2-28-17 - Hunger

Let’s turn to the temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness. We start with the understatement of the New Testament: “He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.”

After Jesus has spent over a month fasting and praying, and perhaps fending off temptations we don’t know about, the devil brings on the big guns. He begins with the most obvious area of need – physical hunger: 
“The tempter came and said to him, 'If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.' But he answered, 'It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Jesus did not refuse because he wasn’t hungry, nor because his power was limited – at other times, he easily commands molecules, plants and animals. I think he was unwilling to employ the power he possessed on a party trick, or to prove his identity. That power in him – which, by faith, is also in us, when we but trust it – is connected to the will of the Father. Maybe Jesus was unwilling to try to bend the will of God to this end for an audience and a purpose so unworthy of it.

Once again, the temptation begins with an attempt to undermine the target’s sense of self: “If you are the Son of God…” Jesus is too smart to fall for it. We aren’t always so confident. If we remembered who we are, and whose we are as beloved sons and daughters of the Living God, we might not be so prone to taking matters into our own hands or falling into patterns destructive to ourselves and others.

Our appetites are an area in which we are most vulnerable to making choices that are not life-giving. Today let’s take stock of how our perceived need for some things can become distorted and cause us to turn away from the Life of God and toward things we think will fill us. In "some things” I include food, alcohol, sex, work, screen time, relationships, affirmation, importance, power, accomplishment – even exercise can become excessive if our motives are unhealthy.

It’s not the “what,” or even the “how much,” so much as “why do I need this,” and “how much of my energy goes to craving this, securing it, consuming it.” We can feel somewhat empty as soon as we've finished that cycle if this is an area of distorted need in our lives.

How do we interrupt the cycle when it hits us? We might use Jesus’ words, substituting our need in the blank: “One does not live by                alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” We might ask the Holy Spirit to fill us with God’s presence so we don’t hunger for things that can’t fill us. We might ask Jesus to sit with us and give us his peace.

We might even dare to sit with our hunger or desire or need and not rush to fill that empty place. It's important to feel the feelings that come from that emptiness. Certainly our Good News tells us that God shows up in pretty amazing ways in empty spaces...

2-27-17 - Temptation

We come to the first Sunday in Lent - time for the story of Jesus being tempted by the devil in the wilderness. This year it’s Matthew’s version, which begins simply:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.

This event comes on the heels of Jesus’ baptism, and is presented as a necessary step as he prepares for his mission to make known to the world the power and love of God, to reconcile humanity to the God from whom we had become estranged. Did he need to know his adversary? Did he need toughening up? Did the Son of God have to prove his sinlessness? He wasn't on retreat; he went to be tempted.

We’ll get into Jesus’ forays with the tempter as the week progresses. Today, let’s talk about temptation itself. How does it work, and why are we vulnerable to it? Our tradition has a “root story” to explain it, the story of First Man and First Woman in the Garden of Eden (here). In this ancient mythic story woven to explain the disconnect between creator and creation, we see some classic temptation tricks wielded to great effect:
  • Divide and conquer. The tempter doesn’t approach both humans – he starts with the woman.
  • Distort reality. The serpent asks the woman, “Did God say not to eat of any tree?,” when God had said they could eat of every tree, except one.
  • Undermine your target’s sense of identity. When the serpent contradicts God’s instructions, he causes the woman to question God’s goodness and authority, and her place in that relationship.
  • Make disobedience appealing – chances are, they wouldn’t have flouted God’s instructions for a wormy, overripe piece of fruit.
  • Get an accomplice. The woman is quick to invite the man to join her transgression, and he puts up no fight.
This is pretty much how temptation works, in our lives - and in advertising. If we want to stay grounded in the goodness and love we are offered as children of God and followers of Christ, we need to get hip to the wiles of the evil one and say, “No thanks,” when temptation comes along. Of course, that's a little over-simplified; sometimes the temptation seems to originate in our own hearts and minds. That’s a mystery for another day – and for the rest of our lives.

Today, how about we think through the last time we submitted to temptation, to do or say something that was not in our best interest or harmful to another, whether it was eating more than we needed or passing along a tidbit of gossip, or indulging in some judgment about someone. Break down the process if you can, and see where you might tighten your defenses. And think of a time when you resisted and stayed true to yourself and to God.

The point of this exercise is not to feel bad about ourselves – we are vulnerable because we are alive and have been given the gift of free will, to choose, and choose, and choose again. As we become more aware of how temptation works on us, we are able to develop strategies for resisting it.

At Jesus’ baptism, he heard God’s voice proclaim, “This is my son, whom I love.” Our best strategy is to remember that we are beloved of God, and that God doesn’t turn away from us no matter how often we stumble. God’s forgiveness and mercy abound. That’s the best defense of all.

2-24-17 - Witnesses

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

How nonchalant that sounds, “So, listen, guys, don’t say anything to the others about this until, you know, after I've been raised from the dead…” Say, what? Raised from the… What?

Why do you suppose Jesus invited these three on this little retreat up the mountain? I have my theories: I think he wanted them to see more fully who he truly was, the true identity which his humanity partially obscured. For a moment that veil was lifted and his “God-essence” shone through. Jesus needed them to see that to help them endure the trials he knew were coming, for him and for his band of followers. And he needed witnesses who could testify later, after his resurrection, when the conspiracy theorists and “he didn’t really die” people and the 1st century “truth-ers” got into the act. He needed three witnesses who could say what they’d seen, and what they’d heard.

And testify they did. In his second letter, Peter wrote, “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.”

