11-29-14 - To the Ends of Heaven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11-26-14 - Travel Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You... Are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11-24-14 - Lessons from the Turkey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That might be a good prayer for us today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11-20-14 - Jesus' Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11-19-14 - Royalty Disguised

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11-18-14 - The Sorting

Should we blame Jesus for the age-old bias against left-handers? In this week’s Gospel reading, he spins a vision of the Son of Man seated in glory with all the nations gathered before him, sorting all the people like livestock. The blessed go to his right hand, the cursed to his left:
“All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.”

Why do goats stand in for the cursed? Why must there be any cursed? For that matter, why must the judgment involve separating the sheep from the goats? (Or, for Episcopalians, the chic from the gauche… ba-dum-bum…) Why must there be a judgment at all? And do we need to fear it?

How literally should we take Jesus’ words here? I said yesterday this was not a parable in the same way as Jesus’ other stories, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t use symbolic language to convey a spiritual truth. He wants his followers to know that our choices in this life do have consequences – and that we will be judged in large measure by how we do or do not care for the most vulnerable among us. Or, put another way, How well did you love your neighbor as yourself?

Most church-goers I encounter these days are profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of a Final Judgment. I am too. We don’t know what will be. We only know that in the gospel accounts handed down to us, Jesus referred to such an event occurring at the “end of the age.” He was right in line with the testimony of Israel’s prophets, all of whom refer at some point or another to the Judgment or the Day of Wrath or the “Great and Terrible Day of the Lord.” Christian preachers who try to “scare folks into heaven” come by that approach honestly – our scriptures are full of dire warnings.

I prefer to “love people into heaven," and I suspect you do as well. As we will see when we explore the details further tomorrow, Jesus associates salvation not only with how we treat others, but how well we recognize him. He is our “ticket to heaven,” if you will.

But I wonder: do we truly want a heaven from which some are excluded, even if they’ve excluded themselves? Do we want to be sorted? I confess I can think of few visions sadder than people sent to the left side, cut off from the Promise. Okay... how about those who behead their captives? Would I be sad to see them sorted out? On some level yes, even them. I don’t want to think anyone is beyond hope, beyond the reach of God’s power to transform. Black hearts have turned before. Witness John Newton and a thousand others.

It is so hard for me to find the Good News in this scenario. It’s not enough to think “I’m safe.” The promise has to be eternal, the offer good forever, for all time, all people.

This reflection is full of doubts and wonderings and question marks. Perhaps the only answer is to pray. To pray for those who seem to turn their back on God, on Jesus, on the good, whether it’s because of disorder or trauma, or because they’ve made a full-on choice to get what they can in this world, no matter who they trample or torture.

Maybe when we pray we can see a speck of room for Jesus in them, and we can pray that he will heal and gently guide them home with the rest of the sheep.

11-17-14 - King of All Nations

We are nearing the end of our church year – next Sunday is celebrated as “Christ the King” Sunday in many churches. This is not an actual feast day, but it focuses our whole year of Jesus-stories to their ultimate end: that this strangely born infant who was honored as king, and this crucified teacher who was lauded and then mocked as king, truly was, is, and is to be the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

We also come to the end of three weeks in Matthew 25 – a chapter chock-full of rich parables and images. Once again, Jesus has a story to tell – but this one is not a parable. Those are stories, set in past or present tense, he told to describe the Kingdom of God. This one is a vision of the future. Jesus explicitly images himself as a king, seated on a throne, overseeing a gathering of all nations and peoples. He is not telling a story in symbols – he is predicting his future, a future when he is no longer cloaked in human flesh with all its limitations, but radiantly triumphant, fully revealed.

This is what he says will happen,
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him.”

At the very beginning of our salvation story, God makes Abraham a series of promises, and each time there is this: that through Abraham all nations will be blessed. Later, the psalmists and prophets pick up the theme of all nations; Isaiah foretells the day when all nations will stream to the light of the one true God (Isaiah 60:3). And later still, St. Paul echoes Jesus’ vision in his letter to the church at Ephesus (also a reading appointed for Sunday):

“God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.”

