6-22-18 - Still No Faith?

(You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.)

When I’m in a crisis – mercifully, not often – I know the roller coaster ride, that cycle of anxiety, getting to calm (usually in response to good news, not because of my faith…), then being jolted back to panic by the next bit of less-good news. It can be hard to put my trust in Jesus in the face of all the information coming in. I deserve the words Jesus had for his disciples once the seas were still: “He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’”

Why does fear grip us? Because when winds whip up and waves crest our bow, that’s all we can see. And anxious situations do more than define our present – they dominate our thoughts of the future as well. And the past, where so often we’ve been delivered from what we most feared? That recedes when the thunder and lightning start.

How can we stay focused on the One in the stern rather than the storm all around us? There’s an interesting “throwaway” line at the start of this story: 
“They took [Jesus] with them in the boat, just as he was.” What does that mean? How else were they to take him? Why did Luke include that odd detail?

I don’t know – but I take it as a reminder that we always get Jesus with us “just as he is,” which is rarely how we expect him to be. He is so different from us, so unphased by what troubles us. He may be compassionate, but he is never hooked by the anxiety swirling around us. So in difficult times, we can ask him to reveal himself in that situation “just as he is,” to let us see his reaction so we can borrow that instead of staying locked in our own fear.

And then, when we experience the peace we so badly need, we can take our cue from the disciples: “And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’”

We need to speak of our experiences and tell everyone around us, not forget about it the minute the crisis is over. Our stories of deliverance might sound crazy– but so did the disciples when they told of the storm and the sudden calm. Yet many must have heard that story and believed it, for it was passed along and shared and finally written down by Mark, from whom Matthew and Luke got it… and so to us.

We have this story to build our faith. We need to tell each other our “God stories” to build each other's faith. Bigger storms may come, but we can allow ourselves to come to know and trust this Jesus of Nazareth, who lives among us even now, who can command the wind and the sea – and even our feeble human hearts when we say "yes."

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6-21-18 - Calm

(You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.)

Sometimes it seems God takes an awfully long time to swing into action. And sometimes that’s because we haven't asked, because we've forgotten that things that seem insurmountable to us are just a matter of a word for God. And sometimes what strikes us as nail-bitingly late is right on time for the Creator of the universe.

In this week’s story, the disciples find themselves imperiled in a sudden squall on the Sea of Galilee, and they discover Jesus in the stern, blithely sleeping through the hubbub. They wake him up, saying, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ Jesus does not get up and join the hysteria. He just calmly exercises his authority over creation.

He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.

One word from Jesus, and it all died down. No more wind, no more waves, no more panicked heartbeats. In fact, we’re told, there was a dead calm. It went not back to normal, but to a complete calm. Jesus did not have to pray in a dramatic fashion, whip up a frenzy of faith, plead with the heavens – he just calmly spoke peace to the elements, and his word had the power to calm, to make things so still it could only have been by his action. Jesus doesn’t do things by halves.

But why did he wait so long? Well – was it so long? Didn’t Jesus act as soon as he was asked to? A better question might be, why did the disciples take so long to ask for help? Why do we so often get ourselves into a state, deep into a difficult situation before we think to ask Jesus for help?

Is prayer your first response or last resort in a crisis?
Can you think of a time when you remembered to pray early in a fraught situation– asking for resolution, and also for peace and power and a sense of God’s presence? When we can make that prayer our default setting, we often have a better ability to see our way through the winds.

Peacefulness and calm are markers of God-Life. Not that the Spirit is some kind of spiritual Prozac, evening everything out – Jesus certainly displayed emotions like righteous anger, grief, praise. But storminess is not the way of God. A Lord who can rebuke the wind and command the sea is a Lord who can still our spirits, as we ask, and as we allow.

Maybe the reason it sometimes takes us so long to feel God's peace is because our spirits, with all their freedom of will, are not yet as responsive to Jesus’ command as are the winds and waves.

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6-20-18 - Don't You Care, God?

(You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.)

Fear has a way of taking over so that the danger is all we can see. And, like most forms of misery, fear loves company, intensifying as it multiplies. Together, we can come up with many more scenarios of doom than we can alone, right? And when we’re in that cycle, it can almost be an affront to encounter someone who’s not hooked by the anxiety of the moment, who is calm or hopeful. “What’s the matter with you?” we cry. “Can’t you see how bad this situation is?”

That’s how Jesus’ disciples reacted as the squall blew up and the waves swamped their little boat. (The boat is always little when we’re afraid, isn’t it? I’ve been in 50-foot waves in a storm in the North Atlantic, in an ocean liner, the water in its pool sloshing around like someone’s martini – and I’m sure people felt that boat was small…) The reality of the storm was so great, they forgot the power of the man they had with him. "But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’

Outraged at his lack of concern, they took his refusal to join the chorus of doom as a sign of uncaring. “How can you sleep for God’s sake?!? Don’t you even care that we’re going to die?”

