Fursey’s Four Fires

So who in the world is Fursey? He’s a rather obscure Irishman who gets a mention in Bede’s History of the English Church and People. I read that book in seminary and for something written in 731 AD it’s quite readable. Bede mentions quite a few Irishmen for a book devoted to the development of Anglo-Saxon England. Each year I get a reminder of Fursey for a week during the second week of Advent in the prayers Dorie Ann and I use at the lighting of our Advent wreath at home. One section of the devotional tells of a vision of “four fires through which unclean spirits threatened to destroy the earth.” They are listed as the destroying fire of falseness, the destroying fire of greed, the destroying fire of disunity and the destroying fire of manipulation. And each year, but particularly this one, we comment on how contemporary this feels.

Fortunately, the devotional doesn’t end there. It continues: But Fursey urged everyone he met to do as the angels told him:  to fight against all evils.  He encouraged them with these words he had heard:  “The saints shall advance from one virtue to another;” and, “The God of gods shall be seen in our midst.”

At first the encouragement Fursey offers seems pretty pale against a set of destroying fires. In a world that seems beset by falseness, greed, disunity and manipulation we might be excused for wanting stronger stuff that what is on offer. Yet implied in these messages from the angels is a charge to follow the Jesus path as the means by which God overcomes the destroying fires.

The first charge is to fight against all evils. The first all too human reaction is to take up arms, whether political, economic or military, meeting might with might to set things right. This is not the Jesus path. If we fight fire with fire, fire always wins. There are other ways to fight against evil than to use the tools of evil. Paul enjoins the Roman Christians to follow the Jesus path in these words: “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21) To confront evil with good seems anti-intuitive to us, but only because the Jesus path is not the path that we were taught either by the world around us or even, sadly, by the church much of the time.

To fight against all evils means that wherever we find cursing in word or action we respond by blessing in word and action not only the victim but even the perpetrator. In the orbit of our reach, no evil done to others is irrelevant to us. We are God’s agent of blessing and that is our first duty.

The next word to Fursey from the angels is that “the saints will advance from one virtue to another.” We dare not turn this into an inward concern about building our own character. Virtue has substance only in so far as it is demonstrated by word and action in our relations with others. Advancing from one virtue to another means that our growth in Christ and therefore in virtue is a continuous journey. The primary function of a spiritual discipline, whether the Trinity Way of Life or any other set of disciplines is to keep and guide us on that journey. Therefore, it is never enough to simply come to worship, listen to teaching, receive nourishment in the Sacrament and then drop back to spiritual passivity for the remains of the week. What we receive we are to apply through the tools of our spiritual disciplines until we rejoin the worshiping community the following Sunday to build one another up, to share the stories of what God has done, accept the divine strength given in Holy Communion and return to the fray growing in the good works God is preparing for us.

The final word from the angels is that the God of gods shall be seen in our midst. In late November we began a preparation for Christmas in Advent and we are just now completing the 12 days of Christmastide. The birth of Jesus is the story of the God of Israel joining Israel in the midst of Israel. The God of gods is seen in their midst even though many do not recognize him. John’s Gospel notes that “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God– children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1:11-13) This adoption by God in Jesus is done through our baptism and its significance extends far beyond our personal salvation.

It cannot be said often enough that Christmas is not the end of the story of God’s redeeming work but its beginning. Jesus’ life, works and words covered a period of 33 years. The culmination of those years was traumatic and dramatic. But even that was not the end of the story. In fact, the Jesus story is still going on, acted out by generation of generation of apprentices of Jesus. The God of Israel entered Israel but now moves beyond the community of Israel into the gentile world. Wherever we are faithful, the God of gods is seen in our midst.

This past year has been a difficult and painful year all over the world and also in our local community. There seems to be an encroaching darkness that fills millions and even billions of people with anxiety and fear. But as John the evangelist also notes: “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5) In 2017 the challenge to the community at Trinity (and to Christian communities everywhere) is to be bearers of that light. In times of anxiety and fear we have a mission to carry out. If we take that mission seriously and execute it prayerfully and faithfully the destroying fires of falseness, greed, disunity and manipulation will never have their way.

