3-24-17 - Seeing is Believing

I onceI saw a beautiful documentary called “Visions of Mustang: Bringing Sight to the Forbidden Kingdom,” about a medical mission to bring eye care to the ancient kingdom of Mustang, a remote and inaccessible part of Nepal. Extreme exposure to sun and wind and altitude means many residents develop cataracts and other easily treated eye problems. The team saw 1650 patients, dispensed nearly 800 pairs of glasses and performed many surgeries, restoring sight to the blind and giving a first glimpse of clarity to many who never knew what sight was supposed to be.

Jesus too was on a mission to restore sight in the forbidden kingdoms of this world, and his description of that mission is puzzling. He says to the man he healed, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains."

Did Jesus really want those who thought they had God all figured out to become blind… or to recognize their blindness? He is particularly hard on these leaders who are so sure they see correctly. Because they have rejected his message and revelation, he says, they are stuck in sin. These self-righteous ones, who think they are “first,” will be last of all. Yet to more obvious “sinners” who come to Jesus for life, he throws open the gates to the Kingdom; the last shall be first.

What about us? Are we among the “first?” What about the “last” who never hear about Jesus’ love, or just do not experience faith? This is a mystery to sit with, and reconcile with the whole of Jesus’ promises of life over death. The life of faith is about learning to see ourselves clearly, knowing our weak spots as well as our strengths; to see others clearly and without judgment; and to see God clearly.

And once again, Jesus affirms relationship over “religion”: Jesus heard that they had driven [the man born blind] out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.

As we are open to meeting Jesus, we come to see Him more clearly too. We might pray, “Okay, Jesus let me see you, find out who you are.” We might experience him in prayer, or pick up a New Testament and read a Gospel, check out his "profile," as it were. We can spend time with people who know him, hang around him, build our trust.

Scott Hamilton, who put together the expedition depicted in the film, spoke at the screening I saw. He feels the reason they succeeded was due to “monk power” – the 18 Buddhist monks who accompanied them up to Mustang and went to remote settlements to invite people to the eye clinics. The trust engendered by those relationships made it possible for many to have their sight restored.

Jesus came in human flesh into our forbidden kingdom so that we might trust God to get close to us. As we open to relationship with him and let him come close, close enough to touch our eyes, we will find new sight, clearer than we could ever imagine. And then we can go out and find others, and help them trust Jesus to draw near.

3-23-17 - Truth to Power

A student of power dynamics could have a field day with the Christian gospels – no doubt, many have. The next part of this week’s story shows how much power the powerless can have, and how much control people with an illusion of power can try to exert over others. The Pharisees depicted here make a Congressional witch hunt look like… well, I was going to say, like a tea party… but, never mind...

Unsure what to make of this miracle of healing, these leaders interrogate the man born blind. When he maintains his story – “this man came along, made a paste with mud, put it on my eyes, sent me to wash it off, and then I could see” – they decide to question the man’s parents. They don’t contradict the story, so they haul the man himself in again.

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, ‘Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.’ (I think we call that leading the witness… ) He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’ They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’ He answered them, "I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?’”

Where does this man get the boldness to answer the authorities with such wit and sarcasm? Perhaps knowing that God has healed him so powerfully frees him to stand up to these ecclesiastical bullies. He gets a reaction:

Then they reviled him, saying, ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.’ The man answered, ‘Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing."


Talk about transformation! This man who used to beg every day, the only occupation his disability allowed him, is now revealed as a theologian and a lawyer, turning their logic back on them. “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” Clearly, his spiritual vision functions as well as his new eyesight. This man, who recently held the lowest social status, now speaks with authority to the authorities.

Where can we get the courage to stand against power that abuses authority and misuses logic? We can encounter such people in our own lives, workplaces, even families, not to mention governments. How do we speak truth to them? We locate our power the same place the now-seeing man did: knowing we are so beloved of God, that God would move heaven and earth to make us whole. It is in our awareness of our need, weakness before God, reliance on God's strength, that we find the power to stand for justice and truth.

Today, remind yourself of the different ways God has healed and strengthened you over the years. Recall the ways you used to have trouble functioning, that you’ve overcome. Name your gifts, and the transformations you’ve undergone. You might also name ways in which you still feel disabled, ill equipped, out of control. Invite the Spirit of God to pour God’s love into those areas in you, and make you whole.

St. Paul reminds us that God’s strength is perfected in our weakness. Anytime we’re unsure of where we stand, we can remember that we stand in the might of the God who made all that is, seen and unseen. And, as we stand in that power and love, we find more and more can be seen.

3-22-17 - In Trouble Now...

It’s amazing that Jesus has been held up as a role model to generations of children, given his penchant for talking back and getting in trouble. We might say he’s the “Dennis the Menace” of world religious figures. John’s gospel in particular features increasingly tense encounters with religious authorities as Jesus’ miracles (“signs,” to John…) confront the scribes and Pharisees with evidence of divinity they’d rather not acknowledge.

