6-1-17 - Upon All Flesh

“Flesh” is one of those words that mean one thing in churchy settings and another in the wider world. “Out there” it means bodily substance, plant or animal. In Bible World it refers to humanity, or human nature. This is how Peter uses it when, trying to interpret the furor at Pentecost, he locates this event as the fulfillment of a prophecy: “This is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.’”

We meet the Holy Spirit in the Hebrew Bible: hovering at creation, inspiring artisans, speaking through prophets. References increase in the New Testament, especially in Luke’s stories: prophetic utterances, Jesus’ conception, baptism and subsequent ministry. Jesus is often said to be “full of the Spirit” when miracles are recounted. The Spirit was not limited to Jesus, but Jesus, the Son of God in a human body, was the first human with the capacity to hold and wield the Spirit’s power full-strength. That’s why he could do such works that we think of as miracles, because faith and Spirit were undiluted in him.

I’ve come to believe that the chief goal of Jesus’ ministry with his followers was to help increase their capacity for holding and wielding the Spirit’s power, so that God’s life would be less diluted in them too. Far more than teaching them to “do,” He was equipping them to receive and live out the Life of God. If God wants this Life to be abundant in the world, God needs vessels with the breadth and depth to contain such love, such power.

What changes at Pentecost is that the presence of God is poured into human containers, ready or not. Jesus demonstrated that humankind could carry such divine power. Now it was up to those who were willing to have their capacity increased. And that could be any kind of person:

“…I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.”

What a prophecy of radical equality Joel offers! So Paul can say with confidence some years after this event, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Anyone with the willingness to receive the life of God can be filled with the Spirit. Even people we’re not fond of. Even us.

Who are some people in whom you discern the Spirit of God? Anyone on that list surprise you?
What sort of people do you think would not be eligible? Do you feel worthy yourself?
Are you interested in being filled with more God-Life?
How might you allow your capacity for faith and filling to be expanded? What’s in the way?

If Jesus was truly more about increasing his followers’ receptivity to the Spirit than about “training them for ministry,” what does that suggest about where the church can best put its energies? How might we better increase our collective capacity for living in the Spirit, as the Spirit lives in us? I don't think there is a person created by God whose capacity for the Spirit cannot be expanded.

Pentecost was only the beginning. We can live the rest of the story every day.

5-31-17 - Beaujolais Nouveau?

After the wind and the tongues as of fire (it doesn’t say they were actual flames…) and the speaking in other languages, everyone in Jerusalem knew something was up with these Jesus people: 
“All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’” 

How right they were. The apostles may not have been high on spirits – as Peter says, “Please! It’s only 9 o’clock in the morning!” – but they were filled with the Spirit of God, whom Jesus had earlier likened to new wine. When asked why his disciples didn’t fast as much as others he said people don’t pour new wine into old wineskins.
“If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” (Matt 9:17)

New wine is an apt metaphor for being filled with the Spirit. It tends to be more potent than wine that has aged longer and, being younger in the fermentation process, is more expansive; hence the risk of ruin to older, more brittle wine skins. It is less predictable, less controllable than more aged wines. I believe many churches’ discomfort with the Holy Spirit comes from a desire for control. Perhaps the wine of the Church has aged a little too long, become too smooth – good to the taste, and unlikely to offend anyone’s palate. The Gospel as Jesus proclaimed it was unpalatable to many.

We could use a dose of Holy Spirit fermentation. We could stand to have the Holy Spirit renewed in us, pushing what has become brittle in us and in our churches to expand and make room for the life of God. Otherwise we crack and break, the new wine goes running out, and we feel empty.

Every day we can ask for a deeper filling of the Holy Spirit. It can happen quite naturally as we say, “Come, Holy Spirit,” or “Come, Lord Jesus,” or as we pray in tongues or sing in praise or move our bodies in a posture of worship. And if there are certain spiritual gifts you crave – like healing, or faith, or more compassion, or boldness, ask for those gifts. The Spirit knows what gifts s/he wants us to have; it never hurts to ask for what we want to do the ministries we feel God is calling us to offer.

And if you feel the Spirit filling you to a degree that makes you uncomfortable, you can say so… I don’t think that happens often, though. Mostly we are filled to the capacity we have, until we are able to receive more.

We don’t have to worry about losing control, or beware the language of new birth. A few years ago, reading an obituary of actress Ann B. Davis, who played the housekeeper on the The Brady Bunch, I was interested to learn that she was a charismatic Episcopalian:

For many years after “The Brady Bunch” wound up, Davis led a quiet religious life, affiliating herself with a group led by [retired Episcopal Bishop William] Frey. “I was born again,” she told the AP in 1993. “It happens to Episcopalians. Sometimes it doesn't hit you till you're 47 years old.”

It can "hit us" at any age, in any denomination, especially if we’re open to it. And it happens more as we invite the Spirit to make that dimension of God’s life real in us.

5-30-17 - Phyrgia and Pamphylia

It’s the Pentecost Challenge: will the reader in church be able to pronounce all those Near Eastern place names? The passage in Acts – which details how a bunch of Galilean fisherman were suddenly able to speak languages they had never learned – sounds itself like another language. (I like Phyrgia and Pamphylia best... could make good cat names!)

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, 'Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.'

I wonder if the miracle was in the speaking or the hearing? Were the apostles speaking those languages, or could the hearers suddenly understand Aramaic as though it was their own tongue? Either way, people heard the Good News about “God’s deeds of power” in their own language and could choose for themselves if they wanted to follow the Way of Jesus. Luke tells us that 3,000 were baptized that day.

In what language do the people around you need to hear the Good News? Perhaps a first question is this: to whom do you feel called to share the Good News of God’s love? We're often uncomfortable sharing our spiritual selves with friends and family... what about acquaintances or clients or co-workers, or people hanging out in a park. Maybe your kids’ friends who populate your kitchen, or that person at the dry cleaners who looks so sad all the time. It might even be someone at church who understands the rituals and maybe not the love they're meant to express.

Whoever it is we talk with about “God’s deeds of power” has a language in which they are most comfortable. “Church talk” and Christian jargon are an increasingly foreign tongue to many who lack context to comprehend even words like “hymn” and “scripture” and “gospel,” not to mention cultural idioms like “Good Samaritan” or “walking on water.” What universal terms convey love and grace and acceptance and healing from shame and addiction and dis-ease, mental and physical? What languages do you hear around you?

