1-31-14 - Wise Child

Luke tell us that, when Mary and Joseph had “finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth." Then he adds,
"The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”

Thirty years of Jesus’ earthly life, minus 40 days, are summed up in one sentence: “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

The three years after that take four gospels to record. But we get precious few words about Jesus' childhood, just a short vignette of Jesus at the age of twelve, left behind at the temple where his parents find him deep in theological conversation with the rabbis, holding his own. That’s about it. Later writers tried to spin some tales to fill in the gap, some of which are collected in the “gnostic gospels,” but these did not have authority for the early churches, and present an image of Jesus entirely at odds with the revelation handed down among those who knew him.

So this is what we have: “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” Not very specific, is it? We don’t know what Jesus liked to eat, how he got along with his brothers and sisters, did he really take up carpentry like Joseph, did he talk back to his mother? This description could be true of any number of children.

In fact, it should be true of every child. Isn’t that what we want for our children? That they grow, and become strong, filled with wisdom, and that God’s favor rests with them? I almost wish this verse was hanging in every child’s room, to remind parents that this is what they should desire for their children, and that this is attainable. This is a wonderful prayer for children we know.

When you were growing up, did you feel strong and wise? Were you aware of standing in God’s blessing? Or did someone tell you otherwise, that you were weak or foolish? That God only blessed good little boys and girls, and that you weren’t likely to qualify for God’s favor? I hope that’s not the message you got. If it was, it’s something to offer to God in prayer, to ask Jesus to erase that message and replace it with the truth of your incalculable worth in God’s eyes.

Maybe you know a child who doesn’t know how strong and wise and blessed he is. Perhaps it can become your mission to make sure she learns how wonderful she is, to be sure he knows the truth about himself. Imagine what this world could be like if every child knew herself to be blessed? Because we act differently when we know we’re blessed. We don’t need to fight and grab. We’re more inclined to want to bless other people, ones we know and ones we don’t.

Let’s take this summary line of Luke’s, almost a throwaway, and make it our mission statement: to grow all the children with whom we come into contact into strong, wise and blessed adults.

And maybe along the way we’ll become more fully strong, wise and blessed ourselves. I can think of no better gift for the world.

1-30-14 - The Widow Transformed

Today we meet one of my favorite people in all the Gospels – Anna. She was the next person the holy family encountered in the Temple that day:

“There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

Anna is yet another witness confirming what the angel told Mary and Joseph about their firstborn. Simeon recognizes him as the salvation of his people Israel; Anna speaks about him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

Anna was widowed at a young age, and did not remarry. Perhaps her widowhood gave her the freedom to put all her focus on her relationship with God, fasting and praying, like a proto-nun. We might wonder at her choice – was she just hiding? Should she have engaged the world outside the temple more? But some people find their greatest joy in turning full-faced to God, nurturing a relationship with enough complexity to hold us for eternity. And out of that relationship they have more to give to those with whom they cross paths.

I have known women like Anna, who have endured years of stress and suffered great loss, and have become wise and beautiful, like polished stones, tempered steel, purified gold. I’ve known others whom loss has wizened and withered, turned in upon themselves and against the world. Maybe a difference is that Anna turned to God in her loss, finding her life in God’s house. She allowed God to transform her loss into wisdom, to release in her the gift of prophecy, a holy ability to see the unseen and speak God's truth.

It’s not fun to think about our losses, but what comes to your mind when you think of great loss in your life? Maybe it’s one you’re dreading now. What was or is its effect on you? Where is God in that process?

Is the pain still acute, still fresh? Sometimes it is, even if much time has passed. Can you invite Jesus into that pain, to sit with you in it? Invite the Spirit to work it with you, like clay on a wheel, to bring something of beauty out of death and despair.

I don’t know exactly how we do that. I do believe that it can happen, because I’ve seen it, in people who turned God-ward with their grief and loss. And gradually, gradually, one day, like Anna, we may look up and find ourselves face to face with God.

1-29-14 - Poignant Prophecy

It is hard to imagine how Mary and Joseph felt on that visit to the Temple. They were there to “redeem” their first-born with purchased sacrifice, and Mary also came for ritual purification after the “uncleanness” of giving birth. The Law commanded a set number of days for a mother to wait to be deemed “clean” again. (33 if she gave birth to a boy, 66 if a daughter…) Strange enough to be on such momentous errands in an intimidating place. Stranger still to encounter this old man, his eyes lighting up as he spots your baby, his hands reaching out to take him into his arms.

“…and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God… And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.”

But that’s not all Simeon had to say: “Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’”

Those are cryptic phrases, “the falling and rising of many,” and “a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” Yet, isn’t that exactly what happened in Jesus’ ministry? He was a change agent to whom people responded by rising or falling away. He became a touchstone, a figure of controversy. Indeed, the true thoughts of those who opposed him, the religious leaders, were often exposed as self-protective and corrupt. In some ways, Jesus still functions as that kind of sign, inviting the best and the worst of human behavior and thought.

How do you feel about presenting Jesus to people in your life? Do you introduce him comfortably to people who know you are a person of faith? How easy is it to use his first name in company? If it isn't, use his name in private more often, in prayer conversation with him, building your relationship.

Going deeper, are you ever called upon to offer a defense of Jesus, or of Christianity? (Hint – it’s better to talk about Jesus than Christianity…). How do you give account of the hope that is in you? Are you called to bear that discomfort?

There is a poignant element to this story – how must Mary have felt, hearing “…and a sword will pierce your heart also?” Did she remember those words when Jesus became wildly popular, then controversial, then marked for execution? It reminds us that, even in his infancy Jesus was our savior, on the path to redeeming the world. Our “Good News” encompasses pain and betrayal as well as life and freedom, just as our lives do.

