Friday, December 30, 2016

Mercy – A Booklist

I've been posting regular thoughts and quotes on mercy which I think is at the heart of the life and message Jesus Christ and what it means to be a Christian, a Jesus-follower. I expect to occasionally post more on the topic, but I am going to take a break so I can focus on some other things. In case you are interested in reading more on mercy, here is a booklist:

Dives in Miseriacordia (Rich in Mercy) 
– Pope John Paul II

– Walter Kasper

– Pope Francis

– Brennan Manning

– Brennan Manning

– Thomas Merton

– Paul Wadell

– Frederica Mathewes-Green
– Collected writings of early Christians

– Isaac the Syrian

– Isaac the Syrian

– Hilarion Alfeyev

The Gospels

Finally, there is this from Sister Faustina, a Roman Catholic saint of the 20th century:

Help me, O Lord, that my eyes may be merciful, so that I may never suspect or judge from appearances, but look for what is beautiful in my neighbors’ souls and come to their rescue.

Help me, O Lord, that my ears may be merciful, so that I may give heed to my neighbors’ needs and not be indifferent to their pains and moanings.

Help me, O Lord, that my tongue may be merciful, so that I should never speak negatively of my neighbor, but have a word of comfort and forgiveness for all.

Help me, O Lord, that my hands may be merciful, and filled with good deeds, so that I might do only good to my neighbors and take upon myself the more difficult and toilsome tasks.

Help me, O Lord, that my feet may be merciful, so that may hurry to assist my neighbor, overcoming my own fatigue and weariness. My true rest is in the service of my neighbor.

Help me, O Lord, that my heart may be merciful so that I myself may feel all the sufferings of my neighbor. I will refuse my heart to no one. I will be sincere even with those who I know will abuse my kindness. And I will lock myself up in the merciful Heart of Jesus. May your mercy, O Lord, rest upon me.

You Yourself command me to exercise the three degrees of mercy. The first: the act of mercy, of whatever kind. The second: the word of mercy – if I cannot carry ourt a work of mercy, I will assist by my words. The third: prayer – if I cannot show mercy by my deeds or words, I can always do so by prayer.My prayer reaches out even there where I cannot reach out physically.

O my Jesus, transform me into Yourself, for You can do all things.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Mercy – Vulnerable in Love

“To read the biblical narratives is to encounter a God who is, first of all, love (1 John 4:8). Love involves a willingness to put oneself at risk, and God is in fact vulnerable in love, vulnerable even to great suffering. God’s self-revelation is Jesus Christ, and, as readers encounter him in the biblical stories, he wanders with nowhere to place his head, washes the feet of his disciples like a servant, and suffers and dies on a cross–condemned by the authorities of his time, undergoing great pain, “despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity” (Isaiah 53:3). Just this Jesus is the human face of God, not merely a messenger or a prophet but God’s own self come as self-revelation to humankind. If God becomes human in just this way, moreover, then that tells us something of how we might seek our own fullest humanity–not in quests of power and wealth and fame but in service, solidarity with the despised and rejected, and willingness to be vulnerable in love.“
– Wiliam Placher, Narratives of a Vulnerable God

All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
   and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’
(Matthew 1:22-23

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
 who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
 but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross.
(Philippians 2:5-8)

Monday, December 19, 2016

Delight – God's Yes

I heard a radio interview once in which John Lennon, the former Beatle, recalled how he met Yoko Ono. He had been invited by friend to a conceptual art show. He found one piece of the exhibit particularly intriguing. It was a step ladder that led to a magnifying glass hanging from the ceiling. Lennon climbed the ladder. He looked through the magnifying glass at a small note taped to the ceiling. The note contained one tiny word – yes. Moved by this small declaration of hope, Lennon found the artist – Yoko Ono – and the rest, as they say, is history.

This week, we shift our attention from the anticipation of Advent season to the celebration of the actual advent of Jesus who in the Gospel of Matthew is called Immanuel, God with us. Like that hopeful word that so moved John Lennon, the word God spoke in speaking the Word (John 1:1-18) into the quiet of Mary’s womb, into the insignificant manger in little Bethlehem, and hence into the world, was God’s “Yes” to humanity. The Incarnation affirms the fundamental goodness of being human with all our vulnerability and awkwardness. There is no aspect of authentic human experience, however mundane, that is not blessed and honored by the divine enfleshment. At the heart of it all is not silence or indifference, but an exultant and relentless Yes. God has created us to hear that yes and in the Incarnation declared us unequivocally worthy of his attention and fellowship.

To be sure, from our earliest days, humans have responded by ignoring or rejecting God's Yes and preferring in our ignorance and willfulness to speak our own “yes” to ourselves, for ourselves. But, we are unable to speak yes on our own and our self-referential “yes” invariable fragments into myriad “no's” resulting in the incoherence of sin. To the obstinate “no” of human violence, selfishness, pride, and greed – of all that refuses God’s Yes – we hear a terrifying and resolute “No!” Our “no” and God’s “No!” finally meet in Jesus on the cross. The human “no” is answered by God’s No! and, in the resurrection of Jesus on Easter morning, God’s fundamental Yes to humanity (indeed, to all creation) is reasserted.