A spiritual exercise for today: 
Get settled and centered in God’s presence, however you best do that. Ask, “Is there someone you want me to tell about your power and love?” Wait and see what names or faces come up.
If one does, ask, “What language do I need to speak to reach that person?” It’ll come.

We may not have a miracle of Pentecostal proportions, but Jesus did promise that his followers would have the words they need to share the Good News. The words that are given to you will emerge from your own stories of how you have experienced God’s deeds of power and love.

If you don’t feel you have… there’s another prayer.
And if you know you have – don’t you know someone who would like to hear that story?

5-29-17 - When the Spirit Comes

Normally, Water Daily reflects upon the Gospel reading appointed for the following Sunday. But the principal text for Pentecost – this week – is from Acts. So we will focus on that story, and address a Gospel passage on Friday.

Pentecost is one of the Big Three festivals of the Christian calendar, along with Christmas and Easter. Some call it the birthday of the Church; some the one Sunday when we focus on the Holy Spirit. I call it the day the promised power, peace and presence of God came to dwell in God’s people, initiating the Christian project in which we continue today.

Jesus’ followers stayed together during the forty days of his resurrection presence; they watched him ascend into heaven, and then returned to the city, where he told them to wait for gift promised by the Father, to be "clothed with power from on high." I doubt they knew what that meant, but they continued to wait and to worship, and to stay out of sight of the authorities. Pentecost was a major Jewish feast fifty days after Passover, and they were together in the upper room celebrating it when things got weird:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.

Maybe this “big entrance” by the Holy Spirit has caused some to expect strange manifestations whenever the Spirit shows up. And there can be phenomena like speaking in tongues, or prophesying, or weeping, or laughing hysterically, or feeling tremendous heat. We read about these in the New Testament and hear about them in churches even today. Often, though, the Spirit comes quietly, filling us, rendering us silent in awe and wonder and gratitude. Perhaps how the Spirit comes depends on what God’s purpose is in a given situation.

And it seems God had a big purpose for that festival day in Jerusalem. Did God schedule this outpouring of the Spirit for this holiday, when the city would be full of pilgrims from other lands? When their sudden, inexplicable ability to speak to visitors in their own languages would create the maximum stir? I guess that can go on our list of questions for God. A stir was caused. Jesus’ followers were released into a boldness and effectiveness they had never shown before. And a reform movement in the Jewish tradition, that might have been suppressed or died out of its own accord, became a phenomenon which forever changed the world.

Has it changed us? The Spirit is God’s promised gift to all who follow Christ. Our liturgies affirm that we receive the Spirit in baptism, in confirmation – indeed, at every celebration of the eucharist. Sometimes we need that gift to be released in us. If you would like to be more centered on Christ, more discerning of God’s leading, more effective in ministry, to name a few blessings, pray for the Spirit – already in you – to be further released today. Sometimes that works better when someone else prays it for us. Let’s start where we start, or continue where we continue, as the case may be.

It is the simplest prayer, and the most profound, and the only one we need: “Come, Holy Spirit.”

Then wait and notice. You might get sensations or images, or maybe you’ll feel nothing then and notice later. It’s God’s timing… and our willingness to receive. Come, Holy Spirit.

5-26-17 - Redirecting our Gaze

We often look for God in the last place we saw evidence of him. So it’s not surprising that the disciples were gazing up towards heaven as Jesus disappeared in the clouds. But just as at the tomb on Easter morning, when they were seeking Jesus’ body, two “men in white” appear once more to set them straight.

…as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’

In other words, “Don’t just stand here! Do what he told you to do.” And what he had told them to do was to wait in the city until they had been “clothed with power from on high.” So they did -

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying…. constantly devoting themselves to prayer.” 

And prayer is what they were doing when the Spirit came in power upon them ten days later – and after that, they were pretty much always on the move.

When we have an intense spiritual encounter or experience, we often want to rest in that, stay with it, try to get another "hit." And yet God almost always calls us forward, not back. The Spirit is moving, all around us, often in places and people we didn’t think to look. Part of our growth as apostles is learning to discern the activity of God, to note it, celebrate it, and – often – to join it.

Where have you seen evidence of God’s action lately? In whom? Did you read about something, or see something on the street, or have a conversation that struck a spark in you?

What if we made a practice, between now and Pentecost, of writing down each day one or two places or times when we became aware of the Spirit’s action? That would be a wonderful exercise to sharpen our spiritual senses.

If we want to see God, prayer and scripture and worship are part of the picture - but God is also out and about. What if prayer and scripture and worship became the ways we celebrated those God-sightings and became inspired to explore some more? That would energize the whole church!

5-25-17 - Testify

Jesus said to his disciples, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things." 

I like to joke that many Episcopalians seem to be enrolled in a Witness Protection Program, staying as low-profile as possible about their faith and spirituality. That can happen when we focus more on church than on Christ. Jesus calls those who would bear his name in the world to bear witness to his story, and to the power of God he taught and lived. And witnesses testify.

Maybe “testify” is a problematic word; a witness in a court room does not always tell her story voluntarily. So let’s leave that formal, sterile, judicial context and look at how we talk about things we’ve witnessed in every-day life. An amazing encounter with wildlife. That hysterical cat video. The adorable thing our granddaughter said. The two-mile back-up with no known cause we endured. The movie we just saw. The new restaurant we love. We bear witness all the time.

Can we talk as easily and naturally about our encounters with the Holy when we have them? Can we talk about our outreach activities and worship experiences and the joy of community? Can we talk about Jesus and his story, and how it interweaves with our stories… or better yet, how it frames our stories? Our faith is not meant to be one strand of our life, woven in with all the other strands – it is meant to be the frame in which the tapestry sits, the frame that holds and contains our work and relationships and play and rest. In other words, our “faith-life” is our life, not part of our life.

Bearing witness is not even something we have to “do.” We need only allow God to do it through us. This Witness Program ships with a built-in power supply. 
Jesus says in Acts: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
And in Luke: “And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high."

That power came in fullness at Pentecost. We receive it at baptism, confirmation, ordination - and any time we exercise faith in the name of Jesus. If we find ourselves in a situation that could get “spiritual,” we can say a quick prayer: “Okay, God, you promised power… give me the courage and the words.” Ordinary conversations and encounters can become charged with holiness and result in amazing outcomes.

