7-29-16 - Can't Buy Me Love

Jesus told a parable about a rich man who thought he could store up all his wealth, eat, drink and be merry , only to find that his number was up. At the end, Jesus sums it up in a moral – which it is highly tempting to apply to a certain candidate for President:

‘So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’

What does it mean to be rich towards God? And why would we need to be rich towards the Maker of all worlds, the One who has everything? What does God need from us? Nothing… but God wants our love, our lives, our trust, and our willingness to receive God’s gifts without trying to repay them. God desires our presence in relationship, to love and be beloved.

The man in the parable thinks he can buy everything he needs. But when his life suddenly ends, he finds out that in his greed he’d lost out on the one commodity that lasts for an eternity – love. He’d invested in the wrong places.

When we’re concerned with storing up treasure for ourselves, that’s where our focus is. When we’re storing up treasure in heaven, that’s where our focus is. A God-ward focus inevitably leads our attention to the most vulnerable of God’s children, because God’s concerns become ours. Being rich toward God means blessing God’s beloveds.

Sometimes we go backward, giving to people in need and just “checking in” with God on occasion. That’s well and good – but it means we’re always in control of the giving. Something amazing happens when we let God be the focus; then our giving to others feels just right, even when it’s more than we ever imagined we could give. (And just a note: I’m not there yet – though I’ve felt it from time to time…).

How might you make God even more the focus your time, your energy, your emotional life? Where do you feel the Spirit nudging you to share your wealth? Everyone has to find their own way – all I can do is tell you that our destination is Love. And that is the one thing money just can’t buy.

7-28-16 - All That We Can't Leave Behind

And love is not the easy thing
The only baggage you can bring
Is all that you can't leave behind.

– U2, Walk On (All That You Can’t Leave Behind)

This song came to mind as I reflected on Jesus’ parable of the rich man who is so focused on acquiring and storing his many assets. This fictional fellow thought he’d guaranteed his security – but think again!

Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

Whose will they be? What will be left of our legacy after we’ve gone – whether it’s moving from a beloved community or leaving the planet for good? What good will all the things we invest in, material and otherwise, do us when we’re dead? Perhaps a rich man’s children will inherit, and sometimes carry on the good – and often they’ll turn out lazy and self-indulgent, expecting hand-outs. Can we secure our future and that of our descendents?

The invitation here, as always, is to put our trust in God, not in our financial security, and to live our lives on a daily basis, not in five-year increments. All the things we put our trust in can fail us – people, machinery, the very earth sometimes. We go through life assuming elevators will not snap their cables, or roads collapse, or partners become unfaithful. We’re pretty sure banks won’t fail – but a whole lot of other financial “security” didn’t turn out to be so secure in 2008. What will it take for us to truly put our weight on the provision and power and love of God?

Here’s a thought exercise: is there any possession or amount of money you would refuse to part with if it would save the person you love the most in the whole world? If you needed to be emptied in order to receive the greatest gift, on what might you loosen your grip? That time will come when our grip is loosened for us, and then we will all part with our riches. What if we started to live in that kind of freedom while we’re still alive in this world?

Leave it behind
You've got to leave it behind
All that you fashion
All that you make
All that you build
All that you break
All that you measure
All that you feel
All this you can leave behind

7-27-16 - Storage

Is it God’s little joke to have me exploring this parable this week, when the abundance of my “stuff” is so literally in my face? Why am I bringing some 25 boxes of books to DC? Why all the pretty things that gather dust on end tables? I’ve culled papers, clothing, books and kitchenware, yet there’s still a lot going on that moving truck. BUT I will never resort to putting my stuff long-term in a storage unit, just hoping I’ll use it some day. Therein lies insanity – and given the number of storage facilities disfiguring our landscapes in this country, there seems to be a lot of insanity around.

Jesus begins his parable about the pitfalls of greed by talking of storage units:

Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.

Building bigger barns. There’s a metaphor for acquisition fever. Many of us go through life acquiring things and then needing larger houses in which to store it all. And the name for that is not success or prosperity – the spiritual name for it is greed. Greed can be defined as having more than we need and wanting more still.

So, are we all greed-ridden? I confessed yesterday that I have more than I need. I suspect most people reading this have more than they need, and we can all come up with more things that we want or think we need. Such is the human condition. How then are we to receive such a teaching? Hanging our heads in despair and walking away from the Gospel altogether, because we’re not the kind of disciples that leave it all to follow Jesus? That kind of resignation only leads us deeper into the worship of stuff, because then we need stuff to stuff down the feelings of guilt and inadequacy. What might we do instead?

We can put Jesus first, every day. Give God the best part of the day, when we’re freshest and our spirits are most open. As we grow in relationship with God, our priorities inevitably shift. We may still enjoy the abundance we have, but with less fear of losing it and more joy in sharing it. The more we give it away, the less we worry about how to store it.