It doesn’t help that Jesus doesn’t seem to care what day it is. Healing on the Sabbath leaves him open to charges of violating the Law by "working.” This miracle with the man born blind really shakes things up:

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided.

They interrogate the newly sighted man a second time; this time he said, “He is a prophet.” Not liking that answer, they call in the man’s parents to testify that he was indeed blind from birth, and that he now sees. The parents are terrified – they’ll admit he was born, and born blind; they refuse to comment on this new turn of events. “'Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.' His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.”

Banishment is an extreme threat – and a measure of how threatened the Jewish leaders were by everything Jesus represented. The evidence of Jesus’ holiness and spiritual power was always before them – but to accept his claims seemed blasphemous, and would mean acknowledging his authority. These men were clinging to limited power under the thumb of the Roman occupation… too much was at risk.

How about us? What order in our lives might be threatened by acknowledging the “God-ness” of Christ? Accepting that his power is real and still at work in the world around us? Are we keeping Jesus at a safe distance, locked up in a pretty building, visiting him for an hour or so once or twice a week?

Or do we invite him into our lives, into our cluttered living rooms, our frenetic days and never-done to-do lists? Are we willing to let him roam freely through our work and relationships and leisure activities, perusing our bank accounts and spending patterns? What if he suggests some changes to our priorities? What if he asks us to commit time and resources to other things, other people?

There’s a lot to pray about in these questions – and a lot to offer to God, as we open our hands and hearts. We must issue the invitation; the Spirit of Christ seems rarely to come where not invited. And, most of the time, Jesus doesn’t even knock things over that much. He takes his time and lets us come around to his way of seeing before inviting us into new patterns of being.

Sometimes. Other times, he can be a little “Dennis” like… but, you know, like Dennis, kind of lovable.

3-21-17 - Seeing What Is Not

How would you respond if somebody you knew to be blind could suddenly see, or someone paralyzed came dancing down the street? Or course, now we have medical advances… but imagine if you were around when this blind man received sight he’d never had? It caused a stir, to say the least…

The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “'Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?' Some were saying, 'It is he.' Others were saying, 'No, but it is someone like him.'”

Funny how, when we’re positive something cannot be, we can convince ourselves we’re not seeing it. Even when the man said, “I’m the guy…” they couldn’t quite buy it.

He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.”


Do we need to understand “how” to accept “what?” The man himself seems remarkably untroubled by how this came about – even before he gets the third degree from the religious authorities. Maybe it’s because he had no prior visual data to contradict his new reality. He did not have a lifetime of “that’s impossible, if you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist” to overcome. He had never seen anything with his eyes. Maybe that’s why children believe so much more easily than adults – less contradictory data.

We can get so locked into our understanding of how the universe works – an understanding that the best scientists admit is incomplete – that we can’t entertain the possibility that the Creator of the whole thing has “laws” we have not yet discovered. Or have not discovered fully. That’s the “Kingdom of God” Jesus was making known, what I like to call the Energy Field of God.

Have you ever been asked to believe something that you knew to be impossible? Was it really? Or was your understanding too limited? Is there something in your life now that you’re being invited to believe? A step of faith you’re being invited to take? A prayer you’re being invited to try on? Can you take a step in that direction in prayer today?

The God we worship as Christ-followers is One who "calls into being things that were not.” (Romans 4:17). Faith is our ability to believe in what God is calling into being. We don’t have to be limited in prayer by what we’ve already seen. We do have to open ourselves to the possibility that God’s ways are bigger than we can imagine. That’s the beginning of faith vision, seeing what we have not previously been able to see.

God is calling things into being all the time. Imagine the sensory rush as our Spirit-vision kicks in and we truly begin to see the Energy of God at work around us.

3-20-17 - The Impossible

This week we dive deep into another Jesus encounter, this time with a man who was born blind, whose sight Jesus restores – to the dismay of a great many people. We'd like to think that such a healing would result in rejoicing – but overturning the laws of nature and probability unsettles people, especially those with an illusion of being in control.

As the story begins, the man does not ask for sight – who would ask for the impossible? He’s never known what it is to see. Jesus and his disciples pass him and the disciples ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” In Jesus’ day, misfortune, illnesses, even infertility were assumed to be consequences of sin, just as prosperity and health were seen as signs of God’s blessing.

Jesus rejects that kind of causality, but suggests something that to my ears is equally troubling: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Was Jesus was suggesting this man was singled out for misfortune just so God could swoop in with a razzle-dazzle miracle later in his life? I don’t think so. I think he is saying that all situations of suffering, no matter their source, are opportunities for us to bring the power and love of God to bear to transform them. I read his words as, “Don’t waste your time wondering what happened in the past – God’s power is about what happens next.”

And Jesus takes the opportunity to reveal the power of God right there. “…he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.”

Among the many mysteries in this story is this: Why does he go through this strange exercise of making a paste of mud and saliva, when he could just speak healing upon the blind man? Why does he send him to wash in the pool to somehow “release” the healing? Archeologists have discovered ruins suggesting the Pool of Siloam was spring- fed, which would have made it an acceptable place for ritual bathing and purification. Are there echoes here of Jesus’ words about living water? Did he have the man wash at the pool so that the sacred places of Israel would be part of the healing? Did he make the mud paste to convey that ordinary things can become sacramental, vehicles of the holy for us?

