land of rest

Land of Rest is a blog of Peter Jenks. Poems, quotes and photos are by Peter Jenks (unless otherwise noted or I miss noting an older post's photo) and are copyrighted, you are free to use these if you acknowledge their source.

Friday, September 24, 2010

In the security of God

When I was starting as a young priest, often I would look at those who had been in the ministry for many years and feel so inadequate, with so much to learn. They knew what to do in all sorts of situations that I was just experiencing for the first time. They had answers and insights for conflicts which often left me baffled. Their wisdom and faith was an inspiration to me. Every new situation was such that my own resources led me to rely solely upon a leading of God and those whom God had placed as examples to me.
As I got older and more involved in the life of the church and community I found that more and more I could cope and have something to offer. Experience does help in facing challenges. I had fewer models and mentors, and more confidence and assurance. I had things to offer the people of the church, sometimes it was seen by others and sometimes I simply felt the assurance of my abilities and value in my own understanding.
Recently I found myself moving into a new dimension of my journey in the priesthood, one that is probably not unique to me. There are very few mentors and elders for me to look to for guidance. The confidence I felt has passed with some age, and any list of accomplishments I might post on a resume does not impress me or give me any sense of identity anymore. The words of Scripture were the source and inspiration for what I once wrote and preached. Now they are all I want hold onto, and what I might write or say seems only an interlude or a pause before the need to dive back into the depth found in the stories and life of Scripture. It seems I have so little to say again, compared with the new wisdom of those entering the ministry and those with a drive to engage the engine of corporate ministry.
I find that a simple verse, such as Psalm 5:3 “In the morning, O LORD, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation”, will be what I need or which speaks to where I find my confidence.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Parable of the Unrighteous Steward

Some people do not want to know things, such as a woman I worked with did not want to know how to make coffee. If she knew how, she feared, it would be expected of her to make it at the office.
Some people just cannot know something, no matter how hard they try; I am this way with advanced mathematical formulas. Some people know more than there is to know; when I read art reviews I sometimes wonder if all the deep insights were truly meant by the artist or if they were just accidents that were overly interpreted. And sometimes we do not know something now, but hope to know more about it later.
Jesus' parable about the unjust steward (Luke 16) is one of the most challenging passages in the New Testament. I have wondered sometime whether this parable was simply a good try by Jesus that just didn't work very well. It ends with several different endings, like scribes wanting to add their understanding to it, because they felt it was too difficult or obtuse to grasp. But it is in the Bible and attributed to Jesus, and as such needs to be taken seriously.
The parable is the story of a rich man who has a steward running his affairs, the steward is charged with being dishonest. The rich man decides to fire him. The steward, who is too proud to beg and too old to dig for a living goes out and makes deals with the rich man's debtors. To one he cuts the debt in half and to another by twenty percent. In doing so he is creating a network of friends and support. The rich man commends him for his shrewdness. Then one of the most puzzling passages of scripture ensues: “For the people of this world are shrewder in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” (verses 8,9). After this there is a couple of verses which are by Luke or someone puzzled by this parable adding that those who are faithful with a little are faithful with much and likewise by being
unfaithful with a little. And then another response is added to try again to understand this by saying that we cannot serve two masters, God and wealth.
If it were not for the lectionary, which schedules different passages of scripture to be read throughout the year, this passage would probably never be chosen by any preacher to be the centerpiece of a sermon.
Few commentaries have had much to say to help with this passage. And after much wrestling with this text I finally have two pieces of wisdom or insights where I feel God speaking to me.
One way is that we as Christians should not be naïve. I have a friend who is a Franciscan brother who won a lying contest; his lie was to the hypothetical situation of a Nazi officer at the door asking if there were any Jewish people in the house. My friend argued that in such cases a lie would be the best answer. Recently I heard a Christian being interviewed and asked the same question and she replied that she would tell the truth, knowing that God would work things out for the best. Being naïve to the ways of the world and evil in our midst is not always a good thing. Elsewhere Jesus encourages us to be wise as serpents, but innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16). We do not offer evil back, but we do not blindly go forward tempting God with our naïveté.
Secondly, we need to have the perspective of the heavenly in order to be able to have the distance to see things in such a way that they can be appreciated and not engross us with emotion or personal hurt, and thus cloud our vision. When in an election an opponent wins, can we have the ability to appreciate what they did well or are we so caught up in the hurt that we miss such a lesson? When a family member who always seems to upend an event does it again in a new way, can we have the objective perspective to appreciate the new creative tact that this person has devised? I have people coming to me for assistance, sometimes I have had people with very good stories lead me to assist them, only to find out that they have been making the rounds and I was duped. I have become hurt and angry at such moments, but really it is because I was duped and might look bad. To be able to have a heavenly distance in my perspective that allows me to see the con when it is given and even appreciate it when it is done well, but not to be caught up in it or let it envelope me and my time.
Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen (Collect of the Day for Sunday, Sept. 19, 2010)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

