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 na├»ve. 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.

11-13-13 - Faith on Trial

I may have overdone it with the “end of the world” stuff the past two days. Yes, Jesus refers to wars and famines and portents of the end, but that is not his focus. He is preparing his followers for the hard times to come, when the structures of their faith are torn away, and they face persecution from both Jewish leaders and Romans for their belief in Christ.

"But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.
” He says they will be betrayed by family and friends and handed over, and, “some of you will die.” But there’s an upside: this will give them a chance to testify. Then he says something strange: don’t prepare. “So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

Defending our faith is not a situation many of us will have to face. I have heard testimony from African clergy who have faced bitter persecution and bombed churches and death threats. But most Christians I know are more likely to be mocked than persecuted for their faith. “Why do you bother with that?”

And what would you answer? What do you say when people ask why you believe in Christ? As the old saw goes, “If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Name some of that evidence, just to remind yourself.

We may not have to stand up for our faith very often, but there are occasions when we’re called to testify in other ways – to stand for justice, to speak truth to those who have the power to change things. I may have such an opportunity tomorrow on Capitol Hill – and I ask your prayers. I am in Washington, DC this week, at the Brady Summit on Preventing Gun Violence. There are about 250 people from all over the country here, and today’s sessions were powerful and informative, moving and helpful. We heard from public health officials and a congresswomen, from the Director of the ATF, from doctors, law enforcement, activists and parents who’ve lost children to gun violence. Tomorrow morning, we gather for some training and then we go to the Hill to speak to legislators, to remind them that background checks work, and urge them to close the internet and gun show loopholes that allow 40% of gun purchasers – mostly people we all agree should not have access to guns - to bypass background checks.

I will wear my collar and bear witness to the stance that my faith community and many others take on this issue, supporting background checks and sensible gun laws to keep us safe. I don’t know what I will say, if given the chance, but I plan to be conscious that I’m not alone – that Jesus, who has promised to be with me through His Spirit, will be right there – and he can be pretty persuasive.

After all, it’s not our job to represent God, or even to make other people believe in God – it’s just up to us to make the introductions, to speak of the love and truth we experience. The Spirit will do the rest.

11-12-13 - And I Feel Fine...

11-12-13…. An auspicious date on which to talk about the end of the world. Or do to almost anything… And let’s get that REM song in here now: It’s the end of the world as we know It… and I feel fine.

Truly? Is there a way we can feel fine about worlds ending, whether it’s The World, or pieces of ours? I don’t know about fine, but I do believe we can attain a spiritual quality of trust and disentanglement that allows us to meet all kinds of circumstances with serenity.

Part of the shock in what Jesus said about the temple being destroyed as a sign of the end (of something… he doesn’t actually say the end of the world…), is that the temple was so solid and so central to his followers' identity. How can something so vital and real become as nothing?

Even our grandest buildings, even the institutions they represent, even the hopes and dreams of those who are invested in those institutions, are among the things of this world which are passing away. And – shock of shocks – so are we. We believe we have a future beyond this world, but our time here is finite. (Here is a video reminder of how small we really are in the grand scheme of things.)

When we truly integrate that knowledge into our being, when we truly see each day as a gift to be received in full, not only as a step along the way to another gift tomorrow, we begin to attain that serenity that allows us to meet the darkest times. This is that spiritual quality of apatheia we talked about a few weeks ago, that holy equanimity that we cultivate as we learn to let go of our agendas and receive God’s life and dreams for us.

Are there things or people or situations about which you find it impossible to feel peaceful? Would you like to invite God to give you peace even around these matters? 

What would that look like or feel like? Try to imagine it…

St. Ambrose of Milan, a wonderful 4th century bishop, had a beautiful image for this in one of his mystagogical sermons on baptism (mystagogy is preaching and teaching on the holy mysteries of the church). In one of my favorite parts, he talks about how the newly baptized are to be like fish:

“Imitate the fish,” he says. “It is in the sea and above the waves. It is in the sea and swims on the waters. On the sea the tempest rages, violent winds blow; but the fish swims on. It does not drown because it is used to swimming. In the same way, this world is the sea for you. It has various currents, huge waves, fierce storms. You too must be a fish, so that the waves of this world do not drown you.”

