12-25-15 - Use Your Words

“Use your words.” I never thought to compare the God who rules the universe with a pre-verbal toddler, struggling to make herself understood, but that’s what came to mind as I thought about the holy mystery at the heart of Christmas:

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…

Why was the Incarnation of God’s Son necessary? In part, because of a communications breakdown. Because humankind could not understand the language in which God was communicating. We could not understand who God was. God had to use his Word – and give that Word flesh and send that Word to “pitch tent” among us and sojourn with us for a time, so that he could make God known to us.

No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

Jesus himself is worthy of our interest and attention and devotion. But if we forget that all that love and power and mercy and holiness and desire for justice was revealing to us who God is, we miss more than half the point. Jesus was simply demonstrating how things work in the realm of God, the Life of God. He was showing us God, making God known.

Today we celebrate God made known in the most vulnerable of states – and yet powerful enough to command the attendance of kings and angels. And, I hope, compelling enough to command our attention and love, on this day when we celebrate his wondrous birth. Christmas has just begun.

A blessed Feast of the Incarnation to you. God has used is Word to make God’s love known. I pray that today, and every day, we will use our words to make God’s love known to one another.

12-24-15 - Made Children of God

People often say that Christmas is for children. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that it is a holiday best enjoyed by those whose capacity for wonder and enchantment is untarnished, who still believe in what cannot be seen, who love the anticipation of wrapped gifts and visiting family.

I confess to feeling a little tarnished these days. A pre-Christmas cold has not helped; I haven’t even had time to shop for gifts. The lights are finally on the tree, but nothing else, which pretty much sums up my relationship to the whole Yuletide thing this year. So what good news it is to hear that I have received power to become a child again!

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.  (Here is this Sunday's gospel reading.)

Not everyone accepts the Light of the World; some have grown too accustomed to the familiarity of shadows. Not everyone wants light shined in dark places. And by our own strength, we cannot always turn ourselves toward the Light. The way John puts it is that Jesus gives us power to become children of God. We become God’s children not by virtue of lineage or procreation or our own will, but by the power of God which comes from outside us and takes root inside us.

How do we claim – or reclaim – our identity as children of God? How might that reawaken our sense of wonder and delight? It might help to remember that children do not generally feel responsible for everything the way adults tend to do. Can we remind each other that we’re not actually in charge of making Christmas, or the world, right for everyone?

And children don’t generally let life’s disappointments diminish their ability to expect good things. Remember when there was one gift you were so hoping would be there under the tree? What would that be for you now?

Maybe I need to sit under my undecorated Christmas tree for a little while and remember the gift I am, the gifts I have been given, the Gift of Love whose birth we are about to celebrate. Maybe that will help me rediscover the joy of being claimed as beloved by that Love, and let my “inner child of God” come out and play a bit. That would be a wonderful Christmas miracle!

12-23-15 - Witness to the Light

Many people are busy bearing witness to darkness lately, often in destructive ways, seeming to delight in pointing out just how awful this situation or that person is. And there are many who bear witness to pain and injustice and oppression – which is important to remedying such conditions. Often that is part of our calling as followers of Christ.

But not without the even more important calling: to bear witness to the light. That was the vocation of John the Baptist, a holy man who was not the Holy One, who came to bear witness to the coming light:

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

The world badly needs more of us to testify to the light – the light that came into the world in the embodied Christ, and is ever coming in through his Body now, the church.

Where do you find yourself called to testify to the light, to proclaim in the face of poverty or evil, illness or lies the triumph of God’s light – even if things still looks pretty dark? If we want to be effective at offering that counter-testimony to so much of what passes for truth in our world, we have to be aware of where we experience the light of Christ, what darkness we have known to be enlightened by the presence and love of God.

Today, in the midst of preparation for Christmas Eve, I invite you (and me) to take a little time to reflect on where the light of Christ is most visible to you. And then find someone and bear witness to that hope.

12-22-15 - Life and Light

Well, this worked out nicely – the next part of our passage is about life and light, light overcoming darkness. And here it is, the longest night of the year. We’ve experienced increasing darkness all through Advent – and not only with the length of days. And here comes the promise that light will prevail:

What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

I once had a very vivid dream. I was driving a car in a strange city, my parents in the back seat. In this city, all the hospitality businesses – hotels, restaurants, bars – were in one part of town, and we were looking for a particular hotel driveway. But there were no lights. Nothing. No car lights, no street lights, no lights in windows, nothing. Pitch black. We were hurtling through the dark, looking for this driveway, with no way to see. It was very scary.

