5-30-14 - Blessing on the Go

Three years ago on Ash Wednesday, I first went to the train station with some colleagues at the crack of dawn to offer the imposition of ashes and a prayer to commuters as they rushed past. Well, they did rush past, and then some would do a double take and come back, “I can get ashes here? That's so great!,” they'd say, lowering their foreheads to my reach. I offered a brief prayer with those who had the time.

The “Ashes on the Go” movement has its share of critics who note, correctly, that the imposition of ashes with its reminder of mortality, “Dust you are and to dust you shall return,” makes little sense outside the context of the Ash Wednesday liturgy. It can be considered “cafeteria Christianity” at its worst, giving people access to blessing without any commitment or knowledge. These are valid concerns – and must be considered in tandem with the benefit of giving people access to the holy in the midst of the every day, not to mention getting Christians out from behind our pretty church walls into the open. Sometimes the blessing has to precede the understanding. Perhaps always.

So I am cheered by this depiction of Jesus blessing his followers even as he is carried up into heaven:
“Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.”

"While he was blessing them.." Even as he ascended into heaven! 

Luke tells us that this blessing of Jesus’ was so galvanizing, the apostles continued it: “And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.”

How wonderful if it could be said of us that we were “continually blessing God,” in the temple or in the world. God's blessing is no passive wave of the hands. It is an active transfer of love and commendation. To bless and be blessed is to increase the Life of God in us and around us. Blessing is one way we communicate with God, and pass along what God has given us to others. We might even say it is to be the chief activity of God's family – more central than much of what church people spend our time and energy on.

When did you last feel blessed? If you’re a church-goer, you receive a pastor's blessing at the end of the worship service. But when did you last feel God’s blessing, God’s pleasure and delight in you? Try to recall that, and put yourself in the way of it more often. I believe God’s blessing is always there for us; we experience it in different ways, so know yours.

When have you been aware of blessing someone else, whether they knew it or not? We can bless people in person. We can also call blessing down on people we pass on the street, on animals, on countries, on marriages, on houses and workplaces – you name it. When you say, “God bless you,” know that you are invoking the power that made the universe and inviting it to bring blessing to whomever or whatever you bless. It's a powerful action.

Who or what do you feel called to bless today? Go do it!
You can do it sitting in your house, or you bless as you go. Jesus did it. And I think He still is.

5-29-14 - Witnesses

“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.’”

I often joke that many Episcopalians seem to be enrolled in a Witness Protection Program, staying as low-profile as possible about their faith and spirituality. That can happen when we focus more on church than on Christ. Jesus calls those who would bear his name in the world to bear witness to his story, and to the power of God he taught and demonstrated. And witnesses testify.

Maybe “testify” is the problematic word. A witness in a court room does not necessarily tell their story voluntarily. So let’s leave that formal, sterile, judicial context and think about the way we talk about things we’ve witnessed in every day life. An amazing encounter with wildlife. That video of the cat chasing away the dog that bit the baby. The adorable thing our granddaughter said. The two-mile back-up with no known cause we endured. The new restaurant we love. The movie we just saw. We bear witness all the time.

So let’s start talking about our encounters with the Holy when we have them. Let’s talk about our outreach activities and our worship experiences and the joy of community. And let’s talk about Jesus and his story, and how it interweaves with our stories… or better yet, how it frames our stories. For our faith is not meant to be one strand of our life, woven in with all the other strands – it is meant to be the frame in which the tapestry sits, the frame that holds and contains our work and relationships and play and rest - our life.

Bearing witness is not even something we have to “do.” It is something we need only allow God to do through us. This Witness Program comes with built-in power supply. 

Jesus says in Acts: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
And in Luke: “And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high."

That power came at Pentecost. We receive it at baptism, confirmation, ordination - and any time we exercise faith in the name of Jesus. If we find ourselves in a situation that could get “spiritual,” we can say a quick prayer: “Okay, God, you promised power… give me the courage and the words.”

Exercise your faith in prayer if called on. Tell a story that is meaningful to you. Talk about how Jesus is meaningful to you. We can do that in ways that give people space for their own experiences and views. A witness is not there to persuade, but to tell a story that is true and authentic.

“…You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

From the perspective of Jerusalem in 33 CE (give or take...), we are the ends of the earth. If we’ve received blessing from God, let’s bear witness.

5-28-14 - Play It Again

Jesus hung out for forty days after his resurrection, the Gospels tell us, instructing and inspiring his followers to believe the impossible, and to act as though they believed it. It’s hard to convince the world all things are possible with God, while holed up in a room in Jerusalem for fear of your life. So Jesus kept showing up when least expected, and going through the lessons again. Once more, with feeling…

Jesus said to his disciples, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

This time he does more than tell them where they’ve been – he tells them where they’re going: to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations, starting from Jerusalem. In the Acts version of the Pentecost story, Jesus gives a fuller itinerary: “… you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The book of Acts shows us how closely the spreading of the Good News followed that trajectory.

Why do we so often need to be reminded of where we’ve been in order to get on with where we’re going? I’ve grown impatient of late with the daily office readings from the Hebrew Bible – it strikes me more and more as scriptures for an ancient, alien people, not for today’s followers of Christ. And yet I know why I continue to read it, and why we read it in church on Sundays, why we do well not to get too far away from it: it reminds us where we stand in the big picture of God’s courtship of an alienated humanity. We may not always like the way those ancient people spoke of God, or the words or motives they attributed to God, but the overarching story is one of love. As Jesus reminded his followers of what he'd taught them in the recent past, we too need to be reminded.

