Monthly Archives: March 2014

Ambrose and the Bees

honeycomb_wide-2c4f64a3a0de4582c1f62c306d23ef63da2e2d8c-s6-c30Bees were much appreciated by ancient Church teachers. St. John Chrysostom, who was known as the “mellifluous” teacher ( Latin: “mel”, honey), admired bees for their selflessness: “The bee is more honored than other animals,” he wrote, “not because it labors, but because it labors for others” (12th Homily).

Bees were important to the 4th century bishop Ambrose of Milan, who baptized Augustine and whose name means “sweet food” (Latin: “ambrosia”). He often referred to the gathering of pollen and the production of honey as emblems of Christian formation—the Church’s teachers gather the pollen of Scripture to explain the great mysteries of the faith and feed Christ’s people the honey of Divine Truth. For Ambrose, bees were a symbol of wisdom.

Ambrose was also known as a “honey-tongued” preacher and teacher. (Later, St Bernard would also earn this sobriquet.) This tag refers to his eloquence and persuasiveness, as well as to his fondness for singing in church. Legend has it that honey bees lighted on his face when he was an infant and left a drop of honey on his lips, foreshadowing his future eloquence. Bees and honeycombs were included in the early iconography of Ambrose. Not surprisingly, he is the patron saint of beekeepers and honey manufacturers.


At the start of the Great Vigil of Easter, a deacon sings the Easter Proclamation, often referred to by its Latin first word, exsultet—exult, or rejoice! It is a chant sung by the light of new fire, the Paschal candle, praising the God of light for the new dawn of Christ’s resurrection. In several ancient versions of this song, bees received a grateful shout-out.

The praise of bees is no longer included in modern versions of this old song, including versions used in the Protestant re-appropriation of the Vigil. And that’s a shame. The bees deserve thanks for their industry and for the sweet products of their work, all of which God uses to serve human need and enliven the creation. What better night to include these creatures in our praise than on the night when God brings forth a new creation through the resurrection of Jesus?

Here is the excised excerpt from the Exsultet: …

“… In the grace of this night, O Eternal God,

receive as an evening sacrifice this burning light,

which holy Church renders to you

in the solemn offering of this candle of wax, made by the bees.

We know the glory of this candle kindled by God’s bright flame.

Though divided, it is not dimmed, for it is fed from the wax

which the mother bee wrought to make this precious lamp…”



Reflection on the Healing of a Blind Man [Mark 8:22-25]

ImageI once had the privilege of listening to a conversation among blind Christians who were discussing the healings Jesus performed for blind men. Some wanted to be those blind men. They said they would jump at the chance to see the world they had never seen.

Others disagreed. They would not ask for sight, or accept it if it were offered to them. They did not feel deprived because they could not see; they related to the world in ways that were full and good, not in spite of being blind, but because they were blind.

Still others weren’t sure how they felt about those healing miracles. Being able to see would be wonderful, but having to leave blind culture behind would not.

But there were two things they all agreed on:

First, they didn’t like that the healing of the blind is often preached as a metaphor for coming to insight out of ignorance, or crossing from moral darkness into the light of faith, as if to say that being blind is something God thinks is bad. In fact, one of them said he was permanently miffed at the prophets, the evangelists, and Jesus himself, whom he otherwise loved, for using the bestowal of sight to the blind as a way of talking about the kingdom of God, implying that it’s a place where there ought not be any blind people, or people with disabilities of any kind.

Now, I have had blind parishioners and students who used blindness as this kind of metaphor themselves. They were not the least bit put off by it; which leaves those of us who are sighted with a challenge when we try to be respectful both to the text and to metaphor and to real live people whose experience includes blindness, but who, like all human beings, do not agree with each other about what being respectful about all this means. But this group agreed that the stories were irritating to them.

The second thing they all agreed on was that they liked these stories anyway. The espcially loved the chutzpah of the blind man in one of the gospels, the one we call ‘the man born blind,’ who sticks it to the authorities after his sight is restored, taunting them for being so stupid when they were supposed to be so smart. And they loved the enthusiasm and determination of Bartimaeus, who was no wallflower, but hollered and hollered and ran to Jesus when Jesus called his name.

