7-31-15 - Sink or Swim

For the next few weeks, we are doing a worship series at my church on Summer Pastimes and how they speak to us of the life of faith. So each Friday I will turn from the lectionary to the gospel I’ve selected for worship that week.

The summer pastime we will explore at Christ the Healer this Sunday is swimming. It’s all the more fitting, as we also have a baptism that day. Swimming is one of my very favorite summer pastimes – especially going into the ocean on a hot day, feeling the rush of cold, cold water, being lifted and dropped by the swell, lost in the vastness. I think I may feel the most free when I am in the ocean, but lakes, ponds, even swimming pools will do.

The Christian life is water-life. We begin our God-Life in the waters of baptism and are sustained by the living water dwelling up inside us for eternity, which Jesus said was Holy Spirit. The prophet Ezekiel wrote of a vision he was shown of a river flowing from the altar of the temple that gradually got deeper, until it was “deep enough to swim in,” a river that brought life to stagnant places. All these images and more have given me the notion of the “healing stream” which flows in and through each of us, and around us, into which we can step for renewal and repair.

Being in the water also has its dangers, though, as Peter found in the passage we will read this week. That gospel story is about Peter’s little dip first onto, and then into the water after he sees Jesus walking on it. In this case, he doesn’t swim, but starts to sink, which is what happens when you’re in deep water and you can’t swim. He cries out for Jesus, who is right there, holding out his hand, bringing him back to the boat. “When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.”

It’s a story of a person of faith who finds himself in the water with Jesus – where he gets distracted by the circumstances around him and begins to sink. That is our story too, as followers of Christ, taking the risk of getting out of the boat and into the freedom and the danger of water-life. In fact, I think of the boat in this story as a symbol for the church – that place from which we jump, to which we return to regroup. Maybe part of the reason our churches don’t always have the vitality they might is that we are spending too much time in the boat with each other, and not enough in the water.

I can beat a metaphor to death better than anyone I know (and this Summer Pastimes series is going to give me lots of fodder!), so I will stop there, and simply invite you to think of living the life of faith as jumping into cool, refreshing water and swimming, entirely surrounded and supported by the water’s density, and yet also having to move forward in it to avoid sinking. We are held in the life of God, cleansed, refreshed and renewed, and yet we also propel ourselves forward in that life.

God is not a part of our life - God is the life in which we live. We have no life apart from God – and total freedom to swim in that living water for eternity. Think about that on your summer swims!

7-30-15 - Jesus is the Bread?!?

A friend of mine was teaching Sunday School once, and had just tried to explain to her class the significance and symbolism of Holy Eucharist. As she lined them up to come into church at the appointed time, she taught them a little song with the words, “Jesus Is the Bread.” After singing this refrain once, one little girl paused and said loudly, “Jesus is the bread?” with an intonation that indicated this was the dumbest thing she’d ever heard.

Some of the people listening to Jesus that day when he was talking about the bread of life that comes from heaven probably had a similar reaction to what he said next. When they said, “Okay, then, give us this bread always,” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” That probably sounded to many like the most preposterous thing they’d ever heard. And what did he mean, he was the bread of life?

We need a mind for metaphor when we encounter Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. But we also need to mine the metaphor to its depth, where we discover he means it as he says it: he is the staff of life and has to be taken in, accepted, received, take up residence in us, in order for us to grasp the life of God around us. I think he was saying to those people, so hungry for something, that everything they thought was in the manna – provision, protection, presence – is to be found in Jesus the Christ.

Indeed, everything we’re hungry for - which we seek in so many places – is to be found in Jesus the Christ, taken in, accepted, received, living in us. And it doesn’t stop there. As we do allow him to reside in us, fill us with the life of God through the Spirit, we become communally the bread of life.

We enact this at the Eucharistic table – we take the bread, now become the body of Christ, broken for us; we receive him into ourselves, his life renewing our lives; and as we disperse, we become the body of Christ, broken for the life of the world. How might we operate differently in the world if we were more aware of being the bread of life in Christ? Whose hunger and thirst might we address?

That little girl didn’t yet comprehend it, but she was on the way to being able to say, “I am Jesus bread.” I would have loved to see the expression on her face when she heard that one.

7-29-15 - Bread That Gives Life

I love bread. I love bread so much, I gave it up for Lent one year. If my metabolism allowed, I would start every day with a basket of French rolls, butter and jam. And work bread into lunch and dinner too. (But I’d soon look like a French roll.) Bread is the staff of life, but not the Life Jesus invites us into.

In this week’s passage, the people looking for Jesus want bread from heaven, and they think Jesus might just have access. But they want a guarantee before they trust him. So when he says they are to believe in him as sent by God, they reply, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

You’d think the miracle of the loaves and fishes would have been sign enough, but they wanted God to do what God had done before. It’s often our tendency, when we’ve been blessed, to look for blessing in the last place we found it, and in the same form. And, in my experience, God rarely goes back over the same ground. The trajectory of the Life of God is forward, to new life.

So Jesus tells them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

They were more interested in the temporal bread than the eternal. In fairness, having enough to eat is pretty urgent for an occupied, oppressed, over-taxed populace. Yet feeding the hungry was not what Jesus was up to. He told his followers to do that. He came to nourish souls starved for the presence of the Living God. He came to invite everyone to God’s banqueting table, and to clear the obstacles that kept people away. His priority was to proclaim the reign of God in which generosity and justice so flourish, everyone will be welcome at the table, and fed in abundance.

We too are called to proclaim the bread that gives life. I’m glad so many churches are involved in the sharing of food with those who hunger; that is part of the Gospel life. The invitation to us as Christ followers is to be as much or more involved in sharing the bread that gives Life to the world – introducing people to Jesus as we know him, feeding thirsty spirits and broken hearts, inviting people to feast on him in Word and sacrament. Who can you think of who is hungry for the bread of Life? How might you offer it to that person?

That is the bread we will feast on in eternity. It will never run out, and it will never make us fat, only full.

7-28-15 - The Work of God

I’ve drunk the Cool-Aid and swallowed the red pill* on the whole “It’s God’s mission, not ours” thing. I happily bandy about the words “the mission of God,” and have even developed a nice neat definition of what I think it is in general, a definition that makes room for any number of specifics: “The mission of God is to reclaim, restore and renew all of creation to wholeness in Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.” That’s so neat, God may want to print it on his stationery!