I’ve read that Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan have decided to live on 1 percent of their income and give away the other 99 percent. At their level of wealth, I’m sure they still have plenty. Even so, it’s a an inspiring choice, one we might begin to move toward. If we give away the biblical standard of 10 percent of our income (gross or net, you choose), we still have 90 percent to play with. That’s a lot!

The antidote to greed is generosity. As we excel in giving, we will delight in God’s grace. No need to sock that away - it never runs out.

7-26-16 - Greed

In our gospel story for Sunday, Jesus is approached by a man whose brother has received their father’s full inheritance and isn’t inclined to share it. And just as Jesus refused to get pulled into a sibling conflict with Martha and Mary, he displays similarly excellent boundaries here. He’s not as interested in whether or not the younger brother gets his share of the legacy as he is in the health of his soul:

But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’

What if that verse were plastered all over the financial centers of the world, and the tony residential sections, and on shopping sites? Why, the world economy might come crashing down upon itself. (But wait, it often seems close to doing that anyway…) How many people do you know who live as if accumulating possessions and securing their financial future is exactly what life consists of?

I'm not going to get judgmental, for I make more than I need and am invested in securing my future too. And, in the midst of packing to move, I couldn't be more aware of the abundance of my possessions! Sure, I give away a fair amount, but that’s not the point. The point is in where our deepest priorities lie. How much of our time and energy go into acquiring things and keeping track of what we have? What would we let go of if someone we loved needed it? How much money would we part with? How many possessions? How simply are we willing to live?

These questions are intertwined, for living simply can be a choice we make because we realize someone else needs our stuff more than we do, or because we want to lower our overhead in order to release more funds to people who need them. We get to the point where we’re willing to part with our stuff not only for people whom we love, but for people we don’t even know.

It comes down to what questions we’re asking of ourselves: how much do I need to feel secure, or how much can I release to feel free? Are we living by fear or living by faith? Greed and faith cannot occupy the same space. As much room as we give to one, the less there is for the other.

Or, as I once read in an interview with the actor John Heard, “When you’re living by fear, you’re always looking for security. When you’re living by faith, you’re always looking for freedom.”

7-25-16 - It's Not Fair!

I just spent an afternoon with siblings. They along very well, but even so there was a bit of, “Mom, tell her to give me some!” it’s human nature to want what someone else has. So it is in the story Jesus tells in this week’s Gospel passage – a story that is prompted by a sibling’s complaint.

Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’

This man may well have had a legitimate gripe – some laws of inheritance favor the firstborn, who gets everything. It must have been customary for the heir to share – and this one hadn’t. The man appealed to Jesus to use his moral authority to compel his elder brother to generosity – or at least to some behavior that was “fair.” But fairness is a pretty subjective category, isn’t it? “What’s fair is fair” has no reliable measure – it all depends on where we’re looking.

It’s easy to get worked up about fairness when we feel we’re receiving less. But when we’re the ones who have more, often through no effort or intrinsic worth of our own, but because of where we were born, who we’re related to, the color of our skin, where we could afford to go to school or our family’s wealth, we are often less concerned about what’s fair or not. Similarly, when someone’s taken something from us or cheated us, we want equity, but we are rarely as aware about the ways we may injure others.

The Life of God is not about fairness. It’s about unmerited grace. It’s about abundant love, life, joy, peace – and often wealth as well – not because we deserve it or have earned it, but because we are loved beyond measure, because we are forgiven our debts toward God and invited to live in such a way that we extend the same grace to those whom we feel owe us something. This brother did not necessarily “deserve” a part of the inheritance. He, like us, was being invited to trust that he would have enough, and not to be too picky about where that “enough” comes from.

Is there something gnawing at you, something you feel you’re owed, that’s been withheld? Can you offer that to God, trusting that you will have what you need even if it comes from another source? Can you release the person you feel owes you from obligation, moving into freedom for yourself and that person?

When we really focus on how much God has given us, we begin to be grateful that God isn’t “fair.”

7-22-16 - How Much More!

Break out the birthday cake – today is Water Daily’s third anniversary! I started out with this passage on this date three summers ago. And so, in honor of that (and because I’m trying to transition out of two jobs, see a lot of beloved people, and pack up a four-bedroom house so it fits into two and am slightly pressed for time… ) I am going to reuse the last post in that week of 2013.

“Teach us how to pray,” Jesus’ disciples ask him. He offers a pretty solid outline. Then he switches perspective, to how God responds to our prayers. He tells a somewhat amusing story about a guy being woken up in the middle of the night by a friend in need, who responds not to the friend’s need, but to his persistence. Jesus’ punch line is, “‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” In case they didn’t get it the first time, he says, “For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

Does this mean we get everything we ask for in prayer? Find everything we’re looking for? Every door we knock on is opened to us? I don’t know about your life, but mine hasn’t always gone that way. That disjoint is enough to put some people off the whole enterprise of prayer.

Prayer is not a laundry list of things we want presented to genie. Prayer is a conversation in the context of a living relationship. We make our requests because God invites us to, the same way a human parent wants her children to ask for the unicorn even if there’s no way to grant that wish – you want the conversation to reflect her heart. And you’re unlikely to give her a viper instead.