People who were determined not to believe may not have been swayed – but the eyewitness testimony from three leaders of integrity no doubt shored up the faith of many inclined to accept the Good News of resurrection life, and encouraged the movement of Jesus followers in the church's early months and years.

It’s not enough for us to be open to encounters with the living God, which I absolutely believe God desires for us. We also need to tell our stories, even at the risk of derision or doubt. We can give voice to our experiences of God, or to words we believe we have received from the Spirit. Such revelation can and should be measured against the revelation of Scripture, and confirmation from other believers, and ultimately by what fruit it bears in your life and ministry. But don’t keep quiet – somebody needs to hear your story; somebody needs to have their own story confirmed by hearing about yours; somebody needs that little nudge to take the step into faith in Jesus Christ.

Is there a “God-story” from your life that you haven’t told anyone, or haven’t told for a while? Recall it for yourself; even write it out, to recover the details. And then ask the Spirit to lead you to someone who needs to hear that story. I believe it’ll happen. (Then you’ll have another story to tell.)

As Peter continued, “So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

Sometimes we are called to be that lamp shining in a dark place. Speak up.

2-23-17 - Be Not Afraid

This is how I understand Jesus' transfiguration: that in this moment he is revealed as pure light, an energy form that radiated brightness. Whatever the cause, the effect was surely splendid, and probably terrifying. And to deepen the scary, it was followed by the appearance of two dead people, conversing as if alive. But none of this seems to frighten the watching disciples; Peter’s only reaction is to want to build three shelters so they can hang out together.

Yet, when a bright cloud comes over them, with a voice in it… suddenly they’re petrified: While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.

We can often absorb unusual experiences until there is too much “unusual” and our circuits overload. Or were the disciples fine as long as they could see – but when their sight was obscured by a bright cloud that spoke, then they panicked ? OR was it what that voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” They must have heard the stories about Jesus’ baptism, when a voice from heaven was heard to say almost the same words. Were they overcome by fear because now it was unmistakable – that Jesus was in fact God's Son, holy, divine? Now there was no going back?

True movements of God that we experience with our physical senses tend to be deeply frightening – they’re so far outside our expectation. Many of us encounter God with our spiritual senses; that’s powerful enough. But when we perceive the holy with the same senses that engage the rest of life? Look out! We can’t pretend to be manufacturing it – we’re either crazy, or in God’s presence – and neither possibility is comforting. I only had one experience even remotely like that, on a retreat once, when I felt a room I was in filled with a presence that was so completely “Other,” it seemed to be God… I’ll never know if it was, because I ran from the room back to where other people were.

It can be hard for us to identify with the shock of recognizing Jesus as God… this is a story handed down to us rather than experienced first-hand. And for many it’s such a familiar story, it can be hard to feel the emotions being related. So let’s think today:

Are there times when you’ve been overcome by the presence of God in a way that scared you?
Have your physical senses ever been overwhelmed so that you had to rely on spiritual sight?
Does your expectation of God include experiences that seem supernatural, like this one?
Do you think the Spirit wants you to be open to more? What are we really afraid of?

Fear is never the end of a holy encounter. Someone always comes along to say, “Be not afraid.” It was no different on the mountain: “But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.”

Every spiritual experience, no matter how deep or frightening, comes to an end. Our perceptions normalize; reality returns. And then we’re left with what?
“No one, except Jesus himself alone.” Sounds like a pretty good deal to me…

2-22-17 - Building Booths

Who among us doesn’t want to keep a good thing going, forever if possible? A perfect day, a lovely dinner, the “in-love” phase of a relationship… And we can’t. Days become twilight; meals yield to fullness and digestion; relationships evolve into other phases. Even the most fiery sunset dims, usually just about the time you get your camera out.

But this was a really good thing, up there on that mountain – Jesus, and Moses, and Elijah. You don’t get bigger than that trifecta if you’re a Jew in occupied Israel in what would later be termed the first century. 

“Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’”

So helpful, our Peter. He’ll just whip out the hammer and nails and make three little huts (in earlier translations, it was "booths"), nothing fancy. And who among us doesn’t recognize that impulse? To fix it, capture it, make it last? I keep taking pictures of my cats in adorable poses, even when I know I've taken the same pictures before. Because I want to keep them forever.

Are there things in your life you’re afraid will change or end, that you’d like to fix in place, build a shrine to? Children, friends, homes, work? It’s not a bad thing to love something or someone wonderful. But when we try to keep what we have, we sometimes close off other gifts God has to give us, gifts that might build upon the ones we have, blessings that might even include what we’re trying to keep, but become allowed to grow into fullness. When we don’t try to save the precious things, but use and enjoy them, willing to have them end or run out, we often experience more abundance in our lives. When we enjoy the precious people, willing to see them grow up and even away, we experience a deeper, freer kind of love.

Today in prayer I invite you to bring those people and things to mind, and offer them to God to bless. Offer them with open hands, and a heart willing to grow God-ward. God rarely takes away what we love – and God just might show us something deeper and richer about that beloved than we can see from our current “holding” perspective.

It’s kind of funny, a fisherman offering to build a carpenter a hut. Maybe not as funny as that carpenter setting the bait and reeling those fisherman in, to become the greatest catch of all, a catch that even includes us.

2-21-17 - Son et Lumière

As a child tourist, one of my favorite things was the “Son et Lumière” shows often mounted at important attractions like ruins or castles or natural wonders. Colored lights played off the site, synchronized with music, augmented by the “ooohs” and “ahhhs” of the appreciative crowd. I loved it.

