Bread is ordinary, daily, for most people necessary nourishment, and a key symbol of our salvation. Remember the unleavened bread of the Exodus. God delivered our ancestors from slavery in Egypt. Pushed out, they had to leave quickly, without time for their bread to rise or make other provisions. All they had was their daily dough, and they could not prepare it as they were accustomed. They had to leave “before it was leavened, with their kneading bowls wrapped up in their cloaks on their shoulders.”[i]
Remember manna in the wilderness. God provided ancient Israel with bread from heaven in the wilderness for forty years. Our parents asked: “What is it?” God said take a measure of this bread from heaven every morning. More will come tomorrow. Don’t hoard it. I will give you enough.[ii]
Remember earlier in the Gospel of John, Jesus turned a few loaves and fish into a meal for thousands. Followed by a crowd, Jesus raised the question of how to feed them. The disciples said: “Six months wages would not buy enough bread.” Jesus said: “Make the people sit down. … Jesus gave thanks and distributed the food, … as much as they wanted.”[iii]
This spring we’ve watched as a pair of morning doves built a nest on the outdoor crucifix located in our cloister garden. Nestled on the shoulder of the crucified Jesus, the mother sat motionless on her eggs for days and days. At last the chicks emerged.
I had the extraordinary good fortune to be watching the nest this past Monday evening. The two chicks are now adolescents, about 2/3 the size of their adult parents and darker in coloring. They were sitting side by side in the nest, eagerly looking out on the world. Their mother appeared and, standing on the head of the crucified Jesus, she fed them. Then she flew off and perched nearby where she could keep a close eye on them.
You could tell there was something happening. The young birds began rocking back and forth in the nest, as if working up their courage to leave the warmth and security of the nest. Finally, one of them took the leap. It flapped wildly around the cloister, unable to control its flight, banging into the walls and ceiling until it finally fell stunned to the floor. The second one readied itself for its first flight, rocking in the nest before finally launching its body into the air. Like the first, it flapped wildly about, crashing into the ceiling and walls, and then landing on the floor. It waited for a bit, then took off again, this time successfully navigating its way through the arches and out into the garden.
Much of God’s provision for us is mysterious, dark, and frustratingly hidden. I know this has been true in my own life, and I suspect it is probably true for many of us. Times when it’s hard to take Jesus at his word when he says, “Ask, and it will be given you.”
Not only now, in this time of seclusion, isolation, and separation, but in many parts of my life it has been tempting (and I use the word tempting with all of its sinister weight) to read the world and not see God’s provision whatsoever. I admit that this is frighteningly easy, at least for me.
Yet, in hindsight all of these situations that I have read as set-backs or crises—graves for my soul and my character—have really in fact been rich times of provision. And always right under my nose. And I am put in mind of these temptation as we continue our Lenten walk together.
It occurs to me that so often it is easy for us to talk about the disciplines we engage during Lent as “curbs”—to use a word that we brothers have used in our Rule to contrast the living reality of our life and the disciplines that form it. We say that the disciplines of our life are not mere curbs. And so then, what are they?
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10, Year A
Isaiah 55: 10 – 13
Psalm 65: 9 – 14
Romans 8: 1 – 11
Matthew 13: 1 – 9, 18 – 23
My father was never much for television. Except for the nightly news, and the occasional serial drama like Upstairs, Downstairs, I don’t remember him watching TV in the evening. He and Mum would sit in their chairs reading, either a book or the newspaper, while we kids watched whatever it was we watched, splayed out on the living room floor.
What I do remember is how quickly he would get up and turn the TV off, the instant something came on that he did not think suitable for children. This was especially true if something about the Second World War came on. In a flash he would be up, out of his chair, and across the living room, to turn the TV off and say, by way of explanation, too tough for kids. I never knew what he was talking about, until as a teenager, I began to learn about the Holocaust.
II Thessalonians 3:1-5
I’ve been listening to a lot of gospel music lately. I do it because gospel music makes me happy, and offers glimpses of hope in a world that at times seems overshadowed by darkness. One of the songs I’ve come to find solace in goes like this:
Life is easy when you’re up on the mountain;
you’ve got peace of mind like you’ve never known.
