7-1-15 - Packing Light

My baggage volume varies greatly according to mode of transportation, possible range of temperature and likelihood of a social life. If I’m flying to our cottage in Michigan, I pack pretty light, since I’ll have to carry my luggage and need little in the way of dress-up attire. Coming here to the Catskills, though, I could take as much as I liked – I was driving, the weather can fluctuate widely, and there are often dinners out. I won’t confess how many pairs of shoes I brought, just in case…

I would have flunked Jesus' Packing 101. As he headed out on another teaching tour, he sent his disciples out too:  He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. (This week's gospel reading is here.)

I guess he didn’t mean sandals in seven colors, did he? They were to carry nothing, no luggage, no change of clothes, no money. As we will see when we look at his instructions about where they were to stay, he insisted they rely completely on the resources they could find in the villages to which they went. They had to live by faith and the Spirit's guidance.

I wonder if we could do this for even one day. Some do; others have tried it. I know of a bishop who lived homeless in New York City for a month, and there is Barbara Ehrenreich’s experience detailed in her book “Nickel and Dimed,” in which she attempted to live in America on minimum wage jobs. But I don’t think many of us would get very far.

Why would Jesus insist on such stringent conditions for his disciples on their first trip out? To go with nothing, no money, no safety net? Perhaps it’s because he didn’t send them out with nothing. For one thing, he sent them in twos; nobody went alone. And He sent them with the Spirit’s power and authority over unclean spirits. They had ammunition against the strongest danger they faced, spiritual temptation and interference from the minions of the Evil One. Physical challenges they could handle, if they could learn to trust.

Absolute faith would be required for those who were to carry forward the mission of God revealed in Christ. Absolute faith is still required. And all our safety nets and insurance and savings holds us back from putting “our whole trust in his grace and love,” as Episcopalians promise in baptism. And no, I’m not ready to part with mine yet. I am ready to look at and pray about how they compromise my faith.

St. Francis of Assisi, when he renounced his family’s wealth and severed his relationship with his father, even took off his clothes so as to carry nothing from that life with him. One requirement of those who would join him, at least in the early days when he was still in charge of his own order, was that brothers sell all their possessions and give them to the poor, owning no property at all.

What Christians are to do with wealth is one of the most vexing questions that face us. Giving a lot away makes us feel better about having it – and for those who are content to be on the outer edges of Christ’s life, that is just fine. Jesus did commend generosity.

But for those who would be his closest followers? I suspect our baggage is weighing us down more than we’d like to contemplate. What can we part with today?

6-30-15 - The Power of Disbelief

I am away from home this week, serving a summer church in the mountains where I have the great good fortune to stay in a rectory the church provides visiting clergy. The house is equipped with everything one might want, including wifi. But my first day here it was barely working, there, but slower than slow. It took me 90 minutes to upload, format and send Water Daily, where it usually takes me about 20.

Turns out the service had not yet been turned back on for the season – and what I was experiencing was a trickle of connectivity that is always there. I think of this when I read about the effect his townspeople’s skepticism had on Jesus’ ability to wield the power of God in his usual way:

Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

All he could do was cure “a few sick people.” It is hard to imagine that anything can impede the power of God to effect what it will, especially when invoked by one whose faith lacks nothing. But Jesus attributed the “connectivity problem” to the unbelief he encountered in that place where they thought they knew him so well. The crowds further away accepted him fully as he was; his homies could not believe that the Yeshua they’d grown up with was indeed the Anointed One, the Messiah. And their lack of faith held him back.

This should not surprise us. We think of Jesus as the power behind miracles – yet over and over he commends the faith of the people whom he heals, saying, “Your faith has made you well." Jesus responded to the faith he encountered – and I guess he still does. This puts a lot of pressure on us, doesn’t it, to think that God responds to the faith of those praying.

It can be a quick jump from there to the notion that someone who is sick or hurting doesn’t experience healing because they lack faith – and unfortunately, some in the healing ministry tell people that. Wrong. The faith to which God responds needs to be in the community that is praying for someone to be healed. God does not punish people for lack of faith – it just appears that God’s power is impeded when there is a lot of disbelief in a system. That’s why communities in which healing is regularly invited and expected tend to see a lot more of it than those who think it’s rare and don’t exercise their faith in prayer.

Does that put a lot of responsibility on us as people of faith? You bet it does! It means our faith matters more than perhaps we wish it did. It means we do all we can to strengthen the faith of those around us. We make space for questions, sure, but we don’t encourage disbelief. The stronger the faith in the community, the more invitation there is for Jesus to do his works of power.

As our new Presiding Bishop-elect, Michael Curry, said in his brief greeting to General Convention delegates after his election, quoting St. Augustine, "Without God we cannot; without us, He will not.” And he added, “Together with God we can and we will.”

Without us, God will not. The Omnipotent can, of course, but has chosen to give us that much power to participate in God’s work. Let’s turn the service on and let the connectivity and power flow!

6-29-15 - Too Close to See

Jesus has been busy in the stories we’ve read the past few weeks, preaching to massive crowds, stilling a storm, healing many, restoring a young girl to life. Maybe he needed a break? A little of Mom’s home cooking? We don’t know why, but Mark tells us that his next move was to go home.

He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joss and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. (This week's gospel passage is here.)

Whoever said familiarity breeds contempt was on to something. When people have known you for a long time, or before you became successful, they often feel they know the “real you” better than anyone else. They're too close to see you clearly. They might also feel some jealousy toward those who do well “out in the world” when they return home. The people of Nazareth may have been proud to hear of Jesus’ exploits, but when he’s right there, teaching in the synagogue, they don’t seem able to celebrate his wisdom or his power. It makes them profoundly uncomfortable to see him break out of the box they built for him.

Our situation can be similar to that of Jesus’ neighbors – after all, many of us have known him all our lives, or at least known about him. We know his bio – all about his wondrous birth, horrific death, miraculous resurrection, even if we might be a bit muddy on what happens in between. Whatever our level of engagement with Jesus, it’s easy to put him in a box along with other preconceived notions we cling to.

But Jesus is always breaking out of the boxes we build for him. When we begin to know him, to hear for ourselves his often sardonic wisdom, to encounter the uncontainable power he brings even from beyond the grave, to recognize the claims he makes on us as people of faith who are to be seekers of justice… we might react like those townsfolk. “Who is this guy? I thought he was all about being a good person. You mean he’s really about undoing structures that hold back the less privileged? You mean he really asks me to lay down my prerogatives in the cause of peace? He’s really about healing my wounds, not just some lepers back then? Maybe I don’t want him near my wounds. Maybe I don’t want to tear down injustices when they benefit me or my people.”

