5-26-17 - Redirecting our Gaze

We often look for God in the last place we saw evidence of him. So it’s not surprising that the disciples were gazing up towards heaven as Jesus disappeared in the clouds. But just as at the tomb on Easter morning, when they were seeking Jesus’ body, two “men in white” appear once more to set them straight.

…as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’

In other words, “Don’t just stand here! Do what he told you to do.” And what he had told them to do was to wait in the city until they had been “clothed with power from on high.” So they did -

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying…. constantly devoting themselves to prayer.” 

And prayer is what they were doing when the Spirit came in power upon them ten days later – and after that, they were pretty much always on the move.

When we have an intense spiritual encounter or experience, we often want to rest in that, stay with it, try to get another "hit." And yet God almost always calls us forward, not back. The Spirit is moving, all around us, often in places and people we didn’t think to look. Part of our growth as apostles is learning to discern the activity of God, to note it, celebrate it, and – often – to join it.

Where have you seen evidence of God’s action lately? In whom? Did you read about something, or see something on the street, or have a conversation that struck a spark in you?

What if we made a practice, between now and Pentecost, of writing down each day one or two places or times when we became aware of the Spirit’s action? That would be a wonderful exercise to sharpen our spiritual senses.

If we want to see God, prayer and scripture and worship are part of the picture - but God is also out and about. What if prayer and scripture and worship became the ways we celebrated those God-sightings and became inspired to explore some more? That would energize the whole church!

5-25-17 - Testify

Jesus said to his disciples, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things." 

I like to joke that many Episcopalians seem to be enrolled in a Witness Protection Program, staying as low-profile as possible about their faith and spirituality. That can happen when we focus more on church than on Christ. Jesus calls those who would bear his name in the world to bear witness to his story, and to the power of God he taught and lived. And witnesses testify.

Maybe “testify” is a problematic word; a witness in a court room does not always tell her story voluntarily. So let’s leave that formal, sterile, judicial context and look at how we talk about things we’ve witnessed in every-day life. An amazing encounter with wildlife. That hysterical cat video. The adorable thing our granddaughter said. The two-mile back-up with no known cause we endured. The movie we just saw. The new restaurant we love. We bear witness all the time.

Can we talk as easily and naturally about our encounters with the Holy when we have them? Can we talk about our outreach activities and worship experiences and the joy of community? Can we talk about Jesus and his story, and how it interweaves with our stories… or better yet, how it frames our stories? Our faith is not meant to be one strand of our life, woven in with all the other strands – it is meant to be the frame in which the tapestry sits, the frame that holds and contains our work and relationships and play and rest. In other words, our “faith-life” is our life, not part of our life.

Bearing witness is not even something we have to “do.” We need only allow God to do it through us. This Witness Program ships with a built-in power supply. 
Jesus says in Acts: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
And in Luke: “And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high."

That power came in fullness at Pentecost. We receive it at baptism, confirmation, ordination - and any time we exercise faith in the name of Jesus. If we find ourselves in a situation that could get “spiritual,” we can say a quick prayer: “Okay, God, you promised power… give me the courage and the words.” Ordinary conversations and encounters can become charged with holiness and result in amazing outcomes.

Exercise your faith in prayer if called on. Tell a story that is meaningful to you. Talk about what Jesus means to you. We can do that in ways that give people space for their own experiences and views. A witness is not there to persuade, but to tell a story that is true and authentic.

"You will be my witnesses...to the ends of the earth.” From the perspective of Jerusalem in 33 CE (give or take...), we are the ends of the earth. If we’ve experienced blessing in God, let’s testify.

5-24-17 - The End - and the Beginning

Tomorrow is Ascension Day, a major church feast day - and ignored by most churches, unless they are named Ascension. Maybe this holiday gets less airplay because the event it commemorates is so odd. What shall we make of this dramatic departure of the already quite dramatically risen Christ? It's hard to imagine such a bizarre event, which only Luke records in any detail, in both his gospel and in Acts.

Yet this is the final scene in the incarnate life of the Son of God, and tells us how he gets back to the place from where our story says he started: the heavenly precincts, where from now on he will be seated in glory at the right hand of the Father. (...a somewhat sedentary eternity for one who moved around so much, and prompting the vexing question a child once asked me, "Who is on the left side of God?")

Jesus hung out for forty days after his resurrection, the Gospels tell us, instructing and inspiring his followers to believe the impossible, and to live as though they believed it. It’s hard to convince the world all things are possible with God while holed up in fear in a room in Jerusalem. So Jesus kept showing up and going through the lessons again. Even so, they didn't quite get it. Gathered with him just before he takes his final bow, they still ask, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

Have they heard nothing he’s said about God being among them to heal the sick, raise the dead, proclaim restoration to the poor? Do they still not understand his mission, or theirs, to make visible the power of God to restore all creation to wholeness? Once again, Jesus tries to explain it:

He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’

Why do we so often need to be reminded of where we’re supposed to be headed? Why do we so often let our focus narrow to the small matters of our own lives, forgetting where we stand in the big picture of God’s Life? How might we be regularly redirected to God’s mission through us?

