"READ, MARK, LEARN, AND INWARDLY DIGEST…"

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Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever       hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.   (The Collect for Proper 28 from The Book of Common Prayer)

“…The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12). 

CREDO is a program devised by the Church Pension Fund of the Episcopal Church to address Clergy Wellness. At week-long conferences, participants examine four areas of their lives – Vocation, Spirituality, Health, and Finances — and come up with a rule of life tailored to their own lives. It is the hope of the Church Pension Fund that every ordained person in the Episcopal Church will be invited to attend a CREDO conference at least every ten years during their active ministry. I have participated in three separate CREDO programs over the past twenty years.    

I would like to share a story from my second CREDO conference. We gathered for worship twice each day, meeting in large plenary sessions and in small groups, and had personal consultations in each of the four areas.  We got up for breakfast at 7:15AM and worked until 9PM for the first three days and then the pace slackened a bit, giving us some private time to work and prepare our own CREDO plans.  Because I had been to CREDO once before, I knew more or less what to expect and I looked forward to the time of personal reflection, prayer, and fellowship with other clergy from dioceses all over the country. It was not a “retreat” in the usual sense of the word because we were so busy, but it was a “retreat” from the familiar world of everyday life in the parish.   Here was a place where we clergy could go to worship and not be responsible for making sure that everything went according to plan— a place where we could relax and hear the words of Scripture and take in the reflections of the staff members on those readings.

On the second day—at least that is how I remember it— at morning worship, we read a portion of Psalm 107 together.  I knew at once that these were words that would set the tone for what I was going to do that week at CREDO.

  1. Some wandered in desert wastes;
    they found no way to a city where they might dwell. 
  2. They were hungry and thirsty;
    their spirits languished within them. 
  3. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,  
    and he delivered them from their distress. 
  4. He put their feet on a straight path  
    to go to a city where they might dwell. 
  5. Let them give thanks to the LORD for his mercy
    and the wonders he does for his children. 
  6. For he satisfies the thirsty  
    and fills the hungry with good things. 

It would be unusual, I think, if you felt the kind of response I felt when I read these words aloud and simultaneously heard these words read in unison. They were words that spoke to me at that moment and perhaps to no one else in quite the same way. It is difficult and a bit awkward to try to explain it.  I knew that I had arrived there hungry and thirsty for revival and renewal. These words hit me as if they were a promise to me of something greater that was yet to happen. My feet would once again be set upon a straight path and God would satisfy my spiritual thirst and hunger. It sounds rather prosaic to write about it, but it was something else to experience the power that these words of scripture had for me at that moment. It was as if I could close the book at that moment with no need to read any further. Perhaps this kind of experience is best described in the book of Hebrews, when it says, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12).  

The history of the Church is full of stories of people whose lives were changed by a single verse of Scripture. St. Augustine picked up a manuscript of Paul’s letter to the Romans and knew at once with absolute certainty that the words “let us therefore cast off the works of darkness and let us put on the armor of light” were meant for him. When St. Francis heard the words “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me,” read in church, it gnawed at him until he responded to the word that he knew the Lord had spoken directly to him. John Wesley heard a portion of Luther’s Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans and felt “as if his heart had been strangely warmed.”           

These are only a few of the well-known stories in which a passage of Scripture spoke directly to a person.  When a passage of Scripture speaks to us like that it cuts like a two-edged sword so that we cannot ignore what we have heard or read.  This is not the sort of thing that happens only once in a lifetime.   If you learn to be attentive to the words of Scripture either when you read them or hear them read in church or in your daily devotions, God will speak to you.  

Sometimes it takes a retreat or a place apart for us to find the space within ourselves to truly listen to what God wants to say, or already is saying to us, but because we have been so preoccupied with other things that we have not been able to hear. When you encounter the living God in the “living and active” word of Scripture you will know it. When that happens to you, stop. Read, and re-read what you have just heard. Listen to what it says to your heart. When you revisit it in a few days, it may not have the effect that it had at first, but that is fine. If it is something that is meant for you it will have some lasting effect on you, whether it challenges you and calls you to repentance or nourishes and refreshes you in the face of difficulties and trials.  If you share your experience with someone else do not be surprised if they don’t get it. The words were not meant for them but for you. If you are really puzzled, you might want to speak with a trained spiritual director or a member of the clergy.  