If we have grown up with Jesus, with the gentle shepherd in children’s bibles (as though shepherds don’t have to be fierce!), we might have to let a lot go and start fresh, seeking to know him in our lives now. We won’t find him in the pages of our bibles – that is where we learn about him.

To know him, we need to spend time in his presence, in prayer. If we’re not already in that habit, may I suggest we simply sit in a room with some quiet and say, “Come, Lord Jesus. What do you want for me today?” And do that again the next day, maybe write down what comes to you in that time of quiet encounter.

I have a feeling we’ll get an answer, and that can be the beginning, or the continuation, of an acquaintance that always breaks out of the box – and maybe even breaks us out of our own boxes.

6-26-15 - Not Dead, Asleep

Remember Jairus, the synagogue leader who fell at Jesus’ feet, begging him to come to his house and heal his dying daughter? Imagine what he was feeling as Jesus stopped on the way, asked who had touched him, and then held a conversation with this woman. He must have been in agony – his little girl was at death’s door. There was no time to waste! Why wasn’t Jesus moving?

And then, as can happen, his worst fears were confirmed:
While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?’ But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear, only believe.’ He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly.

What Jairus didn’t know, what none of the people keening for his daughter knew, was that this story was not yet over. Jesus knew that this little girl’s life was not ended, that she was deeply asleep, perhaps in a coma. “When he had entered, he said to them, ‘Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed at him.”

So what do we do when someone really has died, which is often the case? We don’t know what Jesus knows. Are we to pray for healing in the face of what looks like death? Sometimes… maybe more often than we do. Death is a reality of life, yes, and the power of God to heal is very real and very strong when communities exercise faith. The community around Jairus only saw death; Jesus saw life.

Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum’, which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age).

His voice, his power, his Spirit were able to reach her spirit, and her spirit responded to his command. And she got up and began to walk about – a mini-prefiguring of Jesus’ later resurrection.

We are called to see life, even in the face of death. At times, that life is in the people around the person dying; sometimes the dying revive. (More rarely, even the recently dead revive…) When someone we know is gravely ill, we can ask the Spirit how to pray. If we feel a sense that physical healing can happen, invite the healing stream of God’s love into that person. I specify “physical,” because sometimes the healing a person receives is spiritual, preparing them for life after death.

These are great mysteries – if we knew how to “work it,” we’d all be doing it, right? That’s why it’s called faith; we don’t get a road map or guarantees. But we walk forward anyway. We can agonize about how long Jesus seems to be taking, but in the end he knows. That’s all we can count on – he knows.

At the end of this story of two dramatic healings, Jesus is delightfully practical. Looking at the young girl now well and out of bed, he says simply, “Give her something to eat.” Because Life goes on.

6-25-15 - into the Light

The woman who crept forward in the crowd to touch Jesus’ garment, believing he had so much spiritual power that even his clothes would be charged with healing, felt immediately that her bleeding had stopped. Twelve years of hemorrhage from what today might be diagnosed as uterine fibroids, and just like that, she felt the flow stop. She knew she was healed. She began to make her way out of the crowd again, rejoicing, yet unable to tell anyone what she’d done.

But she was not to make a neat escape. For Jesus felt the power go out of him as vividly as she felt the healing take hold – Mark uses the word “immediately” to describe both their experiences. And Jesus wanted to know who had touched his clothes.

He looked all round to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’

This is even braver than her stealth “power grab.” She could have pulled a “Who, me? Who did that?” and kept moving until she was safely away. But something made her come forward and reveal herself. Which meant revealing the whole truth – of her disease, her impurity in the eyes of the religious law, her attempt to remain anonymous. She simply had too much integrity to sneak away. And maybe she also felt too much gratitude. So she came forward into the light, fearful, humble and perhaps humiliated, falling at his feet just as Jairus had. And Jesus affirms her faith and confirms her healing – a complete healing, in body and spirit. Now she can go in peace, for the first time in a very long time.

Are there burdens or infirmities of mind or body that you have carried for a long time? Illness? Chronic pain? Anxieties, resentments, disappointments, shame, poverty, disease, fear of disease? Can you imagine feeling freed of that burden? That is what happened for that woman, and I believe God wants us to experience the same freedom and peace.

One step is to reach out for healing, the way she did. The next is to come fully into the light of Jesus’ presence, to tell our whole story – either directly, in prayer, or mediated to another person of faith – and lay ourselves at God’s mercy. That is hard to do – to relinquish control like that. And yet so many have found it to be the beginning of freedom and wholeness. That is what every addict has to do in recovery, and I suspect it is a universal principle, that we need to surface and bring into the light all that holds us back from experiencing the fullness of love and life God desires for us.

That includes confessing our own sin, being willing to forgive others and ourselves. And mostly it means telling our stories, getting them out of the storage bins in our psyche and into the light, shared with others to bring life and hope to their lives. More and more in our day we are recovering the power of story to bring healing, for survivors of abuse or crime, gang members breaking free, people in addiction recovery, even in courtrooms for nations seeking to heal after decades of corruption and violence. The Truth and Reconciliation movement that began in South Africa after apartheid and has been successfully implemented elsewhere is based on telling our hard stories and having them heard. Amazing freedom and healing can flow from that simple act.

Our unnamed woman was healed in body before she came forward. In telling her story, she opened herself up to the full healing Jesus had for her, wholeness in mind and spirit. That can be our gift too, as we share our stories and invite healing in.

6-24-15 - Christ the Transformer

Soon after I got to the church I now serve, I suggested we choose a new name. The church was a merger of two small congregations, and they had simply put the two names together, resulting in a name that was long, theologically confusing and hard for many to remember. I felt we needed a new name to reflect our new life. The question then became: what? On the way to “Christ the Healer,” our name now, we went through quite a few. And one of those I wished with all my heart we could have taken – but it would have required too much explaining – was “Christ the Transformer.”

