Moses the Black

In doing research for what will hopefully become a Daily Cup, every now and again, I come across a bit of information about the church, or theology, or in this case, a saint, that out of curiosity makes me want to research more.  Such is the case with the Desert Father, Moses the Black (or Moses the Strong, or Moses the Robber).  I will admit I had never heard of Moses the Black, but his story and life–like many of the characters in the early history of the Christian church–are quite interesting.

Moses the Black, Desert Father and Martyr, 405.

Moses the Black,
Desert Father and Martyr, 405.

In brief, he was a large imposing man, who started out as a servant to a high government official in Egypt.  He eventually was dismissed for theft and suspected murder.  He turned to a life of crime, becoming the head of a group of bandits who roamed the area in and around the Nile valley.  In fleeing from the authorities, he took up refuge in a monastery near Wadi El Natrun, then called Scetes.  While there he was profoundly  influenced by the way the monks lived, their dedication to serving God, and the contentment they found by living together in peace and solitude.  He converted and was baptized, joining the monastery at Scetes.

One story about Moses in particular caught my attention and my heart.  The story goes that Moses was having a difficult time in the monastery and with contemplative monastic life.  He kept having persistent feelings of not being perfect enough.  Apparently he was zealous in everything he undertook and to his mind he wasn’t becoming perfect enough by his own standards.  The abbot of the monastery, St. Isidore, took him up on top of the roof before sunrise one morning.  The two sat in silence and watched the sun slowly come up over the horizon.  As the first rays of light streaked across the sky, Isidore turned to Moses and said, “Only slowly do the rays of the sun drive away the night and usher in a new day, and thus, only slowly does one become a perfect contemplative.”

 

sunrise-over-the-sahara-desert-234358

 

Moses went on to lead a colony of hermits, becoming a renowned contemplative and one of the early Desert Fathers.

I wonder how often we expect perfection from ourselves?  I wonder how often, like Moses, we become frustrated to the point of true anger at ourselves for our longer-than-expected path to our own perfection?  In those moments of doubt and worry and even frustration about ourselves, perhaps the image of Isidore and Moses sitting on the roof of the monastery at sunrise will come back to us.

 

In Christ,

Matthewfirst

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Agree to Disagree

My husband and I went to a lecture at Chautauqua in western New York a few weeks ago, with very low expectations. In fact, we sat near the edge so that we could make our escape as soon as boredom or eye-rolling set in. As you might already suspect, we didn’t leave. In fact, we made a point of meeting the speaker afterwards and thanking him for his honesty and insights.

Samuel Chand, President emeritus of Beulah Heights University in Atlanta, has an amazing story to tell. He is an immigrant from northern India who first worked as a janitor at the very institution where he later served as President. Beulah Heights is a Christian-based institution, historically African-American, and Dr. Chand now works primarily with leaders of those mega-churches that mainline denominations fear or envy or dismiss. Churches which have an average size of five thousand members, he said.

Dr. Chand named some of the things that he finds are common among the churches where he speaks and works as an advisor. They include these observations:

1. The tools for delivering church are changing with more emphasis on social media and other forms of instant communication. They are multi-sited institutions with a dependence on preaching that comes from satellite locations. There are fewer “star” preachers talking to more people in other words.
2. Growing churches offer many options – he likened it to stores where you get your oil changed at one end and your groceries on the other. In fact, he compared successful churches to Walmart.
3. There is a sense that people don’t necessarily want a home church, but several nomad churches where they are non-member regulars. He believes that churches which depend on establishing membership will continue to decline.

We found the speaker to be engaging and informative, and it wasn’t until I wrote the outline above of some of his points that I realized that I don’t actually agree that the value of church is found in anything he said. In fact, I don’t recall Dr. Chand mentioning God or prayer at any point in his hour-long talk. I am certainly not questioning his spiritual integrity or motivations, but he wasn’t describing a place that would feed my faith, personally speaking, nor was he describing places that, I suspect, will be around in 160 years (like St. Alban’s), much less 1,000 years (like Chartres Cathedral). The real lessons I can say I took away from this lecture were the reminders that it’s not a bad thing to wrestle with ideas you don’t agree with and that good public speaking is a powerful tool, even in this day of ubiquitous online communication.

