5-29-15 - Of Heaven and Earth

“So heavenly minded, you're no earthly good,” Johnny Cash charges the self-righteous in No Earthly Good. The Pharisees certainly fit that bill, if by “heavenly minded” you mean religious. But a person can be religious and not spiritual (to flip our modern “spiritual but not religious” cliche). And that may have been just what Jesus thought that about the Pharisees, of which Nicodemus was one.
Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

Jesus says that the Pharisees have not “received my testimony.” 'If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?'

He keeps trying to convey that the realm in which he operates is that of the spiritual – and he infers that Nicodemus, and perhaps the Pharisees in general, are too much operating in the realm of the religious, the material. In their insistence on keeping the finer points of the Law in every aspect, Jesus charges, they’ve lost sight of the Spirit indwelling all of God’s children. And in their pride at their ability to uphold God’s law, they risk cutting themselves off from the love and mercy of God.

What a delicate balance we are to keep, living as people of Spirit in this lush and complex, beautiful and painful world of flesh and matter. Can we keep our feet flat on the ground while enjoying the music of heaven? I think we can – and maybe one way to achieve that balance is to think of ourselves as conduits, go-betweens between these two realms, tuning forks that thrum with the pure notes of God-music as we are placed upon the surface of this world.

If we really learn to live by the guidance of the Spirit, trusting our intuition in prayer, powered by the Breath of God, we can fully engage with the life of this earth. There’s a song I like called “Touching Heaven, Changing Earth.” That title describes the way we can combine our vertical and horizontal existences - forming a cross.

Do you feel balanced between attentiveness to the Spirit and engagement in the world? Do you list toward one or the other? Which way do you lean? What spiritual practices might help us tune our spiritual receptors, to live in the heavenly and the earthly spheres at once?

The Gospel does not tell us how Nicodemus responded to this conversation with Jesus, whether he was able to make the leap to perceiving by Spirit, or was persuaded by Jesus’ explanation about “God so loved the world,” sending his Son, not to condemn, but to save. But he does reenter our story at the end, after the crucifixion, when he helps to wrap Jesus' body, providing 75 pounds of embalming spices to anoint him until he can be buried after the Sabbath. That was a risky undertaking, given the danger Jesus’ followers faced in those traumatic days.

That strikes me as the action of a man who now understood, and was willing to allow the wind of the Spirit to blow him where it would, who was now so truly heavenly-minded, he was of great earthly use.

5-28-15 -Wind and Water

I don’t know what Nicodemus' Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator type would be, but based on this encounter recorded in John, we might label him very “J." He is a concrete thinker, likes to receive information without too much nuance and mystery. And here is Jesus (likely to be found in the perfectly balanced center of each Myers-Briggs continuum), telling him that his senses and intellect won't help him perceive all of reality; that there is a spiritual realm contiguous with this material world of ours, equally knowable, not by physical senses, or “flesh,” but by spirit.

Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.”

Jesus says this is not a realm you can control – you can only be in it and attentive to it:
‘The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’

Poor Nicodemus. This makes his head hurt.

Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’

How can these things be? People who approach life more mystically would probably ask, “How could these things not be?” God made all kinds of people, who are then further shaped by genes, upbringing, traumas, gifts, friends, teachers… no wonder we approach reality so differently. But I do believe Jesus is saying that those who like their information very concrete will need to stretch and give their spirits some play in perceiving spiritual reality.

How do you tend to perceive and process information?
Does abstraction make you anxious, or too much concreteness make you feel hemmed in?
How do you respond to this word of Jesus’ about perceiving and receiving the Kingdom of God? It could be a good conversation to have with him in prayer…

We cannot perceive the the Kingdom of God that Jesus talked with our physical senses, any more than we can see a light wave. Our senses can show us the effects of the power of that Kingdom – healing, peace, forgiveness, reconciliation. But how these came about? That we can only perceive with our spiritual vision. When Jesus says, “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit,” he is saying we need to let our natural approaches drown, float on the Living Water of Life, and open ourselves to the radically different seascape of God’s kingdom, or realm, or energy field.

We could say we are being invited to become sailboats, supported by Water and powered by Wind. Nicodemus wanted to be a motor boat, providing his own momentum, able to stop and start at will. Motor boats give us more control than sailboats.

But the realm of God is for those willing to hoist their sails into the breath of God and go where God wills, at whatever pace God decides. Wind power – that's how it is when we're born of the Spirit.

5-27-15 - Born Yesterday

The expression, “born yesterday” suggests naivete, even ignorance (as in the Judy Holliday 1950 film classic, remade in 1993 with Melanie Griffith.) But the phrase comes to mind as I read Jesus' response to Nicodemus: 'I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’

Nicodemus chooses to take that literally - 'How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?' But he's got a a point. What does Jesus mean by "born from above?"

That phrase can also be translated “born again,” giving rise to insistence by some Christian groups that only those who are “born again” are real Christians – and they know who’s who. Needless to say, this has occasioned much grief and confusion over the centuries, causing some to doubt their salvation and others to court self-righteousness because they have met their own criteria.

Most agree we are “born again” or “born from above” in the waters of baptism. Some say we are only born again when we are baptized in the Spirit, proved by the ability to speak in tongues. Some say we were born again on Good Friday, when Jesus paid the price for humanity’s sin and made possible reconciliation with God.

Any and all of these can be true. Maybe “born from above” isn’t a moment but a series of birthings. Maybe we are ever being born from above as we allow the Spirit of God to transform us more and more into the likeness of Christ.

Being born is not something we can make happen. It happens to us. We cannot birth ourselves, or get ourselves born, or will ourselves born, any more than a baby in the womb can arrange its own birth. We find ourselves born anew "from above," sometimes with a dramatic before-and-after, and sometimes gradually throughout our lives. It is God's action, God's love that births us anew, not our own.

What if we chose to live as those who are still being born, knowing we’re evolving as people of the New Covenant. We wouldn’t expect ourselves to be further along in faith than we are, any more than we expect a baby just out of the womb to walk and talk and teach philosophy.

I propose we claim "born yesterday," to remind ourselves we have been born anew, and that the birthing's ongoing. As Paul wrote, "We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time." (Romans 8:22) We are part of the new creation God is bringing into wholeness of being.

So let's celebrate being "born yesterday." Whenever we are confronted with all that we are not yet able to do or be, we can remind ourselves, “Hey, I was just born yesterday.”

