Jason Alexander

Sermons and other writing.

A Non-Zero-Sum Life

Probably like some of you, I have been spending a good deal of time in front of the TV lately watching the Olympics. And I'll come right out and say it ... it's been a rough one this year. The constant commentary on political tensions with China, and the heartbreaking doping scandal involving a fifteen-year-old Russian figure skater--overlayed, of course, by the threat of war in Eastern Europe. The only sport I've really been able to enjoy watching this year has been curling, of all things. I still have no idea how the bizarre shuffleboard-on-ice game is scored, but there is something comforting in watching a perfectly polished hunk of granite smoothly slide down the ice. Injuries are extremely unlikely in curling and doping is pointless, frankly.

At the other end of the spectrum, the downhill skiing this season has had a good deal of drama, and I have kept an eye on Mikaela Shiffrin's journey. She is an American alpine skier who has won medals in the past two winter Olympics, and she was expected to perform well in the Beijing games. In three of her six events, though, she crashed. Nothing spectacular--no medics needed. Mikaela just leaned a little too far and fell, or missed a gate, tripping her up and disqualifying her run. You could just about feel her frustration--and utter confusion--after the failed events. In a post-race conversation with a journalist, a baffled Mikaela said, "I don't know what I'm supposed to fix. I don't know if there's anything to fix." She felt like she had done everything right. She had trained hard, the course felt good, she certainly had the credentials. Her performance just didn't add up.

And as I was considering this morning's passage from Luke, thinking about the litany of illogical requests that Jesus makes of his followers--requests that just don't add up, Mikaela's comment came to mind.

In this world we live in--this world of bank accounts and balance sheets, of contest and competition, we expect things to add up. Our businesses run on sound accounting principles and the knowledge that resources are finite. If we spend money over here, we'll have less over here. Labor has value too. If we work hard we expect to see positive results. And we have these expectations for good reason. Most of the time our formulas are rock solid--one plus one does equal two. Things add up.

A term often used in economics to understand this phenomenon is zero-sum. You can think of it this way: In a game of poker the chips on the table at the beginning of a game are still on the table after the game ends, they just get redistributed. When one player wins another player loses. The sinister side of zero-sum thinking is when it moves beyond the game table and becomes a guiding principle for how we relate to each other, and we begin make emotional decisions based on the thrill of a win or the fear of a loss; if we believe that there's only so much to go around, then we ought to play our cards right so that we can come out on top. We see consequences of a zero-sum mentality daily in the economic and social disparities in this world. We also see the tell-tale signs of its destructive power in the wake of broken relationships. If we believe there are only winners and losers, why would we dare show vulnerability? Why would we trust? Why would we have faith?

In today's passage from Luke, Jesus's message is distinctly non-zero-sum. The Kingdom of Heaven just doesn't add up to those who only see the world in black and white. Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Pray for those who abuse you. Turn the other cheek. If someone takes your coat, give them your shirt also. Lend without expecting anything in return. These sayings bring another piece of Scripture to mind: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.” Jesus's words can be truly baffling to us who are immersed in the win-lose economy of this world. And yet, by virtue of our baptism, we have become citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven and are to be ambassadors of God's impossible, unlimited grace.

The often quoted author, G.K. Chesterton once said that the kind of love Jesus speaks of would transform our world. The trouble is that this kind of Christianity has never been tried.

So, how do we give Jesus's non-zero-sum life a try? Well, we don't have to start with loving our enemies--admittedly, that's pretty advanced stuff. We start by accepting the fact that we, ourselves, are profoundly loved by God, warts and all. For some of us, that's a pretty tall order in and of itself. Knowing we are deserving of love, we then work on loving ourselves, then those we're already fond of, and then we work on growing compassion for those who frustrate us, or for those who have caused us pain. And along the way we'll come to see that giving our coat away is not simply a redistribution of finite goods, but an expression of God's limitless love.

There are actual spiritual practices within our tradition that help us along this path. Making the shift from a zero-sum perspective, where the world is comprised only of winners and losers, to embracing Jesus's non-zero-sum life, is our baptismal charge. Imagine a world where there are no winners or losers--only beloved children of God. This is the promise of the Kingdom of Heaven. This is the truth that will set us free.

Back to the skier Mikaela Shiffrin for a minute. Her reaction to not finishing as well as she had hoped struck me because it seemed to be a transformative experience for her. She was clearly shocked and disappointed, but she didn't crumble in on herself. She didn't associate her sense of self-worth with her performance. She was complementary of her fellow skiers and seemed truly thankful for the opportunity simply to be a part of the Olympics. Apparently, though, she has been the recipient of a great deal of hateful comments on social media--people accusing her of not trying hard enough, and calling her a loser. Her response has been magnanimous--showing compassion for these angry people clearly imprisoned in a two-toned world of winners and losers.

After Mikaela's final event she said this: “I have had a lot of disappointing moments at these Games — today is not one of them. Today is my favorite memory. This was the best possible way that I could imagine ending the Games, skiing with such strong teammates.”

This, my friends, is non-zero-sum living. And it can transform the world.

The Rev. Canon Jason Alexander
Trinity, Pine Bluff | February 20, 2022
Epiphany 7, Year C
audio

[pride II] Desert Prayers Email

One of the most bingeable shows of the past several years is the Netflix series, Sense8. It was created by the immensely talented Wachowskis (of The Matrix fame) and tells the story of eight very different individuals who realize they share an intimate psychic bond. Their dissimilarity becomes their strength and they achieve, together, much more than they could separately. I rewatched the first episode over Christmas and fell in love with the characters all over again. But, I was caught up short by one scene in particular.

One of the principal characters, Nomi, is a trans woman with a heart for social justice. She struggled through years of psychological abuse from a bigoted parent to become the beautiful and "proud" woman she is. In one scene she is heard recording a podcast promoting the upcoming LGBTQ+ Pride event in San Francisco. It's a deeply moving speech in which she recounts the way her mother, a reader of St. Thomas Aquinas, considered pride to be the worst of the "seven deadlies," and yet pride (she means self-assuredness, I think) is the very "sin" that Nomi craved. "We march with pride," she says to her podcast audience. "So go (explicit) yourself, Aquinas!"

On the one hand, I wanted to shout, "YES!" along with Nomi's listeners. The "seven deadly sins" do have an undeniable history of weaving guilt and shame into the psychology of modern Christians. The way Nomi's mother leveraged the moral philosophy of Thomas Aquinas to make her child feel less-than is truly appalling. That's the real sin in this story. On the other hand, I recalled Evagrius's "eight thoughts," the origin of the "seven deadlies," and felt grief for the corruption and loss of a valuable spiritual tradition. Pastorally, I would never contradict Nomi. She has every right to her rage, and it is important to reveal the complicity the Christian tradition has had in various abuses. However, if I were to rethink pride and the "sins" through the lens of the desert mystics rather than through the twisted wisdom of Nomi's mother, here's how it might go ...

First of all, "thoughts" rather than "sins" is a more helpful way to understand pride, gluttony, vainglory, and the others. The word "sin" in this context carries a great deal of moral weight, whereas "thought" is more neutral. We all have thoughts that muddy our relationship with God. They are unavoidable. However, through practice, and with God's help, we can learn how to see them for the illusions that they are. Second, we have a semantics problem. Understanding pride to mean self-assuredness, as Nomi does, is a fine use of the word, but this is not the way Evagrius would have used it when talking about the "eight thoughts." Pride is a spiritual affliction that occurs when one devalues God and elevates oneself. I believe it was Anne Lamott who said, "You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do." In this sense, when we hate or judge others (or ourselves) for being different, that is pride.

