2-29-16 - Eating with Sinners

Oh joy! This week we get to reflect of the best stories in the entire bible: Jesus’ parable about a man and his two sons and their very different approaches to sin and forgiveness. This story is told in such vivid detail, some forget it is a parable; they think it really happened. In some ways, it did, and does, every single day. But it’s not a reported account; it is Jesus’ attempt to answer in story the religious leaders who looked askance at the company he kept:

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.’ So Jesus told them this parable: ‘There was a man who had two sons…

Before we get into the details of the story, let’s think about the context in which it is being told, which also provides the reason. Jesus wasn’t just spinning a cool yarn, he was making a point in narrative form, in a story which he knew would have resonances for all his hearers. The context was the fact that many of the people responding to Jesus’ invitation to “Come, follow me,” were all the wrong sorts of people, tax collectors and sinners. Good Lord!

Remember, tax collectors in that day had little in common with IRS auditors; they were Jews who collected the Romans’ taxes for them, often strong-arming their fellow Jews and adding on a hefty surcharge for their own “fees.” They were corrupt and often extortionist, and hated as collaborators with the occupying empire. The term “sinners” probably included low-lifes, petty thieves, prostitutes and party girls – those who did not measure up in fidelity to the law and traditions as well as did the religious leaders.

So Jesus tells a story about one son who is as notorious a sinner as you can get, who comes to repentance and is forgiven, and another son who does everything right – except for his utter inability to show mercy. And that just might exceed other forms of sin in its virulence. Those who point at others and label them sinners are often the ones most in need of God’s grace and least able to accept it.

Before we enter the story, let’s take some time to think about who it is that we regard as “sinners.” For few are so full of God’s grace that they don’t find one sort or other of person offensive. We might be fine with tax collectors and prostitutes, but have trouble with hypocritical candidates, or people who would exterminate beautiful animals for sport, or the ultra-wealthy, or terrorists, or … you name it. Who is it that you have trouble forgiving, even accepting that God might forgive? Make a list today.

We need to know who it is that we label “sinners” so that we might contemplate eating with them. That’s what Jesus did – he hung out with those whom others thought unworthy. He was able to stomach some pretty rough company – and by breaking bread with such people and offering relationship, to lead them to repentance and transformation.

When you think about it, every Sunday Jesus breaks bread with a bunch of sinners. And he hasn’t kicked us out yet.

2-26-16 - The Gardener

The more I reflect on this parable Jesus told, the more I like this gardener. To the owner who wants to cut down a fig tree that has borne no fruit for three years, he says this:

“Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”

I appreciate Jesus highlighting a character who has both compassion and inclination to think strategically about how to remedy a situation. Rather than blaming the victim and diverting resources, this gardener thinks in transformational terms. He is also realistic. He knows sometimes you can improve a situation and do your best to get resources where they’re needed, and still end up fruitless. Anyone who has ever worked with people stuck in cycles of addiction or chronic poverty recognizes that heartbreak. And yet, such workers also see transformation of people and lives – that’s what keeps them digging and fertilizing, tending and watering.

As I read the parable again (remembering that we can see it differently from one time to the next), I see the gardener as Jesus, who came that we might have life and have it in abundance, who yearned for his followers to bear abundant fruit. Though he could be ruthless with the powerful and self-righteous, he was both clear and compassionate with those who struggled with failure. He invited the broken and the sinful into relationship, offered forgiveness and friendship and the opportunity to serve others. And one by one those who followed him became transformed and fruitful. The extra care and time yielded fruit.

Jesus has done the same for us. Sometimes we don’t feel we need his hand reaching toward us; we’d rather he kept his digging and fertilizing for someone else. Other times we’re well aware of how much like that fig tree we are. What Good News it is to know we have a gardener who wants to tend and nurture us to greater growth. Just accepting that News can strengthen our roots, if we’re humble enough to receive it.

There are two images of gardener that come to us from our scriptures. One is in the story of Creation in Genesis, when we’re told that, after creating the first human being, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” Man’s original purpose to be a gardener.

The other image, which I cannot but hold together with this first, comes on the first day of the New Creation, Easter morning, when the resurrected Jesus stood in a garden speaking to one of those reclaimed fig trees, Mary Magdalene. She didn’t recognize him; she thought he was the gardener. 

Perhaps she was right.

2-25-16 - Fertilizer

The landowner in the story Jesus told about the unfruitful fig tree makes a very harsh assessment about this tree: It is wasting the soil. The response of his gardener is to deal not with the tree, but with the soil:

So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’

This gardener is a believer in second chances, in improving the conditions in which something (or someone…) can thrive. He does not blame the tree; he does not think it is squandering the very soil in which it sits. He thinks the soil needs some improvement, some aerating, so water and oxygen can get to the roots of the tree. And he thinks it needs fertilizing, to add nutrients and catalyze growth.

I am not a biologist, but I am fascinated by the efficiency of eco-systems, whether within the human body or in the natural world. The way leaves fall and decay, generating nutrients which help bring about new growth in the next season is but one example of organic economy. Nothing is wasted – even waste.