So God, the Father in heaven, Jesus suggests, wants us to ask for the desires of our hearts, wants us to seek the truth, wants us to knock on the doors separating us from divine presence. And does Jesus say we will get what we “pray for?” He goes us one better: “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’”

Maybe the Holy Spirit doesn’t sound like much if you wanted healing for a loved one, or a better job. Yet the gift of the Spirit encompasses everything. The Holy Spirit brings the life of God into our hearts and minds and bodies. With more of the Spirit alive in us, we are so much better equipped to help bring about healing, to use our gifts at a higher level of functioning, to dwell in the kind of peace that enables us to bring joy and light into all kinds of situations. The Spirit equips us for ministry and gives all kinds of other gifts… love, joy, patience, forebearance. The Spirit prays through us, we are told in Romans – and you can be pretty sure God will answer a prayer that started with God.

How about today we sit down in stillness for a few minutes, take a few deep “in-spiring” breaths, let out some stale thoughts and feelings on the exhales, and then invite the Holy Spirit to come and play. “Spirit of God,” you might say (or “Spirit of Christ”), “I’d like to feel your presence in me. I’d like to feel the peace you bring. I’d like to know what you’re praying through me, what holy encounters you might be equipping me for. I’d like to make more space for you.”

Pay attention to what you feel in your body - do you feel energy anywhere? A tingle? A relaxing? A rush? Sometimes we have a physical response to the Spirit’s visits.

Pay attention to what you feel in your mind and in your spirit – do any images take shape? Do you receive any words or conversation or a desire to do something, pray for someone, go somewhere?

Write it down if you noted anything significant. Share it with someone. If you don’t sense anything, that’s okay – God may be taking some time, or your receptors need some tuning. Keep at it – the time we spend inviting more of God’s life into our lives is never wasted.

7-21-16 - Ask, Seek, Knock

I like it when things come flowing to me without my having to do anything – especially when I don't expect it. And sometimes that happens in life. In the spiritual life, though, it happens more often when we’re also being active, asking, searching, knocking on those doors we wish would open. In fact, Jesus promises that these actions will yield success:

‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’

This passage is such an important reminder about the generous nature of God. So often we assume things will come with difficulty, especially spiritual graces; that we need to spend hours in prayer, decades reading difficult texts, climbing the ladder of holiness. No, Jesus says, we only need to genuinely ask, diligently search, knock with the knowledge that God can’t wait to open the door and invite us in. If we, in our limited way, are programmed to want good things for our children, how much more does our heavenly father, who has no restrictions whatsoever on his largesse?

Yet it pays to note what Jesus is saying. He does not say, “How much more will your heavenly father give you what you ask for in prayer.” Sometimes we receive that, sometime we don’t. Jesus says, “How much more will God give his Holy Spirit to those who ask.” Does that feel like getting a sweater at Christmas when we really wanted a race car? "Yeah, yeah, it’s good for me and will last longer..." But when we feel that way, it only betrays our lack of understanding about what gifts come along with the gift of Spirit.

With the Spirit we get the faith to trust in our daily bread. With the Spirit we get the strength and hope that helps us weather spiritual trials. With the Spirit we get the grace to forgive those who have wronged us, and the humility to ask for forgiveness from those whom we have wronged. The Spirit is the answer to the whole Lord’s Prayer!

I hope we haven’t stopped asking to see God’s hand at work in the world about us. I hope we never stop searching for God in all the places and people God can show up in. I hope we never stop knocking at the doors to truth and beauty and goodness and love and peace and joy and generosity. God’s door barely needs to be knocked at – the knock itself pushes it open so we can walk right in.

7-20-16 - Bothering God

Is it okay to ask God for stuff? Too often I hear people say things like, “Oh, I wouldn’t want to bother God with that…” or “God has more important prayers to answer,” as though God were limited in time or resources. If God is who we say God is – creator of all that is, seen and unseen; all-powerful, all-knowing; without limis or constraint; then we should feel free to make our needs known to God. Jesus said as much:

‘Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.” And he answers from within, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.” I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

It’s an oddly negative example, this head of household all tucked in for the night with his children, this friend who will yield to annoying persistence before the claims of friendship, but Jesus often uses negative examples to contrast how good and generous God is by comparison. Jesus invites us not only to ask for our daily bread – the day’s supply, not a year’s – and beyond that to bring our petitions to God in prayer. Remember, Jesus tells this story in response to his disciples’ request, “Lord, teach us how to pray.” This is part of praying – this trusting in God’s love enough to be persistent.

Why should we have to be persistent? Doesn’t God hear us the first time? I believe God hears us before we’ve even formed a prayer into words – God hears the intentions of our hearts. And if we’re praying in the Spirit, then God has inspired the very prayer God proposes to answer. That’s when prayer is really cooking. But in this life we’ll have some desires of our own, and anxieties, and we can offer those in prayer as often as we want. It’s the most productive way of dealing with our worries and wants. Even that kind of prayer is communication within our relationship with God. And when we talk to God, we’re promised peace. And that peace allows us to better let go of our wants and worries.