Something like that awaited Peter, James and John during their trip up the mountain with Jesus. First the light: And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.

The sound part came a moment later – and it wasn’t music, but conversation with two people long since departed this earth: Moses and Elijah, Israel’s prophets extraordinaire, and mountain-top witnesses of divine glory. There they were, chatting away with Jesus. 
Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.

Were they there to signal that the revelation of God in Christ was in continuity with the revelation of Israel’s past? Were they Exhibits A and B for The Law and The Prophets? Matthew doesn’t tell us what they’re discussing, though Luke says, “They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem.” Whatever the meaning, their presence was a major sign that God was up to something. “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Most of us don’t experience God with sound and light and visions. Is that because God isn’t revealing God’s self in that way, or because we’ve so reduced our expectations that we figure a glorious sunset is the closest we’re going to get? It’s tricky – we can’t conjure up manifestations of divinity. We can, however, be open to them – and notice when we come across them.

How do you most powerfully experience the holy?
Have you had experiences that you’d categorize as supernatural? 
What happened, and what was the fruit of that experience in your life? 
And do you share that story? It builds up other people's faith to hear our holy stories.

God shows up in so many ways in our lives. The more we become attuned to the movement of the divine in and around us, the more we experience it.

And whether it’s eavesdropping on Biblical heroes or marveling at the presence of wild creatures in our back yards, there are sound and light shows all over for us to stumble upon, as we keep our spiritual eyes and ears open…

2-20-17 - Up the Mountain

Next Sunday we come to the end of Epiphany, the season of light. And every year in our gospel reading we go out with the ultimate light show – Jesus being transfigured on a mountain, to the amazement of three of his closest disciples.

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.

Six days later? What happened six days ago? A conversation in which Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Let’s remember that – it just may be a clue to what Jesus was doing up there on the mountain. Another clue is the mountain itself. It was a mountain to which Moses was called to go and spend 40 days and 40 nights with God, getting the commandments – and when he came down, his face was shining so brightly, he had to cover it to avoid blinding the people. And it was a mountain on which Elijah was told to come out of a cave and see God pass by, not in a whirlwind, nor an earthquake, nor fire, but in a sound of sheer silence.

In our sacred scriptures, mountains are places where God reveals God’s self to human beings. It appears that this mountain is no different – for there,Jesus is transfigured – his face changes, shines like the sun, and his clothes become dazzling white.

When do you remember last having a sense of God’s presence, a glimpse, a word, a feeling?
Can you remember and claim that? Write it down?

And when did you last go to a place apart, on retreat, alone or maybe with just a few friends?
Did you sense the presence of God then? Often, when I have taken the time to go apart, God has shown up in mighty ways – not right away, but after a time. At the right time. I have just returned from two days in a monastery; there was no light show for me, but some quiet “coincidences,” reminding me that God was with me on my path.

Going away can facilitate our spiritual encounters because the quotidian rhythms and tasks of our lives can dull our spiritual senses. If you’ve never been on retreat, consider planning one. The Spirit also shows up in our daily "apart" times, as we get quiet and open our spirits. Just sit with as much stillness as you can and pray, “Lord, I want to know you’re here with me. Show me…”

And then let it go. You might find a thought or a word popping into your head that doesn’t seem like one you’d have thought on your own; you might have a physical sensation of presence; you might get a picture. You might sense nothing – just give thanks that God is answering whether or not you feel it.

We don’t all get Jesus turning radiant bright in front of us – thank God! We have been promised that he is always with us. That’s gift enough.

2-17-17 - Perfection

We end the week with a kicker: "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

I don’t know if Jesus is kidding or indulging in hyperbole – or perhaps gently nudging his followers both into aspiration and reality. He’s asked them (and us) to yield to people trying to control us, to open ourselves to people trying to hurt us, to give to people trying to take from us, and to love people who hate us. And, in case we want to feel better about how we measure up by comparing ourselves to others, he says that’s too easy – even tax collectors and “gentiles” know how to love their own kind. No, he says, if you want to compare yourself to anyone, compare yourself to your Father in heaven – don’t stop till you’re perfect.

Okay, so maybe our yardstick is too easy, but isn’t his a little … impossible? How on earth can we be perfect as God is perfect? Well, a raw egg doesn’t get soft-boiled in a moment, right? It takes 7 minutes to achieve perfect consistency (to me…). We become perfect one moment, one decision, one day at a time, in God's love and power.

I discern a through-line in these teachings of Jesus, all of which concern how we interact with other people, especially ones who cause us trouble: to always look out for the humanity, the individuality of others. I was once talking with someone who works with Seeds of Peace, an organization that began by bringing Israeli and Palestinian children together for summer camps. When campers came face to face with the “Other” and found they were children like themselves, barriers began to break down. As U2 sings in, Invisible, “There is no them, there is no them, there’s only us… there’s only you, there’s only me.”

We can cultivate the spirit Jesus asks of his followers one person at a time. Jesus would not have asked it of us, were he not planning to equip us.

I have heard grace explained this way: Because of what Christ accomplished for us on the cross, and because we are united with Christ, when the Father looks at us it is Christ's righteousness He sees, projected onto us. In Christ, then, we are already perfect. We spend this life living into what that means, bringing that spiritual reality into the reality of the here and now.

So in prayer today let's ask God to show us who it is God sees when looking at us. Let’s try to catch a glimpse of the perfection that is already ours, even as we slowly realize it.