The same can be true of our lives. In what ways has the “manure” generated in your life functioned to fertilize new growth? Often we don’t want to look at our emotional waste – it’s ugly, and smelly, and dark, like its biological counterpart. We’d rather flush it away. But what if we invited God to help us use that matter for growth? What if we asked what use that failed relationship or thwarted professional venture could possibly have for our future fruitfulness?

I’m venturing into icky territory, but I am fascinated by the uses which medicine is finding for human waste. The careful reintroduction of “cleaned” excrement back into someone’s system can restore the balance of gut biomes, resolve ailments like c.Diff and seliac disease, and possibly even cure conditions such as MS. (Here is a compelling and easy to read New Yorker article from a few years back about medical uses of excrement…) I think there is a spiritual analogy here.

This is one purpose for repentance – not to wallow in our “manure,” but to bring into the light that which we are not proud of, to bring healing and redemption into our failures – and just maybe render them useful to us in the future. Left alone, they just accumulate and decay, building up noxious gases in our psyches. But when we aerate our soil, inviting in light and air, that which seems most useless can become the ground of new growth. We can do this in therapy, in the confessional, or both.

This is true of societal detritus as well as personal. Our attempts to flush away cultural sins such as racism and economic inequality have not brought healing. Maybe learning how to repurpose our waste – composting our failures – will result in the fruit of justice and peace.

2-24-16 - Fruitful

It is fashionable in both corporate and non-profit circles to talk about markers of effectiveness, data-driven strategies, measurable goals and outcomes. Jesus used one word for all of that: fruitful. 
Each tree is known by its fruit,” he taught. (Luke 6:44). 
Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matt 7:19). 
No branch can bear fruit by itself.“ (John 15:4b). 
I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.” (John 15:16b).

And in this week's parable:
‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.’

Anytime we want to evaluate our effectiveness as bearers of Christ and ministers of the Good News, there’s our criterion: are we bearing fruit, good fruit, fruit that will endure? That can be a highly subjective question – sometimes there’s lots of fruit, but not where we’re looking, or it’s not yet ripe, or doesn’t look like good fruit. And sometimes we think we’re rolling in fruit – like when numbers are up – and it turns out there isn’t much depth of transformation going on.

The marker of good fruit I look for is this: Are lives being changed? Are people turning their hearts God-ward and becoming less reliant on their own strength or the traps and pitfalls this life throws our way? Are they becoming more gentle, more generous, more gracious? Are they less tolerant of injustice and inequity, and quicker to right a wrong?

Lately, I feel the "fruit" is very scarce; I question whether all my activity is having any impact, yielding any transformation at all. In such times, I need to remember that I’m just a farm worker, helping to plant, weed, water and shade. The fruit itself is up to the Gardener, and sometimes we just need to get out of his way. Notice, the gardener in Jesus’ story was all for giving the fig tree another year.

When you look around your life, what feels fruitful? Where are you making God connections? How are you growing in faith?And what feels stunted and not growing? Can you have a conversation with God about that?

We should also remember that, though fruit can be counted, it’s not really until you take a bite that you know whether or not it’s any good. As tempting as it is to measure ourselves and others by worldly standards, only God is entitled to judge us. He might prune our branches or dig around us, but we can be sure God is invested in our bearing beautiful fruit.

2-23-16 - Figs in a Vineyard

Jesus had a strange relationship to fig trees. One of the most negative uses of divine power recorded in the Gospels comes when he curses a fig tree that has no fruit on it, though the writers tell us it was not the season for figs. Now, after reminding his listeners that they are called to repent and return to the Lord, he tells this mystifying parable:

‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’

We will play with this story this week, seeking to understand what Jesus was saying about the ways of God and his own mission of redemption. Parables invite us to ask questions, to interpret them one way and then turn them upside down and see them entirely differently. So lets start with the first question that pops into my mind: Why is the fig tree planted in a vineyard? Do fig trees belong in vineyards?

And who or what does the fig tree represent? Maybe it is the religious system into which Judaism had evolved by Jesus’ time, a constrained and codified system of sacrifice and legalism? Or is that represented by the vineyard? Who is the “man” – God the Father? Is Jesus the gardener?

Or let’s flip it: is Jesus the fig tree who, after three years of ministry, still isn’t seeing the kind of fruit he was hoping to? Is cutting the fig tree a reference to his own death?

And, going beyond what Jesus may have meant, how does this parable play if we put ourselves into it? Our churches? Are we bearing the kind of fruit the Gardener wants? Are there any areas of our lives in which we are “wasting the soil?” Are we planted in the right place?

There is no one right answer or one right interpretation. Jesus taught in parables to invite his followers to see things in new ways, from new angles. Read the parable over to yourself today, and see what fruit emerges. And then do it again tomorrow – it may yield something entirely different, like finding a fig tree among the grapevines.

