8-30-13 - Who You Gonna Sit With?

I’ve been wondering why Luke calls Jesus’ social advice here a “parable.” Parables are usually little stories or examples. Then I remembered – parables are devices Jesus used to explain God-Life to his listeners. They often begin, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…”

And they often feature wedding banquets and feasts. Jesus not only instructs his followers about how they are to regulate their social interactions in this world – he’s also talking about eternity, the “larger life.” At that party, it is God who says to us, “Come up higher, to this seat of honor,” no matter how deserving we are. It is God who will repay us for our kindness to those on the margins, “at the resurrection of the righteous.”

I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the afterlife – there’s plenty of life to get to know right here. But the Bible is full of references to our life in God as a banquet or a feast, tables laden with wonderful foods (no calories!),fine, aged nectars, and wonderful people. All kinds of peoples. ALL kinds. It’s safe to assume that we’ll be at that table with people we might not choose to sit with in the here and now – and if heaven is all it’s cracked up to be, we’re going to be just fine with that. Because no one will be more or less important than another, and we won’t value any one person over another.

I once said this in the presence of a clergy colleague, who was horrified. “You mean, I'm going to have to sit with so-and-so for eternity? I’m not just going to hang out with my loved ones?” I replied, “If any of these promises we claim are true, and in eternity we find ourselves in the presence of Love itself - how would we love one more than another? How can there be 'less love' in the presence of pure love?” He did not look pleased.

As I’ve been reflecting this week on who I find difficult, certain members of Congress come to mind. So God has given me a new practice: when I read the news and feel outraged, I will pray right then for that person to be blessed, whoever he or she may be. If God’s blessing brings good, that prayer can’t hurt, right? (Probably good for my blood pressure too…)

I believe that part of the reason Jesus encourages us to break through the cultural and ethnic and economic and temperamental and all the kinds of barriers we set up between ourselves and others, is to practice this equalizing kind of love now, so we can enjoy it eternally.

So let’s practice: we’ve already been praying for and about people we find challenging.
This weekend, let’s take it outside: 

  find a way to offer friendship or kindness to someone who is difficult for you to love.
Let’s go further: Let’s be the one who says to someone at the edges,
  “Come on, sit here with me in the good seats.” Who might that be for you?
And let’s think of someone we really don’t love,
  and ask God to share God’s love for that person with us.

I mean, why wait?
Really, why waste one precious day in this incredible life NOT loving?

8-29-13 - Gifts of the 'Other'

“When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind…”
My parents had a habit of inviting what we called “stray cats” over for holiday meals, often foreigners far from their homes. As an adult, I’ve done that too. But as a child I would cringe at what I perceived to be the awkwardness of some of our guests. This was a long way from inviting in the homeless and lost, but it was enough of a stretch. I couldn’t get past the “other-ness” to relax into their company.

Part of why we see some people or groups as challenging is that our vision gets distorted by whatever “offending” characteristic we focus on. We fail to see their full humanity, to remember that a mean-looking biker is still someone’s son; a resource-squandering 1-percenter is someone’s sister.

I was once in a wedding in rural England. After all the festivities, I traveled back to where I was staying in north London. There I was in the Tube, still in my bridesmaid’s dress and holding my bouquet along with my luggage, when a group of very “tatted,” black-leather clad, loud and boisterous young men got on the car I was in. “Oh, please don’t notice me,” I thought – but sure enough, one of the biggest, baddest-looking came and loomed over me. “Oh God…,” I thought, my heart pounding. “Is them frejas?” he asked. “Wha-what?” “Frejas. Frejas.” I had no idea what he was saying. “Is them frejas?” he asked again, pointing to my bouquet. “Look, mates, frejas. My mum used to have those…” Ah. Fresias. He smiled, I smiled, they smiled – there we were, bonding over flowers in the subway, no longer strangers. (And I learned what a fresia is…)

Jesus spent a fair amount of time with people we’d be scared to run into on the Tube or on the street. And many of them became his friends and followers. So it still is, I’ve discovered praying with people in homeless shelters. Some manipulators, sure; mostly people who genuinely want to be whole and productive, to feel the living water splashing through their lives and hearts. And yes, Jesus suggests that these, people on whom we’d rather bestow charity than offer hospitality, are the ones we should invite into our lives. “And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you…”

I don’t want to argue with Jesus – but I think those people can repay us, do repay us. When we stop seeing those who frighten or annoy us as “those people,” or view those who are in need or debilitated as “victims” or “needy,” and rather as people with assets and talents and gifts to offer, it becomes a lot easier to think about having “them” in “our” space. We enlarge our space to accommodate them. Our reading from Hebrews on Sunday reminds us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

Yesterday I invited you to imagine in prayer having someone you find really challenging at your table.
Today, let’s bring up the same person or group of persons,and just hold that image in your mind’s eye.
Now, invite God to show you more about who they are – their gifts, wounds, defenses, connections.
Look for what you have in common – that’s often where we start to enlarge our space.

The realm of God is one of radical social equality (maybe that’s why so many decline to dwell there).
“In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, woman nor man, slave nor free,” Paul wrote into the future.
All our superficial differences melt away as we become part of the family of God. 

And you do meet the most amazing people hanging out with this family.

8-28-13 - Jesus, our Emily Post

Who knew that Jesus was the Emily Post of his day? In this week’s story, we find him awfully concerned with the etiquette and protocol of party-going – and giving.

Having been raised in the Foreign Service life, I know how critical protocol is – where each guest is seated, according to social rank and significance at that event; how each is to be addressed. These matters are particularly important in Middle Eastern culture. I recently attended an interfaith event and a Lebanese friend was outraged that I was not seated at a table befitting (his view of) my importance.

So Jesus was attentive to the etiquette at this Shabbat dinner to which he had been invited – at the home of a leading Pharisee, no less (quite the social coup, to be invited to such a home...). Watching his fellow guests subtly and not-so-subtly try to snag “important” seats, he offers a talk about etiquette and protocol. And once again he turns things on their heads.

“Don’t try to sit in the good spots, near the 'important' people,” he says. “Take the most humble seat; let someone else single you out for honor.” And he doesn’t stop with correct behavior for guests – he also advises on how to go about giving a party. Addressing his host directly, he says, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”

A faux pas, if ever I heard of one, telling your host who else he should have invited! And what guests! The poor, crippled, lame and blind… Wait, did he really say, the poor? They couldn’t possibly have the right clothes, my dear. And they might smell. And… what on earth would we talk about? And it might not be safe…. And the crippled, lame and blind? Doesn’t he know that as followers of Moses’ law we can’t consort with the blemished? Good Lord!

Okay, it’s easy to make fun of that unknown Pharisee. But isn’t this teaching a bit of a challenge to all of us? After all, I like to invite people I know and like, whom I think will like each other. Might just be me… but sometimes I even like to invite people I think are important, with whom I’d like to become friendly so I feel important.

Remember what we keep rediscovering – that Jesus was always crossing boundaries of difference to bring the Good News - as he did in coming to us in our time and space in the first place… And that as his followers we also are called to go beyond our zones of familiarity and comfort to reach out to the Other?

What kind of “Other” most scares or bothers you? (think age/ethnicity/profession/style…)
In prayer, can you imagine inviting one of those people into your home, to sit at your table?
This is a way we can pray for and about people – in our imaginations.
What would you serve? Try to sit with this in your imagination, really feel what you would be feeling.
What might you say? What might your guest say? 

Who else might around that table?

I can think of at least one person I KNOW will be there – the One who told you to cross that boundary in the first place. You didn’t think he was going to leave you at that party by yourself, did you? 

On Twitter: @kateheichler

8-27-13 - Humblest

“Mirror, mirror on the wall – who’s the humblest of them all?” It’s funny to think of humility as a virtue at which to excel – if we truly succeed, no one will know.

But that’s the upside-down-ness of the Life of God – it’s all backwards from the way we naturally think. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted,” Jesus says. So, does that mean as soon as someone has noticed your humility and pointed it out, you go back to square one?