Jesus walked that road for us, and now he walks it with us.

1-28-14 - Trusting the Spirit

Simeon, an old man in the temple in Jerusalem, is described as “righteous and devout.” He must also have been one of the most patient human beings ever. He believed that the Holy Spirit had revealed that he would not die before he’d seen the Messiah. And he held to that conviction year after year after year, growing older and closer to death. How many challenged him, called him delusional? Yet he stayed more open to the Spirit, not less. He allowed his spirit to become so aligned with the Holy Spirit that he could be guided to be just in the right place at exactly the right time.

"Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 

‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 
for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 
a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’

How did Simeon see in this 40-day-old infant the promise he’d been waiting for all his life, and his people for generations going back to Abraham? Luke tells us “the Holy Spirit rested upon him.” Simeon did more than let the Spirit rest – Simeon invited the Spirit to take up residence in him.

The Holy Spirit is God’s gift to us, given at baptism, but around us always, coming closer at the slightest invitation. We can become more attuned to being guided by the Spirit as we become more aware of his presence in us. Sometimes it feels like coincidences… until we realize that there are an awful lot of them, and seem to accomplish things we might not have known to look for on our own. Or guidance comes through inner nudges that we learn not to ignore.

I knew a woman who felt a very strong urge one day to call an uncle, whom she hadn’t spoken to in over a decade. She ignored the impulse, but it grew stronger, so she called him. It turned out to be his birthday, and he was so grateful and pleased to hear from her. He died not long after that, and before he did they spent some time together.

Another person I knew came to realize that tingles she often felt up and down her spine during certain hymns or parts of worship were the presence of the Holy Spirit… she began to have little conversations when they occurred. Once we’re aware that the Spirit is with us and in us, we learn to trust her to guide us.

Can you remember a time recently – or not – when you’ve felt guided by the Holy Spirit? To talk to someone, write a note, pick something up off the sidewalk? Did you follow the urge? What happened? Give thanks. Remember the feeling.

What ways do you most powerfully experience the Spirit?
In song? Or prayer? Or a feeling that blindsides you in conversation or in an email? Name it. Learn to recognize it. We can always pray, "Come, Holy Spirit... I'm open."

I don’t have the faith of Simeon, but I have the seeds of that faith in me, as do you. As we nurture it, it will grow like his did. Only now, in the past few months, am I starting to live by the God-instinct, to trust that stream of living water flowing around me and through me – to trust its leading. Its timing is always perfect, even if it seems to take a lifetime.

1-27-14 - The Temple, Take 1

This week, you may get a case of “lectionary whiplash.” That’s because we expect the story of Jesus to unfold in our Sunday gospel snippets in a more or less linear way. Sure, we jump in a week from Christmas to Jesus’ baptism at 30 – but then we continue in that era. Right?

Yes, unless an appointed church Feast Day happens to fall on a Sunday. Then it takes precedence over the ordinary set of readings. And so next Sunday we mark the Feast of the Presentation, when Jesus' parents take him to the temple forty days after this birth, as was done for all Jewish firstborn boys of a certain age. We are back at Jesus’ infancy.

"When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’"

It seems that pretty much every time Jesus showed up in the temple he upset something or somebody – his mother, when she finds him there at age 12, calmly disputing with rabbis much older than he; the tables of money changers and pigeon sellers when he does some “house-cleaning"; the scribes and Pharisees whenever he showed his face there. And even here, on his first visit, as a babe in arms, he will cause a stir, as we will see when we meet some of the most remarkable characters in the Gospels.

What are some of the institutions in your life into which you’d like to see Jesus enter and “cause a stir?”
You might make that a prayer today, asking him to bring light and truth…

Are there people and places you might carry him, like Mary and Joseph did? Not visibly, of course, but with intention? What if we all went around mentally carrying Jesus into situations that needed transforming? Including our own lives?

The story of the Presentation interrupts the flow of our Sunday readings – which is kind of like life, when you think about it. We think our story is moving one way, and suddenly something takes us back to an earlier time. Maybe because that story still has something to teach us. I pray that will be true for us this week.

1-24-14 - Teaching, Proclaiming, Healing

How do you start a ministry? “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”

If we substitute “our communities” for “Galilee,” and “gathering places” for “synagogues” (it’s kind of what “synagogue” means…), we get a nice prescription for how to live out the Good News: “We go through our communities, teaching in our gathering places and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”

Wait a minute, every disease? Every sickness? I think that’s what it says. We don’t ever hear of Jesus meeting disease he can’t transform into wholeness. It’s what he did, and what he taught his followers to do. And it’s how he demonstrated the truth of the Good News he was proclaiming.

What we call miracles were simply Jesus demonstrating how things work in the kingdom of God, the realm or "energy" of God, when it’s released into this realm, this present reality. In Jesus, both realities were present, God life and human life. And when we invoke his name and his power, both realities are present in us too, “On earth as it is in heaven…”

In the realm of God, molecules obey the command of their creator and realign if they’re out of whack. Cells that don’t function as they were intended to come back into their purpose. Tired limbs and bodies are renewed by an infusion of power from the source of all power itself. It’s not really so complicated. It’s just that we’ve made it so, because we don't understand it.

We like being able to see things working. God’s healing power can be visible in outcomes, but rarely in the process. We pray and “give thanks by faith until our faith gives way to sight.” And sometimes when we don’t see the fruit of what we’ve prayed for, we turn away from the whole enterprise. Instead, we are invited to persist and release the results to God, knowing there is mystery to healing and what looks like not-healings.

