5-31-16 - Thresholds

Once I was leading children in prayer. In a circle with some wonderful little ones, I asked what they’d like to give thanks for, and then if anyone we knew needed healing. Ally’s hand shot up. “I want to pray for my bunny,” she said. “And what’s wrong with it?” I asked. She said with great seriousness, “He’s still dead.”

This story comes to mind as I contemplate our gospel reading for the week, which describes a rare occasion on which Jesus heals a man who has died. Since Jesus didn’t reverse the effects of death in most of the people he met, this is a curious tale. Here is how it begins:

Soon afterwards Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out.

We will explore more fully the “what” of the story tomorrow. Today I’m interested in the “where” – right at the gate of the town. Whenever a story takes place in a threshold place – a doorway, a city gate, outside a temple – we are invited to be attentive to what other thresholds we find ourselves at. Certainly in this story we find ourselves at the threshold of life and death, of faith and certainty, of the ways of God and the “way things work in this world.” We might even say it takes place on the cusp of the Old Covenant and the New.

It’s not that healings like this don’t occur in the Old Testament. Our first reading for Sunday is about the time the prophet Elijah revived the son of another widow – an echo Luke may have been intentional about sounding. But by locating this story right outside the gates of the town, the text also signals to us that what Jesus is doing takes place outside the bounds of human life and expectation. In Christ, God was doing a new thing entirely – a new thing that became extended more widely in the age of the Spirit.

Threshold times – what scholars call “liminal spaces” – are rich with meaning, alive with possibilities. When we’re not quite “in” or “out” we can see with new perspective. Where are the thresholds appearing in your life right now? Are you between jobs, between relationships, between roles? Moving into a new way of working or understanding or praying?

Pay attention – for what happened in Nain can happen in your life. Something that appeared ready for burial can be restored to new life, sit up and start talking to you.

5-27-16 - Why Wait?

When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

How often do we find ourselves thinking, “I wish God would hurry up…” or “When is my prayer going to be answered?” We don’t know what the servant in our story thought when all of a sudden he began to feel better. Had he prayed himself? Was he a believer in God? Was he grateful? Did the people in his life think, “Well, this is good, but if this Jesus guy could heal him, why wait until he’s nearly dead?”

Of course, we know Jesus healed him pretty much as soon as the man’s master asked. Much of the time, people see prayer as a last resort, and simply don’t ask. One of the last things Prince said publicly was to tell his fans who were concerned about reports of his illness, “Wait a few days before you waste your prayers.” (If I meet Prince in heaven someday, I’ll ask him about his theology of prayer and God’s power...)

So much about the timing of God’s activity in our lives is mysterious. Sometimes it seems we wait years for some movement, and then it begins to flow in a matter of weeks. Did we open something up? Or was there timing around God’s plan? Does God have a plan, or is God constantly adjusting to ours? For instance, I don’t believe premature deaths are necessarily “God’s plan.” God has given humankind freedom, and that has some play in the picture.

Of all the leaps of faith we are asked to take as we move closer to God in Christ, perhaps the biggest is trusting that God is never late. Often it feels like God is, especially when prayers for healing are met with death. Trusting in God’s love and good will for us is a decision we make, and stick to, no matter what evidence we see or don’t see. And there is blessing in the process itself, in praying, trusting, expecting blessing, fearing the worst, coming back to trusting. We are shaped by the prayer itself, as well as by whatever “outcome” we receive.

This story is a wonderful reminder to us: pray early and often, ask Jesus to heal other people, remember he can do it wherever he is. And wherever we are, he is.

5-26-16 - Finding Faith

So often in the healing stories we find in the gospels, Jesus says to a person seeking wholeness, “Your faith has made you well.” He notices and rewards faith wherever he finds it. So it is in this week’s story – after the centurion makes his speech about humility and authority, Jesus is jubilant:

When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

It’s almost as though the power to heal is resident in us, and activated when we exercise faith. Or perhaps it’s this way – the power to heal is always available to us through the Holy Spirit, and when we exercise faith it sends some kind of homing signal that brings the power to bear. I don’t know the mechanism, but I do know this is the pattern we find in the bible, and often experience in our lives.

The smallest step of faith is often rewarded with signs of the Spirit’s movement around us. Jesus said faith as small as a mustard seed could cause mountains to be moved. But it needs to be a seed of real faith, for it also seems true that a refusal to believe can impede the power of God.

