Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Beatitudes, Part 3

Quick Review

The word translated as “Blessed” with which each Beatitudes begins, seems to be a promise of things to come. But the word is better translated as “O the bliss...”  Bliss is a word that properly belongs only to the gods. Yet, Jesus is stating that it is his followers’ now. As William Barclay says, “...The Beatitudes are not promises of future happiness...they are affirmations of the bliss into which the Christian can enter here and now.”

Today’s Beatitude: The Meek

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.  (Matt 5:5)

The real meaning of this Beatitude is obscured by the word “meek.” Today, it means a Casper Milquetoast kind of person; shy, withdrawing, submissive. The Hebrew word is anaw and is used often in the Psalms. It describes a person who, because he/she loves God, accepts God’s guidance and never grows resentful about what comes, believing God knows best. Such a person is dear to God, say the Psalms over and over. Psalm 37 is very reminence of Jesus’ remark about this and reads, “But the anaw shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.”

When the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek, the word praus was used for anaw. That word is used to describe an animal that has been tamed and is subject to the control of its handler. For example, we speak of horses being broken to the saddle or a sheepdog trained to herd on command. This animal is not weak, but controllable both within itself and from outside itself. The animal is not cowering, nor is it aggressive; it is praus. To paraphrase Aristotle when he talked about this quality in people, “[Such a person] feels anger on the right grounds, against the right person, in the right manner, at the right time, and for the right length of time.”

The Greek view of such a person describes a person who is gentle when it is within his/her power to be forceful. There is a certain strength in this person. This is the attitude of Jesus when he says, “Not my will, but yours be done.” Or as Paul put it, “Be angry, but don’t sin.” Paul is saying the anger can be appropriate, such as Martin Luther King’s anger toward racial oppression, but it can’t be destructive. This is why non-violence appealed to King and was his chief weapon.

When Jesus speaks of inheriting the earth, this is an enlargement on Psalm 37’s promise to inherit the land, i.e., the territory of Israel. It is instead a promise of life (which is what “land” means in this context) here and now. If one is committed to God, then he/she will know peace which is beyond human understanding. Praus is the quality that gives that person power through self-mastery.

Thus, we can restate the Beatitude as Barclay does: Oh the bliss of the person who has so committed self to God, that that person is entirely God-controlled, for such a person will be right with God, self, others and will enter into that life which God has promised and God alone can give.



Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Beatitudes: Part 2

Quick Review
The word translated as “Blessed” with which each Beatitudes begans, seems to be a promise of things to come. But, as I said last post, the word is better translated as “O the bliss...”  Bliss is a word that properly belongs only to the gods. Yet, Jesus is stating that it is his followers’ now. As William Barclay says, “...The Beatitudes are not promises of future happiness...they are affirmations of the bliss into which the Christian can enter here and now.”

Today’s Beatitude: The Sorrowing

Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. Matt. 5:4

It may be this Beatitude is meant to be taken literally. There is a Arabic saying, “All sunshine makes a desert.” The composer Elgar once said, upon listening to a young woman with a beautiful voice and faultless technique, “She will be great when something happens to break her heart.” When I have been at a nadir in life, it was there I learned who my friends were and who loved me. So in this sense, sorrow has it’s own blessing to bring.

But, there is another possibility. O the bliss of the person who is moved to bitter sorrow at the realization of his/her own sin for they shall be encouraged and comforted. We often forget that the way to the fullness of a relationship with God is the realization that we aren’t worthy of the love that God gives us. Grace, as we say, is unmerited love. New life, in every sense, begins with the an awareness of dissatisfaction with life as it is.
Some years ago, seeing myself in a photograph, I realized I was dramatically overweight. I didn’t like the way I looked, nor the way I felt. My diabetes was hard to control. I decided at that moment I wouldn’t continue on the path that led to the many extra pounds and that I would turn my life in a new direction. And I did. This process is the same one that addicts face if they are to begin moving toward sobriety. They come to the sad and sorrowful realization they are out of control and need the help of a Higher Power.

In a very real sense, we are talking about penitence. But, this Beatitude doesn’t stop there. If we were to truly to come face to face with the depth our own sinfulness and our lack of merit before God, we might feel crushed and hopeless. This Beatitude says, “No.” The awareness of how far short we have fallen of acting like citizens of the Kingdom of God brings comfort. The Greek word here parakalein means comfort or console, but that is the rarest of it meanings. It also is the word used to call someone to become an ally, a helper, a counselor. It is also the word used to invite someone to a banquet. Quoting Barclay again, “God does not only accept and receive the sinner back again. He treats him, not as a criminal, but as an honoured guest.”

