12-31-13 - Y2K

"When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born."

Anyone remember New Years Eve, 1999? All the hype and fear surrounding the world’s passage into the year 2000 – you’d think we’d never entered a new millennium before. Well, of course, none of us had – and never before had the world run on all these computer systems that no one was quite sure would adapt to dates beginning with “2.” How many of us stocked extra water and flashlight batteries that week? And then went out and partied like it was 1999 – because, really, what else are you going to do? Things will work out, or they’ll be challenging. Pop the corks and strike up the band.

We sure do like to know what’s going to happen next year, next day, next hour. And every once in awhile something comes along to remind us how little control we really have over our circumstances. Maybe King Herod had one of those moments in our story, hearing from these foreign dignitaries of celestial indications that a child had been born to be king of the Jews. “But wait,” he must have thought, “I am the king of the Jews. Sure, I’m corrupt and despotic and completely at the mercy of my Roman overlords – but I AM the king… aren’t I?”

He probably didn’t think that; no one uses the word “despotic” in their inner thoughts. But Matthew records his unease. And Herod’s unease was profound enough to infect his entire community – anxiety has a way of spreading into the systems in which we operate. And most of us, when we fear our well-being is threatened, will go into control mode: we will seek information and amass expertise and plan strategies, all to gain a sense of mastery over a situation we really can’t control. Herod gathered all the religious leaders and prophetic types and asked them to speak the unknowable, that which God had not yet revealed.

Today, as we move through the last day of the year, a year of gains and losses, or achievements and challenges, of death and life – what causes the most anxiety in you? What do you want to know that you cannot yet know, because the time for that has not yet come? It would be a great year-end exercise to name those things and invite Jesus to sift them with you. Light a candle, and make a list.

And what are some changes you would embrace? How might you like to see your circumstances improved? It’s okay to pray into those desires, inviting God to put flesh on your hopes and dreams as they align with God’s dreams for you.

And the safest prayer of all is this: What dreams is God inviting you to put flesh on today? And in the year to come?

I pray that this New Years Eve will offer us some time for reflection before we go hurtling into the next year...
On the other hand, it’s just one 24-hour period passing into another – that happens every day. So sit back, chill out – or go out and party like it’s 2014!

12-30-13 - Star Chasers

They knew their stars, these wise men, magi of scripture and legend, kings or astronomers from east of Judea (how far east? everything’s relative…). They knew when they observed a new star in the night sky, and they knew how to interpret what they saw. According to their system, this one indicated a new king, a king for the Jewish people – and this discernment was enough to induce them to leave home, undertake a lengthy journey of uncertain destination, and find this new monarch, to pay their respects.

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

Their predictions got them to the right country, if not the precise location where this new king could be found. And so, logically, they began their search in Jerusalem and the court of the current king, Herod. Bad idea – but that’s how great stories come about. (More on that later in the week…).

Today, let’s rest with these wise travelers. I am touched by their priorities, by their attention to the movement of the heavens, by their conviction that they’d read the stars correctly, by their willingness to put aside their daily lives and duties to travel to a foreign land and pay homage to a monarch they’d only learned about through astrological charts and observation. We can find in them models of faith and action.

Is there a star you are chasing? Another way to ask that is,
Have you discerned a movement of God in your life or in the world around you? 

Has it included a call to action for you? Have you explored this with wise people in your life?
Have you been able to act on your conviction and discernment? 

Have you been part of someone else’s discernment, been a “wise one” for another?

What divine action do you sense around you at this point in your life, as we approach the cusp of a new year? This is often a time when we pay special attention to new movements in the greater arc of our lives, as the magi scanned the heavens for changes in the stars.

We have an advantage over those eastern sages – we already know the king they were seeking, or at the very least, we’ve been introduced. We don’t need to scan the heavens – we need only seek the light of Christ in and around us, and move toward that. That Star will give us all the direction we need.

12-27-13 - Word Made Flesh

We have been fed this week on The Story, in all its glory – the human tale of a man and a woman and a baby, the political tale of census and intrigue, the earthy tale of shepherds, and the heavenly tale of angelic visitors. It is a feast for lovers of narrative and mystery, this tale which Madeleine L’Engle called “The Glorious Impossible.”

Then, on the Sunday after Christmas, as though we needed leaner fare after too much Christmas feasting, the church offers up the story of Incarnation told in symbols and ideas rather than folktales: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.

It may be great for those with a more abstract bent, but I find almost every sentence in the prologue of the Fourth Gospel can make my head hurt. Sometimes I'm best just throwing myself in and floating with the images – zeroing in on the ones that capture my attention: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Ah, light and darkness, that we can understand. And this: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.”

That’s what all that fuss about the manger and Bethlehem was about – that the Word of God, the idea in the mind of God, what John calls “Logos,” has been realized – made real, given flesh, human flesh, a body and a human psyche AND (that’s not all, folks..) that this Embodied Idea of God has lived among us – and we have seen his glory.

Lived among us? (or more literally, “pitched tent with us”), come to hang out with us, God-With-Us?
That was a mind-blowing idea then, as it is today.

In what ways have you experienced Christ as embodied, God-with-you? We don’t have the benefit of meeting Christ in physical, limited life, living as we do on this side of the Resurrection – but we have the benefit of faith, our own and that accumulated by billions of believers for over 2000 years.

So it’s a fair question: In what ways have you experienced Christ as embodied, God-with-you?
In what ways have you experienced his glory? Do you ever see it/hear it/feel it around you now? When do those glimpses come? If they don’t, there’s a prayer….

Our passage ends, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known.” What we celebrate particularly in the season of Christmas is Jesus having made God known – once in a human body and family and place, and now through the working of His Spirit in, through and around us.

Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing,” we sing… to which the only response we need make is:
"O come, let us adore Him, Christ, the Lord.

12-25-13 - A Shepherd's Tale

We’re usually the last to know.
Our life is out here on the hillsides, away from town.
We work at night, making sure no poachers or predators mess with our flocks. When we do get to town, it’s usually when we’ve got our pay and we go in to do a little carousing… not for nothin’ we shepherds got the rep we have for being drunken lowlifes. Nobody tells us the news first.

So what do you think about this story? What do you think about the angels showing up to tell us first? Well, what do you think about a bunch of angels showing up in the first place? I’d have thought it was the rotgut we were passing around – but no, we all saw ’em. We all heard ’em. Hundreds of ’em, filling the sky. 

What a racket! What a beautiful noise.

And what a message they had for us: “Today, in David’s town, a boy is born to you. And not just any boy – a savior, the Messiah, the anointed one, the Lord.” Well, we may just be rough shepherds, but we know about the Messiah, the one who God will send to set us free from the occupiers – set us free from everything. That’s pretty amazing.

Even more amazing, those angels showed up to us, while we were at work. 

Not to the kings in their palaces, not to the wealthy in their fancy houses; not to the priests in the temple, not to the holy people at their prayers – not to those who are expecting God to do something – but to us, who forget even to pray, most of the time.
To us, who people barely notice in the street, unless they smell us comin’… 

To us, who don’t count for much – except that we must count for a lot to God. Right?
Because that angel said this was a sign for us:

That’s what the angel said, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in cloth and lying in a feed trough.” Who puts a baby in a feed trough? Liable to get chewed on, if they’re not careful. 

So all we gotta do is check out all the stables down in Bethlehem till we find a baby where a baby ain’t supposed to be.

Here, we’re going to draw straws to see who has to stay with the sheep – the rest of us have some searching to do, and a story to tell. Man, what a story.
You might not even believe it, unless it happened to you…

A Very Merry Christmas to you and yours!

   Drink (not too much...!)
     Be Merry!
        Play with a toy!
           Hug somebody in a kitchen!

Love came down at Christmas -
Christ, the Savior, is born!

12-24-13 - O Holy Night

Tonight’s the night, the big show, what it’s all been leading up to. In my youth, it was all leading up to Christmas morning, but the culture seems to have shifted toward Christmas Eve as the main event.

