Ma Nishtana – What has changed?

Peter's Vision, c.1658-59 Rembrandt Graphische Sammlung, Munich

The Vision of St. Peter, c.1658-59
Rembrandt
Graphische Sammlung, Munich

 

The next day, as they were on their journey and coming near the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour.  And he became hungry and desired something to eat; but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance and saw the heaven opened, and something descending, like a great sheet, let down by four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “No, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.”  And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.”  This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.

Acts 10:9-23

 

There’s more to school than learning your lessons. Half of the work of school is figuring out school, and consciously or unconsciously we all figure out how the system works. If the teacher says it twice, it’s on the test. If you’re asked a question in Sunday School (Formation!) and you don’t know the answer, try “Because he loves us.” The whole enterprise is one of being ready when you are questioned.

Sometimes, to our great relief, the quizzing can simple and transactional (“What is the capital of Nebraska?”), and at other times it’s complicated (“What is the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow?”). In that space before you answer, other questions come to mind: Does the questioner want to know your opinion? Is there a single right answer? Is the question that’s been spoken actually a different question in disguise? What are you really asking? Why are you asking? And if you’re asked something by the all-knowing Deity, then it can really mess with your head.

The Bible is full of stories with uncomfortable questions. Sometimes there’s no answer but to hand the question back to the one who asks:

“Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord God, thou knowest.” Ezekiel 37: 1-14

 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and whence have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  Revelation 7

He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.  John 21: 15-19

People of faith live with questions and search for answers. Most of us expect that someday God will hold us accountable, or at the very least have a serious discussion with us about our spiritual lives. So we read, we think, we discuss, we pray. Reciting our lessons and recounting our history helps us review what we’ve been taught and pass on that knowledge.

Ma nishtana? How is this night different from all other nights?

But what if God wants to teach us something new? How are we to know if we’re to stand firm and recite what we’ve been taught, or stop and open our minds? Lord, lead us not into temptation!

Peter finds himself in this confusing situation during his rooftop vision. He’s given a directive “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” that he takes as a test and a temptation, and so he gives the answer he’s been taught. He speaks the truth he knows.

And that’s when God gives him something new. “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.”  It’s new, but it’s not clear. It’s perplexing. Peter will have to ponder a while. And that’s when Cornelius’ men show up at the gate and the Spirit returns to tell Peter to accompany them.    

It turns out that the lesson is not actually about food or killing or keeping kosher. It’s about people and about grace. “God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.”  God leads Peter, not into temptation, but to a corner and tells him to take the turn.

Scary stuff. It’s hard to know even what kind of test we’re taking, much less what the answer is. Who’s asking? Why are they asking? Is this a trap? If Peter was perplexed and pondering then I suppose we should expect to be too. But somehow we have to be open, ready to be surprised. 

Publishing the story; The Spacious Firmament on High

Hymn- The Spacious Firmament on High -Huron Family (In the Beginning) from HuronFamily on Vimeo.

A beautiful performance of Addison’s hymn.
My favorite image: “The moon takes up the wondrous tale,
and nightly to the listening earth repeats the story of her birth.”

The spacious firmament on high,
with all the blue ethereal sky,
and spangled heavens, a shining frame,
their great Original proclaim.
The unwearied sun from day to day
does his Creator’s power display,
and publishes to every land
the work of an almighty hand.

Soon as the evening shades prevail
the moon takes up the wondrous tale,
and nightly to the listening earth
repeats the story of her birth;
whilst all the stars that round her burn,
and all the planets in their turn,
confirm the tidings, as they roll,
and spread the truth from pole to pole.

What though in solemn silence all
move round the dark terrestrial ball;
what though no real voice nor sound
amid their radiant orbs be found;
in reason’s ear they all rejoice,
and utter forth a glorious voice,
for ever singing as they shine,
‘The hand that made us is divine.’

 

Words: Joseph Addison (1672-1719)
Tune: not the one in my hymnal!

By the numbers

 

The Lost Sheep, c.1898 Alfred Usher Soord

The Lost Sheep, c.1898
Alfred Usher Soord

 

The gospel reading for this day (Matthew 18: 10-20) begins with the parable of the lost sheep, followed by Jesus’ teaching about confronting someone who wrongs you. The words are very familiar, and at first pass their juxtaposition seemed odd. A beautiful story joined with rules of procedure? How did we get here? But then I saw the two sections as ideas held in balance.

The parable is a story of God’s great love for the individual, even from his mighty perspective of the whole:

What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.

