10-31-16 - Trick or Treat?

Next week we come to the Sunday after All Saints Day, on which many congregations use the All Saints readings. In most cases, the gospel is the Beatitudes, Jesus’ “blessed are you” teachings. Though I am not fond of this list, I’m aware that our election is a week away. In these trying and troublesome times, it wouldn’t hurt to review the standard of behaviors and attitudes to which Christ-followers are called. We’ll be needing all the humility and generosity we can muster, no matter who prevails in the polls.

The Beatitudes are the beginning of Jesus’ first training session with his newly chosen disciples. In Matthew’s Gospel it is called the Sermon on the Mount, as Jesus was said to have been standing on a slight hill (and maybe Matthew wanted to evoke Moses bringing the Commandments down Mount Sinai). Luke, whose version we read this year, sets this occasion on a plain, on level ground. That would be consistent with his emphasis on the equalizing, leveling properties of the Realm of God.

And this great leveling, it appears, is outside of human time. For each condition that Jesus mentions, a future reversal is promised. And similarly, a corresponding “woe” is given, with the sad news that if you’re receiving goodies now, you’ll have none later. (Trick or treat, anyone?)

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 
Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
“… But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. 
Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep."

As one who is rich, too well fed and fond of laughing, this does not strike me as good news. I remember why I avoid this passage; it's hard to find grace in it. As I wrestle with what feels like a rigid either/or set-up, I remember that no one passage of the bible contains the whole revelation of God’s goodness. I am comforted that Jesus himself was sometimes hungry, sometimes fed, sometimes mourning and sometimes rejoicing. And he was always blessed.

And I remember that when we step into the realm of God we are in some senses outside of time – the now has an eternal dimension. And as we share our wealth, our food and our cheer with those who lack them, we find ourselves growing a community in which all have enough.

That is what Jesus was pointing to. One day we will know that in full; now we can participate in bringing it into being in this realm, by the power of God's Spirit at work in us.

10-28-16 - Loose Change

We have been exploring an extraordinary story of transformation this week in the tale of Jesus’ encounter with a notorious sinner. Zacchaeus made his living off the misery of others. As the chief tax collector in a major town, he probably sat at the top of a pyramid of greed, extortion and violence. Yet Jesus offers forgiveness to this man, and he responds in astonishing ways.

Zacchaeus revealed a spiritual openness when he clambered up a tree to get a better view of Jesus. He wasn’t willing to come close, but he wanted to see. And Jesus met that opening with an invitation to fellowship, and an acceptance which prompted a greater opening in Zacchaeus. He didn’t just repent by halves – he went the whole distance:

Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”’

Zacchaeus certainly was lost, spiritually speaking, his status as chief tax collector, even if loathed, compensating for his lack of stature. He was tightly bound by his self-saving strategies, his allegiance to money and power. Yet he was not beyond the reach of God’s grace. As one thing loosened when he climbed that tree, more space was made, and that loosened his repentance, which made more space for forgiveness. Soon the whole tightly bound system unraveled and even his change was loosed, as he offered half his wealth and more to transform the lives of the poor.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Whatever you bind on earth is bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth is loosed in heaven.” As redeemed saints of God, we are in the business of loosening. We don’t always see transformation as radical as Zacchaues’, but repentance is usually incremental. Just as when we work to undo a tight knot, each loosening helps to loosen another bond, until the knot falls away.

There is no work more holy than helping to bring about repentance in one another – which means we also need to stay aware of our own stuff, our own sin, and ask forgiveness as needed. And as forgiveness flows, so does generosity. Put more succinctly, lose the chains and loose some change!

10-27-16 - Opening Clams

I know little about clams, but I’m told the only way to get them to open their shells - other than violently, with a knife - is to place them in warm water. After awhile they’ll open of their own accord. That is a good way to describe how God loves us into opening our spirits, and how we can love really shut-down people into transformation. The hardest heart can be softened by acceptance and mercy, just as the softest heart can be hardened by rejection and judgment.

I think that’s what Jesus did for Zacchaeus. His acceptance, signaled by coming to his house; his willingness to stand with him when no one else would, elicits not only repentance but an astonishing generosity: “Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’”

It’s easy to say “I’m sorry.” It’s a lot harder to make amends, to go back to people you’ve hurt and offer them restitution for what you’ve taken from them. Restitution is the visible fruit of true repentance. In this, Zacchaeus is a champion.

Those who disapproved of Jesus going to Zacchaeus’ house may have said, “By going to a ‘sinner’s’ house, Jesus is dignifying all tax collectors. His presence gives approval to wickedness. Better to isolate sinners than to tolerate them.” People say that in all sorts of issues. But if we isolate those who are destructive, where is the hope for transformation?

I'm reminded of the heat Jodie Foster took for hiring Mel Gibson after the many revelations about his anti-Semitic remarks and actions. She did not condone his views, but made a choice to stand with a friend – and so helped foster (sorry…) the possibility of transformation in him. The hardest heart can be melted by acceptance and mercy, as the softest heart can be hardened by rejection and judgment.

Jesus went to Zach’s house, not knowing that he would repent – perhaps inferring some openness from his tree-climbing. And his risk was rewarded, his grace met with not only sorrow but amendment of life and reversal of justice. Where Zach had taken money from the poor to appease the Romans, he was now giving half his fortune to the poor. And if there was fraud, he offered to make a four-fold restitution. That is an “I’m sorry” with teeth.