Only it may be wordier than need be – for Jesus defined the work of God far more succinctly. When he told the crowds, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you,” they asked the next logical question:

“What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

That’s all? Believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One, “the one on whom God the Father has set his seal?” What about all that other work we think we’re supposed to do? All that feeding and housing and proclaiming and peacemaking? Not to mention the worship planning, vestry meeting, bulletin folding, Facebook posting that occupies our church lives?

It’s a question of sequence. Doing all of that without believing that Jesus is who he said he was, “I AM,” leaves us busy working, and working out of our own very finite strength and vision. But believing first, putting our whole focus on faith in Jesus as Lord, leads us naturally to live out that belief in the places to which the Holy Spirit directs us – some of which may include peacemaking and proclaiming and planning and posting. Jesus told Martha of Bethany straight out, when she complained that her sister was listening to Jesus instead of helping put lunch on: “Mary has chosen the better part; it will not be taken from her.”

Where is your emphasis as you live out your journey as a Christ-follower? It's easy to get sucked into the works and neglect the Work. One way to reorder our priorities is to recommit ourselves to spending some minutes each day seeking Jesus’ presence, allowing ourselves to be filled with his peace and love. Just sit quietly and say, "Come, Lord Jesus." See what develops.

When we know we’re doing the Work, the works flow forth like that mighty stream of Living Water.

*The Matrix reference above is purely superficial - not commending it as a gospel allegory or anything... only seen the darn thing once!

7-27-15 - Sleight of Hand

Who doesn’t enjoy a good magic trick? Even as some part of us feels foolish for being taken in, it’s also fun to be dazzled. And a good magician knows how to dazzle by diverting our attention. I read a profile of one of the world’s most talented pickpockets (he only does it in his act…), who can lift a watch off a wrist or remove keys from people’s pockets without them being aware. How could anyone be so dumb?, we think. They’re not. They’re normal. The pickpocket is able to get in close, direct their attention where he wants, and then do what he wants.

Jesus certainly got people’s attention with both his teaching and his “deeds of power,” or “signs,” as John’s Gospel calls them. As this week’s passage begins, we see that the crowd whom Jesus had given the slip is now searching for him. They can’t figure out how he got to the other side of the lake.

So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”

Their attention, he says, is on their immediate needs, not on the Life of God at loose in the world. Another group he admonishes for only being interested in the miracles – for their flash value, not the life-altering power they point to. One way or another, if our attention is on the temporal, on what we think we need, or what we’re impressed by, we’re apt to miss so much of what God is doing in and around us. Jesus invites us to focus on the eternal – and thus to bring transforming power into the everyday.

“Do not work for the food that perishes,” he says, “but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”

The evil one tries to get us to focus on all the things that don't matter, so that he can rob us of our peace, our power. Then anxiety and depression and conflict increase - as do advertising budgets. Is your focus today on things that give life or sap life? There's something to pray about...

Jesus is not a magician – but as we allow him to get close to us, he can draw our attention to where it needs to be, on his love and power and grace. He just may pick our pockets of all the valuables that mean nothing, and then, presto!, from behind our ears produce a pearl of great price, and invite us to take it.

7-24-15 - All Were Healed

We end this action-packed chapter of Mark’s gospel with the camera pulling back to a wide angle; after these very specific stories aboutJesus’ ministry, we get an overview:
And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the market-places, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

All who touched it were healed. All who touched even the fringe of Jesus’ cloak were healed. No wonder some (perhaps less than reputable…) healing ministries in our day mail out pre-blessed “healing” handkerchiefs and bits of cloth to people who’ve sent a donation. And maybe I shouldn’t be snarky – if we experience God in the form of energy, perhaps that divine power lingers in cloth or the walls of holy places. Or is it rather the faith of the people who believe the cloth will heal them that results in healing? Time and again, Jesus told people, “Your faith has healed you.” Maybe the placebo effect is real.

As my friend Peter says, "If we knew how, everybody would be doing it." We would actively invite people to be healed. And most Christians do not do that. Why? I think it’s because we have not seen “all healed.” We’ve seen one or two healed, on occasion, and we allow the weight of all those "not healed" to overwhelm us.

I don’t know why so many people in our culture get sick and die without any visible healing – but I do believe that part of the reason is they’re not prayed for. I wish God would just go ahead without us, but the record of scripture and humanity’s history with God suggests that God has chosen to work through us. And if we don’t allow God to work through us … healing often does not occur. Very occasionally God’s will might be for something other than healing as we understand it, but that is rare. The reign of God leans toward life and more life.

I wrote yesterday that I believe healing to be a manifestation of God’s Good News. Why would we leave one of the most central Gospel tools unused? God’s desire for us is not illness or trial, but that we be whole and beloved and available to share God’s love with the world. We can pray anywhere and everywhere, any time someone tells us they are struggling with infirmity, be it physical, mental or spiritual. We can invite the healing stream of God’s life already in us by virtue of our baptism to be released into every situation.

And we can invite people to become aware of impediments to that stream's flow – like self-loathing, or a conviction that healing is not possible, or a deep-seated resentment, or unhealed trauma – and help shine the light of the Spirit into those dark corners so our friends become more receptive to the power of God at work in them.

I heard a definition of faith this week: “Faith is a spiritual force that becomes a catalyst to activate spiritual laws that have authority over natural laws.” (I don’t know who wrote it – it was quoted to me in conversation.) If chapter 6 of Mark’s Gospel teaches anything, it is that Jesus demonstrated amazing authority over natural laws – food, water, diseased cells. As he and others exercised faith, people experienced healing and deliverance.

Jesus still has that authority. And he's still coming into the villages, towns and marketplaces - but now through us. Let's make ourselves available to carry that healing stream.

7-23-14 - Bring the Sick

When I lead healing services, or offer prayers for healing, people often come forward with prayer requests not for themselves, but for others. They may not be aware of it, but they are right in line with the people of Jesus’ day. This is what happened after Jesus and the disciples came ashore after their adventure on the high seas:

When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was.