And then someone in the back said, “Have you tried the infra-red lights?” And I flicked a switch on the dashboard, and boom! All the lights sprang out. Street lights, lights from cars, lights in windows. They’d all been there, but we couldn’t see them without the infra-red lights.

It seemed to me the next morning that this had been a God dream – but I wasn’t sure what it meant, until a few years later I learned how infra-red works. I hadn’t known it when I had the dream, at least not consciously. Infra-red vision works by detecting heat; it sees where life is, and that shows up as light. Life is light. “In Him was life, and that life was the light of humankind.” I gradually realized that this dream was about seeing with the eyes of faith, seeing what is already fully here but not visible without with faith vision.

The life of God is here already, full, vibrant, but we need faith vision to see it. In Christ, we have been given that vision, to see the life that is coming, to see the life that is. As we become able to focus on this future that is already here, we can anticipate with hope, expecting blessing. We are able to believe that healing can come in the starkest of situations, conversion in the darkest of hearts.

And we come to see that what looks like complete darkness is in fact a beautiful night in a wonderful city, lit by the Light of the World.

12-21-15 - Christmas: the Prequel

I gather that the new Star Wars movie just released is a phenomenon not only because it’s good, but because it is the first new film in the series to advance the story in quite some years; recent “new” Star Wars movies were prequels to the original film and its several sequels. (I’m not positive about this – haven’t been paying close attention and don’t have time to look it, so don’t fan-squish me if I’ve got it wrong…)

I bring this up, both to check the “pop culture zeitgeist reference” box for this installation of Water Daily, and because it’s what comes to mind as I approach the prologue to John’s Gospel.

Yes, next Sunday is the first Sunday in the (ahem, 12-day) season of Christmas, and as always the gospel reading appointed is this passage that opens John’s Gospel. And where Luke and Matthew begin their gospel accounts with the birth of Jesus, and Mark just jumps in thirty years later when Jesus begins his public ministry, John goes deep into the pre-history. Deep, way deep, to infinity and beyond. “In the beginning,” he begins, and by that he means before everything. Before anything was, when there was only God, God had a thought and it issued forth as a word, a word with the power of genesis.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.

Before we get to the manger and the animals, the shepherds and the angels, the magi and the evil king, before we even get to Mary and her stranger-than-fiction pregnancy, we have this: a word. Not just any word: The Word. God’s Word – and God’s word is more than words. God’s word has the power to make real what did not exist before. God’s word is active, life-making. God’s word is creative, world-making.

How many eons did that Word exist before the time came for him to be given human life, to enter human history? And why did he come into visible being that night in Bethlehem?

There are more questions than answers. I only want us to hold this thought as we make our own journey to the manger this year: that the One whose birth we celebrate was the One who gave birth to us.

12-18-15 - Comrade Mary

At our Bible Study this week, someone noted that Mary is so often depicted in art as quiet and pensive, her gaze downcast. Perhaps artists thought that conveyed her deep devotion, and then it became a convention, like associating her with the color blue. But if I were drawing a picture of Mary, her face would be upturned, her gaze focused toward heaven, and her expression fierce and energized.

This Mary portrayed in the Gospels is not “round yon virgin tender and mild.” (I know, I’m butchering the lyrics – it’s the holy infant who’s tender and mild, and love’s pure light that’s “round” her... but that was my impression as a child.) She is quick and tough, brave and prophetic, alive to the cosmic implications of what God is doing in her as well as the personal ones.

Mary’s Magnificat is not the song of a meek young woman – it is the cry of a revolutionary who sees in her own chosenness God’s redemption of all the little people, and the bringing low of those who wield power. It foresees equitable distribution of wealth, of power, of justice. This is Occupy Jerusalem, circa Year O, AD:

God’s mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
(Here is this week's gospel.)

It is impossible to take economics and politics out of the Christmas story – indeed, I would assert, out of any of the Christian story. This Advent those themes have rung loudly, as we’ve faced such crises and divisions in the world and at home. It is also impossible to take the women out of the story. Over and over in the Bible, we see God work through strong, faithful, opinionated, courageous women to accomplish God’s purposes. Mary of Nazareth, like Mary of Magdala and Mary and Martha of Bethany, is the recipient of God’s revelation in Christ, and is able to connect the dots between Jesus and cosmic redemption.