Do you know anyone isolated because of their destructive words or actions? We don’t need to affirm the behavior, just provide an environment where hearts can open, and see what happens. Is God is inviting you to give that gift to anyone?

If you’ve ever been a clam shut tight and found yourself in a bath of warm, accepting love, you know what it means.

10-26-16 - Bad Company

Zacchaeus may have been happy to hear Jesus say he was coming to his house – but no one else thought it a good move. Luke tells us, “All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’”

A sinner. It’s well and good to talk about the Kingdom of God and loving your neighbor as yourself, not to mention your enemies – but to actually go to the home of one of society’s most notorious villains? That’s a political third-rail move, guaranteed to get you in trouble with your followers. In our time, it might be working with sex offenders or drug lords to stop cycles of addiction and violence. Many people can see no humanity in people who abuse others, even if many who abuse are also victims. If you can categorize someone as an abuser, you can stop thinking of her as a person.

I believe Jesus stood with persons victimized, condemned the action and the damage caused – and also reached out to perpetrators. Jesus wasn’t interested in popularity – he was interested in the mission of God to reclaim and restore all humanity to wholeness. All humanity – even those who do their worst.

Jesus had a way of seeing past a person’s outward traits – illness, possession, greed, even violence. He did not confuse people with their diseases or disorders. Rather, he aligned himself with the core self within that person, and directed the power that made the universe to a person’s inner self, weak as it may have been. He saw who Zacchaeus was, apart from all the wickedness he perpetrated. He saw a broken child of God, not just an “extortioner” or a “sinner.”

He invites us to do no less. Sometimes that inner self is hard to find. In people who are far gone on the path of addiction, for instance, the core self may be very, very faint. Yet we can trust that it is there, because this person is a child of God. And we are called to offer our strength and our will and our love to that core self – not to the outer behavior, but to the inner self. In Christ, no one is beyond repair, not Zacchaeus, not anyone, unless they absolutely choose to be.

Can you think of someone who seems beyond redemption, who is so destructive to herself or others, it’s hard to see any humanity? Might be someone you know of; might be a category you’ve lumped a whole lot of people into. In prayer today, can you hold that person or group in God’s light for a few moments, asking God to rescue them from who they are becoming? To restore them to who they truly are?

Is God calling you to take action to reach out to such a person? It can be like extending your hand to an angry dog – you might get nipped at. Maybe Jesus says, "Do it anyway."

The baptismal covenant Episcopalians affirm asks, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” We can’t respect someone’s dignity if we lump them into a group of others – saints or sinners. We need the courage to see each person on their own terms.

The answer to that question is, “I will, with God’s help.” God’s help is there for us when we’re at our worst, and God’s help is here for us to help others become their best.

10-25-16 - Who's Coming to Dinner?

“Jane, can we bring the bishop to your house for lunch?” It was a Sunday, the day after a freak March windstorm had left much of Stamford without power, and our bishop was making an annual Visitation. We held worship in a dimly lit church, and shivered through a coffee-less coffee hour, but the only place with electricity where the Vestry might have lunch with the Bishop was Jane’s house. Jane is of the generation that views a bishop’s visit as a Big Deal, worthy of weeks of cleaning and polishing – but she said yes, tidied as best she could, got out the fine china, and hosted us. Ready or not.

It must have been a shock for Zacchaeus, sitting in that tree. 
“When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’”

A shock, and a challenge – Jesus, such a celebrity, he gathers crowds as he moves through town, is coming to Zach’s house. It would be like being told the President or a Nobel laureate was coming over. It’s exciting, and a social coup – and ratchets up the pressure. What am I going to cook? When did I last clean the bathroom? What will we talk about?

Besides, Zach was safely hidden up that tree. Now he’s going to have to meet this guy he wanted so badly to see. He responds with grace: “So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.”

How would you respond, if you got an email from Jesus today: “I’m coming to your house this evening.” Would you want to see him? Would you try to put if off?
Would you invite anyone else, or just enjoy the chance to talk to him by yourself?

We might imagine it in prayer today – envision that scenario: the note, the preparation, your response, the greeting at the door… What happens? What do you talk about? See how fully you can place yourself into that scene and see where it goes. It’s another way of connecting with Jesus in our imagination.

I suspect Jesus does send us that message, every day. It goes something like this: 
“I want to come to your house. I want to spend some time with you. I want you to get off the sidelines, out of the bleachers and into the game with me. I’m not just some guy in a book or a stained glass window. I’m the one who made you, who became like you so you could become like me. I love you more than you can ever imagine, and I can transform your life if you let me in. I can transform the world through you if you let me. Can I come to your house, to your heart, today?”

Maybe we always say “yes.” Maybe we say “later,” or “maybe.” We don’t have to clean the house or cook a fancy meal. Jesus knows how messy our lives are, how full, and how beautiful. What he wants is our time and attention.

He's the most life-changing dinner guest we could ever host. Every time.

10-24-16 - Up a Tree

In last week’s gospel, Jesus told a parable about a fictitious tax collector, a prototype. This week we get to watch as he meets the real thing. Here’s how Luke begins the story:

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

As I've said before, tax collectors were considered the lowest form of life by their fellow Jews, hated collaborators in the oppressive Roman tax system. In order to enforce collection – and extract enough over the required amount to make a living themselves – a tax collector had to be powerful and mean. Think Mafia “protection” goons, and we start to get the picture. And here’s Zacchaeus – a chief tax collector in the big town of Jericho! And wealthy. He must be very, very good at his despicable job.

