9-1-15 - Cranky Jesus?

Those who doubt the full humanity of Christ might look no further than the 7th chapter of Mark's gospel. In the story we have this week, we meet at Jesus who appears out of sorts, brusque to the point of rudeness - and seemingly able to change his mind.

Jesus has come to this house to get away from the crowds and incessant need for his attention and power. He needs a break. And this woman, a Gentile yet, finds him and has the temerity to intrude upon his solitude, demanding deliverance for her daughter. At first he dismisses her, curtly saying she is outside his assigned mission, and then likens her to a dog seeking scraps.

She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

As she steadily insists, though, refusing to take offense, he detects something underneath the annoyance she is causing. He discerns a woman of real faith, who will not take "no" for an answer because she knows with all her heart that Jesus can heal her little girl. This is the kind of faith he has hoped to see in his own Jewish community – but familiarity can cloud faith vision. This Gentile woman has no such blinders. She can see, and once Jesus' own blinders fall, he sees her truly too, and rewards her faith.
This story contains several invitations for us. One is to be persistent in prayer, with faith, even when it looks like God seems not to answer. Prayer is primarily about deepening our relationship with God, not "getting what we need," so we can pester and cajole and ask nicely and cry our need. Jesus hears us, and adds his perfect faith to ours, as we learn to trust his perfect will and timing.

Another invitation is to keep our senses tuned to discern faith in people outside the community of faith as we recognize it. Those of us who are longtime churchgoers and deeply steeped in our religious tradition don’t always see that the woman with the angel posters or the multiply "tatted" guy at the Shelter may have a clearer, less complicated,more powerful faith than we do. As we recognize that, we can make it our mission to invite such people to draw nearer the community, nearer to Christ – and maybe find that it is they who make Christ known to us once again.

8-31-15 - A Little R&R

I’m away on a brief vacation this week (I set this up to send before I left). And I can sure use some time off – I’ve worked hard this year, and worried hard this summer. I can tell when my creativity becomes stunted that I need to let my brain and spirit get off the grid for a bit.

If I think I need a vacation, imagine how much Jesus needed some rest time! He had been preaching and healing and traveling and disputing and training, never in the same spot for more than a day, it seems. And now he arrives in Tyre, on the coast, and he just wants some time apart. It’s his Garbo moment, “I vant to be alone!” But it’s not to be.

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. (This week's Gospel passage is here.)

It’s great to read that Jesus did seek these times to rest and recharge, for it reminds us that he was indeed human, and it gives us permission to recognize our limits as well. And, of course, he was also the God who ordained a day of rest in every seven; if we would only live into that promise, we might not even need vacations.

And it’s also helpful to learn that Jesus was interrupted at his rest. The demands of the world do not subside just because we take some time out. The woman who came and found him had business she felt was much more pressing than his need to rest. And, though his initial response appears surly, in the end he agrees with her: her need, and her faith, were worthy of his attention.

When we’re on vacation we put down our regular work, our regular tasks, sometimes even our regular landscape, and seek to be renewed in the space that opens up. But we do not cease to be servants of the Living God, engaged in God’s mission of restoration and wholeness. We may find ourselves presented with needs in the people around us. We may fall into some interior, spiritual work we’ve neglected in our busyness, or find ourselves dealing with issues in our families or relationships. We may be surprised at how God wants to work through us in our time away.

I plan to be alert to opportunities, but not seek them out. I’ll probably keep churning out Water Daily, because I like the Gospel reading this week, though I’ll have to locate internet access to do it. I guess I might find, as Jesus did, that sometimes the mission of God draws us in despite our best intentions to stay apart. And then we have to trust that God will give us the R&R we need in some other way.

8-28-15 - Grace in the Garden

This August, 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.

I am not a gardener. I’m a would-be gardener, and I know a lot of real gardeners. And I reap the benefit from those who designed the garden in my yard, especially the peonies which tell me that spring has arrived. A well-designed flower garden - plantings balanced in color, height, time of blooming – is a gift to the community around it, as well as to the one who planted and tends it.

Vegetable gardens are another gift that offer both beauty and bounty to their communities. They require work to prepare the soil, and knowledge of when to plant what, and the sower never knows exactly which seeds will grow, or how great or small its yield will be. (Except zucchini, I guess – those always seem to be in abundance).

This week we explore the summer pastime of gardening as a way of thinking about our faith lives. What parallels do you draw as you consider gardening and gardens? We might think of God as the one who designs, plants and tends – and never knows for sure what will yield, as God has given this garden free will.

What opens up when we think of our lives as gardens? What’s growing and thriving, and what’s stunted? Who planted what? Are there weeds we’d like to pull out? Growth we should prune back? New plants we’d like to put in?