The promised, in-breaking reign of God is not only for those who follow Jesus in this life. It is a promise of peace for the whole world, a vision of nations coming together. In our ever more fractured world, it can be hard to believe in such a vision – but our believing is partly how God is bringing it into being. When we believe in that vision of unity, it is harder to give energy and resources to perpetuating enmity and violence. When we put our faith in that vision, we start to desire it, and work toward it. We become the peacemakers and justice-seekers Jesus wants his followers to be.

Here’s a prayer exercise for us to try today:
Pick any two bitter world enemies. Imagine people from those two nations streaming toward a light-filled mountain, merging as they come together to climb toward the light. That’s a way of praying. Take another two nations, do it again. Think of an enemy of your own country. Imagine being part of a stream of your fellow citizens moving together toward the Light of the World, the King to whom all earthly powers will yield authority. That’s the future we proclaim. THAT’s the Gospel, the Good News we have to share.

I know a woman who prays daily for peace in the most unlikely places, for the conversion to love of the most hate-filled souls. She is actively exercising faith, speaking God’s future into being now. I suggest we join her. Perhaps all nations will be blessed through us.

11-14-14 - The Rich Get Richer

Time to call in the dentists – we’re at the end of another parable and some poor guy has just been thrown into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Jesus seemed to like this phrase; he used it a lot. I wish I thought he was being funny.

I don’t like these unhappy endings Jesus sometimes put on his stories. I prefer the ones that emphasize mercy and forgiveness. There seems to be no forgiveness for this hapless servant who hid the talent entrusted to him. He comes and says his piece to the master, and gives him back the coin, saying, “Here you have what is yours.” But the master is livid and replies,

‘You wicked and lazy servant! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless servant, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Wow. This poor guy might have thought he was doing the right thing, the safe thing. But the safe thing seems not to be what the master considers the right thing. He is not going to give this one a second chance, but will take the resources from him and give it to the one who already doubled his money.

Is this right? Is this fair? Is that how God regards us when we don’t use the riches we’ve been given? Well, God’s ideas of equity and ours often differ. If God wants to see God’s mission accomplished, and God has chosen to work through humankind, it makes sense to give resources to people who have the faith, the vision and the courage to implement them. If we feel impoverished as people or communities of faith, it’s not that we’re bad, or wrong – it may just be that we’re timid, risk-averse, inward-looking. That's not what God needs us to be.

What is the greatest gift God has given us? According to St. Paul, it’s love. (I Corinthians 13) Today I suggest we read through this parable again today, substituting the word “love” for “talents.” How that opens it up!

Do we invest the love we have in loving others – which is about the most risky thing we can do in this life? Are we spending all we have in love?

Or have we buried our love, or some of it, in a hole, covered over, "safe?" Do we bury our love in over-work or stress or sadness, afraid to risk losing what little we have?

That’s a thing about love – if we’re afraid of losing it, we’ve already lost it. And when we give it away lavishly, we seem to find it multiplying in our lives. That’s how the “rich get richer” in the Life of God. That’s how we make enough wealth to provide for everyone – a wealth of love, enough to reclaim, restore and renew this world and every person it.

11-13-14 - Joy of God

In some theological circles God is seen as a “watchmaker” – a creator who made the world, wound it up and set it in motion, and sits back watching it tick, for good and ill. This would not be a deity who intervenes in the affairs of his or her creation; this God privileges free will to the max.

At first glance, the “master” in the parable of the talents could bolster such a view of God. He heads off on a journey, leaving resources and instructions – but not too specific – with his employees. And, like the long-delayed bridegroom in last week’s parable, he stays gone awhile, so long that perhaps his employees think he’s gone for good, that they run the business now. But no: 

“After a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them.”

And the way he goes about the accounting suggests an ongoing relationship, not diminished by his absence. To each of the two servants who doubled their money he says, “Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” Inviting others into his “joy” does not sound like an aloof watchmaker boss.

Why, I wonder, did Jesus tell of two servants who had differing amounts to invest? Saying it twice to make the point? Maybe. And maybe he wants to be sure we get the message that it’s not the amount that matters, it’s the act of investing, of taking risks, of seeking to grow what we’ve been given. Investing our gifts is not only for the wealthy or the multiply blessed – it’s for all followers of the Jesus way. And the master's praising each of these servants the same way, regardless of how much they earned, suggests that God is more interested in our engagement than our results. No matter the total, if we invest we are invited into God's joy.