2-22-16 - Suffering and Life

If the only impression we got of Jesus came from this week’s Gospel passage, I suspect he wouldn’t have many followers. When asked about some of the great tragedies of his day, he seems to sweep aside the suffering involved and make of each example a warning to repent:

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’


If we go back to chapter 12, we can see Jesus is already pretty wound up. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!,” he says. He’s told parables about being ready to give account when the end comes. So maybe he’s not in the mood for philosophizing. When told about what appears to have been a particularly sacrilegious atrocity committed by the Roman governor, he says those Galileans were not singled out for punishment by God – God doesn’t work that way. But he is quick to point out that everyone listening is vulnerable to eternal death unless they repent and choose eternal life in Christ. Similarly with some people who were killed in an accident; they were no worse sinners than anyone else, nor being punished – “but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” By “perish” Jesus is not talking about physical death, but a spiritual one.

This passage reminds us that God does not visit suffering upon people, and certainly does not punish through tragedy. God is in the business of life, not death. So we can cite Jesus to those who suggest, when a child dies, that “God wanted another angel,” or “Everything happens for a reason.” It may or it may not. We are invited to go deeper than the mystery of tragedy and loss. Jesus is saying, “More important than why someone suffers or dies is this: What eternal choice are you going to make? Are you going to repent – i.e., turn from living on your own terms to living on God’s terms, and live? Or are you going to continue to live as though this world is all there is, and ultimately perish?

Atrocities and horrible accidents will likely shadow us this side of glory; they are often the results of humans exercising free will. Each time we encounter suffering, we have an opportunity to proclaim God’s goodness in the face of it, and invite people to choose life over death. God does not promise protection from harm. God promises a Life that goes beyond life into infinity, a Life in God’s presence, a Life that begins in the here and now and continues long after we have ceased to draw breath. As we live more deeply into that Life, we have more to offer in the face of tragedy.

As the caption on a Salvation Army ad depicting relief workers in the aftermath of a hurricane reads: 

“We meet natural disasters with acts of God.” That's how we can bring life into suffering.

2-19-16 - #Blessed

Was Jesus blessed as he faced his passion and death? At the end of this week’s Gospel scene, as he utters his lament over the recalcitrance of Jerusalem, he says, in effect, “You’ve made your bed.” His words are “See, your house is left to you,” referring to the temple which is the center of religious life – but perhaps not the center of God-Life. And if that remark were not troubling enough, he adds this:

And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” ’

He means, we assume, his triumphal entry into the city on the back of a donkey, which we celebrate on Palm Sunday. On that day, they all called him blessed – and he was. But blessing was to take a funny turn in a very short time.

What does it mean to be blessed? We tend to think of it as having good things happen to us, swimming in a sweet spot. What if it only means, “Living in the Life of God?” Which can sometimes feel good, and sometimes be hard and challenging, and sometimes put you face to face with death, as Jesus found that week.

You know I’ve been big on the phrase “Expect blessing,” since I sensed God remind me of it during a cat crisis last summer. And I do believe God wants us to expect blessing, and I do believe we experience it more when we do than when we don’t. But I also believe – and need to keep saying – that we never get to dictate what that blessing looks like or in what part of our life it may land. It doesn’t always come in the areas we’re worried about; sometimes it comes in a side door and helps us to move through the hard stuff.

I read a beautiful and difficult op-ed on this subject this week, its author a professor at Duke Divinity School who wrote a book on the American prosperity gospel entitled “Blessed” – and then found herself diagnosed with stage four cancer. She points out the ubiquity of the “#blessed” hashtag in social media, as a way for people to both delight in their good fortune and (sort of) give God the credit for it.

Maybe we should think more carefully about when we say we’re blessed. Can we start to see blessing in its less obvious disguises? To recognize times when we feel stagnant as “cocoon” or “seed” times, in which all kinds of growth may be happening unseen? Can we seek blessing in bad news and in loss, not in a Pollyanna “always look on the sunny side of life” way, but inviting God to show God’s face in our pain and sorrow, and not only in our joy and fruitfulness?

All kinds of people that day shouted to Jesus that he was blessed - and had Twitter been invented, #blessed would have been trending like mad. And Jesus was blessed. They just didn’t have a clue what that was going to look like.

2-18-16 - Jesus, the Brood Hen

Those who are concerned about gender-inclusive language and imagery in the Bible often face a slog finding maternal or feminine terms. There is Spirit language that can skew feminine. Late Isaiah has a startling passage in which the restored Jerusalem is likened to a nursing mother (in quite graphic language…). Paul writes about having been like a nurse to a community he has been mentoring. But references are few and far between. So people tend to go nuts with this remark of Jesus’ about Jerusalem:

“How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…”

If we’re seeking the maternal, though, this is hardly the scene. Jesus may desire to gather the children of Jerusalem like a hen gathers her brood, but he’s just noted their penchant for killing God’s messengers, and what follows this lovely, nurturing image is a stark negative: “…and you were not willing!”

If Jesus is expressing maternal feelings here, they are those of a mother who’s been rejected by her offspring (much as he brushed off his own mother when she tried to persuade him to stop all this foolishness and come home?). This is a thwarted mother, whose invitations to loving embrace have been rejected, who knows her beloved children are more than capable of turning on her next. Hardly the feminine imagery we are looking for.

Yet, a thwarted mother is not a bad way to understand God’s experience with a faithless people (and a good deal less jarring than the way the prophet Hosea depicts God, as a cuckolded husband). Most of us can relate to times when we pushed away our mothers or fathers and tried to go our own way. Sometimes it’s the only way we can attain independence.