Mary’s willingness to say yes, in faith and obedience, are part of what make her holy. But there’s so much more to her, as Luke’s gospel shows us. Can we take the time to get to know her more fully, not just a stained glass saint but a flesh and blood girl, who shed her blood and shared her flesh so that the Redeemer might be born? Who bore that “sword piercing her heart” as she watched her precious firstborn court danger and ultimately face a brutal death? Who must have returned again and again to these words of prophecy when it looked like power and evil were winning and the hungry continued to lose out to the well-fed?

I’ve never thought of Mary as my heroine – but I’m seeing her anew this year. I’m heeding her call to justice, only partially achieved 2000 years later. Every time we stand with her and bring justice into being, we join her song and make it truer. (Here is a rousing hymnic version of the Magnificat).

In the fullness of time, it is the song all the universe will sing.

12-17-15 - Magnified

There are moments when we are filled with gratitude and grace, aware that God is real and has acted in our lives. Those are the times when our spirits swell and words of praise burst forth from us. I guess the biggest such moment in human history may have been Mary’s, when Elizabeth delivered confirmation that the baby she was carrying was indeed the Lord of heaven and earth.

Who knows what she actually said – Luke was not there, after all. But he gave beautiful shape to the words she may have said, words that are both humble and grand, personal and global, rooted in Israel’s past and the glorious promise of deliverance to come, proclaiming justice and mercy:

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

I’ve always puzzled about the word “magnified” here. I think of magnifying as something you do to make something appear bigger than it is, and God needs no magnification. If anything, God needs to be brought down to a scale we can reckon with (one way of thinking about the Incarnation, actually…). It’s not Mary’s soul that magnifies God, but the Spirit that has magnified Mary’s spirit, expanded it, filled it.

Sometimes our spirits feel very small and pinched, like a tire without air. We need that breath of life that comes from realizing – again – how very great God is, and how very near God’s love is, to refill our spirits and make them bigger than they were. Not for nothing are the words "pneuma," for spirit, and "pneumatic" related.

Events can happen which magnify our spirits. At other times we need to rely on our memory of how God has acted in the past, and our faith in the promise of restoration to come. That’s why we pray, setting aside time to remember and claim God’s promises and allow that remembering and claiming to lead to proclaiming the Good News.

How about this for a spiritual exercise, today or this weekend: Write your own hymn of praise, your Magnificat. What would you say in praise? What great things has the Mighty One done for you? Where has God shown the strength of his arm? Where do you want to see justice break forth?

What a wonderful way to prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth, and to honor the woman who bore him into the world, in whom God was truly magnified in every possible way.

12-16-15 - Blessed Is She Who Believes

I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted from trying to “do ministry,” especially at this time of year. Getting Christmas together for a community, not to mention myself. Writing sermons and press releases, posting events and hosting meetings. Seeking discernment. The list is endless.

And all God really wants from me, and from you, is that we believe. That we believe his promises. That we believe his power. That we trust his presence and goodness and gifts.

One of the most powerful parts of the story of Mary and Elizabeth’s encounter that we are exploring this week is Elizabeth’s simple statement about what makes Mary blessed: “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Simply taking God at God’s word is all we really need to do. That’s what garnered Abraham righteousness in God’s sight, according to St. Paul, not the things he did or said, but his believing God’s crazy promise about a son. Mary received a pretty crazy promise about a son too – possibly even more outrageous than Abraham’s. But she said “Yes,” and she took action on what that promise was. Her coming to see Elizabeth was one of the ways she put believing into action.

What promises has God made to us? There are general promises we can find in Scripture – like the promise of peace in the midst of anxiety (Philippians 4), the promise of Christ’s presence always (Matthew 28), the promise of the Holy Spirit (Luke 11). Peace, presence, power – not a bad start.

And sometimes we discern specific ones. Perhaps you’ve sensed God inviting you into some specific ministry and blessing, with some clarity about what will unfold. If the Bible is any indication, these sorts of callings can often seem far-fetched. It might be easy to dismiss them, or try to ignore them, especially in an age when we are not surrounded by people of faith who can help us confirm them spiritually.

