Friday, December 11, 2009

The Temple at the Center of the Community

Friday, December 11, 2009 -- Week of 2 Advent, Year Two
Thomas Merton, Contemplative and Writer, 1968

Today's Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 937)
Psalms 31 (morning) 35 (evening)
Haggai 1:1-15
Revelation 2:18-29
Matthew 23:27-39

First, a note about today's feast (which is actually yesterday's; I looked at my dates wrong).
Thomas Merton [1915-Dec. 10, 1968] Trappist author and poet. Merton's Catholic conversion is the subject of his best-selling The Seven Storey Mountain. He became a contemplative monk at Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky, yet remained engaged with social justice and world affairs through reading and vast correspondence. (Dec. 10)

We've been reading from Amos for a while, a prophet who spoke to a wealthy and powerful nation, confronting their greed and elitism, and demanding that they respond to the needs of the weak and the poor. Today we switch to the prophet Haggai, a prophet for much different times.

Haggai writes to a nation that is twenty years home from exile. In those years, the people have been struggling to get by in a hostile environment. They have managed to build homes for themselves, but they have not prospered. They feel vulnerable and threatened. But at least they are home, and they have homes.

Haggai makes a single point: Judah's poor harvests and depressed economy is rooted in the people's anemic religious life. He focuses on a single answer: rebuild the Temple and restore God's life to the center of your community. Then you will be blessed.

This passage we read today from Haggai is often cited when congregations embark on a new building project, especially if they are building a place of worship. "You have looked for much, and lo, it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? says the Lord of hosts. Because my house lies in ruins, while all of you hurry off to your own houses. Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce. And I have called for a drought on the land and on the hills, on the grain, the new wine, the oil, on what the soil produces, on human beings and animals, and on all their lands."

Haggai was one prophet that the people listened to. As the result of his preaching, with the support of the civil and religious authorities, the people began reconstructing the Jerusalem Temple in 520 BCE, completing and dedicating it five years later.

There is something powerful about a central place of worship. There is something synergistic when people come together to unite in prayer, to create community that has its identity in a relationship and commitment to God.

Our recent visit to China reinforced my sense of the crucial importance of times and places set aside for people to gather to worship. Very few of China's people have a religious practice. Gatherings at churches and other religious sites are discouraged. The state substitutes grand spectacles that emphasize dance or art or military parades which feature large numbers of individuals in coordinated activity -- the many as one. The people feel a deep sense of pride, a sense I would call religious or spiritual, over these events. They reinforce the message of pride of identity, and of the need for the individual to live in compliance with the all.

My impression is that China is the most materialistic culture I have ever visited. My son who has lived there for a while says it is a soulless people. I've had a hard time putting into words my discomfort with China (after a very brief two week visit, I must admit), but I've rarely felt such an instinctive and intuitive uneasiness and aversion to a place and its people.

I think there is something incalculably powerful about the practice of going to a central place of worship to join with others to acknowledge in community something greater than ourselves. Without the temple, we are prone to shrink our vision to the level of our own selves, our own desires, and our own narrow borders. Haggai knew something important. A community that takes care of its own houses and ignores its temple is unlikely to be a healthy community.


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About Morning Reflections
Morning Reflections is a brief thought about the scripture readings from the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer according to the practice found in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.

Morning Prayer begins on p. 80 of the Book of Common Prayer.
Evening Prayer begins on p. 117

An online resource for praying the Daily Office is found at
Another form of the office from Phyllis Tickle's "Divine Hours" is available on our partner web site at this location --

The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church
is to explore and celebrate
God's infinite grace, acceptance, and love.

Visit our web site at

Our Rule of Life
We aspire to...
worship weekly
pray daily
learn constantly
serve joyfully
live generously.

Lowell Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Fayetteville, Arkansas


At 12:39 PM, Anonymous janet l graige said...

Hi Lowell,

The China comment is interesting in view of the turmoil of Tibet. Surely Tibet is one of the highest (literal and metaphoric) spiritual spaces on earth. Would that we could realize our conquests are not always for natural resources - perhaps the spiritual resources were at play also. You can't conquer that.

Peace, Janet

At 8:39 AM, Blogger Lowell said...

My son has visited Tibet a couple of times. He loves it! If he could make a living there, he would prefer to be there. The Chinese look down on Tibet with such condescension and insult. The Dalai Lama is considered to be a villain. Many Chinese hotels will not allow Tibetens to stay there. Profound discrimination. The Chinese think of Tibet as a backwards, superstitious people. How different from our Western perspective.


At 1:34 PM, Anonymous janet l graige said...

Tibet - one place I would love to visit. I've studied a bit about Tibet and their form of Buddhism. I am speaking or seeing that underneath the conquest of a people is a deep need for what they have - in the case of Tibet, their soul (your words for the China you have seen, a soul-less people), their spirit although the surface reasons for conquest are land, water, power. Many, many times humans will kill or mock or degrade what is beautiful and what they cannot understand. As at the cross, the Albatross poem speaks to this also. Peace, Janet


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