4-26-17 - The Guidebook

Do you ever read guidebooks about a place before you visit it? I try, and find I can’t really retain the details – it’s too abstract, too flat. Once I’ve been there, though, I enjoy going back to the book, to let its information fill out what I’ve now seen and experienced.

The Bible can be that way – a whole lot of information and other people’s stories, until we experience God for ourselves and have a personal context from which to process those writings. Perhaps that’s how the Scriptures were for Jesus’ followers before the resurrection, sacred writings that spoke of God’s activity in the past and promised some future restoration that they couldn’t imagine. But after Jesus rose from the dead? Ah, now, let’s read that prophecy again.

Is this what the two disciples on the Emmaus road experienced when the stranger walking with them began to teach them? “Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”

Later, they say, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” With interpretation, all those words and stories of God suddenly made a kind of sense. They were leading somewhere. Yes, they had their own validity in their original times and communities – and now they also had a new interpretation, both broader and narrower, pointing to what God was up to in the mission of Jesus Christ on earth.

Guidebooks are great, but we often benefit from having a guide as well, someone who’s been further up the road, to help us interpret the path we’re traveling. In Jesus, those sojourners found a Guide who could help interpret the Guidebook. In the Holy Spirit, we get the same gift – as we read the Scriptures alone or with others, aided by Christ’s Spirit, they come to life, and bring life to us.

Who has helped you better understand parts of the Bible that you’ve read? Who have you helped?
What other guides have come alongside you on the spiritual path, to help make sense of your surroundings – spiritual directors, teachers, authors?

If reading the bible is a challenge for you, you might take a small chunk each day and pray before you read, “Holy Spirit, be with me in my reading and receiving – show me what gifts your Word has for me today.” Read and see what catches your attention. Read it again. Try reading it aloud. Stay with that passage for another day if it’s giving you life.

If you’re not part of a bible study group, I highly recommend joining one – having other people’s insights and perspectives opens it up for us.

This Book of ours is a good guidebook, even as some parts can be dull, and others seem out of touch, even angering. The terrain it describes is vast and intricate, ancient and yet to come. But with the Spirit’s help, this Word can nurture our spirits and strengthen our faith… and occasionally even start a fire in our hearts.

4-25-17 - Dashed Hopes

Every so often I have an “under a rock” moment; I get too busy to check the news (or Facebook…) and am unaware of major events, celebrities, social moments and movements. The stranger whom the two disciples encounter on the road to Emmaus seems like that, shockingly ignorant of the big news in Jerusalem. Surely even those beyond Jesus’ circle had heard the weekend’s big story, the holy man condemned by the temple leaders, crucified by the Romans – and mysteriously missing from the tomb into which his body had been placed just 48 hours ago… But here he is, asking,

"What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’"They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, "Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?" He asked them, "What things?’"They replied, "The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.”

Maybe something about this stranger invites them deeper, for they go beyond the facts to the feelings they are wrestling with: “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” There it is. “We had hoped…” In addition to the trauma of the past week, they are face to face with their own lost hopes. It was hard enough to put their trust in someone of such simple origins, from Galilee; a rabbi, teacher. Oh yes, there were the miracles, but also the upside-down teachings… Were they just plain wrong?

Are we? Be honest – have you never felt disappointed by God? I don't think it’s possible to be a person of faith and not be disappointed by God. We are invited to put our trust, our weight on someone we cannot see, touch or feel, except in indirect and inward ways. Anyone who’s ever gone out on a limb in prayer and not seen it answered in any positive way, or faced a heartbreak in life, can have a beef with God. Our Scriptures are full of people who have a beef with God – and often express it in eloquent and poetic ways. That’s the key – to express it, have it out with God in prayer, the way we do in any relationship we hope will be lasting and life-giving.

Those men did not know they were confessing their disappointment to the Lord himself – but we do. Tell God the big life stuff, and the little, niggling things. If you feel like you’re at a wall in your faith, say so. The very act of expressing it creates space for the Holy Spirit’s healing, restoring love to work in us.

