12-31-14 - A New Star

I don’t know how one looks at the heavens and discerns the significance of a new star, but our magi seemed to have had that ability: “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’”

They must have been acute observers of the night skies to notice a new star. We now know that a new light in the sky can signify the death throes of a star, its light only becoming visible to us long after it has ceased to be. That’s not how our magi would have seen it, I suspect – they saw a new and wondrous light, so bright it had to be of great import, telling of a new king.

A pinpoint of light. There are days when this world can seem so dark that the light of Christ is no more than a tiny point. There are those who find it completely irrelevant, who claim his star flamed out years ago. That’s not how our magi would have seen it, I suspect – nor how we are invited to see it. With the eyes of faith, and our experience of God, we know that that pinpoint is the merest echo of the vast presence of the One who is light itself, energy in its purest form.

At Christmas, we celebrate the dawning of a new star, the “Bright Morning Star,” one of the names by which Jesus is known. And we claim that Jesus was that vast presence, unknowable to our human senses, who made himself knowable in human flesh, the One who said, “I am the light of the world.”

That One also told his followers they were to be lights for the world. We are called to be reflectors of that star. And so our spiritual work in this life is keeping our mirrors clean and de-fogged, the better to reflect the radiance of the Bright Morning Star. Do you feel anything dimming your radiance today? Feeling under the shadow of a feeling or a memory or a loss? How might you identify that, and offer it to God in prayer? How might we experience the Holy Spirit as glass cleaner, making us more radiant?

This star we celebrate is ancient, and yet ever-new. As we embark upon a new year, calendar-wise (in every other way, it’s just a new day, right?), I pray we will shine more and more brightly with the radiance of Christ’s splendor. That’s way more than a pinprick of light in the darkness – that’s a light that renders the darkness obsolete.

12-30-14 - The Frightened King

How sweet, the little lord Jesus, tucked away in a manger, asleep on the hay…
Well, sleep while you can, little buddy, because this is not such a sweet story, is it? Mom and Dad are in a strange city to comply with Roman law, administered at the point of a sword. And if the Romans aren’t bad enough, their puppet, the Jewish King Herod, is about to hear of your birth – and he doesn’t behave well when threatened.

Few things are as frightening as taking power. As soon as you have it, you have to worry about who’s going to come and take it from you. Herod heard from some foreign visitors that they’d seen celestial signs of a “king of the Jews” having been born. Well, he was the king of the Jews, wasn’t he? And he hadn’t had any new offspring. How seriously was he to take these clowns from the East?

According to our story, Herod took this threat very seriously indeed, calling together all the advisors and theologians he could muster, to ask where the Messiah was to be born. All they could come up with was what the prophet said: “They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea.” Then he tried to manage the situation, getting inside information from the magi themselves and directing them toward Bethlehem. If they found something there, he’d know about it. If they didn’t, he could relax… for a little while.

Herod is only the first of many human rulers to be alarmed at reports about Jesus. At this point, the infant seemed no threat to anyone, but the Messiah could come at any time. Herod seems to have forgotten that fighting to secure his position against the One sent by God would mean fighting against God. Who can win that fight?

That’s what happens when we become attached to human power. We can forget to be leaders, forget God who entrusts us with leadership. Our world is full of Herods, from Assad to ISIS commanders to Guatemalan gang leaders. And what do Herods do when threatened? They slaughter children and wipe out communities, and they never, ever feel safe.

How are we to respond to these terrified and terrorizing figures? Few of us are in a position to confront directly. But we can pray for, and pressure our governments to stand against tyrants. And we can wield the power that so fills despots with fear – the power of Jesus, of whom Simeon said, “He is destined to cause the rising and falling of many in Israel.” Wielding the power of Jesus means refusing to seek human power ourselves. For power over others always makes human beings prey to the power of evil.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, among others, knew that. In his practice of non-violent confrontation he invited those with human power to unleash their worst - and as they did, they revealed their inhumanity. The wounds they inflicted were real, but they gave away true power with every blow. I wondered why I was writing about this today – usually Water Daily is aimed more at our spiritual lives, as though those were somehow distinct from geo-political realities. Then I remembered the murderous conflicts raging in the world, and the movie Selma (which I have not seen), bearing witness to another way of fighting injustice. This story is now.

In his earthly life, Jesus refused to be drawn into the power game. And in seeming to yield to human power, he modeled the strongest power the world has ever seen, power that overturned death and the source of evil itself. We, who bear his name, are invited to subvert human power by committing ourselves to non-violence, to reconciliation, to praying for our enemies, to making peace. That’s power without fear.

12-29-14 - Star Seekers

Next Sunday we will still be in the Christmas season – but our gospel reading is an Epiphany story (no time to stretch it out – by the second Sunday in January, Jesus will be all grown up and getting baptized…) So we will encounter those mysterious wise men from the “East,” who followed the star so far from home – right into our pageants and crèche sets.

Where did Matthew hear this story that has come down to us as part of Jesus’ nativity narratives? Did Luke not hear it, or not include it? So many questions…

Who were these star seekers? A new light had appeared in their night sky, and their interpretations of it told them that a new king had been born for the Jews. What had these people to do with the Jewish people? We do not know. We’re not sure where they came from, or how many they were. The only thing we might reasonably assume is that their names were not Caspar, Melchior or Abegnado whatever the third guy is said to have been called!

Why were they willing to travel so far to offer obeisance to a foreign king? What was it about that star? Its brightness? Its sudden appearance? Some astronomers think a super nova was visible in the heavens around that time, and that this is what the magi saw. (I once read such a book – I think it was called The Once and Future Star; here’s a link, though I can’t tell from the description if it is the same book.)

What did these men care about a king for the Jews? Did the star they saw signify great power? Did they want to be the first to get in his good graces? The gifts they are said to have brought are of extremely high value and very symbolic – gold as treasure, frankincense, a resin prized for its scent, and myrrh, also a resin, from which ointment was made for anointing bodies for burial. These are gifts for a king indeed. What did they think when they found a mere child? Matthew only tells us that they knelt and worshiped him and offered the gifts they had brought.

And what do they signify for us? How do you find your way into this story? Do you feel like one who is seeking and has found, or is still on the road hoping you’ve read your guidance correctly?
If you heard about Jesus, would you travel to see him?
What is the most precious gift you might offer him?

We could start with our time. As we begin another round of Jesus stories, might we consider investing more deeply in getting to know Him in these stories? That means not only reading the story, but spending some time in contemplation, meditating on the story, discerning who you most identify with in that tale on a given day, asking Jesus to be real for you as we allow the story to usher us into prayer.

When we truly find ourselves in Jesus’ presence, we have no need to look further. Perhaps that is why those magi, for all their wealth and knowledge and sophistication, knelt and paid homage to this small child. As unlikely a king as he appeared to be, they knew they had found the Real Thing.

There was no need to look further, only to bask in his presence, offer what they had come with, and take the long way home, their hearts full, their longing satisfied.

12-27-14 - Word Made Flesh

Abstract or concrete? Philosophy or story? How do you take your theology? Straight up or with a twist? The gospels are flexible enough to incorporate many learning styles.

On Christmas Eve, we are steeped in story, personal and intimate, sweeping and glorious, each element a rich vein of symbol and language to speak of how much God loves us. And then, on the first Sunday after Christmas, in Episcopal churches we go to the prologue of the Gospel of John, which is as abstract as a love story could possibly get.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
Right off the bat, we are invited to suspend our literal mindedness (“how can something be with God and be God?”) and enter a swirl of words that convey a truth. What does “Word” mean? Most likely “logos,” translated as “word,” means something closer to the “mind” or the “primal thought” of God. Does that make it more or less confusing?

That first paragraph tells the whole story – of what was before we were, of creation, of life and light, and light overcoming darkness. In theological language, we see the doctrines of God, Creation, Incarnation, Salvation – all in a few short lines.

But on the Saturday after Christmas, who is thinking about theological doctrines? Some of us are cleaning up, putting out bags of torn Christmas wrap. We may be enjoying another day with family and friends, or just resting as the calendar delivered us an extra day by having Christmas on a Thursday. I hope none of us is taking down Christmas decorations, as we have a full ten days more of Christmas to celebrate. (That siren you hear is the liturgical police ready to pull you over….)

If you want to take a little devotional time today, you might read over the passage several times, slowly, and see where you get snagged. If something is confusing, take note. If something is pleasing, read that part again. What is the overall sense you come away with? What is the heart of the passage?

