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Clothed in Strength and Dignity

My initial reaction to our readings for Sunday was one of bemusement and amusement.

autumn dogwood leaf, with sun shining through, by Martin LaBar
autumn dogwood leaf, with sun shining through, by Martin LaBar

First, I thought the Collect to be particularly well-suited to this time of year, when, in the Northern hemisphere the summer is ending and we’re starting to see leaves change and harvest come to an end. On the Celtic Wheel of the Year, the Fall Equinox is celebrated as Mabon; this is the end of the harvest season, the last celebration before Samhain marks the beginning of winter and of the new year.  As Christians, our tradition has separated us somewhat from observing the turn of the seasons, though this is part of our Jewish heritage.  But the Collect appointed for Sunday is a beautiful observation, though it does not directly address the harvest time and the coming of winter:

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things,
but to love things heavenly;
and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away,
to hold fast to those that shall endure;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
Amen.

I noticed that we have Psalm 1 appointed, the opening of the great prayer book of the bible.  The Psalter is at the heart of the monastic life, prayed in each observance of the Hours (sort of a Wheel of the Day).  More than one Benedictine has observed that the very first word of the Psalter is Happy.  I generally prefer to use Joyful, when the word happy occurs in the bible, feeling that joy expresses the love we share with God more effectively than happiness does.  But still: we are called to be Happy, to be Joyful.  And this links in well with the Collect, too.  It is too easy to become unhappy when we pay too much attention to earthly things, which always pass away.  But when we’re able to fix our attention on the things of God, the things of heaven, that are eternal and real, we can find this happiness, this joy.  (By the way, in case you’re wondering, the very last word of the Psalter?  It’s Hallelujah!)

The reading from Proverbs is a lovely poem about the value of a woman who has strength, integrity, and dignity.  This poem sings the praises of such a woman, observing that anyone who has her in their life — especially her husband and children — will find her an inspiration and a blessing.   In the gospel lesson from Mark, Jesus teaches us that it is our job to be servants.  Then he picks up a child, holds the child on his lap, and says that when we welcome little children, we welcome Jesus himself, and through Jesus, all three persons of the Trinity.  And in the epistle lesson from James, James chides the early Christians for their arguments and divisions, sounding frustrated when he snaps out with Who is wise and understanding among you?

So the amusement?  When I read the passage from James, I actually started giggling.  After all, doesn’t the reading from Proverbs answer his opening question?  Who is wise and understanding? The WOMEN!  😀  Why are they arguing?  Because they’re all MEN!  😀  And in response to Jesus, who will always welcome a child into their lap?  A WOMAN!  See, all the answers are right there in front of you, you silly menfolk!  😀  Okay, so I said that was only my first impression.  It was fun and frivolous and funny, and maybe that was just what I needed this morning.

I do notice a thread that weaves through these readings, though.  Jesus tells us, as he does several times in the gospels, that we must be servants of all, and James elaborates on this.  James advises us to resist temptation, by eschewing envy, ambition, boastfulness, and lies; he advises us to draw nearer to God, by embracing peace and gentleness, by being willing to yield to others, by allowing God to fill us with mercy and purity.  This is advice for all of us, not just women, and not just men.  We may not normally think of peace or gentleness or mercy or purity as particularly manly or strong traits.  And yet, the very strength of any person lies in his or her willingness and ability to be something less than the Number One, to be in second place, to set aside one’s selfishness, to grant mercy to others.

women at work, by peevee@ds
women at work, by peevee@ds

The wife in the reading from Proverbs is a shining example of these traits.  She wakes early to begin the tasks of serving her household, to make sure everyone is fed, to make sure everyone has work to do so that nobody has to be idle.  She is merciful to the poor and the needy, and she works to make sure not only everyone in the household is suitably clothed but so that there are extra thread or cloth or garments to supplement the family’s income.  She is prepared for what may come in the future, and she does not over-indulge in idleness.  Certainly, this is a perfect woman, isn’t it?  In fact, this sounds like a perfect person — woman or man!  Nobody has ever been this perfect, except for Jesus himself.

