The Basin and Towel

with Indispensable Churches and Tending the Light



Anna and Augustus

36 There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four.  She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38 Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.  Luke 2:36-38

At the beginning of this chapter Luke noted the census declared by Caesar Augustus, the first one when Quirinius was governor of Syria.  Here he mentions Anna the prophetess, an 84-year-old widow who apparently never left the Temple in Jerusalem from time her husband had died decades earlier.

Apparently Luke felt that both were worth mentioning in this Gospel.  Each, it seems, had a part in God’s plan and in Jesus’ story.  Augustus, world-maker and ruler, set history itself in motion with his census decree, causing Mary and Joseph to go down to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus and thus, unbeknownst to Caesar, to fulfill ancient prophecies.  Anna, widow of the Temple, spoke to this same Mary and Joseph and to others around them of this Jesus, of the ancient prophecies and of the current ones given to her by God about this child.  Both Anna and Augustus each in their own way helping to establish the climate in which the Christ was making His appearance.  But both so different!

Augustus on the one hand – world ruler, world influencer, with his multitude of projects and plans, governors and prefects, armies and navies at his command.  A word from him, and entire nations would be moved.  Anna on the other hand – a longtime widow of little consequence, never leaving the Temple, never travelling outside Jerusalem to see Nazareth or Joppa or even perhaps Bethlehem, most people doubtless ignoring her or taking her for granted, spending her days simply in prayer, fasting and worship.  Both so different – but both indispensable to the Gospel of Jesus according to Luke!

And thus it is with churches, too.  It’s easy to be enthralled by the churches that are world influencers, the ones with multitudes of projects and plans, with huge staffs and multiple pastors and groups.  It’s easy to take as wisdom the books written and seminars promoted by those who come from those churches, because we know they wouldn’t be in those positions if they didn’t know something.  And it’s also easy to ignore those churches whose ministry seems to be plain and simple – prayer, fasting and worship – never leaving the sanctuary to venture out beyond their own community, always staying put for decades until they seem so elderly and inconsequential.

But perhaps both are indispensable, just like Anna and Augustus are both indispensable to Luke.  The church at large needs the influencers, and it needs the stay-at-homes.  It needs the Caesars, and it needs the Annas.  We need churches that are huge or tiny, influential or unknown, young or old, vigorous or weak, wise or foolish, spiritually mature or spiritually silly.  But those are just the outward things that the world sees.  Here’s the true difference between Anna and Augustus, and the reason why ALL churches need to be like Anna and not at all like Augustus:

As far as we know, Christ and Caesar never met.  They were never in the same place at the same time.  Augustus in all his glory and power never laid eyes on the Carpenter from Nazareth.

But Anna – simple, plain, old, praying-fasting-worshiping Anna – was in the right place (the Temple) when Jesus showed up because she never left it, and she met Him that day.

May the Holy Spirit work in us the determination to remain in the presence of Jesus all the time, regardless of who we are, what we are doing, what are plans are, or what we look like to the world, so that it may always be said of us “we never left Him.”

God bless us everyone!



Focusing on the Poor (Churches)

Here’s today’s meditation from the Henri Nouwen Society:

Wednesday October 31, 2012    

Focusing on the Poor

Like every human organization the Church is constantly in danger of corruption.  As soon as power and wealth come to the Church, manipulation, exploitation, misuse of influence, and outright corruption are not far away.

How do we prevent corruption in the Church? The answer is clear:  by focusing on the poor.  The poor make the Church faithful to its vocation.  When the Church is no longer a church for the poor, it loses its spiritual identity.  It gets caught up in disagreements, jealousy, power games, and pettiness.  Paul says,  “God has composed the body so that greater dignity is given to the parts which were without it, and so that there may not be disagreements inside the body but each part may be equally concerned for all the others” (1 Corinthians 12:24-25).  This is the true vision.  The poor are given to the Church so that the Church as the body of Christ can be and remain a place of mutual concern, love, and peace.

- Henri J. M. Nouwen 

If what Henri Nouwen says about the Church and the poor is true, and I think it is, then perhaps as we turn his words into our practice we should think about what “poor” we’re looking at.  For instance,

There are people who are “poor in spirit,” as Jesus would say.  So consider – how much time and attention do I spend being with someone who is “rich in spirit,” soaking in their prayers and receiving their spiritual direction on a regular basis; and how much do I spend with someone who is “poor in spirit,” who is perhaps in as much need of the spirit that I can give them as I am in need of the other?  Yet I am the one that “poor in spirit” has access to; they do not even know about the “rich in spirit” that I admire.