Humility is to be a characteristic of those who follow Christ. It’s worth spending a little time on. Let’s start with what it is not:

Humility is not humiliation, which is a kind of exposure of our worst attributes or actions. Enduring humiliation can sometimes lead us into true humility, but it’s a twisty, most undesirable road that can lead to despair and destructiveness instead.

Humility is not self-abasement or self-denigration. Talking about how awful and unworthy we are is, spiritually speaking, pride; pride being that tendency to think ourselves equal to God. When we run ourselves down, we are setting ourselves as judges of God’s work. That’s pride. Oh, we can judge our actions, and repent of destructive words, thoughts, behaviors – but to judge ourselves innately less worthy than another is as prideful as to say we are innately more worthy than another.

We might best define humility as the art of seeing ourselves clearly, seeing God clearly, and knowing who’s who. Humility includes rejoicing in our gifts and talents, in who we are as unique creatures made in God’s image. It includes enjoying being the best at what we do – and delighting in that as a gift from God, a gift enhanced by God’s life moving in us. (For a powerful reminder of this, watch the first 1.44 minutes of this clip from the movie Chariots of Fire…)

Humility includes loving ourselves despite our shortcomings, which creates space for those shortcomings to be transformed. Humility helps us love other people better because we see them as neither more nor less important than we are. Humility helps us invite the love and grace of God into those parts of ourselves that are not as we wish, so that we become transformed from the inside.

Yesterday, I invited you to make a list of things about yourself that you’re not thrilled with, and another list of things you are proud of. Go back to the first list, and invite the Holy Spirit into each one of those things, asking for a glimpse of what it might look like transformed. (Temper into a passion for justice? Sadness into a greater capacity for compassion? Over-shopping into more proactive generosity?)

For the second list, remind yourself of how each of those attributes makes the portrait of you more true. Give God the credit.

And those of us who have had a habit of self-abasement can ask God’s forgiveness and help in seeing ourselves more clearly. “Mirror, mirror on the wall – show me true, not too big or small.”

8-26-13 - A Place at the Table

This week's gospel: Luke 14:1,7-14

I have seating issues. I have “place at the table” issues. If you invite me to a meeting, make sure there’s only one circle of chairs or a big-enough table. And if you invite me to a wedding, please don’t seat me in outer darkness at the edge of the room, at a table of strangers. There might be weeping and gnashing of teeth – coming from me.

Guess Jesus might have a thing or two to say to me, as he did to those Pharisees who were observing his table manners so closely. He turns the tables on them: “If you’re invited to a wedding, go sit at the place the furthest away from the action, where you feel the least honored. Then you might get upgraded, maybe to a table with the bride or groom’s family. But if you pick out that better seat…look out. You just might be asked to move. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Pecking orders. Jockeying for position. Honors. Disses. Credentials. Where is your office and how many windows does it have? With whom are we on a first-name or a peck on the cheek basis?

Why is it that we so often let external things and people tell us what we’re worth? Perhaps you don’t – but I tend to put way too much weight on affirmation and indications of status.

Worrying where we sit or whether we’re acknowledged as important is human, at least to humans who feel some insecurity about their place in the world. But if you’re already royalty, do you need a place card to tell you so?

As part of Jesus’ family, we are royalty – sisters and brothers of the King. What might it feel like to move through today with that knowledge? How might you walk differently, look at people differently, talk to people differently, use your gifts differently, if you remember your true status as an heir to the Kingdom of God, a beloved son and daughter of the Creator? A princess in disguise, a prince under wraps?

If you're not into royalty, pick a kind of status that resonates with you – a famous athlete, entertainer, author, an elected official you respect (hush…) . Or maybe you don’t have to pretend to be anyone other than YOU, an utterly unique, gifted and wonderful child of God growing into the fullness of the stature of Christ.

Today, list the things that make you feel insecure about yourself.
If there are people in your life that make you feel insecure, list them too.
Then list the things that make you feel proud about yourself, the things you wish everyone knew. If there are people in your life that make you feel more secure, list them too.

Now – pray over all four lists. 

Pray for the people who make you feel less than yourself, that they would be blessed. Same for the people who make you feel great about yourself - you might thank them.
Pray about the things in you that make you doubt your status as God’s unique and wonderful child.
Give thanks for the things you’re proud of – and invite God to keep working in you.

And then spend some time exalting God – a fancy word for praise.
Know that God delights in you – when we rest in that, we’re sitting pretty no matter where we are.

8-23-13 - Joining Jesus

When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.”

Tradition tells us that Luke the evangelist was a physician. He could have had a career as a political publicist – in both his gospel and its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles, he often gives these summaries that tell us how Jesus just won the latest debate, and how enthralled the populace is.

I don’t think Jesus was all about putting his opponents to shame, though he gets in quite a few “gotcha” moments in the gospel accounts of his life. And as we see that story play out, we know that the “entire crowd” didn’t stay rejoicing for long – soon enough, they were calling for his blood. Jesus was not out to win popularity contests, then or now. Jesus was about proclaiming the Life of God released in and among humankind, and about demonstrating that Life in healing, forgiving, calling out corruption and injustice, and setting people free from the forces of evil, however that evil was being manifest.

And that’s exactly what he invites his followers, then and now, to join him in. What if the statement was, “And the entire crowd joined him in all the wonderful things he was doing?” Following Christ is not a spectator sport or an academic pursuit – it’s an invitation to full-on engagement in heart, in body, in mind, in spirit. We don’t have to argue against the opponents of the Way of Christ; we just have to live out that Way in fullness, and let others see for themselves why we choose this God who has chosen us.

Mahatma Gandhi is famously quoted, when asked why he “rejected Christ,” as saying: “Oh, I don’t reject Christ. I love Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike Christ. If Christians would really live according to the teachings of Christ, as found in the Bible, all of India would be Christian today.”

I believe following Christ is more about becoming conscious of His Spirit in ours in relationship than merely following his teachings, but I do not argue with the premise of that statement, whether or how Gandhi said it. We are invited to live this Love we have received and to share it liberally in the world. Many of you have already stepped out further this week, in offering parts of yourself for healing, in praying for and with others more boldly. THAT is how the Life of God spreads throughout the world. That is how many can rejoice in all the wonderful things Christ is doing even now, through us.

What are you finding your spirit rejoicing in today? What joy is burbling up from deep inside you?
What longtime sufferer are you being invited to bring a touch of healing grace to?
Ponder a moment and see what names come up in your mind. Bring them to Jesus in your imagination. That’s a start. If you’re supposed to pray with them in person, the Holy Spirit will give you that nudge.

Keep looking for signs of God-Life around you this weekend. The more we look, the more we see. The more we see, the more we rejoice!

8-22-13 - Flexible Law

Don’t you hate it when you know you’re right and find out you’re wrong anyway?

“But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’”

“So who is this visiting rabbi to come into my synagogue and call me a hypocrite? This is one of the Big Ten, for Christ’s sake…” This synagogue leader knew he was in the right. God’s law clearly stated that, on one day out of seven, humankind was to cease from work. This Sabbath commandment is one of the wisest of God’s gifts to us – not only does a day off allow people to recharge, even work animals get some rest. Servants get a break. The whole economy slows down (omg!) for a day a week, a day to be set aside for community, for worship, for reflection, for walks, meals, conversations – anything unproductive and lifegiving.

And yet, I think most of us would agree that Jesus is more right than the synagogue leader – his logic is impeccable. He pushes the leader’s logic to its illogical conclusion. Of course people feed and water their animals even on the Sabbath, or haul their sheep out of wells, an example Jesus gives in a similar argument elsewhere. If we do farm chores, why wouldn’t we offer healing, blessing, on God’s special day?

When we try to live by “the rules,” it often turns out we’re focusing on one rule to the exclusion of another, or we haven’t looked at the implications for other people of our adherence to that rule. A huge part of Jesus’ message was that all the systems we set up to regulate our lives need to be checked against the greater commandment to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. He doesn’t toss out the whole Law – he tries to correct the misinterpretations of that law which result in a brittle, legalistic, condemning religious system instead of a living faith in a loving God.