Does that ring a familiar note for you? When things go really wrong, that is often my response, to pray, “How could you let this happen, God? Don’t you care?” Or even more passive-aggressive, “Don’t you want me to be effective in ministry?”

Are there situations you have faced or do currently that cause you to ask, “Lord, don’t you care?” I hope you take that question right to God. It is way better to ask than to turn away in disappointment and resignation, to allow your faith to be depleted. It’s also good to invite other people into our crises – not so we can feed each other's fear, but so we can feed each other’s faith, so we can believe for one another when our faith seems hard to find.

“Don’t you care, God?” in difficulty or danger or despair is a close cousin to “How could God allow suffering,” probably the number one question people ask when resisting faith. And I am reminded by this gospel story that God does not prevent the squalls. God does not prevent all cancer or car accidents - or wars. Oh, sometimes when we pray specifically that certain harms be avoided, they are. But generally we find ourselves praying from the midst of hurt or crisis.

Our God is not so much in the business of prevention as redemption. God redeems situations into which God’s life and power are invited. God renews us when our faith is flagging. God brings life out of death… which means death is still there, but it’s not the end of the story. We need to be willing to believe in a bigger story.

A friend once had a conversation with her mother, who suffered from dementia. My friend was wondering why a perfect God wouldn’t have made a happier world. When she said “Why would a good God allow so much suffering?” her mother answered right away, “Oh honey, I think we are the ones who do that.”

Best answer to that question I’ve ever heard. Humans have a tremendous capacity to allow, even inflict suffering. That's where it comes from. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we can also be the agents of God’s love, coming together to heal damage, to sow hope, to banish fear. All we need is love.

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6-19-18 - Swamped

(You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.)

“Swamped” is a word we often use to describe our schedule or workload. Its actual meaning is scarier – a boat getting covered by water in a big wave, making everything wet and at risk of capsizing - literally overwhelmed. There are times in our lives when we get swamped, and by a lot more than work.

Things can come up suddenly – an accident, illness in a loved one, break in a relationship or work, a national crisis. We can be overcome by shock, grief, confusion, love – our deck swamped. It’s scary how suddenly we can go from battling a strong head wind to being buffeted in a gale.

When that happens, we find ourselves in the boat with those disciples: "A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped."

And we need to remember who they had along in the boat – the Lord of heaven and earth, though he didn't seem to be much help: "But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion."

Three years ago, my beloved cat suffered a major health crisis. A year ago I faced an unlooked for life transition, with months of uncertainty stretching before me. These days I am anxious about the state of our nation and world. When times like that hit, I know that the best thing I can do is to stay as close as I possibly can to that guy asleep on the cushion, because he has power I do not have; he has peace I cannot conjure; he has love greater than the loves I fear losing.

Indeed, the bible reminds me that, "There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear...”(I John 4:18a) So I choose, like those disciples, to call on Jesus to rise up, not to join the anxiety but to calmly command the winds to cease and the waves to be still.

Are there situations in your life in which you feel your boat is being swamped by the wind-whipped waves? Can you recall the times when the storm was stilled?
Bishop Gene Robinson was once quoted as saying something like, “Sometimes God stills the storm, and sometimes God stills us within the storm.”

Both of my scary situations had blessed outcomes. And sometimes the worst thing happens. Either way, we know that God-Life is one of peace in unpeaceful circumstances, love in the face of fear. I pray that we all stay so focused on the love in our lives that fear cannot gain a foothold.

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6-18-18 - To the Other Side

You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.)

This week we get a wonderful and dramatic story from the Gospels about Jesus quieting a storm. It’s not a long story, so we can sink our teeth into it and chew a bit. The set-up is simple – in the evening, after a busy day of ministry, Jesus says to his disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.”

The other side of what? The other side of the lake, the Sea of Galilee. That’s the surface answer. But whenever I see words like “the other side” and "crossing," I think thresholds, boundaries, liminal spaces, transitions from one mode of understanding or being into another. Crossing water evokes classic dream interpretation, in which water often references the unconscious, depths, mysteries that must be navigated in order for healing and growth to occur. None of that may have been in Mark’s mind when those words were written, but this simple phrase sets up many reverberations.

We are always facing journeys and transitions to new conditions, new relationships, new understandings of our lives and ourselves and the God who made us. We make these journeys in whatever craft are available to carry us, always at some risk from wind and weather. Even more, there is a risk of death, and that we will be changed. Change, in fact, is an inevitable consequence of growth. We are changed, expanded, exposed to new perspectives and ways of seeing. We let some things die or find they are taken from us, and in that space of emptiness and grief room develops for new life. We are ever invited across the sea, the deep, the threshold to a new place.