What If we put aside the context in which that phrase is uttered and just go with the image itself, with Jesus’ desire that God’s people would consent to be brooded over, to be gathered under God’s almighty wings. In that image, we are little fledglings, not fully able to take care of ourselves or protect ourselves. We like to think we’re big and tough and self-sufficient, but look at us from God’s perspective: we are barely hatched, trying to figure out how to move in a straight line. And Jesus desires to gather us in community, and hold us in his love.

Puts a whole new spin on Easter chicks, doesn’t it?

2-17-16 - Stoning the Prophets

Jesus’ observation on the outskirts of Jerusalem – often depicted as taking place on a hillside overlooking the city – is seen by many as a compassionate lament for the great city which had been for many centuries the center of Israel’s religious life. Maybe it’s that repetition of “Jerusalem,” and the hen thing, that make it sound that way.

But when we look at what he actually says, and what’s going on at the time, it’s hard to read “soft lament” into it. Jesus is passing judgment on the ancient city, which he says has always excelled in missing the point, often violently so. After noting – with sarcasm? – that “it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem,” he goes on:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you.

Israel’s history was replete with stories of prophets whose dire warnings of judgment to come went unheeded, who were rebuked, imprisoned, tortured and sometimes killed by the powers against whom they ranted. Prophets were considered holy men who spoke for God – unless their message was too harsh or unpopular, or perhaps even conflicted with the message of another self-acclaimed prophet. Who’s to know who to believe? People will generally stay with the one whose message is most palatable, much in the way Americans can now choose which media from which to get their news, and what friends’ opinions are likely to show up on their Facebook feeds. We didn’t invent the narrow feedback loop.

It’s awfully hard to know who is a true prophet until after the fact. But we have been given a fullness of revelation in Jesus Christ, and it’s not so hard to know him. Those who knew him in the flesh ultimately turned away from him, rejecting, betraying, even condemning him. What would we have done? Would we have recognized him as a true prophet or rejected him as one more disappointment, one more person out of touch with how the world really is, one more would-be prophet distorting God’s word? Go back and read the words of Jesus in the Gospels this week. What is he really saying? Do we accept his often hard teaching, or dismiss him?

Jesus may have been uttering judgment upon Jerusalem, so soon to repeat its tradition of death-dealing, but we would be foolish if we thought this lament doesn’t cover us too. Jerusalem was and is a place with a particular history and customs, but in the Bible it is also a symbolic place where God and humankind meet. The Book of Revelation speaks of the “new Jerusalem, coming down from heaven like a bride adorned for her husband.” Jerusalem represents the hope of reconciliation, of fidelity and obedience, of that mystical place where God himself will dwell, “and they shall be God’s people God himself shall be with them.” (Revelation 21:1-4)

We have a choice of which Jerusalem we will be – the one that kills its prophets and stones its messengers, or the new Jerusalem where heaven and earth can truly meet.

2-16-16 - Day After Tomorrow

If the Pharisees’ warning to Jesus about escaping Herod’s clutches was meant to scare him, it didn’t work:

He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.”

We've been told that Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem; the Pharisees seem to be trying to divert him. But he will be moved neither from his itinerary nor his agenda: the work of proclaiming and demonstrating the inbreaking Kingdom of God. His work of healing and deliverance is the work of the moment and the near future. And on the “third day” he must finish that work, offering the most complete revelation of God’s love to the world in what looks like complete defeat.

And if they think he’s going to be swayed by threats of death, he makes it clear: the death he is to undergo – which, he says, could happen nowhere other than Jerusalem – is part of the work. I’m sure it made no sense to anyone listening to him, but it wasn’t the first time he’d said such things.

I’m intrigued by this repetition of “today, tomorrow and the third day,” “Today, tomorrow and the next day.” It focuses our attention on time. For Christians the phrase “third day” always carries echoes of Easter Sunday. But here I think it refers to living in the rhythm of God’s mission, which always has a future-bound momentum.

We are to be about the work of God today, the day in which we live, in which we trust our daily bread. We are to plan for tomorrow – we’re not just adrift in time. And the day after tomorrow – which we cannot really predict with any accuracy – we finish the work God has given us to do. But by that time, it’s today. The sense I get is of living in a wave which starts, builds and then dissipates, by which time it is already being swept into the next one.

Perhaps I’m making too much of this phrase, but what it suggests to me is a constantly forward-rolling movement of present ministry, future planning and then release into God’s hands. Every ministry we undertake, small or large, must get “finished” and a new one entered, one which is already underway, because it comes from God and is completed in God.

This way of seeing our engagement in God's mission makes us less generators of work than surfers of God’s movement – and surfers know how to relax and ride the wave. The day after tomorrow maybe we'll see what God was doing through us today. Gnarly.

2-15-16 - Enemies

I’m not exactly sure why we’re reading the passage from Luke’s Gospel appointed for Sunday; it’s short, not really a story, and somewhat inscrutable. But we will see what gems we might mine from it. It begins with a warning to Jesus:

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’

On the face of it, this would appear to be a benevolent act, to warn a man that he’s in trouble with the political powers that be. But let’s not forget who’s issuing this warning: the religious powers with whom Jesus has been publicly tangling. Are they looking to spare his life? Or to get him out of their way, so they no longer have to put up with his insults and skewering of their hypocrisies?