When we discuss faith in relation to healing, we risk suggesting that if someone does not experience dramatic healing after prayer, their faith was somehow deficient. The gospel record tells us that it seems important that someone in the situation has faith; it doesn’t have to be the sick person. We know nothing about what the sick servant in our story was going through, but it is the faith of his master that releases the healing. In the case of the paralytic, is the faith of the friends who bring him to Jesus that Jesus commends.

We are called to be faith-bearers for one another. That’s why it is so important that healing be a part of Christian communities. And we are also called to be faith-bearers for the world. If we together exercise faith for healing of nations, an end to violence, a release of generosity toward the poor, who knows what can result. If we take our cue from news stories, we will feed the despair. But putting our faith together and exercising it in prayers, small and vast, we can begin to see mountains move.

We must also support faith in each other. It can be a lonely thing believing in the promises of God – so pay attention to who around you seems to be exercising faith. Go and add your faith to theirs and draw from them. And together invite the Spirit to release the healing power already given us in Christ. We want Jesus to be excited about us too.

5-25-16 - Just Say the Word

The centurion in our story this week knew what it meant to give an order. When he hears Jesus is on the way to his house to heal his servant, he sends a messenger to forestall him:

‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’

Somehow this Gentile could see what Jesus’ closest companions could not: that Jesus wielded spiritual authority over everything. Perhaps he had heard the tales of Jesus’ healings and exorcisms and miracles with food, water and wine. He understood that Jesus didn’t need any ritual or apparatus to restore health to his servant; he didn’t even need to be in the same space. He needed only command the cells to be well, to speak wholeness into the body.

I often think of this when I hear people talk about training in various energy healing modalities and prayer “techniques.” We don’t need all that – we have the name of Jesus. When we invoke the name of Jesus, we invoke his presence, and that means his power to heal is right here, available through us as we give the Spirit access.

It is a lesson I need to learn over and over. Last summer, in my crisis with my cat’s health (she’s still doing well, thank you, God!), I was often beseeching God to heal her, praying specifically for her heart and kidneys and blood sugar and fluid levels… and one day when she seemed in distress, I cried out, “Jesus, please heal her!” And right away I heard (in my mind) Jesus say, “You heal her.” I was somewhat stunned by that, and then realized what he meant: “I have given you authority to heal in my name. Just do it.” In other words, “Only speak the word.” I felt a rush of Holy Spirit energy in me, stretched out my arm toward my cat and said, “In the name of Jesus, little heart, be healed.”

I cannot know fully the result of that prayer– she still has the heart condition and takes about five medications. But she's on a lower insulin dose and, perhaps most important, she has continued to be healthy in all the markers that matter – appetite, alertness, agility, affection. AND God gave me a big lesson in healing. Every day I lay hands on her and pray, “Fill her with your life, Jesus.”

It can be scary to pray in this way. We’re wired for doing. But listen, if Jesus could heal this servant just by affirming the master’s faith and speaking the word of life, when he wasn’t even in the same place, how much more can he heal by speaking the word through us now that he sits at the right hand of the Father?

No answer is the same, but today the God who spoke creation into being invites us to bring to him those needs for healing and wholeness, small and big, personal and global. He invites us to exercise our faith. Just say the word.

5-24-16 - Humility and Power

People often think humility means being hyper-aware of one’s faults and shortcomings, keeping a low profile, not trumpeting one’s gifts or accomplishments. We must take care not to confuse humility with excessive modesty or low self-esteem. Humility, quite simply, is seeing oneself clearly; having an accurate view of one’s assets and gifts as well as the areas in which we would like to improve.

The protagonist in this week’s gospel story seems to be such a man, someone who wields power comfortably and recognizes its limits. When his valued slave (slavery being common in that place and time) became mortally ill, he no doubt did everything he could to get medical care for this man. As he had many resources at his disposal, that was probably a lot. But he also knew the limits of his power. And he’d heard of this healer based in his town who just might be able to save his servant. Hearing that Jesus had returned to Capernaum, he set about making the request through Jewish leaders. And it worked – soon Jesus was on his way to his house. But that was more than the centurion asked.

And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.

That is humility: to be in command of one hundred troops in an occupying force, and yet acknowledge this itinerant holy man, a member of the occupied populace, as having greater worth and more power. This is another mark of the truly humble – not only do they see themselves accurately; they are thus enabled to see others clearly. A person of humility has no need to appear greater or more important – or less – than they are. This centurion understood what Jesus was about, how he brought the power of heaven into the worldly realm, and he understood that it his word that could speak wholeness into the sick. His insight into the spiritual, and his humility, left Jesus amazed.