Persistence doesn’t always yield the “result” we want. Sometimes God’s answer is silence, or no, or we see an outcome very different than what we want or regard as life-giving. Mystery and timing are factors in prayer we can never control. Yet even when we don’t see the answer we desire, we’re invited to pray. What if the only outcome is a deeper relationship with God?

Actually, what better outcome could there be than to be closer to the maker of all worlds, the lover of our souls, the one relationship that will endure when all else has fallen away?

7-19-16 - Prayer for Dummies

Hello. You’re in charge. Supply me, forgive me, protect me.
These are the essential elements of prayer, as Jesus taught his disciples to pray.

He said to them, ‘When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. 

And do not bring us to the time of trial.’

Watching his pattern of going apart to spend time in prayer inspired them to ask him to teach them how to pray. (There was also a little “keeping up with the John-ses” rivalry going on with disciples of John the Baptist, who apparently taught his followers how to pray…) Jesus’ answer has become the manual on prayer for Christians ever since, coming down to us as the Lord’s Prayer, which we often recite in the words of the Elizabethan translation rather than the more accurate version provided by modern bible translators.

People often feel they need to be taught to pray – witness the thousands of books and seminars on prayer. This is partly because we’re wired for action, and once we become addicted to a certain pace, and even addicted to stress (yes, our brain chemicals can get adapted to that too…), it is very uncomfortable to become still and put ourselves into a receptive mode. It is also hard to be in conversation with someone you cannot see. But this pattern Jesus provides is pretty simple, and some of it corresponds to those prayers we utter without thinking: Thanks! Help me! Give me! Forgive me! Save me!

What we don’t always include in our spontaneous prayers is the first two parts of Jesus’ prayer – the naming of God as our Father/Mother/Source of being. To say this is to remind ourselves of the personal, familial relationship between us and God – God is not a corporate boss, a Santa with gifts, an accountant checking a balance sheet or a judge weighing our merits. God is loving parent. That’s where we start.

And God is holy, which is what “hallowed” means. As intimate and loving as God may be, God is not the same as us. God is wholly other, completely good, Pure Love in which there is no fault or dilution. That affects the relationship and how we pray too.

Perhaps the most neglected clause is “Your kingdom come.” This means not only ‘Let the end of the world come soon,’ though it has meant that to some. It means, “Let God-Life break into this world, into my life, into my heart right now, today, and every day.” It is the most radical prayer we can utter – and we’re invited to pray it every day.

If we were conscious of the power we were invoking when we pray those words, this world would be changed. Let’s see what happens when we start really meaning it.

7-18-16 - A Certain Place

Do you have a special place where you pray? Some people say they pray in the car, chatting with Jesus in the passenger seat. Some people pray as they walk in nature. Some pray in churches (imagine!). Many people pray on the run, going from here to there, or as need or occasion arises.

All of these are good and valid forms of prayer in terms of communicating with God. If we truly want to hear what God has to say to us, though, we will also incorporate the kind of prayer that builds up our relationship with God. The gospels show us that Jesus often went apart to pray, and spent time in prayer. His disciples seem to have observed this pattern and were intrigued.

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’

No relationship can grow without both parties devoting time to conversation. When we’ve made a new friend, or become enamored of someone, we find ourselves naturally wanting to communicate. That impulse can weaken as familiarity grows, so we need to be proactive and intentional about it. If we want to strengthen our connection with the God who made the universe, who knows and loves us more than we can imagine, we will need to show up for the conversation God is always ready to have with us. Yes, it requires more from us, because, unlike God, our time is finite and we can only effectively focus on one person at a time.

Designating a time and especially a place for quiet, contemplative prayer is the key for many who want to deepen their connection with the divine. What time of day are you least likely to be distracted? Is there a place in your home, a chair, a window, where you can truly relax and go into “spirit-mode?” What you do when you get there can vary – some people read and chew on a passage of Scripture, or read the Daily Office. You might read Water Daily and find your own way into Sunday’s gospel reading.

Leave some time to allow your spirit to settle deeply and invite God to speak in that silence. Perhaps your imagination will produce a scene in which you and Jesus can chat. I don’t know what it will look like for you. I only know that God desires connection with God’s beloveds, and connection requires communication, and communication with God will transform our whole day – and life.

7-15-16 - Better

The story of Jesus’ visit to the home of Martha and Mary is often interpreted as contrasting the contemplative and active dimensions of spirituality. And whenever I’ve asked groups who they relate to most strongly, most answer Martha. This is not surprising in a culture which lives by to-do lists, in which productivity and accomplishment are the highest criteria for success. And we might all agree that a healthy soul-life is balanced – our connection to God cultivated in prayer needs to be expressed outwardly in action, and our ministries need to be grounded in our connection to God in prayer if we want them to bear fruit.

Jesus, however, does not value these equally:
But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

The better part. Jesus is saying, “No, Mary does not have to get up and help you in the kitchen, Martha. She is putting her relationship with me above everything else, and no one can take that away from her.”

