Wednesday, May 29, 2019

A Blueprint for Prayer (Reflections on Easter 7, Year C)

"Old Woman Praying" Theophile Lybaert, Belgian (1848-1927)

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.” (John 17:26)
The last time I was given the great honor of preaching the Divine Service for Saint David’s Day by the Philadelphia Welsh Society, the Society’s musician, a brilliant Welsh-American named Jack Williams, made the very pious request that the worship leaders gather in prayer before the start of the service. He made this request—quite naturally—to the Society’s chaplain, a distinguished (and stunningly beautiful, may I add?[i]) Episcopal priest named Anne Thatcher. The Rev. Ms. Thatcher demurely suggested, “Perhaps Pastor Griffiths will lead us in prayer..?”

I was more than happy to comply, and I launched into an orison beseeching the Almighty to grant us cheerful singing voices, accurate instrumentation, faithful preaching, and the presence of the Holy Spirit. Of course, as I now reflect on it, this prayer had been answered before I opened my mouth as Welsh people always sing cheerfully, the musicians were excellently trained and talented, and whenever two or more are gathered in Christ’s name, the Spirit is always with us. The only need for divine intervention might’ve been for the preaching which, as it fell to me to deliver, would be as faithful as my theological and homiletical abilities could make it.

But what struck me as I later pondered that exquisite worship experience was the Rev. Thatcher’s polite request vouchsafing of me the prayer duties. I recalled that I had never actually heard an Episcopal cleric pray extemporaneously. The Episcopal rector in my Ministerium read his prayer out of the Book of Common Prayer for our ecumenical Easter sunrise service. The Episcopal priest who taught one of my pastoral care classes at the seminary also refused to lead our class in prayer, requesting that the students take turns offering morning petitions.

I mentioned this to my music director, Frank, who opined that Episcopalians are taught that the Book of Common Prayer has brilliantly and elegantly phrased every praise, petition, intercession, or word of contrition which need be directed to God’s attention, and that all a supplicant need do is consult the appropriate page in this august tome for exactly the words most pleasing to God’s ears.

I’m not sure Frank is correct in this assumption, but I think there’s something to be said for teaching the faithful how to pray. In his day, Martin Luther railed against the vain repetition of prayers, excoriating believers who falsely thought of prayer as a good work, the repetition of which would please God and lessen time in Purgatory. He encouraged the faithful to pray honestly to God from the depths and longing of their hearts, and to do so boldly and often as a child approaches a loving parent. Although he rejected the recitation of written prayer, Luther would compose hundreds of prayer himself in order to give Christians an idea of how to pray[ii].

In my own time as a parish pastor, I’ve noted that, five centuries after Luther, there is still a huge reluctance among the faithful to pray extemporaneously and publicly. When I began my ministry at Faith Lutheran in Philadelphia over twenty years ago, I would ask members of the congregation to say a prayer to bless the Sunday morning sermon. This request met with such great resistance that I dropped this practice within the first few years.[iii] Subsequently, I have often asked Confirmation students to write prayers of their own or to lead prayer at the close of class. Public prayer is a phobia which we in the church have to stamp out, and I try to be as good a therapist as I can be—leading by example, gently encouraging, and pointing out how simple a conversation with God can be.

In the Gospel appointed for Easter 7 Year C in the RCL (John 17:20-26) Jesus is concluding what Bible scholars call the “High Priestly Prayer.” It can very well be used, as the great Johannine scholar Karoline Lewis[iv] points out, as a blueprint for prayer. In verses 1 – 7 Jesus prays for himself. This is not a bad idea, as he’s about to be crucified.[v] In verses 8 – 19, he prays for the disciples—knowing that they are also about to undergo excruciating trials, the likes of which would discourage anyone who lacked a lovingly bonded relationship with Jesus. Finally, as Dr. Lewis so wonderfully notes, Jesus is praying for us. He prays, “on behalf of those who will believe.”

I ask you, how splendid a thought is that? Jesus included us in his prayers while we were still unborn and unbegot. He knew in advance that we would feel, from time to time, the dark separation from God and others, so he asked the Father to put his love within us. When we pray, we access this love. Our faith approaching God unites us with Jesus, and it also unites us with all the saints who have believed before us and with those who are yet to come.