Our faith in what we cannot see needs to be as strong as our doubt in what we can. We are invited to release God’s power and love into a given situation, and to continue to trust in that power and love even while we don’t see transformation. Why let apparent “no’s” stop us from exercising our faith?

When, where and how do you find yourself best proclaiming the Good News of God’s love and power? Hmmm. If you don’t know, there’s a prayer task for today. Ask God to show you.

And is there someone you know for whom you might offer healing prayers? Not only for him or her, but with ? (You can always pray in silence… it’s very powerful…).

Following Jesus means, in part, doing what he did. So let’s get out there, in our communities, teaching in our gathering places, proclaiming the good news of God’s power and love – and yes, healing every disease and every sickness. One at a time…

1-23-14 - Following Jesus

"Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him."

Would you have gone, if Jesus walked by your place of work and said, “Follow me?” Would you have left your job, your family, your home on the promise of “I will make you fish for people?” There wasn’t any security in what Jesus was offering. And yet he said, “Follow me,” and people did. Immediately.

How could they be so sure, that they were willing to go immediately? Leave it all, no looking back.

I was praying not long ago, and had a sense of Jesus saying, “Follow me.” I said, “Where are we going?” An answer came quickly: “You don’t get an itinerary. You don’t get the route. When I say, ‘Follow me,’ I just mean, ‘Follow me.’ Put your focus on where I am, not where I’m going.”

In other words, follow the guide, not the path.

Maybe this shouldn’t have come as a revelation, but I had never thought of it that way. If you’re like me, you want to see what you’re committing to, what’s around the next corner. But it makes sense – Jesus invites us not to a walk-about, but to a relationship in which we are transformed and equipped to participate in God’s work of transforming others. In Christ, we are committing to a person, not a program. Kind of like a marriage… we don’t get much of a road map with those either, do we?

Want to join me in a prayer experiment? For the next week, let’s invite Jesus to lead us every day to the things and people he has blessed or intends to bless. And pray to be alive to that leading – which will mean checking in with him a few times during the day. You might set an alert on your phone or computer, or set up some regular times to stop and pray, “Where we going next, Lord?” And in the evening, take about five minutes to write down where you were led.

I commit myself to doing this. If you do, let me know if you’re surprised by anything. I believe Jesus says, “Follow me,” because he knows where we’re going. And there’s only one way to find out…

1-22-14 - Going Fishing

Imagine you're a fisherman. It’s late morning. You came in from the pre-dawn effort some hours ago, and now you’re prepping your nets for the next foray. This is a routine, the same every day, and yet it doesn’t get boring. You have time to think, time to talk with your buddies, time to gossip. This is your life. Some days the catch is great, other days nonexistent, but it evens out. It’s a living, and a life.

And this man comes along the shore, walking toward you… he stops, watches you for a few minutes. You’re about to say, “Can I help you?,” when he speaks. He points down the shore, in the direction he’s going. “Follow me,” he says. “I will make you fish for people.” He looks at you intently. He obviously expects you to go with him. Go with him? A stranger, and clearly not a fisherman. What the heck?

But your brother’s already dropped the net he’s repairing. He’s already out of the water. He’s giving your father a hug. He’s looking at you. “You coming, or not?” Andrew already knows this guy. This is that rabbi. The “Lamb of God” guy. You’ve met him. But leave everything and follow him? And what on earth does he mean by “fishing for people?”

“From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”

I wish I knew what was so persuasive about Jesus’ invitation that Peter and Andrew, James and John all dropped what they were doing and went with him. As recruiting lines go, “I will make you fish for people” has always struck me as peculiar. What does it mean? Who wants to fish for people?

There must have been something amazing about Jesus. And more than that, with these few words he is signaling to these fishermen that their purpose in life might go beyond fish. He is suggesting they have something to give that their fellow humans need. He will teach them how to offer the life that goes beyond mere living, to invite people into God Life.

That’s true of you and me as well. Whatever it is we’re good at, Jesus can help equip us to use those gifts to bring life to those in need of it, to bring hope to the lost, and God’s “Yes!” to those who have heard more than enough of the world’s “No’s.”

What do you see as your primary vocation? What gifts go with that? What if, in prayer today, you offer those gifts and living to Jesus and say, “What will you make of this?” It’s called a prayer of oblation, of offering. As you sit in silence with that prayer, what words or images come to mind?

Maybe Jesus already answered you years ago – if so, how has it been, translating your human skills into Spirit-equipped ministry? What fills your imagination?

It’s a little harder for us – we don’t have a man on a beach inviting/commanding us to follow. On the other hand, we have an advantage Peter and Andrew didn’t – we already know how the story turns out, at least the part they were in. Our story is still unfolding, and we have reason to glory in it.

1-21-14 - A Great Light

“The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” 

Matthew’s gospel often matches the events of Jesus’ life with prophecies from Israel’s past. So here he links the place where Jesus makes a home to a promise from Isaiah: 

“He … made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: ‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.’

Thus the gospel writer can bring in the theme of darkness and light which we find so frequently in our sacred story. This metaphor is one of the most prominent by which the followers of Jesus, and those who came after them, sought to make meaning of this story that held so much life for them – and for us. 

It is easy to envision a people stuck in dim light, just going about their business with little hope of transformation or power. I imagine living room after living room lit only by the flicker of screens, televisions, game consoles, computer monitors. I think of people disconnected from hope, from joy, from God, from one another, and in a profound sense from themselves. We all know “people who sit in darkness… in the region and shadow of death.”

