Archive for January, 2015

Traveling with a Collar On

Posted in Reflection with tags , , , , , on January 23, 2015 by timtrue

airport

The nature of the job being what it is, sometimes I have to travel with my collar on.  Which generates funny looks and reactions from people in the airport.

Most betray shifty eyes.  Right?  I sense someone looking in my direction, you know, like we all do from time to time.  I’m not trying to be tacitly confrontational or anything.  I just sort of have this sense that someone’s stare is coming at me from two o’clock.  So I glance that way only to see a pair of eyes quickly avert to nothing in particular, just this or that, anything but eye contact with the man in black.

Then there are others, like the four-foot something Latina who asked me if I could lift her bag into the overhead bin.  No problem.  But then to express her gratitude she went out of her way to say “God bless you” more than a few times throughout our 49-minute flight.

So, point is, people look at me much differently when I travel with my collar on than when I wear, say, blue jeans and a button down, like I will tomorrow when I come home.

So there I am, sitting in the airport, near my gate, waiting for ten or so minutes until boarding begins, noticing shifty, averting eyes here and there, all the while feeling increasingly like a side show at a circus of yore, meaning my grumpiness meter is rising, at least a little–got the picture?–when one of those announcements comes over the loudspeaker.

“All passengers of flight 1563, I need your attention,” the female Voice of Customer Service begins.  “It is very important that the following two passengers come and see me at the desk in front of Gate A 30.”

And I’m thinking, okay, something’s up.  Usually the Voice of Customer Service, the VCS, whether male or female, doesn’t preface an announcement with listen up everybody.  And usually most airport waitees don’t listen, or only half-listen, from my experience anyway.  So, being in a line of work that values communication, I begin to wonder, curiously, if this announcement tactic is working.  And I begin to look around the crowded airport room.

Eyes avert my gaze seemingly everywhere, like rapid fire but only inverted, which suggests people are more intrigued by the side show than anything the VCS has to say, even when prefaced.  But then I see a guy almost directly across from me actually staring into the air with a look on his face that tells me he is in fact listening intently, yes, to the VCS.

That’s when she completes her announcement: “Dr., uh, Ping and Passenger Pong, please come to the desk at Gate A 30.”

To which, still looking at the thoughtful man across the room, I guffaw out loud.  (Not LOL, mind you, but GOL!)

Which caught the man’s attention.

Who looked in my direction.

Mine, the grumpy side show with the collar.

But no way was I going to avert my eyes.

I wouldn’t stoop so low.

To which his eyes bugged then looked upward, thoughtfully, as if to say “Why is this holy man laughing?  What did the VCS just say?”

Then, obviously registering Ping and Pong, he looked backed at me and, like a game of Ping-Pong, let out a guffaw as well.

About then I noticed that no one else in the airport was sharing our joke.  Either they hadn’t heard (most likely) or (less likely) they hadn’t seen the humor in it.  Now eyes were on both of us, this corporate side show, which frankly gave me a case of the giggles.  Which affected my newly found friend, who caught my contagion.

And now I had to look away.  Him too.  For if we looked up and happened to catch one another’s gaze, the case of the giggles would strike us again.

Which we did.  Several times.  Until I had to board my plane.

And which, I’m sure, added to the side show aura of traveling with a collar on.

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Jesus is the Ladder

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , on January 18, 2015 by timtrue

jacobs ladder

John 1:43-51

When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”

Do you remember the story of Jacob in the Old Testament?  He was critical, skeptical, and shrewd.  He was also very dishonest, a person in whom there was all deceit.  Quite the opposite of Nathanael in this regard!

Jacob was born along with his twin brother, Esau.  When their time had come, the first baby to exit the womb was hairy, with red hair covering his body.  So red was he that right then and there he was given the name Esau, which means red.  But before he was completely out of the womb, we hear that the hand of his twin brother was grabbing onto Esau’s heel.  So the brother was given the name Jacob.