Then we learn something sort of endearing – that this notorious man is so short, and so anxious to see Jesus as he passes through town, he climbs up a tree to get a glimpse. How sweet. Add the fact hat generations have learned his story through a Sunday School ditty, "Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he/He climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see.” It's hard to think of a “wee little man” as scary and villainous.

So which is he? All of the above, and more? This story does not lend itself to either/or thinking; we’ll dig a bit this week. Today, let’s focus on the tree-climbing. I don’t know too many adults who climb trees. How badly did this guy want to see Jesus? What did he want from Jesus? Is his ascent an indication of repentance, or curiosity – or did he want to observe without having to engage Jesus?

What or who might you climb a tree to see?
If you heard that person were passing through your town – would you try to get close?
If you had a chance to get close to Jesus in a crowd – what would you say? Would you ask for healing? Explanations? Forgiveness?

Today, in prayer, try to imagine the scene, with Jesus coming through your area. Place yourself in the crowd. What unfolds in your imagination? Stay with it... This is one way to pray, to imagine an encounter with Jesus in some of the places the Gospels tell us he was – then it’s more like talking to a person and less like sending thoughts into the ether.

Like Zacchaeus, sometimes we need to change our perspective to see Jesus more clearly. This week we’re being invited up a tree – what might we see from there?

10-21-16 - Losing Our Religion

Exploring Jesus' parable about the two men praying in the temple, I have not been very tolerant of the self-righteous Pharisee. Neither was Jesus. But let’s give him a little credit. He was motivated to please God in the way he knew best – by following the rules and upholding the whole system that made the rules important. Perhaps the rules, the Law, had become his object of worship, obscuring the offer of relationship God gave along with the Law – “You shall be my people, and I will be your God.”

That Pharisee might represents Religion – capitalization intended, as befits an abstraction. And the tax-collector represents faith. Religion can be a wonderful vehicle for faith – but we should never mistake it for the God it helps us to worship. Uncompromising allegiance to words in Scripture or church tradition can blind us to the movements of our Living God. These are God-given gifts – but when we worship the gifts more than the Giver, we miss the next new thing God is doing. And God is always doing a new thing.

I don’t think human beings can get away from religion, hard as we might try to just be “spiritual.” It is human nature to create structures that allow us to repeat profound experiences that made us feel good, and to stay in community with others who have shared those profound experiences. Before you know it, we’re worshipping at the same time every week, using the same words or songs or rituals that “worked” last week to mediate an encounter with God. And if they don’t work as well this week – maybe we double down and get even more rigid.

Meanwhile, God is saying, “Over here, guys – I’m here now.” God is rarely in the last place we saw Him. She’s almost always on the move, doing a new thing, singing a new song, revealing a new facet of her identity.

Today, in prayer, let’s do another set of lists. Name one list “Religion” and the other “Relationship.” What activities would you classify “religion?” Which ones are life-giving? Which ones are stale, or like trying to wear someone else’s clothes; they don’t fit, or feed your faith?

Now, what activities would you name as “relationship building,” ones that enhance your relationship with God? Do any items on the first list get in the way of the second?

The other day the great REM song, Losing My Religion*, ran through my head. Doesn’t have much to do with religion (According to Wikipedia, band members said "losing my religion" is a southern US expression that means losing one's temper or composure), but it’s catchy as all get out, and a great theme song as we seek to unfetter ourselves from all that is human-made about our interaction with God, and open ourselves to the new winds of the Spirit.

The greatest gift we can give ourselves, and each other, is to lose our “religion” and open our arms wide to the relationship with God that Christ made possible for us through the Holy Spirit. All religion will pass away – but that relationship is ours for eternity.

*not the official video, which I feel distracts too much from the song…

10-20-16 - Justified

How do you feel when you put on an elegant, sumptuous garment? I find it changes the way I think about myself. That is one way of understanding justification.

Jesus, in ending his story, clearly sides with the repentant sinner, saying, “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other…” Why was the more “sinful” tax collector justified and the self-righteous Pharisee not? What does Jesus mean by “justified?”

Justification is key to understanding what it means to be saved by God’s grace. It has to do with being “set right.” Take a clue from how we format our documents – left, right- or center-justified. We often use the word as a defense – “Well, I was justified in saying that…” The law even has a category called “justifiable homicide.”

As a theological term, though, it goes even deeper– it means to be made righteous, aligned. It is not something we can do for ourselves – it is God’s work. It's not even our own righteousness that is conferred on us, but Christ’s. That’s why the “sinful” man was justified – in his humility he was able to receive grace, where the contemptuous "righteous" man could not.

Martin Luther had a wonderful image for this – he called it the “The Glorious Exchange,” in which Christ, the King and Lord of all, left his glory and took on our beggars’ clothes, our sin and self-orientation. But in this Exchange Christ does more than take on our lowly status – he gives us his. He takes our rags and dresses us instead in his royal robes of silk and velvet, his perfect righteousness. We get clothed in his holiness; it covers us, redefines us. That is how God sees us, through Christ, as already holy.

How would it feel to put on a royal robe? Imagine it, in prayer. How might you walk differently today, knowing you are secretly royalty? How might you talk differently?
What do you pray about, knowing you have handed off everything that mars your inner beauty and received a cosmic make-over? What would it take to believe we have received such a gift?

We are not recipients of a hand-out, but beloved children of God, reclaimed and redeemed at great cost. God didn’t send a check for us – He sent a Son, whom we know as Jesus the Christ; who came so that we might know Life. As we receive the gift, we get to be Christ, his Body, his hands and feet and eyes and voice bearing light to a world that needs it.