I’m reminded of this by Jesus’ statement in our story that he felt power go out from him when the unseen woman who suffered from incessant bleeding touched his clothes in hopes of being healed:

Immediately her haemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’

It is amazing that that Jesus could feel something had happened to him in that moment, and knew someone had touched his clothes. His disciples are incredulous, saying to him, 

‘You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, “Who touched me?” ’

Beyond that awareness, though, is the fact that he felt an energy transfer from him to another person. This is one of the bible passages that make me think that God is pure energy, of a frequency we could not withstand were it not mediated for us. And that is what an electric transformer does: it takes energy running on one current and transforms it so it can be used by appliances wired for a different current. Transformers were common in my household as we lived overseas for much of my childhood.

Jesus was the Transformer extraordinaire, taking the energy current that birthed the universe and translating, mediating, making it usable for God’s creatures. Even so, we can sometimes find the current too strong; that’s why people might rest in the Spirit during Pentecostal services, or we feel heat or tingling when we pray. Part of what it means to grow in faith, I believe, is to become able to withstand and channel a higher and higher frequency of spiritual power.

For we too become transformers, as we grow into the likeness and ministry of Christ. We too receive the power of the heavens and transform it into a current that “runs appliances” – lifting up the lowly, healing the infirm, forgiving the unforgivable, feeding the forgotten. Every single time we exercise faith in the name of Christ, we are mediating the power of the heavens to bring transformation and life to the things and creatures and people of this world.

Where have you been a transformer lately? Where are you called to mediate the power of heaven into someone’s life?

Tonight I will participate in an interfaith Prayer Vigil in Stamford, to remember those murdered a week ago at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston. We are gathering, people of faith of different traditions, all there to bring the heavenly into the earthly, to allow God to redeem, renew, revive, restore all things to wholeness, through us. Even this broken country. Even our broken hearts. Pray for us.

6-23-15 - Stealing a Healing

This Sunday’s gospel story is a tale with many twists and turns. It begins with Jesus returning by boat from across the Sea of Galilee, to be greeted by multitudes. Jairus, a leader of a synagogue, gets through the crowd and falls at Jesus’ feet, begging him to come to his house and heal his daughter, who lays dying. Jesus agrees – and the whole crowd follows along, pressing in on Jesus and his followers.

In this crowd is another person in desperate need of healing, but where Jairus could be public about his request, this woman cannot let anyone know. For one thing, she is a woman, a person of little or no status in that culture. For another, she suffers perpetual bleeding. This not only makes her ill; it renders her ritually unclean – if anyone were to touch her they too would be made unclean and thus unable to go to the temple until they’d been cleansed.

So she sets out to “steal a healing,” going low in the crowd, making her way closer and closer to Jesus’ side, so she can just touch the hem of his cloak as he goes past.

Now there was a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.’

This seems to be a woman of deep faith – or did she, like many of us, turn to the Healer only when conventional methods failed her? Twelve years of medical treatment with no improvement – that can still happen to people today. And yet many are willing to try procedures with only a 10 percent rate of success. But rely on prayer? That’s way too risky!

I love the way this woman, like Jairus, is determined to get what she needs, and how much she believes in Jesus’ power to heal her. I think of her as a base runner stealing third, trying to get to her goal undetected. Her faith is so strong she knows that the merest touch of his clothes will give her access to the power that heals. And her faith is rewarded – she feels the healing in her body at the instant of her act of faith. She knows, without a doubt, that healing is hers.

When have you or I last prayed with such faith about something that mattered deeply to us? It can feel risky because we are not surrounded by a culture in which such acts of faith are considered normal or rational. But in communities that do uphold healing, that actively invite the power of the Spirit into those who are ill in body, mind or spirit, it is a wholly acceptable, faith-building practice.

We don’t need to steal healing – it has been freely offered to us, a healing stream of living water always flowing in us and around us, into which we can step at will, in faith, in fear, in trust, in doubt. We don’t always see the fullness of the healing we desire in this life. Yet we see a lot more when we do what this woman did – just reach out and take hold.

6-22-15 - Ain't Too Proud to Beg

Last week we crossed the Sea of Galilee with Jesus and his disciples. This week he crosses back to where he started, and again he is met at the lakeshore by a crowd, hungry for his teaching and healing. There are even some religious leaders there, full of faith in Jesus’ power to heal:

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered round him; and he was by the lake. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, ‘My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.’ So he went with him. (This week's full passage is here.)

I am moved by the humility of this synagogue leader. His name has been handed down along with this story – that doesn’t happen with everyone in the Gospels, as we will see in the second part of this week’s reading. This Jairus is completely and utterly focused on getting help for his daughter. He falls at Jesus’ feet, and begs him – repeatedly, we’re told – to come and heal his beloved daughter.

This is pretty much what I was doing last Tuesday, when I was so distraught about my cat – repeating every second, “Please Jesus, please, please be where I cannot be; please fill my house and my cats with your peace; please heal my baby.” Only when I heard things were better did I slow it down to every other waking thought. (Yeah - I thought I was done with cat trauma stories – guess not quite!)

All Jairus could think of was getting help for his dying daughter – and most likely Jesus was the only hope he had left. I can imagine him seeing the boat returning, the seemingly endless minutes until it had put ashore and Jesus had disembarked. And then the crowd gathering around – Jairus had to push his way through, fall at his feet and beg. And that begging means that he had faith that Jesus could, just by laying his hands upon his little girl, make her well, give her life. That wasn’t just desperation, it was faith. And Jesus honored it. He went with him.

What in your life do you want as badly as Jairus wanted his daughter to live? Are you willing to throw yourself at Jesus’ feet? Jesus doesn't need for us to humble ourselves like that – he needs nothing from us. I think we need to be that humble, willing to lay aside our dignity, our disappointments, our doubts, and just let the prayers rise from our gut, even when we don’t know what will happen. As we’ll see, Jairus’ story takes a few more turns before he knew the outcome.

In the past, I have prayed like this, desperately, completely, full of faith in what I know God can do, and not seen the answer to prayer I wanted with all my heart; the answer was not the life I wanted to see.

But I know this: when we fall at Jesus’ feet, praying over and over again, we’re as close to him as we can get. That can help us live through the outcomes we grieve and those in which we rejoice.

6-19-15 - Still No Faith?

You may have heard more than you want this week about my medical crises with my cat, but they have paralleled our gospel story of the disciples and Jesus in the boat. I feel I’ve experienced a similar situation and outcome. I’ve been gripped with fear, prayed in panic – and I’ve seen remarkable calm bestowed on all the parties, even on me.