It is in the nature of religious systems to become brittle, legalistic and condemning if we are not constantly open to the fresh winds of the Spirit. When we lock into any one interpretation, we close off opportunities for God to lead us to new ministries, new people, new blessings. The action of God as we see it in Christ’s life, and in the lives of Christ’s followers since his resurrection, is usually across boundaries of difference, often into the zone of slight discomfort – that’s where we learn who God is. That’s a lifetime learning. Maybe an eternal lifetime learning.

Today, you might ask yourself where your beliefs are more rigid, and where they are more pliable. What are the “codes” or “contracts” you live by? Did those actually come from God?

There’s a fine line between conviction and dogmatism. We might say that line is faith, which is a living affirmation of what we believe but can never be absolutely sure of. Once we know it, it’s not faith.

Jesus invites us into a living, growing, doubting, testing, adventurous, loving life of faith in the unseen yet present God. Where is he challenging you today?

8-21-13 - Every Day

In this week’s story, Jesus releases healing and praise in a woman who has been bent over, crippled, for eighteen years. Can we get an “Alleluia?” Not from the leader there – he is outraged that Jesus performed this “work” on the Sabbath, “saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’” Jesus was a religious leader himself, steeped in Jewish law and traditions. Shouldn’t he have known better?

The whole gospel record of Jesus’ ministry and teaching could be summed up as: He knew better. Certainly, he claimed to know better what God asked of God’s people – that made him very unpopular with the religious establishment. And there was authority in the way he taught the “better way,” and power in his demonstrations of that “better way” that also made him wildly popular with the people.

The Jewish religious system of Jesus’ day had grown rigid, hierarchical, focused on performance of sacrifices and rituals and adherence to rules and regulations (that’s the natural tendency of religious systems…). Jesus constantly challenged the leaders to reclaim God’s love and compassion for the poor, the weak, the meek, and not stand arrogantly on their “righteousness.” He’s not averse to picking fights with these leaders who constantly scrutinized him, and many of these fights are about healing on the Sabbath.

A rigid interpretation of Sabbath laws suggests you do nothing, not even a good thing, on the Sabbath, if it can be construed as "work." But Jesus said that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” God’s laws were intended to bless us and make us blessings to the world, to be a yardstick by which we measure our growth in spiritual maturity, not to hit us with when we fail.

That synagogue leader thought he had God figured out, contained. Isn’t that so often our temptation? “You can be healed six days of the week, not seven.” But who is to contain the Holy Spirit? If the very nature of God is wholeness, healing is going to break out whenever and wherever God is … and in that synagogue that day, God was there, in Christ.

So it is today, in any and every place where the Spirit of God is present through the Body of Christ. That’s us, folks. Christ’s hands and feet and eyes and ears and voice of love in the world now. We have been given tremendous power through our access to God in the Spirit. So when we encounter someone who is afflicted in body, mind or spirit, we don’t have to think, “Oh, this isn’t the time or place for prayer,” or “I’m not the right person.” We can just go, “Oh yeah, I know the right person. And he’ll show up anytime I invoke his name. Come, Lord Jesus.” That is the ancient prayer of the people of the better way, “Maranatha.” Come, Lord Jesus.

Today, keep inviting God to release healing love and power in you, where you’re hurting.
And keep praising.

And add a third thing: ask God to show you today someone for whom you are to pray, for whom you are to invite Jesus to release healing graces. It might be a person close to you, or someone you see on the news. You don’t have to offer to pray with them, though that’s always great. You can simply say, “Come Lord Jesus – here’s someone who needs you. Be here. Release your power and love in him, in her.”

God is with us seven days a week, 24 hours a day, at all times and in all places.
God cannot be contained or constrained.
The more we pray, the more God’s life breaks out and restores the world. Every day.

8-20-13 - Healing Praise

“When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.

Oh, if we all saw such immediate outcomes to our prayers, I think there would be a lot more healing prayer around. Of course, the reverse might also be true: If there were more healing prayer around, we might see many more immediate outcomes.

Happily, God’s life is not a both/and kind of place. We are invited to pray at all times and in all places, and I can testify that the more we approach infirmity with prayer, the more often and the more quickly we see healing. I have become adept at inviting God to release healing power and love in my body when I burn myself in the kitchen, thanking all the cells for rushing to do their healing thing, and inviting them not to overdo it – and I see the burns healing much faster without scarring. When I practice my faith on relatively small things, it’s stronger when I need to pray for bigger, scarier things, when I need to invite God to release peace and power into a huge complex of anxiety or illness.

Some people wrote yesterday that they felt convicted to begin to pray about some chronic issues. If you did, keep it up. And add an ingredient: praise. I love how this woman, as soon as she felt the flow of Jesus’ power in her, stood up straight and began praising God. Praise is one of the best conductors for healing power there is. When we’re praising God, it’s really hard to be focused on how sick, scared or miserable we are. Those things may still be there, but they’re not where we’re putting our energy.

I believe praise releases endorphins – spiritual, if not chemical. Really exuberant praise – like we do at rock and roll shows or ball games – probably releases the chemical kind. (Episcopalians could afford to be a little more exuberant in our praise – we tend toward the hushed tones of an announcer in a golf tournament… “Ah, well played, Lord…”) When we release ourselves in praise, it also spreads good feelings to the people around us. There’s no down-side to praising the One who made us, who heals us, who loves us.

Praise is an act of choice, an act of will – we choose to praise God for everything we know and believe about God, no matter what else is going on in our lives. It’s an act of will that opens us up to the power that makes us whole. So today, let’s practice praise. It’s kind of hard to do with words, because we run out of them quickly. And it can feel funny to just repeat over and over “God, I praise you. I honor you. I exalt you….”We don’t talk to people in our lives that way – we don’t have to be so stiff with God either.

So maybe we try it without words.
Maybe just ask the Holy Spirit to fill you and praise through you.
Maybe try singing a hymn or song you love, or bring up an image of beauty or love in your mind and thank God for that. And when something negative intrudes, just gently say, “Not now. It’s praise time…”

Maybe by the time you’re done praising God, there won’t be any room for that negative thing anyway.

8-19-13 - Stuck?

Our story this week is less lengthy and complex than the story about that woman at the well. In Luke 13:10-17, Jesus is not straying beyond the borders proper to a Jewish religious leader of his time. He is teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath. What could be more proper than that? Plenty, we’ll see. Jesus doesn’t do “proper” so well.

“Just then,” Luke says, “there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and unable to stand up straight.” Now some, seeing such a sight, might say, “Oh, isn’t that too bad. She must suffer a great deal.” Others, with a meaner bent of mind, might even think, “Hmmm… wonder what she did wrong to be punished in such a way?”

Jesus saw someone who needed to be set free and given new life. “When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.” The leaders of the synagogue were not pleased – more on that later this week. For today, let’s stay with this woman, bent over for eighteen years.

The Gospel writers often tell us how long people were afflicted before Jesus healed them. Eighteen years is a long time, a long time to not be able to look people in the eye in conversation, or to admire a beautiful night sky. If you don’t think anything can be done for you, you live with it, for eighteen years or more. That woman probably thought she would always be like this, and got on with her life.

Jesus said, “Here’s something we can heal.” It is his first instinct – “Come here, let’s deal with that.” He doesn’t deliberate and wonder if it’s “God’s will” – he knows illness and disability are not God’s intention for us. We may not always see healing as immediately as in this story; sometimes it’s more gradual. But we can trust that it is God’s will that we be whole. Wholeness is always the will our God whom we call One and Perfect. How could such a One desire less than wholeness for us?

Today, I invite you to ask yourself what conditions and limitations do you just live with because you don’t think anything can be done (which is like saying that thing is more powerful than God…)? A physical pain or disorder? A long-term depression, or tendency to anger easily? An addiction or inability to lose weight or be as fit as you’d like? Even lack of faith can feel like something we’re stuck with.