The second lesson begins with individuals, then adds two or three witnesses, and finally the entire congregation. Jewish law required the testimony of two witnesses to establish truth (which, by the way, is why the Spirit bears witness with our spirit), and so the individual’s power over another individual is limited.

Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

Jesus words, ““If he listens to you, you have gained your brother”  and “ if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” are words of retrieval and loss.

It seems as if God’s love for the one does not make the individual the most important. There’s balance, not privilege. Perhaps this is a manifestation of the Trinity. The Lord is God, the Lord is One, and never without a witness.

 

An ever rolling stream

1024px-Beautiful_river_landscape_in_the_fall

This morning I was reading Ecclesiastes, and my heart went out to the Preacher. He sounds like a man who is drowning in time’s ever rolling stream: nothing changes; nothing matters; it just keeps coming. I know what he’s feeling: you work your whole life, day after day, and then it’s over. Someone else will enjoy everything you’ve worked for, and nobody will remember you when you’re gone.

 So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a striving after wind. (Ecc.2:17)

Of course, I’d heard that “vanity of vanities” refrain many times before, but I was surprised when I realized that even the renewal of nature–which is typically a hopeful and joyous theme–merely confirms the truth of the writer’s despair. He sees the re-creation of the earth and our own appetite for experience and knowledge as manifestations of a deep hunger that will never be satisfied. Read what he says:

The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
    vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
 What does man gain by all the toil
    at which he toils under the sun?
 A generation goes, and a generation comes,
    but the earth remains for ever.
 The sun rises and the sun goes down,
    and hastens to the place where it rises.
 The wind blows to the south,
    and goes round to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
    and on its circuits the wind returns.
 All streams run to the sea,
    but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
    there they flow again.
 All things are full of weariness;
    a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
    nor the ear filled with hearing.
 What has been is what will be,
    and what has been done is what will be done;
    and there is nothing new under the sun.
 Is there a thing of which it is said,
    “See, this is new”?
It has been already,
    in the ages before us.
 There is no remembrance of former things,
    nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to happen
    among those who come after.

Ecclesiastes 1:1-11

 

Oh, Qoheleth! You have gone to the dark place. Everything looks the same and everything makes you tired. God bless you. A lot of us have seen that place, some of us live there more often than not, but you describe it so well.

So I thought about this passage, and as I did, I remembered another writer who contemplated man and nature, and knew futility and despair and the temptation to feast on carrion comfort. I let the two of them carry on a bit of dialogue in my brain.

The writer of Ecclesiastes is not wrong–in fact, it feels like he’s asking a lot of the right questions: What are we to think of this world and Time that just keeps coming, though our own time seems so brief? Is there nothing but work? Will we ever be satisfied?

And yet, as I read Hopkins’ poetry I sense a change like that moment of clarity as the optometrist drops a correctly refracting lens into place. The reality of Time does not change, but the meaning of its reality shifts from “it’s never over” to “nature is never spent.”  The endlessness of our dissatisfaction–the ocean that is never full–becomes the hint of something greater rather than an indication of futility, and the extent of our hunger suggests the vastness of the awaiting feast.

There’s a lot of grim truth in Ecclesiastes that you might miss if you only read the popular snippets, so I’m glad I spent the time this morning to let the Preacher go on for a bit. It’s oddly comforting to read both that

“the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all”

and “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” Something about the real human experience expressed in those words, I suppose.

Still, grim truth doesn’t feel to me like the whole truth, so I’ll end with Gerard Manley Hopkins. Nature is never spent.

 

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

 

And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Poured into our hearts

molten iron rsz

 

…and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.

Romans 5:5

Hammer and Tongs: St. Dunstan and the Devil

Illustration copyright Wallace Tripp from A Great Big Ugly Man Came Up and Tied His Horse to Me

Illustration copyright Wallace Tripp
from A Great Big Ugly Man Came Up and Tied His Horse to Me

 

St. Dunstan, as the story goes,
Once pulled the devil by the nose
With red hot tongs, which made him roar,
That could be heard ten miles or more.

 

Today is the feast day of St. Dunstan. If you’re not familiar with the life and legends of St. Dunstan, they’re well-worth a bit of your time. Dunstan (909-988) was educated at Glastonbury Abbey as a child. He became a skilled musician, scribe, sculptor, and metalworker. At least one of his works survives. A devout and intellectual man, he served as abbot and bishop, and eventually became Archbishop of Canterbury.