Thankfully, our good news is revealed in parts, and elsewhere Jesus remarks, “With humans it is impossible, but with God, all things are possible.” Even being perfect.

Especially being perfect. In the fullness of time and relationship, so our promise goes, all is being perfected. Even us. Imagine that.

2-16-17 - Extreme Fitness

“Love your enemies,” Jesus says. And I think, Sure. If we do everything else Jesus said, we won't have any. We will love everyone equally, no matter what they do for or against us.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

This is one of the hardest of Jesus’ challenging teachings. Or is it? It comes with its own E-Z-Bake instructions – “Pray for those who persecute you.” We can do that, no matter how much we fear or loathe someone. We can always pray for them. And that often results in a big change of perspective. Enemies have become allies through that kind of prayer, because when we pray for someone we re-humanize them.

“Enemy” is a label, and labels tell only part of the truth. The person who may in real life be our personal or national enemy is also a son or daughter, a friend to someone, good at some things and lousy at others – in other words, a flesh and blood person. And Paul reminds us that our fight is “not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities and powers of this dark world.” Even when that flesh and blood person intends very real flesh-and-blood harm.

In our polarized world, the idea of “the enemy” is alive and well and ever fanned by strident fundraising emails and social media posts. Christ-followers are called to a higher standard. That means that, horrified and disgusted as I am at, say, people who flout the law, or prey on the vulnerable, or gun down teenagers for playing loud music, I am not supposed to see them as the enemy. I am to see them as people in the grip of evil – and thus to pray for them.

And more: I am supposed to find a way to love them. Not what they represent, not what they do, but the human being underneath all the lies and distortions. Ouch.

Jesus says it’s too easy to love the ones we find easy to love. “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?”

So let’s go for it today: Think of a person or kind of person you consider an enemy or close to it. Let’s play the “hold them in the light of Christ in your imagination” game. Ask God to bless that person, and to show you a glimpse of the humanity you’re having trouble seeing. If it’s difficult, imagine sitting next to Jesus and bringing that person into the room, to sit between you on a couch or something. What do you feel or say? Sit with it a while.

We who walk with Jesus need to develop our capacity to love. Those muscles don’t get much of a workout with people we naturally care for. Let's consider this command “extreme fitness” training – if we can love those whom we truly loathe, we will have learned to love in a way that God can use. And believe me, God will use us.

2-15-17 - The Extra Mile

What was Jesus up to? It’s one thing to preach radical submission to the will of God; quite another to command submission to other people: “…And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”

For anyone who’s been forced to do anything, the instruction to go further, to give even more, to satisfy every demand – it’s challenging, to say the least. Troubling, baffling. Having recently read the description of one man’s experience as a POW at the mercy of the Japanese during the Bataan Death March, it is hard to find grace in those words.

And what about what comes next: “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” Anyone who’s ever lived in a city with many people begging will question that wisdom.

A natural response to these instructions is, “But when does it stop? Am I supposed to go forever at someone else’s whims? Give till I have nothing left?” Well... Jesus kind of did…
But where does that leave us? Here’s a thought:

What if our response to this seemingly unreasonable command is not to throw up our hands and say, “What about me?” What if our response is to put ourselves in the shoes of the person demanding something of us? Not to lose ourselves – to gain ourselves. To take mastery by choosing to yield. When we train ourselves to be other-directed, our giving becomes motivated by compassion for the other, even if that other is trying to control or manipulate us.

There’s more than one way to choose not to be a victim. We can resist. Or comply – by our own choice, even against our own benefit, because we want healing for the other person. I don't think Jesus was talking about situations of pathology or abuse. And yet, I suspect this is what Jesus was getting at: to value the other above yourself. It's the choice we see him make repeatedly, power in weakness.

How do we pray into today’s reading? Like yesterday, bring to mind anyone whom you feel is forcing you to do more than you want to – at work, at church, at home, in a relationship. Ask God to show you something about what motivates that person to try to control others. Maybe see the woundedness that drives the behavior. Then pray for them, and ask God to guide your response. Maybe you go an extra mile, maybe you don’t – respond with the Spirit’s guidance, not on your own.

Similarly, pray about your giving and your lending. Elsewhere Jesus says, when you lend, do it without expectation of return. So then it’s a gift, and a blessing. Who are you being called to bless at this time? Can you find joy in that gift?

The expression,“If it were easy, everyone would be doing it…” comes to mind right about now. The Way of Jesus is not easy, and often counter-intuitive. It has also been for many the Way to true life, the kind of life he said we’d gain when we are willing to lay our prerogatives aside and live for him. Aren't we lucky to have so many people to practice with?

2-14-17 - The Giveaway

This Valentine’s Day, Jesus invites us to imagine a kind of love that gives it all away – the kind of love he taught and lived – and died of. This self-giving love extends to our stuff as well as our hearts: “And if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.”  (This week's gospel reading is here.)

Okay, so we’re not supposed to fight back when attacked, and we’re just supposed to roll over when taken for all we’re worth? Did Jesus mean us, or just his first century followers?

How are we to interpret this teaching in our materially laden lives? It’s easy enough to say, “Inventory your closet and get rid of everything you don’t really need. How many sweaters do you own? How many pairs of shoes? How many coats?” I defend my overstuffed closet because I shop less, leaving more monetary resources for charity, right? Works for me…

Let’s go deeper, though. What does it mean to us to not protect our “stuff,” even our bank accounts and insurance policies? Jesus was inviting his followers into a radical dependence upon God’s provision, something he repeatedly demonstrated for them in multiplying scarce resources. I believe Jesus also invites us to sit more loosely to our material goods, to enjoy bounty when we have it, and trust in God's “enough” when we feel short.

