4-30-14 - Guidebook

Do you ever read guidebooks about a place before you visit it? I try, and find I can’t really retain the details – it’s too abstract, too flat. Once I’ve been there, though, I enjoy going back to the book, to let its information fill out what I’ve now seen and experienced.

The Bible can be that way – a whole lot of information and other people’s stories, until we experience God for ourselves and have a personal context from which to process those writings. Perhaps that’s how the Scriptures were for Jesus’ followers before the resurrection, sacred writings that spoke of God’s activity in the past and promises of some future restoration that they couldn’t imagine. But from the standpoint of his risen-ness – ah, now, let’s read that prophecy again.

Is this what the two disciples on the Emmaus road experienced when the stranger walking with them began to teach them? “Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”

Later, they say, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” With interpretation, all those words and stories of God suddenly made a kind of sense. They were leading somewhere. Yes, they had their own validity in their original times and communities – and now they also had a new interpretation, both broader and narrower, pointing to what God was up to in the mission of Jesus Christ on earth.

Guidebooks are great, but we often benefit from having a guide as well - a person who’s been further up the road, to help us interpret the path we’re traveling. In Jesus, those sojourners found a Guide who could help interpret the Guidebook. In the Holy Spirit, we get the same gift – as we read the Scriptures alone or with others, aided by the presence of Christ’s Spirit, they often come to life, and bring life to us.

Who has helped you better understand parts of the Bible that you’ve read? Who have you helped?

What other guides have come alongside you on the spiritual path, to help make sense of your surroundings – spiritual directors, teachers, authors?

If reading the bible is a challenge for you, you might take a small chunk each day and pray before you read, “Holy Spirit, please be with me in my reading and receiving – show me what gifts your Word has for me today.” Read and see what catches your attention. Read it again. Try reading it aloud. Stay with it for another day if it’s giving you life.

If you’re not part of a bible study group, I highly recommend joining one – having other people’s insights and perspectives opens it up for us.

This Book of ours is a pretty good guidebook, but some parts can be dull, others can seem out of touch, even angering. The terrain it describes is vast and intricate, ancient and yet to come. But with the Spirit’s help, this Word can nurture our spirits and strengthen our faith… and occasionally even start a fire in our hearts.

4-29-14 - Clueless

Sometimes we meet people who seem to have been under a rock, unaware of major events, celebrities, social moments and movements. Sometimes I am that person, if I go days without checking the news (or Facebook…) The stranger whom the two disciples encounter on the road to Emmaus is shockingly ignorant of what’s been going on. Even those beyond Jesus’ circle had surely heard of the weekend’s big story, the holy man condemned by the temple leaders, crucified by the Romans – and mysteriously missing from the tomb into which his body had been placed just 48 hours ago…

But here he is, asking, “‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.”

Maybe there’s something about this stranger that invites them to go deeper, for they go beyond the facts to the feelings they are wrestling with: “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”

There it is. “We had hoped…”
In addition to the trauma of the past week, they are face to face with their own lost hopes. It was hard enough to put their trust in someone of such simple origins, from Galilee; a rabbi, teacher. Oh yes, there were the miracles, but also the upside-down teachings… But were they just plain wrong?

Are we? Be honest – have you never felt disappointed by God? I don't think it’s possible to be a person of faith and not be disappointed by God. We are invited to put our trust, our weight on someone we cannot see, touch or feel, except in indirect and inward ways. Anyone who’s ever gone on a limb in prayer and not seen it answered in any positive way, or faced a disappointment in life, can have a beef with God. Our Scriptures are full of people who have a beef with God – and often express it in eloquent and poetic ways. That’s the key – to express it, to have it out with God in prayer, the way we would in any relationship we hope will be lasting and life-giving.

Those men didn’t know they were confessing their disappointment to the Lord himself – but we do. Tell God, the big life stuff, and the little, niggling things. If you feel like you’re at a wall in your faith, say so. The very act of expressing it creates space for the Holy Spirit’s healing, restoring love to work in us.

And, while we're at it, give thanks for the times we have not been disappointed. It’s all part of the picture, and the more complete the picture is, the stronger our faith can be.

Those men on the road had more to say, crazy stuff: “'Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’”

We don’t always know what God is up to when our hopes are dashed. Sometimes we find out later that God has moved heaven and earth on our behalf. Sometimes we discover that Jesus is right in front of us, even if we don’t see him.

4-28-14 - Strangers on the Way

Last summer, my friend walked part of El Camino del Santiago – the pilgrimage route through France and Spain to the shrine of St. James (Sant’Iago) at Campostella. Many pilgrims told her that the people they came with were often not the people they walked with. Walking speeds and rhythms vary; disagreements can crop up. For a variety of reasons, people often fall in with strangers on that trail, and sometimes those strangers have just the gifts they need for the spiritual journey that parallels the physical one. (For a decent film about this, check out “The Way,” starting Martin Sheen as a reluctant pilgrim on the Camino…) If I ever make that pilgrimage, I will be thinking of this week’s gospel story, about the disciples on the road to Emmaus and the traveling companion who joined them.

In our Sunday readings, it's still the Day of Resurrection. On Easter Sunday, we visit the events of that morning. On Easter 2, it’s that evening. On Easter 3, this year, we find ourselves with two of Jesus’ disciples in the late afternoon of that same day, on a road outside Jerusalem:

“Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’”

I wish I knew why “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Quite often, we just don’t see what we don’t expect to see, especially if it is far outside the bounds of probability. These two were already under great stress from the events of the past few days – watching their Lord betrayed, arrested, tried, mocked, flogged, crucified… and just as they were coming to terms with that reality, Reality itself was turned upside down with the empty tomb and reports that people had seen Jesus alive, had talked with him. How could these things be? Was it a conspiracy? A hoax? Could it possibly be true?

We process things by talking about them. So these two, in the midst of great upheaval, were discussing it all, trying to make some sense of it. And along comes a stranger who doesn’t even seem to know what they’re talking about - and knows more than anyone they've ever met. He helps them understand, and sends them running seven miles back the way they’d come, their world transformed.

Have you ever found yourself talking about traumatic events with total strangers? Sometimes such conversations happen in hospital waiting rooms, or in the midst of disasters.
Have you ever been the stranger that helped someone else process something painful?
Were you aware of the presence of Christ in such an encounter? Of Christ in you, or in another?