Don’t most of us have at least one person in our lives for whom we would drop everything to spend time with? For Christ-followers, at least one of those people should be Jesus. The first step in becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ is making the choice that he comes first, before the other loves and duties which claim us. What he thinks is important becomes of utmost importance to us – trusting in God, offering the power of healing, sharing resources with those who have less. If he says time with him (which is what prayer and worship are…) is of highest priority, let’s make it ours.

Before we agree to do something, or launch an initiative of our own creation, let’s plan for how we will integrate that project into our lives of prayer and worship, first making sure we’ve set aside time for those. And when someone in the church who excels at prayer and intercession really doesn’t want to be on the Vestry, entrust them with your prayer list and leave them to do what they do best. There will be plenty of people who like the active ministries.

The real challenge is how to get us “active” types to sit down and spend more time at Jesus’ feet. One reason we keep going the way we do is to avoid dealing with feelings that come up when we’re quiet. Maybe we just have to be more active about becoming contemplative. Martin Luther is quoted as having said, “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.”

Who knows how efficiently Mary might have worked in that kitchen after receiving the gifts of Jesus’ teaching, had Martha been willing to trust. And who knows how peaceful Martha might have felt had she joined Mary in her choice. Dinner can wait; Jesus is now. Join him, and dinner will happen.

7-14-16 - Distracting Living

It’s that repeating of the name that hooks me, a master-stroke of narrative reporting by Luke. Or is it simply the way he heard the story (maybe from Martha herself?). As Martha of Bethany stresses out over her hosting chores, asking Jesus to make her sister get up and help her rather than sit there listening to him talk, Jesus addresses her calmly and directly:

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Of all the weapons in the arsenal of the enemy of human nature, which he uses to divert us from God, worry is among the most effective and frequently deployed. When we are worried, we are by definition distracted, focusing on what worries us rather than on the God of provision and perfect timing. Martha can no longer remember why she invited Jesus to her home, why she wants to offer a lovely meal. All the joy and generosity of giving is lost in her annoyance and anxiety. She’s no longer available for relationship with Jesus, or with her sister Mary – she can only try to control and manipulate them. That ever happen to you? It does to me!

Imagine there are three boxes drawn on the pavement, as though for hopscotch. You are in the center box. What worries you is in the one on the left, and God is in the one on the right. If you face and focus on what worries you, that’s all you can see. God is behind you, still able to bless, but you are turned away. If you turn (and the Greek word for repentance, metanoia, means to turn fully around) you are now facing God and your worries are behind you. They’re still there, and God can see them, yet you are now focused on the source of solutions and answers. In fact, as we focus on God, we are better able to imagine solutions ourselves.

Focusing on what worries us is like distracted driving; taking our eyes off Jesus is like taking our eyes off the road. We may not crash, but our risk and anxiety levels increase, and we’re a danger to others. Today, think about what “many things” are worrying and distracting you. Hear Jesus say your name, not once, but twice, gently calling you back to yourself – and himself. Hear his words: “There is need of only one thing.” He is the one thing. He is all we need.

7-13-16 - Triangulation

This gospel story packs a lot of emotional complexity into five verses. We get a glimpse into Jesus’ relationship with these two sisters, and their relationship with one another. And we see a behavior pattern which is all too familiar to many of us – an unwillingness to communicate directly when disgruntled, and the attendant tendency to go to a third party for help. Martha has taken on a big task preparing dinner for Jesus and his friends, and she sees her sister sitting at Jesus’ feet, drinking in his teaching. Stressed, envious, and perhaps annoyed by other things about her sister, she pulls a classic triangulation move:

She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”

Let’s look at this passive aggressive remark in all its glory. “Lord, do you not care?” Martha begins by implying that if Jesus cared about her, he would have noticed how hard she was working and sought to fix it. How often do conflicts in our personal and professional relationships result from our overworking, or taking more responsibility in a situation than we need to, and then getting angry that someone has not read our mind and stepped in to save us from ourselves?

“My sister has left me to do all the work by myself.” She’s making a complaint about Mary, but addressing it to Jesus, letting Mary overhear it, as it were. Martha expresses abandonment and grievance, and doesn’t even trust Mary to hear her feelings directly. Have you ever had someone complain about you to someone else while you’re there? All that can do is make us feel guilty, not inspired to help.

“Tell her then to help me.” Instead of asking Mary for what she needs, Martha wants Jesus to do her work for her. Does she think Mary doesn't care about her? Does she have to bring in the “big guns?” Or does she want Jesus to prove that he cares by taking care of her emotionally?

The only time it’s appropriate to ask Jesus to act in someone else’s life is when we're praying for them to be blessed. If we feel they need correcting, protecting, convicting or forgiving, chances are we have an agenda that we should share with them honestly and directly. Say your piece, in love, without expecting a response, and then turn it over to God. You’ve done what you can. But don’t ask God or anyone else to be your messenger when you’ve got something to say.