Exercise your faith in prayer if called on. Tell a story that is meaningful to you. Talk about what Jesus means to you. We can do that in ways that give people space for their own experiences and views. A witness is not there to persuade, but to tell a story that is true and authentic.

"You will be my witnesses...to the ends of the earth.” From the perspective of Jerusalem in 33 CE (give or take...), we are the ends of the earth. If we’ve experienced blessing in God, let’s testify.

5-24-17 - The End - and the Beginning

Tomorrow is Ascension Day, a major church feast day - and ignored by most churches, unless they are named Ascension. Maybe this holiday gets less airplay because the event it commemorates is so odd. What shall we make of this dramatic departure of the already quite dramatically risen Christ? It's hard to imagine such a bizarre event, which only Luke records in any detail, in both his gospel and in Acts.

Yet this is the final scene in the incarnate life of the Son of God, and tells us how he gets back to the place from where our story says he started: the heavenly precincts, where from now on he will be seated in glory at the right hand of the Father. (...a somewhat sedentary eternity for one who moved around so much, and prompting the vexing question a child once asked me, "Who is on the left side of God?")

Jesus hung out for forty days after his resurrection, the Gospels tell us, instructing and inspiring his followers to believe the impossible, and to live as though they believed it. It’s hard to convince the world all things are possible with God while holed up in fear in a room in Jerusalem. So Jesus kept showing up and going through the lessons again. Even so, they didn't quite get it. Gathered with him just before he takes his final bow, they still ask, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

Have they heard nothing he’s said about God being among them to heal the sick, raise the dead, proclaim restoration to the poor? Do they still not understand his mission, or theirs, to make visible the power of God to restore all creation to wholeness? Once again, Jesus tries to explain it:

He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’

Why do we so often need to be reminded of where we’re supposed to be headed? Why do we so often let our focus narrow to the small matters of our own lives, forgetting where we stand in the big picture of God’s Life? How might we be regularly redirected to God’s mission through us?

By remembering that it is all about the Holy Spirit’s power working through us. Whenever we feel confused or discouraged or in doubt, we return to this central promise: You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.

And then we need to be open to receiving that power, that presence of God with us; open to exercising that power in Jesus’ name – not our own power, but God’s power empowering our proclamation, our works of restoration and healing, our witnessing.

Jesus’ disciples were told they would be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The book of Acts shows us how closely the spreading of the Good News followed that trajectory. Our chapter in that book will tell even more amazing stories as we let the Spirit work through us.

5-23-17 - Jesus' Unanswered Prayer

How many people have stepped away from God because a prayer they desired with all their heart was not answered? If we’re going to put our trust in a being we cannot see, hear or touch, whom we can only imagine based on reports of others and our own subjective experience, hadn’t that all-powerful being at least deliver the goods? And it seems that God does not always deliver the goods we want.

We might feel better to know that even Jesus, the incarnate, sinless Son of God, who dwelt in God’s holy presence since before time began and dwells there for eternity, had unanswered prayers. There is one in this Sunday’s gospel. Jesus prayed, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

In case you hadn’t noticed, the church that is meant to be Christ’s One Body in the world is as divided as it has ever been. Most people on one side or another of its many divides would say that those on the other sides distort or misinterpret Jesus’ legacy. Many would offer excellent support for their position. Unfortunately, unity rarely trumps the human need to be right.

So, did Jesus pray a dumb prayer? Why has it not been answered in a way that matched the deep desire of his heart? Why has love been so hard a road, even for the followers of the Lord of Love, the Prince of Peace?

I would say it is because we remain human. Not even the unlimited power of God can prevail against a human will that is not yielded to God. That is the way God set it up. God’s power is unlimited – except where God has chosen to limit it. If we have free will, the will to choose God or not-God, then God has voluntarily bound his own hand. If our prayers depend on the will of another person to choose one way or another, their efficacy will depend on how much that person is open to the influence of the Holy Spirit.

What prayers of yours have felt fruitless? Are you trying to pray around someone rather than for them?

This prayer of Jesus that his followers would be one, protected from the corrosion and dis-ease that division cause, can only be answered in our choosing differently. When we invite God to bring our wills for his church into alignment with his will, we might begin to seek reconciliation with others who claim to follow Christ. And seeking reconciliation is not the same thing as seeking agreement. Too often we start by trying to resolve differences rather than by building relationships.

How might we work toward the fruit that Jesus prayed for, that fruit of unity and love by which he said the world would know his followers? Is there someone who believes differently than you to whom you might offer relationship?

In the fullness of God's time, Jesus’ prayer has already been answered. Its completion will become more visible as we align ourselves with that prayer and live into it. Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est. "Where true love is, God is there."

5-22-17 - Eternity Starts Now

As John’s Gospel renders the account of Jesus’ last night with his disciples before his arrest and execution, he took a LONG time to say goodbye. The “farewell discourses” comprise five chapters in John. Much of that is Jesus’ final teaching about what he’s been up to, and what (who…) is coming next. These words ground the development of our doctrine of the Trinity, God as Three distinct “persons” in One unified whole.

Finishing his remarks to his followers, Jesus turns to his heavenly Father, in what theologians call “the high priestly prayer.” From this evolved the Church’s understanding that the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, existed before all things were made, “was with God and was God” always and forever. Jesus says, 
“I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.”

In the presence of God is where Jesus began, and where he returned after his mission in the world was completed. In the presence of God is also where Jesus’ followers, those who believe, will dwell eternally. Jesus prayed,
“Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent."

We may think that eternal life knowing God, dwelling in God’s presence, happens when we die. But our Good News proclaims that, in Christ, God came among us. Our Good News is that when Jesus returned to the Father, God sent the Spirit of Christ to be with us always, at all times, to the end of the ages. Eternity has already begun. It is now.

We can forget that, aware of so much that is not of God. Our great claim as Christians is that the Life of God is already, is now, is here. Indeed, we help bring it more fully into being as we reflect that Life more than we do the life of the world. Life in this world is among the things that will pass away. Life in God, which we enter here and now, is forever.

What or who in your life today reminds you that you are already living in the eternal Life of God?
What is distracting you from that heart-knowledge?
How might you exercise your faith muscles to affirm that God is here, to pray about the matters that make you fear God is not here?

