Only One Thing

“…you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.”

I am a list maker, which goes against every fiber of my being.  I think of myself as able to accomplish every task that comes my way efficiently…taking things as they happen, working on projects that I find interesting and challenging.  The reality is that sometimes I manage to find a whole lot of ways to not work on those projects that need to be accomplished.  To a degree I enjoy crossing things off of my daily list, but often at the end of the day I find that the list which started off being 12 items long somehow exploded to include 21 things to accomplish (usually with four or five of the original tasks still not crossed off).  How very Martha of me.

The words above come from a portion of the gospel text (Luke 10:38-24) assigned to the feast day of Mary and Martha of Bethany which we celebrate on July 29.  For centuries theologians have argued and theorized over the meaning of these words Jesus speaks to Martha.  My guess is that like Martha we too are worried and distracted, “by many things.”

Christ tells us that we need only one thing.  Given that we are into late July, my guess is that at the top of most lists is: “Vacation!”   However, I’m pretty sure that wasn’t what Jesus was thinking when he tells Martha that, “there is need of only one thing.”  For Jesus, our list is only one item long.

That, “one thing,” in which we have that singular need, I believe, is deepening our relationship with God in Christ.

That relationship may happen and be strengthened as we sit at the feet of Jesus, learning from the living Word of God as Martha’s sister Mary does. That relationship might also be strengthened by the Martha-like “doing” of hospitality for the stranger, the poor and the needy.  If we enter into those moments intentionally seeking to be in closer relationship with God, we will be on our way to accomplishing that “one thing.”

I think if we examine our lives we’ll see that there are moments when we feel that closeness and presence of God in the stillness of quiet, silent prayer, or in taking some time from our busy, rushed day to contemplate a passage from Holy Scripture.  At another time we may see and feel the nearness of God in the work that we do in service to others putting to good use the talents and skills that God has graciously given us.

The point is that as followers of Christ we can continually build and strengthen our relationship with God all of the time…in Martha moments and Mary moments.  Knowing THAT makes our daily to-do lists a little more holy.

In Christ’s Name,

Matthewfirst

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Ordinary Gifts

I love summer. I love the feeling of warm – yes, even humid – air on my skin. I love the sounds of summer – crickets and cicadas and all the surprising creatures in my neighborhood that call to each other in the evening. And most of all I love summer reading. Iced tea and a hammock are the necessary accompaniments, and far from being a guilty pleasure, summer reading is one of the simple gifts of summer. So enjoy it while you can.

Here are two recommendations for your summer reading list, and ones that come from genres I would usually not consider. One, a mystery, is William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace. As the title implies, ordinary lives in an ordinary time and place trying to deal with an extraordinary set of circumstances, as any of us might be called to do. I especially appreciated that every single character was fully drawn in a way that allowed us to know the good and bad in each. An unexpected ending (but perfect, in my estimation) lets us see even the killer through compassionate eyes. Like all of life, there really aren’t any clear lines of black and white. Ordinary life can be complicated.

My second recommendation is The Humans by Matt Haig. Clad in a science fiction exterior – something I would never normally look at twice – it is a novel that probes what it means to be human through the eyes of an alien. And it is ordinary things that become the strongest pull on the alien narrator. Peanut butter sandwiches and friendship and poetry. He came to earth seeing only flaws and fallacies and remained because he realized no amount of rational thought could replace the beauty of love. As with Ordinary Grace, ordinary life is messy, scary, precious and wonderful all at the same time.

There is a hymn being sung at St. Alban’s this Sunday, #9 in The Hymnal 1982. The text marvels at the wonders of “the common things of earth… the purple pageantry of dawning and of dying days, the royal robes of autumn moors, the golden gates of spring, the velvet of soft summer nights, “ and then suggests that because of these many ordinary gifts, we are now called “to give and give and give again, what God hath given thee; to spend thyself nor count the cost; to serve right gloriously the God who gave all worlds that are, and all that are to be.”

See where the ordinary pleasure of summer reading might lead!

SonyaFirst004

 

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And more?

Lines composed on the bus a few miles north of Boston en route to Thomaston, Maine.

I wrote last week about a phrase in a prayer that puzzled me for a while – “shield the joyous.” Here’s another: somewhere in the gospels – I can’t look it up right now – Jesus says to his disciples, speaking of his miracles, that all these you will do “and more.” This was first brought to my awareness on a Cursillo weekend about 20 years ago with the suggestion that it applied not just to specific individuals at a specific period in time but to followers of Jesus at all times and in all places – even us. But “and more”? How could this be? How could they – or we – not only do all He did, but more?