And the thing they loved most in this story was that Jesus touches the man and touches him a lot—taking his hand, guiding him away from the village, touching his eyes not once but twice, as a kind of booster shot, since the healing power didn’t completely succeed the first time.

They liked the way Jesus touched the man as if Jesus knew how critical touch is to a blind person, that it’s one of the main connectors between a blind person and her world. The tactile way. The human and bodily way. The sacramental way.

One of the most thoughtful people in the room was a fellow who had lost his sight as a young man. He told us that the first thing that happened to him after he started venturing into the world as a blind person was that people seemed afraid to be near him. They moved away, in part to give him space to maneuver with his red-tipped cane, he assumed, and for which he was grateful. But they always gave him a much wider berth than was actually necessary. And when people did touch him, to assist him across the street, for example, they seemed to push and steer him rather than guide. Their touch seemed nervous and unsure. Ordinary human touch had suddenly become complicated; he missed its ease and naturalness. He felt a loss of a small fraction of his humanity in this. He didn’t want to be healed in his eyes, but his diminished spirit could have used some care.

Perhaps you and I devoutly wish for healing from a disability, or from cancer, or from a mental illness. Perhaps we would love Jesus to march right up to us and cast out our demons, settle our stomachs, pacify our angry friends and relations, convert our politicians, and pay our bills. Or maybe we are at peace with our limitations, at peace with the way of life we have fashioned in spite of and because of our many challenges. Maybe we don’t want or need a change in the status quo so much as we long for more faithfulness, love, courage, and grace to live in and with and through it all. Each of us is different. Each of us frames the question of peace and wholeness and reconciliation differently. Our metaphors for what ails us and humanity everywhere may or may not include blindness.

But here’s one thing most of can agree on:

Our wonderful world is also a world of sorrow. Each of us bears some burden that is sometimes too heavy to carry alone. And being in this flesh, in a body that so keenly bears, feels, and expresses all our longing and pain, one of the ways we receive the well-being we crave is through the reverent touch of another. By not avoiding each other’s deepest need, but by touching it, and making it our own.


I Am Thirsty: A Reflection for Good Friday [John 19:28]


In John’s gospel, Jesus rarely does anything that does not point to something else. He rarely says anything that does not contain a mysterious truth you’ll miss if you take him literally. And no one does anything to him that he does not first sense or foresee and, for some greater good or glory, permit.

In John’s gospel, Jesus is aware, in charge, and everything is shot through with second meaning. And now John wants us to know that even on the cross, Jesus is still in serene possession of himself.

And yet here, like any other human being who has been hung out to dry in the heat of the day, a very ordinary Jesus says, “I am thirsty.”

The evangelist is quick to editorialize. You need to understand—Jesus said this so that the scriptures would be fulfilled.

Which ones? John doesn’t say.

Perhaps it was Psalm 69, in which the suffering singer complains to God about the consequences of a single-minded faithfulness that has consumed him all his life:

I am worn out with weeping;

my throat is parched…

I looked for pity but there was none;

for comforters, but found none…

For my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.

Or perhaps Jesus is praying Psalm 22, past the appalling opening phrase – “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” – and on into the poet’s description of the awful effects of that abandonment:

I am poured out like water;

my heart is like wax melted within my breast,

and all my bones are out of joint;

my mouth is dried up

and my tongue sticks to my jaws.

Or maybe it is Psalm 63, the song of a man desperately in love with God who is soon to be reunited with the source of his passion:

O God, you are my God,

my soul thirsts for you

as in a dry and weary land,

parched, lifeless, and without water.

John’s Jesus is not so self-possessed as to be a stranger to thirst.  He has his own. And he always noticed other people’s. His first sign was performed on behalf of wedding guests who had made short work of the wine provided by their host. Some thirsts surprise even the most careful providers, and Jesus, seeing what sort of drink was needed, laid in a supply that was more than anyone could have asked for. And he gave it to guests who were unworthy of it, who by the time they took their first taste of it probably could not even tell the difference.

