1-31-17 - Left for Salt

I’m not ready to part with the salt metaphor yet, for salt has properties beyond giving and catalyzing flavor. Salt can also act as a preservative, and was used for centuries before refrigeration came along to keep meat from spoiling. (How effectively, I don’t know, but if that's how we got bacon…)

As we are “salt for the earth,” we participate in this ministry of preserving life in systems – and people – that are decaying. We bring freshness, we bring flavor, we boost systems – and people – to be fruitful beyond what they thought possible. We hold life.

Where around you do you see a system or a person in need of preservation? Certainly we have to work to preserve the values many feel truly make us great – the American constitution and democratic process, our values of freedom and welcome, diversity and unity, protection for the vulnerable and equal rights and responsibilities for the many. In the church realm, we need continually to infuse the “old, old story” into our worship and missional life, not to preserve institutional structures, but fidelity to Jesus as Lord.

And I want to lift up another property of salt – salt facilitates water retention in the bloodstream. Too much salt can create unhealthy and unwanted effects, but just speaking metaphorically, how might we as “salt of the earth” help our communities to retain water – the living water which Jesus said wells up within us continually to eternal life? (John 4).

Where do you see thirst for spiritual life, for purpose and meaning, for connection to God and other people? Where are systems running on empty? How might we as salt create little pools of water in a dry landscape, rivers in the desert, as the prophets foretold?

And where do you feel you’re running dry? How might you join together with other Christ-follower to create a pool of living water?

In the prophet Ezekiel’s great vision of a river flowing from the center of the temple out to the arid places, fresh water renewing the stagnant waters so that a diversity of fish and fruit trees thrive, there is an interesting verse about that restored sea: “But its swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they are to be left for salt.” (Ezekiel 47:11)

Salt is essential to balance in our bloodstream. It is essential to balance in our natural environment. And we as salt are essential to bringing the Life of God to every system, every person, every place, so that all might be whole.

1-30-17 - Salty

As Jesus’ followers began to live and travel with him, they discovered just how many things they had to learn how to do: feed the hungry, proclaim the Gospel, encourage the poor, heal the sick – oh, and raise the dead when necessary. But he also told them how they were to be: “You are the salt of the earth;..” (This week's gospel reading is here.)

As we know, salt has many functions – flavor-enhancer, food-preserver, fluid-retainer are a few that come to mind. Jesus here refers to the first, salt as an agent that adds flavor to food, and brings out the flavors in other ingredients. He is suggesting that this is a critical function of religious communities – that they both add and elicit flavor.

And if they’re bland or watered down… forget it. Jesus does not mince words about the consequences of salt having lost its flavor. “…but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot." 

Is he talking about the lukewarm, semi-corrupt religious leadership of Israel in his day? Is he warning his followers to maintain their character no matter what comes at them?

How do we interpret this call to be “salt” in our spiritual lives and communities? First, we might think about where we add flavor and zest. What sectors of your life do you enliven because of who you are, and because of your connection to God? Work, school, family, ministry, play, church – these are a couple of spheres; you might name more. In the last ten days millions of ordinary Americans have added “activist” to their resumes, carving out time for attending rallies and community organizing. That is being salt in the body politic. Ask God where you are called to be salt.

And how about this second function of salt, to bring out the natural flavors of other ingredients? How do you elicit the gifts and enthusiasms and generosity of the people with whom you interact in those spheres? How does – or doesn’t – your faith community do that within its larger context?

And who is adding salt to your life? Who is bringing forth your natural flavors? Does the interaction work to make something greater than the parts?

At its most basic level, this teaching of Jesus reminds us that our spiritual engagements need to be full of life and flavor, not rote, dull, lukewarm, complacent, or tired. I’d go further: God wants our whole lives to reflect the savory flavor of God’s love and mercy, justice and peace - and we're how that flavor gets in to what God is cooking up.

So into the shaker we go - get ready to be sprinkled.

1-27-17 - Blessed Are

Having spent the week delving into Paul’s teaching about the Cross and the way God effects transformation through what looks like weakness and failure, we turn for one day to Sunday’s gospel passage, the Beatitudes. In this first training talk with his new disciples, Jesus chimes the same theme – that those who follow him will find they are blessed in just the areas that look to the world like weakness and insignificance.

Blessed are the poor in spirit…. those who mourn.. the meek… those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… the merciful… the pure in heart… the peacemakers… those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.

I have never been fond of the Beatitudes, perhaps because I prefer my blessing straight up. I want blessings to look like blessings – good health, good job, comfortable living, peace and security. When I exhort people to “expect blessing,” hardship and hunger are not what I have in mind. And in my current state of dread about the fate of our nation and our world, I am not comforted by this reminder that Jesus had a much deeper kind of blessing in mind. Gee, thanks!

I am not predicting that the hardships Jesus’ original disciples endured are ahead for us. I hope not, as I pray daily with new fervency, “Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.” I do know, though, that to count myself a disciple of Jesus means I need to be prepared, to learn to locate blessing in the presence of God unleased on this earth, not in my own circumstances. And that I am to be an agent of that unleashing, that releasing of God’s power to love, to heal, to forgive, to have mercy, to make peace. It is not our power, but God’s, which we receive through Christ.

We are to expect blessing, but we don’t get to write the script. The blessings may not come as direct answers to our prayers. They come as God gives from a heart of generosity and love and more knowledge than we will ever have. The more we open ourselves to that flow, the more we experience it, whatever our circumstances. Our future, and even our daily bread, is blessing beyond measure. Own it!

