As America began to reopen (too early for safety, I suspect) the complaining began. These masks are too hot. This mask is inconvenient, it is in my way! This is just a hoax, these masks anyway! All things in America these days always end with the politics of the thing, whatever it is. Half reject “said thing” because it must be a conspiracy of “the other”!
For many years I have been fascinated with the notion of the leadership of groups in times of high anxiety. Having been a parish priest for thirty-six years, how could I not. These days everyone complains. While that is wearying it is amateur in the extreme when compared to the master complainers of the universe, namely, the Children of Israel in the Wilderness.
The Manna Harvest / Giuseppe Angeli (18th century), but doesn’t it look more like the griping before the manna came?
The Scripture records fourteen times they murmured. I love the word. Why? Murmuring is speaking loud enough to be clearly understood and not so loud that the speaker is forced to take responsibility for the remark. Anyone who has ever reared children knows exactly what I mean. Keep in mind that every time they complained bitterly it was always against a policy designed to bring them safely through the Wilderness into the Land of Promise.
Fast forward. Masks and social distancing are designed to KEEP PEOPLE FROM CATCHING COVID19. It is the best way to slow this virus until a medical remedy can be found, prepared, and ministered to the entire human race. This is only a mild inconvenience compared to the Black Death of the Fourteenth Century, I’m just saying.
Let us take a long slow breath and consider two responses. One to take steps to calm ourselves down and the second to grow ourselves up. Once we do this, then do it again and again. It will help one’s blood pressure and generally improve the quality of life in this reopening society for everyone around us.
1. Like Christopher Columbus, what we find may be more important than what we were looking for.
2. Whatever is worth doing is worth doing poorly.
3. Dealing with matters of power and faith is like driving a car on ice. Doing what comes naturally, is almost always not the thing to do.
4. Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly
5. Salvation is a gift requiring a response.
6. The Christian life is like driving a car on ice. The automatic non-thinking reaction is not the thing to do.
7. Dissecting a frog is instructive but afterward it will not hop!
8. In matters of faith and nutrition, you are what you eat.
9. Ministry is like being pecked to death by a flock of small ducks
10. Every expression of Christianity has an inner inarticulate essence and a cultural manifestation. – Rev Stephen Parsons
11. Don’t collect so much clutter that you will be relieved to see your house catch fire. – Wendell Berry
12. If you want a huge funeral die young and tragically. If you live to old and it rains there will be nobody there.
“Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
― George Orwell, Animal Farm
Prices for the three grades of gasoline light up the pump at a Shell station Friday, May 25, 2020, in Memphis, Tennessee and over the United States
Marilyn, my beloved, just arrived home from her intermittent hunting and gathering safari, what used to be called “grocery shopping”. She said, “What do you suppose gasoline cost just now?” I shrugged, no idea. “Sixty-eight cents a galleon!” I am 68 years old. When I was 16, gasoline cost 15 – 20 cents per gallon.
In the year of the plague, we stand at threshold of a new world. We can choose to embrace the ADVENTURE of life on this changing planet, making new economies such that the planet has no need to wipe out human beings in order to survive in her orbit.
I vote for adventure, a new epoch of history that has clear skies over New Delhi. Fish swimming in the clear lagoons of Venice and the nations turn swords into hemostats that we may safely get off Mother Earth while we still are able. May Mother Earth recover and may the Kingdom of God come and increase. To God be glory now and forever.
The Pharisees believed that keeping the law would earn them
God’s presence and love. Jesus told them
that they had it backwards. God is already present and he already loves
you. God’s love makes possible keeping
what of the law is worth keeping. This
made the Pharisees very unhappy with Jesus.
The Pharisees, bless their hearts, are the sort of folks that would turn
a party into an exercise in etiquette.
The truth is that you can only get into the kingdom because
of grace. Getting your tickets punched
will never get you in. In fact it can keep you out! To make that very point Jesus told a series
of parables ending with today’s Gospel reading, which we call the prodigal son.
LITTLE BROTHER LEAVES HOME.
A man had two sons.
The youngest said give me my inheritance now, a request which in essence
says I want you dead. In fact the father
did just what his son asked him, he legally dropped dead on the spot and
probated his own will, giving his younger son his inheritance.
Little brother liquidated his assets and skipped town with his pockets full of cash. He settled in another country and set out to make a name for himself. Just imagine it:
He bought a candy apple red Lamborghini racing chariot.
He had a penthouse apartment exquisitely decorated with original art in the best zip code in town.
He had long three martini lunches and always picked up the tab.
He threw lavish parties and had lots of friends.
He vacationed at ski resorts on Mt. Hermon.
He got interested in the NASCAR-chariot race circuit and even raced himself for a while.