The only hitch is that, as many times this week as I got to a place of calm (usually in response to good news, not because of my faith…), I was as easily jolted back to panic by the next bit of less-good news. I found it extraordinarily hard to put my trust in Jesus in the face of all the medical and emotional information. And, as grateful as I am that, for the moment, both cats seem well and happy, and I am safely back home with them, I think I deserve the words Jesus had for his disciples once the seas were still: “He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’”

Why are we afraid? Because when the winds whip up and the waves crest our bow, that’s all we can see. And anxious situations do more than define our present – they have a way of dominating our thoughts of the future as well. And the past, where time and again – though not always – we’ve been delivered from what we most feared? That recedes into the distance when the thunder and lightning start.

How can we stay focused on the One in the stern rather than the storm all around us? We can take our cue from the disciples: “And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’”

We need to speak of our experiences and tell everyone around us, not forget about it the minute the crisis is over. So I should tell you of the number of times this week I had an image of Jesus holding my beloved cat, soothing and healing her. I should tell you that yesterday, when I was about to get a massage during my mother’s birthday “spa day,” and I was worrying about the cat, I had a sense of Jesus saying, “Let me hold Dandelion for you. You just be here.” Do I sound crazy? Probably – but maybe so did the disciples when they told the story of the storm and the sudden calm.

And many people must have heard the story and believed it, for it was passed along and shared and finally written down by Mark, from whom Matthew and Luke got it… and so to us. We have this story to build our faith. We need to tell each other our “God stories” to build each others faith.

We need to allow ourselves to be filled with awe for this Jesus of Nazareth, who lives among us even now, who can command the wind and the sea, and even our feeble human hearts when we say "yes."

6-18-15 - Calm

Sometimes it seems like God is taking an awfully long time to swing into action. And maybe that’s because things that seem insurmountable to us are just a matter of a word for God, and what strikes us as nail-bitingly late is right on time for the Creator of the universe.

In this week’s gospel, when the disciples find themselves imperiled in a sudden squall on the Sea of Galilee, and they discover Jesus in the stern, blithely sleeping through all the excitement, they wake him up, saying, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ Jesus does not get up and join the hysteria. He just calmly exercises his authority over creation.

He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.

One word from Jesus, and it all died down. No more wind, no more waves, no more panicked heartbeats. In fact, we’re told, there was a dead calm. It went not back to normal, but to a complete calm. Jesus did not have to pray in a dramatic fashion, whip up a frenzy of faith, plead with the heavens – he just calmly spoke peace to the elements, and his word had the power to calm, to make things so still it could only have been by his action – Jesus doesn’t do things by halves.

But why did he wait so long? Well – was it so long? Didn’t Jesus act as soon as he was asked to? The better question might be, why did the disciples take so long to ask for help? Why do we so often get ourselves into a state, deep into a difficult situation before we think to ask Jesus for help?

I have prayed more constantly this week than ever before, with my cat in a bad way and my having to be out of town for an important family birthday. Monday morning both cats were extremely upset, as was the overwhelmed cat-sitter. I was overcome with fear that the stress would further harm my sick cat. And though it was hours before I knew the storm had been stilled – it had been. A friend offered to help out, and that evening she found the cat in a peaceful state. I believe Jesus worked through her gentle presence to bring even more calm, both to cats and cat-sitter. Christian community is a wonderful gift that way.

Peacefulness and calm are markers of God-Life. Not that the Spirit is some kind of spiritual Prozac, evening everything out – Jesus certainly displayed emotions like righteous anger, grief, praise. But storminess is not the way of God. A Lord who can rebuke the wind and command the sea is a Lord who can still our spirits, as we ask, and as we allow.

Maybe the reason it sometimes takes me so long to feel his peace is because my spirit, with all its freedom, is not yet as responsive to Jesus’ command as are the winds and waves.

6-17-15 - God, Don't You Care?

Fear has a way of taking over so that the danger is all we can see. And, like most forms of misery, fear loves company, intensifying as it multiplies. Together, we can come up with many more scenarios of doom than we can alone, right? And when we’re in that cycle, it can almost been affront to encounter someone who’s not hooked by the anxiety of the moment, who is calm or hopeful. “What’s the matter with you?” we cry. “Can’t you see how bad this situation is?”

That’s how Jesus’ disciples reacted as the squall blew up and the waves swamped their little boat. (Boats always little when we’re afraid, isn’t it? I’ve been in 50-foot waves in a storm in the North Atlantic, in an ocean liner, the water in its pool sloshing around like someone’s martini – and I’m sure people felt that boat was small…) The reality of the storm was so great, they forgot the power of the man they had with him. "But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ (This week's gospel passage is here.)

They were outraged at his lack of concern, took his refusal to join the chorus of doom as a sign of uncaring. “How can you sleep for God’s sake?!? Don’t you even care that we’re going to die?”

Does that ring a familiar note for you? When things go really wrong, that is often my response, to pray, “How could you let this happen, God? Don’t you care?” If I’m really ticked, I get even more passive aggressive: “You know I’m only doing this to help people. Don’t you want me to help people?”

Are there situations you have faced or do currently that cause you to ask, “Lord, don’t you care?” I hope you take that question right to God. It is way better to ask than to turn away in disappointment and resignation, to allow your faith to be depleted. It’s also good to invite other people in to our crises – not so we can feed each others fear, but so we can feed each other’s faith, so we can believe for one another when our faith seems hard to find.

“Don’t you care, God?” in the face of difficulty or danger or despair is a close cousin to “How could God allow suffering,” which is probably the number one question people ask when resisting faith in God. And I am reminded, in my current cat crisis as well as by this gospel story, that God does not prevent the squalls. God does not prevent all cancer or car accidents - or wars. Oh, sometimes when we pray specifically that certain harms be avoided, they are. But generally we find ourselves praying from the midst of hurt or crisis.

Our God is not so much in the prevention business; God is about redemption. God redeems situations into which God’s life and power is invited. God renews us when our faith is flagging. God brings life out of death… which means death is still there, but it’s not the end of the story. We need to be willing to believe in a bigger story.

A friend told me this week about a conversation she’d had with her mother, who suffers from dementia. My friend was wondering why a perfect God wouldn’t have made a happier world. When she said “Why would a good God allow so much suffering?” her mother answered right away, “Oh honey, I think we are the ones who do that.”

Best answer to that question I’ve ever heard. Humans have a tremendous capacity to allow, even to inflict suffering. That's where it comes from. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we can also be the agents of God’s love, coming together to heal damage, to sow hope, to banish fear. All we need is love.

