Saying Your Sorry

Photo by Felix Koutchinski on Unsplash

There was once a man who actually had neither regard for his neighbors, or God; and most of those who lived or worked with him understood this.  Once he was struck with conscience in such a way that he came into the church threw himself on the altar crying.  He sobbed, “O God, have mercy on me, be merciful to me, for I am the greatest of all sinners.” 

From some mysterious height, a voice whispered, “Pride my son.  Pride.  The greatest of all sinners?

The Pharisee and the tax collector we meet in the Gospel today are sharing the same room, sharing the same space before God.  They are standing in the temple at the same time.  Jesus is pointing out that although they stand near one another, there is actually a significant chasm between them.

I think of them as two sides of the same coin; two sides of the soul that knows a relationship with God is something inevitable in life.

The Pharisee is meant to be the “good” person; full of good deeds, full of noble intentions, filled to the brim within a life of virtue signaling, he can look with favor upon himself and disfavor upon others.

The tax collector is the Benedict Arnold of his fellow kinsmen and fellow Jews; a collaborator.  The tax collector is the proverbial man at the end of his rope, and knows that he lacks something that his life is not giving him.

In the words of Will Willimon, “He has nothing, claims nothing, and yet seeks everything.  The tax collector is not acting humble – he is already humiliated.”  And why is the tax collector humiliated?  Because he is making a living by financially squeezing his fellow Jews so that he might remain valuable to the Roman oppressors. 

Each is recognizable within the world in which they live; however, Jesus is drawing back the veil of how these two opposites might be weighed in the heavenly balance.

We are seeing the “left-handedness,” the counter-intuitive power of God and Jesus’s message when these two stand beneath God’s gaze.

It’s as though Jesus is asking the disciples to take a bet.  “When I flip this two-sided coin as to who is closer to God at this moment, who do you think will win?  Heads or Tails?  Pharisee or Tax Collector?”

I believe the distance between the Pharisee and the Tax Collector lay in the difference between where they place their sense of certainty.

The Pharisee is having a conversation with God full of certainty; the certainty of his own righteousness, his own goodness, and the lesser virtue of others; while the tax collector is having a conversation with God about the certainty of his own unworthiness and his own need.

Although the Pharisee is pursuing a pure life, a “good” life, by actively aiming his life in a godly direction, it is clear that his aim is bent, that his aim has been for himself.  The sad irony is that the closer the Pharisee believes his ship is drawing toward God’s country, he will actually find that God’s country is farther away from him.

Ironically, the tax collector’s certainty of his own unworthiness and need of forgiveness, a life absent the virtue-building and virtue-signaling of the Pharisee, will place his ship on the shore of God’s country.

The tears of the tax collector are a much surer path to God that the catalogue of virtues being compiled by the Pharisee.

Because Jesus loves his friends, He is telling them a truth about themselves, and giving a warning about where we might place our certainty. 

Be certain with yourselves, and with God, in the ways of the repentant and those who are honest with themselves and with God; rather than being certain in the ways of the Pharisee.  Lay your certainty with your need for repentance and forgiveness.

“Father Alston – why do we kneel down and confess our sins in church?”  I remember his little angelic face.  I don’t know where the words came from, but I remember saying, ““You know, I think it’s because we are not always sure that what we are trying to do is the right thing – the thing for God. 

We take a moment and take a knee to say, “Lord, I am sorry.  I am sorry that I am not being the person that you want me to be in my life; sometimes I am content to please myself, rather than please you.””

          Regardless of who we are when we enter this room, our Temple – a Pharisee, a Tax Collector, a spectator, or a disciple – Jesus is showing us the place from which we will make our truest beginning.  It is not that we are the “greatest” of anything – either saint or sinner – but rather that we recognize that without honesty and humility before God, we will remain nothing, but ourselves

          The truth is that we are often both sides of this very coin; and the promise of Christ is that if we will simply say, “Lord, I am sorry that I have not been the person that I wanted to be for you – even when I am trying to do good my selfishness often gets in the way – please forgive me and help me,” then we can leave this place knowing that we understand and accept the Savior’s invitation.  

