Category Archives: Theology

Up to something…

Readings: Psalm 126; Isaiah 40:1-11; Romans 8:22-25

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Romans 8:22-25

Groaning is a good way to describe the state we find ourselves in today. We are groaning for a world in a profound state of dysfunction and disarray, groaning for the countless victims of abuse and discrimination and violence, groaning for the seeming inability to find any common ground upon which to build a commonwealth. And if we are honest, we groan also for our own shortcomings and failures – our failure to be what we want to be, what at times we believe we might be. The question for us is: Are these groans the throes of death or the labor of new birth, are they reason for despair or for hope?

In one of the more difficult periods of my life, when groaning seemed like a constant reality, I was sustained by the simple mantra: “God is up to something.” Through the grace of God these few words became a foundation of hope, a hope that, over time, became reality in surprising ways that I could not have planned for or even imagined. Ever since then I have begun to see that the words are not just about me, but have a universal meaning. That, I think, is what Paul is talking about in these few verses. All creation groans because these words do have a universal meaning. In the midst of the struggle, I could not see what God was up to. Just as we cannot see with clarity or certainty what God is about in all creation. We can guess perhaps. But most of all we can hope. We can hope, because there have been times, fleeting times perhaps, when we have caught glimpses of what God is up to. At one time a simple mantra provided such a glimpse for me. On a silent night long ago events in a stable provided such a glimpse for all of us. It is a hope we have for something we cannot see, but which we know will become reality. It is an Advent hope, a hope that can sustain us as we wait, perhaps even wait with patience.

Come, Lord Jesus, Come.

Offered by Jeff Jones, writer, pastor, seeker of the Christ Child.

We shan’t be ashamed…

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free,

          ‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

               And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

                    ‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,

     To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,

          to turn, turn will be our delight,

               ‘til by turning, turning we come round right.

Simple Gifts, Joseph Brackett

From high school through grad school, I washed dishes, cleared tables, sat diners, waited tables, catered, and tended bar. I worked in hospital cafeterias, fine dining establishments, and a couple of Mexican food restaurants. With such a background (and because no one else knew or would admit to knowing how to tend bar), it was inevitable that I’d work in the seminary’s catering service. I oversaw hundreds of special dinners, and mixed more drinks than any other student in the seminary’s history. It was a lot of fun, the pay was decent, and the commute was a walk across campus. That’s why I found it puzzling that many of the other students found such work distasteful. Why was setting tables and refilling coffee cups, laying plates of food before professors and administrators somehow beneath the station of a graduate student?

I never felt that way about serving food and drink. Arriving before a function to set up, serving guests throughout the meal, then breaking down the room when it was over was elevating the biological necessity of eating into an aesthetically pleasing social experience. I made sure the socially awkward didn’t stand alone, making introductions among guests and bowing out once the conversation got going. Getting everyone seated in the right place and making sure the food arrived warm and beautifully plated was an exercise in good timing. It was forthright and literal service to others: simple work, done well, filling a basic need. Where’s the shame in that?

Was it because I was paid for my service, or because it was hands-on work in a place that set great store in the cerebral and intangible? I’m still not sure. I do wonder if part of the issue was the implied servant status that accompanied food service work. If that was the real issue, the irony is really hard to miss:

Jesus bent down to wash the feet of his disciples and he bowed his head to God in prayer. If such are the actions of God-With-Us, how can there be shame in any simple act of service?

[For more on Joseph Brackett and Simple Gifts, click Simple (Gifts) Thanksgiving above.]

Finding My Place

’tis the gift to come down where we ought to be…

[For Simple Gifts complete lyrics and Liz Story’s version of this song, click Simple (gifts) Thanksgiving above]

One of the hardest parts of playing violin or singing in a chorus is learning how to find my place once I’ve lost it – something I found out during my high school years. It wasn’t so hard if I was playing the melody, or singing a familiar and simple piece of music; it was frustratingly difficult when I was responsible for the second violin part or singing alto in Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. When I lost my place, the rest of the musicians didn’t stop to wait. The music continued on, with or without me.

To pick up my part as a player or singer, I had to listen to the other players and singers. Only then could I match their notes to my sheet music and find my own part. Then it was a matter of rejoining the other players and singers on the right note at the right tempo. I may have lost a few bars, but that was better than playing on when I knew I was lost. It was also better to keep quiet and rejoin when I could than to give up altogether and leave the rest of the performance the lesser for my absence.