And what if we think of ourselves as gardeners tending God’s garden, not our own? The second creation story, starting in Genesis 2:4, suggests that humankind was created in part to serve as gardeners, to tend and nurture the beautiful creation God had wrought. How much freedom do we have to add to God’s design? Is it up to us to weed out evil? In the parable of the weeds and the wheat, Jesus suggests it is not.

I hope this weekend you can sit and contemplate a beautiful garden, your own or someone else’s. Ask Jesus how he’s calling you to plant, water, weed and prune. He should know; the first person he encountered after he rose from the dead, thought he was a gardener. She wasn't all wrong...

8-25-15 - Inside Out

Americans are increasingly conscious about what we consume. Soaring rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and substance abuse – not to mention a culture obsessed with body fat – have led to a focus on fat, sugar, gluten, pesticides and their attendant evils. Vegan, vegetarian, Paleo, organic diets are all the rage. We know all about the damage we can do by what we take into our bodies.

Perhaps we’re not so different from the Pharisees of Jesus’ time. Focused on the fine points of the Mosaic Law, they were hyper-conscious about the dangers of eating the wrong food, or overlooking the proper precautions and rituals. Jesus had a thing or two to say about that:

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” 

He went on to list a great many sins and character flaws that issue from the human heart – and to suggest that we concern ourselves more with what comes from inside us than from without.

It’s not an either/or, of course. The emotional climate in which we operate factors into the thoughts and behaviors we exhibit to the world, just as the actual food and drink we consume play a role in how healthy our minds and spirits are. But Jesus is right, as usual: It’s ridiculous to worry about the toxicity in our food supply while we sow discord in social discourse, or to demand transparency about genetically modified foods and not in our financial or political systems.

To Jesus’ list of “evil intentions” and wickedness of which the human heart is capable, I would like to add a list of all the good things that also issue from inside us: compassion, generosity, forbearance, empathy, love – the fruit of the Spirit at work in us that Paul mentions in Galatians.

As we allow the Spirit of Christ to live in us, we can become more aware of the interior landscape in which we ask that Spirit to dwell. Is it littered with garbage and debris, old wounds, dysfunctional patterns of being and relating? Toxic dumps of anger, fear, envy and shame that leak into our reactions and interactions? Might we ask God to tour that landscape with us, and invite healing and cleansing of all that leads to hurt? There’s some prayer work, to be done with God alone, or with the help of a spiritual director, confessor and/or therapist.

And then let’s pay attention to what we take in – not only good and healthy things for our bodies, but all that is good and true and worthy (another great list from St. Paul in Philippians 4…). So may we be able to say with the Psalmist, “Let all that is within me bless God’s holy name.”

I’m going to take a few days off from Water Daily here and there this week and next. See you Friday!

8-24-15 - Majoring in Minors

Were you ever sent away from the dinner table with the stern command, “Wash your hands?” It was ingrained in me as a pre-prandial requirement, though, as a rule, we ate with utensils, not bare hands. And when I cook I've learned to wash my hands frequently, as a precaution against spreading bacteria that may have escaped my chicken or kale.

Health concerns may have been the root of the elaborate washing rituals handed down in Hebrew tradition, but Jesus and his disciples seem not to have bothered with these rites, for the Jewish leaders who had come from Jerusalem to investigate the Jesus movement found them eating with “defiled” hands. 

 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” (This week's gospel passage is here.)

Jesus is not gentle in his response:  

He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.' You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Once again, his accusation against his interrogators is rooted in his perception that they are missing the point, majoring in minors, and so distorting the heart of God’s law. It would appear these rituals were an age-old community practice that had become elevated to the status of Law. This was not bad in itself, but Jesus charges that these men focused an inordinate amount of attention on matters of human tradition while they ignored actual laws of God – such as the command to care for the poor, the orphan and the widow, or the command to honor your father and mother.

Sound familiar? How often do we hear of faith leaders attacking other Christians over lifestyle or political issues, yet doing little to proclaim the Good News of forgiveness in Christ? How often do we see churches, even those facing declining attendance, focus their resources on maintaining a certain style of liturgy, or replacing the sanctuary carpet, or organizing yet another congregational dinner that draws no one from outside, instead of turning their vision outward?

Oh, it’s easy to point fingers. Let’s bring it closer. What occupies much of our time and emotional energy? Is it the “commandment of God” or “human tradition?” I know I spend an awful lot of time perpetuating institutional life, which may or not be how the Spirit is inviting me to spend the time and gifts I have been given in this limited life. How about you? Might we do a little inventory of where the bulk of our energy, time and money goes? A quick glance over calendar and checkbook (and Facebook…) can tell us a lot.