I really like Jesus’ three-petition outline. First, I pray for my own needs. Second, I pray for the needs of those around me. Finally, I send a prayer out into the void for the needs of those whom I don’t know or the needs which are yet to arise. Far from being a “message in a bottle,” such a prayer is a lifeline tying me to others and reminding me that God’s love has been given to me and all the world. Beautiful, artful phrases are not necessary. What matters is the certainty that, whenever I lift my voice in prayer, I am united with Christ and with all the saints—past, present, and future.

Pray boldly, my friend! Thanks for visiting.

[i] Perhaps I need not add this. We Welsh are just naturally an attractive race of people.
[ii] If you’d like to read an excellent essay on this, click on “prayer” for an article by Mary Jane Haemig in The Lutheran Quarterly.
[iii] I haven’t asked anyone to do this in eons, but the memory of it is still alive—a sort of congregational form of PTSD.
[iv] You really ought to read Dr. Lewis’ essay about this on the Working Preacher website. She’s really, really smart! Just click on “Karoline.”
[v] In such a circumstance, I’d be praying my butt off. Wouldn’t you?

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Love at Burger King (Reflections on Easter 5, Year C)

“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13:34)

The other day I found myself in the Burger King in the Philadelphia Mills parking lot. I’d been in my church office down the street all day, handled some stuff, taught my Confirmation class, and I had an hour to kill before Praise Team rehearsal. I also had a coupon for a small bacon cheeseburger, fries, and a soda for three bucks. Now you can’t beat that with a stick, can you?

So I’m standing in line at the Burger King and I start to feel kind of weird and out of place. Most of the staff and most of the customers were African American. Everybody was polite enough, waiting their turn in line, but I was struck with the uncommon feeling that I was now a minority. I looked at the other patrons and realized how very little I knew or understood about them. There were, of course, some white folks in the place too, but even they made me feel somewhat estranged. They were the kind of people one meets in Northeast Philly—hard-living, working-class guys who keep their ball caps on while they eat. A woman got in line next to me. She was dressed in a sweat suit, about 40 lbs. overweight, reeking of cigarette smoke, and “tatted-up” with more ink than the press room at the Philadelphia Inquirer. A young mom came in, obviously irritated with her two blubbering toddlers, and making no effort to hide her displeasure.

And there I was, a middle-class, suburban white boy with two masters degrees suddenly recognizing what an awful snob I was. Truth be told, if I were to follow any of these Burger King patrons to their jobs, I’d be as useless to them as a Speedo in a blizzard. I may be an okay theologian, but I have no practical skills whatsoever. I have very little experience working with my hands, dealing with the public, or managing children. If this Burger King were suddenly lifted up by a tornado, dropped on a deserted island, and we all had to band together for survival, I would be the most expendable person there.

And what the Holy Spirit told me in that moment was, “Look around, Griff. You’re called to love these people. You don’t have to understand them, and they don’t have to understand you. But you have to love them.”

In the Gospel lesson this Sunday (John 13:31-35), Jesus exhorts his followers to love as he has loved them. This exhortation comes right after he’s washed their feet on the night of his betrayal. That was a pretty important lesson in love. Jesus—the teacher—did the work of a slave or a child for his disciples. With that action, he tore apart the barrier of class and position. Real, honest love can’t know distinction of persons.

Just to make sure we got the point, the folks who cooked up the Revised Common Lectionary yoked this Gospel reading with a passage from Acts (Acts 11:1-18) in which Peter gets a divine message to spread the Good News to uncircumcised gentiles. “The Spirit told me to go with them, and not to make distinction between them and us,” he says in verse 12.

Unfortunately, making distinctions is something we sinful humans are particularly adroit at doing. We keep hearing in the news about the division here in the United States—the gap between rich and poor, gender inequality, racial division, and (topping the list) political polarization.

So okay. We all know this is wrong, but I wonder if we only know it in a theoretical sense. I don’t think any one of us is going to go out and change the world this week, but I’d like to propose a little exercise. Here it is: Go to the mall this week. Or to a fast food place. Sit in the waiting room at your doctor’s office. Ride the bus to work. Go grocery shopping. Look around at the faces you see. Really look at people. Then remind yourself that you are a Christian, and that you are called to love and serve these strangers.

(But try not to creep them out when you’re doing it.)

Let me know how it makes you feel, okay?