He was always doing things like that. John tells us that on the last day of the festival of Booths, he loudly invited “anyone who is thirsty” to drink his living water. Now, no one who ever lived has not thirsted for that kind of refreshment. So that’s a lot of water to give away. It could drain you, it could dry you up.

So you have to wonder whether Jesus’ cry on the cross had something to do with the effects of a life-long giveaway – maybe all the water he had in his soul, all the refreshment that was reservoired in his flesh and bone, in his every healing gesture and merciful word – the deep divine wells of worth and mercy he drew upon – maybe it was almost all used up, the last little eddy of it exhausted by some parched person, maybe even an enemy. Yes, it was surely an enemy who got the last drop.

Maybe the gauge had been dropping fast long before he was hoisted onto the tree. Remember that just three weeks ago in the liturgy, we read a story about thirst and emptiness and water. Jesus, thirsty in the noonday sun, goes into enemy territory, sits down at Jacob’s well and asks a woman for a drink. They start a conversation – John’s favorite kind, full of irony and revelation — until finally he gives her water, even though he has no bucket and the well is deep.

But through all that conversation and the dashing into town and back again that follows it, I can’t find it said anywhere that the hot Jesus ever got the drink he came for in the first place. And he really needed that drink.

Maybe this is what lies behind Jesus’ cry from the cross – that drink he really needed and never got. Maybe a drink of water, plain and simple, is all he’s ever wanted. Maybe it’s all he wants even now, all he will ever desire – and maybe one of us, maybe all of us together, maybe his church should be always intent on this task–to offer a drink he never got to this dried-up, dying scarecrow with a thirst so strong it compelled him past the age-old gates of fear into death itself.

The church is a great sinner. Always has been. Always will be. The most important task Jesus gave us is to pour out water – justice and mercy, clarity, refreshment, exquisite care for the least. Like him, to give all that water away. Yet generation after generation we have always found the brazen nerve to parcel it out looking over our shoulders as if it were going to run out; to refuse it outright time and again when the conditions we set for a drink are not satisfactorily fulfilled. “No water here today,” we have learned too well to say, ”No refreshment here. But look, we do have sour wine…we can spare you some of that…”

But it’s a lie! The perverse mystery of divine love is such that the church, sins and all, is a bottomless cistern that throughout the centuries collects endless oceans in our depths: the water that buoyed Jesus in his mother’s womb; the water John the Baptist poured over God’s beloved one; that water that by wedding’s end was very good wine; water dying down, rebuked from the swamped stern of a fishing boat; water firm like a road you walk on toward your frightened friends; the water of a woman’s tears falling on the teacher’s feet; tears falling from Jesus’ own eyes, weeping over the city, weeping, too, for Lazarus, who died; water in the basin: Jesus the slave at the feet of his friends; baptismal waters of old death and fresh life; outpoured water of ecstasy and delight, Holy Spirit, cool and abundant. Even today, even here, even now the fountain is flowing, the water sweet. There is refreshment for everyone and for all time, and to spare.

“I am thirsty,” he cries to us. If today’s commemoration is about anything, it is about these two things: immense suffering and inexhaustible compassion. It is about, therefore, the call to refresh our good Friend and every bleeding scarecrow hung on trees, to be on the lookout for the lifeless, to be ready and able to give Jesus the drink he never stops needing from deep unending wells of worth and joy.

“Who is Jesus Christ?” the world always demands to know. So many answers have been given, but today just one is true: he is a thirsty man.

“What is the Christian community good for?” the desperate and the dying always have a right to know. Well, when all else about us is said and done, the answer is something like this: the church is good for insisting against the evidence that there is always water. That there is enough for all. That it is free.

Will you pledge today to be a witness to this truth? To tell this story? And when all the wells of the world go dry, will you dig a new one, will you tap into that ancient one, will you wring a precious drop from your own human heart and say to the land, to the nations, to the suffering blood and bone of your neighbor, “Here, good Jesus, brother mine, here is the best water; good Jesus, friend of my heart, take it! Take and drink”?

