Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity


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Guard Your Identity

img08-04There are many instances in the Gospels of Jesus driving out demons, and the most remarkable of these is the one in Luke 8:26-39 that we read in the Liturgy this morning (Oct. 26th). It is hard for many modern people – myself included – to relate to stories of demon possession and exorcism or to even believe in such things. Furthermore, I don’t find much about demons in the Old Testament or the Jewish tradition of Jesus’ time. Perhaps belief in demons and demon possession was more common among pagans. And the story that we read this morning did indeed take place in pagan country. It was the land of the Gadarenes (or Gerasenes, depending on the translation).

But is this story of the Gadarene demoniac only about demon possession and exorcism? Or is it about something more, something deeper, something that we can all relate to? I believe this miracle story is about identity. The big moment comes when Jesus asks this man for his name, and he answers, “Legion, for we are many.” It is devastating that this man has become so completely identified with what possesses him, that he has no identity. His name is not Elijah or Isaac or John or Frank – his name is Legion. He has identified himself with what has invaded him and robbed him of his joy and his health and prevented him from being a social being. He has identified with what keeps him bound and isolated.

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We also, today, identify with our possessions, which very often end up possessing us. But even more tragically, we identify ourselves with our inadequacies and our failures. And there are enough people and circumstances in our lives to constantly remind us of our failures and inadequacies; they remind us that we’re not good enough, or healthy enough, or attractive enough, or successful enough. And we are bombarded every day by advertisements that play to our feelings of inadequacy and try to sell us the things that are missing in our lives: the things that will make us more attractive, more social, more popular, more successful, more fulfilled, healthier, sexier. If you take away the demons, the story we read today is about us.

Jesus came to this pagan country, this unfamiliar territory well outside of his normal travels in Judea, and it seems he had no other purpose to be there than to liberate this man from what possessed him. He transformed him from “Legion” to human being; Jesus granted him his humanity again. He gave him the freedom and the ability to start over again, free from bondage. And that’s what Jesus is still doing. His mission is still the same: to set people free. He comes to every one of us to free us from feelings of failure and inadequacy. He says to us, over and over again, that we are more, more than the sum of our failures and fears.

The story is about identity. And it’s our story too. The story of our own identity starts at baptism, regardless of whether we are baptized as infants or adults. We are washed with water and are sealed with the anointing of the Holy Spirit. We are given a new start – or, a start, in the case of infants. Yes, we should always improve ourselves and there are many things out there that can help us – and advertising can sometimes inform us of things that can help us. But let’s not identify with our shortcomings. Let’s instead see our failures and shortcomings as opportunities to grow forward and upward – which is where our baptism wants us to be.

We need to guard our identity that we receive in baptism. We need to remember that our identity is IN CHRIST. Our identity is NOT in the things we have or don’t have, NOT in the things we possess or the things that possess us, NOT in messages of failure and inadequacy that bombard us daily.

But this story is not only a story of a man who had lost his identity; it’s also the story of a community. There was a community around this man, and the community had failed him tragically. And even after he was healed, the community failed him! Baptism and the liberating power of Jesus can happen in a vacuum; but there is a better way. Some people think they can be saved alone. Fine, it’s possible; everything is possible with God. But how much better it is when baptism and the new identity occur in the midst of a caring and nurturing community. And how much better it is when the community itself is freed of failed practices and indifferent attitudes and finds its identity IN CHRIST.

Real community – not community in name only – is built by people who experience the liberating power of Christ. And because of that, it is a work in progress. The community of the Gadarenes asked Jesus to leave – and he left. He saw that it was a failed community, and he could do nothing to heal it. But perhaps, after Jesus left, the man who stayed behind, the man formerly called Legion, started the healing process in the community. Perhaps the community of the Gadarenes eventually found a new wholeness and a new identity. Perhaps.

