Holy Scripture enjoins us to lay up treasures in heaven and not on earth, and there are more than a few parables in which the bad guy is the rich guy. It has led generations of Christian preachers to wage war against mammon, romanticize poverty and declare the high virtue of being prudently middle class. I’ve often wondered if we’ve used Jesus’ words mostly as ammunition to cover our own envy of those who have come to know an abundance of material wealth. Among the few truly great men I’ve known, my dad first and foremost among them, some have been men of considerable wealth. One, my friend Carl, died rather suddenly and unexpectedly a few days ago. By the good fortune of his business successes he was able to afford whatever his heart desired for himself and his family. Indeed he loved his toys, and had a large collection of them. But they were never more than toys, and he took as much delight in sharing them with his friends as a young boy takes in showing off a new football or bicycle. Occasionally wrong, but never in doubt, he could be loud, boisterous and publicly demanding on political issues he deemed important to the community. But he was always quietly and anonymously generous in supporting works that revitalized neighborhoods, saved historical buildings, provided low-income housing and helped build churches. In other words, he was a rich man who was not owned by his riches, a wise man who was not owned by his wisdom, a generous man who was not foolish in his generosity, and above all a man of godly integrity. I suspect that he always knew he was but a steward of all that God had put into his hands. To whom in scripture might we compare such men? Perhaps Abraham, Jacob of his later years, his son Joseph of Egypt, possibly Isaiah or Jeremiah, certainly Joseph of Arimathea, and maybe Lazarus. How about some of those who offered their homes to Paul to get congregations started?
Anybody who has watched National Geographic television knows that a reef is a living thing pulsing with the life of coral, colorful fish and a variety of critters large and small. The problem is that they only show those beautiful reefs that are popular with divers and snorkelers. I like those places too, and have spent many an hour happily swimming around near them. But our reef is different. Our shallow bay is pinched off at both ends by lava rock intrusions into the sea, and a half moon reef encircles it to protect about a quarter mile of beach. Here the water is a bit sandy, visibility is limited, and the waves and swells over the reef mean that it is never still. In other words, it’s not an aquarium. So the trick is to swim slow and be patient. Just hover over a coral encrusted boulder for a while and wait. In time the fish come out. Two arguing over territory, a small one evading a big one, urchins hiding in crevices, sea weed waving back and forth, eels popping in and out, and maybe, if you are lucky, a green sea turtle or two. It saddens me when I hear someone come out of the water exclaiming that there is nothing to see, that it’s all dead out there. The same is true when walking along up in the hills and mountains at home. You have to be patient and wait for nature to reveal itself. Even in our backyard it is only through quiet patience that the enormous life it holds becomes evident. Lent can be a time of patient waiting that will allow our inner vision and hearing to become focused on the abundance of holy life that exists all about us, the true miracles of daily life, and the incredible variety of forms in which God’s presence is made known to us. It saddens me when I hear someone exclaim that they have looked for God and found nothing, no sign of the holy anywhere. You need to go slow, be patient, be quiet, wait. God will be revealed in more ways than you thought possible, even in the limited visibility of waves breaking over you.
This morning I got up before sunrise to watch the full moon’s slow descent into the waters of the Pacific, framed by a few clouds illuminated in its own reflected light shimmering off the waves. What is it about a big chunk of space rock shining in the night sky with a light not its own that is so powerfully mystical? Simple laws of physics describe it all, so there is no mystery, but the mystical remains, untouched by science, and it bespeaks of the holy. So too with the readings from Mark’s gospel for Morning Prayer today. There is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, nothing secret that will not come to light. And yet there remains the mystical awe at watching the seed grow into something of magnificent natural beauty, the mystical awe at recalling the small and insignificant acts of God that turn the entire universe in new directions – even through the small and insignificant work of small and insignificant people.
Each month a small band of well meaning (and rather fundamentalist) clergy gather to pray, earnestly pray, for something big to happen in our valley, for the power of the Holy Spirit to rush in like a mighty wind to chase out the devil, that a revitalized holiness might grow in its place. I think they need to spend more time looking at the moon and wondering about Mark’s record of Jesus’ sayings. As it is, I’m afraid they will become discouraged and figure the devil has too firm a grasp on the sinful people of our valley. They will have failed to see the reflected light of Christ shining in dark places, God’s word being revealed in new ways with new words, the seeds growing, one-by-one, into a rich, abundant harvest, and many small works by persons of no real standing building foundations for big things to follow.