Some of the poorest people in the continental United States live in South Dakota, on Lakota Indian reservations. And at most major life occasions – weddings, funerals, pow-wows – a family will host a give-away. They give away whatever they must to ensure that everyone there gets something, all the way from hand-made star quilts to plastic leftover containers. They’re not giving it away because they have so much. They’re giving it away because they value hospitality, generosity, and community more than having enough, as wonderful as that would be.

I think many of us make an unspoken agreement with God – “I will give voluntarily to charities of my choice, and you won’t ask me to part with more than I want to give." We might ask in prayer today whether God signed on to that agreement. Are we willing to let the Spirit guide our relationship with our goods? The more we can do that, the more we let the Spirit guide our doing good.

I can’t preach the “give it all away” gospel – which I do believe Jesus was saying – because I can’t live it - yet. I am a work in progress. That doesn’t free me from continuing to live into Jesus’ invitation to freedom from need and radical generosity. Here’s a prayer I can start with:

Reflect once a week or once a month on all that I have more than enough of – home, clothes, funds, furniture, insurance, money… and give thanks. That might take awhile!
And then ask Jesus to show me who might be asking for some of what I have…  and imagine in prayer handing that over to someone who needs it. See how that feels in prayer, and then maybe take it into action.

Then we can ask Jesus to give us the joy of blessing someone who needs something we have more than enough of. And trust in the “enough” of the One who gave it all away for us.

2-13-17 - Offering the Other Cheek

In the part of Jesus’ training talk we explored last week, he was expanding on existing commandments. In what comes next, he goes beyond existing law, proposing interpretations so radical, I imagine at least some of his listeners said, “Is this guy nuts? I’m outta here…” So have said some of Jesus’ would-be followers in every generation when confronted by the dissonance between what Jesus taught and how “the world works.”

Jesus was introducing his followers to life in a realm wholly other than this present world. It’s as though he is explaining how things work in, say, Indonesia, what laws you need to know to live there. This “kingdom” life of God he was preparing them for is both contiguous with the sense-known world, and is its own realm, perceivable by faith. We can decide whether or not we want to go – but if we want to follow Jesus, that’s where we’re going, and we need to learn the ways of that place, the Realm of God.

And in that realm, he says, we don’t fight back. 
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…”

How are we to live in this world if we just accept attacks and don’t respond? What about self-defense? What about victims of abuse? I don’t hear Jesus saying you can’t defend yourself or those you love. But I do hear him ruling out retaliation, which is hard enough for us on a human level. I sense his invitation to go deeper in conflicted situations, to respond in a counter-intuitive way, meeting aggression not with force, but with manoeuvers that use the attacker’s force, the way certain martial arts moves work. Or the classic, opening a door someone’s trying to force open, so they fall into the room. Jesus’ battle with Satan can be viewed in that light…

I believe Jesus sets us a higher goal: the transformation of our attackers. As frightening as that prospect may be, we have stories in our own time of quite extraordinary courage resulting in even more amazing outcomes. I was reminded of the story of Ashley Smith, the Georgia woman taken captive by a fugitive on trial for rape. Despite the risk, she managed to reach his humanity by being human herself, making him eggs, reading to him from The Purpose-Driven Life, sharing her own story of transformation and healing with him. (Here is a transcript of Smith’s whole story – truly amazing )

I pray none of us is faced with circumstances that dramatic or criminal, though we may encounter attack as we stand up for what we believe. Whenever we are hurt, we face the choice whether or not to retaliate. Are there some times when you have? Are there times when you were aware of making a different choice? Are you faced with that choice in any circumstances in your life today, to hit back or to absorb and transform?

One way we can live into this command to not resist evildoers, is to ask the Holy Spirit to be right there with us when we feel attacked. In the Spirit’s power we might even see those who oppose us with compassion, even pray for their wholeness. And who knows what marvels God might work from such a prayer, as turning the other cheek brings about a turn of heart.

2-10-17 - Chosen for Fruitfulness

When Jesus uses the metaphor of a vine to tell his disciples about staying connected to him and to each other, he isn’t just talking about the vine. He is also talking about grapes, and how a healthy system can produce much fruit. He tells them he has chosen them for a purpose:

“You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.”

Chosen. Let's dwell on that word for a moment; let's claim that identity. Jesus has just said, “I no longer call you servants, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends…”

His followers received a big status upgrade here, and we’re grafted into their apostleship as Christ-followers ourselves. At those times when we might question our value or our reach, we can remember, “Oh yeah, I was chosen by Jesus, who calls me friend.” How might carrying that knowledge change the way we move and interact with the world?

And appointed. Jesus says he appointed us to bear fruit that will last. Our identity comes with a purpose, a purpose which the Holy Spirit helps us fulfill. What do you think your life's purpose is? Some think it’s to care for their family, or make a good living, or stand for justice… What is yours?

Does it change anything to be reminded that Jesus has a purpose for you beyond what you may have for yourself? And that it is simply to bear fruit? That means participating in God’s mission to reclaim, restore and renew wholeness to all of creation – whenever and however the opportunity arises to do that. When we are about the ministry of justice and compassion, exercising healing and peace-making in the power of the Holy Spirit, there will be fruit, and it is fruit that will last, whether or not we get to see the full outcome. We need to hang on to that promise in times when it may feel like 2 steps forward, 3 steps back. If we’re moving with God in the power of the Spirit, the fruit will last.

