2-28-14 - Witnesses

"As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, 'Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.'"

How nonchalant he sounds, “So, listen, guys, don’t say anything to the others about this until, you know, after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead…” Say, what? Raised from the… After what?

Why do you suppose Jesus invited these three on this little retreat up the mountain? I have my theories: I think he wanted them to see more fully who he truly was, the true identity which his humanity partially obscured. For a moment that veil was lifted and his “God-essence” shined through. Jesus needed them to see that so that they would endure the trials he knew were coming, for him and for his band of followers. And he needed witnesses who could testify later, after his resurrection, when the conspiracy theorists and “he didn’t really die” people and the 1st century “truth-ers” got into the act. He needed three witnesses who could say what they’d seen, and what they’d heard.

And testify they did. In his second letter, Peter wrote, “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.”

People who were determined not to believe may not have been swayed – but the eyewitness testimony from three leaders of integrity no doubt shored up the faith of those inclined to accept the Good News of resurrection life, and encouraged the movement of Jesus followers in the church's early months and years.

It’s not enough for us to be open to encounters with the living God, something I absolutely believe God desires for us. We also need to tell our stories, even at the risk of derision or doubt. We can give voice to our experiences of God, or to words we believe we have received from the Spirit. Such revelation can and should be measured against the revelation of Scripture, and confirmation from other believers, and ultimately by what fruit it bears in your life and ministry. But don’t keep quiet – somebody needs to hear your story; somebody needs to have their own story confirmed by hearing about yours; somebody needs that little nudge to take the step into faith in Jesus Christ.

Is there a “God-story” from your life that you haven’t told anyone, or haven’t told for awhile? Recall it for yourself; even write it out, to recover the details. And then ask the Spirit to lead you to someone who needs to hear that story. I believe it’ll happen. (Then you’ll have another story to tell.)

As Peter continued, “So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

Sometimes we are called to be that lamp shining in a dark place. Speak up.

2-27-14 - Now You're Scared?

Now, this is interesting. In the story of Jesus’ transfiguration, the three disciples watch his face light up like a blazing sun, his clothes gleam dazzling white, and Moses and Elijah appear right in front of them. Peter’s only reaction is to want to build three shelters so they can hang out together. But when a bright cloud comes over them, with a voice in it… suddenly they’re petrified:

"While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, 'This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!' When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear."

We often try to accommodate unusual experiences, until there is too much “unusual,” and our circuits overload. Or maybe the disciples were fine as long as they could see – but when their sight was obscured by a bright cloud that spoke… then they panicked ? OR was it what that voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” They must have heard the stories about Jesus’ baptism, when a voice from heaven was heard to say almost the same words. Were they overcome by fear because now it was unmistakable – that Jesus was in fact God's Son, holy, divine? Now there was no going back?

True movements of God that we experience with our physical senses tend to be deeply frightening – they’re so far outside our expectation. Many of us encounter God with our spiritual senses; that’s powerful enough. But it's a different matter to perceive the holy with the same senses that engage the rest of life. We can’t pretend to be manufacturing it – we’re either crazy, or in God’s presence – and neither possibility is comforting. I only had one experience even remotely like that, on a retreat once, when I felt a room I was in filled with a presence that was so completely “Other,” it seemed to be God… I’ll never know if it was, because I ran from the room back to where other people were.

It can be hard for us to identify with the shock of recognizing Jesus as God… this is a story handed down to us rather than experienced first-hand. And for many it’s such a familiar story, it can be hard to feel the emotions being related. So let’s think today:

Are there times when you’ve been overcome by the presence of God in a way that scared you? 

Have your physical senses ever been overwhelmed so that you had to rely on spiritual sight? 
Does your expectation of God include experiences that seem supernatural, like this one? 
Do you think the Spirit wants you to be open to more? What are we really afraid of?

Fear is never the end of a holy encounter. Always an angel or someone comes along to say, “Be not afraid.” It was no different on the mountain: “But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.”

Every spiritual experience, no matter how deep or frightening, comes to an end. 

Our perceptions normalize; reality returns. And then we’re left with what?  
“No one, except Jesus himself alone.” Sounds like a pretty good deal to me…

2-26-14 - Building Booths

Who among us doesn’t want to keep a good thing going, forever if possible? A perfect day, a lovely dinner, the “in-love” phase of a relationship… And we can’t. Days become twilight; meals yield to fullness and digestion; relationships evolve into other phases. Even the most fiery sunset dims, usually just about the time you get your camera.

But this was a really good thing, up there on that mountain – Jesus, and Moses, and Elijah. You don’t get bigger than that trifecta if you’re a Jew in occupied Israel in what would later be termed the first century. “Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’”

So helpful, our Peter. He’ll just whip out the hammer and nails and make three little huts (in earlier translations, it was "booths"), nothing fancy. And who among us doesn’t recognize that impulse? To fix it, capture it, make it last? I’ve had a group of deer in my yard for three weeks, and I just keep taking more and more pictures. Because I can’t control how long they stay.

Are there things in your life you’re afraid will change or end, that you’d like to fix in place, build a shrine to? Children, friends, homes, work? It’s not a bad thing to love something or someone wonderful. It’s just that trying to keep what we have closes us off to other gifts God has to give us, gifts that might build upon the ones we have, blessings that might even include what we’re trying to keep, but allowed to grow into fullness. When we don’t try to save the precious things, but use and enjoy them, willing to have them end or run out, we often experience more abundance in our lives.When we enjoy the precious people, willing to see them grow up and even away, we experience a deeper, freer kind of love.

