are left groping in the dark for answers and solutions that evade us.

All these things are temporal. They do not last. The disciples put their faith, their hope and trust in a man, or in an idea of Messiah, or in an idea of the Kingdom of God. Truly Jesus was more than just a man, he was a savior, he was the Son of God. They didn't know it until some time later. As Messiah he was not a military leader that would martial an army, drive out the Romans and establish the Kingdom of God with it's seat in Jerusalem. The disciples had laid up for themselves treasures on earth. And their treasures turned out to be corruptible. Our treasures, too, are often times treasures on earth. They too, are corruptible, temporal and do not last.

Isaiah [40:8] tells us: The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. In Proverbs [3:5-6] we are told: Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths. God wants us to trust in Him. He wants us to lay up for ourselves treasures in Heaven for these treasures are incorruptible. These are the eternal treasures of Love, Love of God, Love of our fellows, men and women.

When we fall away it is for the reason that we have trusted in a plastic Jesus. Our gods have feet of clay. The real savior is the one who will not fail. He will go all the way to the cross. He has said, I will never leave you or forsake you."

Thanks be to God!

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Contemplative Prayer

Contemplative Prayer is the recognition that we are the Sons of God, an experience of Who He is, and of His love for us, flowing from the operation of that love in us. Contemplative prayer is the voice of the Spirit crying out in us, "Abba, Pater." In all valid prayer it is the Holy Ghost who prays in us: but in the graces of contemplation He makes us realize at least obscurely that it is He who is praying in us with a love too deep and too secret for us to comprehend. And we exult in the union of our voice with His voice, and our soul springs up to the Father, through the Son, having become one flame with the Flame of their Spirit. The Holy Ghost is the soul of the Church and it is to His presence in us that is attributed the sanctity of each one of the elect. He prays in us now as the Soul of the Church and now as the life of our own soul—but the distinction is only real in the external order of thiings. Interiorly, whether our prayer be private or public it is the same Spirit praying for us: He is really touching different strings of the same instrument. — Thomas Merton

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Seven Story Mountain

My copy of Merton's autobiography is a paperback published as a Harvest Book by Harcourt Brace & Company in 1978. Chapter One begins on page 3 and the book ends on page 422. I originally read this work in the early 90's during my processing of a call to pastoral ministry. There are extensive underlinings and hand written notes in the margins, but none of them are dated to help me remember exactly when I read the book. I do remember that it was a time following the suicide of my daughter-in-law's twin sister, which had a life altering affect on me (you can read this story when it is published in Ordinary Time.) We were living in Ringgold, Georgia at the time. Ringgold is a suburb of Chattanooga, Tennessee. My work took me into Chattanooga where I was Director of Planning and Construction at Erlanger Medical Center.

SSM had such an impact on me that I had a passion to find and read everything Merton. At that time, the local book stores only carried the Seven Story Mountain and were releasing one volume of his journals on an annual basis. As time went by, I acquired a considerable collection of his published works. It will be nice to revisit this original work that sparked such an interest in this little Trappist monk, now almost fifteen years ago.

"For I tell you that God is Able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham." (from the title page of SSM, Matthew 3:9/Luke 3:8)

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Sunday 4/2/06 Year B - Lent 5

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:1-12
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

Many thanks to Bloomingcactus for this sermon.

Learning to Die

How much do you think about death? Usually, I hardly think about death at all. I’m relatively young at age 60, and for the most part I am healthy. I plan to live a long time. I plan to work at least until I turn 70. Even then I hope to shepherd a community of faith as their Pastor right up to the time of my death. Both my paternal grandparents lived well into their 90’s. And there is no reason I know of that I should not live as long. But as I ponder Jesus’ words here in John, death is often present in my thoughts, just below the surface, bouncing around in my unconscious.

And Death has been on my mind a lot lately. In the past four weeks, I have performed three funerals. I performed a funeral on Tuesday, the 7th, Tuesday the 14th and Thursday the 30th. Two of the funerals were for people in my own family. Two were for people in their eighties. They had lived a long and full life. A life filled with years. A life filled with Faith. A life filled with Love.

But the funeral I preached this past Thursday was for a 43 year old man who suffered and died with lung cancer. A cancer caused by years of smoking cigarettes. I just married him and his wife this past November. As I prepared for this funeral service, my thoughts began to wander towards my own mortality. I began to wonder if my body would hold out as long as I hoped, so that I could accomplish what I hope for in life.

How quickly thoughts can move to death. The fear of death is always lurking in the crazy tangle of our minds, just waiting to be activated. It is not a morbid or pathological fear, for I truly believe my life is not nearly over.

Still, there is this lingering fear of death. It is not just a fear of the actual act of dying. It is the fear of dying without meaning, dying without fulfilling my life’s purpose. My ego fears the loss of control of my autonomy, being rendered something less than the most important thing in the world. Thoughts of death remind the self that it just isn’t all that important in the overall scheme of things, for we could be gone in an instant and the world will go on without us. It is the little deaths that plague us, the death of self-importance, ego, meaningfulness, relevance and control.