Where are you on the humility-ometer? Do you see yourself as the amazing, beloved daughter or son of God that you are? Are you able to delight in your gifts and skills, your insight and intellect, the things you are able to accomplish? That’s humility. Do you recognize that everything you have and are is a gift from the God who delights in you? That’s humility. Are you conscious of the ways you are less than you could be, the ways you want to grow? That’s humility.

Today, make a list of what you think is wonderful about yourself, and what you wish could be different. And then offer it up in prayer, reading it as though God were reading it over your shoulder. That, too, is humility.

5-23-16 - Intercession

Ah –Ordinary Time. What a relief to get back in our gospel readings to the merely miraculous after so many weeks exploring the unfathomable mysteries – Resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity. We’re back to following Jesus as he traveled and preached, debated and demonstrated the power of God released into humankind.

This week we look at a story of healing across boundaries of religion, ethnicity – even physical space. It begins with a request of Jesus from local Jewish leaders on behalf of a Roman centurion:

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’

Why must the Jewish elders spell out for Jesus why he should help this guy? Doesn’t Jesus want to help everybody? Well, this Roman official was a gentile, and Jesus had made it clear that his mission was to his own people first. The elders seem to think they have to tell Jesus why this man is worthy of his time and power; they even hint at the strategic advantages to be gained in helping him. (“He built our synagogue…”)

How often do we do that when we pray for another? “Please heal her – she’s such a good person.” Or “So many people rely on him,” as though God needs someone’s resume to decide whether or not to help. Or, “She does so much for you, Lord,” implying that God would be nuts to let a member of his A team stay on the DL. Why do we think we need to convince God to act in a way that is intrinsic to God’s very nature: to restore and renew all things and all people to wholeness?

These elders are a wonderful model to us of intercession: bringing to Jesus’ attention those needs for healing and justice that we are aware of. Yet we can bring people into Jesus’ presence in prayer, and invite his healing hand without presenting a case. Love is the only case we need.

Who from outside your faith has asked you to pray for them? What need or brokenness in someone around you do you want to bring to Jesus’ attention? Imagine yourself walking up to Jesus and telling him – and imagine the effects of Jesus’ power on that situation. And then say, “Thank you, Lord.”

5-20-16 - How Love Gets In

I want to end our week with the epistle reading appointed for Sunday, Romans 5:1-5; specifically the last line, which says:

…God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

If we wondered about the mechanism by which the Love we worship and rely on is delivered to us, Paul clarifies that it is a by-product of the Holy Spirit, God’s most essential gift to us. The idea that this love is inside us, ours already, rather than outside to be somehow found or obtained – or, worse, earned – is a radical reminder to us of what grace is. It is unmerited favor, gift without contract or condition.

There are many gifts packed into the gift of Holy Spirit – peace, power, presence; courage, compassion, contrition; healing and hope, to name but an alliterative few. All of these are contained in the supreme gift of God’s love, God’s “yes” in the face of all the world’s “no’s.” God's love is gift to us.

And God’s love is gift through us. We are the means through which God intends his love to reach those who do not yet know him, whose hearts perhaps have not be open to receiving her love or her Spirit. It’s up to us to make the introductions, to live and speak and interact with such light and love that people around us can see that love in us, and come to want it for themselves.

Do you feel the love of God in your heart today? I do believe it is there, but I also know all kinds of things in our lives and persons can block its flow: fear, insecurity, envy, resentment, sin… Our task is to release this love poured into us so that its flow into, around and through us is unimpeded. If you are aware of an obstacle to that flow, I invite you to lift it in prayer and invite the Spirit to help you move or transform it.

However you feel today, take some time to be present to the Love that has been poured into your heart through the Holy Spirit. How does knowing that pool of love is there change your day, your work, your life? Where and to whom do you want it to flow next? The prayer is simple: Come, Holy Spirit.

5-19-16 - The Sharing Economy

Jesus uses a lot of possessive pronouns when he describes the life of God (at least, the way John’s Gospel renders his words …). He speaks of what is the Father’s, what is his, what the Spirit gives. And he indicates that all this richness shared by the three-personed God is also shared with us:

He [the Spirit] will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
(Here is this week's Gospel passage.)

What has been declared to us? The future of God’s reign. The fullness of Life. All the key pieces of information and insight we sometimes feel we’re missing. God is not holding anything back for later – it’s just that we don’t have the capacity to receive the whole signal; our systems would crash.

So, does it do us any good if we don’t “get it?” Here’s what I think: a part of us does get it. All of it. Has received the Good News of life without end, here and in the world to come, and has been set free by that Good News. We experience spiritual growth as that part of us is able more and more to share that knowing with the rest of us, until the faith-receiving self is in command, and the fear-responding self has been integrated and converted. Then we look more like Jesus. We are in a sense our own first mission field.