But things change when you’re down in the valley;
don’t lose faith, for you’re never alone.
For the God on the mountain is still God in the valley;
when things go wrong, he’ll make them right.
And the God of the good times is still God in the bad times;
the God of the day is still God in the night.[i]
The song acknowledges that life has its ups and downs, its mountains and valleys, and that it’s easy to talk of faith “when life’s at its best.” But when we’re “down in the valley of trials and temptations, that’s where [our] faith is really put to the test” (quotations from the 2nd stanza). Doubtless we know this to be true from our own experience.
St Paul knew it. He had been on the mountaintops with God, borne into the heavens by the Spirit; but he also knew what it was to descend into the valley, to encounter resistance, persecution and evil. It’s moving to see him, a great giant of the faith, beseeching the Thessalonian Christians to pray for him. It is a mark of his humility, I think, and a valuable sign for us. We need one another. We need one another’s prayers. Paul is well aware of his own weakness and of the enormous challenges that are part of his calling, and he is humble enough to implore his fellow Christians to pray for him.
Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10
Many of you know that I have a special affinity for angels. These mysterious figures show up throughout scripture and fill the depths of my imagination with stories of their continual worship in heaven, especially as described in the Revelation to John. If I had to say there was a runner-up for the affections of my heart, it would probably be shepherds. This is in part because they were the first to hear the news of Jesus’ birth, announced to them by a multitude of angels. The main job of these country-dwellers was for the husbandry and protection of flocks of sheep placed in their care.
When I first began to pray with our Collect for this morning the phrase ‘good shepherd of your people’ caught my attention. I began to think back throughout my life to people who had been shepherds to me, and thank goodness there have been many. I recall the youth program at my elementary school that occurred every summer sponsored by our local Department of Parks and Recreation. While parents were working, neighborhood kids could ride their bike up to the school where young adults employed by the Parks and Rec would be on hand to facilitate games, art, physical fitness, and field trips. Being an only child experiencing the ups and downs of family life that was not always happy, I craved and needed special attention. There were two or three young adults during those summers who recognized that need and would play board games with me when no one else showed any interest. They shepherded me when I, in a way, was a lost sheep, bullied by other kids and isolated because I was not popular. When I received the attention I so desperately needed from these councilors I felt happy, content, and most importantly, safe. Perhaps this is what inspired me to ask my parents one Christmas if I could have an older brother. I wanted someone who cared for me, looked out for me, and who had walked the very path I had walked earlier in his life; someone who could guide, affirm, and encourage me when I felt especially alone and vulnerable. I think this is as true for the 49-year old Jim as it was for the 9-year old Jim.
I just finished reading a marvelous book, Dancing with Sherman. Sherman is a donkey. Ostensibly, the book is about donkey-racing with their human partners in the Amish-Mennonite country of Pennsylvania. Sherman is a real winner. In actuality, the book is about trust, the interdependence of trust woven into the whole of creation. The author, Christopher McDougall, writes that “donkeys operate on one frequency – trust. They do nothing on faith, but everything on certainty.”[i] Donkeys operate on trust, not faith. We have the capacity for both, for both trust and faith.
Trust and faith are related. They’re like cousins. Faith operates with the eyes of our heart.[ii] We read in The Letter to the Hebrews, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”[iii] Faith… the conviction of things not seen. Faith in God is a gift from God, though it’s not based on evidence. Faith is a kind of inner knowing. Which is why so many people – even in the face of tremendous fear or overwhelming suffering, even now – have not lost their faith in God. Many people’s faith in God is awakened in suffering, which is such a paradox. In our opening prayer,the Collect for today, we ask God to “open the eyes of our faith” to behold God. The eyes of our faith is a kind of inner seeing, which can even be contrary to the evidence we actually see. Saint Paul says “we walk by faith, not by sight.”[iv]It was Saint Anselm of Canterbury who, in the 11th century, described the preeminence of faith as coming from the heart, not the mind: “faith seeking understanding,” he said.[v]
Psalm 71, appointed for today, speaks to a calamity. Psalm 71 is both a diagnosis and a prescription for those who suffer. The issue the psalmist confronts, specifically, is about the insecurity and vulnerability of old age and the fear of abandonment. But this psalm applies just as well if you are young and sick, or if you worried sick because of your own health and wellbeing, or because of someone else’s.
