Tag Archives: St. Peter

Flowering Trees

Several years ago, I spent spent the early months of the year on sabbatical on the campus of a Benedictine college in Minnesota. Lining the road on the fifteen minute uphill walk from my Ecumenical Institute apartment to St. John’s Abbey in the depths of winter were any number of small, leafless trees. Judging from their shapes and sizes, I guessed that many of them were the flowering sorts of trees that are always the harbingers of spring at home in Rhode Island. But as winter slowly faded and spring emerged with the pace of a turtle, I was disappointed to see that the buds on the trees were 78461814[1]clearly just plain old leaf buds. No flowering trees after all. I complained to Jeanne on the phone, as well as to my friend from Washington DC who commiserated—“back home, the cherry trees would have been in blossom a long time ago.”

On a walk to the Abbey several days later, as young leaves were emerging, I noticed some tiny flower buds hiding behind the new growth. This is bizarre—flowers after leaves? Sure enough, the trees I had been complaining about were flowering trees after all—they were just doing it ass-backwards. “Listen,” I said to a group of these trees, “you need to get your branches out of your roots and do this right. You’ve got this backwards—it’s flowers first, then leaves. What’s the matter with you??” cdurand[1]My annoyance level raised when I asked various Minnesota natives about what was wrong with their trees—there was no consensus. “The leaves always come before the flowers,” said one acquaintance, implying that the flowers-first trees I have known were mutants of some sort. Elisa[1]Another Minnesotan offered that flowers usually come first, but the winter this year was so unusual (too warm, too cold, too long, too short, too wet, too dry—take your pick) that everything got screwed up. Worst of all was the person who said “Oh really? I never really noticed which comes first.” What do you mean, you never really noticed?? This is important!

One morning early in what has come to be known as “Holy Week,” after spending the night with Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany, Jesus and his posse are talking a morning walk to Jerusalem. Jesus is hungry, sees a fig tree, and plans to have a breakfast snack. But, Matthew tells us, “He came to it and found nothing on it but leaves.” So Jesus curses the tree, “and immediately the fig tree withered away.” My goodness. I can imagine the disciples as the events unfold—several are trying to point out that this isn’t fig season, Andrew offers Jesus a bite of his bagel, Judas is looking in the community purse to see if there’s enough to buy Jesus some breakfast at the restaurant down the road, and Peter is going into immediate damage control. “What happens at the fig tree stays at the fig tree, right? Right??”, but Matthew is already making mental notes to put into his memoirs later.

cable[1]Imagine the stir if this happened today with 24-7 media coverage. “Jewish Holy Man Kills Innocent Tree in a Display of Temper.” Environmentalists would be outraged, talking heads from anger management therapists to tree-friendly carpenters to Pharisees to a cult of fig-worshippers would debate the topic on FOX, CNN, and MSNBC. Everyone would be trying to get an interview with Jesus, but no one’s gotten an interview with him ever, not even Rachel Maddow or Lester Holt. Peter, the spokesman for the group, tells some convoluted story about Jesus doing it as an illustration of what any of us can do with just a tiny bit of faith, but that sounds like a lot of spin.

In such situations, there’s always someone who’s looking for fifteen minutes of fame, claiming to have seen exactly what happened. “We’re talking with Fred bar-William, a local Jerusalem tanner. Fred, you were an eyewitness to what happened at the fig tree, right?” “Yeah, man, I was just sort of hangin’ around to see what was goin’ on, him being famous and all. He stopped with a bunch of guys by the treeFig-Tree-cursing-Tissot-300x225[1]—I couldn’t hear everything, but he was obviously pissed and dropped an F-bomb or two on the tree, then went on and stopped at the restaurant a ways down the road. I thought that was kinda harsh, and now look at it—it’s all, like, withered up and disgusting. I mean, we knew the guy had a temper with what happened in the temple market and all, but this is ridiculous. Like, you’d think a guy from the sticks would know when it’s fig time and when it ain’t.”

220px-TheByrdsTurnTurnTurnAlternate[1]The writer of Ecclesiastes and The Byrds remind us that “To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven.” But seasons work differently in different places and times are unique to each person. Eventually, of course, the flowering trees along the walk to the Abbey flowered into glorious bloomflowering-tree-on-april-4-2011-bike-ride[1], and a less observant person than I would not even know that they became beautiful in an entirely unconventional and non-traditional fashion. To the casual observer, they’re just pretty trees, but I know their history. It’s a sort of organic, arboreal Goldilocks story, where each tree, and each one of us, survives through seasons of winter; we bloom in our own way only when things are “just right.” Those who are “happy indeed,” claims Psalm 1,

are like a tree that is planted

beside the flowing water

that yields its fruit in due season

and whose leaves shall never fade;

and all they do shall prosper.