It’s true every morning.

5-26-15 - In the Dark

What is symbol, and what is merely detail? When it comes to the Gospel of John, it is tempting to see symbols everywhere. More literary than the other gospels, more informed by philosophical thought, furthered removed from the time it portrays, it invites allegorical interpretation, that way of seeing the multiple layers in a biblical text, bringing out the interplay among different texts and ideas.

So what are we to make of the time this story takes place? John is often very precise about time, noting things happening at “six o’clock” or “noon,” or “on the second day.” Here he offers just one temporal clue: “He [Nicodemus] came to Jesus by night.”

By night. There are many possibilities for Nicodemus’ choice of time. Some assume he came furtively, under cover of dark, because he was afraid of what his colleagues would think if they saw him talking with Jesus. Possible. It’s equally likely that, given the demands on both of them, he sought Jesus out at a time when he could have a real conversation with him, which crowds and onlookers would have prevented. He wanted a personal conversation.

That’s the surface layer. Let’s go deeper – what does “at night” mean to you? Night suggests mystery, offering less clarity than daylight. There is light, but lunar light is less direct than solar, being itself a reflection. “Night” conveys insights gained in borrowed light, refracted from multiple angles, form emerging from shadows.

Nighttime is also – for those who work days and manage to stop – a time when we can be in a different mode. Our bodies in motion come to rest; we slow a bit, are solitary or social in a different way than during the day, perhaps gathering over a meal at which we can digest our experiences. Conversations at night are often different than in the daytime – longer, deeper, more connective.

And night is when we allow our conscious mind to recharge, and a different way of processing information and reality comes out to play. Our dreams are full of stories and images – we don’t get didactic teachings in dreamscapes, do we? And, like our scriptures, our dreams can contain contradictory images, mash-ups of feelings and information we have trouble processing straight. Dreams are the land of paradox and nuance, as is the life of faith.

Who knows if the writer of John intended all this with those two words, “by night,” but allegorical interpretation sees everything as fair game. Knowing this encounter took place by night invites us to put on different lenses as we try to make sense of it.

We might say the whole enterprise of faith is a walk in the dark. If faith means believing in what is unseen, to walk by faith means stumbling in the dark. We can only really grasp God with our night vision – our “infra-red goggles,” to borrow an image from a powerful dream I once had. Infra-red vision sees heat as light; it finds Life.

And doctrines such as the Trinity, God as one and yet three persons existing in perpetual community? That takes dream vision to see if we are to see it at all. Let’s polish up our night goggles as we attempt to understand what Jesus is saying to Nicodemus about flesh and spirit. Night vision will help us to get what our rational minds cannot quite grasp.

5-25-15 - Interviewing Jesus

It feels like we’ve been here before, and recently, with Jesus and Nicodemus and their theological discussion about spirit and flesh, comprehension and new birth. Is it already time for a rerun?

So says the Lectionary. And one beauty of Scripture, if we’re open to it, is that it never says exactly the same thing, because we’re never in exactly the same space when we receive it. We should be able to spend a year on this passage and not exhaust its meaning (God help us!) So let’s have another look at this conversation, and explore how it might illuminate the mysteries of the Triune God for us.

Maybe the place to begin is to treat it as story, not as theology. What if we enter this as a story we’ve never heard. Who are the main characters? What do we know about them?

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Okay, so we know this Nicodemus is a leader of Jews, and that he is a Pharisee. A little research tells us the Pharisees were a sect of Jews known for their fidelity to the Law and to holiness. Though we find in the Gospels many contentious encounters between Jesus and Pharisees, and Jesus is quoted as being highly critical of what he perceived to be the hypocrisy and heavy-handedness of many Pharisees, their goals were honorable: to keep God’s law in every particular and so reflect the holiness and righteousness of God.

Beyond this, we're told little about Nicodemus, but that he was a person who chose to come and see Jesus at night instead of in the broad light of day. Was he too busy during the day? Or was Jesus too surrounded by crowds by day? Or did Nicodemus not want to be seen?

And who is this Jesus he came to see? Nicodemus labels him a teacher, from God, who can do amazing miracles. (What we call miracles, John’s gospel terms “signs.”) So we can infer that he is a holy person, someone with authority, and probably pretty special to be sought out by a man of Nicodemus’ standing. Nicodemus wants to learn something: it appears that he wants to know, for himself, whether or not this strange man, so holy and powerful, yet willing to spend time with people who are sick, sinful, or both, is for real: Is he really God-sent?

Isn’t that what we’d like to know too? We who have put our faith in a man we’ve never met in flesh, in a story that we tell and re-tell because we’ve seen its power to open the human heart. Don't we want to know Jesus is for real?

Imagine you are Nicodemus. You want to find out more about this Jesus you’re pretty sure is the Real Thing. You find a time and a place where you can talk with him face to face. Set that up in your imagination - where are you?

What do you say?

5-22-15 - Peace, Power, Prayer

This week, preparing for Pentecost, we have explored the ways the Holy Spirit helps us pray and praise, live “pneumatically,” be like pie with the Spirit’s fruit and filling, and accept of the Spirit’s gifts for ministry (can’t think of a “P” word for that…). Let’s end by looking at the way the Spirit brings us supernatural peace, presence and power, through prayer (phew, four more Ps!).

I can think of nothing we need more in our multi-faceted, out-of-control lives than peace and power. And though both are states we can try to achieve on our own, something extraordinary kicks in when we ask them of the Holy Spirit.

When we are in turmoil and pray for God’s peace, and we feel ourselves begin to settle, that is the Holy Spirit at work. Paul calls this peace from the Spirit “the peace that defies understanding.” It comes in profoundly unpeaceful circumstances and is all the more wondrous for being beyond our ability to reason or meditate ourselves into. He told the Philippians to pray in times of anxiety, making petitions, with thanksgiving, and then this peace of Christ will be ours.

Similarly, the power of God comes into us most fully when we are at our weakest. Paul wrote that he heard God say to him, in a moment of crisis, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.(II Corinthians 12:9) This is so counter-intuitive, it can be hard to remember at those times when we’re at a low ebb. Sometimes, when I am facing a deadline or an event and I think, “I got nothin',” I am reminded (by the Spirit?) of this principle. If I do remember to ask for inspiration when creating a sermon or a flyer, ideas soon comes to me.