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Hand-Made Love (Reflections on Easter 4, Year C and Mother's Day)

Image result for knitted scarves

“I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:28)

I have to admit it: my mom was a quirky old gal. She was pretty much an introvert, she didn’t like crowds or small talk, and she was infuriatingly perfectionist. Her most notable hobby was the creation of intricate, highly-detailed accessories for Victorian doll houses. She didn’t care at all about the dolls, but she was possessed with an almost compulsive fascination with reducing straw brooms, dust mops, rug-beaters, and decorative peacock feathers to inch-to-foot scale. She would sit up long hours into the night at our dining room table, smoking enumerable cigarettes, painstakingly creating these tiny household items.

Mother sold her miniatures at craft and hobby shows. She was once written up in a national miniature-lovers’ magazine, and even had the thrill of receiving an order for her minute peacock feathers (hand-painted on duck feathers collected from our local  pond) from a doll house enthusiast in the United Kingdom who had read about her exquisite creations.

Unfortunately, Mother was a creative artist but not an entrepreneur. She never knew how to promote or market her work, and boxes of minuscule wonders survived her. Nevertheless, when friends or neighbors beheld a tiny express wagon, dust pan, claw-foot table, or crocheted antimacassar, they would be struck dumb with awe and admiration for my mother’s imagination and talent.

It’s natural that I should think of my mom on Mather’s Day, but the First Lesson in the Revised Common Lectionary (Acts 9:36-43) always puts me in mind of her. In this story, Peter raises Dorcas from the dead. I guess the lesson is meant to be that Peter now has the faith to do that which Jesus had done. The story gets married to the Gospel lesson (John 10:22-30) which reminds us that nothing can take us out of the hands of our Good Shepherd—not even death. But what has always touched me about this tale is the fact that Peter—who doesn’t know Dorcas from Eve—is introduced to her by the other widows who show him all the cool stuff she’s made (Acts 9:39).

There’s something to be said for the work made by hand. My mother lives on through her doll house miniatures. My late sister lives on through one of her paintings on my office wall and the Pentecost stole she and her twin sister created for my ordination mass. How many of us have scarves or sweaters knitted by our mother or a doting grandmother? Dorcas is known by the work of her hands. And, what’s also cool, is that work is appreciated and celebrated by the widows she hung out with. I guess Dorcas herself must’ve been getting on in years and was probably a widow herself. Her husband may have died, but she found a new family in the community of saints at Joppa.

My mom was also a widow. After my father’s death, she lived alone in a house too large for her to care for given that she suffered from emphysema and severe COPD. My sisters and I took turns caring for her, but, as we all married and had our own lives to deal with, Mother suddenly found herself in a “flock” of other widows from our Lutheran church. If she was in need of a ride to the doctor’s office or required something from the store, an elderly Lutheran lady would appear to take care of her. “I never realized I had so many friends,” she once said.

Mother referred to the platoon of church ladies as her “Guardian Angels.” She even ordered several angel lapel pins from a catalogue to present to them as a token of her gratitude. Our pastor noted that the Guardian Angels probably needed my mother as much as my mother needed them. Caring for her gave them dignified purpose in their older-but-still-useful age. Mother’s final request to these faithful women was that they help her memorize the 23rd Psalm. Indeed, in the company of such disciples, goodness and mercy followed my mother to the end of her life.

I have sometimes been asked to teach a Daily Life of a Christian course for my synod’s Diakonia program. At some point I ask the students to name the single most important Christian witness in their lives. Almost invariably they answer “my mother.” Moms (and dads, too) have the tough job of providing for us, teaching us, encouraging us, and protecting us. They are called upon to be, in their own way, shepherds.

I am grateful to have had the parents I had. For all of their issues—and they certainly had some—they brought me up to be part of the flock. They brought me into Christian community where I saw love and compassion put into practice. We are called to be one flock, one family. to care for each other in time of need, to be supportive, to create the loving community that can only be created out of confidence in the forgiving and renewing goodness of God.

A Happy Mother’s Day to all. God bless, and thanks again for looking me up

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Look at the Wounds (Reflections on Easter 2, Year C)

What is Christianity, and what is religion, I wondered, and why do so many of us still find it compelling, whether or not we belong to a church, and despite difficulties we may have with particular beliefs and practices? What is it about Christian tradition that we love—and what is it that we cannot love?”
Elaine Pagels from Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas

I love the work of Elaine Pagels. For my money, she’s one of the best scholars of the Bible around today. She is a professor of religion at Princeton University and one of the top authorities on the early Christian church. The quote above is from her 2003 book Beyond Belief in which she explores the origins of our New Testament canon. From her writings I gather that she can’t quite get herself to sign on to traditional Trinitarian Christianity the way we confess it in the historic creeds of the Church. She wants to know a lot more about how this crazy business got started. She’s not going to jump on the bandwagon without some more empirical data to back it all up.