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The Common Path

My last posting described in a small part the Jesus path, the counter-intuitive path Jesus choses to fulfill a vision in which one “like a son of man” is given authority, glory and sovereign power. The Jesus path didn’t make sense to his contemporaries and it doesn’t make sense to us; even to those of us who claim the identity of Christian. We, and the rest of our species, regardless of history, culture or geography have chosen a path by which we hope to bring our world to order and to some sense of justice and fairness. That this path has never fulfilled its promise has never deterred us. Maybe one of the reasons we don’t seem to “get it” is that we’ve rarely been aware of just what the path we’ve chosen entails. Fortunately, one episode in the Jesus story from John can help us find some clarity.

Pilate entered the praetorium again and called Jesus, and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me; what have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world.” Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” (John 18:33-38)

In this exchange there are three words in English, “of this world” translating four words in the Greek language in which John recorded the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate

My kingdom, says Jesus, is not of this world. Those are the three words: of this world. All too often Christians have read this as if what God is offering is an escape from this benighted planet into some ethereal realm of non-material bliss. With that interpretation Christians have either disengaged from dealing with the evil in this world, or tried to reform this world often using the same political and military means that others have used to destroy or exploit it. I think we can make a good argument that Christians have read Jesus wrong on this and that brings me to the four words that are behind the three words “of this world.”

ek tou kosmou toutou
Let’s break this down using the definitions from Strong’s dictionary:
Ek: according to Strong’s dictionary it is a primary preposition denoting origin, and can be translated “of” or “from”
Kosmou – orderly arrangement, that is, decoration; by implication the world (in a wide or narrow sense, including its inhabitants, literally or figuratively [morally]): – adorning, world.
tou… toutou – of (from or concerning) this (person or thing), the repetition tou…toutou is an emphasis: this world – meaning there are other arrangements, other systems and values

This is actually made clearer in the paraphrased Complete Jewish Bible: “Yeshua answered, “My kingship does not derive its authority from this world’s order of things. If it did, my men would have fought to keep me from being arrested by the Judeans. But my kingship does not come from here.” (John 18:36)

The exchange between Jesus and Pilate is a study in non-communication and the reason for that lies in the meaning of Jesus words: my kingdom does not draw its authority from the values of your world. Jesus knows Pilate’s world all too well. He has seen it since his childhood in the Roman occupation of his homeland, in the crucified bodies of his fellow Jews.

The impossibility of reasoning with those who seek to force the end of the world, who regard life as nothing and their own deaths as martyrdom warns us that creating heaven on earth is not within the reach of human effort. It is not, however, outside of the reach of Jesus. Throughout the Gospels you will find no command to take over Pilate’s world with Pilate’s tools. If we try that, we are on our own – Jesus will not help us establish such a kingdom even when we try it in Jesus’ name. Instead, in the Kingdom of God we are to be salt, leaven and light within the area of our reach. And though tyranny and insanity and cynical exploitation seem to overwhelm our consciousness, the greatest danger these things pose to us is to inhibit us from doing those things within our reach.

So here’s what we do in the face of insane fanaticism and the reaction of anger and fear: do not despise the little things within our reach. We are assured that every small act of feeding the hungry or offering kindness and blessing to the alien and the refugee, providing shelter for the homeless or giving hope and opportunity to the hopeless – every act and word of blessing will be taken up into the world God is building even as this world is tearing itself apart.

So to cobble together a few lines of Scripture:
Be not afraid little flock
In the [Pilate’s] world we will indeed have tribulation
But Jesus has overcome that world
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
And all things done in Christ are never done in vain.

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Which Path?

(Reflections on the readings from All Saints Day Year C in the Revised Common Lectionary)

“I, Daniel, was troubled in spirit, and the visions that passed through my mind disturbed me. (Dan 7:15). I know how Daniel felt. I’m aware of our election results a well.