6-16-15 - Swamped

“Swamped” is a word we often use to describe our schedule or workload. Its original meaning is a lot scarier – it refers to a boat getting covered by water in a big wave, making everything wet and at risk of capsizing - literally overwhelmed. There are times in our lives when we get swamped, and by lot more than work.

Last week was swampy for me – I’d been dealing with the diagnosis of diabetes in a beloved cat, but managing, and then suddenly she had a health crisis and I discovered (at enormous cost, incurred within minutes) she also has heart disease and my time with her will be more limited than I had hoped. I was overcome by shock, grief, confusion, love – my deck was swamped. It’s scary how suddenly we can go from battling a strong head wind to being buffeted in a gale.

And now, in a “meta-moment,” as I try to write this, late on the day it is to be posted, the head winds have picked up again and the water is sloshing menacingly. I’ve had to leave said beloved cat for a few days to come celebrate my mother’s 90th birthday, and the cat sitter just called to say she’s having a lot of trouble giving the medications. The cat is scared and combative, and I am filled with fear of what the stress is doing to her heart condition, helpless at being so far away, spiraling into anxiety, driven to prayer.

Which kind of puts me in the boat with those disciples.
“A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.”

And I need to remember who they had along in the boat – the Lord of heaven and earth, though he didn't seem to be much help: "But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion."

I know the best thing I can do today is stay as close to that guy asleep on the cushion as I possibly can, because he has power I do not have; he has peace I cannot manufacture; he has love even greater than my love for my cat. And the bible reminds me that, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear...” (I John 4:18a) So I will, like those disciples, call on Jesus to rise up, not to join the anxiety, but to calmly command the winds to cease and the waves to be still.

Are there situations in your life in which you feel your boat is being swamped by the wind-whipped waves?
Can you recall the times when the storm was stilled?
Bishop Gene Robinson was once quoted as saying something like, “Sometimes God stills the storm, and sometimes God stills us within the storm.”

Either way, we know that God-Life is one of peace amidst unpeaceful circumstances, love in the face of fear. Please pray for me to stay so focused on the love in my life that fear cannot gain a foothold.

(And please pray for the wellbeing of my cats until I can return to them Thursday!)

6-15-15 - To the Other Side

This week we get a wonderful and dramatic story from the Gospels – the tale about Jesus quieting a storm. It’s not a long story, so we can really sink our teeth into it and chew a bit. The set-up is simple – in the evening, after a busy day of ministry, Jesus says to his disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.”

The other side of what, we might ask? The other side of the lake, the Sea of Galilee. That’s the surface answer. But whenever I see words like “the other side” and "crossing," I think thresholds, boundaries, liminal spaces, transitions from one mode of understanding or being into another. Reading about crossing water, I think of classic dream interpretation, in which water often stands for the unconscious, depths, mysteries that must be navigated in order for healing and growth to occur. None of that may have been in Mark’s mind when those words were written, but that simple phrase sets up many echoes.

We are always facing journeys and transitions to new conditions, new relationships, new understandings of our lives and ourselves and the God who made us. We make these journeys in whatever craft are available to carry us, and there is always some risk of wind and weather. Even more, there is a risk of death, and that we will be changed. That, in fact, is an inevitable consequence of growth. We are changed, expanded, exposed to new perspectives and ways of seeing. We let some things die or find they are taken from us, and in that space of emptiness and grief room develops for new life. We are ever invited across the sea, the deep, the threshold to a new place.

The alternative is staying where we are. Sometimes we exercise that option for a long time, staying stuck in jobs, relationships, habits, addictions, ways of being or thinking, long after they have ceased to be life-giving.

What expanses do you need to cross in your life at this time, or have crossed recently?
Are there areas of life in which you feel stuck?
Are you being invited into a boat, and ready to put out to sea, even if there might be a storm brewing?

We do not go alone - we go with Jesus, who came in the boat "just as he was." Just as He Is, he is with us.

I’m reminded of a quote which Edwin Friedman cites in his great book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix:

“The safest place for ships is in the harbor. But that’s not why ships were built.”

6-12-15 - Parables

The parable of the mustard seed might be considered a parable of a parable. For parables are a lot like that seed – they appear small or simple (some of them) but contained in that little package is the fullness of God’s kingdom, waiting to be unleashed.

Matthew, Mark and Luke include many parables among the teachings of Jesus. In fact, they insist that the parable was his primary form of teaching:  

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

Why might Jesus have chosen to tell stories about the ways of the realm of God? Maybe because it makes absolutely no sense if you try to say it straight. The values of that realm are so distinct from our “natural” or “worldly” way of operating, that one formed by the world can only begin to grasp the difference if surprised by a story.

And people listen more fully to stories than they do to lectures. Stories engage the imagination, the memory; they often put us into a receptive mode. Stories also allowed Jesus to set up what felt like familiar situations to his listeners – planting seeds, baking bread, tending vineyards, herding sheep, giving parties – and then have characters or events go off in unexpected, even shocking directions. This is a wonderful method for teaching – start with the familiar and lead into the new.

Jesus’ parables run the gamut from one-liners to the paragraphs we read this week, to full on dramas with several characters and scenes, such as the story of the prodigal son. Some are hard to interpret, like the story of the dishonest manager, and some strike many as unjust, like the one about the workers in the vineyard. They invite us to play, to explore, to wonder – what does it mean if this character represents those kinds of people, and this character other kinds? Is God a character in this parable, and if so, who? Who stands in for you in the parable? Are you the sower, the seed, the bird?

If you haven’t played in the parables for awhile, you might make it a summer project to read your way through them (I think Luke has the most…), staying with each one until you feel you’ve mined its depths.

Not that we ever truly get to the bottom of these little gems – they have a sneaky way of revealing new truths to us when we encounter them afresh.

Just like the kingdom of God.

6-11-15 - Ugly Fruit

Lately I’ve been learning a lot about food waste, and the colossal impact it has, not only on world hunger, with people starving while thousands of tons of edible food are thrown out daily, but also on our environment. The amount of fuel and water that go into producing our food, 40 percent of which is thrown away in America, would make you weep. (A one-minute informative video on that here...)

One of the biggest areas of waste is produce – and a lot of that waste could be avoided if we would adjust our expectations of what fruit has to look like to be considered “buyable,” and what hours of day and night we expect to find a full display in our local grocery store. In Europe, an effort is underway to change those expectations, to push the virtues of “ugly fruit” and “inglorious vegetables” through clever ad campaigns and discounted pricing.