Today, let’s give thanks for the companions who’ve joined us along our way… and, if you’re willing, ask God to send you alongside someone today who needs the gift you bring, the gift of the presence of Christ in you. Tonight, think back and see how that prayer was answered. Try it again tomorrow.

If I ever walk the Camino, I will assume that Christ is showing up beside me in the people with whom I walk. In fact, this principle may well be true on the roads I find myself walking today, actual or virtual. Where is the risen Christ joining you on the Way today?

4-25-14 - Believing for Life

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

Here John tells us why he wrote his version of the Jesus story: so that his readers may come to believe in Jesus’ messianic and divine identity, and “through believing you may have life in his name.” Paul, too, links spiritual vitality with believing in Jesus’ divine self. Even Jesus says that those who believe he is who he says he is will have eternal life. This believing stuff is not a minor detail.

Yet, reading a story about Jesus’ resurrection activities and conversations does not by itself confer faith, not for most of us. We need to experience the power of the Risen Christ for ourselves if we are to put our faith in him. What the written record does is invite us into the Great Story of God’s love for us expressed in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. It brings us to the threshold. It’s up to us to step in and live it.

Do you feel you have experienced the reality of Christ in some way or fashion? If we expect to see him the way Mary or the Eleven or the two on the Emmaus road did, we may feel we’re lacking that experience. Visual and aural Jesus sightings are rare… possibly non-existent. Jesus said as much to his followers – he said when he left, the Father would send the Holy Spirit to them. And it is the Spirit who brings the presence of Christ to us in a way we can experience.

When we feel the Holy Spirit in or around us – whether by a sensation, or an insight, or by seeing answer to prayer or some other way – it is the Spirit of Christ we are experiencing. When we have a holy encounter with another person, it may be that we are meeting Christ in them. As we learn to become more aware of that presence, we can more readily accept that Christ is a part of us, in our lives – and thus we are led to believing more fully. His life in us leads to believing, and the believing leads to more of His life in us. We become instruments for others experiencing his life, and on and on it goes.

The word for “I believe” is Credo. The Creeds of the church are statements of what the gathered community came to affirm as its core beliefs. They deal mostly with the matters that were confusing or controversial – they’re not comprehensive. 

So what are your beliefs about Christ? Can you take some time today to write your own Credo?
Has it changed from earlier times? Do you think it is still evolving? 

If you don’t know what you believe about Christ, that would be a good thing to bring up in prayer.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” Jesus says to Thomas after Thomas recognizes him as his Lord and God. You and I have not had the advantage that Thomas and the others did, of seeing Jesus with our eyes and hearing his voice and touching his wounds. I guess that means we are blessed indeed, for we have had to develop our “faith vision.”

Did you ever think that not seeing would be an asset? When it comes to believing, it is.

4-24-14 - Unless I see...

There’s always one. Somebody who missed it, didn’t see the big moment, was looking the other way, in the bathroom at the wrong time. But few people are forever identified with missing it, to the extent that the word “Doubting” becomes appended to their name. Poor Thomas. So many others have doubted; he had so many sterling qualities. Yet for two thousand years his name has been synonymous with doubt.

“But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’”

Thomas wasn’t the only one who questioned. In Mark we read, “Afterward he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at table, and he rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.” (Mk 16:14)

I think Thomas stands wrongly accused of doubting. The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty. That’s what Thomas wanted; he didn’t want to have to go on faith. Neither do many of us – faith is hard work. It means, by definition, not knowing for sure. Once we see proof, we no longer need faith.

Yet we exercise faith all the time – we place faith in the engineering of bridges and elevators, in the attention of other drivers, in the unseen hand of “The Market,” God help us. Why is it a greater stretch to have faith in a God whose presence is felt by millions, who has inspired uncountable acts of generosity and sacrifice? Why not believe in the risen Christ, when faith in his life in us has been affirmed for over two thousand years, by every kind of person, rich, poor, simple, erudite, good of heart and ethically challenged?

The operative word is “exercise.” Our faith is a muscle that grows stronger with use. We start out affirming our faith in God’s activity in our lives in small ways, and gradually try on bigger challenges. Jesus invites us to seek confirmation; when he shows up again the following week and Thomas is there, he invites him to touch his wounds and see for himself. But he also urges Thomas to greater faith:

“Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’"

What aspect of God’s life or the Christian Good News do you having trouble putting faith in?
How about having a conversation with Jesus about that in prayer. “Hey, I don’t believe that story…” or “How can I have faith in your healing, when it doesn’t always happen?” And, as with any conversation, speak and listen. What word or thought or image comes to mind as you sit with your doubts?

Jesus’ gentleness with Thomas should encourage us. He knows faith is hard. It’s also the currency of God’s realm in this world, and the stronger ours is, the richer we are. One day we’ll see everything we now only affirm by faith. Believing before we see draws us that much closer to the One who is our future.

4-23-14 - Breath of God

When Jesus appeared in that locked room on Easter night, he wasn’t just dropping in to catch up with his buddies. He had some business to do. Once their lower jaws returned to normal position, he said to them again, “Peace be with you.” And then he got to it:

“’As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’”

Now that they have a better grasp on just what Jesus means when he says, “As the Father has sent me…” I wonder how they felt about the daunting, “So I send you.” But he’s not done. He’s not only sending them, he’s also equipping them with the only power they will need, the Holy Spirit.

There are two occasions on which Jesus’ followers receive the Holy Spirit. The better known is at Pentecost, when a sound like a mighty wind fills the house where they are praying, and tongues as of fire seem to appear on each one, and suddenly they have spiritual gifts and abilities they didn’t have before. That’s how Luke tells it in Acts. In the Fourth Gospel, John says they receive the Spirit directly from the Risen Christ on Easter night. No fifty-day wait. Right here, right now. He breathes upon them; the Spirit is given.

In the Genesis story of creation, the Spirit of God breathes upon the waters in the beginning. This ruach, Spirit-wind or breath of God, also fills the mud creature Adam with life. So Jesus, in breathing the Spirit upon his followers, is re-creating them, making them anew – no longer just men and women who followed him in faith, but apostles who are equipped to bear witness to their risen Lord. Not only will they carry within themselves the power that created all things, they will also have the spiritual authority to forgive sins. That’s what got Jesus into trouble. They can release, or they can retain. I’m not sure when it’s appropriate to retain someone’s sin – perhaps in cases of extreme non- repentance. All I do know is Jesus forgave an awful lot.