And there are people who are financially poor.  So consider – how much time and attention do I spend around rich people, or at least people who live “comfortably,” and how much do I spend around people who have less than I do?

But Nouwen would have us ask the question, “Why would you want to spend time around people who are poorer than you are?  Is it because you think you have something great to offer them, to ‘lift them out of their poverty?’  Or is it because you think they have something great to offer you, something you can’t buy with all your money and can’t realize with all the spiritual guidance you receive?  Do you go to the poor because they are needy, or because you are needy?”

And so we should ask the same questions about churches.  The poor churches, the dishevelled ones, the ones with buildings in need of repair; the ones that can’t pay the bills, the ones that live from hand to mouth, the ones that can’t afford a pastor; the ones out in the middle of nowhere, the little ones, the “unsuccessful ones”; the not-megachurches, the not-fancy churches, the not-contemporary churches.  The ones that are ignored because they don’t have huge programs and varied ministries; the ones that are overlooked because they’re not reaching out to all kinds of cultures or adding new members every year; the ones that are pushed to the bottom of the district executive’s to-do stack because they seem like such a nuisance; the ones that are always in need of some kind of financial bailout or else they will fold, and yet they never do.  Should we attend to them because they are needy, or because we are needy?

These churches are the indispensable ones, just like the poor of our society.  These churches are the ones we should be flocking to, attending to, spending time with.  Just like the poor in spirit or the poor in checkbook.  Not because we have something great to offer them, but because we are needy for what they have to offer us.  Luther called it “the mutual conversation and conversation of the brethren.”  Nouwen called it “a place of mutual concern, love, and peace.”

On logs and specks and simul iustus et peccator

New post by Chris Cahill on Indispensible Churches


On logs and specks and simul iustus et peccator

Below is the devotion that came in today from the Henri Nouwen society.  Luther taught us that the person is both saint and sinner at the same time (simul iustus et peccator); Nouwen reminds us that the Church is likewise holy and sinful, spotless and tainted at the same time.

One of the problems with us poor, sinful human beings is that it’s not easy for us to deal with that “at the same time.”  It’s extremely easy to see the sinner sitting across from us, but we have a hard time seeing the saint.  The sinfulness of the Church is terribly obvious to human eyes, but not its holiness.  Perhaps that’s a consequence of “You shall be like gods, knowing good and evil” – perhaps the unspoken part of that sentence is “but you shall focus on the evil and ignore the good.”

If we’re actually trying to see the saint in the person or the holy in the Church it often seems like we’re trying to see the potential saint or the potential holy church – the saint or the holy that they will be someday, when Jesus takes them to glory.  That’s good, and on that day their salvation and their sanctification will be complete and all sin will be gone.

But until that day, even though we see lots of sin both in the person and in the Church, we delude ourselves if we think that the sin is stronger or more powerful or has a bigger piece of the pie than the holy.  Luther, I think, would argue that the person is simul saint and sinner; Nouwen would say that the church, full of sinful, fighting children, has already been bought by the blood of Jesus and washed in the waters of Baptism.

The difficulty is not that the church has not become fully holy, nor that the person has not become completely saintly.  The difficulty is that we (including the church and the person himself!) have not yet learned to see the holy and the saintly with clarity and with faith.  The log is still in the eye.

Wednesday October 17, 2012The Church, Spotless and TaintedThe Church is holy and sinful, spotless and tainted.  The Church is the bride of Christ, who washed her in cleansing water and took her to himself “with no speck or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and faultless”  (Ephesians 5:26-27).  The Church too is a group of sinful, confused, anguished people constantly tempted   by the powers of lust and greed and always entangled in rivalry and competition.

When we say that the Church is a body, we refer not only to the holy and faultless body made Christ-like through baptism and Eucharist but also to the broken bodies of all the people who are its members.   Only when we keep both these ways of thinking and speaking together can we live in the Church as true followers of Jesus.

- Henri J. M. Nouwen

Comment on this Daily Meditation.Visit our website for inspiration, resources, news, events, community.
Text excerpts taken from Bread for the Journey, by Henri J.M. Nouwen, ©1997 HarperSanFrancisco. All Scripture from The Jerusalem Bible ©1966, 1967, and 1968 Darton, Longman & Todd and Doubleday & Co. Inc. Photo by V. Dobson.

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