Dearly Beloved, by drinksmachine
Dearly Beloved, by drinksmachine

We have a long and beautiful tradition of being wedded to God, beginning particularly in the poetry and prophetic books of the Old Testament.  Into the New Testament, the Church is described as the Bride and Jesus as the Bridegroom. But in this week’s Old Testament reading, the perfect person — the person who has strength and dignity [as] her clothing, who opens her mouth with wisdom, whose children rise up and call her happy while her husband praises her — this person is not the bridegroom, but the bride.  So I’m going to ask you to indulge me for a moment in something a little strange, maybe even a little scandalous.

I invite you to take a deep breath and then close your eyes.  Bring up an image of God and God’s Church, at their wedding day.  You might visualize God as any one person of the Trinity, or as all the three in their eternal dance.  Pay attention to what God is wearing for this wedding.  Smell the flowers and maybe the incense at the altar.  See the light streaming through windows: does it dance and sparkle?  does it pour through stained glass and pool in bright colors on the floor?  Or does the wedding take place in an outdoor chapel, perhaps in the mountains or on the shore of the ocean?  See the beautiful decorations, and hear the music that is playing.  Bring yourself into this place.  Will you be the Church itself, or will you be sitting in the pew to witness this union?

Now, pay attention to how you have visualized God and the Church; notice which is the bride in this wedding and which is the groom.  And if you have, in our long and beautiful tradition, imaged God as the groom and God’s Church as the bride, I ask you to switch them.  I do not mean this to say that our tradition is wrong, but just to try something out.  Be playful for a moment.

Now God is the bride, clothed with strength and dignity, filled with purity and mercy, peaceful and gentle, yielding to us even though we are God’s creation.  Maybe one day there will be children from this union, and God will welcome them on God’s lap, embracing them and playing with them, and caring for their every need.  God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — is the perfect wife we heard so much about in the poetry from the book of Proverbs.  God is the wise and understanding person James describes.  God is the servant to all, who welcomes even little children, that Jesus teaches us to be.

And now the Church is dressed as a man on his wedding day.  But the Church, alas, is made up of humans and not of perfect people.  From time to time, we all indulge in things of the earth, and we all let our focus stray from the things of heaven.  Sometimes each of us is envious or boastful; we can be ambitious or deceitful; we get into arguments and conflicts with each other; and we grow to be rather fond of our earthly pleasures.  And yet, today, here in this glorious wedding, today we of the Church will pledge ourselves to God.  As the Church, we unite ourselves with this perfect bride, this perfect wife.  God promises us that God will love and honor and cherish us, will meet our needs whether we are rich or poor, will take care of us whether we are sick or well.  God makes sure we are fed, just like when God fed the Israelites in the desert, just like when Jesus offered himself as Living Bread.  God makes sure we are clothed, are sheltered.  God prepares us for the snowstorms and blizzards to come.  God vows to do us good, and never to harm us.  These promises come from God, who is far more precious than jewels, the pearl of great price.

What an amazing wedding!  How could we possibly choose a bride more capable, more trustworthy, more wise than God?  We know our own flaws, both as individuals and as the Church.  We know well that we are not worthy of this union, yet, this bride — God! — chooses us to love and care for.  And these marriage vows do not end with death; no, God vows to care for us, to love us, to be with us absolutely forever.  When our life on this world ends, we join an even deeper union with our perfect bride.  And in this union, as James tells us, we will find the harvest of righteousness.

It doesn’t matter whether you are man or woman, young or old, heterosexual or homosexual, sick or well, rich or poor.  These lessons for Sunday give us some very practical advice for living the lives God wants for us.  Let go of idleness, boastfulness, lying, jealousy, argument, ambition, hypocrisy.  Unclench your tight hands, and let the things of this world be released.  Embrace peace, mercy, gentleness, love, hospitality, trustworthiness, honesty, strength, dignity, kindness, praise, and joy.  Attend to the things of heaven, of God.  And this brings the Happy that opens the Psalter.  When we sow these things, then in time, we will harvest righteousness.

harvest time, by matze_ott
harvest time, by matze_ott

It’s September now.  The harvest is ending, and winter is coming.  The wonderful things about spring and summer are passing away for a time, but there are real and timeless things for us to attend to and embrace.  Let’s pray that Collect one more time, now that we’ve explored this week’s readings.  Let’s follow those shining threads that show us how God wants us to live, the threads that take us through our sowing of good things and into the harvest God promises us.

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things,
but to love things heavenly;
and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away,
to hold fast to those that shall endure;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Amen.

