3-24-17 - Seeing is Believing

I onceI saw a beautiful documentary called “Visions of Mustang: Bringing Sight to the Forbidden Kingdom,” about a medical mission to bring eye care to the ancient kingdom of Mustang, a remote and inaccessible part of Nepal. Extreme exposure to sun and wind and altitude means many residents develop cataracts and other easily treated eye problems. The team saw 1650 patients, dispensed nearly 800 pairs of glasses and performed many surgeries, restoring sight to the blind and giving a first glimpse of clarity to many who never knew what sight was supposed to be.

Jesus too was on a mission to restore sight in the forbidden kingdoms of this world, and his description of that mission is puzzling. He says to the man he healed, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains."

Did Jesus really want those who thought they had God all figured out to become blind… or to recognize their blindness? He is particularly hard on these leaders who are so sure they see correctly. Because they have rejected his message and revelation, he says, they are stuck in sin. These self-righteous ones, who think they are “first,” will be last of all. Yet to more obvious “sinners” who come to Jesus for life, he throws open the gates to the Kingdom; the last shall be first.

What about us? Are we among the “first?” What about the “last” who never hear about Jesus’ love, or just do not experience faith? This is a mystery to sit with, and reconcile with the whole of Jesus’ promises of life over death. The life of faith is about learning to see ourselves clearly, knowing our weak spots as well as our strengths; to see others clearly and without judgment; and to see God clearly.

And once again, Jesus affirms relationship over “religion”: Jesus heard that they had driven [the man born blind] out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.

As we are open to meeting Jesus, we come to see Him more clearly too. We might pray, “Okay, Jesus let me see you, find out who you are.” We might experience him in prayer, or pick up a New Testament and read a Gospel, check out his "profile," as it were. We can spend time with people who know him, hang around him, build our trust.

Scott Hamilton, who put together the expedition depicted in the film, spoke at the screening I saw. He feels the reason they succeeded was due to “monk power” – the 18 Buddhist monks who accompanied them up to Mustang and went to remote settlements to invite people to the eye clinics. The trust engendered by those relationships made it possible for many to have their sight restored.

Jesus came in human flesh into our forbidden kingdom so that we might trust God to get close to us. As we open to relationship with him and let him come close, close enough to touch our eyes, we will find new sight, clearer than we could ever imagine. And then we can go out and find others, and help them trust Jesus to draw near.

3-23-17 - Truth to Power

A student of power dynamics could have a field day with the Christian gospels – no doubt, many have. The next part of this week’s story shows how much power the powerless can have, and how much control people with an illusion of power can try to exert over others. The Pharisees depicted here make a Congressional witch hunt look like… well, I was going to say, like a tea party… but, never mind...

Unsure what to make of this miracle of healing, these leaders interrogate the man born blind. When he maintains his story – “this man came along, made a paste with mud, put it on my eyes, sent me to wash it off, and then I could see” – they decide to question the man’s parents. They don’t contradict the story, so they haul the man himself in again.

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, ‘Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.’ (I think we call that leading the witness… ) He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’ They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’ He answered them, "I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?’”

Where does this man get the boldness to answer the authorities with such wit and sarcasm? Perhaps knowing that God has healed him so powerfully frees him to stand up to these ecclesiastical bullies. He gets a reaction:

Then they reviled him, saying, ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.’ The man answered, ‘Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing."

Talk about transformation! This man who used to beg every day, the only occupation his disability allowed him, is now revealed as a theologian and a lawyer, turning their logic back on them. “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” Clearly, his spiritual vision functions as well as his new eyesight. This man, who recently held the lowest social status, now speaks with authority to the authorities.

Where can we get the courage to stand against power that abuses authority and misuses logic? We can encounter such people in our own lives, workplaces, even families, not to mention governments. How do we speak truth to them? We locate our power the same place the now-seeing man did: knowing we are so beloved of God, that God would move heaven and earth to make us whole. It is in our awareness of our need, weakness before God, reliance on God's strength, that we find the power to stand for justice and truth.