Paul – and Jesus before him – also relied upon that power of the Spirit revealed in what look to us like miracles to back up their message of radical forgiveness and transformation in God’s love. It is not our power or our persuasiveness or our gifts that reach another's heart – it is the power of God's Spirit working through us.

The Holy Spirit is right here, as close as our breath. In fact, we need only stop and breathe in with intention to begin feeling the Spirit’s presence. If I pray in tongues for a moment, I am dropped into the Spirit's presence. Though praying in tongues is unfamiliar to some, who associate it with the fervor and occasional emotional excess of Pentecostalism, it is a great gift of the Spirit, one intended as a prayer language. It allows us to allow the Spirit to pray through us. In that way, the prayer begins and ends with God. We are just part of the loop, though an integral part of the loop, for if we don’t add our faith and intention, then God’s own desire may not be realized.

Hmmm…. Did I just stumble into a sticky theological thicket there? Maybe... but here's Paul, again, in a passage also appointed for Sunday: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Romans 8:22-27)

We don’t even have to pray on our own strength! Nothing we do as Christ-followers needs to be done alone. God is with us in all of it, all the time, or wants to be. And how do we experience God with us in it all, all of the time? Through the Spirit of the Father and of the Son – the Holy Spirit of God.

5-21-15 - Gifts That Keep Giving

Among the Spirit's blessings promised us as saints of God are spiritual gifts. These are Spirit-given abilities that help the church carry out the mission of God. As such they are distinct from talents and abilities we are born with or train for. Sometimes our spiritual gifts overlap with our natural talents, as with musicians who also help lead worship music, or talented speakers who also preach, or naturally gregarious people who also have a gift of evangelism. But sometimes spiritual gifts are abilities we discover we have, or others notice in us. We discover them because they bear fruit.

The New Testament includes are several lists of spiritual gifts, in letters by Paul and Peter (though I believe Peter’s list is cribbed from Paul…). The more obvious are ones like teaching, preaching, evangelism, healing. There are others, listed and not: prophecy, discernment of spirits, speaking in tongues, administration, compassion, generosity. Where spiritual gifts overlap with talents or traits we have, we identify them as spiritual gifts if they help the church proclaim the Good News of life in Jesus Christ, and sometimes by the intensity with which we manifest that gift. For instance, many people are generous; but someone with the spiritual gift of "giving" gives abundantly and with such joy and often in situations where their gift makes all the difference. Many people are well organized, but someone with the spiritual gift of administration is able to facilitate the ministries of the whole group for mission.

What are some spiritual gifts that you’re aware of having received? What ministries do they empower you to live out? When did they surface? Sometimes when our circumstances change, new gifts emerge for ministries we are now able to do. What gifts have others identified in you, that you may not have thought you had?

It’s also good to look at our “gift mixes.” Taking an inventory of our spiritual gifts and seeing how they combine can point us to ministries. Someone with a gift of healing and compassion (beyond the average) might be called to minister to people on the streets, or someone with a gift for teaching and music to lead choirs.

St. Paul wrote a lot about gifts, because he wanted his churches to know that God equips us for every ministry to which God calls us. He wanted them to crave the gifts – and to recognize that they are all Spirit-given and equally important. To the Corinthians, who were very keen on certain “flashier” gifts, he wrote, “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” He enumerates some of the diverse gifts for ministry, concluding, “All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.” (I Corinthians 12:4-11)

Paul also reminded his readers that there’s no point having all the gifts in the world, if we’re lacking in love. That’s what that famous hymn to love read at weddings is really about – how to exercise the gifts of the Spirit in community, a community that is to be marked by love.

The gifts of the Spirit are gifts, not assets or rewards. We cannot buy or earn them, but we can pray for the ones we believe we want or need. We can trust the Spirit to give us what we need to live fully into God's purposes for us.

5-20-15 - Holy Pie

When I start reading what St. Paul has to say about the Holy Spirit, I soon get to thinking about pie. 
Why’s that, you ask? Because there’s a lot of talk about fruit and filling. (Yeah, no one else laughs at that either…).

St. Paul had a lot to say about the Holy Spirit – the Spirit’s function in the life of the church, the gifts, or charisms, given to us by the Spirit, the way the more charismatic of the charisms should be lived out in worship and community, and the fruit and the filling ("Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit..." Ephesians 5:18). He said he accompanied his proclamation of the Good News of restoration in Christ with signs of the power we're given as heirs of the Gospel. As he wrote to the church in Corinth, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.” (I Corinthians 2:4-5)

It is the Spirit’s power that makes our message and our ministry effective at opening hearts and making peace and calling forth justice. Beyond power in the moment, though, the Spirit also equips us with the gifts and characteristics we need as saints of the Living God. There are personality traits that Paul called “the fruit of the Spirit”: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control." (Galatians 5:22-23a).

Human beings are capable of such attributes without God, I’m sure – but not often, and rarely in a sustained manner. When we truly allow the Holy Spirit to fill us and transform us, we find ourselves manifesting these fruits in a way that surprises us and the people around us. We can tell the difference between the Holy Spirit and Prozac when someone who's always been downcast becomes a person of joy. Likewise, when someone known for her temper develops forbearance, you know God must be up to something.

What if we were to make a list of these “fruits” Paul names, and add things we feel are missing, like humility. Then we can do an inventory noting the levels of each of these we feel we possess – give it a number or fill in a circle with a rough percentage. Have you experienced more of any of these since you became more conscious about following Christ? Which are the attributes you particularly crave? We could revisit the list periodically, check our "levels."

I believe God desires that each of us experience this fruit. And I don’t think we get the fruit without the filling. And one way we get Spirit-filled, allowing God to sow the seeds of these traits in us, is to intentionally invite the Spirit to take up residence in us. That prayer is as simple as “Come, Holy Spirit!” It is a prayer I utter frequently before and during worship, and at other times when I realize I’m trying to do something on my own, or when my spirits are low. If we could get to the point where that prayer rose up in us all through the day, as well as spending lengthier times of quiet just bathing in the Spirit’s love and peace, I think we’d find ourselves both filled and fruitful.

In my experience, the Spirit is an eager guest, but one who awaits our invitation. She does not insist or break down the door. He doesn’t even knock all that hard, just is happy when we say, “Oh, I forgot you were there. Please come in... Want some pie?”