As Christians, we inhabit a complicated space in today's culture. How do we bring the best of our tradition forward while understanding it carries baggage? How do we own up to that baggage and support those who have been weighed down by it? I like Nomi. She's brave, strong, and loves deeply. I hope she'd like me too. What could I learn from Nomi? What could she learn from me?

Jason

[hope] Desert Prayers Email

My wife, Kate, and I have spoken several times this past week about what it is that people want to hear this year in a Christmas homily. She has even asked a few members of her congregation the question directly, and the answer has been pretty consistent. People long to hear a message of hope. What is the Good News that we can cling to in the midst of the continuous flow of bad news blaring from our various media sources? She and I agreed that the preachers, too, would benefit from hearing a hopeful message this Christmas.

The Christian hope, as outlined in the Book of Common Prayer, "is to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God's purpose for the world." The communal telling of the Christmas story each year is a testament to this confidence. The coming of Emmanuel, "God with us," is assurance that the gloomy clouds of night will disperse and death's dark shadow will be put to flight. Of course, all this is easily said (or sung), but feeling hopeful, particularly in an unsettling time, is another matter entirely.

The desert tradition offers wisdom for this challenge. Like us today, the desert dwellers of the fourth and fifth centuries hoped for paradise. They prayed that God's will would be done on earth just as it is in heaven. They also believed that God's will was being done in the here and now--paradise was currently in full bloom, even if it was hard to see. And so, their work, guided by God, was to sharpen their mystical vision. They labored to learn to see beyond the brokenness of the world, beyond its violence, suffering, and death into the heavenly kingdom that exists not apart from the world but in its very midst. The monks knew that this was a lifelong task. Hope takes practice. Author Douglas Christie calls this work "practicing paradise." That is, "learning to see and cherish the world, even in its degraded condition, as whole."

The contemplative practice you and I commit to as members of the Desert Prayers community is essentially this. Every moment we spend in silence with God we are learning to see the world anew. And, with our new eyes, we will surely discover God in the most unlikely of places, like, say, wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in a manger, because there was no room in the inn.

Merry Christmas,
Jason

[agape] Desert Prayers Email

It's fairly common in the bishop's office this time of year to notice a measurable uptick in the number of phone calls, visits, and emails from distressed clergy and lay leaders. Stewardship season is naturally a challenging time for congregations. Combine that with planning for Christmas worship services, attending holiday parties, and negotiating the sensitive details of family gatherings, and it's understandable that the Christmas cheer we are "supposed" to be feeling can be hard to come by.

Evagrius's eight thoughts--the demons--are in rare form this time of year, and navigating around them can be a little like walking through a house of mirrors. Everywhere we look we see distorted visions of ourselves and others. The wavy mirrors reflect an illusory reality, one where our self image is out of whack and we're surrounded by twisted representations of our companions. And when we turn around, desperate to find our way out, we realize we're stuck in a maze. In the words of the beleaguered souls seeking refuge and hope from John in the wilderness, "What then should we do?"

As we heard in the Gospel reading this past Sunday, John the Baptist offers a simple, yet profound response to the anxiety of the season. He says, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." In other words, love one another in a tangible way. When a friend is tired and stressed, reach out in compassion. When we're down on ourselves, find healthy ways to take care of our body. When we feel like lashing out, show affection instead.

The desert tradition is all about cultivating love, or, to use the Greek term, agape. Agape is God-centered love, and our capacity to show agape comes not from us but from God. In this sense, the reservoir for love in our lives is deep and wide, regardless of how drained we might feel. Anger, pride, and the other thoughts can distort this truth, yet there is always room for more love.

If Advent is dragging on a bit too long for you this year, make love your practice. You've got it in you. In the immortal words of the Dixie Chicks, "More Love / I can hear our hearts cryin' / More love / I know that's all we need / More love / To flow in between us / To take us and hold us / And lift us above / If there's ever an answer it's more love." Listen to the song here.

Take care,
Jason

[virtues] Desert Prayers Email

Dear members of the Desert Prayers community,

I hope that your prayer time has been fruitful, and that your relationship with God, neighbor, and self is continuing to deepen.

Reviewing your day and prayer experience to identify interruptions by the various "troubling thoughts" is not easy work. We can understand, on an intellectual level, the desert wisdom that thoughts are illusory and transient--that they don't define us. However, sometimes it can be difficult to "feel" that truth after a long day at work or a destabilizing life event. Of course, prayer can and will help. If not silence, then direct petition to God for comfort and strength can often move us into a more objective mental space.

It is also important to keep in mind that time spent wrestling with the demons of our day is never wasted time. Evagrius taught that each troubling thought has its corresponding virtue, and those virtues are cultivated in proportion to our wrestling. Addressing thoughts of avarice grows charity in our hearts. Facing down sadness and anger increases our courage and fortitude. Reckoning with vainglorious impulses leads to wisdom and knowledge. Addressing the demons are, in fact, a necessary part of our growth as Christians. Evagrius said, "Take away temptations and no one will be saved."

In many ways, how we approach the "troubling thoughts" is akin to how Christians approach the cross. On one hand, the cross is an instrument of torture. In the first century, it struck fear into the hearts of those who witnessed the brutal practice of crucifixion--a means to assert Roman dominance. On the other hand, because of Jesus's death on the cross and subsequent resurrection, the cross can be seen as a doorway to new life. The beauty of Easter is always visible through the pain of Good Friday. Similarly, we can learn to understand the "troubling thoughts," or demons as a means to grow closer to God. Christ makes all things new: Acedia transforms into patience. Gluttony becomes temperance. Pride is revealed as understanding.

With God's help, we can become adept at wrestling with the demons and, maybe someday, no longer see them as demons at all, but come to know them for what they truly are ... virtues in disguise.

Please feel free to reach out to me regarding your prayer experience, or with questions and reflections you wish to share.

Take care,
Jason

[demons] Desert Prayers Email

Dear members of the Desert Prayers community,

I hope that your prayer time has been fruitful, and that your relationship with God, neighbor, and self is continuing to deepen.

In the early Christian collection of desert sayings, "Concerning Thoughts," a novice monk asks an elder, "How can a person keep away from the plots of the demons?" The elder replies, "A fish cannot stop a fisherman from casting his hook into the sea, but if the fish is aware of the hook's evil he can avoid it and be saved, leaving the fisherman empty-handed. It's the same for a person."

The term "demon" has some baggage. I suspect that for most of us it conjures up images of horror movies, nightmares, and Tom Hanks running through the streets of Rome in pursuit of the Illuminati. When it comes to the spiritual life, the word can seem a bit arcane. We don't hear many sermons on spiritual warfare these days, yet the traditional Biblical moniker for personified evil might still be of some benefit to us. Humans find meaning through metaphor and analogy. Sometimes a complicated concept needs a face in order to better understand it.

The early Christian solitaries considered the desert to be the demons' natural abode. Surrounded by nothing but wind and rock, the desert fathers and mothers were left exposed to the trials of the demons. Jesus's temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11) served as an example for them. During each of the three trials, Jesus instantly recognizes the devil in its various forms (gluttony, pride, and avarice) and turns to Scripture and prayer for strength. Jesus's ability to know his troubling desires for what they were helped him to remain centered during mental and physical difficulty.

