Help and Hope During a Time of Conflict – Br. Curtis Almquist
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1 Thessalonians 4:1-12
This reading is from Saint Paul’s first letter to the Christians in Thessalonica, an ancient city in northern Greece. The letter was written in the early 50s, less than 20 years following Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is probably Saint Paul’s earliest preserved letter, making it the oldest writing in the entire New Testament. There is not yet a Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. There is not yet the record of the Acts of the Apostles. There are no Creeds. There is no ordination process agreed upon. So there is some confusion how to practice the Christian faith, with rivalry among those who purported themselves to be leaders.[i] Lots of conflict, resentment, and inexperience.
In this letter to the Thessalonian Christians, Saint Paul is rather tough. He tells them “to stop complaining.” He reminds them “to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands… so that you may behave properly toward outsiders.” If we were to take Saint Paul’s words – from 2,000 years ago – and overlay them on our own Coronavirus circumstances, we find some good counsel for life together during our own conflicted time. Saint Paul’s words are not a perfect fit for today, but we can glean some help:
- Saint Paul says “stop complaining.” Like in Saint Paul’s time, so now, there is rivalry among leaders, distrust, and disdain. Saint Paul says to “mind your own affairs.” If we were to presume that, in minding our own affairs we are doing the best we can, and that everyone else is, too, that would help. I’m not presuming we necessarily agree with others – with our various leaders and companions – how to practice life just now. I’m not suggesting we don’t hold one another accountable. However if we open our heart of compassion towards others, presuming they are doing the best they can right now… which sometimes is quite sad, even bad… we will not be the dispenser of the very poison we decry in the others with whom we disagree. Pray for your enemies with the same fervor you pray for yourself.[ii] Outsiders may not be our soulmates, but we’re in this together. Saint Francis de Sales lived in the 18th century, a terribly conflicted time for both church and state. He said, “What we need is a cup of understanding, a barrel of love, and an ocean of patience.”[iii]
- Then Saint Paul writes to “get to work” and “be dependent on no one.”[iv] The back story is Jesus’ promise about his second coming. That promise was a problem. People in Thessalonica had simply stopped their work, point-blank, and waited for Jesus’ imminent return. And while they waited they got hungry and, of course, had many other needs. The Christians who harshly judged the other people who were working and not waiting, at the same time demanded these outliers take care of the Christians’ needs. Paul denounces the Christians’ presumption and sense of entitlement. We are inter We are responsible daily to contribute what we can for the common good, each in our own different way. At the very least, we contribute our kindness and gratitude, and with great generosity. Saint Paul says, point blank: “Stop complaining; get to work” So for you? What do you need to work on today, in yourself and on behalf of others? What is your vocation today?[v]
Saint Paul’s concern is about life together in the present. The life we have been given is now. Where Christ will be really present is in the real present, in the now, right now, wherever and however we are. Our life will indeed come to an end, if not today, someday, maybe soon. Live today as if this were your last day. It could be. The story is told of Saint Francis of Assisi who was out hoeing his garden.[vi] A passerby asked him what he would do if he were suddenly to learn that he would die before sunset that very day. Francis replied, “I would finish hoeing my garden.”
[i] 1 Thessalonians 2:5, 9. Saint Paul was slandered by some who said he preached the gospel for what he could get out of it.
[ii][ii] Matthew 5:43-48.
[iii] Saint Francis de Sales (1567-1622) was Bishop of Geneva. Quoted from Jack Kornfield’s, A Path With Heart; A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life (1993), p. 58.
[iv] 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12.
[v] The English word, “vocation,” from the Latin, from Latin vocationem: a calling.
[vi] Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226).
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Dear Brother Curtis, Thank you again for your thoughtful meditation. I am going out to plant my flowers today. I read a quote of Martin Luther, who said “If the world were to end tomorrow, I would plant my apple tree today.” At the full age! of 80, I am very aware of the gift of each day. Thank you for the reminder, as it is so easy to take life for granted. May your day be blessed.
“if we open our heart of compassion towards others, presuming they are doing the best they can right now… which sometimes is quite sad, even bad… we will not be the dispenser of the very poison we decry in the others with whom we disagree.” Thank you Br. Curtis. Salutary and sage. Please can this be programmed into the executive part of my brain. Margo
There are very real parallels at present between Saint Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians and what we are witnessing unfold in real-time at church and state level across our Nation.
As a young girl attending an Episcopal elementary school then Episcopal high school, I recall being taught by Reverends Davenport and Clark that sometimes, it requires one going into the desert and feeling lost, downtrodden and weary, to ignite a spiritual fire.