I am sharing this story with you in the hope that you will be attentive to the word of God as it is revealed to you in Holy Scripture. Remember to take to heart the words of the famous collect from the Book of Common Prayer that remind us to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the words of Holy Scripture. These are words that can satisfy the thirsty and fill the hungry with good things.

THE LAND OF UNLIKENESS: W. H. AUDEN'S CHRISTMAS ORATORIO

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He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

W.H. Auden  (1907-1973)

“He is the Way,” Hymn #463/464 in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982, is the concluding section of W. H. Auden’s Christmas Oratorio, For the Time Being. The poem was written between 1941 and 1942 as a libretto for an unfinished composition by Benjamin Britten. 

At the risk of oversimplification, the Christmas Oratorio can be described as Auden’s extended meditation on the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ and its meaning for people in the modern world. 

In the penultimate section of the Oratorio, Auden turns his attention to the time immediately following the Christmas season, what we in the Episcopal Church call the season of Epiphany and what in the Roman Catholic Church is called “Ordinary Time.” In Epiphany, we are in the meantime between Christmas, the season of the incarnation and Lent, the season of the cross.    

Auden begins his reflections on the time between Christmas and Lent with these words:

Well, so that is that. 
Now we must dismantle the tree, 
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes….

We know what that is like. For those of us who observe the seasons of the church calendar, the act of taking down the decorations, as the twelve days of Christmas ends and Epiphany begins, is a physical, visual, and emotional reminder that we are entering a different space and time from where we have been. Here Auden, looking back to the incarnation of Jesus at Christmastime, suggests that the reality and life-changing implications of the incarnation of God in Jesus may be too much for us to grasp, so we remain unchanged, living life as we have before, remaining “His disobedient servant.”  Auden writes: 

…Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away, 
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant, 
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long. 
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory, 
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off….

The theme of the disobedient servant is picked up again near the end of this long poem in the section that comprises the lyrics of Hymns 463 and 464.

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and hav
e unique adventures.

Auden borrowed the phrase “land of Unlikeness” from St. Augustine, who describes the years before he fully embraced the Christian faith as years lived in a “land of Unlikeness”: “I realized I was far away from Thee in a land of Unlikeness” (Confessions, Book 7, Chapter 10).

This “land of Unlikeness” was equated in later monastic literature and scholarship with the “far country” to which the prodigal son journeyed: “the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living.” (Luke 15:3). Auden understands that the journey of faith aiming to find and follow Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life requires us to journey through this land as we are transformed from disobedient servant to obedient disciple and from untruth to truth. The Way that leads to Jesus takes us on this journey.

Reflecting on Auden’s poem, in light of my reading of the theologian, Karl Barth, I could not help but think of the incarnation itself as the story of God’s journey into a far country for our sakes. This is not as far-fetched as it might seem. In the second chapter of Philippians, St. Paul cites an early Christian hymn to urge his fellow Christians to model their behavior on Jesus Christ,

            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  
            Therefore God also highly exalted him… (Phil. 2:5-9).

This is the story of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.  God, in Christ, took on human flesh.  God, in other words, gave up the authority that goes along with being God  and took on the form of a servant. God, then, in Jesus Christ, went on a journey from the realm of eternity into the realm of human existence–that is, our world.  

This journey leads from eternity to time, from human birth to human death, from incarnation to death on the cross.  It ends with Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation back in eternity once again. 

In Volume 4:1 of the Church Dogmatics — perhaps the greatest Christian systematic theological contribution of the 20thcentury — Karl Barth reads the story of the prodigal son in light of this passage from Philippians. He reads this story Christologically, that is, he reads the story of the prodigal son as a metaphor for the journey of Jesus from the realm of pre-existent Godhead to earthly, fleshly, incarnation. Jesus, thus, in a manner similar to that of the prodigal son, goes off into a “far country.” 