Joy is a state of being that incorporates contentment, trust, serenity, happiness, but is deeper and more encompassing than any one of these. We can experience joy in the midst of pain and loss. Joy is one of God’s greatest gifts to us.

Have you experienced the joy of God during or after some ministry you’ve been engaged in? It might not have looked like “ministry.” It might have been when you followed an impulse to help someone or some time of praise. It’s a certain kind of kick we get when we allow the Holy Spirit to work through us.

If you can recall a time when you’ve felt “the joy of the master,” consider it. What were you doing? How did you feel you were working with God when you were involved with that? How did you feel later? Can that happen again?

And if joy has not been much part of your experience of church, Christianity, relationship with God – there’s something to ponder too. What’s in the way – something in the institution, something in you, or both? If we can be aware of the barriers we can pray them down.

Jesus told his followers on the night before he was arrested and killed, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15:11)
Even then, knowing what was before him, he spoke of his joy and wanting them to have it. He’s already given it to us. We need to keep unwrapping the gift.

11-12-14 - Choose or Lose

Some years ago I attended a seminar on personal finance and learned something I had never realized: if you do not choose to invest your money, you are in effect choosing to lose your money, as it gradually loses value with the rate of inflation. Not choosing means losing.

A biblical exemplar of “not choosing” is the third servant in Jesus’ story of the talents (or 'coins'):
“The one who had received the five coins went off at once and traded with them, and made five more coins. In the same way, the one who had the two coins made two more coins. But the one who had received the one coin went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.”

Why would he think it a wise move to hide the money? He was afraid of losing it; this seemed a risk-free strategy. Turns out he was also afraid of his master, telling him when he returns from his journey: 

“Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.”

This guy doesn’t think very highly of his master’s integrity – he as much as calls him harsh, dishonest, a thief "appropriating" what is not his to take. This servant does not appreciate the trust placed in him – he can’t wait to be rid of the burden: “Here you have what is yours.”

Who does Jesus intend this servant to represent, I wonder? Another way of getting at that question is to ask what it means to invest our "talents" in the spiritual life. To me, investment means full-on engagement in the life of faith – orienting our lives to moving in the mission of God, praying with bold expectation, taking risks in ministry, risking some disorder, disdain, disappointment. It’s radical trust in the Spirit of God to lead and guide us. It’s saying and praying, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

By contrast, burying our “talent” is playing it safe, laying low. Instead of radical trust, we exhibit radical mistrust in the power and promises of God. We pay way more attention to the unanswered prayers and things that didn’t work than to our victories in God. We allow ourselves to become bench-warmers (or pew-warmers…), disabled and sidelined. The master in Jesus’ story has no patience with this:

“But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy servant! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the coin from him, and give it to the one with the ten coins.”

Which servant do you feel most like today?
The big risk-taker investing all five of her coins, the moderate one with the two – or the one who plays it so safe he accomplishes less than nothing? If you’re in the latter category, faith-wise – what’s holding you back?
Do you mistrust God because of some pain that you feel God allowed, did not prevent?
Prayers you did not see answered in the way you needed to?
Do you see God as a harsh judge, or as loving father?
You can afford to be honest with God.
Allow the Spirit to pour some healing balm into those wounds, and think about trusting again.

The great thing about being a servant and not a master is that we don’t have to worry about results. We just have to follow orders and give it our all, and let God worry about the outcome. The very act of stepping out in faith, Jesus suggests, allows God to work through us – and the yield is abundant.

11-11-14 - Double Your Money

I wish I knew the investment strategist guiding these guys in Jesus’ story:
“The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents.”

I don’t know what a “talent” was worth, but I know that doubling your money is always a good deal. If my math is correct, each of these servants got a 100% rate of return. I don’t know how sophisticated Jesus’ math was (but, hey, if he could conquer death he could handle calculus, right?), but I read into that percentage a symbol of wholeness. (And if we want to go number crazy, notice today's date... 11-11...)