We are witnessing that take place and unfold before our very eyes as church leaders demand reopening yet are faced with the peril that may come from close contact if that occurs and perhaps too impatiently.
The current day events, pandemic and time since the closure of churches has in many ways, required a lot of parishioners to lean in on God in a similar fashion to when a sailboat cuts through a hard tack.
Could it be that to bring about a spiritual reawakening, as church attendance has dropped in general – and even seemingly dormant at times – as the very busyness of life and modern day culture itself has dictated at times, that when reopening occurs- it will feel we are emerging from the very same desert we find ourselves in?
Might it mean that once that decision has been made, it will bring with it a transformed flock who through individual and collective faith being met with resistance, has all along been preparing us for spiritual battle?
When one trains for a marathon, to run the race with stamina requires endurance training.
Are we amidst this period of great uncertainty being asked to lean in hard on God, and amidst Pentecost, because it is an endurance test requiring stamina and drawing us from prior times of gathering to gathering singularly with God, ie 1:1?
Could the faithful emerge from this stronger, more ready to stand in defense of and solidly footed in faith in Christ’s proverbial “ocean of love”, just because each one of us amidst not being able to worship physically together, are being called upon in this seemingly endless trial with no clearly defined end date, to rely on our own communion with God?
What if instead of looking negatively at this timeframe of closure due to safety precaution measures for others amidst a rapidly contagious disease, that it is through one having to return to God privately during this timeframe, that we emerge on the other end, prepared and ready for spiritual battle. What if the closure timeframe has actually served as the modern day desert itself, requiring believers to rely on their own faith and personal relationship with God- to emerge from this chapter of spiritual endurance training until reopening occurs, reignited, ready, having been tested and crossing the proverbial stamina finish line?
“What do you need to work on today, in yourself and on behalf of others? What is your vocation today?” Thank you Br. Curtis. Since the Covid-19 Quarantine, this pretty much sums up what I say to myself at the beginning of each day. And at the end of the day, I rarely have gotten done all the things I set out to get done. Perhaps time is moving faster in these days of sequestering, but I surmise rather that I have slowed down. I become easily dissuaded from my tasks by birds on the deck or the sound of rustling leaves as the wind blows, the color of the ocean or the clouds as they drift by. Then I return to the dishes in the sink or dusting, cleaning the floors or disinfecting the bathrooms, letters that need to be written or the scriptures of the day which I share with others.
With no sense of urgency to “go out”, I have relaxed into a most enjoyable routine complete with surprise gifts of wonder I might previously have overlooked. For instance, I “discovered” SSJE. Several years ago I facilitated the reading of one of your books (The Twelve Days of Christmas) with a church group (St. Andrews on the Sound in Wilmington, NC). I was completely enamored by the words you wrote. What I saw in them was a guide to living life well, much like the Twelve Steps attempt to teach people how to live. Your book still stands out in my mind even after several years have gone by, as I now return to it each Christmas. Then during my mental wanderings of quarantine, it occurred to me to learn more about you. Much to my delight, you have been prolific in your writings. I seem to gravitate quite naturally to the way you think and am excited each time I discover a new sermon you have written. Thank you for all of the effort you take in comprising your sermons. They are masterpieces to me.
Dear Lee, Thank you for your words. With Br. Curtis you join a vast crowd of the enchanted. He is a miracle of a fully engaged life and life giving energy. Another fan – Margo
I am working on my sermon for tomorrow. Pentecost. I stumbled across the Celtic reference to the “Wild Goose” as an interruptive image for the Holy Spirit’s loud and disturbing descent. Boisterous, wild, unexpected, and convicted the bird stirs even the most well “intended” upper room witness to awaken, get up, get moving moving and live into something bigger than the past. The gentle “dove” image may serve well at times in history, but tomorrow’s retelling of “Pentecost” begs a jolt out of isolation, fear, silence, doubt, uncertainty, and any tendency towards residual covid co-dependence. “Going back to the way things were when Jesus was with us” is not the “way forward.” The nostalgic pull back of church to the “way it used to be” is a memory the “Wild Goose” intends to shatter. As mentioned, every day is a new day to live into something bigger than the past. The “new New Testament” begs to be written now. Make no mistake the good Lord is as present. The command to get up and proclaim in word and deed the “good news” is as counter cultural today as it was so many years ago. What we may say emerging from the pandemic isolation “upper room” is yet to be revealed. With the “Wild Goose” on our heels I suspect it will be something quite startling, new, and refreshing. Sandy+