The most visible fruit, Jesus suggest, is our love for one another. He might have meant just love among his disciples, whom he was addressing on that, his last night in this life. We could limit it to love among Christians, which is challenging enough in these times.

But what if we were fruitful in loving everyone? Or at least rejoicing that God can love everyone? That alone could change the course of the whole world.

2-9-17 - Commanded to Love?

We go from failed love to divine love, as we transition from the lectionary-appointed Gospel to the one we will hear at St. Columba’s this Annual Meeting Sunday. (Everyone else, come along for the ride!)

The passage we’ve been on shows Jesus giving some hard lessons – equipping his followers to be focused and strong in the face of adversity. We need to be too, facing indifference, complacency – and, who knows, maybe even persecution. This training talk may also have had a pruning purpose. At the end of his time with these disciples, Jesus will say, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” (John 15:1-2) Jesus’ teaching, even when it sounds harsh, reflects the work of that Master Gardener, who desires that we bear good fruit.

And he argues that we can only bear good fruit if we abide in his love, as he abides in his Father’s love. “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

In the safety of God’s abiding love, we can dare to prune the unfruitful parts of our lives, our psyches, our patterns. In this passage, as in the harsher one from Matthew, Jesus offers discipline, like a trainer or a coach does. The question for us is, Do we want to be disciples, to take on a discipline? Do we want to be trained? Do we want to bear fruit?

Here’s my prayer suggestion for today: Let’s get in touch with the love of God that has us reading this reflection in the first place. Get centered as best you can, and invite the Holy Spirit to fill you with love, to surround you with love. Ease into it, as you would into a hot bath. Let it fill your heart, whatever that feels like or looks like. Say thank you for every reminder of God’s love you can think of. And, if you’re willing, say you’re open to being trained.

Whatever else Jesus is up to, he is also presenting a view of God’s love, the way a loving parent minces no words keeping a child from traffic or a hot stove. We are God’s children, in every sense; God loves us enough to want to see us thrive. In fact, what Jesus desires for us is joy: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

Living under discipline and making hard choices are not incompatible with joy. And a deep source of joy is knowing our lives are bearing the fruit of love. Let the gardener do his thing and see what fruit pours out in our lives.

2-8-17 - Divorced from Reality?

At St. Columba’s next week we will use a different set of lessons, chosen for our Annual Meeting Sunday. One more post on the lectionary text from Matthew, and then we'll switch to John 15. I predict we’ll be glad of the change!

Now we come to the really fun part of this passage – Jesus’ teaching on divorce. He doesn’t say you can’t – just that if you do, you’re committing adultery or causing someone else to. That’s all:
“But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery."

Great! In a nation where some 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, where many find themselves with more mature, even godly relationships in a second marriage, what do we say to this? “Get with the times, Jesus?” Do we ignore this teaching, which goes beyond even the stringent codes of the Mosaic law? Does that undermine Jesus’ authority for us?

Jesus was telling his would-be disciples that following him would mean faithfulness. And guess what? Even though they walked and talked with him for three years, they weren’t always so faithful. They may have stayed true to their marriages, but not always to him, or to each other. It doesn’t mean the standard wasn’t there – it means that they failed, and Jesus did not reject them. I don’t believe he rejects us when we fail, either.

Yes – this standard for marriage matters; anyone who’s been through the pain of a broken relationship will tell you that. But it cannot be isolated from all the other areas of sin and pain and failure we endure and inflict, all of which we are invited to bring before the loving, judging eye of the God who made and redeemed us.

Am I ducking the question? Maybe. Is divorce sinful or is it forgiveable? Yes. I don’t think there is an absolute answer – choose one, and you end up condemning someone who has suffered deeply, either because they have divorced, or because they haven’t. Sin is sin and humans are humans. And God is bigger and more powerful than all of it.

And that might be the point of this whole teaching, as Jesus makes the standards of sinfulness so broad no one can wiggle out. If we are as liable for what we think and feel as what we do, we all have to admit we stand in need of redemption. The man whose teaching here seems so harsh is the same man who reminded a crowd about to execute an adulterous woman that they should feel free to cast stones only if they themselves were without sin. Who among us could in good conscience pick up a stone?

When have we been affected or hurt by the dissolution of a marriage? Perhaps the wound is still fresh, even many years later – divorce has that kind of power to hurt and keep hurting. We cannot give ourselves to another with all the hopefulness that marriage entails, and remain unscathed when that hope dies, even if new life arises from those ashes. So pray for the people involved. Pray for the grace to forgive if you need to. Imagine each person blessed by God.

And ask how you can support marriages you know to be difficult or shaky. Marriage is a joy and a burden meant to be carried in community. When a marriage fails, so has the community. In that sense, even people who are single are involved in the enterprise of marriage.

Divorce signals a failure of love. We can help fill that gap, to pour our love into the void, bring healing and wholeness, in concert with the God whose love goes beyond death into life.

2-7-17 - Lust and Love

At St. Columba’s next week we will use a different set of lessons, chosen for our Annual Meeting Sunday. I will spend three days this week on the lectionary text from Matthew, and two on John 15. I predict we’ll be glad of the change!

Jimmy Carter caught a lot of flack back in 1976, when he confessed in an interview with Playboy magazine that, while he had remained faithful to his marriage vows, he had looked on women with lust and “committed adultery in my heart.” He was just quoting Jesus: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

Here again, Jesus says that what we think and feel matters spiritually as much as our outward behavior does.