Jesus completed his work. He released into this world the Life of God; it cannot be re-contained or suppressed. But to many it can remain invisible – unless we make it known by how we live God-Life here and now. Where will you make that Life known today?

5-19-17 - Swimming in Love

Language fails when we try to convey the overlapping unity of love and persons in God, a triune swirl of inter-relatedness in which we are invited to swim. I comfort myself that Jesus, at least as his remarks are rendered in John’s Gospel, seemed to have almost as much trouble making it clear:

“In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

Where does Jesus end and the Father begin? Where do we end and Jesus begin? Are we in the Father and in Jesus, or vice versa, or (g) all of the above? The answer is (g)… maybe (z). God is love. Jesus is love. We love and are loved, and so are drawn into the eternal and present Love of God.

When two people fall in love, there is often a period where identities merge. We don’t want to be separate people. We want to fuse, to lose ourselves in the glorious other, whose every word and movement is wondrous. This stage of in-love-ness is intoxicating – and it’s not forever. If the relationship is to grow and strengthen, we need to differentiate again, to carry our own identities, loving and respecting the other person, being with but not needing to be one with.

So is Jesus saying we lose our identity when we let the love of God become a part of us, and we of God? I don’t think so. The Christian tradition maintains that each of us is unique and precious. Our self does not get obliterated as we enter the stream of God’s love. Rather, being loved for who we are allows us to become more fully who we truly are, shedding the inauthentic carapaces and personas we grow to protect ourselves and cope with adversity.

We don’t lose ourselves swimming in God’s love any more than we do when we swim in the vast, refreshing ocean. We become more fully alive. We are contained in our bodies, and yet somehow one with a primal element. We exult as we move in that unbounded water, which allows us to dive and dance and turn somersaults and ride waves, all kinds of things we can’t do on land, just as dwelling in God's love enables us to do and think and say and offer all kinds of things we can’t in our natural selves.

Today in prayer let's go swimming. Imagine a waterfall flowing into the sea. Let’s say the sea is the Love of God, the waterfall is Jesus, and the spray that rises as they meet is the Holy Spirit. This sea is always being renewed, refreshed, replenished, the water all one, so you cannot distinguish sea from waterfall from spray. Imagine jumping in. How does the water feel? How does it make you feel? How do you want to move in it?

If this is God’s love, how does it feel to be immersed in love? How would you share the water with others? How would you invite others to join you in that pool?

Swimming in the love of God allows us to access the source of Love that has no limit, so that we love out of the reservoir of God’s infinite love, not our own limited supply. As we enter the summer “swimming season,” I hope you’ll have lots of opportunities to be reminded of the water in which we were reborn, in which we will swim always. Splash!

5-18-17 - Not As Orphans

Orphans. It’s a strong word. In 2005 I helped raise the money to build and launch a residential school for children orphaned by AIDS in Western Kenya, one of the poorest regions in that country, where at the time there were no services for the growing number of orphans. As the chief communicator drafting brochures, web pages and fundraising appeals, I used the word “orphans” as often as I could; it tugs at hearts strings more effectively than do terms like “at-risk” or “OVC” (orphans and vulnerable children).

Then I learned that our Kenyan partners avoid that word whenever possible. In an extended-family culture, to say a child is orphaned means that no one in her family or even village is prepared to care for her, a scenario which suggests the whole community is disabled. Many prospective students at the Nambale Magnet School had lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS; few were to be labeled orphans.

”I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus tells his disciples on his last night with them. “I am coming to you.” It’s not what a boss would say to employees, or a coach to players, a teacher to students. This language acknowledges that the community of Jesus followers had become a family, with ties as thick as blood. Jesus recognizes that his departure from their daily lives, and the violence with which he will be wrenched from them, is likely to be as dislocating for them as it is for a child to lose his father or mother.

And it is yet another hint that death will not be the end of Jesus’ story. Only death can cause orphans. Certainly Jesus’ followers were going to feel like orphans after his death, and we see that sorrow depicted in the passion story. But they were not to be orphans, he says, because death was not to be his permanent condition.

How would it change us if we could live in that confidence whenever we’re facing great loss or sorrow? That we have not been left as orphans, no matter how abandoned we may feel in a given moment? It can be as difficult for me to trust that God is real and present as it is for my cats to understand, when I go on a trip, that I am indeed returning. We don’t have the capacity to truly comprehend it – so we learn to trust it little by little, strengthening our faith muscles, testing God’s love and Jesus’ promise: “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.”

When did you last have an experience of “seeing” Jesus? In another person, in a movement of God, in prayer, in song? I suggest this question a lot – it’s the best way I know to reinforce our faith. Keep a record of those sightings; they help encourage us when we feel orphaned.

And, as my cats do when I return (I think!), we can relax and rejoice whenever we do experience Jesus’ life with us and in us again. Whatever our version of rubbing and purring is, I’m sure it pleases our heavenly Father when we offer our praise in love.

5-17-17 - God Within Us

I become a little uncomfortable when I hear people talk about “the God within,” or “the divine spark” in each of us. It can be a short distance from that to saying that we are all little gods, with the ultimate power over our own destinies. As attractive as that notion might be to some (not very appealing to me – God help me if I am my own god!), it is not the Way that Jesus invites his followers to travel.

Jesus did promise his full-time presence in our persons through the gift of the Holy Spirit, Christ's Spirit. “You know him,” Jesus says to his disciples, “because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” The New Testament teaches that the presence of Christ is within each of us by virtue of our baptism. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” Paul writes, not because his identity has been supplanted in an “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” way, but because his identity has been fulfilled, perfected in union with Christ through baptism. He has become most truly who he is in union with Christ.

The promise that Christ’s life abides – rests, stays, hangs out – within us offers tremendous resources; ultimate power, the power that made all things and restores all things. “Same power that conquered the grave lives in me…” we sing. And when we live aware of Christ’s life within us we pray differently, act differently, hope differently. We don’t beg God's power to descend on us from above, but that his power already in us through our union with Christ be released in us, and through us for others. We pray not as though we’re on a long distance call, but like we’re having a heart-to-heart conversation, because we are, Christ’s heart in our heart.

We act differently, because we are acting on the power, promise and presence of God, not waiting for those to be manifest outside us. And we hope differently, knowing that God’s love is so very near, so very “already.” Of course, there is a “not yet fully realized” dimension, but so much more in the here and now than we often recognize.