1-26-17 - God's Foolishness

I apologize for inserting a political view of current events into a spiritual reflection – but I cannot avoid how apt this passage is to our day. If ever we needed to hear this word from Paul it is this week, as a new president issues order after order stripping people of health insurance and poor women of health care, thwarting efforts to preserve the world’s environment, denying safe haven to refugees, closing doors to immigrants, and setting back the clock on human rights. This is what the world sees as power. But around the world this week ordinary people, “foolish women” in silly hats, came together to show the power in what looks like weakness. They did not gather as Christians, but they embodied a core Gospel value:

For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.

What a message of empowerment to those who are regarded – or regard themselves - as foolish, weak, low and despised, things that are not. What a message of hope to us when we feel powerless. That’s what the marches did for people – reminded them them of the power we have when we come together as the “insignificant." We can overcome evil. And when we come together in Jesus’ name, in the name of the One who allowed himself to become shamed, weak, low and despised, evil does not have a chance.

I’ve shared here before a definition of the devil, whom Christians regard as the source of evil in this world, as “the enemy of human nature.” Looking at the way humanity is demeaned in these executive orders prompts me to pray all the more, “Deliver us from evil.” And then I recall another of Paul’s teachings – that “our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the powers, the authorities,  against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12) Yes, we are called as those “who are not” – in the sight of the powers that be – to reduce to nothing things that are. But our weapons are spiritual and communal, not destructive.

The Good News we have been called to proclaim is this story of God’s great reversal, of God’s lifting up those who are downcast. It has always been good news to the poor and those on the margins; less so to the wealthy and powerful. And where we are wealthy and powerful, we need to consider God’s call to humility and justice.

As we embody this good news, we bring it into being, this realm of God in which peace and justice already reign. Let it be so on earth, as it is in heaven. 

1-25-17 - A Stumbling Block

If you were to invent a religion, you probably wouldn’t want to make it as unfathomable and sometimes unpalatable as Christianity. You wouldn’t insist that God is three persons and yet one. You wouldn’t assert that God became human for a time, yet remained fully God and fully man, full of divine power yet completely vulnerable. And you certainly wouldn’t orient your worship around a story about that God-man being executed by crucifixion, a death reserved for criminals and insurrectionists.

Yet, as the early church proclaimed the Life of God revealed in Jesus Christ, that story became most central. In all four gospels the narrative slows and zooms in for more detail when it comes to Jesus’ passion and death, which occupy more chapters than other incidents. The Gospel of John sees the cross as the place where the Son of God is glorified. Yet this emphasis on the Cross also caused trouble for the early Christ-followers – as it does for many today.

For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

The idea of a crucified Messiah was anathema to many of the era’s Jewish people. Many thought it blasphemous to claim that Jesus had a special relationship with God, or was God; others were appalled to think that God would send a Messiah to deliver his people from oppression, only to allow the oppressors to kill that man on a cross. The idea that God may have been about a much bigger deliverance than a military one did not compute.

And to many Greeks, so fond of logic and philosophy, the story was ridiculous. They could embrace the notion that the mind of God could be expressed in human form, in the way a thought becomes a word, but then to live a life of poverty and weakness? That was unlike any god they could conceive.

How does the crucifixion strike you? Can you see the freedom and love in this horrible tale around which we weave our faith? Many Christians turn away from this brutal story, preferring to emphasize Jesus’ wisdom as a teacher, or goodness as a moral exemplar, or power as a worker of miracles. But Jesus was also, perhaps primarily, savior, redeemer. Understanding the Cross as the place where he took upon himself the penalty of all humanity’s sin, and endured the agony not only of human cruelty, but of estrangement from God, helps us to more fully experience God's forgiveness and freedom.*

Can we see in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ “the power of God and the wisdom of God?” It takes special vision, the eyes of faith to make sense of this awful paradox. In fact, our minds can’t make sense of it; it’s a mystery that seeps into our hearts through contemplation and worship. Let’s open the cracks.

*You might read The Crucifixion: Understandng the Death of Jesus Christ, I have not yet read it, but it was named Christianity Today’s Book of the Year, and is authored by the Rev. Fleming Rutledge, whom I have known since my days at Grace Church in New York. It comes highly recommended for those who want to delve more deeply into this mystery.

1-24-17 - The Wisdom of the World

It’s the kind of paragraph for which Paul is famous, and church lectors struggle to render with clarity:

Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. (This week's epistle reading is here.)

If Paul were speaking to us in person, I think he’d use air quotes and vocal inflection to convey sarcasm. It’s pretty clear that he doesn’t think much of the “wisdom of the world,” at least not in comparison with the wisdom of God – which, he notes, can look a lot like foolishness to those who think they are wise. Paul skewers those who would dismiss or overlook the inconvenience or the scandal of the Cross.

All through the bible we find a distinction between the wisdom of God and the wisdom of humankind. “For my ways are not your ways, nor my thoughts your thoughts, says the Lord.” (Isaiah 55:8) “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things,” Jesus says to Peter (Matt 16:23). Paul is on solid ground in regarding the wisdom of the world as a flimsy foundation on which to rest our faith.

It is good for us periodically to examine what our beliefs are resting on. The Gospel of Jesus Christ and Christian claims about his incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection are so counter-cultural, there is a constant temptation to explain away, or synthesize core doctrines with more palatable philosophies. Many Episcopalians believe the scriptures to be literature with helpful metaphors, not the inspired Word of God. Many mainline Christians have come to regard the crucifixion as a disturbingly dark idea and are reinterpreting sacrificial understandings. And, of course, many American Christians choose to ignore altogether Christ’s teachings on wealth and poverty, self-righteousness and mercy. We all need to return to the Gospels at times, asking the Spirit to guide our interpretation.