Today in prayer I invite you to bring those people and things to mind, and offer them to God to bless. Offer them with open hands, and a heart willing to grow God-ward. God rarely takes away what we love – and God just might show us something deeper and richer about that beloved than we can see from our current “holding” perspective.

It’s kind of funny, a fisherman offering to build a carpenter a hut. Maybe not as funny as that carpenter setting the bait and reeling those fisherman in, to become the greatest catch of all, a catch that even includes us.

2-25-14 - Son et Lumière

As a child tourist, one of my favorite things was the “Son et Lumière” shows often mounted at important attractions like ruins or castles or natural wonders. Colored lights played off the site, synchronized with music, augmented by the “ooohs” and “ahhhs” of the appreciative crowd. I loved it.

Such a display awaited Peter, James and John during their trip up the mountain with Jesus. First the light: “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.”

Some time ago, I got it into my head that Jesus was in this moment revealed as pure light, an energy form that radiated brightness. Whether or not that was the case, the effect was surely splendid, and probably frightening. Imagine it…

The sound part came a moment later – and it wasn’t music, but conversation. With two people long since dead, or at the very least departed this earth: Moses and Elijah, Israel’s prophets extraordinaire, and mountain-top witnesses of divine glory. There they were, chatting away with Jesus. “Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.”

Was their presence a sign that the revelation of God in Christ was in continuity with the revelation of Israel’s past? Were they Exhibits A and B for The Law and The Prophets? Matthew doesn’t tell us what they’re discussing – Luke says, “They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem.” Their presence was a major sign that God was up to something. “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Most of us don’t experience God with sound and light and visions. I wonder, is that because God isn’t revealing God’s self in that way, or because we’ve so reduced our expectations that we figure a glorious sunset is the closest we’re going to get? It’s tricky – we can’t conjure up manifestations of divinity. We can, however, be open to them – and notice when we come across them.

How do you most powerfully experience the holy? Have you had any experiences that you’d categorize as supernatural? What happened, and what was the fruit of that experience in your life? And do you share that story? It builds up other people's faith to hear our holy stories.

God shows up in so many ways in our lives. The more we become attuned to the movement of the divine in us and around us, the more we experience it.

And whether it’s eavesdropping on Biblical heroes or marveling at the presence of wild creatures in our back yards, there are sound and light shows for us to stumble upon. If we keep our spiritual eyes and ears open…

2-24-14 - Up the Mountain

Next Sunday we come to the end of Epiphany, the season of light. And every year, as a church, we go out with the ultimate light show – Jesus being transfigured on a mountain, to the amazement of three of his closest disciples.

Let's start with the mountain, the invitation to the three to accompany Jesus to a high place: “Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.”

Six days later? What happened six days ago? A conversation in which Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” 

Let’s remember that – it just may be a clue to what Jesus was doing up there on the mountain. Another clue is the mountain itself. It was a mountain to which Moses was called to go and spend 40 days and 40 nights with God, getting the commandments – and when he came down, his face was shining so brightly, he had to cover it to avoid blinding the people. And it was a mountain on which Elijah was told to come out of a cave and see God pass by, not in a whirlwind, nor an earthquake, nor fire, but in a sound of sheer silence.

In our sacred scriptures, mountains are places where God is revealed to human beings. It appears that this mountain is no different – for when they get there, Jesus is transfigured – his face changes, shines like the sun, and his clothes become dazzling white.

When do you remember last getting a sense of God’s presence, a glimpse, a word, a feeling?

Can you remember and claim that? Write it down?

And when did you last go to a place apart, on retreat, alone or maybe with just a few friends? Did you sense the presence of God then? Certainly, whenever I have taken the time to go apart, God has shown up in mighty ways – not right away, but after a time. At the right time.

Going away can facilitate our spiritual encounters because the quotidian rhythms and tasks of our lives can dull our spiritual senses. If you’ve never been on retreat, consider planning one. Of course, the Spirit also shows up in our daily "apart" times, as we get quiet and open our spirits. Just sit with as much stillness as you can and pray, “Lord, I want to know you’re here with me. Show me…”

And then let it go. You might find a thought or a word popping into your head that doesn’t seem like one you’d have thought on your own; you might have a physical sensation of presence; you might get a picture. You might sense nothing – just give thanks that God is answering whether or not you feel it.

We don’t all get Jesus turning radiant bright in front of us – thank God! We have been promised that he is always with us. That’s gift enough.

2-21-14 - Perfect

We end the week with the kicker:
"Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

I don’t know if Jesus is kidding or indulging in hyperbole – perhaps he is gently nudging his followers both into aspiration and reality. He’s asked them (and us) to yield to people trying to control us, open ourselves to people trying to hurt us, give to people trying to take from us, and love people who hate us. And, in case we want to feel better about how we measure up by comparing ourselves to others, he says that’s too easy – even tax collectors and “gentiles” know how to love their own kind. No, he says, if you want to compare yourself to anyone, compare yourself to your Father in heaven – don’t stop till you're perfect.

Okay, so maybe our yardstick is too easy, but isn’t his a little … impossible? How on earth can we be perfect as God is perfect? Well, a raw egg doesn’t get soft-boiled in a moment, right? It takes 7 minutes to achieve perfect consistency (to me…). We become perfect as God is perfect, one moment, one decision, one day at a time.

The through-line I discerned in these teachings of Jesus, all of which concern how we interact with other people, especially ones who cause us trouble, is to always look out for the humanity, the individuality of others. I was just talking with someone who works with
Seeds of Peace, an organization that began by bringing Israeli and Palestinian children together for summer camps. When campers came face to face with the “Other” and found they were children like themselves, barriers began to break down. As U2 sings in their new hit, Invisible, “There is no them, there is no them, there’s only us… there’s only you, there’s only me.”

