Prayer for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Ordinary Time)

Railroad Train by Edward Hopper, 1908.

Railroad Train by Edward Hopper, 1908.

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

Unless otherwise noted, prayers come from the Book of Common Prayer, Revised Common Lectionary.

Prayers posted during Ordinary Time will feature art that is often not specifically religious, but art for arts sake. Enjoy!

Getting Back to the Garden or Moving Into the City

Artist rendition of the ancient Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Artist rendition of the ancient Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

If there’s one thing my wife and I respectfully disagree on its the preferred place of our home. Both of us grew up in similar environments out in the country, reasonably far away from anything resembling an urban or even suburban environment. The interesting thing that happened is that I ended up with a desire to move closer to the city while she wanted to stay in the country. I was okay with a smaller house and a small yard if that meant I could be within walking distance of the store and any number of things that living in an urban environment can bring. She preferred to be further away from urban life to have a bigger house, bigger yard and potentially enough space to keep horses. She is definitely country and I am most certainly rock and roll.

Now, this is not a post about my marriage and where we’ve chosen to live, but it got me thinking about something I read a bit ago in The King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight. In the book, he highlights the story of Scripture in trying to get Christians to move beyond “salvation” as the end game of the Gospel but to see the Gospel and our salvation in light of the story of Scripture. One of the ways he illustrates that point is the transition scripture makes from a garden to the city. Scot writes:

“God originally placed Adam and Eve in a garden-temple, but when God gets things completely wrapped up, the garden disappears. Instead of a garden in Revelation 21-22 we find a city. The garden, in other words, is not the ideal condition. The ideal condition is a flourishing, vibrant, culture-creating, God-honoring, Jesus-centered city.”
Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel p. 35

Like the push and pull between my wife and I, it seems like the church struggles with a pull back towards the innocence of the Garden in Genesis and a push to the developed City of God in Revelation. I know that my experience in church always seemed to have this “pull” back towards the Garden of Eden. We believed that the Garden was the default condition and that since the Fall, humanity had moved away from God’s plan in the Garden. The goal then was to get back to Garden and that Jesus’ death and resurrection allowed for the movement back. The concept that God wanted to “pull” us back into the Garden state, however, had a few issues. Any move “forward” was perceived with a healthy (and potentially unhealthy) dose of skepticism. Bar codes were the precursor to the “mark of the Beast” and even grocery loyalty discount cards were considered a slippery slope in that direction. Science was the enemy of faith as each new discovery could be considered an attack against God. Higher education was a place for losing ones faith if not properly grounded. On and on it went with a wary eye towards anything that moved someone away from the original, “innocent” state in the Garden. This resistance, also called conservatism, attempted to slow the push of society towards what was considered a dark future. The ideal was in the past and we needed to try and get back to that ideal as much as possible.

What this focus on the Garden misses, and something that Scot highlights, is that God seems to have created us to move forward. The Garden may have been the original state but that does not mean that it was to be the final state as well. God seems to have given humans the capacity to grow, develop, create and build. God gave Adam and Eve the responsibility to work and tend the Garden (actually, the whole Earth) and I imagine they would have devised more efficient ways to work, would have looked up at the stars and wondered how to reach them and might have even wondered how these God-given bodies of ours actually work. There seems to be a push towards new discoveries and development.

The dark side of the push forward was displayed fully when the story tells us that the curious and inquisitive nature of humanity caused Adam and Eve to choose to eat the fruit. Why would they have chosen to eat it without wondering what would actually happen if they did? The temptation of the push towards the city is further hammered home in the Tower of Babel story. Here humanity defies God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply” and to spread out over the whole Earth. Instead they choose to settle down, build their own city with a tower that will reach the heavens so that they might be famous. The God ingrained push towards development and growth can be distorted when it becomes about making a name for ourselves rather than for the sake of humanity, community, respecting the image of God and bringing honor to God. Babel is a rejection of God’s push towards a healing, community building city. Babel is a narcissistic, dominating, and distorted image of the city God wants to move humanity into. Like Scot pointed out, Revelation 21-22 gives us the image of the city God desired for humanity to grow into.

“Its gates will never be shut by day–and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.”
Revelation 21:25-26 (NRSV)

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”
Revelation 22:1-2 (NRSV)

The city that God wants to bring us to will welcome and honor the diversity of nations rather than return us all to an innocent and homogenous state. It’s gates will never be shut, never be threatened and will be open to all who wish to enter. The tree of life exists in the City of God but it is not only for the giving of life, but it is for the defeating of death and the healing of nations. Death will have no power and can no long be used as a threat. The city will be a community gathered for the glory of God to be the people of God.

In a small way, this is what the Church should look like.

So, do we dream too much of the Garden and refuse to move into the City? Are we always trying to “get back” into Eden while missing the promise of the City of God?

Prayer for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Ordinary Time)

Woman Grinding Maize by Diego Rivera, 1924.