If the Good News about Jesus that we find in the Gospels tells us anything, it is that we don’t have to be stuck with anything, from personal failings or physical disease to injustice and systemic corruption. Jesus came to announce our freedom from everything we feel we’re stuck with.

What do you think you’re stuck with that God can release you from? Make a list. In prayer, invite the power and love that made the universe to be released in you, in your body, your mind, your spirit. And expect that the living water of God is flowing and bringing new life to you wherever you need it most. And then the next place, and the next place.

If you’re scared to pray this way because you’re afraid “nothing will happen,” do it anyway. What do you have to lose?

What you have to gain is a deeper relationship with God, more peace as you move into wholeness – and a whole lot more life as you are set free. Amen?

8-16-13 - The Real Thing

Have you ever longed for something as eagerly as that woman and her townsfolk were waiting for the Messiah to come? The One whom God would send to free his chosen people from social, political and economic oppression? In those days, many would-be messiahs preached and fomented revolts, but never the real thing.

This woman of Samaria, this woman with the many lovers – she must have felt she’d met the Real Thing. Leaving her empty water jug, she runs back to town and tells the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’” There’s a little doubt in the way she phrases that – and still, she is willing to put herself in the limelight, she who has had way too much bad press in her life, and risk being wrong about the most important thing in the world.

What was there in this encounter with Jesus that so electrified her? It wasn’t just his saying, “I am the Messiah.” Nobody opens their heart because someone says so. I believe it was because she experienced being seen, deeply seen and known, which is what our hearts hunger for perhaps even more than being loved. To be deeply seen and known and not condemned is one description of being loved.

Only encountering love makes us want to open our hearts further. Only encountering love makes us want to share what we’ve experienced with another. So she runs and tells her community that they’ve got to see this guy. She speaks with such authority, that they go out to that well. “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’

Our stories about encounters with Love go a long way – but sooner or later people have to have their own stories. So these Samaritans ask Jesus to stay with them and he remains for two days. A Jewish rabbi the guest of a Samaritan town? Wonder what his detractors thought of that?

And more people encountered Love: “And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.’

This is why we tell our stories of faith, of love – so we can invite others into The Story of God’s uncontainable love for the creation God made and is restoring to wholeness. Yesterday I talked about telling our stories of encounters with True Love. Have you had such an encounter? If you don’t feel you have experienced the love of God in Christ, talk to a pastor or a godly friend – or feel free to email me.

If you have – when have you bumped up against God’s love? Write the story:
  What happened? Were there words? Images? Sensations? How did you feel?
  What did you do? Has that relationship grown?  
  Have you allowed the Spirit of God more room in your heart?

Who do you know with whom you might to share that story? Write some names.
Anyone you would like to tell about being known and loved by the God who made the universe?
Anyone you’d like to bring back to that well to introduce to Jesus?

“Come and meet the One who is the most Real Thing in my life.”
I’d want to hear the rest of that story…

8-15-13 - Your Harvest Field

When we cross boundaries to engage people who are not like us, it might raise eyebrows.
As we left our story yesterday, Jesus had just dropped the bombshell about being the messiah, and the Samaritan woman had dropped her water jar and run back to town (more on that tomorrow…).

Jesus’ disciples had come back from their food-run and, John tells us, “They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman,” but no one questioned him. They were more practical: “Rabbi, eat something!” And Jesus goes all metaphoric again, just as he had in the conversation about water: ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’

Did someone bring him something to eat?” the disciples ask each other.
I can imagine Jesus shaking his head at their literal-mindedness.
My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest?’ But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together.

The fields are ripe with people hurting, disconnected, thirsty for Good News about a loving God who draws near to God’s people, Jesus is saying – to them, and to us. “Look, just sitting here by this well I found one. Think how many more there are like her? We may not find them at the temple, but they’re all over the towns and roads. You may have to talk to people you’re not supposed to talk to, and look places you don’t normally go – but the harvest is ready.”

He also says the harvest is assured: “The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life.” Bringing people into eternal relationship with the living God is ultimately God’s job, and one God has chosen to do with us. We are the ones who issue the invitations; God is the host at the feast. We don’t need to worry about outcomes when we talk with people in our lives about the peace, joy, purpose, comfort, centeredness we enjoy as followers of Jesus. We just tell our stories of our encounters with True Love, and open doors that others might want to walk through.

Do you know anyone who is curious about your spiritual life?
Anyone ever ask why you go to church, or used to? Anyone ever ask you to pray for them?
Here’s a radical idea: offer to pray with them, right then. “Can we say a quick prayer now? God, thank you for blessing xxx with your healing love and light. Release your power in us today. Thank you.
That would do it…

As you pray today, maybe go back to that image of bringing people to the well for healing and blessing. 

This time, bring in anyone who comes to mind as having some spiritual hunger. Just bring them into that picture, invite them to drink some of that living water.
If Jesus is there in your picture, introduce them. That’s a way to pray for people we know.
And, if you dare, ask God if you’re meant to start a spiritual conversation with them in “real time.”

All we do is be true to our own stories, and listen attentively to the stories of the Other.
When we make that kind of space, community happens – and often, Jesus shows up too.

8-14-13 - At the Well

Some people just aren’t interested in metaphors.
When Jesus tells this woman at the well, “Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty,” she calls his bluff. “So, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.

And Jesus abruptly changes the subject. He tells her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘That’s nicely put, I have no husband; for you have had five husbands, and the one you’re with now is not your husband. You’ve spoken the truth.”

Well, this conversation just took an interesting turn. This woman has a complicated history and present. Is this why she’s out here at the well in the noon sun, when no one else is likely to be there, snickering, judging? And what about this guy… is he judging? How does he know this? “Sir, I see that you are a prophet,” she says. And then she changes the subject too, talking about why Jews and Samaritans split, over whether worship should take place only in Jerusalem, or in other holy places too.

Jesus replies that the time is coming when it won’t matter where we worship the Father – what matters is that we worship in spirit and in truth. And this bold woman, who hasn’t backed away from argument in this whole exchange, appeals to a higher authority, “I know that the Messiah is coming," she says, "And when he comes, he’ll set this all straight.”

To which Jesus simply says, “I’m your man.” (Or, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”)

And at that momentous revelation we get… interrupted. The disciples come back. The woman leaves the water jar she has carried all the way out to the well, and runs back to town.

What would you think if a stranger you were talking to said he were God’s long-awaited salvation, the relief you’ve been thirsting for your whole complicated, lonely, outcast life? Maybe that he was crazy… unless maybe he’d revealed some inner knowledge about you, saw who you are and didn’t judge you?

What is it you are thirsty for today? What are you sorry for today?
Where might Jesus be waiting for you, among your regular chores and routines?
Sometimes we meet him in the people we encounter, and other times he speaks to our spirits directly.

If you can spare a few minutes today, take some time and imagine yourself at that well, or in any other place from your own life that comes to mind. Bring yourself and your own complicated life to that place and invite Jesus into it… maybe you’ll visualize him coming into that scene, or you’ll just open a line of conversation in your head. What do you want to tell him? What do you want to ask him?

What does he say to you?
Sometimes we hear his words, other times we just get a feeling.
Other times we wait for a bit and then wander back to town and our busy lives.
Whatever happens, the time we spend opening our spirits to God is always time well spent.

I pray for deep springs to open up in you…

8-13-13 - Thirsty?

When we left the scene yesterday, Jesus was sitting at a well, asking a Samaritan woman for a drink of water. She did not immediately comply, asking rather, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”

Jesus gives a puzzling answer: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” She assumes that living water means running water, and shoots back: “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” She reminds him how historic this well is in the shared history of Jews and Samaritans: “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”

The patriarch Jacob is the one whom God renamed Israel. This was his well. She is bringing out the big guns, “Who do you think you are, mister?”

Jesus doesn’t take the bait. He gives an even more puzzling reply: “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.