I do not mean to trivialize the significance of the choices our nation made. But in spite of the heated rhetoric on both sides, the biggest thing happening is not about American government. In order to get a glimpse of what God is up to we need to look closer at the Scriptures for All Saints – first at Daniel and then at Luke.

Here is the reading from Daniel:
In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon, Daniel had a dream, and visions passed through his mind as he was lying in bed. He wrote down the substance of his dream. Daniel said: “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me were the four winds of heaven churning up the great sea. Four great beasts, each different from the others, came up out of the sea. […] “I, Daniel, was troubled in spirit, and the visions that passed through my mind disturbed me. I approached one of those standing there and asked him the meaning of all this. “So he told me and gave me the interpretation of these things: ‘The four great beasts are four kings that will rise from the earth. But the holy people of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will possess it forever–yes, for ever and ever.’

This Daniel reading has a missing middle and the missing middle is not a new problem in Christianity. The baptismal covenant which is renewed from time to time in our services has its own missing middle; in the Apostles’ creed.

He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.

The thirty-three years of Jesus’ life and most of the content of all four Gospels disappear in to a punctuation mark. That’s the missing middle. Our regular Nicene creed has the same problem. They both jump from birth to crucifixion without mentioning the substance of what Jesus does and says in the Gospels. That’s really not the fault of the creeds or their authors. The creeds are like a drawing that marks the footprint of a house. It’s not the house, nor even the foundation, it is simply the outline and you can’t live in an outline.

The missing middle of Daniel’s vision tells an important story. It is important to understanding Daniel’s vision, but also important to understanding Jesus and therefore important for our self-understanding as a Christian community. The first five omitted verses describe the beasts which are images of various kingdoms and empires and emperors. In the next four verses the God of Israel arrives in a court scene as the books of judgment are opened and the beasts are slain or rendered powerless.

Then there are two verses more and they are the key to what Jesus was about, how he saw himself and what that means for us. It’s best to read the verses:

“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.  (Dan 7:13-14)

This is why Daniel is so important, this is where Jesus picks us his self-identifying phrase “the Son of Man.” The scene in which the son of man is given authority, glory and sovereign power is Jesus’ own vision of his destiny. It was a vision and a hope shared by many Jews of the time, the hope that God’s anointed one would appear in power and set a chaotic and unjust world to rights. You might think that Jesus and his contemporaries having the same vision in mind would lead to a meeting of minds. But there was a problem, a very big problem.

For Jesus’ compatriots the vision was to be fulfilled by an abrupt invasion of the glory and power of God. For Jesus the attainment of the vision required following a long path that would seem anti-intuitive to normal human expectation. The Jesus path to the vision led through seeking out the hapless – widows and orphans – and the hopeless – prostitutes and traitors: “the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.” The Jesus path to the vision went through service, like washing the feet of those who thought they were supposed to serve him, but “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” Ultimately the Jesus path leads through the crucifixion, “the Son of Man will be handed over to sinners and be crucified.” The Jesus path made no sense to his contemporaries and it makes little sense to us, even to us Christians. If we want to change our world for the better our obvious path is the path to power.

But of course, the Jesus path really only makes sense if we take in the rest of the story. The Resurrection as an historical event is God’s vindication of the Jesus path. The Resurrection is not only about our lives after we die, it is about our lives as we live them in a world that neither understands or respects the Jesus path.

Something big is going on and our world is missing out on it. Something big is going on and it can only be seen by those who take the Jesus path.

So take Jesus at his word: the poor inherit the kingdom that is already loose in the world, the hungry will find their nourishment, those who mourn will rediscover laughter and if the world mocks you for that, rejoice because you know you’re on the Jesus path. Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you. That’s the Jesus path. Bless those who curse you and pray for those who treat you badly. That’s the Jesus path. Do to others as you would have them do to you. On the Jesus path is a whole company of saints who will inherit the kingdom that comes only on the Jesus path. And this Jesus who God vindicated in Resurrection, who is now enthroned over all the heavens and the earth will take our small counter intuitive deeds and build them into an unstoppable force of healing and blessing.