It is rarely a silent night. I'm sure many a parent wishes for a little silence, while many for whom it is silent long for a little more noise, a little more company. And often it is not such a holy night, either, if stress or sadness or tempers take over.

Are we supposed to experience it as holy? I remember, in my curmudgeonly twenties (yes, I was worse then!), writing in my diary on Christmas Day, “I can’t get more excited about Jesus being born just because the calendar says it’s December 25th. Shouldn’t we be excited all year long?” Ah, youth.

"But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people."

What I pray for you tonight, and for me, is that we feel a little anticipation, a little expectation, that SOMETHING is going to happen. Yes, we are celebrating a Something that we believe happened long ago, and yet we are here each year, showing up at the manger, joining in the angels’ “glorias” because we believe it that Something is unfolding still, becoming ever clearer. Someone is drawing nearer.

I pray for you, and for me, that we have moments of wonder tonight – maybe something we see in children, or feel during a much-loved carol, or in a moment of connection with loved one or stranger. I want us to experience Christmas Eve, not just move through it. I want us to experience the Holy Spirit within and around us. I want us to “get” God-With-Us in our bones.

I can’t make that happen, for you or for me. I can say that we may not have that experience looking nostalgically at where we “felt” Christmas in the past. God is always doing a new thing, leading us forward, like those magi from the East following their star.

And sometimes God just shows up even when we’re not looking, when we’re wrapping one more gift or washing up after Christmas Eve dinner, or piling a little one into bed. Those shepherds weren’t watching for God – they were watching their flocks by night. And lo and behold, God showed up.

Man, did God ever show up!
A blessed Christmas Eve to you.

12-23-13 - Waitin' on the Baby

Christmas is coming… and after a series of community interfaith services, and a successful Doctor of Ministry degree defense last Monday (!), I got to the end of last week ready and able to engage. I did my one mall trip on Friday and came home loaded with gifts. That evening I made rum balls and Italian wafers (a batch of each with nuts and one without) and the next morning finished my baking before my house got cleaned. Advent IV, our annual "Baby Shower for Mary," church decorating and music rehearsals – check. Finally, Sunday afternoon; it was time to haul down the Christmas boxes and begin my own preparations.

"So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born…"

It gets real for me when I set up the crèche. I do it the same way each year, placing the figures the same way in the stable, and the angels at the same angles on the gold lame cloth that represents the glory of the Lord (that “shone round about them…”). The three kings are on a higher book shelf, still on their journey. The shepherd and the sheep are nearby in the field. This year, shock of shocks, I made a change: I moved the stable cat down from the hayloft, closer to the manger. (The velociraptor remains in the loft… danger lurks in the most pastoral of scenes.)

And Mary and Joseph await the birth, gazing at an empty manger, waiting… waiting… waiting for the moment when it all changes, when new life brings an end to the old. Mary and Joseph were never going to be able to go back to what they’d known. No new parents can – and these two were going to face more change than most.

What are you waiting for in your life this week? Perhaps it’s related to Christmas, perhaps not.
What new life are you praying for?
And what are you hoping will never go away?

New life is always coming at us, sometimes taking up the space of something we rather liked, or had grown comfortable with. Is there something yearning to take up space in your life, space you’re willing to make by letting something else go?

On Christmas Eve, when I get home from church, I will fetch the baby out of the little wicker trunk in the back of the stable (hey, Mary had to have some luggage…) and place him in the manger. 
Jesus always shows up, eventually. 
Sometimes we just have to let him out of the baggage…

12-20-13 - Trust and Obey

“When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him…”

Joseph was a paragon of virtue, it would appear – a man who did what God commanded even though it exposed him to shame and ridicule – and ultimately a fair amount of danger, once the implications of being step-father to God’s son became apparent. Joseph excelled at obeying.

I admit I am somewhat allergic to the word “obedience.” I remember a hymn, which I always loathed, for I believe it captures all the legalistic religiosity I spend a lot of energy countering:  

“Trust and obey, for there’s no other way / to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”

“Yes, there is!” I want to shout. “There is the way of grace and acceptance and doing good on the power of the Spirit, not on our own!” As one whose faith came alive under a steady stream of preaching about the grace of God, and as one who is keenly aware of the limits of willpower, I prefer to stress the unconditional love of God that we receive despite our failure to obey. Obedience is so closely linked in my mind to legalism, I react negatively to it, despite my generally compliant nature.

And yet, here is Joseph, reminding me of the power that can be unleashed when we simply obey. Joseph’s obedience may have been due to his self-disciplined nature. Or maybe it resulted from the very clear and powerful, supernatural encounter he had in his dream with an angel of the Lord – reinforced, no doubt, by Mary’s tale of her own angelic encounter.

I think we might find ourselves more inclined toward obeying and following God's guidance if we can be more in touch with our own divine encounters. They may not be as dramatic as Joseph’s, but they are real.

So... when did you last sense the Spirit of God nudging you or instructing you in some way? 

Or, when did you last sense the presence of God around you? 
Or see evidence of God’s handiwork in your life or in the world?

If you can’t think of anything… there might be a prayer in that, asking God to help you become more aware, or to open your own heart a little wider to what is happening in the unseen realm of spirit.

It is hard to trust, let alone obey, a total stranger. If we keep God at arm’s length or at a polite distance, it's harder to discern the leaps of faith we are invited to take, let alone jump. God may never ask us to take a leap like Joseph did… Then again, God does invite us to nurture the Christ-life in ourselves and in others, every day of the year, like Joseph.

We don’t have to escort a pregnant woman to Bethlehem… we just have to find the couple there and meet their newborn.

12-19-13 - God With Us

Matthew is big on linking the events he is telling about to what had been foretold by Hebrew prophets – after all, he was writing the Good News for a predominantly Jewish audience, many of whom needed convincing about this Jesus movement.

So, after he tells us about Joseph’s dream, in which an angel instructs Joseph to go forward with his marriage to Mary, “for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit,” Matthew says: “All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’

Emmanu-el. That’s a big claim in a name: God with us. Not "God far away," not "God too holy to be approached" – God with us. That’s pretty much the heart of the whole thing we do as Christians.

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us...” (John 1:14)
“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and God will dwell with them.’” (Revelation 21:3)

It is a radical thing to say God is with us. It means we can’t claim to be abandoned, no matter how alone we might feel. It means we can’t place God at an unreachable distance from ourselves or our world. In Christ, we have been given entrée to the throne of God, “For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:17)

Does it change your perception on the challenges you face in life, knowing that God is with us? Think about the things you feel are insurmountable, or the places you feel powerless. Now bring those up in prayer, in the context of God’s “with-you-ness.” How does it feel to pray to God with you? To pray with God, not to God. We often pray to God-far-away. Jesus is God-wish-us.

Can you start to take advantage of the proximity and access that is yours as a member of the household of God and citizen of the realm of God? Maybe play with places in your imagination where you might start to go talk with Jesus in prayer. “The Word is very near you – on your lips and in your heart,” Paul tells us in Romans 10:8, quoting Deuteronomy. What's the good of all this access if we don't use it?

Emmanu-el has drawn near to us in love.
God is with us, always. We can go away; God will not.

How will you live today, owning that truth deep in your being? How will you share that gift?

12-18-13 - Field of Dreams

Every once in awhile I have a dream that, upon my waking, stays with me in vivid detail, with a message that I sense has come from God rather than from my sub-conscious. I call those “God dreams.” I’ve had maybe three or four.

Joseph had a LOT of them! Like his namesake, the Joseph with the jealous brothers and the woven cloak, the New Testament Joseph received regular angelic communications through his dreams. Unlike the Joseph of yore, however, whose dreams were symbolic and required interpretation, Joseph of Nazareth gets clear instructions, “Do this,” “Go there,” “Don’t go there,” “Okay, it’s safe now…”

Now, in Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, the angels just show up directly to people like Zechariah, Mary, the shepherds, unmediated by REM sleep and human processes. They’re just there – “Look out! Be not afraid!” The writer of Matthew either heard different stories, or maybe thought Luke was embellishing things, for in his telling the angels speak through dreams, though their messages agree with Luke’s. After Joseph learns of Mary’s premature pregnancy, and resolves to divorce her quietly, “…an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’” In Luke, this is pretty much what Gabriel says to Mary. In Matthew, it is Joseph who receives the divine message. And he acts on it.