It’s not only God who incorporates three persons in his being; perhaps we incorporate a very different kind of trinity: our true, God-given, spiritual self; our world-shaped natural self, and the energy it takes to navigate life from that dichotomy, which can take on a life of its own.

The good news about the Good News is that what belongs to the Father belongs to the Son, and what belongs to the Son has been declared to us by the Spirit. It is the Spirit who brings about our integration and conversion, as we allow her/him access. And as we receive the fullness of God-Life shared equally by the persons of the holy Trinity, we then share that God-Life with the people around us and within ourselves, and that feeds back into the Life of God, an infinite loop.

It is the original sharing economy, and it never, ever runs out.

5-18-16 - The Gift of Three

Trinity Sunday often inspires questions like, “Why is God three persons? Why not four or two or eight?” To which we might answer, “It’s a holy mystery!” But there are other responses we can come up with: There are three because Jesus referred to a Father, a Son and a Holy Spirit. No one else is mentioned.

And there are three because there are two persons in a father/son (or parent/child) relationship, and the connection - the spirit - which flows between, through, around and from them. The reason we cannot “divide” the Trinity too sharply, the reason we insist on One God in Three, is that the Spirit is the spirit of the Father and the Son. We can’t take the Spirit out of the picture any more than we can lose our shadow.

Does it matter that God is triune? What does it get us, besides a headache from trying to figure it out? For me, it’s precious because it tells us from the get-go that God is about relationship and relatedness. God is not a concept – God is a being with capacity for giving and receiving, loving and being loved. So when we say we are made in God’s image, that’s where we begin.

In some sense, all our relationships have a triune quality – ourselves, the Other, and the spirit of connection that flows between us, which we might also call a third entity created by our connection. We see this with couples – we know each partner as his or her own person, say, “Mary” and “Joseph,” but we also know them as “Mary and Joseph,” whom we think of in a slightly different way than we do Mary or Joseph individually.

So there is you, and there is God, and there is “you and God,” a product of being united with Christ. All God wants from us is to help grow that relationship. That is one thing God cannot do without us. And we do not have to do it without God. Come, Holy Spirit!

5-17-16 - The Holy Translator

If we set out to build a profile of the Holy Spirit, we would dp well to attend closely to the things Jesus said about him before he took his leave of his disciples. We might learn, for instance, that the Holy Spirit functions as a sort of spokesperson for the Holy Trinity (what theologians call “the Godhead”).

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.

More than once, Jesus says that it is God the Father whose Word matters – a Word that became flesh in the Son, a Word that creates worlds and holy occasions through the Spirit. The Spirit gives voice to what the Father says – and declares what the Father purposes, “the things that are to come.”

When we hear the voice of God, then, it is the Spirit we are hearing. And when God hears our voice, it is the voice of the Spirit. “… that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words,” Paul told the Christians in Rome, adding that the Spirit intercedes for us. (Romans 8)

I’ve never thought of the Spirit in those terms, as the divine translator facilitating the communication between us and God. We don’t need to pray on our own, or be prophetic on our own; in fact, we cannot. The Spirit does that in us, as we invite God’s Life into our lives.

And what if we too were able to cultivate that practice – not to speak on our own, but to speak only what we hear from God? How might our churches, our relationships, our lives be affected by inviting the Spirit to speak to us and through us, not speaking unless we felt it was God’s word? I wonder if I could do it for an hour, let alone a day.

We can start by being more aware of the Spirit’s function as communications intermediary, taking the thoughts we have on our wavelength, and interpreting them into the heavenly realms; and taking God’s thoughts – which are on a spectrum virtually impossible for us to comprehend – and articulating them in us. Just asking to receive the translation is a prayer I believe God will answer.

5-16-16 - Guided Into Truth

One primary cause of conflict between Christianity and other monotheistic religions has been our understanding of God as One and yet also Three; our insistence that we worship the One, True and Holy God, while simultaneously claiming that this One God incorporates three distinct persons within his One-Ness.

I don’t think any theologian set out to devise a doctrine so complex and ultimately incomprehensible, at least to our cognitive faculties alone. The early thinkers of the church came to this formulation through their close reading of the words of Jesus handed down from those who had known him. Jesus spoke of his Father, and of the Spirit, and of himself as Son, and of all of these entities as God. So it was on his last night with his disciples, as he tried to reinforce all that he had taught them during his time of ministry – and remembered that he did not have to do this alone:

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…” (Here is this week's Gospel passage.)

