6-30-17 - The Spiritual Summer

No Bible today - I’m going seasonal. Coming into a summer holiday weekend is a good time to consider how the gifts of summertime can help us refresh our connection to God.

The long days and warm weather which most Water Daily readers are enjoying, based on our location, offer occasions for spiritual connection, on our own and in groups. I don’t know about you, but my spirit is fed and expanded by being outdoors, feeling a breeze, watching the sunlight play on leaves, admiring the strength and beauty of trees and flowers, observing the antics of animals large and small. The form of praise called exaltation rises in me more readily, and gratitude becomes a more dominant theme in my prayer.

Summer offers more time for spiritual activities as well. Whether we sit outside or enjoy a long walk after dinner (or before breakfast…), we can enter into conversation with God because we’re not rushing as much. Long dinners with friends allow time and space for the conversation to get spiritual as well. May I commend a few spiritual practices to try on during this season?

Mindfulness walks – take a walk in the woods or in a meadow or by a river or anywhere that you find beautiful. Pause before you start, to breathe deeply and to attend to each of your senses, ending with the eyes. What do you hear? What do you feel on your skin? What do you smell and even taste? Finally, what do you see? Take your time to tune each of these senses, and as you walk, try to notice and appreciate without engaging your thoughts – when you find your mind is busy, come back to the now by noticing with your senses again.

Gratitude journal – if this is not already your practice, try it for a season. Choose a time each day to sit, preferably outside, and note what you are thankful for. Write it down if you can. Does anything you write prompt you to want to go deeper in prayer? Sometimes noting what we’re grateful for reveals to us a deep yearning – talk to God about that.

Feasting – I love summer eating, and since I’ve expanded my appreciation of vegetables and fruits I find making food and eating it, alone or with others, an increasingly delightful adventure. Food makes real the incomprehensible abundance and variety of God’s creation, and variety and abundance are particularly vivid in the summer.

Make a spiritual activity of planning a menu, acquiring the ingredients (especially if it can involve a garden or farmer’s market), grilling if you like that. I love to sauté on my grill’s extra burner, even chopping the vegetables outside; my yard becomes a kitchen and dining room all in one. Praise the Creator with each phase of preparation; invite Jesus to join you as you eat – he was no stranger to dinner tables or kitchens, or picnics. Savor the richness of fine food with good friends – and know that God is in the middle of it all.

There are many more spiritual practices that are particularly wonderful to embrace during the summer, but those three are enough for today. As we move into the vacation season, I pray you will have many opportunities to draw near to God and experience the presence of the Spirit this summer.

6-29-17 - God's Free Gift

I’m going to turn to Sunday’s passage from Romans, feeling I have exhausted the themes I could dredge up in our very short Gospel reading. Romans is a deep and complex work of theology, so it’s a hard to just take a quick dip in it. But let’s jump in anyway, because it contains a beautiful invitation to freedom in Christ – freedom both from sin, and from the effort to claw our way into God’s good graces.

Thus far, Paul has been unfolding an argument to support his contention that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, not through our own efforts. It is Christ’s sacrifice that sets us free, not our own will-power or ability to modify our behaviors… indeed, behavior change comes as we accept with relief the free gift of forgiveness and grace:

But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In order to truly receive the free gift of God’s eternal life – which begins now, not just when we die – we need to allow God to free us from sin. Paul is concerned lest his listeners think this extravagant grace invites us to more sin. “Should we sin the more, that grace may abound?” he asks rhetorically, offering a resounding “No!” to the question. (I once had a t-shirt made reading “Sin that grace may abound” on the front… and on the back, “Should we?” and “No…”) Rather, we should allow the gift of God’s grace to loosen sin’s grip on us.

“Sin” can be defined in many ways, but one way Paul uses the term is to name the purely human, self-oriented nature that exists in us. All those things we label as “sins” grow out of that basic orientation toward self that can cause us to see other people as objects for our gratification, and God’s creation as something to be exploited. When Paul says we have been freed from sin, that is an “already” gift, given at baptism, secured by Christ’s sacrifice, made real in his resurrection. As we let that reality seep into our bones we are freed to choose the Spirit-led life Jesus won for us. The fancy word for that is “sanctification," becoming holy.

Paul adds, provocatively, that we exchange one bondage for another, as we now “become enslaved to God.” But such a voluntary relinquishing of our self-will and prerogatives invites us into a freedom unlike any other. It is a freedom that allows us to love beyond our capacity, to forgive more than we think possible, to dream God’s dreams for mission, to offer healing and ministry in Jesus’ name that enriches our lives beyond measure and transforms others.

That’s the free gift of eternal life we have already received in Christ Jesus. Let's not leave it on the closet shelf.

6-28-17 - Sent

I didn’t think I could squeeze one more word out of this this week’s Gospel passage, but I might just manage one: Sent. It is implied in what Jesus says about people welcoming those who come in his name as prophets and righteous folks, that they are sent, as he was sent.
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

What does it mean to be sent? Messengers are sent, ambassadors are sent, representatives are sent, teams are sent out on the field, troops to war, ambulances to accident sites… To be sent means to be deployed for a specific purpose. Most often our being sent bears some relation to our skills or connections.

Jesus sent his disciples to proclaim Good News of God’s activity in the world, to announce freedom to the poor and those in captivity, to heal the sick and raise the dead. Those are still pretty much the reasons he sends his followers out today. Do you feel sent to any particular place or people? Where do your skills and connections and passions point you?

I felt very much “sent” to my current ministry, and now find is coming to an end sooner than I’d planned or expected. Suddenly I’m waiting to know where God is sending me next. In that waiting I have an opportunity to discern what or who is calling to me, to see what big “God dreams” might have been waiting to emerge in me while I busied myself with the many ongoing tasks in a large and busy parish.