I came to know “Christ within me” better through learning the practice of centering prayer, becoming somewhat still and able to tune in to the Spirit’s prayer in me, to “pray/imagine” Jesus in conversation. I get to that still place most quickly through praying in tongues – which Paul tells us is the Spirit’s prayer released in us. “…for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit prays within us with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26) I can't say I know Christ well, but he isn’t “out there”; he’s in here.

How do you experience Christ within you? If you want to, try sitting in stillness, in prayer, and say, “Jesus – I am told you live with me and in me. I would like to experience more of your life in me. How do I do that?” Wait in silence, and pay attention to any images that form in your mind, or words. If your shopping list forms, gently invite it to wait over there, and return your focus to your prayer. You can repeat, “Jesus,” or another word or phrase. Try it for five minutes, and see what comes. Write down whatever transpires, and do it again another day.

Some people experience the reality of Christ within more keenly in action than in contemplation, or in worship. There is no “right” way. There is only invitation to more fullness and life than we’ve ever dreamed of.

5-16-17 - Love Capacity

Yesterday, we explored the relationship between loving Jesus and following his commands. Though these can be summed up as loving God and our neighbor, he gave plenty that were specific: “Love your enemies.” “Give to anyone who asks.” “Take up your cross and follow me.” “Proclaim the Good News and heal the sick.” Many of Jesus’ commandments are so counter-cultural, counter-intuitive, not to mention inconvenient, that keeping them is only possible for us from a place of love.

Such love also enables us to receive the gift Jesus promised his disciples that night before he was taken from them: 
"And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.” (This week's gospel reading is here.)

Jesus calls the Spirit “another Advocate,” suggesting this has been one of his roles with them, to stand with them against spiritual danger, to strengthen them in God’s mission. In this role, he was limited by his time in this earthly life. The Advocate whom the Father will send, he says, will be with them forever - a promise with no close-out clause.

Jesus says this "Spirit of Truth” is a force whom the world - humanity at large - does not see or recognize, and therefore cannot receive. The gift of the Holy Spirit is given to all who have the capacity to receive him – and what increases our capacity is love, giving and receiving love. Athletes and musicians find their capacity for taking in and holding breath increases with practice – I believe it’s the same with love. Our capacity grows as we exercise it.

What gets in the way of your ability to receive love?
In what ways do you feel you are inhibited in giving love?
What are some ways you might expand your capacity for love, given and received?

You can try on a discipline of learning to love someone whom you find challenging – start by praying for them each day to be blessed. Or is there someone whose love you keep at a distance, or someone who wants to help you in some way that you won’t allow… can you, as an experiment, allow that person into your life a little more, allow the assistance they could render?

When our capacity to give and receive love increases, it has a ripple effect. Our being more loving invites the people around us to receive more and give more in turn. Imagine if we lived in a culture based on love and more love? Think how many stuck systems and stuck people might be released to function in wholeness.

We don’t have to dwell in such utopian visions – let’s just start with ourselves, and our own hearts, inviting the Spirit to expand our capacity for love. That's the way we can help God with the big picture.

5-15-17 - Unconditional

I’m not fond of “if” statements where love is concerned. “If” smacks of contracts, and who wants love to be contractual? Especially the love of God, which we’re promised is unconditional, not contingent upon our response or behavior?

I’m also not crazy about the word “commandments.” So the first line of this week’s Gospel passage, which continues Jesus’ farewell remarks to his followers before his arrest and crucifixion, has a double whammy: If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

On first glance, I read, “Oh boy, if I want Jesus to love me, I’d better be a good girl…” A closer look suggests that Jesus means quite the opposite. It’s not, “If you keep my commandments, I will love you.” Or “If you keep my commandments, I will know that you love me." It’s that keeping Jesus' commandments – to love God fully, and my neighbor as myself – is a natural consequence of loving Jesus. First we receive God’s love; our love flows from that.

How many times do I need to be reminded that this is the order in which grace operates? God’s love is not something we must, or even can, earn. Saying that the love of God is unconditional, not contingent upon our response or behavior, means we are free to receive it and respond as we will. Some people respond by ignoring it, putting the gift away, still wrapped. Others respond by trying to earn it anyway… which only exhausts us and makes it harder to receive God's gifts.

When we comprehend how truly “off the hook” we are and find ourselves in that place of humble gratitude for God’s gift of grace, something is released in us. We find we want to choose the good, we want to follow Jesus' way to increase our love, even when it costs us. Jesus says later, “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

Recall some times in your life when that grace has gotten through to you, and what your response has been. Those are good moments to remember and dwell in again.
(And if you’re in the “I’d rather earn it, thank you very much – don’t do me any favors,” place, I invite you to consider how that is giving life to you and those around you.)

Today, we might ask God to show us how his commandment to love might be more fully reflected in our lives. Think about the people you know, in all the places you know them. Where is God inviting you to let His love flow?

I believe that as we pay more attention to the “if you love me," the “you will keep my commandments,” part will become the most natural thing in the world.

5-12-17 - Greater Things

How did the church’s expectations get so small? Maybe not all churches – some do expect that God will move in power among them. But many churches, and Christians, seem to ask very little of God, as if unsure what they can count on. Just listen to what Jesus said:

“Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”

Greater works than what Jesus did? He who transformed water into vats of finest wine, who extended a snack into a meal for 5,000, who healed the lame and the lepers and gave sight to the blind? He who rose from the dead? It’s not possible. And yet, for a time, after the Spirit came at Pentecost, the apostles did indeed perform amazing works in God’s name and power. So what happened?

Well, God still works among us in miraculous ways, despite lukewarm faith or hesitance to ask too much of the Lord, as though God’s power were finite. Perhaps one obstacle comes from what Jesus is quoted as saying next, “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” And, in case they didn’t get it, “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve asked for things in Jesus’ name that I have not seen come to pass. Good things, holy things – healing and restoration, the gift of faith for those who wanted to believe but didn't. What are we to make of these words? Bad translation? Maybe the writer of John adding things for effect? I say that’s too easy. However this came into our sacred writings, we are invited to deal with it.

In part, that means dealing honestly with our disappointment with God for the “unanswered prayers.”* It means opening our spirits to the operation of the Holy Spirit so that more and more we pray for what God already intends – and maybe was waiting for us to be willing to be the conduit for. And it takes praying in Jesus' name - which means praying in his will, in his Spirit. It means praying Jesus’ prayers.