On the one hand, the psalmist has known the presence of God, stretching back to childhood, “my confidence since I was young.”[i] Because of this, the psalmist has reason to be hopeful about the future, “For you are my hope, O LORD God.”[ii] But this is not cheap hope. In such transparent candor, the psalmist says, “I have become a portent to many.”[iii]A portent is a sign or a warning that something bad, especially something momentous or calamitous, is likely to happen.” Old people are portents. Old people are like the canary in the coal mine. We all become old. I am old. Unless we die young or from some other tragedy, we all become old. It’s not your fault for becoming old. However, old people are often forgotten and dismissed. Old people often lose their voice – that is, the power to be heard by others – and then they lose their control to manage their own life and to choose where to go or how to be. At the very end of the Gospel according to John, we hear Jesus, at the very end of his own life, say, “When you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”[iv] Old people can be terribly needy, inconvenient, even embarrassing. The psalmist knows about this firsthand. So do we.
But then we hear the psalmist find some equilibrium. With courage and confidence, the psalmist draws from life’s experience knowing God’s presence: “For you are my crag and my stronghold.”[v] A crag is not a sheltered cave. It’s quite the opposite. A crag is a steep, rugged mass of rock that projects upward and outward. A crag is a stronghold. If you were a rock climber, you would reach up to a crag to take hold, to keep you secure, to enable you to ascend. In a desert culture, where the land is endlessly flat leaving you exposed and vulnerable, you will find safety and perspective in height, in being able to ascend, lest you be laid low, powerless, and vulnerable… like you often are when you are old or when you are sick. A crag is a miniature Masada, the hilltop fortress in the Judean desert. In medieval times, castles were oftentimes built upon crags. So we hear the psalmist recite from memory, and with strength and comfort: “Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe; you are my crag and my stronghold.”[vi]
And then, it’s like the psalmist “loses it.” The psalmist falls into despair. You know how it is when you feel vulnerable and needy. When you have thin skin. Oftentimes a little help and encouragement feels like a great help and encouragement. It’s transformative. For the moment, all is well! But then your mood can easily swing from cheer and confidence to despair and hopelessness, and then back and forth. Having just claimed God as a “crag and stronghold,” the psalmist becomes disconsolate and implores God, “Do not cast me off in my old age; do not forsake me when my strength fails.”[vii] In such transparent need, the psalmist cries out to God, “O God, be not far from me; come quickly to help me, O my God.”[viii]
The psalmist then expresses one last plea to God: “Now that I am old and gray headed, O God, do not forsake me…”[ix] Feeling very vulnerable – either because you are old, or sick, or afraid you will be – is very difficult, don’t we know. And then something amazing happens for the psalmist, true to life. It’s like an answer to prayer. The psalmist is reminded of God’s presence and God’s provision in the past: “You will restore my life and bring me up again from the deep places of the earth.”[x] It’s a kind of resurrection-like experience, when the sun bursts through the clouds and health or hope returns. The psalmist’s concluding words are triumphal:
“You strengthen me more and more; you enfold and comfort me,
therefore I will praise you upon the lyre for your faithfulness, O my God…
My lips will sing with joy when I play to you,
and so will my soul, which you have redeemed…
My tongue will proclaim your righteousness all day long,”[xi]
“All the day long…,” “all day long…,” until the cycle of fear and impending death returns. Death and resurrection, death and resurrection, death and resurrection.
1. In you, O LORD, have I taken refuge;
let me never be ashamed.
2. In your righteousness, deliver me and set me free;
incline your ear to me and save me.
3. Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe;
you are my crag and my stronghold.
4. Deliver me, my God, from the hand of the wicked,
from the clutches of the evildoer and the oppressor.
5. For you are my hope, O LORD God,
my confidence since I was young.