Have you ever had a “God dream?” What message did you discern? Did you act on it?
In what ways do you sense the Holy Spirit communicates with you? In prayer directly? Through events and coincidences? By a strong sense or urge to do or say something that bears good fruit? Through meditating on the Word of God? I have a friend who gets pop song lyrics in her head – always with a message that suggests answers or guidance.

I believe the Holy One is often messaging us. As we tune our receivers, we begin to discern those messages more often. And when we do, we check that our interpretation is consistent with what we read in Scripture, not contrary. We can also seek confirmation from others in our community of faith. If the Spirit suggests you do something radical, the Spirit will give someone else confirmation for you.

In Field of Dreams, one of my favorite movies of all time, an Iowa farmer named Ray Kinsella hears a whispered voice telling him to plow under a fruitful field of corn and build a ball park. This is economic and agricultural madness, and yet he is convinced of the voice’s reality. Equally crazed instructions follow, leading to the impossible reality that Shoeless Joe Jackson and other baseball greats of yore, now dead, start coming through the corn to play on the field and interact with Ray and his family. Ray’s wife supports him following these instructions – but it’s hard. At a crucial point, when she’s ready to give up, they both have the same dream one night, giving them the confirmation they need to stay on this seemingly insane course and follow where it leads.

Where it leads, ultimately, is to love, to reunion and reconciliation and restoration.

Which is where all God dreams ultimately lead… Joseph’s, and mine, and yours.

12-17-13 - Best Laid Plans

Here in North America, it is winter – which means plans we make are always subject to change due to weather. This past Saturday, the Interfaith Council and my congregation had planned a large-scale service of hope and healing on the anniversary of the Newtown tragedy. The plans included many musicians, choirs, clergy, a senator or two, even satellite parking provisions. We’d worked on it for weeks. And then it snowed. Hard. With ice. We had to reschedule for the next night. We carried it off, with fewer participants and a smaller crowd (and still the mayor and a senator…). It was beautiful. But not quite what we had planned.

This trivial example pales in comparison to the change of plans Joseph and Mary experienced in our faith story. Their future was set – they were engaged, would soon be married; Joseph had a good living as a carpenter, Mary was young and healthy. The plan looked good.

Except God had a different plan – a way, way bigger plan. A plan that required an unbelievable amount of faith, to believe in something that could not possibly be proven in any empirical way. A plan that demanded an inconceivable amount of courage, to defend a “conceiving” that looked an awful lot like sin and betrayal. A plan that would bring some joy, yes, and also a great deal of heartache and uncertainty.

What plans of yours have been disrupted – by God, or by the choices of others, or by circumstances beyond your control? Have you grieved those lost plans? It’s worth naming them, if only to better let them go.

Looking back, sometimes we can see blessing in what happened instead of our plans, though not always. (Today's country song link is Garth Brooks’ Unanswered Prayers – not a profound song, but somewhat apt...)

How creative and resilient were you in adapting to the new circumstances? Have you adjusted yet?

Maybe you’re in the midst of a life-long “plan change.” I, for instance, thought I’d be married. I’m not…. Yet. Some of us thought we’d have careers that we don’t, or illness or other choices have resulted in a change of direction.

What is your prayer in response to your plan changes? Where do you sense the Holy Spirit’s involvement in your life? Can you glimpse a bigger plan in what has happened? Name it.

The big movie statement on this is It’s a Wonderful Life, as George Bailey discovers that his continually setting aside his life plans has made him not in failure, but a blessing to countless people, including himself. It is considered a holiday film because of its big Christmas climax – but it also echoes the challenges facing Mary and Joseph in our nativity story.

I surely hope they were blessed by the new trajectory of their lives as they embraced God’s plan.I believe with all my heart that the world has been blessed by them. I have.

12-16-13 - Mornin', Joe

Ah, at last we get to the story, the story we tell and re-tell about the angels and the shepherds and the sweet young woman great with child and... – Oh, wait, not quite that story. Angels, yes, but only in dreams. No shepherds or inn-keepers in Matthew’s pageant. In fact, he barely works Mary in, referencing her only as Jesus’ mother and Joseph’s betrothed.

This is Joseph’s story, as Matthew tells it: “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”

Interestingly, Matthew does not refer to Joseph as Jesus’ father – in fact, he tips the “messianic secret” in the first line. Mary is introduced as Jesus’ mother, engaged to Joseph. All the action here is with Joseph – his challenges, his choices.

We are told he is a righteous man, and we can see how gentle is his response, to dissolve the betrothal in quiet so as to protect Mary from legal liability as an adulteress. Then an angel intervenes in a dream, gives him the rundown that, in Luke, Mary hears directly from the angel Gabriel.

And Joseph decides to obey this dream message, probably in the face of his own misgivings and the derision of the people close to him. He does so honorably, and endures the pregnancy time without marital gratification – all the while preparing to welcome and raise a first-born whom he knows is not his biological child. In today’s idiom, we might say, “Joseph totally steps up. Dude.” (Randy Travis tells his story – and The Whole Story – in Raise Him Up.)

Today I invite you to think about who in your life has stepped up for you, above and beyond their “duty?” Relatives, teachers, colleagues, friends…. Let your gratitude fill you – and if they’re still around to be thanked, thank them again.

And then think about who or what you are being called to nurture into strong, healthy growth, beyond your own blood ties. Who are you helping to “raise up?” What are you helping to build?

I trust you realize that is God’s work, the work God invites us to participate in. The results are not up to us, but sometimes the work won't happen if we don't agree to do it.

God asked Joseph to participate in a critical role in the plan of salvation that we claim as Christians. It was not an easy “yes,” any easier than Mary’s was. But Joseph said yes – and made our life in God possible.

A Note from Rev. Kate

Dear Friends,

I am writing on a Saturday not with a spiritual reflection, but with an invitation to support the ministry that makes it possible. Like Facebook, I pledge that Water Daily is “free, and always will be,” and unlike Facebook, I don’t envision ads suddenly lining the margins. There is absolutely no obligation to respond to this note with anything but continued enjoyment of these daily reflections and a deeper engagement with the life of God.

I mean that. This is an invitation. No one is “making a list or checking it twice.” We live by grace – I hope that message has come through loud and clear each day.

I started Water Daily initially as a way to offer spiritual nurture to the many people who are a part of the community at Christ the Healer yet can’t always get to Sunday worship. God is in our lives 24/7, not only on Sundays, and I have been delighted to see how these words have helped more people feel connected to what the Holy Spirit is up to around us. I love hearing that the reflection of a given day seemed just right for someone that day, and am glad that the list has expanded beyond the congregation to encompass a wider community. I am fed by writing this, by the opportunity it gives me to spend more time with Sunday’s gospel reading, and by exchanges with you. That’s all the payment I need.

The congregation I serve, Christ the Healer in Stamford, CT is small in numbers though expansive in ministry and outreach. The people who pledge to support its ministry are faithful in giving – and not numerous enough to cover the base of salary and building expenses. If you feel like contributing to its ministry of spiritual nurture, here’s how:

If you are a part of the community at
Christ the Healer, I hope you will make a pledge to support our ministry as a part of God’s mission in 2014. (Click here to pledge online.)

If you are a part of another congregation, I hope you make a pledge to support that ministry.

And if you would like to make a year-end gift to support this ongoing ministry, thank you!

Checks can be sent to: Christ the Healer
                                     20 Brookdale Road
                                     Stamford, CT 06903

It would be helpful if you put "Water Daily" in the memo line.