When we don’t really believe that God will do what God has promised, God cannot work through us. It’s tricky like that. Acting in faith in such a way that our lives and priorities actually begin to be transformed is a matter of believing that what the Lord has spoken, the Lord will bring into being.

And sometimes we become the means through which God brings his promises to fulfillment. Blessed are we.

12-15-15 - The Kick Felt Around the World

Try to imagine what it must have been like for a post-menopausal woman to be pregnant for the first time. Perhaps now, infertility technology being what it is, some women have experienced that. But in back-country Judea in the waning days of BCE, it must have been a challenge for Elizabeth, so long childless and now suddenly, wondrously, filled with new life.

And here comes Mary, herself mysteriously, wondrously with child, and the unborn one inside Elizabeth begins to do somersaults:  In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb.

And now another life stirs within her, more familiar than the one in her womb. The Holy Spirit of God fills her and she gives full voice to her praise: And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.  (This week's Gospel passage is here.)

If Mary came seeking confirmation of the angel’s message, God delivered that in abundance. And if Elizabeth had any doubts about God’s purposes in her own unlikely pregnancy, these were also laid to rest. Now she knew for certain that the child she was carrying had a holy destiny. With great humility and gratitude, she praises the Holy One and confirms that the child in Mary’s womb is her Lord. What a moment. No wonder this encounter is among the most frequently painted of Biblical scenes.

Yesterday I asked us to consider what new life might be stirring inside us, new purposes, plans, projects, passions. If we want these to grow and develop, we have to nurture them along, not ignore them until the time comes for them to be born. We have to feed them, and make room for them to kick, even leap and do backflips.

I wish I knew how to make that room. Part of it is insisting on time for quiet and inactivity, as challenging as that can be in our 24/7 world. It means taking walks, and tea breaks, writing in a journal, and yes, committing to quiet prayer time each day, a spiritual discipline that so often eludes me. God may be speaking volumes, but if we never check in, how are we going to know? It's pre-natal care for the spirit.

And when we do feel the kicks? When we feel ourselves filled with the Holy Spirit? Give voice with a loud cry and proclaim your blessedness!

12-14-15 - With Haste

In Sunday Gospel Land, we’re going backward. Having spent two weeks with John the Baptist (at a time when Jesus was already a grown man), we zip back to both men’s pre-natal life.* Back to Galilee, or rather to Judea, to where the young Mary has gone “with haste” to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Mary, having received the rather alarming news of her own impending pregnancy by the power of the Holy Spirit, is told by that frightening angel that Elizabeth, “who is in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”

One piece of news or the other sent Mary quickly away from her native Nazareth: 
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.  (This week's gospel passage is here.)

I wonder what induced the haste. Was she anxious to verify the angel’s claims, to be reassured that she was not crazy, hadn’t hallucinated the whole stupefying encounter? Was she eager to get away from prying eyes and nagging tongues and gossip that could have exposed her to more than disgrace – were she found to have committed adultery while betrothed, she could have faced a penalty of death. We aren’t told why she went “with haste,” but the phrase jumps out during this season when we are invited to embrace the waiting and watching. Mary didn’t wait – she just went. Perhaps guided by the Holy Spirit, perhaps by her own raging emotions, she high-tailed to the hill country.

There is a place and time for waiting in the life of faith. “Those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength,” we read in Isaiah 40; “They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” Certainly there is a tremendous amount of waiting during a pregnancy. And there is also a time and a place for action, for moving quickly to right a wrong, or stand for justice, or to discern what exactly it is that God is up to when you’re feeling the Spirit’s nudge.

Discernment is a tricky business. Often we need to wait for things to unfold in God’s time. But when we do get a direct word or prompt, even a hint of where God is inviting us to serve, we can seek confirmation right away.

What stirrings of the Spirit are animating you these days? What activity of God are you drawn to participate in? What person or people do you feel called to encourage and support? What injustice do you wish you could set right? Do you feel called into a new job or vocation? To pick up a new friend or pastime?

Whatever may be stirring, ask God to make it clear. That prayer doesn’t always get answered quickly, in my experience, but we should not tire of asking it, and we should be ready to move with haste when we have a chance to find out just what it is God is doing. For nothing will be impossible with God.

*If you go to Christ the Healer, it’s even more scrambled, as we took time away from John to celebrate Mary this past Sunday at our annual “Baby Shower for Mary.”