March 22 Saint Epaphroditus


Saint Epaphroditus

Philippians 2:25-30 [Excerpt from The Message]  But for right now, I’m dispatching Epaphroditus, my good friend and companion… You sent him to help me out; now I’m sending him to help you out… When you see him again, hale and hearty, how you’ll rejoice and how relieved I’ll be. Give him a grand welcome, a joyful embrace! People like him deserve the best you can give.

Even if you have perfect attendance at Bible study, you probably don’t know who Epaphroditus is, much less how to pronounce his name. He turns up once, in five verses in Philippians, then fades back into the biblical woodwork. But Paul says he was quite a guy—loyal, eager, selfless, a treasured companion who ministered to Paul while he was in prison. The affection Paul feels for him jumps off the page. Epaphroditus is someone you’d like to get to know better.

The good news is that we know more about him than we think, because every church has at least one Epaphroditus. These are the folks who lend themselves gladly to the mission without demanding the limelight. They’re ready and willing whenever the Spirit is looking for someone to send. They can pivot on a spiritual dime. When they’re around, the joy thermometer spikes. When they’re away, you really miss them. And if, like Paul’s Epaphroditus, they should get really sick and nearly die, the whole church feels a sorrow almost too hard to bear: ‘one huge grief piled on top of all the others,’ as Paul says so poignantly. These folks are the real deal, solid as rock.

Their names won’t go down in history, but that doesn’t mean they don’t merit a shout-out in the church. So if there’s an Epaphroditus in your congregation, praise God and pass the affirmation. Tell them today and every day what a gift they are. Don’t be stingy with your thanks, because, as Paul knew, people like Epaphroditus will never ask for or expect any. They are authentic treasures. They ‘deserve the best you can give.’

Gracious God, it’s a little hard to pronounce, but you know who we mean when we thank you wholeheartedly for every Epaphroditus we know. Help us remember to honor them as you do, with thanks, blessing, and a joyful embrace.


Epaphroditus was the delegate of the community at Philippi sent to bring material assistance to Paul during his imprisonment at either Rome or Ephesus. Nothing more is known of him except for this mention he gets in the letter to the Philippians (2:25-29) announcing his return, but tradition honors him as the first bishop of that church. Saint Epaphroditus is commemorated liturgically in the West on March 22, and in the East on March 30.

In Due Season





Reading one of the Seville daily papers online this evening, I saw a front page article announcing the arrival of the first snails of the season. Snails. It’s an event. It makes the news. Restaurants vie to be the first to advertise: Hay caracoles–Snails on offer. Whole families go out to eat them, as long as they last.

Seeing this article reminded me that I’d mentioned this snail mania to my congregation in one of the monthly letters I wrote them during my sabbatical in Andalucía in 2007. Here’s that excerpt. It brings back blessed memories. You might enjoy them too.

“… It’s snail season here in the countryside. Every restaurant in town and all the roadside ventas are plastered with handmade signs—Hay caracoles! We have snails! Most of these signs also specify that the snails on offer are “de Arcos”—from Arcos (de la Frontera).

We are not snail experts and cannot say whether Arcos snails taste or look different from snails gathered in Bornos, a few kilometers down the Antequera road, or snails from Prado del Rey, a few kilometers in the other direction; but it seems important to the restaurant people that it be stated clearly: these little creatures are from here—local, ours, and therefore good—no, not just good, the best!

I love this small claim about the best-ness of locality, the best-ness of home. And I love the fact that when we came four weeks ago, you could ask, but you would not be able to get any snails from Arcos for lunch. And in a few weeks, you won’t be able to get them again, anywhere.

In these small rural towns there is still “a time for every purpose under heaven”— and thus there are things to look forward to because they are not always available, at least not like this, snails from Arcos and nowhere else. There are still things to savor with a special joy, treats that the whole family dresses up and goes out for—asparagus, strawberries, snails—each delight in turn, each in due season.

Last Sunday we were eating at the Venta Antonio—at the next table were children as young as 3, middle-aged couples, very old grandparents, all tackling with gusto large clear glasses of Arcos snails, toothpicks wielded with great dexterity, “snail juice” slurped down and licked away neatly… to the last luscious little drop.