We can’t earn this gift, or repay it – we can only receive it. Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet, theologian and Sufi mystic, wrote: “God accepts counterfeit money.”
And God exchanges it for gold: You. Me. Infinitely precious, forever justified.

10-191-16 - Self-Appraisal

“God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” This is the prayer of the tax-collector in Jesus’ parable. It forms the heart of what is known as the Jesus Prayer, practiced by hesychasts striving to pray without ceasing. (Should I make you google it? Naah – I’ll tell you: hesychasm is the “prayer of the heart,” a spiritual discipline that seeks to make prayer constant, internalized on the breath and undergirding daily activity. It is what Franny was attempting in J.D. Salinger’s classic Franny and Zooey, a favorite of mine.)

The fuller Jesus Prayer is “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a [miserable] sinner.” It is short and clearly evokes the distinction between us and Christ. To some it smacks of low self-esteem, guilt and shame, and all those icky feelings that have made Christianity so unappealing to so many. What happened to “You are so precious?” Is Jesus really commending self-degradation?

Jesus is commending self-appraisal. This is a prayer from the gut at a moment of self-realization. It represents one stage of repentance, well-described by another theological term: compunction. Compunction is so often accompanied by its buddy, “dread,” that I think of them in tandem, a sort of cabaret act of the soul – “And now, let’s welcome to our spotlight, ‘Compunction and Dread!’”

Compunction is that sick feeling we get when we realize we’ve hurt someone, or something we’ve done or said has been exposed, or we feel inwardly convicted. It is not fun – which is why dread comes swimming up close behind it, bringing the fear of consequences to the surface. At such moments we are most keenly aware of our need for mercy.

That is the heart of repentance, or – look out, here comes another theological term – “metanoia, ” meaning, turning. We turn from patterns and behaviors and thinking that lead to pain and separation from God, ourselves, and others. We turn toward the source of mercy, grace and truth. Some ancient baptismal liturgies embodied this, as the candidates faced west while renouncing their past and turned toward the east in affirming Christ as Lord.

Repentance does not mean labeling ourselves unworthy or usurping God’s role as judge. It is truth-telling, house-cleaning, pointing out places of pain or self-reliance, inviting the Holy Physician to heal what is diseased in our spirits. Because we are able to call ourselves sinners, we can also call ourselves beloved, saints of God. There’s another great duo, “Sinners and Saints.” Simul justus et peccator, Luther said, “At once justified and sinner.”

In prayer today, ask the Spirit to show you where you feel ashamed, guilty or scared. Sometimes these are irrational, not tied to any real areas of sin in us; sometimes they’re legit and we need to own them. There is something bracing and energizing about facing ourselves and inviting God into the shadow places. If that sense of compunction comes up – ask God to lift it, to fill you with love and grace.

“Sinner” is not the last word on who we are. It’s just a step along the way to transparency.
God has the last word, and it is “beloved.”

10-18-16 - Good and Sorry

I said last week, “God doesn’t want us good; God wants us real.” Over-simple, perhaps, but it is how Jesus is shown in the Gospels. He is generous, compassionate and forgiving with the repentant whose sins are outward and obvious, and he is often scathing toward the “good folks,” the Pharisees and scribes who were so sure they were pleasing God.

We see two kinds of righteousness in this week’s story: one based on doing the right things, the other on repenting for doing the wrong things. Jesus clearly stands with the second, suggesting that the way into the Life of God is through clear-eyed humility, not legalistic moral rigor. This message was so radical, it got him killed. It is still radical, and often ignored most by those who call themselves his followers.

Legalism is easier than humility. Humans tend to prefer success to failure, rules to ambiguity. To be honest about the ways we sin “in thought, word and deed” is much tougher than pushing those realities away and citing all the rules we’ve managed to keep. The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable extolls his good works, his fasting and tithing – and the fact that he is not a thief, rogue, adulterer or extortioner. But those are easy sins to peg. Jesus goes deeper, suggesting that, in his pride and contempt for those weaker than himself, the Pharisee is actually less righteous than the low-life tax collector.

Of course, it’s not either/or. Christ-followers are called to both good works and repentance. The question is, what comes first? A focus on “keeping the rules” puts the emphasis on our action, not God’s. It often leads to anxiety and pride. But when we start from repentance, the action is with God, whose grace and forgiveness we need. And as we gratefully receive God’s grace, we often respond with compassion for those around us. I would say repentance often leads to good works, but good works rarely lead to repentance.

Want to try a little inventory? Make two columns. On one write everything you think makes you a “good person.” On the other, everything you feel ashamed of or insecure about. Can you live with knowing both columns tell a truth about you? Not the whole truth, but truth?

Maybe we can offer God the “sin” column, trusting that God’s forgiveness is here before we even confess.

Now, the “good works” column – take a good look. Do you do all those things from your heart, or because you think you’re “supposed to?” What would you take out of that list if you followed your heart? (I admit, I'm afraid to do this exercise!)

We can choose to be self-righteous, or self-aware – generally not at the same time. Seeing ourselves clearly makes it a little difficult to be self-righteous. And why work that hard anyway, when God’s giving it away for free?

10-17-16 - Court is in Session

I used to be hyper-critical of myself (and others… those go hand-in-hand…). One day I realized I had a trial going on inside my head 24/7. This court was always in session; the judge never called a recess. The prosecutors were vehement, the defense attorney was, well, defensive, always trying to excuse… it was exhausting, trying to justify myself.

