6-30-16 - Blooming

As a Foreign Service family, we moved a lot in my childhood. Someone once gave my mother an inspirational poster with the words, “Bloom Where You Planted,” which she edited to read, “Bloom Where You Are Trans-planted.” I thought of that poster when I read Jesus’ instructions to his followers as they head out to proclaim the Good News and heal the sick:

Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”

Remember, Jesus has already told them to go without any luggage, money or protection. They will have to rely on hospitality offered to them. They are not to pick and choose, trying out the beds or finding out the menu before selecting a place to stay. Wherever they land, they are to remain until they leave that town and go to the next.

How does this advice relate to us in our contexts and ministries? I see here a word about receiving with grace what is offered, not looking for the best deal or seeing what we can arrange for ourselves. Being the recipient of hospitality is hard for many of us, wired as we are to give - which is also a way of staying in control. Many Episcopal churches have embraced the concept of “radical hospitality,” signaling that all are welcome, whether or not they know our secret handshakes, or what (or where…) an undercroft is. Jesus invites us to an even more challenging place: to be “radical guests,” just appreciating what is offered us, not even trying to return the favor.

This word is also about staying focused on our mission in God’s life. Picking and choosing the places we want to stay and what we want to eat and how we want to schedule our days takes energy and attention that might be better directed toward being open to the leading of the Spirit and where we see God-energy around us.

Above all, I believe, we are called to live in a mode of radical trust, as followers of the One who was always on the move, always eating at the tables of others or on what his supporters could rustle up. That doesn’t mean we can never host or give; it just means we have to increase our capacity to receive if we truly want to be filled with the love and grace that only God can give.

Only as we are filled with the full measure of God-Life can we proclaim “The kingdom of God has come hear to you,” because we’re bringing it. Only as we trust in God’s provision can we bloom where we are planted, until God transplants us somewhere else. 

6-29-16 - Boomerang Peace

I tend to think of peace as a static thing; I associate it with stillness, stability, rootedness. The way Jesus describes peace, though, it is very dynamic, able to bounce from person to person, house to house, community to community. This peace sounds downright restless:

Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.
What is the peace of God? It is power and purpose and presence. Different from ordinary human peace, the peace of God is strong as iron, filling us unexpectedly, able to keep us rooted in times of anxiety or conflict. As I waited to hear about this new position I am taking, I was surprised by the peace I felt; I simply couldn’t find the anxiety I expected should be there. The peace of God is pure gift – Paul says it is a gift that comes when we make our petitions known to God with thanksgiving. (Philippians 4).

Jesus goes even further, speaking of peace as a force that can be directed to another person. The idea of saying, “Peace to you,” or “Peace to this house” when we encounter another person, and really meaning it – speaking it as a command to heavenly powers – could be world-changing. What if, instead of “hello” we said, “Peace,” and as we were saying it, we prayed that God would fill that person with the peace we feel. “Peace” to institutions we deal with. “Peace” on the highway, train, in the grocery store, at family dinner. Really sharing our peace at church instead of just saying hi.

That’s all we would need to do. If the person had no interest in the peace we have to give, it would bounce back to us. But if we don’t even offer it, someone who really needs our peace might miss out.

God’s peace becomes part of us, something we can share, the same way we share our intellect, our compassion, our money and time. Maybe we want to ask God to give our peace a shape or color so we can become more conscious about sending it to others. Like any good boomerang, it will always come back to us.

6-28-16 - Traveling Light

No purse, no bag, no sandals? Jesus obviously hasn’t met the typical female traveler! The trip he offers is for people who like a little danger with their sight-seeing, who are willing to be vulnerable among strangers and live off the local economy. As he sent out the seventy disciples to proclaim his message of the realm of God, Jesus said this:

“Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.”

There are virtues to packing light, but these instructions go beyond that. Jesus is saying that those who go out in God’s mission are to carry no baggage whatsoever, to bring no resources beyond their faith and radical trust. Without money, you’re forced to rely on what you can find or what is offered to you. Without a bag, you cannot accumulate anything for later. Without sandals you become like the poorest itinerant. And going like a lamb amidst wolves means you go defenseless. Who would sign up for that trip?

At least seventy people did that day, and many millions more since then. Over the centuries, though, missionaries started to carry baggage – literally, bringing to foreign places the comforts and customs of home; politically and economically, imposing their systems upon new friends; intellectually, insisting on their priorities and categories; and spiritually, offering a system of salvation that often became codified and rigid. Many went vulnerable and defenseless, and sometimes paid the price in blood; many others went weighed down with possessions and assumptions.

And many more of us don’t go at all, don’t even think about letting the world know about our faith in God’s goodness and love. This week’s story (every week’s story, really….) is an invitation to examine that reluctance and ask the Holy Spirit to nudge us out. In your own community, among those you know, what would it look like to go without purse, bag or sandals? What would it feel like to go to the Shelter not as providers but as people who want to get to know the men and women there? How would it be to go to community meetings not with answers and proposals, just to listen? How would it be to sit with friends who are sick or scared and not try to fix it or “do something?”

The last part of this passage is curious, “Greet no one on the road.” I can’t be sure what Jesus meant, but to me it says, Don’t get distracted from your mission. If you feel a Holy Spirit nudge to call someone, or do something, or go somewhere the light of God’s love needs to be shown, don’t dither or dally. Don’t let people divert or dissuade you.