When we’re able to be clear and direct with one another, we create freedom. Often we find our relationship with God becomes clearer too. And then we're better able to listen.

7-12-16 - Deep Listening

I recently read the introduction my new boss wrote to the congregation about me (self-servingly linked to here). Among the nice things he said, one surprised me; that I was a person who “listens deeply.” Since I’d interrupted him about a dozen times during my interviews, I was glad I came across as a good listener!

That is an attribute ascribed to Mary of Bethany, when Jesus comes to visit the house:

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.

We often think of prayer as what we have to say to God, pouring out our gratitude and grumbles, our hopes and regrets. But saints and mystics throughout the centuries have pointed to Mary’s posture as the beginning of true prayer, sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to what he says.

There are a number of ways we can do that. One is through reading and chewing on his words and actions as we find them in Scripture. Taking a small chunk of Jesus’ teaching, or reading, re-reading and putting ourselves into a gospel story about him is one way we can settle our spirits and start to truly hear from him. Talking to someone else about where we're experiencing God's activity and love, and hearing their stories is another way we listen to Jesus.

And we can learn to listen in prayer. Some do that through cultivating meditation techniques like centering prayer, learning to still the chattering mind and come into a place of deep, unspoken communion with God, in which occasionally we receive words or encouragement. Those of us whose chattering rarely ebbs are hard pressed to truly quiet our minds. We can open our imaginations to the Spirit, inviting God to make himself known through places or scenes that unfold in our mind’s eye. For a time in my life, there was a rocky beach in Greece where I met Jesus in prayer, which was followed by a musty old English church, a chalet kind of house in the mountains, and most recently a forest glade by a pond. Go figure – no one can accuse me of lacking imagination. I didn’t choose these “mediating” spots, as I call them. They unfolded in my mind as I prayed, and I just went with them, asking where Jesus was. Currently there is no mediated spot, just words coming into mind as I pray sometimes.

Our minds might not easily become still, but we can bring our bodies into stillness by setting aside time in our day or week, and even a place in our home or office where we expect to listen to Jesus. I’m sure he doesn’t mind when we talk – after all, our loving God wants to hear from God’s children. But we will find our spirits expanding as we learn to follow the way of Mary, and let ourselves listen deeply to that still small voice of God which is amplified in our silences.

7-11-16 - Welcoming Jesus

How would you feel about welcoming Jesus into your home? In my former congregation in Bethany, we invited children to take home the Jesus Doll for a week at a time, asking them to record where they took Jesus, what they did, how it felt. One mother brought him back after two weeks, and said, “It was very stressful! When Jenny took him to school they made her put him in her cubby all day, because it was a religious doll. At home, the dog tried to eat him, and then our Jewish neighbors came over, so we put him away… it just wasn’t a good week to have the Son of God at your house.”

Our story this week is about welcoming Jesus. Only five verses, it is packed with meaning. One of two gospel stories about dinner parties for Jesus in the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, it has given encouragement to mystics and fits to hostesses since it was recorded. It is seen as an affirmation of the contemplative way of faith over the active, a teaching on anxiety, an exploration of devotion. And it begins with hospitality, which is where we left off in the story of the Good Samaritan.

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.

Other accounts about this family tell us the “certain village” is Bethany and that Martha is a sister to Mary and Lazarus. It strikes me as significant that Luke identifies Martha as the head of household. Elsewhere she is referred to as Lazarus' sister, but here she is primary. And she is in a position to offer Jesus hospitality, along with his entourage. As we will see, they are close enough that she can whine at him, and he gently rebuke her. It is one of the most vivid of Jesus’ friendships in the gospel record. And yes, welcoming Jesus into her home, causes Martha a bit of stress.

Are you aware of Jesus with you at home, or do you tend to connect with him elsewhere? Have you set aside a spot for prayer and study, a place where you sit to connect with Jesus? What if we tried it this week, settling in, inviting him to join us, seeing where the conversation went? Would you feel you had to clean up? Dress nicely? Serve something?

Or would you find he was the host?

As we explore this very rich encounter between Jesus and these two sisters, I hope it will deepen our own encounters with him. On one hand, it’s never a good week to have the Son of God at your house. On the other, his presence enriches everything else that goes on there. Invite him over. I imagine he’ll accept.

7-8-16 - The Extra Mile

Who is my neighbor? That’s the question that launches Jesus’ parable about a man beaten, robbed and nearly killed on the Jerusalem-Jericho road, and the person who helped him. The lawyer asking the question wondered what neighbors he was supposed to help. Jesus delivered a twist in his answer, that it’s not so much who you are to be neighbor to, as what kind of neighbor you are. “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The neighbor is the one who sees, stops, investigates, helps, and ensures restoration.

I believe the mission of God is to reclaim, restore and renew all of creation to wholeness in Christ. This is what we see the Samaritan man do in Jesus’ story:

But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.”