And the narrative Christ-followers hold close is one that breaks into that dimly lit room with light - not only light, but a Great Light. The reality of what God is up to in the humanity of Christ shines a light bright enough to drown the deepest darkness. And we are bearers of that light – Jesus said to his followers, “You are the light of the world.”

When you think of “people who sit in darkness,” who comes to your mind? An individual? A community?
Hold that person or group in your mind’s eye, and imagine light shining on them. Not just a little light – a steadily growing light getting brighter and brighter, just bathing that person in its glow.

This is a way of praying for people, using our imaginations. It is a way of picturing God’s blessing. And, because when we pray we are inviting the power of heaven to be made real here on earth (“on earth, as it is in heaven…”), we can believe that God is blessing that person or persons. And us too, as we hold them up to the light. It shines on us too.

The light has not gone away. And it has not shined only on "the road by the sea, across the Jordan…" It shines in our own lives and communities. It shines through us.

1-20-14 - Home

The Son of Man may have nowhere to lay his head – but who knew he had a lake house where he could hang his hat? I’ve read Matthew’s gospel numerous times, but only this year did I notice this verse: "Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake…"

I never think of Jesus having a home, once he’d left his mother’s house. And it never occurred to me that he didn't leave Nazareth right away when he began his public ministry. I guess even Jesus had to leave home in stages. But now the time has come for him to center himself somewhere, even if he is to be on the move most of the time. So Capernaum, which was also where Peter and Andrew lived, became the place he went back to when he could, the center for his new and growing community of followers.

From what we read in the Gospels, though, Jesus didn’t spend much time going back. He was on the move, forward, alive to God’s mission, making the love and justice and wholeness of God known in word and action. I wonder how much time he actually spent in Capernaum, and whether he missed it when he was on the road.

Where is home for you? Is it where it’s always been, or new? How long has it been home for you? 

Was it hard leaving your last home when you came to your current one?

And where is home for you relative to being engaged in God's mission? Is it the place you retreat to, or the place from which your ministry comes, your base of operations? My home is both.

Do you have a place for prayer or worship in your home? Consider creating one – a corner of a room, a table and chair, a seat by a window… a place where you go to pray, light a candle, read the bible, give thanks to God, invite God’s Spirit to bless you and your projects.

The letter to the Hebrews says our ultimate home is with God in the heavenly places, that the heroes of faith we read about in the Old Testament knew their homes on this earth were just rest stops on their journey to the heart of God’s love. Jesus knew the home he made in Capernaum was exceedingly temporary, more so than most of ours are. I hope he enjoyed his while he could, knowing his final rest would be in the true Home from which he came, the home he has promised to prepare for us.

So let's enjoy home – and not get so comfortable we forget where we’re headed.

1-17-14 - Name Changer

People don't usually give us nicknames on first meeting. But that’s what Jesus does when Andrew brings his brother Simon to see Jesus: "One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed)."

Andrew doesn’t need any more time with Jesus to be convinced of his identity as the Christ. And, as do most of us when we make a thrilling discovery, he immediately tells those nearest and dearest to us. In the absence of Twitter, Instagram, or and other networking platforms, Andrew finds his brother in person and brings him to meet Jesus. I don’t know that it would have been as transformative if Peter had first seen a picture of Jesus on Facebook – there is something about the immediacy of presence that opens us.

"He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, 'You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas' (which is translated Peter)." No social niceties – just, "Here’s what you’re going to be called from now on."

In our scriptures, more than once we see people’s names changed to reflect new missional identities. Abram becomes Abraham; Sarai becomes Sarah. Jacob is renamed “Israel” – a name that the whole community takes on. In the New Testament, the Hebrew-named “Saul” takes on the more Greco-Roman “Paul” some years into his ministry of evangelism among non-Jews. And here Jesus renames Simon bar Jonah “Peter,” or “Petros.”

And he does this on the strength of one look, as John tells the story. It’s possible that Jesus’ renaming Simon “the Rock” is a teasing way of saying “hard-headed”; we do know that Peter was stubborn. Rocks are also foundations, though, and Jesus may have been signaling the role he intended Peter to play in his new community, a role Peter maintains even into leadership in the earliest Christian communities.

What name might Jesus give you? Perhaps you already have a sense of having another, spiritual name. If not, here’s an invitation to play in prayer. Ask God, “What is my name as you see me?”

What name would you give yourself? What name describes your essence? Think of animals, or flowers, or emotions, activities – “Peaceful Runner,” or “Dancing Bee.” I’m being random, but it could be fun and insightful, to give yourself a name that describes you.

And then decide whether that is a name you want. It might describe who you have been, but not who you are becoming, or who you already are in God’s sight.

There’s an old song that goes, “I will change your name/You shall no longer be called wounded, outcast, lonely or afraid./I will change your name./Your new name shall be confidence, joyfulness, overcoming one; faithfulness, friend of God, one who seeks my face.”

The name God gives us conveys not only who we truly are, and who we are becoming, but how we are called to participate in God’s mission of healing and restoration. If you find yourself with a new name, look out! You may find yourself walking a new path of blessing and being blessed.

1-16-14 - Come and See

So, where are we? We’re at the Jordan River. Jesus of Nazareth goes strolling by. John the Baptist points and says, “Look! There goes the Lamb of God.” A couple of John’s followers go, “Where? Hmmm. Maybe we should find out what that guy’s up to.” They follow Jesus. Jesus turns around and says to them, “What are you looking for?”

They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.”

“Come and see” is a recurring refrain in the Gospels. The angelic host says it to the shepherds outside Bethlehem. Jesus says it to these inquirers. One of these men will soon say it to his brother. Philip says it to Nathaniel. The woman at the well says it to her town, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did…” And, perhaps most important, Jesus’ followers who find tomb empty after his burial,and have encountered his resurrection form, say it: “Come and see!”