This is not a parable about finance, but faithfulness. I think Jesus is saying that when we invest faithfully the gifts and assets God has given us, we realize wholeness. And if we say that the mission of God is to restore all of creation to wholeness, we get a big clue about how we as followers of Christ are to go about participating in God’s mission. One message of this parable is: Our acts of faith will yield fruit, 100% worth. Our holding back in fear? Nothing.

And we should expect big yields! We’ve grown so timid, so many of us nth-generation Christ-followers. For too long we have dwelt in the land of diminishing returns, our attendance and budgets and staffs shrinking, our giving tepid, our children fleeing what we know as “Church,” our neighbors disinterested in joining us. So we adjust our expectations downward – and maybe we hold back on our investment of faith and energy too. And all the while it may just be that God is leading us to do church in a new way.

This parable invites us to look up and remember who called us to those tired buildings in the first place. The Lord of Heaven and Earth says, “Join me – I am making all things new! Here, I give you all these riches, freely, your inheritance. Now plow it back into our Family Business. Let’s see what 100% growth looks like.” And you know, when we expect 100% - we’re more apt to realize it.

In what places in your life do you believe you reap a mighty return on investment of your time and energy? What feels fruitful? Why do you suppose that part works?

Where do you feel you get nothing back, or see returns diminishing? Might you ask Jesus to show you a new way to invest in that area? Maybe we need some new methods.

100% growth – I like it. it starts with our hearts and our faith and our actions, opening ourselves to the nudgings of the Holy Spirit. We can’t do it without God, and it seems God won’t do it without us.

11-10-14 - Investment

Jesus was a versatile communicator, ably connecting with multiple audiences. To teach about the realm of God, he told stories of sheep, vineyards, bread-baking and house-cleaning, seeds, crime victims, rebellious sons, foolish bridesmaids. This week we explore a parable set in the world of finance, a story of investment, stewardship, trust and mistrust. Like last week’s, this parable illuminates Jesus’ warning: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” – of the final judgment, that is.

To give his followers a clue as to what it means to live “awake,” he tells a story about three servants to whom a man entrusted his wealth:

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his servants and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.”

A simple enough story on the surface; if you read to the end (spoiler alert!), you know that the two who invested their funds were rewarded, while the one who protected his master’s investment was roundly condemned. We'll focus on those another day. For now let’s consider how the language of investment can draw us into the Life of God.

"Investment" is a word we are throwing around a lot at my church of late. As we invite people to make pledges of financial giving on which we will base our 2015 budget, we are inviting investment in what God is up to at Christ the Healer. We are not "seeking support." Investment is active, participatory – when we invest in something, we look for returns, maybe even work to improve the returns.

The life of faith might be seen as an exercise in wealth management. Our God, who made it all and owns it all has invested tremendous wealth in us. God has given us life, gifts, relationships, work, ministries, joy, love – you name it – not to keep and hoard but to tend and nurture for growth. I believe God wants to see great returns on the investment God makes with us – our children growing healthy and independent, our marriages becoming more than the sum of the two partners, our work lives fruitful in ways that expand possibilities for others, us all working for peace and equity.

All of this “good fruit,” to use Jesus’ phrase, rests on our returning the trust God has invested in us by our investing in one another, in this world, and in the mission of God to reclaim, restore and renew all things in Christ.

What are some assets you feel you have been given?
Make a comprehensive list – and don’t forget to include the intangibles, spiritual and emotional and relational gifts, along with the quantifiable ones.
In what ways have you invested these assets so they grow?
Are you clinging to any, afraid to risk losing them?
This is good prayer fodder. Let’s spend some time chatting with God today about our answers to these questions, asking God for some “stock tips,” places God particularly wants us to invest ourselves.

Jesus invites us to step out in faith, investing our energy and resources, not sure of the return. The faithfulness God seeks is in the act of investing, not in the dividends.

11-7-14 - Dancing with Fire

“Don’t play with fire,” is an instruction we receive early in life from parents, camp counselors, Smoky the Bear. Fire, so cozy and warm in a fireplace, so romantic and spiritual on the ends of candles, can be so destructive if uncontained.