That may sound like a wonderful charge for wonderful change, but all of the truth about the Jesus path has to be followed in the world that produced our bitter campaign and tumultuous election. It is clear from all the campaign rhetoric that the Jesus path isn’t on the radar screen of our national culture. In fact, we Americans, along with all of the other nations of the world follow a different path and that will be addressed in my next posting.

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If it ain’t broke…

… don’t fix it. That piece of homespun advice gets bandied about a lot, particularly when well-intended folks offer unwanted advice to people who are content with life. It’s also used to avoid dealing with self-sabotaging behavior when the prospect of change is too daunting, too painful or even just too inconvenient to face. My own experience is that sometimes when that expression is used we may be mistaken about what “it” is or how “it” is supposed to function.

That piece of advice came to mind while reflecting on what I wrote 2 weeks ago after the mass killing in Orlando. God had a different destiny for the shooter than the one he chose. “A human being, a child of Adam, destined to be a priest whose acts of love would weave meaning into the world, instead took up weapons…” And from a couple of paragraphs later “The priesthood of Adam has failed again of its hope.” Both of those statements imply a good deal of content and I hope to begin unpacking them here. At the same time, we dare not forget those killed and wounded in Orlando, nor let the deep wounds of individuals lost be buried under the sheer numbers of people killed by one person in a very short time. Each person who died was also destined by God to be a priest giving meaning to our world.

I’ve been referring to such actions as the Orlando killing under the heading of the “priesthood of un-meaning.” That does not mean that the killer exercised a different sort of priesthood than the victims or indeed all human beings. It is how that priesthood is acted out – does it give meaning and joy and purpose? Does it tear apart lives, destroy hope or further the brokenness of human life? One exercise of priesthood did just that at the nightclub in Orlando. But there were also many, many other acts of priesthood that occurred that evening. We know of a few of them like the bouncer who leapt through a crowd of panicking people to open a door for 60-70 patrons to escape. There were many more like first responders and victims comforting and working to save other victims. And each one of those acts were priestly acts that echoed God’s intent in creating humankind.

Even a broken priesthood can shine the light of hope through the deepest darkness. Even a broken priesthood can in some small degree heal wounds inflicted by the priesthood of unmeaning. But our acts of kindness and love and bravery and compassion cannot hide the fact that Adam’s priesthood is broken. When each act of horror occurs we can see clearly that brokenness. Yet at the same time each act of bullying in a schoolyard or a business office or a government office or a church is also the sign of a broken priesthood. Each act of abuse and betrayal is a sign of that broken priesthood. To add to the problem, human beings are capable of exercising both aspects of priesthood – blessing and unmeaning. We can exercise both acts in our relationships in the same day, even in the same hour.

Add to broken priesthood a history of anger, resentment and the feeling of powerlessness. Then mix in broken religion and an automatic weapon with a substantial clip and you have Orlando. Take those last elements away and you have abusive relationships and toxic workplaces. Yet, take away even anger and resentment and the feelings of powerlessness and you still have a broken priesthood that tries its best to bring healing good to our world and yet ever fails to fulfill its own vision.

That’s a long way around to the place I got stuck two years ago. But the getting stuck was not because we are without hope and without remedy. Rather, I was stuck because I had a hint that the remedy was so radical that I wasn’t sure I wanted to go there myself. It is time to start working on that journey and I’ll share those thoughts in a week or so.

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The Priesthood of Unmeaning (Again)

It’s happened again. A human being, a child of Adam, destined to be a priest whose acts of love would weave meaning into the world, instead took up weapons and left — at last count — 50 dead and more than that wounded. The numbers are appalling. But to those who have lost someone they loved, there is a name and a face and a history that was killed. That person was one of 50. But he or she might have been one of 5 or one of 5,000 and the pain and the sorrow and the darkness would be the same.

The news coverage will fade quickly enough. Leaders here and abroad have expressed their sorrow, their outrage and their solidarity with all who have lost and were lost. A few politicians have said stupid things or made cynical use of tragedy. (Many people not in politics may do the same but they don’t get press coverage.) But when the press have moved on to other things and when the next tragedy happens there are still hundreds of people who will remember a name, a face and a history that is lost to them.

