11-16-18 - Not Drunk, but Praying

(You can listen to this reflection here.)

Hannah’s encounter with the priest Eli in the temple is not a high point of clergy sensitivity. Observing her fervent, but silent prayer as she pours out her heart to the Lord, Eli accuses her of being drunk. But Hannah speaks up for herself, and wins an ally in prayer:

Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.” Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.”

As hopeless and despairing as she felt, Hannah took her great anxiety to God, voicing her unhappiness, offering her deal, expressing her feelings. She is a model for us in how to pray – with abandon and candor, baring our hearts before the One who knows them better than we do. We don’t have to be polite with God, offering prayers with perfect grammar and syntax. We don’t have to use churchy language or flowery phrases. God wants us to be real, and to come close, to open ourselves to intimacy in the power of his Spirit.

Hannah’s prayer and Eli’s affirmation of it had a discernible effect on her emotional state. She came into a place of peace. The depression broke; she went home and ate, and shared intimacy with her husband. She had no guarantee that her prayer would be answered as she desired, beyond the prophetic words of the priest – it was an act of faith to believe him. She prayed frantically, and went forth faithfully, and in time she did receive the gift she so badly wanted.

What desires are wanting to burst forth from your heart? 
Prayer can be our last response in times of pain or crisis, but there is no downside to praying early and often, and even in public. Yes, being caught up in a spiritual state can cause us to appear inebriated – the same accusation was made of Jesus’ disciples on the Day of Pentecost – but when are unafraid to be our spiritual selves out in the world, we offer a model to others. We share the Good News that we don’t have to stay stuck in our sadness or rage, depression or trauma. We proclaim by our actions that we worship a God of love, a God of healing, a God who responds to our prayers in his perfect time and perfect will – and invites us to align our wills with his. 

The greatest fruit of that alignment is not “getting what we want,” but the gift of perfect peace as we wait in hope. And that is a gift people around you will want you to share.

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11-15-18 - Releasing Our Gifts

(You can listen to this reflection here.)

Yesterday we reflected on birthing and hope. These themes are prominent in this week's story from the Hebrew Bible, the beautiful tale of Hannah and her longing for a baby. In this multi-layered account we find acute observations of marital dynamics, women's rivalry, and faulty communication between loving partners. But chiefly we see a women desperate for the one thing that would validate her in that time and culture – bearing a child into the world.

Hannah is the favorite wife of Elkanah, but she is infertile – as the writer of her story puts it, “the Lord had closed her womb.” Elkanah’s other wife is very fruitful – and jealous:

On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. Her husband said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”

There is something touching, if appallingly out of touch, about Elkanah’s belief that his love should alleviate Hannah’s heartbreak at her childlessness. And there is much that is familiar in the bitter interactions between Hannah and Penninah. More painful still is the picture of a family locked into bitter patterns “year by year,” and a woman sliding deeper and deeper into depression. We know Hannah; some of us have been Hannah.

And then she decides to take action. Her action is prayer. Her action is offering to return to God the gift she craves if only he will grant it in the first place: She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death.

Though I don’t encourage bargaining with God, and question if Hannah’s desire for a child was more to remove her shame than for love, I see in her prayer the basis for our life as stewards of God’s gifts: they are not ours to keep. Everything we have is on loan to us, to use, to enjoy, to nurture for growth, but not to keep as our own. That includes our children and spouses as well as our material goods and resources. When we can loosen our grip on what we think is ours, we are freer in relationships, less exploitative, less locked into our own expectations. We become freer to love.

Hannah was willing to offer the male child she would bear to be raised in God’s temple, setting him apart for an ascetic life of service – he becomes the great prophet Samuel. God did not ask that sacrifice of Hannah, and he does not ask it of us. Yet God does want us to be willing to release our gifts into his service, be they people or resources. As you inventory what is most precious to you today, where might you release that gift to bless the community around you?

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11-14-18 - Birthpangs

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

Our origin story tells us that pain in childbirth is a consequence of human disobedience (Genesis 3:16). Whatever the reason, rare is the birth that occurs without pain or mess. It seems this is also true on a cosmic level, as Jesus describes the end of all familiar things:

“Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs."

We might look at the state of our world and see these signs – they are all there. But they are always there, in every age. Nation is ever rising against nation; the earth is ever heaving, and famines persist, preventable as they are, had we the will to evenly distribute the food produced globally. And unfortunately, people bearing the name of Christ and misrepresenting his power and message are also common.