What a relief it must have been for Jesus, coming to the end of his human mission, about to endure his suffering and death and tests of faith, to remember that he was part of a team, not a solo operator. He knew he could communicate on a human level, with words and signs and symbols – but he could not speak directly into the hearts of even his closest followers. And he knew his Spirit, who would be released following his death, resurrection and ascension, would have that kind of deep access to those who loved him.

That access, as we grant it, means we have the Spirit boost too. We don’t have to grasp the truth about God’s love and mystery with our minds alone – we have the Spirit to help us. When something in the Scriptures, or about our faith as we have received it puzzles or troubles us, we don’t have to think our way to an answer – though thinking is part of the process. We can pray, “Spirit, show me what this means. Help me understand.” We may not get enlightenment at that moment, but we will have taken the best action we can take, and we can release the matter into God’s hands.

At some point, a new way of seeing that particular issue may dawn on us, and in the meantime we will have invited the Spirit of God more deeply into our hearts. That's a win/win.

5-13-16 - Everybody in the Pool

One of the amazing aspects of the Pentecost story is how the apostle Peter interprets it as he is experiencing it. When Jesus’ followers get slam-dunked by the Holy Spirit and go out and start proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ in languages they don’t know, some observers scoff, "they must be drunk on new wine.” But Peter begins to preach to the whole crowd, saying, “We’re not drunk; it’s nine o’clock in the morning, folks! God is up to something – and it’s something God has been promising for a very long time.”

“…this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”

This idea of God’s Spirit poured out on all of humanity is pretty startling. What about being holy enough? What about being part of the tribe? What about correct understanding of theology? What about wanting God’s Spirit poured out upon you? All flesh? Really? Everybody?

That’s the vision the prophet Joel had spoken of old, and that’s where Peter found the scriptural basis to anchor this bizarre turn of events. It would be some years before he finally understood just how radical God’s welcome to people outside the House of Israel truly was, but even here, at the beginning, he understands that this outpouring of God-Life is not to be reserved to a chosen few. God wants to give his Spirit to everyone God has created.

So, does one have to be a Christian to receive the Holy Spirit? Somewhere in the New Testament it says something about needing the spirit of Christ to recognize the Spirit of Christ… but could there be people who don’t yet know Jesus as Lord and Savior, but revere his spirit, as do Muslims and many Jewish and Baha'i people? I’ve known many who seem Spirit-filled, even manifesting gifts of the Spirit. Perhaps God’s Spirit is poured out upon everyone who recognizes the power of sacrificial love. After all, the water in a pool gets everybody in it wet, no distinctions. Is the same true of our Living Water? (By which John said Jesus meant the Spirit...)

My prayer is that those of us who do know Jesus as Lord, and worship him, might desire the filling of the Holy Spirit, so that we can more actively share that Spirit outside our communities. This Sunday, the congregation of Christ the Healer will gather briefly for prayer in our sanctuary, and then head downtown to a centrally located park and have a “Pop-Up Pentecost” service. I don’t know how the Spirit will bless and empower us – but I believe that if we show up and say, “Fill me,” the Spirit will show up too. What happens next, is anyone’s guess!

(If you’re in the Stamford area, join us at Latham Park at 11 on Sunday – and wear red!)

5-12-16 - The Word Got Out

I have always struggled with French. I studied it for much of my childhood, often living in Francophone countries. My German was solid, Italian came easily, but not French. And then once in Brussels I was at a party, and had had a pretty strong drink, and was amazed to hear myself having a full, reasonably fluent conversation in French! Must have been the spirits.

It fascinates me that the primary phenomenon manifest at that first Pentecost was the supernatural ability to speak in languages the speaker had never learned. More common manifestations of the Spirit are things like tears, speaking in tongues, sensing messages from God to convey to the community (prophecy), or even something that happened at many churches in the late 20th century, waves of holy laughter seizing the whole congregation. (Yes, the Holy Spirit can be wacky…) But what happened that first time was the ability to communicate across barriers of ethnicity and language.

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.

God wants God’s word to get out. In fact, we know Jesus as the Word of God who got out, out and about, and then sent his Spirit to go where no human being could go: directly into the hearts and minds of other human beings. Yet even when we are filled with the Spirit, we don’t fully understand God-speak. We can’t, in this life. But the closer we come to God, the more we do understand God’s language.

It is as true in our human relationships. No person can fully understand another – our emotional languages are unique, even if we share a common tongue. But as two people draw closer to each other, they begin to be able to read the cues and pick up the signs, even mentally translate the words sometimes. We learn to understand each other somewhat.