What if we were to ask God to tell us daily where our energies can most fruitfully be invested? And listen for the answer before going about our day? That’s a lot more important than washing our hands before meals.

8-21-15 - Grace Will Lead Us Home

This August, 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. Here is this week's (a bit of a seventh-inning stretch..)

Baseball is in the on-deck circle this week, and boy, does it lend itself to puns and metaphors for the life of faith! Strikes, outs, fouls, errors, sacrifice plays, stealing bases, walking runners. You could say it starts in Genesis: “In the Big Inning…” Most of all, with its circular play and the goal of getting players to a base called Home, it lends itself to thoughts of heaven.

Baseball allows us to explore the concept of grace – what does it mean to have an unlimited number of strikes and fouls? How do we live into the wonder of a system based not on running back and forth but round and around again, always moving toward Home? How might we think about Jesus – as the pitcher who walks us all, or the hitter who came to bat when the bases were loaded and both sides were losing?

I invite you to consider your spiritual life in Christ as though it were a baseball game – what opens up for you? What position do you see yourself playing? Where on the field is Jesus – or is he the Manager?

In this game of God-life, we are all good hitters, capable of foul balls now and again as well as the occasional homer. But no matter where we are – in the field, in the dugout, or hugging a base, we don’t have to steal home – Jesus has come to the plate, and has hit us all in.

8-20-15 - Where We Gonna Go?

A measure of doubt and despair is normal in a healthy faith. After all, the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. If we’re going to live on the ledge of faith, it’s not surprising periodically to experience a wave of “what am I doing here!” when we look down. This can come in times of personal crisis, or when it seems evil is still winning, or just because we read something that challenges our ideas.

It can even come because of something we hear Jesus said or did. So it was for his followers in the wake of his “Eat my flesh” comments, when he suggested that those who couldn’t accept this teaching had not been called by God:
And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

What a beautiful statement of faith Peter makes! There might be an element of, “You’re the best of a range of bad options” in “Lord, to whom can we go?” If so, it is quickly eclipsed by the simple and profound declaration of belief: “You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

That is how faith in God grows – it is something we come to believe, and something we know, not all at once, but fully even as it is still growing. Gradually, that heart knowledge comes to override other input of our senses and intellect that suggest God is not real or to be trusted. When hard things happen or we see the persistence of evil rampant in the world, it’s not that those things aren’t real. They are true and we believe Jesus is the Holy One of God. We hold those truths in tension.

Spiritual maturity comes in our ability to live with that tension, not seeking the comforts of an either/or. The realm of God is a both/and place, and the more comfortable we become with nuance and shades of grey, the more room the Spirit has to move in and through us.

What things cause your faith to weaken? How do you deal with doubts or a desire to jump ship when they come up? We can always pray right then and there, as honestly as the psalmists do, being real with God about what we’re feeling and thinking. That’s how the relationship deepens.

I pray that, through our deepening relationship with God in Christ, living more and more in the Life of God, we can come to say with Peter, “We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

8-19-15 - Spirit and Flesh

I think most of us prefer people to be balanced in the life of flesh and the life of spirit. Some people “live in their head,” as though physicality counted for little, and some others seem to be so spiritually disconnected, so completely focused on matters of the flesh, that they are neither very healthy nor very interesting.

We are coming to the end of the “I am the bread of life” discussion between Jesus and people in his hometown synagogue. He more or less ends the argument by suggesting that the preoccupation with “flesh” – which he stirred up by saying people had to eat his flesh if they wanted to be part of the Life of God – is really a distraction from what really matters. He says,
“It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”

It seems harsh to say that “the flesh” is useless. That quote might reflect the bias in John’s gospel toward Greek thought and ideas, which posited a greater distinction between flesh and spirit than would be common in Jewish thinking. Might Jesus have made a more nuanced statement like, “The flesh is useless in the long run?” For it appears God valued human flesh enough to take it on in Christ’s incarnate life.

St. Paul uses “the flesh” as short-hand for “the human nature without God’s influence.” And that, I think we might agree, has a short run indeed. It is our spirits that connect with the Holy Spirit, who gives us the Life that transcends life, the life we begin now, even as we still very much live the life of the flesh.

The life of the flesh allows us to enjoy the gifts of God, to fully inhabit this world and its pains and blessings. And the life of the spirit in us allows us to hold all that lightly, to recognize it as transient and temporal. We need to nurture both in this life, for a full humanity makes for a healthier spirituality.

What do you do in your life to balance the life of the spirit with the life of the body and mind? How might you invite someone who seemed “not to have a spiritual bone in their body” to open up that part of themselves? Every day we can invite the Holy Spirit to strengthen the life of our spirit.