I think I’ve finally got it. And it is an application of what in the scientific field would be called a unifying field theory – that the Church, in its work in the world in faithfulness to the teaching and example of Jesus, generation after generation, century after century, across the face of the world, does “more.” It magnifies and multiplies a hundred fold, a thousand fold, his healing the sick, feeding the hungry, showing compassion rather than disdain to the unfortunate, and inclining the hearts and minds of men and women to repentance of our own sins against others and forgiveness of the sins of others against us. At certain high points in our history it has even taken the form of actually operating hospitals, schools, and orphanages.

The unifying field theory, which pulls everything together for me, is simply this: that the notion of the Church as the body of Christ is both literally and figuratively true to the extent that actual living human beings manifest in their thinking, their speaking and their actions the teaching and example of Jesus.

This unifying field theory even explains for me the doctrine of transubstantiation – that the bread and wine in the Eucharist become the flesh and blood of Christ. It isn’t because of any kind of hocus pocus or magic words at the altar but by the ordinary process of digestion and assimilation in which the bread and wine becomes my body and your body, and our bodies become the body of Christ to the extent that we, through hearing the lessons and the proclamation of their meaning by the preacher, and by entering into the prayers, are remade, renewed, and refreshed into people who then in turn manifest the example and teaching of Jesus in our own thoughts, words and actions in the world. (This notion came to me from reading a description of a celebration of the Eucharist by St. Justin in Robert Wright’s Readings for the Daily Office from the Early Church.)

I close with a prayer of St. Thomas Aquinas. “God our Father, whose Son our Lord Jesus Christ in a wonderful Sacrament has left us a memorial of his passion: Grant us so to venerate the sacred mysteries of his Body and Blood, that we may ever perceive within ourselves the fruit of his redemption; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.” (BCP 201, 252 and 834.)

Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 22-July-2014, the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene.

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id quod visum placet

Thomas Aquinas defined beauty as : id quod visum placet: that which pleases merely by being seen…  Visum means to be seen (appearance, sight vision). Placet means ‘it is agreed’ (it is resolved, it seems good).  This sounds nice but when elaborated Aquinas’ definition of beauty gets iffy: In order to be beautiful an object needs integrity (it’s not mutilated), it has due proportion (harmony) and brilliance (brightness).  With these standards in place a painting or a sunset might seem beautiful but the rest of us – you and me – are left out. Who among us is not mutilated in some way?  Who of us is in perfect ‘harmony’ – all of our “parts” being a perfect size and shape?  Who among us is always bright?  And what about the world?

Yesterday I had the privilege of touring “Face Value: Portraiture in the Age of Abstraction” at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.  It’s a phenomenal show featuring two and three-dimensional portraiture by mid-century artists reinventing portraiture.  In these beautiful images one doesn’t find integrity, due proportion and brilliance but rather fragility, asymmetry and (while often depicted in bright color), juxtaposition.  And yet, beauty abounds.  Beauty abounds in Larry River’s mutilated portrait of Jack Kerouac with one eye, in Chuck Close’s monumental image of Nancy Graves, in Willem De Kooning’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe and in Benny Andrew’s portrait of his mother.  Seeing these honest and beautiful portraits I cried, as I often do, because I saw id quod visum placet.  

In the midst of asymmetry, fragility and juxtaposition, can you see beauty?

Happy Monday,

Jim+

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Surely not I, Lord?

“When it was evening, he took his place with the twelve; and while they were eating, he said, ‘Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.’  And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, ‘Surely not I, Lord?’”

–Matthew 26:20-22

 

In today’s gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus is preparing to eat the Passover meal with his disciples and as usual the disciples are confused and “distressed.”  Jesus has revealed that he will be betrayed by one of his closest, his inner circle, his beloved.  There is outrage and one can imagine that almost immediately the eyes of the disciples start to dart around the room, each one wondering who will betray Jesus.

 

As followers of Jesus, the Christ, we are confronted daily with ways in which we can either follow Christ or betray Christ.  The opportunities to show we are followers of Christ, or that we betray Christ show up in our professional, personal, social and public lives all of the time.   There are myriad ways that we can choose betray Christ.   We can betray Christ by words said, or left unsaid.  We can betray Christ by making decisions that we know will hurt another.  We can betray Christ by refusing to see the need in our midst or by refusing to recognize and use the gifts that the Holy Spirit has given us.   We betray Christ when we let our anger, jealousy, or self-righteousness take control of our thoughts, words and deeds.  We betray Christ when we belittle or take away someone else’s joy and happiness.  The list could go on and on and on.