Now, this name, Jacob, has a couple of meanings, one literal and one figurative.  The literal meaning of Jacob is Heel Grabber—which is what he was doing to his brother when he was born.  The figurative meaning is Deceiver.

How would you like to be given that name at your birth?  (“Um, name, please.”  “Liar.”  “Er, pardon?”  “Liar!”  “Uh, what’d you call me?”)

Well, it stuck with him.  You remember the story, right?  Jacob was the younger of the two brothers.  That meant he wouldn’t receive the inheritance, the birthright.  Rather, everything would go to his older brother, Esau, according to tradition.

But Jacob didn’t like this tradition.  (Adolescent rebellion is nothing new!)  So he critically, skeptically, and shrewdly determined to grab his brother’s heel again, this time in the form of his birthright.

What does Jesus mean, do you think, when he says that Nathanael is truly an Israelite? Nathanael is of the race of Israel, of Jacob; and truly means something like he’s faithful to his heritage.

But what about in whom there is no deceit?  What does Jesus mean by this?

We see from his interaction with Philip that Nathanael is thoughtful.  He questions Philip when he hears, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote.”

At this point—we don’t see it in the narrative, but it’s easy to imagine—Nathanael’s probably asking, “Really!  The Messiah?  The Son of God?  The King of Israel?”

It’s easy to imagine this because of what happens next.

Philip says, “Yes, it’s Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.  He is the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote!”

And Nathanael’s critical.  He’s skeptical.  He’s shrewd.  He thinks, “Isn’t this what people were saying about the last guy?”

For the simple truth is that, in recent history, there were several Jewish leaders that had risen in the minds of the people to the level of Messiah, Savior, King of Israel, even Son of God.

So Nathanael answers Philip: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

And so: is this why Jesus calls Nathanael a person in whom there is no deceit?  Because he’s critical, skeptical, shrewd?

But Jacob was also critical, skeptical, and shrewd.  And he was all deceit.

The story continues: Isaac, Jacob’s father, is getting on in years and is blind. So, while his brother Esau is out hunting, Jacob disguises himself with goatskins to feel and smell like his brother.  Then, with the help of his mother and some delicious stew, he tricks his father Isaac into thinking he’s actually Esau; and asks right then and there for the family blessing—the entire inheritance!—which Isaac gives.

A little later Esau comes home from hunting and is ravenously hungry.  He’s so ravenous, in fact, that he begs Jacob for some of the delicious stew he’s made.  “Give me your birthright first,” Jacob offers, “then I’ll give you some stew.”

Understandably, Esau is reluctant; but Jacob grabs at his heel—and doesn’t let go!  Finally, hunger overcomes Esau and he gives in to his little brother’s shrewd deceptions.  Jacob wins the birthright.

Here is Jacob—whose name is later changed to Israel—in whom there is all deceit!

Here is Nathanael, truly a son of Israel, in whom there is no deceit!

Are we to draw a connection?

Jacob’s deceit, as you know, nearly kills him.  When his brother Esau discovers the full extent of Jacob’s deception—that Jacob will indeed inherit the family fortune—he is angry enough to raise Cain.  And Jacob, fearing for his life, runs away in self-imposed exile.

His deception and trickery have left him with nothing.  He is homeless.  He is desperate.  He is a broken man.

With nothing but the clothes on his back, he finds a place in the desert to spend the night, lies down, and pulls up a rock for a pillow.  And here—homeless, desperate, and broken from his life of selfish deception—he meets God.

The Lord himself is right there at his side, speaking to him.  And angels are ministering to him, ascending and descending a ladder to heaven.

The order here is an important detail: the angels are said first to be ascending.  Broken and desperate as he is, feeling completely alone, Jacob suddenly sees that the angels of God are there with him.  Already!  They go up and down the ladder to heaven only to replenish what they need in order to continue ministering to him.

Jacob sees heaven and earth meet—the Lord stands next to him and says, “Do not fear; I am with you!”—and he is transformed!

Jacob, in whom there is all deceit, becomes Israel, in whom, when truly transformed, there is no deceit.