A new parable this week; this one is not hard to interpret. Luke telegraphs the message up front: “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” That pretty much summed up the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, so focused on keeping the Law in minute detail they seemed to lose sight of both God and their neighbor.

Not much plot to this story – it’s more a situation with two well-known “types”: a Pharisee (professional do-gooder) and a tax-collector (corrupt extortionist, scum of the earth). Both are praying in the temple, but the Pharisee thanks God that he is so much more holy than other people, “especially people like that tax collector over there.” The tax collector, meanwhile, is abjectly repentant, pleading God’s mercy. Jesus says that this is the one who will go home “justified… for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

This parable is not a call to be modest or circumspect about our gifts or accomplishments. It’s a reminder to be clear about whose judgment on us matters: not our own, and not other peoples, but God’s. The Pharisee in Jesus’ story, even as a caricature, is an excellent likeness of those who usurp God’s role as judge, who dare to declare themselves worthy and others unworthy. (And it’s just as wrong to declare ourselves “bad” and others “better.”).

The Pharisee makes a case for his own goodness – his fasting, tithing, religiosity. And that case is never enough – it has to be augmented by comparison to someone less “good." That’s a problem with self-righteousness – we never get to rest our case. We have to keep marshaling evidence, comparing ourselves. The tax collector, as numerous as his sins may be, is honest before God.

So – which are you more like today? If you feel unsure of your righteousness as a child of God, why?
What evidence do you feel compelled to present? What does God say as you pray about that?
Do you find yourself comparing yourself to other people in order to feel better about yourself?
If there’s anyone you feel is beneath you… what if you pray for that person or group today.
Try on the idea that you are no better or worse than another – though your actions might be.

We have received the Spirit of Christ and his righteousness – we are worthy because of who he is. We can silence the prosecutor and fire the defense attorney; in fact, we can disband the whole court, because God has provided us an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to stand with us. Actually, our case has already been decided – we’re good to go. Jesus said so.

10-14-16 - Wrestling with God

The Bible is full of people fighting with God – negotiations, laments, indignation, door-slamming fights. And guess what? God doesn’t go away. God hangs in, stays with, sometimes appears to change course (or was that the plan all along?) In other words, we meet God as One who loves – actively, passionately, fully. Those whom God seems to choose for special blessing or purpose are often far from perfect – but they are open to a robust relationship with God.

One of these was Jacob, the wily grandson of Abraham, twin of Esau, who managed to secure both his brother’s birthright and their father Isaac’s blessing. The tales of his adventures, marriages, schemes, setbacks and successes is richly told in Genesis 25-33. One such story is appointed for Sunday.

Toward the end of his life, Jacob is returning home with his vast family and flocks, and he hears Esau is still looking for him. Fearful, he prepares to encounter the twin he cheated so long ago. He sends his family and everything he owns on ahead. The storyteller is succinct: “Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” We don’t know who the adversary is, but Jacob holds his own and at daybreak the man wants to leave. But Jacob is tough; he won’t release him until he receives a blessing.

The man tells him, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed." Imagine that! The very name of the nation that will bear God’s blessing means “has striven with God” or “prevails with God.” Talk about an invitation….

Are there issues in your life you want to take up with God? Times when you have struggled with God? Did you wrestle through to a place of resolution – or is it still locked away in you, holding you back from true intimacy in faith? Bring it out! Forget the ettiquette; God wants us to be real, to bring all of what we feel into our interaction with the Holy One. I hear God say, “Bring it! All of it. I love who you are. I want you to be true before me.”

And if we’re really open in this relationship, we might also find our desires or demands changing, as we are shaped by our encounters with the Holy. That is the goal of the spiritual life: to become ever more truly who we are, who God made us to be. In the process, we shed some of who we’re not.

I like the story about a little girl who used to stop on her way to school and watch a sculptor fashioning a statue of a lion from a block of marble. Week after week she watched as the animal took shape. When it was nearly finished, she stopped to look one day, and said to the sculptor, “Hey, mister, how’d you know there was a lion in there?”

God knows who we are. As we allow ourselves to struggle with God – and to rest in God – we allow all that is not truly “us” to be whittled away, until we stand in our truest identity, fully known, truly loved. Sometimes at that point God gives us a new name, our true name….

10-13-16 - Have a Little Faith

Talk about burns – how’s this for a closing: 
"And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" 
That’s what Jesus says at the end of his story.

Faith. That again. Isn’t it nicer when the focus is on God’s action – or delayed action? With this parting shot, Jesus swerves the lens neatly back to us. That persistent widow in his story, annoying as she may have been, was also an examplar of faith. She had faith in a system that thus far had yielded no justice. But she kept at it.

How about us? I know many people who turn away from God because their suffering, or the suffering of others, has not been alleviated, as though that were the only criteria for belief. I acknowledge the reality of that pain – AND I want to invite people with that viewpoint to widen their field of vision. On any given day, most of us can see many blessings and answers to prayer and signs of God-life, as well as the persistence of injustice and challenges. We are invited to take it all in, to give praise in all circumstances, to allow the blessings to strengthen our faith for the challenges.