Not just trickling, not just welling up – gushing. That is the promise of God to us – that those who accept the living water, which is the life of God, the activity and presence of the Holy Spirit, are already being fed by a wellspring that gushes to eternal life. It is already part of our life, and will never run out. We don’t have to thirst for God – God has drawn near and fills us from a source that never ends.

I like to think of the living water as a literal river splashing through our bodies, our minds, our spirits, refreshing us, and bearing away debris that blocks the flow of God’s life in us, that holds us back to old ways. This stream is always carrying fresh water to stagnant and dry places in us. This water is the source of fresh ideas, deeper compassion, unexplained healing, inexplicable love.

What are you thirsty for today? What in you feels dry or arid – or swampy and stagnant? Make a note in your prayer journal, if you’ve started one.
Sometimes we can answer that question by noting what it is we always pray for.

But remember, we don’t have to pray “to” and pray “for” – we are invited to pray with God. The Spirit of God, who is that living water, prays within us, inspiring and answering our prayers.

If you are thirsty for more of God-life in your life, invite the Spirit to quicken the flow of living water. Visualize that spring or well or fountain and imagine a trickle turn to flowing and then gushing.

Splash in it, drink of it, imagine in prayer sharing it with the people you care about. In your imagination, bring those people to your well and see yourself giving each a drink of this living water that heals.

Trust it. It is an eternal gift to you, already here, never running out.

8-12-13 - Jesus and That Woman

Welcome to Week 4 of Water Daily. And I’ve hit my first lectionary obstacle – I don’t want to spend the week ferreting out the Good News in the gospel passage appointed for next Sunday. It is one of those harsh, Jesus-having-a-mood-swing passages that are important to perspective but challenging. And hey, it’s still summertime. So I’m choosing another, a story that goes deep, and deeper still.

This is the story of an encounter between Jesus and a foreign woman, maybe even a loose woman, on a hot day. Jesus is on his way from Judea back to Galilee, and he has to pass through Samaria… foreign territory for a Jew. So the story takes place “out of bounds” – but in a historically holy place, near the well that the patriarch Jacob had given to Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.

His disciples go off to town to buy some food, and Jesus rests by the well. A woman comes out to the well – high noon is not the usual time for drawing water. But it is a good time for a gunfight – and we’re about to see a good verbal skirmish. It begins when Jesus asks her to draw some water for him. She says, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?" (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.).

Samaritans were descendants of the original northern kingdom of Israel which, for a time under King David, was united with Judea in the south. But when the leaders in Jerusalem decreed that all worship was to take place in the temple there and no longer in the many other sacred sites of Israel, a division began which eventually separated Jews from Samaritans. Sometimes family feuds result in much deeper enmity than other conflicts.

So right away we see Jesus crossing – violating? – all kinds of barriers. There is an ethnic barrier, a gender barrier, a religious barrier – as a Jewish man and a rabbi, he should not be talking with a woman alone. As we will see, something amazing occurs because both Jesus and this unnamed woman cross those boundaries. We might even say that the life of God is always to be found when we go out of our comfort zone and into foreign territory, into the life of the Other.

Where have you encountered the life of God in a place or a person you did not expect?
Who are some “Others” you are leery of getting to know, whom the Spirit might be prompting you to discover? What boundaries of age, profession, gender, sexuality, race, political affiliation, opinion might you be invited to tiptoe across?

In prayer today, I invite you to hold an image of a problematic “Other” in your mind for a moment. 

Ask yourself what you have in common with that person or group.
Ask God to show you what God loves in that person or group.
You might pray for God’s blessing on that person or group.

If you’re open to it, pray for an opportunity to have an encounter with someone very different from you, in which you might share yourself honestly and hear the other person's story.
(And if you’re not open to it… there’s another prayer.)

8-9-13 - Breaking and Entering

Jesus’ last instruction about being ready has a more ominous tone – “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour."

Theologians often speak of the Kingdom life of God “breaking in” to our temporal reality – but not quite this literally. Who wants to think of the in-breaking life of God as a criminal invasion of personal space? Why would Jesus use such a negative analogy for something he invites us to anticipate as beneficial?

Maybe to get our attention? To remind us that the life of God comes to us in ways we cannot plan, predict or fully defend ourselves against? The coming of God has aspects of judgment – both Peter and Paul, in New Testament letters, refer to the day of judgment as an event that comes “like a thief in the night.” And the coming of God brings blessings, benefits we don’t want to miss by being “asleep,” unaware. The way of following God in Christ involves tuning our senses and our spirit to become more and more aware of God’s life in, around and through us.

I believe Jesus is telling us to be alert to something we cannot control. God doesn’t always seem to show up in the “expected hours” – between 10 and 11:15 on a Sunday morning, say, or when we’re late for a meeting and desperate for a parking space. There are more critical occasions when it seems like God has not shown up either – and then we see God has.

I once found out I had to move out of an apartment in 72 hours rather than the month I’d been promised. I had a new place lined up but it was not available for a month. I panicked – then started working the phones. Soon I’d found storage in an empty church school classroom, two friend with trucks and six friends with strong backs. They showed up at 9 on the given morning and by noon my stuff was safely stowed and I was on my way to a lunch appointment I had thought I’d have to cancel. The solutions had come faster than the problem.

“Where were you?” I had asked God when this little crisis first hit. “How could you let this happen?” As I saw I wasn’t even going to be late to the lunch date, I had one of those epiphanies: “Oh yeah – you rarely prevent the mess. You show up in it, bringing unexpected grace.” (As a friend once pointed you, you can't get a bigger mess than Good Friday... but that wasn't the end of the story.)

You may have far more heart-breaking examples of times you sought signs of God’s activity and couldn’t find it. That is a hard mystery. Yet, if we focus only on where we don’t see God, we miss all the places God is. God is rarely in the last place we perceived him – the movement of God is always forward. And God does not hide from us – more often, our assumptions and preconceived notions cloud our vision.

If you want to become more spiritually alert, here are some prayer prompts for today:

  • If you have some unfinished business with God about times you felt God did not show up, speak it. Relationships require honesty, and there is nothing we feel that God doesn’t want to hear.
  • Ask God to give you a clue today of where you might perceive his life around you.
  • Invite the Holy Spirit to awaken your ability to perceive her life in you.
  • Pay attention to inner prompts you might get about someone or something, or to where you feel peace or do not feel peace.
The more we become aware of the life of God around us, the more we become aware of the life of God around us. And there's a lot of life!

Thur, August 8

It’s not often we get rewarded just for showing up – but that’s what Jesus seems to suggest happens to those who are ready for God: Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.

This is like a boss finding a clerical worker in the middle of an all-nighter of copying, collating, and stapling and saying, “Wow! You’re doing your work! Hey, sit down – I’ll take it from here. In fact, let me order you some dinner.” It’s like the Earl of Grantham making breakfast for Mrs. Patmore, or a farm-hand (if you’re a follower of Downton Abbey).

We tend to hear a word like “servant” or “slave” and file it with everything we know about human servanthood and hierarchies. But the Kingdom of God is always upside-down from the way human affairs work. (We might say it’s “Downstairs/Upstairs,” if you’re a PBS fan of a certain age…)

We think being a servant means working for someone. The way Jesus talks, it’s more like working with. In this analogy about the master serving dinner to the tired servant; in his invitation to “Come unto me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will refresh you”; in his parables, Jesus tells us again and again that we don’t have to work to please God. We are invited to be open to what God is doing in, around and through us.

I keep receiving this message from God lately – “It is my work. I am doing it through you, through my people, but it is my work. Come and be a part of it.” One day in prayer, I heard simply, “Instrument.” Instruments don’t play themselves – the music-maker plays them. They need to be tuned and in good shape, but they don’t make the music. Neither does the music-maker make music without them.

I believe God has songs that can only be heard through you. Are you in tune?

That’s what time in prayer and contemplation and confession and praise does – tunes us up so we’re ready to play. The time we spend opening ourselves to the presence of God is how we receive the power and passion and purpose and peace to participate (how’s that for alliteration!) in what God is inviting us into. Taking care of ourselves through eating well, resting, exercising and being creative we might call “instrument maintenance.”