But how do we distinguish the wisdom of God from the wisdom of the world? Paul was sure he knew which was which. There is no easy answer – but there are processes:
  • Hold our beliefs up to the whole Bible – where is there agreement, where is there contradiction?
  • Hold our beliefs up to the whole Church, throughout time and space… do our ideas square with the Creeds, the tradition? That’s tricky, for I believe the revelation of the Spirit to be progressive. We have the same scriptures about slavery or women’s roles, but have come to a different understanding by the Spirit. But we look for gaps and overlaps.
  • Ask the Spirit to let us see by the fruits of one interpretation or another which is correct - does one interpretation lead to life or condemnation?
In all of this, we must live by the Spirit with generosity of heart, under the supreme law of grace. What we believe and how we believe matter, but in the end it’s how we follow and worship Jesus as Lord that makes known the Life of God. Recognizing how little we know can be the highest exercise of wisdom.

1-23-17 - Foolishness

This coming Sunday, our Gospel reading is “The Beatitudes,” Jesus core training session for followers. As we explored those fairly recently in Water Daily, I will spend most of this week on the epistle reading, from Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth.

In this discourse, Paul asserts the primacy of the cross of Jesus Christ, arguing against teachers who held that this doctrine was either unimportant or wrong. Corinth was a commercial city through which trade from many regions passed by land and sea. Its populace was sophisticated, eager to explore every new religious fad and philosophical trend. In a climate that so prized wisdom and knowledge, it could be hard to defend a religion which venerated as divine an itinerant rabbi who had died a criminal’s death on a Roman cross. “We need a good P.R. firm,” thought some Christian leaders, seeking to reframe the central story.

Paul was having none of it: For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 

He means that those who see this story as “foolish” prove by their lack of discernment that they are among those who are perishing. In contrast, those who have accepted Jesus’ death on the cross as a saving act can see the power of God evident in what looked like pathetic defeat.

That principle is manifest any time ordinary people confront political power that threatens their freedom. Though some might see it differenlty, many felt they witnessed such power in the peaceful marches around the world this weekend, in which millions marched for human rights and democratic principles. That could look like foolishness too. But much more such "foolishness" may be called for, if offered in the spirit of love and peacefulness witnessed on Saturday.

Where do you feel called to stand up for a principle – or for your faith – that others call foolish or weak? Where might you be called to proclaim your status as a “foolish” Christ-follower?
What weakness might you bring God’s power into?

Paul takes the accusation of “foolishness” and runs with it, reminding his listeners that God was up to something in allowing his Son to die that shameful death, that God irrevocably broke the hold of sin and death in what looked like humiliating defeat. God is still up to something as the freedom Christ won for us is revealed in our lives.

Sometimes we need to get to the end of the story to know just how powerful God’s power really is. But here we are, living both at the end and smack dab in the middle of it, holding to this truth: “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” Thanks be to God.

1-20-17 - The Power We Have

Today some are celebrating, some are grieving, some feel powerless. (Which, when you think about it, is true every day…) As apostles of Christ, his witnesses, we need never feel powerless. We carry within us power that made the universe and conquered the grave, and we’re invited to use it. And how do we do that, you ask? Just do what he did:

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

If we substitute “our communities” for “Galilee” and “gathering places” for “synagogues” (that's what it means…), we get a nice prescription for how to live the Good News:
“We go through our communities, teaching in our gathering places and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”

Wait a minute, every disease? Every sickness? That’s what it says. We don’t hear of Jesus meeting a disease he couldn't transform into wholeness. It’s what he did, and what he taught his followers to do. And it’s how he demonstrated the Good News he proclaimed. What we call miracles were simply Jesus showing how things work in the realm or "energy" of God when it’s released into our present reality. In Jesus, both realms were present, God life and human life. When we invoke his name and his power, both realms are present in us too, “On earth as it is in heaven…”

In the realm of God, molecules obey the command of their creator and realign if they’re out of whack. Cells that don’t function as they were intended to can come back into their purpose. Tired limbs and bodies are renewed by an infusion of power from the source of all power itself. It’s not really so complicated. It’s just that we don't understand it.

We like being able to see how things work. God’s healing power can be visible in outcomes, but rarely in the process. We pray and “give thanks by faith until our faith gives way to sight.” And sometimes when we don’t see the fruit of what we’ve prayed for, we turn away from the whole enterprise.

Instead, we are invited to persist and release the results to God, knowing there is mystery to healing and what looks like not-healings. We are invited to release God’s power and love into a given situation, and to continue to trust in that power and love even while we don’t see transformation. Why let apparent “no’s” stop us from exercising our faith?

When, where and how do you find yourself proclaiming the Good News of God’s love and power? Hmmm. If you don’t know, there’s a prayer task. Ask God to show you. And is there a situation or person you know for whom you might offer healing prayers? “For all things are possible with God…”

Following Jesus means, in part, doing what he did. So let’s get out there, in our communities, teaching in our gathering places, proclaiming the good news of God’s power and love – and yes, healing every disease and every sickness, be it global or personal. We just invoke Christ's power - the rest is up to God.

1-19-17 - Following

Would you have gone, if Jesus walked by your place of work and said, “Follow me?” Would you have left your job, family, home on the promise of “I will make you fish for people?”

As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. (This week's gospel reading is here.)

There wasn’t any security in what Jesus was offering. And yet he said, “Follow me,” and people did. Immediately. How could they be so sure, that they were willing to go right then and there? Leave it all, no looking back.

Once I was praying, and had a sense of Jesus say, “Follow me.” I said, “Where are we going?” An answer came quickly: “You don’t get an itinerary. You don’t get the route. When I say, ‘Follow me,’ I just mean, ‘Follow me.’ Put your focus on where I am, not where I’m going.”