As I wrote this, John Hiatt’s song, Have a Little Faith in Me started up in my head. Though it is a love song from a man to a woman, I can imagine our loving God singing it to us:
When the road gets dark and you can no longer see
Just let my love throw a spark, and have a little faith in me…

Today in prayer, instead of making lists and thinking of all the areas where we want to see God’s justice, let’s recall God’s faithfulness and our own faith. If you want to try a new prayer experience, play the song and imagine God singing it to you (okay, if John Hiatt as God is a little too much, you could just read the words…)

God has chosen to work through our faith, weak or strong as it may be at any given moment. It is a key ingredient in bringing forth justice. So remember. Remember the times when you’ve known God’s faithfulness, and dare to have a little faith, one more time, for Jesus to find.

10-12-16 - Justice-Makers

“Justice delayed is justice denied.” This expression can sound tunnel-visioned, oblivious to what are in some cases competing claims, or the need for a process of culture change. Or maybe it’s always true, and those less hurried are simply benefiting more from the status quo. “It ain’t that simple,” they say. But to those waiting for justice, it ain’t that complicated.

After telling how the judge is eventually worn down by the widow’s persistence, Jesus says: “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”

My reaction is, “Quickly? Not delayed? How many have cried out to God day and night, century after century, and still the powerful dominate the weak, and the rich horde resources that keep others poor, and the corrupt steal justice from the powerless..." What do we do with these words?

Well, we can trust, and wait. Chalk it up to the eternal mysteries and keep our focus on all the times we do see justice break through. That’s important, to keep our focus on where God is. And we can go deeper, to try to understand better what Jesus was saying. What if we flip it? What if the God figure in the parable isn’t the judge, but the widow? If we might be any character in a parable, so could God.

How does it change our interpretation if we see God as that helpless widow? We could say that, in giving us free will, God has stayed his own power, and relies on us to choose justice over self-gratification. In the Bible, we see God over and over and over again asking his chosen ones to turn back to him, to righteousness and truth and integrity and justice. And over and over again in those stories humankind refuses. That’s where our belief in Christ’s incarnation is grounded.

What if God, persistent as that widow, is asking us to bring justice into being? What if, rather than waiting for justice to come from “on high,” we engage more as justice-makers, participating with God in restoring all things and all people to wholeness? We may feel helpless in the face of injustices but we aren’t called to work alone. Enough people working together with God’s power can overcome any injustice.

If you were to see yourself as a maker of justice, where would you start? (Or continue…) Somewhere in your life or community, among friends or acquaintances? With a national or global issue?

And what do you see as your obstacles to bringing forth justice in that situation?
Who do you need as allies and reinforcements? List some...
Who are your adversaries – and how might you pray for them?

If this feels overwhelming, remember this: God has entrusted us with the ministry of peace and justice, and God has equipped us with gifts, colleagues – and the power of the Holy Spirit. With the power that made the universe working in us – we can bring about justice. Sooner. Together.

10-11-16 - From the Shadows

Interpreting parables can be similar to interpreting dreams – on some level, we can find ourselves in all the characters, and meaning shifts according to who we identify with most. So, in this week's parable, are you the widow, or the judge?

When we feel we’re on the wrong side of justice, powerless, unheard, victims of a system we can’t control – we identify with this widow. It’s hard to get more powerless than widows in Jesus’ day – they were at the mercy of relatives or charity. What situations in your life make you feel powerless? We all have some area in which we don’t get what we want or need, and we get tired of asking. It’s okay to feel a righteous anger over injustice – and it’s okay to be angry at God.

Or do you identify with this judge, as unsavory a character as he may be? Are you tired of people haranguing you to fix everything? Maybe you think this widow ought to take more responsibility for her life. Maybe (the story doesn’t tell us…) the opponent has a good case, and ruling in favor of the widow is not the most just thing, but she’s worn you down.

In many situations we are sitting in the power seat, denying other people resources or justice or simply a hearing. When we hoard assets or exert socio-economic privilege, we’re like that judge. When we fail to honor the humanity in another person, no matter how annoying or destructive we may find them, we’re sitting on that bench.

Neither of these characters seem very appealing to me. Perhaps Carl Jung would say they represent our “shadow” sides. Those feelings are part of us, and the more we’re able to bring them into the light, the better we can be free of them. And freedom is our goal in the spiritual life.

So… let’s name some things we feel helpless about, angry at, sick of. Tell God how you feel. God doesn’t want us to be polite – God wants us to be real. If these are things you often pray about, examine that. Is there another angle from which to look at them? Action you could take? Anyone else who might join you in that prayer?

Then let's switch places and assume the judgment seat. Who is asking you for justice or mercy – or your time? Who don’t you want to be bothered with? What resources and power do you have that you might exercise on someone else’s behalf? If you feel forgiveness is needed, ask for that. Even more, ask God to show you God’s solutions for those people so you can join God in helping them.

This is hard work, to look at ourselves clearly. But the light we shine into our shadows is the love of God in Christ, a fierce love that makes us truer than we knew we could be.

10-10-16 - Knockin' on Heaven's Door

God shows up in different guises in Jesus’ parables: a forgiving father, an absentee landlord, a generous vineyard owner, an exacting manager, the host of a wedding banquet, to name a few. And sometimes Jesus seemed to use a negative example, not to say “this is what God is like,” but rather, “If even someone this lousy can behave in a generous way, how much more will your Father in Heaven?”

So our gospel story this week features an unjust judge “who neither feared God nor had respect for people,” being pestered for justice by a persistent widow. He finally gives in and judges in her favor – not because he wants to see justice done, or because he has compassion, but because he wants to get rid of her. Jesus says, “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?”