The bank kept calling but he never returned the calls. Then
one day a registered letter arrived. He
had been spending the principle for a long time. The letter informed him that he was flat
broke. His friends wouldn’t return his
phone calls and his girl friend took up with a fellow better equipped to keep
her in the manner to which he had made her accustomed.
So he had to go to work.
The college education his Daddy had paid for and that he had played for
didn’t qualify him for much. Just then
the economy took a nosedive toward depression and the bears ate the
Things were bad. He
finally was so desperate that he took a job slopping hogs. This is the worse
thing a yuppie Jewish boy could wind up doing.
It’s the sort of fate that strikes fear into the hearts of Jewish
Little brother was in the pigpen, reduced to eating pig
feed. But then He came to himself, which
in the original language describes something like awakening from a dream. He said to himself, “Self, what is wrong with
this picture? Back home even the hired
hands have more than enough to eat. I
know what I’ll do. I’ll go to my father
and say, ‘Father, I’ve sinned against heaven and against you; I am no longer
worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of the hired hands.’”
So rehearsing his speech he went on toward home. His daddy had been watching for him, as an
old black preacher put it, “the old man had been watching for him with his nose
pressed to the window pane.” He had compassion on him, his heart went out to
Now an aside about compassion: compassion should not be
confused with pity.
The question to ask is: “Can you celebrate with the people
you are helping?” If you can’t it’s
probably pity and if you can it’s likely compassion.
Pity focuses on the differences between people. Pity is
being sorry for one who is weak and inferior. Pity is done from a safe
distance, preferably from above the one pitted. Pity separates us from the one
pitied. Pity ends in the “giver” feeling
good about themselves across the divide between the pitying and the one
pitied. I not sure that pity has much
Compassion knows that human beings are more alike than they
are different. Compassion on the other
hand, moves us toward the one in trouble and says, “We are in this together.”
Compassion is the flow and overflow of the fullest human and divine
energies. As Paul writes the Christians
in Corinth, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ,
and has given the ministry of reconciliation to us.” Compassion is always
consummated in celebration!
THE FATHER’S RESPONSE:
Now back to the story at hand. The father felt compassion
and that energy overflowed into reconciliation as he ran, embraced and kissed
his son. The son then began to get his
ticket punched, begins his well rehearsed speech, “I’ve sinned against heaven
and before you. I am no longer worthy to
be called your son!” —- But notice he
doesn’t even get the part about going to work as a hired hand at minimum wage
out of his mouth, cause his father shushes him and starts giving orders to the
servants. The old man says, “Go and get:
A robe – the best one – he is to be dressed as an honored person.
A ring – a signet ring with the family crest – his status as a son is restored.
Shoes – few people had shoes – bare feet indicated poverty even slavery. Shoes give safety and power. The old spiritual expresses this exactly, “All of God’s chillun got shoes. When I get to heaven I going to put on my shoes; I’m going to walk all over God’s heaven.” Shoes are for sons!
See the restoration:
the robe of honor,
the ring of inheritance, and
the footwear of prestige!
AND if that wasn’t enough – for sheer delight (which is one of the things God does best of all).
kill the fatted calf = eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found! And they began to celebrate.
Remember that compassion overflows and brings us together
which leads to celebration.
[Simon Tugwell says that the last temptation of the younger
brother was to insist on being a hired hand.
If his father won’t punish him he will do it for him. Which is what we do when we let someone
convince us that we are no good and not
acceptable]. The boy can’t really come
home and be a hired hand. He has to be a
son or nothing. AND THE SAME IS TRUE FOR
US: IT’S SON OR DAUGHTER OR
NOTHING. NO HIRED HANDS HERE THANK YOU
So they had the mother of all parties. Everybody who was anybody was there and as the
society writer for the local paper put it, “a good time was had by all!” WELL NOT QUITE.
THE ELDER BROTHER’S RESPONSE.
The elder brother was in the field looking at the crop of
cabbages. As he came close to the house and heard the strains of the local
dance band he thought, “What is this, music and dancing and it’s a week night?
What is going on here? So he spied one
of the boys who worked on the place and the boy explained. “Your brother has come and your father has
killed the fatted calf because he has got him back safe and sound!”
The elder brother was in the field looking at the crop of cabbages. As he came close to the house and heard the strains of the local dance band he thought, “What is this, music and dancing and it’s a week night? What is going on here? So he spied one of the boys who worked on the place and the boy explained. “Your brother has come and your father has killed the fatted calf because he has got him back safe and sound!”
[Robert Farrar Capon says that if you are looking for the
Christ symbol in this story look no further than the barn. The Christ image here is the fatted calf who
is just waiting to drop dead so there can be a party. Behold the Lamb of God who taketh away the
sins of the world.]
FATTED CALF! We can’t
really comprehend what a big deal this was.