That’s all Jesus says here. Not, “Come and hear me explain the meaning of life.” Not, “Come and join my growing band of followers.” He simply invites them to explore and experience; they can respond as they feel led.

“Come and see” is an invitation to explore, a launch pad for expanding our knowledge. It is the least we can do when someone wants to introduce us to a new person, place or product. We cannot truly know until we have “come and seen.” And sometimes, when we have come and seen, we find out how much more there is to learn.

John is short on details about what Andrew and the other disciple experienced with Jesus. “They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.” I don’t know why he tells us the time of day – perhaps to indicate that they spent most of the day with Jesus? It was clearly a life-changing day.

Who in your life has invited you to come and see, to learn more about where Jesus is hanging out in their lives? Did you go? Did you experience? Give thanks for those people today.

And have you found yourself inviting another to come and see this living Lord you honor? To come and hang out in his presence, see what he’s all about? (This isn't necessarily inviting someone to church - it might be an invitation to spiritual conversation.) Can you think of someone who might appreciate that invitation? Those are the only people we need to invite, the ones we feel will be glad we did.

The invitation to “come and see” is offered every single day. We have never seen enough, known enough of Jesus’ power, peace, presence, purpose. And often, when we take up His invitation to “come and see” we find ourselves compelled to “go and tell.” And so the circle grows.

1-15-14 - What Are You Looking For?

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?”

“Lamb of God” as a label may not have much meaning for us, but John’s followers knew exactly what he was saying: “That’s the one. The Messiah, the Savior.” Two of his disciples hear him refer to Jesus that way, two days in a row, and they have to find out who this guy can be. Can the Savior of the world really be just a guy walking by?

It doesn’t surprise me that they walk after Jesus – I’d be curious too. I am amused, though, by Jesus’ response – who are these guys, following me? (“You lookin’ at me?”) I would expect him to say “What do you want?,” but he asks a more profound question: “What are you looking for?” It could be a subtle interview question.

“What are you looking for?” is a searching question.
It’s a good question for us today: “What are you looking for?”
If you’re reading this, chances are you’re involved in the Christian enterprise in some way, as a Christ-follower, observer from a distance, or seeker. What’s in it for you? What do you desire from God? From Jesus? Peace? Challenge? Comfort? Purpose? Healing? Forgiveness? Company?

Imagine Jesus asking you the question as you walk curiously behind him. “What are you looking for?” Think about it for a few minutes. Write it down if you keep a prayer journal. And then meditate on that – is it what you want to be looking for? Can you imagine finding it?

When we know what we’re looking for, we’re often halfway to finding it. Even if we think the answer is obvious, it’s valuable to articulate it. The answer might have changed since the last time you thought about it. The way you put it into words might surprise you.

I don’t expect we’ll ever be quite done looking for things until we’re face to face with the Holy One. Then we won’t need to look any more; only gaze in utmost love and joy, complete at last.

1-14-14 - Secret Agent Man

I am fascinated by John the Baptist. I don’t know why there aren’t more books, plays or movies about him – he is a strong, odd and gripping character. If there were a film of the scene we’re exploring this week, it might be a Mission Impossible-style spy thriller with secret agents lurking about. That’s what comes to mind when I read what John says about how he was able to identify Jesus as the Son of God:

And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit

I imagine John asking his handler, “So, how am I going to know my contact?” And the reply, through an encoded message, “Here’s the sign – he’s going to be in the crowd coming to the river for baptism… he’ll be the one with a dove on his head…” And, of course, John will know “dove” is code for the Holy Spirit. “He’s the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit,” the message will continue, before self-destructing into a small pile of sand.

In Matthew’s account of the story, which we read last week, John is keenly aware of who Jesus is, and in Luke’s account they are cousins. John’s Gospel draws on other traditions, and he wants to establish the validity of John’s testimony. Hence this theme of identity and recognition.

So let’s go with that. How do we identify Jesus in our lives, since he isn't walking around with flesh and bones? How do we recognize the Holy Spirit, since s/he rarely assumes that dove disguise these days? How do we perceive when we’re in Christ’s presence when we can’t rely on our five senses?

Some people feel it – a physical rush of some kind that seems connected with the Spirit. Sometimes we feel filled with joy or a desire to praise. Those are some internal ways – you might ask Jesus to bless you with presence in that way.

Or use the imagination God gave you, and ask Jesus if he would meet you somewhere in your mind's eye. Get still and wait and see what kind of scene unfolds, inside or outside, familiar or unknown… what do you see, hear, smell? If you sense Jesus joining you in that place, does conversation unfold? Don’t rush it. Be attentive to what you perceive.

The other way he said we’d see him is in other people – in other members of his Body, the church; in the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the sick, the lonely, the imprisoned. When you find yourself among people in need, are you ever aware of Christ in that person? Sometimes I pray, “Jesus, let me see you.”

John the Baptist says, “And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” I believe God will grant us experiences that prompt us to testify too. It's just that, for some reason, Jesus usually shows up undercover – even in you and me.

1-13-14 - Eyewitness

We hear a lot about John the Baptist during Advent, and very little the rest of the year. But here he is, in January, called as an eyewitness to the identity of Christ. And the testimony he gives is remarkable:

The next day [John] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.”

The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. That’s a mouthful – signifying from the beginning of the story the sacrificial aspect of Jesus’ mission. And John is very sure of who Jesus is – “This is the one I was talking about, the one I said was coming and was greater than I. He is the reason I do this!” If John is unhappy about his season waning while another’s fruit ripens, he doesn’t seem so.