In Quietness and Confidence

There is a line in an old prayer that says, "in quietness and in confidence shall be our strength". The time I take for quietness is certainly one of the pillars of ongoing strength for me, but the experience of confidence is sometimes more illusive. As I talk to God and ponder my days in quietness, doubts and uncertainties surface readily while the confidence I seek needs to be actively pursued.
When we get into a taxi we do not want to hear the driver tell us that he thinks he knows where he is going; or in a hospital, we don't want to hear a surgeon say that perhaps she knows what she is doing; in a vulnerable moment, we don't want to hear someone we love tell us that she thinks she loves us. These people may not be able to promise ultimate outcomes (there may be traffic detours, or complications in surgery or disagreements in relationships) but past experience and a measure of confidence can provide much assurance.
As we expect others to have the confidence to carry out their tasks we too need to claim our own confidence. Half way through a dive into a pool is not the time to wonder whether one should make a dive, the diver's boldness and confidence is what will make it happen and not belly flop. In our experience of God a level of confidence is critical. Once we venture forth in faith, once we feel a longing to know more of God, or a need to hold onto that which is greater than all, we need to do so with a core of confidence. Even in our sin there is a need of confidence, letting God know exactly what and who we are is the only way that God can truly reach deep within our innermost self. If we hide and wait until we have made things right it will never happen. Confidence must be gained through practice and it must be claimed through determination and courage.
The confidence of a taxi driver comes from driving around the city many times, the confidence of a surgeon comes from many surgeries, the confidence of a lover is the experience of many trials together and knowing that the love has endured. The confidence of faith ultimately only comes from the ongoing relationship and experience of God's love again and again. Knowledge is good and needs to be sought, but the experience of grace, answers to our prayers, and the constant presence of our Lord only comes from receiving it again and again.

Some Thoughts

If the Christians who want this to be a Christian nation, established by its majority of the population; then wouldn’t they be setting up a stronger precedent for another religion, say Islam, to claim their laws to be the law of the land should they become the majority?

The separation of church and state has protected Christians, Jews, Muslims and others from one dominant rule which would expect people to follow one specific religion. State religions do not convert from the heart, rather from the law. Allowing religions to speak directly to people and for them to respond from their hearts will always bring deeper change.

Targeting one religion as one to oppress, such as the recent efforts to make the Muslims victims will only increase their numbers and strengthen their voice. The blood of the martyrs was the fire which spread the Christian faith throughout Europe. We need to be careful.

There are differences between the faiths. All religions are not the same, simply stating that all religions are about loving others is just smoothing over conflicts that eventually will need to be faced.

As a Christian, I believe that the power of God as understood and experienced in Christ Jesus has the power to transform all people. That Christ lifted upon the cross will draw all people to him, and as such it is for me to trust his power and might and not my limited biases, fears and political manipulations.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Food and Faith (from 2000)

It is hard to imagine a church gathering without food. Likewise, when friends and family gather together it would be very odd to simply sit or stand around for hours talking and playing games but not to have some food to share. Whether it is the comfort of having a mug of tea or coffee in one’s hand or the warmth of the liquid that makes one feel more secure and open, I do not know. But there is a connection between eating, drinking and good companionship. Perhaps it is the food and drink that helps to make our meetings sacred. In all religions throughout time, food has always been a factor. That which sustains and nourishes us is by nature a symbol and essential element of our well being. The Christian service of Holy Communion could be interpreted as a sacrament that commends us to view all our meals as sacred and opportunities for communion with God, through the fellowship with each other.
To think about the process of eating and the thought of someone watching me chew and swallow is not very pleasant. It seems very personal and I feel embarrassed at the thought of it. And yet when I join with someone else in this very personal action I do not feel so insecure. The memory of entering the school cafeteria in college and looking at everyone eating with their friends, while I stood there with my tray of food in hand, but seeing no one that I knew filled me with an isolation that was greater than if I was the only one in the building.
How and what we eat reflects directly upon our spiritual and physical well-being. When we eat very fast it is harder to digest and it is harder to communicate as compared to a leisurely and thoughtful time to not only chew one’s food but also to reflect upon what each other is saying. When we do not eat with those in our community, family or friends we distance ourselves from them, even if it is because we are busy trying to get to so many different events in which we participate in together.
Throughout his life Jesus uses food, both as a means of teaching and as a vehicle with which he unites his life with his friends. In doing this Jesus is clear that religion and faith that is only interested in ideas or supernatural experiences is severely lacking. Jesus joined us in the very basic experience of living to show us just how sacred it is. We want to get away from it all or to seclude ourselves sometimes, and with good reasons, but it is in the basic acts of living together that we are to expect to experience God.
If we cannot touch the mystery and beauty of life in ordinary times such as eating with each other, than the moments of awe on the mountaintop will not make much lasting sense either.