So today spend a little time just getting quiet in yourself. Maybe ask God,
“What are we going to do today? Who are you going to bring in my path who needs your blessing through me? What in me needs tuning? What’s the new song you want to teach me? How can I be more open?” An idea might form then and there, or you may notice something through the day. Be alert.

Don’t rush away – wait a little longer; let some stillness gather; see what you hear.
The rests in a song are as important as the notes.

Wed, August 7

The next sections of Jesus’ discipleship training talk (Luke12:32-40) deal with being ready for God to show up. We often assume this means the final, apocalyptic “God showing up” at the end of time – because the church has been overly preoccupied with “then” and “later” in interpreting Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom. That emphasis can cause us to miss the present, “here” and “now” activity of God.

Jesus tells us God has drawn near to us “here” and “now.” There is an immediacy to his teaching: "Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks."

This language, archaic as it is, presupposes a master/servant relationship. Yes, we are children of God – beloved, inheriting, gifted children of God. And Jesus suggests we are also servants of God, waiting for our master to come home from the party, ready to serve in whatever way is needed. Jesus invites us to live expecting that God will show up at any moment – and, indeed, God does. As we tune our spiritual senses, we start to perceive that action of God around us more and more.

Being dressed for action means being spiritually prepared, tuned and toned – no sweat pants for us!

Having our lamps lit is a metaphor for being spiritually ready, wicks trimmed, ready to be lit up, to shine a light into the shadow places we encounter. (Suddenly I’m getting a picture of the Holy Spirit as Tinkerbell, flitting around, lighting us up – and if we believe, we hear the little bell. But it’s been awhile since I saw Peter Pan...)

The Holy Spirit is not a fairy, of course. The Holy Spirit is the power and passion and peace and presence of God made known in our bodies, minds and spirits, and in our world. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Father and the Son, is HOW God shows up in our lives.

So today, let’s choose our action wardrobe. First, what do we un-choose?
What are the factors in your life that keep your focus away from God and what God is up to?
Busyness? Stress? Complacency? Numbness? Associate each “distraction” with an item of clothing you do not associate with action. Want to tuck those away in closet? Or toss em?

Now, what does being dressed for action, spiritually, look like?
Connected in prayer? Grateful? Aware of what people around you are feeling? Of joys and hurts in the world? Aware of your gifts and open to being used by God – open to being lit up to shine God’s light? Paul writes, "As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” (Colossians 3:12)

If you feel like imagining your list as action clothes, imagine putting them on.
Play “dress up” in your mind. Prayer can be playful.

We don’t have to generate the action – we’re just asked to be ready to participate in it.
You ready for where God is going to show up today? I want to hear about it.

Tues, August 6

“Sell your possessions, and give to the poor.
After assuring his followers that they are recipients of all that the Maker of heaven and earth has to offer – quite an extravagant gift, right? – that’s the next nugget of advice Jesus gives his followers.

“Sell your possessions, and give to the poor?” Easy for you to say, Jesus – you didn’t have any possessions. Oh wait, you were a carpenter, weren’t you, and – oh yeah, you walked away from your home and your trade…

The way of following Jesus is probably a lot simpler and richer when we’re unburdened from possessions and all the responsibility they entail. Still, the idea of giving away everything we own is so radical and unthinkable to many of us, we stop listening right there, feeling either affronted or condemned. I do not believe God is interested in condemning or insulting us. God is interested in loving us into wholeness. So let’s breathe, feel our feelings, and read on.

Jesus suggests we invest not in things that pass away, “purses that wear out.” (Guess he never heard of a Coach bag, huh? …OMG, my first Daily Word product placement! Maybe I can monetize this baby…) Instead, he suggests we build our IRAs on eternal funds. And then comes the “money shot” – “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

They say the quickest way to see what our priorities in life are is to look at our bank statement and our calendar. Where we put our time and money tells us what we care most about – or what we worry most about. When we do that analysis, we often find that our highest priorities don’t have enduring value. Our to-do lists, our bank balances, our career moves, the things we buy for our houses – they might matter, but not as much as we seem to think in the moment. When we step back and include God in the picture, those emphases often begin to shift, and we live into a gradual simplifying of our lives as we reorder our priorities God-ward.

Jesus’ principle is also true when we flip it – where our heart is, there will our treasure be also. As we cultivate our relationship with God in Christ, the things and people that matter to God start to matter more to us. Giving to help children we've never met in other lands starts to seem more important than acquiring yet another glittering piece of electronica.

Today, I invite you to take a few minutes and draw a treasure map (did you do that when you were a kid?) Draw where your treasure is today – and label it.
Where in the picture is your treasure? What do you spend most of your money, time and anxiety on?
Where in the picture is your heart? What do you most delight in?
Where in the picture is God? Do you want to turn your heart more God-ward?
What in that picture do you want to chat with God about? What does God say?

However these answers come to you, remember this: YOU are God’s treasure, God’s delight – and so you know that you are in the heart of God. Walk today like you know that.

Mon, August 5

Next Sunday’s Gospel reading is not a story, but a list of instructions Jesus gives his followers. We’ll look at a different section each day this week. Some of his images may connect better than others with us disciples in 2013 - we'll see!

The first invitation we encounter is: "Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Jesus has been telling his followers not to worry, especially not about what they’re going to eat or wear (alas, the lectionary skips the poetic bits about sparrows and lilies of the field). His “do not be afraid” is aimed at a clearly anxious bunch, many of whom have left families, jobs and communities to follow Jesus, never sure where they’ll find sustenance, sleep or safety.

Notice how often in the Bible people are told “Do not be afraid?” Anxiety runs in the human family, part of human nature. And Jesus says to us, “You’re not just stuck with human nature – your heavenly Father has given you a gift of some God-nature.”

That’s as good a way as any to describe the Kingdom of God – the reality of God. The Kingdom of God, Jesus says, isn’t the kind you can see, but it’s realer than anything we call reality. I like to call it the “energy field of God,” the language of monarchy not being so relevant for many in 21st century America (recent excitement over a royal birth notwithstanding…)

This “God-Reality” our Father has seen fit to give us is something we become aware of by how it makes us feel, how we see it affecting things around us – just as we “see” the wind only by the movement it causes in trees and objects. It’s a reality we perceive by faith. And we help bring it into focus for each other by naming whenever we experience it.

Those early disciples saw that reality in the works of power that Jesus did – healings, miracles – and in the way people responded to him.
How do YOU see the energy field of God at work in your life?
Where did you last brush up against the peace or power or presence of God that was beyond human nature?

And what about this gift – how does it feel to acknowledge that the power and presence and peace of God are already ours? At our fingertips?
Here and now, not just “there” and “later?”
How does that change what you have to do today?

Today, after some thank yous, bring up in your mind each of the things that worry you – and visualize an energy field. In your mind’s eye, place each of these worrying things into that field, to be blessed to the max. Can you trust that each thing or person is in good hands? That you’re in good hands?

I believe you are. Already. Welcome to a new week of blessedness.

Fri, August 2

What do you get for the God who has everything?

Sometimes Jesus told his parables without any interpretation or explanation – his listeners had to figure out what he was saying. And other times he gave the cheat sheet. This parable is one of those – at the end of his story about the rich man and his barns, he says, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.”

That’s an intriguing command. How can we “be rich” toward the God who has it all? Who made it all? Whom we see as the Giver of all good things to us?

A central tenet of the Christian way of living is that everything we have is a gift from God – life, health, relationships, possessions, housing, food… you name it. Even what we earn is a result of our God-given intellect and abilities. Maybe the very magnitude of our indebtedness makes it difficult to see ourselves as rich enough to be rich toward the Maker and Giver of all.

So one way to be “rich toward God” is to see ourselves as rich. As blessed. As gifted. Many people are more in tune with what they believe they “owe” God than with being open to receiving the showers of blessings God desires to give us. The Good News says that God desires wholeness for us. When we’re more open to being blessed, we tend to experience that more often and more fully.