I rarely engage in word study (or any study, for that matter, several degrees notwithstanding), and I have forgotten what little Greek I acquired during seminary, but I’m told that the Greek word from which we get “hypocrite” means simply “actor, or one who plays a part.” Jesus was always accusing the Pharisees of proclaiming one thing and doing another, of acting the part of deeply holy men while they benefited from the charity of those they oppressed. If anyone might have wanted Jesus out of the way, it would have been this party. So did they take the act a step further, feigning concern?

From his response, it doesn’t appear that Jesus thought they had his best interests at heart. In replying, he manages to further inflame them, ensuring their enmity if it wasn’t already there. So now Jesus has enemies in the palace as well as in the temple courts.

And maybe that was okay with him. He knew that as he continued his mission of deliverance and healing, going head to head with the source of evil, and calling out injustice, he was going to rattle a lot of cages. He knew to put his trust only in his heavenly father and a few followers – and soon found he couldn’t even fully rely on them.

So why are we reading this? Perhaps as a reminder that when we’re truly about the work of proclaiming freedom for captives and justice for the oppressed and sight for the blind and new life for the dead, we’re going to make enemies. There are a lot of forces invested in the status quo. Few are more hated than peace-makers - that's why so many are assassinated. Of course, we still need to proceed with humility and discernment – too many false prophets have cited resistance to their message as proof of their rectitude. We know it’s not that simple… And yet, I want to say this:

If we’re not making anybody mad, are we really living the gospel?

2-13-16 - Round 1

In Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, the devil is depicted as a grey, humanoid, slithery creature with malevolent eyes, lurking at the edges of the scenes of Christ’s passion and death. He is there in the Garden of Gethsemane, as Jesus confronts the agony he is about to endure and even dares to wish he might be spared before once more laying down his will before his heavenly Father. He is there as Jesus is paraded down the streets of Jerusalem, and on the hillside where Judas commits suicide. Was Jesus constantly having to do battle with him?

At the end of his trial in the wilderness, Jesus seems to have bested his foe. But Luke writes these fateful words, “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” You can just about hear the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

We don’t know whether or not the devil was constantly seeking to trip up Jesus – we do know that Jesus saw much of his work of healing, forgiveness and deliverance as directly setting people free from the power of Satan. So one can imagine his enemy would have been riled up.

But what about for us? Do we need to worry about the devil – in whom many modern Christians profess not even to believe? One of the most challenging theological disconnects for me is the the one between our doctrinal assertion that Jesus has vanquished the devil, and his seemingly unfettered destructive power still very much with us in the world. The devil may not be behind our temptation to eat more ice cream than is good for us, but wherever evil is done, violence perpetrated, terror wrought and destruction unleashed, we can be quite sure that some person has lost a battle with temptation. If God has given human beings the free will to choose, that must mean that God will not protect us from making choices. And much of the pain we suffer and inflict comes from choosing the wrong instead of the right.

So yes, he continues to snap at the heels of Christ’s beloved, and often to dominate those who say they believe in nothing. We should be aware of the choices beneath the choices of our actions. But we need not fear. As Martin Luther wrote so memorably in his hymn, A Mighty Fortress, “His craft and power are great…” but “One little word shall fell him.

That word is simply the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the only protection we need. When we feel tempted to despair or to try to control a situation or to impose our will upon another, or find ourselves beset by negative emotions, or up against evil in a more clear and threatening way, we need only remember whose we are and say, “Thank you, Jesus, for being my shield and protector.” As St. James wrote, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” (James 4:7)

Jesus did win the war. And the more people know and believe that, the less foothold the devil has in this world. Now, there’s a reason for sharing our faith.

2-12-16 - Thin Ice

I apologize for the lack of Water Daily yesterday – I came down with a wicked cold early in the week, and Ash Wednesday about finished me off. More to come this week!

I have always placed the devil’s third temptation of Jesus in the category of security, God’s protection of God’s own. But, Psalm 91 notwithstanding, which the devil quotes at Jesus, the Bible contains no promise of physical protection for God’s people. And a quick look at the sufferings of saints throughout history, not to mention the passion of Christ himself, should quickly disabuse us of the notion that God made any such deal with us.

Reading it again this year, I see rather that the devil is tempting Jesus to test his value to God as an asset. “Surely, he’s not going to let you die? Before your time, that is...?”

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

If God has not promised to protect us, why do we continue to pray for protection? Why do we so often court damage to our bodies, minds and spirits by living in ways that we know can hurt us? While not quite in the category of risk as throwing oneself off the pinnacle of the temple, we don’t always treat ourselves as the precious assets we are. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Where in your life do you push the boundaries of good sense and healthy self-maintenance? What do you consume too much of, or too little? What is your relationship with exercise, and rest, and play? I don’t know about you, but mine is not so good.

Lent is a great time to examine where in our lives we put the Lord God to the test, expecting God to save us from ourselves, as well as from other people. I don’t mean to make light of the dangers in the world – they are real, and I will continue to pray for physical protection for me and those I love. But I also intend to become more aware of the ways I contribute to my own destruction and invite the Spirit of God to help me live into the promises of peace and presence we can count on.