People came to hear what Jesus had to say, to hear his stories and wonder at his teaching. But his healing really drew crowds. For Jesus there was no distinction between preaching and healing. “Proclaim the Good News and heal the sick!” he commanded his followers when he sent them out. Healing and other signs of God’s power were demonstrations of Jesus’ message: that the realm of God was near, in fact was right here, is right here, coexistent with this earthly realm, and breaking through every time we exercise faith.

Words alone rarely have power to transform lives, but words married to actions that express them can change the world. St. Paul knew this as he went about his missionary journeys. 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 Cor. 2:4) Indeed. The church of Jesus Christ neglects the ministry of healing to its own detriment, and to the impoverishment of a world that needs the gifts the Spirit has given us.

Jesus’ power to heal is undiminished. Only now, he heals through us, and we invite people to bring their friends to him not on mats, but in the power of prayer. Let’s not be afraid to use our imaginations in those prayers. Instead of just lifting up a name or a story, let’s imagine Jesus in our midst, and see the people for whom we pray brought right into his presence. Be attentive to what you see in prayer – sometimes the Spirit uses images to give us a clue as to an underlying cause, or to where healing is starting. I was praying for someone the other day and had a picture of Jesus with his hand on the back of her neck, where many nerves come together. I don’t know quite what that meant, but I noticed it and gave thanks.

Who would you bring to Jesus if he was in your town? Want to try a prayer experiment? Get quiet and centered, and ask Jesus where he might be for you today. If a place comes to mind, go with it; what do you see and hear, smell and feel? Do you have some time with him before you bring in your friends? When you’re ready, imagine escorting the people for whom you are concerned right into his presence. How do they interact with him in your imagination? How do you respond?

Whatever you experience in that prayer time, know that God has heard your prayer, and that God is not idle. Invite Jesus to add his perfect faith to your imperfect faith, and release the outcome to God as fully as you can. Every time it comes back up, gently say, “I thank you, Lord, that you desire wholeness for all.” And believe that the Word made flesh has the power to transform everything.

He already has.

7-22-15 - Rewired

There is a particular phrase used in the Bible to describe people who have trouble believing in the miraculous: hardened hearts. In the Exodus story, God performs one amazing, supernatural deed after another through Moses, and each time Pharaoh refuses to respond in faith, we are told, “For God hardened his heart.” (Why God would intervene to make someone not believe is a theological nut we’ll have to crack another time… or never. This is one of those places where perhaps the human voice in scripture drowns out the divine.)

In this week’s gospel story, in which Jesus strolls over on the water's surface to his disciples stranded in the middle of the lake, the phrase comes up again:
Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

The passive tense here is interesting – were their hearts hardened by outside forces, like Pharaoh’s, or were they just hardened by life and experience and limited expectations?

Jesus often expresses impatience with the pace at which his followers do and do not “get it,” but really, he did give them an awful lot to “get.” His demonstrations of what is normal in the realm of God – feeding thousands, stilling storms, instantaneous healings, and now walking on water? – were so far outside human experience, that his followers had to constantly expand and revise their expectations.

We do too. Sometimes we don’t see the miraculous because we’ve ruled it out as a possibility. What doesn’t accord with our experience of reality cannot be real… except when it is. A big part of growing in faith is expanding our definitions of what is real in the realm of God, which is so much bigger and deeper and more powerful, and yet also simpler, than this earthly realm we call home.

In fact, I think we must undergo a rewiring to be able to receive the signal of the heavens, and that rewiring process can take awhile. We can facilitate the process, or stand in its way by staying stubbornly stuck in the “off” position, sure that the impossible remains that way, never venturing out in prayer or ministry beyond the conventional.

We facilitate the rewiring by engaging the stories of what God has done through people of faith – in the scriptures, in history, in books and videos about ministry today. We facilitate it by being alive to what God is up to around us now, noticing, asking in prayer to be shown. And we allow it to happen by testing the waters, as it were, stepping out in faith for things we think are impossible. Just as our brains create new pathways for information when the old are debilitated, so our faith circuitry becomes able to carry greater and greater power and hope as we use it.

Not everything “impossible” is manifest – I doubt I have enough faith to walk on water – but Jesus promised we would see “greater things than these,” greater than the works of power he himself performed. That’s his promise. How about we take him up on it?

7-21-15 - Here He Is Again

What do you do if your friends have gone on ahead of you, and you want to catch up? If you’re Jesus, you take the quickest route, even if it means walking across a lake.

When evening came, the boat was out on the lake, and he was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the lake. He intended to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’

There is much in this little story that confuses – if he came to them because he saw them straining against an adverse wind, why was he going to pass them by? And did he really think they wouldn’t notice him?

In a way, they didn’t. There was no way he could be there, so they didn’t see him – just like some people after the resurrection. But they did see a figure of a man quite obviously walking upon the water, which scared the daylights out of them. Of course they thought he was a ghost – and so real! So he stopped to reassure them. I think if I’d been in that boat, that’s the moment I would have fainted, when this apparition spoke words, and revealed himself to be a friend very much alive.

Once again, Jesus was where no one expected to see him, doing something they could not imagine was possible. That was to be his pattern with his followers, one way that he gradually expanded their sense of what God could do in them. They still didn’t quite grasp that until after they were filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, but they did grow into it. In Matthew’s version of this story, Peter even gets out of the boat and joins Jesus on the water, for a short time.

This is a question for us to ask every day as well: Where did I see Jesus today? Where did he show up where I did not expect him? And if we don’t have an answer, a follow-up question might be, “What situations in this day might have been improved if Jesus had shown up?” And then think back to those situations. Where might he have been that we didn’t notice? Until we become adept at recognizing him in the moment, we can train our hindsight.

On good days, we are aware of the presence of God all over, in encounters with others, in unexpected peace, in solutions and creative ideas. On not-so-good days, it feels like he's on the shore, or "up in heaven," and we’re alone. But I don’t believe we are. I believe that, especially when we are straining against a head wind, Jesus comes strolling along, speaking peace and courage, the molecules of water supporting him as though they were solid.

For him, they are.
For us, he is.