Woman Grinding Maize by Diego Rivera, 1924.

O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

Unless otherwise noted, prayers come from the Book of Common Prayer, Revised Common Lectionary.

Prayers posted during Ordinary Time will feature art that is often not specifically religious, but art for arts sake. Enjoy!

Saint of the Week – Constance and Her Companions

Constance and her Companions, the "Martyrs of Memphis"

Constance and her Companions, the “Martyrs of Memphis”

A couple of nights ago I watched a Frontline documentary about the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa that is making headlines. The disease outbreak has been connected to nearly 2,200 deaths. It was pretty hard to watch as people shared how many people they had lost, recovery teams picked up the bodies for burial and as a father wasted away in one of the quarantine camps. The other thing that struck me was the many doctors who have volunteered to serve the communities stricken with this disease. A few that were interviewed were acutely aware of the human tragedy going on and were doing everything in their power to help people recover and comfort the dying. While I do not know how many of the doctors are Christians, I know they are doing God’s work in serving those afflicted with he horrible disease. In their honor, I thought it would be good to highlight the story of a group of people who performed similar acts of service during an outbreak of disease and ultimately passed away after contracting the disease they were helping treat.

This week’s saints are Constance and Her Companions. They are all officially remembered in the Episcopal church on September 9th.

While little is known about the early lives of Constance and her Companions, what we do know is how they served the city of Memphis during an outbreak of yellow fever in 1878. During this outbreak, it is recorded that 5,150 people lost their lives reducing the population of Memphis at the time by half. Many who did not succumb to the disease chose to flee the city. Because of the decrease in population, Memphis lost it’s charter was would not be officially recognized as a city again until 15 years later in 1893. Five years before the outbreak, a group of nuns from the Sisters of St. Mary had been invited to help run the St. Mary’s School for Girls in Memphis. When yellow fever broke out, Constance who was the head of the Sisters of St. Mary at the time, chose to stay to help the sick. Many other nuns from the Sisters of St. Mary along with other Catholic nuns, many Catholic and Protestant priests, doctors, and even a bordello owner named Annie Cook remained in the city to treat those suffering from the outbreak. Most of those who remained, including Constance, would contract yellow fever and pass away. This is why they are also considered the “Martyrs of Memphis” because they gave their lives in the service to others as a witness to their devotion to Christ.

There are many names that we do not have but, some names of those “companions” who are recognized in the Episcopal church are:

  • Sister Thecla – Music, English and Latin teacher at St. Mary’s School for Girls
  • Sister Ruth – nurse at Trinity Infirmary, New York
  • Sister Frances – director of the Church Home orphanage
  • Rev. Charles Carroll Parsons – rector of Grace Episcopal Church, Memphis; former U.S. Army artillery commander
  • Rev. Louis S. Schuyler – newly ordained assistant rector at Holy Innocents Episcopal Church, Hoboken, New Jersey.

So, as we’re also remembering the doctors who are serving patients stricken with the Ebola outbreak, I’m going to tweak a prayer the Episcopal church offers in the remembrance of Constance and her companions:

We give you thanks and praise, O God of compassion, for the heroic witness of the doctors currently serving Ebola patients in Western Africa, who, in a time of plague and pestilence, are steadfast in their care for the sick and the dying, and love not their own lives, but are seeking the treatment and comfort of others above all. Inspire in us a like love and commitment to those in need, following the example of our Savior Jesus Christ; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen

A sign at Martyrs Park in Memphis commemorating those who stayed behind to help during the outbreak of yellow fever in 1878.

A sign at Martyrs Park in Memphis commemorating those who stayed behind to help during the outbreak of yellow fever in 1878.

 

More Information & References:
Mission St. Clare – Constance and Her Companions
St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Memphis – Constance & Her Companions
Wikipedia – St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral

God Loves You but the Lions Think You Taste Great

God's plan seems sure does seem weird.

God’s plan sure seems weird.

So, a couple weeks ago I had this image scroll by on my Facebook news feed. It gave me a good chuckle and I promptly sent it a around to some of my friends. Now, I was not laughing because I have a dark sense of humor but at the not so subtle contrast of ideas that many Christians hold dear yet might have a hard time making sense of when placed together.  Just to make sure you’ve grasped the weight of the image. There is a group of Christians about to be a buffet for the lion, but do not miss the crucified and burning people staked around the coliseum floor as well. Anyone who has spent any time in church will be instantly familiar with the narrative behind this image. Christians being martyred for show by the Romans is a standard story told regularly in Sunday schools and Bible studies. The faith displayed by early Christians during violent and deadly persecutions is believed to be the foundation of the church.

The early Christian author and apologist Tertullian even wrote, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”.

