11-30-16 - Changed Lives

“I’m sorry” is where we start; making it stick is much harder. I can imagine the sneer on John the Baptist’s face as he sees the professional religious folks coming to be baptized by him:

“But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” (Sunday's gospel reading is here.)

Translation: "Who warned you to get your act together? Stop resting on your laurels as 'keepers of the law,' as inheritors of the promises given to your ancestors. What changes are we going to see in your lives?"

What does, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance” mean? I think it means that it’s really easy to say “I’m sorry,” and a lot harder to make the kinds of changes that render our “I’m sorry’s” unnecessary. John didn’t want people undergoing his baptism for show – he wanted them to take a serious look at themselves and recognize the ways and times in which their behavior or attitudes damaged other people.

Few of us in this era feel the need to be publicly religious for the attention it’ll get us – yet the call to repent and amend our lives comes to us as well. One way to meet it is to undertake an inventory of confession, to get below the surface at the more stubborn patterns of sinfulness that persist in us. This week you might try one of those. Here is a simple one – and you might write down your answers:

When did I last hurt someone I love? What did I do or say? Why did that happen – what “hooked” me?

When did I last hurt myself in some way? (Include food and self-criticism…) How did that come about?

When did I last hurt the creation around me in some way, nature, animals. Why did that happen?

When did I last hurt God – by ignoring or avoiding or defying? What happened?

For each thing you list, offer your regret and think about what would have to change in you to avoid doing that again. What spiritual practices and messages do you need to build into your life to bear better fruit? Invite the Holy Spirit into each one of those areas and ask God to release more life and love in you.

When our repentance is genuine, we’re more inclined to move into more fruitful patterns of being and relating. And as we bear the fruit of repentance, the people around us will be sweetened with God’s love.

11-29-16 - Leveling the Road

John the Baptist was a profoundly counter-cultural figure out there in the desert, but something about his message commanded attention. Matthew tells us, “Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan...”

His message was simple: repent and get ready – something is up. God is on the move.

...John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: `Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'"

Even in his day John was linked with the Isaiah’s prediction that a prophet would arise out in the wilderness crying, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” That prophecy says,
“Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Making space for the life of God breaking into our lives means building a highway for Christ to travel, a straight and level road in the desert of this world. This “leveling,” the valleys being lifted and mountains brought low, the rough and rugged ground becoming plains, is a metaphor which has economic, political, even emotional dimensions.

When we start looking for peaks and valleys, highs and lows, we can see them everywhere: in our environment, in toxic slag heaps and crater-filled mining areas; in our economy, in the income gap between rich and poor, widening at an alarming rate in our times – for countries as well as individuals. We can find disparity in our own moods, as we become hostage to pressure and stress from without and within. There is an equalizing element to this spiritual work, as we make space for the life of God, the love of God, the justice of God.

As you survey the world and your own life, what hills might be brought low and what vacancies filled in? A simpler way to ask that might be:

What do you have too much of in your life (think spiritually and emotionally as well as materially…)?
What do you not have enough of? What feels empty in you that needs to be filled?

If we can answer those two questions, we have some prayer work laid out for the season of Advent, as we keep praying into those “too-much-es,” and “not-enoughs.” Why is the “too-much-ness” there? Has the deficiency always existed? Is there an external, justice dimension to our issues?

Christ has come, Christ is coming, Christ will come again. How might we make a level road or him to walk - into our world, into our hearts?

11-28-16 - The Holy Grinch

In our first full week of Advent, we invite a strange figure into our lives and imaginations – John the Baptizer. Every December, as twinkly lights appear in our neighborhoods and tinkly music fills our stores, we church folk are confronted by this stark, uncompromising messenger from God calling us to repent and renew our commitment to God:

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near…" Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. (This week's gospel passage is here.)

John was a man completely committed to his mission, to “make ready a people prepared for the Lord,” the purpose an angel predicted to his bewildered father Zechariah (Luke 1:5-25). He stayed in desert places, eschewing all but the most rudimentary clothing, chewing on locusts and wild honey – a diet high in protein and low in fat, if a bit stark. Other Gospel references tell us that he had disciples, but he did not seem interested in building a following or winning popularity. His message is focused and harsh, confronting the materialism and corruption of his countrymen, and calling people back to reliance on God alone.

It can be hard to reconcile John’s message with our cultural preparations for Christmas. I once wrote a sermon drama imagining John the Baptist on the loose in a shopping mall, decking Santa and confronting carolers; it ended with him baptizing the mall cop in the fountain. Where do you imagine this single-minded messenger of God might turn up in your holiday preparations?

Today, we might call to mind the image we’re given, the wild man in skins calling to us, “Repent! The Kingdom of God is at hand!” Imagine John on your street or in your office, or anywhere that comes to mind as you open your imagination in prayer. What do you hear him call to you? What do you say to him? Do you feel you have anything to repent of?

How does it feel to hear, “The Kingdom of God is at hand?” God's realm is right here. Is it now. Are there any changes you want to make in your life in the light of that reality?

John is strange company to keep for a month, but let's let him in – he is an important companion and antidote to the materialism and stress that rise around us in this season. We can take him along as we shop or decorate – he won’t sap the joy. Just the superficiality.

And you can tell him to leave the locusts at home.

11-25-16 - Time to Wake Up!