For me, the heart is “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

The story of God, so far away, so holy, so “other,” moving into our neighborhood and settling down so that we can draw near – that’s a story that never gets old. I feel frustrated in how to convey it as Good News to a people for whom it has become hum-drum, and to others for whom “God” is entirely irrelevant, but I believe it is the heart of the gift Christians have for the world. I will continue to try to get inside that mystery and discover the “Word made flesh” who wants to know me and be known by me.

However it is that you best comprehend the story of God’s amazing love and desire to be close to you, I hope you are both shaken and stirred.

12-25-14 - Blessed Christmas!

Merry Christmas!
From my creche to yours.

May it be a day of love and giving, receiving and feasting - and may we pause periodically to wish Jesus a happy birthday. I think we know what's on his gift list....

Water Daily may or may not appear tomorrow - depends on travel fatigue, etc. But if not tomorrow, Saturday!

12-24-14 - Shepherds and Angels - and You

The stable wasn’t the only center of action that original Christmas Eve - God had a wider canvas in mind and a bigger cast. The holy child arrived, we fade out on the manger for awhile and shift focus to the fields outside Bethlehem, to a bunch of shepherds “keeping watch over their flocks by night.” Flocks were valuable assets, and nighttime was perilous – predators, thieves, all kinds of dangers lurked in the dark.

Sheep herding was not a glamorous profession in Jesus’ time. Shepherds represented the dregs of society, dirty, crude, unkempt, maybe the last group on earth you’d think would be the first to hear of a cataclysmic, world-transforming event. But our God of surprises doesn’t see in those categories. The least likely became the first – does that sound familiar?

And not only the first to hear; this bunch of low-lifes were the recipients of a celestial visit, a host of angels. The highest possible order of being, shining with the glory of the Lord, and rough-hewn riff-raff, brought together on that bright hillside to share joy.

“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Think God was up to something? Think God is still up to something? A group of people of whom no one expected anything good were entrusted with the best news of all – the birth of the Messiah, a savior, the Lord. It became their news to tell, backed up by the most amazing light show ever seen. To be the bearer of news everyone wants to hear – that’s a status upgrade right there.

Of the many messages in this strange tale we tell over and over, here is one: that no one, no kind of person, no category of person is insignificant in God’s eyes. In God’s Life the most marginalized become the center of the story. ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’

Who is on the margins of your life, or your community’s life? Can you invite someone into the center tonight? Can you honor the least likely person by entrusting her with this amazing news? Maybe you feel like you are the least likely person. Know this: God has chosen you, to share God’s most precious gift. Can we acknowledge that we are that loved and share it with someone else?

For a little while that night, there was peace, there was joy, there was amazement and wonder, shared between shepherds and angels, earth and heaven. I pray that for us tonight as we hear or tell the Magnificent Story again, as we look for those at the edges and invite them into the center: 

Peace. Joy. Amazement. Wonder.

O come, let us adore him!

12-23-14 - No Place in the Inn

Have any other two sentences ever given rise to so much drama for so many centuries?
“While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

That’s it, all Luke says. But because he mentions an inn with a no-vacancy sign, every Christmas pageant has to include an innkeeper, and every nativity drama a race against the clock by a desperate couple frantically seeking a place to have a baby, who is going to pop out any minute now…

Who knows – maybe Mary and Joseph had been in Bethlehem for awhile before her contractions started. Maybe they camped out somewhere, only needing warmth and shelter when the baby arrived. Maybe the place in the house where the livestock were kept was the warmest, and that’s why they put the infant Jesus in the manger filled with straw when there was no human habitation available.

We know so little, yet we make so much of these few words. Because it’s a great story, all of it. The homeless couple, the smelly shepherds, representing the marginalized of society, the glorious angels, the friendly beasts… and in the midst of all of it, the incarnate son of God. You couldn’t make up a story this good.

Do the details matter? Maybe not – but there’s richness in them. It is significant that Jesus spent his first night on earth in a feed trough in a stable. It reminds us that he did not come to make his home in this world. He did not seek the comforts that keep so many of us holding on to more than we need while others go without. Though the Gospels suggest he lived a regular home-based life once he and his parents settled back in Nazareth after a period of exile in Egypt, after he began his ministry he stayed on the move. “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” He almost didn’t have one to start with either.

Jesus is never recorded as leading anyone into a building – he led his followers out, and I believe out of the building is still where most of our church ministry is to be lived. We church folk have got it pretty backward in the 21st century. We’ve imposed onto our churches the assumption that home is where the heart is. It’s not the only place.

I just came from Stamford’s annual Homeless Persons Memorial service, at which we remember those who died homeless in our community in the past year, celebrate those who are moving through shelters into housing, and raise up the work of the agencies that address needs for mental health, addiction recovery, job training and placement, and healthcare as well as shelter and housing.

It reminded me that Jesus spent his first night, maybe several, not at “home,” but camping out in temporary lodging, sharing space with animals, in a city his parents did not call home. What we call homelessness was his first reality. The company of the marginalized was his first community. Maybe we need to pay more honor to the life going on outside our homes. Though there is dysfunction and injustice in it, we don't want to miss the life in people whose lives aren't in a mold we consider normal.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t eliminate homelessness; we should, we must, and God willing we will. I’m suggesting that as we do that we draw nearer to those who find themselves homeless, because in doing so we may just draw closer to Jesus.

12-22-14 - Getting to Bethlehem

Do you labor under the illusion of the “perfect Christmas?” All shopping/wrapping/baking/decorating done, family gathered in harmonious conviviality, Santa having delivered everything everybody wanted and more? The pastor’s version is all that (especially if you’re a female pastor, and single…) PLUS all bulletins finished/pageant rehearsed/special music ready, and the Spirit having delivered to you a brief but brilliant, life-transforming word of life to share with those gathered in the church for one chaotic hour – perhaps the one hour per year.

Every year I swear I’m going to be oh-so calm and serene and oh-so ready for Christmas Eve that even I will have a spiritual encounter with God. Who am I kidding? If Luke’s story has any historical accuracy, the Holy Night we celebrate was a mess, its protagonists exhausted, scared, lonely, anxious, no doubt cranky. And at least one was in agonizing pain, delivering her first child in a stable, with only her betrothed to help her – and he more helpless than she. (Today's gospel passage is here.)

Mary and Joseph didn’t want to be in Bethlehem, especially not when her time to deliver was so near. They were there at the behest of a cruel tyrant seeking to squeeze yet more taxes out of a conquered people. Luke is so specific about the people in power at that time – Caesar Augustus, Quirinius; and the towns Mary and Joseph traveled from and to – Nazareth in Galilee, Bethlehem in Judea. His specificity reminds us that the gift of God in flesh, Emmanuel, God with us was not general and vague, but personal, bounded in human time, space and history. And emotion.

Jesus didn’t come into this world on an eiderdown comforter. He came into a mess, a chaotic night in which a young couple desperately sought accommodation in a strange city, finally accepting the offer of space with household livestock as the woman’s birth pangs grew in urgency. He came into a political and religious mess, to a people exhausted by generations of oppression at the hands of a succession of occupying empires.

And he comes into our mess. If we’re feeling harried with only 48 shopping hours left before Christmas, that Amazon order still unplaced, Christmas cards not yet embarked upon, arguing with our spouse or children or both – don’t think you’re not in the Christmas spirit. You’re ONE with the Christmas spirit, the original one.

Where are you today? What feels most urgent? Is it something life-giving or spirit-dampening? Try to name the feelings attached to the urgency or the stress. Naming feelings is the first step to ushering them away, their work of making us pay attention done.

Invite Jesus to be with you in what you’re feeling. As we accept his presence in our turmoil, we may become readier to identify with what he experienced as a newborn – complete vulnerability, confusion, cold.

And if you’re actually ready and serene, glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth! That’s the Christmas Spirit too. Get out and share that calm with someone harried.

Getting to Bethlehem can be a stressful slog, and a journey full of pain and expectation. All of the above. We’re right where we’re supposed to be.

12-19-14 - A Father's Song

What did Zechariah do to deserve to be made mute for nine months? I said earlier that all he had asked was “How?,” when the angel told him he and Elizabeth would become parents in their old age. But I wasn’t looking closely enough. What he actually said was, “How will I know that this is so?,” citing their advanced age.