Jesus heals in different ways in our Gospel accounts – sometimes just with a word, sometimes with matter, sometimes in person, sometimes remotely, sometimes with established rituals. He uses his own saliva also in restoring speech and hearing to a deaf-mute, and in another healing of a blind man. We may be squeamish about spit, but this story does tell us that God is not limited to one method or set of words – and that the healing power of God is alive in the very matter of our minds and bodies. God’s healing is always mediated through a person who prays, whether with words, or with a touch, or through a prayer shawl. The “stuff” of our lives can become holy as we invite God to consecrate it.

Today, let's offer a prayer of thanksgiving for our bodies, starting with our feet and moving upward; for the way our body and senses carry us, enable us to do ministry, to make God’s love and power known to others. And if there is someone you know in need of healing, pray for God’s healing to be released in that person as it was in the blind man.

His story continues, “Then he went and washed and came back able to see.” It was "impossible" then - and "impossible" now. Except, the same God is at work in us. So look out...

3-17-17 - Telling our Stories

This week’s story is a lesson in faith-sharing – or evangelism. A woman meets Jesus, and discovers that in him is the power of God. When he then tells her that he is, in fact, the Anointed of God, the Messiah long-awaited by Jew and Samaritan alike, she believes him. At least, she is sure enough that she drops her water jar and runs back to tell her neighbors in town about him – and then they come to check him out themselves.

She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ They left the city and were on their way to him.”

Meanwhile, Jesus’ disciples come back with lunch – but he doesn’t want any:
Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, “Four months more, then comes the harvest”? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.’

Is Jesus having a moment of discovery? Has he found, in this alien territory, a mission field he had discounted, assuming he was only to bring his gifts to the Jewish people? Perhaps this encounter has reminded him of his broader mission. Or maybe he knew all along, loitering by that well.

He and his disciples will soon find out just how ripe these fields are when they spend a few days in that town:  And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.’

Our job as Christ followers is to tell the stories of our encounters with God - often across boundaries of culture, race, age or gender. We don’t have to persuade anyone about the Nicene Creed, just speak our God-stories. And if our stories are tepid, we may be too locked into thinking our “God-encounters” are things that happen in church. Church stories can be dull to those outside the congregation. But “God stories” are rarely dull – this woman’s story certainly wasn’t. And her excitement and passion helped ignite curiosity and anticipation in her neighbors.

What kind of news do you tend to share with excitement? Great things that have happened? Achievements? Stories of travel? Cultural events? Meals? Your children’s exploits? 
This weekend, try to notice when your energy rises in conversation – what are you talking about at those points? Can you think of a “holy moment” that generates that kind of energy in you, which you might share with someone? Pray about who needs to hear that story.

If telling people how great our church is was an effective means of spreading the Good News, our churches would be full. They’re not. Yet, the fields are still ripe with people hungry for spiritual connections that are authentic and personal. Let’s do what this woman did, and go tell our neighbors about our encounters with Jesus, with God, with the Holy Spirit.

We just need to introduce people to Jesus; he will do the rest. Then maybe we’ll get to hear those joyful words too – “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe. We have heard for ourselves, and now we know.”

3-16-17 - True Worship

When Jesus names some uncomfortable truth about her life, the woman he has met at a well does not comment. She changes the subject, bringing up the source of division between Jews and Samaritans: “Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem."

I have always seen this as an evasive pivot away from the topic of her personal life. But I wonder – is she actually trying to deepen the conversation? “Okay, Mister, if we’re going to talk truth, let’s talk about why your people and mine don’t get along. Let’s talk about our relationship. Why do you say we all have to worship in Jerusalem?”

Jesus gives her a full and perhaps surprising answer, not condescending: “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 

This truth Jesus offers should be emblazoned on our church buildings and service bulletins. How and where we worship can both lead us into divine presence, and keep us far away. It is human nature to seek connection with the holy – and when we find it, to attempt to recreate the circumstances we believe led to that moment. Thus we get ritual, and we repeat it and soon deem it sacred, and then all kinds of actions and objects and spaces and even clothing accrue – and before we know it, we may put our focus on all the apparatus and lose sight of the divine connection we were seeking in the first place.

Worship, as Jesus defines it, is not something we do. It is how we open ourselves to encounter with the Living God. It is a spiritual activity, engaging our spirits – and, because our spirits are embodied, also our senses, minds and bodies. And worship is truth-seeking. We don’t need to be in church to worship – church can help sometimes, and get in the way others. What we need is an open heart and humility.
  • When do you feel yourself most fully alive in worship? Is it during a service? If so, what elements draw you in? Music? Prayer? Proclamation? Teaching? Movement? Sacrament? It’s good to be aware of how you feel most connected to God.
  • Maybe you feel yourself most worshipful in silence or in solitude or in nature or doing something for someone else – it’s good to know that too, to honor that as worship.
  • If you don’t feel you connect to God in worship of any kind, you might ask the Spirit to show you a way for you.
Worship, above all else, is encounter – a profoundly cross-cultural encounter across boundaries of difference more pronounced even than the ethnic, religious and gender barriers Jesus and this woman were bridging. Worship is an encounter between a mere human, unique and ordinary, and the God who made all things, holy and transcendent. Yet this God invites us to meet, to break bread, even to dance.