In our faith lives, however, we are invited not only to play, but to dance with fire, the fire of God. Perhaps I’m overly taken with this notion that the ten bridesmaids in Jesus’ story needed their lamps to dance in procession through the streets, escorting the bridegroom to his waiting bride. I love the image of these lights weaving through the darkened streets, building up anticipation of the joyful union to come. It’s a beautiful metaphor for how we can live out our identity as Christ followers bearing his light into the world.

Do you wake up every morning and think, “I am a bearer of light?” I don’t, though I plan to start. The shortening days around us in the northern hemisphere can be a good reminder. And if we commit ourselves to being light-bearers, we’ll need to keep our oil reservoirs full, just like the bridesmaids in our story.

In the early church, oil was a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Many early baptismal rites relied heavily on oil for anointing as a sign of the imparting of the Spirit. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, reminds them that they were “marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit” as a pledge of their spiritual inheritance, already available to them in Christ. We received the same sign, the same pledge, at our baptisms.

It is the Holy Spirit who inspires us to ministries, large and small, often quite specifically through suggestions or signs. It is the Spirit who equips us with the gifts we need for what we feel called to do. It is the Spirit who empowers us, working through us so that we can do so much more than we can ask or imagine, to quote Paul again. It is the Spirit who brings us peace, and union with Christ.

How do we keep our reservoirs filed with the Spirit? Pray. The prayer, “Holy Spirit, fill me…” is one God answers. In our human limitation, we often need to pray to be refilled, for we are leaky vessels. But the prayer itself reminds us that if we would accomplish any light-bearing that makes a difference to the people walking in darkness, it will be by the Spirit’s power in us, not ours alone. We can’t lose with the prayer to be filled with the Spirit.

Have you noticed some dark streets or darkened hearts that could use some light? Do you feel you have some to share, or is your flame a bit dim? We’ve learned this week about keeping our lamps trimmed through spiritual practices that open us to God’s abundant life. Add to those a regular prayer of, “Holy Spirit, fill me,” and we are always ready when the cry comes to greet the Bridegroom.

The world needs not only the light we bring – it also needs our joy. So we are invited to dance with our lights. Remember, the bridesmaids needed those lamps to dance the Bridegroom to his wedding feast and beloved bride. That means the church – a community of individuals in varying stages of coming to know Christ. Every time we dance the presence of Christ through the dark to a person waiting to receive him, we draw nearer to him ourselves.

Why play with fire, I ask you, if you can dance with it? That is our sacred duty, our inheritance, and our glorious future.

11-6-14 - The Bouncer

I like happy endings. And yet I recognize that what is a happy ending for one is often not for another. Victory in a game, or a war, or – oh yeah, an election – means defeat for someone else. Not all happy endings have a sad flipside, but many do. So I’m not crazy about the way Jesus’ story of the bridesmaids ends. When the foolish bridesmaids discover their lamps are going out due to insufficient oil, they ask the ones who thought to bring extra to share some, and are told:

“No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”

I see a crowd outside a popular nightspot, with the bouncer letting in the “cool ones” and keeping out those who are not on the list, not connected. But these bridesmaids thought they were connected. “Check it again,” they cry, “I’m sure we’re on there. We’re bridesmaids! We just had to run and get ourselves some more oil.” But the answer is cold as ice: “I do not know you.”

Is this how Jesus is going to respond to us if we’re late or unprepared? His “punchline” to the story is: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
Is there no room for complacency? No missing the boat? And what about those who never knew about the club in the first place?

This harsh teaching comes up at the end of a few parables, and it’s hard because it's counter to the message of acceptance and grace Jesus so often extended to people. Jesus often seemed to be most harsh with those who should know better – the religious leaders and his own disciples. These bridesmaids represent people who’ve already made a commitment to the realm of God, and there’s no excuse for them not being ready to fulfill their mission.

How do you feel as a disciple of Jesus Christ – prepared? Equipped? Your lamp lit and oil reservoir full?
If not, what do you feel you are lacking? Might you come into conversation with Jesus about that today? Ask him where the resources are, and as you wait for response, think about your circumstances and the people around you. What else do you need, and who else do you need to more fully engage in God’s mission of reclaiming, restoring, renewing?

And If you feel the foolish bridesmaids got a raw deal, and fear you’d be in the same boat, that is definitely something to talk over with Jesus in prayer. Relationships require honest communication.