And that’s the message to us as a community. It starts with those who are here. Never mind those who are not here. They clearly have something better to do this morning. Perhaps they’ll be here next week, or next year, or when their children grow up and don’t have sports on Sunday mornings, or when they are old and need someplace to crash on a Sunday morning for an hour or two. It doesn’t matter. God works with who and what is present at any given time. At any given time those who are present make up the community, a core group that Jesus is working with. Community is always a work in progress. We invite Jesus to be with us. We do not ask him to leave, like the Gadarenes did, we ask him to stay and be with us. Jesus is calling us to be a different kind of legion: a legion of faith and trust and humble service. And that’s how community is built: from the ground up, not from above, by edict. Everything that is worthwhile is built from the ground up. And that was also God’s way, when Jesus came down to the ground, to be with us, and to build with us from the ground up.

Guard your identity! It’s precious, because it was given to you by Christ. And he now invites you to be part of this amazing construction project called COMMUNITY.


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The Bear in the Icon

Seraphim of Sarov is one of the most beloved saints of the Orthodox Church. In 1785 he became a monk and a year later went to live alone in a dense pine forest in Russia. He planted a vegetable garden and kept bees. Every day he would read several chapters from the New Testament. “The soul must be fed on the word of God,” he said later, “for the word of God is the bread of angels, and souls that are hungry for God are fed by it.”

RLSOS150In this way St. Seraphim spent the week alone in the forest, praying, fasting and working in his garden. On feast days and on week-ends he would go to the monastery and attend the services there. Then, taking some bread with him, he would return to his forest cell. He often shared his bread with the wild animals and birds. Sometimes he was visited by a bear who developed a close bond with the saint. Thus, it is not surprising that many of the icons of this saint include the bear! On the right, for example, is an icon that you can buy in various formats from Trinity Religious Artwork and Icons. (Click to enlarge.)

But there are countless icons and paintings dating all the way back to the 19th century that show Seraphim with the bear. You can do a Google search and find hundreds. Here are a few. (Click any icon to enlarge.)

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Seraphim lived in harmony with nature, something we moderns have lost the ability to do. Someone very close to me once had an encounter with a skunk, and decided to talk to the skunk! “Now, you’re not going to spray me, are you? That wouldn’t be nice. Why don’t you just move along and go your way?” – or words to that effect. And yes, the skunk did leave without spraying! If an icon is ever painted of this person, I hope it would include the skunk, just like Seraphim’s icon includes the bear.

Saint Seraphim of Sarov in the Orthodox tradition, just like St. Francis of Assisi in the Roman Catholic tradition, and many other saints show us that God’s design is for humans to live in harmony with the natural world around us. The current debate over Question 1 on the November ballot in Maine shows all too clearly how far we have moved away from God’s designs. Is nature at war with us (as the NO vote would imply)? Or, are WE at war with nature? Next time you see one of those TV ads that show bears attacking humans, remember: There are icons with bears!

The following editorial comments are contributed by one of our church members, Elaine Tselikis:

Remember the saying, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Right now, something ugly is happening in our Maine forests. Black bears are suffering under needless and extreme human cruelty. These shy animals are crying for someone to be their voice. They are crying out for the conscience of Maine.

Worldwide, humans kill billions of animals and murder or oppress millions of humans. We’re the most destructive beings on earth. Wild animals don’t plot to hurt us; they seek to live in nature, as far away from us as possible.

This is why baiting, hounding and trapping our Maine bears are so cruel. Question 1 on the ballot asks us to ban these three cruelties. We lure these timid animals from their havens by dumping 7 million pounds of fatty human junk food in our woods for weeks each year. This pollution grows bear populations, trains them to like human food and makes them less wary of us. Then, at bait sites, we hound them, trap them and make them suffer excruciating pain, so out of state, unskilled trophy shooters can get an easy kill for a rug or wall mount. Many fair-chase Maine hunters are disgusted by these cowardly practices and confirm this is not hunting.  We’re feeding and breeding bears for canned execution, but we pretend this is “bear management.”  It’s humans who need “management.”

We demonize bears, scaring people with lies they’ll attack us if we don’t kill them. But there have been no unprovoked bear attacks in Maine for centuries. We concoct backroom deals with trophy and trapping lobbies to invent harmful practices against our wildlife, defying moral or scientific justification. We disrespect and interfere with nature’s wisdom. The normal diet of bears includes nuts and berries, not donuts. All sound wildlife programs don’t feed bears, to stabilize populations and prevent human-animal conflicts. Except Maine. Who should we fear?  Bad human policies and government propaganda – not bears!