Wherever God sends me, I know God will also lead and equip me. Unlike a courier who goes out and reports back, apostles of Jesus Christ get to carry his presence and power with us as we go. It takes off some of the pressure, if we can only allow the Spirit to do the work and stop taking it on ourselves.

When have you felt sent by God, short or long-term?
What inner urges are you discerning – or trying to push down? 
Where would you like to be sent? Afraid to be sent?

Being sent starts, like everything in the Christian life, with relationship. We strengthen our relationship with Jesus through the Holy Spirit so that we can better understand God's prompts. They might come through our own desires, or through discerning a need or a lack. Sometimes God makes it clear through dreams and “coincidences” that cannot finally be denied. We can check with others if a calling seems really odd or risky – and if we go forward, know it will be most fruitful as we are aware of going with God, not for God.

And wherever we are sent by God, when we get there, we find God there too. Funny how that works.

6-27-17 - Ministry With

“…And whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

People often take Jesus’ remark about bringing cups of water to “these little ones” as a prompt to do outreach. While Jesus is big on caring for people in need, that’s not his meaning here. He is saying that those who do ministry with us, “in the name of a disciple,” will also be blessed.

In my previous church, when we provided a monthly meal at the city's shelter for men, I would bring my guitar and sing a few songs while the crew was readying the meal in the kitchen. The gentlemen waiting for dinner were generally appreciative; “dinner and a show!,” some remarked. But I liked it best when someone there could play. I’d hand over the guitar and let him entertain the group.

People need to be invited to participate when we’re out doing “good works.” We can offer ministry to, or we can offer ministry with – and “with” is much more inclusive and empowering. Just think which you would prefer if you were in need. Inviting other people to join us as we go about ministries of help and transformation is one of the most powerful ways to share the Gospel with others. It makes the Good News visible as people see a community of Christ-followers in action – that witness is often as vivid and appealing as the work being done.

Many churches are finding they draw more congregants by giving people opportunities to serve than by trying to entice them to worship. That puts the onus on us to be open to relationships as we serve meals and deliver clothes and visit those in prison, to get out from behind the counters and talk to the people we are serving, find out what their gifts are. I dream of a church where the well-fed and the hungry worship and serve together in one diverse community. That is what the first community of Christ-followers looked like.

What forms of helping or outreach or volunteering are you involved in? Is there room for inviting recipients of that help to participate in helping others? Can you think of ways to form community with the givers and the receivers until we are all aware of being both? No "us" and "them?"

In what ways do you sense God inviting you to work with God in bringing light and life to someone? Have you had a conversation with Jesus about that? Want to bring that up in prayer today?

It makes sense to do ministry with the ones for whom we offer our time and resources, because God has invited us to do ministry with him. We don’t work “for” God either – we work with God, at the direction and power of the Spirit moving through us. If we give someone else the opportunity to offer a gift to someone in need, we have given them a chance to live more deeply.

From God’s perspective, we are all “these little ones,” and we are all in need of the water of life.

6-26-17 - Welcomed

Permit me to rant… yesterday’s Gospel was 315 words of dense, challenging, provocative, hard-to-find-the-Good- News-in teaching from Jesus. And next Sunday’s? 82 words in 2 sentences, four clauses, saying not all that much. Come on! On the other hand, if I could reframe all that talk about swords, surely I can dive in and welcome the gifts of this very brief passage… which is all about welcoming.

After Jesus gives his followers hard instructions about going out to proclaim the Good News and heal the sick, he softens a bit, saying of those among whom they would go,
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

Jesus stressed welcome in his sending talk, because his followers were to go out to villages and towns taking nothing along, no extra tunics, no clean underwear, no toothbrush, no money. They were to rely on the hospitality of those who welcomed them – and if they were not welcomed some place, they were to move on, save their breath.

This is important for us to hear. So often we express anxiety about discussing our faith with others; we assume that conversation will not be welcomed. Well, so what? Some will want it, some won’t. Move on, Jesus says, because you will find someone who does want to talk about matters of spirit and will be grateful that you had the courage to engage them in a conversation of the heart.

Our culture makes little room for the spiritual (though in the form of mindfulness, spirituality is starting to work its way from the margins into corporate retreats and yoga weekends - maybe because Christians have left such a vacuum?). When we introduce spirituality and faith into a conversation, whether with a friend or stranger, we are making space for a holy connection. We rely on the hospitality of the other person to welcome us into that space. If the other person doesn’t want to, no problem. Try again with someone else. Be open to the conversation if someone else introduces it. Let’s invite people to see our connection to God.

Do you anticipate rejection when you contemplate talking about your faith with someone, or do you expect welcome? Either way, we can be surprised…
Can you think of a person with whom you might want to start that conversation? 
What do you think his or her reaction would be if you raised a spiritual subject?

Here’s the thing: we don’t have to go out cold-calling people. We can respond to the Spirit’s prompts about who might be open. We can ask God in prayer, even over a period of weeks or years, “Shall I talk to that person about my faith? What’s the right approach? When do you think I should do it?” I think that’s a prayer that God will answer… maybe with a sign of some kind, or by our getting a feeling of “wait” or “go,” or there being an opening to talk. That very prayer will open our spirits and prepare us.

Jesus implies that someone will welcome us as we go about the mission of God to restore all things and all people to wholeness. And when they do welcome us, as we go in Christ’s name, they are welcoming Him, and in welcoming Him, they are welcoming God himself. It’s like bringing the CEO on a sales call, or having the chief of surgery giving a shot. We get to be the advance folks; God does the work.

6-23-17 - Family Values

I am amused when “family values” are equated with a 1950s American two-parent nuclear unit, as though that were a perfect reflection of Christian virtue. In fact, Jesus dissed his own mother publicly when she showed up with his brothers to quiet him down and bring him home. Jesus also said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Jesus clearly redefined family; it’s not blood kin, but the fellowship of Christ-followers. Loving God comes first, no matter what.