6. I have been sustained by you ever since I was born;
from my mother’s womb you have been my strength; my praise shall be always of you.
7. I have become a portent to many;
but you are my refuge and my strength.
8. Let my mouth be full of your praise
and your glory all the day long.
9. Do not cast me off in my old age;
forsake me not when my strength fails.
10. For my enemies are talking against me,
and those who lie in wait for my life take counsel together.
11. They say, “God has forsaken him;
go after him and seize him;
because there is none who will save.”
12. O God, be not far from me;
come quickly to help me, O my God.
13. Let those who set themselves against me be put to shame and be disgraced;
let those who seek to do me evil be covered with scorn and reproach.
14. But I shall always wait in patience,
and shall praise you more and more.
15. My mouth shall recount your mighty acts and saving deeds all day long;
though I cannot know the number of them.
16. I will begin with the mighty works of the Lord GOD;
I will recall your righteousness, yours alone.
17. O God, you have taught me since I was young,
and to this day I tell of your wonderful works.
18. And now that I am old and gray headed, O God, do not forsake me,
till I make known your strength to this generation and your power to all who are to come.
19. Your righteousness, O God, reaches to the heavens;
you have done great things; who is like you, O God?
20. You have showed me great troubles and adversities,
but you will restore my life and bring me up again from the deep places of the earth.
21. You strengthen me more and more;
you enfold and comfort me,
22. Therefore I will praise you upon the lyre for your faithfulness, O my God;
I will sing to you with the harp, O Holy One of Israel.
23. My lips will sing with joy when I play to you,
and so will my soul, which you have redeemed.
24. My tongue will proclaim your righteousness all day long,
for they are ashamed and disgraced who sought to do me harm.
[i] I take inspiration from Herbert O’Driscoll’s Finer than Gold; Sweeter than Honey (Path Books), pp. 150-151.
[ii] Psalm 17:5.
[iii] Psalm 17:7.
[iv] John 21:18.
[v] Psalm 17:3.
[vi] Psalm 17:3.
[vii] Psalm 17:9.
[viii] Psalm 17:12.
[ix] Psalm 71:18.
[x] Psalm 17:20.
[xi] Psalm 17:20-24.
On November 8, 1952 C.S. Lewis responded by letter to a Mrs. Johnson, who had asked him, “Is the Bible Infallible?” Here is what he wrote:
“It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers will bring us to Him. When it becomes really necessary (i.e. for our spiritual life, not for controversy or curiosity) to know whether a particular passage is… Myth (… specially chosen by God… to carry a spiritual truth) or history, we shall no doubt be guided to the right answer. But we must not use the Bible… as a sort of Encyclopedia out of which texts (isolated from their context…) can be taken for use as weapons.”
That quote from C.S. Lewis reminded me of a scene from the 2004 movie, Saved! It’s a movie about a girl named Mary attending a Christian high school, and when she becomes pregnant, she finds herself ostracized and demonized, as all of her former friends turn on her.
In one particular scene Hillary Faye, the most popular girl at school, and her two friends confront Mary in a combination intervention and exorcism. At one point, after Mary points out their hypocrisy, Hilary Faye shoves Mary yelling, “Oh my God, you’re making accusations as we’re trying to save your soul? Mary, turn away from Satan. Jesus… he loves you.”
At various points in my life I have learned things about the artistic process from people who are genuine masters. As a student and an amateur (that is, a non-professional lover of art) I have admired several traits that masters seem to have in common, especially when they have swooped in and lovingly rescued my work from disaster. A master of any art will not let her media dictate the results of her intended project. Neither, having painstakingly chosen her materials, will she forsake the medium and its potential if it proves sub-optimal once the artistic process has begun. A master has the training, the inner resources, the perspective, and the tools to respond and to adapt, to re-calibrate his vision and expectations if the block of marble or batch of gesso or piece of wood reveal faults or surprises. This is a powerful and mysterious dance to witness: the artist’s respect for the material calls forth a genuinely two-sided conversation. If the student is too deferential or too dominating toward the materials (and I have been both), the result is either a monologue or an argument. Neither produce good art.
Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.