Our mission is to be translators of God’s Word to the people around us, many of whom have never spoken God-speak. That means we have to know God’s Word, and be willing to speak about how that Word has been spoken into our lives. And mostly it means we need to be filled with the Spirit, who does the translating for us.

God's Word can get out, as we’re willing to hear it, and then speak it. We’ll be amazed at the languages we become fluent in once we let the Spirit do the talking through us.

5-11-16 - Shake, Rattle and Roll

For the rest of the week, we will explore the reading from Acts about what happened to Jesus’ followers on that Day of Pentecost. Pentecost was the Greek name for the Jewish festival of Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, which marked both the grain harvest and the giving of the Torah. As observant Jews, Jesus’ disciples were gathered for prayer when the Holy Spirit began to make some noise:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

It must have been terrifying – the sound like a hurricane, the sight of these divided fire-like tongues appearing, with one resting on each person… and then the utterance of speech in languages unknown to the speaker. But maybe they weren’t frightened at all, for we’re told they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. It’s amazing when God acts in so definite a way.

And it’s always wonderful when the Spirit is poured out on the whole assembly - then no one thinks she has gone crazy. In my experience, though (admittedly, my Episcopalian experience, which is a big “but..”…), the Spirit comes more quietly and gently, inciting an sense of God’s presence and deep feeling but not necessarily a lot of noise. I have seen manifestations of tears and outbreaks of peace more than I have felt the foundations shaking.

So, does the Spirit bring only as much power as we’re willing to receive? Is our impact limited by our capacity to be Spirit-carriers? Or does the Spirit bring as much power as is needed for what God wants to accomplish on a given day. That day, God was about changing the course of history. If the rest of the New Testament is to be believed, those newly anointed apostles so boldly and constantly proclaimed the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ that the movement they began is still rolling, if with a little less shaking and rattling.

It wouldn’t hurt to increase our capacity to hold and move with the Spirit of God. “Come, Holy Spirit” is never a wasted prayer. And if you’re not used to praying, I commend it to you. For with the Spirit of God working through us, God continues to transform the world. Are you ready?

5-10-16 - Not As the World Gives

In his last words to his disciples, Jesus told them to expect a gift from his Father: the Holy Spirit, who is the spirit of God. Jesus spoke about the Spirit as having a definable personality, characteristics, traits, functions. That’s one reason Christians arrived at our notion of God as three distinct yet united persons.

‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.'

Jesus suggests his teaching and training have been partial, limited; the Holy Spirit will teach everything, reinforcing all that Jesus spoke to them. He promises to leave his peace with them, a gift he would give again when he first saw them – perhaps in this very same room? – after he rose from the dead. He invites them to let go of the sorrow and anxiety that has gripped them, to let go of fear.

How might we we do that? I think we have to receive this gift of peace in the spiritual part of our being and let it transform our natural selves. We cannot attain it with worldly strategies; it is not a gift to be taken, but received. Perhaps that is what Jesus meant by “I do not give to you as the world gives.”

How does the world give? Capriciously, inconsistently, often conditionally. The world rewards achievement and productivity, privilege and connections. God rewards humility and faithfulness, weakness as well as strength. Above all, God seems to give as a function of relationship, to honor a relationship that already exists, not to win us over.

We pretty much know how to play by the world’s rules, some of us more successfully than others. Lasting peace, peace that stays with us even in unpeaceful circumstances, is a fruit of running our lives on God’s operating system, learning to live by radical trust rather than self-saving strategies. Is there a concern in your life right now that you might try to approach in God’s way rather than the world’s?

Learning to live on God-speed is a transition. We choose to put that relationship above all the others that claim our hearts, to offer everything – and receive far more in return.

5-9-16 - Forever

Don’t we want, more than anything, a love that will never go away, never diminish, never end? That human longing makes poignant even our sweetest relationships. Knowing hat our beloved will grow up and maybe away, or will one day depart this life or our life is what puts the bitter in bittersweet.

Next Sunday we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, that great day when the Holy Spirit came in power upon Jesus’ unsuspecting disciples and turned them into apostles. This great event is not reported in any of the four Gospels – it appears in Acts. The Gospel reading appointed for Sunday is from John, and shows us Jesus trying to explain to his followers the gift of Holy Spirit that God will send:

‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.'

Is Jesus saying this great gift will come only if they keep his commandments? Is the Holy Spirit a reward for good behavior? I don’t believe that is Jesus’ message. I think he is saying, “If you love me, keeping my commandments will come naturally to you. And as you live in my truth and walk in my ways, you will be open to receiving this gift the Father will send.” Jesus says this Spirit of truth is an advocate, someone who will stand by them in times of trial and equip them for ministry the way he did – only this one will not be limited by time or space. “He will be with you forever.”