In other words, follow the guide, not the path.

Maybe this should not have come as a revelation, but I had never thought of it that way. If you’re like me, you want to see what you’re committing to, what’s around the next corner. But it makes sense – Jesus invites us not to a walk-about, but to a relationship in which we are transformed and equipped to participate in God’s work of transforming others. In Christ, we are committing to a person, not a program. Kind of like a marriage… we don’t get much of a road map with those either, do we?

Here’s a prayer experiment: for the next week, let’s invite Jesus to lead us every day to the things and people he has blessed or intends to bless. And pray to be alive to that leading – which will mean checking in with him a few times during the day. You might set an alert on your phone or computer, or set up some regular times to stop and pray, “Where we going next, Lord?” And in the evening, take about five minutes to write down where you were led.

I commit myself to doing this. If you do, let me know if you’re surprised by anything. I believe Jesus says, “Follow me,” because he knows where we’re going. And there’s only one way to find out…

1-18-17 - The Invitation

Imagine you're a fisherman. It’s late morning. You came in from the pre-dawn effort some hours ago, and now you’re prepping your nets for the next foray. This is a routine, the same every day, and yet it doesn’t get boring. You have time to think, time to talk with your buddies, time to gossip. This is your life. Some days the catch is great, other days nonexistent, but it evens out. It’s a living, and a life.

A man comes along the shore, walking toward you… he stops, watches you for a few minutes. You’re about to say, “Can I help you?,” when he speaks. He points down the shore, in the direction he’s going. “Follow me,” he says. “I will make you fish for people.” He looks at you intently. He obviously expects you to go with him. Go with him? A stranger, and clearly not a fisherman. What the heck?

But your brother’s already dropped the net he’s repairing. He’s already out of the water. He’s giving your father a hug. He’s looking at you. “You coming, or not?” Andrew already knows this guy. This is that rabbi. The “Lamb of God” guy. You’ve met him. But leave work and family to follow him?

“From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’  Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”

What was so persuasive about Jesus’ invitation that Peter and Andrew, James and John all dropped what they were doing and went with him? As recruiting lines go, “I will make you fish for people” has always struck me as peculiar. What does it mean? Who wants to fish for people? There must have been something amazing about Jesus.

And more, with these few words he signals these fishermen that their purpose in life might go beyond fish. He suggests they have something to give that their fellow humans need. He will teach them how to offer the life that goes beyond mere living, to invite people into God-Life. That’s true of you and me as well. Whatever it is we’re good at, Jesus can help equip us to use those gifts to bring life to those in need of it, to bring hope to the lost, to speak God’s “Yes!” to those who have heard more than enough of the world’s “No’s.”

What do you see as your primary vocation? What gifts go with that? What if, in prayer today, you offer those gifts and living to Jesus and say, “What will you make of this?” It’s called a prayer of oblation, of offering.  As you sit in silence with that prayer, what words or images come to mind?

Maybe Jesus already answered you years ago – if so, how has it been, translating your human skills into Spirit-equipped ministry? What fills your imagination?

It’s harder for us – we don’t have a man on a beach inviting/commanding us to follow. On the other hand, we have an advantage Peter and Andrew didn’t – we already know how the story turns out, at least the part they were in. Our story is still unfolding, and we have reason to glory in it.

1-17-17 - A Great Light

“The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” Matthew’s gospel often matches the events of Jesus’ life with prophecies from Israel’s past. So here he links the place where Jesus makes a home to a promise from Isaiah:

“He … made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
'Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, 
Galilee of the Gentiles — the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, 
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.’

It is easy to envision people stuck in dim light, just going about their business with little hope of transformation or power. I imagine living room after living room lit only by the flicker of screens, televisions, game consoles, computer monitors. I think of people disconnected from hope, from joy, from God, from one another, and in a profound sense from themselves. We all know “people who sit in darkness… in the region and shadow of death.”

Our sacred story rests heavily on the theme of darkness and light. This metaphor is one of the most prominent by which the followers of Jesus, and those who came after them, sought to make meaning of this story that held so much life for them – and for us. And the theme resonates with us in all times, especially those that feel dark.

Our claim as Christ-followers is that God has broken into those dimly lit rooms with light - not only light, but a Great Light. The reality of what God is up to in the humanity of Christ shines a light bright enough to drown the deepest darkness. And we are bearers of that light. The One who called himself the Light of the World also said to his followers, “You are the light of the world.”

When you think of “people who sit in darkness,” who comes to your mind? An individual? A community? Hold that person or group in your mind’s eye, and imagine light shining on them. Not just a little light – a steadily growing light getting brighter and brighter, just bathing that person in its glow.

This is a way of praying for people, using our imaginations. It is a way of picturing God’s blessing. And, because when we pray we are inviting the power of heaven to made real here on earth (“on earth, as it is in heaven…”), we can believe that God is blessing that person or persons. And us, as we hold them up to the light. It shines on us too.

The light has not gone away. And it shines not only on "the road by the sea, across the Jordan…" It shines in our own lives and communities. It shines through us. And when the days are dark, our light shows up even more.

1-16-17 - Temporary Homes

The Son of Man may have nowhere to lay his head – but I hadn't realized until recently that he had a lake house where he could hang his hat. For years I never noticed this verse: "Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake…"  (This week's gospel reading is here.)

It seems Jesus made this move from his mother’s house in Nazareth after learning of John’s arrest by Herod. Was Galilee a safer region than Judea? Or did he move there because it was home to several of his new disciples? Capernaum, where Peter and Andrew lived, became the place Jesus went back to when he could, the center for his new and growing community of followers.