          The promise is not that we become “enough” for God because we are making ourselves godly, or great; the promise is that we become “enough” for God as we discover that our deepest purpose, our deepest need, lay in recognizing and accepting his love.  And the sign over that door into that country is always marked: humility.

          Some tears in fact lead to joy.

Be The Anvil Upon Which Many Hammers Are Broken

Wright Brothers Bicycles

Samuel Pierpont Langley.  It’s not a name that most people know.  Langley was important in the early days of flight.  He was given the enormous sum of $50,000 around 1900 to pursue the dream of manned flight in an aircraft.  Langley was already well known on the East Coast.  Born and educated in Boston, teaching at Harvard, Secretary of the Smithsonian, followed around by the New York Times.  Langley seemed to have been chosen by fate to have the tools to discover the secret of manned flight.  He seemed to be motivated by creating a place in history.  He spent time with Cornelius Vanderbilt and Alexander Graham Bell.

If it were to happen – certainly it would happen for Samuel Pierpont Langley.

A few hundred miles away there was a Bishop in the United Brethren Church with two boys – Orville and Wilbur.  The New York Times was not following them around.  There were no college graduates in the Wright team.  They had a bicycle shop; probably not worth more than a few thousand dollars. 

We essentially know the rest of the story.  But we might ask, “What really was the difference between the Langley project and the Wright project?”

Some have noted that the difference lay mostly in perception and vision.  Orville and Wilbur were not burdened with the weight of being experts.  They were not burdened with the weight of great expectations.  Rather they were filled with a spirit of discovery, adventure; with the distinct advantage of being amateurs.  Their joy was in the pursuit; and they filled others with that joy, so that those supporting their work gave only what they had in abundance; sweat, blood, and tears.

Each time the brothers went to fly, they had to carry five sets of parts, because that is how often they expected to crash before dark.

On December 17th, 1903, without the experts, without the New York Times, without the best and the brightest, the Wright brothers took flight. They were far from their Ohio home.  They were far from anyone; out in the coastal dunes of North Carolina where the wind was constant and the beaches empty – Kill Devil Hill.

In this section of Luke’s Gospel we find parables, stories, word pictures that Jesus is using to help open the minds of His friends.  Not unlike what we do with children.  Tell them stories to help them understand things that larger than the world they currently inhabit.

We have been in the land of dishonest stewards, of rich and poor men, millstones and mustard seeds.  Life with God is larger and more mysterious than life as you have known it.  While you are growing in the midst of the larger reality, you will be prone to “lose heart.” 

You may feel small, insignificant, or as though God is absent; you may “lose heart.”

And so when all else fails, I want you to be like this widow, become an irritant, be persistent, persevere; using what may be the only tool that you have left, become a stone in God’s shoe. 

This widow is small in her world, and perhaps insignificant.  She has an empty toolbox.  No money, no status, no importance, no virtue signaling, no cultivated opinions, no social registry.  She takes her last tool and uses it to pry a stubborn world to bend.  She is persistent.

When Jesus says “pray,” I am not thinking only of words that rise in the heart or the mouth while sitting a position of repose or worship.

Think about that prayer that you might find yourself saying in a doctor’s office, in a board room, standing over a 4 foot putt at the golf course; that prayer that is collectively uttered in the 4rth quarter when the kicker walks out on the field.  Aren’t those prayers as well?

My sense is that Jesus is talking as much about a disposition in life, a trajectory, as He is about an activity that we have come to call prayer or praying.

Jesus is telling his Friends that they need a little of the pestering spirit about their prayers and their search for God.  They need to be hungry for God; hungrier for God than they might be for anything else in the world.

I believe this is what we see happening on the beach at Kill Devil Hills North Carolina – folks with a smaller tool box, fewer tools, but having the one tool that matters.  Persistence.  Passion.  Hunger. 

If you read an account of life in the North Carolina Barrier Islands, places like Kill Devil Hills, Kitty Hawk, it is filled with hours and hours of mosquitoes, biting gnats, scarce food and water – a place Orville called a little Sahara desert.  The Wright brothers spend many weeks across a few years praying and working for their miracle.

Although it was a desert, it was the best place in which to potentially experience the miracle of flying.  I imagine that the Wright brothers walked home many nights tired, with mosquitoes, without their miracle, and with sand filling their shoes.