Perhaps the week after a great many people met horrible deaths due to a fierce storm with violent winds and huge waves is not the time to hear this quote, which we’d all rather remained a lovely metaphor. Or maybe this is just the day to recall God’s fierce promise of peace that defies understanding.

Even in the face of devastation, our faith invites us to proclaim the love of a God who weeps with those who weep, who strengthens those who work for recovery, who invites us to look beyond what we can see to a reality of love and restoration we can only dimly glimpse. In Christ, we truly are fine. No matter what. No matter when.

11-11-13 - EOTWAWKI

O goody – it's the end of the world texts this week! You know you’re going to get an REM link at some point…

Each fall, as if to match the gathering gloom of shortening days, our lectionary begins to drag the scary stories out of our ancestral closet. (There is a history here – once upon a time, Advent was much more focused on prophetic doom and gloom than it is now, and it started earlier…)

This conversation starts casually, as some of Jesus’ followers are admiring the temple and its adornments. Jesus is blunt: "As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down." Now, we the readers know that in 70 CE the Romans did in fact destroy the temple. But this would have been a shocking pronouncement to Jesus’ companions. And like most of us, when we hear that something horrible is likely to happen, we want to know when will it be, and how will we know it is here.

Jesus’ answer is cryptic: "Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, `I am he!' and, `The time is near!' Do not go after them.” He suggests that some will try to gain a following by issuing dire predictions about the end of the world – guess we’ve seen that in the past few years… Remember when the world was going to end on May 21 a few years ago?

Why do people fall for this? Maybe because it is fairly natural to fear what we cannot control, and it’s hard to get bigger in the “you cannot control this” department than the end of the world as we know it. The end of THE world becomes a stand-in for our anxiety about the end of our worlds – which actually comes with some frequency, with wars and famines and pandemics; with infidelities and job losses; with diagnoses and mega-storms and losses of all sorts. War veterans, whom we celebrate today, know better than most about the end of the world. And for the most part, we survive.

What are you most afraid of losing today? Can you name that fear, and sit with it, inviting Jesus to join you in your imagination. What might he do with it? How might you invite his perfect love to transform that fear into something you can use?

There is some truth to the notion that our worlds are always ending. But that’s not the whole story - new life is always being born as well, sometimes in the ashes of the old world. God is in the business of making all things new – can’t help himself. Our job is to be open to new life wherever we find it.

(I’m going to wait on REM, but here’s a link to a fun song by a new duo I’m enchanted with, Goodnight Moonshine. The song is “End of the World Blues,” and you can find it about 15.55 minutes into this concert on YouTube. And listen to the rest. They’re playing in Ridgefield this coming Sunday at 4… I'm going.)

11-8-13 - Does Heaven Matter?

Our reflections this week have been bouncing off a conversation recorded over 2,000 years ago, about heaven, resurrection, life after death. I explore such things as part of my ministry of preaching. But does anyone else care about these ancient debates – what kind of bodies, if any, will carry our souls; in what kind of community will we gather after death; when will the end times be? Are these just “first century problems,” or relevant now?

If thinking about these things leads to anxiety, it is of little value. If it leads to what Paul call’s God’s gift of “eternal comfort and good hope,” then it’s worth exploring. If dwelling on heaven can make us more peaceful and joyful and hopeful here and now, bring it on.

75 years ago tomorrow, the world witnessed Kristallnacht, that night in 1938 when the Nazis first unleashed across Germany and Austria the fury against Jews that would culminate in the horrors and devastations of the Holocaust. November 9-10, hundreds of synagogues were burned, shops looted, homes and people terrorized.

My father was a Jewish 13-year-old in Vienna at the time. He lived through it. I can’t even imagine the terror of a populace who knew the Nazi presence in Austria wasn’t a good thing, but still hoped their leaders would successfully avoid annexation by the German Reich. I can’t imagine the fear and rumors and degradations and deprivations my father and millions of others endured.

But then, I can’t imagine living in Syria or Iran or Lebanon or Congo or any number of other places where terror like that can and does strike at any moment, where everything that has been normal about life is torn away and survival becomes your only goal. What difference does heaven or resurrection make when you’re living in hell?