That’s what the angel was punishing, if punishment it was – his lack of faith in what was unseen, his worldly reliance on "observable facts," his desire for assurance. Here he had an angel standing in front of him! And he wondered how God would accomplish what he had purposed? Maybe Gabriel gave him nine months of silence to reflect on faith and endurance – and maybe to prepare to have an infant in the house.

So, at the moment when Zechariah in faith declares his son will not be named after him, but will be named John (“God is gracious”), his muteness is lifted and he bursts into poetry: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old…”  (Today's passage is here.)

Zechariah, having waited so long for his prayers for his family and for his oppressed people to be answered, is so astonished that God is indeed faithful, he can scarcely contain himself. After praising God, he turns his praise to his infant son:

 “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. “

This boy was born for a purpose. Perhaps all children are born for a purpose, but the purpose is not always so clearly known even before birth. Zechariah is now ready to declare that he believes everything the angel told him, and what the prophets of old had foreseen – and what this miracle child of his will be, long after he is around to witness it.

Our faith is often strengthened when we see answers to our prayers, isn’t it? But then it’s not really faith. Faith by definition is trusting in promises we can’t be absolutely certain we’ve received correctly. We gather confirmation from others, and marshal evidence that God is moving in the way we think God is moving… and we wait, believing in the good will of God no matter what we experience. That’s hard! Thanks be to God, we are often (not always…) given just enough signs to encourage us to persevere, and discernment to give thanks for what we experience along the way.

Do you have a long-term prayer project requiring extra faith? What indications do you have that God is moving? What do you wish you could witness? How do you maintain your faith in the not-knowing?

Zechariah did not excel in faith to begin with – but he seems to have learned from his enforced retreat. For he sees in his own son – the fact that his son exists, and the promise he represents – God’s larger purpose to redeem the world, to restore all things and all people to perfect peace. And so this father’s song gives voice to the deeper song of the Father Almighty:
"By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."

In a few days, we will gather in darkened churches lit by candles to celebrate that rising Son from on high breaking in upon us - may He guide our feet into the way of peace.

12-18-14 - A New Name

John. It’s hard to think of a more ordinary name. But boy, did it cause a stir when Elizabeth said that’s what her newborn son was to be called.

Families often mark their identities by passing certain names along the generations. Parents will name a child to honor an ancestor, or give an aspirational name of someone important. Names matter in families. So it was one more oddity in the whole strange saga of Elizabeth and Zechariah’s late-life adventure in parenthood, when the day came for the baby to be named and circumcised:
“On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’” (Today's passage is here.)

Unwilling to rely on the insistence of a women, they motioned for Zechariah to chime in.
“He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed.”

Amazing – a new name. A break with the past for a new chapter in Israel’s history. “Israel” itself was the new name given to Jacob when he wrestled with the angel. Now, as God started a new story in human history, built on the old but with new themes and characters, he ordained a new name for this child who would “make ready a people prepared for their Lord.” John. Amazing.

And even more amazing, as Zechariah was faithful to what the angel Gabriel had told him the boy was to be called, his muteness was lifted. “Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God.” Apparently all of this caused such a stir, the whole region was talking about how the hand of God was on this child.

I know people who give themselves new names at different junctures in their lives, to mark a new beginning or give voice to a new identity they’re taking on, trying on. There are other ways we might make a practice of naming. We could name the eras in our life. Superficial labels might be “childhood,” “adolescence,” “young adulthood,” “singleness,” “first married,” and so on. If we were to dig a little deeper, we could find names for the periods in our lives that told an emotional story. “Afraid,” “Mad at the world,” “Trusting,” “Sick,” “Delighted.”

What name would you give the time in your life you are now living in? Do you want or foresee a transition to a different mode? What would you name that? John’s name was set down before he was born – we can name ahead too.

In this life we are about discovering our true name, our true identity, what God already sees when God looks at us. So let’s give a name to the next portion of our life and live into the new story God is writing us into.

12-17-14 - Blessed is She Who Believes

Luke the Evangelist would have made a good filmmaker. He does a great job “cross-cutting,” these two miraculous pregnancy tales. First the angel comes to Zechariah, and then Elizabeth becomes pregnant after he returns home. Elizabeth stays in seclusion for five months, and in her sixth the angel appears to Mary, who then becomes pregnant. And then these parallel stories come together: “In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.” (Today's passage is here.)

Luke doesn’t tell us why Mary made that journey, but reasons spring to mind. She may have wanted to “get out of Dodge” and the increasing questions and stares at her notably unmarried pregnant state. Her situation was more than socially awkward – adultery was punishable by death, and it was hard to reckon any other explanation for her expanding figure. We don’t know about her parents; were they supportive? Did they believe her tale of the angel and what he said? Would you?

A deeper reason for her journey may have been what the angel told her about Elizabeth’s improbable pregnancy, “… and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Maybe Mary needed to be with the only other people on earth who had a clue what she was going through. Maybe she needed some confirmation that she wasn’t losing her mind.

If that was the case, she received it the moment she came into the house.  

“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy.”

When God has outrageous revelations or instructions for us, we can trust God to give us independent verification – at least, that’s what happens in the Bible. One person gets a strange notion or order, and the Spirit makes it known to someone else as well. It’s like in Field of Dreams, when Ray and Annie have the same dream one night, just when she’s ready to write him off. In Mary’s case, God offered confirmation not only via Elizabeth, but even by the unborn John with his in-utero “leap for joy.”

And Elizabeth utters words that must have settled Mary’s heart for the first time since her encounter with the angel, calling her “blessed among women,” and the “mother of my Lord.”

Have you had occasion to offer confirmation to someone on a call they believe they’ve received? Has someone done that for you? Are you wrestling with a question of call and discernment now? Who might be your “Elizabeth?” If no one comes to mind, you might ask God who you should talk to. A name or encounter might just crop up.

Elizabeth’s affirmation of Mary goes to the heart of what she must have been feeling. “And blessed is she who believed that there would be* a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Sometimes, even when we go forward in trust and faith on something we believe God has invited us into, we are still assailed by doubts. “Was I an idiot to believe that?” we think, especially if we don’t see outcomes. In those times, we can hold onto Elizabeth: Blessed is s/he who believes.
If God has spoken it, God will deliver.

12-16-14 - Silent Gestation

What a strange pregnancy Elizabeth must have had. To be pregnant in the first place, her body long past the blush of youth, years after such a thing seemed possible... Imagine what changes in body and spirit she was experiencing. And on top of that, the silence. Her Zechariah, usually so articulate and voluble, rendered mute for the term of her confinement. (Today's passage is here.)

How much had he been able to tell her, in signs and letters, about what transpired in that sanctuary with the terrifying angel? How he had been rendered mute until the child’s birth for daring to ask the question Mary also asked, “How?”

“Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’ The angel replied, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.’”

Was he able to tell her what the angel had said about their son-to-be, about the ascetic regimens laid down prior even to his conception. Was he able to describe the mission their John was to have:

“He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

The spirit and power of Elijah?! Who was this child to be?
To make ready a people prepared for their Lord? How was he to do that?

Perhaps Elizabeth knew nothing of these things, only that her husband had come home from his temple service unable to speak, and somehow more affectionate than she’d known him in some time. In the deep and knowing silence of long years together, they lay down and conceived a child, their lovemaking at last producing fruit beyond mere connection. And for five months she stayed apart, relishing the silence and the joy, making room for the new life growing within her, saying, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”

Bringing new life to the point of birth is always holy work, if we can call allowing things to happen inside us “work.” So much of what we call spiritual work or spiritual discipline is meant to be learning back more than forward, letting go, allowing the Holy Spirit to work with our spirit at a level deeper than we can affect it with our conscious mind – unless we want to thwart it. We can always choose to disengage from growth, sinking into our familiar patterns, though a sad choice it is, to to hold back new life.

Can you feel something stirring in you, stretching you, changing your inner landscape, even kicking a little, saying, “Let me grow until I’m big and strong enough to be born – and then what a gift I will be to you, and to the world!”

Can you begin to name it and make space and time for that growth? Perhaps adding some retreat time in this season – or after it? Some silence in our "gestation" can allow us to become more in tune with what is being done within us, beyond our reach. If the new life comes from God, it is holy – and will be a gift to us, and to the world.