This will be the only request – until maybe next December.
I look forward to exploring the nativity story with you next week!

With prayer for continued blessings this Advent,
Rev. Kate

12-13-13 - Hit the Highway

We are on a journey in this life – that’s a truth, if trite.
We are ever on the move away from or toward home.
Isaiah, in his prophecy about the return of Israel’s exiles to Jerusalem, to their homeland, writes of a royal highway on which you cannot get lost:
"A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, 

but it shall be for God's people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray."

For a people separated from their homeland, these were words of deep promise and hope – 

"Say to those who are of a fearful heart, 'Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.'"

I don’t know too many people who are exiled from their homeland – though in this world we might each know at least one such person. I do think each of us has some areas in which we feel far from what we want, or who we love, or from the kind of peace and wholeness we crave. That highway is there for us too – and it leads it healing.

"Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
   then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy."

Advent is a season for getting in touch with what it is we yearn for; what – or who – we are waiting for.
What is that for you? How do you fill in the blank, “When I have….,” or “When I am…, then I’ll be okay?”
Where do you want to get that you are not already?

The Good News is that this highway is already accessible to us, to bring us closer to our own hearts, and to the heart of the God who awaits us at the end of every road we’re on. It is a highway for those who have been redeemed, set free, by the love of Jesus Christ for humankind. And it sounds like a mighty fun road, with joy and laughter –

"And the redeemed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; 

and everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; 
they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away."

What we celebrate in this season, what we anticipate, is that day when sorrow and sighing are gone for good. Even now we glimpse that day in moments, in bursts – it is coming; it is here; it is ahead on that royal road, that highway to heaven, right here on earth.

12-12-13 - The Desert Shall Rejoice

For the rest of the week, I’d like to turn to the portion of Hebrew scripture appointed for Sunday – a beautiful prophecy of restoration and hope from Isaiah 35. It speaks of the day when the travails of the exiles are lifted and they return once again to their homeland. In the poetry of the prophet, the land itself joins in celebration:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.

I just returned from a brief sojourn (certainly not an exile!) in Arizona, and passed through desert areas rich with cactuses. I was in the mountains and there were plenty of trees and pines as well as more “desert-y” plants, but it was an arid climate. Deserts tend to be dry, with vegetation that thrives under challenging conditions – wind, sun, drought.

Some seasons in our lives are like that, or sometimes one area feels arid while others seem more productive. One fruit of spiritual growth is knowing we can thrive under conditions that are less than ideal as well as during times of plenty.

What feels dry in your life at the moment?
What pains you these days? What are you anxious about?
What do you yearn for that feels far off?
What are you thirsty for?
Name those things – lay them down before the Lord in your prayer today.

A lot of prayer is about becoming aware of what’s going on with us, so we can invite God’s Spirit into those places. And another name for God’s Spirit is the River of Life – coursing through us, splashing into the thirsty spaces, cleansing, healing, refreshing, renewing, carrying away all the debris that holds us back from really living the life God has given us to live. Here’s a promise:

For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

Whatever in your life has become dry or brittle can be renewed. 

Ask for water - streams of living water will break forth in you.

12-11-13 - Greatest and Least

We have spent quite a few days in this space thinking about John the Baptist – who he was, why he was the way he was, what impact he had. Many people thought he was the Messiah, or an incarnation of the prophet Elijah – until Herod imprisoned and later had him executed at the whim of his step-daughter. John truly was a holy man, and Jesus speaks of him as such: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.

And then he says something even more extraordinary: “…yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

What was that about valleys being lifted up and mountains brought low, the lowly being exalted and the “mighty cast down from their thrones?” Here is Jesus, articulating again that equalizing quality of the realm of God – that equalizing which was so challenging to people in his own day, and has remained so in the thousands of years since.

To say that “the first will be last, and the last first,” that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to “little children,” that the least “important” member of the household of God is greater than a saint like John – that’s radical. That’s a challenge to those who feel themselves to be important, and it’s an invitation to those who don’t.

Can you imagine yourself greater than a prophet like John the Baptist? Can you imagine yourself as valuable, as worthy of honor? Because Jesus says that’s what is – that those who consider themselves “in the kingdom of heaven” are that valuable, that worthy, that remarkable, that beloved.

My spiritual suggestion for today is to simply sit with that idea, of being that important in the realm of God. No one is more important than you. Try that on. How does it make you sit? Walk? Talk? Think?
I would even invite you to write down some of the reasons why you are so valuable in God’s eyes. It’s important for us to know, to claim, not so we can become big-headed, but so we can give God the glory. That’s what we’re here for – to glorify God in how we live and give.

Of course it’s not a popularity contest or a competition. You knowing yourself to be that worthy doesn’t diminish the importance of John the Baptist – he’s the one who said, as Jesus’ ministry grew more public, “He must increase; I must decrease.”

I don’t know the man, but I can imagine the smile on John’s face growing bigger the more we recognize our worthiness in the eyes of God. I can imagine him looking at Jesus and nodding. “Okay, now we’re getting somewhere…”

12-10-13 - Expectations

What do you think a holy man or woman should look like? What do you think the markers of "success" should be for spiritual leaders? This is what Jesus asks the crowds about how they viewed John the Baptist. "What did you go out there to the desert to look at? Were you just spiritual tourists gawking at the latest guru? Did you think you were going to see a smooth-talking, well-dressed leader, get a little charge, and leave your life unchanged?"

Advent is a good time to examine our spiritual motivations, what is it we are truly yearn for, why we engage or disengage from spiritual community. It is so easy to become disenchanted with church and clergy - or to expect too much. Today, let's do a little inventory. When we can name our expectations, we can better manage them.

What are your expectations of your spiritual community?
When you are disappointed or disaffected, what is the cause? Do you communicate that, or distance yourself, or engage more?

What are your expectations of your spiritual leaders?
In what ways do they bless you? How do they disappoint?

As you name these truths, ask how you want to respond.
Don't forget to pray for your community and your clergy - they are a part of you, and you of them.

In some ways, the role of spiritual leaders can be described in the words Jesus used about John, 

"This is the one about whom it is written, 'See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.'"

Clergy can be messengers of God's Word, God's love, God's calls and invitations. At our best, we help to prepare your spiritual way, and help you walk it, without getting in your way. The more clarity you have about how you want to grow in faith, the better your leaders can help prepare the way.

And the more you grow, the more you can help your pastor walk the way of truth and grace - and then our congregations truly become spiritual communities.

12-9-13 - Go and Tell John

Fast forward several months or years from the scene we reflected on last week. John, the vigorous prophet of the wilderness, calling his people to repentance at the Jordan, is now languishing in Herod’s dungeon for the crime of having called Herod out for marrying his sister-in-law. Speaking truth to power can get you burned. Herod kind of likes having him there – we are told he enjoyed theological conversations with John – but he is not free. And captivity can do things to even the strongest of people.

Here we get a glimpse of John in despair, perhaps wondering if he was wrong after all. Among the most poignant words in the Bible are these: “When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’

Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? That’s a question John asks for all of us at one time or another, when suddenly we’re not sure, when too much time has passed without a sign of God’s power at work. "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?"

Jesus’ response is to point not to himself, but to his works, to the fruit of his ministry: ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

When our faith dims and our hope weakens, we can remind ourselves of the goodness of God which we have tasted. We can remind each other of the answered prayer and amazing “coincidences” that led to even more amazing outcomes. We can sharpen our awareness of divine activity around us. We can focus our vision on how we see the Spirit at work in other people – often easier to see God working in others than in ourselves.

This week, keep watch: where are you catching glimpses of holiness? Write them down. Remind yourself. Remind a friend.

We all have moments like John, even without the suffering he endured. And we all know people asking that question. Jesus' answers is for us as well: "Go and tell what you hear and see."

I pray you will hear and see amazing things today, this week, for all time, and that you get really good at telling it. For God is still doing amazing things in us and through us and around us, and there are a lot of people in captivity waiting to hear that Good News.