By remembering that it is all about the Holy Spirit’s power working through us. Whenever we feel confused or discouraged or in doubt, we return to this central promise: You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.

And then we need to be open to receiving that power, that presence of God with us; open to exercising that power in Jesus’ name – not our own power, but God’s power empowering our proclamation, our works of restoration and healing, our witnessing.

Jesus’ disciples were told they would be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The book of Acts shows us how closely the spreading of the Good News followed that trajectory. Our chapter in that book will tell even more amazing stories as we let the Spirit work through us.

5-23-17 - Jesus' Unanswered Prayer

How many people have stepped away from God because a prayer they desired with all their heart was not answered? If we’re going to put our trust in a being we cannot see, hear or touch, whom we can only imagine based on reports of others and our own subjective experience, hadn’t that all-powerful being at least deliver the goods? And it seems that God does not always deliver the goods we want.

We might feel better to know that even Jesus, the incarnate, sinless Son of God, who dwelt in God’s holy presence since before time began and dwells there for eternity, had unanswered prayers. There is one in this Sunday’s gospel. Jesus prayed, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

In case you hadn’t noticed, the church that is meant to be Christ’s One Body in the world is as divided as it has ever been. Most people on one side or another of its many divides would say that those on the other sides distort or misinterpret Jesus’ legacy. Many would offer excellent support for their position. Unfortunately, unity rarely trumps the human need to be right.

So, did Jesus pray a dumb prayer? Why has it not been answered in a way that matched the deep desire of his heart? Why has love been so hard a road, even for the followers of the Lord of Love, the Prince of Peace?

I would say it is because we remain human. Not even the unlimited power of God can prevail against a human will that is not yielded to God. That is the way God set it up. God’s power is unlimited – except where God has chosen to limit it. If we have free will, the will to choose God or not-God, then God has voluntarily bound his own hand. If our prayers depend on the will of another person to choose one way or another, their efficacy will depend on how much that person is open to the influence of the Holy Spirit.

What prayers of yours have felt fruitless? Are you trying to pray around someone rather than for them?

This prayer of Jesus that his followers would be one, protected from the corrosion and dis-ease that division cause, can only be answered in our choosing differently. When we invite God to bring our wills for his church into alignment with his will, we might begin to seek reconciliation with others who claim to follow Christ. And seeking reconciliation is not the same thing as seeking agreement. Too often we start by trying to resolve differences rather than by building relationships.

How might we work toward the fruit that Jesus prayed for, that fruit of unity and love by which he said the world would know his followers? Is there someone who believes differently than you to whom you might offer relationship?

In the fullness of God's time, Jesus’ prayer has already been answered. Its completion will become more visible as we align ourselves with that prayer and live into it. Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est. "Where true love is, God is there."

5-22-17 - Eternity Starts Now

As John’s Gospel renders the account of Jesus’ last night with his disciples before his arrest and execution, he took a LONG time to say goodbye. The “farewell discourses” comprise five chapters in John. Much of that is Jesus’ final teaching about what he’s been up to, and what (who…) is coming next. These words ground the development of our doctrine of the Trinity, God as Three distinct “persons” in One unified whole.

Finishing his remarks to his followers, Jesus turns to his heavenly Father, in what theologians call “the high priestly prayer.” From this evolved the Church’s understanding that the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, existed before all things were made, “was with God and was God” always and forever. Jesus says, 
“I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.”

In the presence of God is where Jesus began, and where he returned after his mission in the world was completed. In the presence of God is also where Jesus’ followers, those who believe, will dwell eternally. Jesus prayed,
“Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent."

We may think that eternal life knowing God, dwelling in God’s presence, happens when we die. But our Good News proclaims that, in Christ, God came among us. Our Good News is that when Jesus returned to the Father, God sent the Spirit of Christ to be with us always, at all times, to the end of the ages. Eternity has already begun. It is now.

We can forget that, aware of so much that is not of God. Our great claim as Christians is that the Life of God is already, is now, is here. Indeed, we help bring it more fully into being as we reflect that Life more than we do the life of the world. Life in this world is among the things that will pass away. Life in God, which we enter here and now, is forever.

What or who in your life today reminds you that you are already living in the eternal Life of God?
What is distracting you from that heart-knowledge?
How might you exercise your faith muscles to affirm that God is here, to pray about the matters that make you fear God is not here?

Jesus completed his work. He released into this world the Life of God; it cannot be re-contained or suppressed. But to many it can remain invisible – unless we make it known by how we live God-Life here and now. Where will you make that Life known today?