The alternative is staying where we are. Sometimes we exercise that option for a long time, staying stuck in jobs, relationships, habits, addictions, ways of being or thinking, long after they have ceased to be life-giving.

What expanses do you need to cross in your life at this time, or have crossed recently?
Are there areas of life in which you feel stuck? Are you being invited into a boat, and ready to put out to sea, even if there might be a storm brewing?

We do not go alone - we go with Jesus, who came in the boat "just as he was." Just as he Is, he is with us.

I’m reminded of a quote which Edwin Friedman cited in his great book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix:
“The safest place for ships is in the harbor. But that’s not why ships were built.”

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6-15-18 - Why Parables?

(You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.)

The parable of the mustard seed might be considered a parable of a parable. For parables are a lot like that seed – they appear small or simple (some of them) but contained in that little package is the fullness of God’s kingdom, waiting to be unleashed.

Matthew, Mark and Luke include many parables among the teachings of Jesus. In fact, they insist that the parable was his primary form of teaching: 
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

Why might Jesus have chosen to tell stories about the ways of the realm of God? Maybe because it makes absolutely no sense if you try to say it straight. The values of that realm are so distinct from our “natural” or “worldly” way of operating, that one formed by the world can only begin to grasp the difference if surprised by a story.

And people listen more fully to stories than they do to lectures. Stories engage the imagination, the memory, the heart; they often put us into a receptive mode. Stories also allowed Jesus to set up what felt like familiar situations to his listeners – planting seeds, baking bread, tending vineyards, herding sheep, giving parties – and then have characters or events go off in unexpected, even shocking directions. This is a wonderful method for teaching – start with the familiar and lead into the new.

Jesus’ parables run the gamut from one-liners to the paragraphs we read this week, to full-on dramas with multiple characters and scenes, such as the story of the prodigal son. Some are hard to interpret, like the story of the dishonest manager, and some strike many as unfair, like the one about the workers in the vineyard. They invite us to play, to explore, to wonder – what does it mean if this character represents one kind of people, and this character other kinds? Is God a character in this parable, and if so, who? Who stands in for you in the parable? Are you the sower, the seed, the bird?

If you haven’t played in the parables for awhile, you might make it a summer project to read your way through them (Luke has the most…), staying with each one until you feel you’ve mined its depths.

Not that we ever truly get to the bottom of these little gems – they have a sneaky way of revealing new truths to us when we encounter them afresh. Just like the realm of God.

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6-14-18 - Ugly Fruit

(You can listen to this reflection here.)

I’ve been learning a lot about food waste and the colossal impact it has, not only on world hunger, with people starving while thousands of tons of edible food are thrown out daily, but also on our environment. The amount of fuel and water that go into producing our food, 40 percent of which is thrown away in America, would make you weep.

One of the biggest areas of waste is produce – and a lot of that waste could be avoided if we would adjust our expectations of what fruit has to look like to be considered “buyable,” and what hours of day and night we expect to find a full display in our local grocery store. In Europe, an effort is underway to change those expectations, to push the virtues of “ugly fruit” and “inglorious vegetables” through clever ad campaigns and discounted pricing.

And what does this have to do with our parable of the mustard seed, you ask? The parable is about things that look small or worthless having great value as part of the kingdom of God. The mustard seed in Jesus’ story may not have looked like much, but when planted it showed what it was made of – broken open in the dark earth, it yielded a magnificent plant that could provide shade and place for nests. That is the story of the realm of God, a place where things are so much more than they appear to be.

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

We have expectations of people too. We tend to prize the lovely, the strong, the healthy, the gifted. We assume these will be the best leaders. And we often hold to that assumption no matter how often we’re proved wrong – and in the process overlook so much potential in those who may not appear to have as much to offer, but in fact are capable of much more than we can imagine, often because of the very qualities that cause us to regard them as lesser.

When have you been surprised to discover that someone you had assumed had little to offer actually made a tremendous contribution? When have you discovered that you could make a much bigger impact than you had thought possible, as you offered your gifts to God for ministry?

Let's go deeper: In what ways do you feel small or inadequate, like "ugly fruit?" How about we ask God to show us how to plant that very seed in the dark earth of God’s mysterious love, allow it to break open and grow into a life-giving gift to the world?

We all have ways in which we feel like “ugly fruit” or seeds too small for any use. And here comes Jesus to tell us that, in his Father’s kingdom, there is a purpose to every single life, two-headed carrots, bruised apples and all. We are all made for fruitfulness, and God will help us grow.

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