It must have been scary for those men (and women?) to head out into strange towns with not so much as a toothbrush. But think how open their arms were, unburdened by baggage!

6-27-16 - Jesus' Advance Team

People active in the Episcopal Church in Connecticut might well be able to quote this Sunday’s gospel reading from memory, so often has it formed the basis for “Dwelling in the Word” at diocesan gatherings. It is a passage that yields fresh insights on each approach. As we review Jesus’ instructions to his followers when he sends them out in mission, we get our own marching orders for how to go out in his name in our own places and times.

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.

This sending comes after a foray undertaken by the twelve, Jesus’ closest disciples. That expedition was successful, judging by the elation both they and Jesus expressed upon their return. Now he’s scaling up the operation and sending out seventy. They are to go in pairs – no one walks alone in God’s realm – and they do not go out randomly. They go to each place Jesus intends to go. This suggests to me that they went out as his “advance team,” to size up a community, see what the opportunities might be for proclaiming the Good News there, what obstacles might stand in the way.

In our electoral process, advance teams arrive ahead of candidates to do that kind of reconnoitering, and to prepare the populace for the candidate’s message. They set up communications, build a grassroots operation, generate anticipation and enthusiasm for the candidate’s arrival. They prepare the ground for planting, as it were, making everything ready for a successful campaign in that place.

What if we saw our missional life in such a light? We can assume Jesus wants to arrive at every place, every person, every heart. So what communities or people are you being assigned to prepare?

We do this advance work by telling people our own experiences of love and freedom and healing through Christ. We invite people to consider learning more about Jesus as he is revealed in the Gospels – and in our own lives, as we’re willing to tell our stories. If appropriate, we create some grassroots energy by inviting people into small groups for bible study or prayer or spiritual conversation. Like John the Baptist, we make ready a people prepared for their God.

Who were the “advance teams” who came into your life inviting you into a deeper relationship with Christ? Who planted seeds in you that resulted in your coming to faith more fully and profoundly?

This passage reminds us that we don’t have to create the mission. God has already designed it, and will reveal to us more explicit instructions as we go. But we do need to go. Find a buddy and hit the road!

6-24-16 - Don't Look Back

Jesus was in a tough mood the day he was vetting would-be disciples. Not only did he not want folks running home to bury their dead ; he didn’t even want them going back to say goodbye before they threw in their lot with him:

Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.

That’s a hard word for me as I face a big move later this summer (intended to announce that more gracefully to my Water Daily friends… I’ll write a separate note, and WD will continue.) No goodbyes? I’m planning on a full month of fun-filled farewells! It's time to leave when folks say, “Oh, are you still here?” Then you’ve said enough goodbyes. Am I unfit for the Kingdom?

As with everything else in the Scripture, we have to hold this statement in tension with the other things Jesus is recorded as having said and done. I pray there is more than one pattern of becoming a disciple. And if we take ourselves off the judgment hook this statement can generate, we’ll be better placed to find the good news in such a statement. We all recognize the tendency to want to look back; where do we find life in not giving in to that impulse?

For me, it comes back to something I’ve said here before – that the life of God is always forward, always ahead of us on the road. What has been is real and important and shapes where we are now, but we do not need to look back at the last place we encountered God. We are to trust that those encounters will multiply as we follow Jesus – as we spend time with him in prayer; learn from him in scripture; work with him in apostolic action. The more we move forward, the less we need to look back.

And what about those goodbyes? Don’t they need to be said? Perhaps – and maybe we are invited to trust that we will encounter those beloveds again in different ways. Maybe we don’t need to spend a lot of energy on goodbyes, because in God’s economy we remain connected in spirit to those whom we love, even if we’re not with them in body.

Earlier this week we heard from the Shirelles and U2. Today, let’s give the last word to Peter Tosh and Mick Jagger (also frighteningly young in this video) doing “Don’t Look Back.” This song was NOT about following Jesus, but let’s just focus on the chorus, on the walking and not looking back part. God will take care of what’s behind us as we look forward.

So if you just put your hand in mine, We’re gonna leave all our troubles behind;
We gonna walk and don’t look back!

6-23-16 - The Walking Dead

Oh, man! Had Easter been one week early, we might have had this gospel reading on Father’s Day, and had fun dealing with Jesus’ words about wasting our time burying our fathers:

To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

Sound a bit harsh? Isn’t it a normal thing, a way of honoring your father and your mother, to give them a proper funeral? What kind of child would say, “Sorry – too busy,” to such a life moment? Well, maybe Jesus would answer, “The kind of child who sees himself first as a child of God. The kind of child who knows she is my follower first, and every other relationship second.” Does this sound like a cult? No doubt many of the families of those who left everything to follow Jesus did think they’d joined a cult. No one knew this cult would last 2,000 years and turn the world upside down.

What did Jesus mean by “Let the dead bury their own dead?” He meant that those who have been born anew in the Spirit are the living, and those who operate only out of their human, natural, “fleshly” life are as good as dead. (Perhaps he would also suggest that the energy and resources we put into tending and laying to rest the bodies of our loved ones after they have ceased to inhabit them is a misplaced priority for those who are called to proclaim life… but I’m not editorializing or anything… !)

Jesus was always redefining family values. Over and over he taught that the company of those who believe in him are the first family for his followers. Our primary job as followers of Christ is to proclaim the kingdom of God – the realm of God-Life. In the course of doing that we live in relationships with the people around us, including our families of origin – but we are not to value them more highly than we do our families of faith. And when our biological families distract from our discipleship, or worse become active obstacles to following in the Way of Jesus, we are to put Jesus first.