Are you aware of the power of the Holy Spirit in you? Because that gift Jesus gave his disciples has come down to us, through faith enacted in the rites of the church.
Are you conscious of the spiritual authority you have to forgive or retain? It’s not only clergy who can forgive – it’s saints, you and me.

What if the Church really took up its ministry of forgiveness of sin – not mindlessly, but thoughtfully, lovingly? How many people do you know who carry a burden of guilt around with them that we could help ease? It’s not our own forgiveness we declare, but that of God, through God’s Spirit in us.

Jesus was sent to set humanity free. Now he sends us to participate in that mission, and he breathes upon us his Holy Spirit. Take a deep breath in…. hold it, let it expand in you…. Feel the life of God fill you. And then exhale, breathing God’s forgiving love out upon someone else (even yourself..). And then do it again.

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4-22-14 - Peace Be With You

Time is very elastic in our gospels – each one spends about half its pages on the three years of Jesus’ ministry – all his teaching, miracles, and exploits. Then they get to his final days, and we slow down considerably, spending several chapters on the events of his suffering and death. And then we get to the Sunday of the Resurrection – and we really slow down, with whole chapters devoted to just that one day, that first day of the week, that First Day of our new lives.

The church will spend the next several Sundays exploring that one day, a day that began in the dark, when some women hurried to the tomb to do for Jesus’ body what Sabbath laws forbade them to do when he died. A day that went from sad to both joyful and bizarre as they were met at that now-empty tomb by an angel (or two) announcing that Jesus was risen. And then, there he was, right there on the road in front of the women, saying, “Tell my brothers to meet me in Galilee,” a travel bulletin which has always struck me as laughably prosaic from someone who’s just been to Death and back…

In church, we don’t really get to linger on that Easter morning because by the next Sunday we’ve jumped to the evening. And Jesus’ disciples have not gone to Galilee but are holed up in the upper room – presumably the one where they’d celebrated the Passover a few nights earlier, a lifetime ago: “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

“Peace be with you.” I can imagine many emotions that those men and women probably experienced that day, and none of them involve peace. Here they are, trying to process the cosmic developments they’ve witnessed, while holed up in a locked room because the threat to their lives has just intensified. And here is Jesus, just suddenly there, despite the doors shut and locked? “Peace be with you?”

But Jesus doesn’t only say, “Peace” – he can impart peace. This is the man whom they saw still a violent storm, and calm a violent man. This is the friend they watched endure torture and ridicule and betrayal and a horrible death. When Jesus says, “Peace,” he carries the power to generate it. It worked on them – soon they are rejoicing.

How would you feel if you were one of those followers?
Today you might read through this passage and play it out in your imagination, with you at that table… what do you feel? What do you want to ask Jesus? What does he answer?
Do you feel his presence with you, both “there” in the scene in your imagination, and “here,” with you as you pray?
Might you invite his peace to spread through you? What happens when you pray that way?

I believe Jesus invites us to rejoice too, no matter what’s going on in our lives. I think he speaks peace to us too, and as we let his presence live in us, we begin to feel that peace spreading through our minds and our bodies and our spirits. That is one way that Easter becomes real for us.

4-21-14 - Easter Monday

Christ is risen.

I slept in. 

Water Daily will flow again tomorrow. And it's always flowing in you. 
What does Christ's resurrection mean to you?

4-20-14 - Easter! He is Risen!

He is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

It's an old story - this story we tell.
The story of a God, a God who creates.
A God who allows his creatures free choice.
A God who thus allows even his beautiful creation, his creatures to be broken...
A God who allows himself to be broken in order to make his creation whole

On Easter morning, God wrote a new story.
Every morning, God invites us to be part of writing that new story.

The power that made the universe, that raised Christ from the dead, is now in us.
What are we going to do, now that we could do anything?

He is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

If you like U2, here's one of my favorite songs - Window in the Skies (just listen; video's odd...)

The rule has been disproved
The stone it has been moved
The grave is now a groove
All debts are removed

Oh can't you see what love has done?
Oh can't you see what love has done?
Oh can't you see what love has done?
What it's done to me?

4-19-14 - Holy Saturday - Joseph of Arimathea

 Each day this week we will hear from one of the main characters in the Holy Week story, as I imagine they might speak. I hope this will help engage your own imagination as you walk this story with Jesus. Gospel passages are here and here.

Joseph of Arimathea: Am I to have the last word, then? I, who am most on the edges of this story? Even my friend Nicodemus, who helped me prepare his body for burial, even he has his own chapter in the tale. But what do you know about me?

That I am a rich man, rich enough to have my own tomb set aside, waiting for my death. That I come from Arimathea – a place you’ve never heard of, a village in the hill country of Ephraim, in Judea, 20 miles northwest of Jerusalem. That I am a prominent member of the Council, the Jewish leadership, like Nicodemus. That I had become one of Jesus’ disciples, but secretly, because, unlike my Lord, I was afraid of what my brethren on the Council would do to me if they knew what I believed. Who I believed in. I was not ready to lose my position, my livelihood, my life. I was not ready to die.

But I can offer what I can offer. That’s all any of us can do. I had a tomb, and Jesus’ broken, bloodied body needed a place of rest. I had the connections to approach Pilate and get permission to take Jesus’ body away from that place of skulls. I had the means to provide the proper linens and spices for burial, so that Jesus’ body in death would receive the care it never had in life. I offered what I could.

God never asks us to give something we don’t have… and among all that we do have, there is much that can advance God’s mission of restoration and renewal in this world. What might you offer?

Today, offer the gift of time and worship - if you are in the Stamford area, please come to our Great Vigil of Easter at Christ the Healer. It is a magical, mysterious, multi-media experience that takes us from the shadows of death into the light of Life. (20 Brookdale Road at the corner of High Ridge Road, 8 pm.)

4-18-14 - Good Friday - Mary of Magdala

Each day this week we will hear from one of the main characters in the Holy Week story, as I imagine they might speak. I hope this will help engage your own imagination as you walk this story with Jesus. A Gospel reading for today is here.

Mary of Magdala: My name is Mary. I’m from Magdala. I’m one of those women, one of those who followed him from Galilee and helped take care of him and the disciples.

This man, this man they killed today? This man healed me, and set me free from the worst kind of bondage you can imagine. He cast out seven demons from me, who were torturing me. I didn’t think I’d ever get free of those voices, the constant chatter inside, telling me how worthless I was, how I’d be better off dead. He gave me back my life. After that he was my life. I would have followed him anywhere. He was my Lord.