Being a neighbor goes beyond taking in the mail or watering the plants, beyond visiting the sick or texting a donation in times of natural disasters, beyond meeting needs to transformation. Being a neighbor means being there for the long haul, arranging for restoration of health, status and dignity. The Samaritan, most likely a merchant traveling to Jericho to market his goods, used his own oil and wine to heal the wounds (oil is a symbol of the Holy Spirit; wine the healing blood of Jesus…). He gave up his ride to the wounded man and walked next to his donkey, his slower pace now putting him at greater risk of bandits. He brought him to a place of hospitality for rest and recovery, paid for his care and arranged for the future. In so doing, he expanded the circle of healing and assured recompense for his collaborators.

When have you experienced someone giving you that gift of unstinting love and care, going deep and long? When have you been moved to do that for someone else, maybe someone going through a loss or chemotherapy or a protracted life crisis? One of my parishioners has begun to visit a homeless man in a downtown park several times a week, developing a relationship, listening to his stories. She is being a neighbor the way Jesus meant it.

I don’t think God wants us to go the extra mile with gritted teeth – God wants us to feel moved to offer it freely when we do. None of us can give like that to everyone – and if more of us approached the world like this Samaritan man did, maybe everyone would be helped and everyone would be helping. I’d love to hear the story of the man who was victimized, and then restored through the love of a perfect stranger. I wonder who he went on to help into wholeness?

I pray that you and I will encounter many – and be – perfect strangers of healing love.

7-7-16 - Walk On By

You know the expression, “a world of hurt.” That is where we live, often surrounded by suffering and pain, deprivation and injustice. And thanks to global communications and interconnectedness, we are confronted daily by the immediacy of suffering the world over, images of maimed refugees as urgent to us as the homeless person panhandling on the corner. Don’t we have to pass some of it by?

Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.

The priest and the Levite are the bad guys of the story (after the robbers, of course…). We expect more of religious leaders than we do of ordinary folk, which makes their indifference to the man’s suffering even worse in our eyes. Let’s give them some credit: as religious leaders dedicated to temple worship, they both had a duty to maintain ritual purity, which would have been violated by coming into contact with a dead person. For all they knew, this man was beyond help. And perhaps they had schedules to keep and tasks to maintain, which is often what keeps us from stopping and responding.

What is radical in Jesus’ story is who he places in the role of hero: a Samaritan, the wrong sort of person from the perspective of Jesus’ Jewish listeners. And why does the Samaritan man stop to check out the situation? He was moved with pity.

We live our days in the tension of competing claims, conflicting responses. Our compassion may often be stirred, yet we are also caught by the often delightful demands of our work and family, and the need to maintain some balance in life. People who stop and give all the time often burn out or cheat their families of their best selves. So when do we stop, and when do we walk on?

I suggest we stay attentive to when we are moved by pity or compassion, or a desire to help. When we feel those things in response to a person in need, we can offer that reaction in prayer and ask the Spirit: are you inviting me to offer myself in this situation? Are you up to something that you’d like my participation in? What shall I offer? What shall I hold back? Make it a prayer conversation, not a decision you make alone.

If we approach this parable only from the standpoint of ethics, only as the ones who might help, forgetting that we are also ones who'd spiritually been left for dead, for whom Jesus gave everything to reclaim, restore and renew us to wholeness, we miss the point. When we remember how much we have received, it helps us know when and how to give.

7-6-16 - Neighbors

It is no surprise that Jesus’ interlocutor in this week's gospel story is identified as a lawyer – first thing he does is look for the loophole. That’s no diss on lawyers – it’s what they’re paid to do. And it’s human nature to categorize and define, to narrow the field so that we can manage things. It can also keep us from receiving the heart of God’s commandments.

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.

What do you suppose he was hoping to hear? Your neighbor is the person who looks like you? Who shares your ethnicity? Your family heritage? Your lifestyle? Socio-economic bracket? National identity? That’s how some people define “neighbor,” so they can justify devoting their resources to their own kind. That is how the bulk of the wealth in our country has ended up in the bank accounts of a relatively small percentage of the population, while we have a serious problem with poverty.

In reply, Jesus begins to tell a story about a man who was beaten, robbed and left for dead on a notoriously dangerous road. I wonder what the man thought about that response to his question. “Is he saying my neighbor is anyone who is victimized? How extensive is my obligation to such folks? He made the foolish choice to do business on that road, and to go alone… If such a man is my neighbor, where does it stop? Where can I draw the line and still be in God’s will?”

As we will see, a few people in the story draw the line rather close, and one seems not to draw one at all, giving well beyond expectations. But how about us? How do we decide who we will help and how much? There is no right or wrong answer – it’s just good for us to know how we define neighbors, and what criteria we use to evaluate whether or when to offer help. Some people will give generously to total strangers in the event of a natural disaster, and refuse all help to the poor in their own towns. We all approach it differently.

The point of examining ourselves on this question is not to instill guilt or even to suggest guidelines. The point is to become more aware of our default positions, and invite the Holy Spirit into our decision-making processes. You tell God who you think your neighbor is, and is not; then ask God to tell you who God thinks your neighbor is.

