8-11-20 - The Outlier

You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.

She had no business bothering Jesus. She was a Gentile, and a woman. She was loud – and pushy: Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”

As Mark tells this story, he names the woman as Syro-Phoenician – from the nearby coastal region called Phoenicia, part of the province of Syria. But Matthew uses an archaic term, “Canaanite.” There was no Canaan in Jesus’ time, and hadn’t been for centuries. Canaan was the name of the Promised Land that God promised to give the Israelites, the Promised Land Moses led them toward and Joshua led them into - amid much slaughter of local populations and suppression of their religions and customs, as our Bible tells the tale. Some Canaanites may have gone north into Phoenicia when the Hebrews came into their territory. This is the history Matthew stirs up, linking her with those long-ago enemies of Israel. She has no status with the Jews, no connection. So what is she doing calling Jesus by the Messianic title, “Son of David,” and asking for his help?

Once again we find an outlier naming Jesus’ true identity as the Messiah, while the people around him don’t seem to get it. This unnamed mother stands with the Roman centurion and the Samaritan woman at the well and blind Bartimaeus. She gets who Jesus is, and knows he can help her little girl.

But Jesus does not seem to “get” her. He dismisses her brusquely, refusing to hear her request (more on that tomorrow...). Though in this story he is the foreigner – he is in her territory, after all – he notes the ethnic and religious difference and seems disinclined to cross that line. Given that he has just declared that we should be judged by what comes from within us, not the external, he seems quick to categorize her and her daughter as “not his problem.”

We live in a world full of children who are not our problem – unless we open our eyes and claim them. Anti-immigration protesters, even some wearing crosses, carry signs saying, “Not our children. Not our problem.” Some people condemn “those Muslim terrorists” or “that bully Israel” or “those corrupt African politicians,” as though they are then free to wash their hands of the world’s problems. Some say, “We have hunger right here. We should feed our own.”

But some go out to where the Other lives and bring food, education, medical care and friendship. My friend Tom Furrer, an Episcopal priest in Connecticut, travels every year to northern Nigeria, where several churches and other partners have built a clinic. One year they saw nearly 7,000 patients in two weeks – including many Muslims in a region where Christian-Muslim violence is severe (this is the area where Boko Haran operates.) Tom says that one of their goals is to show love and respect to Muslims “and so to demonstrate an alternative narrative to the one of the terrorists now plaguing this country.” More than one Muslim treated at the FaithCare mission said, “I had heard that Christians hate us. Now I see that is not true.”

Do you hear someone calling your name, asking for help? Maybe someone you don’t want to see? What if you engage?

This outlier woman had something to give Jesus – and eventually he came to be open to what she offered. The most amazing things can happen when we turn and see what loud, pushy people want.

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8-10-20 - Inside Out

You can listen to this reflection here.

This coming Sunday’s gospel reading has two sections. Most of this week’s Water Daily will focus on the second section. But today let’s look at the first part. It presents as a technical discussion of religious law, but in it we see Jesus radically reinterpret the religious understanding of his people, and dismiss the leadership of the teachers and leaders. No wonder they wanted him gone.

The story begins with a seemingly harmless statement: 
Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” What’s the trouble with that?

Well, his disciples tell him, the Pharisees, chief upholders of the Law, took offense at that, presumably because it undermined rules about food and ritual cleansing. Jesus responds by further insulting them: He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.”

Now he’s in deep, suggesting that these leaders are not authorized by God, and further, that they are blind guides for blind followers. To his puzzled disciples, Jesus explains that the impurity that should concern us is not whether our food is kosher or our hands ritually clean. Rather, it is the negative and destructive thoughts, words and actions that come from inside our hearts that defile us. He is not dispensing with the Law of Moses; he is reinterpreting it and, if you will, spiritualizing it.

This is central to the Good News, that the realm of God is less about rules and rituals than an invitation to dwell in the reality of God, in relationship with our heavenly Father. The human heart is a complicated place – capable of great love and generosity and grace, as well as pain and mean-spirited behavior toward ourselves and others. It’s our hearts that matter in the long run, more than bodies or behavior – and Jesus teaches that if we align our hearts with God, our behavior and bodies will reflect that alignment at our core. The movement is inside out, not outside in.