As a pastor frequently frustrated when the claims of nuclear family impede involvement in church family activities, I read those words with a certain grumpiness. Sigh! It’s been a hard week in Water Daily Land, trying to interpret one hard teaching about priorities after another. Putting Jesus first is more counter-cultural all the time. Our culture says family comes first, no matter what. And we are much more formed by our culture than by what Jesus taught.

You may be familiar with the Jesus Doll, a rag doll with brown hair and a beard, a tunic, coat and sandals. He's soft and squishable and great for kids. In my previous parish, we let kids bring Jesus the Doll home for a week. They were encouraged to take Jesus everywhere they went, and to write in the journal that accompanied him. Where did Jesus go this week? Gymnastics class? The swimming pool? Walking the dog? Kids loved it. Mothers found it more wearing.

“Oh my God,” one said, “It’s unbelievably stressful having Jesus! I was afraid the dog would eat his sandals, or him. I was afraid we’d leave him somewhere!” Another, unable to get Jesus back to us for several weeks, wrote an apologetic email. She’d been sick, the kids had been sick, her husband had been away on business, Jewish friends visited, some other things happened… she concluded, “It just wasn’t a good week to have the Son of God at our house!”

News flash: it’s never a good week to have the Son of God around! Life is a whole lot easier with the priorities the world presents us: “Take what you want, when you want it, with whom you want it.” Chances are, if you’re reading this, you have already decided that is not your choice. Maybe you’ve entered the relationship into which Jesus invites you, or you are curious and exploring it. Maybe you’ve already discovered what Christians have known for 2000 years, that life is infinitely richer – though no less painful – when we are aware of having the Son of God around our house.

Jesus did not come to make us feel better about our lives. Jesus came to draw us closer in the one relationship we will have for eternity, in intimacy with God. Starting that relationship here and now makes our lives more purposeful – and often more stressful. “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it,” Jesus says at the end of this teaching.

What are some of the ways Jesus’ claims have caused you to “lose your life,” or at least to give up some patterns that felt easy but were not life-giving? What are some of the ways you are resisting putting God in first place in your life? Who or what would have to be moved to second or third? Can you offer that to God in prayer, inviting the Spirit in?

The gift – which we can only discover by doing it – is that when we move our God-life into first place, we engage our other priorities more fully, because we don’t try to own them. We appreciate them as gifts, and can stop ranking them. Maybe that’s what Jesus means by “finding our life…”

6-22-17 - Jesus' Sword

I wonder if Jesus knew how much carnage would be wrought in his name because of these words attributed to the Prince of Peace, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Would he have said them? Did he say them? By the time Matthew wrote his account of Jesus’ life, these words would have passed through quite a few reporters. Maybe they got skewed? How I wish they had never been written down.

So much blood has been shed between Christians and Jews, Christians and Muslims, Christians and indigenous peoples, Christians and other Christians. There have been crusades and counter-crusades, attacks and massacres and reprisals and counter-reprisals. Rivers of blood have flowed as corrupt politicians hungry for land, oil, power, vengeance and money have joined with zealots to cloak their murderous agendas in religious language. There is enough violent rhetoric in the scriptures of many religions, including our own, to fuel endless bloodshed.

And Jesus isn’t even talking about conflict between enemies but in families. He goes on to say, “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” What?

I don’t think Jesus was saying he came to bring conflict, but that conflict would be an inevitable consequence of following him in his mission. Jesus came to wield God’s love against the evils of this world, injustice and oppression, corruption and complacency. That doesn’t make for a peaceful life. Those whose mission is peace often provoke conflict and die violently.

Notice, Jesus did not say, “I have come not to bring peace, but violence.” He said "not peace but a sword." Look at some of the other ways “sword” is used in the New Testament: The sword of the Spirit is one of the defensive weapons we take up against the devil. In Hebrews we read that the Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword, “…dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow …” That is surgically sharp!

The sword Jesus refers to can be a sword of discernment, distinguishing good from evil, what will bless us and make us effective as disciples from what will harm us and make us complacent and weak. He is saying there is evil in the world, and His followers need to be ready to distinguish the Kingdom of Light from the realm of darkness. That does divide families sometimes. Jesus demands our fidelity over all other claims. The priorities of this world – family, wealth, convenience, distraction – do not make us effective disciples. Jesus is just calling it. We can be fuzzy, or we can be clear. Jesus came not to bring peace but reality and radical freedom to move in God’s Spirit.

Have you ever had to make a choice to disassociate from people or practices that were destructive for you? Do you face such dilemmas in your life now?
Might we ask for the Spirit's help to marry “mission clarity” with our calling to be peacemakers?

Jesus paid the ultimate price for his mission, at least in worldly terms. In eternal terms, he was just getting started.

6-21-17 - A Public Faith?

We are often judged by the company we keep. Are we willing to let the world know we hang out with Jesus?

Jesus lays it on the line in this week's passage. After telling his disciples to go forward boldly, proclaiming the good news, healing the sick, he says, "Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”

It’s hard when Jesus raises the stakes like that. Where’s the mercy, I ask? It seems, from things he is recorded as having said in the gospels, that Jesus was short on mercy for religious insiders who refused to accept the good news of “God-With-Us” that he had revealed to them. His mercy ran more freely to outsiders or underdogs than to his own peers. It is unsurprising that people in need would more readily accept Jesus’ revelation of his messiahship than the “insiders” who were so sure they knew what God would look and act like. And Jesus cuts the insiders no slack.

Jesus is not in a “slack-cutting” mode in this training talk. He knew time was short; that those who said “Lord, Lord” really had to stand by their allegiance to him, and not go quiet when the association proved inconvenient or dangerous. Would he go any easier on us?

A few years ago I read the The Tenth Parallel, by Eliza Griswold, on clashes between Christianity and Islam in Muslim and Christian communities in Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. In Malaysia she met an indigenous Orang Asli who was a convert to Christianity (many Orang Asli are trying hard to hold on to their traditional beliefs and practices under threat of extinction, but some do convert). Christians and other religious minorities suffer harsh persecution in Malaysia, which has a vigorously conservative and oppressive Muslim majority.