5-19-15 - Pumped

Theological doctrines relating to the Holy Spirit are called “Pneumatology,” pneuma being the ancient Greek word for breath, spirit, soul. It is also the root of our word “pneumatic,” referring to compressing air to create power. And then, on the other end of the intellectual spectrum, there’s the recurring Saturday Night Live sketch, with the body builders Hanz and Franz and their catch phrase, “Pump you up!," which is recurring in my brain as I write this.

Definitions of pneumatic refer to things being “filled with air,” or “using air pressure to move or work.” We see how inflated tires will help a vehicle move, or steam-fed pistons power machinery. The compressed air moves the pistons, which move other parts (or something...), small things powering the whole. That’s a pretty good image of the church engaged in God’s mission to reclaim, restore and renew all of creation to wholeness. What if we were to think of ourselves as vehicles or machines working pneumatically to accomplish far more than we could on our own?

The New Testament has many references to people being “filled with the Spirit.” This is way the Holy Spirit often seems to work in the world – by filling human beings. We even read of Jesus, before certain miracles, that “the Spirit was with him.” When we are filled with the Spirit, we are able to do “immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine,” to use Paul’s phrase. We are able to exercise faith, mobilize others, speak boldly, pray powerfully, organize brilliantly, joyfully aware that God is working with and through us.

What does it feel like to be filled with the Holy Spirit? It can be a gentle experience, waves of comfort or well-being or peace washing over us. It can be feel like an influx of energy, with a physiological effect on our nervous system – increased heartbeat, tingling, trembling, feeling heat in extremities or all over. It can come with an intensity of emotion – joy, hope, faith, love, or give us total clarity about something we’re doing or saying. What does it feel like for you?

I can feel the difference between doing something on my own steam (writing Water Daily, for instance), using natural talents and ideas, and when it feels like the Holy Spirit is filling me, writing through me. Sometimes I don’t feel anything different – I only know by the result that the Spirit added more than I brought. And sometimes I’m in a flow that I know to be Spirit-filled. We might call that pneumatic ministry. I think God desires us to be filled with compressed power that moves us so that the whole enterprise functions at peak effectiveness. God wants our faith tires filled so we can move mountains.

Of course, “pumped” is also slang for “excited,” “psyched up,” anticipating great things. If we truly want the gifts and blessings and ministries that are our inheritance as beloved believers in Christ, we will allow the Holy Spirit to "pump us up," and seek to live “pumped.”

“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”

5-18-15 - Inspired

Next Sunday we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost. This week I will reflect on the Holy Spirit generally, rather than looking at specific biblical texts. (If you want to explore the Acts 2 reading, see last year’s Water Daily, June 2-6, 2014) After all, the Holy Spirit is the God-Person who makes possible everything we experience as Christians, our faith, our praises, our prayers, our ministries. I would go so far as to say there can be no Church without the Holy Spirit.

In fact, I once wrote a sermon drama one called “It’s a Wonderful Trinity," the ridiculous premise of which was borrowed from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The Holy Spirit is feeling depressed about his usefulness, since the Father and the Son seem to get a lot more attention. (Theologians would call this a very weak Pneumatology, or Doctrine of the Holy Spirit!) An angel – did I name him Clarence? – has to show him what the world and the church might be like if there were no Holy Spirit. We see a really dull sermon, a choir singing listlessly and out of tune, people unable to carry out ministries with any effectiveness, and the like. It was very silly - and I hope it got people thinking about how the Spirit affects our lives as carriers of the Gospel.

It is easy to overlook the operation of the Holy Spirit, because the Spirit focuses our attention on Jesus. Jesus likened the Spirit to the wind, which we know by its effects on other things and only “see” as it carries matter through the air. So it is with the Holy Spirit – we know her presence by the fruit our ministries bear, or by our experience of the presence of God in prayer or worship, or by what we see in other people, or others see and hear in us.

The Holy Spirit enables us to pray and praise, to experience peace, to wield spiritual power, to bear the fruit of love and healing in our lives. In the Bible, the Holy Spirit is seen as the source of power, wisdom, creativity, comfort, prophecy, gifts for ministry, and virtues like joy and patience. The Spirit, who is the spirit of the Father and the Son, is the way we experience God.

When and where do you most often experience or discern the movement of the Spirit? Can you tell the difference when you're praying or acting on your own steam or in the Spirit?

When and where are you conscious of seeing the movement of the Spirit in people or situations?

The word "spirit" is related to our words for inspiration and for respiration, or breathing. I pray that, as we focus this week of the various ways the Holy Spirit works in our lives as Christians, we will increase our lung capacity, as it were, making more space within for God's loving presence, God's transforming power. Be inspired; breathe God in!

5-15-15 - Sent and Sanctified

Yesterday was Ascension Day, when the church marks Jesus’ final bodily exit from this world. From this time on he would be present with his followers, as he promised, but in spirit, not flesh. He told them he was going to the Father, and early on the church developed a image of him as “seated on the right hand of the Father.”

After the activity and stress of his incarnate life, a little sitting down might have sounded good to the Son, but to spend eternity seated, even at the right hand of the Father? That’s a lot of sitting. Of course, he did have a job to do: he had promised to intercede for these followers he was launching into the world he was just leaving.

This prayer we’ve been studying this week articulates in human language Jesus’ eternal work. It is a prayer for protection, a prayer of sending, and a prayer for holiness: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”

That same world he told his disciples not to become too attached to, is where he sent them. Lest they wonder why, Jesus reminds them it is to continue his mission – “As the Father sent me, so I send you…” Lest they wonder what their work was to be, it was to do anything they had seen Jesus doing: proclaiming, teaching, healing, restoring, renewing. Their passion and energy was to be spent loving the people they would encounter in the world as they had been loved: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.”

Lest we wonder what our apostolic mission is, there’s our answer – the same as those original apostles. We too are sent into the world to love in Jesus' name. We can be sure that his aims and desires have not changed – he still wants people to believe in him, to be united as one. And we can be sure that Jesus is interceding for us as we go about his mission.

It is both daunting and comforting to know that Jesus is praying for those who will believe in him through our word. It is daunting, because it puts the pressure on us to be sharing his word; otherwise, how will any believe? And it is comforting because it reminds us that Jesus does not send us out without equipping us for the transforming work he is doing through us.