12-15-14 - Another Anunciation

I promised that this week we would explore the rich stories about Zechariah and Elizabeth, the aged parents of John the Baptist, and their own encounters with the miraculous. The first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, which tells these stories, is 80 verses long. So I will print each day’s section to the right and link to the whole thing at the bottom. (Here is today's)

Having already taken up the stories of John the Baptist and Mary of Nazareth, we’re out of sequence here. But when the angel Gabriel came to announce the miracle birth to Mary, he had already had some practice with Zechariah. Zechariah was a priest at the temple, and happened to be chosen by lot to make the incense offering in the inner sanctuary. He was alone – and then suddenly he was most profoundly not alone. Luke tells us he was "terrified, and fear overwhelmed him.”

But the angel brought him good news – news all of us would love to hear, I imagine: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.”

If God sent an angel to tell me my prayer had been heard, I think I would be terrified too, not just by the angelic presence, but by the knowledge that God had heard my prayer. We believe God does; I tell people God does; but when year after year passes and some of our deepest felt prayers seem to go unanswered, it can be hard to believe. And sometimes we’ve given up on our prayers, and aren’t so sure that’s what we want now. Surely Zechariah and Elizabeth had long since come to accept their childlessness, despite the stigma and sorrowful glances of their friends. They were aged now – were they to begin parenting at this stage of life?

Have you carried a prayer in your heart for a long time? What is it? Recall it to your mind. Do you feel God has heard it? Have you discerned any answer to that prayer, or are you still waiting? What happens when you talk to God about that? Are you being invited to wait, to let go, to pray something else?

Sometimes I’m afraid to let go of my long-held desires, as though if I let go they’ll definitely never come to pass. But somehow the letting go just seem to create more space for God to bring in blessing. That’s a lesson I seem to have to keep learning, over and over again.

Part of prayer is making our desires known to the God who knows us and loves us. And part of prayer is letting go of our desires and trusting that God who knows us and loves us.

And sometimes they come back to us in the strangest way imaginable, as Zechariah and Elizabeth found out.

12-12-14 - Nothing is Impossible

Did Mary have a choice to decline the mission conferred upon her by God? A friend reminded me that the Angel Gabriel doesn't ask for an answer; he only announces what will be. That baby will fill her belly no matter how she feels about it. Her grace in accepting is wonderful, not essential.

And yet the angel did add a detail to settle her mind, which might have helped her get to that “yes.”
“And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”

We will take up Elizabeth’s story next week, but to refresh, Elizabeth was John the Baptist's mother, and became pregnant with him long after she was “in the way of women,” and after a lifetime of infertility and all the stigma that included in her culture. Though she conceived in the “normal” way, the timing was miraculous enough to comfort Mary that her strange message truly came from God.

We need to be reminded that there are no limits to what God can do, because we spend so much time in the realm of limits. And because we see so many situations in which we yearn to see the unlimited power of God break out… and it doesn’t seem to. If all things are possible with God, why is ISIS beheading Christian children? If all things are possible with God, why did 26 sweet children and their teachers die two years ago today at Sandy Hook School, with an average of 32 more murdered with guns daily in America? If all things are possible with God, why don’t our prayers for healing always yield the results we want?

Those are all good questions – and they lead nowhere but to a diminished faith. We are invited to believe in infinite possibilities despite the limits we perceive. We are invited to pray to the God for whom all things are possible… and then to ask God if and how we are to be part of God's response. I certainly don’t know what to do about ISIS but pray for profound conversion of hearts and a weakening of their support. I do know that gun violence can be reduced through sensible laws as well as culture change, and that I can be part of that solution.

And praying for healing within the overall confines of life and death means accepting that the outcomes of our prayers exist on that continuum as well. That isn’t meant to sound facile – I only mean that the fact that our prayers are not always answered in the way we desire doesn’t mean they aren’t sometimes answered that way. And that each of those “sometimes” is an occasion to strengthen our faith.

What “impossibility” are you facing right now? Are you willing to invite God to work with it, turn it over, squish and mold it like clay, bend it like time and perhaps reveal a deeper mystery of “yes” in it? Are you willing to have your boundaries of the possible stretched? Pray in that today. Ask God to show you where God has placed limits, and where you’re just assuming they exist.

The story of Jesus’ incarnation through Mary of Nazareth is beautiful in so many ways, not the least for how decisively God overturns the “laws” of nature to bring about the overturning of death and sin and disease and injustice, ending the enslavement of this world to darkness. All that happens because Mary joined in the mission of God in the way she could, in the way she was asked. Jesus would continue to overturn those laws in his adult ministry. And, of course, on Easter morning, the God of the impossible demonstrated once again just how infinite his power is.

Nothing is impossible with God. The more we believe it, the further our boundaries of “possibility” will be stretched, and the deeper we will join in God's mission of restoration. And the deeper we go, the more impossible things we will see.

12-11-14 - Girl Power

This story is so outrageous, I don’t think anyone would have made it up. Why would you make up an immaculate conception? If the idea of sexual union troubled you, you’d probably want to avoid the whole reproductive system, right? You wouldn’t write it right into the story of God!

But a young woman’s reproductive system is right smack dab in the middle of our story of salvation. The conception may have been immaculate, but nothing after that was. To put it crudely, we get no Incarnation without the messy details of a woman’s plumbing.

"The angel said to her, ‘And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.' ... Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’"

There are certain charges leveled at early Christian thinkers and church leaders, that they were somehow flesh-denying and anti-woman, weaving a conspiracy of suppression. You can’t honestly derive such a view from our Gospels. If that was your agenda, why would you tell the story of the Messiah’s emergence through a woman’s birth canal? Why would all four Gospels agree that the first person to see Jesus risen from the dead was a woman? Why would the Gospels show Jesus’ friendship with and trust in women?

Right here at the heart of our story is a young woman, whom we today would consider still a girl – and she is the agent through whom God is revealed to human eyes. Imagine!
AND SHE SAYS YES! I don’t know if she had a choice or not, but Luke unmistakably tells us that she chose:
“Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’”

“Here am I.
” That’s a statement of identity and presence. Here am I. What if we started each day with those words? “Here I am, world! Here I am, God!”

“The servant of the Lord.” That’s a statement of missional life. Mary wasn’t asking God what God had done for her lately – she self-identified as God’s servant and proclaimed it proudly. “Let it be to me as you have said.” I accept. I know what you’re asking, I know in part what it’s going to cost me, and I accept. Amen – let it be.

That’s a powerful young woman! That’s an agent of change! Even before the canticle of radical reversal and equality that’s attributed to Mary in the Magnificat (or, if you prefer it sung, here's Rutter's...), right here we see girl power to the nth degree, a formidable young woman who will carry, and bear, and raise, and lose our beloved Jesus – and then receive him back, only in part, and never to keep.

I’ve never thought of the story of the Anunication as an anthem of women’s empowerment, but just writing this fills me with energy. I want to go out and tell every young girl I know: Look at this girl! Look how calm and clear and powerful she is! There is power in serving others, in offering ourselves – if we recognize our own worth in the process.

Maybe you know a young woman whom you can affirm today, remind of her value. Maybe you are aware of forces in our culture that rob young women of their sense of worth, and you can band with others to think of ways to overcome or undermine those forces. (Fashion industry, anyone? Advertising industry? Social media?)

God chose a young girl for God’s greatest mission. She said yes. Girl power rocks the world!

12-10-14 - Say What?!?

I don’t know if I would like to hear that I had found favor with God… God’s favor often seems to come with a request for a favor! And in the case of Mary of Nazareth, a rather big one: to allow her body, her womb to be the vessel for the Son of the Most High.

“The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’”

Did Mary hear anything after the words “womb” and “son?” Where would you even start with an announcement like this? With the pregnancy? With the predictions of greatness, of divinity, of Messiah-ship? That’s what “the throne of his ancestor David” means – and no doubt Mary understood the code. Or would you focus on the words “reign” and “kingdom?” I don’t know that I would have heard any of it – after all, it was an angel speaking! My senses would already have hit “tilt.”

So even more credit goes to young Mary for not only taking it in, but responding in a most down-to-earth, matter-of-fact way: “How?” “Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’”

How indeed? Gabriel’s answer is short on details,
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you…”

Mary is left to sort through all the words, the past, the future, the fear, the excitement, the bafflement. She ignores all the grand and cosmic mystery of identity about this coming child, and focuses on the reality closest to her: her body. This wondrous event is to take place in her body – a body, she insists, that has not experienced much intimacy. Is she to endure the wear and tear of childbearing before she’s had a chance to savor the joy of child-begetting?