We can cultivate the spirit Jesus asks of his followers one person at a time. Jesus wouldn’t have asked it of us, were he not planning to equip us.

I have heard grace explained this way: Because of what Christ accomplished for us on the cross, and because we are united with Christ, when the Father looks at us it is Christ's righteousness He sees, projected onto us, as it were. In Christ, then, we are already perfect. We spend this life living into what that means, bringing that spiritual reality into the reality of the here and now.

So in prayer today let's ask God to show us who it is God sees when looking at us. Let’s try to catch a glimpse of the perfection that is already ours, even as we slowly realize it.

Thankfully, our good news is revealed in four parts, and elsewhere Jesus remarks, “With humans it is impossible, but with God, all things are possible.” Even being perfect.

Especially being perfect. In the fullness of time and relationship, so our promise goes, all is being perfected. Even us. Imagine that.

2-20-14 - Love Everybody?

“Love your enemies,” Jesus says. And I think, Sure. If we do everything else Jesus said, we won't have any. We would love everyone pretty much equally, no matter what they do for or against us.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

This is one of the hardest of all Jesus’ challenging teachings. Or is it? It comes with its own E-Z-Bake instructions – “Pray for those who persecute you.” That is something we can do, no matter how much we fear or loathe someone. We can always pray for them. And that often results in a big change of perspective. Many enemies have become allies through that kind of prayer. Why? Because it re-humanizes them.

“Enemy” is a label, and labels tell only part of the truth. The person who may in real life be our personal or national enemy is also a son or daughter, a friend to someone, good at some things and lousy at others – in other words, a flesh and blood person. And Paul reminds us that our fight is “not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities and powers of this dark world.” Even when that flesh and blood person means us very real flesh-and-blood harm.

Americans live in an increasingly polarized climate, where the idea of “the enemy” is alive and well and constantly fanned by strident fundraising emails and social media posts. Christ-followers are called to a higher standard. That means that, horrified and disgusted as I am at, say, people who gun down teenagers for playing loud music and hide beyond “Stand Your Ground” laws to excuse murder, I am not supposed to see them as the enemy. I am to see them as people in the grip of evil – and thus to pray for them. And more: I am supposed to find a way to love them. Not what they represent, not what they do, but the human being underneath all the lies and distortions. Ouch.

Jesus says it’s too easy to love the ones we find easy to love. “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?” 

So let’s go for it today: Think of a person or kind of person you consider an enemy or close to it? (Pick a murderous dictator if you can’t name anyone closer.) Let’s play the “hold them in the light of Christ in your imagination” game. Ask God to bless that person, and to show you a glimpse of the humanity you’re having trouble seeing. If it’s difficult, imagine sitting next to Jesus and bringing that person into the room, to sit between you on a couch or something. What do you feel or say? Sit with it a while.

We who walk with Jesus need to develop our capacity to love. Those muscles don’t get much of a workout with people we naturally care for. Let's consider this command “extreme fitness” training – if we can love those whom we truly loathe, we will have learned to love in a way that God can use. And believe me, God will use us.

2-19-14 - The Extra Mile

I really wonder what Jesus was up to. It’s one thing to preach radical submission to the will of God; quite another to command submission to other people: “…And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”

For anyone who’s ever been forced to do anything, the instruction to go further, to give even more, to satisfy every demand – it’s challenging, to say the least. Troubling, baffling. Having recently read the description of one man’s experience as a POW at the mercy of the Japanese during the Bataan Death March, it is hard to find grace in those words.

And what about what comes next: “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” Anyone who’s ever lived in a city with many people begging will question that wisdom.

A natural response to these instructions is, “But when does it stop? Am I supposed to go forever at someone else’s whims? Give till I have nothing left?” Well... Jesus kind of did…

Okay, and maybe he’s exaggerating again, to make a point. But where does that leave us? Here’s a thought:

What if our response to this seemingly unreasonable command is not to throw up our hands and say, “What about me?” What if our response is to put ourselves in the shoes of the person demanding something of us? Not to lose ourselves – to gain ourselves. To take mastery by choosing to yield. When we train ourselves to be other-directed in our interactions, we might find the giving becomes motivated by compassion for the other, even if that other is trying to control or manipulate us.

There’s more than one way to choose not to be a victim. We can resist. Or comply – by our own choice, even against our own benefit, because we want healing for the other person. I don't think Jesus was talking about situations of pathology or abuse. And yet… and yet, I suspect this is what Jesus was getting at: to value the other above yourself. It's the choice we seem him make repeatedly, power in weakness.

And remember that thing He also said – “When you feed/clothe/visit/give to the least of these, you have done so for me?” What if we learn to look for him in the one begging, in the one driving us on?

How do we pray into today’s reading? Like yesterday, bring to mind anyone whom you feel is forcing you to do more than you want to – at work, at church, at home, in a relationship. Ask God to show you something about what motivates that person to try to control others. Maybe see the woundedness that drives the behavior. Then pray for them, and ask God to guide your response. Maybe you go an extra mile, maybe you don’t – respond with the Spirit’s guidance, not on your own.

Similarly, pray about your giving and your lending. Elsewhere Jesus says, when you lend, do it without expectation of return. So then it’s a gift, and a blessing. Who are you being called to bless at this time? Can you find joy in that gift?

The expression, “If it were easy, everyone would be doing it…” comes to mind right about now. The Way of Jesus is not easy, and often counter-intuitive. It has also been for many the Way to true life, the kind of life he said we’d gain when we are willing to lay our prerogatives aside and live for him. 