The hour is coming – and is now here – when God is in our midst, in spirit and in truth. God has shown up. Will we?

3-15-17 - Miss Communication

One of my favorite things about this week’s gospel story – and it is one of my favorites – is the subtle way the characters reveal themselves by what they say, and what they don’t say. For instance, the narrator does not tell us that our heroine has had a complicated romantic life… there is a hint in her coming to draw water at noon, when the sun is hottest but she’s more likely to avoid the stares and murmurs of her community, but we only learn about her when Jesus shares this information he could not know.

Jesus and the woman exchange many words, but they seem to keep talking past each other. He asks her for water; she wonders why he’s willing to ask her. He says if she knew who was asking, she’d be asking him – and that the water he gives never runs out. Then she goes literal – and sarcastic: ‘Okay, so give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’

Then Jesus changes the subject. Abruptly. “‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” If this is meant to shut her up, it doesn’t work:
The woman said to him, "Sir, I see that you are a prophet,” and swiftly changes the subject again.

We aren’t told how she felt when Jesus spoke her past to her. He had no earthly way of knowing this about her, unless she sported tattoos with different men’s names on them. But she doesn’t deny it – and even more significantly, she doesn’t break off the conversation. She changes the subject, sure, launching into a discussion of proper locations for worship… but she doesn’t leave. There must have been something about the way Jesus spoke and looked at her that invited her to be real, not hidden.

I think that is how the Holy Spirit works in us. In some ways, we are to God as wild animals are to humans – skittish, afraid to get too close. And God comes into our lives, sits down, invites us into conversation. We might try to obscure it or stay on a surface level of needs and thank yous, so that we can avoid really be known… but eventually we learn that we are in the presence of the One who already knows us, knows everything thing about us, the good, the bad, the ugly – and isn’t walking away.

Have you had that kind of conversation with God lately? Ever? What would you rather Jesus didn’t know about you? Can you bring it up first? Just lay it out there… see how he reacts, what he says?

Chances are, you will come away feeling more accepted and loved than blamed or shamed. We can see how this works on a human level in 12-step meetings – people are accepted as they tell the worst about themselves, and are loved into sobriety. If this can happen with people, imagine how thoroughly God can love us into wholeness as we make ourselves available.

We learn later that this moment with Jesus had an impact, for the woman runs back to her townspeople – the ones whose judgment she was presumably avoiding – and tells them, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did!” She has not been shamed. She has been liberated by discovering that the Lord of heaven and earth can know everything about her and still offer love and forgiveness. I hope you have discovered that freedom, more than once. As we receive it, so are we able to give it.

3-14-17 - Always Enough

A tired woman comes to a well at the peak of the day’s heat, repeating a chore that no doubt has shaped her days for some time. It is her job to fetch water for the household. It’s not so bad going, but carrying the heavy jars back to town is a burden she’d gladly give up.

A man is there, a Jew, a rabbi from the look of him. She doubts she need fear him, but wishes he were not there to disturb her solitude. Jews are so condescending to her people, as though they weren’t just another branch on the same tree. She nods at him and sets about lowering her jar. He speaks, “Give me a drink.”

She answers, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?" His answer is puzzling, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink’, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

She is in no mood for riddles. Does he not know the holiness of this well, its history? “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”

He is more mysterious still: “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” What could this mean?

A spring of water in us, gushing. Here is an image of abundance, of movement, of life. If you’ve ever been mesmerized by the rushing water in a brook or river, or stared at a waterfall or waves crashing, receding, returning, crashing again, you know how powerful a representation this is of not running out. And Jesus locates this gushing spring not outside of us but inside, where we always have access. This spring is God’s life, renewing us.

What have you been “going to the well” for your whole life, that you most wish to never run out of? If your answer is something material – food, money – it’s good to name it. If it’s emotional – love, affirmation, attention – it’s important to be aware of what motivates you. God guarantees no provision in those areas. But spiritual commodities, like peace, healing, forgiveness, love – those all come with God’s living water in us, and they are always being replenished.

Today in prayer you might image that river of God-life flowing through you, dislodging all the debris of sin and hurt, and bearing it away, renewing and refreshing everything in its path. You might reflect on areas in which you feel empty or dry, and invite the river to flow to those places. If you feel a need of healing, invite the river to flow into that area. If you’re burdened by anxiety about the world or other people, invite the river to flow through those places, a visual prayer.

As we become more practiced at accessing the living water inside us, the spiritual gifts it brings may just make us more content about those material and emotional areas we worry about. After all, this living water is the river of God, which Jesus likens to the Holy Spirit. Our mouths may thirst, our stomachs may hunger – yet with this spring in us, our spirits need never go dry.