So following him and tending to his needs and those of his disciples – what else could I do? The only thing that made sense now was serving him. He set me free, you see, and all I wanted to use my freedom for was to serve him. Do you understand? That’s who my Lord was.

That’s how it was for all of us – this motley collection of people who had been set free – from demons, from sin and degradation, some from blindness, crippling diseases, some from despair and loneliness and meaningless lives – some from greed and lust. Just a bunch of people who love him because of what he did for them. Fairly selfish kind of love, when you think about it. But it was real, it was real when you were with him. He made it real. He made us all able to love in a way we didn’t naturally know.

Anyway, the first thing we have to do is bury him. I hear some guy from the Sanhedrin has given him a tomb. We’ll have to see to it. I guess it’s too late now to anoint him before the Sabbath begins. We’ll have to do it on Sunday…

I’d better find the others and see where they’re taking him.

Often what deepens our devotion to Jesus Christ is understanding what he has given us. That can be easier when our spiritual story has a before/after conversion aspect. But even those of us who have grown up in this faith can discover who Jesus is to us, and uncover our deep need for the healing only he can bring. For Mary it came through redemption from spiritual bondage and emotional pain. What is it for you?

Wherever you are on that journey of discovery, whether or not you feel the freedom Mary and others experienced in Jesus’ love, pause today in prayer to give thanks for what is possible, and invite the Holy Spirit to make that knowledge more real and specific for you.

That’s why we call this Good Friday.

4-17-14 - Maundy Thursday - Peter

Each day this week we will hear from one of the main characters in the Holy Week story, as I imagine they might speak. I hope this will help engage your own imagination as you walk this story with Jesus. Today's Gospel passage is here and here.

Simon Peter of Galilee: I know what you’re thinking – a tough guy like me? Crying like a baby? But I couldn’t help it. After what I did… after what I didn’t do? He told me, you know? He said one of us was going to betray him and we were all going to deny we knew him, and I said, “Oh, no, Lord, I’ll never deny you! Even if I have to die with you!”

But he told me, he already knew, that before the cock crowed twice this morning, I would. And he was right. I was worthless to him! I couldn’t even stand it for an hour. I couldn’t even stay awake with him last night, I couldn’t defend him…

But I guess he didn’t want us to fight. He said it had to happen this way. This, from a guy who has power and authority like you’ve never seen. But this man, last night, got down on his knees and washed our feet. Like a servant. Like a slave. He knelt down in front of me with this basin and started to wash my feet. I pulled them back! The idea of him, touching my feet! My feet… my feet are filthy. They smell like the oldest, ripest piece of cheese you ever left lying around your kitchen for too many weeks. They’re caked in mud and dirt and God knows what. They’ve got sores all over…

But he said, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with me.” Okay, then, I said, but don’t stop with my feet. Wash my hands and my head too! But he just said, no, I was clean. And then he washed my feet like they were babies, like they were precious. He washed my feet like he loved them, and me along with them.

Everything he’d ever said made sense right then, because he loved me so much. I don’t understand it. I’m not lovable. I’m loud, crude, ornery. I’m always charging in without thinking… but he loves me. There’s nothing I’ve done to make it so. I betrayed him tonight, as much as Judas. I ran like a coward. I lied about him, three times.

But just now, they brought him out and as he passed, he looked at me. He knew what I had done, but he looked at me with those eyes that see everything, and he still loved me. No matter what I do. It’s an amazing thing. And I’ll tell you something, that is love I’d die for.

How are you at receiving love and care from others?
It’s tricky, this giving and receiving thing – Jesus implies we have to be equally good at both.
Who do you let get close to you, close enough to see your flaws and blemishes? Thank God for them.
Who lets you show them love? How does it feel? Would you withhold that feeling from another?

Tonight, if you’re attending a service that includes footwashing, are you going to let someone wash your feet? I hope so – and as that person is giving you that gift, imagine it is Jesus. 

And when you wash another’s feet, know that it is Jesus’ feet you are washing.
And then you’ll “have a part” with him.

4-16-14 - Wed in Holy Week - Judas Iscariot

Each day this week we will hear from one of the main characters in the Holy Week story, as I imagine they might speak. I hope this will help engage your own imagination as you walk this story with Jesus. Today's Gospel reading is here and here.

Judas Iscariot: I know, I’m the bad guy in all this. “How could you do it?” they all ask. And he asked… “With a kiss? Did you have to betray me with a symbol of love and friendship?” But what did he want? He as good as made me do it – he said, at dinner, “What you have to do, do it quickly.” He knew. I’m just a pawn in all this. But no one’s going to understand that, are they? I’m the bad guy. The one.

You’re wondering why I would betray him, why I would betray someone who showed me so much love and acceptance. But, you see, it wasn’t about him. It couldn’t be about him in the end – it had to be about the work, right? The revolution. Feeding the poor, empowering the weak, kicking out the Romans.

“The Kingdom of God is coming,” he said. Bring it on! We had that parade into Jerusalem and the crowd was all worked up, shouting hosanna. That must have given the Romans something to think about. And then he kicked butt up at the temple, giving it to those collaborationist Jewish leaders … it was great.

But then he slowed down again – he’d tell these weird stories that hardly made sense. We were wasting so much time. And then there was the thing at that dinner in Bethany, where this woman, Mary, emptied like a whole bottle of really expensive perfumed oil on his head. We could have fed a whole village for a month with what that cost! But he defended her. “She’s preparing me for death,” he said, like that was supposed to make sense. All this death stuff all the time, and he wasn’t even fighting it.

All of a sudden he thought he was more important than the poor? I mean, he was completely out of touch. What was I supposed to do, sit back and watch the whole think unravel? We need a revolution. We need justice. I couldn’t just turn my back on…

But I don’t expect you to understand. And you should know – I gave the money back!

So, who is Judas? Traitor? Zeolot? Freedom fighter? God’s patsy? Can you relate to him on any level?

Today, let’s pray for the Judases in our lives, and in ourselves. If we have free will, so do they… and wholeness must be possible for them too.

For a beautiful take on Judas that emphasizes the enormity of God’s grace, listen to U2’s “Until the End of the World,” which imagines a conversation between Jesus and Judas. Concert version; Official video (clearer lyrics, dumber visuals…) And here is a version that begins with the scene of Judas’ agony and death from the film
The Passion of the Christ.