12-6-13 - Water and Fire

John the Baptizer was absolutely clear about his mission: he was not the main attraction, but an advance man for a much bigger show. He attracted a lot of attention – ordinary people who wanted the spiritual experience he was offering, and authorities investigating whether or not he was someone they should be worried about. But he stayed very focused on his mission:

"I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Water and fire – two elements that cannot dwell together, except in a Christian. John’s baptism was a way for people to enact repentance, to experience the water of cleansing.
But the fire that Jesus brings, John says, is another force altogether, one that will do more than warm us: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

Unquenchable fire. That doesn’t sound like something I want to be around. This week I am in Prescott, Arizona, the site of last year’s tragic loss of 19 fire-fighters battling a huge blaze. Fire scares me, unless it’s in a hearth or cooking something on a stove. The unquenchable fire is one image of eternal damnation.

But fire is also one of our symbols for the power of the Holy Spirit. Our life in Christ begins with water, the transforming water of baptism by which we are made one with Christ and members of God’s family. And then God’s life is released in us as we are baptized with the fire of the Holy Spirit. That’s where we get the power by which God works transformation through us. We need water and fire.

I once heard a story from someone who had visited Christians in Indonesia. He was at a prayer service that was about the most intense he’d ever witnessed. A woman minister was leading the prayer, and she was calling down the Spirit upon them, praying fervently, passionately, inviting God to make himself known in power, calling down Holy Spirit fire. This prayer went on for quite a while, and then suddenly the woman went quiet and a silence descended upon the group for three, four, five minutes.

And then the woman spoke: “Fire is now,” she said. And they were all filled with heat, like they were burning, but it didn’t hurt. Manifestations of the Spirit began to be seen and heard, and many were healed. “Fire is now."

If we want to open ourselves to a deeper experience of God’s love and power, we don’t stop with water – we move on to fire. Are you willing to ask God for a greater filling of Holy Spirit? There may be parts of your life you don’t want to see scorched - can you offer God access anyway? Are they keeping you from expanding your capacity for God-life, or do they help you make a way?

Fire is now. What happens if you let it in?

11-5-13 - Good Tree/Good Fruit

John the Baptizer lays into those who wear their religion on their sleeves, but do not allow their hearts and behaviors to change – and his invitation to true repentance comes with a bite: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Some years later, Jesus visits the same metaphor, saying that a good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor a bad tree good fruit. It seems judgment awaits us, and we will be judged by the fruit our lives bear.

Tomorrow is the Feast Day of St. Nicholas, the fourth century Bishop of Myra, in modern-day Turkey. Legends about the goodness and generosity of St. Nicholas abound, and over time became conflated with the legend of the North Pole, Santa Claus. Santa is also known for gift-giving – with conditions: "He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice / gonna find out who’s naughty or nice / Santa Claus is coming to town."

I give thanks for the promise that, as members of God’s household united with Christ, it is his deeds by which we will ultimately be judged (whew!) – and yet he also spoke of a judgment and a sorting. So let’s do another inventory today – let’s inventory the fruit we bear, the outward evidence of our life,the good and not-so-good. (Get out the journal...)

What is the fruit of your relationships? Name some.
What is the fruit of your work life? Name some.
Your recreational life? Your financial life?
Your engagement in activities that help people in need?
What is the fruit of your spiritual life – what are the outward manifestations of your faith and prayer?

How is your health as a tree, emotionally, physically, spiritually? Any pruning or fertilizing needed? How might you become more fruitful?

Whether we’re singing, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” or “When the Man Comes Around,” a Johnny Cash song based on Revelation with strong Advent themes (and not a whole lot of grace), I thank God for the greatest gift – freedom from the ax and the fire. God is an arborist extraordinaire, who tends the trees we are and makes us trees of love. In fact, today let's give Bono and B.B. King the last word - they say it all: "When Love Comes to Town."

12-4-13 - Fruit of Repentance

I can almost see the sneer on John’s face when he sees the professional religious folks coming to be baptized by him: “But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

Or, "Who warned you that you’d better get your act together – stop resting on your laurels as 'keepers of the law,' as inheritors of the promises given to your ancestors. What fruit are we going to see in your lives?"

What does, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance” mean? I think it means that it’s really easy to say “I’m sorry,” and a lot harder to make the kinds of changes that render our “I’m sorry’s” unnecessary. John didn’t want people undergoing his baptism for show – he wanted them to take a serious look at themselves and recognize the ways and times in which their behavior or attitudes damaged other people.

Few of us in this era feel the need to mount a religious display for the attention it’ll get us – yet the call to repent and amend our lives comes to us as well. One way to meet it is to undertake an inventory of confession, to get below the surface at the more stubborn patterns of sinfulness that persist in us. This week you might try one of those. Here is a simple one – and you might write down your answers:

When did I last hurt someone I love? What did I do or say? Why did that happen – what “hooked” me?
When did I last hurt myself in some way? (Include food and self-criticism…) How did that come about?
When did I last hurt the creation around me in some way, nature, animals. Why did that happen?
When did I last hurt God – by ignoring or avoiding or defying? What happened?

For each thing you list, offer your regret and think about what would have to change in you to avoid doing that again.
What spiritual practices and messages do you need to build into your life to bear better fruit?
Invite the Holy Spirit into each one of those areas and ask God to release more life and love in you.

When our repentance is genuine, we’re more inclined to move into more fruitful patterns of being and relating. And as we bear the fruit of repentance, the people around us will be fed on God’s love.

12-3-13 - The Level Road

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: `Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'"

John had a message: repent and prepare. He was a profoundly counter-cultural figure out there in the desert, but people paid attention. Matthew tells us, “Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan...” Even in his day he was linked with the prophet Isaiah’s prediction that a prophet would arise out in the wilderness crying, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

That prophecy in Isaiah says,
“Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Making space for the life of God breaking into our lives means building a highway for Christ to travel, a straight and level road in the desert of this world. This “leveling,” the valleys being lifted and mountains brought low, the rough and rugged ground becoming plains, is a metaphor which has economic, political, even emotional dimensions.

Part of our spiritual work is making space for the life of God, the love of God, the justice of God. There is an equalizing element to this, a seeking of equilibrium. When we start to look for peaks and valleys, highs and lows, we can see them everywhere: environmentally, in toxic slag heaps and crater-filled mining areas; economically, in the income gap between rich and poor, widening at an alarming rate in our times – which goes for countries as well as individuals. We can find disparity in our own moods, as we become hostage to pressure and stress from without and within.

As you survey the world and your own life, what hills might be brought low and what vacancies filled in? 

A simpler question to answer today might be:
What do you have too much of in your life (think spiritually and emotionally as well as materially…)?
What do you not have enough of? What feels empty in you that needs to be filled?

If we can answer those two questions, we have some prayer work laid out for the season of Advent, as we keep praying into those “too-muches,” and “not-enoughs.” Why is the “too-much-ness” there? Has the deficiency always existed? Is there an external, justice dimension to our issues?

Christ has come, Christ is coming, Christ will come again. How might we make a level road or him to walk - into our world, into our hearts?

12-2-13 - John the Baptizer

In our first full week of Advent, we invite a strange figure into our lives and imaginations – John the Baptizer. Every December, as twinkly lights appear in our neighborhoods and tinkly music fills our stores, we church folk are confronted by this stark, uncompromising messenger from God calling us to repent and renew our commitment to God:

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near… Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.”

John was a man completely committed to his mission, to “make ready a people prepared for the Lord,” the purpose an angel predicted to his bewildered father Zechariah (Luke 1:5-25) He stayed in desert places, eschewing all but the most rudimentary clothing, and chewing on locusts and wild honey – a diet high in protein and low in fat, if a bit stark. Other Gospel references tell us that he had disciples, but he did not seem interested in building a following or winning popularity. His message is harsh and focused, confronting the materialism and corruption of his countrymen, and calling people back to reliance on God alone.