What does this ancient debate have to do with us? Perhaps it’s not so ancient, as our ongoing “morality wars” remind us. It is human nature to privilege rules and rituals that make us feel ordered, when what God asks is a reformed heart and a renewed spirit.

This passage tells me to look at my own heart to discern my motivations before adopting “behavior modification” techniques to help me better regulate my life. It invites me to connect with God early in the day so that what I do flows out of that renewed relationship. It reminds me to notice when I seek external “fixes” instead of internal renewal.

This teaching also reminds us as a society to treat the whole person with honor and dignity, even if he presents a problem, rather than treating symptoms and trying to impose regulation from without. Then each one can function out of her wholeness and we get a more whole community.

It’s not what we eat that’ll hurt us – it’s the distaste we harbor for our neighbor and the disrespect with which we sometimes treat ourselves. And Jesus can help us with that.

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8-7-20 - Sink or Swim

You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.

Peter got out of the boat. He took a few steps, actually walking on water. He was doing fine, focused on Jesus… until he felt the wind and remembered he couldn’t actually do this. Then he started to sink.

So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

“Why did you doubt?” I told a story yesterday about an indigenous community that took Jesus’ stories at face value and did what he did in the gospels, not considering it miraculous. I have no idea whether or not that story is true. But I do remember reading in Madeleine L’Engle’s autobiography that, as a small child at her family’s country house, she made a game of going down the stairs without touching them. She clearly remembered doing that, and she did it until she learned that was impossible.

What makes us doubt, aside from “knowing better,” is the strong winds. It’s adversity, and the times we’ve been wrong before, and the voices of people who say you’re crazy to believe you can do this or say that, that it’s nuts to be a person of faith. This does not mean that we should do everything we think of – but we should respond to the Spirit’s promptings. Peter stepped out onto the water at Jesus’ command, and because Jesus was out there waiting for him. 

The risks we should consider are ones we take as steps of faith, in relationship with the One who has told us all things are possible. That One is also at hand to save us when we start to sink. Most activities of faith involve some stepping out and some sinking… at those times, like Peter, we cry out for Jesus’ hand, and he is there. The crying out and trusting that God will be with us are also acts of faith. Our whole faith life “out of the boat” is one we live in relationship to God, not as solo operators. Remember, Peter walked toward Jesus.

Name a time in your life when you really stepped out, felt called to something, and went forward, not sure if you would be supported. Did you ever falter? What was it that caused you to doubt? Did you start to sink? What was your response? What was the activity of God in you at that time? We need these memories to strengthen us for action now.

What faith activity do you feel called to walk into at this time in your life? What would you need to feel or know in order to take that first step onto the water? Do you need a stronger sense that Jesus is with you, waiting for you, ready to help you if you falter? That's a good prayer for today...

The message our culture often gives is “You’re on your own, sink or swim.” Jesus’ message is, “Walk or sink… and even if you feel yourself sinking, I will be with you.” Whatever risks of faith we feel called to take, we can step out, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, even as the winds and the waves try to claim our attention. One step after another, fixed on his power and love, we can cross oceans.

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8-6-20 - Out Of the Boat

You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.

I was told once of an indigenous people who were evangelized by missionaries. These visitors told them key stories about Jesus, but then took sick and died. The people of the tribe were open to the power of God as the missionaries had described it, and took the stories at face value. For years, they routinely crossed rivers and streams by walking on the water – until other missionaries came years later, and explained that it was just a story. Then they couldn’t do it anymore. I have no idea if this account is true.

Three of our four gospels record Jesus’ walking on the water. Whatever we make of the tale, it was clearly foundational for the earliest Christians, one of many stories that reveal the Kingdom life of God displayed in Jesus the Christ. Okay, sure, but he was Jesus. If you buy Jesus being the Christ, it’s not so surprising that he walked on water.

Matthew, however, adds a detail that brings the story closer to where we live. When the disciples see Jesus walking on the sea and are terrified, he says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” And Peter responds in a fearless way: Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus.

Now the pressure is on. If Peter can walk on the water at Jesus’ invitation, what is to prevent the rest of us? Why don’t we try it? Is it because we “know” we cannot, and that knowledge provided by our physical senses so overrides any spiritual conviction we might have? If we didn't know that this is "just a story," would our faith be less inhibited?