This pastor said to her, "Americans don’t care what’s happening in other places, do they," a sentiment she encountered among persecuted Christians elsewhere too. "He pondered aloud if need kept people closer to God and God closer to them. ‘I wonder, is there a place for God’s word in the lives of people who have everything?’”

It’s a good question. In my fairly privileged segment of Christendom, proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord is often muted; to some, even saying “Jesus” smacks of fundamentalism. Some Episcopalians are hostile to the word evangelism, as though there were only one (obnoxious) way to share faith. Others are happy to be affiliated with Jesus – in church on Sundays – but reluctant to let that be known in the circles they travel the rest of the week.

Are we willing to be public about our affiliation with Jesus, the Christ, to acknowledge his Lordship in our lives? Or does it make us uncomfortable? Is Jesus, and proclaiming wholeness and peace in his name, important enough to us?

We sit under the judgment of Jesus’ words as well as the promises they contain. What is the place for God’s word in the lives of people who have everything?

6-20-17 - Splitting Hairs

“Have no fear of them,” Jesus says, as he tells his followers of the enemies they may encounter on God’s mission. “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

So, God knows the number of hairs on our head and values us even more than precious sparrows. That does not mean God promises us physical protection (read Psalm 79 sometime). I believe it means simply that we are of infinite value to God, whose love for us is not diminished by our physical death.

It is a hard balance we seek as followers of the One who promised eternal life: to live fully in this life, loving its gifts and pursuing God’s mission in the world, while holding this life lightly, knowing it is not our final destination. People who have encountered death, in near-death experiences, often say they no longer fear death. And it is the fear of death that so often holds us back in fully living our lives.

I don’t think Jesus is minimizing the trauma of physical death. He is inviting his followers to weigh that against the greater trauma of spiritual death, apathy or even allegiance to the enemy who seeks to degrade and destroy God's creatures. If fear of death, or fear of losing income or time or reputation, keeps us from giving our hearts to God, we place ourselves in spiritual peril. Following Jesus does not mean that nothing else in our lives matters; it means we gradually allow ourselves to put God first, above every other thing and person who claims our love. It’s not either-or; it’s both-and… and in the order of priority. God comes first.

And if God comes first, it lowers the stakes for everything else. We can be more confident taking risks when we value our God-Life more than our physical life. Not caring so much about our physical existence – while still investing in it; I did say it was a balancing act – sets us free to discover who we most fully are, how exquisitely and uniquely we are made. Rather than seeing Jesus’ words as warning, might we take them as invitation to greater freedom?

Today let's examine what holds us back from making God our number one priority, if God is not.
What fears impede our proclaiming to those we know our allegiance to God in Christ?

If we can name our fears, we can invite the Holy Spirit to transform them into freedom. “Perfect love casts out fear” is a promise we are given in scripture. Wherever we feel fear, we might invite God to sow love… envision the place of your fear and God planting a seed of love in that spot.

Then we can sit with the sparrows and watch our fear wither like a weed and the love grow strong and beautiful, knowing that God is keeping an eye on us... and counting the hairs on our heads, however few or many there may be.

6-19-17 - The UnProsperity Gospel

Would you have gone on this mission if Jesus asked you? His words to his followers as he sends them out to proclaim the good news and heal the sick are full of warnings about unwelcoming communities, hostile audiences and even persecution. He says the challenges he encountered would also come to those who went forth in his name – master and slave are equal in the sight of detractors:

"A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!" 

It’s a wonder any of them went. Would facing danger for proclaiming Christ embolden us – or send us into hiding? How good is this “Good News?”

Some preachers build huge congregations and rake in loads of money promising prosperity and good fortune for those who put Jesus first – often defined as making large donations to the pastor’s ministry. I sometimes wonder if they’re right; their churches sure seem blessed. Then I remember Jesus never promised anything but love and an odd kind of joy amidst adversity in this life, and an eternity of relationship in the next. And he promised his presence with us, throughout, no matter what.

That is where I suggest we rest this week, as we read through another challenging passage, by opening ourselves to Jesus’ presence. That is where all ministry in his name begins – being filled with His Spirit.

Today, let’s take a few minutes to sit quietly, offering thanks for the gifts of the week past, repentance for our failures to demonstrate love, and naming those things that worry us about the week to come. And then let’s pray, “Come, Lord Jesus” (the ancient formulation is “Maranatha!”). And wait. See how Jesus draws near, or what comes up in you as you sit in stillness.

The prosperity preachers are right about one thing: cultivating an expectation of blessing yields blessing. God’s blessing, God’s “yes” comes in many forms, not only material wealth. As we are open to it, look for it, name it, we will experience it more often, and tell what we’ve experienced. And then, whether we’re in the midst of wolves or sleepy sheep, we can proclaim our good news, “The Life of God has come near to you!”

6-16-17 - Wise as Serpents

Adversity is part of the deal when we become ministers of the Gospel, especially when we invite people to re-examine long-standing beliefs and traditions. Jesus uses a potent image to warn his disciples about the challenges they will face as they proceed:

“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles.”

The “wolves” in this scenario are fellow Jews, in particular those religious leaders benefiting from the status quo. Jesus knew they would oppose him and put obstacles in the way of his followers. He suggests meeting such opposition with both cunning and transparency, a tricky balance to manage.

It’s not so hard to fathom what it means to be “innocent as doves” – it means to have an agenda of peace and goodwill, be straightforward about your message and your aim. If we think of sharing our faith or introducing people to Christ as we’ve come to know him, it means being clear that this is part of who we are. There’s nothing worse than a “bait and switch” approach to evangelism. If we’re sincere about building relationships AND about letting our spiritual selves be part of the encounter, we’re being innocent as doves.