It is pretty hard to reconcile John’s message with our cultural preparations for Christmas. Last year, I wrote a sermon drama imagining John the Baptist on the loose in a shopping mall, decking Santa and confronting carolers – it ended with him baptizing the mall cop in the fountain. Where do you imagine this single-minded messenger of God might turn up?

Today, how about calling to mind the image we’re given, the wild man in skins calling us to “Repent. The Kingdom of God is at hand!” Imagine John on your street or in your office, or anywhere that comes to mind as you open your imagination in prayer. What do you hear him saying to you? What do you say to him? Do you feel you have anything to repent of?

How does it feel to hear, “The Kingdom of God is at hand?” Is right here. Is now? Are there any changes you want to make in your life in the light of that reality?

John is strange company to keep for a month, but let's let him in – he is an important companion and antidote to the materialism and stress that rise around us in this season.
Take him with you when you shop or decorate – he won’t sap the joy. Just the superficiality.

And you can tell him to leave the locusts at home.

11-29-13 - What Time is It?

St. Paul has an answer for us: “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.” I always get a kick out of all these “wake up” readings on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, just as we’re starting to clear the triptofan from our sleepy systems.

Some of us might relate to the rest of Paul’s comments too: “…let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” I don’t know if scarfing leftover stuffing qualifies as “gratifying the desires of the flesh,” but be warned!

In Sunday's Gospel, Jesus also talks about eating and drinking – amid dire warnings of destruction:  

“For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away; so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.”

Advent I, which usually falls on Thanksgiving weekend, is a rude awakening, a jolt back to reality. Get ready.
“Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour."  

I confess I've always viewed Christ's impending return as more scary than joyous. Today, just for the heck of it, let’s reflect on what might be good about Christ coming back to ring down the curtain and roll up the sidewalks on this earthly life of ours. Do you fear that, or anticipate it? What would you not mind parting with? What would you miss very much?

If contemplating the apocalypse is not your fancy today, here’s a more “here and now” question to ponder: what in your life do you think you need to wake up to? In what areas are you kind of snoozing, coasting, not really conscious, and you sense it’s time to become more aware and intentional? How might you become more focused in those areas?

One memorable Advent 5 o'clock service in Bethany, we placed alarm clocks all over set to go off at random times, just to reinforce the “wake up!” theme of the season. It was fun, as well as highly annoying.

For better or worse, life presents us plenty of alarm clocks, and we can rarely predict when they’ll buzz or clang. What’s waking you up lately? Don’t hit the snooze button…

11-28-13 - Thanksgiving Blessings

I wish you a happy and healthy and blessed Thanksgiving -
wherever and with whomever you spend it.

If you miss somebody today, give thanks for them and their life in yours.
If you're annoyed with someone today - imagine missing them, and give thanks.
If you lack something today, give thanks for what is before you and ahead.

Give thanks in all circumstances.
There's a good chance God is giving thanks for you...

And here's a feasting clip, should you not have had enough of tables laden with food - the last 13 minutes of Babette's Feast, in which a beautiful, perfect meal reconciles long-time enemies and restores lost hopes.
Just like that meal we have in church on Sundays...

11-27-13 - Food and Family

Ask most Americans what they associate with Thanksgiving, and most will answer, “Food and family.” Some might add, “And stress.” This is one holiday when making the food sometimes causes stress, which we then seek to relieve by eating too much food – a nice little cycle that leads nowhere good (throw in too much alcohol, and things really get interesting…)

Back when I was planning alternative worship every week, I wrote a lot of sermon dramas. One of the most fun – and elaborate – was at Thanksgiving time one year, called “The Martha Show.” It depicted a TV cooking show featuring a famous Martha. Not Martha of Westport, though the character shared many of her attributes. This one was Martha of Bethany, whose dinner party for Jesus got her so stressed out she became royally ticked off at her sister for not helping. (Sound like a Thanksgiving scene you’ve seen?)

And in the midst of prepping for her Thanksgiving show, an unexpected guest arrives early. Not what our Martha wanted. She wanted to make a beautiful dinner for Jesus, not with Jesus. And she wants her sister to help, damn it! But Mary recognizes that when this guest comes to dinner, you need to stop what you’re doing and receive the gifts he brings.

We can get so busy preparing for Thanksgiving that we barely appreciate the time with our loved ones when it arrives. Same thing, in a broader way, can happen during Advent. In a season meant to help us prepare to receive the gift of Christ in our lives, we sometimes get so busy preparing we miss the fact that he’s already showed up.

Jesus’ words to Martha in the gospel story are simple and pointed: “Martha, Martha, you are worried about many things. Only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the best part, and it will not be taken away from her.”

If you are happy and at peace today, hallelujah – spread some of that peace to someone stressed.

And if you’re worrying and fretting about anything today, stop and imagine Jesus walking into whatever place you’re in, and saying, “Hey, hey, you are worried and fretting. You don’t need to. You have everything you need – I’m here.” Try that on, in prayer, in your imagination today. One of God’s promises is peace when we pray, and presence, and power.

Wherever you’re spending Thanksgiving this year, and whoever you’re spending it with, invite Jesus to the table. That’s kind of what it means to say grace – to invoke his holy presence. See if it’s different being aware of him there.

And don’t forget to pass him the stuffing – they didn’t have that in Judea back in the day…

11-26-13 - Preemptive Gratitude

It’s Tuesday. What are you thankful for?
“But we don’t have to be thankful till Thursday…,” you might be thinking.
I did. But I like to be ahead of the curve, so why not start the thankfulness part of Thanksgiving a few days ahead? Then we’ll be all warmed up when the Day comes around.

I’m only half-joking… it occurred to me that thankfulness can be a great antidote to stress. If we’re devoting at least part of our attention to awareness of what we’re grateful for, there’s that much less space available to worry about what we’ve done, not done, or don’t know when we’ll get done.

So today, as you wander a grocery store – give thanks for all the food and all the people who got it there, and all the people who work there, and the resources to buy it…

Or if you’re cooking, you might give thanks for the ingredients, the recipes and where they came from, other meals like this; the people who will be gathering around the table… what else?

Or if you’re packing, give thanks for the clothing and the circumstances by which you came to own those things, when you’ve worn it before… what else?

Or if you’re cleaning – give thanks for the rooms and who lives in them and the blessings they’ve hosted; and if you’re preparing to see family, there are some thank yous…

Or if you’re traveling, give thanks for the technology that makes it possible to get from here to there.. and if getting from here to there ends up taking longer than we hoped or planned, I guess we’ll have that much more time to think of things to be grateful for.

Well, I don’t have to tell you how to be grateful! You’re probably better at it than I am. The “gratitude as stress reducer” might just catch on, though… it was a new thought to me.

As soon as I feel a stressful thought coming on, I’m going to acknowledge it, and then chase it with a grateful one. Let you know how I do!

11-25-13 - God in the Midst

Next Sunday we begin the holy season of Advent, advent meaning, “the approaching” – the approaching in-breaking realm of God, the approaching celebration of Christ’s incarnation, the ever-approaching promised Second Coming of Christ in glory to usher in the New Age.

Before Sunday comes around, though, we have a huge cultural celebration of Thanksgiving, which is not without its spiritual elements. And before that, we have the scramble to finish work, clean houses and buy food, if we’re hosting, or pack and prep if we’re traveling. In other words, this will be, for many, a stressful three days followed by a full and, God-willing, relaxing three days, after which we plunge into the holy season of Advent.

Many different themes, and maybe not so much time for spiritual reflection. I intend to keep our Water Daily flowing, but lightly, and less tied to Sunday’s readings than usual.

So today let’s just focus on preparation and anticipation for the week. We tend to prepare for things we either dread or look forward to – and for some, Thanksgiving has elements of both. Maybe we can find a way to bring the Holy Spirit into our preparations this week. I believe God wants to indwell and transform our every-day lives, not only our formal worship experiences.

So… if you’re working harder than usual to cram five days’ work into two or three, may I suggest you set an alarm every hour or two. When it goes off, take three minutes away from your tasks to breathe, re-center and tell God what it is you’re working on, and where you’d like some help.