And, while we're at it, give thanks for the times we have not been disappointed. It’s all part of the picture, and the more complete the picture is, the stronger our faith can be.

Those men on the road had more to say, crazy stuff: “Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’”

We don’t always know what God is up to when our hopes are dashed. Sometimes we find out later that God has moved heaven and earth on our behalf. Sometimes we discover that Jesus is right in front of us, even if we don’t see him.

4-24-17 - Strangers on the Way

I’ve known several people who have walked all or part of El Camino del Santiago, the pilgrimage route through France and Spain to the shrine of St. James (Sant’Iago) at Campostella. They observed that people who came together did not always end up walking together. Walking speeds and rhythms diverge; disagreements can crop up. For varied reasons, people often fall in with strangers on that trail, and sometimes those strangers have just the gifts they need for the spiritual journey that parallels the physical one. (For a decent film about this, check out “The Way,” starting Martin Sheen as a reluctant pilgrim on the Camino…)

If I ever make that pilgrimage, I will be thinking of this week’s gospel story, about the disciples on the road to Emmaus and the traveling companion who joined them. In our Sunday readings, it's still the Day of Resurrection. On Easter Sunday, we visit the events of that morning. On Easter 2, it’s that evening. On Easter 3 this year, we find ourselves in the late afternoon of that same day, on a road outside Jerusalem, with two of Jesus’ followers:

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, "What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?"

Why were their “their eyes were kept from recognizing him?” Sometimes we just don’t see what we don’t expect to see, especially if it is far outside the bounds of probability. These two were already under great stress from the events of the past few days – watching their Lord betrayed, arrested, tried, mocked, flogged, crucified… and just as they were coming to terms with that reality, Reality itself was turned upside down with the empty tomb and reports that people had seen Jesus alive, had talked with him. Could these things be? Was it a conspiracy? A hoax? Could it possibly be true?

We process things by talking about them. So these two, in the midst of great upheaval, were discussing it, trying to make some sense of it all. And along comes a stranger who doesn’t even seem to know the events of which they are speaking - yet knows more than anyone they've ever met. He helps them understand, and sends them running seven miles back the way they’d come, their world transformed.

Have you ever found yourself talking about traumatic events with total strangers? 
Sometimes such conversations happen in hospital waiting rooms, or in the midst of disasters. 
Have you ever been the stranger that helped someone else process something painful? 
Were you aware of the presence of Christ in such an encounter? Of Christ in you, or in another?

Today, let’s give thanks for the companions who join us along our way. If you’re willing, ask God to send you alongside someone today who needs the gift you bring, the gift of the presence of Christ in you. Tonight, think back and see how that prayer was answered. Try it again tomorrow.

If I ever walk the Camino, I will assume that Christ is showing up beside me in the people with whom I walk. In fact, this principle may well be true on the roads I find myself walking today, actual or virtual. Where is the risen Christ joining you on the Way today?

4-21-17 - Believing For Your Life

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Why did John write down the Jesus story? He tells us in this week’s gospel passage: so that his readers may come to believe in Jesus’ messianic and divine identity, and “through believing you may have life in his name.” Paul, too, links spiritual vitality with believing in Jesus’ divine self. Even Jesus says that those who believe he is who he says he is will have eternal life. This believing stuff is not a minor detail.

Yet reading a story about Jesus’ resurrection activities and conversations does not by itself confer faith. Most of us need to experience the power of the Risen Christ for ourselves if we are to put our faith in him. What the written record does is invite us into the Great Story of God’s love for us expressed in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. It brings us to the threshold. It’s up to us to step in and live it.

Do you feel you have experienced the reality of Christ in some way or fashion? If we expect to see him the way Mary or the Eleven or the two on the Emmaus road did, we may feel we’re lacking that experience. Visual and aural Jesus sightings are rare… possibly non-existent. Jesus said as much to his followers – he said when he left, the Father would send the Holy Spirit to them. It is the Spirit who brings the presence of Christ to us in a way we can experience.