The flesh is indeed useless once we no longer inhabit these bodies of ours. For now, though, it is our very flesh that allows us to have the feelings and emotions and relational connections by which our spiritual lives grow. The flesh sets up the life of the Spirit, which gives us Life forever.

8-18-15 - Too Much to Swallow

Not much got past Jesus. He was keenly aware of discord and disunity among his followers and often called them on it. So it is in this week’s passage, when some are grumbling about his teaching on consuming his flesh and blood.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?”

Instead of arguing about the thing that offends them – in this case, the flesh-eating, blood-drinking thing, which sounds like a direct violation of the Law, as well as disgusting – he takes the whole argument to a higher level, ratcheting up his claims to divinity. Maybe he was saying, “Look, that’s the least of your worries. Wait till you see me through my mission, my passion, cross, resurrection and ascending into heaven. Let that offend you!”

So much about Jesus can be too much for some to swallow. So people often pick and choose the parts of the picture they find palatable. They love the teacher but not the savior; they focus on the Good Samaritan but ignore the miracles. By comparing himself to bread, and saying we have to eat his flesh and drink his blood, he is in effect saying, “You have to swallow me.” All of it. The healer and the table-overturner. The story-teller and the lover of outcasts. The one who can walk on water yet lets himself be nailed to a cross.

When you think about Jesus, what do you find yourself drawn to? What do you turn away from?
Do you find some of what he said and did hard to swallow? Have you had a conversation with him in prayer about that?

The mark of a true Christ-follower is one who recognizes him as the risen and ascended Lord, and has made a choice to accept all of who Christ is revealed to be, both in the Scriptures, and in our lives today. A lot to swallow can also leave us fully nourished.

8-17-15 - Difficult Teaching

What kind of sermon did you hear yesterday? Hopefully something with some grit and challenge to it, but maybe not as outrageous as the folks in the synagogue in Capernaum heard from their homie, Jesus:

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them… But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. (This week's gospel passage is here.)

I imagine they were wishing for a parable right about then, or for him to say he was talking in metaphors. But he just kept getting more and more graphic and direct, until even some of his disciples said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

This teaching is difficult. I was in a conversation about that yesterday, that this chapter in John’s gospel is among the most difficult passages in the whole New Testament to interpret. It’s somewhat comforting to know that it was as hard for his original audience, and not only that something got lost in 2000 years of translation.

But other parts of the Gospels are not much easier, when you think about it. Jesus’ parables often fly in the face of human ideals of fairness and good sense. Jesus’ miracles strike many today as unbelievable, and often offended people who witnessed them. Jesus can seem rude in his contentious interactions with religious authorities and harsh in his instructions to disciples. If we don’t find ourselves somewhat outraged on a regular basis, maybe we’re not reading this book deeply enough, or letting it get to us.

Today I invite you to read through these words aloud a few times and let them settle in you (an ancient way of reading Scripture called lectio divina). “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them… But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

First time through, just notice what sticks out for you, or what you get stuck on, like a snagged zipper. Don’t overthink, just notice. Then read it again and see what reactions you’re having to it – positive, negative, bored, engaged, inspired, despairing… what are you feeling? You might begin to talk with God about that reaction. Ask wondering questions if they come up.

Finally, read it again and contemplate what invitation you hear in this text. Pray that too.

Some of Jesus’ disciples turned away from him after he started saying these things. We are invited to stay with him and talk it out. Outrage can give way to deeper relationship.

8-14-15 - Wind and Water

This August, 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 this Sunday is boating. There are, of course, many types of boats and many kinds of boating, which speak to the life of faith in different ways. Sailing, relying on wind, tiller and ropes to position the sail, lends itself to different metaphors than canoeing or kayaking, or cruising in a motor boat or yacht or ocean liner. I could work myself into a lather trying to tie each of these modes of boating into spiritual life and how we and God interact in our lives.

Instead let’s focus on what all these modes have in common: water, wind, and a (hopefully) water-tight container that floats. Let’s say the water is our life in God – all- encompassing, bigger than we are, able to support us, giving us lots of room to move in and through, helping us navigate to places we want to be. Like bodies of water, our life of faith can seem still and calm, and sometimes to move swiftly and turbulently, but we are always supported in God-Life.

Wind might be that which helps us move or impedes our progress, the circumstances of our lives. Just as the wind on the water can make for idyllic sailing or cause frightening swells, so our lives produce challenges and dangers as well as pleasant pressures that move us forward. Boats generally move forward if the wind is behind them; we want to move blown by the Spirit.

And the boat is the container which allows us to live our life in God, since we are not spiritually strong or holy enough to survive God-life unmediated. The container can be a one-person vessel like a kayak, which allows us to move through the water almost at one with it, or it can be an ocean liner like a church that allows us to move through the life of God at a pretty far remove, with a whole lot of other people, or anything in between.