The First Sunday of Advent usually falls on Thanksgiving weekend, and it's a rude awakening. Just as the triptofan-laden turkey feast is clearing our systems, here comes the word, “Wake up! Get ready! “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour."

We may not know what the hour is, but St. Paul knew what time it is: “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.” Some of us might relate to the rest of Paul’s comments too: “…let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” I don’t know if family quarrels or scarfing leftover stuffing qualify as “gratifying the desires of the flesh,” but be warned!

In Sunday's Gospel, Jesus also talks about eating and drinking – amid dire warnings of destruction: “For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away; so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.”

These are not words of comfort. I confess I have always had trouble seeing the good news in Christ's impending return (though in the past two weeks I’ve glimpsed the appeal…). Today, just for the heck of it, let’s reflect on what might be good about Christ coming back to ring down the curtain and roll up the sidewalks on this earthly life of ours. Do you fear that, or anticipate it? What would you not mind parting with? What would you miss very much?

If contemplating the apocalypse is not your fancy today, here’s a more “here and now” question to ponder: what in your life do you think you need to wake up to? In what areas are you kind of snoozing, coasting, not really conscious, and you sense it’s time to become more aware and intentional? How might you become more focused in those areas?

One memorable Advent 5 o'clock service in Bethany, we placed alarm clocks all over set to go off at random times, just to reinforce the “wake up!” theme of the season. It was fun, as well as highly annoying.

For better or worse, life presents us plenty of alarm clocks, and we can rarely predict when they’ll buzz or clang. What’s waking you up lately? Don’t hit the snooze button…

11-24-16 - The Seedbed of Joy

I once asked a wise man how to cultivate joy, because I perceived I was lacking in that department. He said, “The ground of joy is gratitude.” That made sense – and it gave me something to do, to cultivate gratitude and see what kind of joy grew from that, like a garden of wildflowers.

As followers of Christ, we are invited to give thanks in all circumstances – in plenty and in want, in health and in sickness, at peace or not, employed or not. That is my thanksgiving prayer for you, that you find it easy to be thankful today – and if it’s challenging, that you will encounter God in the practice.

If you miss somebody today, give thanks for them and their life in yours.
If you're annoyed with someone today - imagine missing them, and give thanks.
If you lack something today, give thanks for what is before you and ahead.

Give thanks in all circumstances. There's a good chance God is giving thanks for you...

A happy and healthy and blessed Thanksgiving to you - wherever and with whomever you spend it.

And here's a feasting clip, should you not have had enough of tables laden with food - a clip from Babette's Feast, in which a beautiful, perfect meal reconciles long-time enemies and restores lost hopes. Just like that meal we have in church on Sundays...

11-23-16 - Ready for the Guest

What if you were hosting Thanksgiving dinner, but had no idea when the guests would arrive?
“Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Back when I was planning alternative worship every week, I wrote a lot of sermon dramas. One of the most fun – and elaborate – was at Thanksgiving one year, called “The Martha Show.” It depicted a TV cooking show featuring a famous Martha. Not Martha of Westport, though the character shared many of her attributes. This was Martha of Bethany, whose dinner party for Jesus got her so stressed out she became royally ticked off at her sister for not helping. (Chiming any Thanksgiving famiy memories?)

And in the midst of prepping for her Thanksgiving show, an unexpected guest arrives early. Not what our Martha wanted. She wanted to make a beautiful dinner for Jesus, not with Jesus. And she wants her sister to help, damn it! But Mary recognizes that when this guest comes to dinner, you need to stop what you’re doing and receive the gifts he brings.

We can get so busy preparing for Thanksgiving that we barely appreciate the time with our loved ones when it arrives. Same thing, in a broader way, can happen during Advent. In a season meant to help us prepare to receive the gift of Christ in our lives, we can get so busy preparing we miss the fact that he’s already showed up.

Jesus’ words to Martha in the gospel story are simple and pointed: “Martha, Martha, you are worried about many things. Only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the best part, and it will not be taken away from her.” 

If you are happy and at peace today, hallelujah – spread some of that peace to someone stressed.

And if you’re worried and fretting about anything today, stop and imagine Jesus walking into whatever place you’re in, and saying, “Hey, hey, you are worried and fretting. You don’t need to. You have everything you need – I’m here.” Try that on, in prayer, in your imagination today. One of God’s promises is peace when we pray, and presence, and power.

Wherever you’re spending Thanksgiving this year, and whoever you’re spending it with, invite Jesus to the table. That’s what it means to say grace – to invoke his holy presence. See if it’s different being aware of him there.

And don’t forget to pass him the stuffing – they didn’t have that in Judea back in the day…

11-22-16 - Preemptive Gratitude

It’s Tuesday. What are you thankful for?
“But we don’t have to be thankful till Thursday…,” you may think. I did. But I like to be ahead of the curve, so why not start the thankfulness part of Thanksgiving early? Then we’ll be all warmed up when the Day comes around.

I’m only half-joking… thankfulness can be a great antidote to stress. If we’re devoting at least part of our attention to being aware of what we’re grateful for, there’s that much less space available to worry about what we’ve done, not done, or don’t know when we’ll get done.

So today, if you’re at your desk checking off the “must-do-before-Wednesday” tasks, give God thanks for your job, for your colleagues, for the difference you make in this world as you use your gifts.