And I think: If I have the opportunity to reflect on that question, I am called to be part of the solution. I am called to look up from my “first world problems” and help intervene in situations before they turn deadly, or be present with survivors if the horror has already come. It means I can’t look away – I have to turn toward the frightful and the frightened. I don’t have to address every situation – only the ones the Spirit leads me to. But I do not have the leisure to look away.

Where in the world are you being called to intervene – through prayer, donation, advocacy, action?
Where in our cities are you being called to intervene? Where in your community are you called to intervene?
It might be with domestic violence organizations, or human rights groups – Amnesty International, The International Rescue Committee, United to End Genocide.
What will you do with the resurrection life running through you, in a world full of death?

A few weeks ago, I attended a statewide meeting on reducing violence, and was privileged to hear Emmanuel Jal speak. Jal is a young man from South Sudan, whose world was turned upside down by the savage conflict there. His mother was killed when he was seven, and he joined thousands of children fleeing to Ethiopia. He was conscripted into military service, inflicted and suffered atrocities. "I didn't have a life as a child,” he says. “In five years as a fighting boy, what was in my heart was to kill as many Muslims as possible.” Eventually he was rescued and taken to Kenya, began school and ultimately a hip-hop music career that has made him internationally known. He has launched the We Want Peace genocide-prevention campaign, among many other advocacy and aid projects.

He is an amazing young man, who has come through a living hell. He reminds me that resurrection life is real, very real.

11-7-13 - God of the Living

“Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.'"

That’s how Jesus ends his discourse with the Sadducees. More of a conversation starter for me. My first question is, “What do you mean, he’s not the God of the dead? What about the people we love, no longer in this life?” And I guess Jesus’ answer might be: “Read the whole thing. They’re alive. From the moment they accepted my life in them, they were alive with a life that physical death could not end.”

To say that God is God of the living, not of the dead, also makes me wonder about things, even people, that truly are dead in this world. I’ve written a lot this week about sending God’s life and power into the things and people that seem dead, hopeless, lifeless. But are there also things that we should not seek to revive, because they have no life in them? (Don't worry - I'm not going to start talking about zombies… even if everyone else is...)

Death is where life is no longer. But what about where there never was life? Situations of terror and profound injustice? Genocide, slavery, oppression, distortion, manipulation? Child abuse, sex trafficking, pornography? Such things were never God-intended; they were not good things that went astray. They simply should never have been. God is God of the people affected by those situations, but not of the situations themselves.
God is the God of addicts, for instance - but God is not the God of addiction.

To say that God is God of the living is also to affirm the life in the weakest creatures and people. It is a way of affirming God’s action in those things or people. We can say, “God is God of that. Yeah!” or “God is God of her, of him, of you.” It is a way of articulating God’s choosing and claiming of us.

What can you think of that is utterly lacking in life, where life never was? 

Are there things in your life or in the world that you believe God is not God of?
If they are things that have any hold on you, can you renounce them today? That can be a good discipline.

And are there things or people, or parts of yourself even, over which you want to proclaim, “God is God of that!” Make a list; do some proclaiming.

God is God of all that is alive in you and around you.
God is Life. And where there is life, God is.

11-6-13 - Miracle Plant

Once upon a time a man encountered a miracle plant in a desert place. It was on fire, but not burned up. His attention secured, God spoke to him from the bush and called him to service. Moses, who once killed a man, and lived for himself, became one of God’s great prophets. And Jesus uses this story to support his argument about resurrection: “And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

“And the fact that the dead are raised.” We spoke yesterday about the resurrection life running through us. So why do so many people appear so deadened? Why is it so hard to hope? Why do we give death so much power to set our agendas?

Last Sunday morning my radio came on at 5:05. I hit the snooze button, and drifted in and out of sleep. I woke again to Mountain Stage, a live folk music show, and a singer* doing a long intro about a time he paid for a gorgeous plant in Mexico and was handed a shriveled, dried up ball. Too embarrassed to protest, he and his wife slunk away, as he whispered, “We just paid $5 for a dead plant!” Somehow, in their car, a cup of ice melted and in some random way the plant ended up in that cup. Later that day, they came back to the car to discover a completely vital and beautiful plant. “Wow!” he said. “We just paid $5 for a miracle plant!”