Does this metaphor break down when we think about the risks of boating - capsizing, ship-wrecks or drowning? (Sunday’s readings at CTH are all about boating disasters…). If the water is the life of God, can it be destructive? Or would it be frightening or tragic to be lost to it? Well, we could say that’s what happens in the next life. We can be completely alive, breathing in the water like fish do. We will be one with the water, needing no container, no mediating of our life in God through human experience or community.

Well, it’s high time I sailed away from this maelstrom of metaphors and let you think about it yourself. What are you experiences with boating? Do you see parallels between the joy of boating and your life in God?

I hope you (and I) get out into some kind of boat at least once this summer, whether self-propelled, wind or motor-driven, and trust yourself to the water. God is inviting us to trust ourselves to his love, which is deeper than we can imagine yet able to carry us to the end of time and back.

8-13-15- The Bread of Not-Life

The book of Exodus in the Hebrew Bible tells the story of how God brought the people of Israel out of Egypt, where they had become an oppressed slave class, through the Red Sea to freedom. Only freedom quickly turned into a stuckness of another kind, as they wandered in the wilderness for forty years, journeying slowly toward the promised land. (One scholar estimates that they took forty years to make a two-week journey…) During that time they complained loudly and often about their conditions, wishing they could return to their days of bondage when at least they knew where their next meal was coming from. Most of all, they complained about the food, and sometimes the lack thereof.

At one point, they began to receive a daily gift of manna, a coriander-like substance which fell from the sky six days a week (two days’ worth fell before the Sabbath day). This could be collected and milled into flour. In the conversation Jesus is having with Jews in this week's passage, this is what they bring up to him. He replies that that “bread from heaven,” though a gift of God, was not the same kind of “bread from heaven” that he himself is:
“This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

There are many sorts of gifts in our lives, things and people that nurture us. But they are not the Living Bread. They might enhance our lives, but they do not give life. They are given to us to enjoy and to share but not to become the focus of our yearning or worship. When we start seeking God-Life from the gifts God gives us, we often lose our focus on the true Bread.

And when we lose our focus on the true Bread, and seek sustenance in the good things in life, we find they cannot meet our deep hunger. Then we often turn to things that are less life-giving – to relationships, or work, or accolades, or any number of substances that numb the pain or temporarily fill us. We turn from bread to not-bread, and become hungrier still.

What kinds of “not-bread” have you looked to at times to met your deep needs? What is different about receiving the Bread of Life in Jesus?

The thing about not-bread is it often fills us quite well, for a time, and often faster than the bread of life Jesus is. It takes awhile to realize that, as the cliché about Chinese food goes, we think we’re full and a half-hour later, we’re hungry again.

Jesus is not so much about meeting our hunger as transforming it into a deep hunger for true Love. When we begin to let that bread in, we truly will not hunger again.

8-12-15 - Flesh-Eating

We generally associate the words "flesh-eating" with bacteria and zombies. It occurs to me that the current vogue for vampire and zombie books, movies and television shows offers the Church a major crossover opportunity. For here, right in the fourth Gospel, Jesus himself is quoted, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them..”

It’s not surprising that some early Christians faced charges of cannibalism, with rhetoric like that floating around. And there’s no way to make these words palatable – especially to a Jewish audience, raised on laws proscribing above all the ingestion of blood, which is life. And that is the point. The impulse toward cannibalism in communities that practice it (or so I’ve read…) is to take into oneself the enemy's power. Jesus’ invitation is to take in the very life of the Friend.

He invites those who follow him to receive his life at the most basic atomic level, into our bodies, minds and spirits. He says he came from Life and gives Life – “Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.”

So much in this world can sap life, celebrate death (zombie and vampire entertainments, for instance…). Our culture does not lean life-ward or promote hopefulness and love. If we are to be seen as people of life, we need the Life of the Living Father to be filling us, renewed in us, every day. That happens through prayer and study, through inviting the Spirit to work through us in ministry – and it happens in this ritual many Christians celebrate at weekly worship, taking in the body and blood of Christ in bread and wine.

What are the sources of life in your life? And how do you best access the Life of God? And how do you go about sharing it with others? You might ask God in prayer, "Who needs to see / feel / receive your LIfe today? Show me how..."

There are lots of ways to invite people. If you know fans of True Blood, tell them we do a little blood-sipping every Sunday. If your friends are partial to The Walking Dead, you can tell them we do a little flesh-eating too. And if their tastes run more to the mundane, just tell them they can find life, life and more life in the body and blood of Christ, however they receive it.