Jesus’ exhortation to be “wise as serpents” is a little harder to parse. Where does being canny morph into cunning? I had to consider what attributes of serpents we might adopt as we move out in mission, One is their ability to move quickly and nimbly and with great flexibility. They are low to the ground, able to get where they need to be without drawing a lot of attention to themselves. So we might show up at opportune moments, and maneuver with grace around those who would shut us up, or tell us to leave our religion out of it.

What Jesus was primarily trying to tell his followers was that there would be resistance to their ministry which might well harden into persecution – and that no matter what, God would be with them, speaking his message through them:

"When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you."

I doubt we need worry about being handed over to councils and flogged (in this country, anyway). The resistance we encounter might take the form of social pressure "not to be so religious," and indifference. Whatever happens, Jesus’ counsel to be both winsome and wise, gentle and canny is as apt for us as it was for his disciples. We have a story to tell, an invitation to offer, an introduction to make – let’s not let anything stop us from making Christ known.

6-15-17 - Packing Light

It is packing season – summer vacations, weekend getaways; many of us will be taking down our suitcases and tote bags and deciding what to bring along and what to leave behind. What we pack depends largely on where we’re going – a weekend at my sister’s may call for shorts and t-shirts, while packing for a wedding can require five pairs of shoes.

And what if we’re packing for a mission trip? Jesus says, “Don’t. Just go.” His instructions to his disciples are perplexing: “Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food.”

He wants them to go out without any resources or safety net, to rely completely on the hospitality of those to whom they are sent. “Wait a minute,” they may have thought – “I thought we were bringing the gift. Now you want us to ask them to take us in and feed us, so we can preach the gospel to them? What’s that about?”

Maybe it’s about vulnerability. Maybe it’s about mutuality, not going to people with the resources or answers we think they need, but inviting them into relationship in which they can meet Jesus. Maybe it’s about allowing people to give to us, so that that we’re sharing on level ground, not from a place of power or control.

And for the ones carrying the Gospel to others, it is also an invitation to build the kind of trust muscles we need in the service of God. Having no money or change of clothes, no toothbrush or even a staff to lean on is an invitation to lean totally on God’s provision and love. “Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?” we ask baptismal candidates. It is very hard to put our whole trust in anything, let alone a force we can know but not see or feel. But that’s the kind of faith Jesus invites us to grow.

When have you been in a situation where you had to rely totally on God? Where you couldn’t see what good was going to come, and could only trust that it would? These are trust-building opportunities.

It is not easy, but I can tell you that the testimony of those who live this way is that God comes through, again and again, often in completely unforeseen ways, often through the very people they thought they were there to help. When we break down the "us" and "them" and become "us," all kinds of mutual giving become possible.

This story was about being sent on mission. Perhaps it is also an invitation to live more lightly always, less encumbered about stuff and space and security. Every day we have an invitation, right in our own lives, to simplify, to free up.

And every day we have opportunities to go to someone in the name of Christ, seeing what meals are provided to us when we don’t try to get them for ourselves. We don’t get to set the menu, but we will be fed. That’s the life of faith.

6-14-17 - Know Your Audience

It’s the first principle of marketing: know your audience, then shape your message and target your approach accordingly. Jesus knew that, sending out his disciples on their first mission foray: 
These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

More than onceJesus declined ministry to people from ethnicities other than his own Jewish people (though he always relented, and thus expanded his market share…) His teaching and activities suggest that he saw his initial mission as correcting misinterpretations of the Torah, and inviting God’s chosen people back into alignment with God’s love and God’s truth. It seems reclaiming the whole world came later.

Similarly, he told his disciples they were sent not to everybody, not to the “other,” but to their own people – the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Eventually, outreach and evangelism to the “other” became hallmarks of missional strategy for the church. But maybe in this early stage of training Jesus didn’t want his disciples distracted by cross-cultural chasms or barriers of language and religion. He wanted them to get used to proclaiming the Good News, healing the sick, casting out demons, even raising the dead, and to start with those who already knew the basics about the One Holy God of Israel.

The targeting was even more precise: within that one ethnic group, they were to zero in on one "worthy" household, not broadcasting their seeds to see where they might take root, but planting by hand as opportunities were given:

Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.

This last may sound rude, even hostile to us. I think Jesus was simply inviting them to develop a laser-like focus on building relationships with people with whom they shared a language, who might be open to the gift of Good News. The same often applies to us. It can seem easier to share our faith with total strangers than with those who look and talk like us, because maybe we don’t have to be as vulnerable. But more often than not God sends us to those with whom there are fewer barriers to connection.

Who do you know who needs to know Jesus’ love, to hear the Good News of freedom and grace? Pray about how you might go about offering that Good News. And if you are rebuffed, move on to someone else. That’s not the “anointed appointment” God is inviting you to have.

The Spirit will lead us, as we ask and are willing, to those who are hungry for what we have to give.

6-13-17 - Every and All

When we read the Gospels with an eye to getting to know Jesus, a principle becomes evident: abundance and fullness. Five vats of water turned into wine, food enough for 5,000 with twelve baskets left over. And it applies to healing as well – Matthew tells us Jesus went to all the cities and villages, and cured every disease and every sickness.

And he expected and equipped his followers to do the same:
Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.

Is Matthew just being hyperbolic? None of the gospels show Jesus failing to heal someone in need of it, though at least once his disciples were unable to cast a demon out of a young boy. And once Jesus had to pray twice for the healing of a blind man. "All” and “every” meant just that.

If Jesus healed every disease and illness he encountered, and if he gave authority over disease and demons to his disciples, and if he empowered those disciples-turned-apostles with the Holy Spirit after his resurrection and ascension, and if we carry on the ministry of those apostles through an unbroken chain of laying on of hands In ordination and confirmation… then why don’t we heal every disease and every illness?