Although we may not physically live in the desert, we continually encounter desert-like moments: "A fish cannot stop a fisherman from casting his hook into the sea." Periods of transition, loss, or uncertainly in our lives can leave us exposed. When we're convinced that fleeing a job or a relationship because we feel we could be happier somewhere else or with someone else (acedia), or we think our pain will vanish once we buy everything on our Amazon wish list (avarice), or we pine for the "glory days" of our past (sadness), we can know these thoughts for the demons they are--mere distractions from the very real presence of God in our midst today. And, echoing the words of Jesus, we say "Away with you, Satan! for it is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him."

Please feel free to reach out to me regarding your prayer experience, or with other questions you might have.

Take care,
Jason

[discretion] Desert Prayers Email

Dear members of the Desert Prayers community,

Thank you for your participation in Desert Prayers. I hope that your prayer time has been fruitful, and that your relationship with God, neighbor, and self is continuing to deepen.

"It is an old saying that extremes meet," writes John Cassian in The Conferences. Cassian was a disciple of Evagrius, and is credited with introducing the West to the wisdom of the desert. This maxim refers to the Aristotelian idea that virtue is found in the middle; existing at either end of a spectrum can ultimately become harmful. As followers of the "via media," Episcopalians ought to be familiar with this notion.

In this particular passage, Cassian is concerned with the extremes to which some monks take their habits of fasting. He offers two examples. There was once a monk whose refusal of food became so severe that he didn't even eat on Easter Day, a mandatory feast in the Christian tradition. His fellow monks became concerned and tried to intervene, but the poor, emaciated monk stubbornly continued to refuse his daily portion and tragically starved to death. At the other end of the spectrum, another monk, who could not bear limiting his diet to the meager portion of two biscuits a day, would fast for a day or two, hiding his biscuits until he had a meal of several biscuits he could eat all at once in order to feel the momentary satisfaction of fullness. This monk eventually left the desert behind and returned to the city--also a tragic loss within a community that had learned to recognize the emptiness of worldly pleasures.

Cassian's point is that a monk's focus ought not be on achieving "greatness" at the practice of fasting (or meditating, or silence, or exercise, etc.). It also ought not be on finding ways to cheat oneself out of enjoying the long-term fruits of a spiritual commitment. Rather, Cassian encourages cultivating what he calls "discretion," or spiritual common sense. Fast when it's time to fast, feast when it's time to feast, and cut yourself some slack when you get those two mixed up from time to time. Virtue is found in the middle.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving this week, I hope you will feast. Two biscuits won't nearly be enough! When it comes to your prayer life, keep at it. Missing a day or two (or more) doesn't mean it's time to quit the journey. A healthy sense of discretion reminds us that God is always available to us, ready to meet us where we are.

Please feel free to reach out to me regarding your prayer experience, or with other questions you might have.

Take care,
Jason

[anger] Desert Prayers Email

Dear members of the Desert Prayers community,

Thank you for your participation in Desert Prayers. I hope that your prayer time has been fruitful, and that your relationship with God, neighbor, and self is continuing to deepen.

This week, anger has replaced pride has the most often reported "troubling thought" within the community. It is helpful to note that these thoughts commonly shift in frequency and type in our daily lives and prayers. When one particular thought occupies our minds it can be tempting to think that we "are" that thought, e.g., "I'm an angry person," or "I'm a sad person." Recognizing the shifts in thoughts helps us to remember that anger, sadness, pride, and the others are transitory. None of them determine our worth or our identity, rather, we are, and will always be, reflections of the divine image.

Regarding anger, the early Christian desert dwellers knew this thought as the "blinding passion," in that it obscures one's vision of reality, and of God's presence. In the Praktikos, Evagrius considers anger to be a natural gift, and helpful in one sense--that it motivates us against the troubling thoughts as they manifest in our personal lives and communities. However, anger can very easily get the better of us, and John Cassian, Evagrius's disciple, suggests that God is only capable of wielding the emotion to positive ends. So, when we find ourselves feeling angry, we need to tread carefully.

Personally, when struggling with anger, I have found it helpful to play with the "blindness" metaphor. There is a mountain biking loop at Boyle Park in central Little Rock that takes me about half an hour to complete. It weaves back and forth in maze-like fashion through a thick forest, leading me in and out of gulleys and around quick, banked corners. At the right time of day, the sun shines through the trees at an almost magical angle, the light filtering through the foliage into soft beams bringing a crystal clarity to the woods, making details pop. Given perspective by this newfound sight, whatever anger I had been carrying with me tends to dissolve. My blindness is cured, at least for a while, and decision-making becomes easier.

If anger is blinding you, go "see" something. Whether it's the natural beauty of a forest or paintings in an art museum, sight in one area of our lives can lead to sight where we might need it most. With practice, and with God's help, we can learn to see deeper into ourselves and our relationships, ultimately melting anger into compassion.

Please feel free to reach out to me regarding your prayer experience, or with other questions you might have.

Take care,
Jason

Christ and Entropy

I am currently remodeling my attic. And as a mere handy homeowner, this is a big deal for me. I don't have a professional background in carpentry, plumbing, or hanging drywall, but rather a rapidly growing respect for those who do. I have a builders' permit, though, so I (and certain others in my family) take comfort in the fact that someone with real know-how will eventually evaluate my work. In the mean time, I'm having fun with my power tools, and I'm motivated by the prospect of someday enjoying a tangible, finished product, not something I regularly get to see in the perpetual work of ministry.

One of the most challenging aspects of this particular attic remodel is that in my 100-year-old house nothing is level. I mean, nothing. In fact, I've noticed that the entire house tends to slant slightly on its north-south axis. This is something I try hard not to lose sleep over, by the way. So, even if I perfectly level all the new 2x4s I place, somewhere down the line things aren't going to be square. And this, as I have learned, is where one employs the fine art of shimming. I have a whole stack of shims precut to various thicknesses so that I can quickly fill the gaps between the old twisted beams and the new ones that I'm placing. I'm proud of my resourcefulness. I just hope it's up to code.

To use a scientific term, what I am encountering in this old house of mine, and being reminded of with literally every shim I place, is a phenomenon called entropy, or the second law of thermodynamics. To define entropy in a very simplified way: it is the nature of all things in the universe to move from an ordered state to one of disorder. A popular example of entropy is what happens went you pour creamer into a cup of coffee. When the coffee is in its mug and the creamer is in its prepackaged plastic container, you have order (And for those of us who appreciate black coffee, this is the correct order). But, when you open the creamer and pour it into the coffee, the two liquids swirl together and become something else entirely. This process is irreversible. You can't take the creamer out of the coffee. It's the same with houses. The second you hammer in the last nail, gravity, the weather, the entropic pull of the universe, begins to dis-order the order you have painstakingly constructed and 100 years later you end up with a crooked house.

I bring up houses and entropy this morning because I think they're at the heart of the the passage we just heard from Mark. No, Jesus does't specifically mention the second law of thermodynamics, but he has a lot to say about the a particular house of worship and disorder. As Jesus and his disciples exit the temple, one of the twelve comments on how large and strong the building is. The temple in Jerusalem is not just any structure, by the way. To the disciples, faithful Jews that they were, it marked the actual physical location of God on earth. It was the Holy of Holies, a place "out of time," so to speak, linking earth with the eternity of heaven. So, to hear Jesus predict the temple's destruction must have been quite an emotional blow. And he didn't stop there. Expect false prophets, he warns. Expect wars and rumors of wars. Nation will rise against nation. The very earth will shake and its inhabitants will go hungry. Quite a blow, indeed.

