24 February 2018

Let the Lower Lights be Shining

One of my friend's writes personal essays. Today he titled his 'When the roll is called up yonder, or queer confessions of an ex-evangelical'.

Even before I read his essay the song When the Roll is Called Up Yonder started playing in my head and rapidly turned into an earworm. I had to open my Johnny Cash gospel playlist to dislodge it while I was working.

The song that next caught my ear was his rendition of Let the Lower Lights be Shining by P. P. Bliss.

1 Brightly beams our Father’s mercy
From His lighthouse evermore,
But to us He gives the keeping
Of the lights along the shore.

Let the lower lights be burning!
Send a gleam across the wave!
Some poor fainting, struggling seaman
You may rescue, you may save.

2 Dark the night of sin has settled,
Loud the angry billows roar;
Eager eyes are watching, longing,
For the lights along the shore.

3 Trim your feeble lamp, my brother;
Some poor sailor, tempest-tossed,
Trying now to make the harbor,
In the darkness may be lost.

I loved the image of God's powerful steady light shining on us while still expecting us to shine our own, much smaller lights, out into the world.

This got me thinking about one of the bible passages that I have always had a hard time with, the parable of the ten bridesmaids:

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ and while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
~Matthew 25:1-13

This passage has always seemed fundamentally unfair to me. It is the delay of the bridegroom that causes the so-called foolish bridesmaids to lose their chance to come to the banquet.

Maybe this is because I see myself, not as one of the wise bridesmaids, or as the bridegroom, but as one of the foolish bridesmaids. I am, perhaps, organized enough to show up for the wedding and I might be able to afford enough lamp oil to last until midnight, but maybe not.

I understand why the so-called wise bridesmaids might not share their oil. It makes sense to take what they do have and make it last as long as possible, but there is no reason in the story why the wise could not have paired up with the foolish. After all, the arms of the wise might have gotten tired holding the lantern all night. If they paired up with the foolish, they could take turns and not have sore arms the next day.

If we are commanded to be prepared to go with Jesus even though we know not the day or the hour, it seems to me that it is also our duty to reach out with the little bit of light we do have to help our fellow mortals find their way back to shore in safety to and into the the house of the bridegroom in joy.

In the gospel for Friday. We see Jesus calling Levi the tax collector. He doesn't just call Levi he pulls him away from his work in the tax booth. Like the other disciples before him, Levi walks away from his work to feast with Jesus.

Unlike the bridesmaids of the parable, the various followers of Jesus weren't waiting around for someone to come and call them into service. They were living and working and, like the foolish bridesmaids, weren't expecting the call to come when it did.

I wonder if the parable of the bridesmaids is almost wishful thinking on the part of Jesus. None of his own followers were exactly waiting for him to show up. None were buying extra lamp oil because he was late. He wasn't expected at all.

Still, they found a way to follow Jesus and to use their own, feeble, and wholly mortal lights to bring others to him in their own life and beyond through the writings the early church left behind.

So as the song says, "Let the lower lights be burning,". It takes all of our tiny lights to bring the steady beam of God's light in to the world and even foolish bridesmaids and silly disciples can contribute for as long as their lights last.


All bible quotes are from the NRSV text at Bible Gateway.

A pdf of the Book of Common Prayer which contains both the lessons for Sundays and the Daily Office can be found at: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/book_of_common_prayer.pdf

Mission Clare is a good resource for daily morning and evening prayer online.

10 February 2018

Wanting What We Do Not Have

I read through the service of Morning Prayer for Friday at Mission Clare and found that the part of the reading that caught my eye from from the Old Testament.

And the Lord stood beside him and said, I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.
~Genesis 28:13-14

There are multiple times in the Old testament where God promises to spread the offspring of the person God is talking to across the face of the earth.

Back when the stories of the bible were told instead of written and even when the Old and New Testaments were compiled in written form, rewritten, and edited the human population on earth was much lower than it is today.

Today, would being told to 'be fruitful and multiply' really be a blessing?

In year one of the common era the entire human population is estimated to be between 150 million to 300 million depending on the source used.

For reference, in 2017 the entire population of Russia was estimated at 144 million (almost the low end of the year one range) and the population of the United States was estimated at 324 million (the high end of the range for year one). The world population was 7.6 billion or 25.3 times the size of the larger estimate of the human population in year one.

That means that for every one person in year one there are 25+ people today. So the place Issac stood when he dreamed of the ladder would have 25 of his descendants roaming around.

From the frequency with which the idea of one's decedents covering the ear occurs in the Old Testament it is clear something that the men conventing with God desire greatly. None of them say to God, "perhaps covering the earth with humans is not such a great plan" or "what will we all eat if there are so many of us?" or "what happens when we do cover the earth, and the population keeps growing?"

More humans, and in particular more humans who are their direct descendants seems to be a good thing from their point of view.

I wonder why?

From my perspective the human impact on the earth and all of God's other creatures has not been good overall. We have driven creatures like the woolly mammoth to extinction by over hunting. We have destroyed other creatures by eliminating their habitat, killing them for their fur or feathers, or introducing invasive species into their habitat who either eat them or out-compete them.

What benefit did Abraham, Issac, and Jacob see to an expanding world population of humans? Was it just their own posterity? Was it that they saw more humans as creating a better life for everyone (more hands to make work easier)?

These thoughts make me think of two songs that are in my music library. The first is by Sinead O'Conner and the second by U2. Both have similarities to psalms. Ms O'Conner's song "I do not want what I have not got" reminds me of plain-sung psalms in church both in the plaintive melody and the repetition in the lyrics. The song by U2, "I still haven't found what I'm looking for" starts with the idea of following an individual to find something and grows to thoughts of a more universal nature.

Ms O'Conner's song has a sad feeling to it, almost a sense of loss and longing that contradict the words that say she has what she needs. However, she does focus on the idea that what she currently has is good and has value.

U2's song has an upbeat melody, implying that even though they have not yet found what they are looking for, they might some day.

Both reference ideas from the bible in their lyrics.

It seems to me that wanting what we have not got is a part of the human condition. There is the old adage that "The grass is always greener on the other side..." However, once we get to the other side the way back might look better than it did when we left.

I wonder what Issac would think of the world if he could see it today. Would he still want his descendants to cover the earth like the dust does? Would he rejoice in our numbers? Or, would the world he grew up in seem like a treasure he had lost among the sea of humanity that live in modern times?

There is no way to know.

What we can do is acknowledge our human tenancy to want what we do not have and to not fully value what we do have. This can lead to greed and avarice as we see in the story of Exodus and throughout the bible. If we have God, why would we need idols of gold?

Instead of looking to the new and novel, and wishing we had that we can look at what we have now: our bread, our wine, each other, our faith and rejoice in them.

Song: I do not want what I have not got by Sinead O'Conner (lyrics here) Song: I still haven't found what I'm looking for by U2.

All bible quotes are from either the NRSV text at Bible Gateway.

A pdf of the Book of Common Prayer which contains both the lessons for Sundays and the Daily Office can be found at: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/book_of_common_prayer.pdf