12-11-15 - Fire of God

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire… isn’t this the season for nice cozy fires? Well, not when we let John the Baptist in. The fire he’s talking about, which he says Jesus will bring, is another force altogether, which will do more than warm us:

“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

That doesn’t sound like such good news to me – the ax, the winnowing fork, the unquenchable fire. I’m generally not very fond of fire unless it is contained in a candle or crackling merrily in a fireplace. And unquenchable fire? Isn't that an image of eternal damnation?

But fire is also one of our symbols for the power of the Holy Spirit. Our life in Christ begins with water, the transforming water of baptism by which we are made one with Christ and members of God’s family. And then God’s life is released in us as we are baptized with the fire of the Holy Spirit. That’s where we get the power by which God works transformation through us. We need water and fire.

I’ve written about the prayer experience I had once, when I fervently asked the Spirit to “set my heart on fire with love for you.” A good and holy prayer, isn’t it? But God shot right back: “Do you know what you’re asking? My fire consumes everything that is not of me.”

The fire of God is a purifying flame, and if we let it, it will indeed purify us. I once heard a story that describes this process beautifully. I have no idea how accurate it is, but it’s a lovely image of how gold was purified in olden times. The smelter would take the gold and put it into a pot and put a fire under it. As the gold melted, the impurities in it would rise to the surface, all that is known as “dross,” everything that’s not gold, that’s gotten mixed in, all of that would rise to the surface… and the refiner would skim it off.

And then he’d make the fire hotter, and more impurities would rise to the surface, and he’d skim them off. And then he’d make the fire hotter and more elements that were not pure gold would rise, and he’d skim them off. And then he’d make the fire hotter. Until there were no impurities left. Until, when the refiner looked into the pot, he saw his own image perfectly reflected back to him in the gold.

In this metaphor, we are the gold, of course. And you know the Refiner. But there’s something else: the pot which contains us is the Love of God, the One who was called Love. This pot has been fired in the furnace and will not crack. This Love bears the fire with us. This Love contains us as we are purified, and made ready to spend eternity with him.

If we want to open ourselves to a deeper experience of God’s love and power, we need to ask for a deeper filling of the fire of God, the Holy Spirit. There may be parts of our lives we don’t want to see scorched - can we offer God access anyway? Can we let him burn away the parts of us that are inauthentic, not true to who God made us to be? Can we let in the purifying flame? Can we become the fire of God that the world sees?

12-10-15 - Opening Act

He wore leather and lived off the grid. Way off… deep in the wilderness. He was beyond vegan, eating only locusts, washing them down with wild honey. He was a freak show – and a holy man. Crowds of people came out of the city to find him and hear his often harsh message: Repent! God is coming! Quit whining and return to the ways of your Creator.

They listened, they responded and went into the River Jordan in droves. They wondered if he was the prophet Elijah or even the long-awaited Messiah. They wanted to worship him. But that’s where he drew the line: Listen, I’m not the one you’re looking for. I’m just the advance man for a much bigger show. The opening act.

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.

Even after Jesus began his public ministry receiving John’s baptism, after Jesus began to draw the crowds and even some of John’s disciples, there were some who sought John. I imagine his message was easier to swallow, in many ways. "Stop sinning and start living righteously." Good and bad, black and white, not like Jesus' elliptical stories and counter-intuitive teachings that made no sense. John was simpler.

It can still be tempting to focus on the servants of God when they are really holy, fully devoted to loving and serving God, to confuse worshiper and worshiped. Clergy are taught to be wary of congregants projecting onto them qualities they want to see rather than the real, flawed human leader. Leaders of real holiness have the humility to know their function is to help lead people into relationship with Christ.

And when people are in a relationship with Jesus, they can go beyond the simplicity of “repent” and “be a better person.” They become ready to dwell in the both/and world of the father’s love for the sinner, the sister’s laying aside her needs for her family, the cheating tax collector becoming a great philanthropist, the slave trader becoming a forgiven servant.

John knew who he was, and who he wasn’t, and that makes him one of the greatest saints in history. And yet Jesus said, “the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” John got to usher people to the gates of the Kingdom; we get to live there.

12-9-15 - Power Corrupted

It seems that lately every day brings fresh outrage, reports of words or actions by people in authority that demean others or diminish their civil rights. From policemen shooting unarmed people (often in the back…), to hyper-wealthy financiers and huge corporations using legal loopholes to avoid paying their share of taxes, to Christian leaders suggesting people of faith start shooting Muslims (as Jerry Fallwell Jr. said to the student body at Liberty University….) it’s hard to trust anyone with power.