Scholars believe that book of Mark was composed around the year 70, either shortly before or shortly after the siege of Jerusalem and the actual historical destruction of the temple. So the early hearers of this passage were witnessing order turn to disorder in real time. The physical foundation of the Jewish faith had literally crumbled. The fledgling Christian communities fared no better, suffering persecution at the hands of ruthless Roman emperors. Jesus' disturbing predictions rang true.

There are a number of ways to think about all of this troubling apocalyptic language. You've seen the movies or read the books about being "left behind." You may even come from a religious tradition where the impending "end of days" was a source of anxiety and spiritual motivation to convert others, but I'd like to suggest another way we might understand Jesus' words. The events he describes, as troubling as they may be in the context of the Gospel, are actually quite commonplace. You and I have witnessed earthquakes. Famine is currently a real issue in certain parts of the world--even in this country. Nations rise against nations all the time; war is practically ubiquitous. Jesus doesn't mention a global pandemic, but it feels like what we've experienced these past couple of years deserves a place in his apocalyptic litany. In Mark Chapter 13, Jesus is describing the way things are in this world. When his disciple looks at the temple and comments on its stability and timelessness, Jesus reminds him that even this will pass away. Order naturally moves to disorder--entropy.

Entropy is not easy for us mortals. It means wrinkles and gray hair. It means replacing HVAC units and patching leaky roofs. It means experiencing the pain of grief when we lose someone or something precious to us. It means having to look for a new rector from time to time. It means learning the art of shimming.

But, if entropy has got you down today, you're in the right place. This religious tradition that you and I are a part of is not about "getting back to the way things were," as if there were some holy snapshot before all the wars and famines and pandemics that we are meant to recover. In fact, the very essence of Christianity is change. Jesus delights in finding the lost, in lifting up the lowly, in making all things new--not in fortifying the status quo. Every Sunday we celebrate the amazing mystery of transformation that takes place on the Holy Table. Right before our eyes, God's presence becomes known in the breaking of the bread. This is the good news. The very thing that seems to challenge us most--change, disorder, upheaval--is Jesus' area of expertise. "Do not be alarmed," he says, "these things must take place."

I love my crooked house. It may mean using some creative carpentry in my attic project, but it's also a reminder of all the change it has witnessed in the past century. World wars, economic depression, the struggle for civil rights--it's seen an apocalypse or two. Much was lost, and yet much was found. Christ was surely in the midst of it all, giving hope to the lonely, the bereaved, and the desperate, converting hearts and minds to see something holy born from the chaos. And Christ's transformative work continues today. Right now, in this place, things are being made new.

The Rev. Canon Jason Alexander
Holy Trinity, Hot Springs Village | November 14, 2021
Proper 28, Year B
audio

[pride] Desert Prayers Email

Dear members of the Desert Prayers community,

Thank you for your interest and participation in Desert Prayers. I hope that your prayer time has been fruitful, and that your relationship with God, neighbor, and self is continuing to deepen. As we move through the seasons of Advent and Christmas, preparing for and welcoming God’s presence among us, I will email weekly notes on the thoughts that we have reported commonly experiencing—shared stumbling blocks along our spiritual path.

The most often reported thought this week is pride. This is not necessarily surprising, as pride is traditionally considered to be the root of the eight thoughts. On the surface, pride is associated with self-confidence, self-reliance, self-control, self-assuredness--a lot of "self" related qualities. These are admirable traits, generally speaking, but pride becomes a stumbling block when "self" becomes "self-ish," and we forget that real strength comes not from us but from God.

I am reminded of the passage in Matthew when Jesus stills the storm. The disciples and Jesus were in a boat when a windstorm arose. The disciples, fearing being swamped, were panicked. They had no capacity to save themselves, as the raging winds and rising waters were far beyond their power to control. Their impulse was to imagine the worst. Jesus, who had been sleeping as the storm grew, awoke to find his disciples at their wit's end. "Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm." And the disciples were amazed.

As the disciples learned, pride will only get us so far. There will inevitably be times when we find our capacity to save ourselves or others lacking, and it's easy to panic. When our default coping strategy of self-reliance fails us, where do we turn? Like the disciples did that day at sea, we often forget that Jesus, our true strength, is always with us. Over-reliance on ourselves can lead to patterns of worry and anxiety in our lives. The more we learn to recognize the presence of God, and God's amazing and limitless capacity to handle those things that we can't, we will begin to meet crises with calm rather than chaos.

The desert father, Evagrius, notes that confronting pride leads to the cultivation of prudence, understanding, and wisdom in the soul. Coming to terms with our personal limits helps us to make better decisions and to be a clearer source of Christ’s calm for others.

Please feel free to reach out to me regarding your prayer experience, or with other questions you might have.

Take care,
Jason

Hear, O Israel

Last week a good friend of mine returned from a camping trip with quite the story to tell. This is an annual trip he takes with two brothers who have been his friends since childhood--a journey that has become a ritual of sorts. The three of them turn off their cell phones, setting work and family responsibilities aside for the weekend, and trek deep into the Tennessee woods with only campfires and conversations to keep them company. The brothers are twins, but despite their identical genes, they couldn't be more different from one another. One tends to be quiet, measured, and pensive. The other is vocal and passionate, particularly when it comes to religious and political issues. And their opinions on these issues clash dramatically. My friend and the first brother tend to align themselves with a fairly progressive set of values while the second, more outspoken brother stands alone in his evangelically-based conservative views.

Given the rise in political fervor over the past several years and the stresses of the pandemic, it came as no surprise to my friend that tensions ran a little hot during their excursion. The rest and relaxation he had nevertheless hoped for didn't materialize. Instead, the three old friends fought like crazy the whole time. They'd rise in the morning with the sun, crawl out of their tents and gather 'round the fire, cowboy coffee in hand, and within five minutes they'd be in full combat mode, lobbing explicative-laden zingers back and forth about masking, vaccinations, presidents, personal freedoms, and all manner of explosive topics. Now, I'm getting this account of the trip from my friend, who holds the progressive views, but I'd be willing to bet that the conservative brother's tale to his friends back home would sound much the same: "He just wouldn't relent! I was being as clear as I could, but it was like he couldn't hear a word I was saying."

If you take a look at the passages in Mark's gospel that immediately precede today's lesson, you'll find a similar theme. Jesus and the authorities are famously sparring. First it's about the power of prophets, then its about who pays taxes to whom, and next, they try and outdo one another in interpreting the details of the resurrection. Finally, after several exhausting rounds, a scribe asks Jesus which is the first commandment, and Jesus replies, "love." "Love God with all your heart and soul." Then he adds, "and love your neighbor as yourself." The scribe, of course, agrees with Jesus's answer as it is a version of the Shema, a highly revered and oft repeated prayer in the Jewish tradition. Interestingly, the Hebrew word "shema," which begins the prayer, means "listen," or "hear." "Sh'ma Yis-ra-eil," or "Hear, O Israel." It's a command from God to pause, put everything aside for a moment, and not only to acknowledge, but embrace the truth that follows: everything begins and ends with love. "After that," concludes the passage, "no one dared to ask him any question."