So, why bother with these cryptic words of Jesus? They reveal how he interprets such suffering – that it is an inevitable element in the birth of the new age, the new age God is bringing into being, the new age of grace Jesus came to usher in, the new age we are to be revealing in our lives and words and actions. Paul wrote to the church in Rome:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us…We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. Who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to proclaim hope no matter what the circumstances, hope in the midst of fear and pain and cruelty and suffering, hope in the face of death and destruction of all we hold sacred. Thanks be to God, we don’t live at this precipice most of the time, but we can ever be honing our capacity for hope. That is what the spiritual practices of worship and prayer, study and justice lead us to, hope amid all that we cannot see.

One of the most astonishing claims of our gospels and creeds is that the Son of God himself came into this world through the birth pangs of a young Galilean woman, not in a sanitized hospital room but in the bacteria-filled muck of a stable. You don’t get messier than that. But with that birth, the world turned upside down, and as that baby grew into a man, he proclaimed and demonstrated what this upside down world of God-Life looked like. And he invites us into it. Hope is where we dwell, midwives to the Realm of God that is being birthed, its head crowning, about to take its first breath.

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11-13-18 - When?

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

The first question most people ask upon hearing that something bad is going to happen – a diagnosis, a job termination, an adverse economic development – is “when?” “How long do I have?” “When did the affair start?” “When is that meteor supposed to hit?” Jesus’ disciples had the same response after he told them that this mighty temple they were admiring would be reduced to rubble:

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”

Time is among the things we have least control over in this world; it marches inexorably onward, never back. We hope knowing the timing of things will give us control over them, but it is an illusory sense of power. “Forewarned is for-armed” might be useful in the face of an attack, but does little to alter events in most situations. Knowing when bad things will occur rarely changes the circumstances, but we feel better thinking we understand the timing.

Christ followers are invited into a funny relationship with time. We live within it, bound by its “rules,” while we worship a God who is beyond it, a Lord who is “the same yesterday, today and forever. “ (Hebrews 13:8). The Greek word for earthly time is “kronos,” and for God’s time is “kairos.” We live in both times at once. While we count our minutes and hours and days, living in a kind of bondage to our watches and calendars, we also exist in the eternal present of God-Life, where all things are possible, where we are invited to live in total trust despite our not-knowing.

Part of our spiritual work is to become more comfortable in kairos time while dwelling in kronos. Worship in particular is meant to be a space in which we step into eternal time, not watching the clock, just being. When we’re fully absorbed in an activity that consumes our creativity, what experts call “flow,” we can also experience that timelessness. And we can cultivate that practice – stopping and stepping into prayer or meditation throughout the day, not checking the time when out for a walk or talking with someone, giving our full attention to being present.

The disciples wanted signs so they could be ready. In fact, we’re never ready for the end of the world, though it comes in small ways throughout our lives. When we are seized by the anxious “when?” in any area of our life, we can develop the ability to turn it over to God right in that moment. "Come, Lord Jesus, bring me into your time. Help me trust."

And we can always be ready to experience the presence and peace and power of God’s Spirit, which are already ours by faith, yesterday, today and forever.

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11-12-18 - Built To Last

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

Don’t go sightseeing with Jesus – as a tour guide, he’d be a bit of a downer. When his disciples, coming out of the great Jerusalem temple, marveled at the size and solidity of its construction, Jesus told them not to get too attached:

As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

What a grand edifice the Jerusalem Temple must have been, rivaling Greek and Roman architecture, as impressive as the great cathedrals of the European Middle Ages or the magnificent temples of the Cambodian jungle. And this was more than a great complex – this was where the holiness of God was said to dwell on earth, the permanent home built by Solomon to replace the tents of meeting and shrines that dotted the Samarian and Judean countryside. It had been standing for some 500 years by the time Jesus and his followers met in its courts, and still it inspired awe.

What must the disciples have thought hearing Jesus’ words. A structure like this, destroyed? Imagine Washington’s National Cathedral crumbled to dust. In 70 BCE, some forty years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, his words came to pass, as the Romans destroyed the great temple and desecrated its grounds. But I don’t think Jesus was about predicting the future. He was redirecting their gaze to the spiritual movements underlying visible ones.

Great buildings invite us to marvel at the human vision and ingenuity and determination (and often exploitation) which brought them into being. They command our focus, even as they make space for the holy. Jesus was inviting his followers, and us, not to mistake the temporal for the eternal. He urged them, and us, to marvel at the spiritual reality coming into being, the new order being birthed out of the old. The human power that brought about the grandeur of the Jerusalem temple is nothing compared to the power of God to create and again restore wholeness to that creation.