And, once again, John the Baptist is up to the minute:
Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’

How are we to respond as people of faith called to humility and love? Much of what is being said lately is so outrageous, it seems to demand a response from any one with a Christian conscience. And it is important to stand against destructive lies and demagoguery – Jesus did lot of that. And yet he also said we are to love those who would persecute us. So how do we go about doing that?

What John did was to call people back to their true selves and remind them of their charge as public servants. He told them to be satisfied with the compensation they were receiving, not to crave more. Now, he was speaking to people who came to him. They were open to counsel on how to live more righteously. A lot of the people causing my blood pressure to rise lately don’t think they need to be taught anything about humility or how to be a bearer of Christ.

The most powerful thing we can do, really is to pray for those who speak and act destruction. Really. Pray for Donald Trump. I confess I haven’t done that once. I believe he is so dangerous to our national security and national well-being, I truly don’t want to be bothered. And yet that is exactly who Jesus told us to pray for. And for terrorists. And for those who game the system. The whole lot.

Every time we hear about a new outrage, how about we stop and pray for the perpetrator? Pray for God to bless them and recall them to their true selves. Imagine what changes could come about if we wielded the only weapon we’re given: the spiritual power in the name of Jesus to transform even the coldest heart.

I’m going to start. You with me? My Facebook feed is going to inspire an awful lot of praying!

12-8-15 - Greed

How many coats is too many? Sweaters? Shoes? Cans of tuna? Does it count if the coats are old? Where is the line between thrift and greed? I fear John the Baptist would say we crossed it a long time ago.

In response to his harsh words about the judgment to come upon those who do not “bear fruit worthy of repentance,” John’s listeners were perplexed – and anxious: And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’

I like stuff. I like accumulating it, and I must like storing it and moving it, because much of my stuff has been with me awhile. In fact, as my mother prepares to downsize from a house to an apartment, I’m looking forward to getting some of her stuff! And yet I’m also burdened by it, and deeply moved by the need of so many in the world. I suspect I’m not the only person who squirms in that cognitive dissonance.

Greed is not hard to define. It is keeping more than you need, and not sharing it with people who do need it. Almost everyone I know is complicit in a system that fosters greed, even encourages it – after all, buying things is our duty to keep the economy going, right? Except that we could as well keep the economy going by buying things for other people, people who are not related to us, who do not have the resources we have.

Part of my problem, when I am reminded of the hold greed has on me, is that I go to the “all or nothing” place. I’m not ready to downsize to a 300-square-foot tiny house and a 20-item wardrobe and give everything else away, so I guess I just stay greedy until I’m ready to change, right?

Maybe not. Maybe we try the incremental approach. Maybe we figure out some strategies to slow down our rate of accumulation and accelerate our giving to others – and by others, I mean people in genuine need, not gift-giving to our loved ones.

What if we commit to buying one item for a homeless family for every two gifts we buy this Christmas season? What if we make an equivalent donation each time we buy something for ourselves that is not strictly needed?  Even beginning to evaluate our purchases would go a long way toward making us more aware of how much we have relative to so many others. And I suspect linking our accumulation to giving would help us release a lot more.

Am I trying to take all the joy out of prosperity? No. I just think its possible that John – and Jesus, and St. Francis and thousands of other saints over millennia – had a point. If our joy is located in our prosperity, we’re not ready to dwell in the Life of God.

And when our joy is located in the Life of God… we're apt to redefine prosperity.

12-7-15 - Holy Ranting?

I think last Friday’s Water Daily might fairly be characterized as a rant. I was filled with indignation, waited awhile and still felt it was mostly righteous, and let it fly. I hope it landed well in most in-boxes, and that those who prefer their spiritual reflections delivered in more even tones (which I strive to do…) will forgive me this lapse. I will stay in more spiritual precincts this week.

Besides, I don’t have to rant; John the Baptist has that ground more than covered. John is pretty good at it – in fact, when I posted Friday’s reflection on Facebook, I said I was “getting my John the Baptist on.” He let the crowds who’d come out to see him have it with both barr—wait, let’s find a less gun-oriented expression; he let them have it:

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’  (This week's Gospel passage is here.)