It's a deceptively simple concept, this love business. We say words about it every Sunday, conservatives and progressives alike, and yet we don't seem to actually hear those words. And the reason is, I think--and we all know this at a gut level--is that love is really hard. It's easier to take cover in our trenches with our like-minded friends and toss insults and "gotchas" back and forth. And we think that if we just keep at it the other side will eventually acknowledge our righteousness and we can go on doing and believing whatever we want, because we will have won. Now, I'm not arguing for relativism here. It's not that everybody's right. Far from it, but everybody's not wrong either. Rather, the truth emerges when we begin to see one another not as adversaries but as neighbors--when we talk, when we listen, when we hear. Love demands that we exercise the higher functions of our humanity, such as compassion, empathy, flexibility, and reflectivity. Cultivating these qualities takes effort, yet it's something we're all capable of. In fact, having been created in the image of God, it's what we're all made for.

Back in the Tennessee woods, my friend's story ended up being a hopeful one. After two solid days of conflict, my friend considered packing up and leaving the trip that night. He didn't think the brothers would blame him. After all, pretense had burned up in the campfire long ago, and everyone was raw. But he decided to stick it out to the morning. "All this argumentative energy must be worth something," he thought. "Surely, after having endured for nearly forty years, this friendship deserves more than a cold shoulder."

On the morning of the third day, when they gathered 'round the fire for a final breakfast together, everyone was uncannily calm. And then the more quiet of the two brothers broke the silence. "It's clear that we can't agree on much," he said with a gentle laugh, "but can we agree that it's important to love one another? Can we start there? Can that be our common ground?" The mood seemed to change instantly, as if the forest around them had suddenly taken a great, cleansing breath. My friend and the other brother nodded in ascent, finally having heard something neither could refute. And then they enjoyed their coffee.

You see, it's not that the three friends suddenly saw eye to eye, but they remembered that they were neighbors, and that changed everything.

The Rev. Canon Jason Alexander
St. John's, Helena | October 31, 2021
Proper 26, Year B
audio

The Kids Get It

My wife, Kate, is currently teaching a course at Hendrix College. Her day job, though, as many of you know, is serving as a priest at Christ Church in Little Rock. She also has an academic background in theology and likes to stay current. Traveling back and forth to Conway a couple times a week has meant some busy days for her this fall, but on the upside, she brings home fascinating insights into a generation of young adults that tends to be absent from our churches. The course is entitled, "Gender, Sexuality, and Religion," and these 18 to 21 year-olds have a lot to say about the topic. While Kate is able to introduce a historical framework for the lengthy and varied conversation about sexual ethics in the Church, the students often teach her a great deal about how the conversation around sexuality is rapidly changing today, including how sexuality and gender is personally expressed. Her students identify as being any combination of gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, nonbinary, and others. Use of the correct pronouns is important--every effort is made to honor and respect one another for who they are and for whom an how they love. Kate reports that their honesty and vulnerability are inspiring. This gives me hope.

What gives me pause, though, doesn’t have to do with sexuality and gender, but rather with how the students characterize their generation. During a recent class, they apparently had a rousing conversation about their age group in relation to that of their parents and grandparents. There are a couple of names out there for the current generation of college-age students, by the way. Most commonly, you might hear them referred to as Generation Z or GenZ. Millennials are next, followed by GenXers--my generation--and then Baby Boomers, The Silent Generation, The Greatest Generation, and on up. The overwhelming sentiment among GenZs--at least the ones taking Kate's class--is one of anxiety. They report having no expectation of "climbing the career ladder," as the proceeding generations did. The ability to finance and own a home in their 20's or 30's isn't a given. They don't expect to build a 401K or receive Social Security when they retire. They anticipate making less money than their parents, and they know that they’ll be the ones to deal with climate change in the years to come. I’ll admit, my own anxiety goes up when considering the challenges these kids face, particularly since my own children are just slightly younger members of GenZ. I realize that every one of us has real anxieties regardless of our age, but these particular worries seem unique in a country where the American Dream seemed to be alive and well just a few short decades ago. I wonder, might this younger generation reveal the gospel to us in a way we might otherwise miss given our way of thinking about the world?

You've got to love the disciples. They never seem to quite "get it," and Jesus' frustration shows every now and then. I don't blame him. Over the past few Sundays we've heard Jesus' wisdom on some difficult topics. "If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out," he says. Know your temptations and take action to curb them. And, "It's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." The desire for money and power inhibit a meaningful relationship with the divine. And in today's passage, it is as if James and John had been drifting in and out of sleep during their teacher's lessons. "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory," they ask. Or, in modern parlance: "Since we've been such loyal companions in your rise to power, surely we deserve a place in your cabinet when you become president. James could be your secretary of state and I could be your chief of staff." You can imagine Jesus taking a deep breath to calm himself. "Alright, let's see if I can make this really clear. Here’s the way it works: Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

For those of us who have grown up in the church, we've heard Jesus proclaim the "great reversal" countless times--the first shall be last and the last shall be first. But how often have we paused to consider just how irreconcilable this core Christian tenant is with modern societal values? It can be a bit jarring, really, when you think about it. We've been steeped in the sentiment--our generations in particular--that if we work hard, if we put in the time, we will ultimately get a pay-off, be that a good job with prospects of upward mobility, or a house, or a 401K, or, at minimum, clean air to breathe and clean water to drink. Now, I'm not saying that hard work is not important. Sure it is, and I pray that every member of every generation comes to know the satisfaction of a sweaty brow. The trouble comes--the temptation is--when we begin to think that we deserve something because of our efforts, like, say, a place of honor in the president's cabinet.

Over the past century we have lived in a society--many of us in a social class--that has more or less validated the thinking that work equals reward. It's what the American Dream is all about. But things are changing. The gap between the rich and the poor is expanding rapidly. The middle class is dissolving. And now we're to the point where college students, of all people, no longer have confidence in the work-reward model that their parents and grandparents did. What you and I might have considered a promise, they've come to regard as a myth.

I want to suggest a way that you and I might hear today's gospel. Could it be that, given these societal changes, the members of GenZ aren't preoccupied with the same particular temptation that James or John, or you or I might struggle with? They don't expect a position in the cabinet, no matter how hard they might work. They can’t bank on the American Dream as a means of measuring their personal worth or societal value. Instead, I wonder if the members of GenZ have recognized another way to determine that they’ve “made it” in the world. One that does’t have to do with status or wealth at all, but rather with love. They may not expect to get a raise every time they take new job, but what they do expect is the freedom to love--to love themselves and to love one another. They want that love to cross racial, sexual, and economic boundaries. They're passionate about it. They insist on mutual respect and tolerance in every aspect of life. In this world of anxiety and uncertainty were pensions and promotions are a myth, they've found love as their promise, and their hope. And isn’t this what Jesus was after all along? Isn’t this what he hoped his disciples would “get?"

As a GenXer raised on the idea that work results in reward, and as a beneficiary of the economic and social trends of the past century, I am humbled to recognize that my preoccupation with "getting what I think I deserve" may have obscured the gospel work that Jesus teaches about. I'm grateful to this younger, love-led, generation for revealing the Good News in a new way. It's a gift, really. I have value. We have value. And it has nothing to do with bank accounts or career prospects. Rather, it has everything to do with love. God loves us beyond any worldly measure, and, if we're to "get it," as the disciples clearly did not, then we'd do well to take a cue from our kids.