3-13-17 - A Man, A Woman, A Well

It's high noon, on a dry and dusty day. The man is alone, tired and thirsty. A woman approaches, a woman with a past - and quite a present. They are strangers who perhaps should not speak to each other - but they do. And both are changed.

So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 

As we explore this week's gospel encounter with Jesus, let’s start with the who/when/wheres:
We have Jesus, alone. We have a Samaritan woman, her ethnicity stated to convey her status as a not-quite-Jew. Samaritans descended from the original northern kingdom of Israel which, for a time was united with Judea in the south. But when the leaders in Jerusalem decreed that all worship was to take place in the temple there and no longer in the many other sacred sites of Israel, a division began which eventually separated Jews from Samaritans. The familial enmity persisted and deepened into a profound suspicion in which Samaritans were considered heretics and lesser-than.

And what about the time of day? Those with a cultural memory of Westerns might anticipate a clash when we hear “noon” – and certainly we will see some verbal gun play in this encounter. But what might “noon” mean for the writer of John’s Gospel? The time when the sun is highest, the most light possible is in the day? A symbol of completeness, the mid-point of the sun’s journey across the sky?

Our location is a well, in a place steeped in the history of Israel, a place the patriarch Jacob gave to his best-beloved son, Joseph. Jacob, remember, was Abraham's grandson, whom God blessed after a night of wrestling. In that struggle, Jacob was given a new name: Israel, which became the name for the nation descended from Jacob twelve sons.

The well might ring other echoes for John’s listeners: in the story of the patriarchs of Israel, at least three matches are made at wells: Abraham’s servant, sent to find a wife for Isaac, meets Rebekah at a well; Jacob meets and falls in love with Rachel at a well; Moses meets his wife at a well. So, should we expect a love story? Jesus often encounters women in the gospels, sometimes with intimacy – emotional, and even physical in the case of the woman who anoints his feet. This won’t be an encounter of romantic love, but a profound connection will take place.

Today, in your imagination, you might approach that well like the woman in the story. Imagine the setting. See Jesus there. How might you feel about Jesus being in a place where you expected to be alone? What needs do you bring to this solitary place? What kind of conversation might you have? Let it unfold, and follow where it goes. Write down any conversation that transpires.

Place, time, personae – the setting is ripe for something to happen. Something always happens when we meet Jesus.

3-10-17 - God So Loved

If you ever had to memorize bible verses in Sunday School, chances are you can recite this one, John 3:16, so favored by sports fans and poster-makers: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

This verse can evoke mixed emotions. It is a marvelous expression of God’s love for the world, a love so extravagant God willingly gave up his only son to save it. And it makes an extravagant promise – eternal life for those who believe in God’s only son. How we respond to this promise has everything to do with how much we feel the world is in need of saving, and how we feel about the “perishing” part.

For most of the Christian era, it has generally been accepted that people were lost in sin, for which the legitimate penalty was death without chance of parole; and that God had designed a remedy to meet the demands of that penalty in such a way that we could be spared it – by having his own son, the only perfect sacrifice, take on that death sentence for us. Such a reading of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection is directly supported by this passage. Jesus says, straight out, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” 

I cannot debate here the thorny question of whether humanity needed saving – I think we do; others may disagree. What I do want to assert is that a God who desires not to condemn but to save is a God worthy of our worship and trust. Condemnation lies at the heart of human sinfulness – our tendency to judge and condemn other people and ourselves is one of the most corrosive attributes human beings share. And so one of the most powerful verses in the New Testament for me is Paul’s declaration, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1)

To be reminded that Jesus himself said God is not interested in condemning anyone is a crucial corrective to centuries of judgmental, condemnatory, narrowly legalistic, rule-based teaching by the church. Condemnation is a reflection of our sinful nature; gracious love is a reflection of God’s nature, and ours as creatures made and redeemed in the image of our extravagant God.

Is there any pattern or behavior in your life for which you continually condemn yourself? Are there other people, individuals or categories, whom you routinely find yourself condemning? Perhaps today we might bring those people and patterns into the light in prayer, asking God to show us how God’s love might lift from us the burden of condemnation – whether we’re the condemned or the condemner. What strategies might you devise to become more aware of the action of condemnation in your life, and invite the winds of the Holy Spirit to blow you into greater freedom and acceptance, of yourself and others?

This morning I will take part in the Native Nations Rising march and rally in DC, to stand in solidarity with Standing Rock and indigenous peoples across the world. I go with Jesus’ reminder that God’s love is more powerful than all the damage human beings can wreak on other creatures and on creation. As God so loved the world… Might we ask to be so filled with that gracious love that we find ourselves loving the world in God’s name? When all is love, we need not speak of perishing and saving, only of Life everlasting.