From what we read in the Gospels, though, Jesus didn’t spend much time there. He was on the move, forward, alive to God’s mission, making the love and justice and wholeness of God known in word and action. I wonder how much time he actually spent in Capernaum, and whether he missed it when he was on the road.

Where is home for you? Is it where it’s always been, or new? Often the mission of God calls us out of the familiar into new places, as happened for me last year. We learn to pack light.

And where is home for you relative to your engagement in God's mission? Is it the place you retreat to, or the place from which your ministry comes, your base of operations? My home is both.

Do you have a place for prayer or worship in your home? Consider creating one – a corner of a room, a table and chair, a seat by a window… a place where you go to pray, light a candle, read the bible, give thanks to God, invite God’s Spirit to fill you and inspire your projects.

The letter to the Hebrews says our ultimate home is with God in the heavenly places, that the heroes of faith we read about in the Old Testament knew their homes on this earth were just rest stops on their journey to the heart of God’s love. Jesus must have known that the home he made in Capernaum was exceedingly temporary. I hope he enjoyed his while he could, knowing his final rest would be in the true Home from which he came, the home he has promised to prepare for us.

So let's enjoy home – and not get so comfortable we forget where we’re headed.

1-13-17 - God-Name

People don't usually give us nicknames on first meeting. But that’s what Jesus did when Andrew brought him his brother Simon. Andrew didn’t need any more time with Jesus to be convinced of his identity as the Christ. He knew this was the real deal, the long-awaited Messiah. And, as do most of us when we make a thrilling discovery, he immediately told those nearest and dearest to him.

Lacking Twitter, Instagram, or other networking platforms, Andrew found his brother in person and brought him to meet Jesus. It likely would have been much less transformative had Peter just seen a picture of Jesus on Facebook – there is something about the immediacy of presence that opens us.

One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah.” He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, 'You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas' (which is translated Peter)." No social niceties – just, "Here’s what you’re going to be called from now on."

In our scriptures, people often receive new names to reflect new missional identities. Abram becomes Abraham; Sarai becomes Sarah. Jacob is renamed “Israel” – a name that the whole community takes on. In the New Testament, the Hebrew-named “Saul” takes on the more Greco-Roman “Paul” some years into his ministry among Gentiles. And here Jesus renames Simon bar Jonah “Peter,” or “Petros.”

And he does this on the strength of one look, as John tells it. It’s possible that Jesus’ renaming Simon “the Rock” is a teasing way of saying “hard-headed”; we know that Peter was stubborn. Rocks are also foundations, though, and Jesus may have been signaling the role he intended Peter to play in his new community, a role Peter maintains even into leadership in the earliest Christian communities.

What “God-name” might Jesus give you? Perhaps you already have a sense of having a spiritual name. If not, here’s an invitation to play in prayer. Ask God, “What is my name as you see me?”

What name would you give yourself? What name describes your essence? Think of animals, or flowers, or emotions, activities – “Peaceful Runner,” or “Dancing Bee.” I’m being random, but it could be fun and insightful, to give yourself a name that describes you.

And then decide whether that is a name you want. It might describe who you have been, rather than who you are becoming, or who you already are in God’s sight.

There’s an old song that goes, 
“I will change your name/ You shall no longer be called wounded, outcast, lonely or afraid./I will change your name./Your new name shall be confidence, joyfulness, overcoming one; faithfulness, friend of God, one who seeks my face.” 

Our God-name conveys not only who we truly are, and who we are becoming, but how we are called to participate in God’s mission of healing and restoration. If you find yourself with a new name, look out! You may find yourself walking a new path of blessing and being blessed.

1-12-17 - Come and See

Here we are, at the Jordan River. Jesus of Nazareth goes strolling by. John the Baptist points and says, “Look! There goes the Lamb of God.” A couple of John’s followers go, “Where? Hmmm. Maybe we should find out what that guy’s up to.” They follow Jesus. Jesus turns around and says to them, “What are you looking for?”

They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.”

“Come and see” is a recurring refrain in the Gospels. The angelic host say it to the shepherds outside Bethlehem. Jesus says it to these seekers. One of these men will soon say it to his brother. Philip says it to Nathaniel. A Samaritan woman who met Jesus at a well says it to her town, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did…” And, perhaps most important, Jesus’ followers who find the tomb empty after his burial, and then encounter his resurrected self, say it: “Come and see!”

That’s all Jesus says here. Not, “Come and hear me explain the meaning of life.” Not, “Come and join my growing band of followers," not, "Read my book." He simply invites them to explore and experience; they can respond as they feel led.

“Come and see” is an invitation to explore, a launch pad for expanding our knowledge. It is the least we can do when someone wants to introduce us to a new person, place or product. We cannot truly know until we have “come and seen.” And sometimes, when we have come and seen, we find out how much more there is to learn.

John offers few details about what Andrew and the other disciple experienced with Jesus. 
“They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.” Why does he tells us the time of day? Perhaps to indicate that they spent most of the day with Jesus… it was clearly a life-changing time.

Who in your life has invited you to come and see, to learn more about what Jesus is up to in their lives? Did you go? Did you experience? Give thanks for those people today.

And who might you invite to come and see this living Lord you honor? To come and hang out in his presence, see what he’s all about? This isn't necessarily inviting someone to church - it might be an invitation to spiritual conversation. Can you think of someone who might appreciate that invitation? Those are the only people we need to invite, the ones we feel will be glad we did.