What is your relationship with the Old Testament? Close? Distant? Fond? Suspicious?
Does it help you to proclaim forgiveness and wholeness to the people you know?
How about Jesus’ story – how do you connect with that?
If you’re not in the habit of reading the bible regularly, spend some time with a small chunk today.

The bible is our anchor as we grow in faith and in the love of God. It tethers us to a rich tradition and a vast and diverse community of faith, living and gone before. Consider it the rearview mirror of faith – if we want to go forward in God’s mission as Jesus tells us, we have to keep our eyes on the road and at the same time be aware of what’s behind us. It’s called driving.

5-27-14 - Up, Up and Away

(I left my laptop in Maryland on Sunday, and as I wait for its return, am somewhat hampered in composing and posting Water Daily. Please forgive the delay...)

This Thursday is Ascension Day, one of the church's major feast days - one often ignored by most churches, unless they are named Ascension. So I intend to spend the week, and Sunday, on this story.

Maybe this holiday is overlooked because it is such an odd one. We don't know what to make of this dramatic departure of the already quite dramatically risen Christ. It's hard to imagine such a bizarre event, which only Luke records in any detail, in both his gospel and in Acts. Yet it is the final scene in the incarnate life of the Son of God, and tells us how he gets back to the place our story tells us he started from: the heavenly precincts, where from now on he will be seated in glory at the right hand of the Father, which strikes me as a somewhat sedentary eternity for one who moved around so much. (Not to mention the vexing question a child once asked me, "Who is on the left side of God?")

This story mirrors the whirlwind final act of Elijah's story, and it set up the expectation early Christians held that Christ, when he comes again in glory, will come back in the same way he left. "Lo, he comes with clouds descending..." as the hymn goes.

What does it mean for us that Christ ascended bodily into heaven? What does it mean for us to know he dwells with the Father, not embodied in this world? And what does it mean that he is present through the Holy Spirit?

Those are just a few of the questions that Ascension raises for me. How about you?

One way the church has seen Jesus seated at the right hand of the Father is as an intercessor, bringing our prayers into the center of the Godhead. Jesus becomes our "inside man," as it were.

So what would you like to ask him to do for you today?

5-23-14 - Swimming in Love

Language fails (as this sentence demonstrates) when we try to convey the overlapping unity of love and persons in God, a triune swirl of inter-relatedness in which we are invited to swim. I comfort myself that Jesus, at least as his remarks are rendered in John’s Gospel, seemed to have almost as much trouble making it clear:

“In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

Where does Jesus end and the Father begin? Where do we end and Jesus begin? Are we in the Father and in Jesus, or vice versa, or (g) all of the above? The answer is (g)… maybe (z). God is love. Jesus is love. We love and are loved, and so are drawn into the eternal and present Love of God.

When we fall in love with someone, there is often a period where identities merge. We don’t want to be separate people. We want to fuse, to lose ourselves in the glorious other, whose every word and movement is wondrous. This is an intoxicating stage of in-love-ness – and it’s not forever. If the relationship is to grow and strengthen, we need to differentiate again, to carry our own identities, loving and respecting the other person, being with but not needing to be one with.

So is Jesus saying we lose our identity when we let the love of God become a part of us, and we of God? I don’t think so. The Christian tradition suggests that each of us is unique and precious. Our self does not get obliterated as we enter the stream of God’s love. Rather, being loved for who we are allows us to become more fully who we truly are, shedding the inauthentic carapaces and personas we grow to protect ourselves and cope with adversity.

We don’t lose ourselves swimming in God’s love any more than we do when we swim in the vast, refreshing ocean. Rather, we are fully alive. We are contained in our bodies, and yet somehow one with a primal element. We exult as we move in that unbounded water, which allows us to dive and dance and turn somersaults and ride waves, all kinds of things we can’t do on land, just as dwelling in God's love enables us to do and think and say and offer all kinds of things we can’t in our natural selves.

Today in prayer let's go swimming. Imagine a waterfall flowing into the sea. Let’s say the sea is the Love of God, the waterfall is Jesus, and the spray that rises as they meet is the Holy Spirit. This sea is always being renewed, refreshed, replenished, the water one, so you don’t know what’s sea, what’s waterfall, what’s spray. Imagine jumping in. How does the water feel? How does it make you feel? How do you want to move in it?

If this is God’s love – how does it feel to be immersed in love? How would you share the water with others? How would you invite others to join you in that pool?

Swimming in the love of God allows us to access the source of Love that has no limit, so that we love out of the reservoir of God’s infinite love, not our own limited supply. As we enter the summer “swimming season,” I hope you’ll have lots of opportunities to be reminded of the water in which we were reborn, in which we will swim always. Splash!

5-22-14 - Not as Orphans

Orphans. It’s a strong word. In 2005 I joined with others to raise the money to build and launch a residential school for children orphaned by AIDS in Western Kenya, one of the poorest regions in that country, where at the time there were no services for the growing number of orphans. As the chief communicator drafting brochures, web pages and fundraising appeals, I used the word “orphans” as often as I could; it tugs at hearts strings more effectively than do terms like “at-risk” or “OVC” (orphans and vulnerable children).

Then I learned that it is a word our Kenyan partners avoid whenever possible. In an extended-family culture, to say a child is orphaned means that no one in her family or even village is prepared to care for her, a scenario which suggests the whole community is disabled. Many prospective students at the Nambale Magnet School had lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS; few were to be labeled orphans.

"I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus tells his disciples on his last night with them. “I am coming to you.” It’s not what a boss would say to employees, or a coach to players, a teacher to students. This language acknowledges that the community of Jesus followers had become a family, with ties as thick as blood. Jesus recognizes that his departure from their daily lives, and the violence with which he will be wrenched from them, is likely to be as dislocating for them as it is for a child to lose his father or mother.