Aren't we lucky to have so many people to practice with?

2-18-14 - Giveaway Gospel

Imagine a whole group of people standing in this never-ending winter, shivering away without coat or cloak to warm them. When asked why they are coatless, they answer, through chattering teeth, “Because Jesus said to…”
“…And if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.”
Okay, so we’re not supposed to fight back when attacked, and we’re just supposed to roll over when taken for all we’re worth? Did Jesus mean us, or just his first century disciples?

How are we to interpret this teaching in our materially laden lives? It’s easy enough to say, “Inventory your closet and get rid of everything you don’t really need. How many sweaters do you own? How many pairs of shoes? How many coats?” I defend my overstuffed closet because I shop less, leaving more monetary resources for charity, right? Works for me…

Let’s go deeper, though. What does it mean to us to not protect our “stuff,” even our bank accounts and insurance policies? Jesus was inviting his followers into a radical dependence upon God’s provision, something he repeatedly demonstrated for them in multiplying scarce resources. I believe Jesus also invites us to sit more loosely to our material goods, to enjoy bounty when we have it, and trust in God's “
enough” when we feel short.

Some of the poorest people in the continental United States live in South Dakota, on Lakota Indian reservations. And at most major life occasions – weddings, funerals, pow-wows – a family will host a give-away. And they give away whatever they must to ensure that everyone there gets something, all the way from hand-made star quilts to leftover containers. They’re not giving it away because they have so much. They’re giving it away because the values of hospitality, generosity, and community matter more than having enough, as wonderful as that would be.

I think many of us make an unspoken agreement with God – “I will give voluntarily to charities of my choice, and you won’t ask me to part with more than I want to give." We might ask in prayer today whether God signed on to that agreement. Are we willing to let the Spirit guide our relationship with our goods? The more we can do that, the more we let the Spirit guide our doing good.

I can’t preach the “give it all away” gospel – which I do believe Jesus was preaching – because I can’t live it. Yet. I am a work in progress. That doesn’t free me from continuing to live into Jesus’ invitation to freedom from need and radical generosity. Here’s a prayer I can start with:

To reflect once a week or once a month on all that I have more than enough of – home, clothes, funds, furniture, insurance, money… and give thanks. That might take awhile! And then to ask Jesus to show me who might be asking for some of what I have… and imagine in prayer handing that over to someone who needs it. See how that feels in prayer, and then maybe take it into action.

Then we can ask Jesus to give us the joy of blessing someone who needs something we have more than enough of. And trust in the “enough” of the One who gave it all away for us.

2-17-14 - Don't Fight Back

In the part of Jesus’ training talk we explored last week, he was expanding on existing commandments. This next portion shows him going beyond existing law and proposing interpretations so radical, I imagine at least some of his listeners said, “Is this guy nuts? I’m outta here…” Some of Jesus’ would-be followers in every generation since have said just that when confronted by the dissonance between what Jesus taught and how “the world works.” “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.” (Isaiah 55:8)

As we wade in, let's remember that Jesus was introducing his followers to life in a realm wholly other than this present world we perceive with our senses. This “kingdom” life of God he was preparing them for is both contiguous with the sense-known world and is its own realm, perceivable by faith. It’s as though he is explaining how things work in, say, Indonesia, what laws you need to know to live there. We can decide whether or not we want to go – but if we want to follow Jesus, that’s where we’re going, and we need to learn the ways of that place, the Life of God.

The first law he offers is: Don’t fight back. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…”

How are we to live in this world if we just accept attacks and don’t respond? What about self-defense? What about victims of abuse? I don’t hear Jesus saying you can’t defend yourself, or those you love. But I do hear him ruling out retaliation, which is hard enough for us on a human level.

Beyond those questions, I sense an invitation to go deeper in conflicted situations, to respond in a counter-intuitive way, not meeting aggression with force, but with manoeuvers that use the attacker’s force, the way certain martial arts moves work. Or the classic, opening a door someone’s trying to force open, so they fall into the room. Jesus’ battle with Satan can be viewed in that light…

I believe Jesus sets a higher goal: the transformation of our attackers. As frightening as that prospect may be, we have stories in our own time of quite extraordinary courage resulting in even more amazing outcomes. I was reminded of the story of
Ashley Smith, the Georgia woman taken captive by a fugitive on trial for rape. Despite the risk and terror, she managed to reach his humanity by being human herself, making him eggs, reading to him from The Purpose-Driven Life, sharing her own story of transformation and healing with him. (Here is a transcript of Smith’s whole story – truly amazing.)

I pray none of us is faced with circumstances that dramatic or criminal. But I imagine we’ve all been hurt at some points in our lives, and faced the choice whether or not to retaliate. Are there some times when you did? I once "hit back" by telling anyone who would listen what this person had done to me. Sure, it was all true, and it was my story - but I was trying retaliate by exposing her.

Any times when you were aware of making a different choice? Are you faced with any circumstances in your life today, where that choice is before you, whether to hit back or to absorb and transform?

One way we can live into this choice, to not resist evildoers, is to ask the Holy Spirit to be right there with us when we feel attacked. In the Spirit’s power we might even see those who oppose us with compassion, even pray for their wholeness. And who knows what marvels God might work from such a prayer.

2-14-14 - God's Funny Valentine

Water Daily has been hard going this week. And I have a feeling Jesus’ first century audience had as much trouble interpreting his training talks as we do in the twenty-first. As love letters go, these don’t soar.