What's so bad about lust anyway? Isn't it just natural? Well, it depends on how you define it. As the church understands it, lust is not the same as a desire to be intimate with another person. It is a desire that objectifies another, that – here’s that word again – temporarily dehumanizes someone so s/he becomes a source of gratification and not a full person with his or her own story, gifts and needs.

Adultery is sexual or emotional intimacy with someone other than your committed partner. It need not always be defined by lust – in some ways, fully emotional relationships can be the more dangerous adulterous attachments. Why? Because they require one to break trust with another, and necessitate lying to loved ones, risking damage to whole families and communities. As natural as it may be to love more than one person intimately, Jesus upholds fidelity as a higher calling, one that builds up rather than tears down.

The remedy to adultery he proposes is harsh, suggesting we’re better off dismembered than being led by our physical appetites. I believe he exaggerates to make a point: We are best able to give and receive love, to know and be known, when our focus is on the love of God. If a person or thing becomes the source of what we think we need, be it sexual, emotional, or ego gratification, we turn away from the Source of love. We worship the object. Our culture places romantic and sexual love on a pedestal and devalues the difficult, day in, day out work of being real and generous in a committed relationship, letting yourself be fully known. Jesus wants his followers to love this way, to be nurtured in authentic relationships that model the love of God.

Today let’s inventory our relationships – the intimate ones, and the more distant ones. Is there anyone from whom you want something? Not necessarily lustfully – sometimes we want others to make us feel better about ourselves, or to keep us from being lonely or meet other needs.

Can you see that person apart from what they can do for you? Can you see him or her as a fellow child of God? Can you offer your desire or need in prayer, asking God how God would provide for you? Can you want something for him or her instead of from? That's a good place for prayer today.

Marriage does not represent the fullness of God’s revelation – but at its best it is an icon of God’s love, a transforming power that crosses boundaries of otherness to know and be known. That alone is reason to allow the Spirit to make us faithful, in our hearts as well as our bodies.

2-6-17 - Sticks and Stones

At St. Columba’s next week we will use a different set of lessons, chosen for our Annual Meeting Sunday. I will spend three days this week on the lectionary text from Matthew, and two on John 15. I predict we’ll be glad of the change!

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Who else grew up on that misguided little ditty? It suggests that using words to inflict pain doesn’t have real consequences, to perpetrator or victim. But hurtful words can cause deeper, longer-lasting wounds, as Jesus says:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; ...But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool’, you will be liable to the hell of fire." 

Whoa, Nellie! Is Jesus really saying that insulting someone is on a par with murder? Invective tossed around in anger is a form of violence? Calling someone an idiot is like killing them? Thank God Jesus isn’t on Facebook!

I think he is saying that, when we insult or libel another person, we temporarily dehumanize them, don't honor them as a fellow child of God, created for life, redeemed in love. I know when I have been the target of scorn or gossip, I have felt “un-selfed.” When we ridicule another, we un-self them. That is a kind of death-dealing, and it causes deep spiritual injury. It may not be actionable in a court of law, but Jesus wants his followers to go beyond the law to the heart.

Jesus suggests that we too are damaged when we use words as weapons. We tend to do that when we feel anxious or powerless – we are temporarily inflated when we run someone else down. But it also diminishes us, and renders us less whole, less fully who God made us to be. Those who follow Christ cannot be complacent about this area of sin.

If we seek to be reconciled with God (“So when you offer your gift at the altar…”) while in a state of estrangement with people in our lives (“if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you…”), we need to face that and deal with it, restoring them and us to our full humanity in full humility: "leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”

Is there anyone in your life who causes you anger, anxiety, annoyance? Sit quietly in prayer and let those names and faces float up to your consciousness. Pray for them to be blessed beyond measure. Yes, blessed with all the fullness of God’s blessing. Think about it – if they’re blessed, you benefit too. And it’s a way to move toward forgiveness.

And is there anyone whom you have injured with words to or about them? Even words you’ve only thought? They’re toxic enough in our own minds. Can you pray for that person to be blessed and ask them for forgiveness? If that seems too much, play it out in your imagination first, going to see them with Jesus at your side. What do you say? What do they say? What does Jesus say?

Being critical and sarcastic takes so much energy; loathing even more. Think what God can do through us and for us when we yield that space to the Holy Spirit. When all our interactions are life-giving, our lives will bear the fruit of such abundant peace, it can only spill over to the people around us.

2-3-17 - A Good Person

Most clergy have a few sermons they preach over and over. One of mine says this: the Christian life is not about being good; it is about being loved into goodness. It is about entering into relationship with the One who made us and loves us too much to suffer estrangement from us.

And that message – which I believe is supported in the whole of our salvation story – is pretty directly contradicted by the following words of Jesus: "Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."

Wait just a minute. What happened to, “Unless you become as a child, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven?” and “No one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit?” Didn’t Jesus say those things too? If it all comes down to commandments and righteous behavior… why do we need a savior? If it’s a matter of just gritting our teeth and trying harder, we’re pretty much sunk.

Thankfully, this isn’t the only thing Jesus says on the subject. Another time, after setting what his disciples think is an impossible standard, he says, “With humankind this is impossible; but with God, all things are possible.” Phew.

Still, I am caught by this remark, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees…” The scribes and Pharisees, the religious elite of Jesus’ time, were known for their uprightness and fidelity to the Law. They appear to have been arrogant and legalistic, but certainly righteous. What could it mean to exceed their righteousness?