When we feel the Holy Spirit in or around us – whether by a sensation, or an insight, or seeing answer to prayer, or some other way – it is the Spirit of Christ we are experiencing. When we have a holy encounter with another person, it may be that we are meeting Christ in them. As we become more attuned to that presence, we can more readily accept that Christ is a part of us, in our lives – and thus we are led to believe more fully. His life in us leads to believing, and believing leads to more of His life in us. We become vessels for others experiencing his life, and on and on it goes.

The word for “I believe” is Credo. The creeds of the church are statements of what the gathered community came to affirm as its core beliefs. They deal mostly with matters that were confusing or controversial – they’re not comprehensive.
So what are your beliefs about Christ?
Can you take some time today to write your own Credo?
Has it changed from earlier times? Do you think it is still evolving? If you don’t know what you believe about Christ, that would be a good thing to bring up in prayer.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” Jesus says to Thomas after he affirms Jesus as his Lord and God. You and I have not had the advantage that Thomas and the others did, of seeing Jesus with our eyes and hearing his voice and touching his wounds. I guess that means we are blessed indeed, for we have had to develop our “faith vision.”

Did you ever think that not seeing would be an asset? When it comes to believing, it is.

4-20-17 - Believing Before Knowing

There’s always one. Somebody who missed it, didn’t see the big moment, was looking the other way, in the bathroom at the wrong time. But few people are forever identified with missing it, to the extent that the word “Doubting” becomes appended to their name. Poor Thomas. So many others have doubted; he had so many sterling qualities. Yet for two thousand years his name has been synonymous with doubt.

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’”

Thomas wasn’t the only one who questioned. In Mark we read, “Afterward he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at table, and he rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.” (Mk 16:14)

Thomas stands wrongly accused of doubting. The opposite of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is certainty. That’s what Thomas wanted; he didn’t want to have to go on faith. Neither do we – faith is hard work. It means, by definition, not knowing for sure. Once we have proof, who needs faith?

Yet we exercise faith all the time – we place faith in the engineering of bridges and elevators, in the attention of other drivers, in the unseen hand of “The Market,” God help us. Why is it a greater stretch to place faith in a God whose presence is felt by millions, who has inspired uncountable acts of generosity and sacrifice? Why not believe in the risen Christ, when faith in his life in us has been affirmed for over two thousand years, by every kind of person, rich, poor, simple, erudite, good of heart and ethically challenged?

The operative word is “exercise.” Our faith is a muscle that grows stronger with use. We start out affirming our faith in God’s activity in our lives in small ways, and gradually try on bigger challenges. Jesus invites us to seek confirmation; when he shows up again the following week and Thomas is there, he invites him to touch his wounds and see for himself. But he also urges Thomas to greater faith:

Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

What aspect of God’s life or the Christian Good News do you having trouble putting faith in?
How about having a conversation with Jesus about that in prayer. “Hey, I don’t believe that story…” or “How can I have faith in your healing, when it doesn’t always happen?” As with any conversation, speak and listen. What word or thought or image comes to mind as you sit with your doubts?

Jesus’ gentleness with Thomas should encourage us. He knows faith is hard. He also knows it is the currency of God’s realm in this world, and the stronger ours is, the richer we are. One day we’ll see everything we now only affirm by faith. Believing before we see draws us that much closer to the One who is our future.

4-19-17 - Breath of God

When Jesus appeared in that locked room on Easter night, he wasn’t just dropping in to catch up with his buddies. He had some business to do. Once their lower jaws returned to normal position, he said to them again, “Peace be with you.” And then he got to it:

“’As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’”

Now that they had a better grasp on just what Jesus meant when he said, “As the Father has sent me…” I wonder how they felt about the daunting, “So I send you.” But he wasn’t done. He was not only sending them, but also equipping them with the only power they would need, the Holy Spirit.