7-20-15 - Without Prayer

A reminder that we’re a little “off-lectionary” this week, but close – I'm using the story from Mark instead of John.)

It is really hard to do ministry without regular, intentional prayer. And it is really hard to do regular, intentional prayer in the busyness of ministry, even for Jesus. You may recall that he was heading off on a mini-retreat with his disciples when he got sidelined by the needy crowd, which turned into a hungry crowd, which occasioned his miracle of the feeding. Now his own need to pray, long-deferred, takes hold:

Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.

Jesus was able to delay his regular check-in with his heavenly Father – after all, they were constantly united by the Holy Spirit – but not indefinitely. After the miraculous picnic with the loaves and the fish, the time had come for some alone-time in prayer. He sent off the crowds, he sent off his disciples to the next place on his itinerary, and up the mountain he went to renew his connection with his Father, maybe to hear again that blessed “Well done, beloved,” to rejoice and review and recharge.

That’s pretty much what prayer can be for us, a time of just being and blessing. I did not know this as a child. I went through a hyper-religious phase that manifest itself in various ways, one of which was a nightly “prayer meeting” with my stuffed animals under the covers before sleep. I ran this like a business meeting – first we’ll say thank you, then we’ll pray for other people, then we’ll ask for stuff. (I truly can’t remember what Lamby and Tigey contributed to the proceedings…).

Too often, that’s still how I approach prayer time, as a formal interview for which I better have my act together. Yet time and again, when I do allow myself to be quiet, and actually invite the Spirit of Christ to make himself known in and around me, I find that it’s more like sitting with a friend or mentor, sometimes at a pond, sometimes on a beach, sometimes just in my head. I’m sure God appreciates my gratitude, but I don’t have to offer up seven “thank yous” to merit one “ask.” I don’t even have to ask or thank. I can just be – and yes, rejoice, review and recharge.

But doing this does require some intentional time when I’m not doing something else. I am in regular prayer throughout the day, asking, thanking, praising, lamenting, repenting. But often I resist the “be still and know that I am God” times. I am running, living the task list, bouncing to the next thing, ignoring the thirst in my spirit. Or perhaps more precisely, diverting my attention from the thirst in my spirit, because to access that promised living water demands an intimacy I don’t want to give myself to, though I am always rewarded by it. I often think God waits on us as we might wait on a wild animal, sitting quite still so we will draw near, hoping we don't get spooked and run away.

I do know this – that to offer ministry in the name of Christ without receiving the regular anointing of Christ in prayer is to offer water from a leaky pitcher. I’m grateful to the Spirit for giving me those three words as I write this: rejoice, review, recharge. I recommit myself to allowing God’s presence to draw near to me, and I invite you to join me, setting aside a time, a place, and a heart as open and honest as you can make it. Just sit and say, "Here I am, Jesus." Don't apologize for how long it may have been since you last came - just start where you start.

We may hear many things from the One who made us – among them, “Well done, my beloved.”

7-17-15 - All Were Filled

Food: getting enough of it to people who need it, while reducing the amount hoarded or wasted, is one of the most critical issues facing humankind. On a local level, there are all kinds of technologies being developed to help people with too much food to get it to people who are hungry. Food rescue volunteers pick up leftovers at restaurants and caterers and deliver them to soup kitchens and shelters; food banks coordinate with community gardens to get fresh produce to food pantries.

Jesus had a pretty good distribution plan 2000 years ago.
Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled; and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.

I love the way this story combines the practical and the spiritual, the pragmatic and the miraculous. Jesus breaks the crowd into manageable divisions – no one has to feed 5,000 people; they’re each feeding 50 or 100. That’s not such a daunting proposition.

And then Jesus blesses the bread (after a heavenward glance – what was he thinking? “Father, you sure about this?” or “Okay, bring it on...”), and he breaks it and gives it to his disciples to distribute. Jesus does not multiply the food so that enormous mounds of bread and fish appear. He just has them give it out, and it keeps not running out. Not only does it not run out – there are leftovers, twelve baskets full of bread and fish.Lest any one of Jesus' disciples not get it, he had his own basket of leftovers to bring the lesson home.

Our God provides. And not by half-measures and just enough – God provides fully enough, and sometimes even to spare. Nobody got left out of this feast, and nobody had to make do with a morsel. “And all ate and were filled,” we’re told.

Can you think of examples of abundance in your life, of finding you had more than enough when you were concerned you would run short? More than enough time? Support? Money? Supplies?
And can you recall times when you did in fact come up short? What was different about those circumstances than the experience of abundance?
Are there things you never worry about being short of?
What do you suppose distinguishes those areas from the ones that cause anxiety?
Where does your prayer life come into this exploration? I find when I remember to pray, I trust in "enough."

If we’ve known too much emptiness, it can be hard to put our faith in this promise of being filled. But that is what our God is about, my friends – filling us to the brim, first with the Holy Spirit, and then, as we allow God’s life to take root in us and strengthen our faith, we find we are filled with all kinds of other gifts – hope, peace, joy, love… and sometimes even bread and fish. Enough and to share.

7-16-15 - You Feed Them

How easy it is to cluck and chatter about inequity and injustice and poverty and hunger. Nowadays we can express our outrage or commitment by liking or sharing social media posts, or signing online petitions. It’s not so hard to name the problems of this world, or even the solutions – as long as they are things other people ought to do.

Jesus’ disciples were quick to discern a disaster in the making – a crowd growing very hungry, with no food on hand, and to propose a common sense solution – send them home before tempers fray. But Jesus had another idea:

When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.’ But he answered them, ‘You give them something to eat.’ They said to him, ‘Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?’ And he said to them, ‘How many loaves have you? Go and see.’ When they had found out, they said, ‘Five, and two fish.’

This exchange between Jesus and his followers has played out in thousands of church meetings. Jesus says, “You feed them, you clothe them, you protect them, you stand up for them,” and we say, “How? It’s too much. We're too small. We don’t have it. Where would we get it?” We shut down conversations about helping the hungry, the homeless, the hurting with the same reasoning – if we can’t help them all, why bother? We don’t have enough.

Jesus doesn’t argue with his disciples. He just says, “Go and see. Assess it. What do you really have?” And they come back with an answer that, on the face of it, just proves their point: Not Enough. What the heck can we do with five loaves of bread and two fish in the face of this need?” One answer? A lot more than you could do with the nothing you thought you had a minute ago!