4-15-14 - Tuesday in Holy Week - Caiaphas

Each day this week we will hear from one of the main characters in the Holy Week story, as I imagine they might speak. I hope this will help engage your own imagination as you walk this story with Jesus. (Today's portion of the Gospel is here.)

Caiaphas: I’m the chief priest this year. I’m not going to take up much of your time. I just think it’s important you hear from one of us before you judge us too harshly. I know we come off badly here – this guy was a much-loved rabbi, after all. He taught some truth, I’ll grant you, and he does seem to have had amazing powers. He did much good, you’ll get no argument from us on that score.

But he was a troublemaker. His following got too large, and when the crowds are too big, the Romans start nosing around. We go to a lot of effort to keep the Romans focusing attention elsewhere. This guy and his followers – they were putting all of us at risk.

But that sounds self-serving, isn’t it? I don’t want you to think we were just trying to protect ourselves. I know that’s what some of his followers are saying, but that’s not really it. Much more important is this: the claims this Jesus made about himself were blasphemous. You don’t go around saying you’re the son of God and have the power to forgive sins! You just don’t. Only God can do that – and if God were to show up in the temple as a human being, don’t you think he would have let us, the guardians of the Torah, God’s holy truth, know about it?

This Jesus has no regard for the law. You don’t go changing the rules whenever you like. The law is a sacred gift of God to our people. And God gave the care and protection of this law to us. Not to some itinerant rabbi who thinks he’s the Messiah! He gave it to us, and it’s our job to make sure the law is kept and that it is preserved for our children and our children’s children.

Do you understand? That’s all I want, for you to see it from our point of view…

So, where do Jesus’ claims conflict with your understanding of the way things “should” be?
Where does he rub you the wrong way?
And when have authorities misunderstood and judged you? Have you been able to forgive them?

Today in prayer, you might draw near to Jesus and stand with him as he is condemned at this false trial… and maybe we can draw near to those who sought to silence him. They need our forgiveness too…

4-14-14 - Monday in Holy Week: Mary of Bethany

Each day this week we will hear from one of the main characters in the Holy Week story, as I imagine they might speak. I hope this will help engage your own imagination as you walk this story with Jesus. (Today's Gospel reading is here.)

Mary of Bethany: I know it was a very intimate thing to do, even scandalous. You should have seen my sister Martha’s face when I poured a whole pound of pure nard on Jesus’ feet! But Jesus was like my brother. I mean, he was my Lord, but I also loved him like I loved my own brother. It just seemed the most natural and full way to honor him before he… before he, you know…

I don’t know how I knew he was going to die soon. It wasn’t because he said so. I just felt it. After Lazarus’ death, when Jesus… you know, raised him… I just stood at that tomb and suddenly had a feeling: “It’s not going to be long before we have to bury the Teacher.” It was like I saw into his spirit, and I knew he would be taken from us. He said it often enough; we just didn’t want to believe him. I knew at the Passover he would go to Jerusalem, even though it was dangerous for him there.

I knew this might be the last time he was in our home. I had bought the nard thinking we would need it to anoint him after his death; I didn’t want them using anything cheap on him. I used all the money I’d made from the clothes I made and sold. I wanted the best for him. But that night I looked at him in the light from the candles, as we all sat around the table after the meal, talking and talking, as we always did… and I thought, “No, this shouldn’t be for him after his death. Why waste it then? He should be honored like that in life.” And that was it; I just got up and took the jar and broke it and poured it all over his feet, the whole thing, everything for him.

“Oh the waste!” they cried, Judas leading the charge. “This could have been sold for 300 denarii and given to the poor!” Oh, they laid into me. Well, of course it could have. But that wasn’t the point that night. The point was to honor Jesus, to give him comfort and love and protection because I knew we wouldn’t be able to protect him from what was ahead...

It was shocking to hear him say it so bluntly, that we wouldn’t always have him with us. I still don’t think they really heard him, or understood. But he let me know I had done the right thing, as wrong as it seemed to everyone else who was there. Seems he was always having to defend me. But this was one time I could show love to him.

He was going to lay down his life for us. I didn’t know what would happen after that. He had talked about being raised on the third day. He had said something to Martha at the tomb about being the resurrection and the life, and “Do you believe this?” But I didn’t know what would be.

But now I do know, and I ask you this: was my action any more “wasteful” than the Son of God pouring out his life for the likes of me? For a humanity that wouldn’t even recognize the gift? 
Mary’s act of devotion and worship is unbelievably extravagant, seemingly wasteful. She held nothing back. Do you ever feel that toward Jesus… maybe toward someone else in your life?

The time you are spending now is precious to God… and as we give this much, we begin to look at what we’re holding back and release that too.

4-11- 14 - Who Is This?

Every once in a while I come across a news item about some reality or sports star I’ve never heard of, who has gained some notoriety or picked up another million or so Twitter followers – and I go, “Who the heck is that?” Evidently that’s how some people on the edges of that crowd hailing Jesus with palm branches and “Hosanna!”s felt:

“When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’”

Some in the crowd recognized him as the Christ, the Messiah. Many assumed that the Messiah would have a military dimension, liberating them from the hated Romans as their forebears had been liberated from Egyptian domination. A greater majority probably saw Jesus as a prophet, for only a prophet sent from God could do the kind of miracles Jesus was doing, and speak with the authority with which he spoke. It was a big deal to be regarded as a prophet – but to be seen as Messiah? That was less likely.

The proportions in that crowd are probably similar to the way Jesus is seen in the world today. To many he is a prophet. Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, and other traditions, as well as some atheists and agnostics, see him as an important world religious figure whose influence cannot be understated. I suspect many who claim the title “Christian” also view him this way, as an important moral teacher and prophet, but not divine. Baha'i see Christ as divine, though somewhat differently than Christians. To creedal Christians, though, and to some in that crowd that day, Jesus had been revealed as more than prophet. He had been shown to be Lord, Adonai, the long-awaited Deliverer.

Many people in our own day still say, when they hear of Jesus, “Who is this?” It is our privilege to make the introductions, to say who we have experienced Jesus to be. We can also be sure people hear of Jesus. We don’t have to spout a party line or to tell other people’s stories – we can speak out of our own experience, and out of our tradition.