Some of the most popular stories of Dunstan involve his encounters with the devil. The one illustrated above is said to have taken place in Glastonbury during the time the saint was living as a hermit.

While he was in his cell, Dunstan was visited by a shape-changing devil who appeared first as an old man asking him to make a chalice, then a young boy, and then a seductive woman.

As Eleanor Parker relates in her most excellent blog, A Clerk of Oxford:

Dunstan realised that his guest was a devil; but, pretending not to notice, he went on with his task. He took up the tongs from among his tools and laid them in the fire, waiting until they were red-hot. Then, pulling them out of the fire, he turned round and seized the devil by the nose with the tongs. The devil struggled and screamed, but Dunstan held on until at last he felt he had triumphed. Then he threw the devil out of his cell and it fled, running down the street and crying “Woe is me! What has that bald devil done to me? Look at me, a poor wretch, look how he has tortured me!” 

 

Dunstan was one of the vigorous saints–going after the devil hammer and tongs. There’s even a story that he shod the devil’s cloven hoof; that tale is said to be the origin of the lucky horseshoe you see nailed over doorways. Because he was known for his metalwork at Glastonbury, Dunstan is the patron saint of goldsmiths, silversmiths, blacksmiths, armorers, and jewelers.

 

Dunstan shoeing the Devil's hoof illustrated by George Cruikshank Image: WIkimedia Commons

Dunstan shoes the Devil’s hoof
illus. by George Cruikshank
Image: Wikimedia Commons

 

 

Pulling back to shore

rope

 

Leon of Modena, a Jewish scholar writing in the 16th and 17th centuries, spoke of prayer as a person pulling a boat back to shore by means of a rope.

“To someone standing far off, it might appear that he is moving the shore closer, but of course it is only the boat that moves. Similarly, Leon explains, people think they are moving God when they are in fact moving themselves. We are the boats and God is the shore.

God does not need our flattery, but we need reminders of God’s greatness. God does not change in response to our prayers, but we do. God remains unfathomable, but with each earnest prayer we come to understand ourselves better. With each pull, we draw closer to God. And if our prayer draws us closer to God, then the prayer has been answered.”

from “Should We Flatter God?” by David J. Wolpe in Floating Takes Faith: Ancient Wisdom for a Modern World. Behrman House, 2004.

Children of God

The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you; but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

In that same hour he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes; yea, Father, for such was thy gracious will.

Luke 10:17-21

 

The seventy were giddy with excitement. They had experienced power and they had done great work. They knew the source of that power:  “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” They were charged up, ready to go again–you can practically hear them exclaiming, “Whoa! It was awesome!” And it must have made Jesus smile.

He gives them a caution, redirecting their joy to its true source in saving grace, but that doesn’t erase the pleasure he surely feels. Later that same hour, he rejoices in God’s presence that these openhearted seventy have taken it in whole.

I love reading about that moment when Jesus was happy. He spent so much time trying to get the message across to people who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, listen or understand that the kingdom had come near. Saying the same thing over and over, coming up with so many parables, explaining the scriptures, sparring with skeptics–just imagining the effort is exhausting.

But this day is different. God gave them an opportunity, and people grasped a revelation. Like excited children they returned with joy, and Jesus, with tender affection, rejoices and gives thanks.

Wonderfully kind


I know you don’t usually click on the videos you see posted on the internet. That’s why someone got the bright idea to make them play automatically–overcoming our haste and limited curiosity; figuring humans might stay for a moment if the show were already in progress. Tempted. Persuaded.

I won’t take on the role of tempter today, nor salesman, nor even evangelist. I can only offer myself and this space as a conduit. But I will ask you to take a few minutes to listen–if only in the background of your busy life–so that the depth and breadth of God’s kindness and compassion might wash over you and bring you peace.

——————

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in his justice,
which is more than liberty.
There is welcome for the sinner,
and more graces for the good;
there is mercy with the Savior;
there is healing in his blood.

There is no place where earth’s sorrows
are more felt than in heaven;
there is no place where earth’s failings
have such kindly judgment given.
There is plentiful redemption
in the blood that has been shed;
there is joy for all the members
in the sorrows of the Head.

For the love of God is broader
than the measure of man’s mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful,
we should take him at his word;
and our life would be thanksgiving
for the goodness of the Lord.

Words: Frederick William Faber, 1862
Tune: St. Helena

Not even a cubit

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life? 

And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin;  yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.  But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith?

Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.  But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. 

Matthew 6: 25-33

Today’s gospel reading stirred an echo in my memory. Mark Rylance is pretty much perfect here.