Sheets from Heaven

VT hunting seasonI grew up in hunting country where at the appropriate times each year the males of the species took their preferred firearms and started shooting things. I remember my father returning from a day of hunting with a partridge or two or even a squirrel in his backpack (much to my mother’s consternation). Every third year or so he would hit the jackpot and get a deer, setting us up with meat for most of the upcoming winter. My older brother became a fellow hunter with Dad when he reached the appropriate age, but when my time came, problems arose. I didn’t want to do it. hunting seasonI did not know that principled objections to killing non-human animals were available to me—it just was very clear to me that this was not something I wanted anything to do with. At the time I didn’t have any trouble eating the meat my father and brother brought home; it wasn’t until many years later that I cut red meat out of my diet.

The first reading a week ago Sunday from Acts told the story of one of the most game-changing events imaginable, a “kill and eat” scenario with implications far beyond mere dietary preferences. The story of Acts, of course, is about the early Christian communities and the spread of the “good news” inexorably from Palestine toward Rome and beyond. Often lost in the midst of the story is just how disorienting and belief-challenging all of this must have been. Major debates raged about exactly what this new system of beliefs is. Is it a new version of Judaism? If so, then new Christians are subject to the same dietary and behavioral rules from the Pentateuch that all Jews are subject to; male converts, for instance, should be circumcised. Or is this new set of beliefs something new altogether, perhaps a challenge and direct threat to Judaism? Complicating the issue, at least according to evidence from the gospels, is that Jesus himself was not always clear or consistent about who his message and teaching was for. Jesus was a Jew, and at times clearly said that kill and eathis message was for the “House of Israel,” while at other times he packaged it for everyone, including non-Jews.

In Acts 10 we find Peter, the man who perhaps knew Jesus best and who, as the lead disciple, is now at the forefront of spreading the good news, hungry and exhausted after an extended prayer session on the rooftop of a friend’s house in Joppa where he is staying. And then the strangest thing happens, as Peter reports to some critics in the next chapter:

In a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”

The sheet is full of all sorts of animals that, according to Jewish law, must not be eaten under any circumstances, as Peter immediately recognizes.

unclean animalsBut I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.”

Peter knows the rules backwards and forwards; furthermore, he knows that for a Jew, strict obedience to these rules is required in order to be right relationship both with God and with his community.

But as seems to happen so often in the context of what we think we know about God and our relationship with the divine, the rule book is thrown out entirely.

But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Imagine Peter’s consternation and confusion. Imagine the consternation and confusion of his fellow Jewish believers when they find out that he has been hanging out with and spreading the good news to Gentiles. For after the voice from heaven in essence tells Peter “You know all of that stuff about what not to eat in order to be in right relationship with God, the stuff that has defined the diet of a faithful Jew for the past couple of millennia? Never mind. You can eat anything you want,” CorneliusPeter is further informed that the human equivalent of unclean animals—the Gentiles—are now to be recipients of the good news that you might have mistakenly thought was just for Jews. There’s this Roman centurion by the name of Cornelius who has been asking some really good questions—go to his house and help him out. Subsequent chapters in Acts pick up the theme. Cornelius and his household convert to the message of Christ, start speaking in tongues as Peter and the other disciples did at Pentecost, more conservative Jews are appalled, and eventually there is a big council in Jerusalem to decide what the hell’s going on. But Pandora’s box has been opened never to be closed again. The old rule book is out, and it’s anyone’s guess where this is going to end up.