And yet I do believe these teachings are given in love, as was the God-in-Man who offered them – God’s “funny valentine” to the world. The prophet Isaiah's words, so often thought to prefigure Christ, say,

 “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him… [Yet] he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” 
(Okay, so it’s not quite “Your looks are laughable, unphotographable, yet you’re my favorite work of art…” – but work with me…)

If Jesus is God’s ultimate love letter to his creation, the life and teachings of Jesus are his love letter to those who would call themselves his followers. And He could hardly love us without instructing us how we are to live in the new life he ushers us into, the God-Life he called the “kingdom of heaven,” anymore than we would bear children into this world and expect them to just figure out how to live in it. As we teach our children, so Jesus teaches his followers.

And here it’s about truth and integrity: ‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all… Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

This teaching doesn’t seem to need as much “unpacking” as others this week – it’s pretty straightforward. Let your word stand for something. Don’t bear false witness against others, or yourself, by saying one thing and doing another. Don’t swear oaths – just let your “Yes” be “Yes,” and your “No” be “No.” Ah, what a nice world it would be if everyone did that simple thing. But so often we seem to feel the need to hide behind falsehoods, small and large.

Let’s leave big “cover-ups” for major infractions out of it for now. Let’s just discuss the little white lies, the need to tell people what we think they want to hear instead of what’s honestly in our minds; the need to embellish our resumes as we speak, or to engage in people-pleasing like promising to attend an event or do a task that we’re not sure we’re going to follow through on. What is the remedy for these kinds of responses?

It goes back to love. The key is to stand firm in our belovedness. If we are rooted in our belovedness before God, that fills the picture, and there is less room for shame or insecurity or a desire to control, all those feelings that cause us to say one thing and do another.

Valentine’s Day is a good day to reflect on how loved you are – you might list the people who love you, and meditate on the ways you experience God’s love in your life. You might list the people whom you love, and why. Love is a lot broader than romantic connection, sweet as that is when it happens.

Love is the code in which the holy, wholly Other God communicates with God’s creation, including stubborn-headed creatures like us. The better we learn that code, and how to communicate in it, the truer we will be, in every sense.

2-13-14 - Divorced from Reality?

Now we come to the really fun part – Jesus’ teaching on divorce. He doesn’t say you can’t – he just says if you do, you’re committing adultery or causing someone else to. That’s all: “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Great! In a nation where some 50% of marriages end in divorce, where many find themselves having more mature and even godly relationships in a second marriage, what do we say to this? “Get with the times, Jesus?” Do we ignore this teaching, which goes beyond even the stringent codes of the Mosaic law? And can we ignore this and other challenging teachings without undermining our trust in Jesus’ authority?

He was telling his would-be disciples that part of the discipline of following him would mean faithfulness. And guess what? Even though they walked and talked with Jesus for three years, they weren’t always so faithful. They may have stayed faithful to their marriages, but not always to him, or to each other. It doesn’t mean the standard wasn’t there – it means that they failed, and Jesus did not reject them. I don’t believe he rejects us when we fail, either.

Yes – this standard for marriage matters; anyone who’s been through the pain of a broken relationship will tell you that. But it cannot be isolated from all the other areas of sin and pain and failure we endure and inflict, all of which we are invited to bring before the loving, judging eye of the God who made and redeemed us.

Am I ducking the question? Sure. Is divorce sinful or is it forgiveable? Yes. I don’t think there is an absolute answer – choose one, and you end up condemning someone who has suffered deeply, either because they have divorced, or because they haven’t. Sin is sin and humans are humans. And God is bigger and more powerful than all of it.

And that might be the point of this whole teaching, as Jesus makes the standards of sinfulness so broad no one can escape the category. If we are as liable for what we think and feel as what we do, we all have to admit we stand in need of redemption. The man whose teaching here seems so harsh is the same man who reminded a crowd about to execute an adulterous woman that they should feel free to cast stones only if they themselves were without sin. Who among us could in good conscience pick up a stone?

Today might be a good day to pray about times when we have been affected or hurt by the dissolution of a marriage. Perhaps the wound is still fresh, even many years later – divorce has that kind of power to hurt and keep hurting. We cannot give ourselves to another with all the hopefulness that marriage entails and remain unscathed when that hope dies, even if new life arises from those ashes. So pray for the people involved. Pray for the grace to forgive if you need to. Imagine each person blessed by God.

And ask how you can support marriages you know to be difficult or shaky. Marriage is not a burden only for two people – it is meant to be a burden carried in community. When a marriage fails, so has the community. In that sense, even people who are single are involved in the enterprise of marriage.

Divorce reveals a failure of love. And there is a gap we can help fill, to pour our love into the void, to bring healing and wholeness, in concert with the God whose love goes beyond death, into life.

2-12-14 - Lust in Our Hearts

Jimmy Carter caught a lot of flack back in 1976, when he confessed in an interview with Playboy magazine that, while he had remained faithful to his marriage vows, he had looked on women with lust and “committed adultery in my heart.” 

He was just quoting Jesus: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Here again, Jesus says that what we think and feel matters spiritually as much as our outward behavior does.

What’s so bad about lust anyway? It usually befalls us before we can think about it. Well, it depends on how you define it. “Lust,” as the church understands it, is not the same thing as a desire to be intimate with another person. It is a desire that objectifies another, that – here’s that word again – temporarily dehumanizes someone so s/he becomes for us a source of gratification and not a full person with his or her own story, gifts and needs.

Adultery is sexual and emotional intimacy with someone other than your committed partner. It need not always be defined by lust – in some ways, fully emotional relationships can be the more dangerous adulterous attachments. Why? Because they require one to break trust with another, and necessitate lying to people one loves, risking damage to whole families and communities. As natural as it may be to love more than one person intimately, Jesus upholds fidelity as a higher calling, one that builds rather than tears down.