I’m sure the mega-churches he describes as churches that “work” in the 21st century have done much good in the world, connecting people more deeply to God and preaching God’s word with fire and clarity. But at the end of the day, I think there is probably a segment of the population that really does want to put down deep roots and which doesn’t want to go to Walmart for church.

SonyaFirst004

 

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Friends

DMCOThe first time I met her, we chatted for a few minutes, then turned away, uninterested. It was our first week of seminary, and both of us had the same immediate impression: “No, not that one.” I don’t remember when it changed, when we realized that we were going to laugh until our bellies hurt, and be gentle when things were rough, that we would be friends of one another’s right hand.  That, years later, when we hadn’t seen one another in nearly a decade, we’d pick up right where we’d been, just like that.

And then there was the man who seemed to be twenty-six going on sixteen, or the woman who immediately impressed me by her depth of thought, or the guy I first met in a prayer group, to whom I can entrust anything. Really, anything. And the woman who was my partner working late hours at the library desk, checking out books and learning all the campus gossip, or the one who wrote me a formidably formal letter, in perfect business style, when we were assigned to be room-mates freshman year.

Do you ever stop to marvel at your friends, the people whoold_friends keepyou alive and make you laugh and bear you up when you are down, with whom you can be deeply real? Do you ever think about who you would have been without them? How poor your life would be without them?

“Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens another’s mind,” writes the author of Proverbs.  And it’s true; as Martin Buber said, we receive our very selves from one another. We write the reality of love on one another’s souls.

Jesus said, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends.” “What a friend we have in Jesus,” the hymn reminds us. We talk, so often, about the ways God is a friend to us — but how are we friends to God? What marks do we make in Jesus’ life? How is he different because you have been alive? How are you different because he is in your life?

 

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Heroism

“Greater love hath no man than that he lay down his life for his friend.”

In the pantheon of American heroes, one of the highest places surely belongs to Ken Bellau.  If you missed his story in the Washington Post yesterday, here is the link to it.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/the-lifesaver-a-man-grabbed-a-boat-and-did-what-he-could/2015/08/23/697d6274-4043-11e5-bfe3-ff1d8549bfd2_story.html

Evert day for three weeks, he plied the flood waters of New Orleans alone, mostly at night, in a small boat, rescuing victims of Katrina.  Those he saved are estimated in the hundreds. Shot at, exhausted, lacking the barest of resources, aided only by his girl friend, later wife, Candy Johnson, who scoured the internet for cries of help and passed location information on to him, he persisted until the National Guard arrived.

Thank you God for Ken Bellau, and thank you Washington Post for bringing this story of true heroism to national attention.

Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 25-August-2015

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Mea Culpa

A Daily Cup last week, one written by yours truly, began like this: “As is likely true for many others, yesterday was one of the most memorable days that I have ever experienced in church.”  

Indeed, last Sunday was a remarkable day.  But ever since I posted “Only God” https://stalbansparish.wordpress.com/2015/08/17/only-god/ I’ve had second thoughts about that opening sentence.  I’ve been asking myself:

What about the day that I (or you) was baptized?

What about the day just a few years ago (for me like 23) that yours truly (or you) was literally lost then found by God’s amazing Grace?

What about the day that an experience of the Holy Eucharist changed Sara Miles’ life forever?  http://www.saintgregorys.org/community_service/groups/name/C148

What about the Sunday just a few weeks ago when at the early service the congregation was invited to gather around the altar for the The Great Thanksgiving after which a newcomer came (in tears) to one of our priests saying that they had never experienced Holy Communion with such intensity and “felt like a disciple of Jesus, being sent out into the world to do God’s work”?

What about yesterday when someone told me after the service that they heard God beckoning them to a deeper kind of faith because by virtue of the liturgy they sang the words “for thou shalt surely bless all those who live the words they pray“?

What about the day(s) when God spoke to you?

So Mea Culpa.  “Through my fault”  I failed last Monday to recognize what happens every Sunday.  If you read this post and you have had a memorable day at church share it please. Right here, where everyone can see.  It’s easy to do.  Then log back on and see what people say. My hunch is that every single Sunday at St. Alban’s church was, is and forever will be a memorable, not to mention remarkable, day for someone.  Thanks be to God.