Maine is the ONLY state that baits, hounds and traps bears. A bear or other animal can suffer long hours in a steel wire snare, even chewing their paws off, desperate to escape. Hounds pursue a terrified bear, often causing horrific injuries and death all around. These 40-year-old, barbaric acts are illegal for hunting deer, moose or turkeys. Bears deserve equal status. We debase God’s majestic creations when we lure them down into our garbage.

This is why voting YES to ban baiting-hounding-trapping is so important. Will we listen to the cries in our forests? Will we speak for the voiceless and end these cruelties, like other states? Will we lead with innovative, modern and compassionate wildlife policies that build positive revenue? Maine, let’s choose fairness and decency as “the way life should be” for our bears, environment, and our character.


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“Where is your God?”

christ_raising_the_son_of_the_widow_of_nainToday’s (19 Oct 2014) Gospel reading at the Liturgy was Luke 7:11-16, Jesus raising the son of the widow of Nain. As I reflected on this miracle story, what came to mind was Psalm 42. I imagined this widow praying this psalm at her son’s death and what she might have continued praying after her son’s burial, if Jesus had not intercepted the funeral procession and raised her son from the dead. It’s one of the most beautiful psalms in the Bible. You can read the whole Psalm here in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (NRSV).

This is a prayer by someone in torment, who is being attacked and mocked by people, who taunt him or her with the question, “Where is your God?” He or she – and let’s just say she, since I’m imagining this psalm as the prayer of the widow in today’s Gospel story – prays to God and longs for God. She remembers how she would go with the people to the house of God, to the Temple, to worship, to bring offerings, singing songs of praise and thanksgiving. And that memory, that connection with worship and being with the people of God in fellowship of praise, is what is sustaining her right now. And I might as well say it here at the beginning: that’s what’s missing for many people today who place other priorities in the way of fellowship with God and the people of God. Coming to church is not going to solve all your problems. But I lament the disconnect that many of our people have with the words that have sustained generations upon generations: words of the Bible, words of the Liturgy. These words – this living memory of fellowship – can make all the difference for someone who is in despair, who is ready to give up on herself and on the world. She begins with these words:

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
the face of God?

The human soul cries out for God, like a deer cries out with thirst. I don’t know what the cry of the deer sounds like, but I read somewhere that it’s quite something to hear. The human soul is thirsty for God, and Jesus says: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.” (John 7:37) Jesus is the answer to the thirst of the human soul that longs for God. “When shall I come and behold the face of God?” Jesus is the face of God!the face of jesus (detail from an icon by ilian rachov), tempera on wood

My tears have been my food
day and night,
while people say to me continually,
“Where is your God?”

“Where is your God?” That is the question that men and women of faith often hear when things are not well in their lives. It’s a mockery: “Look at all the terrible things in your life: sickness, shame, financial ruin, marital problems, children in trouble. Look at all that’s going on in your life. Where is your God, the one you put your trust in? Why isn’t God helping you?” That’s the voice; and if it doesn’t come from people around us, it comes from a voice inside us. Because there is another voice inside us, a voice that challenges us and seeks to separate us from God. Call that voice Satan if you wish – I don’t – call it whatever you wish. It’s like the wife of Job, what she said to him after all the disasters that came upon him: “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” (Job 2:9) It’s the same voice – the voice that tells you to give up: give up on God, on life, on your family, on the world, on yourself.

Those of us who see the face of God in Jesus Christ, in whom we also quench our thirst for God, point to Jesus and we say, “Well, my life is a mess, but I do believe in someone who is the life and resurrection, who met a woman at the gate of the city and exchanged his life for the life of her son. He raised her son from the dead while he himself marched on to his own death on the Cross.” So when that voice questions “Where is your God?” I can point to Jesus. There is my God, “Emmanuel, God with us” – not one who waves a magic wand from heaven and solves all my problems and takes away all my suffering, but who meets me at the gate and walks with me in everything I endure. And that too is the message of this Psalm.

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The woman and the psalm do not give up. “These things I remember,” she says.

These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng,
and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving,
a multitude keeping festival.