Human structures, whether buildings, governing systems, nations or movements, will always be vulnerable to destruction. Even the Church, and certainly churches, will pass away. The only thing truly built to last is the new creation we become and are becoming in Christ.

Our flesh may be as frail and impermanent as a crumbled cathedral. Our spirit, united to God’s Spirit, will live forever, bringing new life into view, until the end of time.

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11-9-18 - Radical Abundance

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

We've explored giving when you have nothing, when it costs you everything. Today let's look at the more common way we give, out of our excess, out of our abundance.

Ah, but what if we don’t view our circumstances as abundant? What if we’re wired to see scarcity? I daresay it is impossible to grow up in our culture unaffected by the advertising industry, and that industry is fueled by scarcity. “Are you rich enough, are you pretty enough, do you smell good enough, is your car x enough….” (Rarely are we asked to wonder if we’re smart enough.)

Can you think of a crowd in which every hand would go up if you asked, “Do you have enough money in the bank?” Most people would say, “Enough for what? For today, sure. But for the next 25 years? For retirement? Ah, no, never enough…”

Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have donated out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Trusting in our abundance is inextricably connected to staying rooted in the day we’re in. “Give us today our daily bread,” Jesus taught us to pray. And most of us have plenty in the day we’re in. Jesus invites us not only to trust that we have enough for the day, but to give everything we have, trusting that we’ll also have enough tomorrow.

I once attended a weekend retreat. At noon on the second day, each participant was given a bag stuffed with cards of prayer and encouragement from people at our churches as well as from total strangers. It was overwhelming to realize how many people were praying for me and took the time to write a note. I read a few notes, and decided to save the rest, to parcel out to myself when I got home. I wanted to spread out the affirmation.

But that evening we got another bag, and more the next day, and the day we left. It was unbelievable, the abundance. And still I was going to save most of them – until with the fifth batch it hit me: this is God’s love made tangible. God’s love is abundant. It never runs out. You can’t save it for the next day – you have to receive it all, open it all, read it all, accept it all – or you won't be open to the blessing God may have for you tomorrow. So I opened every single note, by faith, trusting there would be love when I got home too.

It’s the same thing with our money, our food, our time, our love. We don’t have to save them up. We can spend them lavishly, allowing God to bless others through us, and us through others. Radical abundance is God’s gift to us. Radical abundance can be our way of giving. Radical abundance is the road to true joy and freedom.

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11-8-18 - Out of Nothing, Everything

(You can listen to this reflection here.)

Would you invite someone to dinner if you had no food? Who gives when they have nothing? Apparently, that’s what the poor widow in our Gospel story did, as Jesus tells it:

A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, worth a penny. He called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have given out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Out of nothing – everything she had. This challenges the notion that you have to have something to give something, that you can only give if you have something left over. What would it look like if people gave whether or not they had anything?

When groups serve meals at shelters, they never ask the guests to give anything – but why not? Why do we assume that, just because they have no home or financial resources, they have no assets to share as human beings? We could ask them to pray for us or with us. We could invite them to help set up or take down the chairs.

What if we invited recipients of charity to give generously as well as receive? I don’t mean that people who come for a meal should sweep out the kitchen. I’m not talking about charging for help we give. I’m suggesting we create a culture of giving even among those who “have nothing,” as a way of fostering wholeness and integrity in community. We’d have a lot more empowered people filling our soup kitchens, and empowered people do a lot better on job interviews.

There is a spiritual principle at work here. We claim that God created the universe ex nihilo, out of nothing. We proclaim that Jesus, who had no earthly goods, poured himself out completely, giving his entire life and spirit to what looked like defeat. And on Easter we trumpet his victory out of nothing, celebrating an empty space, a void, where a corpse was supposed to be. Out of nothing, everything.

Lakota peoples have a tradition of the "give-away" during funerals. Families that are dirt poor will not only feed out-of-towners for funeral rites lasting several days, but will also host a gathering at which each and every guest is given something. The more honored may receive valuable gifts like quilts and beadwork; others might get plasticware from the dollar store, or hand-me-downs. The principle is the same: even in times of loss, even in poverty, we have something to give, and no one goes away empty-handed.

That widow in the temple might have given her last coins because she was out of options, out of strategies – she was casting herself entirely upon God’s mercy. She gave what she had and left herself empty and ready to receive. We all know how to give out of our plenty. Where do you feel you have little or nothing? What would it look like to give from that place? Where is God inviting you to try that?

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