If you’re shopping and cooking, you might make a game of talking to Jesus in the store and the kitchen (maybe not out loud…), and remember why you participate in this ritual of food and family.

If you’re traveling, you might need extra grace and extra peace – so pack some along as you get things ready for your suitcase, as you clean up your house and commit yourself to the road. Ask the God of peace to fill you and make you an agent of peace in any stress or frenzy you may encounter in trying to get from A to B.

And if your big plan is to hit the Friday sales…knock yourself out, I guess. (But remember, Local Store Saturday…)

For many Americans, this is a week of blessings and stressings like few others in our calendar year. Let’s move through it as children of God, beloved and bounded in time and space, not trying to do more than we can or should. Gratitude flows from a balanced perspective on who we are, who we are not, and how we are blessed. We can make this a week more blessed than stressed.

11-22-13 - Kingdom of Light

As we end this week exploring Christ, our crucified King, let’s give a look to the second reading appointed for Sunday, a passage from Paul’s letter to the Colossians. It is dense in theology and rich in imagery. In fact, “image” is what Paul calls Jesus, the Son of God:  
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him.

The image of the invisible God – making God visible to us. That is the heart of the Christian understanding of God’s love, that God did not remain aloof from an estranged humanity, but found a way for us to see and know God, now in part, but in greater fullness as we grow into the likeness of Christ. So, Christ is the image of the invisible God, and we take on the image of the crucified and risen Christ… and thus we, made in God’s image, recover that likeness because Christ has made God known, and we can know Christ.

He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. Rescued from the power of darkness. Transferred into the kingdom of his beloved Son. I think of refugees on the run, rescued and transferred into a safe realm.

Of course, many’s the day it looks like darkness is still winning, and our rescue is delayed. Today we mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a day in our history when, for many, darkness won and quenched the bright light of youthful hope and possibility which JFK had instilled in so many. And a certain trajectory of darkness does seem to have coursed from that horrible act to more violence, violence which has become endemic to our life as Americans, from which we have not managed to get free.

As those who claim citizenship in the Kingdom of Christ, we have a mission, a responsibility, to shed light everywhere we can. Paul has a prayer and a prescription for us: May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.

Today, in prayer, you might sit with that sentence. 

Reflect on the places you feel weak; what does it feel like to accept the strength that comes from God’s glorious power? 
Reflect on the things you feel you have to endure; ask the Holy Spirit to give you the patience you have been promised as a spiritual gift.
Reflect on where your joy is found lately, or might be found, and give thanks to that One who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.

The saints in the light – that’s us. That’s our calling and our description, our hope and our destiny. And when we bring our light together, the darkness doesn’t stand a chance.

11-21-13 - Paradise When?

Popular culture tells us that, at the moment of our death, we will “cross over” to our eternal dwelling, where we are welcomed by those we have loved in this world. This notion has been greatly aided by popular songs, like Far Side Banks of Jordan. (Here, with June and Johnny…)

Biblical scholars suggest a more sober view, in line with many prophetic texts about the “Day of the Lord,” Jesus’ own references to the great sorting at the final judgment, and Paul’s eloquent depiction of the sleeping dead rising “in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.” (I Cor. 15:52; No, it’s not the zombi-pocalypse... it's resurrection.) That interpretation suggests that at death we go into rest like the “sleep” mode on our computers, to be reactivated when the “trumpet shall sound.”

And here is Jesus, confusing us all with this promise to the repentant thief dying next to him on the cross: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” It is a bit surreal, this recorded conversation among three men dying a ghastly, torturous death: One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

This week, I heard Charlie Grady, who runs an anti-violence initiative in Bridgeport, speak. He spent 27 years in law enforcement, during which he arrested some pretty dangerous criminals. He was in a restaurant recently,and saw two men he’d sent to jail come in. Soon enough they spotted him and clearly recognized him. He began to sweat. Then the waiter approached and said, “Those guys would like to buy your table a round of drinks.” He accepted, and then raised his glass to them. At that point they came over and said, “We know how you were just doing your job. We were the ones doing wrong – it was your job to catch us and put us away. We know that now; we’re not the same people.”

That’s quite a story! That’s pretty much where this thief is. Hanging there next to a man he knows to be good and holy gives him a true perspective on himself. And when we see ourselves clearly, we start to see a lot of things more clearly. That is the beginning of repentance – clear vision. It’s not everyone else’s fault, even if some have contributed. It’s us.

And when we speak from that truth, we create space for grace to come back to us. Even on the cross, Jesus is able to extend that grace to a fellow-sufferer. “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” At the end of this day, all three of them will be dead. They will no longer dwell in this world. In the face of that, in brutal pain, Jesus promises not only paradise, but his own presence. What a promise.

Do you have a confession to make, or one to hear? Has anyone been trying to get your attention to let you know they have had a change of heart, they truly are sorry – and maybe you haven’t been able to give them the chance to show it? A risk, yes, but your forgiveness is a big gift to grant or withhold. As recipients of grace, can we extend it?

One day we will be with Jesus in whatever realm it is that we call Paradise, eternal life. Whether that is at the moment of death, or at some other time in a realm that is timeless, we will know that we are with him. As Gillian Welch sings, in terms less sentimental than June and Johnny, “I will know my savior when I come to him by the mark where the nails have been.”

11-20-13 - Where's the Phone Booth?

And they cast lots to divide his clothing. The people stood by, watching Jesus on the cross; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!" The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!"

Jesus was used to that mocking question, “If you are…” In his time of testing in the desert, the three big temptations were prefaced with, “If you are the Son of God…” During his earthly ministry, Jesus was a king in disguise, like royals in fairy tales who wander their realm as commoners to find out what’s really going on. And he had a really good cover, “plain old human.” All through his public life, people questioned his heavenly identity because of his earthly markers – how could someone who came from Galilee be the Messiah? How could someone whose family we know be the Holy One?

And here, on the cross, stripped of his humanity, even his clothing, Jesus looks nothing like the Anointed One. The onlookers mock him; his own followers ache for him to show himself at last, for his sake, and for theirs. "It’s time for the phone booth, Clark – we know you’re Superman. Show yourself!” And Jesus does nothing. Nothing, that is, but forgive his executioners, pray to his heavenly Father, extend salvation to a thief dying with him. Nothing much.

A few weeks ago, I discussed Martin Luther’s notion of the Glorious Exchange, in which Christ takes on our threadbare beggar’s rags and gives us his royal robes to wear. Here is that moment. As his persecutors cast lots for his cloak, Jesus puts on our raggedness, our self-centeredness, our capacity for cruelty, and allows it to die with him.

But no one can tell that’s what’s going on. Paul wrote, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation…” The problem is, even as image he is invisible. He just looks like a poor sap who shot for more than he could pull off and is paying the ultimate price.

Are there times when you’ve joined that chorus? “Come on, Jesus, I’m believing in your almighty power to transform all things, to make us all whole. Now would be a great time to show yourself…” I’ve prayed that more than once. In fact, that prayer probably haunts a lot of our doubt and despair. And even so, we are invited to persist in praying, in believing, in claiming, in rejoicing.

So think of a really challenging situation you are faced with right now. Invite Jesus to show up in it and reveal power and life. Is it more impossible than what Jesus did on the cross? Sure, it looked like death had won. Took a few days to find out something deeper had happened.

It might take more than three days for us to see what God is up to in our prayers. And some things we will never understand in this life. That doesn’t mean Superman is gone or defeated. It’s just that, for some strange reason, God has chosen to make us the phone booths in which Clark becomes Superman. So, give the man some space.

11-19-13 - Forgive Them

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing."

One of the greatest obstacles the early followers of Jesus had in presenting the Good News was what Paul refers to as “the scandal of the cross.” It’s hard enough to support the claim that your spiritual leader is a human being who is also the divine son of God, and that this human/divine person was killed and buried and yet managed to rise from the dead. But the notion of a holy man crucified? Crucifixion was one of Rome’s worst forms of execution, reserved for the lowest criminals and revolutionaries. This was crazy.