To be sanctified is to be made holy, saint-like. Sanctification is an already/not yet proposition – we are already made holy by Jesus’ action, and we experience it gradually, as we allow the Spirit to take root in us, to transform us from the inside. As we engage in ministries of transformation for others, we are simultaneously being transformed, ever more into the likeness and stature of Christ. To borrow an expression, the plane is indeed being built as it flies.

The mantle of those apostles has passed to us. And Christ’s intercession for us continues too – maybe not in these words set down in John’s gospel, but in words that articulate the dream of God better ever imagine, with the power that answers the prayer before the words have been uttered. The power and love flow from the heavenly places to us and through us – and ultimately, will welcome us home, sanctified wholly.

5-14-15 - Dual Citizens

I lived in New York City for a long time before coming to Connecticut. The rhythms and pulse of the city were my way of life – I could navigate the streets and subways, theatres and restaurants, even drive like a maniac on the rare occasions I was behind a wheel. Like most New Yorkers, I felt it was where I belonged and thrived, the environment best suited to my energy. I didn’t think I would ever leave.

Until I did, to go to Yale Divinity School. I had an easy transition, going back and forth on weekends for a few months, until gradually I went less often, and built up friendships and activities in New Haven. Now, I regret to say, I almost never go in, though there are friends to see and such a wealth of culture to enjoy. When I do find myself in “the city,” though, I easily drop back into its pace and flow. I can get around like a New Yorker, but I no longer am one. It’s like a language I can still speak, but rarely use.

Maybe that’s a bit what Jesus meant when he talked about his followers not “belonging to this world.” This world is clearly not a place to rest for citizens of God's realm:
“… I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.”

Why such suspicion of “the world?” By the time these words were set down, the early church was into its fourth or fifth, maybe sixth decade. It had grown and spread and developed structures. And it had become familiar with controversy, resistance and fierce persecution, not only from the occupying Romans, but from the Jewish establishment which saw this reform movement as a blasphemous threat. It's easy to read back into these words the opposition the early Christians who wrote them were facing. Even apart from that history, though, there is a clear distinction expressed here, between the world and the Christian community.

In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with “the world," right? After all, God created it. But Jesus, and Paul and other leaders after him, used "the world" to mean human-centered society – materialistic, corrupt, full of oppression and inequity. It is the realm which is passing away, of which the saints of God, committed to reflecting the holiness of God’s realm, are called be wary. Paul writes to the church in Rome, “Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2) The pattern we are to conform to is the one Christ laid down for us, and in which the Spirit leads us.

Are we "of the world?" Or "In the world but not of the world?" I tell the newly baptized that they now have dual citizenship – they are still very much a part of this world, and now simultaneously citizens of the kingdom of God, that supra-national realm of supernatural power and peace. That realm is where we will spend eternity; this realm is where we live now, preparing for that other world, and participating in Christ’s redeeming, transforming work here.

I believe our spiritual work is to love this world as Christ does, because it is filled with creatures and people God loves. And we are to live ready to leave it when we’re called to New Heaven (the original name for New Haven…)

See? We all leave the city and go to divinity school someday.

5-13-15 - One

One day I was reading Amos, a prophet to whom God gave symbolic visions. So I said to God, “If I were a prophet, what would you show me?” Right away a picture formed in my mind. To my left, I saw a crowd of people frantic, their faces turned toward the sky, their mouths open like baby birds waiting for food. I understood they were ravenous. Then my attention was drawn to another crowd nearby, angry, shouting at each other. I realized these were bakers, arguing about who had the best bread recipe. The interpretation came into my mind almost as quickly as the images: the bakers were the churches, squabbling over their differences, while people hungered for the Bread of Life.

If we were to draw out one strand of the many in Jesus’ farewell discourses, a prominent one is unity among Christ-followers. In his prayer for his disciples on his last night among them, Jesus expresses a deep concern for them. He prays that they be protected from the world, and from the evil one. And it seems that what he most wants to see them protected from is disunity.

“Love one another as I have loved you,” he tells them. And as he prays for them, he says, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

It’s as though the worst thing that could happen to them is not bodily harm or failure, but breaking faith with one another. When we look at how fractured the church of Jesus Christ is and has been, we can understand his concern. The power of God is unlimited except when it comes to the human heart. God still gives us choice, but we can hear the longing in Jesus that we exercise our power to choose to come together, not stand divided.

I don’t see in this passage an indictment of denominations and different expressions of Christianity – that’s just the way human nature and human institutions work. Jesus doesn’t need us all worshiping the same way or even emphasizing the same points of doctrine. What Jesus does plead is that we love one another and that the world see his church as united in love for him and for God’s children.

So much divides us – history, theology, interpretation of scripture, divergent views on justice and holiness. Much of this is real and important. Is it possible for us to set aside those things that divide and focus on the One True thing – or, more biblically, the True One, our Lord Jesus, Son of God, risen savior of the world?

Or is it the worst sort of denial to say, “Oh, let’s just get together and love Jesus, and I'll overlook your homophobia/racism/defense of privilege/disregard for the sanctity of life/cherry-picking Scripture/[fill in your own rant here]?” Where do the claims for Christian unity crash against the call for justice? That’s a huge question. I can’t answer it. I only know this polarization, even for justice, is not godly.

Jesus prayed, “While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me.” He promises he is still praying for his apostles, those called to reveal the Good News of restoration in Christ. I don’t know how to lay aside my outrage at some of the things my fellow Christians say or do, any more than some of them might know what to do with my “God-less liberalism.”

But we all know how to pray to the One we call Lord, whose power to heal and transform can work even on our stubborn hearts if we’re willing to invite him in. Enough prayer and enough humility, enough allowing the Holy Spirit to work in us, one day we might realize Jesus' prayer that we be one.

5-12-15 - Yours, Mine and Ours

When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was Yours, Mine and Ours, the true story of a blended family (a widower with 10 children married a widow with 8, and they had 2 more…). I got the biggest kick out of the shenanigans in that household. (The book was made into a film with Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball in 1968, and then a more forgettable remake in 2005.)

None of which has absolutely anything to do with this week’s gospel, except that the way Jesus talks to his heavenly Father about his disciples always reminds me of the title:

“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours."

