8-31-16 - The Cost

What does it cost you to publicly identify as a Christ-follower? Does it cause a problem with your job? Your family? Your social circle? Do people think you’re foolish? For most Western Christians, the biggest challenge to going deeper as disciples of Jesus is to our time and priorities.

In other parts of the world, though, as each news cycle seems to remind us, being a Christian can cost you your life or your basic relationships. I once read about a Syrian convert to Christianity who was ostracized by his Muslim family for being too “Western,” even suffering a murder attempt by an uncle, and by the Christians he met as being too “Muslim.” Even people in this country can give grave offense to their own families and religious traditions when they convert, or be ridiculed and minimized.

Following Jesus was dangerous for his immediate disciples. Terrorized by the occupying Romans and oppressed by the temple leadership, the average citizen of Jesus’ place and time did well to keep his head low, staying out of trouble. Leaving your livelihood and family to publicly identify with an itinerant teacher who drew a fair amount of attention, much of it suspicious – this was not a recipe for a quiet life. Those who affiliated with Jesus were risking their comfort, work, family relationships – and often their lives. Hence, in his pep talk to would-be disciples, after telling them how radically they need to reorder their priorities if they’re going to follow him, Jesus gives an example:

“For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, `This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.'”

Maybe for us, relationship is a better analogy than architecture. What if we translated Jesus’ example: "Who of you, intending to commit to a relationship, does not first sit down and assess feelings, chemistry, compatibility, to see whether there’s enough to engage it? Otherwise, when you’ve told all your friends “This is the one!” and then you break up, all who see it will begin to ridicule you, saying, "They started hot, but sure flickered out in a hurry!"

Fact is, few people I know have a big conversion, start following Christ and keep going. Many of us come on strong, get distracted or disappointed, wander off, wander back, get complacent again, often for years or decades. And at some point we stop wandering away – we start to move closer, into knowing and being known. Our priorities of how we spend our time, money and love shift, open up. We keep choosing, coming closer. Maybe if we’d sat down and counted the cost, we wouldn’t have done it – but now, whatever cost there is, doesn’t seem like a cost at all. More like a gift.

What are the things that pull you away from God-life?
Can you offer those to God and ask the Spirit to help you re-order what counts? 
Do you want to make this relationship more central in your life? What would that look like?

Know that there is a cost, often a hidden one…. and that it is worth more than your life.

8-30-16 - Cross Purposes

This Sunday’s gospel passage begins, "Now large crowds were travelling with him… " I wonder how large the crowds were when Jesus was done talking. Was he trying to cull out the faddiests and thrill-seekers with his talk of “hating” your mother and father, and “carrying your cross?’

“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
Talking about “carrying your cross” to subjects in a Roman colony might just do it – the cross was a terrifying and horrific imperial instrument of execution. I can imagine a few people in that crowd pausing, letting themselves fall back to the margins, and slinking off home.

I might have been one of them. If we interpret “carry the cross” as “embrace your suffering,” as some have done for centuries, I won’t rush forward to sign up. But then, I don’t believe God desires suffering for his beloved, despite passages in the bible that suggest it can be part of God’s plan. I believe God shows up in the midst of the suffering that comes our way; that God’s power and love can redeem and transform it into an opportunity for healing and growth.

So how else might we interpret “carry your cross?” One meaning might be, "Take up your ministry, commit yourself to your part within the whole of God’s mission of restoration and reconciliation." The way each of us is called to participate in God’s mission is a product of our gifts, our passions and our circumstances – and the leading of the Holy Spirit. It is not something we undertake alone. We undertake it with the second half of that imperative, “and follow me.” As we become people of purpose following Christ, using our gifts, filled and guided by the Holy Spirit, we find ourselves more focused and peaceful.

The fullness of Jesus’ ministry involved suffering on the cross. Because he did, we don’t have to. We may be asked to sacrifice some of our resources, our prerogatives, our agenda; we might even encounter resistance and suffering, but not because suffering is redemptive – because passionate engagement in God’s mission transforms us and the world.

What do you see as one of your ministries as a Christ-follower? Where do your gifts, passions and life- circumstances intersect? (Try listing some of your gifts, your passions, and think through your circumstances: where do you live, what do you do, who do you live with, who do you live around? That's important data.)

Do you feel asked to sacrifice, “lay down,” any of your preferences or resources to make space for others? To alleviate suffering for other people? Have a conversation with Jesus about the answers you come up with.

Finding our way into God’s mission is a lifetime vocation.At different times in our lives we’re called to live out our mission in different ways. Where will you “carry the cross” today?

8-29-16 - Family Values

In our culture these days, the most benign-seeming things can become controversial, and nothing so much as family. The term “family values” is often associated with conservative Christian groups and their positions on social issues. More liberal elements in society redefine the term "family" beyond biological kin to include those we choose to love, be they same-gendered partners or adoptive children.

Jesus had something to say about family values too, but I don’t think our arguments about family would have interested him much. He told his followers to leave the whole concept behind and focus on making his Gospel of forgiveness and freedom known to the world.

Now large crowds were travelling with him; and he turned and said to them, ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.

Did Jesus really say that? This was the man who, when told that his mother and brothers wanted to see him, mortified at the spectacle he was making, said, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mt 12:50) This is the man whose followers left their homes and families to travel with him, checking in now and then, but committing themselves to a bigger, messier family.