The word means even more. It also means to extort or to encourage. So the awareness of our sin, not only promotes forgiveness and joy, but we become filled with courage. Our minds are stimulated to new thoughts and new understanding. Though Andrew Lloyd Webber didn’t intend the description of love in his song Love Changes Everything to refer to God, it clearly has a deep theologial meaning. Think of God love for us as you read the lyrics.

Love changes everything:
Hands and faces,
Earth and sky,
Love changes everything:
How you live and
How you die

Yes, Love,
Love changes everything:
Now I tremble
At your name.
Nothing in the 
World will ever 
Be the same

Will turn your world around,
And that world
Will last for ever.

Yes, Love,
Love changes everything,
Brings you glory,
Brings you shame.
Nothing in the
World will ever
Be the same.

Peace, Jerry+

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Beatitudes Part 1

Most of us are familiar with the Beatitudes, even if we can’t remember exactly what they say. They have been seen by many as the heart of Jesus’ teaching. While the Gospels record them as part of a sermon Jesus preached, more likely they were things he said from time to time. Some scholars think they were included in the Gospels because they represented a theme to which Jesus returned again and again. I tend in that direction on purely pragmatic grounds. If Jesus was roaming the country teaching and preaching on an almost daily basis, creating enough new material to satisfy that task would have been daunting. More likely, he had ideas he wanted to proclaim wherever he went so he used them over and over.  However they came to be, they are powerful, though potentially confusing for modern ears.

In Matthew, each begins with the words “Blessed are the...” for example, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:3) Luke’s version is, “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.” (Luke 6:26b) There are other differences between the Matthew record and the Luke record. So to keep this simple, I’m focusing only on Matthew’s list. Perhaps another time we can look at the reasons the two accounts differ as much as they do.

To properly understand what Jesus is saying, we need to translate the word historically translated as “blessed” a different way, says William Barclay in his book on the Beatitudes, on which much of this topic is based. The word, he says, is “bliss,” as in “Oh the bliss of...” The word in Greek was an attribute of the gods. It represented the ultimate sense of pleasure, happiness, well being, or as one writer put it, “spiritual prosperity.” Consequently bliss carries more of that meaning than blessed. With that in mind, let me offer you a different way to think about these Beatitudes in this post and the next several.

Poor In Spirit
O the bliss of the one who has realized his/her own utter helplessness and utter inadequacy and who has put his/her whole trust in God; for then that one will humbly accept the will of God, and doing so, become a member of the Kingdom.

The idea behind this translation is that a citizen of any kingdom or modern state is expected to obey the laws of that entity. A good citizen is one who is upright, does his/her duty, serves the good of the kingdom, and bends his/her will to the greater good. To be a citizen of the Kingdom of God would imply one would follow the commandments of God and live in a way that is characterized by gratitude, discipline, and obedience. To do that, one would reasonably have to assume that God knows what is best and that left to our own devices, we may make bad choices as citizens. If then, we seek to know and follow God’s lead, then we humble ourselves. (Note: if humble is opposite of arrogant, we could define arrogant as “unteachable” and humble as “teachable,” rather “than having or showing a modest or low estimate of one's own importance.”) Or to put all this another way, we put our complete trust in God’s grace and mercy and seek to know and do God’s will. That makes us members of the Kingdom, by definition.

Next time: Blessed Are They Who Mourn. Here’s a preview: O the bliss of the person who is moved to bitter sorrow at the realization of his/her own sin for they shall be encouraged and comforted.

Peace, Jerry+

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Dirty River

The Old Testament story of Naaman and Elisha is very human story. Naaman is a foreign general who has leprosy. He learns there is someone in Samaria who can cleanse him of this disease and Naaman’s king writes the Israelite king to request a cure for Naaman. The prophet Elisha takes on the job. But not in the way Naaman expected.

Naaman rides up in front of Elisha’s house with his entourage, no doubt expected to be greeted by an awed Elisha. What an honor it is to be asked to provide a cure for this very important man who has come such a great distance. But Elisha doesn’t come out to meet him. Instead, he sends word that Naaman is to go to the Jordan River and wash seven times. It’s helpful to know that the Jordan river generally is a slow moving, muddy little river, hardly bigger than a creek in many places. When Naaman hears what he is to do, he’s incensed. In a rage, he and his horses and chariots turn from Elisha’s house and head off.