Luke introduces this as a “parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” Jesus suggests we make our needs known to God and keep on asking, day and night. Hey, shouldn't once be enough? Is God deaf? Not listening? Keeping up with his 950 zillion Facebook friends? What kind of a complaint department is this? What kind of justice?

Let’s assume that God knows what God is doing, and that Jesus is conveying truth about God. What benefit could there be to persistence in prayer? That depends on what we consider the purpose of prayer. If it is to get what we ask for, we often find it frustrating not to see the results we desire. If our desire is to draw closer in relationship to God, to open our spirits to deeper understanding and belovedness, then we can pray for the same thing over and over and see what changes in us as well as in the circumstances of the prayer.

Is there something you haven't dared to pray for, which your heart desires? Something that seems impossible? Start today, in faith and humility – and be persistent.

Is there something you feel you’ve prayed for repeatedly, and haven’t seen realized? Tell God how you feel about that… and maybe ask if there’s another way to pray about it. Is God showing you something underneath that prayer?

Sometimes not seeing the desired outcome right away invites us to reexamine the prayer: why do we want that? Does it involve God controlling another person’s actions (the one thing I believe God will not do…)? Can we see some deeper good in our not receiving that desired outcome?

These questions don’t always get answered – and then we’re back at learning to wait on the Lord. But we don’t have to wait passively. We can wait engaged, persistent, insistent, standing on the promises we have received – that the most immediate fruit of sincere prayer is the peace of Christ, that we pray in the presence of Christ, that we can be conduits of the power of Christ.

Then we can invite God to reshape that prayer in us until it becomes God’s prayer. Those always get answered.

10-7-16 - Well and Whole

“Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
The phrase “made you well” also means “saved you.” The healing of our bodies and healing of our spirits is a package deal with God. We can choose to open ourselves to the deeper healing of our spirits, the eternal healing – or stop at wellness in the here and now.

All ten men were healed of leprosy; nine returned to their “here and now” lives. Something made this one come back to seek a connection with the Holy One, to throw himself at Jesus’ feet and say thank you. He receives a deeper healing, as Jesus proclaims him whole in body, mind and spirit.

Is it his faith or Jesus’ word or a combination that made him well? That is mystery. The faith we bring is certainly a large part of the equation, larger than I’m comfortable with. Wouldn't it be simpler if it were all up to God? Yet God seems to work through us, to have us be conduits of his power and love, as we invite it to flow through us in faith, for ourselves, for each other, for the world.

Faith is the doorway to transformation. As we allow God’s love to flow through us, we also are healed and drawn closer. I believe Jesus is always inviting us into a deeper relationship with God - not just assent to beliefs, or participation in the life of a religious community, but participation in the life of God. That’s where we get the “holes in our soul” filled, and find meaning and purpose beyond our own lives.

In our story, these two men from different ways of seeing meet in the zone between their lands. The Samaritan seeks a relationship with Jesus the Jew, traveling through.

We too can meet Jesus, who is always traveling through our lives. Maybe he’s just outside our comfort zone. Today, you might offer him your thanks and your worship, and ask him to be more real to you in prayer. It helps to be still, and set some time aside, and be open. Be attentive to any words or images or prompts that you sense. Sometimes it’s just stillness. Sometimes there’s more.

The leper-turned-disciple is a model for us. He is grateful, humble and faithful. And Jesus sends him on his way, whole. As God sees us through Christ, so are we.

10-6-16 - Miracles on the Go

Have you heard the one about the person desperate for a parking spot – late for a meeting, stressed to the max, circling the block, praying, “Dear God, I need a parking space. Please!!!” Turns the corner – lo and behold, there’s a space, right in front of the building. Pulls in, glances skyward and waves, “Never mind – found one.”

One came back. Nine kept walking. Jesus noticed the differential – “‘Were not ten made clean? The other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’”

All ten set out in faith – they weren't healed beforehand. “As they went, they were made clean.” That’s what it means to walk by faith – miracles happen as we go. Twelve baskets of bread and fish just kept not running out as 5000 were fed; cisterns of water became finest wine as they were drawn off.

Nine took the gift in stride. Only one turned back – back to the place of his suffering, the place of alienation and degradation – to praise God, to thank the stranger whose word made him clean. He knew that only God could heal like this, and he wanted to connect with this man in whom God’s power was so strong.

A Water Daily reader told me she kept a gratitude journal, challenging herself to note at least four things each day for which she is grateful. In time, the notations multiplied and she set herself a new challenge: to write down each day where or in whom she saw God. Tuning our inner eyes and ears to know, “Ah… that was a God-moment;" learning to distinguish Holy Spirit nudges from our own intuition; seeing God’s love or forgiveness in another person, opens our spirits to a greater awareness of just how active God is around us. It’s not occasional – it’s all the time. Soon, we come to recognize what we call “miracles” are just the way God works - as we invite God’s power and love into our situations.

I invite you to try on either or both of those spiritual practices for two weeks, a gratitude journal or a “where did I perceive God” journal. They are training exercises for spiritual fitness. They build up our strength and resilience, tone our faith muscles, hone our faith senses.

When we name our gifts, we remember the Giver – and then it’s natural to come back in praise and gratitude. And then, my oh my, we find the Giver has even more for us...

10-5-16 - Grateful

One in ten. In an age when we can measure rates of return on everything from email “opens” to dividend yields, maybe God says, “Ten percent ain’t bad…” glad that one in ten could look past the amazing wonder of this gift, to offer praise to the Giver:

And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.