Happy Monday,

Jim+ 143

p.s.  thank you for prayers for my daughter.  She is fine and was traveling and that’s why I asked for your prayers.

 

 

 

 

 

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Not Easy

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Matthew 22:37b-40

Many of the teachings, sayings and commandments of Jesus I find fall into one very large category:  “Simple, but not easy.”   The scripture quote above, which comes from the Gospel lesson appointed for today’s service of Holy Eucharist certainly falls into this category.

 

I try very hard to do both of these two “Great Commandments,” but often I find myself coming up short.  I take the Lord’s name in vain, I get annoyed with the person at the self-serve checkout at the grocery store who can’t figure out how to scan the item they are wishing to purchase…or a hundred other little ways that I fail to live into these two simple, but not easy commandments.  Yet I know that God is there, even in those moments of failure rooting me on, to keep trying, to become more than I am in that moment of missing the mark.

 

Where are the times that Jesus is calling you to do the hard work of following these two Great Commandments?  How will you respond to the simple but not easy of loving God fully and loving your neighbor as yourself?

 

In Christ,

Matthewfirst

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Secular Studies

I was fortunate enough to spend time at Chautauqua in western New York a few weeks ago. If you’ve not been, you might think of it as a summer camp for adults who listen to NPR. Morning and afternoon lectures, concerts, theological discussions and book clubs. It began as vacation spot for Methodist Sunday school teachers and has grown into a place that embraces thoughtful dialogue on the entire spectrum of human thought and behavior. No surprise then that one of the speakers I heard was a professor of secular studies – did you know there was such a thing? The following reads like a school report, I know, but I hope, if it isn’t already all old news to you, that you find some of it as interesting as I did.

Phil Zuckerman, a professor of Sociology and Secular Studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, California spoke in the open air Hall of Philosophy at Chautauqua about the causes of secularism in America. And I took notes. It’s a topic that comes up at every church-related meeting, musical or otherwise, that I have ever gone to. The question, that is, of how to “compete” with the secular society that provides far more entertainment and distraction than a church could ever hope to. He named 7 things that he has observed as main causes of our increasingly secular society:

1. The religious right – religious conservatives who find ways to exclude different ways of thinking and being, creating a culture of anger instead of love
2. The scandals of crime and cover-up in the Catholic Church around pedophilia
3. Women in the work-force, faced with less time for home and family, suggesting that mothers have been the primary drive behind getting families to church
4. A societal acceptance by younger generations of homosexuality, making the church’s teachings on this, until very recently, divisive and mean-spirited
5. The attacks on September 11, 2001, which reminded people in a dramatic fashion about the power of religion – any religion – to do great harm
6. The frequency with which religion is lampooned on television sitcoms and fake news shows
7. The internet. In fact, Zuckerman spent the most time talking about the internet’s corrosive effect on church-going. As we all do, people use the internet to answer their questions, and once online to get an answer will also see many sites devoted to disputing whatever it is they’re looking up. The internet, he believes, increases our exposure to hypocrisy as well and helps to form a community of doubters. Community being the important word in that sentence.

This is just a report.  You might disagree with some, or all, of his assertions.  Zuckerman did note that the U.S. is among the most religious of all industrialized western societies. But research shows this is because we also have the biggest difference between rich and poor. When that disparity is less, such as in many Scandinavian counties, religious affiliation is also less.

He made a few more points I found interesting. Spirituality, he suggests, is a step on the road to individualism. The “spiritual, but not religious” segment of society that we hear so much about – and which, honestly, we might feel part of sometimes – is missing that communal aspect of church (perhaps finding it elsewhere…like the internet?) which many of us value. But this Professor of Secular Studies did hold out one note of hope for those who do value religion. He believes that there are two things humans hunger for – rituals and a sense of heritage – which are not supplied by secular pursuits. They are found, however, in those churches that choose to honor and celebrate their heritage and rituals.

SonyaFirst004

Next week: Another report from a very different Chautauqua speaker, the President of a Bible college in Atlanta.

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