Losing my place happens in the larger sense, too. My life falls out of sync with the rest of the world and I cannot find my way back without stopping to listen to others. Some time out when I’ve fallen behind or gone the wrong way is the only way to get to where I ought to be. I may have to let the world go along without me until I find my place, but that’s okay. I won’t continue playing against the rest of the world and I won’t give up altogether.

Rejoining, finding where I ought to be, is the gift that keeps my imperfect self an integral part of this beautiful symphony we call life. Perhaps it’s the same for you…

Free For or Free From?

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free,

‘tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

and when we find ourselves in the place just right,

‘twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,

to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,

to turn, turn will be our delight,

‘til by turning, turning we come round right.

[by Elder Joseph Brackett. For more information, click simple (gifts) Thanksgiving above]

Freedom is an interesting word, often understood in one very particular way: Freedom From something – want, fear, duty, work, responsibility, etc. A winning lottery ticket may buy freedom from a job and from having to curb spending because of budget restraints. Needing no job may bring freedom from a work routine with its inevitable irritations and time constraints, and freedom from holding one’s tongue around the one who signs the paycheck. Money can buy the latest security system to safeguard expensive items, and it can buy the services of others to clean the house, cook the meals, even transport the kiddies to school and soccer practice. 

I doubt freedom from is what Joseph Brackett was writing about; “to be free” is followed by “where we ought to be,” “simplicity,” and “to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed.” This isn’t a freedom from something: it’s a freedom for something. Freedom means the ability to find ourselves in the right place, which is defined by love and delight. It means recognizing what is eternal and holy, bowing down before it and bending our wills to the loving guidance of God the Almighty and Compassionate.

We will all serve someone or something – our own desires, the interests of others, an addiction, or something else entirely. Freedom lies in recognizing this truth and choosing what or whom we serve. I suspect that choosing to serve God freely is the only thing that frees me from anger, greed, anxiety, and selfishness.

It may be a simple choice, but it’s not an easy one…

Simple Gifts, written by Joseph Brackett, The Carols of Christmas: A Windham Hill Collection, Windham Hill records, 1996; Liz Story, performer, recorded at Luna Recording Studio, Prescott AZ, 1996]

Simple, not Simplistic

‘Tis the gift to be simple

My doctoral adviser once told me that it was common practice among theology scholars to have their spouses read whatever book or article they were writing; if the spouse understood it, the scholar complicated sentences and added technical vocabulary until it was adequately incomprehensible to even very intelligent readers outside the field. The rationale behind this rather curious practice: no one in the field would take seriously a scholar whose writing made sense to an outsider. I thought this was a curiously contradictory and self-defeating action in our given field: Christian education. If the whole point of learning and handing that learning on was to foster understanding, it made no sense to confound and confuse readers of any background. My adviser’s response: “Ah, but was that the point for most academics?”

I wonder if those academics back then (and many today) made the grave error of mistaking simple for simplistic. Simple is the revelation of what is essential in a way others can understand. Simplistic is mistaking the incidental for the essential in a way that causes others to misunderstand. Scholarship is about offering the world the gifts of mind and heart, not about avoiding self-revelation while withholding knowledge and understanding. At its best, it should be simple.

It is the gift to be simple, to shine a light on what is essential.

It is the gift to be simple, to foster self-revelation.

It is the gift to be simple, to make of words and actions a world that is all the more mysterious because it is seen clearly.

‘Tis a gift, because no one can be simple without the gift of God’s love and guidance.

May I lead a simple life. May I be a simple soul.

Simple Gifts for Thanksgiving

It seems like November gets squeezed out of the calendar, serving only as a place-holder between Halloween and the Christmas season. In a world where Christmas trees line Lowe’s aisles before the inflatable ghouls and ghosts have been put away, the day of thanking God for the bounty of the earth is given very little attention – but only if I take my sense of priorities from Retail Reality.

Every morning, I wake up with a song running through the back of my mind. This morning, it was the Shaker song, Simple Gifts. The words are few, the melody easy to sing, the meaning profound. What better way to welcome Thanksgiving than spending time with Simple Gifts:

Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,

’tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,

To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,

To turn, turn will be our delight,

‘Til by turning, turning we come round right.