And then there is a Thursday night when Orville and Wilbur Wright ended up walking four miles to Kitty Hawk, sending a telegram home to Dayton, Ohio.  Again, their shoes filled with sand from a day chasing their dream.  Their father the Bishop read the first word, “Success.”

Each of us are calling out to God in our lives, in that disposition that we call prayer.  And most of us, at least some of the time, wonder where it all leads, where it all goes; “is the universe indifferent to the presence of my needs.”

Jesus is being a friend and a guide; encouraging us before we quit, before we lose heart in our prayers to God, to simply notice {you might say} whether we are walking home with sand in our shoes.

Paul – A Biography, Session 3, September 25, 2022

Good Evening Friends,

This week we will join NT Wright in his biographical sketch of Paul by looking at Gal 1:13-17 – Paul’s well known “Damascus Road” experience of the risen Christ.  There are as many conversion stories to faith in Christ as there are individuals who have come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah.  Some stories are about certain chapters, or seasons, of life where the power and presence of God become undeniable, such that conversion is a slow turning toward God in the midst of life’s many avenues; we might think of CS Lewis, and the story of his long conversion.  Other experiences are not unlike Paul on the road to Damascus, or Moses before the burning bush, or Abraham walking in in the night beneath the stars, and suddenly there is a radical transparency of the divine presence.  Each of us walk a different path in finding that Christ is in the midst of our lives.

Paul’s experience is so profound because in occurs literally within a few years of Jesus’s death and resurrection, and it carries Paul across the ancient world as the messenger of a message that he had previously been taught to eradicate with zeal.   

If you are interested in reading Bishop NT Wright’s biography of Paul, look here: Paul: A Biography, paper: N.T. Wright: 9780061730597 – Christianbook.com

Video clip of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus: https://youtu.be/EwOScXe-8lw

Video clip of Alister McGrath, a well-known theologian, who converted from atheism to Christianity after having studied the natural sciences in university: https://youtu.be/Hp6SuVaxuJ0

Some may be interested in reading the accounts of other’s “Damascus Road” moments.  The following is an excerpt from William James, “Varieties of Religious Experience,” delivered as The Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh  at St. Andrews University.  I have always found James work fascinating, and these accounts illuminating in trying to understand just how unique each person’s encounter with God might be.

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience:

Looking forward to seeing you on Sunday in The Garden Room around 9.15.  We will begin the class at 9.30. 

Blessings and Godspeed,

Alston

Paul – A Biography – Note from the Dean – September 18, 2022

Good Evening Friends,

Thank you so much for joining us on Sunday as we begin our study of Paul through the scholarship of Bishop NT Wright.  Each week we will begin to gather around 9.15am in the Garden Room.  The time prior to class will be a time to “stump the rector” with questions or comments about our study, our about religious life in general.  We will begin the class at 9.30.

Everyone has a hometown, and for some of us the place we are born and raised, the place from which we launch, has a tremendous effect on the trajectory of our lives.  We might say the same of Paul, who as a boy was named Saul.  In this class NT Wright will describe and explain what it was like for the young Paul {Saul} growing up in Tarsus, and important yet smaller city in the ancient world.  Paul grew up within a particularly devout and zealous stream of Judaism; and tradition within which he desired a life of distinction and some amount of heroism.  Following our video from Bishop Wright we will have some discussion, and if time allows I will share some summary thoughts before breaking for the Eucharist at @ 10.15.

If you are interested in reading Bishop NT Wright’s biography of Paul, look here: Paul: A Biography, paper: N.T. Wright: 9780061730597 – Christianbook.com

For an informed review of this book look here: N. T. Wright Wants to Reintroduce You to Paul (thegospelcoalition.org)

Scenes of Paul from movies that I have found moving:    https://youtu.be/iGJProHZ2zY    https://youtu.be/0jmT1FA4gTk

Philippians 3:2-6 will be the reading from which our lesson will be taken.

Looking forward to seeing all of you on Sunday.  Blessings and Godspeed,

Alston

Ivory Towers and Woolly-Heads?

