Friday, May 26, 2017

Reflections on the Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year A: Casting Anxiety on God


Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen. (I Peter 5:6-11)
Life and ministry around here have seen a lot of anxiety surface of late. Those anxieties have taken many forms, from the slow-burn panic of folks worried about the future viability of their churches to the white-hot fear/rage of a mother made homeless with her son after the social services they had been assured were there for them broke down. I have seen people struggle to cope when circumstances spin out of their sense of control. I have sought to help people name their anxieties and fears because they lack the tools or experience to name them. Those anxieties make it so hard to cope with the next moment, much less deal confidently with the things that generally rock our sense of the world on a daily basis. I know how hard it is to deal with, as I deal with it, myself in my own being, as I struggle to be a faithful leader to my church and a faithful servant to my God. I know it as I struggle with the things that stress me, my wife and our household.

I know anxiety.

So why do I find it so difficult to do what Peter is asking of us this week, as Eastertide winds down and as we turn our liturgical hearts and minds to the wonder and glory of the feasts of Pentecost and Trinity Sunday? He tells us to cast our anxieties on God, because God cares for us. That makes little sense to an anxious person. Anxiety is something that fuels us, as much as it upsets us. It is just like that lion, pacing and roaring in the dark, beyond the fading light of the fires we build to keep the night (and predators) at bay. That feeling is an old, true one...for we know in out DNA how to fear the things that prowl in the dark, waiting for the light to fade so they can get to us, their lunch. Given that tangible and proven cause to hold on to our anxiety, why should we cast it onto God as Peter suggests? Madness.

Why? Because that wonderful old fisherman, Peter, offers not just a pastoral direction but a very kind word of confidence in Christ based on repeated personal experience. His working life was spent in an open boat on a tempestuous and fickle sea. He had to know how to cast off the fears and anxieties that paralyze and cripple us, because to fail to do so was to die (and probably take others with him to the bottom of the deep). Back on the boat, he had to have confidence in his vessel. He had to have confidence in his brother and his co-workers. He had to have confidence in himself and his experience to literally know when to fish and when to cut bait and head in to port.

He had to know how to cast his anxieties off, and he found that what he was left with was...confidence.

So, when he left his nets and answered the call to follow Jesus as a disciple...and when the Holy Spirit filled him with the knowledge of God on the day of Pentecost, he KNEW how to deal with his anxiety. Cast it on God, because once that net of anxieties leaves his hand he knows the result. What is left is confidence in a God who not only loves us, but is with us.

God is with us as we worry about out children. God is with us as we worry about peace in our local communities and abroad. God is with us as we fear for the ongoing vitality of the institutions that serve our faith and our call to love and help others. God is with us when we fail. God is with us when others fail us. God is with us when we fail others.

Confidence, to be imbued with trust and belief in something or someone, is a hard-won honor. It means that the person expressing that confidence is willing to do the very thing that Peter is taking about....to let go and cast off anxiety while at the same time taking up trust in things just beyond our personal control.

Peter did that daily on his boat. Peter learned from Jesus how to do that in his terrestrial walks before God, first as disciple and then as apostle. Peter offers that counsel to us...even while fully acknowledging that anxiety exists to keep us mindful of the very real and predatory nature of the enemy: with confidence in God and mutually supportive steadfast trust in God, we can do this...what ever THIS might be.

Cast your anxiety on God. Let go of it...because we will need both hands free to take hold of the confidence that God is tendering to us on the other side of our anxieties and fears. On the other side is peace and safehome in a port of God's own preparation.

Peter knew it.

Are we willing to know it, too?


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Reflections on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A: To An Unknown God and Other Insights

Anna Chromy's sculpture:
15ft high "Cloak of Conscience"
Paul's speech before the Athenians at the Areopagus is a story that has over the years meant a great deal to me as a preacher and as a disciple of Jesus. Paul sees the willingness of the Athenians to cover their bases in their worship of their many pagan gods with a small altar on which he finds an inscription dedicating it to "An Unknown God." (In Greek, "Agnostoi Theoi") He even quotes a famous-at -the-time poet philosopher named Aratus the Cilician whose major work, Phenomena,
as he praises the All-father Zeus whose work he sees all around him. That praise of sentiment, "For we are all his offspring" is Paul's "hook" into the Athenians. They know and can contextualize his point...while at the same time he gently and with reverence upbraids them for running after false Gods, when the God of all is withing reach in a relationship with the person of Jesus Christ, the Risen Son. 