The remedy to adultery he proposes is harsh, suggesting we’re better off dismembered than being led by our physical appetites. I believe he exaggerates to make a point: We are best able to give and receive love, to know and be known, when our focus is on the love of God. If a person or thing becomes the source of what we think we need, be it sexual, emotional, or ego gratification, we turn away from the Source of love. We worship the object. Our culture places romantic and sexual love on a pedestal and devalues the difficult, day in, day out work of being real and generous in a committed relationship, letting yourself be fully known. Jesus wants his followers to love this way, to be nurtured in authentic relationships that model the love of God.

Today let’s inventory our relationships – the intimate ones, and the more distant ones. Is there anyone from whom you want something? Not necessarily lustfully – sometimes we want others to make us feel better about ourselves, or to keep us from being lonely or meet other needs.

Can you see that person apart from what they can do for you? Can you see him or her as a fellow child of God? Can you offer your desire or need in prayer, asking God how God would provide for you? Can you want something for him or her instead of from? That's a good place for prayer today.

It is somewhat ironic to read this gospel during Valentine’s Day week, designated “National Marriage Week” by an organization my friend Sheila Weber directs. Marriage does not represent the fullness of God’s revelation – but at its best it is an icon of God’s love, a transforming power that crosses boundaries of otherness to know and be known.

That alone is reason to allow the Spirit to make us faithful, in our hearts as well as our bodies.

2-11-14 - Sticks and Stones

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Who else grew up on that misguided little ditty? It denies the truth that hurtful words can cause deeper, longer-lasting wounds – and it suggests that using words to inflict pain doesn’t have real consequences, to perpetrator or victim.

Jesus says otherwise: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; ...But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool’, you will be liable to the hell of fire."

Whoa, Nellie! Is Jesus really saying that insulting someone is on a par with murder? Invective tossed around in anger is a form of violence? Calling someone an idiot is like killing them? Thank God Jesus isn’t on Facebook!

I think he is saying that, when we insult or libel another person, we are temporarily dehumanizing them, not honoring them as a fellow child of God, created for life, redeemed in love. I know that when I have been the target of scorn or gossip, I have described feeling “un-selfed.” I think that’s what we do when we ridicule or insult another – we un-self them. That is a kind of death-dealing, and it causes deep spiritual injury. It may not be actionable in a court of law, but Jesus wants his followers to go beyond the law to the heart.

Jesus suggests that we too are damaged when we use words as weapons. We usually do that out of a feeling of anxiety or powerlessness – we are temporarily inflated when we run someone else down. But it also diminishes us, and renders us less whole, less fully who God made us to be. Those who would follow Christ cannot be complacent about this area of sin.

If we seek to be reconciled with God (“So when you offer your gift at the altar…”) while in a state of estrangement with people in our lives (“if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you…”), we need to face that and deal with it, restoring them and us to our full humanity in full humility: "leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

Elsewhere, Jesus offers a process for such reconciliation. Today, let’s keep it simple. Is there anyone in your life who causes you anger, annoyance, anxiety? Sit quietly in prayer and let those names and faces float up to your consciousness. And then pray for them to be blessed beyond measure. Yes, blessed with all the fullness of God’s blessing. Think about it – if they’re blessed, you benefit too. And it’s a way to begin to move toward forgiving them, if that is called for.

And is there anyone whom you have injured with words to or about them? Even words you’ve only thought? They’re toxic enough in our own minds. Can you pray for that person to be blessed and ask them for forgiveness? If that seems impossible, play it out in your imagination first, going to see them with Jesus at your side. What do you say? What do they say? What does Jesus say?

Being critical and sarcastic takes so much energy; loathing another even more. Think what God can do through us and for us when we yield that space to the Holy Spirit. When all our interactions are life-giving, our lives will bear the fruit of such abundant peace, it can only spill over to the people around us.

2-10-14 - When Good News Sounds Bad

This is one of those weeks when I question my “ordering principle” for Water Daily, to reflect on the following Sunday’s appointed Gospel passage. This week's isn’t much fun – it’s more of Jesus’ training talk with his new disciples, and he sets standards for them more stringent even than the Old Testament Law. He looks at the commandments against murder, adultery, divorce and perjury and ratchets up the penalties for merely being in the vicinity of such sins.

Before we tackle all that, let’s explore why Jesus is so hard on his new recruits – and by extension, later followers like us. One factor might be the old drill sergeant tactic, breaking your troops down as you prepare to rebuild them stronger. I don’t know if this is what Jesus was up to – but he did know they would face a lot of suspicion and adversity. They needed to be focused and strong. So do we, facing indifference.

Another way to view this teaching is as pruning. At the end of his time with these disciples, Jesus will say, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” (John 15:1-2) The teaching Jesus gives here, harsh as it sounds, reflects the work of that Master Gardener, who desires that we bear good fruit.

Jesus is also driving home a point he has already made: that the ways of this world and the ways of God’s Kingdom, or God-Life, are not the same. Those who would be Christ-followers need to learn how God thinks, and what God requires. Remember what Jesus said at end of last week’s passage: “…unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

When Jesus talks about entering the “Kingdom of heaven,” he’s not talking about heaven as a place we go when we die. He is talking about the God-Reality that is already around us, here and now, which he came to demonstrate and open a door into. That is what Jesus was about. So he’s not being punitive; he is simply stating a fact: Those who would learn to dwell in the God-Life need to be able to perceive things the way God does. His followers need to go beyond the behavior the Law demands, to reflect a heart yielded to God.