And what does this have to do with our parable of the mustard seed, you ask? The parable is about things that look small or worth very little having great value as part of the kingdom of God. The mustard seed in Jesus’ story may not have looked like much, but when planted it showed what it was made of – broken open in the dark earth, it yielded a magnificent plant that actually provided shade and place for nests. That is the story of the realm of God, a place where things are so much more than they appear to be.

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

We have expectations of people too, not just fruits and vegetables. We tend to prize the big, the strong, the healthy, the gifted. We assume these are the people who will be the best leaders. And we often hold to that assumption no matter how often we’re proved wrong – and in the process overlook so much potential in those who may not appear to have as much to offer, but in fact are capable of much more than we can imagine, often because of the very qualities that cause us to regard them as lesser.

When have you been surprised by discovering that someone you had assumed had little to offer actually made a tremendous contribution? When have you discovered that you could make a much bigger impact than you had thought possible, as you offered your gifts to God for ministry?

Let's go deeper: In what ways do you feel small or inadequate, like "ugly fruit?" How about we ask God to show us how to plant that very seed in the dark earth of God’s mysterious love, and allow it to break open and grow into a life-giving gift to the world?

We all have ways in which we feel like “ugly fruit” or seeds too small for any use. And here comes Jesus to tell us that, in his Father’s kingdom, there is a purpose to every single life, two-headed carrots, bruised apples and all. We are all made for fruitfulness, and God will help us grow.

6-10-15 - Small is Huge

I was once in a prayer group with a couple who started a school in a challenging inner-city neighborhood. They wove Christian principles into its operation, delighted in diversity, and had a huge commitment to helping the under-served, often under-privileged children of that city learn and thrive. They called it The Mustard Seed School, because they knew that things - and people - that look too small, too poor, too shabby to amount to much, can achieve greatness. That is how things work in the kingdom of God.

Jesus also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

This is one of the many ways in which the values of God’s realm run counter to the values of our culture. We tend to think big is better, strong is mightier, talent trumps.There is nothing wrong with big, strong or talented. But those labels don’t tell the whole story about a person or a community – or a church. Some people are big because they come from large stock; some are gifted because they’ve been treated to great education. Those are not the values by which we are to measure one another, and certainly not the values by which we are to measure the effectiveness of our churches. But it takes a lot of prayer and reordering our values to truly look for the power and greatness in what appears small or weak.

When have you seen greatness in something that appeared small or less than desirable?
When has someone seen greatness in you at a time when you felt you had little to offer?
When do you appreciate “small" and "unimpressive"?”

There is a realm in which our society has come to appreciate the small: technology. The smaller the item, the more we prize it – as long as it can still pack the same amount of data and deliver it at lightning speed. So maybe if Jesus were telling this parable today, it would sound like this:

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a computer chip, which, when implanted in a device, is the smallest of all the components; yet when it is activated, it becomes the most powerful of all operating systems, and powers many apps and puts forth many gigs of data, so that whole networks can benefit from its bandwidth.”

Does that work for you? If not, try this:

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a person of faith who seems pretty ordinary, who, when rooted into a community of other ordinary people, is the smallest contributor; yet when s/he is filled with the Holy Spirit, becomes the most powerful of all ministers and reaches out so lovingly, that whole communities are blessed in ways they cannot number.”

Yeah. You and me. On our worst days. At our weakest. We provide shade and branches for whole communities. THAT’s how the kingdom of God works!

6-9-15 - First the Stalk

The realm of God is all about growth, organic, even inevitable growth. That is what Jesus suggests in his short and cryptic parable about the scattered seed: 
“The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

In other translations, this is rendered, “First the blade, then the ear, then the full corn on the ear.” As soon as a stalk or blade is visible popping out of the earth, we can be sure a head will develop on that stalk, and then the full grain will appear. It’s an image of hopefulness, encouragement to believe in the fullness of God’s plan even when we only see the merest trace.

What did Jesus meant by the harvest, though? That sickle makes me nervous. But no cutting, no harvest. I choose to believe that Jesus is speaking about the full cycle of planting, growing and harvesting.

In fact, I’m going to venture an interpretation – hoping it doesn’t get in the way of your own. I think this is a parable about evangelism. The parable just before this, about the sower and the seeds, is about how some of the seeds fell among rocks or thorns or in in shallow soil where the Word of God could not take root and flourish. I believe Jesus is continuing on that theme. I think the seed scatterers are Jesus’ disciples and he is encouraging them that some of the seeds they scatter will sprout, even when they can’t see how the process worked.

This is like the times we invite someone to join us at church or for a special event and they are uninterested, or we talk about how important our faith has been to us in a crisis, and there is no response. Sometimes we retreat, concluding no one is interested in hearing about transformed life in Jesus Christ. But we are not meant to stop scattering seeds, for, unbeknownst to us, some of those seeds are breaking open and starting to grow below ground, even if we can’t see it until a blade or a stalk begins to appear.

This happened to a friend. She invited someone to church “sometime,” only to have that person show up this week, with family – who encountered people they knew whom they didn’t realize were part of that church. There’s a stalk for sure – and soon enough, if the soil is good, an ear will appear and then the full grain. Only then is it time for the harvest, the invitation to a fuller commitment to the Life of God.

In fact, people who harvest grain know when it’s ready. There’s no question about it. When we’re waiting for an outcome in ministry, we can trust that God will make it clear to us, and to that person, when to go deeper.

This image has also been used about healing prayer. Canon Jim Glennon frequently likened prayer for healing to planting a seed of faith and trusting in its growth, even before we see any sign of it. “First the blade, then the ear, then the full corn,” was his mantra, and he urged people to give thanks even before they saw how the prayer was being answered. That is praying by faith.

Are there some seeds you desire to see sprout and grow? Have you seen the tip of a blade emerging yet?

We wait, giving thanks by faith, until faith gives way to sight. That is the way of the seed scatterer in God’s garden. That is the way of the Christ follower growing in faith.

6-8-15 - Scattered Seeds

A person tosses a bunch of seeds on the ground, goes to sleep and wakes up for many days in a row, and is surprised to see plants sprouting around him. This is a description of:

  (a) Organic farming methods
  (b) A lifelong city dweller’s first experience in the countryside
  (c) The way things work in the realm of God

What does the story suggest to you?