Of if you’re wandering a grocery store – give thanks for all the food and all the people who got it there, and all the people who work there, and the resources to buy it…

Or if you’re cooking, you might give thanks for the recipes and who they came from, the ingredients, other meals like this; the people who will be gathering around the table…

Or if you’re packing, give thanks for the clothing and the circumstances by which you came to own those things, when you’ve worn it before… what else?

Or if you’re cleaning – give thanks for the rooms and who lives in them and the blessings they’ve hosted; and if you’re preparing to see family, there are some thank yous…

Or if you’re traveling, give thanks for the technology that makes it possible to get from here to there.. and if getting from here to there ends up taking longer than we hoped or planned, I guess we’ll have that much more time to think of things to be grateful for.

I know I don't need to tell you how to be grateful! You’re probably better at it than I am. The “gratitude as stress reducer” thing might just catch on, though… it could get us through the next four days... and the next four years.

As soon as I feel a stressful thought coming on, I’m going to acknowledge it, and then chase it with a grateful one. Let you know how I do!

11-21-16 - Finding God in the Prep

Next Sunday we begin the holy season of Advent, advent meaning, “the approaching” – the approaching in-breaking realm of God, the approaching celebration of Christ’s incarnation, the ever-approaching promised Second Coming of Christ in glory to usher in the New Age. 
[Next Sunday's gospel reading is here, though not addressed today.]

But I find it hard to engage Advent before Thanksgiving, that huge cultural celebration requiring preparation of its own. Forget about readiness to celebrate Christ’s incarnation – we have to get ready for the turkey! For many Americans, this is a week of blessing and stressing like few others, compounded for some this year by a profound fear for our freedoms and future as a nation. If we're hosting, we have the scramble to finish work, clean houses and buy food; if we're traveling, we have to pack and prep. In other words, this will be, for many, a stressful three days followed by, God-willing, a relaxing three days, after which we plunge into the holy season.

We tend to prepare for things we either dread or anticipate – and Thanksgiving can have elements of both. How might we find ways to bring the Holy Spirit into our preparations? I believe Jesus wants to indwell and transform our every-day lives, not only our formal worship experiences. This week provides opportunities to experience God’s presence amidst the bustle and company of others, if not in serene isolation.

So… if you’re working harder than usual to cram five days’ work into two or three, may I suggest you set an alarm every hour or two. When it goes off, take three minutes away from your tasks to breathe, re-center and tell God what it is you’re working on, and where you’d like some help.

If you’re shopping and cooking, you might make a game of talking to Jesus in the store and the kitchen (maybe not out loud…), and remember why you’re participating in this ritual of food and family.

If you’re traveling, you might need extra grace and extra peace – so pack some along as you put get things ready for your suitcase, as you clean up your house and commit yourself to the road. Ask the God of peace to fill you and make you an agent of peace in any stress or frenzy you may encounter in trying to get from A to B.

And if your big plan is to hit the Friday sales… ask yourself whether that deal is worth the time and angst it’s going to take. If you love it, go for it (and remember Small Business Saturday…)

Let’s move through this intense week as children of God, beloved and bounded in time and space, not trying to do more than we can or should. Gratitude flows from a balanced perspective on who we are, who we are not, and how we are gifted. We can make this week more blessed than stressed.

11-18-16 - The Power in Weakness

What’s the good of a monarch who has no power? Sure, she or he might be effective as a symbol, or as a focus of resistance, but in stories (as opposed to tabloids) kings have ultimate power. We claim God does too. So what kind of God allows his son to die a horrible death, in utter defeat? A God who knows that weakness can provide the best cover for strength, vulnerability the best ground for true power.

This theme runs all through the Bible – over and over we see God triumph through the younger, the weaker – Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David. Again and again God gives victory in battle to the smaller, weaker forces – if they will follow his instructions. Gideon overthrows Jericho with just a trumpet; David vanquishes Goliath with a mere slingshot. Keep your armor and weapons – the battle belongs to the Lord.

Or course, this principle is most powerfully displayed in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, who had no earthly power or resources beyond his God-given charisma and absolute authenticity, yet built a movement that has endured for over two millennia. The theme recurs in the church's birth, as the Book of Acts shows us a small band of apostles able to spread the Gospel and plant churches in the face of persecution and hardship. It is from this experience that St. Paul speaks the insight he received when God told him, “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

This caused Paul to go on: “So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

This has helped me when I've felt daunted by some challenge or defeated in some endeavor in which I hoped to prevail; eventually I remember, “Oh yeah! When I am weak, it makes room for God’s strength. And this needs to be God’s work.”

I’m trying to uphold this principle now, looking at the national landscape, so different than what many of us had hoped for ten short days ago. Will God’s strength be made perfect in our weakness, God’s love revealed in our vulnerability rather than our militancy? Can we stand up to injustice without calling everything a fight? What does reconciliation look like in this time? How are we to be "ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us?"

God has given us strength, as individuals and as communities. Yet we are never so powerful as when we lay down our own strength and make ourselves vessels for God’s power and might. That takes faith, so much faith.

But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, walk and not faint.

11-17-16 - Whose King?

Christ the King Sunday can generate some cognitive dissonance in Episcopal churches. On the one hand, we do what you do around royalty: dress up, parade around and sing grand, triumphal music – hymns like “Crown him with many crowns” and “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed.” But the gospel reading clashes with the liturgy, showing us a Jesus who couldn’t seem less like a monarch. Here he is, powerless, dying the death of a common thief or militant. And no one there seems willing to claim him as their king.