The invitation to “come and see” is offered every single day. We have never seen enough, experienced enough of Jesus’ power, peace, presence, purpose. Often, when we take up His invitation to “come and see” we find ourselves compelled to “go and tell.” And so the circle grows.

1-11-17 - What Are You Looking For?

The label “Lamb of God” may not have much meaning for us, but John’s followers knew exactly what he meant when he said, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” To an oppressed people yearning for God to send a savior, those were loaded words meaning, “That’s the one! The Messiah, the Savior.” (This week's gospel reading is here.)

Two of John's disciples hear him refer to Jesus that way, two days in a row, and they have to find out who this guy can be. Can the Savior of the world really be just a guy walking by?

It doesn’t surprise me that they start tailing Jesus – I’d be curious too. I am amused, though, by Jesus’ response – who are these guys, following me? (“You lookin’ at me?”) I would expect him to say “What do you want?,” but he asks a more profound question: “What are you looking for?” It could be a subtle interview question.

“What are you looking for?” is a searching question. It’s a good question for us today: 
“What are you looking for?”

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re involved in the Christian enterprise in some way, as a Christ-follower, seeker, or observer from a distance. What’s in it for you? What do you desire from God? From Jesus? Peace? Challenge? Comfort? Purpose? Healing? Forgiveness? Company?

Imagine Jesus asking you the question as you walk curiously behind him. “What are you looking for?”

Think about it for a few minutes. Write it down if you keep a prayer journal. And then meditate on that – is it what you want to be looking for? Can you imagine finding it?

When we know what we’re looking for, we’re often halfway to finding it. Even if we think the answer is obvious, it’s valuable to articulate it. The answer might have changed since the last time you thought about it. The way you put it into words might surprise you.

I don’t expect we’ll ever be quite done looking for things until we’re face to face with the Holy One. Then we won’t need to look any more; only gaze in utmost love and joy, complete at last.

1-10-17 - Secret Agent

I don’t know why there aren’t more movies about John the Baptist – he is a strong, odd and gripping character. If I were to make a film of the scene we’re exploring this week, it would be a Mission Impossible-style spy thriller with secret agents lurking about (let’s give the soundtrack to Johnny Rivers - even if it does sound like he’s singing “secret Asian man…). Spy thrillers come to mind when I read how John was able to identify Jesus as the Son of God:

And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’

I imagine John asking his handler, “So, how am I going to know my contact?” And the reply, through an encoded message, “Here’s the sign – he’s going to be in the crowd coming to the river for baptism… he’ll be the one with a dove on his head…” And, of course, John will know “dove” is code for the Holy Spirit. “He’s the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit,” the message will continue, before dematerializing into a small pile of sand.

In Matthew’s account of the story, which we read last week, John is keenly aware of who Jesus is. In Luke’s account they are cousins. John’s Gospel draws on other traditions, and he wants to establish the validity of John’s testimony. Hence this theme of identity and recognition.

So let’s go with that. How do we identify Jesus in our lives, since he isn't walking around with flesh and bones? How do we recognize the Holy Spirit, since s/he rarely assumes that dove disguise these days? How do we perceive when we’re in Christ’s presence when we can’t rely on our five senses?

Some people feel it, a physical rush of some kind that seems connected with the Spirit. Sometimes we feel filled with joy or a desire to praise. Those are some internal ways – you might ask Jesus to bless you with presence in that way.

Or use the imagination God gave you, and ask Jesus if he would meet you somewhere in your mind's eye. Get still and wait and see what kind of scene unfolds, inside or outside, familiar or unknown… what do you see, hear, smell? If you sense Jesus joining you in that place, does conversation unfold? Don’t rush it. Be attentive to what you perceive.

The other way he said we’d know him is in other people – in other Christ-followers; in the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the sick, the lonely, the imprisoned. When you find yourself among someone in need, are you ever aware of Christ in that person? We can pray, “Jesus, let me see you.”

John the Baptist says, “And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” I believe God will grant us experiences that prompt us to testify too. It's just that, for some reason, Jesus usually shows up undercover – even in you and me.

1-9-17 - The Witness

John the Baptist is front and center during Advent, and rarely seen the rest of the church year. Yet here he is, in January, popping up as an eyewitness to the identity of Christ. His testimony is remarkable:

The next day [John] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” (This week's gospel passage is here.)

The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. That’s a mouthful – signifying from the beginning of the story the sacrificial aspect of Jesus’ mission. And John is very sure of who Jesus is. “This is the one I was talking about, the one I said was coming, who is greater than I. He is the reason I do this!” If John is unhappy about his season waning while another’s fruit ripens, he doesn’t seem so.

It is generally unwise to define ourselves in comparison to someone else. But if that someone else is Jesus, it can help give us a clearer picture. Here’s a prayer experiment to try today: Sit quietly, maybe light a candle, let your breathing slow and deepen, let yourself get centered. Close your eyes, and picture yourself. Where are you? What are you wearing? What do you think about what you see? What do you feel?

Then bring Jesus into the picture. Imagine him sitting with you. No need to stress about what he looks like or if you have a visual sense of him – just let him be a presence. How do you look next to him? Who do you see when you look at yourself through his eyes?

If feelings come up that you want to speak, go ahead – that’s prayer, talking with God. If you hear a response from Jesus, that’s great. That’s prayer, God talking with us.

If visualizing in prayer isn’t for you, just ask God,
“Who do you see when you look at me?” Wait to see if you sense a response; I often find they come quickly and are surprising. God wants us to know who we are in God’s eyes.

When we look at ourselves with Jesus in the picture, we know at least a couple of things:
we know we’re not God;
we know we’re not perfect;
we know we’re loved.