Welcome to Seed Week in Bible Camp. I’ve never counted, but it seems to me that Jesus told more parables about seeds than any other one thing. In the passage just before this, Jesus tells a long, multi-part story about a sower of seeds, and the different results he gets according to where they fall. In this week’s gospel reading we get two more seed parables, short, simple – and if we harvest them well, yielding manifold meanings and gifts. Here is the first:

“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

We have no sower here, just “someone” who rather haphazardly scatters seed on the ground and then seems to be astonished that it sprouts and grows. How is this like the Kingdom of God?

Is Jesus saying that God is the careless scatterer, hoping that the kingdom values of love and faithfulness and power will take root in some? There appears to be no cultivating, weeding, tending, or watering – just “the earth producing of itself.” Does this suggest that some people are just naturally ready to grow and thrive? Or are we the ones unwittingly scattering the seeds of the gospel, and surprised when some sprout?

Or am I wrong to equate the seeds with people? Maybe the seeds are simply the movement of “getting it,” grasping the truth that Jesus was trying to communicate, about the way the Kingdom is already around, among, even in us. The truth grows in us – we don’t have to study and prepare, simply recognize and accept and live it.

Or perhaps we should focus on the sprouting plants, rather than the carelessness or cluelessness of the seed scatterer. The realm of God is constantly sprouting new life, grown from seeds we scarcely knew had been sown – and day after day, night after night, this growth continues apart from any effort we make.

What do you see when you play with this one?

This is what we do with parables – we turn them this way and that, try on different angles and interpretations, see what strikes a spark in us. Come to think of it, parables are kind of like scattered seeds that sprout and grow, we know not how...

6-5-15 - God's Will

Welcome to the family! You’re in. Jesus says so. Let's just check on what basis you were accepted. Were you born into it? Millions have been over 2,000 some years. Born and baptized, you belong.

Or did you get in on faith? That’s supposed to be a sure-fire strategy, believing in Jesus the Christ, incarnate, crucified, risen. Don’t need any documents from Column B – you believe, you’re in.

And what about behavior? Some of us “solo gratia” types aren’t too keen on the idea that you can “do-good” your way into the Kingdom. But Jesus did say something about “doing the will of God…”

And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”  (This Sunday's gospel passage is here.)

We can’t take “behaving” out of the picture, any more than we can take out believing, birth or baptism. The Realm of God is an “all of the above” kind of enterprise. It can be useful, though, to explore what it means to do the will of God. If it were easier to discern God’s will, we wouldn’t worry, wonder or wander as much.

One way to discern God’s will is to ask if we’re doing something Jesus told his apostles to do: proclaim the Good News, heal the sick, raise the dead, cast out demons. Oh, and feed the hungry, visit the incarcerated, love the unloved, forgive those who have wounded or taken from you. All that.

And what about things that don’t fall easily into "apostolic" categories? What about choices we have to make when we want to know what God wants us to do? There are a few measures that can guide us:
  1. Is what we’re contemplating consistent with what we find in the Bible, or at least not contrary to what Jesus or the apostles taught?
  2. Is there confirmation within our community of faith, even by one other person, for the course we’re taking?
  3. The “gut check.” Do we have an inner sense of peace about it? If not, we should keep praying and exploring.
Those are key components to discerning the will of God in our lives. Each is important, and to be taken in concert with the others. Our instinct is important, but if it clashes with the others, we should pay attention.

Are you in discernment about anything in your life at present? What happens when you pray about it? We don't always get a “straight answer” to those kinds of prayers, but if we keep our eyes and spirits open, we might find clues in “coincidences,” or things we observe or song lyrics, you name it. God has our number, if we keep our lines open.

Ultimately, Jesus said, his Father’s will was that “everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” (John 6:40). If we can live in that understanding, we will swim in God's will all the way to eternity.

6-4-15 - The Unforgivable Sin

There are enough things to worry about in this life; you probably aren’t losing sleep over whether or not you’ve committed the One Unforgivable Sin. But it’s the kind of thing that can bother the scripture-savvy neurotic overly given to scrupulosity: the nagging worry that I have blasphemed against the Holy Spirit. (I’ve been known to tell Jesus jokes… )

Reading the passage again this week, I think I can relax. It appears that the ultimate “diss” on the Holy Spirit was accusing Jesus of having an evil spirit. “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

To avoid the eternal sin, we need only refrain from naming as unholy the Spirit of God. That means we must be able to discern the Holy Spirit from unclean spirits – and that’s not so hard to do. Jesus said one can identify a false prophet by his fruit (Matthew 7:15-20). John said to test those who claim to speak by the Spirit – and the test is whether or not they affirm that Jesus was fully human. (I John 4:1-3) We can also look for evidence of the Spirit in a person by what kind of fruit they bear – are their words and work life-giving, God-oriented, maybe not every second, but over all? Do we see around them the good fruit of transformed lives?

If we focus our energy on all the places and people in which we do see the Holy Spirit at work, we won’t even have time to worry about unclean spirits. Getting us looking at negatives and what’s lacking is one of the evil one’s strategies, one for which I tend to fall way too often. For instance, instead of worrying about whether or not I’ve committed the one unforgivable sin, how about I notice the much more startling announcement Jesus makes here: “…people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter.” Wow! Talk about grace and mercy covering a multitude of sins!

I know I’ve written a lot this week about evil and the devil – those are big themes in this passage. But it’s worth remembering that the way the Tempter works is to distort the prohibitions and the penalties, and downplay God's promises. In the Garden story (also appointed for Sunday), the man and woman are told they can eat the fruit of every tree except one. And that’s the one the tempter focuses their attention on – that one prohibition. That’s still his strategy, because it works so often.

How about we stop falling for it? How about we stand so firm in the reminder of our belovedness in Christ, of the amazing mercy covering our petty sins and blasphemies, that we cannot be shaken off course by distortions and lies intended to undermine us? How about we invite the Holy Spirit to be so full and thick in us that we’re much more apt to praise God than condemn ourselves or others?

The clock is running out on the power of evil – God’s love has us covered. That is our Good News.

6-3-15 - Breaking and Entering

Tips on breaking and entering from Jesus of Nazareth? Not quite – but he does have a few thoughts on the most effective way to break into someone’s house: “But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.”

Remember, he is disputing a charge that the power by which he casts out demons is itself demonic. He says that’s ridiculous – that a house divided cannot stand. In fact, he says, “And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.” (This week's passage is here.)