How will this be? How indeed does God work through the frail and fallible flesh of any person? Mary’s mission may be the most intimate in our whole crazy story of redemption, but nothing in that story happens without God working through a person. People are asked to yield their time, livelihood, home, safety, security, voice, identity… we are called to make ourselves available to the Spirit of God.

What has God asked of you, probable or improbable, difficult or simple? What aspects of your life and self have you made available to the Holy One to fill and use? What have you held back? What are you willing to offer?

In prayer today let's work through one of those litanies of “oblation,” offering in turn our minds, our bodies, our time, our gifts, our resources, our relationships, our networks, and, of course, our spirits. As we offer each area, we might wait for a word on how God wants to use that in us.

Mary was called to be a vessel of Christ’s body, to bear him into the world. We are called to be vessels of Christ’s spirit, to bear him into the world in our own ways and circumstances. That includes our bodies as well as everything else that makes us who we are. We can invite the Spirit to fill us – and then see how we make space for grace.

12-9-14 - Seeing Angels

Have you ever seen an angel? I know one or two people who saw them as children, and have heard of people having what they believed were angelic encounters as adults. I was once praying in a chapel when it seemed filled with a presence that was distinctly “other,” and I was terrified. Was that an angel? Probably not – for in the bible, angels always seem to show up with a message to deliver.

The angel Gabriel (one of only two angels named in the scriptures...) was pretty busy in the months leading up to Jesus’ birth. First he showed up in the temple to tell Zechariah that he and his wife, long infertile and now past childbearing age, will have a son whom they are to name John. And six months into Elizabeth’s unlikely pregnancy, he appears to Mary in Nazareth to announce a pregnancy that is downright impossible.

“And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’”

I think only an angel could deliver a message that bizarre and, if you’ll permit me, inconceivable. But that’s when angels seem to be deployed, when God has a specific message or charge for a particular person. Prophets are human messengers for God, usually with messages for a whole community. Angels seem to be tasked when it comes to things like announcing miraculous births – three angels tell Abram and Sarai about her also unlikely pregnancy.

What do we know about angels? The Old and New Testaments speak of them as heavenly creatures – neither divine nor human. They deliver difficult messages and occasionally do battle with the forces of evil. They are not cute, or cuddly, or necessarily looking out for us – they work for God. They are often fierce and, it appears, always fearsome, for every angelic encounter seems to begin with, “Be not afraid…”

Should we pay any attention to angels? I can’t imagine they want us to, nor would they want to be worn on pins and or gaze upon us with simpering smiles from posters. They certainly do not want to be prayed to. Their function is to point our attention to what God is up to. I sometimes pray that God would send a “guard of angels” to protect someone from evil, but that’s about it.

Why have I spent a whole Water Daily reflection talking about a subject I consider peripheral to being a Christ-follower? Maybe to invite us to examine where we are on the subject of angels. If we consider them intermediaries with God, perhaps we’re being invited to forge a more direct connection. If we want protection, maybe we can invite the Holy Spirit to be more discernibly present in our lives. If we want a message, we can ask for it in prayer. If we want to be able to relate to God more personally – well, that’s why Jesus came in the first place. Let’s get to know him better.

The one thing I feel reasonably sure of is this: If we should be “touched by an angel,” we’ll know it.

12-8-14 - The Virgin

At Christ the Healer, we will depart from the lectionary for the last two weeks of Advent. This Sunday, for our “Baby Shower for Mary,” we will do Mary’s story, which the lectionary has on Advent 4. That week I plan to use a gospel passage that never shows up in the lectionary at all, the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth. I thought about staying on course for Water Daily, for the sake of the many readers who do not attend my church – but naaah. I’m going to drag you all over the place with me! It'll be fun. So here go.

We meet Mary, a young woman betrothed to a man named Joseph, right about the time she meets the Angel Gabriel: “In the sixth month [of Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John, who would grow up to be the Baptist…] the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.”

Who was this Mary? Luke tries to make a decent introduction with the “where-when-who." She lived in Galilee, considered by many a low-rent backwater of Judean provinces. Scripture says nothing of her economic circumstances or her family – which doesn’t stop later generations from naming her parents Anna and Joachim, and designating them saints.

We are told that she is a virgin. To our ears that might seem an awfully intimate detail about one we’ve just met. Maybe that’s just the word Luke used to describe her unmarried state, where we might find “maiden” more decorous – but her actual virginity does figure into the story as well.

We learn that this young woman is engaged to a man called Joseph – and that his lineage is significant: He is of the family of Israel's legendary King David, from whom many believed the Messiah would come. Though Joseph will have no biological relation to Jesus, he will be his earthly father and establish his Davidic lineage – and that lineage also gets him and his betrothed to Bethlehem, David’s ancestral town, where prophecies said the Messiah would be born.

We can save for another day the encounter between Mary and this angel. Today let’s focus on the girl, this girl who has been so adored and so worshiped and so controversial for so many generations. In some ways she is a screen onto which people can project their own wishes and identities. We know little about her beyond these biographical details – and the amazing grace with which she considers the angel’s announcement and comes to a quiet “Yes,” a yes staggering in its humility and willingness to accept vulnerability.

It is that “yes” which has led some to attribute supernatural qualities to her – sinlessness, saintliness, even divinity. To do this entirely undermines the power of her story for us: That God chose an ordinary girl for an extraordinary ministry – and that she chose to accept the mission and let it shape her life. Were it not for Mary, there would be no Jesus of Nazareth in the way we know him. Perhaps God would have found another way, but this is the way our story is revealed. Mary is the one who bore God for us.

Today in prayer we might contemplate Mary, however she appears in our mind’s eye. Imagine her in her room when the angel appears, and play through the story. Or go even deeper and imagine yourself in that position. What would you think? Say? Do? However we enter her story, let us give thanks to Mary, or for her, for the gift she gave us.

In a small way we share her mission – to allow the Spirit to fill us with life, a life not wholly our own but mingled with ours to create a new person, the Christ who comes to set all people free – and then to bear that Christ into the world.

12-5-14 - Baptism in the Spirit

The baptism that John the Baptist administered was more than a bath, but not quite what we know as baptism. It was a ritual submersion in the river to enact symbolically the spiritual work of repentance entered into by those who flocked out to the desert to hear John’s message. John knew this was a rite of preparation, not the whole deal.

John was clear about his mission, to help people prepare for a revelation of God no one could truly anticipate - not even John. Who could imagine God incarnate until experiencing that mystery? John only knew that the One to come was more powerful and holy than could be conceived. He had one job: to invite repentance, a clearing of spiritual space. His water ritual could convey that reality. Beyond that was another baptism that only Christ could effect: baptism in the Spirit.

“He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’”

What does it mean to be “baptized with the Holy Spirit?” The way some Pentecostals use that language can make “mainline religious folks” kind of twitchy. But here it is, right in the gospels. What do we suppose it means? To Pentecostals, it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit to the point where there is a discernible manifestation, some indication of spiritual gifts having been imparted. This seems to have been what Paul’s Corinthian congregations believed, focused as they were on discernible manifestations of the Spirit’s power like speaking in tongues or prophesy.

But what might “baptism in the Spirit” mean to us? Let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine being submerged in water, which is the way many people are actually baptized. Take a moment to let yourself experience it in your mind. What happens when you sink into deep water? You get wet all over; the water even gets into your nose and mouth. Depending on temperature, you might find yourself pleasantly warmed or cooled, refreshed, comforted. And you find yourself supported by the water’s density; it’s not all up to you.

Let’s assume that’s what baptism in the Spirit means: we are drenched and we are filled with the Spirit of the Living God, uniting with our spirit to fill us with Life. We might find ourselves getting very warm, or cool – we feel energy coming into us, and we are refreshed. We find ourselves in the presence of another Presence – we are not alone. We are vessels of power from outside us. It’s not all up to us.

How I wish every Christ-follower would crave being filled with the Holy Spirit, would ardently seek spiritual gifts to support them in the ministries to which they feel called. The Holy Spirit is the Gift that gives more gifts, that is always replenishing us – as we ask. For some reason, the Spirit seems to want our invitation.

If you desire a deeper experience of the Holy Spirit, pray for it, or ask someone you believe to be Spirit-filled to pray with you. Be open to the sensations you might experience. Be open to not experiencing anything in that moment – you might only later know something has changed.

The Holy Spirit is our gift at baptism, renewed in eucharist, replenished whenever we are active in God’s mission to reclaim, restore and renew all of creation. In fact, the Spirit is how we find ourselves reclaimed, restored and renewed. You can never ask too often for the Spirit's baptism.