3-9-17 - Up-Lifted

As Jesus talks with Nicodemus, he stresses the importance of the spiritual view. Then, almost as an aside, he says something else puzzling: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Jesus is alluding to a story recorded in Numbers 21:4-9, about a time when God sent a plague of serpents to punish the Israelites for bellyaching on their journey to freedom:

They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.

Putting aside our alarm at the idea of God having a murderous hissy fit in response to incessant whining (look out!), let’s focus on the remedy God proposes: To bring about healing by inviting the afflicted to contemplate a symbol of their disease. This story is one source of the universal symbol of medicine, serpents entwined on a staff. And here we see a principle often found in medicine – that healing can come from the very source of disease, as with vaccines and homeopathic remedies.

By linking this image to his own impending suffering on the cross, Jesus (or John?) suggests that the remedy for sin can be attained by reflecting upon the very image of sin, a punished, crucified man. As Paul later wrote, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (II Corinthians 5:21)

A central theme of John’s Gospel is that Jesus’ glory was supremely revealed on the Cross – there was the Sign of Signs that God was doing a new thing. The Cross is central to all four Gospels, but only John sees it as a place of glorification. So let’s go with him for today. Our sacred story tells us that Jesus took upon himself the sin of the whole world as he died crucified and forsaken. Can we see in that scene of torture any redemption and release for ourselves? Healing from the sin-sickness that can pervade our souls?

Is there an area of sin in your life you would like to see die with Jesus on the cross? As you pray today, can you imagine that aspect of your life, whether an event or a proclivity, actually being eliminated, so you can be free of it? Our promise is that God has already forgiven us – the Cross covered the future as well as the past.

In John 12:32 Jesus is quoted, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” We don’t have to contemplate a bruised and bloodied Jesus in order to be forgiven. We can draw near to throne of grace because of what Jesus took on for us – and because now that cross is empty. We can honor him best by accepting his gift and walking in the forgiveness and wholeness he won for us.

3-8-17 - OS/Infinity

Let's review the conversation
Jesus to Nicodemus: You must be born anew to see the Kingdom of God.
Nicodemus to Jesus: How do I do that?
Jesus to Nicodemus: No one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born by water and Spirit.
If I were Nicodemus, my next word would be “Huh?” Jesus’ explanation only confuses me more:

“What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”

“No, I don’t!” I would cry. But recently, I've began to grasp it - I think... Jesus is talking about operating systems, as with computers. We run on OS/Human (“flesh”). God-Life, or Kingdom life, runs on OS/God (“Spirit”). If we want to apprehend God-Life, our hardware needs to run OS/God. Human programs can run on OS/God; God programs don’t run so well on OS/Human.

If technology metaphors don’t work for you, this explanation may be worse than Jesus’. I think he is saying that flesh and spirit offer different ways of perceiving reality – “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” We will need to operate from our spiritual senses if we want to dwell in God’s light and grow in our knowledge and love of God.

We are hardwired for OS/Human – our natural tendency is to trust only what we can see and touch. We need new programming to run OS/God – and the Good News is that it’s easy to download! Just accept the User Agreement (aka, baptism, or any time we say, “Yes, Lord, I believe…”) and let it install. God’s operating system doesn’t replace ours; we can run both – though that can be quite a drain on our batteries. And it can be hard to transition to OS/God – we know how to do things with our old operating system; living by faith in the spiritual realm comes with a bit of a learning curve. Just think of a time you’ve adopted new technology or new computer programs, and you’ll get the analogy…

Jesus was able to run human programs through OS/God. As we download his life into ours, we become better able to run the Spirit system. And as we make the transition to using OS/God more and more, we’ll find it gradually becoming our default setting, and we’ll run more and more of our programs on it. And here’s a really nice benefit – OS/God doesn’t deplete us. It ships with a built-in power supply that recharges even as we use it. Nifty, huh?

Now that I’ve run that metaphor into the ground, how do we pray this today? Here's a question to explore: What areas of your life you think about entirely in human terms, and in which ones do the Spirit and faith call the shots? Is there a way to bring a more spiritual perspective to the areas that feel like “just human?” Can we invite the Holy Spirit to rewire us so that we perceive with spirit more and more?

I highly recommend transitioning our programs for perceiving, receiving and giving to OS/God.We become so much more peaceful and effective. And upgrades are free for our lifetime – and to infinity!

3-7-17 - Water and Spirit

In the early church, there was a strong understanding that in baptism a new creation is birthed – so strong, in fact, that some baptismal fonts were designed to evoke wombs or even birth canals (some examples below). Since many people were baptized as adults, long after their physical births, the experience was meant as a rebirth, in line with Jesus' words:

Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born anew.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.'

Maybe Jesus is being frustratingly figurative – and Nicodemus unnecessarily literal in his question about re-entering the womb. But it does prompt Jesus to clarify what he means by “born anew,” or “born from above” (the Greek allows either). He is saying that physical birth – our mere humanness – does not equip us to see nor “enter” the kingdom of God. We must be born of water and Spirit.