“Who made you king of anything?” is the attitude of the leaders standing, watching Jesus die. An inscription hangs over him, “This is the King of the Jews,” angering the religious leaders who assert, “He is not our king! We have no king but the emperor.” The soldiers supervising the execution mocked him, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!" Pilate interrogated him about his kingship, and Jesus only gave him cryptic answers like, “My kingdom is not of this world.” No one knew what kind of king this could be.

And Jesus is still not that kind of king, though risen and ascended and seated in glory at the right hand of the Father. He still exerts power through the frail and humble flesh of the likes of us. He doesn’t fix elections or football games; doesn’t bring down the mighty from their thrones the way we’d like (at least until we notice what we're sitting on...). What he does is bless, empower, illumine, heal.

Do we think of Jesus as king? Is he king (boss, chief, higher power…) in your life? Let’s imagine for a moment we live in a feudal, monarchical system – how do you feel about Jesus being the highest authority in your life? Are there any places, or topics, or people over which you’re unwilling to cede power to God? Why?

If you’re willing, have a conversation with Jesus about that. I do believe he will listen and not make a grab for what you have not offered. He’s an amazingly patient king that way…

And if you are willing to acknowledge Jesus as King in your life, where do you find the blessing in that?

King of kings and Lord of lords… and the Holy One who wants to meet you for breakfast. That’s our king.

11-16-16 - Paradise

Popular culture tells us that, at the moment of our death, we will “cross over” to our eternal dwelling, where we are welcomed by those we have loved in this world. This notion has been greatly aided by popular songs, like Far Side Banks of Jordan. (Here, with June and Johnny…)

Bible interpreters might take a more sober view, citing many prophetic texts about the “Day of the Lord,” Jesus’ own references to the great sorting at the final judgment, and Paul’s eloquent depiction of the sleeping dead rising “in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.” (I Cor. 15:52; No, it’s not the zombi-pocalypse... it's resurrection.) This interpretation suggests that at death we go into rest like the “sleep” mode on our computers, to be reactivated when the “trumpet shall sound.”

And here is Jesus, confusing us with this promise to the repentant thief dying next to him on the cross: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” It is surreal, this recorded conversation among three men dying a ghastly, torturous death: One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

A few years ago I heard Charlie Grady, who runs anti-violence initiatives in inner cities, speak. He spent 27 years in law enforcement, during which he arrested some pretty dangerous criminals. One evening he was in a restaurant, and saw two men he’d sent to jail come in. Soon enough they spotted him and clearly recognized him. He began to sweat. Then the waiter approached and said, “Those guys would like to buy your table a round of drinks.” He accepted, and then raised his glass to them. At that point they came over and said, “We know how you were just doing your job. We were the ones doing wrong – it was your job to catch us and put us away. We know that now; we’re not the same people.”

That’s quite a story! That’s where this thief is. Dying there next to a man he knows to be good and holy gives him a true perspective on himself. And when we see ourselves clearly, we start to see a lot of things more clearly. So repentance begins – with clear vision. It’s not everyone else’s fault, even if some have contributed. It’s us. And when we speak from that truth, we create space for grace to come back to us.

Even on the cross, Jesus is able to extend that grace to a fellow-sufferer. “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” At the end of this day, all three will be dead. They will no longer dwell in this world. In the face of that, in brutal pain, Jesus promises not only paradise, but his own presence. What a promise.

Do you have a confession to make, or one to hear? Has anyone been trying to get your attention and let you know they have had a change of heart, they truly are sorry – and maybe you haven’t been able to give them the chance to show it? A risk, yes, but your forgiveness is a big gift to grant or withhold. As recipients of grace, can we extend it?

One day we will be with Jesus wherever it is that we call Paradise. Whether that is at the moment of death, or at some other time in a realm that is timeless, we will know that we are with him. As Gillian Welch sings, in terms less sentimental than June and Johnny,
“I will know my savior when I come to him by the mark where the nails have been.”

11-15-16 - Where's the Phone Booth?

One of my biggest challenges as a person who believes that Jesus Christ is Lord is when people who struggle with faith actually pray, and do not experience the outcome they so earnestly desired. Now, this might be because they only pray in the most extreme circumstances, when things are already quite dire – but we claim that nothing is impossible with God. So why do things go so wrong, if Jesus is Lord?

And they cast lots to divide his clothing. The people stood by, watching Jesus on the cross; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!" The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!" (This week's gospel passage is here.)

Jesus was used to that mocking question, “If you are…” In his time of testing in the desert, the three big temptations were prefaced with, “If you are the Son of God…” All through his public life, people questioned his heavenly identity because of his earthly markers – how could someone who came from Galilee be the Messiah? How could someone whose family we know be the Holy One?

And here, on the cross, stripped of his humanity, even his clothing, Jesus looks nothing like the Anointed One. The onlookers mock him; his own followers ache for him to show himself at last, for his sake, and for theirs. "It’s time for the phone booth, Clark – we know you’re Superman. Show yourself!” And Jesus does nothing. Nothing, that is, but forgive his executioners, pray to his heavenly Father, extend salvation to a thief dying with him. Nothing much.

A few weeks ago, I discussed Martin Luther’s notion of the Glorious Exchange, in which Christ takes on our threadbare beggar’s rags and gives us his royal robes to wear. Here is that moment. As his persecutors cast lots for his cloak, Jesus puts on our raggedness, our self-centeredness, our capacity for cruelty, and allows it to die with him.