Grace, Preceding and Following (Proper 23, Year A)

I’ve been really late this week getting my lectionary reflection written.  This week’s readings felt somewhat disjoint to me, from Moses challenging God to save the lapsed Israelites because it would look bad from the Egyptians’ point of view, to the “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice!” reading from Paul that earworms me viciously, to the wedding parable, in which the poor are invited to the wedding but the one man who wasn’t wearing a suitable garment got thrown into the outer darkness.  I keep scratching my head and saying things like, “WTF?”

For the third week in a row, the line that sang out for me the strongest came from the Collect:

Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us,
that we may continually be given to good works;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Amen.

That bit about God’s grace always preceding and following us, I find that beautiful.   How would you picture God’s grace?  What does God’s grace look like?  It might be a shining light, clear and pure and beautiful.  Or it might be a warm, fuzzy blanket or a soft quilt, the kind that someone hand-makes for you, a gift of great love and prayer.  Or it might look like a person; maybe the grace preceding you has a harsh visage, to frighten away evil, while the grace following you shines with light and love.  It could be the columns of cloud and fire that guided the Israelites out of Egypt and into the desert.

For a moment, I’d like you to hold in your mind the images you found of God’s grace.  With your inner eye, place yourself on a path – a sidewalk through a neighborhood, a path winding through a forest, a hiking trail in the mountains, perhaps a ford through a river, whatever path speaks most strongly for you – and visualize God’s grace preceding you and following you.  As you immerse yourself into this scene, this pathway along your journey of faith, invite in your other senses.  What do you hear?  The roar of ocean waves, the humming of insects, the random vrooms and honks of traffic, the chirps of industrious birds?  How does the air smell?  What do you feel on your skin?  Close your eyes and allow your path to soak into you, with God’s grace preceding and following you.

My brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

The apostle Paul wrote those words while he was in a dark place on his journey.  He was in prison, knowing that he would only be released to be executed, and yet, he wrote words of great beauty and love.  God’s grace shone through his words so clearly that they were included in our canon of scripture.  Maybe you are in a dark place along your path.  I know that my path has felt rather dark of late, and perhaps that is why those words from the collect spoke to the deepest places within me – God, let your grace always precede and follow me – to help me know that even in those dark places along my journey, I am not alone.

It is a powerful image, and it may be difficult to remember in those dark places.  I may have imagined my path through a cavern, far under the earth, completely dark – and it’s so hard to imagine complete darkness, even when one has been in a cavern and experienced total cave-blackness before – alone and lost, almost smothered by the darkness and the weight of the earth above me.  But God’s grace precedes and follows me.  I am not alone in that cavern, in that darkest of dark places, and I do not have to be lost there.  God’s grace might be a light in that dark place, to help me see.  Then again, God’s grace may be something different, something I didn’t expect or ask for.  God’s grace may be pressed against me, enfolding me like a cloak, and guiding me through the cavern safely, even though I can’t see the way ahead for myself.  God’s grace may be the whisper of a breeze, blowing past me and gently kissing my cheek.  But when I know that God’s grace is there, then I can indeed stand firm in the Lord, as Paul said.

He said more, too, and it’s even more beautiful:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
Let your gentleness be known to everyone.
The Lord is near.
Do not worry about anything, but in everything
by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving
let your requests be made known to God.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, beloved,
whatever is true,
whatever is honorable,
whatever is just,
whatever is pure,
whatever is pleasing,
whatever is commendable,
if there is any excellence
and if there is anything worthy of praise,
think about these things.
Keep on doing the things
that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me,
and the God of peace will be with you.

In that Collect, we pray for God’s grace to precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works, and this is exactly what Paul says here.  The Lord is here, Paul says, and then reminds us to Keep on doing the things that are true and honorable and just and pure and pleasing and commendable and excellent and worthy of praise.  He closes the circle by saying that when we do those things, the God of peace will be with you.

God precedes us, to invite us into those true and honorable things, and God follows us when we do them, to give us peace and comfort and gentleness.  God is with us.  All we have to do is recognize that God is there, to know that God is always before us and behind us (and above us and below us and to the left and to the right and in and through and between and up and down and sideways and diagonal 🙂 ), and we will be invited and inspired to do these things, to continually be given to good works.