Engaging such “why” questions is a recipe for trouble. So much in the realm of prayer is mystery, we can only speculate, based on our reading of Scripture and our experience. I believe we see fewer healings because so often we don’t ask. And sometimes when we ask, it is with meagre faith. Let me be clear – faith needs to rest in the community. I’m not saying each person has to have a full and clear faith – but the community can and should. In my experience, communities that expect healing, that expect answers to prayer, often experience more. The more faith we bring to the exercise of healing prayer, the more healing we see. And where healing remains joined to the proclamation of the Good News, we may see even more positive outcomes.

Healing is fundamental to what it means to be Christians, apostles bearing witness to the power and love of God unleashed in the world through the Spirit of Christ. It is not meant to be reserved to a small cadre of “healing ministers” praying for 5 minutes during a church service. It is to be exercised by all of us, all the time, everywhere we go. I long to see a congregation where it is normal to see people praying with each other at coffee hour, in the parking lot, in each other’s homes, by faith, with thanksgiving.

Perhaps when every Christ follower exercises his or her faith in releasing God’s healing in the sick, the infirm, the despairing, all people will be healed. That’s how the Realm of God becomes visible. Through us.

6-12-17 - Harassed and Helpless

Congratulations – you have made it through the seasons and festivals and holidays that span Christmas through Easter to Pentecost, and have arrived safely at that long stretch we call “Ordinary Time.” From now until Advent, minus a few feast days, we will hear stories from Jesus’ ministry and teaching. We have an opportunity to get to know him better, and to explore our own callings within his ongoing mission.

For that, we come in at a good spot – next Sunday’s Gospel reading drops us at the start of Jesus’ travels, with his instructions to his disciples before their first foray out. Let’s listen as though we were one of them, for, indeed, we are, and the mission field Jesus described then, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few,” is as apt today.

The mood of the people Jesus encountered is also the same as what we see today:
Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

Jesus set out to proclaim the Good News of God’s mission to restore and renew all of creation to wholeness, and to demonstrate that mission by healing every ill person he encountered. As he went, he also responded with compassion to what he saw – people who were harassed and helpless, rudderless, leader-less.

The ones he encountered lived in poverty and fear, under the thumb of the Roman occupiers and further oppressed by their own religious leaders. People we encounter in our lives may more often be harassed by the demands of wealth than poverty, but many are also seeking direction, to be led to safety and green pastures and still waters. They are hungry for meaning, thirsty for purpose and the kind of love only God can give. We have access to these gifts – will we share?

Who do you know who is harassed or helpless, or both? Who is awakening your compassion? How might God be sending you to that person with a message of promise and life?

Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Are you ready to be sent? Ask God in prayer to show you where and when and how and to whom. Just say the word – God will send you into the harvest.

6-9-17 - St. Columba

Today is the Feast Day of St. Columba, whom we will celebrate at his namesake church this coming Sunday. Columba was a 6th century Irish prince who entered religious life, got into various scrapes and battles, and ended up leaving his beloved Ireland to evangelize what is now Scotland (a task which, according to one of many legends, included subduing the Loch Ness monster…) He died on the isle of Iona in 597 CE, a missionary who lived out Jesus’ commission to “go and make disciples.”

By historical account, Columba struggled much with pride and anger and his own exceptional talents. He learned the hard way, as do most of us, to rely on God’s power and love. And he learned that Jesus does not send us off alone with the charge to spread the Good News – he comes with us. Jesus’ last words on that mountain were, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” But sometimes it can be hard to feel his presence. Here are a few ways I know of to draw on that promise:

Prayer – when we allow our minds to quiet and invite the Spirit to fill us, it is the Spirit of Christ who comes to us. The visually inclined can ask Jesus to show up in the imagination in some place and form that resonates for us, where we can talk and listen to him - and just hang out.

Praise – when we release our spirits in praise, as we sing or admire beauty or enjoy an intimate meal, we feel a presence in us and around us. That is Christ, joining our praises.

Eucharist – We offer these words and actions to remember Him, because he said to… and remember means more than "recall." It also means to reconstitute the members of a body. We receive the life of Christ in those signs of his body and blood – and He has promised to be there with us.

In the Hungry and Forgotten – Jesus said when we feed and clothe and visit and tend to those in need, we do it for him. Doing ministry among people with obvious needs – and many assets, don’t forget – is a wonderful way to be with Jesus. Ask him in advance to show himself to you.

Ministries of Power – Jesus told his followers that when the Spirit came, they would do even greater works than they’d seen in him. When we pray for healing or reconciliation or exercise spiritual power in Jesus’ name, we are invoking his presence with us.

What are the ways you sense the presence of Jesus? Are there times you feel abandoned anyway? Those are normal, especially when a lot of things are going wrong. God invites us to pray through them and pipe up and say, “What happened to, ‘I will be with you always?’ Not feeling it…”

Always is a long time. We can experience Christ with us moment by moment, and expand our capacity. I’ll close with lyrics from a song I wrote a few years ago for Eastertide, called “Was That You?” It explores the garden and Emmaus and the fish. The last verse brings the question to us:

So where did you last see him, where he wasn’t supposed to be?
He told us he’d be with the poor, the lost, the last, the least …
He said that we would know him in Word and bread and wine;
He promised to be with us, now – and to the end of time.
Is that you breathing peace to me when it's storming in my head?
Is that you releasing power in me, the power that raised the dead?
Is that you, loving me more than I could ever understand?
Don’t know why it always takes a while for me to open up my eyes and see:
That it’s you, always next to me, Jesus, you, right here, next to me.

6-8-17 - The Great Co-Mission

Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations.” Christians reply, “Okay, We have our orders - here we go to save some souls!” And here the church has gone, for over 2,000 years, carrying the Good News to the ends of the earth. At Grace Church in the late 1970s we held a multi-day preaching revival mission keynoted by a Ugandan bishop, Festo Kavingere, come to save the souls of secular New Yorkers. The ends of the earth (from our Western perspective, anyway…) had come to us. The Great Commission is our job.