Here’s what he says. “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?"

Naaman came to Elisha with a preconception about what the interaction would be like. He was clear about what a man of his stature deserved. So when asked to bathe in a muddy river, he left, uncured. It’s as if he’s saying, “My way or no way.” As I thought about this story, I reflected on two important periods in my life where I was sure of the outcome that would be best for me. My prayer wasn’t “Show me the way.” It was more like, “This is the outcome I want.” When that outcome didn’t happen the way I wanted, I was disappoint in God’s unwillingness to provide what I wanted the way I wanted it. Yet, in the two instances I thought about, what did happen because I didn’t get my way was at least as good for me as if I had. 

Naaman acted like a petulant child when he didn’t get the attention he wanted and it prevented him from getting the cure he needed. To his credit, when his servants tried to reason with him, he listened. "Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, `Wash, and be clean'?"

The story doesn’t tell us if Naaman struggled with the decision. I suspect he did. I imagine it took his servants more than one try to help him get past his rage. However long it took, he did go down to the humble little Jordan and give himself to it’s muddy embrace. Just as Elisha had promised, as he emerged from the seventh dip, he was cured.

His reaction was interesting. He headed back to Elisha with all his company. Face to face with the prophet, Naaman said, "Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel." Perhaps that was as close as he could come to an apology and a show of appreciation; I don’t know. I’d like to believe he was a different man from that moment on, though.

I know I was when God mystified me with his love in the face of my lack of imagination.

Peace, Jerry+

Wednesday, October 2, 2013


This week the Vatican announced that Pope John XXXIII and Pope John Paul will be recognized as saints of the Church. In a month, we will celebrate All Saints' Day. Since The Episcopal Church recognizes certain saints, you may wonder what this is all about. Here’s the short version.

The Roman Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Oriental Orthodox Church are the three large Christian bodies that officially recognize or name saints. They each have a different process for doing so. For the most part, the Anglican Communion acknowledges those who are recognized as saints in the Roman Church, but I’m not aware we do so with those named in the Oriental or Eastern Orthodox Church. It is also true that we do not officially honor all those whom the Romans recognize. 

One estimate is that there are as many as 10,000 acknowledged saints in the Catholic Church, though not all are given feast days or continued to be venerated on a Church wide basis. The Episcopal Church routinely revises the list of those it calls saints as well as those who are not called saints but are worthy of Christian respect and remembrance and includes them in a list of those who have a feast day. These are included in a book called Lesser Feasts and Fasts. 

You can see a list of saints and others commemorated at the website or you may view a pdf of the Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2006 at Both indicate who and when, and beginning on page 88 LFF, why.

But what exactly are saints? Originally, the name was used to refer to all believers. It is in this sense that Paul uses the word in his writings. Later, the name began to be reserved for those who were martyred for the faith and then finally, only for those who meet certain criteria. However, in the naming of Pope John XXXIII, Pope Francis declared that a second miracle was not needed for him, so there is flexibility. Francis’ recent pronouncements about Vatican reform and his intention to try to actualize more of what John started in Vatican II indicates the high regard in which he holds John.

Before the recognition by the Church proper of saints, they were universally local figures who were remembered in a parish or perhaps a diocese. The first saint officially proclaimed by the Roman Church was Bishop Ulrich of Augsburg in 993. In 1153, Pope Alexander III decreed that from that time forward only popes could recognize people as saints, though this decree eventually only applied to what we call the Western Church. 
In no branch of Christianity are saints worshipped, at least not officially. They are venerated, that is, revered or given honor due them for their lives. Their function is to inspire us to live more holy lives. 

Saints are commonly asked for help by the living, especially in Catholicism. Usually they are asked to intercede with God on behalf of the person praying to them. Because of that, some saints have been named “patron saints,” in that, they are particularly “useful” in problems in a certain area. For example, St. Francis is considered the patron saint of animals, while St. Stephen is the patron saint of deacons.

Since the Protestant Reformation, Protestants assert the only mediator needed between humans and God is Jesus. Still, some Protestants (especially Anglo-Catholic Anglicans) argue that asking a saint to pray on your behalf is no different from asking a living person to do so.

Go be a saint. Go honor a saint.

Peace, Jerry+