But no one can see that’s what’s going on. Paul wrote, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation…” The problem is, even as image he is invisible. He just looks like a poor sap who shot for more than he could pull off and is paying the ultimate price.

Are there times when you’ve joined that chorus? “Come on Jesus, I believe in your almighty power to transform all things, to make us all whole. Now would be a great time to show yourself…” I am praying that with all my heart as our national landscape darkens. In fact, that prayer haunts much of our doubt and despair. Even so, we are invited to persist in praying, in believing, in claiming, in rejoicing.

Think of a really challenging situation you are faced with right now. Invite Jesus to show up in it and reveal power and life. Is it more impossible than what Jesus did on the cross? Sure, it looked like death had won. Took a few days to find out something much deeper had happened.

It might take more than three days for us to see what God is up to in our prayers. And some things we will never understand in this life. That doesn’t mean Superman is gone or defeated. It’s just that, for some strange reason, God has chosen to make us the phone booths in which Clark becomes Superman. So, give the man some space - and look out.

11-14-16 - Father, Forgive Them?

Next Sunday we end the long post-Pentecost season, celebrating Christ as King before we re-set the church clock and go back to the beginning of the story. The "Christ the King" readings always show Jesus at his most humble, as befits one who said his kingdom was not of this world. This week's gospel shows him humiliated and degraded, dying a brutal death on a cross. It is an image we associate with Holy Week, not late fall. But as the ugliness of our recent election and its outcome become ever more vivid, it fits all too well.

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

We are going to have to get into the forgiveness business seriously and often. And it is not going to be easy; it will mean forgiving people who not only are not sorry, but don’t care about the damage they do. We will have to ask whether we are forgiving prematurely, and risk being seen as condoning the unacceptable.

Lest you think I exaggerate, let me point to the innumerable incidents of overt racisim, hate, violence against immigrants, LGBTQ people, Muslims, people of color and others that have been reported from all over our country since the election less than a week ago. A gay couple in Delaware found a note on their door addressed “To the homos,” announcing what would happen to them now that Trump was president. Saturday, an Episcopal church in Silver Spring, Maryland had the banner announcing its Spanish-language eucharist defaced with large black letters proclaiming, “Trump Nation: Whites Only.” This is real, folks, and these are only two incidents I personally know about. There are hundreds more, including school children being terrorized.

Are the perpetrators covered by Jesus’ prayer, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do?” Are we? How on earth do we forgive willful cruelty? We start by drawing on the power of Christ available to us. It's hard to associate power with the image of a naked, beaten, helpless man nailed to a cross. Yet that is exactly what Christian belief invites us to do, to see beneath the outward image to the spiritual reality. And that reality Jesus demonstrated in a gesture of incomprehensible generosity: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing."

He recognized that the Jewish leaders seeking his death and the Roman leaders carrying out the unjust sentence were so caught up in systems of human control, they couldn’t see the larger picture or their own complicity. Having the power to forgive the unforgivable will require us to step out of our human systems as well, even if our intent is to bring justice. Are we also complicit in degrading the "Other?"

Each gospel writer stresses in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion those elements he thinks matter most. Luke, champion of the poor and outcast, who so often highlights Jesus’ compassion, puts this act of forgiveness on the cross front and center. This is the kind of kingship we are to follow – forgiveness for the unforgivable, even at the point of death.

I don’t want to have to practice this, but I believe I’m going to have many opportunities. Maybe I’ll get better at it.

11-11-16 - Kingdom of Peace

The portion of Isaiah we’re looking at depicts different visions of peace and security. It goes beyond human life to show peace reigning in the natural world, with an image we know as “The Peaceable Kingdom”: The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; 

In this vision, predator-prey relationships are completely overturned; in fact, there are no predators. Carnivores have become vegetarians – a return to life in the Garden of Eden, in which plants and trees provided all the food that was needed, in which there was no killing to eat, no killing to settle scores. All that came outside the Garden, after the first man and woman were expelled.

They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD. 
No one will hurt. No one will be hurt.

Every time I'm on a highway, I pass the carcasses of deer and other animals slain by humans moving too quickly to get somewhere that seems more important than the world around them. It is an awful counter-narrative to Isaiah’s. Oh, I realize that in part deer are vulnerable because predator-prey relationships have been overturned in other, less positive ways in our world; without predators they have to go further for food, wandering onto our roadways. And I know that the natural order can also be fierce and dangerous. But my spirit is wounded whenever I see a dead animal.

So this image is powerful for me. It proclaims: “The order we call natural has been undone and remade by God.” I want the lamb and the wolf to hang out together – I love wolves, I love lambs. I want the lion to like eating ox food, not oxen. And yes, I want people to stop slaughtering animals and one another. Call me hopelessly na├»ve. I find this vision compelling – even more so today, on Veterans Day, as we mark the sacrifice of so many men and women and families in the human way of conflict we call natural.

What we do as people of faith is call into being what is not yet. In Romans 4:17, Paul refers to God as the one “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” If it already exists in the mind of God, it already is – what we do when we pray is invite it to be made known in the here and now. So God puts out this vision in Isaiah of a restored creation with peace and security for every living creature – we add our faith to it, and it will be. Sooner or later… Transformation happens.