I heard one of the best sermons of my life while at seminary, preached by my spiritual director, Br. Douglas Brown (Holy Cross). He spoke eloquently and honestly to the great challenges we all face as we stumble along as servants to the living God. A man in recovery, he talked about his own idolatries, and invited us to explore our own. How many gods we come up with at we deal with the many and various denials of God and the addictions to "that which is other than God" in our lives!

His journey through the temples of his own personal psyche, naming the gods he used to distract and distance himself from God was tragic and beautiful at the same time. Are our own temple precincts any less cluttered? I can, now nearly a quarter-century after the experience of Douglas' testimony, give vent to the many temples, shrines, altars and high places I have cluttered my life with as I have stumbled after Jesus. I can also, by the grace of a loving savior and the near-ancient testimony of a wise monk, begin to let the wild and loving nature of God begin to overtake those columns and altars. As they are slowly reclaimed by the nature of God that, like Nature itself eventually pulls down the architecture of most things we humans build, I give thanks for Paul, the ascribed sermon to the Athenians and to Jesus himself who continues to love us all despite our petty...and sometimes egregious...idolatries.

We were reading Morning Prayer on Wednesday, and the selection from the Wisdom of Solomon set me mind racing as I prepared for this that morning's Bible Study, this blog post and for Sunday's preaching. The writer speaks to the folly of human beings (ancient and modern) who, seeing the majesty and beauty of creation (or the majesty and beauty of human endeavor) decide to apply reverence to the thing to the point of deification instead of seeking out, giving credit to and blessing and worshiping the one who created all things.

For all people who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature;
and they were unable from the good things that are seen to know the one who exists,
nor did they recognize the artisan while paying heed to his works;
but they supposed that either fire or wind or swift air,
or the circle of the stars, or turbulent water,
or the luminaries of heaven were the gods that rule the world.
If through delight in the beauty of these things people assumed them to be gods,
let them know how much better than these is their Lord,
for the author of beauty created them.
And if people were amazed at their power and working,
let them perceive from them
how much more powerful is the one who formed them.
For from the greatness and beauty of created things
comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.
Yet these people are little to be blamed,
for perhaps they go astray
while seeking God and desiring to find him.
For while they live among his works, they keep searching,
and they trust in what they see, because the things that are seen are beautiful.
Yet again, not even they are to be excused;
for if they had the power to know so much
that they could investigate the world,
how did they fail to find sooner the Lord of these things?
Wisdom 13:1-9
It's moving to see how even the wisest among us can acknowledge that while the seeking of God is ongoing in most people's lives...most people stumble along that road as if they are in the dark and the road itself is as filled with potholes as the roads of New Jersey are after the spring thaw.

The first letter of Peter goes to great pains to coach us on dealing with both our own distractions from God's calling to witness God's grace and love in Christ. First, he reminds us that our witness (yes, the same word means witness and martyr in Greek!) is one which can cause strife in those listening. Answering the call to follow Jesus entails cost,  because to seek and follow one God, the one God who is the one who creates, redeems and sanctifies all, means admitting that we can't keep on keeping on with the things and behaviors that we use to distract ourselves from that grace. When someone takes away the veils of denial and invites us to confront our addictions and idols, the response is seldom, ever, "THANK YOU!" Yes?

So Peter quotes Jesus himself, from Matthew 5:10: "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Yeah, the first response is rejection at best. You might face worse...and so Peter tells us to first and foremost be ready to witness and preach to the love of God AT ALL TIMES...and to be ready to do so with gentleness and reverence.

Br. Douglas did that with us that day in the Chapel as he preached about his own demons, godlets and idols. He talked about, and named, all those things that distracted him from the never-fading light of God's love...and at the same time with gentle reverence asked us to turn to Jesus and away from the many liturgies to which we had given too much time to in distraction and dissipation. Too much time away from God is the result...and yet God is ever-willing to go back to day 1 of both sobriety and reconciliation with us, over and over again.