12-4-14 - All the Rage

Imagine people taking buses out of town to hear some wild guy in the desert rail about sin, lining up to get dunked in a river as a sign of repentance. Imagine people lining up to get into a church. Oh, wait, that does happen, some places… religion can still draw crowds, but it’s unusual. What was it that drew throngs out to the wilderness to see John? I’m sure he was some spectacle… but what was it about him that caused them to respond?

“John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”
(This week's gospel passage is here.)

Later in Luke’s Gospel, after John has languished in Herod’s prison for years, he sends some of his followers to ask Jesus if he was the one they'd been waiting for; doubts must have crept in to John's mind. Jesus cites the miraculous healings and transformations that people around him were experiencing as evidence… and then he takes the crowd to task about John. “Who did you go out there to see?” he asks. “A reed swaying in the wind? A man dressed in fine clothes?” 

What did they go out there to see? Was it John’s fierceness? In Mark’s version of the story, John is pretty mild; in Matthew and Luke he appears more like a wild man, raging about judgment and fire. “The ax is already laid at the root of the trees,” he thunders. “The one who is coming after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” And the fire doesn’t sound like the cozy kind. And still they came, still they repented, still they were baptized. Scared straight? Maybe… Or perhaps they responded to his holiness.

John appears to have had a remarkable clarity about his mission, and a single-mindedness about fulfilling it. He never seemed to forget who he was, the advance man for a bigger show. His mission was to prepare a people to receive their Lord. He had amazing integrity along with his blazing intensity. People came, they wept, they repented, they received his baptism, they went home and told their friends to come. Maybe they came for the show and stayed for the reality. Maybe they stayed because they wanted connection to God, and he was the closest thing they’d seen in ages.

What would draw us to John the Baptist?
How does his call to repent, prepare the way of the Lord, land in our spirits 2000 years later?
Are there aspects of his mission we would like to share?
Are there ways we might call the powers of our world to repentance and transformation?
Are there ways we might call people we know to repentance and transformation?
Are there ways we might call ourselves to repentance and transformation?

I believe we want to connect to God too, deep in our spirits. I believe we want to make more space for God in our lives, and John’s call resonates through the ages to us. Repentance creates space, space that God can fill. Repent, prepare the way. Your God is coming to you!

12-3-14 - Level Ground

In his lifetime, John the Baptist was often associated with the prophet Elijah – many wondered if he were in fact Elijah returned to the world. But the prophet the Gospel writers most closely linked him with was Isaiah, particularly his prophecy of an estranged Israel reconciled with her God. This passage, also an appointed reading for this Sunday, speaks tenderly of restoration; it provides much of the libretto of the Christmas portion of Handel’s Messiah. (Here is a rendition from King’s College, Cambridge…)
If you prefer female singers to choirboys, here’s another, conducted by Sir Colin Davis at the Barbican.)

We looked yesterday at this passage's command to
“prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”  

But the prophet has more in mind than just building roads – in his vision, the whole topography is to be reconfigured:
“Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”

There seems to be a leveling principle at work here – we see it paralleled in the song of Mary, which speaks of economic equity – “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.” We can see both of these movements in the incarnation of Jesus, Son of God, born to the lowly woman to whom these words are attributed, lifting her up even as he consents to leave his throne.

Is the in-breaking realm of God about smoothing out the uneven ground, bringing down the hills and raising up the valleys? That could make for a dull landscape. Yet it would also enable movement, reduce barriers between peoples.

And what if, once more, we look inward and view this leveling process as an inner movement. What if the hills and valleys of our hearts, of our moods, became more even, our “rough places” became a plain? Would that make us dull – or would it make us more serene, content, able to be containers for God’s power and love, vessels of God’s healing?

I invite you, in prayer, to think about the valleys inside you; reflect back on your life and look at the “valley times.” Do the same with the mountains and hills, the high points, the high places. What if they came together more?

Where is the ground in your life uneven? Would you like God to smooth it? Where are your “rough places?” Envision them as flat and true as a prairie – is that a fruitful image for you?

Isaiah, speaking for God, said that a beautiful thing will follow this great leveling:

"Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken." I believe we glimpse God’s glory every time we level a road so everyone has the same access, whether in the realm of money, power, justice – or even feelings. We help reveal God's glory. Amen!

12-2-14 - Voice in the Wilderness

Oh, for the placement of a comma!
Is John the Baptist “one crying out in the wilderness?”(as Hymn 75 in the Episcopal hymnal would have it), or is he one crying out, “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord?” The lack of punctuation in New Testament Greek leaves plenty of room for confusion. Luckily in this case, the gospel is quoting from a section of Isaiah in the Old Testament: “A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

The comma confusion has always left me an impression of John as a lone voice crying in the wilderness for God’s people to repent and return to their Lord. Clarification reminds me that his invitation is to prepare a way for God in the wilderness. And that generates all kinds of other questions. Why in the wilderness? Why make straight a highway for God in the desert? Is there too much clutter in our urban and suburban lives, too much noise to hear a voice crying out, “Prepare the way?”

Or shall we take “wilderness” as a metaphor, internalizing it to represent the chaos of our multiply-committed lives? Wilderness can suggest a stark emptiness. It can also invoke chaos, lack of order. Which description better fits your inner landscape today?

Perhaps preparing a way for God in our wilderness means locating the wild, untamed places within ourselves, our most essential “me-ness.” That is surely the place God’s spirit best meets our own. Or maybe it means that the messiest parts of our lives are where we are invited to prepare a way for the Lord – de-cluttering in order to access our most essential selves.

It is also possible that we are quite cut off from our own wilderness, so distracted by our tasks and data, our commitments and the priorities others impose upon us, that we haven’t dealt with or dwelt in our own wilderness for quite some time. Advent offers a particular invitation to do that – to intensify the spiritual practices that connect us to God and to ourselves; to take some retreat time either daily or going on an actual retreat, to rediscover the desert within and straighten out the highway for God’s presence to enter our lives with more fullness.

(If you live nearby, please join Christ the Healer's Advent retreat morning this coming Saturday, Dec 6th, starting with a hot breakfast at 8:30 and ending by 12:30. You can reserve online here...)

Lots of questions today – where did they hit you? Where did you feel yourself reacting? What invitation to prayer do you discern out of your reflection on inner wilderness? Where in yourself do you want to “prepare the way for the Lord, make straight a highway for our God?”

Suddenly I get the image of a community-service gang in orange jumpsuits, clearing up litter by the side of the highway. Not a bad Advent image for us to entertain today; we are all prisoners of our selves, to some degree, on the way to liberation. Why not clear a highway for our Liberator to hasten our freedom?

12-1-14 - Into the Desert

Black Friday is past. Colored lights are blinking on every other house. Must be about time for John the Baptist to saunter out of the desert just as our consumer frenzy churns toward its apotheosis, to remind us that it’s Advent – and that “theosis” might more properly be used to refer to God.

“John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

We only seem to let him out once a year, this not-so-cuddly prophet of repentance. Repentance is not much in vogue, and John is more than a bit odd, in his weird attire and diet of locusts and wild honey. We could consider him a proto-vegan, but for the camel skin coat and leather belt he sported (makes him sound like a proto-Ralph Lauren… not! )

But John is where all four gospels start to tell “The Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” as Mark begins his account. John is the one sent to “make ready a people prepared for the Lord,” as the angel Gabriel told his father Zechariah when announcing John’s improbable conception. (Luke 1:17) Zechariah himself sings out when John is born:

"And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins." (Luke 1:76-77)

This would suggest that repentance is our entryway into the “knowledge of salvation.” Repentance is a pre-requisite to feeling the need of salvation – what do we need saving from? If we feel we’re hunky-dory without Jesus, there was really no need for him to have bothered with all that incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and redemption business. We have to buy some level of estrangement with God, and accept some degree of human culpability for the state of the world, in order to think about salvation. 

Accepting those realities is repentance. Repentance doesn’t have to be a laundry list of personal sins and short-comings. It is an awareness of being less than what we were created to be, and a desire to invite the kind of healing that remedies the fault.

So let’s begin Advent with repentance, since that is John’s specialty. Like those who traveled out of the their safe zones to go see him in the wilderness, to hear his call to repent, to receive his baptism of cleansing, let’s wander away from our patterns of stuckness, our self-justifications, our self-saving strategies, and ask the Holy Spirit to show us how we have grown apart from God. We might try this each day this week, and see what gets freed and released.