It is a fine balance to pray with huge faith and boldness and yet release our desires into the mystery of God’s will. We can only do it, I believe, from within an honest relationship with God, trusting in God’s love, even when that is hard to feel. That’s why they call it faith.

Name a “great work” you would like God to accomplish through you. Don’t be timid, don’t be rational – go for broke. Let God know that today in prayer. Ask the Spirit to help refine that prayer in you until you have an inner conviction that you are praying God’s prayer. If we have to say, “If it is your will,” we don’t have that conviction yet. We are invited to keep praying and keep inviting the Spirit to knead that prayer in us until its ready to rise and become bread.

If we don’t ask, if we don’t step out on the promises of God in faith, we will see mostly small works. Jesus said it; let’s lean on it. The more we pray, in faith, in the Spirit, the more activity of God we will see. Amen! Let it be so!

*Okay, we’ll go 5 for 5 with the pop song links this week… Garth Brooks gets the nod today, if not the prize for theology…

5-11-17 - A Family Likeness

We’ve all met children who were the spitting image of one parent – there can be no question whose child they are. That, the scriptures tell us, is how closely Jesus reflected the image of his heavenly Father. Paul wrote, “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” (Col. 1:15)

“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” Jesus says in response to Philip’s plea, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”

“How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’ Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.” (This week's Gospel reading is here.)

Jesus' features may have been Semitic, his language Aramaic, his manners and speech shaped by his Galilean upbringing – but his spiritual authority, his healing power, his supernatural intuition, his relational instincts, those revealed his Father’s life in him.

This family likeness extends to those of us who are happy to be called his sisters and brothers. As we “put on Christ," as we let his life shine out through us, we grow into his likeness. Or perhaps it’s more precise to say we grow more transparent so that the world sees less of us and more of Christ in us – “Christ in you, the hope of glory,” another quote from Paul in Colossians.

I don’t have a classic pop song today, but here’s a link to Disappear, by Bebo Norman, a song about getting out of the way so that God’s life shines through us. "And you become clear as I disappear,” he sings in the refrain.

In whom have you noticed glimpses of God-life? What was it that caught your attention?
When do you feel you best reflect the love of God to the world? When do you feel most in sync with your heavenly nature, the true self you're in the process of uncovering?

A good prayer is, “Lord, increase your life in me. Increase my capacity to receive your life. Let any willfulness in me that obscures people seeing you be brought into alignment with your will, so that when people see me they see you.”

That prayer takes a lifetime being answered, but we can experience the shift as we pay attention. We are the only way the world will see Christ this side of glory. And when he is visible in us, people notice, and they want more.

5-10-17 - If You Don't Know Me By Now

I believe that human beings have a deep need to be known, perhaps even deeper than our need to be loved. After all, real love presumes knowledge about the one we love, all that is wonderful about them and much that is not.

So I feel for Jesus when he realizes yet again how little his closest friends have really known him, recognized his identity, what is most authentic and true about him:

Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?"

“All this time, and still you do not know me?” Naturally, today’s pop tune link goes to Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, If You Don’t Know Me By Now.* In fairness to the disciples, though, it must have been very hard to take at face value the things Jesus said about his union with his “father in heaven,” even witnessing the amazing spiritual power he demonstrated. Surely he’s being metaphorical, symbolic, hyperbolic, they thought… Often we say the same things about this One whose truth we can never fully grasp.

We can never grasp the truth about another until we can “walk a mile in their shoes.” Our sacred story tells us that Jesus came in human flesh to walk a mile in our shoes. How might we walk in his sandals? By letting his Spirit, whom we name Holy, fill us. By truly being His Body in the world. By entering into conversation with him in prayer, reading about him, talking to other people who know him. The same way we seek to get to know anyone.

Today, in prayer, take a bold step. Ask Jesus something you want to know about yourself, or about him. Try to sit in quiet awhile and see if you sense any response – it may not come in words. It may come in an image that you see in your mind, or something that catches your eye around you. It may come later in the day in song lyrics or in an encounter with someone, in a thought or insight. And maybe in words.

And see if Jesus has a question for you.

Our Good News diverges from the song in that it’s never too late to get to know Jesus (a few scary parables notwithstanding….) As with any relationship, getting to know him takes an investment of time and vulnerability and desire. Billions of people have found it worthwhile. Meet him for coffee and see where it goes.

* Check this link for the Soul Train live version, with the appliqued pastel jumpsuits – some people really did have to suffer for their art…

5-9-17 - I'll Take You There

“I know a place,” sings Mavis Staples,
“Ain't nobody cryin', ain't nobody worried;
Ain't no smilin' faces, lyin' to the races…I’ll take you there.”

“And you know the way to the place where I am going,” says Jesus.

Do we? Do we know how to get to that place where pain and anxiety and injustice are no more, where “sorrow and sighing will flee away?” (Isaiah 51) Thomas surely didn’t.

Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’"Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him."

In a relational system like the Christian faith, everything – places, routes, truth, even life – comes down to a person. And not just any person – the person of Jesus of Nazareth, whom we claim was the humanly embodied Son of God. Beyond following a way, assenting to a truth, living a life, as Christ followers we are invited to know Jesus. Knowing Jesus is the Way to know God most fully. Knowing Jesus brings us into a relationship with Truth. Knowing Jesus allows us to fully live that abundant Life he promised.

Of course, scholars have, do and will argue about how exclusive that next sentence was intended to be. Did Jesus really say that, and what did he mean? I just focus on what he said after that: “If you know me, you will know my Father also.” Jesus said he was the Way. Best? Only? Fastest? I don’t know. This is the revelation I have received, so this is where I rest. I seek to know the fullness of God by allowing Jesus into my life in relationship, in conversation, in guidance and sensing and love. If I ever know Jesus well enough, I might explore other spiritual ways. Certainly I can appreciate them, but this one is deep enough for me.

If we’ve grown up with the notion that God is very close, like a grand-dad sitting in his rocker, then Jesus’ proclamation might have little power. But if, like his hearers, you’ve been taught that God is far and too impossibly holy to be known, then you can understand how radical it was for Jesus to proclaim that God was knowable through knowing him.