And it is yet another hint that death will not be the end of Jesus’ story. Only death can cause orphans. Certainly Jesus’ followers were going to feel like orphans after his death, and we see that sorrow depicted in the passion story. But they were not to be orphans, he says, because death was not to be his permanent condition.

How would it change us if we could live in that confidence whenever we’re facing great loss or sorrow? That we have not been left as orphans, no matter how abandoned we may feel in a given moment? It can be as difficult for me to trust that God is real and present as it is for my cats to understand, when I go on a trip, that I am indeed returning. We don’t have the capacity to truly comprehend it – so we learn to trust it little by little, strengthening our faith muscles, testing God’s love and Jesus’ promise:
“In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.”

When did you last have an experience of “seeing” Jesus?
In another person, in a movement of God, in prayer, in song? 

I feel I suggest this question a lot – but it’s the best way I know to reinforce our faith. 
Keep a record of those sightings; they help encourage us when we feel orphaned.

And, as my cats do when I return (I think!), we can relax and rejoice whenever we do experience Jesus’ life with us and in us again. Whatever our version of rubbing and purring is, I’m sure it pleases our heavenly Father when we offer our praise in love.

5-21-14 - God Within

I often hear people talk about “the God within,” or “the divine spark” in each of us. It is language I would use with great care. It can be a very short distance from that statement to saying that we are all little gods, with the ultimate power to control our own destinies. As attractive as that notion might be to some (not very appealing to me – God help me if I am my own god!), it is not the Way that Jesus invites his followers to travel.

The New Testament teaches that the presence of Christ is within each of us by virtue of our baptism. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” Paul writes, not because his identity has been supplanted in an “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” way, but because his identity has been fulfilled, perfected in union with Christ through baptism. He has become most truly who he is in union with Christ.

The way we receive the full-time presence of Christ in our persons is through the gift of the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Christ. “You know him,” Jesus says to his disciples, “because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” The promise that Christ’s life abides – rests, stays, hangs out – within us offers tremendous resources; ultimate power, the power that made all things and restores all things. “Same power that conquered the grave lives in me…” we sing.

When we live in the knowledge of Christ’s life within us we pray differently, we act differently, we hope differently. We don’t pray for the power of God to descend on us from above, but that the power already in us by virtue of our union with Christ be released in us, and through us for others. We pray not as though we’re on a long distance call, but like we’re having a heart-to-heart conversation, because we are, Christ’s heart in our heart.

We act differently, because we are acting on the power, promise and presence of God, not waiting for those to be manifest outside us. And we hope differently, knowing that God’s love is so very near, so very “already.” Of course, there is a “not yet fully realized” dimension, but so much more in the here and now than we often recognize.

I came to know “Christ within” through learning the practice of centering prayer, becoming somewhat still and able to tune in to the Spirit’s prayer in me, to “pray/imagine” Jesus in conversation, to be able to praise. I get to that still place most quickly through praying in tongues – which Paul tells us is the Spirit’s prayer released in us. “…for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit prays within us with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26) I can't say I know Christ well, but he isn’t “out there”; he’s in here.

How do you experience Christ within you? If you want to, you might just sit in stillness, in prayer, and say, “Jesus – I am told you live with me and in me. I would like to experience more of your life in me. How do I do that?” Wait in silence, and pay attention to any images that form in your mind, or words. If your shopping list forms, gently invite it to wait over there, and return your focus to your prayer. You can repeat, “Jesus,” or another word or phrase. Try it for five minutes, and see what comes. Write down whatever transpires, and do it again another day.

Some people experience the reality of Christ within more keenly in action than in contemplation, or in worship. There is no “right” way. There is only invitation to more fullness and life than we’ve ever dreamed of.

5-20-14 - Spirit of Love

Yesterday, we explored the relationship between loving Jesus and following his commands. Though these can be summed up as loving God and our neighbor, he gave plenty that were specific: Love your enemies. Give to anyone who asks. Take up your cross and follow me. Proclaim the Good News and heal the sick. Many of Jesus’ commandments are so counter-cultural, counter-intuitive, not to mention inconvenient, that keeping them is only possible for us from a place of love.

Such love also enables us to receive the gift Jesus promised his disciples that night before he was taken from them:  ”And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.”

Jesus calls the Spirit “another Advocate,” suggesting this has been one of his roles with them, to stand with them against spiritual danger, to help strengthen them in ministry. In this role, he was limited by his time in this earthly life. The Advocate whom the Father will send them, he says, will be with them forever - a promise with no close-out clause.

Jesus says this "Spirit of Truth” is a force whom the world - humanity at large - does not see or recognize, and therefore cannot receive. The gift of the Holy Spirit is given to all who have the capacity to receive him – and what increases our capacity is love, giving and receiving love. Athletes and musicians find their capacity for taking in and holding breath increases with practice – I believe it’s the same with love. Our capacity grows as we exercise it.

What gets in the way of your ability to receive love?
In what ways do you feel you are inhibited in giving love?
What are some ways you can envision to expand your capacity for love, given and received?

You might try on a discipline of learning to love someone whom you find challenging – start by praying for them each day to be blessed.
Or is there someone whose love you keep at a distance, or someone who wants to help you in some way that you won’t allow…  can you, as an experiment, allow that person into your life a little more, allow the assistance they could render?

When our capacity to give and receive love increases, it has a ripple effect. Our being more loving invites the people around us to receive more and give more in turn. Imagine if we lived in a culture based on love and more love? Think how many stuck systems and stuck people might be released to function in wholeness.