What reaction does this remark of Jesus’ provoke in you? Would it make you want to turn away and not follow him? Where might we see the life in his invitation to put the family of faith first?

It’s not all or nothing (at least I hope not!). I believe that as we claim the Life of God already given to us we become not the walking dead but the walking living. And as we get about the business of proclaiming that Life of God unleashed in this world, as we experience it, our priorities will be quite naturally reordered. Love is love.

6-22-16 - I Will Follow

Whether it is the Shirelles (or in this video, Little Peggy March) singing “I Will Follow Him,” or Bono and U2 (appallingly young here) doing “I Will Follow," we have a rich soundtrack for our gospel story. When our hearts are full of love for someone, it is natural to proclaim our everlasting allegiance and intention to be with them wherever they go. Ask Dead Heads, ParrotHeads, and other fanatical band-fans.

So it was one day as Jesus walked with his followers toward Jerusalem, even strangers got caught up in it:
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

Jesus was saying, “You want to follow me, it comes at a cost. Things won’t be comfortable or predictable or stable. Wild creatures will have more security than you will.” We see in the gospels Jesus living a very peripatetic life, always on the move. We hear about his being “at home in Capernaum,” but he doesn’t seem to have spent much time there.

American Christianity has not followed this “I will follow you wherever” pattern. Other than traveling evangelists (often suspect characters in books and movies...), we prefer to do our following inwardly, quietly, spiritually, staying rooted to place and community. I am a staying put type myself, and even when I move I seek security and stability. Does this compromise me as a disciple? Is it, “I will follow, as long as I know where I’m going to sleep?” Or is there a legitimate place for being rooted in community, in our neighborhoods?

Both/And, of course… God blesses us with homes and families and communities and work and all the richness of a web of relationships. And God invites us to hold these blessings lightly, to keep our focus more on the Giver than on the gifts – and to be prepared to let them go, trade them in, keep our hands open to new blessings. It can be a difficult balancing act, but it keeps us better connected to God, nimble and ready to pivot when the Spirit calls us to bring our gifts to some new thing God is doing. And God is always doing a new thing.

The lyrics to U2’s I Will Follow are in part about Bono’s loss of his mother at a young age, but there is also unmistakably religious language – “I was blind, I could not see…” “I was lost, I am found,” that suggests the band – deeply enmeshed in Christian life at the time – had broader themes in mind. Jesus invites us away from our sorrows and stucknesses, away from our self-saving strategies and sources of security to walk with him through this world, seeing it through his eyes. Sometimes that’s on the move, sometimes it’s still. Always it is being open to grace.

6-21-16 - Fire From Heaven

Many Christians of my “brand” – mainline Protestant, progressive – are horrified at the violent rhetoric we hear from more conservative church circles, particularly the identification among many American evangelicals with the gun culture.* The language of vengeance and violence, though present in Old Testament texts, runs counter to the Good News proclaimed and lived by Jesus Christ. Yet not even his disciples were strangers to that flame-throwing impulse.

On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.

James and John are being hyperbolic – there are no recorded instances of fire from heaven consuming the wicked, though the prophet Elijah did a number with fire on a wet altar, after which he had 400 enemy prophets slaughtered (yeah, it’s in the book). Maybe their anti-Samaritan ire was kindled; maybe they were juiced by the power they saw in Jesus and beginning to exercise themselves. I am less interested in their blood-lust than in Jesus’ response: “No. Let’s move on.”

When our message or our ministry is rejected, it is tempting to get angry at the very people we hoped to bless. Such feelings are human. But when we act on them, we depart from the way of Jesus. He was clear in his instructions to his disciples when he first sent them out: If a village does not receive you, shake its dust off your feet and move on to another place. (Luke 10:10-11) How long we are to try, and when we are to go elsewhere are matters to be discerned. The spiritual reality is that God’s work never has to be forced. When we are moving with the Spirit of God on God’s mission, it flows; things come naturally, connections are made, “coincidences” abound, and fruit results.

I have been slow to learn this. Too often I have tried to push things or make projects happen on my own steam, ending up tired and frustrated. I’m learning to release my efforts and initiatives and blockages into God’s hand, to sit back more and watch the Spirit arrange things so that my gifts and time are most fruitfully used. This is what happens when we learn to expect blessings – and if we’re not experiencing blessing in one endeavor, see where else the Spirit is leading us.

Are there areas in your life that feel stuck or stale? Ways you have been trying to live the Gospel that don’t appear to bear fruit? Offer them to God in prayer, asking for insight about when to persevere, and when to fold your tents and move on.

God does want us to command fire from heaven –the fire of the Holy Spirit moving through us to cleanse and make holy our hearts and the world around us. The more we invite that holy fire into our hearts, the freer we are to minister God’s grace.

*Please watch The Armor of Light for a powerful look at how one such conservative, the Rev. Rob Schenk, a leader in the pro-life movement and in conservative circles, came to see how incompatible opposition to gun safety laws was with being pro-life… it’s been on PBS, and hopefully will be again soon, or get a copy to show.

6-20-16 - Hospitality

This week’s gospel reading finds Jesus and his disciples on the road again. He is heading for Jerusalem for the last time. And the roads on which he travels are not particularly friendly:

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.