While it is generally unwise to define yourself relative to someone else, if that someone else is Jesus, it can help give us a clearer picture. Here’s a prayer experiment I suggest today: Sit quietly, maybe light a candle, let yourself get centered. Close your eyes, and picture yourself. Where are you? What are you wearing? What do you think about what you see? What do you feel?

Then bring Jesus into the picture. Imagine him sitting with you. You don’t have to stress about what he looks like or if you have a visual sense of him – just let him be a presence. How do you look next to him? Who do you see when you look at yourself through his eyes?

If feelings come up that you want to speak, go ahead – that’s prayer, talking with God. If you hear a response from Jesus, that’s great. That’s prayer, God talking with us.

When we look at ourselves with Jesus in the picture, we know at least a couple of things: we know we’re not God; we know we’re not perfect; and we know we’re loved.

And when we know those three things about ourselves, we tend to be gentler with ourselves, more compassionate with other people, and a whole lot freer with our love. Amen?

1-10-14 - Affirmation

We could name the "movements" in Jesus' baptism: Assent, Immersion, Emergence, Anointing, and then Affirmation. Something extraordinary occurs when Jesus comes up from that river - not only does the Spirit of God descend upon him in a visible form, there is an auditory phenomenon as well:

“And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”

In this story, all three persons in the One Triune God participate in the launch of Jesus’ mission on earth: the Spirit, the Father, and the one whom the Father claims as Son. Later, when early church thinkers were working out theological implications of the Good News, the testimony of scriptural passages like this helped to inform the doctrines of the Trinity and of Jesus’ nature as fully human and fully divine. Jesus, alone of all human creatures born of woman, is called God’s Son.

I believe that is the only part of the baptism completely unique to him. The pattern in Jesus’ baptism, Assent, Immersion, Emergence, Anointing and Affirmation, is true for us as well, if more internalized. Someone offers assent to the Story into which we are baptized. We undergo the dying and rising symbolically in our interaction with the water. We receive the anointing and the affirmation of belovedness. We are adopted as members of God’s household, through our spiritual bond with the Son.

When have you heard God's "yes" spoken into you? Sometimes it comes through human agents, sometimes we feel it directly, inside. Remember those moments of spiritual affirmation, of being loved by your Creator for who you are. Recall them in moments when faith seems difficult, or you can’t see your way forward.

I love the fact that the Father’s naming and claiming Jesus as his own, "the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased," comes before Jesus has actually “done” anything. His first thirty years appear to have been spent with his family, sharing his earthly father’s carpentry craft. His public ministry is still to come – and yet already, the Father proclaims himself “Well pleased.” All Jesus has done so far is show up.

I hope and pray we can remember this ourselves in moments when we feel less than lovable or inadequate – God loves us just as we show up and offer ourselves for relationship. There is nothing we can or need to do to earn that love – God already loves us “the most.” As we are able to accept that, we are able to show that kind of love to ourselves, and to one another. What the world needs now...

1-9-14 - Oil and Water

“And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.”

Nothing like being dive-bombed by the Holy Spirit! Of course, it only says the Spirit descended like a dove… But the image of a bird landing on Jesus’ head sticks for the literal-minded. That image can obscure the power of what gospel writers describe here: the moment when the Spirit of God – present at Jesus’ conception, present in his youth from the limited stories we have – fully indwells him.

This is when Jesus moves fully into his identity as the Christ, “the Anointed One.” (“Christ” is from the same Greek word for oil, or ointment, from which we get “chrism.”) This moment is when his public ministry begins, when he takes up his mission of transformation and redemption.

We receive the Spirit at baptism as well. We are baptized in water and by invocation of the three-fold name of God, and then we are anointed with oil, signed with a cross on our foreheads. That oil signifies the Holy Spirit. In some early baptismal rites, the oil was as important as the water, or more, so crucial was it to convey the power of the Spirit to be released in the newly baptized.

The gift of the Holy Spirit can be among the most unused gifts we possess, like a punch bowl gathering dust in the cupboard, or the wedding china left in the buffet except for “special occasions.” Yet St. Paul calls this gift of the Spirit a down-payment on the inheritance that we can access now. He writes, “When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.” (Ephesians 1:13-14).

In essence, we have a huge inheritance in the bank, that will never run out. At baptism we receive the card and the pin number. We can leave it sitting there – or we can use it to bring spiritual power into all kinds of pain and brokenness and stuckness we encounter in ourselves and others.

Are you aware of the presence of the Spirit in you and around you? When do you access that power? Sometimes we can simply invite the Spirit to make him/herself known (the Spirit has no gender… but is not an “it.”)

Today you might sit quietly for a time, get comfortable, both feet on the floor, spine straight but relaxed, and pray, “Come, Holy Spirit. Fill me. Let me know you’re here.” And wait, with attention.

Or, if you’re confronted with a tense or challenging situation, you can invoke the Spirit over it, praying silently, “Guide me, give me the right words, protect me…,” whatever seems right. Think how engaged our churches can be in our communities when we all exercise the gift of the Spirit!

We aren’t always aware of such cosmic activity at baptism – yet I believe that each time we enact that sacrament, the heavens are opened, and the Spirit of God descends and alights on us. And once the heavens are opened to us, we have lifetime access to the God of the universe. Lifetime, and beyond.