2-10-16 - Worship

They say in advertising it’s very important to know your audience, especially their vulnerabilities. You’d think the Tempter would have done better market research on Jesus before he tried to sway him by offering him adulation and authority. Jesus showed very little interest in such things.

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”

This is like trying to sell somebody a priceless work of art they had donated in the first place. Perhaps the devil did not know that Jesus had had all authority in heaven and earth, that he had voluntarily given it up in order to enter into human nature and submit himself to our condition. He wasn’t interested in that kind of glory, especially not at the price of worshiping the devil. Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

So, when we stray away from the presence of God; when we go against God’s will and choose our own gratification, are we worshiping the devil? I don’t think so – I believe that needs to be a clear intention. But I do think it means we have turned our worship away from the Living God. Whatever it is that is tempting us away from the Lord – whether a behavior, or a commodity, or letting a feeling run riot in us – in that moment that becomes the object of our worship. We don’t think of it as worship, but that’s what it is. We have placed that thing or person or condition at the center of our life and oriented ourselves around it. If it’s a big temptation, it’s all we can see.

Thanks be to God, it’s not difficult to turn back. We need only become aware that we’ve redirected our attention to an unworthy object, and turn our gaze back toward the God who loves us. The Greek word for repentance is metanoia, which suggests turning, turning away from what is less than life-giving and turning back to the Source of our life.

If you go to church today for the Liturgy for Ash Wednesday, you will be invited into a lengthy and thorough confession of sin and repentance. I don’t believe there is anyone who can avoid being snagged by at least one part of that litany. So let’s go through it aware of how we have turned toward some of these things we confess, and see how they've become central. And let’s enact this repentance with joyful hearts, for God delights in seeing us turn back toward him, which we do, over, and over, and over again, until at last we are Home and there is no more turning to be done, for we are in God.

2-9-16 - Hunger

I’m not big on fasting. I don’t like deprivation, even if it is self-induced. And I never knew many people who fasted regularly until I got to know more Muslims. I am astonished at how many of my Muslim friends fast during Ramadan, even those who aren’t particularly observant or active the rest of the year. For thirty days, from sun-up to sundown, they refrain from eating, drinking, even water, having sex, gossiping. They are more attentive to prayer and hospitality and charity and the needs of people around them. It’s extraordinary how normative it is for many Muslims

The fast Jesus took on during his forty days in the wilderness was even more stringent. We’re told he his fast was total, 24/7, as he prayed and did spiritual battle with the devil:

He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”

Why did Jesus refrain from eating? People who fast regularly find it focuses them spiritually. Yes, the hunger can be distracting, but after awhile it tends to fade and one becomes more aware of what’s happening around and inside. Those who fast for spiritual reasons find they become more attuned to what God is saying or doing as their focus on feeding their appetites recedes to the background.

After forty days, though, Jesus is ravenous, and this is when the devil tries to tempt him to misuse his spiritual power to create food for himself. He approaches when he thinks Jesus is vulnerable, and starts by tempting Jesus to doubt his identity as Son of God. “If you are…”

It should not surprise us that the Tempter hasn’t changed his tactics much. He still approaches us in those areas where we feel depleted or deprived, where we’re vulnerable to scarcity-thinking, where we can more easily be convinced that we deserve to be full. After all, isn't God the source of abundance and blessing?

Yes - and that is exactly what we need to remember in those times when we’re tempted to take what has not been given us, or manipulate others to give us what we want. It is God who gives in abundance, and we don't need to look elsewhere.

We don’t have to stay hungry, but perhaps we have to wait until we’re sure we are looking to God for blessing. Sometimes being hungry is the best way to remind ourselves that God is God and we are not.

2-8-16 - From River to Desert

On the first Sunday in Lent, we skip back to where we were the first Sunday in Epiphany, back to that Jordan River where Jesus is baptized, anointed by the Holy Spirit and affirmed by the voice of God proclaiming, “This is my Son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” Jesus is filled with the Holy Spirit in that moment, but he doesn’t get to dwell in the water or the delight of his heavenly father for long. No, the Spirit who fills him hurries him on to the next step in beginning his ministry: a period of trial.

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. (This week's passage is here.)

It so often seems that really fruitful, beautiful times in our lives are followed by dry periods, times of trial and testing. Is this a pattern of God’s design? Are there things we can only learn in the wilderness times? Certainly the dry times aren’t as joy-filled as those seasons when we feel ourselves to be in the flow of the Living Water flowing from the throne of God. But maybe they’re as important.

Later this week we will enter the season of Lent, a season when we often voluntarily choose desert over river, seeking to strip away some of the clutter and chatter that fill our lives and can keep us from learning to depend wholly on God. It would be nice to be led by the Spirit into our wilderness rather than selecting it on our own.

I have given my congregants a menu of options for spiritual practices to take on during Lent this year, their “Spiritual Fitness Work-out Plan.” (Feel free to download one here.) So now I’m adding this instruction: pray before you fill it out. Ask the Holy Spirit, “Where are you leading me this Lent? What comfort zones or avoidance activities are you leading me away from? What practices and patterns are you leading me into?” And then listen before checking off the boxes.