Well, we don’t have to dwell in such utopian visions – let’s just start with ourselves, and our own hearts,  inviting the Spirit to expand our capacity for love. That's the way we can help God with the big picture.

5-19-14 - Unconditional

I’m not fond of “if” statements where love is concerned. “If” smacks of contracts, and who wants love to be contractual? Especially the love of God, which we’re promised is unconditional, not contingent upon our response or behavior?

I’m also not crazy about the word “commandments.” So the first line of this week’s Gospel passage, which continues Jesus’ farewell remarks to his followers before his arrest and crucifixion, has a double whammy: If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

On first glance, I read, “Oh boy, I’d better be a good girl, if I want Jesus to love me…” A closer look suggests that Jesus means quite the opposite. It’s not, “If you keep my commandments, I will love you.”  Or “If you keep my commandments, I will know that you love me." It’s that keeping Jesus' commandments – to love God fully, and my neighbor as myself – is a natural consequence of loving Jesus. First we receive God’s love; our love flows from that.

How many times do we (I…) need to be reminded that this is the order in which grace operates? God’s love is not something we must, or even can, earn. When we say that the love of God is unconditional, not contingent upon our response or behavior, it means we are free to receive it and respond as we will. Some people respond by ignoring it, putting the gift away, still wrapped. Others respond by trying to earn it anyway… which only exhausts us and makes it harder to receive what God wants for us.

When we comprehend how truly “off the hook” we are, and find ourselves in that place of humble gratitude for God’s gift of grace, something is released in us, and we find we want to choose the good, we want to follow Jesus' way to increase our love, even when it costs us. Jesus says later, “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

Recall some times in your life when that grace has gotten through to you, and what your response has been. Those are good moments to remember and dwell in again.
(And if you’re in the “I’d rather earn it, thank you very much – don’t do me any favors,” place, I invite you to consider whether that is giving life to you and those around you.)

Today, we might ask God to show us how his commandment to love might be more fully reflected in our lives. Think about the people you know, in all the places you know them. Where is God inviting you to let His love flow?

I believe that as we pay more attention to the “if you love me," the “You will keep my commandments,” part will become the most natural thing in the world.

5-16-14 - Greater Things

How did the church’s expectations get so small? Maybe not all churches – some do expect that God will move in power among them. But many churches of the sort I know best seem to ask very little of God, and operate as though they’re not sure they can count even on that. Listen to what Jesus said, though:

“Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”

Greater works than what Jesus did? He who transformed water into vats of finest wine, who could extend a snack into a meal for 5,000, who healed the lame and the lepers and gave sight to the blind? He who rose from the dead? It’s impossible. And yet, for a time, after the Spirit came at Pentecost, the apostles did indeed perform works as great – greater, if we figure that divine power was more diluted in them than in Jesus. So what happened?

Well, God still works among us in miraculous ways. Yet many say such things are impossible, or that it’s rude to ask too much of the Lord, as though God’s power were finite. Perhaps one obstacle comes from what Jesus is quoted as saying next, “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” And, in case they didn’t get it, “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve asked for things in Jesus’ name that I have not seen manifest. Good things, holy things – healing and restoration, and the gift of faith for those who wanted it. What are we to make of this line? Bad translation? Maybe the writer of John adding things for effect? No, that’s too easy. However this came into our sacred writings, I think we are invited to deal with it.

In part, that means dealing honestly with our disappointment with God for the “unanswered prayers.” It means opening our spirits to the operation of the Holy Spirit so that more and more we pray for what God already intends – and maybe was waiting for us to be willing to be done through us. And it takes praying in Jesus' name - which means, praying in his will, in his Spirit. It means praying His prayer.

It is a fine balance to pray with huge faith and boldness and yet release our desires into the mystery of God’s will. We can only do it, I believe, from within an honest relationship with God, trusting in God’s love, even when that is hard to feel. That’s why they call it faith.

Name a “great work” you would like God to accomplish through you. Don’t be timid, don’t be rational – go for broke. Let God know that today in prayer. Ask the Spirit to help refine that prayer in you until you have an inner conviction that you are praying God’s prayer. If we have to say, “If it is your will,” we don’t have that conviction yet, and we’re invited to keep praying and keep inviting the Spirit to knead that prayer in us until its ready to rise and become bread.

The only thing I’m sure of is that if we don’t ask, if we don’t step out on the promises of God in faith, we will see only small works. Jesus said it; let’s lean on it. The more we pray, in faith, in the Spirit, the more activity of God we will see. Amen! Let it be so!

And here’s another Amen – I am graduating with my Doctor of Ministry degree from Hartford Seminary today. Thanks be to God!

5-15-14 - A Family Likeness

We’ve all met children who were the spitting image of one parent – there can be no question whose child they are. That, the scriptures tell us, is how closely Jesus reflected the image of his heavenly Father. Paul wrote, “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” (Col. 1:15)

“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” Jesus says in response to Philip’s plea, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” (This week's Gospel reading is here.)

“How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’ Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.”

Jesus' features may have been Semitic, his language Aramaic, his manners and speech shaped by his Galilean upbringing – but his spiritual authority, his healing power, his supernatural intuition, his relational instincts – those revealed his Father’s life in him.

This family likeness extends to those of us who are happy to be called his sisters and brothers. As we “put on Christ," as we let his life shine out through us, we grow into his likeness. Or maybe it’s more precise to say we grow more transparent so that the world sees less of us and more of Christ in us – “Christ in you, the hope of glory,” another quote from Paul in Colossians.

I don’t have a cute pop song today, but here’s a link to Disappear, by Bebo Norman, a song about getting out of the way so that God’s life shines through us. "And you become clear as I disappear,” he sings in the refrain.