I do believe God supernaturally multiplies our offerings, as this story goes on to demonstrate. But even if that wasn’t the case, when we put our “not enoughs” together, they compound like interest. The time we put in builds momentum when joined by other people’s time. The money we give can accomplish much more in aggregate than our own small donations do. The ideas we bring catalyze other people’s creativity to find solutions.

Instead of starting from needs we think we should address, and asking whether we have enough to make a difference, maybe our starting question should be, What do we have in abundance? What do we have so much of, we can share it? It might be friends, it might be education, it might be space in our buildings, it might be zucchini. Whatever it is, if we identify our abundance, it won’t take too much work to find out where it can make a difference.

The only thing we’re not allowed to say as followers of Christ is, “Oh well, it’s such a shame that people are starving while we die of obesity-related disease and throw away 40% of our food.” We just start where we start, offering what we have, and invite others to join us. Pretty soon we’ll find multitudes being fed on our Not Enough.

7-15-15 - Who Needs a Shepherd?

Sheep have a reputation for being a little dim in intellectual capacity. (So I’m told; I've never known any …) They pretty much have one thing on their minds: grass. Give them good grass and they will eat and eat, not paying much attention to where they’re going, not noticing if they’re straying from the flock or in danger. It's not such a compliment that Jesus told parables likening people to sheep, or that he says, when he sees a crowd looking for him, that they were like sheep without a shepherd:

Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. (This week's gospel passage is here.)

The religious leaders of Jesus’ time were supposed to be shepherds. Clearly he did not think they were doing the job, being too invested in their own righteousness. Perhaps this is why he has compassion on this crowd, allowing them to deflect him from his intended retreat with the disciples. He knew that without teaching and guidance and an experience of God’s power right then and there, they would drift, hungry, prey to false teachers and poor nourishment.

In our time and place, fewer and fewer seek out spiritual leaders; for many, the “DIY” movement extends to the spiritual life. They may pray, connect with others, find teaching on the internet, often comfortable platitudes, but they are indifferent to the accumulated wisdom of religious traditions. Like sheep focused on grazing, they may seek the next feel-good moment, the next affirmation that they really are okay, a good person, and so stray further and further away from the Source of Love. They put themselves at risk of manipulative teachers or a feed-back loop in which the truth becomes ever more distorted.

I’m going to make a strong statement: self-sufficiency is the enemy of spiritual growth. I do not believe people can thrive spiritually if their only point of reference about spiritual experience is in their own mind. They might be people of faith and active churchgoers. But if we want to grow in faith, we need to walk with others; we need to look out for each other; we need to hold each other accountable. And I think we also need leaders, pastors (the term borrowed from shepherding) who know the landscape and can keep their eye on the big picture while we wander and graze. And the pastors need pastors and community for the same reason.

Have you had periods of “go it alone” spirituality in your life, and periods of communal connection? How did each way feel to you? Who are the shepherds who have helped guide you to good pasture and clean water? For whom have you served as a shepherd or guide?

Of course, the One Shepherd for all of us is Jesus, our “Shepherd of Souls.” We truly wander off the precipice when we wander away from him. But we seem to need shepherds and other folks to follow him well. I hope and pray we all have worthy shepherds in our lives, that we see more than the grass around us.

7-14-15 - Take a Break

It may surprise few to learn that I flunk vacations. I don’t know how to plan them, allow adequate time for them, or completely shut off from work while I’m on them. I like to blame this on the fact that I am single, and it’s more work to plan a vacation with people not in your family, and less fun to go alone. But maybe it’s just me. Ya think?

It may surprise some to learn that Jesus commended time away after a busy period of ministry. (As we’ll see, Jesus also kind of flunks vacation, being very responsive to the needy crowds seeking to pull him off course…) So when his disciples come back, excited, after their first mission foray, he tells them they’ve earned some quiet time:

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. (This week's gospel passage is here.)

Spiritual work depletes our energy. It can also give us energy in the short term – I can be really pumped up for a few hours after any kind of Spirit-filled worship or ministry. But then I find I need a nap and to recharge my batteries. And we need more than naps – we need breaks. We need prayer breaks and Sabbath days, and retreats, and actual vacations – and sabbaticals and Jubilee years too. Like ground that loses nutrients if it’s over-planted, we need to rest and let our brains go fallow and our creative energies return. If we’re active in any kind of ministry, we need to allow the river of the Spirit to move through and cleanse our channels, remove the debris, reawaken the faith vision to see what is not yet.

On the brief partly-working vacation I just had, I was terribly unproductive. We might say that’s how one should be on vacation, but I’m not used to being so unreflective, to having no creative ideas at all. I didn’t like it. But a few days after my return, I noticed that I felt a little more resilient again, that my natural hopefulness was coming back, and a week later I’m feeling the creative juices beginning to flow. Not for nothing did God ordain a Sabbath day of unproductivity each week! Why is it so hard to keep that command/invitation? Even machinery needs to rest; why do we think we can keep running?

When did you last take time off – a few minutes, a day, some weeks or longer – and really let your system recharge? What gifts were you aware of in that time? What stands between you and taking more time off?

What if we thought of taking breaks as a spiritual discipline? Sabbath-keeping certainly is, but so is every rest after a time of ministry. I’m going to try something, and I invite you to join me:

The next time I think I can’t take a break because I have to get one more thing done, I’m going to imagine myself in that boat with Jesus and the disciples, heading to a deserted place by themselves. Just imagine the mood – yay! We’re going away! And with Jesus! We’ve worked hard, we’ve seen God do amazing things through us, and now we get to rest and recharge a little. Have a retreat. Decompress. Imagine!

And really, can anything we think we have to do for Jesus be more important than hanging out with Jesus? Isn't that where the real work happens?

7-13-15 - Tales to Tell

Another week, another beef with the lectionary. It’s made a hash of our readings from Mark. This week we get “before” and “after” snippets bracketing the stories of feeding the 5000 and Jesus walking on water – which get thrown together in John’s version the following Sunday. It’s like offering a meagre appetizer before a main course with two main dishes! I won't stray far – over the next two weeks we’ll cover all the material we’ll get in church – but I will stick to Mark, and follow it in order rather than chopped up.