What’s happened here? We need to know a little about the mix of religion and politics to make sense of it. Samaritans were also people of Israel – they were descendants of the Northern Kingdom in the days when North (Samaria) and South (Judea) were separate and ruled by different kings. One reason for the split was that when David established Jerusalem as a capital, the place where the Spirit of God had come to dwell, the leadership there sought to make Jerusalem and the temple David’s son Solomon built the ONLY holy place where sacrifices could be offered. All the holy places and shrines in the northern part of Israel were denigrated. This did not sit well with the residents and priestly class of Samaria. Gradually the feud became a schism between two branches of one family.

When Jesus’ advance team came into this Samaritan village to see if Jesus could stay there, they were rebuffed. Whatever the natural hospitality of the people might have been, they were not going to play host to any religious leader heading to Jerusalem. The wounds were still fresh this many centuries later.

This is so often the case when we disapprove of what someone else stands for. We might not even bother to get to know the person, rejecting her for her opinions or positions on issues. We can see it in the increasing protests of speakers on college campuses – some are becoming allergic to even hearing views that they find abhorrent, calling them toxic.

What is hospitality, though? Is it only the willingness to host people we like and agree with? Or is it being willing to let God “set a table for me in the presence of my enemies,” as the 23rd psalm puts it?

Hospitality is a good framework for how we engage the “Other,” whether that person is of a different ethnic, racial, sexual, financial or political group than us. What if we saw such encounters as the equivalent of offering water and a place to sit to a weary and parched traveler? We have different expectations of guests than we do of friends, and different expectations of ourselves as hosts.

Hospitality is a spiritual practice we are invited to cultivate in all kinds of ways. It could transform our lives – and our culture – if we found ourselves practicing it with people of whom we disapprove, even if we don't like where they've been or where they're going.

6-17-16 - Don't Follow Me

For a short story, our gospel tale has already had quite a few twists and unexpected turns, but there is one more in store for us. After the dramatic removal of the demons from this deranged man, after his remarkable healing and restoration to his “right mind,” there is a curious coda. The man wants to follow Jesus, and Jesus refuses him. What?

Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

All through the gospels we see Jesus inviting people to “Follow me.” So often he demands they leave their homes to travel with him. Here he has a willing recruit, and he turns him away and sends him home? What’s up with that? It’s not surprising that this man would want to come with Jesus – he has just set him free from years of unimaginable torment from evil forces, and at the hands of his neighbors. And who would want to stay around people who chain you up and try to subdue you? His desire to be with Jesus is understandable. But why would Jesus deny him ?

Perhaps Jesus was not ready for a Gentile disciple; I assume this citizen of the Decapolis was Gentile. Though Jesus has several encounters with non-Jews in the gospels, these are often awkward and Jesus sometimes seems ambivalent about them. Certainly, the Jewish leaders and populace would not have accepted such a man as part of his inner circle.

But that would be a “strategic” reason. Perhaps Jesus had a missional one: he wanted this man to bear witness to what he had experienced among his own people. Like genetic cancer treatments in which a healthy cell with growth ability is implanted among cancerous tissue, to disrupt toxic growth and convert cells to health, perhaps Jesus wanted this man to seed conversion among his own people. “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” This would make him not a "disciple reject" but one of the first missionaries in the gospels.

Sometimes the mission of God calls us to leave the familiar and bring new life to places that are unknown to us. And sometimes we find that mission right in our midst, in our towns and communities, our workplaces and families, our gyms and book groups and social networks. Where is God calling you to declare how much God has done for you?

This newly healed man did just that, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him. That is ALL any of us is expected to do. We do not have to persuade or convert or explain the mysteries of God – only to speak of what Jesus has done for us. I can tell you, Jesus is doing amazing things in my life every day. You too? Declare it! Tell the stories!

6-16-16 - Property Damage

As an animal lover, with a soft spot for pigs (though also a soft spot for bacon and pork chops, which results in more soft spots…), I have to admit I dislike the next part of our story:

Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country.

I guess as a Jew, Jesus would have had little use for the value of swine. But why did the demons have to go into anything? Couldn’t he command them into the lake without the pigs? Couldn’t he command them back to hell and bind them? All I do know is that the news spread quickly. (And once again here comes an echo of another iconic bible story – Jesus’ birth, and sheep herders running off and telling the wondrous things they’d seen to everyone they met...)

When the news spread, the townspeople came running to see. They were both amazed and frightened – but not so much at the destruction of the herd. What scared them to the core was the transformation in the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons.
Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid.

It was not the economic loss or property damage that frightened them – it was the damage to their sense of reality, this glimpse into the raw power of God as conducted by Jesus. It was having their convictions about what is possible overturned right before their very eyes that frightened the daylights out of them. It was having their conceptions about this man and his place in their community completely shattered. Hell, he was even wearing clothes!

The next thing we know, they’re asking Jesus to leave, “for they were seized with great fear.” And don’t we often want to separate ourselves from what we don’t understand, what frightens us? That is the root of so much prejudice and hatred, division and conflict.

Have you seen someone transformed by healing? People who know addicts sometimes get to see this kind of contrast – though not the course of a single day. Those who work with wounded veterans and the mentally ill sometimes see such transformation. If we saw it right away, it would scare us too.

When we find ourselves afraid of God’s power, that is an invitation to prayer. We can talk to God about it. We can ask the Spirit to gently lead us into a greater awareness of what God can do and has done. If only those townspeople had taken this miracle as an invitation to expand their ideas of this God they did not know, instead of sending Jesus away, so much more healing and transformation might have taken place. Let’s not make their mistake.