Wow. In a few short words, he’s called them a nest of poisonous snakes and warned them of wrath, fire and axes. He’s told them their history as “God’s chosen people” is not going to protect them from God’s righteous judgment. Is this the kind of preaching that fills churches?

I don’t think it hurt John’s numbers… nor did he care. Like the prophets of old, he had a message from God to deliver, and he delivered it without concern for the outcome. He was there to tell them what they needed to hear, and to help them enact a ritual that made visible the internal repentance to which he called them. What people did with that message was between them and God.

If we look back at the prophets in the Hebrew Bible, they didn’t mince words either. Their prophecies veered between doom and promise, and they were often terrifying. A prophet doesn’t have to be frightening, but the prophet does have to honestly say what she or he believes God wants the people to hear. That’s the tricky part – to speak for God, and not just out of your own sense of right or wrong - or grievance.

John’s essential message, if we take out the scary bits, was that the people were to bear fruits worthy of repentance. If they were genuinely sorry for the way they had been living, conducting business and relationships, there should be a visible effect in changed lives and behaviors.

We are not to stop calling out injustice and untruth when we see it. We are to work for equity and access to resources and security for all people, and if necessary to speak against those who would deny those basic rights. And sometimes that speaking out will include ranting. Most often, though, it will be a steady, relentless process of forming relationships in which communication can happen in humility and honesty.

Jesus could get up a good rant too – but more often he brought transformation by drawing people into a relationship of love. That’s the kind of prophet I’d like to be.

12-4-15 - All Flesh Shall See

Like many Americans, I am both heartsick and furious at the news of yet another mass shooting, this time in San Bernardino. Unpreventable tragedies are one thing; this regular slaughter of innocents by automatic gunfire is entirely preventable, which makes it all the more hideous. And the fact that in this case the shooters were of Islamic heritage seems to guarantee more prejudice toward American Muslims and even Sikhs and Hindus. And through this maelstrom comes the lone voice of John the Baptist, echoing Isaiah’s vision cast centuries earlier:

Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

All flesh shall see the salvation of God – what a prophecy. What a promise. How can this ever come to pass? Especially if it involves human beings trusting and love one another? We seem to be going in the opposite direction.

I confess I feel little trust for many of my fellow American Christians. How can they – and that’s always a sign of polarization, when we get out the “they’s” – claim to follow Christ while ignoring both his teachings and his example? Where is “love your enemy” and “trust in the Lord alone” in the fear-mongering about refugee families? Where is “turn the other cheek” in wanting to arm whole congregations? How on earth can God bring peace in this country?

I know this: God’s not going to do it without us. As a person of faith, I agree with today's New York Daily News headline reminding us that “God is not fixing this” in response to the hypocritical tweets from lawmakers sending their “thoughts and prayers” to victims of gun violence. As one of my senators tweeted yesterday, “Your ‘thoughts’ should be about steps to take to stop this carnage. Your ‘prayers’ should be for forgiveness if you do nothing – again.” And yet today our Senate refused to pass even a common sense law to prevent people on terror watch lists from buying guns, lest some good ol’ boy be kept waiting two days while a background check went through.

No, God will not bring peace without us. God already sent the Prince of Peace. We are not puppets; God gave us free will, and God gave us the power that made the universe through the Holy Spirit.

So how on earth will we ever realize the promise of all flesh seeing the salvation of God? Neither by ignoring wrong-doing and distorted thinking, nor by demonizing those from whom we differ. I guess we’ll have go long on prayer and humility, and try to have longer, more thoughtful conversations.

Never occurred to me until now that embedded in the word “conversation” is the word “conversion.” Let’s keep talking, to God and to one another.

12-3-15 - The Level Road

Who knew that God was in the road business? Flattening, milling, paving, making a way so that he can ride in to the world? That’s the vision that Isaiah sketched, cited by John as he urged people to prepare for God’s advent in Christ:
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth…

Another prophet, Baruch, also spoke about leveling the road, not for so much for God’s travel as for the people of God to return from home from exile:
For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low
and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.

We can find this leveling principle in much of Scripture – it shows up in the songs of Hannah and Zechariah and Mary, suggesting an economic leveling as the poor are raised up and the “mighty cast down from their thrones.” It’s there in teachings to lift up our praises even in the face of woes. And of course we see it worked out in Jesus’ life, as he met rich and poor, powerful and lowly with equal love and challenge.