Where the prodigal son soon after leaving his father got lost in the “land of Unlikeness,” giving himself over to “reckless living,” Jesus, living a real and full human life in our world, the “far country,” remained obedient to his Father.  And where we, in Auden’s words, “have sent Him away, begging though to remain His disobedient servant, Jesus “became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8) 

All this Jesus did “for us and for our salvation.”

Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  “Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness….Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety….Love Him in the World of the Flesh.”

EMMANUEL (GOD WITH US)

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When the Bible comes up in conversation, it is apparent to me that many people view the Bible as a book of lofty otherworldly sayings — all about spirituality and all that kind of stuff. Perhaps it is because of this misconception that when folks actually begin to read the Bible, they often are quickly disillusioned and give up almost before they try. They give up, I venture to say, not because the Bible is boring, but because it does not accord with their own preconceived notions of what they think should be about.

The Bible is not a very heavenly book; it is, in fact, a very worldly book — a this-worldly book. The Bible tells of the rise and fall of kingdoms and of families. It tells of greed, corruption, and sin of every kind. It tells of the horrors of slaughter, military defeat, and tragedy on a mass human scale. The Bible, in short, tells us what it is like to live in a world structured by human pride and insolence, by greed and corruption, and by power gone mad. Our very Christmas story—the story Jesus— is, we proclaim, the story of God’s involvement in our world.

Yet, human beings do not recognize this fact and cruelly execute the one God sent.  The story of the Messiah’s birth, while joyous and happy at the outset, comes with ominous signs. The gospel reading for the 2nd Sunday in the Christmas Season tells the story of the travels of the Magi who follow the star to the place of Jesus’ birth. Their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh foreshadow Jesus’s life, ministry, and death.  Gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, and myrrh for his burial anointing. The child born to be king is also a child born to die.

“And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road” (Matt. 2:12). 

Immediately following this story, Joseph receives a similar, more ominous, warning. We read:

“Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. …When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men” (Matthew 2:13-16). 

It is this description of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, that I find a particularly good example of the worldliness of the Bible. Shortly after his birth, Jesus becomes a political refugee. Herod, according to the story Matthew relates, undertakes a mad, jealous search for the child who has been born. Joseph and Mary, being warned in a dream, take their newborn child Jesus and flee with haste into Egypt. In his failure to find the child, he orders the execution of all Hebrew infants under two years old. 

The story of Jesus’s birth, in other words, is no fairy tale. The harsh realities of the world — its political upheavals and violent repressions — are never far from Jesus.  Should we be surprised then that Jesus’ own ministry is cut short by the forces of political repression and power? All of this was foreshadowed by the events of his birth.

When I look at the world we live in today, I see a world that is not much different from that of the time of Jesus’ birth. A number of years ago, we had a “Code Orange” terrorist alert during the Christmas season. I remember thinking at the time how sad and incongruous it seemed to have such an alert during the Christmas season. Reflecting on this gospel reading, I realized that a Code Orange during Christmas is nothing new. It was that way for the children and parents of the Hebrew Innocents at the first Christmas.

This realization alone does not somehow make everything all right. No one wants to live in fear, in any fear, whether from political repression or terrorism. The story of Christmas is that into the world of sins and evil comes God enfleshed — made incarnate in a real human person, the person of Jesus. The joy of Christmas makes its greatest impact when it is juxtaposed to the harsh realities of human existence. Because then, the truly good news of the gospel shines like a single candle burning in the night. Referring to the incarnation of God’s Word into the world, the writer of the Gospel of John says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5 NRSV).

The light of God incarnate in Jesus shines in our world as a candle in the night. Sin and evil still exist in this world, and although God never desires that kind of life for us, we human beings bear the responsibility for our arrogance, pride, avarice, will to power, hatred, and for our wars and aggressions.