Of course, the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness (or drove him, as Mark has it…) for a specific purpose, to be tested and tried and tempted and strengthened for the mission ahead. I can’t be sure where the Spirit would have us go, but I do believe he wants us ready for action. So let’s be open to how the Spirit will prepare us for our part in God’s great mission of wholeness and reconciliation.

The river is lovely, and we'll get to come back. Now maybe it's wilderness time.

2-5-16 - Back on the Ground

After a rich and nurturing spiritual experience, it’s nice to coast on that high for awhile. When I came back from a retreat a few years ago, the “glow” and sense of focus extended several months. Not so for Jesus, James, John and Peter… their spiritual high on the mountain was quickly obliterated as they descended into a scene of trauma, anxiety, failure and discord.

On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.

The plight of the man and his son seems to have made Jesus very cranky. Perhaps he was ticked off by the failure of his followers to act on the training they’d received and exercise the faith necessary to take authority over evil. Maybe that time on the mountain in the embrace of his Father, the sojourn with Moses and Elijah, made him anxious to be done with the messy business of saving humanity from itself.

It’s kind of nice to know that Jesus himself experienced the kind of let-down we so often do when our “regular” life intrudes upon any spiritual serenity we’ve managed to find. But regular life is where we live, not on the mountain but at its base. Jesus did not lift himself above the mess, but plunged into it, to experience it and to redeem it.

How can we achieve the balance between expecting blessing, expecting to dwell in the experience of God even in the midst of ordinary days, and not base our expectations upon spiritual high points? How can we learn to cultivate the awareness of the Spirit in with and through the human mess in which we live?

That, one might say, is the task of the spiritual life. It is why we develop and strengthen spiritual practices that keep our faith strong and our peace pervasive, even in the most challenging and unpeaceful circumstances. We celebrate the mountaintop experiences as tremendous gifts, the memories of which sustain us in difficult times. But the most amazing gift is learning how to live in God when it seems like our prayers are not effective and no one is listening. That’s how saints are made.

2-4-16 - In a Cloud

Have you ever found yourself in a cloud (not counting in airplanes)? Just somewhere when a fog rolls in and you find yourself complexly enveloped in white, your visibility of anything beyond your own form completely obscured? It is a deeply disorienting experience. And what if that cloud began to speak?

…a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

Of course, on the mount of Transfiguration, it wasn’t the cloud speaking, it was God. But why in a cloud? Maybe the blocking of other senses allowed the disciples to focus more on the aural experience, the voice of God, and its message. And what about that message, so similar to what some heard at Jesus’ baptism, but with the added command, “Listen to him.” It was aural confirmation of what they had seen with their eyes. When they were tempted to doubt, they had another form of authority on which to rest. And when they were ready to talk – perhaps after Jesus’ resurrection? – they had quite a story to tell, supported by three witnesses.

How does God get our attention? We are often so enveloped in activities and media and dashing here and there, responding to so many messages, it can be hard for the voice of God to get through. So perhaps we should choose to put ourselves in a cloud periodically, to dramatically reduce the stimuli, simplify the order of the day. One might say that is what the practice of centering prayer achieves – entering a cloud of soft quiet, where we see little and hear only silence.

That is also what happens on retreat, whether for a few hours or a few days: we slip into a simpler rhythm of meals, rest, walks, study, prayer, with few choices to make. And as we give ourselves to the simp;licty and the silence, eventually God’s voice begins to get through.

One of the great classics of Christian spirituality is a 14th century book called The Cloud of Unknowing (the link is to an edition I like very much), whose author suggests that God is to be found not in knowledge and evidence so much as in absence and mystery. It’s not the way we usually think of seeking God in our take-charge, work-for-what-you-want culture. But that medieval mystic was on to something.

Perhaps that’s what God was doing with that cloud, reminding us that the deepest knowledge comes from what we cannot see or figure out for ourselves. The deepest Truth can only come from God, who speaks in a sound of sheer silence.

2-3-16 - Company You Keep

Confession: I am a name-dropper. If I have a connection with someone considered important or influential in some realm or other, and I can work it into the conversation at all naturally, it’s in. And I’m not unique; many people bask in the reflected glow of the company they keep.

Well, Jesus one-ups all the name-droppers in the world. His important friends – about as influential as they come in the history of Israel – simply materialize up on that mountain, to the astonishment of his three followers:

Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

Not only can Peter, James and John see these men with Jesus, they can hear their conversation. Moses and Elijah and Jesus are speaking outside of time as we know it. They are discussing future events, Jesus' upcoming passion, death, resurrection and ascension, as fully as if they had already occurred. In God-time, eternal time, they already had.

Why would Moses and Elijah show up in this transcendent experience? In part because they represent the Law and the Prophets, the foundation of Israel’s religious tradition. In part because they were among the few who are recorded as having seen God, or had close encounters with God. And maybe they were there as a confirming sign to Jesus’ followers that the claims he made about himself and his mission in this world were true. At times when they might doubt him, they had this memory to keep them on track.