I want to add my faith to this beautiful vision. What visions do you want to call into being? Where are your prayers leading you today?

Another Biblical prophecy speaks this vision again, with a different ending: The lion shall lie down with the lamb… and a little child shall lead them. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

11-10-16 - New Heavens/New Earth

I had already planned for the rest of this week to focus on one of the readings from the Hebrew Bible set for Sunday, a beautiful prophecy in Isaiah, in which God announces: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth.” In the aftermath of our election, I can’t think of a better promise.

This passage is so timely. Many Christians who worked hard to elect progressives felt they were working to ensure equality for all members of our society – people of all colors, sexual orientations, countries of origin, religious traditions. They saw this as is a way of harnessing the power of heaven, to participate with God in bringing about that new earth. Isaiah gives voice to this yearning for peace and security which should be the birthright of every man, woman and child – and animal – on this planet. He articulates beautifully the hope of a restored creation living in harmony:

I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime...

Reading that, I think of the children of immigrants who are now afraid they will lose their homes; of the women and girls who have heard the anti-female slurs from our president-elect and now feel less secure; of the men and women who have lost little children and spouses, brothers and uncles to gun violence – the sound of weeping never quite dies away.

I think of the promise of security and work and rest depicted in this prophecy:
They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat…

This is true peace, when each person can live in safety in their own home, bringing up their children to thrive in trust. This is the world God says he is bringing into being. This is the promise we are invited to participate in making real. And that work is still before us. Perhaps the challenge is greater now, but the work remains, and we do not do it alone.

What do you long for when you think of God making a new heavens and a new earth?
What aspect of life in this world do you feel called to help renew? Where do you want to put your energies? Start by praying about that area, and imagining yourself making a difference, in the power of the Spirit. What do you see yourself doing or saying? Keep inviting God into it.

I know I will keep working and praying for peace on our streets and honor in the halls of power. “They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.”

I believe in the power of love to transform and convert the most evil heart. I have to, despite evidence to the contrary. The evidence is not more powerful than the power and the promise of God. God is creating the new heavens and the new earth – and we are here at the beginning. Every day.

11-9-16 - Faith on Trial

Oh, how good it is to type “November 9,” to finally be on the other side of election day. I write Water Daily the day before it posts, so I am writing this blind. And maybe that’s a good thing… to live by faith means to believe in God’s goodness even though we can’t see around the next corner.

And faith is what Jesus is getting at in this talk to his followers. He is preparing them for the hard times to come, when the structures of their faith are torn away, and they face persecution from both Jewish leaders and Romans for their belief in Christ.

"But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.”

He says they will be betrayed by family and friends and handed over, and, “some of you will die.” But there’s an upside: this will give them a chance to testify.

Then he says something strange: don’t prepare.
“So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

Defending our faith is something few of us will have to face. I have heard testimony from African clergy who have known bitter persecution and bombed churches and death threats. But most Christians I know are more likely to be mocked than persecuted for their faith. “Why do you bother with that?”

And what would you answer? What do you say when people ask why you believe in Christ? As the old saw goes, “If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Name some of that evidence.

We may not have to stand up for our faith very often, but there are occasions when we’re called to testify in other ways – to stand for justice, to speak truth to those who have the power to change things. Every American of faith is going to have a chance in the coming weeks and months and years to bear witness to the power of love in the face of division and rage, perhaps even violence. I don’t know what those confrontations may look like, but I believe we can pray for the filling of the Holy Spirit to be ready to stand for love and justice, humility and peace. We may not know what to say, but Jesus, who has promised to be with us through His Spirit, will be right there – and he can be pretty persuasive.

After all, it’s not our job to represent God, or even to make other people believe in God. It is only up to us to make the introductions, to speak of the love and truth we experience. The Spirit can do the rest.

11-8-16 - ...and I Feel Fine

It’s going to be great, or it’s going to be horrendous. The promise of a hopeful future or the demise of all we hold dear. A significant portion of the people in this country are going to feel one of these things by the end of this day (at the very least, let us hope for a conclusive conclusion…) Maybe now’s a good time for that REM song: It’s the end of the world as we know It… and I feel fine.

Truly? Is there a way we can feel fine about worlds ending, whether it’s The World, or pieces of ours? I don’t know about fine, but I do believe we can attain a spiritual quality of trust and disentanglement that allows us to meet all kinds of circumstances with serenity. And serenity is what we need!

Some of the shock in what Jesus said about the temple being destroyed as a sign of the end (he doesn’t actually say the end of the world…), is that the temple was so solid and so central to his followers' identity. How can something so vital and real become as nothing? Even our grandest buildings, even the institutions they represent, even the hopes and dreams of those who are invested in those institutions, are among the things of this world which are passing away.

And – shock of shocks – so are we. We believe we have a future beyond this world, but our time here is finite. (Here is a video reminder of how small we really are in the grand scheme.) When we truly integrate that knowledge into our being, when we truly see each day as a gift to be received in full, not only as a step along the way to another gift tomorrow, we begin to attain that serenity that allows us to meet the darkest times. This is that spiritual quality of apatheia that the desert monastics of the 2nd and 3rd centuries spoke about, that holy equanimity that we cultivate as we learn to let go of our agendas and receive God’s life and dreams for us.