6-15-16 - Demonizing

Once again our country is in the throes of processing its latest eruption of gun violence. The drill has grown numbingly familiar – we learn about the shooter and his or her motives; we honor and remember the victims, support the survivors, call for action, pledge to pray, opine on social media. As the rhetoric flies, it is very easy to demonize different elements involved, especially the perpetrators of violence and those who enable them.

That is not what Jesus would do. This week’s story, among others, shows that he had a gift for separating disease, sin and evil from a person afflicted by them. He did not confuse people with the problems they manifest. Confronted with this terrified and terrorizing man, Jesus sees what’s wrong and addresses it head on. In this case, that means dealing first with the demons oppressing the man.

Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.

This man’s neighbors were not so discerning. They took the human approach – they saw the problem, not the human being. They sought to control him, subdue him, ultimately to enchain and isolate him. It didn’t work – he was at the mercy of evil run rampant, beyond his control – and theirs.

Am I suggesting that people who manifest evil are not responsible? This story does not yield such a conclusion. We are not told that this man was destructive to people other than himself. But even in the case of mass murderers and hate-mongerers (and Jesus would put those on the same moral level), we do well to remember what Paul wrote to the Ephesians: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

Remembering that our battle is with the powers of evil – and that it has been won by Jesus Christ, who gives us his power to wield in further skirmishes – is the key to approaching evil with love. Whether we are dealing with a person bent on destruction, or someone in the grip of addiction, or simply someone who annoys the daylights out of us, we are called to separate the person from the condition they bear or the problems they bring, to do our best to build up the person’s spirit, weak as it may be, while working to free them from the ills that beset them.

Does anyone in your life come to mind when you think about this? Has anyone done this for you, seen you apart from what was wrong with you? Sometimes that is the key to opening hearts so healing can begin.

It has become very easy these days to demonize other people, those whose values or behaviors or actions or opinions strike us as unholy and destructive. Technically, though, only one entity in the universe can actually demonize someone, and that is the Devil (who my spiritual director aptly refers to as “the Enemy of human nature”). We don’t want to be doing his work for him, do we?

6-14-16 - Living Among the Dead

Talk about your welcome wagon – the first person to greet Jesus and his disciples as their boat docked in Gentile territory was someone considered the “local loco.”

As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.)

One reason we read and reread Scripture is that different words or phrases snag our attention each time, new echoes or resonances ring their chimes. What caught me this time was “he did not live in a house but in the tombs.” And the words it set off in my memory were those of the angel outside Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”

This man, so beset by the demons in residence in him, had long ago ceased to live in any meaningful way. Naked, but for the times he was bound and chained by his neighbors; crazed; desperately alone; no doubt terrified and constantly barraged by the voices inside him, it is no wonder he sought the quiet and isolation of the burial ground. Perhaps he longed to join his silent companions in death.

Yet there was enough life in him to get him down to that shore that morning. There was enough life in his spirit for Jesus to strengthen with his Spirit. He did not belong among the dead, but among the living. Among the many gifts this story has for us is the reminder that Jesus is always in the business of life, and as his followers that is our calling as well.

I have known people so deep in depression they were nearly catatonic, hospitalized. And I have seen Jesus bring them back to life, through my prayers, visits, even my refusal to accept this end for them. I have been a conduit for Jesus’ Spirit to strengthen their spirits until they were whole enough to return to the living. I can think of two or three off the top of my head, and probably more. This power is real.

What “dead places” are you aware of in your surroundings, or among your relationships?
Who do you know who is surrounded by death – emotional or otherwise – or deep in death-dealing activities?
What might God be inviting you to do to bring life into those circumstances, to call these people back into life?

In the life of the Christ-follower, every day is Easter morning, Every day we seek the living among the living.

6-13-16 - The Other Side

The life of faith always includes a call to the Other – the other side, the other perspective, the other who is a stranger – and perhaps also strange. In the Gospels we see that Jesus was pretty much always on the move, and so were those who followed him. In this week’s story, he takes his disciples on a short journey to a far-away land.

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him.

Before we enter this rich and multi-faceted tale, let’s look at the set-up. Jesus and his disciples cross the Sea of Galilee: One day Jesus got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.”

They were leaving familiar territory and going to the “Ten Cities,” a Gentile land, where foreigners dwelt, non-Jews, “others.” The other side. The land beyond. Do we hear echoes of the “other world,” that Kingdom place Jesus was always talking about, his other home? That realm sharing time and space with this one, yet completely Other, contained in no time or space as we know it; where our rules are not?

We might see Jesus’ incarnation this way, how he crossed to the Other Side, to this realm from that heavenly Life. He brought with him the practices and “rules” of that realm and invited us to see them at work in this one. He came here to make it possible for us to cross into God-Life, and to take God-Life to the “other sides” in our world.

Only three words, “the other side,” but they invite us to be open to the Story. Anything can happen on the other side. It might be scary. It might be exciting. It might change your life, or you might change someone else’s. Indeed, the first “other” Jesus encounters is not merely Gentile; he is also seriously possessed by the demonic. There is need for healing and deliverance in this land, cause for fear, cause for faith.

What if your story today started, “One day Jesus got into a boat with me and said, ‘Let’s go to the other side.” Where might that be? Would you be happy to go? In prayer, imagine your conversation with Jesus in that boat. “Where are we going?” Why can’t we stay here?” “What do you want me to do when we get there?” I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I believe it will be a rich way of praying. And I believe Jesus will go with us wherever he asks us to go.