[composed by Elder Joseph Brackett in 1848. For more information, click Simple (Gifts) Thanksgiving above.]

Simple Gifts, Liz Story, performer; The Carols of Christmas: A Windham Hill Collection, Windham Hill records, 1996; song recorded at Luna Recording Studio, Prescott, AZ, 1996]

Harsh Startup

A harsh startup occurs when a discussion starts with a critical, sarcastic, or contemptuous tone.

William Smith wrote these words in How the Other Half Lives [Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2010 p. 107], referring to John Gottman’s research into what strengthens and what weakens marriage relationships.  The gist of it: a negative beginning leads to a negative outcome. Resolving conflicts and keeping a positive relationship rely on partners approaching differences of opinion with affection and respect. It makes sense that this applies to all kinds of situations and relationships – positive regard for others, even when there is disagreement and conflict, fosters progress and preserves the dignity of everyone involved.

Why is it so hard to approach disagreement with respect for the person on the other side of the issue? Why is it so easy to move from disagreement to personal attack, especially since it doesn’t end well for anyone involved? Avoiding the harsh startup makes so much sense, but it can be difficult to do when discussing important points of disagreement and conflict.

I’d like to say that I never begin discussions with my husband, family, friends, and acquaintances with a harsh startup, but I can’t. Just a few days back, I opened with harsh words  in a discussion about what kind of car to buy and where to buy it. This wasn’t exactly a life-or-death issue, just a question about a possible auto purchase. Fortunately, neither of us chose to continue down a dark verbal path because of my thoughtless words.

Gottman wasn’t the first person to realize that cutting remarks lead nowhere good for anyone. Sarcasm didn’t start with my generation and contempt has been around for thousands of years. But so has the solution, and it was vital enough to be included in our sacred writings:

 A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. Proverbs 15:1, NRSV

[For more on Gottman’s research in marriage studies, see Gottman, J. and Silver, N.; The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2004). For more on this subject by William Smith, see Fredrickson, J and Smith, W; How the Other Half Lives: the challenges facing clergy spouses & partners (Cleveland: The Pilbrim Press, 2010), chapter six]

None taken…

Fools show their anger at once, but the prudent ignore an insult. Proverbs 12:16, NRSV

 

I’ve known a few people over the years who would say nasty things just to get a rise out of someone. For whatever reason, they enjoyed upsetting their friends, relatives, coworkers, and the occasional stranger. The person on the wrong side of their remarks usually responded in one of two ways: strike back with angry words or keep a hurtful silence. Either way, they gave the instigator the satisfaction of a response, a reward for his or her bad behavior.

Ignoring an insult isn’t the same as taking it in hurtful silence; ignoring is acting outside of direct engagement, leaving the insult with its speaker. This isn’t an easy thing to do, but there are two very good reasons to give it a try. 1) If insulting behavior isn’t rewarded, it will cease (this may take some time, but it will work). 2) Once the bad behavior stops, a positive relationship becomes possible. To do this takes strength and patience – in other words, prudence.

It’s something I’m hoping to grow into…

 

Cruelty and Kindness

Those who are kind reward themselves, but the cruel do themselves harm. Proverbs 11:17 NRSV

 

Another way to say the same thing: kindness is its own reward and cruelty is its own punishment. Perhaps it’s because kindness is fostering whatever lives and moves in this time and place and cruelty is putting every effort into maiming or killing it. Either way, it is sure to rebound on the person who is its source.

Ants

Go to the ant, you lazybones, consider its ways and be wise. Without having any chief or officer or ruler, it prepares its food in summer, and gathers its sustenance in harvest. How long will you lie there, O lazybones? When will you rise from sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want, like an armed warrior. Proverbs 6:6-11 NRSV

 

There’s a big difference between being a good worker and a workaholic, and that seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle these days. Either work all the time to further a career and amass wealth or be a shiftless weight on society. If a few biblical words are thrown into the mix to encourage hard work to avoid the fires of eternal damnation, this either/or reality has a lot more power. Suddenly, God’s love and personal worth are tied to unceasing work.

There’s a space somewhere between spending every waking minute working or thinking about work and spending all day sitting on the couch in a bathrobe binge watching movies and playing online Scrabble. The mind, heart, and soul need free time and the chance to work hard. After all, who says ants don’t stop long enough to see the beauty of the world on their way to work?