That is the good news of Eastertide, and the reality of our present day today, for the ancient past and for our future heirs...we follow a living God who, while the author and crafter of all things, at the same time waits patiently for us to turn from our distractions and walk in the light of a love that burns through and in all things.

Even us, little, distracted and hobbling as we can be.....

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Reflections on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A: There's a place for us....

Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”John 14:1-14
One of the great mysteries and challenges of life comes when we must face, inevitably, separation from others. When the relationship with that other is positive, life-giving and life-affirming, then the separation is a cause for grief. Even momentary separations can cause immense reactions. Take for example the first day a child is dropped off at pre-school. That can be a trauma for both child and adult in so many ways. Or perhaps the last time a loving couple says, "good night, I love you" when one is on hospice care...and it is perhaps the last time in this life that they will be able to speak and hear those words to and from each other.

Even when the relationship is a negative one, that moment of separation is challenging. After the end of an abusive/wrong/unhealthy relationship, often confusion and fear about what comes next tempt us to return to what was certainly and definitively NOT the place to be in with someone. Imagine that, the dread of separation is enough to send us BACK into places we only just moments ago we hoping to flee. That is how much we as human beings lack in desire for the state of separation.

We would avoid it at almost all costs.

Why? Well, because we are at our core social beings. We know that we are, not just because is Descarte's view "Cogito, ergo sum" (As I think, therefore I am); but because as we are known, we know. A child has awareness, but they only learn what awareness really means as they interact with others. Being is, perforce, a referential art form. We have a sense of our own personal self, space, boundaries only when there is someone, something else there to interact with at the place where we end and they/it begin. Isolation tanks have been used for a long time to help people experience a state of NOT being in relationship with anything or anyone. What comes next? Altered states of awareness and consciousness. Regression. Strong emotions of anxiety, even panic...and then deeper awarenesses of what true isolation really feels like: being completely out of relationship to the point that we lose touch with time and space itself.

Little wonder then, that we fear separation?

So, when Jesus tells his disciples that it is time for him to leave them in order to "go to prepare a place for us" in the Father's house...and that in his absence the disciples (and we) are to figure out the way, it is no small wonder that his words cause consternation in the assembly. Thomas is the first to say what all, what WE, are thinking..."We don't know were you are going...so HOW can we know the way!?!"

Either stay, or show us! Don't just GO!

Even when Jesus tells them that he IS the way to the Father, that they should not let their heart be troubled, that they should have faith. Even then, Philip folds back and doubles down, "Show us the Father, and we will be satisfied."

Oh, the desperation of separation!


The point I believe Jesus is trying to make, and the thing we really need in this life and at this point in our walk with the resurrected Jesus as we hear him beginning to talk about his Ascension to the Father and the coming of the Holy Spirit, is that with God in Christ the idea of separation itself has been sundered and rendered moot. Every loss is a passing loss, no matter how absolute. Even the separation of death has lost dominion over us with Christ's resurrection! That "place for us?" It's here and now with Christ, because no matter where and no matter what, in Christ God is with us. Nothing, as Paul asserts in his letter to the Romans, can now separate us from the love of God. Nothing can prevail.

So, if you are in a broken place or are being broken, do not be afraid to get up and go. That separation is essential for you and others to find an opportunity to heal. Do that with open eyes and a penitent heart. Do it with hope and certainty that God desires you whole, and for the breaker to he healed as well. It is not on you to fix or maintain brokenness that breaks you.

And, if you are facing a separation that means the end of a journey with someone whose absence from your life will mean sorrow and grief? Don't be afraid to weep honestly about the closing of a chapter of your existence together. Instead, weep and grieve knowing that every adieu, every commendation to God means not "goodbye for ever" but "until that moment when with God we will be together again.

Why do I believe that?

Because we have the testimony of Christ himself. There is a place for us in relationship with him, with each other and in the complete fullness that is God. Even God is because God is in relationship with the three persons of the Trinity.

Loss and separation are not so concrete. For in Christ, we are forever healed...and forever together in a place that God has prepared for us from before the beginning of creation.

There is a place for us.

Here.

Now.

For ever, in Christ Jesus.