What does this metaphor do for us? After all, there is much to be said for highs and lows, whether we are hiking in the mountains or navigating the complex terrain of a relationship. Who wants everything level?

Well, just as there is a virtue to having level roads, even in hilly terrain, so we, as ones led by the Spirit, are invited to move through the inevitable bumps, even punishing hills of our lives from a level place, grounded in the life of Christ within us. As a wise friend once reminded me, “God doesn’t promise to change our circumstances. God promises to change us within them.” God gives us the grace to deal with our circumstances, the highs and the lows.

Grace is the level road which invites many people to travel on it, returning from the various exiles in which we find ourselves to the embrace of the One who eagerly waits for us to come home. And grace is the level road on which that One comes to us, gaining easy access to our hearts and minds, our faith and hope and dreams, our wounds and disappointments.

The level road is for us and for God. It is where we can meet God and walk the highs and lows together.

12-2-15 - Baptism of Repentance

In the church we tend to refer to John as “the Baptist,” perhaps causing some to wonder why he's not "John the Episcopalian." Some bible translations call him “John the Baptizer.” Luke identified him not by his calling, but by his parentage, “son of Zechariah.”

…the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

The “baptism” John offered bore little relation to the rite of Christian initiation we know as baptism in the church. He was not baptizing people into the name of Christ – he was offering a ritual cleansing to symbolize the spiritual cleansing of repentance and forgiveness. And why would anyone need a “baptism of repentance?” To clear the way in their hearts for the message Jesus would bring and the reconciliation to God he would enable.

John was the advance man, and his mission was articulated even before his conception, when his father received a visit from the Angel Gabriel telling him that he and his aged wife Elizabeth, long childless, were to have a son:

…the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’
(Luke 1:13-17)

To make ready a people prepared for the Lord – that is the mission which John lived and died to fulfill. His approach to that task was to call people to repent – to repent for personal sins and shortcomings as well as complicity in societal sins and injustices.

I’m sometimes asked why we spend time confessing sins in church – doesn’t that convey a message of degradation and “not-good-enough-ness?” But I am unable to drop it from the liturgy for the same reason that John was in the repentance business: If we want to welcome God, we need to be real about ourselves. We have to make room in the clutter of our hearts and lives. In fact, I’ve moved the confession part of our worship closer to the beginning, so that we can clear the decks and make space for the Spirit before we engage the Word and share the Meal.

We are to share John’s mission to "make ready a people prepared for the Lord." We don’t need to point out to people their sins or sinfulness; we need only be clear and humble about our own, in a graceful way, speaking freely of our need for forgiveness and God’s abundant mercy. So we will invite people to bring their whole selves into an encounter with God, and let them know that everything can be transformed.

12-1-15 - Incoming!

When I was newly ordained, I was part of a diocesan Ordinands Training Program, which met monthly. Once, when we were meeting at diocesan offices, we were surprised by a sign indicating our meeting room which read, “Ordnance Training here.” We agreed that it wasn’t far from the truth.

I think of this when I read these words: “…the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” I think of cries in battle, “Incoming!,” warning soldiers to get out of the way of enemy bombs and shells. Is this what it felt like to John when the Word of God came to him in the wilderness? Because what God asked of John prepared people for the coming of Christ – and also set him up for imprisonment and an untimely death in Herod’s prison. (This week's Gospel reading is here.)

In the bible, the wilderness is a place where people often hear the word of God. And it still is – not always right away, but eventually, when we leave behind the clutter of our lives and spend time in wilder, less programmed spaces, we become more open to the urging of the Spirit. It can involve quite a wait; the word of God comes on God’s timetable, which is frustrating for those of us accustomed to making things happen. And sometimes it unfolds in increments instead of all at once. But when the word of God comes to us with a mission, it can be explosive, demanding that we rearrange our lives and priorities, even our relationships.

John had a very big part to play in the unfolding of God’s mission to reclaim, restore and renew all of creation to wholeness in Christ. I believe God is inviting you and me to participate in that mission as well – and we might need to make ourselves available to receiving that word. If you want the word of God to come to you, tell God that in prayer. Say, “I’m open. I’m listening. And I'm willing to have my life rearranged.”

Maybe this Advent we can find some wilderness time, in short bits or for a proper retreat, and see how the Spirit is inviting us to participate in reshaping this world.