Can you blame her? In a way, she’s a lot like Thomas in our Gospel lesson for Easter 2 (John 20:19-31). There are just some things which don’t make any sense, and we’re not convinced merely by the personal experience of others. We want to know it for ourselves.

So here’s my shout-out to Dr. Pagels for the research she’s done to help us learn more about our own faith. In Beyond Belief she makes an argument that the Gospel of John may have been written in response to another popular work of the period, the Gospel of Thomas. The latter work would be deemed heretical by the Council of Nicaea (the folks who bought you the Nicaean Creed) in the fourth century, and all copies of this text were to be burned by order of the Holy Catholic Church. A copy of the Gospel of Thomas did survive, however, and it’s been a great help to scholars like Dr. Pagels in understanding the early church.

Early Christians who belonged to the “Thomas” school might be identified as gnostics. That is, they believed that their sect possessed secret knowledge passed on to the disciples by Jesus himself which wasn’t known to the rest of the Christian world. The “John” Christians held that belief in the divinity of Jesus was the only knowledge anyone needed in order to be part of the Kingdom of God and inherit eternal life.

The tension between the “Johns” and the “Thomases” gets played out in John’s Gospel. John tends to make Thomas look like a slightly dim bulb. Thomas appears pessimistic and fatalistic in chapter 11:16 when he’s certain a return to Judea will mean death to Jesus and the rest of the disciples. He has no clue what Jesus means when he talks about his Father’s house by saying, “You know the way to the place where I am going.” (14:1-6). And, of course, there’s the story we always read on the Sunday after Easter which forever brands poor Thomas with his nickname, “Doubting Thomas.”

Is John trying to “dis” his rival, Thomas, or did Thomas really not believe in the resurrection? Or does it matter? Both ideas could be correct. But, since the Council of Nicaea saw fit to give us John’s Gospel as our authoritative source (Sorry, Thomas), I’ll just try to see what message this narrative communicates to me. I’m guessing that John might be saying, “You want to know what real life is? Just look to Jesus. You don’t need that fancy esoteric stuff. Just look to Jesus.”

So Thomas wants to see Jesus. And what does he want to see? The marks of the nails. The wounds. That’s what clinches the deal for him.

I say all the time that my job as a Christian is to see Christ in others and to be Christ for others. If I can’t see him, I can’t be him. I can certainly look for Christ’s forgiveness, his compassion, his healing spirit, his wise teaching, and his grateful faith. But I also have to look for the nail holes.

In 2000 years our Church hasn’t come that much closer to unity than in the days of John and Thomas. We still have different worship styles and different emphases in our traditions. There are lots of Christians whose dogma just sets my teeth on edge. In fact, I find that I prefer the company of a pious Muslim to some evangelical American Christians. When I feel like that, I have to realize that I am forgetting the point of John’s story: the longing of Thomas to see Jesus, and to see his wounds.

There’s no rule stating that we have to agree with everybody’s point of view. But I think we have to look for their wounds. After all, Jesus came to share our suffering. The least we can do is frame our relationships with others by looking for their suffering. It doesn’t have to make us fall in line with their thinking, but it will keep us from hating them.

May God bless you this week. Thanks again for visiting my site.

PS-To learn more about Dr. Pagels, you might want to check out this interview with her from last December. Just click on Elaine.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Prep Time (Reflections on Easter 3, Year C)

Image result for the conversion of st. paul caravaggio
"The Conversion of St. Paul" Caravaggio, ca. 1600

“After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’” (John 21:19b)

It was 1988. There I was at a gala black-tie affair at the now-defunct Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.[i] The courtyard of the majestic 1921 luxury venue was filled with beautiful people decked out smartly in handsome tuxedos and elegant evening gowns. We were all dining al fresco that afternoon.

Because we were all flat broke.

Yup. The “affair” was actually an on-location television shoot for the NBC drama Highway to Heaven. I was hired as an extra on the show because I owned a tux. Producer/director/writer/star of the series, Michael Landon usually finished with his extras before noon, but he let us all stay on the set to eat the free lunch from the production company’s craft services department. There was a TV and motion picture writers’ union strike that summer. Since Landon wrote his own scripts Highway was one of the few shows still filming. Work was scarce around Hollywood. All my fellow extras were wondering when they’d get another gig. I was teaching in the theater arts department of a community college, and my classes had been cut back due to budget shortfalls, so I was pretty worried about my own future.