Are there things or people or situations about which you find it impossible to feel peaceful? What a day to ask that question! Could you invite God to give you peace even around these matters? What would that look like or feel like? Try to imagine it…

St. Ambrose of Milan, a wonderful 4th century bishop, had a beautiful image for this in one of his sermons on baptism. He says the newly baptized are to be like fish:

“Imitate the fish,” he says. “It is in the sea and above the waves. It is in the sea and swims on the waters. On the sea the tempest rages, violent winds blow; but the fish swims on. It does not drown because it is used to swimming. In the same way, this world is the sea for you. It has various currents, huge waves, fierce storms. You too must be a fish, so that the waves of this world do not drown you.”

Even in the face of devastation and loss of all we hold dear, our faith invites us to proclaim the love of a God who weeps with those who weep, who strengthens those who work for recovery, who invites us to look beyond what we can see to a reality of love and restoration we can only dimly glimpse. In Christ, we truly are fine. No matter what. No matter when.

Swim today, my friends. Swim into God’s peace, into God’s purpose, into God’s future for us - which will be whatever today's outcome.

11-7-16 - EOTWAWKI?

Right in time for our cataclysmic election, here comes our Gospel text for Sunday – and it's the end of the world. (You know you’re going to get an REM link at some point this week…) Each fall, as if to match the gathering gloom of shortening days, our lectionary begins to drag scary stories out of our ancestral closet. It echoes an earlier a time, when Advent was much more focused on prophetic doom and gloom than it is now.

This conversation starts casually, as some of Jesus’ followers are admiring the temple and its adornments. Jesus is blunt: "As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down." 

Now, we the readers know that in 70 CE the Romans did in fact destroy the temple. But this would have been a shocking pronouncement to Jesus’ companions. And as with most of us, when we hear that something horrible is likely to happen, they want to know when will it be, and how will they know.

Jesus’ answer is cryptic: "Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, `I am he!' and, `The time is near!' Do not go after them.” He suggests that some will try to gain a following by issuing dire predictions about the end of the world. We’ve seen that in the recent past – remember when the world was going to end on May 21 a few years ago?

Why do people fall for this? Maybe because it is fairly natural to fear what we cannot control, and it’s hard to get bigger in the “you cannot control this” department than the end of the world as we know it. The end of THE world becomes a stand-in for our anxiety about the ends of our worlds – which actually come with some frequency, with wars and famines and pandemics; infidelities and job losses; diagnoses and mega-storms and losses of all sorts. And for the most part, we survive.

What are you most afraid of losing today? Can you name that fear, sit with it, invite Jesus to join you in your imagination? What might he do with it? How might you invite his perfect love to transform that fear into something you can use?

It is true that in some ways our worlds are always ending. But that’s not the whole story - new life is always being born as well, sometimes in the ashes of the old world. God is in the business of making all things new – can’t help himself. Our job is to be open to new life wherever we find it.

(I’m going to wait on REM, but here’s a link to a fun song by a duo I like, Goodnight Moonshine. The song is “End of the World Blues,” and you can find it about 15.55 minutes into this concert on YouTube

11-4-16 - Golden Rule

It doesn’t get much simpler than this: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
That’s how Jesus ends the Beatitudes. Most of the world’s religions proclaim some version of this, sometimes in the negative, as in the Talmud, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellowman. This is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary,” and sometimes amplified, as this from Islamic Sunnah, “No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.”

The statements in other religions may well derive from this most basic teaching of Jesus, called “The Golden Rule.” It is a statement of the obvious, of clear benefit to us as well as others. A community that lives this way is far more likely to be harmonious, productive and prosperous. So why don’t we?

Human beings seem to be hardwired to focus on self first. Call it evolutionary advantage, call it original sin, call it looking out for No 1, most people, when presented with a group photograph in which they appear, will first look at themselves. Most of us will share food and belongings and money after we’re sure we have enough. Our sense of self may extend as far as our immediate family and sometimes clan and friends, but it has limits. We simply don’t see the “others” at the same level as we do ourselves. Altruism is learned behavior, if observing 2-year-olds is any indication.

Our natural focus on self can blind us to the fact that doing unto others as we would have them do to us is to our greater advantage. We build alliances and friendships of mutual support. We help to create the surroundings we need to thrive. And when we don’t do unto others what is hateful to us, we help to create surroundings that impede our thriving, that cause us to expend too much energy on self-protection and security, on guarding our things and our loved ones, and on dealing with conflict.

None of this has much to do with morality or ethics or making sacrifices – but if most people in a system are not living this way, then those who do are at a disadvantage. That’s where sacrifice comes in. Jesus was the prime example of that, and he was telling his followers what they were signing on for.

And he was pointing them to joy and grace. He was telling them how to access the Life that really is life. If we can develop the habit, in every interaction, of first asking that question, “How would I like to be treated in such a situation?” we will be filled with a lot of that Life. And when that Life gets out and about, the world is changed.

11-3-16 - The Giveaway

I once went on a brief mission trip to the Rosebud Reservation in North Dakota, home to some 10,000 Sicangu Sioux, one of the seven tribes of the Lakota nation. I never imagined such poverty existed in the continental United States. The deprivation is much more marked than in urban ghettos or depressed small towns – this was poverty akin to what I’ve seen in Africa or the Caribbean.