This age-old rhythm of deferred desire and momentary satisfaction, of the acceptance of the grace of this meal and no other, this day and no other, is all but unknown in our other world back home where we can easily gratify every desire in the very moment it seizes us and demands satisfaction.

We have a week left here at El Membrillo. Then we spend a few transition days in Seville before returning to the States on June 2 to enjoy the last full month of sabbatical—there are Red Sox games awaiting us, among other pleasures.

I’d be telling you fibs if I said that it isn’t hard to think about leaving this amazing beauty, this serenity, and this easy rhythm of life. Sometimes I wish it could go on forever. But most of the time what I feel most deeply is the goodness, the rightness, and the abiding truth of “things in their season.”

There is indeed a time to rest, a time to work, a time for snails from Arcos, and a time for Chinese food in Harvard Square! A time for every purpose under heaven.

And so I also look forward with eager anticipation to the changes ahead, to the different delights of a different time. I breathe my thanks in and out, day after beautiful day.

I remember you fondly, all your joys and sorrows, challenges and dreams; and I commend you with faith to the God who is the gracious donor of all our days.”



Now You Can Begin


The evangelical author Philip Yancey tells a story about one of his college roommates, a German named Reiner, who returned to Germany after graduation and began teaching Bible at a camp for people with disabilities. Using his college class notes, he started giving stirring lectures on the victorious Christian life: “Regardless of the wheelchair you are sitting in, you already have a victory!  A full and victorious life!” All this he announced energetically to a roomful of paraplegics and young people with cerebral palsy.

Reiner had never addressed a group of people lacking motor control. He found it disconcerting. What he didn’t know was that the campers found listening to him equally disconcerting. Some complained to the camp director that they couldn’t make any sense out of what he was saying. “Well, tell him!” she replied.

One woman did. “It’s like you’re talking about the sun in a room without windows,” she told him. “We can’t understand anything you say. You talk about solutions, overcoming, victory over our circumstances. That has nothing to do with us.”

Reiner was crushed. He was also angry. The message seemed clear enough to him – it was biblical, it was pure St Paul, it was why he loved the Lord. He thought about telling them that they lacked faith, that they needed to love Christ more so that they could triumph over adversity.

Instead, by some grace, he spent the night praying.

In the morning he went to class and told them, “I don’t know what to say. If I can’t preach victory, I don’t know what to preach. I don’t know what to think. I don’t know what to do. I just don’t understand.” Then he just stood there in front of the class, hung his head and was silent for a long time.

After a while, the woman who had confronted him spoke up from the back of the room. “Okay. Now we understand you. Now we’re ready to listen. Now we can begin.”

Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night. Some commentators say he’s afraid of being seen with Jesus, that he represents wimpy “closeted” early Christians who feared social ostracism. Others say that it’s because in John’s gospel, night is usually a metaphor for ignorance and confusion.

But it could be simply because Nicodemus is a Pharisee. Devout Pharisees often set the night aside for Bible study. The psalms say that our hearts instruct us by night, that the righteous meditate on God on their beds. This prominent Pharisee is accustomed to nightly study, and on this night, the subject of his study is Jesus.

Jesus doesn’t make things easy for him. He rebuffs Nicodemus’ well-meaning offer of faith based on signs. Then he shocks his common sense with talk about a new begetting from above, ignoring his protest that starting over is impossible, especially once you’ve gotten to be of a certain age. Finally, Jesus unnerves him with a description of the Spirit-led life—an anarchy of breath and wind and energies unseen.

By the time Jesus is finished with him, Nicodemus is reduced to futility. All he can muster is a helpless “I don’t understand…”  before he hangs his head and keeps still.

If Nicodemus came to Jesus at night to learn, Jesus sees to it that no ordinary learning takes place. He aims not to help Nicodemus understand, but to make him begin at the beginning; not to help him know, but to reduce him to unknowing, to drive him into a wilderness of silence, a desert of humility and obedience.