Water hints at baptism – John’s Gospel was likely the latest written, when baptism as a Christian ritual would already have been well established. His is the only gospel to mention Jesus baptizing anyone. And, of course, water, or fluid, is an integral part of physical birth as well – that’s partly why it is such a potent symbol of new birth for Christians, because every human comes into being in a bath of amniotic fluid. It is life outside the water, post-birth, that is the real shock.

But what does it mean to be born of Spirit? Well, even before Jesus came on the scene, John the Baptist is heard to say, “I baptize you with water; one is coming whose sandals I am unworthy to tie – he will baptize with the Holy Spirit, and with fire.” The idea of being “baptized” with the Holy Spirit suggests being bathed, immersed, drenched in the power and presence and peace of the Spirit of God. It implies spiritual purification and transformation so complete, it’s like a new birth. In fact, we claim a new creation does result from that union of Christ’s Spirit with ours in baptism.

Does your head hurt yet? Don’t worry – this conversation gets more confusing. Today let’s try to wrap our minds around the idea being born anew or born from above. And here’s a fact: no one can get themselves born – being born is something that happens to us. It is someone else’s work. We can’t even really resist the birth process – it happens, ready or not. The only difference with spiritual birth is, we get to say “yes.”

Have you ever had an experience of the Holy Spirit that you could feel? A sense of filling, or being surrounded with love? Sometimes there are manifestations like tingling, or our hands getting hot, or even weeping. Sometimes we feel our spirits want to praise and thank God. If you would like to know that aspect of God, simply ask the Spirit to come. “Come, Holy Spirit, I’m open…“will do just fine. Or ask someone else to pray for you to be filled with the Spirit. And don’t worry if you do or do not feel anything – sometimes we know the Spirit’s been with us later, by the fruits that result from that encounter.

Our physical birth was one event. Long, short, easy or challenging, it was eventually done and we were born. Our spiritual birth takes a lifetime. In some ways, what we are doing all our lives in this world is being born anew, being prepared for life in that Life where there is no death, only life and more life.

        

3-6-17- Signs of Life

This Lent, our Sunday passages come from the Gospel of John, richly drawn encounters with Jesus. The passages are lengthy and told elliptically in John’s sometimes tortured style, and can be hard to follow. They’re worth the work; I will do my best to highlight themes in them.

This week’s story concerns a meeting between Jesus and an important Jewish leader: 
“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’”

We might assume Nicodemus came by night because he wasn’t ready to be seen publicly talking with this controversial miracle-worker. It’s clear, though, that Jesus’ miracles have gotten his attention: “For no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

This is one reason miracles are referred to as “signs” in John’s Gospel; they are demonstrations of how things work in the Life of God, signs pointing beyond themselves to the power that animates them. Water into wine, sight to the blind – these transformations have a purpose beyond the immediate needs they address.

So does the church, meant to be the Body of Christ made visible in the world. We are called to more than meeting needs. We are to be making known, showing forth the Life of God that is around us and in us. Our mission is to reveal the spiritual reality of God as we go about God’s mission of restoration and wholeness. So what we do as church always has a mystical purpose beyond the short-term good.

In what ways do you make known the spiritual reality of God-Life in your life and ministry? When have you last experienced that spiritual reality, even in ways that appear miraculous - maybe in timing that seems suspiciously God-driven, or with unexpected answers to prayer, or urges to reach out to another person in a way that bears fruit?

If you have answers to those questions, note them, give thanks, and explore why you may have been open to manifesting or discerning that God-Life. What are the optimal conditions for you?

If you find yourself unable to answer, there in itself is a question to explore – how might you be more open to the mysterious, the movement of spirit? Might “religion” be getting in the way of “relationship” with the Holy, the transcendent?

Jesus answers Nicodemus’ opening statement with a comment that puzzles: 
“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Whatever else “born from above” means, at the very least it is being able to discern a reality not immediately apparent to our physical sight. That might be a good prayer for today, “Open our eyes, Lord, to see your hand at work in the world around us.” Let me know what you see.

3-3-17 - Devils Flee

“Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”

There’s nothing like getting to the finish line, is there? Whether we’re running a race or finishing chemo or turning in a final paper – to suddenly have the pressure lifted, know we’ve survived, be able to let down our guard, rest, recharge – it’s a wonderful feeling. So Jesus comes to the end of his trial period, knowing he’s prevailed. Matthew says angels came and waited upon him.

The presence of angels reminds us of the level of cosmic entity we’re dealing with when we talk about the devil. The New Testament is unequivocal about his existence, as was the early church, as are our Episcopal baptismal rites. But the Christian tradition never considered the devil as God’s equal – he is among a sub-order of angelic beings. The devil is described in the Bible as a fallen angel, who turned against God in pride and rebellion; a tempter always seeking to draw humans away from God; the Accuser and the Father of Lies. The label I like best is "The Enemy of Human Nature."

Early Christian thinkers held that evil is the absence of good – evil is what you get where God is not. And the source of evil, in the Christian worldview, is the devil, or Satan. C.S. Lewis once said, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” Martin Luther likewise had a strategy, “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” (He also said, “The best thing you can do is rap the Devil on the nose at the very start. Act like that man who, whenever his wife began to nag and snap at him, drew out his flute from under his belt and played merrily until she was exhausted and let him alone.” Must have been interesting in the Luther home...)