Don’t you hate it when someone changes the rules of the game just when you’ve gotten really good at working within the framework of the old rules? Just when you think you have everything relevant and necessary figured out, it all changes. In truth, we are currently in the midst of a radical, contemporary parallel of Peter’s vision.dt and owg In politics, one major party’s presumptive candidate for President has risen to the top of the polls by ignoring or deliberately breaking just about every traditional rule for success, while at the same time resisting the best efforts of traditionalists and moderates within his own party to derail his candidacy. Pundits and talking heads are reduced to “I don’t know” and “beats me” when asked to predict what is likely to happen in the next several months. transgenderPublic attitudes concerning homosexuality and same-sex marriage have evolved and shifted more quickly than anyone could have foreseen. People are talking about the rights of transgendered people. More millennials are checking “none” when asked about their religious affiliation than check the box for an identifiable religion; these “nones” exhibit little interest and find no home in traditional religious structures. Sheets from heaven filled with female priests, less-than-conservative Popes, LGBTQ persons, Muslims, and seventy-five-year-old Socialists are being lowered before the eyes of those who thought they knew what they were supposed to think about such things. What’s a person to do?hemingway

Jeanne and I saw “Papa Hemingway in Cuba” last evening, enjoying the sights of Havana that we experienced when we visited in 2003. Hemingway tells his young reporter friend on a couple of occasions during the movie that the value of a person depends entirely on how much that person is willing to risk. Sheets from heaven such as Peter experienced provide an opportunity for extreme risk—how willing am I to leave all of my preconceptions and frameworks of understanding behind in exchange for growth and change? Peter could have dismissed his experience as merely a result of overwork and hunger. But instead he helped to change the world. We are presented with similar opportunities every day.

Living Stones

The Bible is filled with rocks. The patriarchs pile rocks up every time they want to remember a place where they encountered the transcendent. Moses strikes rocks twice, once in obedience and once in anger, to produce water for the thirsty and complaining Israelites. David-and-Goliath-painting[1]David drops Goliath with a stone thrown from a sling. Satan tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread and have something to eat. And so on. I’m sure there’s a dissertation on Biblical rocks in there for someone. Theologians and Bible interpreters have a field day with the typology of rocks and stones, precious or otherwise. But I’m taking a basic approach—there are lots of rocks in the Bible because the people of the Bible encountered lots of rocks. Every day, all the time. How could the story of people who lived in a rocky desert not include rocks? I understand this, because I also grew up in a terrain filled with rocks. I grant you that northern New England, with its forests and green meadows, is not immediately reminiscent of Palestine. But as any Vermont farmer will tell you, dig or plow just a few inches under the surface and you hit rocks. Lots of them. Big ones. The neighboring state of New Hampshire’s official nickname is “The Granite State” (not “The No Sales Tax State” or “The Live Free or Die State”). bwquar[1]One of the largest granite quarries in the world, quaintly called the “Rock of Ages” quarry, is less than forty miles from where I grew up.

Just as most everyone, as a teenager I had my share of horrible summer jobs. The worst was the summer I helped dig swimming pools for a construction company run by the vice president of my Dad’s little Bible school. Really—a pool digging preacher. Who knew that swimming pools could sell in Vermont? On one occasion my co-diggers and I had just about finished digging the swimming pool hole—everything was planed off, measured, and ready for concrete pouring, except for one small detail.Screen-shot-2010-05-19-at-11.31.52-AM[1] There was a rock sticking out of the deep end wall-to-be about ten inches. That rock would have to be removed and the hole filled in before the concrete could be poured. But the more we dug around the rock to loosen and remove it, the larger it got. Soon it became clear that this “rock” was a pimple-sized bump on a massive boulder. Removing the boulder required pulling it out with chains attached to a backhoe; once it came out, the whole back wall of the pool-to-be collapsed, setting the whole project back a couple of days. I didn’t see it through, as I fortunately got a job bagging groceries the next day and quit without giving notice.

The Bible says a lot about gems and precious stones, especially in the crazy, weird books like Daniel and Revelation. But I’m more interested in just regular rocks, as I think Jesus was and still is. He is the stone rejected by the builders. Why? There are plenty  of reasons why a builder might reject a stone—too big, too small, wrong shape, not what is needed, just doesn’t fit expectations—all the sorts of things that people said about Jesus. The-Stones-Would-Cry-Out[1]This guy’s not what we expected, so let’s ignore him or, better yet, get rid of him. But in Luke’s telling of the Palm Sunday story, we get a clear indication of what Jesus is up to. After his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the crowd continues to sing “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” The Pharisees, thoroughly annoyed as usual, want Jesus to tell the crowd to stop singing, to which Jesus replies “if these should keep silent, the stones would immediately cry out.” What God is after is living stones, and Jesus is the cornerstone of the new transcendent structure to be built out of these stones. Jesus wasn’t referring to gems and jewels that would cry out. He was talking about rocks. He was talking about us.