What Jesus is offering is discipline, just like a trainer or a coach does. The question for us is, Do we want to be disciples, those who take on a discipline? Do we want to be trained? Do we want to bear fruit?

Here’s my prayer suggestion for today, before we launch into Jesus’ tough teaching: Let’s get in touch with the love of God that has us reading this reflection on a Monday morning in the first place. Get centered as best you can, and invite the Holy Spirit to fill you with love, to surround you with love. Ease into it, as you would into a hot bath. Let it fill your heart, whatever that feels like or looks like. Say thank you for every reminder of God’s love you can think of. And, if you’re willing, say you’re open to being trained.

Whatever else Jesus is up to, he is also presenting a view of God’s love, the way a loving parent minces no words keeping a child from traffic or a hot stove. Let’s remember we are God’s children, in every sense, and be glad God loves us enough to want to see us thrive.

2-7-14 - Best Behavior

In my ten years (today!) as a priest, one of my main themes has been that the Christian life is not about being good; it is about being loved into goodness. It is about relationship with the One who made us and loves us too much to suffer estrangement from us.

And that message – which I believe is supported in the whole of our salvation story – is pretty directly contradicted by the following words of Jesus: "Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."

Hey, wait a minute. What happened to, “Unless you become as a child, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven?” and “No one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit?” Didn’t Jesus say those things too? If it all comes down to commandments and righteous behavior… why do we need a savior? If it’s a matter just of gritting our teeth and trying harder, we’re pretty much sunk, most of us.

Thankfully, this isn’t the only thing Jesus says on the subject. Another time, after setting what his disciples think is an impossible standard, he says, “With humankind this is impossible; but with God, all things are possible.” Phew.

Still, I am caught by this remark, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees…” The scribes and Pharisees, the religious elite of Jesus’ time, were known for their uprightness and fidelity to the Law. They also appear to have been arrogant and legalistic, but certainly righteous. What could it mean to exceed their righteousness?

Here’s my guess: it means to go beyond the mere observance of the Law to the intention at its heart. It means to go beyond rules and rituals to relationship, relationship with the living God made possible through His Son. It means to invite the power of the Holy Spirit to be manifest through us for healing and restoration of all things. It means to truly believe that Jesus is who he said he was and to follow his way of living God-life in the world. That is truly going beyond the legalistic righteousness of the scribes.

Yesterday I invited you to reflect on where you might be caught in “rule-following” rather than Jesus-following. If something occurred to you, you might in prayer invite Jesus to transform that part of your life, or to transform you in it.

And if the idea of having a “relationship with Jesus” or “relationship with God” seems abstract or odd to you, there’s something to explore. For me, it developed as I opened myself to prayer that included silence, imagination and listening. The Holy Spirit brings us into the presence of God – and then Jesus often becomes marvelously specific.

Repeatedly in the psalms and prophets we hear God saying, “I don’t want your rituals and your sacrifices – I want your heart. And don’t worry if your heart is hard – I will break your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put a new heart and a new spirit within you.” We just need to say yes – and then we find we’re in the Life of God already.

2-6-14 - The New Old

This Sunday’s gospel puts us front row at one of Jesus’ training sessions for his new disciples. After the "salt and light" chat, he switches gears: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”

Since Jesus seems often to argue with the standard bearers of the religious Law, we might conclude that he supersedes the old revelation or “Testament.” But I suspect Jesus wouldn’t divide the holy scriptures into “new” and “old” the way we have. He articulates a continuity that frustrates our neat categories. Jesus seems to critique the way the Law has been interpreted, not the Law itself. He accuses the Pharisees and other leaders of being heavy-handed and hypocritical in their expectations of people, emphasizing the letter of nitpicking rules while ignoring the spirit behind the whole of Torah.

Mostly, he pulls back the camera for a big picture view. When religious leaders want to stone a woman caught in adultery, he doesn’t talk about the law that permits her execution. He shows it is wrongly administered; he indicts the accusers for ignoring their own sinfulness. When attacked for healing on the Sabbath, he reminds his detractors how they act when their families or possessions are at risk. Over and over, he seems to suggest that it is in interpretation that the leaders get it wrong. The Law of the Lord was intended as gift, and instead became distorted and extended as an instrument of judgment – often wielded by people who weren’t nearly as compliant as they expected everyone else to be. None of us immune to this – we hope for wiggle room in some areas, while in others we expect people to toe the line.

What are your “good and bad” issues? In what areas do you have high expectations of behavior from others – and from yourself? These may be the same areas in which high standards were expected from you by someone else, a parent or teacher or friend. One way of identifying those areas is by noticing what causes us to become indignant or self- righteous. Are you being called to be more merciful to any person or group?

And what are the issues about which you feel more lenient? What do you think God is saying to you about those areas – has God lowered standards, or do you just more fully understand God’s grace in those places?

We always have to hold in tension God’s righteousness and God’s mercy – we can never fully comprehend how those two irreconcilables go together. But, happily for us, they are both true. Jesus did not seek to abolish the Law – only to show that no one is righteous enough to keep it, let alone hold it against others. Until him.

Jesus’ gift was to fulfill the demands of the Law in such a way that we are set free from its condemnation – and thus we are free to live fully into the Love at its heart. Let's try that today.

2-5-14 - Light

Someone once asked me if I see better with my contacts than with glasses. I replied, “Actually, not as well. But I don’t wear contacts to see better – I wear them to be seen better.” Vanity, vanity.