The life of God does not seem to include a lot of staying put. We settle just long enough to share the Good News and see it catch, and then we’re led to the next place or activity or relationship or initiative. And that new thing is almost always among the Other. How else can the Other become our friend?

6-10-16 - Community of the Healed

How do we measure success? Positions held? Salary earned? Size (or number) of homes? Twitter followers? Jesus of Nazareth, aka Jesus the Christ has had perhaps the greatest impact on the most people of anyone who ever lived. His influence has been extraordinary across millennia and miles. Yet during his public ministry, he never held a paying job. He never asked for money. There was a house to which he came back when in Capernaum, but otherwise he traveled and ate and slept, supported by others. Who were these people?

Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

This “summary verse” gives us a glimpse into the way things work in the mission of God: transformation generates generosity; resources flow into and out of the community of the healed. There were people of wealth and influence in this company – Joanna certainly had friends in high places. But I’m struck by how many on Jesus’ “support team” were women who had been healed and delivered from evil.* Their experience of spiritual power and love flowing from Jesus ignited an intense gratitude and desire to invest in his movement so that others might be touched in the same way.

This is one more reason why the ministry of healing is central to Christian life in community. Wounds and ailments are inevitable in our world. Yet it is abundantly clear that God’s power to heal and restore was unleashed in Jesus and has continued to be mediated by his followers, now called his Body. The community of Christ-followers really can be the community of the healed, and as we find ourselves healed in body, mind and spirit, our healed wounds become the source of healing for others.

What healings have you experienced in your life in God? How did you respond in generosity or ministry?
Is healing talked about, celebrated, lifted up in your faith community? Is it liberally offered to others?

The way we “do” church in the 21st century looks quite different from even two decades ago, and a lot different from the first century. But the invitation to follow Christ as a disciple, and to be on the "support team" for the company of Christ-followers with whom you walk remains the same. We give not out of duty but because we have known Jesus' healing touch, and since then nothing has been the same.

And if you don’t feel Jesus has touched you – there’s an excellent place to begin in prayer. Ask the Christ-followers you meet to bring his touch to you. And then keep it going.

*Luke’s including this reference to Mary Magdalene and the cause of her infirmity here makes it clear she is NOT the woman of ill repute at the center of the previous story. There is nothing in scripture to support the tradition of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute or woman of loose morals (allegedly introduced by Pope Gregory to quell veneration of Mary as the first apostle). The gospels tell us only that she suffered from demonic oppression, and upon being set free devoted herself to caring for Jesus and his disciples. And she was the first to encounter the risen Christ. Apostle!

6-9-16 - Who Needs Saving?

Recently someone said to me, “I think Bill Clinton has the morals of a snake, but he was a very good president.” To which I replied, “I think Bill Clinton has the morals of a man who knows he is a sinner in need of redemption.” All the best saints know that they are as sinful as the next person; that’s why they make so much room for the Holy Spirit in their lives. (And perhaps Bill has to make lots of room!)

Some Episcopalians no longer wish to use the language of salvation when it comes to their Christian faith. They don’t recognize any risk from which they need to be rescued. I wonder if such people feel a need for God’s forgiveness? Or are they are so locked into “I am a good person” mode, they cannot see how irrelevant such a claim is from the viewpoint of God’s holiness.

That contrast is on display in this week’s gospel story. We have the Pharisee, who is so sure of his own rectitude, he can afford to condemn his uninvited guest and pass judgement on Jesus. And we have the woman herself, “sin-sick,” bearing no illusions whatsoever about the immorality of many of her life choices, offering herself for healing with abject humility.

Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Jesus scandalized the company in several ways, by allowing this woman to come so close to him, not pushing her away; and by presuming to declare her sins forgiven. Anyone can forgive a wrong done to him or her; but what kind of person goes around forgiving sins against God? The religious leaders disapproved; yet their reaction only caused Jesus to double down. In addition to the promise of forgiveness, he declared this woman healed and saved. That is eternal healing.

How do we feel when we see someone who is a notorious sinner receive forgiveness? It’s very hard for those who feel God’s favor is something to be earned. Such people are quick to condemn others – often for select sorts of sins, like sexual immorality, while they ignore sins of economic injustice. For people like this, it only sinks in when something brings home how deep their own need for forgiveness is. When we understand the consequence of unforgiven sin – estrangement from God and our fellow creatures – we become more ready to embrace the hope of salvation. Addicts in recovery understand this; those of us with less obvious failings often have a harder time getting there.

I heard a great quote from Richard Rohr this week: “God does not love us because we are good. God loves us because God is good. That changes everything.” We are never good enough; yet God has declared us holy through Christ. Simul justus et peccator, Luther put it. As we receive that grace, we are better able to go in peace.

6-8-16 - Receiving to Give

If an "inappropriate person" came uninvited into a private party you were hosting, and proceeded to monopolize the guest of honor, making a spectacle of herself, weeping on his feet and using her unbound hair to dry them – how would you feel? Few of us like having our plans upended by strangers, especially socially challenging ones. For the host in our story, this turn of events would have been especially difficult – this woman was an affront to moral purity under the the Law on several counts. Yet Simon's judgment is directed less at her, whom he already condemns, than at Jesus.

Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.”