Jesus’ teaching radically undermines how human nature and culture lead us to think and act. Our earthly families can be great blessings – and they are among the “things that are passing away.” In the perspective of eternity, they pale in importance to our membership in the family of God. We are invited to walk a fine line in loving and nurturing our human families and not letting our love for them distract us from cultivating our relationship of love with God.

That means prizing our family members as gifts from God given in trust to us to nurture and help grow, not to possess or cling to. We don’t have to love our families less – we are invited to love our mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, sisters and brothers in the household of God more. Then we are able to be even more loving to those in our human families.

Today, let’s give thanks for our families of origin –  the gifts, the challenges, the truth.
If your experience of family is painful, can you invite the living water of healing into those wounds?
Reflect on who you’ve come to know and love in your “God-family” –
   grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins in the faith. 
Who comes to mind?  What has she or he brought to your life?
Who are your “children” in faith – people whom you’ve mentored and supported in their faith life?
Who do you know who could use a new family, whom you might bring into the household of God?

Families in the “developed world” are said to be shrinking. The family of God is ever growing, as we expand our circles of love and healing to include ever more brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews. That’s a lot of birthday cards!

8-26-16 - The "No Rewards" Card

“You’ll get your reward in heaven.” That’s a line I heard a lot growing up. But most of the marketing we encounter (and generate…) is geared toward letting us know the rewards we will get the moment we begin using the product. "Credit cards” are now often called “reward cards.”

I frequently encourage people to get involved in helping other people, usually those who fall into the category Jesus names in this story, “the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind,” those who, due to circumstance of birth or disability, are not fully equipped to provide for themselves. I always stress the rewards – the satisfaction of using your gifts to make a difference, the expansion of personal experience, the chance to make new friends, the opportunity to participate in God’s mission of restoration and wholeness.

Jesus had no such gambits. He just said, “You’re not going to be rewarded in this life. You’ll see your pay-off way down the line. Do it anyway.”

"But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

I have a little quibble with this, because there is something disempowering about only receiving “services,” not having a chance to give back. But Jesus is not talking about works of charity. He is challenging us to forge relationships with people who have nothing to offer us in this world. And notice he doesn’t say anything about dropping off sandwiches – he’s talking about banquets to which we invite those who have nothing to offer us back.

Or do they have more to offer than we realize? Something changes when we stop seeing those who frighten or annoy us as “those people,” or view those who are in need or debilitated as “victims” or “needy,” and rather as people with assets and talents and gifts to offer. It becomes a lot easier to think about having “them” in “our” space. We enlarge our space to accommodate them. Our reading from Hebrews on Sunday reminds us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

I once welcomed a big, "motorcycle mama," somewhat scary looking woman to church, and she ended up helping me cook a parish dinner, teaching me the way chefs chop onions. She joined that church, and later went to seminary. Angels.

The realm of God is one of radical social equality (maybe that’s why so many decline to dwell there). “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, woman nor man, slave nor free,” Paul wrote into the future. Our superficial differences melt away as we become part of the family of God. And you do meet the most amazing people hanging out with this family.

This “no rewards” card has a surprising number of rewards to offer, right here and now.

8-25-16 - Guest Lists

Being in a new community, I’m already making mental lists of people I’d like to invite over, people I'd like get to know better, those who have already had me to dinner – and maybe some who I’d like to invite me back. I've been known to invite people I think are important, with whom I’d like to become friendly so I feel important. Wrong! says Jesus.

"When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”

This teaching hits us where we live, literally. In this day and age, living as we do in fragmented and stratified communities, most people see their homes as places of safety and refuge. We might be willing to be challenged outside, and invite the marginalized into our church halls and community centers. But our homes?

Or is that exactly where we are to live out the Good News? Jesus was always crossing boundaries of difference to bring the Good News - as he did in coming to us in our time and space in the first place… As his followers we also are called to go beyond our zones of familiarity and comfort to reach out to the Other.

What kind of “Other” most scares or bothers you? (think age/ethnicity/profession/style…)
In prayer, can you imagine inviting one of those people into your home, to sit at your table? This is a way we can pray for and about people – in our imaginations.
What would you serve? Try to sit with this in your imagination, really feel what you would be feeling.
What might you say? What might your guest say? Who else might around that table?

Inviting strangers or people we find strange into our homes might be a stretch for most of us; it is for me. Perhaps we could start by inviting someone we consider “other” to breakfast or lunch in a restaurant – start with the encounter itself, deal with the discomfort of possibly disconnected conversation. If we remember that Jesus is also at that table with us, we might find it an adventure that opens up possibilities in us.

After all, the One who tells us to cross that boundary in the first place isn’t going to skip the party himself…

8-24-16 - Humility

It’s funny to think of humility as a virtue at which to excel – if we truly succeed, no one will know. “Mirror, mirror on the wall – who’s the humblest of them all?”

But that’s the upside-down-ness of the Life of God – it’s all backwards from the way we naturally think. Jesus said, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Humility is to be a characteristic of those who follow Christ. It’s worth spending a little time on. Let’s start with what it is not:

Humility is not humiliation, which is a kind of exposure of our worst attributes or actions. Enduring humiliation can sometimes lead us into true humility, but it’s a twisty, most undesirable road that can lead to despair and destructiveness instead.