The priesthood of Adam has failed again of its hope. Unmeaning has been loosed upon us with echoes of the laughter of hell. Not even the new priesthood of the Christ will bring the lost back to life in our midst. Thus all who seek to exercise that new priesthood will struggle to go on in the face of the relentless tide of evil and unmeaning. But go on we must and go on we will. We will bless those within our reach with the blessing of the Christ. Following the instructions given to Aaron, we will place God’s Holy Name upon them. We will reach beyond the normal network of our relationships to bless those who react in horror and fear. And, this is the hardest part, we will bless those who curse and condemn Muslims and homosexuals and invoke the name of God over the carnage.

The priesthood of Adam may well seek to curse and condemn and judge in reaction. Those who exercise the priesthood of Christ will not be turned aside. We know the outcome of the battle against meaning and love and purpose. As the old Pentecostal preacher cried: “I took a peek at the back of the book and Jesus wins.”

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Priesthood and blessing

I can’t recall ever being blessed by my father. It’s neither a complaint or a whine, just an observation. It could be that my father did bless me when I was an infant, but I’ve no recollection. I’ve also no blame for him. It would surprise me very much to learn that my father’s father had blessed him, even though my father was the first born son. And there’s no blame being assigned to my grandfather either. I don’t know how many generations it has been since the Church taught blessing as a Christian’s prerogative. But I do know that when I’ve asked how many people in a congregation of 100+ were ever blessed by their fathers, less than half dozen hands are raised.

Blessing is a priestly act, but it doesn’t require a priest in the sacramental/institutional sense. As Russ Parker notes in his book Rediscovering the Ministry of Blessing, blessing is more than just good wishes or nice words. It conveys the presence of God on the person being blessed. It can mark the healing of old and deep wounds. It can also restore a sense of purpose in the life of that person. Most of all, blessing is a sacramental unsaying of the curses our world loves to give. When Jesus instructs disciples to bless those who curse you he is doing more than just breaking a cycle of meeting curse with curse. He is inviting his apprentices to engage in a ministry of healing the wounds the world inflicts.

That’s good news, but there is even better news. Even when there is no specific wound to heal, when there is no curse to lift, blessing builds. That’s why I do wish my father had known he had both the authority and ability to bless. Even today, when perhaps our children are grown and the opportunity to bless in childhood has passed, it is still possible to bless our children and teach our children to bless their own. In the ministry of blessing we incarnate Christ’s new priesthood. The fallen priesthood of Adam, so often a priesthood of unmeaning, will now never have the last word.

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The Apprentice Priest is back – maybe.

In the nearly 18 months since I last posted anything I’ve mulled over many ideas on which to write. Then, of course, I got busy, or got behind, or got stuck or got so bored with what I was writing that I couldn’t bring myself to finish. Behind all of this was a need to follow up on a post from almost 2 years ago on the Priesthood of un-meaning. If you’ve not read this or read it so long ago as to have no clue what it’s about then follow the link and check it out. It’s not that long so I’ll wait….

 

The conclusion promised a further post on a new priesthood, a priesthood that could heal the carnage created by the human “priesthood of un-meaning:” those acts inescapably part of our human priestliness that are abusive, wounding and destructive. These acts can be anything from gossip to genocide and they all seek to rob human life of joy, meaning and hope. But how could I describe a priesthood, this new priesthood, that I knew in theory but wasn’t sure how to exercise? That question derailed the series and though I wrote some posts on different subjects, things were pretty hollow. In the last two years, without realizing it, I’ve been learning to exercise this new priesthood, almost by accident. So maybe I should retitle this blog from the Apprentice Priest to the Accidental Priest.

The key priestly act here is the act of blessing. There’s a good deal more to blessing that good wishes or kindly words. Blessing can do remarkable things in the deepest wounds of our souls. And that’s where I’ll posit an alternative to the priesthood of unmeaning.

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