We think nothing of having steak any time we choose to haul out the
grill. In the ancient world eating meat was a rare experience. In the first
century people who could afford it kept a calf, and fed it real good so that it
got really fat. When they killed it they had a huge party and ate the whole
things there being no way to preserve meat for long. A fatted calf was barbecued only on occasions
of surpassing importance. The old man
kills the fatted calf as an act of wanton joy!
Big brother, hereafter to be known as Bubba, was so angry
that he stayed outside. He wouldn’t
dignify this nonsense with his presence. His father came outside and pleaded
describes the elder brother as, “a good man in the very worse sense of the
word, the kind of goodness that if you insist on it will cost you your
Bubba begins his tirade, “Listen, all these years, I’ve been
working like a slave. I’ve never
disobeyed your command; yet you have never even given me a goat that I might
have a goat-roast, and celebrate with my buddies. But, this trifling no-account son of yours
comes slinking home, the very one who has devoured your property with harlots
and you have killed the fatted calf!”
PROSTITUTES? Who said anything about prostitutes? Nowhere does it say that little brother hung
out with prostitutes. Even if he had,
Bubba couldn’t have known about it. But
what we can say with certainty is, that we now know what Bubba would have done
if he had gone! You can’t not tell your
Bubba was good, earnest so busy getting his ticket punched
that it never even occurred to him that his father had already divided the
property between the brothers. Bubba
already owned the plantation. He could
have killed the fatted calf himself if he had wanted to, let alone settle for
His father said to him, “Son you are always with me and all
I have is yours. But we had to celebrate
and rejoice because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life, he was
lost and has been found.” Bubba’s
response is not recorded.
WHAT IS JESUS TELLING US?
The criteria for entering the Kingdom of God is being lost and dead and knowing it. By the end of the story almost everyone is dead:
The father is legally dead because he has probated his own will.
The younger son is dead to the old of being – he died to it back in the pig-pen.
The fatted calf is dead so there can be party.
The only one who is alive is Bubba, who is so busy being alive on his terms that he misses the point entirely.
Who’s really alive?
As Jesus says two chapters later in Luke 17, “Those who try to make
their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.”
Like the elder brother we can do NOTHING to earn God’s love.
Like the younger brother we can do NOTHING so terrible that we can lose God’s love. All we to do is reject or accept God’s love. That is what God has given us in Christ Jesus. As we look toward Holy Week and Easter,
REMEMBER: the gift of eternal life begins now not later. God is throwing a party in our honor. We are the only ones that can keep us out.
Seventeen years ago, I turned, coffee cup in hand, and witnessed the second plane crash into the Trade Center Towers in New York. It is fair to say that the world has not been the same since that day. I was almost half-way through my thirty-six year public ministry of Episcopal priest. I have watched the cultures and peoples of this planet become more and more anxious caught between the twin imperatives of living things: Survival and Reproduction. Also known as the force for individuality and togetherness. These two, universal forces work on all protoplasm. The tension, even contradiction, between them Bowen termed, Chronic Anxiety. This is the life force tuned to face challenge real or imagined. No two systems react the same way facing the same challenge.
I began studying Dr. Bowen’s teachings over thirty years ago and had the privilege to sit at the feet of one of his students, Rabbi Edwin Friedman. While this way of thinking is contrary to most of the thought in the marketplace of ideas in the West, I found it profoundly useful and have employed it ever since. I believe this thinking is the reason Saint John’s Episcopal Church was voted one of the fifty best places to work in Memphis TN for five years in a row.
It appears that chronic anxiety is at a historical high in the West. Our country is badly polarized, such that we are almost incapable of communicating. The gifts and skills for finding common ground for the good of all is not just out of fashion, it is on the extinction list of states of being.
Someone asked me recently what they should read and study about challenges of our common life on this planet. First of all, let me be very clear, THERE ARE NO QUICK FIXES! Trust no one who tells you that. Trust no one who tells you to listen them and only them. DON’T DO IT. Also, all who claim to follow Jesus, must recognize and accept that racism, bigotry and such are not standards of measure AVAILABLE TO CHRISTIANS. If that is one of your life tools, STOP IT. We are called to love all equally for his sake. There is not greater law than this.
The following is a modest annotated bibliography of books I consider of great value today.
Bronner, Stephen Eric, The Bigot: Why Prejudice Persists, Yale University Press, 2014. ISBN-13: 978-0300223842 New to me but very interesting.
Edwin Friedman, Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. Revised Edition, May 2017. ISBN-13: 978-1596272798 – Freidman died twenty years ago AND his critique is more accurate today than then. I encourage any thinking and feeling person to read it.
Hoffer, Eric. The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements Harper and Bros. 1951. The title of Hoffer’s opus entered the English lexicon defining extremists. Every American adult should read it.
Papero, Daniel V., Bowen Family Systems Theory. Allyn and Bacon. 1990. One of the best introductions to Systems Theory I know.