God nowhere in the Bible promises us a world without suffering. God never promises — even God’s most faithful servant — a life without pain, suffering, or difficulties. Just look at Jesus, if you want proof of that. What God does is descend to our hurt, our pain, our insecurities, our loneliness, and take it all on, and into, God’s very being. That is the story of Christmas.  God became flesh for us and for our salvation. 

That is the hope of the Gospel this Christmas season. God is with us. The Hebrew word Emmanuel, which means, “God with us,” encapsulates the meaning of Jesus’ birth for us. Now God is with us. In our deepest hurt and need God is with us. In sorrow or pain, God is with us. In fear and anxiety of every sort, God is with us.

Into our midst, God has come. Come let us adore our Emmanuel and give thanks on this last day of the Christmas Season. God is with us.

DELIGHT

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“Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you your heart’s desire.” Psalm 37:4

On a recent Sunday morning, I was struck by a phrase, or more precisely a word, from the service of the Holy Eucharist Rite II that I have said thousands and thousands of times before. The word was “delight.”  It happened as I prayed the prayer of confession and said “that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways” (BCP, p. 360).

I asked myself, what would it truly mean to “delight” in God’s will?  Have you ever stopped to think about what it might mean for you to “delight” in God’s will? In this Advent season, is that a question we should try to answer for ourselves? 

In Latin, the words for “love” and “delight” are almost synonyms. This is particularly so when one compares the third person, past tense of the verb love, dilexit, with the third person, present tense of the verb delight, delectat. We derive the English word delectable from that. Dilexit and delectat sound quite similar to each other. In John 3:16, perhaps the most often quoted verse of the Gospel of John, we read that, “God so loved (dilexit) the world that God gave God’s only begotten Son….” What we find delectable, I suppose we could also say, we love. So, I do not think it is beyond any stretch of the imagination to say that God delights in all creation and therefore God delights in you.

Throughout the Old Testament, we read of the delight people have for God’s Torah. Torah is perhaps best translated not as “law” but as “instruction” or “teaching.”  God’s Torah sets forth the path on which God’s people walk.  The best illustration of this is found in Psalm 119 in which we read that God’s word is “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105).  The psalmist also takes particular delight in God’s law or teachings, writing, “I long for your salvation, O LORD, and your law is my delight (Psalm 119:174) and “Let your mercy come to me, that I may live; for your law is my delight” (Psalm 119:77).

Near the end of the Advent season, as we approach Christmas, we focus our attention on the Virgin Mary.   What did Mary make of the words of the Angel Gabriel: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus?” (Luke 1:30-31).  Was Mary able at that moment to delight in God’s will for her?  Her response — her “yes” to God, —“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word,” (Luke 1:38) indicates that she was.  At the time, Mary had no idea what her willing acceptance of God’s will might mean for her. Nonetheless, she said “yes.”  Mary chose to delight in God’s will and to walk in God’s ways.  Her delight in God’s will serves as a model for all Christians. 

As you prepare for the Advent season, keep in mind the opening exhortation of the Advent Festival of Lessons and Carols:

“Beloved in Christ, in this season of Advent, let it be our care and delight to prepare ourselves to hear again the message of the Angels, and in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem, to see the Babe lying in the manger.”

May we, like Mary, delight in God’s will and to walk in God’s ways

God so delights in you.  In this blessed Advent season may you find your delight in God.

LISTEN, WATCH, AND WAIT: AN ADVENT MEDITATION

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One of the oldest traditions of Christian worship, one that stretches back for centuries, is that of beginning the day with reciting the psalms.  This practice strengthened in the 4th century when men and women began to leave the cities of the Byzantine Empire, becoming hermits and monastics, living alone in the “desert,” where they devoted their lives to God.  When monastics began to live together (the technical term for a monastic who lives in community is “cenobite”), liturgies were developed for collective prayer at fixed times of the day.  