The Rev. Canon Jason Alexander
Trinity, Pine Bluff | October 17, 2021
Proper 24, Year B
audio

A Pastrami on Rye and the Bread of Life

Jon Reiner, a middle-aged father, husband, and long-time sufferer of Crohn’s disease, thought he was on the mend. He hadn’t had any tell-tale abdominal pain in over a year and his doctors were cautiously optimistic that his remission would continue. Until one fateful morning, just as he was about to sit down for breakfast, he doubled over in pain knowing instantly that something was seriously wrong. He went to the hospital and the doctors confirmed that Jon’s bowel had indeed ruptured, a life-threatening condition.

After touch-and-go, emergency surgery the doctors did prevail. Jon was stable, but far from out of the woods. Due to a high risk of infection had they done more, the repairs the surgeons made were only partial. Jon would have to let his digestive system rest in order for it to heal on its own.

And this is where our brave patient’s journey begins in earnest. Armed with a hopeful attitude and wisdom from dealing with similar, though less severe, complications of his disease in the past, Jon played with the cards he had been dealt. He was handed a backpack which contained a food pump that would essentially feed him intravenously while his gut healed, though no one was sure how long that might take. But no matter, Jon was assured that the pump would deliver all the nutrients he needed to live. He could go back to work and do everything he normally would--except eat regular food.

And the plan worked. At dinner time Jon sat on the couch and fired up the food pump while his wife and kids ate real food at the dinner table. And since his body was getting what it needed, he didn’t actually feel hungry--at least for the first couple of weeks. But then something strange began to happen. Although Jon was not actually starving, he began to crave food. During his time on the couch with his food pump companion he would conjure up his greatest food memories, one in particular of an unbelievable pastrami sandwich from a Jewish deli he had frequented. He would go online and search restaurant menus and fantasize about actually being able to ingest something.

After a couple of months it got to the point where he just couldn’t take it any longer. He had to do something. So he got it in his mind that if he could just walk to this one particular restaurant he loved and look into the window upon the diners enjoying their food, he might be calmed by some vicarious culinary experience. He took his walk only to discover that the restaurant had closed--no one inside enjoying a meal, instead only dust and plastic covering the walls and floor from a renovation. In Jon’s condition this was a tragedy, and he set out blindly in desperation, wandering the neighborhood streets searching for something, he knew not what, to ease his pain.

As dusk set in Jon caught sight of a smoking grill in someone’s backyard. Pork chops, he thought. The gate was open and no one was around, so Jon, in his exhausted, delirious state, took it upon himself to finish cooking this person’s meal. He opened the lid, flipped the chops, decided four minutes more and they’d be perfect. As he started the countdown in his head, the backdoor opened and a man in an apron, cocktail in hand, and a surprised look on his face stepped out. They looked at each other for a minute and Jon said the only thing he could: “I think they’re about done,” and he turned around to go home, back to the food pump that would deliver all the nutrition he would ever need to live.

We’ll get back to Jon in a minute, and rest assured, things do get better for the poor guy. But I do want to talk about the Gospel.

Food, glorious food. That’s what the people want. Over the past couple of weeks we have heard of Jesus’ miraculous feeding of thousands of people with fives loaves of bread and two fish, and we’ve seen the crowds track Jesus down still hungry and wanting more. They chased him and his disciples across the sea to Capernaum. And Jesus rebukes them (and you can hear the frustration in his voice), “you’re following me because you ate your fill and you want more food, not because you saw signs--not because you saw the deeper message I have to offer. Do not work for the food that parishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which I, the Son of Man, can give you.” And today we hear Jesus teaching the same message in the synagogue, and still frustration and confusion is the reaction from his listeners.

Admittedly Jesus’ plea is a little ambiguous. Neither the crowd nor the disciples really get it. Food is food, right? Moses gave manna from heaven to eat, Jesus gave bread and fish--all the nutrition anyone would ever need to live, right? Wrong. Jesus is talking about something more here. He’s asking us to believe in a possibility--the possibility that an encounter with him, “the way, and the truth, and the life,” is essential to our existence. Jesus desires not only that we think about him but that we feed on him, find food for our souls in him, implying that we could starve to death without him.

After Jon Reiner’s ill-fated evening stroll, he got sick again. His stomach was bothering him and the food pump was literally driving him crazy, so he found himself back in the doctor’s office. Same story: too great a risk of infection for another full-blown operation, he’s let his gut rest for awhile now, the food pump has been working and yet he’s still getting sick. The only thing left to do, the doctors say, is to try and eat something and see what happens. So Jon sets his food pump aside and gives it a shot. For the first few days things seem to go down well, but he can’t seem to taste anything. Turns out your tastebuds can get a little out of practice if they’re not used regularly. Well, one day Jon decides to go for broke, and he returns to his favorite Jewish deli and orders a pastrami on rye. And he concentrates hard on tasting this thing. And sure enough, after a couple of bites he begins to taste some of the salt in the meat, then the caraway seed in the rye. And all at once, he’s back. And the turns to the guy next to him and he says, “this is the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten!” to which the guy replies, “you think that’s good, you should try the meatloaf!”

I hear Jon Reiner’s tale as a Eucharistic experience. He’s a man who had easy access to all the nutrition he ever would need to live, and yet he was starving. And when he was finally able to take a bite of, and taste that pastrami sandwich a whole new world opened up to him--a life worth living again. And this is what Jesus offers us--the food we need not simply to live, but to thrive. As George Herbert famously puts it, God offers us an invitation: “‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’” Jesus insists that we find the true bread in him, in the Body of Christ--that is, in our encounters with one another, in our conversations, in our shared experiences, in breaking bread and passing the cup. And in eating our fill of this bounty we find relief from starvation and discover salvation.

The Rev. Canon Jason Alexander
St. Luke's, Hot Springs | August 22, 2021
Proper 16, Year B
audio

References

Reiner, Jon. The Man Who Couldn’t Eat: A Memoir. 1st Gallery Books hardcover ed. New York: Gallery Books, 2011.

Abumrad, Jad. “Gutless.” Radiolab. Accessed April 2, 2012. https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/segments/197243-gutless.

Three Friends and the Desert

There were once three Christian friends who had reputations for working hard at whatever it was they put their minds to. They all took seriously the call of the Gospel to live a charitable life, and each chose to express this call in their own way. The first friend became a peacemaker, striving to mediate disputes and encourage the mending of fractured relationships. The second friend chose to become a physician, laboring to care for and heal the sick and infirm. The third friend left the noise and frenetic activity of the city altogether, and made a home in the desert to focus on quiet prayer and stillness. After a number of years, the first friend became weary, burdened by the endless cycle of violence and vengeance that plagued the world. The peacemaker, then, sought out the healer, who also was overwhelmed by the extent of world’s brokenness. No matter how many people were healed, many more became sick. Both friends felt that their pursuits, however noble and charitable, had been in vain. So, the two friends went to the desert to visit the third, seeking guidance, begging for an answer to their struggles. The three friends sat together in silence for a time, then the desert dweller poured water into a bowl and asked them to look at the water. The water danced back and forth in the bowl, splashing against the sides, rippling and swirling. They sat awhile longer. Then the third friend said, “Look how still the water is now.” When they looked down again they saw their own faces. The water had become a mirror. The desert dweller said to the peacemaker and the healer: “It’s that way for someone who lives among human beings. The agitations, the shake-ups, block one from seeing one’s faults; but once one becomes quiet, still, especially in the desert, then one sees one’s failings” (Harmless vii).