This time in our church year, when we mark Holy Week and Easter, is a particularly good time to tell our stories and make our introductions – and invite people to come and experience the story for themselves on Palm Sunday, to hear the scope of God’s love for humanity at the Great Vigil of Easter, to soak up the celebration and joy on Easter Sunday.

And if our experience of Jesus is limited to what we’ve heard or read; if we’re still asking the “Who is this?” question ourselves, then we can ask him to make himself real to us in a new way this year, so that we can receive, and share, the gift more fully.

Wherever we find ourselves in this story, I hope we will share the ministry of that donkey – to bear Christ into the crowds, humble and patient, lifting him up for all to see, getting him to the places he needs to be in order to transform the world.

4-10-14 - Hosanna!

"The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 
The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! 
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’"

Those who are familiar with this Palm Sunday story often express amazement that the same throng who laud Jesus on his entry into Jerusalem (invariably called “The Triumphal Entry” in Bible section headings…) could a few days later be calling with equal ardor for his crucifixion. It’s not so surprising – anyone who’s ever been a teenager knows how quickly strong and seemingly incompatible emotions can pass through us in swift succession. “I love so-and-so!” “I can’t stand so-and-so!” “I’ll die if you don’t let me go to that concert!” “I’m never leaving my room!”

Okay, you might be thinking, these are supposed to be adults in the crowd, not adolescents. But any rational behavior we might expect from a group of adults (perhaps unrealistic in itself…) is neutralized by the Crowd Effect – which can quickly become mob rule. Something happens to human beings in crowds; normal inhibitions and rational thinking can be overcome by fervent emotion, which can quickly grow destructive. We see it in stadiums, where excitement about a team can turn into a murderous rampage.

And when you add a threat to people’s security, it’s not difficult to see how this crowd turned on Jesus. The temple authorities not-so-subtly suggested that Jesus’ continued activity and renown would awaken the wrath of the Romans, and all their Jewish subjects would suffer. “…It is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish,” said the high priest Caiaphas. Anyone who’d witnessed Roman oppression would do much to avoid a repeat occurrence.

In a way, the “crucify him!”s are easier to understand than the adulation when Jesus entered Jerusalem. The chant of the crowd explicitly acknowledges Jesus’ Messiahship as the Son of David. People put their own cloaks on the ground, presumably so the feet of the donkeys’ bearing the holy cargo don’t have to touch the ground. Those who shouted “Hosanna!” were putting their trust in Jesus. When they saw him a few days later, in custody, beaten, seemingly powerless, perhaps their sense of trust felt betrayed, which fueled their rage.

Christians the world over will participate in the reading of that story on Palm Sunday, asked to join the crowd in both the hosannas and the calls for execution. I suspect many have trouble relating to both cries. We’re too familiar with the Jesus story to feel the excitement of recognizing the Messiah, and too removed from oppression to feel a strong need for a savior; and to call for his death feels bewildering. Where do you locate yourself between those positions?

It might be useful to pray your way through the whole story before Sunday (Matthew 26:14- 27:66), being attentive to where you respond, who you relate to as it unfolds. Can you find in yourself that impulse to praise Jesus for who he is to you? If you feel he’s a stranger, if you’re one of the curious in the crowd, you might ask him to show you who he is.

“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” they shouted, something many of us sing every week in the eucharist. If you feel Jesus has blessed you, tell him. See what that opens up.

4-9-14 - Provision

As Jesus moved through his final days in this life, many details seemed to be supernaturally pre-arranged. Twice when he sends out disciples to take care of needs, there is a mysterious element – “Go to x, do y, and if anyone asks you, here’s what you say…” When they need to find a room in which to celebrate the Passover feast, it’s very “cloak and dagger” - “Behold, when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him into the house that he enters and tell the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you, Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ And he will show you a large upper room furnished; prepare it there.”

And here, when the need is for a donkey, the disciples sent are also told what signs to look for: "'Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.’”

How did Jesus know they would find a donkey as soon as they entered the next village? And that the donkey’s owner would respond affirmatively to the notion that “the Lord” needed the animals? That means he was someone who knew Jesus to be Adonai, the Lord, not just Master and Teacher.

We can see a principle at work in the Bible, that God provides what God needs in order to accomplish God’s mission, whether it’s stables, rooms, loaves and fish, donkeys – or tombs. AND we see that God relies upon human beings to cooperate, collaborate in that mission if it is to bear fruit. Theoretically the man with the donkeys could have refused, or asked a fee, or the man with the guest room say, “It’s already rented.”

Can you think of a time when you’ve received provision unexpectedly as you went about God’s work?
I bet that’s a story to tell… who needs to hear it?

And how would you respond if something as precious as livestock were asked of you? 

Think back… What have you given for God’s use? What have you held back?
What do you sense God asking you to lend at this time in your life? 

Time? Family? A skill or talent? A house or car?
I’m not asking what you have to offer – I’m asking what you sense the Holy Spirit asking for? It could be that there isn’t anything… or it could be that we need to ask, to offer, to make ourselves receptive to the request.

Think about it: God tied himself in with human beings a long time ago, at least in the Story we have (maybe God has a whole other story going with wolves or pigeons or bees…). God created the world without help, and then created humankind to help tend the whole enterprise. And even after that little initiative ran into trouble, God continued to rely upon people - upon the movement of patriarchs and the voices of prophets and the hands and feet of apostles to spread God’s message and reveal God’s power. It’s an intricate relationship between us and the Holy Spirit at work in us – and it’s how God’s going to continue to reveal God’s self in the world until he has restored all things to wholeness.

Which makes me wonder how much more whole things would be if we all offered our donkeys and extra rooms and special gifts as generously as the unnamed people in our stories did. What you got?

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4-8-14 - The Donkey(s)

Okay – this is why it’s good to really spend some time with a passage. You notice all kinds of things that you often miss. Like, a donkey and a colt? Which was it?

“When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.’”
This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.”

He sat on them? That’s a stretch, to say the least! Now, maybe we can chalk this up to Matthew’s insistence on tying every event he can to an Old Testament prophecy, no matter how far a reach (ba-dum-bum...) Mark and Luke each speak only of a colt, singular. Maybe Matthew wants to be sure we get the connection to kingship, even at the risk of absurdity. This event is not a mere victory lap – it is the entry of a king into his capital. But this is a king so humble, he not only rides upon a donkey, but even upon its foal.