In her torment she can still speak of festival and joyful shouts and songs. These memories sustain her. What is going to sustain people who do not know what it is to sing praises to God? Who don’t know what it is to pray with others? You want to pray by yourself? Wonderful. You want to go out into the forest or on a mountain and find God? Beautiful. And perhaps by doing so you will also learn to defend the wilderness and animal life. Be an environmentalist, care for the natural world; God is there. Love of nature sustains a lot of people. But is it enough?

Sports have become the all-consuming activity for families. Sports are important for the health and well-being of children. But is it enough to raise a family with sports at the top of the family’s weekly agenda? Can sports ever take the place of a child’s memory of being in church and taking part in the procession of praise and communion? Sports teach a child to be a team player. But is that all a child needs to learn? Conformity to the demands of the coach? Does this teach a child to be a team player and an obedient servant of the corporate state? What about individuality? The ability to think for oneself? How are we enabling children to be individuals and not just team players? By allowing them to live in fear of the coach? It is up to individual families to say, “No, I will only go this far and no further. Because God is important in the life of our family. I will not follow the crowd. I will follow the crowd like this woman does, in the Psalm and in the Gospel story, to that place of communion with God. I will make the right choices for my family, and they might not always be the choices that will please the neighbors and the coaches.”

This Psalm illumines our way through the rough patches of life. And it comes to the end with another question:

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God.

Do you ever talk to your soul? Talk to your soul, it’s very healing. Our souls are thirsty, they do thirst for God, for the living God. Let your soul find the face of God in communion with our Lord, Jesus Christ.

 

 

 


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What would Atticus do?

To-Kill-A-Mockingbird-the-fanfic-27079698-351-600Several years ago, the acronym WWJD was very popular. People wore bracelets with those four capital letters, which stood for “What Would Jesus Do.” I don’t see much evidence of that acronym any more. Perhaps it was just a fad – just another marketing ploy to tap into the hearts and desires of millions.

An article in the Guardian newspaper reminded of another man of whom one could easily ask the same question, Atticus Finch, the main adult character in Harper Lee’s classic novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. And equally classic is the 1962 movie version starring Gregory Peck – one of those rare occasions where the movie is just as good as the book!

The courtroom scenes are powerful, but even more memorable are the quiet scenes of Atticus being a father and a teacher to his two children. What would Atticus do? The words he speaks to his daughter Scout are words that every parent should teach; and not just teach but practice: “If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

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Or, how about this piece of dialogue with his son Jem:

Atticus: I remember when my daddy gave me that gun. He told me that I should never point it at anything in the house; and that he’d rather I’d shoot at tin cans in the backyard. But he said that sooner or later he supposed the temptation to go after birds would be too much, and that I could shoot all the blue jays I wanted – if I could hit ’em; but to remember it was a sin to kill a mockingbird.

Jem: Why?

Atticus: Well, I reckon because mockingbirds don’t do anything but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat people’s gardens, don’t nest in the corncrib, they don’t do one thing but just sing their hearts out for us.

In this quiet exchange, Atticus is teaching his son about the gifts that animals and birds, plants and trees, bring to our lives. Respect for birds, animals and plants goes hand in hand with respect for all people. All life is precious. And the lessons that Atticus instilled in his children took hold, as when Scout said this memorable line to another child: “Jem is up in a tree, he said he won’t come down until you agree to play football with the Methodists.”

Respect – the virtue that is most lacking in our world today. Scout learned respect from the hours that she spent in the lap of her father. And she also learned respect from the people that her father respected and defended. At the conclusion of the courtroom scene, as Atticus Finch makes his way to the door of the courthouse, the African-American pastor instructs Scout: “Miss Jean Louise. Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.” You see, it does take a village to raise a child, after all. It does take a village to teach a child respect; and it also takes a village to teach a child hatred. May the church be the village that teaches respect and acceptance – as Christ has accepted us and welcomed us into life (Romans 15:7).

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Yes, let’s revive WWJD – but not as a fad to sell bracelets. Rather, let’s print that acronym in our hearts. Not What would Jesus say; not What would Jesus preach; not Who would Jesus judge – but What Would Jesus Do. And while we’re at it, let’s also ask, What Would Atticus Do?