He feels this episode reveals Jesus as a fraud, not the prophet or holy man people take him for. But Jesus proves even more disrupting than the woman. Jesus knows what Simon is thinking, and calls him on it. He tells him a parable about a creditor who forgives a small debt to one who owes him, and cancels a huge debt for another. He asks, “Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.”

Clever man. But not as clever as Jesus, who compares the love shown him by his host, and that shown him by this notorious sinner. He suggests that his host, who feels he has nothing for which to be forgiven, is chary with his hospitality, holding back even social obligations like washing the feet of his guests. But this woman, in her experience of God's' forgiving love in Jesus, lavishes care upon him.

Jesus suggests that the experience of forgiveness releases our generosity - and that the impulse to give generously and sacrificially can be constrained in the self-sufficient and self-righteous. Self-sufficiency is the enemy of the gospel – it closes us to the enormous grace God wants to shower upon us. Receiving releases our desire to give.

This invites a very different motivation for giving than the one we commonly employ, when we appeal to generosity on the basis of need. Asking people to give because a need is great sometimes works, but often results in impulse giving that is not sustained and is rarely sacrificial. But when someone is aware of how much they have received and how little they deserve, they are released into a generosity that is holy and ongoing. I finally began to tithe not after years of hearing that I should, or even how life-giving it had been for others. I I decided to tithe at a church conference where I experienced incredible grace and joy in the Lord. It was receiving that released me to give.

When have you felt yourself the recipient of unearned generosity, or unmerited love, or deep forgiveness (which, by its very nature, is never deserved…)? Recall a time when you were released to give more than you thought you would. Is anything holding you back now?

6-7-16 - The Party Crasher

“Who is that woman? Good Lord – she’s dressed for a cocktail lounge, not my dining room. Is she a new servant? Now what is she doing? She’s gone straight up to Jesus. Who does she think she is? And now she’s crying? She’s on the floor? Touching him? Weeping all over his feet, wiping them with her hair? Someone get her out of my house!”

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.

Disruption. It’s fast becoming one of my favorite religious words. I’m thinking of reading my way through the gospels just looking for scenes of disruption, and people who disrupt. Often, it’s Jesus, upending expectations of how holy people behave, inviting new expectations of how God operates. Sometimes it’s people asking him for help, occasionally upending even his expansive expectations.

Something expands in us when our routine is disrupted, whether by God or by something or someone so "off-norm," they cause us to see in a new way. The scene created by this woman, a known “sinner” (as opposed to the rest of us who tend to keep it better hidden), invited everyone at that event to see grace and repentance, even hospitality, in a new light. Her awkwardly intimate attention to Jesus was seen by the host as scandalous, but interpreted by Jesus as an appeal for healing and forgiveness. He saw someone who wanted to live a new life, with a cleansed heart.

When has someone "crashed" a party of yours, bringing new life? Who disrupts your notions about God? About church? Maybe other kinds of Christians? Maybe people outside the community of believers, who want something we have?

When do you see yourself as a disrupter? What spaces or forms would you like to disrupt? Is God inviting you to do that, or is it coming from you?

In this story, we see Jesus regard a party-crasher as someone worthy of honor and healing. Who is trying to crash our parties? What parties might we want to crash to come closer to our Lord and receive his deepest blessing?

6-6-16 - The Dinner Party

I recently heard someone refer to Jesus’ “preference for the poor.” I know this phrase travels in certain theological circles, but I do not like it. We do not find in the Gospels evidence that Jesus “preferred” the poor or any particular sort of person for that matter. Neither did he “prefer” the rich. He seemed to prefer people who perceived the power of God set loose in the land; those who recognized their own need for healing and forgiveness; those who were willing to walk with him.

When I hear such a phrase, I immediately think, “Then why was Jesus so comfortable with the wealthy? Why was he so patient with Nicodemus? Why did he frequent the homes of the well off?” In our gospel story this week, we find him in such a home, at a dinner party hosted by a prominent Pharisee named Simon.

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table.

Pharisees were not necessarily wealthy, but they were not poor, and were men of great influence. They were both troubled and intrigued by Jesus – recognizing his undeniable spiritual power, yet often aghast at the surroundings in which he exercised that power, and frequently offended by his actions and language. This invitation to dinner was likely more than generous hospitality; it was one of many attempts to investigate the claims about Jesus, to get to know him – and perhaps to see him trip up. As we will see, Jesus was about to “trip up” in a spectacular way – and then turn the tables on his detractors even more cleverly.

As we explore this story through the week, let’s put ourselves into its setting: a dinner party, that most convivial and intimate of social gatherings. We give dinner parties to bring together people we like, or want to know better, or want to impress. We serve elegantly and lavishly, and dress up the table as well as ourselves. We attend dinner parties to enjoy the hospitality of others, to engage in rich conversation and richer food, and perhaps to get to know someone we’ve admired from afar.

Isn't our worship a little like hosting and attending a dinner party? Don’t we get out the linen and silver, offer up a rare (if minimal…) feast, entertain and encourage conversation? Don’t we dress up (a little…), bring our best selves, and hope we'll have a chance to get to know the guest of honor better? Imagine yourself seated next to Jesus at dinner. What do you want to ask him? What do you want to tell him about?

The dinner party in our story has a surprise that was most definitely not in the host’s script. We too might be on the look-out in church for the people who weren’t necessarily on the guest list, but get right to the heart of the matter. And we too might seek a chance to get close to Jesus of Nazareth, who said his preferred dinner companions are you and me.