In whom have you seen glimpses of God-life, that you’ve noticed? What was it that caught your attention?
When do you feel you best reflect the love of God to the world? When do you feel most in sync with your heavenly nature, the true self you're in the process of discovering?

A good prayer any time is, “Lord, increase your life in me. Increase my capacity to receive your life. Let any wilfulness in me that obscures people seeing you be brought into alignment with your will, so that when people see me they see you.”

That prayer takes a lifetime being answered, but we can experience the shift as we pay attention. We are the only way the world will see Christ this side of glory. And when he is visible in us, people notice, and they want more.

5-14-14 - If You Don't Know Me By Now...

I believe that human beings have a deep need to be known, perhaps even deeper than our need to be loved. After all, real love presumes knowledge about the one we love, what is wonderful about them and much that is not.

So I feel for Jesus when he realizes yet again how little his closest friends have really seen him, recognized his identity, what is most authentic and true about him:

Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?

“All this time, and still you do not know me?” Naturally, today’s pop tune link goes to Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, If You Don’t Know Me By Now.* In fairness to the disciples, though, it must have been very hard to take at face value the things Jesus said about his union with his “father in heaven,” even in the face of the amazing spiritual power he demonstrated. Surely he’s being metaphorical, symbolic, hyperbolic, they thought… Often we say the same things about this One whose truth we can never fully grasp.

No one can ever grasp the truth about another until we can “walk a mile in their shoes.” Our sacred story tells us that Jesus came in human flesh to walk a mile in our shoes. How can we walk in his sandals? By letting his Spirit, whom we name Holy Spirit, fill us. By truly being His Body in the world. By entering into conversation with him in prayer, reading about him, talking to other people who know him. The same way we seek to get to know anyone.

Today, in prayer, take a bold step. Ask Jesus something you want to know about yourself, or about him.
And try to sit in quiet awhile and see if you sense any response – it may not come in words. It may come in an image that you see in your mind, or something that catches your eye around you. It may come later in the day in song lyrics or in an encounter with someone, in a thought or insight. And it may come in words.

And see if Jesus has a question for you.

Our Good news departs from the song title in that it’s never too late to get to know Jesus (a few scary parables notwithstanding….) As with any relationship, getting to know him takes an investment of time and vulnerability and desire. Billions of people have found it worthwhile. Meet him for coffee and see where it goes.

* The song really has nothing to do with today's post, but check this link for the Soul Train live version, with the appliqued pastel jumpsuits – some people really did have to suffer for their art…

5-13-14 - I Know a Place

“I know a place,” sings Mavis Staples,
“Ain't nobody cryin', ain't nobody worried; ain't no smilin' faces, lyin' to the races…

I’ll take you there.”

“And you know the way to the place where I am going,” says Jesus.

Do we? Do we know how to get to that place where pain and anxiety and injustice are no more, where “sorrow and sighing will flee away?” (Isaiah 51) Thomas surely didn’t.

“Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’”

In a relational system like the Christian faith, everything – places, routes, truth, even life – comes down to a person. And not just any person – the person of Jesus of Nazareth, whom we claim was the humanly embodied Son of God. More than following a way, assenting to a truth, living a life, as Christ followers we are invited to know Jesus. Knowing Jesus is the Way to know God most fully. Knowing Jesus brings us into a relationship with Truth. Knowing Jesus allows us to fully live that abundant Life he promised.

Of course, scholars have, do and will argue about how exclusive that next sentence was intended to be. Did Jesus really say that, and what did he mean? I just focus on what he said after that: “If you know me, you will know my Father also.” Jesus said he was the Way. Best? Only? Fastest? I don’t know. This is the revelation I have received, so this is where I rest. I seek to know the fullness of God by allowing Jesus into my life in relationship, in conversation, in guidance and sensing and love. If I ever know Jesus well enough, I could explore other spiritual ways. Certainly I can appreciate them, but this one is deep enough for me.

If we’ve grown up with the notion that God is very close, like a grand-dad sitting in his rocker, then Jesus’ proclamation might have little power. But if, like his hearers, you’ve been taught that God is far and too impossibly holy to be known – then you can understand how radical it was for Jesus to proclaim that God was knowable through knowing him.

How do you know Jesus? Through prayer? From books? Stained glass windows? Movies?? Bible study?
How well do you want to know Jesus? I sometimes feel I hold him at arms’ length… too scary somehow.

I believe that if we say to God in prayer, “I’d like to know you more,” that the Spirit will begin to reveal God to us. I don’t know in what way – if you offer that prayer, you might want to keep a prayer notebook to write down whatever you experience in coming to know God better.

I do believe God wants to be known. That is why Jesus came like us – so we could at least recognize him enough to draw near. And when we draw near to that place… we find God.

5-12-14 - Somewhere

There’s a place for us; somewhere a place for us.
Hold my hand and we’re halfway there; hold my hand, and I’ll take you there…

Somewhere. A place for us. In the musical version of Jesus’ last night with his disciples, maybe he’d break into song (actually, I’m reminded of a lot of pop songs in this reading… stay tuned this week!). He is trying to comfort his followers, because they realize how near is the time when he will be taken from them.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”
(Sunday's full gospel passage is here.)

If only we could believe it, when people say they’re coming back for us. If small children could trust that mom’s not disappearing for good, they’d need fewer blankets and bears. If young women could trust that men really do just “want space,” and aren’t taking a permanent hike, there’d be a lot less neurosis in social media – and bad love songs. We can’t believe what we can’t conceive – and how could Jesus’ friends conceive of a place “out there” with him and lots of dwelling places and plenty of room for everyone?