Humility is not self-abasement or self-denigration. Talking about how awful and unworthy we are is, spiritually speaking, pride; pride being that tendency to think ourselves equal to God. When we run ourselves down, we are setting ourselves as judges of God’s work. That’s pride. Oh, we can judge our actions, and repent of destructive words, thoughts, behaviors – but to judge ourselves innately less worthy than another is as prideful as to say we are innately more worthy than another.

We might best define humility as the art of seeing ourselves clearly, seeing God clearly, and knowing who’s who. Humility includes rejoicing in our gifts and talents, in who we are as unique creatures made in God’s image. It includes enjoying being the best at what we do – and delighting in that as a gift from God, a gift enhanced by God’s life moving in us. (For a powerful reminder of this, watch this clip from the movie Chariots of Fire…)

Humility includes loving ourselves despite our shortcomings, which creates space for those shortcomings to be transformed. Humility helps us love other people better because we see them as neither more nor less important than we are. Humility helps us invite the love and grace of God into those parts of ourselves that are not as we wish, so that we become transformed from the inside.

What do you love most about yourself? What about yourself do you most wish to be transformed?

God is in the transformation business, and you have put yourself in God’s hands. Start giving thanks now for the beauty that shines through you – the beauty of perfect Love mixed with the beauty of Love’s unique creation that is you. Alleluia!

8-23-16 - Seating Order

It can be amusing at clergy gatherings watching people try to work their way toward the bishops, angling for seats next to them at meals. Access to the “important people” is often restricted. So imagine my bemusement when, in my first week in DC, I attended a conference and found myself sitting across from my new bishop at both lunch and dinner.

Jesus might have suggested I go to the other end of the table. He had a few things to say to those Pharisees who were observing his table manners so closely. In fact, he turned the tables on them: “If you’re invited to a wedding, go sit at the place furthest away from the action, where you feel the least honored. You might get upgraded, maybe to a table with the bride or groom’s family. But if you pick out that better seat, look out. You just might be asked to move.”

“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Some people go through life expecting to be seated in the “lesser” seats – and they tend to be a lot happier than those of us who think we know what seats we merit. It can be a great spiritual practice, to walk into any event or party and just end up where and with whom we end up, not trying to plan or maneuver it. I often find it difficult though – sometimes, instead of a delightful surprise, I just find I’m sitting with people I find uninteresting. And that just means I didn’t take the spiritual practice far enough. What I should have done was to seek Christ in them.

It doesn’t really matter where we sit, or with whom, as long as Jesus is at the table. And he’s already sent us an open invitation. So anytime you don’t know where else you’re going to land, go to his house. Every seat is perfect.

8-22-16 - Investigating Jesus

Being invited to dinner is one of the great pleasures in life, in my opinion. But I wonder if Jesus would have agreed with me. So often we read in the gospels about him going to dinner at the home of a Pharisee and being placed under a microscope. The Pharisees, teachers of the Law and respected religious leaders, were in equal measure fascinated with Jesus, and alarmed by him. They seemed always to be observing and interrogating him, even at dinner.

As we will see, Jesus returned the favor, watching and commenting on their actions as well. But today let’s stay with this introduction to the story.

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely…

I almost wish people nowadays were scrutinizing Jesus this closely. Many have no interest in getting to know him – and maybe that's because we haven't made the introductions. What if we were to invite people we know to investigate Jesus – to read about him in the Gospels, to invite communication with him in prayer, to examine the work done in his name.

Of course, it's also up to us to represent him well. People will be more likely to want to know more if we demonstrate the sweetness of being a Christ follower more than we do the judgmentalism of the Pharisee. Christians – at least in the United States in these times – are more known for judging than for loving, and that’s a real loss. As I heard one evangelical leader, John Maxwell, put it recently, “Christ-followers should stop correcting and start connecting.”

And maybe we need to investigate Jesus again for ourselves. Many of us grew up in church, inherited faith from our parents, have heard the stories thousands of times – but when did we last read the gospels all the way through? When did we last make a study of Jesus’ encounters with people, or of his healings, or his parables? Many of us need to fall in love with Jesus again – or for the first time. And the best way to do that is to get to know him for ourselves.

Let’s metaphorically invite Jesus to dinner this week – or breakfast. Let’s commit to reading a story about him every day, and make a note of what we observe, as though he were right in front of us. I think we’ll be surprised by something he says or does that is outside our expectations. We don’t have to scrutinize, but we can certainly get to know him better. Then we’ll be better placed to introduce him around.

8-19-16 - The Next Healing

in this week’s story, we see not only that Jesus could heal infirmity with a word of faith; we see him establish that healing is an activity worthy of the Sabbath, God’s holy day. Healing is what God does.

“And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

It’s great that the crowd rejoiced at what Jesus was doing. I imagine he wanted even more for them to start doing what he was doing, to believe in the power of God released into the world. He wanted them – and us – to see healing as a principle sign of the reign of God unleashed.

And maybe if we saw such immediate outcomes to our prayers, we would do a lot more praying. Of course, the reverse might also be true: If we engaged more often in healing prayer, we might see many more immediate outcomes. Happily, God’s life is a both/and kind of place. We are invited to pray at all times and in all places. And I can testify that the more we approach infirmity with prayer, the more often and quickly we see healing.

If I fall or get hurt, I immediately invoke the presence of Jesus to be with me, to heal me. When I burn or ding myself, I invite God to release healing power and love in my body, thanking all the cells for their healing work – and I often see things heal faster without scarring. When I practice my faith on relatively small things, it’s stronger when I need to pray for bigger, scarier things, when I invite God to release peace and power into a huge complex of anxiety or illness.

So it is today, in any and every place where the Spirit of God is present through the Body of Christ – meaning, us, who are Christ’s hands and feet and eyes and ears and voice of love in the world now. We have been given tremendous power through our access to God in the Spirit. So when we encounter someone who is afflicted in body, mind or spirit, we don’t have to think, “I’m not the right person.” We can just go, “Oh yeah, I know the right person. And he’ll show up anytime I invoke his name. Come, Lord Jesus.” That is the ancient prayer, “Maranatha.” Come, Lord Jesus.

Today, keep inviting God to release healing love and power in you, where you’re hurting. And keep praising. And add a third thing: ask God to show you today someone for whom you are to pray, for whom you are to invite Jesus to release healing graces. It might be a person close to you, or someone you see on the news. You don’t have to offer to pray with them, though that’s always great. You can simply say, “Come Lord Jesus – here’s someone who needs you. Be here. Release your power and love in him, in her.”

God is with us seven days a week, 24 hours a day, at all times and in all places. God cannot be contained or constrained. The more we pray, the more God’s life breaks out and restores the world. Every day.

8-18-16 - Honoring the Sabbath

If someone with a chronic disability became instantly healed during a worship service in my church, I would be thrilled and amazed. Not so much the leader of the synagogue in which Jesus healed the woman crippled for eighteen years:

When Jesus laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”

It’s interesting that he addresses the crowd rather than Jesus directly. I wonder about his purpose – is he genuinely concerned about a spiritual matter, or is he trying to get back the attention that has pivoted to his famous guest preacher? Or is he so frightened by this show of power that he can only retreat into the rules and regulations on which he has built his religion? Whatever his motives, he shows himself to be spectacularly unable to see the Life unfolding right in front of him.

This is a classic case of being correct and still wildly wrong. This leader is right that the Sabbath, ordained by God as a day set apart for rest and recreation, is to be honored. He is completely wrong in defining healing as dishonoring “work.” As Jesus points out, we continue the care and feeding of our families and animals on the Sabbath – because the Sabbath was made to celebrate Life. Anything that increases life and expands our experience of God-Life is a suitable Sabbath activity. The passage from Isaiah appointed for Sunday defines “trampling the sabbath” as “pursuing your own interests.” Giving life, health, freedom, joy, peace, love to others honors God, and therefore honors God’s holy day.

The Sabbath is one of God’s greatest gifts to us, and we ignore it to our own peril – and often our ill health. When each day of the week looks the same as any other, we don’t recharge or relax in a meaningful way. The toxins of stress build up and poison our interactions with the world and those closest to us. Our ability to be creative and to see solutions to problems grows stunted. We need the Sabbath, and the world needs it – and I dare say God needs us refreshed and ready for participating in God’s mission.

Every day is a good day for healing. Every day is a good day to set the captives free. Every day is a good day to release the power of God to bring Life into the world. Where do you need to see that Life released today?

8-17-16 - The Posture of Praise

Have you ever tried to praise God when you’re hunched over or miserable? Of all the types of prayer, praise is one of the most embodied. When we are filled with the Spirit of God, excited about what God is doing or has done for us, we naturally straighten our spines, even extend our arms, open our hands. Our bodies are participating with our minds and our spirits in the act of praise.

Praise is the first thing the crippled woman in our story did, as the effect of Jesus’ declaration of healing on her took hold: Immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.

She may have been responding in exaltation to being able to stand up straight for the first time in eighteen years, but she was also participating in the prayer, inviting the Spirit to bless her into wholeness. Praise is one of the best conductors for healing power there is. When we’re praising God, it’s really hard to focus on how sick, scared or miserable we are. Those things may still be there, but they’re not where we’re putting our energy.

Maybe praise releases endorphins – spiritual, if not chemical. Really exuberant praise, as at rock and roll shows or ball games, probably releases the chemical kind. When we release ourselves in praise, it also spreads good feelings to the people around us. There’s no down-side to praising the One who made us, who heals us, who loves us.

Praise is a choice, an act of will. We choose to praise God for everything we know and believe about God, no matter what else is going on in our lives. It’s an act of will that opens us up to the power that makes us whole. Most of us need to practice praise; it doesn't come naturally. It can be hard to do with words, because we run out of them quickly. And it can feel funny to just repeat phrases like “God, I praise you. I honor you. I exalt you….”We don’t talk to people in our lives that way – we don’t have to be so stiff with God either.

Try praising God without words. Maybe sing a hymn or song you love, or bring up an image of beauty or love in your mind and thank God for that. And if something negative intrudes, gently say, “Not now. It’s praise time…”

We might invite our bodies to take the lead, opening ourselves into a posture of praise: sit or stand up straight; fill your lungs with deep, long, cleansing breaths; ask your arms how they would like to praise their maker. We might dance, or walk. If movement is difficult, we move what we can, and make that a prayer for restored mobility.

What if our posture was the first thing we address when we’re feeling stressed or sad or anxious? Remember that woman, bent over for so long, suddenly able to stand straight. She can be our model for the posture of praise.

8-16-16 - Set Free

Yesterday I invited us to think about an area in life in which we feel stuck, a condition or limitation we just live with because we don’t think anything can be done (which is like saying that thing is more powerful than God…) Most likely the woman in our story, bent over with a damaged spine for eighteen years, thought that was her future. She may have been told it was the result of sin. The gospel writer says she was afflicted by an evil spirit. In certain Christian circles, she might be told her suffering was a way of coming closer to God, an honor, a test, a blessing even.

Jesus told her, “Here’s something we can heal.”

When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.
It is his first instinct – “Let's take care of that.” He doesn’t deliberate and wonder if it’s “God’s will." He knows illness and disability are not God’s intention for us. We don't always see healing as immediately as in this story; often it’s more gradual. But we can trust that it is God’s will that we be whole. Wholeness is always the will of our God whom we call One and Perfect. How could such a One desire less than wholeness for us?

Freedom is also God’s desire for us, and for this world. Jesus said he had come to proclaim release to the captives. Anytime we’re unsure of God’s will in a given situation, we can ask where we sense the most freedom and pray toward that. This does not mean we don’t honor commitments to relationships or jobs, which can at times feel like they impinge on our personal freedom. It means we look for where God is inviting us to be free within those commitments. If our workday is confining, we plan in times for a restorative walk or rest. If church feels like a burden, we make sure there are some activities in which we are just nurtured, not working. If our movement is constricted by disability, we pray for healing and restoration.

What came up when you thought about something you’re stuck with that God can release you from? Bring that to Jesus in prayer. Invite the power and love that made the universe to be released in you, in your body, your mind, your spirit. And expect that the living water of God is flowing and bringing new life to you wherever you need it most.

“For freedom, God has made us free,” Paul reminded the Galatians (5:1). We honor God when we accept that gift every time God offers it.

8-15-16 - Perseverance

How long have you lived with an ailment or a limitation? A destructive habit? A job that doesn’t fit your gifts? This week we meet a woman who was bent over, crippled for 18 years. And then she met Jesus.

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.

Eighteen years. That’s a long time not to be able to look anyone in the eye, to have to strain to see the sky. That’s a long time to be the object of pity and whispers, maybe even scorn. A long time to live in pain, for scoliosis, if that’s what she had, is painful, and when your spine is so radically out of alignment, it puts pressure on other muscles in the body.

But she persevered. As this week’s gospel passage tells the story, she doesn’t even ask for healing. She just shows up for worship on the sabbath, when Jesus happens to be teaching. It may not even have occurred to her that she could be free of her disabling and incurable condition.

Perseverance is a virtue – and sometimes it can get in the way of our faith. One of our invitations as Christ followers is to believe that there is nothing in this world that we are stuck with. Nothing is beyond the reach of God’s transforming power – except a human heart firmly turned away from him. God’s power can set us free from every illness, infirmity, even injustice as we exercise our faith and invite God to release that healing stream in us. We may not always live long enough to see the full healing, especially of societal ills, but imagine how much more healing we do see when we believe and pray.

As we begin this week, bring into the foreground of your awareness something you feel you are truly stuck with, from which you’d like to freed. Just hold it in your mind’s eye, and imagine what you would look or feel or act like released from that condition. That in itself is an act of prayer.

Let’s see what the Holy Spirit does with that as we continue in conversation with God about it. I believe something will break open – maybe our hearts, for starters.

8-12-16 - Wild Grapes

A few weeks ago, my sister and I were taking a walk, and she noticed wild raspberries growing along the path. It’s always a delight to come upon fruits or vegetables growing wild. Often they seem all the sweeter for being unexpected. So what’s the problem with wild grapes?

And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?

The prophet Isaiah is speaking for God – that’s what prophets do, deliver a message they believe God has entrusted them to carry. He was writing in a time of impending crisis for Israel, as attempts to play off competing empires against each other were failing and yet another foreign occupation loomed. Jerusalem was threatened; Israel’s way of life and faith was in peril. A large portion of the prophetic writings attempt to explain how these dire times had come to pass. The prophets usually located the cause in Israel’s unfaithfulness to the One God; the charges most commonly cited were failure to honor the Law, failure to exercise economic justice and care for the poor and vulnerable, and diluting the religious tradition.

This is what is meant by “wild grapes,” people and communities who have turned away from God’s way, not simply free-spirited non-conformists. Isaiah’s view is that the community has now turned so fully away, it stands in opposition to God – “Judge between me and my vineyard.” The God he poetically reveals is having a moment of frustration – “What more was there to do that I have not done?” and lament - “Why did it yield wild grapes?”

This is certainly a very human depiction of God, perhaps too much so, but it invites us to imagine a process by which the incarnation of the Son came to be. Was it the plan from the “beginning of the ages,” as some scripture say, or was it a response by a loving vine-grower unwilling to walk away when his crop came up wild? “What more was there to do?” We can imagine the next thought, “I will send my son…”

Jesus later told a parable, jumping off from this passage, about a vineyard let to tenants who abused their relationship with the owner, beat his representatives and finally killed his son. The grapes were still wild in his earthly sojourn. But he knew that was not the end to the story. He knew that the death of the son was not the last word, that Life would triumph over death, over sin, over despair.

In that Life, which we receive in baptism and renew in holy communion and prayer, we have the capacity to lose our mouth-puckering wildness, to become sweet and juicy, wine to gladden the hearts of those we meet. We can grow on the sides of paths where people will come upon us, maybe even think we’re wild. But we’re God’s grapes, bearers of Life.

8-11-16 - The Vineyard

There are few images more evocative of life and fruitfulness, of mystery and joy than vineyards. All over the bible we can find vineyards, both literal and figurative. For the rest of this week, let’s go to the vineyard depicted in Isaiah – a place of cultivation and care, which yielded a surprising crop:

Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: 
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; 
he built a watch-tower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.

In the gospel passage set for this week, we find Jesus in “scorched earth” mode, literally. He speaks of the fire he has come to bring upon the earth, wishing it were already kindled. We can find a historical context for his divine and righteous rage in this prophetic poetry of Isaiah’s, which tells in a few short lines the whole history of God and God’s people. It speaks of this world as a vineyard carefully cultivated by God in a fertile place, cleared and planted, with structures for protection and wine-processing.

So might we see the creation – a beautiful world prepared for us, a place of fertility, with everything provided so that we could thrive and produce good fruit. It even has a watch-tower – an image of God’s vigilant protection of God’s beloved from evil. And this creator is also named as beloved. It’s all set up to enable humankind to produce vats of wonderful, life-giving, joy-inducing wine.

But – there’s always a 'but' in a good story – the choice vines (chosen people?) did not yield cultivated grapes. What grew were not smooth, sweet wine grapes, but wild grapes. Wild grapes might have some virtues, but they’re not reliable. What a great metaphor for what early theologians called original sin – a proclivity toward self-gratification that results in thoughts and actions that do not honor God, neighbor or even our truest selves. God expects us to be sweet grapes, and often we can be wild, destructive.

This is the wrong Jesus came to right, the condition he came to heal, the conversion he came to empower. Because of Jesus, we are not stuck in “wild grape” mode; we can become fruit-bearing, life-bringing grapes. And as we actively participate in God’s mission to reclaim, restore and renew all of creation to wholeness in Christ, we attach ourselves to vines that carry that mission into every place and person in pain and need.

Our story of salvation is the story of God’s restoration of that vineyard. God invites us to be a part of bringing that work to completion, until the Creator’s intention is reflected in our world. That is work worth raising a glass to.

8-10-16 - Reading the Weather

When I need to know how to dress for the day, or whether or not to close my windows, I check weather.com. I can get a detailed forecast 48 hours ahead, or a more general one ten days out. In former times, and today in less Web-connected places, people had other ways of predicting the weather.

He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

In this week’s reading, Jesus talks about an impending crisis.
‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!

He does not clarify the exact nature of this crisis, but he’s furious that his followers seem unable to discern what is happening. From where we stand, it appears he is referring to his spiritual battle with the forces of evil,and the human structures and systems that allow evil to have its sway. He is on a mission to burn away the chaff of sin, and to release the captives who are bound to it. And the way he will do that, this “baptism with which to be baptized,” is his upcoming passion and death.

Okay, so Jesus accomplished that liberation. Is there more discernment for us? Do we need to scan signs to predict what is to come? How are we to read this troubling passage?

Jesus did accomplish the redemption of the world on the cross, and confirmed that in his rising to new life on Easter morning. Yet his work is still being brought to completion. The devil’s days are numbered but, we can see, sin and evil are still having a pretty good run. And the means by which God seems to have chosen to engage these final skirmishes is through us. We don’t need to battle evil – but we do need to see it, name it, and call in the spiritual forces of God to overwhelm it.

Paul writes that one of the gifts given to Christ-followers is the ability to discern spirits – to know when evil is present, to know when God is present. We are called to pay attention to the clouds darkening our land, the prevailing winds blowing in the world, and to pray all the more when the signs indicate bad weather ahead. We don’t need to shrivel up in a heap when things look bad, or tuck our heads into the sands of our many modes of distraction and avoidance – we can stand firm on the promises of God, the saving work of Christ, our identity as redeemed sinners and saints of the Realm of God.

Evil cannot stand against the name of Jesus. It is our work to invoke his name and his power, early and often.

8-9-16 - Division

Reading the prophets of Israel can feel like witnessing an abusive relationship. “I love you, I love you, I love you,” “Wham! You’ll get what you deserve.” “Oh, but I love you and one day it’ll all be wonderful…” These writings tell the story of a broken relationship between God and God’s chosen people, who seemed incapable of fidelity despite God’s gracious provision and forgiveness. And the way the prophets rendered the words of God (and the way those who later wrote down those words conveyed them) often make God sound like a petty tyrant as well as a thwarted lover.

We get a sense of real danger as well as deep disappointment, “Here is what I wanted for you, what I did everything to ensure for you – but you could not stay with me, and now I can’t protect you from the consequences of your choices.” It’s often a bitter message, and I confess as I read both the gospel appointed for this Sunday and the passage from Isaiah, I can’t help but think of where our country is and seems to be headed. I’m caught reading these texts through that lens this week.

We’ll start with the Gospel, which shows Jesus in a dire mood, speaking of fire and division. He has just been telling a parable about being prepared for God’s appearing, and he seems pretty ticked off:

‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!’

If division is what Jesus was after, he’d be happy in America at this moment in our history. We are defined by many things other than our divisions, but lately our fault lines seem to be getting more pronounced, the fissures widening. This cannot possibly be God’s will for us, can it?

Jesus is the Prince of Peace, as the angel foretold at his conception. He is the source of peace for us, and the power for us to be peacemakers. But let’s not forget: Jesus did come into this world to do battle with the powers of evil – that is the fight he was itching to engage, the fight he wants his followers to join him in. Each time those who might be his disciples capitulate to injustice, tolerate intolerance, benefit from systems rigged in favor of the white and wealthy, fail to love our neighbor as ourselves, we recede from that fight. And every time we make a different choice, an inconvenient or even sacrificial choice, we help usher in the reign of true peace Jesus brought into this world.

How does this scripture sit with you? Where are you being called to draw the line, to pray for the conversion of those who seek only their own good to the harm of others? We are called to stand with Jesus against evil and hate-mongering. That’s a division, if you will, one that can lead us to unity.

8-5-16 - Home Away From Home

Those who follow Christ as Lord, who seek to receive and share His life with the world, are not called to settle. We are to be people on the move; the original name for the community of Christ-followers was “People of the Way.” I say this in the throes of settling deeply into a new home, having brought boxes and boxes of objects from my last home to make this one equally homey. I loved my last home, yet over the years I sometimes had to remind myself, “This is not yours. Some day you will have to leave this house.”

The same is true of our life in this world, my friends. As we learn to live this way, settling in for the day, yet ready to move tomorrow, we’re much more open to the Life with which God wants to fill and surround us. This is a quality the writer of Hebrews ascribes to the heroes of faith he lists – people who are moving toward their promised future in God, aware that they are not yet Home.

They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

When I baptize people, I remind them that they now have dual citizenship, passports in this world and in that realm we will enjoy for eternity with God. We already gain access to that land in this life, and living there intentionally can help us avoid getting too settled in the loves and joys with which we are blessed in this world. To hold those people and things and jobs we love, yet hold them lightly, ready to go when called, I consider to be the goal of the spiritual life.

Few of us want to consider ourselves strangers and foreigners on the earth, as the magnitude of our global refugee crisis acutely reminds us. But strangers we are to be, on the move, accepting hospitality where offered, getting by where it is not, expecting blessing in the famines as in the feasts. We do not go back to the places – or people – we think of as home; we move forward by faith into the future God has prepared for us.

As I finally leave my beloved house, I find God has prepared an equally delightful home for me to dwell in. But even this charming house and yard are as nothing compared to the city God has prepared for us. I intend to enjoy every moment of my life here, always remembering it is not mine to keep.

8-4-16 - Greeting God's Promises

The writer of Hebrews defines faith for us in a very particular way: the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen. To illustrate his view he cites various parts of Abraham’s story, as well as a list of other biblical heroines and heroes of faith (read the whole chapter…) What makes these people exemplars of faith is not their “victories” – it is that they believed even though they never saw the full fruit of their longing delivered in their lifetimes.

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.

What a beautiful way of conceiving our faith life: seeing the promises of God in our mind and heart and spirit, and greeting those promises ahead on the road. I'm put in mind of the father of the prodigal son, “But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” What if we personified the promises of God? Would that help us anticipate them with more hope and faith?

I do believe we get to see and taste the goodness of God right here and now. I write this on the patio in the small back yard, alive with birdsong, of the adorable new house I moved into yesterday. I am staggered by the blessing of finding a house to rent in my price-range, within walking distance of the church, when I thought I’d have to be in an apartment or condo many miles away. In the scheme of things, this is a small blessing, but a huge reminder to me that God is faithful in greater things too.

Our invitation is to believe in God’s promise of Life, here and now and then and later; God’s promise of peace and provision and presence and power; to believe that God’s reign of justice will emerge, and more quickly as we engage in God’s work of bringing it into being; to believe that refugees will find homes and wars will cease and evildoers be converted and everyone will “sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.” (Micah 4:1-5) That is God’s great promise.

Just as God regards us from a distance as already fully righteous in Christ, so we are invited to pray and work and believe in God’s promises in the conviction that they are approaching, close enough to call out to on the road: “Hello there! I see you coming, and I can’t wait to see you up close!” These promises are moving toward us all the time – and we can run to them and embrace them and live them.

8-3-16 - What We Cannot See

The last line of the reading from Genesis and the first in the passage from Hebrews flow so naturally into each other, it is as though they were one text. From “And Abram believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness,” we go right into:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

In fact, the writer of Hebrews uses Abraham as Exhibit A of his thesis, both Abraham's faithfulness in leaving his homeland and family and setting out with Sarai into the land God had promised him (“You think there is only one God, and he talks to you?!?”) and his believing the preposterous promise of heirs more numerous than the stars in the heavens or the sand on the seashore. Abraham is a pretty mixed bag when it comes to character and choices, but in his fidelity to the One God and the intimacy of that relationship as it is expressed in Genesis, he is a shining star.

Why is it so hard for us to feel sure about things we only hope for – for, once we receive what we hope for, we no longer need to hope. Why waver in our conviction about things we cannot see, cannot prove? We trust in engineers we don’t know, elected officials we hope have our interest at heart, online security, relationships, a whole web of systems and networks we hope will continue to work for us. Why not extend that degree of faith to the God whose Spirit is so often clearly discernible, if never visible?

Often what makes it so difficult is what we do see – evidence of pain and sorrow and the persistence of evil in this world. In the moments when those “realities” overwhelm us, the content of our faith can look like a fairy story told to calm anxious children. That’s why faith is a muscle that must be exercised, and practiced and tested. We never know what is around the next corner; we do know that God has been faithful and good throughout our lives, even in the times that were painful.

It comes down to this: our faith in what we cannot see needs to be stronger than our doubt in what we can. We believe, until faith gives way to sight.

8-2-16 - Believing the Lord

Few texts from the Hebrew Bible are cited as much in the New Testament as this story of God’s promise to Abram. Paul refers to it in at least two letters (I think… with the impending move I have no time to look it up…), and it comes up in this week's passage from Hebrews. In the face of God's promise to protect and bless him, Abram replies that none of that means much to him, since he and Sarai will die childless.It sure seemed that way – they had been unable to conceive in their long marriage, and Sarai was now past childbearing. But God knew more than Abram could conceive:

But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’ He brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

It is this “reckoning to him as righteousness” that Paul refers to when building his case that we are saved through faith in Christ, not through our own righteous deeds.
He makes the point that all Abram did was believe God’s promise that he would have descendants too numerous to count, despite all evidence to the contrary. It wasn’t good works, or “being a good person” that made him righteous in God’s eyes; it was only believing. Sola fide, as Martin Luther proclaimed.

It can be hard for us achievement-oriented producers to fathom just how little activity God desires from us. It seems that what God wants most is that we believe him, that we put our trust in God's promises, even when we cannot see how they could possibly pan out. First, of course, we must discern what promises God has made to us. Some people will at times receive a personal word of promise about something in their life. And we all can rely on the promises we receive in Scripture – the promise of God’s enduring presence (“I will never leave you or forsake you…”), God’s abiding peace (“The peace of Christ will guard your hearts and thoughts in Christ Jesus.”), God’s transforming power (“How much more with God give the Holy Spirit to those who ask!”), and of course, eternal life. There are more, but those are the hit parade.

Has there been a time when you were able to rely on God’s promise of restoration or peace in turbulent times? Are you able to simply believe in the face of what looks like impossibility? Believe that God desires blessing for God’s beloveds, even when we don’t know what the blessing will look like?

That’s really the goal of the Christian life, not “working our way to heaven,” but trusting in the absolute truth that Jesus has already paved that way for us. We have been “worded,” deemed righteous through the pure holiness of Christ, whatever we bring to the table. All that is left for us is to say thank you and believe this gift is real and enduring. Whatever “work” we do with God flows from there.

8-1-16 - Promises, Promises

This is the week of my big move, and I have no business splashing around in Water Daily – and, truth be told, I could give the gospel reading a miss. (If you want to read what I wrote about it three years ago, here you go.) But two of the other readings set for Sunday are calling me to comment. Each in its way is a foundational text for followers of Christ. 

Let’s spend a few days with the first, a reading from Genesis.
After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’

This encounter between God and Abram takes place after Abram has won a great battle and been blessed by the great Melchizedek, the King of Salem (or “peace…”). He is on a personal and professional high – and here comes the word of the Lord, promising protection and reward. Is Abram grateful for this divine communication? No; he replies, “So what? You’re blessing me right and left – but the one thing I want most in the world I cannot have: a child and an heir. This schmuck Eliezer, my distant cousin, is to inherit all the wealth I’m amassing? What good are your promises?”

And God does not say, “You want a glass for that whine?” God goes on to make him a promise that changes the course of human history – but more on that tomorrow. Today let’s stay with Abram’s lament. Have you ever felt that way? Able to enumerate many blessings, but bereft in the areas that mean most to you? Sometimes I think the very fact that we so deeply want certain things can keep us from being open to receiving them. We’re looking too hard for blessings in certain areas and stuck in anxiety. I don’t tend to worry about money, and have always been fine financially. I felt deprived in the relationship arena, and remain single.

One day, as I was awaiting word on whether or not I’d been selected for my new job, I was praying and sensed God say, “You can’t take this. It has to be given to you. Keep your hands open.” On one level, this was obvious – the decision was out of my hands. But this was a deeper word for my spirit – not to always think I have to make things happen; to let go and watch what God can do when we’re just open to blessings wherever they come. At no point did I know I was going to get the job – I only knew I would be blessed, one way or the other. After that, I was unable to locate any anxiety about it. It was the weirdest thing.

God has a timetable we cannot program or mess with, and often can only discern in hindsight. God had promises for Abram. God has promises for you. Whine all you want – and then open your hands in joyful expectation.