1-8-14 - Water

In Robert Duvall’s classic film, The Apostle, there is a scene in which Duvall’s character, a wayward evangelist fleeing an attempted murder charge, stands waist deep in a river. Slowly he sinks down and submerges himself. He’s down there awhile – we wonder if he’s coming back up. Then slowly he does and breaks through the surface. From here on he adopts a new name, “The Apostle EF,” and assumes a new identity. We never quite know whether this is grace or scheming – that’s part of the power of the film. The scene infers, though, that he was in effect baptizing himself, allowing his old identity to die and a new one to be born.
Baptism is the premiere rite of new beginnings. In the Christian church, it has long been the entry point for life in Christ, though sometimes it comes long after faith has taken hold. One reason baptism always includes water is because Jesus was baptized in water. “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.” Many theologians have argued that in this way, Jesus sanctified all waters.

Christian baptismal rites emphasize both birth and death – some early baptismal fonts were designed to suggest wombs, tombs or both. We all begin life in the water, the amniotic fluid in which we prepare for birth. Water can also be death – imagery which our liturgies emphasize as the dying of the old self and the rising with Christ of the new, eternal soul.

I find it a great blessing that an element we encounter numerous times each day should be the sacramental sign of our new life in Christ, for it allows us constant reminders of our status as beloved of God. Martin Luther is said to have instructed followers, “When you wash your face, remember your baptism.” I would go further and say, “When you have a bath or a shower, remember your baptism. When you go swimming or pass a puddle, or fill your coffee pot or your water glass, remember your baptism.”

If you can’t remember yours, you might spend a little time today imagining it in prayer. What water source would you choose? A font, a pool, a beach, a water fall, a fountain? Would you like to go into the water or have it poured over you? In your imagination, can you see those waters as healing? What do you want healed? Regenerated? Renewed?

There was a time when my prayer life consisted of meeting Jesus on a beach in my imagination – sometimes he had a fire there and we talked. More than once, he invited me to wade into the sea with him, a profound reminder of my baptism.

Wherever and whenever you were baptized, and whoever was there, remember that Jesus also was there, sanctifying the water, in which you were born anew. That birth process takes a lifetime – and we can dip into those waters any time we want.

1-7-14 - Submission

“Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’”

The evangelist Matthew must have been a lawyer; he so often seems to be marshalling supporting arguments, citing precedents (all those quotes from the prophets…) and anticipating objections. So he alone of the Gospel writers, in telling the story of Jesus’ baptism, informs us that John was uncomfortable having Jesus submit to his ritual of repentance. After all, by the time Matthew is writing, Jesus is already risen and ascended, worshiped as the sinless Son of God. Matthew needs to get out in front of those who would question why Jesus should have undergone John’s baptism.

So here John objects to what he perceives as a role reversal, the lesser baptizing the greater. “But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented.”

Jesus recognizes that, if he is to share fully in our humanity, he needs to undergo this rite of cleansing and so sanctify it. He willingly submits to this ritual, as later he willingly submits to a corrupt trial and unjust sentence and hideous death. Over and over again Jesus submits – and so subverts the sin and death from which he came to free us. Indeed, his Incarnation itself – God taking on the limitations of human flesh and nature, of boundedness in time and space – is submission, freely submitting in order to set others free.

So I was somewhat appalled to read this week that the Church of England is experimenting with a new baptismal rite that dispenses with the word “submit,” so as not to cause pain to any who have been forced to submit to power. While I recognize the issue, it seems a gross over-reaction to take out of play a word that conveys such a central aspect of being a Christ follower. (These same rites also remove the ancient language of “sin” and the “devil”… that’s a rant for another day!)

I submit that learning the art of voluntary submission is at the heart of following Christ. It is central to the kind of self-emptying love Jesus taught and demonstrated. In following Him, we voluntarily submit our prerogatives, our priorities, our time and resources, our wills, to the cause of self-giving love that heals and transforms the people around us. We might go so far as to say that is the work of spiritual growth – learning to gradually submit ourselves to the love of God, overwhelming as that can be.

Today I invite you to ask yourself where in your life you submit – voluntarily, or not. Not all submission is life-giving… yet in choosing to submit, we can often give life.
And where do you sense yourself hanging on to avoid submitting? What might be asked of you? 

To trust more? To give more? To spend time with someone difficult? To change careers?
Ask Jesus to show you where He might be inviting you to submit more of yourself, your agenda, to His.
How do you respond? Our “yes” sometimes takes awhile…

Jesus does not ask of us anything he has not already done – perhaps that’s why he chose to go into the water that day, the sinless one undergoing a baptism for repentance.
It was the beginning of his taking on the burden of our repentance. 

It was the beginning of everything, of life for us, there in that water.

1-6-14 - Happy Epiphany!

Last week we explored one of the Epiphany stories, the wise men chasing their star to Bethlehem. Today we celebrate their arrival at that house, their gifts to the child. More important, we celebrate their seeing with their eyes what they already accepted on faith – that this king existed and was important, no matter how insignificant he appeared.

This story of the epiphany, revealing of truth, to the magi is a great Epiphany story in church tradition, but it is not the only one. The miracle at Cana, where Jesus turned gallons of water into finest wine, is a big Epiphany reading, as Jesus reveals himself at a wedding feast. So is the gospel appointed for next Sunday, Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River at the beginning of his public ministry. This light of Christ is too great to be contained in just one story or one group of people – it keeps popping forth to this one and that one, all over the place.

Until the fourth century, when the Roman churches began to focus celebrations of Christ’s nativity at the supposed date of his birth, shortly after the winter solstice, the Church celebrated his birth at Epiphany, especially at great centers of Christendom such as Constantinople and Jerusalem and Alexandria. Epiphany was the great festival of the Light inbreaking the world’s darkness, as auspicious an occasion for baptism as Easter. Epiphany celebrated the unveiling, the revealing, the manifesting, the making known of the mystery of the ages about God’s great plan to bring the world back into restored relationship through Christ. It encapsulates all the “a-ha!” moments the world has known.