How do you know Jesus? Through prayer? From books? Stained glass windows? Movies? Bible study?
How well do you want to know Jesus? Do you want to let him come close, or stay at arm’s length?

I believe that if we say to God in prayer, “I’d like to know you more,” that the Spirit will begin to reveal God to us. I don’t know in what way – if you offer that prayer, you might want to keep a prayer notebook to write down whatever you experience in coming to know God better.

I do believe God wants to be known. That is why Jesus came like us – so we could at least recognize him enough to draw near. And when we draw near to that place… we find God.

5-8-17 - Somewhere

There’s a place for us; somewhere a place for us.
Hold my hand and we’re halfway there; hold my hand, and I’ll take you there…

In the musical version of Jesus’ last night with his disciples, maybe he’d break into song. Somewhere. A place for us. (I’m reminded of a lot of pop songs in this reading… stay tuneful this week!). He is trying to comfort his followers, as they begin to realize he is soon to be taken from them.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

If only we could believe it when people say they’re coming back for us. If small children could trust that mom’s not disappearing for good, they’d need fewer blankets and bears. If young women could trust that men really do just “want some space,” there’d be fewer bad love songs. We can’t believe what we can’t conceive – and how could Jesus’ friends conceive of life beyond death, not to mention a place “out there” with him and lots of dwelling places and plenty of room for everyone?

How can we? This passage is often used at funerals. Perhaps it comforts the bereaved to know their loved one has a front-door key waiting on a hook somewhere – though I doubt anyone who’s enjoying pure Being has much use for a zip code. But we like to know where our people are, to imagine them in a place. Maybe we like to imagine ourselves in a place, so we've have taken the Bible's few symbolic hints about heaven and worked them into a city with golden streets and gem-encrusted gates.

I’m not yet concerned about arranging for my plot in the afterlife. I know that I can start living that life where I am now. We can access the heavenly places all kinds of ways – in worship, in prayer, in a walk on a fine day – anywhere and any time we feel ourselves connected to Jesus, in the presence and light and love of God.

What is your view of the afterlife – your afterlife? Is it something you imagine? 
Where and how do you best find yourself in touch with God in the here and how?
Is that anything like the heaven you imagine? Maybe in prayer today you can ask the Spirit to make you aware of the Somewhere God intends for you to dwell in.

We are invited to live already as though we know that place, that Somewhere, where Jesus is, where God is. And when we live out of that conviction, we bring it into being in the here and now. Forgiveness and love and giving our stuff away to people who need it become a lot more natural – we’re living the life of heaven.

Somewhere. We'll find a new way of living, we'll find a way of forgiving …Somewhere …

Somewhere is here, my friends. Some time is already.

5-5-17 - The Abundant Community

Abundance has its drawbacks, I note between sneezes. The spring growth that bedecks our yards in pink and purple and green also generates a super-abundance of pollen. Similarly, when a whole community is living the abundant life, it generates as much growth as the flowers and trees.

Jesus calls us to live abundantly, and Sunday’s reading from Acts about the early church gives us a glimpse (perhaps slightly idealized…) of just how beautiful and fruitful abundance can look like in community:

“Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”

It’s a simple recipe for the good life – and yet most Christ-followers find it impossible to live this way. This is a puzzle, and a shame, for observers outside the faith have pointed out how much more appealing Christianity would be if its followers were more Christ-like. (Mahatma Gandhi was perhaps the most famous, saying, “Oh, I don't reject Christ. I love Christ. It's just that so many of you Christians are so unlike Christ.”)

Yet even that early community didn’t stay focused on mutuality and abundance. We read in Acts that early on someone decided to withhold some of the proceeds of a land sale, and lied about it, which was the more community-breaking act. Conflict and scarcity raised their ugly heads.

So, should we abandon this as an impossible ideal? I hope not. All it takes is one person to recommit to living Jesus’ abundant life. Two is even better. They influence others, who decide to reorder their lives, and on it goes. Sociologists have shown that human behavior is remarkably contagious. Greed, fear, and control are having a pretty good run...might we regain some ground for love, faith and peace?

If you made the lists yesterday of things and people who steal your goodwill, peace, confidence and joy; and the people and places that help you gain those gifts, you have a blueprint for action. If you’re in a covenant relationship with someone else, hold each other accountable when the “scarcity thinking” starts to mess with your abundant joy. As our communities commit to live this way, increasing our capacity to trust that resources we need will be there when we need them; to stop and shift whenever we start to make a decision based on our fear of scarcity – we will grow, in faith, in joy, and even in people.

Abundant life has a generative principle – abundance generates more abundance. That passage from Acts ends with this: “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” If we mourn the scarcity of people in our pews, let’s take on the discipline of abundant living and abundant trusting. Few things are more attractive than someone living at peace and trusting in “enough.”

When all the energy in the tree is focused on pushing out buds, it bursts into flower. And when all the energy in our communities is focused on living into Jesus’ promise of Life in abundance, we’ll burst into fruitfulness. That's nothin' to sneeze at...

5-4-17 - The Abundant Life

Want a simple principle to guide life choices? Which option leads to more life, and which is likely to drain life away?

When energy and time are finite, we need to invest in people and activities we find life-giving, and which give life to others, rather than ones which run us down, involve unnecessary criticism or lead to dark, toxic thinking or behavior. It's not always that simple, of course, and might involve some rewiring. Yet that is the kind of transformation the Holy Spirit works as we make room for God’s life in us.

Jesus draws a contrast between life-giving and death-dealing in this week’s passage:
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” he says. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

“The thief” might be anything or anyone who stunts our life or brings oppression, be it emotional, political, spiritual, economic, or any other kind. Jesus was painting the religious leaders with that brush, and of course the Roman occupiers. He probably also meant our spiritual adversary, the devil, intent on drawing people away from trusting the love of God. We know what death-dealing looks and feels like.

The abundant life is harder to describe, since life is hard to quantify – but we know it when we’re living it. It consists not so much in an abundance of things or time or even love, as in our awareness of richness, our being tuned to abundance. The abundant life is a balanced life, where we are renewed as we pour ourselves out for others. It is a life of laughter and insight and rich conversations, of wonder and play. It is life that we live here and now, and it does not end with death. That, Jesus says, is why he came – that we might have life, and have it in abundance.

What are the “thieves” of your good will, peace, confidence, and joy? Make a list of all the culprits. It might include people you love; surfacing that can give you incentive to work on those relationships. This exercise is not without complications!