This story is believed to have circulated widely in fourth-century Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Arabia among a unique group of Christians known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Like the third friend in the story, these desert Christians responded to the Gospel by leaving the conveniences and distractions of mainstream society behind in order to better know themselves and God. St. Antony, one of the first and best known Desert Christians, credits Matthew's account of Jesus's charge to the rich young man to "sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor" for his decision to move to the desert. It sounds extreme to modern ears, and it is. It was extreme back in the fourth century as well. And yet, there is wisdom here.

The story about the three friends has something important to say to us today. You and I would most likely identify with the peacemaker or the healer. We are followers of Christ who have chosen to express our faith by doing charitable work in the world, whatever our vocation may be. Instead of identifying with the bit about selling our possessions, we tend to find inspiration from Jesus's words about caring for the least, the lonely, and the lost. But, what happens if--well, when--when we become overwhelmed by the endless work there is to do? Like the peacemaker and the healer discovered, the world's plights are inexhaustible. Even Jesus reminds us that we will always have the poor with us--a truth that goes against the grain of our can-do, fix-it attitude. The Christian tradition tells us that there is also great value in practicing stillness and solitude. Not that it trumps an active life of ministry, rather it compliments the work we do in the world. We can labor for peace. We can care for the sick. But we must also sit for awhile.

In today's passage from Mark, we find Jesus and his disciples fully engaged in an active, worldly ministry. They had been sent in twos, casting out unclean spirits, anointing with oil, and healing the sick. They gather around Jesus to give a report of their travels, and he says to them, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile." It's important to recognize that Jesus isn't talking about our modern concept of rest and relaxation here. He's not encouraging the disciples to go to a movie or take the kids to Disneyland--nothing that would fill the space in their lives that is freed up by resting from worldly ministry. The space--the emptiness--is, in fact, exactly what Jesus is hoping his disciples will discover. It's also notable that the Greek word Jesus uses for "deserted place" is the same word we find translated as "wilderness" in Mark's Gospel: "A voice shouting in the wilderness," or "He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by satan." A "deserted place," or "the wilderness" is where God's people go to encounter God.

If you have ever tried to simply be quiet for awhile you know just how illusive that emptiness can be. Perhaps you've tried a spiritual practice like centering prayer or other forms of meditation. You know that as soon as you try to quiet your mind you are inundated with innumerable thoughts. Often the thoughts are random and harmless, and at other times they are powerful--even troubling. We may be surprised to find that we are angry or sad. We may discover that we are craving something--attention, recognition, or maybe a quick glance at our phones, or another cup of coffee. This is what the story I began with is getting at. When we first stop, our minds are like that newly poured bowl of water, splashing about like waves on a stormy sea. But if we sit awhile, the water settles and we can begin to see our reflection emerge in the stillness. We can recognize patterns in the chatter of our minds and get better at letting the unhelpful thoughts go. And, eventually, within the emptiness that we have uncovered we discover God. The one within whom we live and move and have our being.

How long has it been since you have "come away" to a deserted place all by yourselves, a place where there truly are no distractions? No COVID statistics to pull up on your phone. No Netflix shows to binge. No Amazon.com carts to fill with items you don't need. No thoughts, even, to think. Nothing. Only stillness. Only quiet. Only emptiness. Only God. Jesus commended this practice to his early disciples, and he commends it to us as well. But I have to warn you. When you choose to put aside all the enticing distractions our minds delight in, God begins to work on us in surprising new ways, and what emerges is love--love for others whom we may have been avoiding but need to reconnect with, renewed love for the Gospel work we do in the world, and even love for ourselves--awareness of our faults, and then forgiveness. All it takes is a prayer cushion, a chair, even a pew. The desert awaits.

The Rev. Canon Jason Alexander
St. Paul's, Newport | July 18, 2021
Proper 11, Year B
audio

References

Harmless, William. Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Kingdom Eyes

Last week my son, Luke, ranked up in his martial arts class. It was a big deal. He's been a student of Coung Nhu for seven years--he's 14 now--and by passing this latest test, he has graduated into the more advanced classes with the adults. Coung Nhu is a branch of karate that combines both quick, explosive movement with a softer, more contemplative, flowing style similar to Tai Chi. Luke did a fantastic job during the test. I usually see him at home behind a computer monitor playing video games or doing schoolwork, so to watch him move through his Coung Nhu routines with such confidence, precision, and skill was really impressive. Passing this test gained him a brown stripe for his green belt. This transition is kind of analogous to confirmation in the church--he has made the choice for himself to commit to the practice of Coung Nhu. It's no longer my job to make him go to class. He has his own faith, if you will, in the practice. He sees its benefits--the fruits of seven years of consistency--and he wants to go deeper. I'm a proud dad.

At the end of the test, the sensei awarded new ranks to the students in a familiar liturgical format. He had them kneel and stretch out their hands to receive the stripe that they would later sew onto their belts--"You can't let your parents do it for you!" he cautioned. "It's time for you to learn to sew." The sensei then gave a brief "homily" of sorts, encouraging the students in the philosophy of the Coung Nhu style. There was one part in particular that really caught my attention, and that was his description of the meaning behind the colors of the belts and stripes that designate rank.

The white belt, which is the beginner rank, represents a seed that you would sew into fertile soil. The seed contains unrealized, unorganized energy with powerful potential to grow and bear fruit, but first it needs to be cared for--watered and protected--so that it might take root. The green belt, which follows the white, represents a sapling, still fragile and in need of care, this is a formative time during which the roots sink deeper and a sturdy foundation is established for the brown belt, or the bark that begins to form on the outside of the tree. Stability and strength characterize this stage. The tree shifts from needing to be protected to being a protector--a contributing member of the forest, adding stability to the community. And finally, the black belt represents the shade that a mature tree casts in order to nurture the growth of others. Black belt status is not so much about personal achievement as it is about a role of responsibility in the community.

As I sat on the dojo mat listening to the sensei's words, I couldn't help but hear a parallel with the parable of the mustard seed in today's passage from Mark. You probably hear it too. "A mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all the shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade." Jesus compares this natural, yet wondrous, process of growth to the kingdom of God. One interpretation of this parable would be to associate the growth of the mustard seed with our own growth as we become more aware of the presence of God in our lives. And from this perspective we can begin to see that a seed is more than just a seed.

Now, I'm not proposing that we start granting ranks and wearing belts to demarcate the various stages of spiritual growth within the Christian community (although, sometimes I think that would be a fun experiment). Our tradition has long cautioned against focusing on achievement in the spiritual life. It's unproductive to continually wonder "What stage am I in?" or "How far have I progressed?" Spirituality is not so much quantitative as it is qualitative. There are no tests to pass or sensei's to impress. Rather, the spiritual life, as Thomas Merton puts it, is about "discovering what we already have ... Everything has been given to us in Christ. All we need is to experience what we already possess" (53). A luxuriant shrub with large branches that birds can nest in is simply the full expression of the tiny mustard seed. Just as a stable, compassionate, and generative Christian, beloved by God, is the full expression of any one of us.