The New Testament records two occasions on which Jesus’ followers receive the Holy Spirit. The better known is at Pentecost, when a sound like a mighty wind fills the house where they are praying, and flames seem to alight on each one, and suddenly they have spiritual gifts and abilities they didn’t have before. That’s how Luke tells it in Acts. In the Fourth Gospel, John says they receive the Spirit directly from the Risen Christ on Easter night. No fifty-day wait. Right here, right now. He breathes upon them; the Spirit is given.

In the Genesis creation story, the Spirit of God breathes upon the waters in the beginning. This ruach, Spirit-wind or breath of God, also fills the mud creature Adam with life. So Jesus, in breathing the Spirit upon his followers, is re-creating them, making them anew – no longer just disciples who followed him in faith, but now apostles equipped to bear witness to their risen Lord. Not only will they carry within themselves the power that created all things, they will also have the spiritual authority to forgive sins. They can release, or they can retain. (I’m not sure when it’s appropriate to retain someone’s sin – perhaps in cases of extreme non- repentance. All I know is Jesus forgave an awful lot.)

Are you aware of the power of the Holy Spirit in you? That gift Jesus gave his disciples has come down to us, through faith enacted in the rites of the church. Are you conscious of the spiritual authority you have to forgive or retain? It’s not only clergy who can forgive – it’s all saints, you and me.

What if the Church really took up its ministry of forgiveness of sin – not mindlessly, but thoughtfully, lovingly? How many people do you know who carry a burden of guilt around with them that we could help ease? It’s not our own forgiveness we declare, but that of God, through God’s Spirit in us.

Jesus was sent to set humanity free. Now he sends us to participate in that mission, and he breathes upon us his Holy Spirit. Take a deep breath in…. hold it, let it expand in you…. Feel the life of God fill you. And then exhale, breathing God’s forgiving love out upon someone else (even yourself..). And then do it again. And again.

4-18-17 - Peace Be With You

Time is very elastic in our gospels. Each one spends about half its pages on the three years of Jesus’ ministry – his teaching, miracles, and exploits. When we get to his final days, we slow down considerably, spending several chapters on the events of his suffering and death. And then we get to the Sunday of the Resurrection – and we really slow down, with whole chapters devoted to just that one day, that first day of the week, that First Day of our new lives.

The church will spend the next several Sundays exploring that one day, a day that began in the dark, when some women hurried to the tomb to do for Jesus’ body what Sabbath laws forbade them to do on Friday afternoon. The day went from sad to joyful and bizarre as they were met at the now-empty tomb by an angel (or two) announcing that Jesus is risen. And then there he is, right there on the road in front of them, saying, “Tell my brothers to meet me in Galilee,” a message which has always struck me as laughably prosaic from someone who’s just been to hell and back…

In church, we don’t get to linger on that Easter morning because by the next Sunday we’ve jumped to that evening. We find that Jesus’ disciples have not gone to Galilee as instructed, but are holed up in a room – presumably the one where they’d celebrated the Passover a few nights earlier, a lifetime ago:
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. (This week's gospel is here.)

“Peace be with you.” I can imagine many emotions those men and women probably experienced that day, and none of them involve peace. Here they are, trying to process the cosmic developments they’ve witnessed, hiding in a locked room because the threat to their lives has just intensified. And here is Jesus, just suddenly there, despite the doors shut and locked? “Peace be with you?”

But Jesus doesn’t only say, “Peace.” He can impart peace. This is the man whom they saw still a violent storm and calm a violent man. This is the friend they watched endure torture and ridicule and betrayal and a horrible death. When Jesus says, “Peace,” he carries the power to generate it. It worked on them – soon they are rejoicing.

How would you feel if you were one of those followers?
Today you might read through this passage and play it out in your imagination, with you at that table… what do you feel? What do you want to ask Jesus? What does he answer?
Do you feel his presence with you, both “there” in the scene in your imagination, and “here,” with you as you pray? Might you invite his peace to spread through you?
What happens when you pray that way?

I believe Jesus invites us to rejoice, no matter what’s going on in our lives. He speaks peace to us too, and as we let his presence live in us, we begin to feel that peace spreading through our minds and our bodies and our spirits. That is one way that Easter becomes real for us.