Yet when we understand God’s mission as a job, an order to follow, we lose sight of perhaps the most important word: “Co.” Co-mission means mission with. Jesus never intended his followers to take the hand-off from him and run with the ball on our own. He promised His Spirit would be in us, confirming the power of our words in signs and wonders. Perhaps, when the Great Commission has run off the rails, it’s been when the “co” got dropped and it became just mission. Our mission. My mission.

Co-mission means we are always partners in God’s mission, rather than us recruiting God as a silent partner to bless our missions. When we are partners in God’s mission, we can be sure that we’re in God’s will and that good fruit is promised. God is always creating new life, restoring wholeness – so we can be sure God always has a mission for us to join into. God seems, in fact, to rely on our joining in, or that thing doesn’t get accomplished. It’s like an electrical current needing a conductor to carry it – we’re the wire, folks, literally wired in to what God has already purposed.

How do we know when it’s God’s mission? It will resemble Christ’s missions. Look around you: Where do you see energy and passion that result in people being blessed, healed, fed, reconciled? There’s God’s mission. Where do you see hunger, fear, injustice or oppression? God may be inviting you to join God there.

Where do you see needs, frustration, wheels spinning? Maybe that’s a place where mission is being undertaken without God, like a wire disconnected from the current. Sometimes much of what I spend my time and energy on does not feel like God’s mission at all, but rather my attempt to help prop up old conveyor belts for human mission initiatives, my own included.

God’s mission is not about meeting needs, though needs are often met as we go about God’s mission. God’s mission is about bringing life to things that are dead or on their way there. God’s mission is about freedom and peace. We’re about God’s mission when we feel our sails full of Holy Spirit wind; when we don’t know the route but know we’re going somewhere blessed.

When do you feel you are “co-missioning” with God rather than “missioning” on your own?
When do you feel your passion and energy rising in ministry? Start noticing what gets your attention, and when in conversation you become more focused and enthusiastic.

You might ask God to wire you in to a mission, large or small – and to give you a clue that’s what’s happening by letting you see some fruit.

If God is always on the move, and if God needs us to carry the current of what God wants to accomplish… think how often God may want us just to show up and say, “Here I am. Use me.” That’s the Greatest Co-mission of all.

6-7-17 - Making Disciples

It’s a muscular charge, the way Matthew renders Jesus’ last earthly instruction to his followers:
And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”

Authority…. Go and make… Obey… Commanded…. This is not language of invitation and inspiration – or love. And it has fostered some atrocious Christian behavior in world history. It’s not so hard to justify crusades and conquistadors when you take your marching orders from this verse – and this verse has had more influence than many in the bible. We even call it The Great Commission.

We can chalk some of this up to Matthew’s style – his version of stories and sayings often sound more legalistic than in other Gospels. Writing forty or so years after the events he records, in the face of persecution and unrest and competing factions in the Christian movement, he may have felt it important to stress Jesus’ authority and command. To those who wanted to reserve Jesus’ blessing to Jewish believers, he may have wanted to remind them that these gifts were for all nations, that spreading the Good News is part of the church’s DNA. In a time when alternate readings of Christian revelation were already sprouting, he called people back to the teachings and commandments of Christ.

How do we take these words and live into them, aware of the harm and the good they’ve often caused? How might we rediscover the joy of sharing Good News in Jesus’ name, not holding back the blessing we have received?

Let’s ponder what it means to “make disciples.” It does not mean force a discipline on another, or manipulate allegiance. A disciple, one who takes on the discipline of a teacher, needs to do so by choice, or he will lack the motivation to follow through. Those who chose to follow Jesus in his earthly ministry caught his passion and wanted to be a part of what he was doing. That’s how people still become his disciples. If we want to share in this mission of God, we will rediscover and share our own passion for the love of God and the Way of Jesus. Otherwise, we’re just going to church.

When someone has caught the passion for loving God, we invite her to be baptized (note the passive verb form... baptism is something we receive more than "do"), to mark this new commitment. We invoke the Holy Spirit to fill and equip her. And yes, we teach her all that Jesus has commanded, in all its counter-intuitive glory – to love enemies, value the poor more than our own, seek peace over being right, to name a few. And we train her to walk in the Spirit, so that choosing to obey Jesus’ commands gradually becomes a desire, not just a duty.

Making disciples starts with us. Do you consider yourself a disciple of Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord? Why or why not? If you’re not, and you want to be, you can pray, “Okay, Jesus, I want to follow you… show me how.” And ask someone you consider to be a disciple already to walk alongside you.

Is there someone you know whom you might mentor in the faith, helping them discover discipleship? You can start by praying for God to bless that desire and give you openings.

Making disciples is a little more complex than “just add water” – but it’s God’s work. We just get to help.

6-6-17 - Some Doubted

The gospel reading set for Sunday is Matthew’s version of Jesus’ last encounter with his disciples:
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.

Some doubted? After running into the resurrected Jesus for several weeks, some still weren’t sure? Of course, it can be very hard to overcome our belief in the impossible, even when it’s staring us in the face. An empty tomb and forty days were not enough for some, and still aren’t for many.

A healthy faith grows like a tree, its roots reaching deep into the soil of God-Life, accessing nutrients and building a stable base. It has a strong trunk able to support its growth. It reaches out branches toward God in praise, and toward other people in offering, allowing fruit and leaves to form. Yet no two trees grow alike. Each develops according to its situation, the nutrients available, sunlight and shade – and the winds. Some trunks are sinewy and gnarled, strengthened by adversity. Some branches extend in long arcs, others divide and reach toward the light, others break of their own weight and crash to earth.

Doubt can work like a strong wind on our trees of faith, its pressure causing us to grow stronger. Doubt is a natural part of a living faith. It’s how we respond to it that makes the difference. If we acknowledge doubt when it surfaces and bring it into our relationship with God, it can add texture and depth to our faith. If we allow doubts to inspire us lean harder on God, even to test, to say, “I don’t understand; show me,” they can actually deepen our faith.