Where does our pride kick up? Where do our relationships cause us to wince or get defensive? Where is shame rooted in us, a deep sense of unworthiness? We can bring it into the light of God’s love, feel the feelings related to each root of bitterness, and begin to release it to God for forgiveness and healing.

The forgiveness has already been given. The healing begins as we accept the forgiveness and desire new growth.

11-29-14 - To the Ends of Heaven

You’d think I’d have been better prepared, given our gospel reading this week – ready to get Water Daily out despite having family visiting for the holiday – but I didn’t manage it yesterday. I apologize – and hope you were too busy with your own celebrations or too full of turkey to notice! Here’s one more for this week, a day late and a dollar short.

I must also confess that I haven’t been eager to reflect on this Advent reading. It's both somewhat frightening, with its references of suffering, and too cosmic in scope to grasp. It is an apocalyptic vision of the end of all that we know:
“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

I saw Interstellar yesterday. It’s actually quite a good backdrop for considering Jesus’ words about the end of the world. In Christopher Nolan’s sweeping narrative, the end of this world is coming quickly, due not to cosmic forces but from the natural consequences of humanity’s damage to our environment. The sun is often darkened by fierce dust storms in a world with not enough water, and dirt piles up everywhere, including in children’s lungs. Humanity’s extinction is considered inevitable; the only question is whether we will suffocate, or starve due to food shortages brought on by blighted crops in the nitrate-rich atmosphere.

A small group of scientists is seeking other habitable planets to colonize in order to preserve humankind, and much of the film takes place in outer space, vast, limitless, mysterious.

“Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”

In Nolan’s vision, salvation comes from humankind cracking the cosmic secrets of space-time-gravity to access a new habitat. Our Christian vision of salvation has a similar theme – but its movement is from the cosmic to earthly. In our sweeping story it is God, the author of the mysteries of the universe, who transcended them to come into our dying world, to plant a seed of healing among us. Christ’s redemption includes the restoration of the universe – and what we might call a re-colonization, as the “elect” are gathered from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. The point of these apocalyptic passages is to remind us where our Christ-story ultimately ends – not in the manger, not on the cross, not even with the empty tomb, but with the New Heavens and a New Earth.

When we pray, “Thy Kingdom come,” that is what we are inviting into being. Today you might pray very slowly through the Lord’s Prayer, and pause to reflect on that phrase when you come to it. How does that petition open up the rest of the others in the prayer Jesus taught his followers to pray? What does it open up in you?

“The world is about to turn,” goes the chorus to Canticle of the Turning, a hymn setting of the Song of Mary. That is worth staying awake for.

11-26-14 - Travel Day

The day before Thanksgiving – busiest travel day of the American year. And on the East Coast, we’re expecting a snow storm. Fun and funner! And, though I hope no one’s experience feels like the end of the world, the stresses of travel are not a bad metaphor for the Advent season.

Whether you are hitting the road (or rails or skies) yourself, or awaiting some else’s arrival, chances are you face a lot of waiting and anticipation. Waiting in a terminal when a plane or train is delayed is never fun; even if we have something to occupy our time, every announcement and movement tends to draw our attention. We scan the boards and strain to hear the loudspeaker between sentences of our book or email. When will it come? When will it end?

Waiting for God to show up – cataclysmically, at the end of the ages, or here and now, in the midst of a crisis – can also feel like that. Though we often look back on events and say that God’s timing was just right, in the moment it can feel like we’re waiting forever.

And then there’s anticipation, which is waiting with a twist. When we’re really excited about something that is going to happen soon, we often say “I can’t wait!” When we’re little, Advent seems to be about waiting for Christmas, with its huge build-up. As we get older, we learn that Advent is really about waiting to celebrate the birth of Christ, the inbreaking Word of God, come to take up residence in us – and we know that, as wonderful as that story is, as fully as we have embraced it, it’s still incomplete, because we’re still waiting for the fullness of that revelation of God to be completed. We’re still too surrounded by pain and evil to think we’ve seen the end of the story. We’re still waiting and anticipating.

Is there anything we can do to be more content in both our waiting and our anticipation? Yes – and it happens to be the one thing most philosophers and sages suggest we do to live more fulfilled lives: be present. Now. Focus on where you are in this moment, not the next, not the one that just passed. Now.

If we were to do that in a terminal, we might find ourselves focusing on the people around us. Focusing on our feelings of waiting and not knowing when we will leave or our loved ones arrive. Focusing on our breath and our life, on our gifts and our thoughts, on what we love, on who we love, and who loves us. This is a way to transcend the waiting and receive an opportunity to tune our awareness to the breath of those around us, to the pulse of the community, to the yearnings of the universe. That’s not wasted time… that’s a form of prayer, of connecting to the Holy. It is Advent life, a Travel Day.

Eternity is an forever of Now. Learning to wait with anticipation while fully content will serve us well in this life and in the life to come. It creates in us a capaciousness and a serenity in which others can seek shelter. It creates space in which the Holy Spirit can dwell and bless others.

I hope today is a wonderful day for you, wherever you are and wherever you are going. I pray you will be amazed at the peacefulness, even joy, you can experience whatever the weather and the traffic. They are temporary – you are eternal. Already.

You... Are.

11-25-14 - When Are We Getting There?

Chances are a lot of parents on long car trips to visit family for Thanksgiving this week are going to hear these words, in less than dulcet tones: “When are we going to get there?” or their variant, “Are we there yet?”

Jesus’ followers had a similar question for him. If he was indeed the promised Messiah, shouldn't he be ringing down the curtain on the bad old days soon? After all, things weren’t so good – the Romans on their backs, their own tax collectors squeezing them for every penny, not to mention the temple taxes. Life was hard and often cruel. When was Jesus going to do something big?

In the gospel passage with which we begin the season of Advent, Jesus links this “end” with his own return.
“Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”

Pretty dramatic. But as to the “when,” not even Jesus knew:  

‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.”

These questions did not go away after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. His followers were all the more convinced he was indeed the Messiah – so how long did the world have to wait? When would he return to usher in the New Age?

That question may be less urgent for many Christ-followers two millennia hence. I wonder how many even think Christ will return, though it remains an article of faith and creeds. Yet, whether it’s imminent or far-off, we are invited to live in readiness for the advent, the coming of Christ, all year-round, not only during the season named for that.

What does it mean to “live ready?” I think of people who sign up for courier services – they get to go all kinds of exotic places all expenses paid – but they have to be ready on 24 hours’ notice to hand-deliver letters and packages all over the world. They stay packed, and shots up-to-date, and ready. Or people trying to sell their homes have to keep them neat so that agents can bring over prospective buyers at any time. Imagine how clean our kitchens would be if we always had to keep them de-cluttered! Imagine if our minds and hearts maintained such discipline.

As we get ourselves ready for the season of getting ourselves ready, we might take some time this week to examine our state of “readiness” for a radical change of status. This might raise our anxiety levels, as we often assume such a change would be unpleasant – and Jesus’ imagery of stars falling and a darkened sun reinforce that view. So instead, imagine a delightful change, and ask the same question: how ready am I? What would I want to do or have done? How might I want to develop my relationship with God in order to be ready? Just asking those questions can create openings for the Holy Spirit to guide us.

The key to living ready, living “awake,” is intentionality. When we choose not to drift, choose to choose the light, we become bearers of it, no matter how dark the sun gets.

11-24-14 - Lessons from the Turkey

Who wants to talk about the end of the world during Thanksgiving week? 
Who wants to be told to “Keep Awake!” in the one guaranteed, nap-allowing four-day weekend in our ever-more-jammed national calendar? How will we engage Advent texts this week? At least, during this half of the week, when we’re preparing homes for houseguests or preparing to travel ourselves, preparing shopping lists, preparing pies, preparing turkeys, pre…

Wait a minute. What’s that word? Preparing?
Isn’t that the quintessential Advent word? Prepare?
Prepare ye the way for the Lord? Okay, maybe this won’t be so tough. We’ll just have to be creative and mash up our holidays a little before we mash our sweet potatoes.

We might take a spiritual lesson or two from preparing a turkey for Thanksgiving Dinner – and no, I’m not going to compare the turkey’s sacrifice to Jesus’. Tempting, but no. What I will do is invite us to think about the things we do to get a turkey ready to be feasted upon, and see how those might be applicable to our spiritual growth.