8-11-15 - Raised

One of the standards of what came to be called “renewal music,” songs for worship from the Catholic Charismatic movement of the 1960s and 70s, was “I Am the Bread of Life,” staple of many a church retreat. (No YouTube link – each version is more lugubrious than the last!). Its verses, verbatim renderings of Jesus’ statements in our passage, are probably not the cause of its enduring popularity. Rather it is the refrain, with its sweeping lift, “And I will raise them up, and I will raise them up, and I will ra-a-ise them u-up on the last day” that made the song such a hit. You feel your spirit rising as you sing the song.

Jesus said, "Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink."

This highlights an interesting facet of resurrection theology: that it is Jesus who will raise us up on the last day. I had never thought to associate the Son of God with this function, and may be over-interpreting one line. It strikes me as yet another reason to get to know him in this life. Because I wonder: is the last day the only day when Jesus raises us up?

That question caused another Christian song to set itself on continuous loop in my brain – "You Raise Me Up," popularized by Josh Groban. This too has a swelling chorus and uplifting lyrics, and roots Jesus’ assistance in the here and now.
You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains / You raise me up to walk on stormy seas
I am strong when I am on your shoulders / You raise me up to more than I can be.

Though it sets up a comical image of balancing on Jesus’ shoulders, like a child getting a good view at a parade, it does remind us that we live the risen life here and now, not only there and later. And at times when we don’t feel very “risen,” we can invite Jesus to activate his life in us again.

Which generates a third musing on “raised” – Jesus as the yeast that causes us us rise and become the bread of life in the world. He probably didn't intend that association, though elsewhere he likens the Kingdom of Heaven to leaven. But here it is – a wonderful image for how the life of Christ works in us. Just as yeast is proofed in water and a sweetener, so his life is made real in us through baptism. And then it works through us, kneaded by our formation as Christians, by life's hardships and challenges, by wise and wonderful mentors. And it raises us into the life of heaven, from the inside.

Where do you need “raising” today? Ask Jesus to raise you up, and then say thank you, even before you see how that prayer is being answered. After awhile, you might notice something has changed. And when you do, say thank you again, and maybe write it down – even tell someone.

When we are low or weary or feeling powerless, we don’t have to call on the power of heaven from outside. We can ask God to activate the Life of heaven already at work within us. And we will find ourselves raised up – at the last day, and every day until then.

8-10-15 - Eating Jesus

“…so whoever eats me will live because of me.” – Jesus of Nazareth

It’s August. In coastal Connecticut, we’ve had a week of glorious weather, with low temperatures likely to last another week. My Facebook feed is full of people vacationing in exotic and beautiful places. Who wants to think about Jesus’ “I am the bread” discourses and their cannibalistic implications? I’m struggling more than at any point in the nearly two-year run of Water Daily to reflect on the assigned gospel passage and mine it for spiritual gems to nurture our souls. Should I free myself from this self-imposed rubric and write about whatever I want?

It’s not just about Water Daily. What relevance is there to this ancient argument between Jesus and some would-be followers, in which he invokes the name of God and Israel’s history of disobedience, and then goes on to say that what he really means by “bread” is “his flesh,” which he will give for the world?

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you....Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.”

These words made little sense to those listening to Jesus that day. For many Christians, these words only have meaning in the context of the eucharistic meal of bread and wine signifying Christ’s body and blood – and we only have that understanding because of what the three other gospels – and not John – record as his words at the Last Supper. And they are certainly mystifying to people exploring Christianity.

The words require too much unpacking, I believe. But the action – the taking and blessing, breaking and eating – that has power even for people who have no background with this language or texts. In some mystical way, when we receive the consecrated bread and wine, by faith become the body and blood of Christ, his life in us, received at baptism, is renewed. Our tired blood is refreshed by a transfusion of Jesus, our flagging flesh made whole in these signs of healing brokenness. And that can happen even for people who know little about Jesus. (Read Sara Miles' Take This Bread.)

We don't need more words about words. I just invite you to remember how you feel when you take in those mystical signs, how that meal nourishes you for the week ahead. And if you feel nothing, ask Jesus in prayer what he wants you to experience in that taking and blessing, breaking and eating.

The words may be strange to our ears; the Love that makes them real is where we get life.

8-7-15 - God on the Trail

This August, 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 second installment in our “Summer Pastimes and the Life of Faith” series focuses on hiking. There are no more gospel passages dealing with hiking than there are with swimming or baseball – those guys needed to get out and have more fun! But we can take a look at Jesus’ instructions about living in each day and trusting in enough – which is pretty important advice for hikers.