6-3-16 - The Story Beyond the Story

It’s fair to say that Jesus’ action in Nain, restoring life to a dead young man, had a big impact on those who witnessed it. They immediately attributed this event to God’s power at work in Jesus:

Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.

The fact that Jesus had done this work in their midst was a sign that God had not forgotten them. In fact, it was a big clue to them that God was on the move among them. That is the story they spread, not only that something physically impossible had transpired before their very eyes, but that God’s power was manifest in Jesus of Nazareth.

When we have an experience of God, we sometimes focus on the experience itself, delighting in the gift or the power we’ve seen at work. That delight is a good and holy thing – and also a starting place. We are invited to look beyond that to what it tells us about the God who made us, loves us, and abides with us.

When we can cultivate that practice, setting our stories within the bigger story of God’s activity across time and space – and in our own lives – our faith muscles are built up. Then we don’t rise and fall with each victory and disappointment. We find ourselves on a steadier keel, making a more winsome witness to the people around us of what it means to dwell in God-Life.

This week I have invited us to contemplate where we have seen new life out of dead things, what we’ve seen revived. As we recall those gifts, and the God of love who lavishes them upon us, we can bring our prayers for what we would like to see revived into that larger story. God’s story is so much bigger than the life of that young man in Nain, and that of his mother. God’s story is so much bigger than the lives of those who witnessed that miracle and spread the word far and wide. God’s story is so much bigger than our churches and ministries and the containers we build to try to make sense of the mystery of God.

And yet this God with the big, big story gives life to our small stories, and invites us to see the vast in the intimate. Asking God to bless our stories – remembering they are not the whole story – is one way we come to understand the story God has spoken into being, which we see unfold only now. And now. And now. And... 

6-2-16 - Disrupting Funerals

The disrupted funeral is a staple of movie and television comedies. From people taking items out of or putting items into caskets, to unintentionally comical eulogies, to bodies spilling out or going missing, the funeral scene is often a yuck-fest (in more ways than one…).

The gospel scene we are exploring this week was not mined for laughs, but Jesus most certainly disrupted this funeral as it proceeded out the city gates to the burial ground. Once his compassion is drawn by the sight of the grieving mother, Jesus approaches the procession:

Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.

Imagine the furor that must have exploded in that moment – people screaming, fainting, pressing closer to see. And the young man, restored to life, sitting up and speaking, as though death had caught him in mid-sentence. What did he think of this turn of events? What did his mother say? Luke tells us only that “fear seized them all.” No kidding.

Luke focuses less on the scene itself and more on the impact it had on the onlookers. We too are invited to widen our lens. How does this event, recorded in just one gospel, speak to us, beyond the suggestion that perhaps our prayers in the face of death are too tepid?

Pulling the camera way back, we can see in this scene an icon of the whole gospel message: in Christ, God entered human history to disrupt our funerals, to disrupt and disable the machinery of death itself. Paul called death “the last enemy” and wrote that “death has been swallowed up in victory.” (I Cor 15:26 and 54) The writer of Revelation proclaims that in the new heaven and the new earth “death will be no more.” (Rev 21:4). When we proclaim the resurrection life, we are disrupting our funerals. We assert that death is not the last word for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Funerals and mourning rituals are important for us, and they are rightly solemn. We need to mark important transitions in our lives, to celebrate those who have mattered to us, to make space for grief and strong emotions, and a good funeral does all of that. But let’s remember the Good News in the midst of death. Let’s not forget that God is in the business of disrupting not only death, but everything that separates us from God’s love, every bit of the world’s “business as usual” we think is our lot.

The Episcopal burial liturgy ends, “Even at the grave, we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”
Friends, the alleluias have already begun.

6-1-16 - Why Her?

Why did Jesus heal the people he healed? The gospels don’t reveal any one pattern or motivation. Sometimes he was moved by someone’s plight; more often he responded to articulations or demonstrations of faith. And sometimes he seemed to work miracles simply to reveal the power and values of the Kingdom of God. In this story, we see Jesus perform one his most disruptive miracles out of compassion:

As Jesus approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.”

Why did Jesus feel for on this widow? He must have seen many a funeral procession; he didn't generally step in to restore life in one bound for burial. Isn’t this why God gets a bad rap in the healing business – the seeming capriciousness as healing occurs in one and not another? It’s enough to cause some to shy away from healing prayer altogether.

Of course, we don't know the why's. I would submit it’s not a helpful question in the first place. We go off the rails whenever we compare the perceived activity of God in one person’s life to that in anothers. There is too much we do not know, so much we cannot see about ways God might be working internally, to judge that one was favored over another.

Yes, many a widow went on to bury her beloved child in Jesus’ day, and since. And yes, many a bereaved person has seen God answer his or her prayers in the peace that comes after the loss, instead of by preventing the loss. We do best when we look at how God has acted in our own lives, bearing witness to the gifts we have received, rather than totting up the gain and loss columns and comparing them.

When do you feel God has been merciful to you? When has Jesus responded to you with compassion? Does it matter that it wasn’t as “big” a response as raising a dead son? Can we simply be grateful for the gifts we have received?

And where in your life would you like to see life restored? Where would you like to experience Jesus’ compassion? Can you have a conversation with him in prayer about that?

When we are fully open and honest with God about our heartbreaks, and really invite him in, I believe he comes to each one of us and says, “Do not weep.” What he does next is never predictable – and always worthy of praise.