Kingship and humility don’t always go together – but they do in so many stories of Jesus’ earthly life, from his birth in a rough-hewn animal shelter to his traveling company of fishermen, prostitutes and tax collectors. In fact, the humility isn’t hard to locate in this story – the kingship is. We have the royal gifts presented by the magi, the defensive measures of King Herod, and ultimately the crown of thorns to remind us of Jesus’ true nature, a monarch disguised as a commoner. That is why the epistle reading for Palm Sunday is always the hymn about Jesus found in Philippians 2:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 

but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. 
And being found in human form, he humbled himself 
and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.

Unless we really think about where the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, came from, it can be hard to grasp just how dramatic a lowering of status he endured, consenting to be bounded in a human body, in time and space, to be subject to the care and cruelties of limited human beings. (Matthew West and Vince Gill sing a Christmas song I like, called Leaving Heaven, which flips the perspective… )

Today in prayer let’s try exalting Jesus, even imagining him in the courts of heaven or a throne room, whatever those might look like for you. And then let’s imagine ourselves there with him. What feelings come up in you? Do you want to praise him? Flee from that presence? Go nearer? Go with the feelings, pray into them.

The divine reality we celebrate is that the God who made everything loved us so much, God decided to come into our earthly reality to woo us, to court us, to come and sit with us. Maybe that other colt is meant for you, for me, to ride along next to him, to the cross and beyond, into Life.

4-7-14 - To Jerusalem

I was unsure how to work Water Daily the next two weeks – the Gospel for Palm Sunday is the whole Passion narrative, and the following week it’s the Easter story. But I don’t want us exploring the empty tomb while we’re still in Holy Week; that’s like peeking at the last page while you’re still in chapter 5. So his week we’ll do the “other” Gospel story for next Sunday, the one for which the day is named, which we routinely dispense with in the first ten minutes of the service… and we’ll spend Holy Week on the passion story.

So… onward, to Jerusalem, where the week begins with Jesus’ riding in triumphantly, lauded by crowds, and goes horribly, horribly wrong, ending with his brutal crucifixion. Jesus had been saying for some time that he must go to Jerusalem, where he will be arrested, tried and executed. Earlier, Pharisees had warned him to avoid Jerusalem, because Herod wanted to kill him. Jesus responded,

“Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. Nevertheless, I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.’ O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’” - Luke 13:32-35

The people of Israel had a funny relationship to their prophets – they revered them, and frequently sought to have them killed because they didn’t like their messages. Those messages often veered between, “You’d better, or else…” or “It’s too late; you’re in trouble now..” Amidst those, however, we can hear another strand of message from God: “I love you. I want so much for us to be together. If you might only do what you promised, honor me, honor each other…” But the people never could. How could they relate to such a fearsome God?

Philip Yancey offers a great analogy to the incarnation in his book, The Jesus I Never Knew – he talks about how the fish in his fish tank regarded him with terror, even though he fed them faithfully, and kept their water clean and chemically balanced. His interventions seemed to them like destruction, and they fled to their hiding places whenever he came near. “To my fish I was a deity. I was too large for them, too incomprehensible.” He thought one day, “I would have to become a fish and ‘speak’ to them in a language they could understand.”

Only, it turned out that even when God came among us in a form like ours, those who were deeply invested in the old ways, who had gained power by fostering people’s fear of God, weren’t any more receptive. This prophet, too, must be silenced, eliminated.

How do you think you would have regarded Jesus in his earthly time? 

Would you have been drawn to his miracles and messages, or put off? 
Would you have gone to him for healing or forgiveness? 
Would you have been unsettled by the threat to good order he represented, or thrilled that at last deliverance from oppression might be at hand? 
With what aspect of Jesus do you most easily connect? Least?

Knowing how we most naturally connect to Jesus can help us strengthen the relationship, and balance it. And there’s no wrong answer, even if we identify with the Pharisees. We know Jesus forgave them too.

4-4-14 - Life Trumps

Why did Jesus restore Lazarus to life when he was so very, very dead? Was it “for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it,” as he indicated to his disciples a few days earlier? Was it because he was so moved by Mary’s weeping that he started to weep himself? “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” The King James Version rendered that verse, “Jesus wept,” the shortest verse in the Bible.

Or was he “greatly disturbed in spirit” because he knew what God was equipping him to do next, and it scared the daylights out of him? Certainly, Jesus was in some turmoil – the most literal translation suggests actual gut-wrenching. Jesus weeps – and then Jesus acts. “Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’” It can be hard for us, reading from this side of Easter Sunday, not to hear the echo of the women on their way to Jesus’ tomb, wondering who will roll away that stone. Stones are there to keep death in, and the living out. And here comes God to overturn all of that order… just as he had said long ago he would.

There is also reviving of the dead in our reading from the Hebrew Bible this Sunday – but it is only a vision, in which dry bones, representing Israel’s defeat and dead hopes, are given sinews and flesh and have the life, the breath of God, blown back into them. Included in Ezekiel’s bizarre vision, though, was a prophetic promise: “’And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,’ says the Lord.” (Ezekiel 37:12-14)

Scripture suggests that death is something God merely tolerates until he can do away with it – which is what we claim God did in Christ on Good Friday, and proved Easter Sunday. That is central to our belief as those who bear the name of Christ. And one of our greatest faith challenges is to live that belief, that death has been neutralized, while in this life it is still so very real and so very destructive. These stories we read and learn and tell are counter-narratives to the one we live out in this physical life. So we must develop our spiritual selves as well as our physical selves – to see Life beyond death, and to see it so fully and clearly it carries us through “the valley of the shadow of death” when we find ourselves there.

What is your relationship with death? Do you fear it? Dread it? See it as natural, as a release, or an enemy?
Does your view change when it’s the death of another you’re contemplating?
What is your relationship with life – the kind of life that transcends death? Does it feel real?
Where is God for you in the whole subject of death?

In another nine days or so, the Church will enter into a deep, week-long contemplation of death and life, so this could be a good time to entertain these questions and take them into prayer. If it feels to you like death still has the upper hand, still wins – that’s something to talk with God about, to ask questions and see where answers might emerge. We can say, “Lord, I don’t understand death, why it’s still part of life when you’ve vanquished it – but I do understand life.”

Our promise is that God’s life is already in us, and as we learn to dwell in that, it will carry us into the life beyond this one. We can ask daily to be filled with that Life that truly trumps death – and gradually that Life is what we become.