Yes, we are to draw a connection.

Jesus meets Nathanael and says, “Here is truly an Israelite, in whom there is no deceit!”

And Nathanael is no longer critical, skeptical, or shrewd.  Now he exclaims, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God!  You are the King of Israel!”

Jacob met the Lord and was transformed.

Nathanael meets Jesus and is transformed.

And look at what happens next.

Jesus says, “You will see greater things than these.  Very truly, I tell you, just like Jacob you will see the angels of God ascending and descending.  But Jacob saw them on a ladder.  You will see them ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Jesus is the ladder.

In Jesus, heaven and earth meet.

Jacob saw heaven and earth meet in his vision; and he was transformed.

In the man Jesus, Nathanael saw heaven and earth meet; and he was transformed.

Today we sit in church, a place where heaven and earth meet, seeking Jesus.  Are we being transformed?

You see, it doesn’t matter what kind of person you are.

You might be like Nathanael—a person who is truly a Christian, born and raised in the church, steeped in its traditions, a so-called cradle Episcopalian—in whom there is no deceit!

Or, on the other hand, you might be like Jacob—a person who has spent a lifetime taking matters into his own hands, turning his back on God, resorting to trickery and deception to get ahead in life, using some people, pushing others out of the way, fleeing from others in your own self-imposed exile, estranging yourself from family members, acting in a critical, skeptical, and shrewd manner towards God and your neighbor—in whom there is all deceit.

My guess is that each of us is more like Jacob than Nathanael.

But it doesn’t matter!

Whoever you are, whatever you’ve done, Christ is with you!  He is at your side now, telling you, “Do not be afraid; I am with you!”  His angels are ministering to you day and night.  He wants you to encounter him, and through encounter to be transformed.

On Straight Lines and Following God

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 4, 2015 by timtrue

magi

Matthew 2:1-12

One of my favorite things about being a priest is hearing you all tell your individual stories of your journeys of faith—hearing your faith pilgrimage. Two things about your journeys stand out to me: every pilgrimage is unique; and each pilgrimage goes differently than expected.  No matter who tells me his or her story, it is guaranteed that unanticipated forks in the spiritual road, bumps, obstacles, and barriers will confront your faith.

Here’s an example from my own story.

I sensed a call to ordained ministry in college.  It crept in at first, quietly dropping hints, suggesting itself—insinuating itself, really—through work I was doing in churches, parachurch organizations, and Christian camps.  By 1990 it revealed itself entirely and undoubtedly.

This sense of call was so strong, in fact, that when Holly and I began to imagine the possibility of marriage—in 1991—I felt compelled to bring it to her attention.

“There’s something you should know,” I said.  “I feel called to ministry.  And you and I both know quite a few pastors who haven’t had the easiest life.  Are you up for it?  Are you ready for whatever life God might bring?”

And, like Mary, she said that she was ready to go wherever God might lead.  And I knew she was the one!

Anyway, where God led us from there was anything but a straight line.

We were at Point A and we wanted to get to Point B.  And the shortest distance from Point A to Point B is a straight line, as we all know from high school geometry.

So why couldn’t we have simply gone from college straight into seminary?  This seemed to me to be the shortest distance from Point A to Point B.

But—as it turned out—for us to get from that conversation in the spring of 1991 in Davis, California, to my ordination in 2012—more than 20 years later!—in Comfort, Texas—1700 miles away!—was anything but the shortest distance!

Following God is like that.  I have known it.  You have known it.  And the writer of Proverbs knew it when he wrote: “The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps” (16:9).

In our desires to walk a straight line between Points A and B, we can learn a great deal from the Magi: the “wise men from the East” of today’s Gospel.[i]

For the Magi had been doing their homework.  Or, another way to say this: they did not just happen to stumble upon Jesus’s birth; they weren’t just in the right place at the right time.  They had prepared.  They were students of their own history and sacred writings.