How can we? This passage is often used at funerals. Presumably it comforts the bereaved to know their loved one has a front-door key on a hook somewhere – although I doubt anyone who’s enjoying pure being has much use for a zip code. We like to know where our people are, to imagine them somewhere. Maybe we like to imagine ourselves somewhere, so people have taken the few symbolic hints about heaven in the bible, and worked them into a city with golden streets and gem-encrusted gates.

I’m not old enough yet to be concerned about having my plot in the afterlife arranged. I do know that I can start living that life where I am now. We can access the heavenly places all kinds of ways – in worship, in prayer, in a walk on a fine day – anywhere and any time we feel ourselves connected to Jesus, in the presence and light and love of God.

What is your view of the afterlife – your afterlife? Is it something you imagine?
Where and how do you best find yourself in touch with God in the here and how?
Is that anything like the heaven you imagine?
Maybe in prayer today you can ask the Spirit to make you aware of the Somewhere God intends for you to dwell in.

I believe we are invited to live already as though we know that place, that Somewhere, where Jesus is, where God is. And when we live out that belief, that conviction, we bring it into being in the here and now. Then forgiveness and love and giving our stuff away to people who need it become a lot more natural – we’re living the life of heaven.

Somewhere. We'll find a new way of living, we'll find a way of forgiving
Somewhere …

Somewhere is here, my friends. Some time is already.

5-9-14 - The Abundant Community

Abundance has its drawbacks, I reflected between sneezes. The spring growth spurt that bedecks our trees in pink and green also generates a super-abundance of pollen. There are some things in our lives of which we feel we have too much.

When a whole community is living the abundant life, it generates as much growth as the trees in my yard. Sunday’s reading from Acts about the early church gives us a glimpse (perhaps slightly idealized…) of just how beautiful and fruitful abundance can look like in community:

“Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”

It’s a simple recipe for the good life – and yet most Christ-followers find it impossible to live this way. This is a puzzle, and a shame, for observers outside the faith have pointed out how much more appealing Christianity would be if its followers were more Christ-like. (Mahatma Gandhi was perhaps the most noted, saying, “Oh, I don't reject Christ. I love Christ. It's just that so many of you Christians are so unlike Christ.”)

Oh well... even that early community didn’t stay so focused on mutuality and abundance. We read in Acts that very soon, someone decided to withhold some of the proceeds of a land sale, and lied about it, which was the more community-breaking act. Conflict and scarcity raised their ugly heads.

So, should we conclude this is an impossible ideal? I hope not. All it takes is one person to recommit to living Jesus’ abundant life. Two is even better. They begin to influence others, who decide to reorder their lives, and on it goes. Sociologists have shown that human behavior is remarkably contagious. Greed, fear, and control have had a pretty good run, don’t you think? Might we regain some ground for love, faith and peace?

If you made the lists yesterday of things and people who steal your goodwill, peace, confidence and joy; and the people and places that help you gain those gifts, you have a blueprint for action. If you’re in a covenant relationship with someone else, hold each other accountable when the “scarcity thinking” starts to mess with your abundant joy. And as our communities commit to live this way, increasing our capacity to trust that resources we need will be there when we need them; to stop and shift whenever we start to make a decision based on our fear of scarcity – we will grow, in faith, in joy, and even in people.

Abundant life has a generative principle – abundance generates more abundance. That passage from Acts ends with this: “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”  If we mourn the scarcity of people in our pews, let’s take on the discipline of abundant living and abundant trusting. Few things are more attractive than someone living at peace and trusting in “enough.”

When all the energy in the tree is focused on pushing out buds, it bursts into flower. And when all the energy in our communities is focused on living into Jesus’ promise of Life in abundance, we’ll burst into flower too. That's nothin' to sneeze at...

5-8-14 - The Abundant Life

Want a simple principle to guide life choices? Here’s one: 
Which option leads to more life, and which is likely to drain life away?

When energy and time are finite, we may as well invest in people and activities we find life-giving, and which give life to others, rather than ones which run us down, involve unnecessary criticism or lead to dark or toxic thinking or behavior. I do realize it's not always that simple, and sometimes involves a rewiring process – yet I think that’s the kind of transformation the Holy Spirit works in us as we make room for God’s life in us.

Jesus draws a contrast between life-giving and death-dealing in this week’s passage: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” he says. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

“The thief” might be anything or anyone who stunts our life or brings oppression, be it emotional, political, spiritual, economic, or any other kind. Jesus was painting the religious leaders with that brush, and of course the Roman occupiers. He probably also meant our spiritual adversary, the devil, intent on drawing people away from trusting the love of God. We know what death-dealing looks and feels like.

The abundant life is harder to describe, since life is hard to quantify – but we know it when we’re living it. It consists not so much in an abundance of things or time or even love, as in our awareness of richness, our being tuned to abundance. The abundant life is a balanced life, where we are renewed as we pour ourselves out for others. It is a life of laughter and insight and rich conversations, of wonder and play. It is life that we live here and now, and it does not end with death. That, Jesus says, is why he came – that we might have life, and have it in abundance.

What are the “thieves” of your good will, peace, confidence, and joy? Make a list of all the culprits. It might include people you love; surfacing that can give you incentive to work on those relationships. This exercise is not without complications!

In what places do you find the most life? List those too. Do you get to put enough of your time and energy into those things? Can you find a way to invest more? Any investment advisor will tell us to put our resources into things with a good yield, what Jesus called “fruitfulness.” Are we investing wisely with our time and gifts and love?