If Paul could write these words while he was on death row, then we can read them and take them in wherever we are on our own path.  In the alternate track through the lectionary, the appointed psalm is Psalm 23, and this resonates deeply with our image from the Collect and with the words of Paul.  I’ll close this week’s reflection by re-imaging this Psalm, to fit the images I found for myself when I closed my eyes and immersed myself in the vision of God’s grace preceding and following me.  I invite you to try out the same exercise.  You may just find a great gift there.

The grace of the Lord precedes and follows me;
I do not need to worry.
God reminds me to stop and take a rest from my journey
and invites me to eat heartily and drink deeply.
God revives my soul
and guides me along right pathways for God’s Name’s sake.
When I wander lost in the darkness of the cavernous Pit,
I need fear no evil;
for God is with me;
God’s arms embrace me, in that embrace I find comfort and strength.
God guides me to the feast, with those I love and with those I find hard to love;
God’s hands bless my head,
and I have all that I could possibly need.
Surely God’s grace and gentleness shall walk with me through my entire journey,
and I will reach God’s house and live there for ever.

As you walk your path this week, my beloved friends, remember that God’s grace precedes you and follows you.  Remember to stop and close your eyes along the way, to bring back that vision of your path, to see and hear and smell and feel and taste God’s grace guiding you.

May you be blessed to find God near to you, so that you need never worry about anything.  May your gentleness shine through you to everyone, and may you find the things that are true and honorable and just and pure and pleasing and commendable and excellent and worthy of praise.  May the God of peace be always with you, and may the peace that passes all understanding guard and guide your heart and mind in our Christ Jesus.

Listen with the ear of your heart

This coming Friday is the feast of St. Benedict of Nursia, whose name may be familiar to you from Benedictine monks and nuns, or perhaps from the current pope.  Perhaps Benedict’s greatest accomplishment was the writing of his Rule for life together as religious.  The Rule of St. Benedict has 73 chapters, but despite this seemingly large number, can be legibly printed as a pocket-sized paperback.  Benedict’s Rule is very important in how it gives guidelines for a large number of people all living together, from the smallest details of their life – like how to handle and show respect for their tools – to their primary focus on ora et labora, work and prayer.  The Rule is about balance, about learning what is real and good and lasting and giving those things preference over the things that are fleeting and false and wrong.

Benedict laid out in his Rule the times of prayer, to occur about every three hours throughout the day and night.  When the bell would ring for prayer, each member of the community would immediately stop whatever he or she was doing, and hasten to the chapel for prayer.  It did not matter if you were in the middle of rolling out bread dough or milking a cow or hearing someone’s confession; when the bell rings for prayers, you go.  These days, most orders do not pray all of these offices (or hours), but generally gather four times each day for prayer.  The Book of Common Prayer lays out Morning Prayer, Noontime Prayer, Evening Prayer (also called Vespers or if sung, Evensong), and Compline, and observing these offices can give a certain rhythm and flow to the day, even if you don’t pray all of them in their entirety.  And there is definitely something good about letting prayer flow through our days and give them structure.  My organizational behavior professor a couple years ago began our semester by observing that there is only one resource that even the best manager in the entire world cannot get more of somehow: time.  A manager can seek venture capital to raise cash, can hire more people, can buy more equipment, but nobody can ever get more time than we already have.  And thus, I have come to think that there is one sacrifice that must please God more than any other that we make: our time, our attention.  We can’t ever get more time, so when we choose to spend our precious time with God, attending to God, praying to God, thanking God, offering ourselves to God – I think this pleases God tremendously.

This morning, I got up to feed the beasties, had a telephone call with my beloved, and then was sleepy so I lay back down to rest some more.  My kitty Midnight, who very rarely sleeps on my bed at night, watched from her window seat as I got back under the covers, and then leapt up on the bed and curled her warm little body right against the small of my back.  She fell almost instantly asleep, and I could feel her purring against my back almost more than I could hear it.  And I thought, this kitty had a comfortable seat in the window, enjoying the sunlight.  She didn’t have to move, but she wanted to.  She gave to me the gift of her time and attention, and this gave me great delight.  And I thought, how much more must it give God delight when we attend to God, we who fill our time with work and hobbies and eating and sleeping and so many other things?