At the end of The Story, I hope and pray that door stays open to all who come, at whatever hour, as another of Jesus’ stories teaches us. In the meantime, we are invited to trust in God’s mercy and live into the responsibility which Jesus has entrusted to us – always ready to carry the light.

11-5-14 - Oil Crisis

Jesus’ parables often seem upside down to us at first glance. In this one we see half the bridesmaids rewarded for hoarding, and others facing ultimate consequences for what seems like the minor offense of insufficient preparation. Hmmm. The nap they all took while waiting for the bridegroom to show up does not seem to have been an issue, and each had taken care of preparing her own lamp. The problem was half of them had not thought ahead.

“But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’”

Perhaps the lamps had been lit earlier, when they thought the bridegroom would come any minute. Perhaps they’d been burning while they napped. Whatever the reason, the five foolish bridesmaids maids had not foreseen the need for extra oil. They’d brought just enough, which turned out to be not enough at all. And the wise (or “fuelish?”) were not inclined to help them out.

Wait a minute – isn’t Jesus for sharing? Loving your neighbor as yourself? Doing unto others? What’s up with the selfish bridesmaids, and why does he deem them “wise?” Well, let’s think about it. Sharing the extra oil they’d brought would have ensured that no one would have enough, and all the lamps would go out, and the bridegroom would arrive to darkness. No procession, no dancing, no lights. Maybe he wouldn’t even be able to find his bride. This falls into the category of the airplane instructions to put your own oxygen mask on before helping children and other passengers.

If Jesus’ story is a metaphor about God’s Bridegroom coming into the hearts of humankind to draw us into union with God, then the absence of light is a grave problem. The wise bridesmaids have their eye on the big picture, the over-all mission, where the foolish ones can’t see past their personal success or failure. The kind of disciples God needs, Jesus suggests, are those who are conscious, aware, prepared, and focused enough on shining God's light in this world to not allow distractions to pull them off-mission.

In this day and age we know a thing or two about distraction – media, data, noise, busyness all seem to be increasing. And in our post-Christendom culture, there are fewer external supports to living our lives focused on Christ – and a lot more competition. Soccer on Sundays isn’t the half of it. I know people who hold back from a deeper spiritual commitment because their spouse or partner is not interested. I know many people who let their workload dictate their priorities (often I’m one of them…)

It is not selfish to take time to be quiet with God, to foster your relationship with Christ. When we’re in love, we don’t question the amount of time we spend with our beloved. Jesus invites us into a relationship of love in which he becomes our first priority. If what we’re promised is true, he is our one eternal relationship – getting to know him and letting him get close to us is the greatest gift we can give to the people in our lives, no matter their short-term needs.

When we are refreshed, we are much more effective as representatives of God in the world. We are more finely tuned to discerning need around us and the movement of the Spirit in us. We are quicker to recognize our own faults and invite Jesus to set us free. We become wedding attendants who can dance Jesus into the hearts of those who might be ready to fall in love with him. He’ll do the rest.

11-4-14 - Trimming our Lamps

Turns out there is an art to making a flame, at least when it comes to lamps. According to Wikipedia, 
“A poorly trimmed wick creates a flame which is dim and smoky. A properly trimmed wick should come to a rounded point, or should be wedge shaped.” The bridesmaids in our story took care of that:  
“...at midnight there was a shout: ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ Then all the bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps.”

Yesterday I shared the suggestion that the “lamps” in Jesus’ parable may have been more like oil-soaked rag torches. Perhaps that is so, but he does speak of trimming wicks, which suggests a more sophisticated level of lamp technology. He seems to say, it’s not enough to have access to fire, and fuel to burn – if we want our light to be strong and unwavering, we need to keep our wicks well trimmed.

How does that translate for us as Christ-followers engaged in God’s mission to reclaim, restore and renew all of creation? I think our primary means of keeping our lamps ready to burn clear and bright are spiritual practices. These include well-known disciplines as well as rituals and patterns we develop for ourselves. The “big ones” include regular participation in worship with the Body of Christ, regularly reading and chewing on Scripture, regular times of prayer and contemplation in which we seek to hear God speaking to and through us, regular acts of giving and mercy. Beyond these are disciplines such as fasting, confession, retreats, and pilgrimage that help us draw nearer to God.