4-3-14 - Lazarus, the Unbound

The Gospels tell us almost nothing about Lazarus, and yet he is the centerpiece of Jesus’ most powerful and unsettling miracle. We’re told he lived in Bethany outside Jerusalem, that he and his sisters were beloved in Jesus’ inner circle. We hear he was felled by an illness and died somewhat unexpectedly, from which we might surmise that he was not old. And he made a four-day journey into death and back into life – only to die again at a riper age. He has inspired numerous works of literature and art - and yet the only scene in which he appears, he enters bound in grave cloths, four days dead:

“Jesus said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’ Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus.. cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’”

We are endlessly fascinated with tales of those who have physically died and somehow been revived. Proof of Heaven, Heaven is for Real, 90 Minutes in Heaven are only a few recent bestsellers. But we have no record of Lazarus’ experience being awakened after so long, what it would be like to undergo a reversal of decay, movement in limbs long still. In that silence, Lazarus can become a universal symbol for all victims as Jesus’ command, “Unbind him, and let him go!” reverberates through the centuries, a powerful metaphor for release and new life.

Few of us have experienced being physically revived, but I suspect we have all seen life returning to people bound in one way or another, whether by poverty, addiction, crime, illness, abuse, self-destructive patterns. Tonight I saw parts of a documentary in progress, Our Little Roses, about an extraordinary orphanage for girls – the only one - in the desperately poor, crime and murder-ridden city of San Pedro Sula in Honduras. Spencer Reece, a poet and Episcopal priest, spent a year there teaching poetry and helping the girls to write. The film (which is being scored by Dar Williams, who also came to the program and played a few songs..) tells that story, and he is writing a book to accompany it. He read some excerpts. He said he’d witnessed resurrection in these girls, abandoned, sick, starving – and brought back to wholeness and strength in the community of love in the home. He experienced a profound spiritual renewal himself, coming to know Jesus in that place in a way he’d never experienced him.

Have you had a death-into-life experience? When? What was it about? Have you observed life returning to a person or thing or place? Take note of it, so you can become more aware when it’s happening to you or around you.

You know who I think had the most faith of anyone in this scene? The guys who rolled away that stone, and Lazarus, who came out when Jesus called him. Few people are so open to the impossible they are willing to go with it when it comes their way. I think the more open we are to the impossible, the more possible it becomes every day.

4-2-14 - Mary, the Reflective One

Isn’t it amazing how people can grow up in the same family and be so different from each other? As action-oriented as Martha is, Mary seems geared toward reflection and a quiet devotedness. It is Mary who sits at Jesus’ feet listening to his teaching instead of helping Martha cook; Mary who anoints Jesus’ head and feet with a whole jar of expensive ointment shortly before his arrest, an act of extravagant, wasteful worship (arguably the way worship should be…).

And so it is here, in this story. Mary stays at home when word comes that Jesus has arrived. But as soon as Martha tells her that Jesus is asking for her, she goes to him:
"… [Martha] went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, 'The Teacher is here and is calling for you.' And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, 'Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.'”

Mary utters the same words of gentle rebuke and profound faith as Martha did. But where Martha and Jesus engaged in theological conversation about death and life and resurrection and Jesus’ identity, with Mary it is her open display of feelings that communicates with Jesus’ spirit. “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.”

In these two sisters we see different aspects of a spiritual whole. A healthy spiritual life makes room for emotions and intellect, receptivity and action. Most of us tend to emphasize one mode over another. How is it that you most readily experience holiness or the presence of God? In thoughts and actions? In silence and feelings? Some combination of these?

How do you most naturally express your spirituality? 

Are your emotions available to you in your prayer and worship life? 
Are you able to sit still on occasion and wait on the Lord, see what the Spirit is saying?

It’s good to know how we’re wired spiritually. Then we can look to see if we’re missing anything. Is God inviting us to play with a form of spiritual expression or reception that comes less naturally to us, but opens us to a new dimension of God-life? If you only ever read the bible (or this...) as a devotion, how about singing a hymn in your personal prayer time? If you only feel connected when serving dinner at the shelter, how about going on a retreat alone, and seeing where God is in silence and inactivity.

Martha and Mary of Bethany are among the most fully drawn characters in the Gospels, and of course we know very little about them. But they are a rich gift to us, these sisters, embodying different ways to love Jesus, and different modes of receiving his love.

4-1-14 - Martha, the Practical One

Of all Jesus’ close friends and followers, the family we get to know best in the Gospels are three siblings, Lazarus, Martha and Mary, who live in Bethany. Luke gives us a glimpse into their relationships in the story of Martha’s preparations to feed Jesus and his entourage, as she expresses her frustration with her sister’s sitting before Jesus instead of helping with the meal. The way Jesus gently rebukes her and affirms Mary’s choice tells us they are close.

So it surprises everyone that Jesus does not immediately return to Judea at the news of Lazarus’ illness:
“When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’”

Martha is not one for sitting around – we see that in the story of the dinner party. She goes out to meet Jesus on the road. And the way she gently rebukes Jesus tell us they are close: “Lord, if you had been here…” Her faith in Jesus is strong – “…my brother would not have died.” But is she asking for Lazarus to be healed now? “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him…”

Jesus answers her straight on – and she thinks he’s being metaphorical. “Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’”

So much is made of Peter’s confession of Christ’s messianic identity – the church even marks it with a feast day. But here is Martha, articulating as clearly or more that Jesus is the Son of God, the awaited Messiah. Where is her feast day?

And here is Jesus, talking straightforwardly with a woman about his mission and identity – so much for those who think the Jesus movement was anti-woman. Jesus treats the women around him with the fullness of respect and honor that he accords the men. In that, he was much more controversial than if he’d suppressed the women.

Jesus meets Martha as she is – active, bold, not sitting around waiting. He accepts her “If you’d been here…” as honestly as he accepts her “Yes, Lord, I believe.” How about you? Are you able to be yourself in your relationship with God in Christ? Do you tell God how you feel about things not working out, for prayers that seemed unanswered? What do you think Jesus means when he says, “I am resurrection, and I am life?” What does that mean in your life, in your experience of death and loss?

We don’t all share Martha’s conviction, her ability to say, without hesitation, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Son of God.” What each of us can share is her forthrightness, her refusal to accept without questioning, her taking the initiative to go out and meet Jesus as he approaches.

I believe Jesus yearns for us to know him as Martha did. Let’s go find him on the road to us, and learn just who he is.