As Easter approaches, the scriptures bring us near to the reality of death. Jesus has been predicting his own death and now, in our scripture this morning, He reflects upon it:
Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
Jesus talks of death as if it were a necessary loss. He turns to images of nature where death and life are always cycling back and forth. The seed dies in the ground and comes up again with new life, giving a great abundance back to the earth. We watch the trees every Fall as green leaves lose their life giving power of photosynthesis, turning brown, yellow and red and plunging to the ground in a colorful death. But what might these natural examples have to do with a human life, when we die not with beautiful leaves or more seeds but in loss of faculties and bodies that waste away before us?

The truth is, parts of us are dying all the time. You probably just lost half a million or so cells just listening to this sentence. We all lose about 100,000 cells per second. Fortunately, in a healthy body, just as many cells are being reproduced as are lost. Healthy bodies have this constant cycle of cells dying and the rebirth of new ones. Some scientists say that we are regenerated every seven years, which is an enormous relief to me.

Apparently, cells that don’t die off in the normal cycle are a real problem. These cells are related to diseases like cancer and become problematic because they get in the way and block the healthy development of the body.

I believe this is true in the spiritual and emotional life as well. “Those who love their life will lose it, but those who lose their lives for my sake will save it.” Our failure to let go and let some things die is a primary spiritual disease, for new life can’t come without some death. The failure to forgive leads to death of relationship while anger and bitterness ravage the spirit like a cancer. Holding on to regrets strangles hope before it can lift us to new life. Trying to control events and other people leads to frustration, excessive stress, and exhaustion. Forgiveness and letting go of control are spiritual exercises in the art of dying so that new life may abound.

One cause of depression, among many causes, is the mind’s tendency to get stuck in negative patterns of thinking called ruminative thinking. People with severe, recurrent depression often relapse into dark places where they become consumed with a sense of failure, worthlessness, shame or guilt. People get stuck believing these things despite great evidence to the contrary. They may really be reasonably bright, compassionate people, but they are stuck in negative ruminations. These thought patterns periodically get triggered acting like a destructive cancer upon emotional well-being. It is as if the brain has faulty software or a computer virus creating a system crash to prevent normal functioning.

One of the treatments for severe depression is to use the process of mindfulness meditation combined with anti-depressant medication. Mindfulness is a style of meditation where we learn to clear the mind and focus in on the present moment. Our mind is always full of thoughts; past memories, worries about the future, the din of things left undone, the whirl of schedules and the buzz of distractions from everything, from television to what everyone else thinks of us, are constantly barraging us. Mindfulness is a way of letting the moment be just the moment. By focusing on our breath, the constant flow in and out through our bodies, meditation teaches us to relax and let go of the din. It is a way of dying to the constant and useless noise in our heads so we can live in the present.

Mindfulness helps people with depression break the cycle of negative thought ruminations. It gets people out of their heads and into their lives in the present moment, instead of being dominated by past regrets or future worries. As we learn mindfulness, we begin to realize that our thoughts and emotions are just our thoughts and emotions. They rise and fall, come and go, just like breathing. One thought dies and another brings new life. As we learn to let go and be in the present moment, seeds fall to the ground and die, allowing the birth of something new.

...unless the grain of wheat, falling into the ground, die, itself remaineth alone. The words are much more poignant in their context. Some gentiles had asked Philip if they might speak to Jesus. This is Our Lord's answer. They cannot come to Him through Philip and Andrew, they cannot even come to Him if they talk to Him, because words will not unite them with Him. They can only come to Him if He dies for them.

Itself remaineth alone. Saint John emphasizes more and more the loneliness, the moral isolation, of Christ before His Passion. He is alone from the beginning because He is God and all the rest are men. He is alone because nobody can understand Him. Already in the sixth chapter a whole crowd of disciples has abandoned Him because His doctrine of the Eucharist is so far beyond them. He is isolated by the increasing hatred of the Pharisees, who form a stronger and stronger front against Him, forcing others to separate themselves from Him. He is isolated by His own greatness, which elevates Him further and further above His enemies. Now He is alone among men who either hate Him or do not know how to love Him, because they are unable to know Him as He really is. Yet there are some who want to come to the true knowledge and love of Him. If they want to be with Him, He must pass through death and take them with Him into life.

I am alone in the world with a different loneliness from that of Christ. He was alone because He was everything. I am alone because I am nothing. I am alone in my insufficiency—dependent, helpless, contingent, and never quite sure that I am really leaning on Him upon whom I depend.

Yet to trust in Him means to die, because to trust perfectly in Him you have to give up all trust in anything else. And I am afraid of that death. The only thing I can do about it is to make my fear become part of the death I must die, to live perfectly in Him.

I am always dying, with each breath that enters and leaves my body, with each second and the hundreds of thousands of cells that are dying off to make room for more. And may I keep dying so life may abound.

Thanks be to God!