5-19-17 - Swimming in Love

Language fails when we try to convey the overlapping unity of love and persons in God, a triune swirl of inter-relatedness in which we are invited to swim. I comfort myself that Jesus, at least as his remarks are rendered in John’s Gospel, seemed to have almost as much trouble making it clear:

“In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

Where does Jesus end and the Father begin? Where do we end and Jesus begin? Are we in the Father and in Jesus, or vice versa, or (g) all of the above? The answer is (g)… maybe (z). God is love. Jesus is love. We love and are loved, and so are drawn into the eternal and present Love of God.

When two people fall in love, there is often a period where identities merge. We don’t want to be separate people. We want to fuse, to lose ourselves in the glorious other, whose every word and movement is wondrous. This stage of in-love-ness is intoxicating – and it’s not forever. If the relationship is to grow and strengthen, we need to differentiate again, to carry our own identities, loving and respecting the other person, being with but not needing to be one with.

So is Jesus saying we lose our identity when we let the love of God become a part of us, and we of God? I don’t think so. The Christian tradition maintains that each of us is unique and precious. Our self does not get obliterated as we enter the stream of God’s love. Rather, being loved for who we are allows us to become more fully who we truly are, shedding the inauthentic carapaces and personas we grow to protect ourselves and cope with adversity.

We don’t lose ourselves swimming in God’s love any more than we do when we swim in the vast, refreshing ocean. We become more fully alive. We are contained in our bodies, and yet somehow one with a primal element. We exult as we move in that unbounded water, which allows us to dive and dance and turn somersaults and ride waves, all kinds of things we can’t do on land, just as dwelling in God's love enables us to do and think and say and offer all kinds of things we can’t in our natural selves.

Today in prayer let's go swimming. Imagine a waterfall flowing into the sea. Let’s say the sea is the Love of God, the waterfall is Jesus, and the spray that rises as they meet is the Holy Spirit. This sea is always being renewed, refreshed, replenished, the water all one, so you cannot distinguish sea from waterfall from spray. Imagine jumping in. How does the water feel? How does it make you feel? How do you want to move in it?

If this is God’s love, how does it feel to be immersed in love? How would you share the water with others? How would you invite others to join you in that pool?

Swimming in the love of God allows us to access the source of Love that has no limit, so that we love out of the reservoir of God’s infinite love, not our own limited supply. As we enter the summer “swimming season,” I hope you’ll have lots of opportunities to be reminded of the water in which we were reborn, in which we will swim always. Splash!

5-18-17 - Not As Orphans

Orphans. It’s a strong word. In 2005 I helped raise the money to build and launch a residential school for children orphaned by AIDS in Western Kenya, one of the poorest regions in that country, where at the time there were no services for the growing number of orphans. As the chief communicator drafting brochures, web pages and fundraising appeals, I used the word “orphans” as often as I could; it tugs at hearts strings more effectively than do terms like “at-risk” or “OVC” (orphans and vulnerable children).

Then I learned that our Kenyan partners avoid that word whenever possible. In an extended-family culture, to say a child is orphaned means that no one in her family or even village is prepared to care for her, a scenario which suggests the whole community is disabled. Many prospective students at the Nambale Magnet School had lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS; few were to be labeled orphans.

”I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus tells his disciples on his last night with them. “I am coming to you.” It’s not what a boss would say to employees, or a coach to players, a teacher to students. This language acknowledges that the community of Jesus followers had become a family, with ties as thick as blood. Jesus recognizes that his departure from their daily lives, and the violence with which he will be wrenched from them, is likely to be as dislocating for them as it is for a child to lose his father or mother.

And it is yet another hint that death will not be the end of Jesus’ story. Only death can cause orphans. Certainly Jesus’ followers were going to feel like orphans after his death, and we see that sorrow depicted in the passion story. But they were not to be orphans, he says, because death was not to be his permanent condition.

How would it change us if we could live in that confidence whenever we’re facing great loss or sorrow? That we have not been left as orphans, no matter how abandoned we may feel in a given moment? It can be as difficult for me to trust that God is real and present as it is for my cats to understand, when I go on a trip, that I am indeed returning. We don’t have the capacity to truly comprehend it – so we learn to trust it little by little, strengthening our faith muscles, testing God’s love and Jesus’ promise: “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.”

When did you last have an experience of “seeing” Jesus? In another person, in a movement of God, in prayer, in song? I suggest this question a lot – it’s the best way I know to reinforce our faith. Keep a record of those sightings; they help encourage us when we feel orphaned.

And, as my cats do when I return (I think!), we can relax and rejoice whenever we do experience Jesus’ life with us and in us again. Whatever our version of rubbing and purring is, I’m sure it pleases our heavenly Father when we offer our praise in love.