The promise of a love that is forever – that fulfills our deep-seated longing. And it gets even better: we don’t have to go looking for this love, this power, this presence Jesus said the Spirit of God will abide with us, even in us. We won’t be taken over ala “the invasion of the body snatchers," not possessed by God’s Spirit in a way that invalidates our unique selves, but abided with, walked with, held close, counseled and consoled. By God, right here within us. Always.

That is a gift worthy of eternity. And we have it now.

5-6-16 - Watch Where You're Going

The Ascension story, as told in Acts, makes me chuckle as I picture the disciples “gazing up toward heaven,” watching the soles of Jesus’ feet disappear into the ether.

…as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Where is our gaze directed? Some people are said to be “so heavenly minded they are of no earthly good,” meaning, presumably, they are so focused on eternal life, on deepening their faith, they neglect the horizontal, missional dimension of the Christian walk. Such a consumer mentality can be found in modern churchgoers, seeking spiritual security. However, we can also become so wrapped up in doing “earthly good,” we lose the spiritual basis from which we are to meet needs and make justice – not for themselves alone, but because to do so reveals God’s love to the world.

It seems to me that the angels’ gentle rebuke is important for us as well. We are not to be looking for Jesus in the last place we saw him, or imagining him only in “some heaven, light years away” (as the lovely hymn, “Gather Us In” puts it). For he also told his followers they would see him in the hungry and naked, the sick and incarcerated, in the bread and wine of communion, in any place the Holy Spirit is discernible. He told them to go out and bear witness to his love and power “to the ends of the earth.” You can’t walk to the ends of the earth if your gaze is turned upwards – you will soon trip and fall or knock somebody over (neither pitfall exactly uncommon for Christians…).

The call to a dual focus – fixing our eyes on Jesus, and looking outward to the world for which he lived, died and rose again – is reflected in our dual callings, to be both his disciples and his apostles. As disciples we grow as we invest our time and energy strengthening our relationship with him. As apostles, we follow his lead, training our vision to those places Jesus directs us to look, where he has fixed his loving gaze. One is a more contemplative activity, the other more active. Both draw us closer to Jesus and invite Jesus to increase his life in us.

What matters is that where we look is where we are going. Jesus is our destination, and our companion on the way there. May we, like his disciples, go out and return to our base with great joy, continually blessing God.

5-5-16 - Witnesses

Jesus was clear with his disciples before his final departure: they were to bear witness to what they had seen and known with him, and further still, they were to bear witness to knowing him, making him known to the people they met.

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

I may have used this line before – but sometimes I wonder if Episcopalians think we’re in the witness protection program. We will bear witness to our great liturgy, our friendly coffee hours, our beautiful buildings, not to mention the movies we’ve seen, restaurants we’ve enjoyed, grandchildren, children, and pets we’re besotted with… but when it comes to talking about our faith, or tossing Jesus’ name around? Silence. Who, me?

If we have to bear witness by ourselves, maybe we have reason to hesitate – we may not think our stories exciting enough, our experiences extreme enough, our words eloquent enough, our knowledge extensive enough. But notice what comes first in that sentence: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…” Jesus’ disciples weren’t any better than we are in those early weeks after the resurrection. They stayed huddled up in that room, they went fishing, they prayed and wondered what the heck they were supposed to do next.

But when the Spirit came upon them at Pentecost, suddenly they were empowered in ways they couldn’t have imagined before. Peter, so quick to deny Jesus after his arrest, now risked arrest himself because he could not stop preaching the Good News.

We think we have to figure out how to be witnesses. No. We have to be open to the Holy Spirit – invite the Spirit to fill us, empower us, equip us, embolden us. Then the stories will spill out. The “anointed appointments” will pop up in our lives. The “coincidences” will mount up.

We are Jesus’ witnesses. It’s his life we proclaim, telling how his life has intersected with and enriched and made sense of our lives. Come, Holy Spirit! Let the witnessing begin.

5-4-16 - Waiting on the Spirit

Sometimes playwrights (of which I have been one…) have a problem: How to get a character off the stage. I wonder if God faced this dilemma with Jesus? After all, he’s risen from the dead, very much alive and embodied, if somewhat different than before. Yet the embodied Jesus needs to exit the scene – his work is done, his mission fulfilled, and it’s time for the Holy Spirit to be released upon all flesh. He can’t go into the earth or wander off. There’s only one way he can go: up.

…as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.
Nice exit!