Let's think back to our gospel story two weeks ago: Jesus was sending his disciples out in twos to proclaim the Good News and heal the sick. Now they’re back – and they have a lot to tell him! The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. (This week's gospel reading is here.)

When we offer ministry in the name and power of Jesus, we usually have stories to tell. This past Saturday, I went out with two parishioners in downtown Stamford to offer prayer to anyone who wanted it. We decided to go to the farmer’s market and loiter where people emerged from shopping. We held a sign reading, “Want A Prayer?” and at the bottom, “Prayer Changes Things” We were only out for about a hour but in that time had close to 20 blessed encounters with people, from a young man with whom we prayed on our way to our spot, who then prayed for us, to a vendor at the market who ran over saying, “I want a prayer!,” to a little boy who came running back to us after we’d prayed with him and his mother, with a look of wonder on his face, saying, “That was good!” It seemed like he wanted more.

Last night I met a woman I’d known years ago when I was doing ministry at Stamford’s women’s shelter, who’d wandered off, lost in mental illness. She told me she’s now enrolled in a mental health program, working and a member of a church in town. That’s a years-later praise report! And at church today someone who can be painfully insecure felt compelled by the Spirit to offer to read a lesson – and did it beautifully. (Coincidentally – or not – she was also on our prayer team Saturday…).

See? I can’t stop with the stories! Because God is so good – and we experience God’s goodness so much more when we’re out and active in apostolic stuff like proclaiming the Good News and healing the sick.

But Jesus isn't the only one who likes to hear our stories of seeing God at work through our efforts. They also build up the faith of the people around us to be bolder in their own prayers and ministries. And they remind us when we need to remember – for me that can be 30 minutes after the last time I saw God’s power at work. I’m not sure of the science here, but I imagine that a memory that is written down and/ or articulated verbally gets wired into our synapses more sturdily than one we merely note and allow to drift away.

When was the last time you felt God at work through or around you? Have you told someone the story? Start by writing it down so you don’t lose it. Tell God about it. And tell someone else.

If the apostles hadn’t shared their stories with Jesus, they wouldn’t have been told and retold and finally preserved to encourage us. We have tales to tell - let's tell them!

7-10-15 - The Hole-y Bible

I accept the Holy Scriptures as having spiritual authority, as God-inspired words set down by holy and faithful men and women, our ancestors in faith. I don’t believe in cherry-picking the texts that “work for us,” or picking and choosing what we find helpful or relevant. If anything, I think followers of Christ should ask how we might be made more relevant to the scriptures than the other way around.

And yet… there are these passages, like this week’s gospel, which may speak truth about human depravity, but in which I can discern little spiritual benefit. The beheading of John, the rapes of Dinah and Tamar, the conquest of Ai, the endless cosmic battles in Revelation, pretty much the whole bloody book of Judges. What are we to make of these passages in which the human origin or score-settling seems to far outweigh any discernible divine inspiration?

Some people, like Thomas Jefferson, simply cut out the parts of Scripture they don’t agree with; in Jefferson’s case, that meant any reference to the miraculous or supernatural. Others, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, alter passages that don’t match their theology. Others ignore the parts they don’t like, or focus on one part of the Bible to the exclusion of others, which can lead to a dangerous lack of balance in teaching and living. Any of these approaches lead to a hole-y bible rather than Holy Writ.

How can we appreciate the holiness of God’s Word when not every word in it seems very holy? I try to remember that someone was inviting the presence of the Holy Spirit to indwell it at every stage of its transmission – as a story passed along orally, when written down (sometimes by multiple sources), when edited and collected and consecrated by the community of faith, when translated, and finally when read by us. We can pray that God reveal to us a nugget of grace in even the worst story. After all, in our lives we encounter many horrible stories in which we need to be able to discern the redemptive power of God, for that is what we proclaim, a God who has triumphed over sin and death.

I appreciate the challenge of finding some good news in any passage of scripture, some connection to God’s plan of salvation. For instance, this week’s gospel passage rounds out the picture we have of John the Baptist, his fierce and fearless dedication to the mission of God, and reminds us that our days in this world are but the blink of an eye in the scope of our eternal life with God.

That being said, I have decided to use another reading at my church this Sunday, Jesus’ healing of the Gadarene demoniac, which got skipped in the past few weeks. With only 52 Sundays in the year, and many life-giving, soul-transforming messages to impart. I don’t want to give this sad tale airtime that could go to a story of healing or ministry that encourages the faithful.

This story is a part of the Holy Bible, and as such it is also holy, set apart, like the people of God. And we can rejoice in the way that John the Baptist was willing to allow himself to be an integral part of that plan, in life and in death. And we can receive it as one of the realities of this world that is passing away, as God works out that plan “to gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth.”

7-9-15 - No Promise of Protection

Okay, let’s take a look at this gospel passage I’ve been avoiding all week, which tells the story of how and why John the Baptist was beheaded after many years in King Herod’s dungeon. It’s a grim story; there’s nothing obviously redemptive about it. Evil triumphs over good, as it so often seems to do in the world. Maybe that’s why neither Matthew nor Luke include it in their gospels, even as they absorb so much of what is in Mark’s narrative.

Mark strays into telling the story as he talks about how some thought Jesus was John the Baptist risen from the dead – and one person who thought that was King Herod. So then Mark tells how Herod came to have John beheaded, though, “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.”

It was Herod’s wife who pressured him into arresting John. Herodias had previously been married to Herod’s brother, and John had not hesitated to inform the Galilean king that this ran counter to the law of Moses. Because he spoke out, “Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him.” She finally saw her moment when Herod threw himself a birthday party with all the VIPs of Galilee. No doubt the food and wine flowed freely, and there was even entertainment: Herodias’ daughter (later tradition calls her Salome, but she is not named in the Bible), danced for Herod. Her dance so pleased the drunken despot that he swore to give her whatever her wanted, up to half his kingdom, as Hebrew kings were wont to do (see the book of Esther). The girl asks her mother what to ask for and there it is: “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” Herod was “grieved,” we’re told, but his need to save face before his guests trumped his conscience, and so the gruesome order was carried out. John’s head was presented on a platter to the girl, who dutifully gave it to her mother. A great servant of God was dead at the hands of the vengeful and the flirtatious.