I enjoy hiking – except when I’m cold, wet, lost or in pain. Which is kind of like saying I enjoy being a Christ-follower, except when I’m scared, disappointed, confused, doubting or didn’t get what I wanted; in other words, on any given day! The life of faith is a lot like hiking – it involves discipline, sometimes pain and discomfort, and a lot of beauty. It goes better when we are intentional about where we’re going, yet often presents side paths that lead to profound experiences. We don’t always know where we are, or how we’re going to get from here to there – so we develop our trust muscles.

And speaking of muscles – both hiking and faith go better when we’re in shape, and they also help us get in shape. Both are richer if we have companions on the way, even if we don’t walk together every step. And when the going gets rough – the trail is steep, or rutted, or we’ve lost the path altogether – we need to focus all our attention on the next step and the next step. And just when we’ve developed that level of mindful focus, we find ourselves arriving at a place that gives way to a panoramic vista, and we get a glimpse of the big picture. Just like in our faith lives.

In his teaching about not worrying, Jesus commends both perspectives, the mindful focus on living in the now, and the larger perspective: "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.”

Though we do need to plan what we will eat, drink and wear when we’re going hiking, we don’t need to focus on these things, or on any of the thousand things that might distract us from the beauty of our route and the sheer joy of moving our bodies through space. Jesus invites us to learn from lilies and grasses and birds – in other words, to take lessons from the creation of which we are a part. When I am hiking, I make so many connections between the natural world and my life in God, it becomes a walking prayer.

And this is the where I most feel a consonance between hiking and walking by faith: no matter where I am, I always have the chance to encounter God on the trail. It might be in navigating a difficult part, or being kept safe from harm, or praying to be kept safe from harm, or in an encounter with another person, or in the “mountaintop” experience or the river running alongside or the encounter with wildlife… God is in all of it, and often quite specifically. Every hike can lead us closer to the One who made us, and the trail we’re on. So... happy trails!

8-6-15 - Bread for the World

In his “I am the bread of life” discourse, Jesus becomes increasingly, alarmingly precise. He moves from “I am the bread of life” to “I am the bread that came down from heaven” to “I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” and finally to this astonishing statement: “… the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

We will explore next week how graphically Jesus “fleshes this out,” as it were, and becomes yet more controversial. But today let’s stay with this idea – that his flesh is bread that he will give for the life of the world. What connections and responses does that set up in us?

For sacramentally oriented Christians, it is easy to read back into Jesus’ words a eucharistic connotation. Beneath that is the sacrificial understanding of his crucifixion, that something life-saving, world-transforming occurred in Jesus’ offering of himself and his brutal death, something that broke the hold of sin and death upon humankind for ever.

In these words are also written the story of his incarnation – God choosing to save the world through flesh and blood. For some people, that is the most radical idea of all – that the One who is Spirit came into Flesh in order to redeem flesh. We have no salvation without the Holy Spirit, I don’t believe, but also none without Jesus made human being, healing the human condition from the inside out.

And God still works through flesh. We, gathered at the communion table, become the bread of life, and the Spirit of Christ now dwells in our frail and fallible flesh to make known the love of God to the world. It is simultaneously a huge responsibility – for we need to be willing and to show up, and none at all, for it remains God’s work, accomplished once and for all by Jesus on the Cross, and worked out in the world through us, one encounter at a time.

Do you bring your body into this faith life along with your mind and spirit? Are you willing to be the embodiment of God's love to those whom you meet today? We might begin our day by opening our arms in a big gesture of offering and openness to the Spirit, even kneeling in humility.

Today is the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, when humankind demonstrated how profoundly “flesh” is capable of destroying the world. And in the Christian calendar, it is the Feast of the Transfiguration, when Jesus’ spiritual nature was briefly revealed to three of his followers as he shone with God-light. It is because he was God and Man that he was living bread that saves. It is as we take his life into our flesh that we too become bread for the world that can heal instead of destroy.

8-5-15 - Eternity

 For many, the key selling point for becoming a Christian is the guarantee of a life that never ends. In a culture that has managed to increase the average life span to eight, nine, even ten decades, that isn’t the draw it once was. I meet quite a few people who assume they’ll just be pushing up daisies when they die, even as they are happy to be part of Christian community, and even believe in Jesus as God.

On the other hand, technologies to prolong life, retain youth, maintain consciousness, move to another planet, store yourself for awakening at a later, greater time continue to be developed – and sold for a lot of money. Maybe people aren’t so ready to let go of life.

Jesus said eternal life can be ours without signing away our life’s savings. It can be ours through believing in him: Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.

All the blessings the people of God had known, he says, even a blessing as great as manna in the desert, were temporal. The only truly lasting, eternal gift is the bread of life – and that, Jesus said, was him, available to those who believe. That’s too hard for some, who don’t want to just take him at his word. After all, they can’t see him; but they’re willing to plunk down millions for a place in a cryogenics pod.