The prologue of the 6th century Rule of Benedict urges the monks living in community “to open our eyes to the light that comes from God, and our ears to the voice from heaven that every day calls out this charge: ‘If you hear his voice today, do not harden your hearts.’”(Psalm 95:8)

The first service of the day was called Vigils, or “praises.” It occurred in the middle of the night, usually between midnight and 3 A.M. During Vigils, all are reminded that if they hear God’s voice that day, not to harden their hearts.  If there ever is a time when one’s heart is hardened, it is just after awakening in the middle of the night to pray.

All of the retreats I have made in the past five years have been to monasteries that lived according to the Rule of Benedict. At the monastery of Christ in the Desert in Abiquiu, New Mexico, Vigils begins at 4 A.M.  At Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, the monks rise at 3 A.M. and begin Vigils at 3:20 A.M.  While I was a guest of the monastery, I lived in accordance with this schedule. It is quite a shock, as you might well imagine, to move from a world in which going to bed between 11:30 P.M. and midnight is quite normal to a world in which one retires at 8 P.M. and arises at 3 A.M. But that is how it is in the monastery 365 days a year. 

The monastic schedule follows the rhythm of nature more closely than does our modern world of artificial light, endless movement and activity, and of global business and commerce that works relentlessly around the clock. The monastic day is tailored to a more ancient and more natural rhythm of going to bed when the sun goes down and arising before sunrise to work and to pray.  It always takes some time for a visitor to adjust to the schedule and pace of life in the monastery. I found it the most difficult to fall asleep shortly after 8 P.M. knowing that I had to rise at 3 A.M.

While I can’t say it was always easy to wake up so early in the morning, there was something exhilarating about the sounds and sights of the middle of the night. The first night I awoke in the high altitudes of northern New Mexico, I was astounded by the vastness of the starry sky. It is one of the few places I have been where light pollution from nearby cities has not blotted out the Milky Way and the numerous stars in the heavens. Each morning I had a five-minute walk with a flashlight from my lodgings to the monastery. On the way, I watched for fire ants and snakes, not really expecting to find one, but just to be safe. One day another person who was also making a retreat at the monastery asked me if I had seen the coyote that was right next to me on my walk through the sagebrush.  I hadn’t.  I had heard the coyotes but had not seen them. The rest of the week, I kept my eyes open and remained alert whenever I made this trek in the dark. 

In South Carolina, on the other hand, I awoke to the clammy humidity of a warm July night. As I walked from my lodging to the monastery, through the Spanish moss hanging from the trees, I heard the sounds of tree frogs, frogs, insects, and other assorted creatures.

At both places, when I entered the monastery for Vigils, I was reminded to listen to God’s voice, wherever I was and whatever I was doing.  God might speak to me that day and I needed to be vigilant to that voice. At Vigils, one is watching not merely for the dawn of the new day but also for the advent of God in one’s own life. As the psalmist wrote, “I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning” (Ps. 130: 5-6).

The season of Advent is a time of special vigilance for all Christians as they prepare themselves for the Christmas feast.  It is a time in which we put ourselves in the place of the generations of people who waited and longed for the coming of God’s anointed one, God’s Messiah. At Christmas, we will celebrate the birth of the Messiah, the first advent of God in our human history, as we remember and give thanks for what happened in Bethlehem so long ago.  

In the season of Advent, we also are to be vigilant for the return of our Risen Lord in our history, his second advent.  The gospels remind us throughout the season to live our lives as if Jesus might return at any moment. We are urged always to be vigilant and prepared for the return of our Messiah and Lord at any time.  

Finally, in the season of Advent, we are to prepare our own hearts so that our Lord may find a place to be born within us.  Every day is a day in which God might speak to us.  Every day is a day to watch and wait for God to speak to us.  Every day is a day of vigilance. “Today if you would hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”  This Advent, try every day to pay special attention to the moving of God’s Spirit within you.  Harden not your heart—listen, watch, and wait and prepare to be surprised by God. 

 

In the booklet, for which you will find a link below, you will find a short Advent service that you can use as a private devotion or as a service with family and friends around your Advent wreath. You might even use it along with your blessing at dinner. You also will find activities for all ages.