I once had the great fortune to spend a week at Plum Village. It's a Buddhist monastery in France established by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk with a gift for inter-religious dialogue. He wrote a book, Living Buddha, Living Christ, which has opened many minds to the compatibility of these two faiths. I will never forget one afternoon when I encountered a monk in the kitchen. He had a big, mischievous smile on his face, and he walked over to me, held out his hand, and said, in broken English, "what are these?" He was pointing to what looked like seeds, and so I said as much. And he laughed this big, jovial laugh as if he had just landed the greatest joke in the world. Of course, I was clueless. So, he moved in closer and pointed to the seeds again. No, "these aren't seeds," he said. "They're a lot of hard work." And with that, he walked away.

I admit, it took me awhile to figure out what this crazy monk was talking about, but I eventually realized he was trying to get me expand my vision. Just as Paul asks us to no longer regard anyone from a "human point of view," but rather to see them as if they are "in Christ," this monk wanted me to look beyond the seeds to see the mixture of water and soil nutrients that encourage them to sprout, to the sun that shines down to nurture the stalk and the head, to the hours of faithful human labor spent harvesting the grain, to the artisans who transform the grain into the food that nourishes the bodies of the members of the community. Indeed, these were no mere seeds.

The same is true for you and me. Jesus's parable of the mustard seed is his way of encouraging us to expand our vision. He wants us to see through "kingdom eyes," if you will, which are capable of revealing one another's true value. If you look deeply at a new Coung Nhu student wearing a clean, crisp white belt, and peer beyond their shiny, untried exterior, you'll see the parents, or friends who encouraged them to take a risk and try it on. You'll see years of training--of failures and successes--of heartbreak and joy. You'll see fellow students and senseis--companions and teachers giving their all. And if you look hard enough, you'll see a strong, solid tree capable of withstanding the most powerful winds, with a heart to shelter the least of those among us.

Imagine if we began to see one another with "kingdom eyes," no longer categorizing or judging based on a lack of this or a surplus of that. Imagine if we saw one another, all in an instant, as full expressions of God's creation. "So if anyone is in Christ," says Paul, "there is a new creation." White belts. Black belts. Same thing. Seeds. Trees. Equal value. You. Me. Beloved and loving. "See, everything has become new!"

The Rev. Canon Jason Alexander
Trinity, Pine Bluff and St. Mary's Monticello | June 13, 2021
Proper 6, Year B
audio

References

Laird, M. S. Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

You Are Kin to Me

There is a priest in this diocese who was once a regular on the supply circuit, and I could always count on him to get along well with the members of whatever congregation he was serving. Whenever I would call him up and ask him to preside at Sunday services in Stuttgart, Helena, Marianna, or any number of congregations across the diocese, his response was almost always something like, "Sure! I'd love to. It'll be good to see them. You know, they're all my kin." And he wasn't lying. When I visit these congregations I will inevitably get pulled aside and asked how this particular priest is doing, because, "you know, he's my cousin." And when I ask about how, exactly, they're related, I'll get some drawn out--kind of fuzzy--explanation of the family tree. What I've learned, though, is that those specifics don't really matter. It's simply the fact that they're "kin" to one another that sets their relationship apart. Because of this kinship, they care for one another in a certain way, or more specifically, they have a responsibility to care for one another. And they live that responsibility out by asking me, a mutual acquaintance, how their kin is doing. It's also a way for them to connect with me. If I'm friends with their kin then that makes us kin too, in a way, right?

It's kind of like the "who-do-you-know" game we all play when we first meet someone. "Oh, you're from Conway? Well, you know I went to Hendrix. You did too? And you also lived in Hardin Hall? Did you ever have Dr. Farthing for Latin? Remember how he would always hold his glasses like this when he was trying to make a point?" You know how the conversation goes. And after a few minutes swapping stories, your "level of kinship" has increased. If you liked Dr. Farthing and I liked Dr. Farthing (maybe Latin not so much), then that says something about who we are, as people. And now, our responsibility to one another has increased by way of this proxy relationship. When I see you in the parking lot, I owe you a handshake or a fist bump, or at least a nod, because you mean something to me now. We're "kin," in a way.

A story about kinship is what we get in today's lesson from Mark. After Jesus characteristically spars with the scribes a bit, members of the gathered crowd tell Jesus that his mother, brothers, and sisters are looking for him. "Who are my mother and my brothers?" Jesus famously replies. "And looking at those who sat around him, he said, 'Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." Thus, the true kindred of Jesus are not defined as such biologically, but rather spiritually. This was actually a pretty bold idea. The Bible is rife with genealogies. The foundation of the Jewish culture was largely build upon blood relationships. Families had ties to specific tribes in Israel, and loyalty and obedience to that lineage was essential to maintain social order.

This is actually one of the sayings of Jesus that has maintained its emotional impact through time. Hereditary connection is still important in our society today. Who we are kin to matters.

My dad is a genealogy buff and is always emailing newfound information about distant family ties. Last Christmas he gifted my two sisters and me Ancestry.com subscriptions accompanied by those saliva collection cotton swabs so you can sample your DNA and mail it off for evaluation. If you're lucky, the results might reveal a long lost relative or two. A couple of years ago he thought he had determined that we were a "Mayflower Family," that is, some of our ancestors arrived in America on the Mayflower in 1620. But after some more digging--and disappointment--he's not so sure anymore. Interesting? Yes. Relevant? I don't know. I do think that the excitement we tend to experience about possibly being part of a famous ancestral line does reveal something about human nature. Our mythology is practically based on the unassuming-commoner-discovers-royal-heritage trope. Think King Arthur and the Sword in the Stone, or more recently, the young adult Percy Jackson novels. For that matter, even the authors of the gospels go out of their way to tie Jesus to King David, legitimizing his place of importance within the Jewish culture.

So, Jesus's seemingly dismissive words about his mother, brothers, and sisters unsettle us just as much as they did those in the crowd that day. But the key to understanding here involves turning the story around a bit so as to see it from another angle. Jesus isn't disowning his blood relatives at all, rather he is asking the crowd (he's asking us) to imagine that our blood relatives are one another--everyone here gathered in his name. Jesus is asking us to apply this same love, attention, and loyalty to those relationships as we would any that turn up after a DNA swab.

The implications of this perspective are truly mind-boggling, particularly in the context of today's divisive social climate. When a relative is in pain we respond. We attend to their needs. If we are at odds with a relative we try to reconcile, as difficult as it may be. Sometimes this means making an effort to change our own behavior. Failing to care for these relationships ultimately causes us pain--any psychologist will tell you as much. Now, extend that same sense of responsibility across racial, socio-economic, and political borders. If we actually did that, we'd have a changed world.

Jesus's words in today's gospel are so emotionally striking not because he is dismissive of family, but because he's asking us to expand our family, and that means redefining kinship as we know it. Like those parishioners in Marianna, Stuttgart, and Helena, I doubt that Jesus is all that interested in the specifics of family trees or what a search on Ancestry.com might turn up. It's enough simply to know that we are "kin."

I grew up in a Presbyterian church, and I'm reminded of a tradition our congregation had. After the pastor said the blessing at the end of the service, we would join hands across the isle with our nearest neighbor--blood relative or not--and sing the first verse of a hymn: "Blest be the tie that binds / Our hearts in Christian love; / The fellowship of kindred minds / Is like to that above."

The Rev. Canon Jason Alexander
St. Nicholas', Maumelle | June 6, 2021
Proper 5, Year B
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