That miraculous desert plant, they learned, is called a Resurrection Plant, for obvious reasons; also known as Rose of Jericho. It is a lycopod that grows in desert regions in the Southwest and Latin America, usually surrounded by cacti and such. It shouldn’t be able to survive such dry conditions, but the Resurrection Plant has an adaptive trick:

When the soil is moist after infrequent rains, a Resurrection Plant absorbs water and grows rapidly, producing a flat rosette of scaly stems up to one foot across. As the soil dries, it cannot store water like its succulent neighbors, so it folds up its stems into a tight ball as it desiccates and goes into a state of dormancy. The folded plant has a limited surface area, and what little internal moisture is present is conserved. All metabolic functions are reduced to a bare minimum and it appears to be dead. The plant can remain in this dormant condition for years. When the rains return, the plant's cells rehydrate. The stems unfold, metabolism increases, and growth resumes. Even dead Resurrection plants will unfold if given water, since rehydrated cells expand even if there is no living protoplasm in them.

What if that were the case for all the people and things we think are walking dead? People and situations we’ve given up on because we see no life in them? What if that were true for parts of ourselves, our dead or dormant hopes, joys, dreams, gifts? What about the places we’ve been hurt and have allowed to close into a tight ball instead of heal?

Today in prayer I invite you to think about people or situations you think resemble that plant.
Read through the description above slowly and see where you connect with it. Does it inspire you to pray for anyone, or for yourself? Does it encourage you to believe? I sure feel I was led to hear that story this week.

We can wait a long time for water - and it's already been given to us, living, restoring water – signified in our baptisms, in the power of the Holy Spirit coursing through us. We can let that water reach the dead-seeming places in us. And we can consciously bear that water to the people and places around us. These plants look really, really dead! But death does not have the last word on them. Nor on us. Nor do disappointment, degradation, depression.

I call this writing “Water Daily.” I know daily is way too frequent for some plants, maybe some people. The Resurrection Plant reminds us that it’s never too late to pour on the water and watch someone come back to life.

*Extensive google research on the plant name and Mountain Stage schedule finally yielded the name of the folk singer… I’m pretty sure it was Drew Kennedy, and the song is “Rose of Jericho.” Iron and Wine also has a song called, “Resurrection Fern” – that plant is just too good a metaphor to pass up!

11-5-13 - Borrowing from the Future

In the 1st century referendum on resurrection, Jesus votes firmly in the “yes” camp. Speaking of “…those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead,” he says, “Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.”

What does it mean to be “children of the resurrection?” How do we live, if we believe that our physical form will pass away, but somehow our essential self-ness will live on eternally? Does having an eternal destiny make any difference to the way we live here and how, how or if we vote today?

Many reject resurrection as fanciful wish-fulfillment, an inability to confront the finality of death. I can’t argue it – I’m just going on faith in a story (and man) whose power I have seen and felt. I am interested, though, in whether the eternal part of the equation makes a difference to my life now.

I think it does, if I am conscious of the power of resurrection at work in me now, already, not only at my physical death. Paul writes that those who believe receive the Spirit as a down payment on the inheritance that will one day be fully ours (Eph 1:13-14). When we call on the power of God’s Spirit in prayer, in healing, in bringing justice, in bearing truth, in lightening darkness – it is resurrection power we wield. When we invoke Christ, we are living into our resurrection selves here and now. “Same power that conquered the grave lives in me, lives in me,” goes one praise chorus I like to sing.

In more biblical language, here's Paul in Romans 8:1 - "And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.

One of the best phrases I’ve heard for this is "borrowing from the future." We are baptized into a promise of resurrection life. That life is already ours by faith. Our challenge is to remember that that life runs through our veins as well as temporal life. Sickness and death don’t have the last word. Obstacles and character challenges don’t have the last word. That down payment is already in our account – and we've received the bank card and password. We can borrow from that future as much as we want – it'll never run out.

So what would you like to bring some resurrection power to bear on today? What personal or world problem? What personal challenge? Begin to see new life in it, or in you, or in another person. Begin to believe resurrection life into it.