 

The real question, however–the one that matters most still remains: How will you live your life as an example to others of how you follow Jesus Christ and proclaim him as your Lord and Savior?

 

In Christ’s Name,

Matthewfirst

 

 

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Summer Travels

I traveled to a foreign country this week, and enjoyed my stay very much. It was only 45 minutes away in Baltimore, but the foreign country was a biennial gathering of Lutheran church musicians, to which I had been invited as a guest conductor and workshop leader. I always enjoy meeting colleagues and sharing ideas, and this was all the more interesting because, though we might speak the same languages of Christianity and music, we spoke in the dialects of Lutheranism and Anglicanism.

Even I was surprised at how many differences, small though they would seem to just about anybody, there were. It’s not important what the differences are and to name them might seem judgmental. I enjoyed observing and participating in different styles of worship, music and learning, in the same way that I enjoy taking in the culture of any foreign land.

What might be more useful is all the ways these two close branches of Christianity are the same. There is a fundamental sameness of course – our Trinitarian God, the Bible, a belief that love is at the core of our faith. And there are more subtle similarities, such as a fearfulness about declining numbers, and an even greater fear that making so many changes in order to attract new members will cause them to lose their cultural identity as Lutherans. A sense that they are trying to be everything to everyone – a great goal, were it possible, but one that comes with the cost of doing nothing well. There seems to be a desire by leadership in the denomination to find ways of recapturing their early pre-Reformation history by exploring liturgies and music from the early church. Easter Vigil, Tenebrae, chant… Participants were urged to find the difficult balance between creativity (a live donkey leading the procession on Palm Sunday perhaps?) and gimmickry (are you kidding, a life donkey on Palm Sunday?).  We share a knowledge that worship is truly the heart of what a church does, because without that beating heart, the church’s missions cannot live and breathe, but a fear that worship’s music and liturgy have become the least valued part of a congregation’s life.

These are all things that I heard from my Episcopal colleagues last month at our annual gathering as well. It might all seem depressing to hear the same issues come up again and again…and again, except that at the end of the conference yesterday afternoon, 120 Lutheran musicians stood up and sang – magnificently I might add – George Herbert’s Easter text, “Rise heart, your Lord is risen”, and my heart soared. It reminded me that a sense of optimism and abundance are better teachers than fear.

Easter, Roland Martin

http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=poWlMfBzevk

Musicians gathered to share and learn, because they want to serve. That’s good news, and I was grateful to have been a welcomed visitor. I’m traveling to two more foreign countries before summer’s end. First, to play for an ecumenical worship service and then a brief recital at the Epworth Heights summer program in western Michigan, and finally to South Africa, where I’ll be doing an exchange with an organist there.  But more about the latter when I write these Daily Cup offerings from Cape Town during the month of August.

SonyaFirst004

 

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Shelter

When I was in seminary, one of the campus music groups was an cappella group called The Sacramental Whiners. One of their favorite songs began like this:

Would you harbor me?
Would I harbor you?
Would you harbor a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew?
 

Today, the church remembers the Righteous Gentiles, the menUnknown and women who, during the Second World War, acted to harbor and protect Jews whose lives were endangered by the Hitler’s forces and by the forces of indifference and fear. More than 23,000 Gentiles are honored at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem for their courageous acts of mercy: harboring Jews in their own homes, illegally obtaining passports and travel credentials so that they could escape, or simply refusing to name the Jews in their communities when asked at gunpoint.

Most of us revere the memories of those who resisted. We  would like to believe that, if we were similarly tested, we might find within ourselves at least a fraction of their courage. And yet, the experience of refugees in our time suggests that such actions are more complex than the idealized image that we paint of them.

Refugees are often poor and hungry. If they are fleeing in haste, they may not be clean. They might smell. They might not speak our language or understand our culture. We like the idea of embracing those in need, but when they come to our doors or to the borders of our countries, our first reaction is often one of fear and self-defense, not of compassion.

Unknown-1I think it is good that we are tested in this way. It shows us the full measure of courageous compassion. The Righteous Gentiles did not harbor Jews because it was safe, or cheap, or convenient, or easy. In a time of scarcity, they fed the refugees with food that was taken from their own mouths and the mouths of their children. They risked arrest and imprisonment. They devised elaborate patterns of concealment. But they showed the full measure of the love of God for God’s people.

Not all of us are in a position to harbor a refugee, but each one of knows people who need shelter. Sometimes it’s an actual place to live; for others, it might be a safe person to talk to at a time of personal struggle, a shoulder to cry on, a word of wisdom or gentleness or hope. Look around you. Whom can you harbor today?

 

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