First, we buy the turkey. We have decisions to make about what kind – fresh, organic, frozen. We don’t expect the turkey to plop into our lap – we select it. I suggest we be as intentional about making choices to grow spiritually as we do about selecting our turkey.

We prep the turkey – we wash it (baptism? repentance?). We might brine it in salt water - Jesus did say his followers were to be like salt for the world, tenderized, full of flavor…

On the big day, we get up early to get that thing ready for the oven. What if we regularly got ourselves up early to get ready for the world, spending some of our prep time in prayer and quiet with God?

Next we oil or butter the outside of the turkey so it shines with a nice glow as it bakes. In the same way, we as Christ-followers can be anointed with the oil of the Holy Spirit, to shine with joy whatever our circumstances.

And we stuff that bird full of good things that help make it moist and flavorful. So we might stuff ourselves full of holy-making ingredients… the Holy Spirit, the Word of God, worship with others, prayer, ministry, contemplation, the sacraments. All these things make us tender and flavorful too, more conscious as disciples.

Then we roast the bird… we allow heat to transform it into something we can consume. I would like to think we do that as Christians too – really allow the heat of the Spirit to get to us, to transform us so we become more useful to the people around us. (I realize I’m skating close to cannibalism in this metaphor, but we are called to give ourselves away…).

And while the bird is roasting, we baste it with juices, frequently, so it doesn’t dry out. Our regular immersion in worship and spiritual practices are meant to serve the same function, to keep us well-oiled and limber. If you feel dried out as a Christian, ask for more basting!

That might be a good prayer for us today.

If we can be as intentional about our spiritual lives as we are about our Thanksgiving turkeys, I have no doubt God will feed many, many people through us.
Here endeth the metaphor! Gobble, gobble…

11-21-14 - Can You See Me Now?

In this Sunday's gospel reading, Jesus says that when we give to people in need, we give to him. He says people in need are “his family.” So… what does that make us?

It can be very easy, when we try to wrap our minds around this vision Jesus lays out, to get into “us” and “them” thinking. If we are to care for the hungry, the naked, the incarcerated, the stranger, the thirsty, the sick, then we must be okay. They are “the needy,” we are “the givers.” We can forget that we are often on the receiving end of someone else’s giving… sometimes the very people we think we are caring for.

A few years ago, my congregation had a wonderful ministry among people who were homeless in the south end of Stamford. It started with a monthly healing service, which turned into a weekly bible study at the shelter, and then spilled onto the streets as we reached out to those who wouldn’t come in. A few parishioners made sandwiches and brought soup and gave them out to a group that hung out there partying. And then they said, “Anybody want a prayer?” Every hand went up. Even the biggest, toughest guys wanted prayer. So they prayed.

The next time we went, after we offered prayer, the leader said, “I’ve got a cold. Would you pray for me?” And she was engulfed in the group as everyone came and laid hands on her and prayed for her. And then they went back to drinking and cussing!

Who was the giver? Who was the givee? We became one community out there on the sidewalk, and Christ was discernible in all of us. Jesus invites us to find him in people to whom we offer love. Let's not forget that others have found him in us.

Can you think of a time when someone regarded you with eyes of love, maybe when you didn’t feel you deserved it? Did you know Jesus was looking at you?

Can you think of a time you found yourself able to love someone unlovable, or care for someone in extreme need when you didn’t particularly feel like it? Did you feel Jesus loving through you? I want to develop the spiritual practice of remembering in such encounters, “This is a child of God,” to start by honoring God’s creation in front of me. I’m praying for the grace to make that my first response.

We might pray today to be given the faith vision to see Jesus in unlikely people. And we might ask for the Holy Spirit to make Christ visible in us, and for the grace to become more transparent. And we might thank Jesus for having invited us to be his family too.

I found myself thinking this week of those mobile phone ads that had the guy going all over the country saying, “Can you hear me now?” to demonstrate the breadth of the cell network. I think Jesus is saying to us, “Can you see me now? Look, now I’m in this person, now I’m in that one.” And also in you, and in me, in a "cell network" that has no end.

11-20-14 - Jesus' Family

There isn't much room for the idea of universal salvation in this vision Jesus paints. Behind Door#1 is an inheritance of infinite and eternal value: “Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

Behind Door #2? Eternal fire, damnation: “Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

Jesus so wants to emphasize this teaching that he repeats the whole narrative of “hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, in prison,” in almost the same words – but the second time he is indicting people for what they did not do: “…for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”  Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

It’s a pretty low bar, to only have to serve “one” of the least of these. I’m guessing the folks in the "cursed" line couldn’t even do that, and are left to the consequences of their self-gratifying narcissism and cruel neglect of those with whom they shared this planet. Let’s hope there aren’t too many in that line.

The folks on the right are presumably continuing a relationship with Jesus they embarked upon in their earthly life. In taking care of the “least of these” members of what Jesus calls his family, they have become part of the family themselves and therefore inheritors of the kingdom of God, everything in heaven and earth.

This parable is about more than “doing good,” or “acts of charity,” or taking care of the “less fortunate.” It goes deeper – the blessed are those who not only serve but identify with the stranger, the sick, the incarcerated, the hungry, the naked, the thirsty. They don’t see themselves as “other” or “better.” Maybe they even help because they don’t believe they are any better, maybe just more fortunate. Or they offer care because, like Mother Teresa with the lepers of Calcutta, they actually experience Christ’s presence in the ones in need.

Do you ever have the experience of helping someone and feeling you’re connected to Jesus in that moment? Do you ever feel related to people in extreme need? I go to the local men's shelter regularly when my congregation brings supper, and I pray with the guys, and occasionally a moment of camaraderie will break through my sense of being different from them. Then I feel like I'm their sister, not a "helper."

How might we become more open to people who seem so different from us – living hand to mouth, unable to stay sober, manipulating their way through life? If Jesus says those people are his family, what does that make us?

11-19-14 - Royalty Disguised

In this week’s gospel story, Jesus speaks of what will be “when the Son of Man comes in his glory.” I assume this means the end of the world as we know it – after all, when Jesus returns in glory and ushers in the reign of God’s perfect peace and justice, we’re kind of done. Roll up the sidewalks and repair to those heavenly mansions prepared for us, and enjoy an eternity of love at a banqueting table that never ends.

Only, according to this vision not everyone will be there – the “cursed” will be sorted out, the “blessed” invited in. And what is the criteria for this sorting? How we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned; in other words, the marginalized:

“Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

Jesus anticipates that the blessed will be baffled – “When did we see you hungry and feed you?” He says the king will answer: “Truly, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

We know that by “me,” Jesus means himself – he, who called himself the "Son of Man", is the king in the story - and the marginalized are his family. This give us two big clues about how we might find ourselves on the right side in glory:
1. We will give ourselves to those who are not successful in worldly terms – being hungry, thirsty, unclothed, sick, or imprisoned are not markers of worldly success, right? And
2. We will give ourselves to Jesus, who said we’d find him in exactly those people.

We often go looking for Jesus in fancy churches and gilded mosaics – and where has he always been found? In a stable amidst the straw; on the road, nowhere to lay his head; at dinner with roughs and low-lifes – and, finally, in a god-forsaken killing ground, the “place of the skull.” The only time we see Jesus in a palace is when he’s being interrogated in Herod and Pilate’s kangaroo courts.

This is the beauty of our salvation story: this unfathomable lowering of God himself into human form; the mystery that the One who IS outside of time and space consented to be bound in those dimensions, to live and die at the mercy of the very people he came to save, forgive, heal, redeem, set free. We see the Anointed One disguising his royalty in the rags of beggars and harlots, lepers and prisoners. And, as Martin Luther noted, we are the beneficiaries of this Great Exchange, as we trade in our rags for his royal robes.

Where do you usually look for Jesus? I usually seek him in my prayer imagination, as that’s often how he’s been most real to me. I forgot to look for him among the "unsuccessful."
Do you know anyone you’d categorize as “unsuccessful” by measures the world uses? Have you seen Christ in that person? Is he inviting you to look for him in a particular person or sort of person? What happens when you pray for that person today? What happens when you ask Jesus to reveal himself in that person or persons?

What happens when we seek to love Jesus in an “unsuccessful person,” is we show them love too. They don’t know it’s Jesus we’re loving – they just know someone is seeing them, honoring them, feeding, tending to them. And gradually, if we keep it up, they become stronger and transformed into the very image of a “successful person.” Just like you and me.