Benedict also practiced and instructed his followers in radical hospitalityLet all guests who arrive be received like Christ, begins Chapter 53, and Benedict lays out guidelines for how to do this.  In his rule, Benedict reminds us that no matter where or how we live, even if we live as eremites, we are not alone.  Guests will still come to us, and we are called to treat them with love and generosity, as Jesus calls us to.  And Benedict doesn’t say anything about making sure that a guest is a Christian or even a believer; he doesn’t instruct his followers to be sure that their guests hold to orthodox beliefs or to make sure that each guest is heterosexual, chaste within marriage, or celibate if unmarried.  Benedict doesn’t say that a**holes should be treated any differently than pleasant, polite guests.  Every single guest to the monastery is to be received like Christ.

This is powerful stuff.  I’ll admit, it can be really hard for me to receive everyone who importunes on my time… like Christ.  And this means that there are times when it can be really hard for me to perceive Christ in the people around me.  I’ll bet that I’m not the only one who struggles with this, but it is part of our calling to love our neighbor.  Of course, receiving every guest like Christ can be less difficult when we practice a virtue to which Benedict dedicates the longest chapter of his Rule: humility.  True humility, according to Benedict, begins with remembering God’s power and majesty and glory compared with our own brokenness, remembering that God is always watching over us, and practicing self-denial to become accustomed to giving our obedience to God.  The next step is to place oneself under obedience to the Abbot of the monastery, which may not be applicable to most 21st century Americans, but it does have parallels, and they are worth reflecting on.  (Side note: when applying to business school a few years ago to work on my MBA, I actually wrote one essay on the Benedictine vows of stability and obedience, and how I live them out in my professional life.  I was sure this would get me rejected, but it didn’t!)  The steps on Benedict’s ladder of humility continue until one reaches true humility of heart, which Benedict tells us gives that perfect love of God which casts out fear.  So even though his ladder of humility begins by fearing God – since fear is a very primal, very natural, very animal sensation – it ends with perfect love that casts out fear.  This love is very natural, but we must work to find it, because it does not come easily.

The Work of God, the hours of prayer throughout the day, is designed so that the community will pray all 150 psalms every week.  Just as the psalms are the prayerbook at the heart of the bible, so they are the prayerbook at the heart of the monastery.  Ever emotion we are capable of feeling is documented in the psalms – joy, fear, sorrow, anger, frustration, rage, happiness, gratitude, praise, adoration – and those who live in a Benedictine community encounter and experience all of these emotions every week through speaking, singing, chanting – praying the psalms.  The very first word of Psalm 1 is Happy.  And Benedictines are usually happy people, having climbed the ladder of humility and found that perfect love that casts out fear.  Thus, the final word of Psalm 150 is Hallelujah! Every other emotion falls between those two words, but the psalms – the prayerbook of the bible, the prayerbook of Benedictines – begin with Happy and end with Hallelujah!

The Rule of St. Benedict begins with the word Listen.  I try to place listening between Happy and Hallelujah.  It is easy enough to fail to listen when we are happy.  After all, we don’t want to face bad news, because somehow the fall is so much worse when we fall from joy than when we fall from a so-so mood.  It is equally easy to fail to listen when we are experiencing one of those less pleasant emotions; we get so wound up in trying to solve the problems at hand that we just don’t pause to hear God’s voice with the ear of our heart.  But Listen carefully my child, … and incline the ear of your heart, reminds us that from Happy to Hallelujah, there is work for us to do, and God is there to help us through, if we remember to pay attention.

So my prayer for you this Friday, my friend, is that you will incline the ear of your heart to hear God’s whispers to you there.  I pray that you will be able to walk the road from Happy to Hallelujah this week without having to touch too deeply on the harder parts in between.  I pray that you will find yourself received like Christ, and perhaps that you will find the grace within yourself to receive someone else like Christ, perhaps someone you might not even like very much.  I pray that you will find time to sacrifice to God this week, and that you will find as much delight in this sacrifice as God does.  And may you come to find the perfect love that casts out all fear in your own striving toward true humility.

As the collect for the Feast of St. Benedict says,

Almighty and everlasting God,
your precepts are the wisdom of a loving Father:
Give us grace, following the teaching and example of your servant Benedict,
to walk with loving and willing hearts in the school of the Lord’s service;
let your ears be open to our prayers;
and prosper with your blessing the work of our hands;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Amen.