In the end, we will only be able to hear God’s Yes if we are first willing to hear the No! to all that contradicts that Yes. That is the way of repentance of which we have already heard in Advent. Faith is our yes in response to God’s Yes proclaimed in Jesus Christ. As the 20th century Swedish theologian, Gustaf Aulen, wrote, “In spite of timidity, faith is the soul’s audacious yes to God” (The Faith of the Christian Church).

Jesus said there are but two great commandments (Matthew 22:34-40), which we might paraphrase as:
1. You shall say, “Yes” to the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.
2. You shall speak “Yes” to your neighbor as you yourself have heard “Yes” spoken to you.

May we prepare to hear again God’s Yes spoken in Jesus, God with us, come to save his people from their sins. "For in him every one of God's promises is a "Yes." For this reason it is through him that we say the "Amen," to the glory of God" (2 Corinthians 1:20).

Friday, December 16, 2016

Mercy – Greater love has no one than this

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
– Jesus (John 15:13)

Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.
– Paul (Romans 5:8)

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

– Paul (Romans 12:19-21)

The following story is famous among Mennonites. It comes from the scandalous era when Christians were killing Christians. Even so, it demonstrates what it looks like to take Jesus seriously on the way to mercy.

Dirk Willems was captured and imprisoned in his home town of Asperen in the Netherlands. Knowing that his fate would be death if he remained in prison, Dirk made a rope of strips of cloth and slid down it over the prison wall. A guard chased him.

Frost had covered a nearby pond with a thin layer of ice. Dirk risked a dash across it. He made it to safety, but the ice broke under his pursuer who cried for help. Dirk believed the Scripture that a man should help his enemies. He immediately turned back and pulled the floundering man from the frigid water.

In gratitude for his life, the man would have let Dirk escape, but a Burgomaster (chief magistrate) standing on the shore sternly ordered him to arrest Dirk and bring him back, reminding him of the oath he had sworn as an officer of the peace.

Back to prison went Dirk. He was condemned to death for being re-baptized, allowing secret church services in his home and letting others be baptized there.

Dirk was burned to death on May 16, 1569. The wind blew the flame away from him so that his death was long and miserable. Time and again Dirk cried out to God. Finally, one of the authorities could not bear to see him suffer any longer and ordered an underling to end his torment with a quick death.
(adapted from DirkWillem Burned after Rescuing Pursuer by Dan Graves)

One thing to note is that Dirk Willems did try to escape. The way of mercy dose not require that one to seek martyrdom. One need not stay in an abusive relationship, for example. 

But following Jesus does mean being prepared to forgive even those who wish us harm. It requires risking our own safety to help those in need, including those who we perceive to be a threat.

Would I go back over the ice to rescue my enemy? Would you? Are we willing to risk our own safety by practicing the radical mercy of God (Matthew 5:43-48)? Who might be in need of that mercy now?

Monday, December 12, 2016

Delight – Advent

This Advent
By Michael Coffey

You light candles and you wait,
not like waiting at the bus stop
with the rain soaking your day
and the time passing like tree growth.

You light candles and you wait,
not like standing in line at the grocery store
with your parsley dripping on your shoe
and the woman in front of you
wiring a check like a novel.

You light candles
as you sing songs of joy in minor keys,
and you wait
like a man sitting at the restaurant table
with the calla lilies in his hand
and the diamond ring inside
the death-by-chocolate dessert,
looking every direction every moment
to see his beloved appear.
You wait like this
even without anyone coming
to take your flowers,
year after year
war after war
death after death,
lighting candles one by one.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Delight – Ephrem of Edessa (the Syrian) on Paradise

Before Lothlorien or Narnia or Perelandra, there was Ephrem of Edessa's vision of Paradise.

Ephrem of Edessa (also known as "the Syrian") lived from around 306 to 373 and was one of the great theologians and hymn writers of the early church. He wrote in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke), and thus is not nearly as well-known in the western church as he should be. His Hymns on Paradise is a cycle of 15 hymns ranging in length from 11 to 31 verses (think of that next time you are tempted to complain about singing all the verses of a hymn in church).

Here is a selection:

1. In the world there is struggle,
in Eden, a crown of glory.
At our resurrection
both earth and heaven will God renew,
liberating all creatures,
granting them paschal joy, along with us.
Upon our mother Earth, along with us,
did he lay disgrace
when he laid on her, with the sinner, the curse;
so, together with the just, will he bless her too;
this nursing mother, along with her children,
shall He who is Good renew.

Response: Blessed is He who, in his Paradise,
gives joy to our gloom

2. The evil one mixed his cup,
proffering its bitterness to all;
in everyone’s path, he set his snares,
for everyone has he spread out his net;
he has caused tares to spring up
in order to choke the good seed.
But in His glorious Paradise
He who is Good
Will sweeten their bitter trials,
Their crowns he will make great;
because they have borne their crosses
He will escort them into Eden.