Just a story? This is quite a story, and one of those that we can run with, whether we take it as reported fact or spiritual metaphor. Even as metaphor, it can bear our weight. Because stepping out in faith, taking risks we believe we’ve been called by God to take, these are actions intrinsic to the Christian life. I don’t believe any follower of Christ is called to just stay in her boat, come hell or high water. There are times when we’re all called to get out of our boat and take a step on the water toward Jesus. And then another.

Yesterday we explored what some of the challenges facing our “boats” are. Those challenges may or may not be related to the areas in which we sense a nudge to take a risk in faith. So today let's ask: What seas do you feel called to step out onto? A different job? Retirement? New relationship? Greater ministry responsibility? Living on less? Living healthier? Less dependence on someone or something? More dependence?

This is also a question that churches must constantly ask: where is Jesus calling us to step out of the boat of our comfort or complacency and walk with him on the water? Might that mean giving up some ministries? Taking on new ones? Worshipping differently? Joining in community with people who are different from us? What invitations do we discern in this time of enforced “doing church differently?”

The answers will vary depending on the person and the community. The one constant is this: No one is asked to step out of the boat onto a stormy sea by himself.
So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus.

And Jesus stayed right there with him. If we step out, we step out with Jesus. What more do we need, than courage, our shaky faith, and all the power in the universe?
Jesus said, “Come.”

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8-5-20 - Take Heart

You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.

I am not particularly “open” to the world of spirits; I prefer the company of the living. But once I experienced what seemed to me to be the strong presence of God in a room where I was praying, and I confess I was terrified. Intrusions of the spiritual Other, even when holy, often inspire fear. Most angelic encounters recorded in the bible start with the angel saying, “Do not be afraid…”

So it is here: 
And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid."

What was more frightening, I wonder – the sight of Jesus strolling on the surface of the water, or the thought he might be a ghost? Neither notion is comforting. Apparitions from the beyond are no more unsettling than seeing the seemingly immutable laws of nature overturned. We expect reality to behave in the ways we have observed; the supernatural messes with our filing system.

Yet, an intrusion of the Other into our neatly categorized world is exactly what we celebrate as Christians: the cataclysmic intrusion of God into human form and life in Christ, and in these days after Pentecost, the constant intrusion of the Holy Spirit in our lives and selves. Sometimes those encounters are powerful enough to inspire awe in us – and occasionally even fear. And so these words of Jesus are for us, too: “Take heart. Take heart, I am here.”

In our story, the disciples have also been coping with high waves and a nasty headwind pushing them further and further from shore. “Take heart” was Jesus’ invitation to trust and allow his peace to flow into them, even as he spoke these words standing on the stormy sea.

Beyond the storms of pandemic and racial injustice, we have just endured a literal storm; where I live the winds and waves were wild. What winds are you sailing into in your life at present, keeping you from getting to shore, to any kind of stability and peace? Any waves threatening to swamp your boat? Today in prayer imagine yourself in a storm-tossed boat, bringing to mind specifically those things that are causing the wind and the waves. And then see Jesus outside the boat, walking on the water toward you, peaceful, calm, in control. Does knowing he’s right there change how you feel about these challenges? Invite him into each one.

I pray that we will enjoy a holy intrusion into our quotidian routines. I hope the Holy Spirit shows up, bidden or not, and lets us know she’s there. I hope he still the storms in us, and gives the assurance we need that God does not stay out of our lives, but comes as close as we will allow, unbound by the limits we live with. As we allow God to come closer still, we will find ourselves less bound by those limits too.

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8-4-20 - Missing the Boat

You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.

Yesterday I confessed my allegiance to my to-do list; it might be considered a source of abundance in my life, since it truly never runs out. It also provides my best excuses for not taking time away from the workload to relax, refresh, and simply “be.” What if I don’t get the next thing done, or I miss a deadline or an appointment?

In this week’s gospel story, we see Jesus make that choice, to miss the boat, sending the disciples on without him. Yet somehow he arrives when needed:
When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake.

Oh, is that how it’s done? Sure, if we could teleport through space, or skip across bodies of water, we’d make up for lost time too, wouldn’t we? And it seems we can’t do either of those things, being more bound by limits of space and time and elements than Jesus appeared to have been.