God gave us bodies

The church is called the “body of Christ”, yet the church has not always been known for its positive relationship with the body of human flesh. And yet, it was human flesh that Jesus, the Son of God, chose to embrace in the drama of redemption. There are Jewish dietary laws, Hindu dietary laws but not so with Christianity. In fact Christianity sometimes prides itself on not being bound to laws and restrictions. The celebration of Easter with a ham somehow seems like a boast or reaction to the Jewish celebration of Passover and their concern over pork. After so many wonderful times of worship there is what Christians often call “coffee hours” of fellowship. A friend once jokingly called this drink the “Christian speed”.

And for all the receptions I have attended, after worshiping the God of the incarnation, it seems that sugar and salt are the predominant foods that adorn the table. And the covered dish suppers are not always known for their healthy demonstrations of nutrition, but rather inexpensive and easy cook pastas and sauces and desserts. During the penitential season of lent when so many churches offer church suppers, I am always amazed at the number of exotic and diverse sweets that emerge upon the food table. These are the foods that people are more likely to eat. A plate of vegetables is not often fought over at a reception, unless of course there is a very rich dip alongside.

In sharing with other clergy ideas for sermons we sometimes have noticed that sexual images or experiences oftentimes can be the clearest or expressive ways of speaking about or describing worship with God. The Song of Songs is a great example of this understanding. But whenever a comparison is made amongst us clergy, someone will state the obvious that there is no way one could, nor should, ever us that in the pulpit. The Christian faith is not always known for its delight, openness, and creativity in regards to sexuality. In fact a more prudish, non communicative, guilt ridden experience of sex is more often the norm. Celebrating the body has not been a Christian strength, as the misuse and abuse of sex and diet so often cause us to drift from our relationship with God. Why then do we encourage bad diets and do not offer positive discussion of our bodies and relationships? As a faith that is the body of Christ, I think we should be much more expert on our understanding and living in our own bodies, as temples of the Holy Spirit.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Taking Time

Some times it takes time. For 25 years I have served as a parish priest. Part of being a priest is the constant reminder or visual symbol I offer to demonstrate the great importance we always have of forgiveness and to forgive others. Every Sunday I offer the absolution, a verbalization of God’s forgiveness to God’s people; not only to help people know that they are forgiven but also to demonstrate that we all need to be forgiving others all the time.

With this in mind, I find myself recovering from stubbornness of my soul or hardheadedness of my desires. Throughout my tenure in the ordained ministry I always wanted or sought out affirmation from my peers or the larger church. I wanted to fit in or be seen as someone who might have something to offer. There was some sort of emotional need I felt, that such an affirmation by the diocese or larger church would fill. For years, I would volunteer to serve on committees or run for an office or participate in one way or another in the larger church and it almost always seemed to end in disappointment. From these frustrations I felt hurt and unheard and sometimes became angry or upset. It was not from any one person or even diocese that this frustration occurred, and towards whom I could focus my hurt. Only after nearly 25 years have I finally begun to see that this is simply my desire to find something in a place where it will never be found or trying to do something that is not going to happen, like boiling water in the freezer.

Why did I keep trying? I think that part of the answer can be found in me seeking meaning or purpose in some other place than where I happen to be. If these other people or the larger church thought I was someone special, maybe that would make me someone special. I am coming to the realization, somewhat sheepishly as I probably should have learned this sooner, that longing for something else to give me meaning is not going to work. In fact it is a form of coveting. I wanted something “out there”, that I didn’t have. In discovering, or finally becoming content, that my place or ministry is not in the larger church, but simply in the small parish where I serve has helped me to let go of much of the backed up feelings of frustration towards the larger church and relax in the comfort of forgiveness. It is still easy to get distracted by activities in the larger church, but it is becoming clear to me that the distractions are simply distractions, keeping me from myself and the activity of grace in the present set of circumstances.

The greatest effect I have had in my ministry is being present with individuals, not in activities or accomplishments I might list on a resume’. And still, there lurks the shadow that somehow, something will happen and things will be different. Different is not really what I want, it is to be more alive and accept myself and my limitations. I am standing in the heart of the kingdom of God, eternity itself, and somehow being tempted by the tedium and monotony of illusion.
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