Jesus tells his followers, “You are the light of the world.” That can mean many things. Here, Jesus seems to use light less as something that helps you see, than as something that helps you to be seen. “A city built on a hill cannot be hid,” he points out, And, lest they don’t connect cities on hills and lights of the worlds, he elaborates: 

“No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Perhaps Jesus original followers were Episcopalians – faithful and devoted, but not wanting anyone around them to know that – "Shhhhh – I go to church… I believe in God… I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, but I don't want anybody to know….” Maybe they figured everyone already knew. Maybe they figured modesty was a virtue.

Well, guess what? It’s not a virtue when we’re talking about our faith! When it comes to proclaiming the incredible news that God is on a mission to love the world back into wholeness, we’re invited to be as loud and immodest as we possibly can. There are a lot of people with broken parts who need that news, you and I among them.

I don’t know when so many in Christ’s church became so quiet about the power of God’s life at work in the world. I hope we get over it. The world needs the light we carry, and we need to shine it brightly to give light to “all in the house.” We need to let our good works show, not so we can get the credit, but so we can highlight God's power, and so we can inspire others to join us. Sometimes the “good works” we do – the outreach projects, shelter meals, food pantries, visiting ministries – are the easiest place for people we know to join us in our faith lives. And once they’re working with us, it’s not so hard to talk about how we are fed spiritually.

Where in your life do you most feel you are visible as “the light of the world?” Where are you least? What is it about the first that allows you to be “out” as a Christ-follower, or hope-bearer? What is it about the second that inhibits you?

What are you most proud of in your Christian life? Can you trumpet that, show it off? It glorifies God when we give thanks for what God is doing through us.

Elsewhere in the gospels we read that Jesus is the Light of the world, and here he says we are. That’s a part of his identity we get to share. If he calls us that, we can be sure he will fill us with his light – and his light doesn’t quit. His light conquers the darkness. His light sets up a glow in us that the whole world can see - if we let it shine.

2-4-14 - Salt

Salt and light. Jesus turns to these metaphors to explain what his followers are to be:
“You are the salt of the earth…”

As we know, salt has many functions – flavor-enhancer, food-preserver, fluid-retainer are a few that come to mind. Jesus appears here to refer chiefly to the first – an agent that adds flavor to food, and brings out the flavors in other ingredients. I think he is suggesting that this is a critical function of religious communities – that they both add and elicit flavor. And if they’re bland or watered down… forget it.

Jesus sounds pretty harsh about the consequences of salt having lost its flavor.  

“…but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot." Is he talking about the lukewarm, semi-corrupt religious leadership of Israel in his day? Is he warning his followers to maintain their character no matter what comes at them?

How do we interpret this call to be “salt” in our spiritual lives and communities? 

First, we might think about where we add flavor and zest. What sectors of your life do you enliven because of who you are, and because of your connection to God? Work, school, family, ministry, play, church – these are a couple of spheres; you might name more. Are there any you can think of that need pepping up? You might ask God to show you how God can work through you in those spheres.

And how about this second function of salt, to bring out the natural flavors of other ingredients. 

How do you elicit the gifts and enthusiasms and generosity of the people with whom you interact in those spheres? How does – or doesn’t – your faith community do that within its larger context?

If you want to play with this metaphor, write out a recipe for a stew, including all the “ingredients” that are around you in one or more of those spheres. Who is adding salt to your life? Who is bringing forth your natural flavors? Does the interaction work to make something greater than the parts?

At its most basic level, I believe this teaching of Jesus reminds us that our spiritual engagements need to be full of life and flavor, not rote, dull, lukewarm, complacent, or tired. I’d go further: I think God wants our whole lives to reflect the savory flavor of God’s love and mercy, justice and peace - and we're how that flavor gets in to what God is cooking up.

So into the shaker we go - get ready to be sprinkled.

2-3-14 - Blessed Are You

Recruitment phase has ended for the moment; now we’re deep into training.

Jesus settles with his disciples on a mountain in Galilee and begins to teach them. And teach them. And teach them. This has become known as “The Sermon on the Mount,” and if we had to boil it down to a phrase, Jesus’ message is: “The way God thinks is not the way humans think; and the way things work in the Kingdom of God is different than the ways you’re used to the world working. Way different.”

Jesus’ discourse begins with the Beatitudes, a series of “blessed are yous” which reverse the normal order of things. The last “blessed are you” is, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Jesus is giving his new recruits a dose of reality – "It’s not going to be fun being my disciple. No prophet worth his salt is popular – too much popularity can be a clue that you’re telling people what they want to hear, not what God wants to tell them." So he’s saying they’re in good company… and look out. More than look out – rejoice and be glad!

We will unpack some of Jesus’ teaching this week, but today, let’s think about blessedness.When do you feel most blessed – and by blessed I don’t just mean fortunate. I mean, having a sense that God has gifted you in some way. When are you aware of feeling blessed?

That’s important to know – because that’s one of your connection points with God’s love and God’s power. We all feel those connections differently – for some blessedness comes through relationships, and for others through ministry or work of some kind, or feeling led to give a gift to someone else. Name your connection point - and pray for God to send you more of those opportunities.

And can you think of a time when you took some flak for being a Christ-follower, or standing up for something in Jesus’ name? Or are there times you wish you had?

I believe Jesus wanted his followers to know that he was going to teach them a whole new way to live, how to rely on Spirit power instead of the world’s version. That was, and remains, a hard lesson for us, because we are wired to respond as earth-dwellers, not citizens of heaven. Part of growing into the full stature and likeness of Christ is allowing God to rewire us.

That means there may be sparks at times… and blessing. Amazing blessing.