So why are we reading this, and on a Sunday in church? Maybe a better question is: How can we benefit from this story? Can we find any blessing in it? It does remind us that serving God comes with no guarantee of safety. We pray for protection from bodily harm, and we thank God when we avoid it, but in fact it is not among the promises we receive as followers of the Crucified One – just ask the 21 Coptic Christians kidnapped and beheaded by ISIS extremists in Libya this February, or the members of “Mother” Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.

To speak the truth in the face of persecution, to proclaim the Good News that Jesus is Lord, to take his teachings at face value and love your enemy – this is the call of every follower of Christ, always hoping that the worst we will face is rejection or a complacent disinterest. That is the worst most of us will face – so maybe we can be bolder about speaking the truth and proclaiming the Gospel, if only to honor those who paid a much higher price.

The only positive element I find in this story is at the end:
When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
It reminds us that John was part of a holy community, with followers willing to stand by him in life, and claim him as their own in death. That community carried on his legacy and his life. May we do as much for the martyrs of our time, in the name of Christ.

7-8-15 - Inheritance

I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be a “trust fund baby,” to have wealth sufficient to buy anything I want, to know I will receive a steady stream of income my whole life. Would it be freeing? Deadening? Enabling of dysfunction or generosity or both?

I don’t think I’ll ever know that in the financial sense. But I’m told I’m the recipient of a pretty huge trust fund spiritually, one that I can access any time I want:

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.  (The whole passage from Ephesians 1 is here.)

This inheritance, which gives us access to the power that made the heavens, that can heal the sick and revive the soul, is already ours: “We have obtained” it. Paul lays out some steps to taking hold of it – hearing the word of truth, the Good News of access to the love of God; believing in Jesus Christ; being sealed in the Holy Spirit as a pledge on the inheritance to come. This “marked with the seal" is a reference to the chrismation in baptism, that moment when the newly baptized is anointed with oil. In our Episcopal rite, this is accompanied by the words, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”

In that moment, we receive the gift of the Spirit in our lives, the Spirit of Christ with whom we are united in baptism. All the riches in that trust fund become available to us – the faith to believe in what cannot be seen, the power to heal what seems hopeless, the grace to forgive the unforgivable, the capacity to love beyond our own ability. That sealing, Paul says, is a pledge, a down payment, on the fullness of life in the Spirit that we will know in eternity, which we begin to live into in this life.

The question for us is: will we draw on the funds already available to us, or leave that trust fund sitting? There is no benefit to leaving it alone – unlike some bank accounts, this fund grows as it is drawn on; it accrues interest by being used. It will never run out, and there is no limit to how many times we can withdraw from it. God’s power is not rationed or constrained – we can pray for bad colds as well as world peace, and never exhaust the power and love there for us.

What would you like to draw on that trust fund for? Where around you do you perceive the need for healing, hope, forgiveness, peace, grace and love? Go ahead – take it out. The fund will not diminish.

We have heard the truth of the Gospel. We are invited to believe and to be baptized. We have received the promised Holy Spirit, and been given the bank card to use the funds. The password is Maranatha, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

7-7-15 - Lavish Grace

When was the last time something was lavished on you? Hospitality? Kindness? Luxury? We don’t always associate words like “lavished” and “riches” and “pleasure” with our relationship with God (thank you, Puritan forebears!). But Paul lays it on thick when rhapsodizing about God’s generosity toward us in forgiveness and redemption.

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Full passage from Ephesians here.)

How we feel about being forgiven and redeemed is tied up with whether or not we feel we need forgiving and redeeming. Some people feel guilt and shame pretty easily – for them, those are words of life. Others are offended by the notion that we, good creatures made in the image of God, could be characterized as “sinners,” and find the whole notion of confession and forgiveness oppressive. I’ve been asked why we talk about sin in our worship services, as though the word itself conveys a wrong emphasis. Perhaps we should talk about hurtfulness; most people get that.

St. Paul had no problem talking about guilt and shame – he knew how prideful and arrogant he had been as a follower of the Mosaic law, and how violently and zealously he had persecuted the Christ-followers. He had a visceral gratitude for the forgiveness of his sins and the redemption he came to understand as God's gift through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Recognizing how destructive he could be allowed him to understand the true cost and immeasurable value of God’s forgiving grace.

John Newton, the repentant slave trader who wrote the hymn Amazing Grace (sung here by President Obama, in case you missed it...), understood what that unmerited redemption was worth once he came to see how lost he was, how depraved in his disregard for the value of human beings. It took seeing his sinfulness to understand the extent of God’s transforming love – a love that not only restores individuals, but is part of God’s larger plan to restore all of creation to wholeness, “things in heaven and things on earth.”

Can you think of a time when you have been the recipient of “amazing grace,” from a person and/or from God? It can be simultaneously humiliating and exhilarating to be on the receiving end of forgiveness when we’re aware of how hurtful we can be.

And have you been called upon to forgive an extraordinary hurt? How did you come to that forgiveness? Was it connected to grace you’ve received? This is one reason we include confession in our prayers – to remember who we are, and how loved we are because and in spite of who we are.

Our nation saw grace “lavished” when members of “Mother Emanuel” AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, even the families of those massacred there, freely offered forgiveness to the murderer. Many observers took offense at that, feeling that that young man did not deserve to be forgiven, especially as he seems unrepentant. To which the Christian says, "Exactly." Those who offered forgiveness understood that, from the perspective of God’s holiness, none of us deserve it, yet God has lavished grace upon us.

Only as we understand that we need and have received that grace for ourselves are we truly able to lavish it on others. And as we do that, God’s plan for the cosmos gets more and more complete.

7-6-15 - A Birthday Prayer

Murder. Beheadings. Corrupt despots. Politicians partying with underage femme fatales. We get plenty of this in the news; must we encounter it in the pages of our Holy Scriptures? Well – yes, there’s plenty of all of that in the Bible, which, after all, chronicles the movement of God in human life and often reminds us how desperately humankind needs that gift. One of the least appealing stories of all comes up in this Sunday's gospel: the story of how King Herod came to have John the Baptist beheaded. We can no doubt learn something from this sordid tale – and we will. But I have no wish to spend our whole week on it, nor do I wish to tackle it today, which is my birthday.

