The Long Haul

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 | Psalm 78:1-7 | 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 | Matthew 25:1-13

Most families about this time are finalizing Thanksgiving plans, determining who’s going to be where, bringing some part of the great feast. Perhaps your family, like ours, lingers around the table a little while, too full really to move, and starts storytelling. Casey’s dad is really good at this and is prone to exaggeration or throwing a joke in when you least expect it, so you fall for it completely. Then his mom starts in, sometimes barely getting the words out from laughing so hard, and we’re all laughing, too, though we’ve heard the stories hundreds of times (and I can’t tell you many of them because we’re in church and you probably know your own family legends). We can almost guess which stories are going to be told, depending on the theme of the conversation. I’ve noticed my older kids recognize this pattern and can jump in to jog memories if details or stories are left out of the conversation. In a sense, this is the Milford family’s oral tradition. These are the stories we tell when we gather together that demonstrate our resilience, our bond, and our sense of humor (to be sure!).

We gather each week for our Great Thanksgiving, our Eucharist, and we share our stories. Stories like Joshua leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, making sure through a bit of reverse psychology that they’re all in, committed to following one God, like him and his house. (So, yes, they’re really going to have to get rid of all the other idols.) Stories like in the letter to the Thessalonians that offer encouragement, hope, and assurance. They just knew the Son of Man was coming at any moment, but people were dying before he got there. What about their reward? In light of the foolish and wise bridesmaids, how can they–how can we–be sure we’re all ready, fully prepared? It doesn’t seem sustainable to be in red alert mode all the time. Something doesn’t seem right.

We know there’s a lot “not right” right now. A quick glance over the headlines just this past week tells a story of a people clamoring for something but getting tripped up on themselves. Where in all our stories does it say point a finger at anyone but ourselves? We want to do that. We could read and live our tradition blaming everyone else for our plight–from the Egyptians to the pharisees, to the Romans, to the Islamic State, to nonbelievers, to addiction, to mental illness. . . our list is legion. Last week when we were given the Beatitudes, Padre Guillermo and I both read them as instruction for how we live our lives in relationship, in community. They are how we live our lives ultimately because we are in relationship with God, and nowhere in the instructions does Jesus tell us that we are to rationalize or make excuses for not loving God or our neighbor, blaming our inadequacies on anyone and anything but ourselves. This acceptance or even realization that we are accountable for ourselves doesn’t feel good, but it allows us to seek out help; it helps us admit our weaknesses and vulnerabilities for which we need support. We could use our own letter from Paul.

When we’re living into the Christian life and trucking along with a new convert’s fervor, we might shine the light of faith brightly for all to see. We make our decisions based on what is right and good because it seems so clear. We know whose we are. We know where we’re going. We’re ready to meet the Lord now or in the kingdom to come. Our lamps are lit, and we’re prepared. We’re wise. And good. (And incredibly prone to being self-congratulatory.)

(http://www.clarion-journal.com/clarion_journal_of_spirit/2015/03/parable-of-the-ten-virgins-whats-the-oil-brad-jersak.html)

Maybe we started this life of faith with such vigor but started to lose our way. Unconditional love and acceptance drew us in and lit a fire we didn’t know we were capable of. Our light shines as brightly as for those who are wise, or at least it does at times . . . or did at one point. We just missed the instructions on how to keep the oil filled, our lamps ready and prepared. So how do we stay on fire for Jesus? How do we stay in love when things get hard, when the blessedness assured by Jesus seems hypothetical and archaic?

We share our stories.

Remember when Moses saw the Glory of God and was transfigured so much he had to wear a veil to talk to the ordinary folks? Remember how Moses died at the LORD’s command without much ado, and then Joshua was chosen to lead the people on into the Promised Land? Remember how Jesus summarized the law as loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind and loving your neighbor as yourself? Remember how Jesus lived, died, and rose again to show us the triumph of life and love on Easter morning? Remember the first time you experienced the unconditional love of God? Remember when you experienced the radical hospitality of this place? Remember how All Saints’ was planted and all the crazy things you’ve been through? Remember the first service on the Land? Remember the first bilingual service?

All our experiences now are the stuff of tomorrow’s stories, and it’s okay to look at the stories, the memories and learn from our mistakes. The gospel doesn’t say the foolish bridesmaids couldn’t get oil to fill their lamps; they just hadn’t done it in time. The wise ones knew the stories, learned from them, and remained steadfast, ready for whatever came next.

The important thing for us today is that we realize we’re in this for the long haul: “this” being our Christian life. This Christian life isn’t a sprint to the Second Coming but rather a marathon of following Jesus’s way through life, death, and resurrection–physically and spiritually. We need the light of Christ to illumine our way forward, and we need the oil, the fuel for that light. What do we do to nurture our faith in Christ? When and what do we pray? Do we hear Bible stories or read them on days other than Sunday? Do we consider our church family part of our support network? How much of what we do in the other 166 hours of the week reflects that we follow Jesus and that He is the light of our life? If we don’t know how or why or when, know that’s what I’m here for, to help you in your walk in faith, to find fuel for your faith. Normally people seek out the church in times of crisis, but if we keep maintaining a life of faith, we have a reservoir at the ready.