This prayer for Jesus’ disciples, like his instructions to them which we explored the past two weeks, is elliptical, moving forward like a tide in overlapping waves. In this first part, it’s hard to track who belongs to whom. Jesus refers to his disciples as “those you gave me,” those entrusted to him by the Father. “They were yours, and you gave them to me…”

What if clergy more often thought of their congregants in this way – as those who belong to God, entrusted into their care for a time? And the same for the way a congregation might view its pastor. And a wife, her husband; and parents their children; and teachers their students, doctors their patients, stockbrokers their clients. How different the web of human relationships would be if we all viewed the people in our lives as belonging to God first and foremost, and only secondarily and in a very limited way, to us. How much heartache might be avoided.

Regarding other people as belonging to God, we might treat them with more reverence and care. Maybe this is why Jesus was so easy sitting with lepers and outcasts, the greedy and the deranged – because he knew they were God’s precious creatures and therefore worthy of honor. He healed not to make them more acceptable; he healed because wholeness more perfectly reflected their status as God’s beloved.

Periodically I encounter the advice to “Remember you are a child of God” or words to that effect. That is an valuable spiritual practice; most of us would be kinder to ourselves if we lived it. Today, though, I invite us to turn it around. Think of a person or group or type of person that you find it hard to even see anything good in; to respect, let alone love. Call that person to mind. And then overlay this message over that picture, like one of those Facebook memes: “Belongs to God.” How does that change the way you regard that person? Try it every day this week. Note what feelings come up, and pray through them.

Jesus ended with a statement of mutual possessing: “All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.” We are invited into that mutual belonging, in this gigantic blended family we call the human race, beloved beyond measure by the God who created, redeemed and sustains us. We continue to bring Jesus glory as we treat everyone around us as both ours and God’s.

5-11-15 - Eavesdropping

Everyone knows it’s bad form to listen in on other people’s conversations, tempting as it may be. Yet, that’s exactly what we’re invited to do in the gospel passage appointed for next Sunday. We are eavesdropping on Jesus’ conversation with his heavenly Father on the night he takes leave of his beloved disciples and prepares to enter into the suffering which will complete his mission in this world.

We will explore the text of this prayer, but first I feel the need to deal with a “meta-question.” How is it that we know what Jesus prayed that night? Was one of his followers listening and feverishly writing it all down as a transcript which got passed along for the forty or fifty years before John’s gospel was composed? That’s possible.

Or perhaps what was passed down was the tradition of what Jesus prayed. “And then, do you remember, after he talked to us all that while, he started to pray for us, that we would be protected and know the truth….”

It’s also possible this is a literary device used by the author of John to reiterate the themes he has been emphasizing all along. Would that make this text any less valid for us? It doesn’t have to. Remember, what we receive as Holy Scripture bears the fingerprints of many, many fallible human beings. We receive it as holy and authoritative, not as a court transcript, but as a document given authority by the early church and generations afterward.

In other words, it is holy in part because it has been regarded as holy, and because it gives life to the communities that regard it as holy. This “high priestly prayer,” as scholars call it, has given life to generations of Christ-followers, who have been encouraged to persevere in mission by the promise of belonging and love and intercession encompassed in these words attributed to Jesus.

In a sense, we are always eavesdropping when we read Scripture – we overhear God’s words to other people, their stories about their encounters with God, their letters to one another about their encounters with God. But this is not meant to be a passive overhearing. We are invited to join this conversation and bring to it our own stories and doubts and connections and joys.

God also speaks to us directly through prayer, through proclamation, through encounters that we realize are “God-moments.” If the records we leave in our journals and testimonies last a fraction of the time these stories did, we might find they’ve been smoothed out and edited a bit too. I hope you are leaving a record of God’s dealings with you. That is precious and holy writ, if not Holy Scripture.

We believe, by faith, that the pages of Scripture are not merely human documents, though we needed human beings to record and preserve them. We believe these are Spirit-inspired, God-breathed words of life. It doesn't matter whether or not these are the exact words Jesus prayed. The Holy Spirit was with him when he prayed. The Spirit was with those who remembered it. The Spirit was with those who eventually wrote it down, and those who saved it, and those who wove it into the record we now call the New Testament.

And the Holy Spirit is with us as we encounter it and ask God to bring it to life for us. This week, as we explore this prayer, let’s keep asking where we find ourselves in these ancient words. The Holy Spirit with us - that’s what makes this holy for us.

5-8-15 - Chosen

Most people like to be chosen, right? Whether it’s for a team in grade school, a dance in high school, a job, an award, a date, it makes us feel good to be seen and selected (when there’s nothing creepy involved, that is…). But being chosen is somewhat passive – we can’t ensure being picked, as hard as we might try to be the best candidate.

That makes some people more comfortable being the chooser, even choosy. That puts us in control. Freedom of choice is a huge value in American life (so much so that I consider it un-American to be told I cannot have a Diet Coke in places where Pepsi has secured an exclusive contract!) We champion the right to choose our jobs, spouses, healthcare and reproduction, even gender. And, of course, freedom of choice is a core value for all human life and interaction.

Jesus’ disciples thought they chose to follow him. He didn’t compel them – he came along and said, “Follow me.” They made that choice, often at great cost to their families and communities. So imagine their surprise to hear Jesus say that’s not the way it happened:
“You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.” (This Sunday's gospel passage is here.)

Did Jesus really choose this motley crew of hard-headed, occasionally thick-headed men and women? Maybe he should have used a head-hunter. Or maybe Jesus has different values than we do. Maybe this mixed up group was just exactly who he wanted to graduate as his first team of apostles. And maybe he has chosen us for the same reason, because he believes that we too are gifted and lovable, capable of bearing fruit, abundant fruit that will endure.

Do you feel chosen by God to be a follower of Jesus Christ? Or did it feel like something you chose, or someone else chose for you? There has to be an element of response on our part; we’re not puppets. I believe it is the realization of being chosen that elicits a response in us. That’s how it works when two people are courting. And this relationship with Jesus is more love story than job selection process.

How do you respond to being chosen by God?
Does it affect the way you live your faith?
And how does knowing God’s desire for us is fruitfulness affect the way you live your faith?

The fruitfulness and the chosen-ness go together, I think. We cannot make ourselves fruitful any more than we can get ourselves chosen. When we let in the mystery and wonder of how precious we are to God, that God would choose us to participate in God’s great mission of reclaiming, restoring and renewing all of creation to wholeness in Christ – that knowledge of our chosen-ness generates a desire in us to bear fruit in that mission, the fruit of lives transformed and hearts opened.