Another way to be “rich toward God” is to be extravagant toward God and God’s people, not grudging. One hour and a few dollars a week are all some people are willing to spare, figuring they need the lion’s share for living in this world. What if we flipped that and offered God all our time and money, and allocated a portion for what we need to live on? Hmmm. Numbers might come out the same, but we’d be living out of a place of faith and trust instead of scarcity and anxiety.

Being rich toward God also means being rich toward God's children - our brothers and sisters - who have less than we do, who are in need of food and clothing, housing, justice, jobs, healing, peace – and friendship, company, hope. The man in the story thought only of himself and his own supposed security. What a waste of resources!

Jesus’ story invites us into a better relationship with our abundance, neither feeling guilty about it, nor clutching it tightly – but trusting in God’s provision, in our blessedness, and eager to share it because clinging to it doesn’t make us more secure, and letting it go makes us infinitely richer.

Being rich toward God includes spending time with God, not holding ourselves away. So today, try taking a few moments and naming the gifts in your life – the big ones. Write them down if you can.

Invite Jesus to sit with you, and invite God into each of these gifts, to expand them further.
Ask the Holy Spirit to show you where you might be holding tightly to what you have, afraid of losing it.
What areas of your life come to mind?
Invite God into those places of tightness… and then practice relaxing your grip. What would it feel like to trust in that area of your life? What might you give away, which might further free you?

I believe God desires freedom for us, above all. When we are free to give ourselves away, we are free indeed.

Thur, August 1

Jesus’ stories usually contain some detail that grabs the imagination. One stand-out feature in this parable of the rich fool (as this story is often named…) is the bigger barns this man builds to store all his grain and possessions.

In a country in which people have so much “stuff” we have to store what we can’t use in row upon row of storage facilities littering our landscape; in a time when our television viewing options include not one but several “reality shows” about people who hoard – including shows that feature hoarding and storage facilities combined! – this parable certainly chimes a contemporary note. Many Americans seem to have become more and more attached to having more belongings than we can use, and we are indeed “building bigger barns” to store it all. Some compulsively buy new things on credit, and then go into debt to store them.

Commentators more knowledgeable than I have noted this phenomenon and reasons for it. In part it reflects anxiety about our economy, and about cultural change – a literal unwillingness to let go of the past even when we no longer need to hang on to it.

I believe it has deeper, spiritual roots as well – we are literally stuffing, trying to fill the vacant places in our hearts. As communities have become more dispersed, and families often more fragmented; as technological and cultural change seems to accelerate while economic possibilities seem to shrink; and as people have become less familiar with the language and practice of faith traditions, and less rooted in communities that nurture spiritual connection – there is a spiritual void.

We don’t like emptiness, for the most part. We seek to fill it with all kinds of things, mostly so that we can numb the feelings of aloneness or disconnection it brings. Filling spiritual emptiness with material things doesn’t work, as we know. Feelings that get stuffed down or numbed out just emerge in other, often more destructive, ways.

Few of us are hoarders, yet we might still ask ourselves, before God, “Is there anything I think I need more of than I really do? Anything – time, money, Facebook friends, awards, meetings on my calendar – that makes me feel more secure because I have a lot of it?”

Here’s another question I suggest for today: “Is there a pain or emptiness in me I haven’t been willing to feel? Do I numb myself with work, food, alcohol, games, television, internet, [fill in the blank]? What if I let that feeling bubble up this morning, give it some air, feel it?”

There you are, sitting quietly in the company of the God who made you - you can take the risk. And I find that feelings, once they’re felt, tend to quiet down and fade away. Like two-year-olds, they mostly want to be acknowledged.

And then, instead of emptiness, we have some holy space to fill with holy peace, holy passion, holy presence. Those gifts are constantly renewed – and we don’t need a storage shed to keep them in.

That is my prayer for you today – holy peace, holy passion, holy presence of the One who made you.

Wed, July 31

The man in our story believes he can deal with his anxiety by securing his future. That’s the false promise of security. I once heard of a man who wanted to move his family to a safe place – he researched and studied what the safest place on earth could be, and finally moved them to the Falkland Islands, an untroubled island paradise with more sheep than people. Until a war broke out…

Anxiety doesn’t come out of nowhere – we usually have some good reasons to worry about the things we do. And yet, worry can magnify the problem, and distract us from strategies for dealing with it.

Worry is like a guest who shows up unannounced, to whom we extend more hospitality than is needed, making room for it, giving it comfortable seat on the couch, feeding it with new data and bits of uncertainty. For some, worry is a permanent houseguest who’s become part of the household. Might be time to say, “Sayonara, you’ve overstayed your welcome.”

And then make some space for another guest who’s been asking to visit – trust. The more space we make for trust, the less we’ll have for worry. (Of course, if you have a really big house you can try to host them both…. But mealtimes get really messy…!)

The man in Jesus’ story, after building his bigger barns, says to himself, “Relax! Eat, drink, be merry.” We often associate relaxing with consuming. We can do better to fill the space with more beneficial strategies. St. Paul, in his prescription for anxiety, says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, with prayer and thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. And the peace of Christ, which surpasses understanding, will guard your heart and your thoughts in Christ Jesus.

Make your requests known to God, with thanksgiving.
List them, in faith. Give thanks for everything you can think of – that also builds up our faith, as we remember God’s faithfulness and blessing. Anxiety has a way of messing with our perspective. Prayer restores it.

I’m learning to do that earlier and earlier, as soon as I’m aware of worrying about anything – health, finances, a meeting, a thing on the to-do list still undone, the outcome of an initiative. ’m saying, “Oh yeah, God, that’s your work. You’re just inviting me to participate in it. I’m not responsible for the outcome,” or “I can’t control what happens with this – I invite you to be in it.” And that peace comes. Sooner and sooner.

Try it with something you're anxious about. Do both the asking and the thanking - and then expect the peace of Christ. It does come.

The more we fill our minds with trust and hope and faith and love and all those wonderful promises of God, the less room we have for worry. And then we don’t need bigger barns, for we will find we have bigger hearts.

Tuesday, July 30

In this week’s story, Jesus tells the little parable about the man who felt he needed bigger barns to illustrate a teaching: “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

We (mostly) know that greed is unhealthy – the movie Wall Street notwithstanding. Greed can be a powerful economic motivator, of course, but is also corrosive, and when allowed to flourish with no inhibitors can be as destructive as an invasive plant species taking over your garden. No doubt, that is one reason it is one of the “seven deadly sins.”

Greed doesn’t come out of nowhere, though. In part, greed is a response to a deep-seated fear of not having enough – enough time, enough love, enough money, enough security, enough affirmation… that list could go on. It is a condition reinforced by advertising and any number of cultural messages.

And to that list of “not enoughs” that many of us carry, Jesus responds with a radical message of “enough-ness.”
The Good News to the poor of wallet and poor of spirit is that, in God’s economy, there is enough. He demonstrated this with bread and fish, water and wine, forgiveness and healing. The invitation is to live into the unseen promises of God’s “enough,” which include the material as well as the spiritual, the peace, presence and power of God in every situation that confronts us.

Today, let’s try another list: make a list of things you worry about running out of. Include not only “things,” but intangibles, like time, good will, love, health.
Come into prayer for a moment and ask Jesus to release you from being preoccupied with those worries. 

Ask God to show you where his abundance lies in your life. If our lives do not consist in the abundance of our possessions, what abundance can we put our trust in?
See what words or images form in your imagination as you sit with your list and that question. If something comes up, write it down.

And give thanks – the beginning of every movement in our spiritual life starts with giving thanks.

Monday, July 29

A family financial squabble is where we find ourselves at the beginning of this week’s Gospel reading (Luke 12:13-21). Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." Sounds a little like kindergarten: “Teacher, Billy’s not sharing his cookie!” Bigger stakes to the disinherited brother, of course.

Jesus refuses to get hooked into this family drama: “Who set me up to arbitrate your quarrels?” Jesus knows what he’s here for, and stays admirably on mission. He is not one, however, to miss a “teachable moment.” He says, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions."