So when and how has that truth been revealed to you?
Today, take a little time to recall the moments when God has seemed present, or you have experienced Christ in some way, or felt the power of God’s Spirit move in you. 

Your epiphany might have come through your intellect, grasping a part of the Christian story in some way you hadn’t before.
Or it might come through your emotions, feeling overcome by joy or gratitude or love – or belovedness.
It might come through your senses, as you have tasted or felt or smelled or heard or seen evidence of God.
It might have come when you were on the move, or still.

That’s a wonderful thing about God in Christ – through the Holy Spirit, God makes God’s self accessible to us in the ways that fit us best, in all our multiple diversity, in all our unique singularity.

My prayer is that remembering just one moment of connection, of “a-ha!,” will fill us with joy and wonder, and strengthen us to make the light of Christ known for another.

And when we see someone else “get it,” lo and behold, we get another epiphany ourselves. it's a gift we never stop receiving, and more as we give it away.

1-3-14 - Getting There

Until you’re there, you’re not.
This is a truth of journeying I relived driving home a day early, hoping to beat the snow. In fact, I was trying to beat even the pre-snow precipitation, which meant for a somewhat nerve-wracking trip, driving against the clock and whatever those clouds were holding. I wanted to be through the miles, onto the next leg of the route, past all danger – but I could only be where I was at each moment. Until you’re there, you’re not.

The sages who had come so many miles in search of the new king whose star they’d seen rising in their night skies were anxious for reasons other than bad weather. They had invested a great deal in making this trip, in trusting the stellar guidance as they read it. Who knows, maybe people at home had called theirs a fool’s errand; maybe they’d read the stars wrong. This Herod fellow certainly hadn’t known anything about a new king; he just sent them off toward Bethlehem. Until they were “there,” they weren’t.

But they had that star as a beacon: “...they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”

Hard to imagine what these star-followers felt when the guidance held true. Whether real men or mythic figures – or both – these sages from far-off lands were overwhelmed with joy when they were led to a simple house. And if they were surprised to find there an ordinary young family, we see no indication in their actions: “On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

What a way to greet a king, even one who didn't t look like a king, in a house, not a palace, attended only by his parents. Our wise travelers were unfazed. They knew they had arrived where they needed to be. They had come with three goals – they wanted to see, they wanted to honor, they wanted to gift. And when they had done what they came to do, they went home, guided by the wisdom that had brought them to Bethlehem, to be ready for the next adventure.

Maybe we can find in their goals a guide to our devotion:
To want to see Jesus. Make that a prayer; ask the Spirit to expand your faith vision to see Jesus wherever he might be in your life this week, in prayer, in other people, in the poor, at communion…
To want to honor Jesus. Offer Him praises, adoration in your heart, with your voice, in your actions, in song…
To give him precious gifts. What that is precious to you do you want to offer Jesus? Your time? Energy? Relationships? Love? Maybe ask what he would like you to give… you might be surprised at the answer.

This journey of seeing, honoring, giving is one we can make over and over again, arriving “there” only to leave again. Each time we arrive we are strengthened for the next trip, which might be in five minutes, or five weeks, and on each journey we see the sights somewhat differently.

And always our destination is the same – Home.
Until we’re there, we’re not.

1-2-14 - Bethlehem

Herod’s prognosticators told him in no uncertain terms where the Messiah was to be born:
“In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: `And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

Bethlehem, after all, was the city of King David, from whose lineage the Savior was to come. Matthew takes care to let us know that Joseph was of David’s line and just why he and Mary happened to be in Bethlehem in time for Jesus’ birth.

Does it matter for us where Jesus was born? It mattered to the wise men because they wanted to find and honor this new king heralded by such a star. It mattered to Herod, because he wanted to eliminate any threats to his kingship. But does it matter to us?

Here’s one reason I think it does: because the story of God-With-Us, of God-with-Flesh-On is not a general, abstract story. It is a very specific one, with very particular details. Some of those details have been such a stumbling block to critics and would-be believers over the years, that theologians refer to the “Scandal of Particularity.”

Luke’s telling of Jesus’ nativity is full of particulars, who, what when, where: 

"In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary…. In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)

To say that Jesus was a human person born like every other human person in history, to a human mother, in a particular place and in a particular time, is to say that specifics and places and times matter to God. The Christian claim is that God chose to enter specific circumstances in order to redeem all circumstances, that God was born into a specific family in order to redeem all families, that God entered human history in a very particular time (while Quirinius was governor of Syria, yet!) in order to redeem all of time. And perhaps that means that God cares about your specific space and time as well, and mine.

If Jesus was being born in your life this season and you were writing the Gospel account – how would you describe your place and your time? It could be a fun exercise to name the particularities into which God might come to you. What is significant about your circumstances, family, government, times, places? When you’ve named them, you might hold them in prayer for God to make holy. It is a way of praying into our lives as they are right now, today.

I hope you receive the Christmas story as a pledge of God’s love for you. As we begin a new year, in continuity with all the years we have lived to this point, we are invited to remember God-With-Us in every moment, the one we’re living right now, and the one about to unfold before us. 

There. Then. Here. Now. You.

Happy New Year!

Just a quick New Years wish - 

Greeting a new year is like sitting down to a feast with multiple main dishes, lots of sides and desserts, at a table so long we can't even see all that's being served. Even the greatest feast, though, can only be enjoyed one bite at a time. Chew thoroughly, my friends, and savor those bites! 

A blessed 2014 to you.