Our hearts become opened by the awareness of Love, and then we bear the fruit of Love into the lives around us, as God's transforming power works through us as Jesus promised.

That is how we see fruit that will last.

5-7-15 - No Longer Servants

I’ve heard of promotions and upgrades, but rarely a status upgrade like the one Jesus' followers got on his last evening among them. He was telling them what it means to abide in his love, to live by his commandments, to love one another with the kind of love they received from him. He said, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.”

In a culture in which people attached themselves to a spiritual master, whom they served and revered, followed and learned from, this language of friendship must have sounded jarring. So Jesus explained,
“I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”

Being someone’s servant and being their friend are very different. Being a servant can be easier – you have no responsibility to strategize, to plan, or to achieve the grand vision. You need only fulfill the tasks assigned you with all the skill and commitment you can muster. And then collect your paycheck and take your assigned time off. Contractual, hierarchical relationships can be simpler.

Friendship, with its mutuality and intimacy, is much messier, not so much contractual as covenental, based on commitment to nurturing the friend and growing the friendship. Friends are responsible for one another in a way that a boss and servant are not. Friends are recipients of each other’s joys and worries and confidences. This is what Jesus highlights; he says he has entrusted his followers with everything he has heard from God the Father. That must have been daunting to hear.

And yet, it must also have been exhilarating to be told they were no longer servants, but friends. If we work for someone we respect and admire, it’s a rush to be elevated from employee to friend. There is more freedom and collegiality, along with more responsibility.

I wonder if I have taken Jesus up on his offer of friendship. I tend to think of myself as a servant; some days I feel more like a pack mule struggling up a hill than an independent, respected, friend of the Living God. Have I not fully integrated this promise of Jesus’? Or do I not want the responsibility that goes along with it? Do I prefer to think I work for Jesus rather than with him?

Jesus didn't ask me - or you - to work for him. He wants us working with him, filled with his Spirit, not checking off tasks and asking him to sign off on our time-sheets. I believe he has entrusted us with the honor and responsibility of being his friends. Have we accepted? Do we hang out in prayer with him as a friend? Do we go out, healing and transforming people with him, sitting with sinners, challenging oppressors, loving the loveless?

How do we move and talk and sit and listen as friend of the Risen and Anointed One? Figuring that out - that's the work of ministry.

5-6-15 - Love One Another

I don’t know many people likely to be asked to lay down their lives for friends, though some under persecution or threat of war are faced with such choices. The highest sacrifice asked of most of us is that we lay aside our prerogatives, preferences, convenience for our friends.

Much more was asked of the friends Jesus was addressing on his last night in human life. He set a pretty high standard for friendship: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

He knew what was ahead – for him, and for them. The persecution that would be unleashed on Jesus’ followers after his arrest, crucifixion and resurrection would eventually claim the lives of most of those with him at that momentous Last Supper. Before they could offer that kind of sacrifice, though, they would have to be willing to truly love each other. Jesus had said that keeping his commandments would enable them to abide in his love. “You are my friends if you do what I command you.”

Now he spells out the heart of that mandatum novum.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

"But we do love each other," they may have thought. After all, they’d spent three years in close quarters and sometimes no quarters at all. But the gospels tell us how much squabbling and jockeying went on among these disciples. And no matter what affection they may have had for each other, Jesus was now upping the stakes: they were to love each other as he loved them. That was a love that laid down everything to draw near them, that bore with their misjudgments and inability to grasp the ways of the Kingdom Jesus was trying to inculcate in them. That was a love that would ultimately lead to sacrificial death, and then an empty grave and new life beyond comprehension.

These men and women were to be the agents of sharing that new life with the world. They couldn’t do that if they didn’t love each other as Jesus had loved them. And so he commanded them to love, even unto death.

We are the beneficiaries of their love. The legacy they left, though it developed all the strains and dysfunction common to human institutions, also grew into the incubator and container from which sacrificial love can pour out in God’s mission. That kind of love is asked of us as well if we are to be part of God’s reclaiming, restoring, and renewing all things to wholeness.

How do we love like that? We can begin with allowing Jesus to love us like that, to truly take in the depth and breadth of his love, not only “back then” but now, forever and always. Those moments in which we grasp the extent of God’s love for us, deserved or not, help form us as vessels of that love for others.

We can also ask Jesus to show us his love for people we find it a challenge to love. His vision can help us love people when it’s difficult to get past what we see and hear in them.

The church of Jesus Christ is increasingly divided among factions and peoples who find it nearly impossible to "love one another as he has loved us." It’s no wonder our proclamation has so little impact. So we have ample opportunity to practice loving those who interpret the Good News is ways that radically diverge from our ways of seeing, who seem to us to miss the whole point of Jesus’ grace and love. That's who we are commanded to love. Yikes!

And if we can find a way to love one another across the barriers that separate us? I do believe the world will finally know that Love of which we are stewards.

5-5-15 - Joy

Joy is an elusive state of being – and a gift. It must be received; it cannot be acquired. We cannot achieve joy by trying, or by talking about it. I’ve tried. And yet it seems it is something Jesus wants his followers to possess: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” (This week's Gospel passage is here.)

Joy defies easy definition. It is not the same as happiness or contentment, though it shares attributes with those conditions. It is deeper, a way of being and seeing that comes from the core of us, and gives us a sense of “alrightness” no matter what our circumstances. It takes deep faith, decisive faith to believe that “all things shall be well” in the face of so much evidence to the contrary. The evidence God gives us, of resurrection life triumphing over all evil and degradation, disease and death, can seem flimsy in the face of what our natural senses tell us. Those who possess joy are able to proclaim life in the face of death, not denying the reality of pain and evil, but living in the "already" of the victory Christ won over them.

Joy cannot be acquired or fabricated. But I think it can be cultivated. We can expand our capacity to receive joy. We can take the kernel that is there in us, which we are promised as a gift of the Spirit, and help it to grow. How do we cultivate joy and increase our capacity for joy?

We can start with gratitude. The spiritual practice of gratitude waters the seeds of joy in us. Calling to mind God’s gifts to us, unexpected blessings, all the times things do work out against the odds, or in spite of them, creates an atmosphere in us in which joy can grow and flourish. Similarly, compassion for ourselves and for others helps nurture a climate in which joy can thrive.