Borrowing from the future doesn’t negate the present – it brings God's power to it. Today is election day. If we believe in forever, transforming the now matters very much. Go out and vote for the candidates you believe will best bring justice and peace to your community, and then work alongside them. They don’t have to know where your power comes from… unless you decide to tell.

Mixing Marriage and Heaven?

Jesus has a new set of critics in this week’s Gospel reading. The Pharisees take a break, and the Sadducees, another group of Jewish religious leaders under Roman authority, are up. They don’t believe in resurrection, though from their question we presume they’re down with an afterlife:

“Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be?”

Painful as separation is, we might consider it good news that marriage vows are only “till death us do part.” If we had to spend eternity loving one person more than anyone else, I don’t think heaven would be such a lovely place. Nor would a place in which some are preferred and others rejected seem like paradise – more like high school.

Jesus suggests that marriage is for this life, not the next. Actually, what he says is a bit more perplexing than that – “..those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.” Is he hinting that Christ followers should all be celibate? Were that the case, the Christian movement would have died out a long time ago (reference the Shaker movement, which held celibacy as a central tenet – they are now known chiefly for their beautiful furniture… )

We can look more deeply at what Jesus said later. Today, let’s explore why we feel a need to project onto eternity the needs and preoccupations of this life. One might think we’d like to be rid of them. Marriage is often as challenging and even painful as it is joyful and fruitful. We might love our jobs, but do we really want to be doing them for all time? We can adore our children, but a healthy love allows them to grow up and away from us.

Seeing heaven as a time and space in which we hit the re-set button on all our priorities might help us live with better spiritual balance in this life. Here, we seem to need filters and priorities, to value one thing more than another, one person better than another. But that can get in the way of allowing God to set our priorities, which is one way of describing spiritual growth. The early Christian desert fathers and mothers made a spiritual virtue of apatheia, a holy equanimity, letting go of our own agendas. Hard to do – but perhaps the way of true freedom in Christ?

When you think of resetting your priorities, what is the first thing that comes to mind?
Dwell on that in prayer for a few minutes - ask God what that's about. Why did that thing or person come up?
Is there any part of your agenda for your life that you sense it might be time to let go of? You might ask the Spirit for the gift of apatheia, or explore it.

I have a feeling God has agenda aplenty for us, once we can get ours out of the way.

11-1-13 - Saints All

The day Jesus came to his house was a good day for Zacchaeus. Not only did he free himself from a burden of guilt and debt that must have been heavy to bear – he received the best hospitality gift ever:
Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Zacchaeus became a saint that day. Jesus declared that all his sins and crimes couldn’t wipe out his true status as a son of Abraham, an inheritor of the promises of God. Just as all our sins and self-orientation can’t wipe out our true status as baptized members of God’s household through Christ. However we may define “lost,” if someone as sinful and destructive as Zacchaeus could be restored to wholeness and integrity, so can we. So can anyone.

Today is All Saints Day – a major feast in the Christian calendar. It is a day that affirms your sainthood, and mine. The term “saint” is not conferred only on those who are “holy” or “a good person.” It is simply a label assigned to those who follow Christ, however straight or wobbly our path may be. Paul’s letters are often addressed to “the saints who are at Ephesus,” or “the saints in Thessalonica.” We know from the contents of the letters those folks weren’t always “holy.” They were saints by virtue of their baptism into the holiness of Christ. You are too.

How would you like to celebrate your sainthood today? Maybe draw (“write”) an icon of yourself, emphasizing those gifts of God you particularly cherish in yourself. This is not an exercise in self-promotion – it is a way of celebrating the great thing God did when God created you; the wonderful work Jesus has done in making possible your wholeness; the transformation the Holy Spirit brings in and through you every day.

Or maybe you’d like to write a brief hagiography of yourself – how you came to be the saint you are. Who are the saints in your life who led you closer to God, or who have helped you stay in relationship with God? Maybe you want to write a hagiography of one of them.

At minimum, let’s spend some time in thanksgiving today, thanking God for making holiness available to all of us, and through us to others.

Recognizing our sainthood does not mean we stop the processes of healing and becoming more God-centered which we engage as Christ followers. We’re not “done,” at least not in this lifetime. But we’re already saints. Yes, you are! Enjoy your feast day!