OK, the curmudgeon is back. Blundering corporate incompetence can raise my ire even on a sunny day on Maui. How do you like your cell phone provider? Mine’s Unicel, and I’ve liked them well enough because they have decent service in our rural areas out west. A couple of months ago my wife changed her service to AT&T because Santa brought her one of those iphone things. Now, two months later, Unicel decided on their own that since her service with them had been terminated, they would terminate mine also, and, apparently, for no reason other than some idiot thought it sounded like a good idea. All of a sudden, Bam!, no service on the only phone I really use. I got through to their help desk, and frequently, without too much problem. They were frequent calls because I kept getting agents who serviced only Maine, Minnesota or Missouri. They must have been on an ‘M’ kick – you know, on Tuesdays only serve customers in states that start with ‘M.’ Finally getting someone who knew that the USofA also has lands west of the Rockies, I went through three different agents, each of whom promised to help if they could just put me on hold for a moment. Do you know that their system times out after about four or five minutes of being on hold? Then it disconnects you, and you have to start all over again talking to some guy in Michigan or Maryland. The last guy I talked to said he knew what the problem was and could help, and then, pulling out his corporate “cover your ass” laundry list, started lecturing me on why it was all my fault, and that I should not have authorized the termination of my service. It’s not a priestly thing to go ballistic, especially during Lent, and it’s not pretty either. Canticle 14 may have to be my personal mantra for a while. That’s the Prayer of Manasseh, for those of you who may not be Episcopalian, and it’s in the Apocrypha for those of you with incomplete bibles. After a day of waiting I called again late this afternoon. Whoever Eric is, he’s the one who finally did not hang up on me and restored my service. I’m relieved – but not happy. So where is the sermon topic in this? Maybe something on one of Jacob or David’s hissy fits? Jesus finally blowing it with the temple merchants? The folly of being so reliant on modern technology and the need to return to a simpler way of life (keep in mind that you are reading this on the Internet)? Paul getting testy with the Corinthians and Galatians? The appalling arrogance of comparing one’s momentary discomfort with Jacob, David, Jesus or Paul?
I’m going to take a break at honing my skills as a retired Episcopal curmudgeon. For one thing, we are still on vacation on Maui, and it’s just so doggone hard to work up a good steam of ire as tropical breezes waft through palm trees over our lanai. The thing is this; I really love our church, and get so tired of hearing nothing but clerical complaining about how bad things are when there is nothing but opportunity spread out before us like a banquet just waiting for us to come in and dine. And now, I’m going to get ready for a dinner of suhi and fine wine.
Have you been listening? If you have been listening well you have already heard a request for more. You have heard a request for an invitation. It may have been tentative, uncertain and doubtful, but it was there just the same. Most requests for an invitation are disguised in an attempt to avoid embarrassment. They follow the old familiar sales pitch: “You don’t want to buy any Girl Scout Cookies do you?” accompanied by a look that fully expects disappointment. The correct answer, of course, is, “Why yes, I’ll take four boxes.”
“Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” After a long conversation during which Jesus listened with patience and understanding, they said to him, “Rabbi where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came, they saw, they stayed for more.
“What are you looking for?” That’s the first invitation. It’s an invitation for the other to put into words of some kind a sense of what kind of hunger is in his or her heart and what kind of nourishment she or he seeks. Remember, it’s not your hunger for a particular kind of nourishment that counts, it’s theirs, not yours. If you’ve been listening you’ll can begin suggesting possible ways in which, through your congregation, God in Christ might feed their hunger, and, if not through your congregation, perhaps another. A young man came to see me not long ago to talk about his own hunger. It took him six full months to get up the courage to talk, and, after listening to him, I suggested he might find what he was seeking at the nearby Methodist church.
“Come and see” is the second invitation. It is an invitation to come with you to the place and among the people where you are fed. Come and see can be said in different words in different ways, but in the end it means “Why not come to church with me” in a way that minimizes the anxiety producing strangeness of church.
• All kinds of people come to our church.
• You will see every sort of dress.
• You don’t have to do anything; just sit and watch.
• We will sing, pray, hear four pretty substantial readings from scripture, listen to a fairly short sermon, pray a little more, and then comes the big thing for us – Holy Communion. For us, Holy Communion is the centerpiece of the whole service, and you may have a lot of questions about it so just ask away.”
It’s about as simple as that. So what’s the big deal? Get up off your fat butt and go do it! OK, OK, I’m sorry I said you had a fat butt. I recant. Get up off your lazy butt and go do it!
The problem with this series of posts is that the one on top may not make much sense unless you’ve read the two or three preceding it. The subject of this post is the listening part of listening and inviting as the way of Episcopalian evangelizing.
Episcopalians are, for the most part, uncomfortable being too public about sharing their faith. More often than it should that is because they are not all that sure what their faith is, or at least not sure what words to use to describe it. My answer to “I don’t know what to say” is to say nothing at all. Just listen. Listening is harder than it sounds mostly because we are lazy listeners. We don’t really want to put the effort into actually hearing what someone else is saying, but the fact is that sooner or later, in almost any conversation, the other person is going to say something that just begs to open up a deeper conversation about the ultimate questions of life. Pay attention! Listen! At least once or twice a day someone, maybe a stranger, maybe the clerk at a store, maybe your best friend, will say something that could open the door to a deeper conversation that will lead toward God. When that door opens do not rush in. Do not start talking. If the time and place are right, ask a question, a simple question inviting them to say more and then SHUT UP AND LISTEN. What kind of question is a simple question? How about: Are you comfortable saying about that?; Can you tell me what you mean?; Why do you ask? Don’t complicate matters. Just work on listening, and if you are up to it, start making a list of comments that might have opened up a conversation in a Godward direction. I guarantee that they will come every day: comments about days at church camp, recent deaths in the family, questions about good and evil, complaints about churches, wondering about happiness and sadness, anger at God. You name it, someone will say it, but you won’t hear it unless you are listening.
By the way, I once had a parishioner quit the church in a blaze of anger that included a letter to the vestry accusing me of being the worst listener and without an ounce of pastoral counseling ability. Hey, it happens.
Got any thoughts on listening? If so, post them. The next subject will be inviting.