“You own a tux and you look good in it,” said one of the extras over a bite of his chicken sandwich. “You could, maybe, work for a catering company as a waiter.” I thought about this, then replied, “I also own a lifetime California community college teaching credential and a master’s degree. I have nothing against honest labor, but I don’t think I’d enjoy waiting tables at weddings and bar mitzvahs.” A female extra approached me. “You were a teacher?” she asked. “Why don’t you apply to be a substitute in the L.A. school district? They always need secondary ed subs. If you get an audition, you just call in and tell the school you can’t work that day. Lots of actors are subs.”

That sounded like a pretty good idea to me, so I got my resume together, marched down to the L.A. Unified School District’s headquarters, was interviewed and hired in one day, and had time left over to head to the Warner Bros. studio for another extra gig.

But that day was the beginning of the end of my Hollywood career. As I look back on it now, over thirty years later, that was the day God started to prepare me to give up who I wanted to be and become who He wanted me to be (I’m still not quite there yet!). I spent the next six years as a special education long-term substitute teacher in middle schools. I taught learning disabled teens, some of whom were gang members, some with severe emotional problems, some who came to class stoned on weed, but all who lived with poverty or some kind of challenging home life. It was the first time in my life that I’d actually had a relationship with people from a different culture who didn’t look like me and who had a very different experience of the “American Dream.”

I now believe that my years in the LA harbor district barrio were preparing me for my life in the ordained ministry.

The lessons we have for this Third Sunday of Easter (John 21:1-19 and Acts 9:1-20) are also stories of preparation. We see on this Sunday the twin titans of the early church, Peter and Paul. These are two men to whom God had given tremendous gifts for the proclamation of the Gospel and the healing of the world. Neither of them, however, was prepared to share these gifts without Jesus breaking in and preparing them for the mission.

In our Gospel reading, we have this great post-Easter story of Jesus appearing by the Sea of Galilee (John 21:1-19). Good ol’ Peter has seen the risen Jesus, but he doesn’t quite know what the next step should be. So what does he do? He goes back to what he knows. He goes fishing. But his old life isn’t the same now. He can’t catch anything. It’s not until he commits without hesitation to Jesus’ instruction that he starts to get results.

Of course, the touching thing about this story is Jesus’ Q & A with Peter in verses 15 -17. Peter gets a chance to declare his devotion three times, the same number of times he denied Jesus on that sorrowful night of our Lord’s betrayal. Jesus is wiping away Peter’s shame with this, and giving him a mission. He’s also warning him that this mission will end as painfully for Peter as it ended for Jesus (vv. 18-19). Now Peter knows what he’s into, but he’s ready to heed the command of Jesus, “Follow me.”

The first lesson assigned for this Sunday is the story of the conversion of Paul. Like Peter, Paul had natural gifts which could be used for the glory of God. Unfortunately, just as Peter was stuck in his confusion and shame, Saul (who becomes Paul) is stuck in rigid dogma and hatred. Jesus needs to do some prep work on him, too. This won’t be as gentle as it was with Peter, who already loved Jesus. No. Paul has to be broken and made helpless before he’s ready to seek the Lord.

Have you ever wondered about what you are called to do in Jesus’ name? Have you considered that an unexpected bend in life’s river—one which sent you shooting down a tributary you never planned to navigate—just might’ve been the preparation for a mission God had planned for you all along?

I don’t know that I have enough faith to say “Everything happens for a reason.” I do, however, think it might be a good spiritual exercise to look back on the “accidents” of our lives and see how they set us off in a direction which gave us more wisdom, more patience, more thankfulness, more compassion, and a greater hunger to do the work of God.

Martin Luther believed in the “priesthood of all believers.” That is, the work of the dentist, the insurance salesman, the farmer, or tollbooth cashier was just as holy and noble in the sight of God as the work of the priest or the bishop. All of us are on a mission from God. Take some time to see how you’ve been prepared for yours. And then give thanks.

Thanks for checking me out. Until next time, God bless you, my friend!

[i] Demolished in 2005, the Ambassador was the home of the famous Coconut Grove Nightclub, twice the site of the Academy Awards, and the unfortunate scene of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination.