9-30-16 - The Wait

One reason people can be reluctant to pray about concerns is that it can feel like nothing happens when we pray. We’d like some sign that God is intervening on our behalf, or even an indication that God is responding to our prayers. We don’t mind waiting if we know we’re eventually going to receive. But what if we can’t see anything? What if nothing’s going to happen? What if God didn’t hear… or doesn’t exist?

Faith is stepping off into the dark, not quite knowing where we’ll land. Once we see, no longer need faith. And so faith includes waiting, which can be excruciating. One reading this Sunday is from the prophet Habakkuk, who expresses his anguish that “…the law becomes slack and justice never prevails." He resolves to keep watch to see how God will answer his complaint. And the Lord does answer: “Write the vision; make it plain,” so that it can be seen from afar. “For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie.“ He adds “...the righteous live by their faith.”

That is our job description, to live by faith, no matter how strong or weak we feel, no matter how little evidence we see. Jesus says to his disciples, “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless servants; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

It’s not the most gentle language, yet I don’t think Jesus was calling his disciples worthless. He is speaking to his inner circle, who should know better by now. And we too should think of ourselves as servants than entitled consumers. Servants don’t get to call all the shots; they do their jobs. They honor the people around them, and they take a day off. And they don’t get to regulate the timing. In an “I want it and I want it now” culture, that can be hard for us.

Is there something that you want now – or yesterday – that seems a long time coming? Certainly justice. Rational discourse. Responsible leadership. An end to violence. Those are a few “big picture” desires.

What about in your own life? What does God seem to be “tarrying” over an awfully long time? Is there something have you waited for a long time and then received? Remember...

One way to pray is to plant a “seed of faith” when we make our desires known to God. And then trust that it is growing – keep giving thanks even before we see how that answer is unfolding. Jesus says, “First the blade, then the ear, then the full corn on the stalk.”
We give thanks by faith until faith gives way to sight.

God’s vision will be realized at the appointed time. "It speaks of the end, and it does not lie."
God’s desires cannot be rushed, nor can they be delayed. They can only be trusted in. 
"If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay."

Wait for it. God may seem slow, but God will bring Life into being. Have faith.

9-29-16 - Holding Faith Together

This week's reading speaks of faith as something you can have more of or less of. The disciples ask for increased faith because they can see what it takes to live this "God-Life." It does take faith to trust in what cannot be seen, to proclaim life in the midst of death, to bear light into darkness and truth in the face of injustice. We need faith to forgive the unforgivable, love the unlovable, heal the incurable, restore those who have been cast aside as worthless.

God seems to wait for us to participate in exercising faith. I wish it were otherwise, for our faith is often weak. But time and again in the Gospels we see Jesus respond to people’s faith, even saying to some, “Your faith has made you well.” Not “my power has made you well,” but “your faith.”

Why would God leave so much up to us, when God knows how feeble and fickle we can be? Is this a cosmic cruelty? It might be, had God not also provided what we need. God asks only that we take hold of it. In addition to the “perfect faith” of Jesus, who joins us by His Spirit when we pray, God has also set us into communities of faith.

It seems that faith is a contagious thing, and one which we can hold for one another. We can pass it down from one generation to another, and friend to friend. In Sunday’s epistle, Paul writes to Timothy, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.” Lois and Eunice and many a father and grandfather too have “held faith” for their children until such time as they took hold of it. Some are still holding it.

Who are your “grandmothers” and “fathers” in the faith, from whom you learned to trust and believe? Name a few. Give thanks for those men and women.

Who are your friends in the faith, brothers and sisters who help you believe when your faith is weak? And for whom do you do that, by your prayers and your encouragement?

And is there a “big thing” you’ve had trouble trusting God about that you might ask a community of faith to pray about with you, for you? It’s a godly risk.

Jesus didn’t set us down, wind us up and say, “Okay – go do everything I commanded you.” He said, “Yo, I am with you always, to the end of the ages.” (Well, most translations say, “Lo…”) We have plenty of faith around us to move trees, mountains, illnesses, injustice – and even hearts.

9-28-16 - Authority

When my beloved cat was diagnosed with heart disease I became a font of panicked prayers, anytime I thought her breathing looked funny. One day I was praying anxiously, asking Jesus please to heal her, and I sensed him say firmly, “You heal her.” “What?” I said. “You heal her. I’ve given you authority over disease; I’ve given you my name – use it.” (Sixteen months later, she's still thriving...)

When Jesus told his servants to wield their faith boldly, he illustrated his point with a parable about authority:  “Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Make supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; you can eat and drink later’? Do you thank the servant for doing what was commanded?“

Now, in another part of scripture (Luke 12:37), Jesus is quoted as saying the opposite. Clearly He is making a different point this time, about authority. He has given his followers authority over nature, sin, disease, demons – even death. (Over pretty much everything except other people with free will – which is why we could tell a mulberry tree to plant itself in the sea, but all the faith in the world can’t move Congress...)

Jesus seems ticked off at the timidity of his disciples, given the authority they have as agents of God. I believe he is saying, “You are giving your challenges and obstacles way too much power. You are in charge – act like it when you pray!”

Jesus is always inviting us to be bold, not timid. Sometimes we let something like a common cold disable us, when we could take our God-given authority and invite the power and love of God to flow through us to bring wholeness. That’s what God does – make things whole. Sometimes we feel powerless over social systems that reinforce injustice, instead of asking how God would have us exercise our faith with the Holy Spirit in that realm.

What are you being invited to take authority over in your life? It might be a personal trait, it might be something in the natural order, or an illness or injury. You might say, "Lord, help me with this one - you have the power."

We don’t have to take authority in a “large and in charge” kind of way. We don’t have to be negative about the obstacle – we can simply stand firm in the power and love of God, unequivocal in our faith that God is in charge and God is at work through our prayers, whatever their “strength.”

The only thing we can do wrong is not pray, to shrug our shoulders and walk away, going, “Oh well, that’s bigger than me.” It may be bigger than you and me, but it ain’t bigger than the God who made us.

9-27-16 - Mustard Seeds and Mulberry Trees

“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you."

I don’t know about you – I don’t feel like I have faith to command trees to be uprooted and replanted. Yet Jesus says the tiniest amount of real faith could effect such a thing.

Jesus demonstrated a sometimes disconcerting authority over the natural order – winds and waves, water and wine, fevers and diseased cells, and, yes, trees, yielded to his command. He suggests that we share this authority by virtue of our participation in the Life of God. I know of one person with strong healing gifts who took that authority at face value and began to pray that fearsome weather systems would weaken and turn, and seismic events settle.

Jesus suggests we don’t have to have a LOT of faith to allow God to work miracles through us. We just need real faith. Perhaps Jesus’ somewhat cranky reply to his disciples’ request to “increase our faith” is to say that, where faith is concerned, it’s not quantity but quality that counts. We don’t have to whip ourselves into a frenzy of faith over “big” things – we are invited to bring our faith, however strong or weak it feels, to bear on any situation that challenges us.

And then we are to trust that the power and love of God that flows through us as children of God can do mighty things, far more than we can do, or even imagine. When we join our faith with others in prayer, the flow of power is even greater.

So what’s a BIG thing you’d like to invite the power and love of God to affect today? A presidential election? Civil wars and famines? Cancer in a beloved? Your own mood?

What’s a small thing you’d like to invite the power and love of God to affect today? It’s always good to exercise our faith on the small things. As with muscles, faith gets stronger when exercised.

We don't really have to worry about how much faith we have; just step out with what you got. Jesus promised that “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Mt 18:20) This means that when we invoke Jesus’ name in prayer, we are invoking his presence through his Spirit. This means He is praying with us – and thus one person in the group is praying with perfect faith. Whatever we add to that is sufficient, even if it’s only a tiny little mustard seed.

9-26-16 - More Faith, Please

We might imagine Jesus would be thrilled – his disciples say, “We need more faith, stronger faith.” They’re finally getting it – faith is what this enterprise called the Realm of God runs on. But Jesus implies that he thinks they have no faith to increase. “Let me tell you about faith,” he says. (This week's gospel reading is here.)

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

What prompted them to ask for increased faith? Let's see what's going on in the passage right before this in Luke 17: “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”

Ah – I would ask for more faith too! Who wants to forgive again and again? The disciples are right in thinking that, if that’s what Jesus is asking for, they need more faith. And how about us? Do we have anyone in our life who’s hard to forgive – or who gives us waaaay more “opportunities” to forgive than we’d like? Where does faith come into it?

Well, faith allows us to see the bigger picture – maybe to not get so hooked by the people who sin against us. Faith allows us to let God be the judge, instead of taking that role ourselves. Faith gives us the eyes to see that person with compassion, even as we hold them to the standards to which we ourselves want to be held. (Ouch…)

We canl talk about mulberry trees tomorrow. Today, let’s join the disciples in their prayer, “Lord, increase our faith.” Tell Jesus what areas of your life you feel your faith is the weakest; where you feel most challenged. And name the parts of your life where you feel faithful. Some of us feel faithful about finances but not about our children; or we trust God fully with health, but not work. Give thanks for the places where your faith is strong, and ask Jesus for more in the places you feel your faith goes out from under you, like a trick knee.

Ask the Spirit to fill you with the power and presence and peace of Christ.

Some of us have been taught it’s not polite to ask for stuff, or to ask for “more.” Well, that’s not true in the Life of God – there are some “more” prayers that God delights to answer. I’m betting “more faith” is one of them.

9-23-16 - Good Intentions

One of my favorite bumper stickers reads, “Where are we going? And why are we in this hand-basket?”We’re bumping along that road paved with good intentions… and we all know where that leads. It ain’t the yellow-brick road.

Why do we have trouble acting on what we know, even when the consequences of not doing so are obvious? If we could figure that out as a human race, we’d make some headway on obesity, climate change, violence, you name it. Neither benefits nor warnings seem to move us much.

Jesus knew that – it's where he takes his story next. Once the rich man in the flames of hell realizes there’s no way he can get to heaven or benefit from even a drop of heavenly water, he tries to negotiate for his next-of-kin: He said, `Then, I beg you to send him to my father's house – for I have five brothers – that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.' Abraham replied, `They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.' He said, `No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' 

Oh, is that what it’s going to take? Some people have nearly died themselves, and it hasn’t caused them to become any healthier or less self-oriented.

“Abraham said to him, `If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'" This is a poignant statement in Jesus’ mouth, as though he wonders if his mission is futile. But he knew human nature. God gave a litany of laws, a religious rulebook, and yet God’s people rarely remained faithful for long. St. Paul gave himself to living by the Law, and ultimately came to believe that it was not God’s fullest revelation of truth. It was more a tutor or a governess, until the people of God came to maturity. He proclaimed that Christ was the most complete revelation of God – human, divine, living, crucified, risen.

And so he is. And he is risen from the dead. And he is still saying, “Feed my lambs. Feed my sheep.”

Name some areas in which you have been able to adjust your thinking or behavior. What was it that enabled you to make that change, that shift? (I didn’t finally choose to lose weight until faced with the prospect of buying new clothes in a larger size... frugality trumped appetite!)

Name some areas in which you feel stuck, ungenerous. Can you say why change is hard in those areas? What are you still getting out of that behavior, or pattern, or response, or relationship? Can you ask Jesus to help you make some space, some movement?

Good intentions are fine, but they don’t get us very far. Our wills lack the power to change our hearts. Heart change is usually a response to being loved. That’s what happened to Paul – he encountered the undeserved love of the Christ he’d been persecuting. That’s what happens to people in addiction recovery – the love they encounter in the rooms creates a space in which new life can be born. Change that seemed impossible becomes real. New life breaks out.

By ourselves, we can’t do much. With the power of God at work within us? There is nothing we can’t do – including feeding every hungry person on the planet. Really. Dream it, on the road of God-Intentions.

9-22-16 - Ticket to Heaven

What a story: Jesus introduces his main characters, a rich man who feasted sumptuously; and a poor man covered with sores, who begged at his gate. Then he promptly whisks them offstage: “The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.” No angels for the rich man – and no burial for the poor one, just a one-way ticket to paradise.

The rich man goes south to warmer climes. Way warmer:
“In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, `Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.' 

Why is Jesus talking about hell? Doesn’t he know we don’t believe in that anymore? Well, if we’re going to take Jesus at his Word, we need to wrestle with the way he spoke about the afterlife. In stories and teachings, He spoke of eternal punishment – a place of torment and fire, of “outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Sure, he might have been employing folk superstitions of his day in his story-telling… or maybe he was saying there are eternal consequences to our choices, just as there is grace to meet our short-comings.

I confess I am more troubled by the idea that these consequences might be eternally fixed: “But Abraham said, `Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’”

My hope in God’s mercy is that we can choose after death if we haven’t managed it before. (…and for a great allegorical tale about that, I recommend C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce) So I will continue in that hope – AND attend to the invitation to make adjustments in this life.

It's might also trouble us that Jesus tells a story in which God allows someone to suffer so in this lifetime only to make them comfortable in the next. Many would ask, "Why didn’t God take care of him in this world?" To which God might answer, “I put you there. There were people with resources and hearts and free will all around him - and around all who suffer. They had choices...as do you.”

As we pray today, let’s offer thanks for the rewards we enjoy in this life and our hope for the next. Let’s invite the Spirit to give us a holy intolerance for the hell in which many of God’s children live in this world. Let’s pray our way into seeing the choices before us, and ask God to empower us into action.

Yesterday it was U2. Today I’ll give the last word to the aptly named Eddie Money: 
“I’ve got two tickets to paradise… pack your bags, we’ll leave tonight…”
God has made available unlimited tickets to paradise, and a few instructions on how to pick them up with our Travel Agent, Jesus. We can take them or leave them…

9-21-16 - Crumbs From Your Table

Many a lyric in a U2 song alludes to a verse of Scripture or a theological idea. Their 2004 song, Crumbs from Your Table, references the parable we’re exploring this week, especially the second sentence: 

“And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.”

Bono has said the song was in part a reaction to his attempts to get American evangelicals to take action on the AIDS crisis in Africa – an effort he likened to "getting blood from a stone.” As residents of one of the wealthiest countries on earth, and as representatives of Jesus Christ, our churches might be expected to be at the forefront of efforts to address poverty. Many church budgets, though, allocate less than 1 percent to such efforts. Would a more visible and generous engagement with the poor invite more interest in our churches and our faith? It worked for Jesus… As that song’s chorus goes,

"You speak of signs and wonders /I need something other / I would believe if I was able / 
But I'm waiting on the crumbs from your table." (lyrics here)

What about us? Are we cozy with a culture of wealth that leaves many of the world’s poor begging for survival? Some years ago I read this: According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, enough food is produced globally to feed 12 billion people. Global population now stands at 6.3 billion. So why is it that 800 million people suffer from malnutrition and 1.8 billion from obesity, and diabetes and cardiovascular disease are on the rise worldwide?

That’s a lot of “not seeing” the hungry. That's a lot of hanging on to way more than we need. How long will we tolerate that kind of disparity? We know that some efforts yield results. Significant progress toward reducing preventable disease and poverty was made in addressing the U.N.’s Millenium Development Goals. (Read Bono’s New York Times editorial.)

Lazarus is depicted as sick, hungry, homeless, forgotten, having no power whatsoever over his circumstances. People who suffer often need not only our resources – they need us to share power and control, a transfusion of life and hope – and yes, food. The rich man in Jesus’ parable didn’t see the beggar at his gate. Who are we missing?

Here’s a prayer experiment for today: “God, I invite you to show me someone I’m not seeing.” Just hold your imagination open for a few minutes – see what words or images take shape. If you get a response, you might ask the next question: “What shall I do with that person?” Not “for,” “with.” The Lazarus’s of our world are not “beggars.” That’s not their identity. They are people with gifts and hopes and dreams and families and histories – and futures. Sometimes we can help shape what kind.

A line from Crumbs From Your Table goes, 
“Where you live should not decide whether you live or whether you die.”
As winners in the birth lottery, and beloved of God, how are we being invited to spread the grace around?

9-20-16 - Licking Wounds

Whenever I’ve contemplated Jesus’ parable about the rich man and Lazarus, I’ve focused on the wealth disparity, Lazarus’ hunger, the crumbs from the rich man’s table. What leapt out at me this time is that twice in a very short tale Jesus refers to the man’s sores, and the fact that the dogs would come and lick them. Though the “ick” factor in focusing on this is rather high, it’s where I’m drawn today.

‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.

Was it comforting to Lazarus to have the dogs lick his sores, or disgusting and frightening, intensifying his sense of helplessness? Did the sores become even more infected, or were they cleansed? Are the dogs’ presence an indication of his isolation from human company, or did it make him feel connected to life? Does Jesus mention the sores to indicate just how wretched this poor man was, so close to wealth and yet completely deprived of life’s necessities?

It’s just a story, Kate! It’s a parable Jesus told to make a point. Well, yes. But every element in a parable is fair game as we try to get inside Jesus’ stories. And this detail makes Lazarus so real for us. Suddenly we see him outside a gate in Calcutta or Kinshasa or New York. The rich man who came and went by that gate did not see him,or chose to ignore him. The dogs came close, close enough to lick his sores.

I don’t know why Jesus included this detail about the dogs; likely it wasn’t meant as a positive, dogs not being regarded as precious in his day as they are in our own. But it suggests to me coming close – close to a hurting person and his wounds. Jesus also came so close to those who were overlooked or rejected by humankind. He touched lepers whom others were afraid to come near. He sat with prostitutes and extortioners cast out of polite society. He even had tete-a-tetes with the rich and powerful like Nicodemus. Jesus did not hold himself away. And when Jesus died and rose from the dead, he invited his followers to come so close as to put their hands inside his wounds.

This God whom we worship in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ, this is the God who does not hold himself away. Wherever pain and loss and illness and despair are, there is Jesus, the gentle hound of heaven, saying, “You can ignore me, as though I were a dog, but I am here, and I will be here. I am not going away. My closeness might make you uncomfortable, but I am here to heal your wounds and restore you to wholeness.”

Maybe as more of us choose to draw near to those who suffer, there will fewer people like Lazarus dying of hunger and preventable diseases. Oh wait, I forgot again.. it’s only a story... or is it?

9-19-16 - Feasting Every Day

I am involved in supporting a residential school in Western Kenya called the Nambale Magnet School. Initially designed as a place that would provide home and education for children orphaned by AIDS in a region that provided no services for thousands of such children, it also includes fee-paying students who have family support. The need-based calculus for how the indigent, “supported learners" are chosen, though, is heart-breaking. The many candidates for limited places at the school are vetted by the social worker, who visits each home and assesses the needs. If a child has one parent living, shelter at night, and/or gets at least two meals a day, the place will go to someone with even less.*

There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. (This week's gospel passage is here.)

We may sometimes feel like that beggar, aware of what we do not have. In terms of global poverty, though, we are the rich man, feasting sumptuously every day. In fact, we feast so much that we often cannot consume it all – some 25 percent of food in American households is thrown out, uneaten. (Add in commercial foods, and we as a nation waste 40 percent of the food we buy.)

I do not wish us to begin the week feeling sad and ashamed. We can rejoice in our good fortune. I suggest, though, that we acknowledge how wealthy we are and take the time and mindful presence to truly enjoy the feasts we have each day.

We are invited to share out of our abundance, not out of guilt or a teeth-gritted sense of justice. Our tables are a place to begin to cultivate that awareness of abundance that is real for most of us. We might move from giving thanks for each item on our plates and where it came from, to naming other areas of abundance in our lives. Do you have time for a break at work? Can you exercise? Do you have friends? Leisure activities? Memories and dreams? All of these are kinds of abundance to be celebrated.

It’s easy to approach this parable with a sense of guilt. I believe that shuts us down and prevents us from opening ourselves to participating in God’s reign of justice. If we can approach it in gratitude for what we have, we just might be able to see how to better share our feasts so that everyone has one. There is enough… as we are released in grace we release our resources in love.

*We estimate it costs about $1200 a year to support the indigent students, including tuition, clothes, school and medical supplies and food. If you’d like to join me in providing annually for one such student, please email me or click here.

9-16-16 - Who You Gonna Serve?

Bob Dylan sang it: “You gotta serve somebody.” He was partly quoting Jesus:
"No servant can serve two masters; for a servant will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth."

Is this true? I know an awful lot of people who are trying like crazy to serve both – including me and the institutional church structure of which I am a part. Where’s the Good News for us?

Jesus tells this story about a dishonest employee who gets caught, lands on his feet and earns commendation instead of condemnation. He suggests that the “children of light” are to look for eternal returns, not play the world’s games. And then we get the wrap-up:

"Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?”

Is he talking to the temple leadership, raking in fees from the bloody business of animal sacrifice? Is he talking to the Pharisees, focused on minutia of the Law instead of its heart? Is he talking to religious leaders who turn a blind eye to dishonest business practices, as the prophet Amos cried:
“…you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land…,” who “make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances?”

Is he talking to us? Can we enjoy our wealth without letting it run us? See it as God’s gift entrusted to us to nurture and grow, not ours to keep and horde? The tradition of the tithe suggests we enjoy 90 percent of what comes our way, and return 10 percent to support God's mission in the world and our communities. 90 percent – that’s pretty good!

In what areas do you feel you are being faithful with what God has entrusted to you? Give thanks for that freedom! Would you like God to give you more of any of that to nurture? Ask!

What things in your life are you maybe holding too tightly, too anxious about? Ask God to show you how those are God-given gifts, not yours to keep. Offer God your clenched hands, ask God to help you open them.

We might even visualize holding those things/people/assets in our open palms, putting them in a beautiful box without a lid, and handing them to Jesus. He's not going to take them away from us. He’s going to join us in the tending and nurturing of what we hold precious, as we allow him - just as He tends and nurtures each of us, precious to Him.

We worship a God who wants to fill our lives with blessings. We need open hands to receive those gifts. We need open minds to imagine the grace that commends us, even when our performance isn’t so good. We need open hearts to love even a fraction as much as we are loved. That’s the wealth that is God – we can serve that whole-heartedly.

9-15-16 - Children of Light

Jesus' parables are challenging to interpret. They go along a predictable path and then veer wildly off at the end, leaving his listeners – and us – scratching our heads. “What???” The ending to this parable might be the most perplexing of all:

And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 

What is Jesus saying? The dishonest manager is not condemned by the boss, but praised. Is Jesus also commending his loose ethics? And what on earth does he mean by: 

“And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

I frankly believe that Jesus was being sarcastic, telling his followers, “Look, if you’re worried about what’s going to become of you, cozy up to people who can help you… but if you want to follow me to the eternal home I can prepare for you, it’s a different strategy.”

The ways of God and the ways of the world are different and sometimes incompatible. We hear it in God’s voice in Isaiah, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways, says the Lord…” (55:8) and in Paul’s writing to the church in Corinth: “What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God....” (I Cor 2:12) We see it in the way Jesus instructs his followers to behave in ways that are not “natural” – to turn the other cheek on attackers, to give up one’s possessions if asked, to risk one’s life in service to others. These are not the ways of the world, nor of those who would succeed on the world’s terms.

Those who follow Christ are called to be in the world, to love this life we’ve been given and all its gifts – and to hold it lightly, not to confuse it with the realm of God. We have dual citizenship in both realms, and we need to be clear about which ‘reality’ is the most real.

Who are the “children of light” in your life, for whom you can give thanks today?
Who are the “children of this age” around you? Do they influence you? How might you gracefully influence them?

Jesus didn’t withdraw from the world or from “worldly” people. He fully engaged them, building relationships in which many found themselves transformed. This is the world for which he lived and died and rose again. This is the world for which we are called to give ourselves, in love. We do that best when we are conscious that we are children of light, transparent, full of integrity and love.

9-14-16 - Self-Saving Strategies

Lazy and proud and incompetent – there’s a trifecta perfected by the manager in Jesus’ story, accused of squandering the property he was entrusted to tend. Summoned to a face-off-with his master, he responds:

"'What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.'”

He acknowledges there are honorable ways of getting out of his jam, but he chooses rather to run a scheme:  
"So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he asked the first, `How much do you owe my master?' He answered, `A hundred jugs of olive oil.' He said to him, `Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.' Then he asked another, `And how much do you owe?' He replied, `A hundred containers of wheat.' He said to him, `Take your bill and make it eighty.'"

Not a bad plan. The boss gets some of what’s owed him, if at wholesale rather than retail prices. The customers get a deal. The manager has bought himself some influence with people who could do him a favor… which he’s soon going to need. The approach still works – one of our candidates for president has made a career of writing down his bills to his creditors. Does that make it okay?

Jesus tells this story right after he tells one about a son who squandered his inheritance. Two characters who have misused resources entrusted to them, both in deep trouble. The son in earlier story decides to come clean and entrust himself to his father’s mercy. The guy in this story decides he will keep trying to play the situation, relying on his own strategies – which is pretty much what got him into this pickle in the first place. A friend of mine called these “self-saving strategies,” the things we do and say to justify ourselves, to stay self-sufficient instead of God-sufficient.

What are some of your self-saving strategies? What in your life or work or relationships or self-image do you keep trying to “manage?” What patterns do you have that actually lead to more anxiety than peace?

Whether or not something comes to mind, we can all reaffirm our desire to trust God for what we need. We can say whether we feel God is close or far away, substantial or flimsy – and ask Jesus to show us how to trust more. That’s my prayer – “Show me your way, Lord. I’m tired of mine.”

Jesus could have taken all kinds of outs – he had people to run to. He had power. Instead, he put his trust, all his trust, in God’s plan, though it looked like a way scary and painful plan. He really had to trust that the ending God had for this story was a whole lot better than it looked… And it was.

9-13-16 - Performance Eval

“I want to talk to you.” Six words guaranteed to strike fear into my heart. I immediately assume I’m in trouble. Dread pervades me as I wrack my brain to think what I’ve done wrong; I can usually think of a few things.

Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’” (This week's gospel reading is here.)

Imagine the dread this manager felt when he was called to the boss’ office. No need to wonder what’s wrong – he is told straight out that the jig is up. The only thing left to do is settle accounts as favorably as possible and find the door.

“Give me an accounting.” I preferred the God-figure in last week’s parables, who seeks and finds and welcomes and forgives and restores and loves. The God of grace, not the God of justice. But guess what? There’s only one God. The grace and mercy are necessary because the justice is true. And Jesus suggests more than once that we will be called to account for how we’ve managed the gifts and resources God has given us. So shall we take a little inventory today for a mid-life performance review?

Make a list of all the gifts and resources you feel you’ve been given (family, skills, money, networks, location, genes, education, opportunities, relationships… what else?)

Name the areas you feel good about – where you’re using or nurturing what you’ve been given, and it’s healthy.

Are there any areas where you feel you’re squandering the resources entrusted to you – wasting, or not using, or mis-using, or avoiding? It’s worth naming those too.

Invite Jesus to look at your lists with you. How might you relate differently to the less fruitful parts of your life? What obstacles can you identify that keep you from thriving?

Good News: we don’t undergo our performance reviews alone. We have an advocate sitting right with us, the Spirit of truth, to keep our inner accuser in check. And our heavenly boss loves us so much, s/he wants to hear from us how we’re doing – and to work with us in the areas where we feel we could do better. Ask the Holy Coach for help.

AND in this company, every employee’s performance is evaluated as part of the performance of the best. And the best One in our company was pretty much perfect. So relax. You’re good. Unlike the guy in Jesus’ story, for you and me, this isn’t gonna hurt.

9-12-16 - Money Talk

Jesus didn’t name his parables – he just told them. Later, people who put bibles together added headings and titles – which often obscure as much as they highlight. Why name the story about the man and his two sons “The Prodigal Son,” and not, “The Merciful Father” or “The Resentful Brother?” Any name will limit our view of the parable.

Parables are multi-faceted – you look at one head on, it appears to say one thing; you turn it just slightly, or look from the perspective of another character and, “Whoa, I never noticed that before…” And then there are some that, no matter how many ways you turn, it’s hard to grasp just what Jesus was saying.

So it is with this week's parable, sometimes called “The Shrewd Manager,” and sometimes “The Dishonest Steward.” Both? Yeah. So let’s forget titles and look at the story:

A rich man finds out his caretaker is squandering his estate. He calls him in, chews him out, and demands an accounting. The manager realizes he’s about to be fired. He doesn’t want to do manual work or beg – so he cooks up a scheme. He calls in the man’s debtors and lowers each one’s bill if he’ll pay up. Now he has some income to show the boss; the debtors get a deal; and the manager buys himself some friends. Oh – and, Jesus says, the boss commends him for his savvy. What??? And why is Jesus telling a story of ledgers and balances and profit & loss statements? Isn’t accounting a little out of his wheelhouse as a religious leader?

By some measures, Jesus talked about finance and how we use and get used by our money more than any other subject, way more than he spoke about sexuality or peace or justice. Because he knew that our relationship with money speaks volumes about our level of faith and trust and openness to the grace of God. And because money and managers are great metaphors for understanding our relationship to the gifts God gives us to enjoy and nurture and invest.

How would you describe your relationship with money?
(easy / trusting / anxious / clinging / generous / organized / playful / indifferent / attached /                   )

Today, in prayer, invite Jesus into all parts of your financial life. If your relationship with money is not as easy as you’d like, pray about that. Tell God your anxieties. We’re called to be un-anxious – and sometimes we have to name our worries so we can let go of them.

Jesus told his followers they were no longer servants but friends. We can afford to look at our records as stewards without fear of being “fired” – and in the security of an awesome, eternal retirement plan.

9-9-16 - Rejoicing in the Forgiven

How do you feel when people get away with stuff? What if they say they’re sorry? This week, we’ve looked at stories of the lost being found, and at each finding Jesus says,
“So there is rejoicing over one sinner who repents.”

But do we rejoice when someone is forgiven for something awful? Not always. The media is full of stories of people who feel cheated of “justice” if a case goes against them, or if someone is publically forgiven by someone they have wronged.

Forgiveness doesn’t come naturally, especially if we're used to a system of blaming and judging. To forgive means to “give for,” to give to another what they owe us, what they already took. When we forgive, we release the debt owed to us. In a sense, we pay twice. Forgiveness is costly.

Jesus says: Look how lavish with his love God is. Though we wander off to things we believe will give us pleasure, or security, or power, or control, God greets us when we return, even before we get there. God extends us grace over and over and over again. To some, this makes God look like a chump, someone taken advantage of. But no. God gives with eyes wide open, and will give again.

I don’t know if the Pharisees got the point of Jesus’ stories. When you’re wired to earn your way, it can be hard to take in the message of overwhelming love. Some years ago, in prayer. I sensed God say to me: “I already love you the most. There is nothing you have to do, or can do, to make me love you more – I already love you the most, with the love that fills the universe and beyond.”

It’s taking me time to live into that love, and to extend it to others. Thankfully, I have a lifetime to learn to absorb it, trust it, let it make me whole. A lifetime, and eternity beyond that. You too.

God gives with a heart wide open, offering us forgiveness, love and grace, unearned and unearnable, unmeasured and immeasurable. Can we say, "Yes" today, and rejoice that others are forgiven too?

9-8-16 - Olly Olly Oxen Free

Sometimes we need to hear something more than once – so Jesus told those Pharisees another parable about losing and finding, repenting and rejoicing: 
“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?”

Interpreting parables can be like interpreting dreams – you might be any or all of the characters. Who do you relate to today – the coin, or the woman? (Or the lamp, broom or house...) The way I see it at this moment, the woman is God (yep, more than once Jesus assigns God the woman’s role…) and the coins are us. Imagine: God values us so much, she will search high and low for us whenever we roll under the bed or into a dark corner. God turns on the light of truth, gets out the broom of forgiveness, sweeps the dust away from us – and keeps looking till we’re found.

Now, in both Jesus’ stories, the sheep and the coin are passive. They get lost and have to be found. As people made in God’s image, we have a little more choice. Yet, when we fall into self-oriented and self-destructive patterns, our freedom to choose can become compromised. We need to be found. Often, it is realizing we are so precious that someone bothers to seek and find us, which elicits repentance in us. Guilt doesn’t do the job nearly as well as love does.

Repentance is a choice we can make every day, saying to that heavenly Seeker, “Okay, here I am, under the dresser again…” And then we join all the others who’ve been found, rejoicing when each one comes back. “When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, `Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.' Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Okay, so now who are you: the coin, the seeker, a friend or neighbor rejoicing? All of the above?

Today we might spend some time in repentance– where are some places you’ve rolled that are out of the light? What parts of your life have become a little dusty and cluttered? Here comes the light and the broom…

Imagine being a coin that is found, picked up, turned over in the palm of the finder, smiled at, cherished – and maybe put in a pocket with a bunch of other found coins. What a great jingle-jangle we make when we’re put together, we found coins! How much more valuable we are together than apart.

Sometimes we think we can hide from God; if we’re not looking for God, God will leave us alone. Jesus says differently: Jesus says God never rests while we are away. God seeks us, finds us, invites us home. Remember that phrase kids call out in hide-n-seek, indicating it is safe to come out of hiding, “Olly, olly, oxen free.” Some say its root is: “O ye, o ye, in come free.” Do you hear God calling you?

9-7-16 - One Percent

Jesus’ parables are sneaky. They lead you one way, and then, bam!, swerve somewhere that contradicts common sense and practice. "Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” At first glance, you think, “Yeah! I’d go after that lost little sheep…” On second thought... would you really leave 99 valuable livestock unprotected and search for one?

Maybe so, Jesus suggests. Remember, he’s answering the question, “Why do you eat with sinners?” A question hiding under that one is: “Shouldn’t you hang out with the righteous folks, like us?”

Jesus says that his time in this earthly life is to be spent seeking and saving the lost (Luke 19:10) The “ninety-nine” can look after each other. Someone has to look for the wanderers, explorers of steeper paths, the ones who chased greener pastures only to look up and find themselves alone in the deep, dark woods. Presumably, the "right-living" sheep already make heaven pretty happy. The recovery of the lost sheep is cause for special rejoicing.

I once heard a bishop suggest that churches program for the people who aren’t there, rather than ones who are. A church-goer took issue with that – “What about us? Don’t we count?” This is the cry of the ninety-nine.

In the “both/and” realm of God, it doesn’t have to be a choice – yet Jesus does suggest where his followers are to put our energy. Do we have enough “bandwidth” to care for one another AND to follow Jesus out to the ravines and scary places where lost sheep are apt to be found, those who do not know the love of the Good Shepherd, who may even feel pretty unlovable? I think we do – especially if we enhance our capacity with the infinite power and love of the Spirit.

Here are some prompts for prayer and reflection today:
List everything you do to nurture your own church community – activities, funds, prayer. Do you hear the sound of rejoicing in heaven? You’re giving a huge gift.

Now, list the ways you reach out to the people who might be “outliers” – not so much funding and feeding, but how you personally interact with people outside your circle. Our goal might be to aim for balance, maybe even tipping a little toward the outlier sheep.

Who comes to mind when you think of “lost sheep” in your life or community? God may send you to someone in particular… give it a moment and see who comes up. If you get a name or face, stay with it. Ask God to bless that person, and to show you where and how you might come close to them.

Our goal is not to invite him to church, or to “get her help.” Our goal is to go and be with, offering a relationship that is mutual (we all have “lost” parts in ourselves…) – and invite the Shepherd himself to lead him or her back into wholeness.

If you remember a time when you were lost and someone found you, you know how it works. There was a LOT of rejoicing.

9-6-16 - The Company You Keep

Jesus was often under scrutiny by the religious leaders of his day – and the more so because they didn’t approve of many whom he welcomed into his company.

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (This week's gospel passage is here.)

Why are “tax collectors” and “sinners” so often lumped together in the Gospels? Tax collectors of Jesus’ time were no mild-mannered IRS accountants. They were Jews who made a living by “collecting” taxes for the Romans from their fellow-Jews. As such, they were collaborators with a hated regime and enforcers of cruel and often capricious extortion. And the Romans didn’t pay them for this – they allowed them to tack on a “fee” or surcharge. The meaner and tougher they were, the higher the “fee” they commanded. Tax collectors were easy to loathe.

Yet Jesus invited one of these, Matthew, to be a disciple. He ate at the home of another, Zaccheus. He seemed to be a magnet for them – and he didn’t just dine with them. He invited them to repent and be renewed. Many saw their lives transformed, as did other “sinners” who spent time with Jesus. Who better to hang around with than someone who talks about forgiveness and the love of the heavenly Father? Who sees you as a human being despite the despicable way you’ve treated others?

And what about these Pharisees and scribes? They weren’t bad people. Pharisees deeply loved the Law of Moses and strove for lives of great holiness. In the process, they often became self-righteous, judgmental, and tipped into a compassionless legalism that – Jesus felt – caused them to focus on minute laws at the expense of God’s greater command to care for the poor and defenseless. The scribes were temple leaders, and regulated the apparatus of worship and sacrifice. They had limited power under Roman authority, and like many such people, excelled in making others feel even more powerless.

So we have, on the one hand, notorious sinners and low-lifes, and on the other, hypocritical and arrogant “holy” people. If all the lowlifes were in one room, and all the religious people in another, and you HAD to pick one, which room would you go in? Why?What would you say to those gathered in each room?

What kind of people do you find yourself judging, even condemning (we all do it… let’s just bring it to the surface so we can look at it…). Think of some examples of individuals or groups. Bring them to mind. Now bring Jesus into that picture. What does he do? Say? How do you feel?

What kind of people do you feel are hypocritical? How do you suppose they got that way?
Think of some examples of individuals or groups. Bring them to mind. Now bring Jesus into that picture. What does he do? Say? How do you feel?

Those who flout the rules and those who cling rigidly to them are both living outside the sweet spot of God's grace. Jesus invites us all into the center.

9-2-16 - On the Road

The first time I went on retreat, I immersed myself in prayer, scripture, worship and the writings of Bernard of Clairveaux. His passion for God was so fervent, at one point I remember praying, “Oh Lord, set my heart on fire!” Right away a response came in my mind: “Do you know what you’re asking? My fire burns away everything that is not of me, everything.” I thought of all those references to God as a refiner’s fire, a consuming fire, and I felt I was being offered a choice – the “high road” of full commitment to the way of Jesus, or the lower, slower way of mixed motives and divided devotions. I chose the slower messier way. Am I alone?

The hard teachings we’ve been wrestling with this week concern this choice. Jesus tells those who would follow his way that they must walk away from the claims of this world, family and money. “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.” James in his epistle says even more starkly, “Whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.

Did Jesus really mean we should hate this life we’ve been given? The passage from Deuteronomy appointed for this Sunday urges us to “Choose life.”  “…today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him…

Jesus invites us to choose the life that is the most real, the most true, the most eternal; the God-life, visible to the eyes of faith, not the mere world-life apparent to our physical senses. “I have come that they may have life, and have it in abundance,” he says. (John 10:10). He invites us to leave behind all that distracts us from receiving the abundance of love, joy, peace, grace, forgiveness, healing – and ministry – that God offers us.

I chose the slow road, the “middle way.” I may still be on it, but over the years, as my commitment has sharpened, I perceive that this is also a kingdom path. The God Jesus revealed meets us on any road we’re on, anytime we turn away from the emptiness allegiance to the world brings us. This Father in heaven rushes out to greet his children as we come back to ourselves and back to our true home.

Jesus’ invitation is to follow him, to start consciously walking the road with Him every day. As we do that, He will point out sights we may not have noticed before. He may introduce us to people who live closer to the edge; might nudge us to give to this organization or that ministry. We might find ourselves making friends in parts of town we never saw before.

Who have you met on the road? When have you experienced the Father’s greeting? When have you experienced the Holy Spirit guiding you, protecting you, strengthening you? Write down those stories – other people might want to hear them.

The original name for Christ followers was “The People of the Way.” If we’re on the road with Jesus, guided by the Holy Spirit, I believe we'll get home.

9-1-16 - Giving It All

I have heard some say that Jesus “preferred” the poor. I don’t think the Gospel record shows that. Jesus had great love for people who were poor, partly because others ignored them, but we also see him interact affectionately with many prosperous folks, even as he invites them to let go of more of their resources. He didn’t demand poverty of everyone – but it seems he did of those who wished to go beyond “friend” or “follower” to “disciple.”

“So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions."

Maybe I'm not a disciple yet. I’m on the slow road to giving it all away, as are most people I know. Do we count as wealthy? You bet. We like to compare ourselves to people with more money; looks like we’re just getting by. But even the poor in America are richer than 85% of people in the world, many of whom try to live on less than $1 a day. You do the math.

To some of the wealthy people Jesus interacted with he said, “Give it all.” To others, he didn’t. Zaccheus in the flush of conversion offers to give half his net worth to the poor; Jesus doesn’t say, “What about the other half?” When Jesus talks about how hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, he may be saying it’s impossible – or simply noting the fact that people of means often put their security in their accumulated wealth rather than in God. If you can walk the fine line of having a lot of resources and not relying on them, then you might have the freedom to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

God wants us to trust in God’s provision, not in our own resources or strategies. The expression, “God helps those who help themselves” is not in the Bible, and is contrary to the spirit of the Good News Jesus preached, a radical openness to the grace of God and radical generosity to the poor in wallet. If everyone viewed every child as a precious gift of God, there might be fewer living on garbage heaps.

So, how do we respond?
Today, maybe we begin with gratitude for the resources we have. Name a few, write them down.
If you feel a tug of remorse, offer repentance, not because of your resources, but for clinging to them. Have you felt called to share what you have, and didn’t? Name it.

The best way to get better at giving it away is to practice giving it away, a lot. I’m in a new church. I’m not going to wait till January to start tithing – I’m going to start now returning a percentage for God’s mission through my community of faith. That’s how it works, when we all give.

It starts with “Yes, Jesus. I want to follow you. This is what I can give today.” If we truly walk with Him, the “what I can give today” will grow and grow. So will we.