Our responses will likely still have limits, according to our capacity for giving. I hope that as we explore this rich story, though, we will become freed from self-imposed limits, and expand our vision of what it means to have and to be a neighbor.

7-5-16 - Inheriting Life

The parable known as “The Good Samaritan” is familiar to many of us. Exploring it from different angles this week gives us a chance to hone in on details we don’t always notice. One of these is the set-up to the story, a conversation between Jesus and a lawyer who wants to test his knowledge and holiness. In this context, “lawyer” probably means more a scholar of the law, such as a Pharisee, than someone practicing in a court of law, and the reference to testing Jesus suggests this was a person of some authority.

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

Clearly, this gentleman knows the law very well, for he cites not only the commonly quoted portion of the Shema, “You shall love the Lord your God…” but also a lesser injunction buried in Leviticus 19, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which Jesus himself had elevated to the same status as the first part. Jesus commends the correctness of his answer, though in his story he will challenge him (and us) on just how complicated it can be to fulfill these words. What puzzles me, though, is the man’s question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Everyone knows inheritance is not earned or merited, nor can it be secured on one’s own timetable. It is the free gift of one who has departed this human life, and wishes to leave her or his goods to others. Inheritance is a function of relationship, not something we can work for. Embedded in this question lies the primary tension that has dogged Christianity since before it was a religion – the tug of war between God’s unmerited grace and our efforts to earn it.

Judaism in Jesus’ time was dominated by leaders who were experts at trying to earn God’s favor through fidelity to the Law. The Law in itself was holy, a blessing, a revelation of God. The way it became an instrument of judgment rather than love had caused it to become more oppressive than life-giving. This is a constant theme of Jesus’ teaching and way of life. He was ever calling people back from the rigors of religion into the refreshment of relationship with their heavenly Father, the God who drew so near to his people.

It seems to be human nature to veer back into religion, which is something we feel we can control. The Holy Spirit exerts a contrary pull on us, drawing us back to God in relationship. We help or hinder that movement by our intentions, as we recognize when we’re trying to earn our own inheritance and yield once again to the transforming power of God’s grace.

That grace is an inheritance which is ours by virtue of our adoption into the family of God. It is a trust fund of power and love and forgiveness and healing to which we already have access. And as we begin to draw on that Life, we often become better neighbors.

7-4-16 - Neighbor to the World

This coming Sunday we get one of the most famous of all of Jesus’ parables, the one he tells in response to the lawyer who asks, “Who is my neighbor?” We’ll examine it in greater depth and in more personal terms in coming days. Today, on the day we celebrate America’s independence as a nation – and enjoy a day of rest and cook-outs – I will keep it short and more global. In invite you to read the passage over, and reflect on our past, present and future as a nation “under God, with liberty and justice for all.” In particular, let’s jump to the end of Jesus’ story, when he asks the lawyer,

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

We live in a world in which whole countries are falling into the hands of robbers. We share a history in which too often we have been the robbers. We also share a legacy of mercy and providing help to those who are injured.

How might we as a nation, and as individuals, more fully live into the character of this outsider who put himself at risk to reclaim, restore and renew the one fallen by the wayside? After all, that is what God has done for us. Might we “go and do likewise?”

At the heart of it lies the truth that until we are all free and equal in opportunity, security, and peace, none of us is free. Freedom is God's desire for us - and for all creation. Happy Independence Day.

7-1-16 - Euphoria

There is no joy quite like the joy we get when we're filled to the brim with the Holy Spirt as we engage in some ministry, and the outcomes are strong and good. Anytime I’ve dared to go out in pubic with a sign saying, “Want a Prayer?” I’ve experienced that. We think of living by faith, walking in radical trust as difficult. But so often when we actually do it, we are immediately blitzed by such euphoria, it’s a wonder we don’t make more of a habit of it. That seems to have been the experience of the seventy disciples Jesus sent out:

The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’ He said to them, ‘I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’

What the disciples exulted in was not only that they’d had human success – it was that they had felt the spiritual power Jesus had promised would be theirs. They had been able to exercise authority over demons and diseases, to navigate the welcome and unwelcome of different towns and households. And Jesus affirmed their sense. “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning” might have been his statement about a cosmic past event, or his recognition that his power was now working through his followers, and that spelled the end for the reign of evil and its master.

But he is also quick to say that such power and euphoria should not be the root of their joy – their inclusion in God’s realm for all eternity is where their sense of well-being should rest. And when we are rooted in that identity, as God’s chosen, delighted-in daughters and sons, we are paradoxically more able to take those leaps of faith in ministry that bring about more euphoria. It’s a wonderful cycle.

We do not have to undertake risky ministries to be loved by God; that gift is already ours. But when we step out from that belovedness to walk in Jesus’ name into places we cannot yet know, relying on resources we cannot yet see, we receive more gifts that God wants to give us. We receive the Spirit in such measure, so much peace and love and joy and purpose, we can’t wait to do more.

And when we all live like that, evil is done for good.