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Escape from Pleasantville

In the movie Pleasantville, two teenagers, a brother and sister are pulled into their Reese-in-Pleasantville-reese-witherspoon-5771114-1280-720TV set and into the fictional world of a late 1950’s sitcom, Pleasantville. In the world of the sitcom, the wife stays home, always dressed & made up, even in kitchen. The husband comes home from work, hangs his hat, calls out “Honey, I’m home” and finds dinner waiting. It never rains in Pleasantville. There are no fires; the only job for the firemen is to rescue cats on trees! The high school basketball team never misses a basket. No girl ever turns down a date. Nothing changes in the daily routine. Everything is perfect and predictable.

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And because it’s a 1950’s TV show, EVERYTHING IS IN BLACK AND WHITE! The entire town and everyone in it are in black and white. It’s a monochromatic world; there is no color. But, of course, the two teenagers from the present disrupt the predictability of life in Plesantville and COLOR STARTS APPEARING. The appearance of  color provokes crisis and change in Pleasantville.

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The movie is a parable, of course. It’s human nature to see the world in monochromatic terms. And we do it with religion. We even have a word for it: orthodox! But “orthodox” has two meanings: right thinking & right praise/glory.

If you focus on right thinking, you get division and conflict. The labels “orthodox” and “unorthodox” are not only in religion, but politics, economics, and anything that involves group-think. Pleasantville is a very orthodox place!

What about the other meaning of “orthodox”? Does right praise mean only one way of praising God? That’s usually how we think about it. But you see, there’s the problem, the word “think”! How we “think” about it. How about if we leave the “think” out of it? How about we DO the second meaning, instead of THINK it? Who knows, perhaps it will end up changing how we “think” as well? Perhaps it will help us see the world in colors instead of monochromatic!

ISIS, or whatever they call themselves, see the world in monochromatic terms. We also do it, though not with violent acts. Perhaps we need to SEE Jesus, and not just THINK of Jesus. Some Greeks went to see Jesus (John 12:21). According to Paul, Greeks seek wisdom – but Paul prefers to preach Jesus crucified. Okay Paul, preach Jesus crucified. But don’t exclude wisdom. Oh wait, he doesn’t exclude wisdom!ChristWisdomOfGod smaller

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:22-25).

Wisdom unites, wisdom gives color to the world. Thank goodness we have icons in our church. They help us see the colors of existence. Thank goodness our faith does not begin and end with the Bible. In case you hadn’t noticed, the pages of the Bible are in black & white! And if your faith begins and ends in the Bible, there’s a risk you end up in the make-believe monochromatic world of Pleasantville!

Jesus comes to us not only crucified and redeemer, but also as teacher of wisdom. The 6th chapter of Luke offers plenty of wisdom teaching from Jesus:

“As you wish that others would do to you, do so to them. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.”

“Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

He also told them a parable: “Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above his teacher, but every one when he is fully taught will be like his teacher. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? …. first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.” 

“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush.” (verses 31-45)

These are not commandments – but rather windows into a life worth living. If there is a commandment here, it is like the “commandment” in Psalm 133:

Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell in unity!
It is like the precious oil upon the head, running down upon the beard,
upon the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes!
It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion!
For there the Lord has commanded the blessing: life for evermore.

Those Greeks who wanted to “see” Jesus should also be every one of us. I want to see Jesus, in all his colors, in all the fullness of his wisdom, so I can learn to live in the real world.

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:23-25)

So also with our thinking. Sometimes it just needs to die so we can see God’s wisdom in all its colors. Too bad the early church rejected so many books that were written about Jesus Christ. Some of them were truly worth keeping, because they added so much color to our understanding of Jesus. We are fortunate that some of these rejected books were rediscovered in the 20th century. One of the most important is the so-called Gospel of Thomas:

Jesus said, “If you are searching, you must not stop until you find. When i_vu164byou find, however, you will be-come troubled. But your confusion will give way to wonder. In wonder you will reign over all things. And having reigned, you will rest.” (Thomas, Logion 2)

Jesus said, “I am the light that is over all things. I am all: from me all has come forth, and to me all has reached. Split a piece of wood; I am there. Pick up a stone, and you will find me there.” (Thomas, Logion 77)

Life is a search. And the search culminates in Jesus. He is our way out of the monochromatic world of Pleasantville.