As Jesus tells the story, this is not just any “one in ten” – this one is a double outcast, a leper and a Samaritan. In Gospel stories about Samaritans who “get it,” the writers always seem to point out their ethnicity, like, “Can you believe it?” Like when Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won the Oscars – wasn’t enough that they were great actors, they were great black actors, winning top awards. Can you imagine?

The other nine presumably couldn’t wait to get to the temple, be certified as clean, and get back to their homes, families, lives. This one turns back, praising God loudly. He throws himself at Jesus’ feet and thanks him. He is exuberant, extravagant in his praise and thanksgiving.

The messages of this story run much deeper than “Don’t forget to say thank you…,” but that is one. When we say thank you, it multiplies the gift we have received. The giver is affirmed for her generosity, and we in a sense receive the gift more fully as we make our delight known. I don’t know if anyone has tested the chemical or neurological effects of gratitude, but I’d bet there are some.

Gratitude is the ground for joy. It turns our focus outward. When we cultivate it as a habit, it can change our interior landscape and make the people around us feel appreciated. If we’re not already intentional about it, let’s practice.

What gift of God do you want to say “thank you” for today?
What person close to you would you like to thank? Maybe write a note or buy a gift for?
What stranger would you like to thank today? What if we all made a point of telling our barristas or dry cleaners or check-out clerks or IT fixers or accountants, “I really appreciate the job you do – it makes my life better.” Think how a wave of gratitude could ripple around the world in a matter of hours. Let’s start a Facebook trend!

While you’re at it, spend a little time thanking yourself for taking the time to talk to God, to listen, to notice God’s gifts around you. Be extravagant in giving thanks.

We can even throw ourselves at Jesus’ feet, like runners sliding into Home…

10-4-16 - Transformed As We Go

What was it was like for those ten lepers as they went along the road toward Jerusalem? They called out to Jesus, “Have mercy on us!” 
“When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’”

Why the priests? The religious laws concerning skin diseases required that a priest certify that the person was no longer diseased. (I’m glad that’s not part of my job description…) Jesus could heal them, but to be reinstated into the community, they had to go through those rituals.

So they went. – “And as they went, they were made clean.” Did one person happen to glance at his hand and see his skin looked different? Or notice he had feeling in his feet again? Did they glance at each other in shock and wonder as their very skin became transformed, new?

One of Sunday’s reading from the Hebrew Bible tells the great story of Naaman, a Syrian army commander who contracts leprosy. A Hebrew slave girl tells his wife that there is a prophet in Israel who can heal him, and he goes to find Elisha, who sends word that he should dip himself seven times in the Jordan. Naaman is outraged at this “treatment,” but his servants prevail upon him: “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, `Wash, and be clean'?" So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan... his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.”

So often we think healing is complicated and arduous; that can be our experience with surgical or chemical procedures, protracted rehabilitations. Healing in the Bible seems so ridiculously simple – God or God’s representative simply says the word and it is done. Could it really be so easy?

More often than we think. When I remember to invite God to release healing in me and in those I pray with, I often see it happen quickly. What’s hard is believing – and that gets much easier when we see it. That’s why it’s so important that we pray for healing for each other and for the world – the evidence begins to pile up.

Sure, at times illness persists or recurs – there is mystery here, and a temporal reality of decline and death. But our baseline can be the healing we do see, rather than what we don’t. We can plant that seed of faith and give thanks even before we see the healing, and then with each lessening of symptoms or improvement give thanks all the more. “First the blade, then the ear, then the full corn.”

Try it today: pray in faith for healing in something or someone you didn’t think it was possible. And then keep giving thanks over the next few days and weeks, making note of any change or improvement you see. We can keep our energy on what God is doing, even before we see it.

That’s how we build up our faith muscles. And one day we look up and notice we’re transformed.

10-2-16 - Keeping Our Distance

This week’s Gospel reading finds Jesus outside the lines again – traveling to Jerusalem through a region between Galilee (home base) and Samaria (“Other-Land”).

As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, 'Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!'

Why were they keeping their distance? Because leprosy – often a catch-all term for skin diseases of various sorts – was considered very contagious. Having ,any such blemish made one ritually unclean, unfit for temple or community activities. (If you want to read Mosaic law about skin diseases, their treatment and the lengths to which someone who had been healed had to go to be reinstated into full community, read Leviticus 13 and 14 – and 15, if you want to get into really gross stuff....)

Lepers had to keep away from other people, so they often lived in small groups outside villages. But these ten must have known something about Jesus, because they call him by name, they call him “Master,” and, “Have mercy on us!”

Who lives on the outskirts of our communities, exiled by their own diseases, choices – or what they fear we think of them? Is anyone calling us, who bear the name and ministry of Christ, saying, “Have mercy?” Someone of a different nationality or ethnicity? A stranger, or someone we find strange? Maybe someone who is poor or living on the street? Or someone we know socially, whom we find annoying or troubling, and so we keep our distance?

Who comes to mind? What keeps her or him on the edges of your life? How do you feel about inviting that person closer? How are you being called to pray – for him/her? For yourself? Do you feel outside a community, wishing someone would hear your cry?

Jesus knows he can make these lepers whole, because the power of God flows through him. We have been promised that same power flows through us, as we are united in Christ and filled with his life. We have more to offer than we think to the people on the periphery of our vision, our life.

This week’s story is about healing, inside and out. As we journey through it, let’s start by opening our eyes to notice who’s calling to us from the edges, the margins, outside the lines. That’s so often where we find God.