But it wasn’t just their sacred writings these Magi were paying attention to; their noses weren’t merely buried in their books.  They also paid attention to the world around them: creation—the stars in the heavens—and their contemporary culture.  They knew both the signs of the heavens and the signs of their times.  When they recognized signs pointing to an important event, they were willing and ready to act.

And they did act.  The Magi gathered their travel wares and gifts, loaded their camels, and set out on unknown adventure.  They went in search of a king.  Beyond that, no doubt they knew very little.  Yet they were willing to risk the dangers of the unknown out of faithfulness to God.

Next, don’t you find their interaction with Herod peculiar?  The Magi were in search of a king.  But Herod, who had all the pomp and circumstance of a king—and the tyrannical temperament to go with it—was not the object they sought.

And then they had the boldness to ask him for directions!  “Where can we find the child who has been born the king of the Jews?” they asked.  Talk about risky!  The passage says Herod was frightened.  But imagine the internal rage Herod must have struggled against when he heard this news!  Point being, the Magi were willing to take risks, daring risks, in their faith.

The story of their faith pilgrimage gets even more impressive when the Magi find the king they seek.  By all appearances, he’s not a king at all, but a baby of peasants, with a teenage mother!  Yet the Magi know, their faith assures them, that here before them is the King of kings.  And they show all the thankfulness they can muster with those celebrated gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Finally, the Magi reach their goal; they’ve gone from Point A to Point B.  But they don’t stop here.  These Magi remain teachable and attentive to God’s leading even after their arrival.  An angel warns them in a dream to return home by a different route, and they heed the angel’s warning.  They’ve met their goal; they’ve checked off their bucket list; they’ve arrived.  But they don’t let their guard down; their faith remains active.

Let’s return now to this geometric idea, that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. I’m standing here at Point A and I want to get to Point B.  Why can’t I just go there then?  Why does God have to take me here and there and everywhere in between before finally getting to Point B?

Along these lines—pun intended!—the Magi teach us a very important lesson.

We naturally think horizontally.  When we recall our individual faith pilgrimages, it is only natural to relate them in concrete terms: we talk of the ideas, events, and people who have influenced us—for good or ill—the circumstances surrounding why we have followed one path instead of another, why we took a certain fork in our spiritual road, why we climbed over one obstacle but turned around when confronted by another, and so on.  And from a horizontal perspective, this seems like anything but the shortest distance between Points A and B.

But the Magi aren’t thinking horizontally.  They’re thinking vertically; they’re focused on God’s pilgrimage for them, not on their own earthly journey.  And the result is nothing less than mind-boggling.

They’ve been studying their arts and their culture, looking for signs of a coming king.

When they discern these signs, they leave on a journey into the unknown.  They leave family, friends, and familiarity for something entirely unfamiliar, risky, even dangerous.

Along the way they are willing to ask directions—they are teachable—even to the point of asking the wrong person, Herod the tyrant himself!

When they find what they seek—Mary and her baby—they respond with all the thankfulness that they are able to show.  And they do this despite appearances.  Despite seeing a teenage mother and a baby born into poor circumstances, they worship him as King of kings!

And after they find what they’re looking for—after they reach Point B in their spiritual pilgrimage—they remain teachable and attentive.

Seemingly impossible obstacles confront the Magi.  Their horizontal pilgrimage—their earthly journey from Point A to Point B—is anything but a straight line.

But they follow God faithfully throughout their journey—through and beyond impossible obstacles.

And in doing so they show us a vertical perspective.

Points A and B are not about where we are now and where we hope to end up in space and time.  Rather, these points are about who we are now and who we are becoming in Christ.  Points A and B are vertical, not horizontal.  And thus the shortest distance between A and B is a straight line after all.

The shortest distance between us and God is following Christ faithfully in all we do.  Even when we can’t see where we’re headed!  Even when dangers frighten us unbelievably!  And even when and after we realize our temporal goals!

[i]               In the observations that follow I am indebted to William Arnold’s comments in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 1 (Louisville: WJK Press, 2008) pp. 212, 14.