When we’re getting to know a friend or partner, we soon find ourselves curious about who their friends and connections are. People can rise and fall in our esteem based on who they surround themselves with, who admires and respects them, or not. So these disciples, already drawn close into a relationship with Jesus, aware of the lowliness of many of his companions, are given this glimpse into how exalted his connections could be. "Gosh, he even hangs out with Moses!"

As we try to get to know this Jesus better ourselves, without the benefit of his incarnate form, we too can explore who his friends and connections are. And as we seek to make him known, we might want to “out” ourselves as his friends, so others might learn more about him through knowing us. What kind of representatives are we? How well does the Church at large convey the grace and love for which Jesus is known?

It’s a big responsibility. Thankfully, it gets easier the more comfortable we get knowing Jesus. There is no higher name to drop - and he told us to drop his name liberally. Ineed, heaven and earth are waiting for us to do so.

2-2-16 - Dazzling

The word “dazzling” doesn’t appear enough in the Bible, in my opinion. Nor do “marvelous,” “enchanting,” “super” or other movie poster adjectives. No wonder people think it’s a dull book, full of platitudes and proscriptions. But we do get dazzled in this week’s story – blindingly so.

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.

It’s funny how you can read a story a hundred times and form one view, and on the 101st reading suddenly see it in a new way. I’ve always thought Jesus was somehow glowing, radiating light from within, as though the veil of his human body became translucent and revealed his form as pure energy. Maybe. But it’s always bothered me that his clothes became dazzling white. How would light from within do that?

Today it occurred to me that maybe he was reflecting the light of God, suddenly revealed up there on that mountain, that God was both within Jesus and without, all around. The Exodus story (our Hebrew Bible reading Sunday) tells us that “Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.” Maybe Jesus was reflecting light, not generating; reflecting enough light to make Jesus’ face look different, his whole being to dazzle.

What difference does it make, you may be asking, whether the light came from within or without? Not a lot. What interests me is whether and how we might reflect the light of God, since it can be dim inside us, and what it might do to our faces. I don’t mean that our faces will light up like Christmas trees in the presence of God – though that would surely get some attention. But what if others could see that we are reflecting a presence, a holiness, a power from outside us? I’ve been told that sometimes when I lead worship songs, my face glows, and sometimes when I pray for healing, I feel an exhilaration that must show on my face. Is that a tiny, tiny bit of what Jesus manifest that day?

Or perhaps you’ve known someone’s facial expressions to change when they’ve begun to center their lives on Christ. Our “default expressions,” which we sometimes catch in store windows or mirrors, often reflect care, or anxiety, or weariness, or bitterness. What if they reflected the love and grace and assurance of God?

How might that happen? I guess by spending more time intentionally in God’s presence, and letting that relationship shape us. It always seems to come back to that. Shedding our human nature and taking on God-Life doesn't come from a book or a building; it comes from relationship with Jesus.

I don’t know that we will see Jesus lit up this side of glory, but I do believe that his light reflected in us can be dazzling. So dare to dazzle!

2-1-16 - Up the Mountain Again

That was fast. We barely got out of that river, and here we are, climbing the mountain again with Jesus and three of his closest disciples. It’s been a brief Epiphany season, but we have arrived at the last Sunday, ready or not. We always end the season with what I think of Jesus’ big “reveal” – the son et lumiere show of transfiguration, up on the mountaintop.

In the Bible, mountains are often place where people encounter God. On Mount Moriah, Abraham is spared by God from sacrificing his son Isaac. On Mount Sinai, Moses meets with God, and when he descends, his face shines so brightly people are blinded. On Mount Horeb, Elijah catches a glimpse of God. People encounter God in deserts and towns and watery places too, but there is something about the height and majesty of mountains that seem to make them fertile ground for theophanies.

Maybe it's because mountain tops are “away places.” They generally take some effort to reach. We need to plan our expeditions, bring lunch and water - or, if it’s a really BIG mountain, weeks’ worth of supplies. We have to make sure we’re fit enough to make the climb, and maybe surround ourselves with people we want to hike with.

And we have expectations – of beauty and grandeur, of great vistas and intimate moments with the natural world. We expect hard climbing but also some flat ground and downward slopes. And we expect to see something at the top that we can see from nowhere else on earth, the big picture that puts our lives into perspective.

The life of faith can be like that, with hills and valleys on its route. We know God is also to be found in the lowlands (as Jesus’ followers discovered at the bottom of the mountain in our reading this week). But we think maybe we’ll have a close encounter with God in the highlands, one that will help us through the more challenging parts of our journey.

I don’t know what Peter, James and John expected when Jesus invited them along on his hike – certainly not what they experienced. They probably expected some rich time of conversation and contemplation with their master and friend. And so should we. Let’s make this climb with Jesus this week as a training run for the deeper excursion into God we might make during Lent.

What are your expectations of time with God? What do you dread?
What provisions do you want to carry for going deeper in the Spirit? Who else do you want along?

This is a very familiar story to lifelong churchgoers, but I pray we will have a new encounter with it this week. After all, we can hike up the same hills time and again and never experience them quite the same way. May it be like that with this strange and extraordinary tale of Encounter.