3. Should you wish
to climb a tree,
with its lower branches
it will provide steps before your feet,
eager to make you recline
in its bosom above,
on the couch of its upper branches.
So arranged is the surface of these branches,
bent low and cupped
–while yet dense with flowers–
that they serve as a protective womb
for whoever rests there.

4. Who has ever beheld such a banquet
in the very bosom of a tree,
with fruit of every savor
ranged for the hand to pluck?
Each type of fruit in due sequence approaches,
Each awaiting its turn:
fruit to eat,
and fruit to quench the thirst;
to rinse the hands there is dew,
and leaves to dry them after
–a treasure store that lacks nothing,
Whose Lord is rich in all things.

5. Around the trees the air is limpid
as the saints recline;
below them are blossoms,
above them fruit;
fruits serve as their sky,
flowers as their earth.
Who has ever heard
or seen
a cloud of fruits providing shade
for the head,
or a garment of flowers
spread out beneath the feet?

6. Such is the flowing brook of delights
that, as one tree takes leave of you,
the next one beckons you;
all of them rejoice
that you should partake of the fruit of one
and suck the juice of another,
wash and cleanse yourself
in the dew of yet a third;
anoint yourself with the resin of one
and breath another’s fragrance,
listen to the song of still another.
Blessed is He who gave joy to Adam.
[from hymn IX of Hymns on Paradise, p. 136-138]

More numerous and glorious
than the stars
in the sky that we behold
are the blossoms of that land,
and the fragrance which exhales from it
through divine Grace
is like a physician
sent to heal the ills
of a land that is under a curse;
by its healing breath it cures
the sickness that entered in
through the serpent.
[hymn XI, v. 9]

I enjoy the imagery in the verses above and there are more like them in the cycle of hymns. They remind us that our delight in creation here and now is a foreshadowing of the delight we will know in the New Creation of Paradise. For Ephrem, Paradise is not an escape from this world and physical reality. Rather, it is heaven and earth – along with us  renewed in Easter delight.

For the colors of Paradise are full of joy,
its scents most wonderful,
its beauties most desirable,
and its delicacies glorious.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Mercy – Being by nature born in sinne (or Why Original Sin is a Goodly Doctrine)

In the Gospel lesson assigned for this Sunday, we will hear John the Baptist proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The call to repentance, set against the paradigm of the kingdom of God, indicates that John thinks there is something fundamentally wrong with the way things are. Jesus repeats the call to repentance in the context of God’s kingdom (Matthew 4:17,  Mark 1:14-15). We will also hear on Sunday Isaiah’s prophetic image of that kingdom. The need for repentance points to our failure to live into God's goodness. It points to the need for change – in our hearts and in how we engage one another. It indicates that there is something wrong with us. We need mercy.

It is the Christian witness that there is something dreadfully wrong with us and the world and that we cannot finally change ourselves. We require deliverance from beyond ourselves. We require salvation from sin which radically infects our hearts and pervades our thoughts and actions. This is the uncomfortable realization that the traditional teaching of “original sin” gets at.

The tendency among some Christians to minimize the radical nature of sin is not very helpful. Nor is it reflective of what Christianity in the Anglican tradition has taught:

What is the inward and spirituall grace [of baptism]?

A death unto sinne, and a new birth unto righteousness: for being by nature born in sinne, and the children of wrath, we are hereby made the children of grace.

That is from the Catechism of the Scottish Prayer Book of 1637. It was according to that Prayer Book that Samuel Seabury, the first bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, was ordained. It is the Prayer Book on which our Book of Common Prayer is based. The same Catechism is found in the 1559 Book of Common Prayer (the Elizabethan Prayer Book used by Her Majesty as well as Lancelot Andrewes, Richard Hooker, John Donne, and others of the formative period of Anglicanism).

The great Anglican preacher and poet, John Donne, did not hesitate to point to the radical nature of sin. Read A HYMN TO GOD THE FATHER.

William Temple, Anglican theologian and Archbishop of Canterbury during World War 2, wrote,

. . . reason itself as it exists in us in vitiated. We wrongly estimate the ends of life, and give preference to those which should be subordinate, because they have a stronger appeal to our actual, empirical selves . . . It is the spirit which is evil; it is reason which is perverted; it is aspiration itself which is corrupt.

Acknowledging the radical pervasiveness of sin is part of the Anglican tradition.

But, a sort of good news is hidden in the Christian doctrine of sin – even that "awful" doctrine of original sin. Original sin indicates that the way things are is not the way things are meant to be. It affirms that violence, selfishness, and “will to power” are not "natural," but aberrations of God's original intent and goal which precede our fall into complicity with evil. Original sin is a hopeful doctrine because it declares that the way the world is and the way we are is not the way the world or we are meant to be. Though it infects our very nature, sin is not the truest thing about us. And we are not stuck with the sinfulness of our egotism, greed, violence, and unlove. We can become "children of grace." We can repent. Through the mercy of God, forgiveness is possible. Change is possible.

In Advent we celebrate the coming of that change in the person of Jesus and the promise of God’s kingdom coming. Isaiah and John the Baptist prepare us to welcome Jesus and the change his coming promises. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.