Nicodemus hails from a constituency that knows things—the Law, the oral traditions, the customs, the prophets, the prophecies. “Rabbi, we know,” he says to Jesus. “We know who you are, we know what you do.”

But  Jesus doesn’t care about what Nicodemus knows. He cares about Nicodemus’ life. He wants to save it, and to do that, he first has to undermine it, undermine the sensible, reasoned thing that passes for a good and virtuous life. And at the end, when all Nicodemus can do is throw up his hands and keep still, Jesus knows he has him.

Nicodemus lives in everyone who has ever come up against the limits of reason in the death of a child, in the powerlessness of addiction, in the panic that no one will ever love us the way we want or deserve to be loved, in the derailment of a dream or a career or a relationship, in the failure of prayer, in the blank dullness of depression, in despair over the human condition, in the world’s greed and violence that spirals and builds with no end in sight, in the futility of our efforts to know and love and improve ourselves, and to control and change the world, in the face of ineluctable death.

Nicodemus lives in all who have come to the end of our convictions and assumptions, our denominational identities, our doctrines, our pictures of God, our wisdom or skill or courage or knowledge or self-confidence; who have hit that limit hard, head-on, and finally thrown up our hands in defeat in the face of implacable mysteries; in all of us who have ever hung our heads in humility and surrender, who have ever just stood there as if obeying something, someone immensely powerful; stood there long enough, humanly enough, nakedly enough to finally hear a voice speak out of the silence and redeem us, saying “Now you are ready. Now you can begin.”

He lives in all of us who, reduced to the futility of our ignorance each day, begin again each day, are born from above again each day, and who are, by  grace, becoming every day what we practice, while the Spirit moves where it will in the world. Moves in this world God so loved that God sent a beloved Child, not to condemn, not to condemn, but to save.

Out of Hiding

Psalm 32: 3-4  While I kept silence, my body wasted away, my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you; I did not hide my iniquity.


Someone I love is in rehab, his second try. He’s starting over after pretending for years to be sober when he wasn’t. I can’t begin to describe the mess he’s made, the grief he’s caused, the emptiness in his voice when he finally emerged from deep cover and confessed his lie.

Unlike last time, he’s ‘working the program’ honestly now. It’s hard and painful, but not as painful as when he was going it alone, when it was just the bottle talking, telling him, ‘You’re fine.’

Now he’s in better company—a fellowship of the nearly-dead who really want to live. They tell their own stories and listen to each others’ truth. They know they’re not fine, and they tell it like it is. They need each other to make it.

I called him the other day. He sounded different. He sounded overjoyed. In such a fellowship, he told me, you can strip naked and not die of exposure. Even the worst thing is redeemable.

When I heard his voice I wondered, if the payoff is joy like that, why wouldn’t we all want uncompromising light to shine on our deceitful hearts?

Maybe we don’t think we need it. We’re not that far gone. And maybe that’s lie number one. But maybe we’d be willing to come out of hiding if we had some company, a fellowship in which there are no reprisals for truth-telling. No shock, no shaming. Only healing, only the gift of life. For who can bear to see themselves truly except in the mirror of grace?

Maybe we could all emerge from deep cover in the fellowship of church, if only church were such a fellowship. If only…

Blessing of Ashes (2)


Most merciful God,

bless by your Holy Spirit these ashes,

dusky creature of earth and fire.

May all who receive them

and all who look upon them this day

be moved to conversion and newness of life.

May they be no empty sign, no prideful display;

but by your grace, may all who wear them

witness in bold speech and loving act

to what they signify—

your steadfast love for mortal flesh,

your will to heal,

the rich green life you bring from death.

Praise to you, Holy One!

In life and death we belong to you.


Blessing of Ashes


Most merciful God,

bless these ashes,

all that’s left of glory

after fire consumes

the lust of waving palms.

Bless these ashes,

residue of hosannas,

the swelling songs we lift

in praise of might.

Bless these ashes,

ambition’s leftovers,

dusty remains of the days

we believed in ourselves.

Bless these ashes,

fine and flyaway,

insubstantial as the heart

without its truth,

without its truth.