And being the good teacher that he is, he tells them a story to illustrate this truth. He tells about a rich farmer whose lands produce a lot, more than he can use, more than he can store. He decides to tear down his old barns and build BIGGER barns where he can store all his grain and his goods. This is where his security lies – we know this because of what he says: “And I will say to my soul, `Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.'”

We know Jesus had no aversion to being merry – he was often in trouble for hanging around people who enjoyed eating and drinking. But his story is going somewhere else: God says, “You fool! You’re going to die tonight – and then who gets all your stuff?” “So it is,” Jesus tells the crowd, “With those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.

We could say, “Well, that’s a clear message: give more to the church. Give more to God’s work.” And that’s definitely part of it. I am more interested, though, in exploring why we are so apt to put our security in storing up things, in amassing bank accounts and insurance policies, or home security systems, or self-defense weaponry and skills?

More to the point ,why is it so hard for us to put our security in God?
How do we give thanks for all that we have, and take care of it – but hold it lightly, not leaning on it? How do we move into greater trust in God? That’s what we’ll think about this week.

Today, let’s start on where we locate our security. 

Take a moment, maybe write a list:
What is it in your life that makes your feel scared?
What is it in your life that makes you feel safe?

Look at your lists. 

Can you invite God into the things that raise your anxiety? Try it.
Are the things that make you feel safe really reliable? Can you invite God into that?
What can you thank God for today? That’s prayer enough.

Friday, July 26

“Teach us how to pray,” Jesus’ disciples ask him, and he gives a pretty solid outline, which we’ve been exploring this week. Then he talks about the receiving end, God’s responsiveness to our prayers. He tells a somewhat amusing story about a guy being woken up in the middle of the night by a friend in need, who responds not to the friend’s need, but to his persistence. Jesus’ punch line is, “‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” In case they didn’t get it the first time, he says, “For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

Does this mean we get everything we ask for in prayer? Find everything we’re looking for? Every door we knock on is opened to us? I don’t know about your life, but mine hasn’t gone that way. And that disjoint is enough to put some people off the whole enterprise of prayer.

Let’s remember: prayer is not a laundry list of things we want presented to genie. Prayer is a conversation in the context of a living relationship. We make our requests because God invites us to, the same way a human parent wants her children to ask for the unicorn even if there’s no way to grant that wish – you want the conversation to reflect her heart. And you’re unlikely to give her a viper instead.

So God, the Father in heaven, Jesus suggests, wants us to ask for the desires of our hearts, wants us to seek the truth, wants us to knock on the doors separating us from divine presence. And does Jesus say we will get what we “pray for?” He goes us one better: “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’”

Maybe the Holy Spirit doesn’t sound like much if you wanted healing for a loved one, or a better job. Yet here’s the thing: the gift of the Spirit is the gift with everything. The Holy Spirit brings the life of God into our hearts and minds and bodies. With more of the Spirit alive in us, we are so much better equipped to help bring about healing, to use our gifts at a higher level of functioning, to dwell in the kind of peace that enables us to bring joy and light into all kinds of situations. The Spirit equips us for ministry and gives all kinds of other gifts… love, joy, patience, forebearance. The Spirit prays through us, we are told in Romans – and you can be pretty sure God will answer a prayer that started with God.

How about today you sit down in stillness for a few minutes, take a few deep “in-spiring” breaths,let out some stale thoughts and feelings on the exhales, and then invite the Holy Spirit to come and play.

“Spirit of God,” you might say (or “Spirit of Christ”), “I’d like to feel your presence in me. I’d like to feel the peace you bring. I’d like to know what you’re praying through me, what holy encounters you might be equipping me for today. I’d like to make more space for you.”

Pay attention to what you feel in your body - do you feel energy anywhere? A tingle? A relaxing? A rush? We don’t always have a physical response to the Spirit’s visits, but sometimes. Pay attention to what you feel in your mind and in your spirit – do any images take shape? Do you receive any words or conversation or a desire to do something, pray for someone, go somewhere?

Write it down if you noted anything significant. Share it with someone.
If you don’t sense anything, that’s okay – God may be taking some time, or your receptors need some tuning. Keep at it – the time we spend inviting more of God’s life into our lives is never wasted. Amen?

Thursday, July 25

Here’s another request Jesus believes we should include in conversations with our Father in heaven: “And do not bring us to the time of trial.’” 

We don’t know exactly what Jesus meant by this – though we can be pretty sure that 
1. it is NOT the plea of a lawyer seeking to settle a lawsuit; and 
2. “lead us not into temptation” is a mistranslation that can lead us into some confusion.

“Time of trial” may refer to encountering persecution for our faith, or to a situation in which our faith is tested – by doubts, by adversity, by complacency, or other trials that can come our way. Having our faith tested is one of the ways it grows, but we don’t have to welcome trials that come from outside. We can find better ways to strengthen our faith – we can exercise it regularly the way we exercise our bodies or our wills.

We exercise faith by believing in what cannot be seen.
We exercise our faith by allowing our doubts room for play. Doubt is not the enemy of faith; it is an integral component, part of the process, not where we end up.

Mostly, we exercise our faith in prayer – prayer for God’s healing love and power to be released in bodies, in nations, in communities, in situations we cannot control. Every time we exercise faith for healing in a small situation, we are strengthened to believe in God’s power to overcome bigger challenges.

Today, try praying your way through the Lord’s Prayer as Luke records it:

  • Establish the relationship with your heavenly “Dad” 
  • Acknowledge God’s holiness 
  • Pray and believe for your daily “enough” 
  • Offer up any areas of sin that are troubling you and forgive any grudges that may have crept in. 
  • Affirm God’s power to protect you from “times of trial,” and exercise your faith muscles by believing that God is active in some situation you find troubling. It might be a physical ailment, an emotional condition, a relational issue, a work problem – or something small, like world peace.
Work that faith! It is one of God’s gifts, and one of the ways God stays close to us.
When we know God is close to us, we can worry a lot less about the trials.

Wed, July 24

Yesterday, in our exploration of Jesus’ teaching on prayer (Luke 11:1-13), we discussed “give us each day our daily bread…”  That phrase is followed by an “And…” indicating a connection.And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

This is another thing we need from God daily – forgiveness. A pastor I know used to say, “Keep your accounts with God short – settle up often.”  Forgiveness is release from the things we do, think and say that put distance between us and other people, us and creation, us and our selves, us and God.

Our Genesis creation story gives us an image of humanity in perfect harmony within all those relationships. Our story of “first rebellion,” shows a breakdown in all those relationships. Forgiveness repairs the breaches caused by our natural inclination to get what we want – something all of us feel at least occasionally, right? Daily repentance, coming before our loving God , true about who we are, invites a daily renewal of harmony within and without.

But this clause, connected to what comes before, is also connected to what comes next: “…for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” The way of following Jesus involves a constant laying down of our rights where we’ve been wronged. Usually, if we need to forgive someone who’s done us damage, we’re in the right. So why the heck should we have to release them from their obligation to right the wrong? Forgiveness involves our “giving for” the one who owes us. What’s that about?

Well, among other things, it’s about freedom. The long view shows us that it costs us more to hang onto to those “IOUs” than to settle up. It costs us in anger, heartache, blood pressure, lost relationships, illness, anxiety… all kinds of ways. It diverts us from our purpose in God’s life.

Today, take a moment bring to mind an area where your self-orientation has led to separation with God or another person or your own true self.

Ask for forgiveness – and receive that gift. Don’t leave God hanging.
And then turn it around to “pay it forward” to someone who has hurt you in some way. They may not even have a clue – it might even be a national figure, someone you don’t even know… I can think of plenty of people in the news!

And then hold that person in your mind’s eye, and invite GOD to forgive them if you’re not ready to do it. Ask God to bless that person in huge measure – because someone blessed by God is a lot less likely to go around hurting other people.

We are blessed to be a blessing – every day. Let’s spread it around!