Happily Sunday’s readings also include one of my top ten hits – the beginning of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. This letter contains some of the most beautiful, lyrical passages in the New Testament; I actually memorized the first three chapters as a Lenten discipline one year. Paul is so effusive in his praise of God and so passionate in his prayer for this community he has heard about. Here's how it starts:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.

Just pick out the verbs in that paragraph: blessed, chose, destined, bestowed. In each case, God is the actor and we are the receivers – we are those blessed with every spiritual blessing that is going on right now in the heavenly places; we are those chosen before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before God in love. That one sentence binds up our deepest past and our farthest future – and it’s all right now, already happening, on earth as it is in heaven.

Paul writes that God destined us for adoption as God’s children through Christ – which is great for us, but also, it appears, somehow adds to the praise of God’s grace freely given us in the Beloved, who is Christ. Imagine: when we receive God’s grace, it further praises the giver of that very gift. So when we refuse the gift of grace, when we try to justify ourselves, when we shun God’s forgiving mercy and insist on punishing ourselves, when we stubbornly cling to our self-sufficiency and illusions of control… God is less praised. Who'd have thought that not taking an offered gift could have such cosmic effect?

Today I celebrate my birth into this world, into a wonderful human family in which I am birth-daughter, sister, aunt. But I also give thanks for my adoption into the eternal and worldwide family of God, which has made me daughter, sister, mother to so many beautiful souls, chosen with me before the foundations of the world to be holy and blameless before God in love.

I can think of no better birthday prayer – for me to take in the immeasurable love in which I was made and in which I live, and to pray this prayer for you as well. Thanks be to God!

7-3-15 - On the Job Training

Those who would carry forward the ministry of Jesus’ apostles as ordained leaders today must often go through a great deal of discernment and training and formation. In the Episcopal church, discernment can take 3-5 years, with parish committees, diocesan committees, bishops, psychologists, often more than once. Training means a three-year seminary education, learning all about church history, theology, practice of ministry and how to interpret the Scriptures. Formation includes field education, chaplaincy, spiritual direction, mentorships, retreats…

And a person can emerge from all of that and still not feel equipped to cast out demons or cure people of illness! By contrast, the original apostles of Jesus did all that on their first foray, learning as they went:
So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

This is fairly astonishing, when you think that these men had no formal instruction, and had until recently been living normal lives, with families, engaged in livelihoods like fishing and tax collecting. But it doesn’t require training to allow the Spirit of God to work through you – it requires learning how to get out of God’s way. We can see, following this band of Christ-followers through the pages of the New Testament, that it took them a lot longer to get that down. But here, at the outset, they are already competent at demonstrating the healing and authority over evil that are prime markers of God’s realm.

Do you feel equipped to be an apostle of Christ in your surroundings? Do we even know what that means for us? It’s not complicated; I figure “apostolic” just means doing whatever Jesus’ apostles did. And they did this: proclaimed God’s reign, invited people to open themselves to God’s love (repentance), and demonstrated that love through curing the sick and casting out evil wherever they encountered it. They did this not on their own, but by God’s power working through them as Jesus gave them authority. That’s all.

We too have been given this gift of Spirit and this authority over evil. We don’t need any more training to be apostles than the original ones did. We too can learn on the job.

And, as strongly as I believe this, I find it hard to get out there. It’s so counter-cultural for us, to go out in public, or even to people we know, offering prayer and healing. We have a little team from church all set to do that, and we keep finding excuses not to go. Yet whenever we do, we find such a positive reception and such blessing.

I am truly grateful for all the formal education and training I received, and I hope my communities benefit from it. I also know that all I really need is the power of the Holy Spirit alive and working through me, and the courage to let her flow. You too!

7-2-15 - Radical Hospitality

Many churches use the term “radical hospitality” to describe their processes for welcoming visitors. In practice, this often means good signage, an alert and well-trained cadre of greeters, easy-to-follow service booklets, and people who are ready to help newcomers navigate the liturgy and escort them personally to coffee hour. On a deeper level, it can mean that a congregation is trained to welcome people who come “as they are,” not to impose its norms upon visitors, to create an atmosphere of warmth and acceptance and openness to the gifts a visitor might bring.

This is the kind of hospitality which Jesus’ disciples were to seek out as they went out in twos on their first mission without Jesus: He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place.”

Since he’d already told them not to take any money or extra clothing, it was clear they wouldn’t be bearing hostess gifts. They would be bringing the power to heal, authority over unclean spirits and the Good News of release and wholeness to be found in Jesus Christ. If they found people willing to take them in and care for them under those conditions, they were to remain there, not moving from house to house looking for the best breakfast. The point was to leave their time and energy free for preaching and healing.

And if they couldn’t find that kind of hospitality or the people in a given town didn’t want to hear their message? Then they should keep moving, and find somewhere more fruitful: "If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.”

This might sound harsh to us, but Jesus wasn’t sending his disciples out on a Grand Tour. He was sending them to proclaim the Good News and to exert authority over evil. To do that they were going to have to become what a New Yorker writer humorously described herself to be: “fiercely dependent" - and discerning about how to use one's time.

Hospitality that is truly radical allows a wonderful exchange between visitor and host. It does not treat a visitor as a guest, but welcomes her in the very first time she comes. It does not put all the focus on what we can offer, setting up an “us and them,” or subtly seek to exert power through generosity. We should seek a mutual sharing of gifts when we bring dinner to the Men’s Shelter as much as when someone joins us for worship.

Truly radical hospitality recognizes that each person may well be an apostle of Jesus Christ, with gifts and a message for us. I wonder how many more church visitors might come a second time if, instead of asking, “What can we do for you?” we asked, “What are the gifts you bring? We welcome them as we welcome you.”

Sometimes radical hospitality is what we're called to find, and sometimes it's what we're called to offer. Both ways, we are called to give and to receive, all at the same time. And in that giving and receiving, community is formed.