Peter (finally) got the message by the time he wrote the first letter attributed to him in the New Testament,  a Sunday reading from a couple of weeks ago:  “Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house.”living-stones[1] But stones, even living ones, are so random, so ordinary. We reject ourselves and each other for the same reasons that the original stone was rejected by the builders. Too fat, too thin, too hard, too soft, wrong color, wrong shape, wrong size, wrong gender. But when God makes a stone live, turns a heart of stone into a heart of flesh as Ezekiel says, that living stone is unique. Just the way God wants it.

Marsue-hed-shot[1]During Lent 2011 Marsue, a close friend and the rector of the Episcopal church Jeanne and I are involved with, and Bill, the junior warden, asked me if I would be willing to use some essays I had written while on sabbatical in Spring 2009 and after as a jumping off point for a biweekly adult education series. Apparently previous attempts at getting adult education off the ground had not been particularly successful.Trinity_Cranston[1] Marsue knew about these essays because I had been sending them to her, whether she liked it or not, over the past couple of years. The idea was that I could bring a couple of essays to the group, read them aloud, and try to generate discussion. I said “sure”—I had been looking for an outlet for these essays, given that no publisher had shown an ounce of interest in them—and we decided to give a try every other Wednesday night. I suggested to Bill and Marsue that we call the series “Living Stones,” reflecting Peter’s suggestion that “you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house.”

Those first few Wednesday nights attracted 8-10 people; just enough to justify continuing even after Lent and Easter season were over. Some essays worked well, some did not—but I was gratified that people were slowly opening up, willing to talk about their spiritual growth (or lack of same) more and more honestly as we got to know and trust each other. By the time Fall 2011 arrived we decided to try doing these “seminars” after the 10:00 Sunday morning service in hopes of attracting more people. We got into a routine of meeting after church every three weeks, a routine that continued until the beginning of this year, when we went to once a month in order to make room for a growing list of other classes that people were interested in.

As many as twenty have been in attendance on a given Sunday, but there are a dozen regulars who never miss. We have become so comfortable with each other that reading just one essay sparks a solid seventy-five minutes or more of fascinating discussion, with depth and insight that regularly astounds me. Telephone%20Book%203[1]I have said frequently that I’m quite sure that I could read from the phone book for ten minutes and the Living Stones group would turn it into something fascinating and powerful. I almost never am able to correctly predict what the group might pick up and run with—almost always it is something that carries my ideas to places far more interesting and edifying than I had in mind when writing.

Looking around the circle at a given seminar, I am first struck by our ordinariness. We’re just a bunch of normal folks who enjoy talking about our serious, but often pitifully or comically inadequate, attempts to live out what the closing prayer in the Episcopal liturgy challenges us to do—“to love and serve the Lord with gladness and singleness of heart.” I am also struck that the average age of the group is at least in the upper 60s, perhaps as high as 70. NewEngland[1]I am usually the youngest person in the group, and at 57 I’ve stopped pretending I’m just “middle aged” any more. The transparency and honesty of each member facilitates community in a way that I have seldom experienced. Sixty-something Episcopalian New Englanders are not supposed to be this open, honest and welcoming. Rock-ribbed New Englanders have little use for talking about religion in public. But living stones are different, as I am happily reminded every time we meet.

12817[1]In my favorite of Iris Murdoch’s later novels, Nuns and Soldiers, one of the main characters, Anne, is in the middle of a spiritual crisis. The God of her youth is dead; she’s not sure that there is any God at all. During a walk on the beach, she takes notice of the regular, ordinary, but unique stones lying all around her. The big, metaphysical questions fade into unimportance as she grasps the miracle of utter uniqueness. rocks[1]“What does anything matter except helping one or two people who are nearby, doing what’s obvious? We can see so little of the great game. Look at these stones. My Lord and my God. She said aloud, ‘My God . . . There they are.’” And as I look around the Living Stones circle this coming Sunday as we meet on our regular first-Sunday-of-the-month schedule, I will say the same thing: “My God . . . there they are.” Each flawed, imperfect, but unique living stone contributes to the building of a spiritual house that is the divine purpose in the universe. pearl[1]God knows rejection, insignificance and failure first hand, because God was the original rejected stone. But because of that, each living stone is unique and holy, a “pearl of great price.” Each insignificant stone has a divine space to occupy.