May you have a blessed Advent season in preparation for the coming of our Lord this Christmastide.

 

THANKSGIVING FOR THE ABUNDANCE OF CREATION

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In late October, a good many years ago, my wife and I drove to Maine for a weeklong vacation. We went to see the fall foliage and to relax and retreat from the demands of everyday life. As we drove across the border, we were greeted by a sign that read: “Maine: The Way Life Should Be.” I’m not sure how true this sounds to anyone who lives and works in Maine year-round, but for us weary travelers, it was music to our ears.

As we drove through the park, stopping periodically to get out of our car, we spotted the rich cranberry colors of blueberry plants long after they have surrendered their large juicy berries. We also admired the lichen in every shade of green, gray, and orange that grew on the mountain rocks.  On every side, we were surrounded by the abundance and bounty of nature.

We spent a few days of our vacation in a small cabin on Mt. Desert Island, five minutes from the entrance to Acadia National Park.  The drive through the park and to the summit of Cadillac Mountain is always splendid. On a clear day, one can see mountain lakes, small islands in the Atlantic Ocean, and foliage in every shade of red, orange, yellow, and green.

Where nature is full of bounty, the world that we humans have constructed, and in which we now live, is ordered by economies of production and consumption in which scarcity is a defining principle. The price of an object, as we well know, is based in part on the degree of its availability. The more rare or scarce an object is, and the more others desire it, the more it will cost. Shaped by these economic forces from the moment we become aware of the world around us, it is easy to see how our attitude towards our money and possessions is shaped by an attitude that sees the world in terms of the scarcity of things.  This attitude is what philosophers call a “pre-understanding, that is, an attitude or worldview that precedes everything we encounter.  It is just “the way that it is” for us.  In human societies, however, it is important to remember that things do not always have to be the way that they are; they could be otherwise.

The stories of the Bible, written long ago, offer us a glimpse of a world very different from our own. In the Old Testament, the prophets see it as their duty to remind the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, both ruled by monarchies, that life could be different—that under God’s rule or reign the world could be ordered differently from the way human rulers order the world. If we read the Bible carefully, we may find that our attitudes to the world in which we now live may not be as fixed as we might at first have thought.

In the midst of a severe drought, the prophet Elijah visited a poor widow who lived with her only son in Zarephath. He asked her for water and a morsel of bread. She replied: “As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die” [I Kings 17: 12]. Elijah told her not to be afraid. He directed her to make a small little cake for him and for her and her son and promised the woman if she did so, her jar of meal and jug of oil would not fail until the drought had ended.

Elijah, Walter Brueggmann observes, “enacts a world of guaranteed abundance for the widow, in defiance of more conventional arrangements of scarcity.” This encounter “is not a ‘do-good’ act of charity, “ but rather “a revolutionary act that rejects the myth of scarcity fostered by the privileged, a myth accepted by the widow who has no available alternative. The prophet is able to enact this ‘wonder’ of meal and oil,” because “in God’s creation “there is more than enough.  This story, then, affirms the “generosity of the creator who has given enough gifts for all” while at the same time criticizing the monarchical government and economy under which the poor woman lives, which has organized the “abundance of creation” by means of a “practice of scarcity.” [Walter Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing), 216.]

Our contemporary world, like that of the ancient royal world of Elijah’s day, Brueggemann concludes, subscribes to a myth of scarcity.”  This scarcity, however, is not the way it has to be; it is an imposed power arrangement whereby some have too much so that, consequently, some have too little.

Most of us are far richer than we ever imagine because scarcity thinking shapes our perspective on life. In the stewardship of our own resources, including our treasures, time, and talents to God, we more often live according to a “pre-understanding” of scarcity than we do to a celebration of the overwhelming abundance of God’s creation. The Bible continually reminds us that God’s world is not governed by scarcity but by overwhelming abundance.  Jesus promises us that he has come that we “may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

Signs of “the way life should be”—or could be — surround us all the time, but you may not see them if you look at the world around you solely in terms of scarcity. Would life be different for you if you began to think in terms of abundance?