And what about All Saints’? We’ve considered the stories of the past, but what of its trajectory? What do we need to make ready so that when Jesus wanders in in the guise of the unemployed, the hungry, or any one of us, we’re prepared to show love of God and neighbor in practice? Keep in mind, we’re not pointing fingers or making excuses. This isn’t just a prompt for a “we need a building” discussion. This is really a prompt for us to prayerfully consider who we are as a church, as a people of God who proclaim the Risen Lord and who are gifted with Holy Spirit. Because if you put us in a room with a hundred other people from a hundred other religious traditions, we couldn’t distinguish the foolish or wise, the lazy or the prepared. Looking out at all of you, I don’t know your heart and mind (though some of you are likely still thinking about Thanksgiving). How does who we are affect our trajectory as a church in Bentonville, in the world?

These are the kinds of questions the vestry and I ask ourselves as we put together a yearly budget. Good caretakers, good stewards consider not just the material but also the intention and the hope. As we gather weekly for our Great Thanksgiving and tell our stories, what stirs in your heart? What fuels the light of Christ within you? What are you grateful for? What gives you a sense of wisdom? Those are things we can’t really put a pricetag on and say, “Well, match your yearly pledge to that.” The work we do here, the preparations we make from a place of faith are not of this world but are still very much within it. I know in the newsletter there’s been an emphasis on pledges that haven’t been met and how we have a deficit. But I believe we are a community that knows how to prepare. We are a community of abundance–of love, of talents, gifts, and treasure. We’re also a community of vision; we see All Saints’ filling an important role in the faith community in Northwest Arkansas. We’ll watch and wait together, but our anticipation isn’t idle. There’s work to be done, memories to be made, and stories to tell. We’re in it for the long haul.

 

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In the Flesh

These days of Christmas after the Nativity of our Lord remind us that we celebrate more than a birthday. We’ve been told from the beginning that this occasion–this child–is something, someone special. Lest we be too attached to the view of Christmas as an oh-so-sweet birth of a baby, today we get this equally miraculous account of God coming into the world from John’s vantage point. That’s part of the beauty of having four gospels, that we get four perspectives on the singular event that is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. John’s account is just as important as Luke’s in shaping how we understand God being in this world; it just doesn’t publicity. How we understand God being in this world shapes the lives we lead as Christians.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.”

Now, I don’t believe John was there at the beginning any more than I think there was a man there to transcribe the accounts of creation offered in Genesis. But as my Old Testament professor said, “We don’t think everything in the Bible is a fact, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t True.”

John offers us an account of the Incarnation that is perhaps more true to the divinity of Jesus than we ever imagined. John’s account hearkens to the one “whose origin if from of old, from ancient days,” (Micah 5:2), one who was there “in the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,” there when “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters,” and there when God said, “Let there be light” and “saw that the light was good” (Gen 1:1-4). The Son is at the beginning of all that we can conceive of knowing, not only in Word spoken but also in the Word, in Logos, which for the Greeks was “the divine principle of reason” that not only “gives order to the universe” but also “links the human mind to the mind of God” (Harold Attridge, Harper Collins Study Bible, 1816).

When I was in Salt Lake City this summer, I had the amazing opportunity to gaze upon the St. John’s Bible, which was on display at St. Mark’s Cathedral. In 1970, master calligrapher Donald Jackson had the idea of creating a Bible that was both hand-written and illuminated, in the style of the monastics centuries earlier but more contemporary, complete with marginalia and abundant detail. His idea was commissioned in 1998, introduced to the public in 1999, and in December of 2011 was finally completed, all seven volumes, each one 2 feet by 3 feet wide when opened. With red leather binding and thick cotton pages, my hands wanted to touch these works of art, but the gloved docent had keen, watchful eyes. In the tight space of the side chapel or whatever it was, I devoured as much as I could, but there was so much. I had so little time, yet I was remarkably aware of the vastness of God outside the confines of time and space, yet ever-present within it.

The font, the style of handwriting used, was created for the project; only a select few were trained and had the privileged yet tedious work of writing the sacred text. The layout of the pages is beautiful, the detail incredible, and the colors of the illuminations are nothing if not intense and vibrant, dark and light. I consciously moved my body to get the best angle for the sun to shine on the pages with the gold highlights because that additional touch made the page even more interactive, bringing even more attention to the tremendous skill and creativity captured on paper.

Each gospel has an opening illumination, and the one for the Gospel according to John has a celestial background, with the top mid-center inspired by an image from the Hubble Space Telescope. The vast expanse of space is in the background, with text to the left of the golden figure emerging at the center, a figure crowned with an iconic halo. The bold, distinct golden letters at the top left read, “And the Word became flesh” and continue on the right side of the figure, “and lived among us.”