Note the emphasis on the word “regular,” the root of which gives us our word “rule.” Like monastics, we are invited to take on a rule of life, a planned and articulated series of spiritual practices we find faith-strengthening and life-giving. Just as we exercise our bodies regularly, these practices make us more grounded, healthy, responsive, nimble and strong.

We all have personal rituals and routines that can also be spiritual practices for us. These might include hospitality, listening, walking, drawing, music – anything that can be woven into the rhythm of your day or week that calls you to your truest self and opens your spirit to the life of God.

Do you have a “rule of life?” I developed one last year that included some time each day interacting with nature, regular walks and writing nature poetry as well as daily prayer, bible study and journaling, and monthly hospitality. What spiritual practices do you currently engage in, formally or informally? Make a list. Are there some you’ve been wanting to take on and haven’t gotten to? You could offer that desire or intention to God in prayer and then make a plan to incorporate it into your life. Be specific about the when and where, and who might support you in that practice.

If you don’t have a spiritual director or formalized “spiritual friendship” with anyone, I highly recommend it. Think of this person as a personal trainer or exercise buddy for your spiritual life. Jesus always invites us to partner in ministry, and the accountability and other perspective is invaluable. (Email me if you want help with this.)

All the wick-trimming in the world, though, won’t let the light shine if we don’t have enough oil. The spiritual life is always a combination of our discipline and the Holy Spirit’s serendipitous presence. Tomorrow we’ll talk about what it means to have enough oil to shine for all the world to see.

11-3-14 - Drowsy Bridesmaids

This coming Sunday, we get one of Jesus’ more complex and confusing parables, about the wise and foolish bridesmaids. No, this isn’t the Kristen Wiig flick of a few summers ago; this is Jesus telling a story to explain something he’d told his followers: “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” (Matthew 24:42)

To teach them about being prepared, Jesus compares God’s realm to bridesmaids awaiting a tardy bridegroom: “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept.”

So, why were the bridesmaids going to meet the bridegroom? Where was the bride? And why did they need lamps? The story makes more sense to us if we know a little about marriage customs in Jesus’ day – or what scholars think might have been marriage customs in Jesus’ day. I have read that in and around Bethlehem, around the time of Jesus and later, they would have wedding processions at night through the towns. The bridesmaids would greet the bridegroom and escort him to the bride, dancing with lit torches.

If so, the “lamps” in the story were really more like torches, rags soaked in oil and put in a bowl on a stick. Once lit, they’d last about 15 minutes, and then more oil would be needed to keep them lit, because the dance was longer than that. Maybe that’s why these wise bridesmaids had not only their lamps, but extra oil, so they could do the dance with fire, whereas the foolish, shortsighted ones were going to be unable to fulfill their dance.

It’s a pretty good metaphor for being faithful and ready – especially for disciples called to be bearers of light, bearers of the One who said he was the light of the world. There’s more to the parable, and we’ll let it unfold through the week, but today let’s play with the image of staying ready when what we’re waiting for seems so long in coming. It’s not hard to sympathize with the bridesmaids becoming drowsy and dropping off to sleep. How often do we feel that God is too long in coming, or too long in answering our prayers in a way we desire to see, or that this Christian life is kind of a slog?

The bridesmaids' drowsiness can be likened to the spiritual condition called “acidie,” a kind of spiritual ennui, when our love for God has grown tepid, nothing feels fresh or passionate. If our relationship with God is lukewarm, it’s really hard to praise, it’s hard to get excited about service or sharing our faith with others. And In our time, so far from the events we read about in the Gospels, it can be pretty easy to feel it’s all ho-hum unless we have new encounters with Jesus in prayer and worship and service.

If that’s where you are, tell Jesus that in prayer today.
If you are in a more connected, passionate faith place, rejoice in that. Either way, spend some time with today in prayer with the One whom John the Baptist referred to as the Bridegroom.

We are invited this week – and always – to take on the mantle of bridesmaid, one who dances the Bridegroom to his bride. In Christian metaphor, the bride is the Church. What might it mean to dance Jesus to his church?