When our hearts are tuned to abundance, we find feasts large and small. We make feasts for others at the drop of a hat. We trust that resources will be there when needed, and usually find they are. We move with the wind of the Spirit in our sails, and when we’re becalmed, we rest in it. We feel our feelings fully, even the less happy ones. We forgive ourselves and others easily. We love ourselves and others.

The abundant life is not where I started out, and it’s still a place I need guidance to navigate. As the Holy Spirit remakes me, in union with my spirit, I’m starting to dwell there more and more. I hope you are too.

5-7-14 - Coming and Going

“I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”

Earlier this week I mentioned Jesus’ saying he was the gate of the sheepfold, the means of entry. Presumably, he meant entry into the Life of God; he sometimes talked about the challenges of entry for certain sorts of people (i.e., easy for children; harder for the wealthy). I was having trouble imagining a person being a gate, and a friend emailed me a tidbit about sheepfolds in Jesus’ day. Scholars think they often had no gate. The shepherd, when the flock was safely enclosed, would lie down to sleep in the opening as a way of securing the flock. Thus, the shepherd became a gate.

Besides the amusing image this prompted for me, of a sleepy shepherd trampled one morning by hungry sheep going out to pasture, it helped make sense of Jesus’ words. The shepherd is the one who leads the flock in and out of the fold. Jesus says those who enter the Life of God by way of relationship with him will come in and go out and find pasture.

And for the first time it occurred to me that sheep don’t get sustenance in the sheepfold – they get rest and security. For nourishment, they go out to seek pasture. What does that say to us as churchgoers? Often people say they go to church to be fed. What if instead we saw church-time as a time to rest and recharge, be renewed, safely enclosed in the fold with the rest of our flock – and then sent back out to find nurture in our lives the rest of the week?

What if we were fed in spiritual conversation with other people, by sharing our faith journey with people who aren’t in our “fold?” What if God wants us to be pasture for others to be fed by? The going out becomes as important as the coming in, maybe more.

Why do you go to church? What do you seek there?
What do you seek when you leave and head back to your “life?”
Where do you, or where might you find spiritual nurture in the week between worship services?
Where might you offer it?

In prayer today, you might ask, “God… what pastures are you leading me to in my life right now? Who might you be asking me to provide a feast for?” And see what occurs to you, or who crosses your path.

We don’t come and go alone. The Great News is that the shepherd goes with us, coming in and going out. The shepherd leads us to green pastures and the shepherd leads us home again. We don’t have to search for pasture – we only have to learn the voice of the Shepherd and follow him.

5-6-14 - The Shepherd's Voice

I don’t know enough about sheep-keeping to know how responsive sheep are to sound (and the one person I know who’s been a shepherd is out of town, so I can’t ask…)

But Jesus says that sheep know the shepherd’s voice:
“The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”

This passage always reminds me of Jesus’ encounter with Mary Magdalene in the garden on Easter morning. In her grief at finding the tomb empty, and assuming someone has taken the body of her Lord, Mary has a conversation with Jesus, whom she mistakes for a gardener. It is only when he says her name that she recognizes him by his voice. “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”

I can’t claim to know Jesus’ voice, but I have had enough interior conversations with him that I believe I recognize his voice – not by timbre but by what he says. When I get a response in prayer that is simple and profound and sometimes a little sharp, something that I’m pretty sure I would never have thought of, I attribute it to Jesus. And if it bears good fruit, I feel that hunch confirmed.

One way of describing spiritual growth as a Christ-follower is allowing our spirits to become familiar with the Shepherd’s voice, so that we are led to green pastures and still waters, to fruitfulness and refreshment. Christ’s leading, which comes to us through the the Holy Spirit, can also steer us away from ravines and precipices. As we learn to trust that guidance, we also become more attuned to false shepherds, seeking to lead us away from the One who makes us whole.

How do you experience Jesus’ voice in your life? Through scripture or prayer? In worship? Inner promptings? Other people offering interpretations?

If the very idea of “hearing” Jesus seems strange to you,you might consider offering a prayer like this: “Okay, Jesus, if you call your own sheep by name and lead them out, call me in a way I can understand.” And then see what happens – over the next hours or days or weeks… check in periodically with that prayer and see if your relationship is changing at all. It’s not up to the sheep, it’s up to the shepherd… and it helps if the sheep are alive to the possibilities.

I think Jesus had to watch a lot of people who wandered into his community be drawn away again by fear-mongering leaders who warned people not to trust him, or by their own inability to commit to him when it became inconvenient. I imagine it pained him to watch people come close to the love he offered and then wander off.

But Jesus never forced anyone to follow him, and he doesn’t now. He only calls to us, with open arms.

5-5-14 - Good Shepherd

Someday, someone will explain to me the Easter season lectionary. After a few Sundays exploring the events of Easter Sunday, we jump on Easter 4 to one of the “I am the good shepherd” passages.

At first glance, “Good Shepherd Sunday” sounds nice and comforting. But as we read these passages, we find they are anything but cuddly. Thieves, rustlers, predators and unreliable hired men abound. It turns out, though, that Jesus is really talking – as usual – about the corrupt and oppressive religious leaders whom he feels misrepresent God and choke the spiritual life of their people:

“Very truly, I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.”

It’s easy to get tangled up in the words as John presents them, but Jesus clarifies it, saying a bit later, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”

Is it any wonder they wanted to kill Jesus? He explicitly compares them to thieves and bandits, they who would rob people of their assurance of God’s love and mercy. Of course, he’s also comparing the people to sheep, not the most flattering of allusions.

It has always been hard for my literal mind to imagine Jesus as a gate – he’s a person. Maybe it helps if we think of Him as one who creates entry space for contact with God – a threshold we cross to gain access to the Holy One, the Creator of all. After all, we affirm that it is by Jesus’ holiness, not our own, that we have access to the Father. He’s our way in… and out.