Yet I’ve often found the principle works just the same. When I take the time I need for prayer and self-care, somehow deadlines get met, or they shift due to other, unforeseen factors (global pandemic taking a bunch of things off the calendar, anyone?) Or I miss them and find out it’s okay. At my best, when I feel the wind of the Spirit in my sails, I feel that God has the timing under control and I just have to walk in the “good works God has prepared beforehand for me.” Things that I thought I should have done ages ago work out in a way that they could not possibly have before this moment, or they prove not to have been as necessary as I thought.

But we only know that after the fact, don’t we? Somehow we have to keep navigating the fine line between our agency as servants of God, and the power of God to accomplish what God wills. Some say “Work as though it’s all up to you; pray as though it’s all up to God.” That’s too separate for me. I prefer, “Pray, because it’s all up to God, and work as the Spirit guides you.” And if you don’t feel any guidance, go forward as you want – if we are faithful, God will make sure the pieces line up in the end. Somehow.

When have you have taken time for yourself, and not done something you were supposed to do, or missed being somewhere you were supposed to be? Did the thing get done anyway? Did you connect with the right people later? Was there any “coincidence” in it coming out right?

Does your spirit yearn for some restorative time now? Are your obligations proving to be obstacles to slaking that thirst? What would it look like if you just took the time and then watched to see how the Spirit of God gets you across the water to that boat?

I flunk vacation-taking, and last week traded “work” work for cooking, cleaning and hostessing work. I crave some down-time, to laze around, watch the birds and pet the cats and admire the growing tomatoes and squashes. I don’t know what boats I might miss if I take that time, but I’ll trust that it will all work out. Certainly I’ll be less stressed.

One of my favorite cartoons shows a person sitting contentedly at a desk, over the caption, “I love deadlines. I love to watch them fly by.” Can I get an amen?

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8-3-20 - Time Apart

You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.

Sooner or later, Jesus was going to get that “alone time” he’d been wanting. It came a day later than planned, a full day of healing, teaching and miraculously feeding thousands of people – but then he took his retreat. Once the leftovers were collected, "Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray."

Being a conduit of the power of God takes energy out of one, even Jesus. The need to rest, recharge, reconnect with the Spirit of God is as important as the visible ministry we do, maybe more so. We can do a kind of recharging in community, especially over a meal and a celebration, but for most people, our deep spirit is best renewed in solitude.

Solitude is hard to find in our multiply-connected, always “on” world. And maybe there is a deeper malaise that makes it hard for many to seek it. Our constant input, 24-7 connectivity provides ample cover to avoid darker feelings, disappointments, mistakes, hurts we have inflicted or received, emptiness and pain.

We know about the dangers of distracted driving and the damage it causes. It is a symptom of the deeper problem of distracted living, moving too fast to notice what and who is around us, rushing to the next thing that will make us feel connected, filling every moment and part of our lives so we don’t have to face the emptiness and loss inside.

What happens when you get time alone? Are you able to sit quietly with yourself, or do you read, work, download, check texts, emails, social media feeds, google questions and watch funny pet videos? I’m afraid I too often do the latter; sitting quietly with myself or with Jesus can be challenging. I run back to my to-do list at the drop of a hat. The to-do list makes me feel filled and fulfilled, recognized, connected. Who wants to sit in silence before the vastness that is God?

Well, Jesus did, and he knew he needed that if he was to live fully into his identity. As God, he needed to tend to his relationship with his heavenly Father. As man, he was as vulnerable as we are to the games of ego and gratification and regard. One way to live out of his true identity and not the false ones the world tried lure him into was to break away on his own for prayer and solitude. Same goes for us.

Do you do that every week? Every day? Might we covenant together to spend about ten minutes off the grid each day this week, sitting with the silence and stillness, uncomfortable as it might be? The only way to reset our priorities is to sit before God, still and waiting and expectant. Man, that’s hard for me! If it’s easy for you, you are blessed indeed. Share your secret with someone.

Here’s a prayer we can try: “Come, Holy Spirit, and quiet my mind, stir up my soul. Breathe your Spirit into me and let me come into stillness. Let me hear what I need to hear, discern what I need to let go of. Renew my spirit, refresh my mind, and re-center me so that, like a record centered on a turntable, your song plays through me true, without distortion, for those around me to hear.”

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