A few days ago I opened an old and familiar book that was donated to the Cathedral by the late Terry Coutret, who was something of a mystic and local authority on the inner and spiritual life. She bequeathed her library of Evelyn Underhill works to our library and I have been dipping into them ever since. To say that Underhill was a genius of the interior life is an “under”-statement. Her ability to find and craft the language of the soul’s exploration toward God is remarkable at times; she gives voice to some of the subtlest movements of the conscience and heart in that exploration that I have encountered. In her book “Practical Mysticism: A Little Book For Normal People,” Underhill is distilling her life’s work into a kind of vade mecum of how to pray, and what to do when our prayers become tethered. Her chapters 7-10 give a concise road map of what prayerful recollection, meditation, and prayer can feel like for the beginner, and any one who is wondering if they might be called to such a path.

I have been fortunate through my childhood and early years to have had teachers and mentors who have pitched in, and helped me along the way. However, as a pastor and fellow-traveler with others, I know that everyone is not so fortunate. Sometimes we can feel God’s presence so acutely that we may not know how to explain the sense of urgency we feel in our souls. We can also be drawn so close to God for a season that all terrestrial pursuits lose their flavor and excitement. So that those who love and support us in life might begin to wonder about our well-being, wondering if have lost something of our “good old selves”; and if truth were told, that is exactly what is happening. We are losing one kind of grasp on terrestrial life because we are pursuing, or being pursued, by another kind of life – a life folded into God.

At times I have had to reach into the lives of folks like Underhill, Lewis, Bernard of Clairvaux, John of the Cross, Dame Julian, Reginald Sommerset-Ward, and others to be reminded that this daily concourse with the Good Shepherd, with something eternal amid the terrestrial, is not a fool’s errand. Occasionally there is the criticism that finding a deep stasis within for things divine can make one quite useless in terms of things worldly and practical. I remember once saying to such a critic, “Yes, God has drawn close enough to my life to make me quite useless in the eyes of those whose kingdom remains within this world.” It was said tongue-in-cheek, but with a splinter of truth.

Earlier this week as I thumbed through “Practical Mysticism” I read the preface, and I was struck by the theme and tone of Underhill’s message. She is addressing the cultivation of the interior life on the eve of WWI, and how such inner journeys might be entirely appropriate within a world situation that continually tears itself to shreds. I was inspired and encouraged in walking this path, and having made it a significant piece of my own life’s work. In sharing this Preface, my hope is that when you may come into the presence of the easy and comfortable criticism of “worldlings,” the champions of “common sense,” that you will find a hand on the side of the pool and steady yourself. Like anything worth adding to the storehouse of our minds and hearts, it is a bit long, and it is full of protein rather than carbs. I also recommend the entire work to anyone who has had enough of one world and is seeking another. Blessings and Godspeed. A.

https://ccel.org/ccel/underhill/practical/practical.

PREFACE

This little book, written during the last months of peace, goes to press in the first weeks of the Great War. Many will feel that in such a time of conflict and horror, when only the most ignorant, disloyal, or apathetic can hope for quietness of mind, a book which deals with that which is called the “contemplative” attitude to existence is wholly out of place. So obvious, indeed, is this point of view that I had at first thought of postponing its publication. On the one hand, it seems as though the dreams of a spiritual renaissance, which promised so fairly but a little time ago, had perished in the sudden explosion of brute force. On the other hand, the thoughts of the English race are now turned, and rightly, towards the most concrete forms of action—struggle and endurance, practical sacrifices, difficult and long-continued effort—rather than towards the passive attitude of self-surrender which is all that the practice of mysticism seems, at first sight, to demand. Moreover, that deep conviction of the dependence of all human worth upon eternal values, the immanence of the Divine Spirit within the human soul, which lies at the root of a mystical concept of life, is hard indeed to reconcile with much of the human history now being poured red-hot from the cauldron of war. For all these reasons, we are likely during the present crisis to witness a revolt from those superficially mystical notions which threatened to become too popular during the immediate past.