I’ve always found that statement very confusing. Wasn’t the point of Jesus’ mission to put an end to Satan’s power? I think he is saying that Satan is not divided – Satan is single-mindedly focused on evil and gets stronger with each victory. Therefore Jesus will “tie up the strong man.” Hence, “No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man.” And that is what we as Christians claim Jesus accomplished – a definitive conquest over the forces of evil.

So… why doesn’t it seem like Satan is bound at all? Why does it seem like he still has a free run of the place, tempting, corrupting, degrading, destroying life?

That’s probably the hardest question asked of Christians. Don’t all our claims of Easter victory crash against the reality of evil still running amok in our world? Traditional apologists have likened Christ’s victory to D-Day, and the time we live in to the period between D-Day, when Axis forces were defeated, and V.E. Day, when all the battles had ended and peace was declared. That analogy has some legs.

For me, the issue of free will also comes into it. Yes, Jesus vanquished the destroyer – and each and every person still must make the choice and exercise free will. No one has it decided for her. The difference for us on this side of the Cross is that the choice is simpler. When we are faced with temptation to be less than who God made us to be, or when we fear evil is stronger than God, we need only remember that Jesus HAS tied up the strong man.

A person single-mindedly focused on his mission will always have more power than one who is ambivalent or unsure or wavering. Evil, personified in the name Satan, has power because he is wholly committed to destruction, to drawing people away from God. When we are equally clear about our commitment to God in Christ, to good, to love, those chains Jesus already put on him get tighter and tighter. We can not only resist evil ourselves; we can also free those whom he has bound. That’s the work of justice and peacemaking.

We don’t have to fight or bind the evil one – that’s done. We need only stand firm on what Jesus has already done and tell evil to get lost. We can do that in personal crises – just say, “Oh yeah, Jesus already won this battle. Come, Lord Jesus…” And I wonder what might change in the horrors that afflict our world if we were to face those crises the same way, if we were to come together in faith, pray, "Come,Lord Jesus," and focus single-mindedly on Love? Evil wouldn't stand a chance.

6-2-15 - Fighting Evil with Evil?

As Jesus' public ministry was getting under way, he got flack from many quarters. His family tried to shut him up, and next we see the scribes speaking against him:

And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.”

The scribes' job was to painstakingly copy out Torah scrolls, and perhaps other clerical duties in the Temple. This group had come from Jerusalem to either investigate or condemn Jesus – at the point we hear from them, they are clearly in condemnation mode. Unable to deny Jesus’ spiritual power already evident in miracles of healing, they are nevertheless unwilling to credit it to the presence of God. They assert that it is by demonic power that Jesus casts out demons.

And, as usual, Jesus makes no defense for himself. Instead, he points out the logical fallacy in their theory. “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.” That makes sense – we can’t draw on the power of evil to rid us of evil.

It seems to me that most of the horror and heartbreak in the world arises from just that: using the arsenal of evil to get rid of some oppression or corruption or injustice that benefits some people at the expense of others. What is terrorism, but the attempt to counter evil with evil, destruction with destruction What are violent revolutions and “Robin Hood” schemes but combating evil with evil?

Are there times when even people rooted in goodness and godliness use violence as a weapon against evil? Of course. I think immediately of the German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed by the Nazis for his part in a failed plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Did this profoundly holy and faithful Christian leader fall into that trap – or is some evil so horrific it can only be met with violence?

One online piece about Bonhoeffer said, "Some of his later writings insist that many Christians do not take seriously enough the existence and power of evil," so I imagine he was conscious of fighting evil. He was forced to choose between two evils, really - letting the madman continue, or taking action to stop him. He made a choice rooted in prayer and community, to take one life in hopes of saving millions. Many have done the same.

In the gospels, Jesus never does. He can be liberal with sarcasm, but never violence. His mission was to disable the devil, to “bind the strong man,” as he puts it. As Christians we claim he accomplished that – and yet, to live into that promise takes a very long view indeed, as we still see the power of evil managing horrendous destruction.

What are we to do in the face of evil forces? We are invited to deploy the arsenal of God – the power in the name of Jesus, the fierce advocacy of the Holy Spirit, the defensive weapons of the Spirit promised to us (Ephesians 6). And we have the power in prayer, the power that made the galaxies ready to mobilize when we pray in faith, in the name and power and love of our Lord Jesus Christ. That's the promise!

I sure would like to see heaven and earth move more quickly and clearly against certain evils that persist in cruel destruction around this world of ours. And yet I believe, sometimes against evidence, that the only force powerful enough to cast out evil is the love of God, wielded in prayer.

6-1-15 Mom! Make Him Stop!

This week we get a little glimpse into Jesus’ earthly family. Just a glimpse, but enough to suggest they were a lot like other people’s families: swift to pounce when someone steps out of the norm, protective of their reputation. And might we detect a little sibling resentment against the big brother who can do no wrong… literally?

This passage from Mark’s gospel shows Jesus right after he’s begun his public ministry of preaching, healing, casting out demons. Just prior to this, he selects his twelve closest disciples and then, Mark tells us, “He went home.” Home, presumably, was no longer the woodshop in Nazareth where he grew up, but Capernaum, the town where Peter and Andrew lived, where Jesus resided when not on the road.

But sometimes “home” doesn’t get shaken so easily. When Jesus’ family hears about the crowds that form around him everywhere he goes, they think it’s time to do something.

[Then he went home;] and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”

Imagine a parent who goes out to reclaim a son or daughter who’s gotten involved in a cult – and discovers their offspring is the cult leader! It must not have been easy for Jesus’ family to see his activities, the wild things he was saying, the miracles he was working, the lowlifes he was hanging out with, the way he stood up to the religious leaders – it sure looked to them like “he has gone out of his mind.” Perhaps they were so used to seeing him one way, they couldn’t conceive of who he had become.

Whatever their motives, their efforts to quiet him were unsuccessful. In response to being told his mother and brothers were outside, wanting to talk to him, Jesus redefined his family. His words may sound harsh to our sentimental ears, but he was just being clear about priorities for those who claim to be his followers:

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

How do those words make you feel? Where in your hierarchy of vaues is your family - and do they support you getting closer to Jesus, or are they threatened by it?

Are you willing to let people know you are part of Jesus' family, not just a follower, but a brother or sister? Because he said we are now his mother, his brothers, his sisters, whoever does the will of God.

That’s a pretty amazing family to be invited to join. That’s some pretty amazing family values.