But, the image takes a whole different turn when you overlay the first of the “4 Spiritual Laws” that often grace modern evangelistic tracts or other items meant to witness to and convert non-believers. For many people, the statement should be as equally familiar as the image. I know that for me as I grew up in the church, this statement was also a bedrock of the faith. How else are  you going to convince people to join the church if you do not lead with the benefit of God having a wonderful plan for their life?

But here’s the rub that the image puts on full display. Who wants to be a part of the “wonderful plan” that includes getting eaten by lions, crucified and possibly burned at the stake? Is that what the Christian’s were thinking as they were staring at death down the throat of roaring lion? Or, did they have a different understanding of God’s plan that we have lost?

The “prosperity” or “health and wealth” gospel is found nowhere in scripture. Most Christians in circles I walk in would probably not claim to be a part of the “prosperity” or “health and wealth” movement anyways. However, many would probably understand that blessings come as one chooses to follow Christ and harder times come to those who do not. The issue is that the Bible does not completely agree on what causes good and bad things to happen.

The Pentateuch and Law (Genesis through Deuteronomy) seems pretty cut and dry about how following God leads to blessing. Something like, So keep every part of the commandment that I am giving you today so that you stay strong to enter and take possession of the land that you are crossing over to possess, and so that you might prolong your life on the fertile land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give to them and their descendants—a land full of milk and honey,” (Deuteronomy 11:8-9, CEB).

Proverbs seems pretty straightforward too, saying things like, “Don’t consider yourself wise. Fear the Lord and turn away from evil. Then your body will be healthy and your bones strengthened. Honor the Lord with your wealth and with the first of all your crops. Then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will burst with wine,” (Proverbs 3:7-10).

The Psalms tells us in chapter one, The Lord is intimately acquainted with the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked is destroyed,” (Psalm 1:6, CEB). A few chapters later, however, things will turn and the author will offer the question, Why do you stand so far away, Lord, hiding yourself in troubling times? Meanwhile, the wicked are proudly in hot pursuit of those who suffer,” (Psalm 10:1-2, CEB).

Then Ecclesiastes will chime in and tell us that God blesses some people with wealth but they do not (or can not) enjoy it (Ecclesiastes 6:2).

And, in fact scripture often talks about blessing that comes through suffering, Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs,” (Matthew 5:10, CEB).

Or that the blessing of rain falls on the righteous and unrighteous, He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous,” (Matthew 5:45, CEB).

If the Bible is clear, it’s clear that…

…sometimes God causes blessings,

…sometimes God causes trouble,

…and sometimes good and bad things just happen because we live in a broken world with broken people.

Clear enough?

I think our early church brothers and sisters would have had a hard time admitting that God has a wonderful plan for their life here on earth. The bedrock of being a Christian is really about demonstrating a life that has a focus beyond the here and now. I think we’ve gotten it backwards when we pray “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven” and expect things to go swimmingly, our bellies and bank accounts to be full and our governments to work the way we want them too.

At what point did we stop believing that suffering was part of being a Christian? When did prosperity and easy livin’ become signs of a faithful life?

When we pray “Your kingdom come”, we are praying for a revolution.

When we pray, “your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven,” we are standing in open rebellion to the kingdoms and rulers of this world.

When the saints of the past stood up and proclaimed their faith, accepting martyrdom in numerous fashions, it was in defiance to those who enjoyed a blessed life because of their power in the world. The early Christians realized pain and suffering would come because, honestly, it came for Jesus too. The true blessing was not of a comfortable and easy life. God’s “wonderful plan” for your life had it’s focus beyond this world and this life. They believed that God loves them, but they knew that the world would probably hate them for it. Jesus even gave them the heads up when he said, “If the world hates you, know that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. However, I have chosen you out of the world, and you don’t belong to the world. This is why the world hates you,” (John 15:18-19, CEB).

So, should we give up on life, drop everything and head out seeking to be persecuted and martyred?

No.

Jesus told the disciples to be ready not to run and denounce the closest Roman Legionnaire. The Bible tells us to live a good life, honor God, honor our parents, love our neighbors and love our enemies. However, that should not lead us to believe that we are then promised to live a “wonderful life”. Bad things will happen in spite of the life we lead and even the miracles we may perform.

Prayer for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Ordinary Time)

Footsteps by Kenzo Okada, 1954.

Footsteps by Kenzo Okada, 1954.

Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

Unless otherwise noted, prayers come from the Book of Common Prayer, Revised Common Lectionary.

Prayers posted during Ordinary Time will feature art that is often not specifically religious, but art for arts sake. Enjoy!

Prayer for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Ordinary Time)

Der Sonntagsspaziergang (The Sunday Walk) by Carl Spitzweg , c. 1865.

Almighty God, you have given your only Son to be for us a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life: Give us grace to receive thankfully the fruits of this redeeming work, and to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

Unless otherwise noted, prayers come from the Book of Common Prayer, Revised Common Lectionary.

Prayers posted during Ordinary Time will feature art that is often not specifically religious, but art for arts sake. Enjoy!