“But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles,” Paul insisted after noting that “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom.” He continues: “But to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (I Cor.1:22-24)

It is hard to associate power and wisdom with the image of a naked, beaten, helpless man nailed to a cross. Yet that is exactly what Christian belief invites us to do, to see beneath the outward image to the spiritual reality. And that reality Jesus demonstrated in a gesture of incomprehensible generosity: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." He recognizes that the Jewish leaders seeking his death and the Roman leaders carrying out the unjust sentence are so caught up in systems of human control, they can’t see the larger picture or their own complicity.

Each gospel writer stresses in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion those elements he thinks matter most. Luke, champion of the poor and outcast, who so often highlights Jesus’ compassion, puts this act of forgiveness on the cross front and center. This is the kind of kingship we are to follow – forgiveness for the unforgivable, even at the point of death.

So – how are you with forgiveness today? Is anyone harming or holding you back, to whom you might extend this kind of grace? For me, many of our elected leaders come to mind, caught up as they are in power games and shifting allegiances, perhaps too much so to remember why they wanted to serve. “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing…”

Bring to mind someone you feel you need to forgive today. Hold her in your mind’s eye; let the light of Christ surround him. Put yourself into that circle of light with that person – even if you don’t like the company. This is prayer. And what we see in prayer we invite to be made real in our lives.

We do not live in a culture which prizes or admires forgiveness; many associate it with weakness. Christ demonstrated the greatest power and wisdom in extending unmerited grace to his executioners. Christ has extended such grace even to you, even to me.

11-18-13 - The King of What?

I seem to get a lot of pop song snippets when I'm working on Water Daily. Today it’s Sara Bareilles’ King of Anything, which I’ve heard a few times on the radio. “Who died and made you king of anything?” goes the chorus.

This coming Sunday ends the church year before we rev back up with Advent. On the last Sunday in “ordinary time” we honor Christ as King. King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And in the years when we focus on the Gospel according to Luke, the passage appointed for highlighting Jesus’ kingship is the crucifixion. Yep, right before Christmas.

Looking through this story offers us lots of opportunity to talk about what kind of king would be put to death on a cross with common criminals on either side. “Who died and made you king of anything?” is the attitude of the leaders standing, watching Jesus die. An inscription hangs over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” The soldiers supervising the execution mocked him, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!" Pilate had interrogated him about his kingship, and Jesus only gave him cryptic answers like, “My kingdom is not of this world.” No one knew what kind of king this could be.

Today, let’s just stay on the threshold of this story and think about Jesus as king. Is he king (boss, chief, higher power…) in your life? Let’s put ourselves into a feudal, monarchical system for just a moment – how do you feel about Jesus being the highest authority in your life? Are there any places, or topics, or people over which you’re unwilling to cede power to God? Why?

If you’re willing, have a conversation with Jesus about that. I do believe he will listen and not make a grab for what you have not offered. He’s an amazingly patient king that way…

And if you are willing to acknowledge Jesus as King in your life, where do you find the blessing in that?

I guess in our story the answer to Ms. Bareilles’ question, “Who died and made you king of anything?” is “Jesus did.”

11-15-13 - Peaceable Kingdom

The portion of Isaiah we’re looking at depicts different visions of peace and security. It even goes beyond human life to show peace reigning in the natural world, with an image that is known as “The Peaceable Kingdom”: The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox;

In this vision, predator-prey relationships are completely overturned; in fact, there are no predators. Carnivores have become vegetarians – a return to life in the Garden of Eden, in which plants and trees provided all the food that was needed, in which there was no killing to eat, no killing to settle scores. All that came outside the Garden, after the first man and woman were expelled.

They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.

No one will hurt. No one will be hurt.

On my drive back from DC yesterday morning, I passed about seven carcasses of deer and other animals slain by humans moving too quickly to get somewhere that seems more important than the world around them. It seemed such an awful counter-narrative to Isaiah’s. Oh, I do realize that in part deer are vulnerable because predator-prey relationships have been overturned in other, not so positive ways in our world; without predators they have to go further and further for food, wandering onto our roadways. And I do know that the natural order can also be fierce and dangerous. But my spirit is wounded whenever I see a dead animal. I’m increasingly leery of the whole idea of killing animals for food.

So this image is powerful for me. It proclaims: “The order we call natural has been undone and remade by God.” I want the lamb and the wolf to hang out together – I love wolves, I love lambs. I want the lion to like eating ox food, not oxen. And yes, I want people to stop slaughtering animals and one another. Call me hopelessly naïve. I find this vision compelling.

Well, what we do as people of faith is call into being what is not yet. (There’s a Bible verse that says something like, “call what is not as though it is.” Prize for the first person who finds it…) If it already exists in the mind of God, it already is – we invite it to be made known in the here and now. So God puts out this vision in Isaiah of a restored creation with peace and security for every living creature – we add our faith to it, and it will be. Sooner or later… sooner, if we all agree. Transformation happens.

I want to add my faith to this beautiful vision. What visions do you want to call into being? Your own? Something somebody else has described? Where are your prayers leading you today?

Yesterday, Sandy Hook Promise, one of the groups launched in Newtown in the aftermath of the mass shooting last year, unveiled its initiatives for bringing peace by working to prevent gun violence and encouraging parents. Their new website says: Sandy Hook Promise (SHP) is a national, non-profit organization led by community members and several parents and spouses who lost loved ones in the tragic mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012 that claimed the lives of 20 first-graders and 6 educators. Our intent is to honor all victims of gun violence by turning our tragedy into a moment of transformation.

This is one way we bring about the peaceable kingdom – allowing our tragedies to become moments for transformation, our pain turned to purpose. Another part of Isaiah tells this vision again, with a different ending: The lion shall lie down with the lamb… and a little child shall lead them. Amen.

11-14-13 - New Earth/New Heavens

For the rest of the week, I would like to look at one of the readings from the Hebrew Bible set for Sunday, a beautiful prophecy in Isaiah, in which God announces: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth.”

I spent yesterday on Capitol Hill, lobbying for passage of background check laws to reduce gun violence. And I thought, as I walked the halls and corridors of Congress, rushing from House to Senate office buildings and back, that most of the people who choose the political life do so because they want to participate in remaking the earth. Very few get rich doing it, and the stresses are unbelievable. You have to have a desire somewhere to help make life better, for at least some of the people some of the time.

This passage is a timely one for me, given what I’ve been doing this week at the Brady conference. Background checks work. It’s been proven – as it has been that the 40% of purchases that manage to sidestep background checks result in gun violence that makes us all less secure.This passage gives voice to the yearning for peace and security which should be the birthright of every man, woman and child – and animal – on this planet. It articulates beautifully the hope of a restored creation living in harmony:

I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime…
Reading that, I can’t help but think of the men and women I met this week who lost little children and spouses, brothers and uncles to gun violence. I think of the residents of Newtown facing the first anniversary of the loss of so many children; of people in Bridgeport and Chicago mourning their dead – the sound of weeping never quite dies away.

I think of the promise of security and work and rest envisioned in this prophecy:
They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.   They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat…

This is true peace, when each person can live in safety in their own home, bringing up their children to thrive in trust. This is the world God says he is bringing into being. This is the promise we are invited to participate in making real.

What do you long for when you think of God making a new heavens and a new earth?
What aspect of life in this world do you feel called to help renew? Where do you want to put your energies? Start by praying about that area, and imagining yourself making a difference, in the power of the Spirit. 

What do you see yourself doing or saying? Keep inviting God into it.

I know I will keep working and praying for peace on our streets.  

“They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.”

I believe in the power of love to transform and convert the most evil heart. I have to, despite evidence to the contrary. The evidence is not more powerful than the power and the promise of God. God is creating the new heavens and the new earth – and we are here at the beginning. Every day.