Today, remind yourself of the different ways God has healed and strengthened you over the years. Recall the ways you used to have trouble functioning, that you’ve overcome. Name your gifts, and the transformations you’ve undergone. You might also name ways in which you still feel disabled, ill equipped, out of control. Invite the Spirit of God to pour God’s love into those areas in you, and make you whole.

St. Paul reminds us that God’s strength is perfected in our weakness. Anytime we’re unsure of where we stand, we can remember that we stand in the might of the God who made all that is, seen and unseen. And, as we stand in that power and love, we find more and more can be seen.

3-22-17 - In Trouble Now...

It’s amazing that Jesus has been held up as a role model to generations of children, given his penchant for talking back and getting in trouble. We might say he’s the “Dennis the Menace” of world religious figures. John’s gospel in particular features increasingly tense encounters with religious authorities as Jesus’ miracles (“signs,” to John…) confront the scribes and Pharisees with evidence of divinity they’d rather not acknowledge.

It doesn’t help that Jesus doesn’t seem to care what day it is. Healing on the Sabbath leaves him open to charges of violating the Law by "working.” This miracle with the man born blind really shakes things up:

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided.

They interrogate the newly sighted man a second time; this time he said, “He is a prophet.” Not liking that answer, they call in the man’s parents to testify that he was indeed blind from birth, and that he now sees. The parents are terrified – they’ll admit he was born, and born blind; they refuse to comment on this new turn of events. “'Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.' His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.”

Banishment is an extreme threat – and a measure of how threatened the Jewish leaders were by everything Jesus represented. The evidence of Jesus’ holiness and spiritual power was always before them – but to accept his claims seemed blasphemous, and would mean acknowledging his authority. These men were clinging to limited power under the thumb of the Roman occupation… too much was at risk.

How about us? What order in our lives might be threatened by acknowledging the “God-ness” of Christ? Accepting that his power is real and still at work in the world around us? Are we keeping Jesus at a safe distance, locked up in a pretty building, visiting him for an hour or so once or twice a week?

Or do we invite him into our lives, into our cluttered living rooms, our frenetic days and never-done to-do lists? Are we willing to let him roam freely through our work and relationships and leisure activities, perusing our bank accounts and spending patterns? What if he suggests some changes to our priorities? What if he asks us to commit time and resources to other things, other people?

There’s a lot to pray about in these questions – and a lot to offer to God, as we open our hands and hearts. We must issue the invitation; the Spirit of Christ seems rarely to come where not invited. And, most of the time, Jesus doesn’t even knock things over that much. He takes his time and lets us come around to his way of seeing before inviting us into new patterns of being.

Sometimes. Other times, he can be a little “Dennis” like… but, you know, like Dennis, kind of lovable.

3-21-17 - Seeing What Is Not

How would you respond if somebody you knew to be blind could suddenly see, or someone paralyzed came dancing down the street? Or course, now we have medical advances… but imagine if you were around when this blind man received sight he’d never had? It caused a stir, to say the least…

The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “'Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?' Some were saying, 'It is he.' Others were saying, 'No, but it is someone like him.'”

Funny how, when we’re positive something cannot be, we can convince ourselves we’re not seeing it. Even when the man said, “I’m the guy…” they couldn’t quite buy it.

He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.”

Do we need to understand “how” to accept “what?” The man himself seems remarkably untroubled by how this came about – even before he gets the third degree from the religious authorities. Maybe it’s because he had no prior visual data to contradict his new reality. He did not have a lifetime of “that’s impossible, if you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist” to overcome. He had never seen anything with his eyes. Maybe that’s why children believe so much more easily than adults – less contradictory data.

We can get so locked into our understanding of how the universe works – an understanding that the best scientists admit is incomplete – that we can’t entertain the possibility that the Creator of the whole thing has “laws” we have not yet discovered. Or have not discovered fully. That’s the “Kingdom of God” Jesus was making known, what I like to call the Energy Field of God.

