Feb 22, 2012

My Friend: Saint Augustine on Friendship

[Note: This post is self-indulgent to the extreme. Reader beware!]

Oddly, only a year after the death of my good pastor-friend Ken Diehm on February 19, I ran across a story about Nebridius, who was a cherished friend of St. Augustine. Being near the same age, their friendship was clustered around many of the same interests—Catholicism, theology, rhetoric and philosophy. When Augustine was in Carthage it was through the good influence of Nebridius that Augustine abandoned astrology [termed mathematics in those days] as a way to interpret life. Nebridius was a long time and good influence on Augustine and, very soon after Augustine’s conversion, Nebridius died. “He is now,” says Augustine “in the bosom of Abraham.”

In The Confessions, Augustine writes [see book four]:

My heart was utterly darkened by this sorrow and everywhere I looked I saw death. My native place was a torture room to me and my father's house a strange unhappiness. And all the things I had done with him—now that he was gone—became a frightful torment. My eyes sought him everywhere, but they did not see him; and I hated all places because he was not in them, because they could not say to me, “Look, he is coming,” as they did when he was alive and absent. I became a hard riddle to myself, and I asked my soul why she was so downcast and why this disquieted me so sorely.

But she did not know how to answer me. And if I said, “Hope thou in God,” she very properly disobeyed me, because that dearest friend she had lost was as an actual man, both truer and better than the imagined deity she was ordered to put her hope in. Nothing but tears were sweet to me and they took my friend’s place in my heart’s desire.

I only write about Augustine and his friend because this week I have been thinking of my friend Ken and how fortunate I was to know him for almost 30 years. Augustine had a knack for friendship and for this reason I give him the last word—which is advice about friendship:

"If two friends ask you to judge a dispute, don't accept, because you will lose one friend; on the other hand, if two strangers come with the same request, accept because you will gain one friend."

Feb 15, 2012

The Lenten Journey

We are about to begin the Lenten journey together—Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, February 22. We will have an imposition of ashes service that Wednesday evening at 7:00 PM. Rev. Estee Valendy will be preaching and when we say “imposition” we mean it. The realization that we are from dust and to dust we will return imposes on our nice lives the fact that we are mortal. We generally do not like to be reminded of this truth—perhaps this is why Ash Wednesday worship services are so poorly attended.

Some of us are eager for the journey, but many of us are too afraid, or bored, or apathetic to rummage around inside our souls and find out just exactly who we are and who God wants us to be. But for those who are ready, the discovery of who we are in God’s realm is as exciting as anything we will ever do.

Everyone tries to tell you who you are. Your occupation, employer, teachers, parents, friends, advertisers, preachers, writers . . . everyone! Too many of us derive our worth from who others say we are. But THANK GOD, there is another story. This is the story about whom we find ourselves to be during the time of Lent each year. It is a story that always occurs between the mountain of transfiguration and the mount called Calvary.

I hope you will join us as we pray, confess and worship the one who has given us a better definition of ourselves than anyone ever could. We are daughters and sons of the living God. Lent is a time when we struggle against all the idolatrous definitions of who we are and what is important in this world—like success.

Paul writes:
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). 

These are the things—death, rulers, things present, things to come, powers, heights, depths—that attempt to tell us who we are. Jesus calls us to answer his question: “But who do you say that I am?”
May we find the answer together during Lent.

Feb 10, 2012

A Reminder

Last summer, I preached a sermon titled “Contemplative Practice.” It was part of our worship series we called “Practicing Faith” and the text was Ephesians 3:14-19. Besides the Bible, the book we used for the series was Brian McLaren’s 2008 book The Return of the Ancient Practices: Finding Our Way Again. McLaren’s book discloses faith practices and explores them for modern people. In fact, McLaren and others in the “emerging church” renders a different way of being a Christian than simply defining ourselves by either what we believe or what we do not believe.
Anyway, a friend reminded me of a quotation in that sermon she said was helpful and she used often in her teaching and presentations. Here is what was in that sermon:

There is a splendid quotation in Eugene Peterson’s The Contemplative Pastor. Originally from Moby Dick, the quotation follows Melville’s sketch of the chaotic commotion aboard the Pequod when the crew sighted the great whale. Amidst the shouting and maneuvering a lone person stands poised and patient. It is the harpoonist. Melville writes:

To insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooners of this world must start their feet out of idleness and not out of toil.

As the whalers go out on their hunt, there is one alone who must sit still. He is the harpooner, and his most important assignment is to anticipate, focus. Everything rests upon his concentration, his attentiveness to respond in the moment.
Being in tune with the bigger picture—in contradistinction to most of the rest of us—is what allows the harpoonist to do what he does. What allows us to do what we do? And, by the way, what are we doing?

Feb 7, 2012

Love and Language Precision

In my philosophy class the other day, we were discussing how a lot of philosophy is about precision in language. That is, if we can say with more exactitude what we are mean, then we enhance the chances of someone understanding us.

The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his philosophical system, demonstrated “that traditional philosophical problems can be avoided entirely by application of an appropriate methodology, one that focuses on analysis of language.” One of his more famous quotations is “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” (Tractatus 7).

Effective language communicates, and does so by using concrete and specific images. Too many words confound rather than enlighten. Also, for students, their writing needs to be appropriately formal—not “it means the stuff we know about” kind of statements.

One example to argue for precision in language is the word "love" from Old Testament Greek. Today, we might talk about cars in terms that might sound like: “I love my Ford Mustang.” But in what sense do we “love” it?

"Love" translated into English means any number of things, including: storge (family love); eros (passionate, romantic love); philia (brotherly love, best friend); and agape (unconquerable benevolence, invincible goodwill). Thus, when we use the word “love” we are saying a lot more than we may intend—or know.

When we speak of love without some differentiation, what we mean may not be what hearers understand. May we all be careful and say what we mean and mean what we say—especially the week of February 14—when love is in the air!

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