“What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

John cannot emphasize enough to us “that Jesus brought divine life into the world”–not only through creation but also through eternal life of salvation (Harold Attridge, Harper Collins Study Bible, 1816). Our being is wholly credited to what our Creator has bestowed upon us not just at the birth of the Christ child but from the beginning of our world. The figure emerging in the image is not a baby but an adult figure, one we might more likely think of as King or Messiah. But there is no distinct face, no identifiable gender, but this magnificent one lived among us, and was the light of all people.

I don’t think John ever says anything about us having to understand the mechanics of the Incarnation. At some point we brush up on our catechesis, but having perfect comprehension of God from God, Light from Light, isn’t what we’re asked to possess, nor are we expected to.

We are asked to believe, to trust in our heart that there is truth here. We are asked to believe in the gift of grace revealed and offered to us–not only in the Christ child but also in this Word made flesh.

And how we shape our lives because of our belief will naturally vary greatly. It is the nature of light to look different from different angles, under different conditions. It is the nature of creativity to portray quirks of the creator, and our free will means the specifics are up to us.

But our belief also makes known to us our common bonds: that we are united in Christ, that our very lives are illuminations revealing God’s presence in the world.

It’s not just the ordained folks who channel the light of Christ in this world–if we were, the world would probably be a darker place. Thankfully, all Christians are ministers in the church; all of us have the ministry of representing Christ and his Church, to bear witness to him wherever we may be (Catechism, BCP 855). So as we wrap up this calendar year, we remain ever-grateful that God emerged into our world so that we might know God through Christ the child and as Word made flesh. As we look forward into the new calendar year, it is worth our while to ponder not only where we see God in our world but how we represent God in our community. There may be times when we are the only Light another person sees, and it is our belief that fuels the light that shines triumphantly in the darkness.

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Washing Beans

That familiar sense of presence sneaks up on me now and again.  Late Sunday afternoon, I stood at the kitchen sink, rinsing the pinto beans beneath the running water.  Washing away any grit, picking out the stones and half-beans, I made preparations for our meager dinner, and it would be enough.  The love swelled from the depth of my being, and I smiled in recognition.  This is good, I thought.

When so much of our time is spent running, working, chauffeuring, planning (and trying not to worry), and buying (mostly groceries), what a sweet relief it is to breathe into a moment and feel that sense of calm and loving goodness.  For me, it’s one of those tender mercies, a gentle grace, that fuels my faith and restores my hope.

In this time of Lent, I am keenly aware that the wilderness doesn’t always present as a barren, dry wilderness.  One can be absolutely swallowed, lost, and alone in a dense forest wilderness where the vegetation has run wild; a sense of Self can be lost merely by the need for survival.  Likewise, in an overly busy life, whether it’s in a big city or a rural town, the well-spring of Spirit that fuels us with goodness, faith, and hope, can dry up and become buried by our lists, errands, and good intentions.  Now is the time to evaluate our surroundings.  Sit in the darkness.  Listen to that which scares us.  Observe what fills our days and perhaps steals our nights.

Moving toward the Easter light, I’m reminded of the moments when I know my now is good.  That’s what the Light is for, to help remove the shadow of doubt.

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Purple for Preparation

For those unfamiliar with the Anglican tradition, the Church calendar is a circle, a cycle, and it has certain colors for every season.  Naturally, there’s a lovely children’s song to teach the season and the meaning for each.

“Purple for preparation.  White for celebration.  Green is for the growing time.  Red is for Pentecost!”

The four weeks of Advent precede Christmas and its twelve days.  Advent is a time of preparing and waiting.  In that time we ponder the Mystery, the Light, Mary, and the other lessons accompanying the season.

In one of my rare solitary moments, I considered what it is that I need to be prepared for, beyond the religious norm.  What I discover, of course, is that my needs parallel with the lessons.

What needs to be done?  What am I required to do as a member of society?  I have to be counted.  I have to pay taxes.  I have to make sure the family is cared and provided for.  My husband and I do this together, the day-to-day, part-of-society requisites.  We have to follow the rules, even if it results in frustration from waiting in lines or finding businesses to be closed due to holiday hours.  We try again.  We do what has to be done.

What is needed of me?  The children need a more compassionate mother (especially this morning).  They need time and attention, which are hard to provide when one is tired and energy levels are low.  Others need the same of me; truthfully, they deserve the same.  Kindness.  I need this of myself, too.

And what might be required from me in this life?  Am I prepared to fulfill my purpose?  I believe that if I’m still alive, I have work to do for the greater Good.  I still don’t know what that work is, but I sense clues.  Ultimately, every moment is an opportunity to change the world for the better.  This is what makes me an optimist, I suppose.  Take the complacency, anger, animosity, even hatred and replace it with awareness and compassion.  It aligns nicely.

The advice given Mary and Joseph works for me, too.  “Do not be afraid.”  Do the work.  Be present to, for, and with others and myself.  Trust the Mystery and live the Magic.  Goodness is here, in every moment, but I have to be prepared if I want to see it.  I have to be prepared to experience it.  I have to be prepared to be surprised, which ironically I am every time I experience true Grace, Light, and Love.

May we all be so blessed.

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