Have you ever been asked to believe something that you knew to be impossible? Was it really? Or was your understanding too limited? Is there something in your life now that you’re being invited to believe? A step of faith you’re being invited to take? A prayer you’re being invited to try on? Can you take a step in that direction in prayer today?

The God we worship as Christ-followers is One who "calls into being things that were not.” (Romans 4:17). Faith is our ability to believe in what God is calling into being. We don’t have to be limited in prayer by what we’ve already seen. We do have to open ourselves to the possibility that God’s ways are bigger than we can imagine. That’s the beginning of faith vision, seeing what we have not previously been able to see.

God is calling things into being all the time. Imagine the sensory rush as our Spirit-vision kicks in and we truly begin to see the Energy of God at work around us.

3-20-17 - The Impossible

This week we dive deep into another Jesus encounter, this time with a man who was born blind, whose sight Jesus restores – to the dismay of a great many people. We'd like to think that such a healing would result in rejoicing – but overturning the laws of nature and probability unsettles people, especially those with an illusion of being in control.

As the story begins, the man does not ask for sight – who would ask for the impossible? He’s never known what it is to see. Jesus and his disciples pass him and the disciples ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” In Jesus’ day, misfortune, illnesses, even infertility were assumed to be consequences of sin, just as prosperity and health were seen as signs of God’s blessing.

Jesus rejects that kind of causality, but suggests something that to my ears is equally troubling: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Was Jesus was suggesting this man was singled out for misfortune just so God could swoop in with a razzle-dazzle miracle later in his life? I don’t think so. I think he is saying that all situations of suffering, no matter their source, are opportunities for us to bring the power and love of God to bear to transform them. I read his words as, “Don’t waste your time wondering what happened in the past – God’s power is about what happens next.”

And Jesus takes the opportunity to reveal the power of God right there. “…he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.”

Among the many mysteries in this story is this: Why does he go through this strange exercise of making a paste of mud and saliva, when he could just speak healing upon the blind man? Why does he send him to wash in the pool to somehow “release” the healing? Archeologists have discovered ruins suggesting the Pool of Siloam was spring- fed, which would have made it an acceptable place for ritual bathing and purification. Are there echoes here of Jesus’ words about living water? Did he have the man wash at the pool so that the sacred places of Israel would be part of the healing? Did he make the mud paste to convey that ordinary things can become sacramental, vehicles of the holy for us?

Jesus heals in different ways in our Gospel accounts – sometimes just with a word, sometimes with matter, sometimes in person, sometimes remotely, sometimes with established rituals. He uses his own saliva also in restoring speech and hearing to a deaf-mute, and in another healing of a blind man. We may be squeamish about spit, but this story does tell us that God is not limited to one method or set of words – and that the healing power of God is alive in the very matter of our minds and bodies. God’s healing is always mediated through a person who prays, whether with words, or with a touch, or through a prayer shawl. The “stuff” of our lives can become holy as we invite God to consecrate it.

Today, let's offer a prayer of thanksgiving for our bodies, starting with our feet and moving upward; for the way our body and senses carry us, enable us to do ministry, to make God’s love and power known to others. And if there is someone you know in need of healing, pray for God’s healing to be released in that person as it was in the blind man.

His story continues, “Then he went and washed and came back able to see.” It was "impossible" then - and "impossible" now. Except, the same God is at work in us. So look out...

3-17-17 - Telling our Stories

This week’s story is a lesson in faith-sharing – or evangelism. A woman meets Jesus, and discovers that in him is the power of God. When he then tells her that he is, in fact, the Anointed of God, the Messiah long-awaited by Jew and Samaritan alike, she believes him. At least, she is sure enough that she drops her water jar and runs back to tell her neighbors in town about him – and then they come to check him out themselves.

She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ They left the city and were on their way to him.”