And when we know those three things about ourselves, we tend to be gentler with ourselves, more compassionate with other people, and a whole lot freer with our love. That’s what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ and a saint in God's church.

1-6-17 - Epiphany

Until you’re there, you’re not. This is a truth of journeying we rediscover any time we’re racing to a destination, a reunion, or enduring travel delays. We can only be where we are at any given moment. Until you’re there, you’re not.

The sages who had come so many miles searching for the new king whose star they’d seen rising in their night skies were anxious to get there, even if they weren’t quite sure what “there” would turn out to be. They had invested a great deal in making this trip, trusting the stellar guidance as they read it. Who knows, maybe folks at home had called theirs a fool’s errand; maybe they’d read the stars wrong. This Herod fellow certainly hadn’t heard anything about a new king; he just sent them off toward Bethlehem. Until they were “there,” they weren’t.

But they had that star as a beacon: "...they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy."

Hard to imagine what these star-followers felt when the guidance held true. Whether real men or mythic figures – or both – these sages from far-off lands were overwhelmed with joy when they were led to a simple house. If they were surprised to find there an ordinary young family, we see no indication in their actions: “On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

What a way to greet a king, even one who looked nothing like a king; in a house, not a palace; attended only by his parents. Our wise travelers were unfazed. They knew they had arrived where they needed to be. They had come with three goals – they wanted to see, they wanted to honor, they wanted to gift. And when they had done what they came to do, they went home, guided by the wisdom that had brought them to Bethlehem, to be ready for the next adventure.

We can find in their goals a guide to our devotion:

To want to see Jesus. Make that a prayer; ask the Spirit to expand your faith vision to see Jesus wherever he might be in your life this week, in prayer, in other people, in the poor, at communion…
To want to honor Jesus. Offer Him praises, adoration in your heart, with your voice, in your actions, in song…
To give him precious gifts. What that is precious to you do you want to offer Jesus? Your time? Energy? Relationships? Love? Maybe ask what he would like you to give… you might be surprised at the answer.

This journey of seeing, honoring, giving is one we can make over and over again, arriving “there” only to leave again. Each time we arrive we are strengthened for the next trip, which might be in five minutes, or five weeks. And on each journey we see the sights somewhat differently.

And always our destination is the same – Home.
Until we’re there, we’re not.

1-5-17 - Affirmation

We could name the "movements" in Jesus' baptism: Assent, Immersion, Emergence, Anointing, and then Affirmation. Something extraordinary occurs when Jesus comes up from that river - not only does the Spirit of God descend upon him in a visible form, there is an auditory phenomenon as well:

And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

Here we see all three persons in the One Triune God participating in the launch of Jesus’ mission on earth: the Spirit, the Father, and the one whom the Father claims as Son. When early church thinkers were working out theological implications of the Good News, scriptural passages like this helped to inform the doctrines of the Trinity and of Jesus’ nature as fully human and fully divine. Jesus, alone of humans born of woman, is called God’s Son.

I believe that is the only part of the baptism unique to him. The pattern in Jesus’ baptism, Assent, Immersion, Emergence, Anointing and Affirmation, is true for us as well, if more internalized. Someone offers assent to the Story into which we are baptized. We undergo the dying and rising symbolically, in our interaction with the water. We receive the anointing and the affirmation of belovedness. We are adopted as members of God’s household, through our spiritual bond with the Son. And we receive God’s eternal “yes," claimed as beloved forever.

When have you heard God's "yes" spoken into you? Sometimes it comes through human agents, sometimes we feel it directly, inside. Remember those moments of spiritual affirmation, of being loved by your Creator for who you are. Recall them in moments when faith seems difficult, or you can’t see your way forward.

Let's note that the Father’s naming and claiming Jesus as his own, "the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased," comes before Jesus has actually “done” anything. His first thirty years appear to have been spent with his family, sharing his earthly father’s carpentry craft. His public ministry is still to come – and yet already, the Father proclaims himself “Well pleased.” All Jesus has done so far is show up.

I hope and pray we can remember this ourselves in moments when we feel less than lovable or inadequate – God loves us just as we show up and offer ourselves for relationship. There is nothing we can or need to do to earn that love – God already loves us “the most.” As we are able to accept that, we are able to show that kind of love to ourselves, and to one another. What the world needs now...

1-4-17 - The Spirit's Anointing

And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.

Nothing like being dive-bombed by the Holy Spirit! Of course, it only says the Spirit of God descended like a dove… But the literal-minded imagine a bird landing on Jesus’ head. That comical image can obscure the power of what gospel writers describe here: the moment when the Spirit of God – present at Jesus’ conception, present in his youth from the limited stories we have – fully indwells him. This is when Jesus moves fully into his identity as the Christ, “the Anointed One.” (“Christ” is from the same Greek word for oil, or ointment, from which we get “chrism.”) This is the moment when his public ministry begins, when he takes up his mission of transformation and redemption.

We receive the Spirit at baptism as well. We are baptized in water and by invocation of the three-fold name of God, and then we are anointed with oil, signed with a cross on our foreheads. That oil signifies the Holy Spirit. In some early east Syrian baptismal rites, the oil was as important as the water, or more, so crucial was it to convey the power of the Spirit to be released in the newly baptized.

The gift of the Holy Spirit is often among our most neglected, like a punch bowl gathering dust in the cupboard, or the wedding china left in the buffet except for “special occasions.” Yet St. Paul calls this gift of the Spirit a down-payment on the inheritance that we can access now. He writes to the Ephesians, “When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.” (Eph. 1:13-14).