In what places do you find the most life? List those too. Do you get to put enough of your time and energy into those things? Can you find a way to invest more? Any investment advisor will tell us to put our resources into things with a good yield, what Jesus called “fruitfulness.” Are we investing wisely with our time and gifts and love?

When our hearts are tuned to abundance, we find feasts large and small. We make feasts for others at the drop of a hat. We trust that resources will be there when needed, and usually find they are. We move with the wind of the Spirit in our sails, and when we’re becalmed, we rest in it. We feel our feelings fully, even the less happy ones. We forgive ourselves and others easily. We love ourselves and others.

The abundant life is not where I began, and it’s still a place I need guidance to navigate. As the Holy Spirit remakes me, in union with my spirit, I’m starting to dwell there more and more. I hope you are too.

5-3-17 - Coming and Going

“I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”

Earlier this week we explored Jesus’ saying that he was the gate of the sheepfold, the means of entry. I said it was hard to imagine a person as a gate. I’d forgotten something I once learned about sheepfolds in Jesus’ day: scholars think they often had no gate. The shepherd, when the flock was safely enclosed, would lie down to sleep in the opening as a way of securing the flock. Thus, the shepherd became a gate.

Putting aside the amusing image this prompts of a sleepy shepherd trampled one morning by hungry sheep going out to pasture, it helps make sense of Jesus’ words. The shepherd is the one who leads the flock in and out of the fold. Jesus says those who enter the Life of God by way of relationship with him will come in and go out and find pasture.

It occurs to to me that sheep don’t get sustenance in the sheepfold – for nourishment, they go out to pasture. What they get in the sheepfold is rest and security. What does that say to us as churchgoers? Often people say they go to church to be fed. What if instead we saw church-time as a time to rest and recharge, be renewed, safely enclosed in the fold with the rest of our flock – and then sent back out to find God’s nourishment in our lives the rest of the week?

What if we were fed in spiritual conversation with other people, by sharing our faith journey with people who aren’t in our “fold?” What if God wants us to be pasture by which others to be fed? The going out becomes as important as the coming in, maybe more.

Why do you go to church? What do you seek there? 
What do you seek when you leave and head back to your “life?”
Where do you, or where might you find spiritual nurture in the week between worship services?
Where might you offer it?

In prayer today, you might ask, “God… what pastures are you leading me to in my life right now? Who might you be asking me to provide a feast for?” And see what occurs to you, or who crosses your path.

We don’t come and go alone. The Great News is that the shepherd goes with us, coming in and going out. The shepherd leads us to green pastures and the shepherd leads us home again. We don’t have to search for pasture – we only have to learn the voice of the Shepherd and follow him.

5-2-17 - The Shepherd's Voice

Are sheep responsive to sound? I don't know, but Jesus - who must have known more about sheep-keeping than I do - says that sheep know the shepherd’s voice:

“The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”

This passage always evokes for me Jesus’ encounter with Mary Magdalene in the garden on Easter morning. Deep in grief at finding the tomb empty, assuming the body of her Lord has been stolen, Mary has a conversation with someone she takes for a gardener. It is only when he says her name that she recognizes Jesus by his voice. “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”

I can’t claim to know Jesus’ voice, but I have had enough prayer conversations with him that I believe I recognize his voice – not by timbre but by what he says. When I get a response in prayer that is simple and profound and sometimes a little sharp, something that I’m pretty sure I would never have thought of, I attribute it to Jesus. And if it bears good fruit, I feel that hunch confirmed.

One way to describe spiritual growth as a Christ-follower is allowing our spirits to become familiar with the Shepherd’s voice, so that we are led to green pastures and still waters, to fruitfulness and refreshment. Christ’s leading, which comes to us through the Holy Spirit, can also steer us away from ravines and precipices. As we learn to trust his guidance, we also become more attuned to false shepherds who try to lead us away from the One who makes us whole.

How do you experience Jesus’ voice in your life? Through scripture or prayer? In worship? 
Inner promptings? Other people offering interpretations?

If the very idea of “hearing” Jesus seems strange to you, consider offering a prayer like this: “Okay, Jesus, if you call your own sheep by name and lead them out, call me in a way I can understand.” And then see what happens over the next hours or days or weeks… check in periodically with that prayer and see if your relationship is changing at all. It’s not up to the sheep, it’s up to the shepherd… yet it helps if the sheep are open to possibilities.

Jesus had to watch a lot of people who drifted into his community be drawn away again by fear-mongering leaders who warned people not to trust him. I imagine it pained him to watch people come close to the love he offered and then wander off.

But Jesus never forced anyone to follow him, and he doesn’t now. He only calls to us, with open arms. Do we hear with open ears?

5-1-17 - The Gate

Someday maybe I'll understand the Easter season lectionary. After a few Sundays exploring the events of Easter Sunday, on Easter 4 we leave behind the Resurrection of Christ and jump to one of the “I am the good shepherd” passages. Why?

At first glance, “Good Shepherd Sunday” sounds nice and comforting. But as we read these passages, we find they are anything but cuddly. Thieves, rustlers, predators and unreliable hired men abound. It turns out that Jesus is talking – as usual – about the corrupt and oppressive religious leaders whom he feels misrepresent God and choke the spiritual life of their people:

“Very truly, I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.”

Is it any wonder they wanted to kill Jesus? He compares them to thieves and bandits who would rob people of their assurance of God’s love and mercy. Of course, comparing the people to sheep is not the most flattering allusion either.

And it is easy to get tangled in the words as John presents them; isn't Jesus the shepherd? But later Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”

My literal mind has trouble imagining Jesus, a person, as a gate. Maybe it helps if we think of Him as one who creates entry space for contact with God – a threshold we cross to gain access to the Holy One, the Creator of all. After all, we affirm that it is by Jesus’ holiness, not our own, that we have access to the Father. He’s our way in… and out.

Does Jesus function that way in your spiritual life? Is he a threshold you can cross, a space-creator?
Have you suffered from poor shepherds in the past, who made intimacy with God more difficult? Perhaps you can pray for them, and even forgive. That makes space too.
Do you think you need Jesus to get closer to God? Do you want him in that between-space?

My prayer for today is, “Jesus – if you’re the gate, show me how I can get closer to the fullness of God by getting closer to you.”