We can also flex our “joy muscles.” We must decide to be people of joy, apart from how we feel on a given day or hour. If we accept that joy is a gift of the Spirit, and we accept that Jesus names it as a mark of Christ-followers, we can commit ourselves to letting it grow in us. So often we let anxiety or grief to take root in us; for some, these are so deeply rooted we can’t imagine living without them. How about allowing God to plant the seed of joy that deep in us, to gradually uproot those life-squashing states of being?

What is your relationship to joy? Is it familiar to you, or rare? Some of us didn’t learn joy growing up, or have had it suppressed by circumstances. We need to make space for it now, as a choice and a decision.

If we allow that God has already planted the seed of joy in us, then we need to water it and weed around it and make sure it gets plenty of sunlight. We water it with gratitude and compassion and generosity. We weed away the cares and preoccupations that threaten to choke our joy – worry, envy, competitiveness, greed, gluttony – the usual suspects. And we give it plenty of exposure to the light of the Son in prayer, and worship and mission.

Jesus told his followers he wanted their joy to be complete. Not just a little – the whole deal. We can feel and show forth joy in times of trial and sadness, stress and adversity. Perhaps, like the light cast by a beacon on a stormy night, joy is most visible in the dark.

5-4-15 - Love and Commandments

Here are two things that do not go together: love and and commandments! Since when is keeping commandments a sign of love? What happened to flowers and chocolates? Oh, it starts out okay; Jesus tells his followers, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”

That I get - the love which we have received is what we give to others; love is something we can abide in, hang out with. That sounds beautiful and comforting and profound and unconditional. But Jesus isn’t finished: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” (This week's gospel passage is here.)

I know those psalms that talk about how “the law of the Lord" is sweet, like honey, but I confess I think of commandments as “shoulds” and love as “want to” and never the twain shall meet. This verse certainly makes it sound as if God’s love is not unconditional after all, and highly contingent upon our ability to obey. Since I tend to I prize unconditional love above all other theological concepts, and because I think efforts to obey are bound to end in failure, disappointment and self-condemnation, I react negatively to this word.

But let’s take a closer look. Jesus is not saying, “If you keep my commandments, I will keep loving you.” He says, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.” There is no change to the love in which we are invited to abide, only to our capacity for experiencing that love. Keeping Jesus’ commandments, he is saying, makes us better able to swim in the love of God flowing to and around us at all times. It puts us in the “head space” and “heart space” to receive – and give – the love of God.

Jesus was the One who best made visible God’s love for humanity. He lived it, taught it, demonstrated it, finally died and rose again to complete it here on earth. He is saying that it was his fidelity to God’s commandments that made him able to manifest God’s love. And likewise, that our fidelity to his commandments makes us able to show forth his love in this world. We need only recall times in our lives when we’ve been in the grip of attitudes or behaviors that were outside of God’s will for us to know how much our ability to love can become compromised.

Could it be that God’s commandments are not about our ability to “be good,” but intended to enable us to be Love? Perhaps I think of commandments as guilt-inducing rather than loving because trying to live into God’s commands without the power of God’s love at work in us is an uphill climb. With God’s love flowing through us, it becomes more like riding a bike with plenty of gears, so we can keep a steady pace no matter what the terrain.

Where are you experiencing a lot of love in your life, from God or other people, or from yourself toward others? Where is it a little choked off?
Are you in the grip of anxiety or resentment, or taking from another? Are there adjustments you can make to the way you are thinking, acting, loving, to become more Christ-like?

It’s a chicken-and-egg thing. We can’t really live into God’s commands without God’s love in us, and we can’t fully abide in God’s love without living the way God commands us. We need to focus on both. The great news is that, as we increase in each area, the other increases too – the more we abide in God’s love, the easier it is to live God’s way, and finally we discover that living God’s way opens us to more love than we could ever imagine.

5-1-15 - On the Vine

“Apart from me, you can do nothing.” Context is everything. These words, to modern ears, can sound insufferably egomaniacal, pompous, even abusive. Spoken by Jesus, to his closest followers, shortly before he takes his leave of them forever? Loving truth about where their power for ministry comes from.

“I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”

If we’re talking vines and branches, it’s clear: the branch cannot generate fruit if it is cut off from the vine. And a branch cut off from the vine, whether by pruning shears or by withering, is good for nothing. But what about when we’re talking people? Disciples? Can there be no good done in the world without its doers being connected to Jesus?

This passage does not address that question. Jesus is talking here to insiders, believers, disciples. He has been training them in the ways of the Kingdom of God, equipping them to participate in the mission of God to reclaim, restore and renew all of creation to wholeness. THAT fruit, he says, is not possible apart from him. There might be all kinds of holy people, makers of peace, bringers of justice who have no discernible connection to God in Jesus Christ. But ministers of the Good News? We need to be connected to the Vine.

What kind of nutrients come through a vine to its branches and ultimately the fruit they bear? I’m not a plant biologist, so I can only speculate generally. I imagine there are sugars and enzymes needed for growth, for warding off diseases, for the formation of fruit. As the vine harnesses nutrition from its roots in the soil, and the water it receives, and the chemicals unleashed by the sunshine, it passes along to the branches what they need to be as whole and life-giving as possible. And the only way the branch gets what it needs to be fruitful is through staying connected to the vine.

So let’s transfer the metaphor to us. Jesus says he is the Vine, we are the branches. He is rooted in the long tradition of God's activity since before time. He is himself the source of Water of Life. He is glorified in the light of God; indeed he is the Light of the World. Through our connection to him - united with him in baptism, renewed in him in prayer and holy eucharist - we receive everything we need to exercise ministries of transformation.

And how do we stay connected? By spending time with him in prayer; by gathering with other branches regularly; through the Word, the sacraments; through the exercise of ministry in his Name – which means, letting his Spirit work amazing things through us. We can feel the difference between doing good work on our own strength, and how it feels when we're running on Holy Spirit wind. When we allow ourselves to be filled and "loved through," those nutrients come through to us from the Vine.

Branches are not responsible for the fruit they bear. We just need to be as connected as possible, and if the vine is healthy, the fruit will grow. Our Vine is Jesus – we can trust there will be wonderful fruit as we are faithful. Here endeth the metaphor!