Here’s my guess: it means to go beyond the mere observance of the Law to the intention at its heart. It means to go beyond rules and rituals to relationship, relationship with the living God made possible through His Son. It means to invite the power of the Holy Spirit to be manifest through us for healing and restoration of all things. It means to truly believe that Jesus is who he said he was and to follow his way of living God-life in the world. That is truly going beyond the legalistic righteousness of the scribes.

Yesterday I invited you to reflect on where you might be caught in “rule-following” rather than Jesus-following. If an area occurred to you, ask Jesus to transform that part of your life, or transform you in it.

And if the idea of having a “relationship with Jesus” or “relationship with God” seems abstract or odd to you, there’s something to explore. For me, it developed as I opened myself to prayer that included silence, imagination and listening. The Holy Spirit brings us into the presence of God – and then Jesus often becomes marvelously specific.

Repeatedly in the psalms and prophets we hear God saying, “I don’t want your rituals and your sacrifices – I want your heart. And don’t worry if your heart is hard – I will break your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put a new heart and a new spirit within you.” We just need to say yes – and then we become God's "good person."

2-2-17 - The Spirit of the Law

This Sunday’s gospel puts us front row at one of Jesus’ training sessions for his new disciples. After the "salt and light" chat, he switches gears: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” 

Since Jesus seems often to argue with the standard bearers of the religious Law, we might conclude that he supersedes the old revelation or “testament.” But I doubt Jesus would divide the holy scriptures into “new” and “old” the way we have. He articulates a continuity that frustrates our neat categories. Jesus seems to critique the way the Law has been interpreted, not the Law itself. He accuses the Pharisees and other leaders of being heavy-handed and hypocritical in their expectations of people, emphasizing the letter of nitpicking rules while ignoring the spirit behind the whole of Torah.

Mostly, he pulls back the camera for a big picture view. When religious leaders want to stone an adulterous woman, he doesn’t talk about the law that permits her execution. He shows it is wrongly administered; he indicts the accusers for ignoring their own sinfulness. When attacked for healing on the Sabbath, he reminds his detractors how they act when families or possessions are at risk. Over and over, he suggests that it is in interpretation that the leaders get it wrong.

The Law of the Lord was intended as gift, and instead became distorted and extended as an instrument of judgment – often wielded by people who weren’t nearly as compliant as they expected everyone else to be. None of us immune to this – we hope for wiggle room in some areas, while in others we expect people to toe the line.

What are your “good and bad” issues? In what areas do you have high expectations of behavior from others – and from yourself? These may be the same areas in which high standards were expected of you by someone else, a parent or teacher or friend. One way of identifying those areas is by noticing what causes you to become indignant or self- righteous. Are you being invited to be more merciful?

And what are the issues about which you feel more lenient? What do you think God is saying to you about those areas – has God lowered standards, or do you just more fully understand God’s grace in those places?

We always have to hold in tension God’s righteousness and God’s mercy – we can never fully grasp how those two irreconcilables go together. But, happily for us, they do. Jesus did not seek to abolish the Law – only to show that no one is righteous enough to keep it, let alone hold it against others. Until he came along.

Jesus’ gift was to fulfill the demands of the Law in such a way that we are set free from its condemnation – and thus free to live fully into the Love at its heart. Let's try that on.

2-1-17 - Gathering Light

Someone once asked me if I see better with my contacts than with glasses. I replied, “Actually, less well. But I don’t wear contacts to see better – I wear them to be seen better.” Vanity, vanity.

When Jesus tells his followers, “You are the light of the world,” he seems to mean light less as something that helps you see, than as something that helps you to be seen. “A city built on a hill cannot be hid,” he points out,

And, lest they don’t connect cities on hills and lights of the worlds, he goes domestic: 
“No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” 

Perhaps Jesus original followers were Episcopalians – faithful and devoted, but not wanting anyone around them to know that. "Shhhhh – I go to church… I believe in God… I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, but I don't want anybody to know….” Maybe they figured everyone already knew. Maybe they figured modesty was a virtue.

Well, guess what? It’s not a virtue when it comes to talking about our faith! When we are proclaiming the incredible news that God is on a mission to love the world back into wholeness, we’re invited to be as loud and immodest as we possibly can. There are a lot of people with broken parts who need to hear that news, you and I among them.

So many in Christ’s church are so quiet about the power of God’s life in the world – maybe as a consequence of living in cultures where Christianity dominates. Well, those days are over. Many people around us were raised in secular homes, and have never heard that Jesus is about anything but rules and judgment. The world needs the light we carry, and we need to shine it brightly to give light to “all in the house.”

We need to let our good works show, not so we can get the credit, but so we can highlight God's power, and so we can inspire others to join us. Sometimes the “good works” we do – the outreach projects, shelter meals, advocacy, visiting ministries – are the easiest place for people we know to join us in our faith lives. And once they’re working with us, it’s not so hard to share how we are fed spiritually.

Where in your life do you most feel you are visible as “the light of the world?” Where are you least? What is it about the first that allows you to be “out” as a Christ-follower, or hope-bearer? What is it about the second that inhibits you?

What are you most proud of in your Christian life? Can you boradcast that, show it off? It glorifies God when we give thanks for what God is doing through us.

Elsewhere in the gospels we read that Jesus is the Light of the world, and here he says we are. That’s a part of his identity we get to share. If he calls us that, we can be sure he will fill us with his light – and his light doesn’t quit. His light conquers the darkness. His light sets up a glow in us that the whole world can see - as we let it shine.