But the Lakota have a tradition called the Giveaway. It happens when someone dies, and again on the first anniversary of a death; for weddings and other big occasions. A family invites the whole community to a pow wow and, along with providing a feast and celebration, gives away what they have – sometimes belongings of the deceased, but other things too. The idea is that no one goes away empty-handed. A gift can be a low-cost dollar store item (I still use the plastic laundry basket I was given), or something more precious, a handmade quilt or family jewelry. Even in a place of such deprivation – perhaps especially in such a place – giving is valued far beyond keeping one’s possessions.

Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.

Why did Jesus highlight this attribute for those who would be his followers? Didn’t he know how hard it would be? Did he never see a city where people are begging on every corner? You’d be broke by the time you got to your office if you gave to everyone who begged from you. So the response of many, me included, is to give to almost no one who begs from me.

I don’t know why possessions came to be so important to our culture. They are to me; I don’t want to see my stuff lost or stolen, and though I have far more than I need, I’m not quick to give anything away. But I can see the freedom that comes when we do hold our belongings loosely, when we are eager to give and rejoice at seeing others receive.

Perhaps Jesus is so invested in our freedom he suggests we let things go even if it’s not our idea to give. Maybe someone who takes our stuff is doing us a favor.

I don’t know if that’s what we’re meant to think. But I am pretty sure we’re meant to value people more than things. God valued us above all and gave his most precious gift to set us free. What if we started to value that freedom most?

11-2-16 - Blessing the Enemy

Conflict saps our energy. Sustained conflict can drain our spirits dry. Many of us have been living with high levels of bitterness on our social media feeds and airwaves. Even those who have pared their lists of friends or followers to the like-minded cannot escape the chasms of division that seem to be widening in our land. “This is not who we are as Americans,” we cry, even as we lament the fact that we no longer seem able to agree on what that means.

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt." (This week's gospel passage is here.) 

The Way that Jesus invited people to walk in was, and is, unnatural for human beings. It is natural to protect yourself and those whom you love, to punish or retaliate when attacked, to hold on to your stuff and decide when and to whom you are going to give your shirt. Yet followers of Christ are called to the super-natural. We are asked to give beyond our natural capacity – and so to ever expand our capacity for giving until we have no more “mine,” just “yours, God.”

What happens when we love someone who hates us, who desires harm for us? We bless them, and thus bless ourselves. We make a space for love where there didn’t appear to be any. We trust that someone will be touched and transformed by that love – maybe the self-declared enemy, or an observer, or we ourselves, even as we risk injury or death in the physical realm.

What happens when we pray for someone who abuses us? This is painful ground for many, and it cannot be rushed. When we can come to that place, though, we make space for freedom – in our own spirits, in our interactions. We might even create space for perpetrators to come to repentance and healing.

But are we really to let someone hit us twice? Are we not to defend ourselves? Of all Jesus’ hard sayings, perhaps this has been most often twisted against victims of violence. I do not believe Jesus is talking about relationships here; I think he is talking to peacemakers and protesters and makers of justice. If in those contexts we refuse to engage in violence, we model the peace we are proclaiming. We subvert the aggressors and strengthen others to stand against injustice.

And when we give our shirt to one who steals our coat, we proclaim our confidence in God’s provision, and we say to that one “You are worth more than my possessions. And you are better than this.” Will that person listen? That’s not up to us. Our call is to bear witness.

Can I live like this? I don’t know. I have appreciated this opportunity to go a little deeper into a text I have never really mined, to remember that God has given us more than we deserve and forgiven us more than we can ever comprehend. And I know that with God all things are possible, even living this way.

11-1-16 - Popularity

When I was a kid, I called “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” the “Halitosis Hymn.” Why, you ask? Because the lyrics, “Do thy friends despise, forsake thee?” reminded me of ads for mouthwash I found in the 1950s issues of Good Housekeeping lying around our lake cottage. They painted dire pictures of opprobrium and social isolation facing those with bad breath, with copy like, “Is halitosis keeping your friends away?” Hearing similar sentiments in that hymn made me giggle.

Jesus seemed to imply that we’re doing something wrong if people do like and approve of us:
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets...
“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets."

Since Jesus was often was the subject of adoring crowds, I'd like to think he was exaggerating a little, lest his new disciples become too attached to the adulation. He knew that living out the mission God had given him would result in friends turning away, and crowds turning into mobs. He knew that the approval of humans can be shallow and fickle, and no foundation on which to rest our self-worth.

As a person who thrives on the three A’s – attention, acceptance and affirmation – I know this syndrome all too well. And those who offer themselves as public servants of God need to walk an even finer tightrope between doing and saying that which would make us popular, or being so "true to ourselves" we end up being simply disagreeable.

If the Gospel is truly being preached, and the Realm of God fully proclaimed, it’s going to make somebody mad. Often very powerful somebodies. Jesus was about a profoundly counter-cultural movement. The ways of the world are not the ways of God.

Yet this world is where God is calling us to proclaim his Love. Sometimes when people walk away from us, it’s because our values are incompatible. Sometimes it’s because we’ve been obnoxious. It takes the Spirit’s discernment to show us which is which.

Our call is to be sure that when people revile and exclude us, it’s because we have truly been preaching Christ, and him crucified; and that when they say good things about us, it is because we have been faithful to the witness of Christ and Scripture. I’m going to gratefully receive affirmation when it comes, but not expect it to hold any weight.

The only affirmation that truly counts is that sweet feeling we have of being filled with the Spirit, when we know God has been working through us, and people say they saw Christ in us. That we can rejoice in always.