But if we stay shielded from doubt by a black-and-white certainty, we can be like trees that grow tall and uniform – and easily toppled in a crisis. And if our doubts cause us to turn away from God, we don't fully experience the joys of that relationship, though God has not turned away from us.

How often do you engage doubts about God, about Jesus, about the power of God in the world or your life? What tends to trigger it? How do you tend to respond?
Today, can you bring one of those trouble areas into prayer? See what you discern in response.

As followers of the Risen Christ, we do not sign on to a set of doctrines. We enter into relationship with the multi-faceted triune God. There is room in God for our faith, our doubts, our love, our fears, and a whole lot more. Our faith is strengthened as we allow God to water our roots every day, as we allow life to prune our branches, as we withstand the winds and rain – and as we nurture ourselves to bear abundant fruit.

So we will be “…like trees planted by streams of water; bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither.” (Psalm 1:3)

6-5-17 - Trinity

Next Sunday is Trinity Sunday – in all of Christendom except at St. Columba’s, where we will be busy celebrating Columba Day and saying goodbye to our beloved minister of music. But that's no reason not to explore the Trinity this week. And I'm going to start with: Why three? Why not two, or four, or one – which would have been so much easier to explain. Yes, we believe God is One, but Christians also assert that God is Three persons within the One Godhead. Why three?

The shortest answer I know is, because Jesus said so. He spoke of his Father in heaven, he spoke of himself as Son of God, and he referred in personal terms to the Holy Spirit, who would be sent when he was no longer bodily present. And there were stories, like the voice heard at His baptism, “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” and the Spirit descending upon him. Early church preachers and thinkers, trying to interpret collected stories and teachings, had to wrestle with these references. When you think about it, seeing God as triune was unavoidable, given how Jesus refers to these three distinct persons as God.

Unavoidable doesn’t mean simple. It took centuries to sort out and articulate Christian doctrine about God, and some of the process was torturous, as it is any time we try to talk about the Unity and the Trinity of God (read the Athanasian Creed sometime…) On the one Sunday each year when we highlight not an event but a doctrine, preachers twist themselves into pretzels trying to clarify a spiritual mystery. Sun, ray, beam…. Orange, peel, juice… Mother, wife, sister… Water, ice, steam…. Or the image I stumbled onto a few weeks ago: sea, water-fall and spray. (I rather like that one.)

A good formula for the Trinity does not allocate different functions to Father, Son and Spirit, but affirms their sharing in the full life of God. It conveys distinction between persons and the unity of the whole – and so affirms the principles of differentiation and wholeness that are so important for human health and thriving. It communicates the core Christian belief that God is One and also more than One; that God is so big, God could not be contained as just One but exists in eternal relationship of persons.

We are invited to join this ongoing, active, relational life of God. The Christian life is not about assenting to a belief, but actively joining a relationship already in full swirl, and somehow richer when you and I join in. Some liken it to a dance, in which we are swept up, folded in, made whole.

What difference does understanding God as Trinity make to us? It gives us different ways to connect with God. Some relate to God as Spirit, unseen but powerful and present. Some connect better to God the Father, transcendent and holy, unknowable and yet perfect love. And some find their connection to the Son who left his heavenly home to enter our world as a human being, making God knowable to us.

Who do you find you most connect with in prayer? 
Have you ever consciously tried to address another Person of the Trinity just to see how you might experience God differently? You might try it today...

I will leave us with a great formulation written by my friend Willy Welch in a song for children:
God is one person, and he’s also Three. God is a person, and He’s a family.
One, he is the Father; Two, he is the Son; Three, he is the Spirit, and they’re never done.

6-2-17 - One-Two Punch

Pentecost was not the first time the disciples received the Holy Spirit – that happened on Easter night, when Jesus showed up in a locked room, risen and whole, his wounds visible but healed. He came to commission and to equip.

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

One thing that mystifies me about this event is how little effect it seems to have had on the disciples. Jesus said, “I send you…” but a week later he shows up again, and they're still there, locked in fear. And though some of them took a foray out to go fishing on the Sea of Galilee, after Jesus’ ascension they went right back to that room, where they still were on Pentecost when the Spirit came in fullness.

I don’t know what that’s about theologically – for what it's worth, the events are recorded in different gospels. But that progression is true for many Christians. We receive the gift of the Spirit in baptism; it is renewed in us at confirmation, and every time we go to the communion rail, and often when we’re in prayer and ministry… we receive the gift of the Spirit many times in the Christian life. Yet many Christians don’t feel that power and life, that giftedness for ministry. The life of the Spirit is in them, yet somewhat muted or dormant until it is released by request. I often liken it to an unlimited bank account to which we’ve received the access code, but unless we use it, the riches just sit there.

Maybe we all need to do it in two steps. Trying to be a Christ-follower without the active participation of the Holy Spirit in, with, and through us is like trying to drive a car on fumes. We may get somewhere, but generally it’s by coasting. God wants to fill our tanks! God has places for us to go and people for us to bear Christ to, and mission he wants to do through us. We don’t need to do anything on our own steam – in fact, we can’t do much of lasting worth without the power of God working through us by the Spirit.

The Spirit of God brings us supernatural peace in unpeaceful circumstances, supernatural courage in the face of fearsome challenges, supernatural giftedness to do more than we think is possible. The more we are filled with the Spirit, the less room there is for illness or despair or anxiety. When I’m down or sick, I’ve learned to pray, “Come, Holy Spirit, fill me,” because it’s the only prayer I need.

If you would like a deeper filling of the Spirit, a releasing of God’s gifts in you, more vital and connected ministry, a greater sense of groundedness in your life, that’s the only prayer you need too. “Come, Holy Spirit – be released in me!” Pentecost will come. Again, and again.