Because we assert that Christ has overcome the devil, we don’t have to be afraid. Alert and wary, yes, about one who seeks to corrupt and harm us, but not so much that we give him attention we might better direct to God. As with a poisonous snake, you want to avoid its bite, but also know how to deal with its venom. And we have been given the antidote – the love and forgiveness of the Father; the comfort and advocacy of the Holy Spirit; the power of Christ in us.

In prayer today, we might simply thank God for providing us protection from this ancient enemy. If you ever feel threatened, pray your way through Ephesians 6, putting on the full armor of God. It was always God’s fight, not ours, and Jesus has won it. As Luther also wrote, in the great hymn A Mighty Fortress:

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us.
We will not fear for God has willed his truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him; 
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure; One little Word shall fell him.

That Word is Jesus, the name that frightened demons back to hell. It is the only defense we need, whenever we feel ourselves under spiritual attack. The name of Jesus, who lives in us. He's still winning.

3-2-17 - Power

Who has more real power – the emperor or the counselor? The president or the chief of staff? The CEO or the COO? In the third temptation, the devil is willing to put Jesus in charge of all the kingdoms of the world – as long as he acknowledges him as the real power behind the scenes:

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him."

This always struck me as a really dumb temptation – didn’t the devil know that Jesus had no interest in temporal power? Of course, this Jesus, in whom more divine power resided than the world had ever seen in a human being, was even less interested than most in world domination. He cared more about demonstrating the power to be gained in giving away your prerogatives.

There are at least three ways to wield power – there’s “power over,” when we have dominion over others, and we use it to control them. There’s “power under,” the indirect, passive aggressive power seized by those who use their sacrifices and victimhood to try to control others. And then there’s the kind of power Jesus wielded, what I would call “power with.” This comes from a true sense of who we are, joined with an awareness of the power of God alive in us, so that we use power in a way that empowers others.

As we read the Gospels, we see Jesus constantly empowering people who had been robbed of power, whether by the Romans, by the religious authorities, by illness or prejudice or poverty. This was ultimately what made him such a threat to those who thought they had power over him. It’s what makes him such a threat to the Evil One – because Jesus is still alive, still in the business of empowering us. And empowered, we can resist evil.

When you look at your life, what kind of power is most often at play in your relationships, in your work, in your health? Are there things and people you’d like to dominate?
Are there things and people whom you feel have power over you? Neither is a good position to be in.
Are there ways you employ “power with” in a way that allows you to be true to yourself, true to God, and empowers others to be the same?

This is part of what it means to participate in God’s mission to bring wholeness to the world – when everyone exercises “power with,” the power of God overwhelms the power of evil. Poor devil really never had a chance.

3-1-17 - Security

On the face of it, this devil’s bargain is for the birds:
“Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (This week's gospel reading is here.)

Who on earth would toss himself off a high tower and see if God will protect him? And yet, don’t we often take lesser risks with big consequences? “Sure, cancer and smoking are highly related, but it won’t get me…” “Sure, the doctor said if I keep on getting fries with everything I’m headed for quadruple bypass, but what I eat today is okay…” Or, “Sure, pesticides kill bees and marine wildlife, threatening the worldwide food supply, but it won't hurt if I treat my lawn…”

Feeling safe and protected is important to most of us. Yet the further away dangerous consequences are, the more risks we seem to take. Is this one of the ways we fall prey to the temptations of the Enemy? Maybe… after all, Christians claim that the devil desires to draw us away from the love of God. Often God is the first one we blame when bad things happen, because we forget human complicity, and because we may believe we have an unspoken contract with God guaranteeing our safety. Dig yours out of the file and check it – God never signed it. God promises us presence and power and peace in all circumstances, not protection.

I understand how facile this might sound if we think of people in Syria or South Sudan - or immigrants right here - and I don’t wish to undervalue the very real desire for life and safety. I share it. I’m just trying to remember there’s a bigger story. When security becomes our objective, we often try to get it for ourselves, turning away from God’s provision. And why not, if God hasn’t promised to protect us?

Well, because there’s a deeper gift in the relationship we gain when we decide to trust God with all that we cannot control. This temptation is really about trying to control our circumstances. What do you most need to control? Can you in prayer today entrust – to the extent you’re able – the people and things you value most to God’s care, knowing you can’t keep them safe from everything, and trusting in God’s love? See how far you can extend your trust today, and then see if you can stretch a little further in yielding control tomorrow.

As we live into the fullness of our identities as beloved of God and chosen in Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit, we can move past a focus on security and live from an eternal perspective. From that vantage point, though what happens in this life matters a great deal, and when others are hurt, we hurt, we also see that this life is not the end of all things. Rather, for Christ followers, it is the beginning, the training zone, the love lesson.

That perspective doesn’t change our circumstances; it transforms the way we live them. Not a bad reminder on a day when many of us will hear the words, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."