Meanwhile, Jesus’ disciples come back with lunch – but he doesn’t want any:
Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, “Four months more, then comes the harvest”? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.’

Is Jesus having a moment of discovery? Has he found, in this alien territory, a mission field he had discounted, assuming he was only to bring his gifts to the Jewish people? Perhaps this encounter has reminded him of his broader mission. Or maybe he knew all along, loitering by that well.

He and his disciples will soon find out just how ripe these fields are when they spend a few days in that town:  And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.’

Our job as Christ followers is to tell the stories of our encounters with God - often across boundaries of culture, race, age or gender. We don’t have to persuade anyone about the Nicene Creed, just speak our God-stories. And if our stories are tepid, we may be too locked into thinking our “God-encounters” are things that happen in church. Church stories can be dull to those outside the congregation. But “God stories” are rarely dull – this woman’s story certainly wasn’t. And her excitement and passion helped ignite curiosity and anticipation in her neighbors.

What kind of news do you tend to share with excitement? Great things that have happened? Achievements? Stories of travel? Cultural events? Meals? Your children’s exploits? 
This weekend, try to notice when your energy rises in conversation – what are you talking about at those points? Can you think of a “holy moment” that generates that kind of energy in you, which you might share with someone? Pray about who needs to hear that story.

If telling people how great our church is was an effective means of spreading the Good News, our churches would be full. They’re not. Yet, the fields are still ripe with people hungry for spiritual connections that are authentic and personal. Let’s do what this woman did, and go tell our neighbors about our encounters with Jesus, with God, with the Holy Spirit.

We just need to introduce people to Jesus; he will do the rest. Then maybe we’ll get to hear those joyful words too – “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe. We have heard for ourselves, and now we know.”

3-16-17 - True Worship

When Jesus names some uncomfortable truth about her life, the woman he has met at a well does not comment. She changes the subject, bringing up the source of division between Jews and Samaritans: “Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem."

I have always seen this as an evasive pivot away from the topic of her personal life. But I wonder – is she actually trying to deepen the conversation? “Okay, Mister, if we’re going to talk truth, let’s talk about why your people and mine don’t get along. Let’s talk about our relationship. Why do you say we all have to worship in Jerusalem?”

Jesus gives her a full and perhaps surprising answer, not condescending: “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 

This truth Jesus offers should be emblazoned on our church buildings and service bulletins. How and where we worship can both lead us into divine presence, and keep us far away. It is human nature to seek connection with the holy – and when we find it, to attempt to recreate the circumstances we believe led to that moment. Thus we get ritual, and we repeat it and soon deem it sacred, and then all kinds of actions and objects and spaces and even clothing accrue – and before we know it, we may put our focus on all the apparatus and lose sight of the divine connection we were seeking in the first place.

Worship, as Jesus defines it, is not something we do. It is how we open ourselves to encounter with the Living God. It is a spiritual activity, engaging our spirits – and, because our spirits are embodied, also our senses, minds and bodies. And worship is truth-seeking. We don’t need to be in church to worship – church can help sometimes, and get in the way others. What we need is an open heart and humility.
  • When do you feel yourself most fully alive in worship? Is it during a service? If so, what elements draw you in? Music? Prayer? Proclamation? Teaching? Movement? Sacrament? It’s good to be aware of how you feel most connected to God.
  • Maybe you feel yourself most worshipful in silence or in solitude or in nature or doing something for someone else – it’s good to know that too, to honor that as worship.
  • If you don’t feel you connect to God in worship of any kind, you might ask the Spirit to show you a way for you.
Worship, above all else, is encounter – a profoundly cross-cultural encounter across boundaries of difference more pronounced even than the ethnic, religious and gender barriers Jesus and this woman were bridging. Worship is an encounter between a mere human, unique and ordinary, and the God who made all things, holy and transcendent. Yet this God invites us to meet, to break bread, even to dance.

The hour is coming – and is now here – when God is in our midst, in spirit and in truth. God has shown up. Will we?