THE VIRTUE OF SELF-CONTROL

Photo by Caleb Gregory on Unsplash

Over the past few months, I have reflected on what St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians calls “the fruit of the Spirit.”   This fruit refers to the virtues evident in the lives of those who have truly patterned themselves on the example of Jesus Christ. The reason that the New Testament writers focus on the virtues, is so that Christians can live and work joyfully and productively in community.

We find a similar list of virtues in 2 Peter presented as a plan for those who seek to make progress in the Christian life.

[Y]ou must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 1:5–8 NRSV).

To help understand the flow of the argument in 2 Peter, it is helpful to arrange the words in a different, more structured, way.

You must make every effort to support your:

Faith with goodness (lit. virtue)

Goodness with knowledge

Knowledge with self-control

Self-control with endurance

Endurance with godliness

Godliness with mutual affection (Gk. Philadelphian, lit. “brotherly love”)

Mutual affection with love

Love….

In the classical Greek thought of Aristotle, the word “virtue” refers literally to an “excellence,” a behavior, that we develop over time.  We gain virtue from practice.  Virtue, in other words, is gained much like a skill.  We learn as we fail and as we succeed, always building and growing.  We don’t gain virtue all at once but rather we develop it over time.

In 2 Peter we find the outlines of a program for the formation of Christian virtue; it begins with faith and ends with love, the pinnacle of Christian virtue (“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. 1Cor. 13:13).  The purpose of the program is so that we may not be “ineffective” or “unfruitful.” In more positive terms, the program is presented so that our lives in Christ might bear fruit, genuine fruit.

When we compare the list of virtues that St. Paul identifies in Galatians 5:22-23 (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) with the list in 2 Peter, we find some similarities and differences.  “Patience” and “endurance” have similar, but not exact, meanings as do “gentleness” and “mutual affection” (lit. “brotherly love.”). [The virtue of endurance refers to the ability to hold up under difficult circumstances.  For that reason, I wrote about that virtue previously relating it to the “resilience” we need to bounce back from upsets, disappointments, and failures.]

The only two words, however, that are precisely the same in both Galatians and 2 Peter are “self-control” and “love.”

I would like to focus further attention on the virtue of “self-control.”  “The virtue of self-control” “involves the restraint of one’s emotions, impulses, and desires.” *

The New Testament writers were familiar with Greco-Roman philosophical ideas about moral virtue of self-control.  The idea was common to the Greek philosophies of Epicurus and Zeno, the father of Stoicism. It is also found in the “wisdom literature” of the Old Testament. In Proverbs 25:28, for example, we read: “Like a city breached, without walls, is one who lacks self-control.”

A staple of Hellenistic moralism, we find self-control central to the argument of 4 Maccabees, a book not found in our Bible, but one that is canonical in some Eastern Orthodox Churches.

[I]t is evident that reason rules over those emotions that hinder self-control, namely, gluttony and lust, it is also clear that it masters the emotions that hinder one from justice, such as malice, and those that stand in the way of courage, namely anger, fear, and pain (4 Mac. 1:4).

Modern psychological study and research now recognize that reason does not always go hand in hand with self-control, especially when it comes to addiction. People facing addiction realize all too readily that they have no power within themselves to control themselves. That is why the beginning of treatment starts with the recognition of the powerlessness of the human will in the face of addiction.

To live and work with others productively in community, we have to exercise some measure of self-control.  We should always think before we speak. In James 1:19 we find just such an admonition: “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger….”  Notice it does not say quick to speak and slow to listen, but “quick to listen and slow to speak.”   Here a practical example is given to help us understand what it means to exercise self-control in our dealings with others.

The New Testament is full of advice on how to live together in community.  While there is much more I could say about this, the words of St. Paul sum it up best when he says that we should “love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.”  Striving to do that first and foremost lays the foundation for the “self-control” of our impulses and emotions.

*Michael J. Harrington, S.J, Jude and 2 PeterSacra Pagina Series. (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2003), p. 244-5.