For the rest of this week we turn to the story of Jesus’ ascension, which Luke tells in more detail in Acts than he does in his Gospel. Both accounts, though, begin with Jesus’ instructions to his disciples:

While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

It is put even more urgently in Luke’s gospel: “And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high."

Promises are challenging – they require us to trust the person making them. And they are by nature future events - they are only promises before they are fulfilled, at which time they become gifts. And we rarely know exactly when the promise will be fulfilled. It is often when we least expect it – for the disciples this one was met some time later, as they gathered to do the prayers for the Jewish feast of Pentecost.

We too have been promised the gift of the Holy Spirit, and we have already received this gift. We can feel the Spirit in prayer, in worship, in ministry. And yet we can also go through periods when we’re waiting for the Spirit’s life to be activated in and around us, for direction to appear, prompts to unfold laying out the way forward for what God has already intended to do through us. The waiting is hard!

In what areas of your life do you feel you are waiting on the Spirit? Waiting for a promise to unfold, a path to appear? Have you told God that you’re waiting? How you feel about the waiting? That doesn’t always shorten the wait, but it deepens the relationship.

The Spirit acts when the Spirit acts; our job is to wait with grace, keeping busy with what is already before us even as we wait to behold what wonders God will reveal in us next.

5-3-16 - God's Love Inside

It is said that the great theologian Karl Barth was asked by a reporter to sum up his thought, and this legendary intellect and writer of volumes of complex theology articulating the nature of God, of man, of Christ, and more said this, “Jesus loves me, this I know for the Bible tells me so.”

Does it really just come down to love? Jesus said so…
“I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

In his prayer to his heavenly Father on his last night in human form, Jesus spoke of having made known the name of God to his followers, so that God’s love, with which Jesus had been loved, would reside in them – and further, that he himself would be in them. And that is what we claim happens at baptism (and may happen in other times and ways; baptism is simply a guarantor) – that we are united with Christ, and his spirit dwells within us for ever. Already. Now.

That means we are filled with the Father’s love too. Do you feel filled with God’s love? I confess it’s not what I’m most aware of most of the time. I’m filled with energy or anxiety, peace or hope or fury or love for another. Rarely am I conscious of being a repository of God’s love, God’s love made available to the world, through me, through you.

That is arguably our most important goal in the spiritual life: to become conscious, intentional conduits of that love that made the universe into a world thirsty for it. We need to be aware of our belovedness. This is old news, and yet so difficult to live into.

We don’t have to find this love and ingest it – Jesus implies it is already in us, because he made God’s name known to his followers. And we are their descendants, apostles ourselves. Our job is to release this love into the world around us. How are we going to do that today?

5-2-16 - To Be One

The Seventh Sunday of Easter Dilemma: Use the readings appointed for the seventh Sunday in Easter, or those set for Ascension Day – knowing that no one, unless their church happens to be named Ascension, attends Ascension Day services anymore? I will split the difference this week, starting with the Easter 7 gospel. This takes us back yet again to that upper room on Jesus’ last night in earthly life. After his long discourse to his disciples, he embarks upon a lengthy prayer for them; that’s where we tune in now:

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

One reason to skip this reading entirely is that it is heartbreaking to engage this prayer. Unity was Jesus’ deepest desire for his followers, almost his last wish, we might say, and it has proved impossible for the church that bears his name to keep. And, as I have written here recently, one of the reasons the world does not believe that God sent Jesus as Redeemer is that those who follow Christ seem so to excel at division. (And this ain’t a math class…)

We have vastly different ways of reading and interpreting Scripture, what we think is important in worship, how we live out the calls to justice and generosity, care for the poor and the marginalized. We are divided by history, language, and culture, by conflicts both ancient and recent. Maybe we shouldn’t feel so bad about the current state of Christ’s church – his followers were locked in bitter divisions within a few years of his resurrection.

I am most convicted by this line, "on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.” If we don’t speak our word, the word of grace and forgiveness and our experience of God’s overwhelming love, and if we don’t back that up by our actions, fewer and fewer will believe through us. And friends, the community of Christ-followers is spread by human contact, like a virus, a good virus, one that strengthens the immune system and promotes healthy growth and a just and secure world. We should find this as urgent a matter as Jesus did.

If we speak the words of grace and live them, and allow the Spirit to really rule our hearts and direct our actions, we will find ourselves unable to condemn our brothers and sisters, even when their words or actions are reprehensible. We will be able to pray for them and commit them to God’s hand, and keep our eyes on Jesus and spread the message of his love. Maybe if all Christians put that first, we’d have less energy for fighting with each other. And one day we will make Jesus’ dream of unity a reality.