Is it really that hard to believe that promise? Jesus makes it pretty easy for us. We don’t even have to wait until we’re dead to begin to see the fruits of what we’ve signed up for. The power that raised Christ from the dead becomes a part of our lives in the here and now. The peace that transcends understanding becomes woven into our dealings with the world. The presence of God already surrounds and transforms us more and more into the likeness of Christ.

And as we allow those gifts to work in us, we become better able to manifest the love that we’re told is to mark the Christian community in this world, and will be the sole currency in the life to come – where all will be love. When no one lacks for anything, and no one prefers one person or thing to another, there are no impediments to love.

How does eternity sound to you? Inviting? Scary? Tedious? Exciting?

When we begin to see our lives, our travails and challenges, and even joys from the perspective of eternity, the bad things don’t look as daunting, and the good we recognize as foretastes of the feast to come. This life is but an antechamber to the palace in which we will dwell – a beautiful antechamber, but just the beginning of the glory in store for us.

8-4-15 - From Heaven

Often, when a popular public figure starts making comments that are just too outrageous, a movement to cut them down to size will kick in. (I’m waiting for this to happen with the bizarre Republican fascination with Donald Trump… here endeth any conceivable comparison!) We certainly see that process unfold when Jesus begins to talk about being the “bread that came down from heaven.”

The people who had come to him, eager for his teaching, waiting for his next miracle, now start to grumble.
Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”
(This week's gospel passage is here.)

Knowing Jesus’ roots, they couldn’t stomach what sounded like grandiose claims. In fairness to the grumblers, his words do sound far-fetched, especially if you know his human ancestry and have no reason to guess divine origins. Much of the Gospel of John is taken up with exploration and confrontation about Jesus’ connection with God the Father. But he lays it out quite clearly and boldly:

Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day.. Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.”

If anything this is more outrageous still. Jesus rests his authority on his divine Son-ship – and says that if anyone fails to discern his Son-ship, that person has not been drawn by the Father. For those who believe Jesus is indeed the Son of God, that makes perfect sense. For those who don’t, it just makes him sound all the more mad, and more than a little manipulative.

And there it is: the life, teachings, actions, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ make sense if you believe that he came from the Father and returned to the Father. And that he is entitled to call God “Father.” If you don’t buy that, if you see him solely as a human creature, he would be someone to be feared, not revered. Given that, the fact that so many billions across so many centuries have recognized Jesus’ divine origins lends some support to the truth we claim about this one who said he was Truth itself.

So how do we make this Truth known to the people around us? Should we bother? I think we introduce him as the friend and redeemer we know, and ask the Holy Spirit to make the spiritual introduction that initiates faith. We don't have to convince, only bear witness, in our actions as well as words.

We have not seen the Father. But we have seen Jesus, and can know Jesus. And in Him, the God is.

8-3-15 - No Hunger, No Thirst

When Jesus says that he is the bread of life, he also makes a big claim: 
“Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Is he only speaking figuratively? On the face of it, it would seem so. Many people believe and yet experience hunger or thirst on a regular basis, physically, emotionally and also spiritually. We have not received all that we need so that we have no wants. Or have we?

The realm of God is an already/not yet place. Often we put too much of our focus on the not-yet, when Jesus’ message in word and action was “It’s already here, folks! This God who loves you is near, is here, with power to heal and to provide.” The healings and the miracle of the loaves and fish were yet more ways to show that this Good News has implications in our material lives here and now, not only in our spirits. Even in the face of persecution, Jesus taught, God provides. How hard it is to trust that! Those muscles need to be developed and then exercised.

If anyone has reason to be thirsty, it is Rosie, a Latino woman I met at a nursing home where I do a service once a month. She often adds to my homilies, conveying my point better and more eloquently than I did. She is semi-reclined in a wheelchair, and looks to me to be in her mid-40s. And she is radiant, always smiling, grateful. One time I had spoken about the living water of Christ always within us, and she said, “I know about that living water. Before I knew Jesus I had this emptiness inside me, nothing could fill it. But the moment I learned about him and said yes to faith, I felt full. Now I always feel full of God, all the time, no matter what.”

Rosie’s “no matter what” is a very challenging one, confined to a wheelchair, living in a nursing home. I’m sure she had different plans for her life. But her joy is palpable. That living water of Holy Spirit life truly runs in her and causes her to be very focused on other people, on spreading her joy and peace.

St. Paul put it well: "I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me." (Philippians 4:11-3)

We have received the bread of life; we renew that awareness around the communion table. We have received the water of life; Jesus promises it is like a stream welling up within us to eternity. As Rosie attests, eternity has already begun. Be fed, be quenched, be blessed.