In essence, we have a huge inheritance in the bank, which will never run out. At baptism we receive the card and the pin number. We can leave it sitting there – or we can use it to bring spiritual power to bear on all kinds of pain and brokenness and stuckness we encounter in ourselves and others. Among the gifts Paul cites are insight, hope and spiritual power, which we can exercise now.

Are you aware of the presence of the Spirit in you and around you? When do you access that power? Sometimes we can simply invite the Spirit to make him/herself known (the Spirit has no gender… but is not an “it.”)

Today you might sit quietly for a time, get comfortable, both feet on the floor, spine straight but relaxed, and pray, “Come, Holy Spirit. Fill me. Let me know you’re here.” And wait, with attention.

Or, if you’re confronted with a tense or challenging situation, invoke the Spirit into it, praying silently, “Guide me, give me the right words, protect me…,” whatever seems right. Think how engaged our churches can be in our communities when we all exercise the gift of the Spirit!

We aren’t always aware of such cosmic activity at baptism – yet I believe that each time we enact that sacrament, the heavens are opened, and the Spirit of God descends and alights on us. And once the heavens are opened to us, we have lifetime access to the God of the universe. Lifetime, and beyond.

1-3-17 - Water

In Robert Duvall’s classic film, The Apostle, there is a scene in which Duvall’s character, a wayward evangelist fleeing an attempted murder charge, stands waist deep in a river. Slowly he sinks down and submerges himself. He’s down there awhile – we wonder if he’s coming back up. Then slowly he does and breaks through the surface. From here on he adopts a new name, “The Apostle EF,” and assumes a new identity. We never quite know whether this is grace or scheming – that’s part of the power of the film. The scene infers, though, is that he was in effect baptizing himself, allowing his old identity to die and a new one to be born.

Baptism is the premiere rite of new beginnings. In the Christian church, it has long been the entry point for life in Christ, though sometimes it comes long after faith has taken hold. One reason baptism always includes water is because Jesus was baptized in water. “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.” To many theologians, Jesus in this way sanctified all waters.

We all begin life in the water, the amniotic fluid in which we prepare for birth. And, of course, water can also be a place of death – imagery which our baptismal texts emphasize as the dying of the old self and the rising with Christ of the new, eternal soul. Christian baptismal rites emphasize both birth and death – some early baptismal fonts were designed to suggest wombs, tombs or both.

I find it a great blessing that an element we encounter numerous times each day should be the sacramental sign of our new life in Christ, for we have can be constantly reminded of our status as beloved of God. Martin Luther is said to have instructed followers, “When you wash your face, remember your baptism.” I would go further and say, “When you have a bath or a shower, remember your baptism. When you go swimming or pass a puddle, or fill your coffee pot or your water glass, remember your baptism.”

If you can’t remember yours, you might spend a little time today imagining it in prayer.
What water source would you choose?  A font, a pool, a beach, a water fall, a fountain?
Would you like to go into the water or have it poured over you? 
In your imagination, can you see those waters as healing? 
What do you want healed? Regenerated? Renewed?

There was a time when my prayer life consisted of meeting Jesus on a beach in my imagination – sometimes he had a fire there and we talked. More than once, he invited me to wade into the sea with him, a profound reminder of my baptism.

Wherever and whenever you were baptized, and whoever was there, remember that Jesus also was there through his Spirit, sanctifying the water, in which you were born anew. That birth process takes a lifetime – and we can dip into those waters any time we want.

1-2-17 - Submission

This coming Sunday we explore the story of Jesus’ baptism (we’ll hit the tale of the magi Friday…) For many decades in the early church, this was the premiere Epiphany text, and this the holiest time of the year for baptisms. Baptism is where our formal life in Christ begins – and baptism is where Jesus formally became the Christ. Yet this momentous blessing almost didn’t occur.

“Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’”

Maybe the evangelist Matthew was a lawyer; so often he seems to be marshalling supporting arguments, citing precedents and anticipating objections. He alone of the Gospel writers tells us that John was uncomfortable having Jesus submit to his ritual of repentance. After all, by the time Matthew is writing, Jesus is already risen and ascended, worshiped as the sinless Son of God. Matthew is getting out in front of those who would question why Jesus should have undergone a baptism of repentance. So here John objects to what he perceives as the lesser baptizing the greater.

“But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented.”

Jesus recognized that, if he was to share fully in our humanity, he needed to undergo this rite of cleansing it. He willingly submits to this ritual, as later he submits to a corrupt trial and unjust sentence and hideous death. Over and over Jesus submits – and so subverts the sin and death from which he came to free us. Indeed, his Incarnation itself – God taking on the limitations of human flesh and nature, of boundedness in time and space – is submission, freely submitting in order to set others free.

Some in our churches would remove the language and rituals of submission from our liturgies. I suggest that the art of voluntary submission is at the heart of following Christ. It is central to the self-emptying love Jesus taught and lived. In following Him, we voluntarily submit our prerogatives, our priorities, our time and resources, our wills, to the cause of self-giving love that heals and transforms the people around us. We might go so far as to say that is the heart of spiritual growth – learning to gradually submit ourselves to the love of God, overwhelming as that can be.

Where in your life you submit – voluntarily, or not. 
  (Not all submission is life-giving… yet in choosing to submit, we can often give life.)
And where do you sense yourself hanging on to avoid submitting? What might be asked of you?
To trust more? To give more? To spend time with someone difficult? To change careers?
Ask Jesus to show you where He might be inviting you to submit more of yourself, your agenda, to His. How do you respond? Our “yes” sometimes takes awhile…

Jesus does not ask of us anything he has not already done – perhaps that’s why the sinless one chose to go into the water that day. It was the beginning of his taking on the burden of our repentance. It was the beginning of everything, of life for us, there in that water.