Yet, the title deliberately chosen for this book—that of “Practical” Mysticism—means nothing if the attitude and the discipline which it recommends be adapted to fair weather alone: if the principles for which it stands break down when subjected to the pressure of events, and cannot be reconciled with the sterner duties of the national life. To accept this position is to reduce mysticism to the status of a spiritual plaything. On the contrary, if the experiences on which it is based have indeed the transcendent value for humanity which the mystics claim for them—if they reveal to us a world of higher truth and greater reality than the world of concrete happenings in which we seem to be immersed—then that value is increased rather than lessened when confronted by the overwhelming disharmonies and sufferings of the present time. It is significant that many of these experiences are reported to us from periods of war and distress: that the stronger the forces of destruction appeared, the more intense grew the spiritual vision which opposed them. We learn from these records that the mystical consciousness has the power of lifting those who possess it to a plane of reality which no struggle, no cruelty, can disturb: of conferring a certitude which no catastrophe can wreck. Yet it does not wrap its initiates in a selfish and otherworldly calm, isolate them from the pain and effort of the common life. Rather, it gives them renewed vitality; administering to the human spirit not—as some suppose—a soothing draught, but the most powerful of stimulants. Stayed upon eternal realities, that spirit will be far better able to endure and profit by the stern discipline which the race is now called to undergo, than those who are wholly at the mercy of events; better able to discern the real from the illusory issues, and to pronounce judgment on the new problems, new difficulties, new fields of activity now disclosed. Perhaps it is worthwhile to remind ourselves that the two women who have left the deepest mark upon the military history of France and England—Joan of Arc and Florence Nightingale—both acted under mystical compulsion. So, too, did one of the noblest of modern soldiers, General Gordon. Their national value was directly connected with their deep spiritual consciousness: their intensely practical energies were the flowers of a contemplative life.

We are often told, that in the critical periods of history it is the national soul which counts: that “where there is no vision, the people perish.” No nation is truly defeated which retains its spiritual self-possession. No nation is truly victorious which does not emerge with soul unstained. If this be so, it becomes a part of true patriotism to keep the spiritual life, both of the individual citizen and of the social group, active and vigorous; its vision of realities unsullied by the entangled interests and passions of the time. This is a task in which all may do their part. The spiritual life is not a special career, involving abstraction from the world of things. It is a part of every man’s life; and until he has realized it he is not a complete human being, has not entered into possession of all his powers. It is therefore the function of a practical mysticism to increase, not diminish, the total efficiency, the wisdom and steadfastness, of those who try to practice it. It will help them to enter, more completely than ever before, into the life of the group to which they belong. It will teach them to see the world in a truer proportion, discerning eternal beauty beyond and beneath apparent ruthlessness. It will educate them in a charity free from all taint of sentimentalism; it will confer on them an unconquerable hope; and assure them that still, even in the hour of greatest desolation, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” As a contribution, then, to these purposes, this little book is now published. It is addressed neither to the learned nor to the devout, who are already in possession of a wide literature dealing from many points of view with the experiences and philosophy of the mystics. Such readers are warned that they will find here nothing but the re-statement of elementary and familiar propositions, and invitations to a discipline immemorially old. Far from presuming to instruct those to whom first-hand information is both accessible and palatable, I write only for the larger class which, repelled by the formidable appearance of more elaborate works on the subject, would yet like to know what is meant by mysticism, and what it has to offer to the average man: how it helps to solve his problems, how it harmonizes with the duties and ideals of his active life. For this reason, I presuppose in my readers no knowledge whatever of the subject, either upon the philosophic, religious, or historical side. Nor, since I wish my appeal to be general, do I urge the special claim of any one theological system, any one metaphysical school. I have merely attempted to put the view of the universe and man’s place in it which is common to all mystics in plain and untechnical language: and to suggest the practical conditions under which ordinary persons may participate in their experience. Therefore the abnormal states of consciousness which sometimes appear in connection with mystical genius are not discussed: my business being confined to the description of a faculty which all men possess in a greater or less degree.

The reality and importance of this faculty are considered in the first three chapters. In the fourth and fifth is described the preliminary training of attention necessary for its use; in the sixth, the general self-discipline and attitude toward life which it involves. The seventh, eighth, and ninth chapters treat in an elementary way of the three great forms of contemplation; and in the tenth, the practical value of the life in which they have been actualized is examined. Those kind enough to attempt the perusal of the book are begged to read the first sections with some attention before passing to the latter part.

E. U.

September 12, 1914.