Does Jesus function that way in your spiritual life? Is he a threshold you can cross, a space-creator?
Have you suffered from poor shepherds in the past, who made intimacy with God more difficult? 

Perhaps you can pray for them, and even forgive. That makes space too.
Do you think you need Jesus to get closer to God? Do you want him in that between-space?

My prayer for today is, “Jesus – if you’re the gate, show me how I can get closer to the fullness of God by getting closer to you.”

5-2-14 - To Have, Not Hold

“When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.”

The post-resurrection Jesus had astonishing powers – he could appear in locked rooms, and disappear at will. Perhaps it wasn’t so much “appear” and “disappear” as “materialize” and “dematerialize.” After all, the risen Jesus was spirit – not a ghost, he points out, but spirit. He seemed to be able to take on substance, or matter, when he needed to be seen. (Perhaps he had those properties before resurrection as well… His little stroll upon the Sea of Galilee and transfiguration on the mountain offer a tantalizing hint into the physics of Jesus’ incarnation…).

He pulls this disappearing act in several resurrection appearances the Gospels tell us. He said to Mary in the garden, “Don’t hold onto me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father.” (John 20:11-18) He did hang out and have breakfast with the disciples on the beach after the miraculous catch of fish (John 21), but his interview with Peter implies his coming absence. In Luke’s account of the upper room appearance, he talks about sending the Spirit to them (Luke 24:36-49). It is clear he’s not sticking around.

The point is, Jesus was not back to stay. This post- Resurrection, pre-Ascension walkabout had a purpose, to reinforce the teaching he’d given his followers for three years, and to prepare them to receive the Holy Spirit, who would kick the whole operation into gear – and here we are, more or less still in gear, two thousand-plus years later.

We tend to want to keep what feels good, to rest in it. And that is not God’s gift to us. Jesus always seems to be moving on to the next place we will find him. Maybe we’re not wired to withstand the frequency of God’s presence all the time. I know I have trouble staying put for even a little while, though there is something about that presence that I crave. Maybe Jesus’ appearances, whether in those 40 days, or in our prayers and worship and ministry and community now, are always brief and for a purpose. Maybe he leads us on to new ways to experience him and new ways to make him known to the world, because there are so many who do not know him and need a multiplicity of on-ramps.

Where did you last experience the presence of Christ? (Maybe it’s the presence of the Father, or the Spirit… Three in One…). How long did that experience last? Did you feel ready for it to end?
If you would you like to experience the presence of Christ, and aren’t aware of having done so, here’s a prayer for today: “Risen Lord – I want to know you, to feel your presence, your love. Open my eyes, ears, heart and hands, and find me where I am today. Amen.”

I don’t know what will come of that prayer, but I think you can pray and release it, and not think about it – God will answer in God’s time and in a way that works for you. I don’t believe God hides from us. And whenever you do encounter that presence, tell someone! Those disciples got up from the table and ran seven miles back the way they’d just come to tell the story, only to find that Jesus had showed up in Jerusalem the same evening.

I don’t think anyone, even the most prayer-soaked mystic, experiences God’s presence in a constant, unbroken way. Jesus did make a promise, though, that we can rest in, “I will be with you always, even to the end of the ages.” 

At the end of the ages, we’ll be able to sit in his presence full time. For now, we take the moments and string them together like pearls of great price.

5-1-14 - Breaking Bread

“Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past…” So begins a well-loved prayer from the Episcopal service of Compline, or “night prayer.” It comes from this week’s Gospel story. The two disciples do not recognize Jesus, despite his insight and authority on sacred history, but they want to continue conversation with him, to remain in his presence. Even as they reach their destination, and he is preparing to walk on, they urge him to stay:

“As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him…”

Something about Jesus’ resurrection body must have been different – in nearly every post-Easter appearance we read in the Gospels, people who knew and loved Jesus did not recognize him until he did or said something familiar. At the supper table that night in Emmaus, when Jesus took the bread, blessed, broke and gave it to them, they suddenly saw who it was they’d spent the afternoon with. How often had they seen him bless and break bread – sometimes in amazing circumstances: when they fed 5,000 people on a hillside with five loaves and two fish; when they’d gathered only a few nights ago in the upper room for the Passover feast, and such strange words had accompanied that action: “Take, eat. This is my body, given for you. Whenever you eat this bread, do it in remembrance of me.” The familiar action made manifest the holy.

Breaking bread is a universal rite of community, whether gathered at end of day, for a special occasion, to reconvene family, reconcile the estranged. It became a central act for Christian communities, not only the Eucharistic blessing, breaking and sharing, but also a common meal celebrating the people gathered.

At our Eucharistic feast, the bread is a symbol of Christ’s body – it is broken so as to be shared, given away, as his life was. So, too, community (also the Body of Christ) is broken apart after worship to feed the world. As a friend once described the eucharist: “You give us this little piece of bread, and we give it away all week, and come back for more.” Yes. And when next the Body comes back together, reconstituted, there is a new loaf of bread to be broken. And on it goes, this breaking and making whole in Jesus’ name.

With what do you associate “the breaking of bread?” What are the holy feasts in your life? 

They may not be centered around worship, but around family or holidays or celebrations – picnics, banquets.
Do you think of Jesus when the bread in those feasts is broken and shared? Such moments can become a reminder that his presence is a promise to us, and an invitation to enter his brokenness and his wholeness.

Maybe you would like to make that Compline prayer part of your end of day practice:

Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen.

For the sake of His love, he has already granted that prayer. That way is ready for us to walk in.