2-21-20 - Perfected

This week we focus on the gospel for the 7th Sunday in Epiphany instead of Last Epiphany (here is a link to that Friday in 2017 if you want to follow that thread.) You can listen to this reflection here.

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

Is Jesus is kidding or indulging in hyperbole? Or is he is gently nudging his followers both into aspiration and reality? He’s asked them (and us) to yield to people trying to control us, open ourselves to people trying to hurt us, give to people trying to take from us, and 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.

Our yardstick might be too short, 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 minutes to achieve perfect consistency. We become perfect as God is perfect, one moment, one decision, one day at a time.

The throughline I discerned in these teachings of Jesus, all of which concern how we interact with other people, especially ones who cause us trouble, is to always look out for the humanity, the individuality of others. Seeds of Peace is 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 wouldn’t 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.

In prayer today ask God to show you who it is God sees when s/he looks at you. Let’s try to catch a glimpse of the perfection that is already ours, even as we slowly realize it.

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

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2-20-20 - Xtreme Love

This week we focus on the gospel for the 7th Sunday in Epiphany instead of Last Epiphany (here is a link to that Thursday in 2017 if you want to follow that.) You can listen to this reflection here.

“Love your enemies,” Jesus says. 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. Yikes!

“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 all Jesus’ challenging teachings. Or is it? It comes with its own E-Z-Bake instructions – “Pray for those who persecute you.” That is something we can do, 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. Many enemies have become allies through that kind of prayer. Why? Because it re-humanizes 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 means us very real flesh-and-blood harm.

In our polarized climate, the idea of “the enemy” is alive and well, constantly 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, climate change deniers, or people who gun down teenagers for playing loud music and hide beyond “Stand Your Ground” laws to excuse murder, I am not 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?”

Let’s go for it today: Think of a person or kind of person you consider an enemy or close to it. In your imagination, envision them surrounded by the light of Christ. 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.

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2-19-20 - The Extra Mile

This week we focus on the gospel for the 7th Sunday in Epiphany instead of Last Epiphany (here is a link to that Wednesday in 2017 if you want to follow it.) You can listen to this reflection here.

What on earth 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 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 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… Okay, and maybe he’s exaggerating again, to make a point. But where does that leave us?

Maybe that’s the wrong question. What if our response to this seemingly unreasonable command is not to throw up our hands and say, “What about me?” What if rather we 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. As we train ourselves to be other-directed in our interactions, we might find the 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… 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. And remember that thing He also said – “When you feed/clothe/ visit/give to the least of these, you have done so for me?” Can we look for him in the beggar, in the one driving us on?

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?

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2-18-20 - Giveaway Gospel

This week we focus on the gospel for the 7th Sunday in Epiphany instead of Last Epiphany (that’s always the Transfiguration, and I have 7 years’ worth of posts on it; here is a link to that Tuesday in 2017.) We need more to hear what Jesus said about loving our enemies. You can listen to this reflection here.

“…And if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” Imagine a group of people standing in deep winter, shivering away without coat or cloak to warm them. Asked why they are coatless, they answer, through chattering teeth, “Because Jesus said so…”

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 disciples?

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 will give away whatever they must to ensure that everyone there receives something, from hand-made star quilts to leftover containers. They’re not giving it away because they have so much. They’re giving it away because the values of hospitality, generosity, and community matter more than having enough.

Perhaps 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 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 preaching – 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:

I can reflect once a week or once a month on all that I have more than enough of – home, clothes, funds, furniture, insurance, stuff… and give thanks. That might take awhile! And then to 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.

To receive Water Daily by email each morning, subscribe hereThe readings for next Sunday (Last Epiphany, which we are not reflecting on in Water Daily this week) are  here.

2-17-20 - Don't Fight Back

This week I will focus on the gospel for the 7th Sunday in Epiphany instead of Last Epiphany (that’s always the Transfiguration, and I have 7 years’ worth of posts on it. Here is a link to that Monday in 2017.) In our times, we need more to hear what Jesus said about loving our enemies. You can listen to this reflection here

In the part of Jesus’ training talk we explored last week, he was expanding on existing commandments. This next portion shows him going beyond existing law to interpretations so radical, I imagine at least some of his listeners said, “Is this guy nuts? I’m outta here.” Some of Jesus’ would-be followers in every generation since have said that when confronted by the dissonance between what Jesus taught and how “the world works.” “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.” (Isaiah 55:8)

As we wade in, let's remember that Jesus was introducing his followers to life in a realm wholly other than this present world we perceive with our senses. This “kingdom” life of God for which he was preparing them is both contiguous with the sense-known world, and is its own realm, perceivable by faith. It’s as though he is explaining how things work in, say, Indonesia, what laws you need to know to live there. We can decide whether or not 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 Life of God.

The first law he offers is: 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.

Beyond those questions, I sense an invitation to go deeper in conflicted situations, to respond in a counter-intuitive way, not meeting aggression 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.

Jesus sets 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. Remember 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 traumatic. But I imagine we’ve all been hurt at some points in our lives, and faced the choice whether or not to retaliate. Are there some times when you did? Any times when you were aware of making a different choice? Are you faced with circumstances in your life today, where that choice is before you, whether to hit back or to absorb and transform?

One way we can choose 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. Who knows what marvels God might work with such a prayer.

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2-14-20 - God's Funny Valentine

(You can listen to this reflection here.)

Water Daily has been hard going this week. I suspect Jesus’ first century audience had as much trouble interpreting his training talks as we do in the twenty-first. As love letters go, these don’t soar.

Yet I do believe these teachings are given in love, as was the God-in-Man who offered them – God’s “funny valentine” to the world. The prophet Isaiah's words, so often thought to prefigure Christ, say, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him… [Yet] he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” 
Okay, so it’s not quite “Your looks are laughable, unphotographable, yet you’re my favorite work of art…” – but work with me…

If Jesus is God’s ultimate love letter to his creation, Jesus’ life and teachings are his love letter to those who would call themselves his followers. And Jesus could hardly love us without instructing us how we are to live in the new life he ushers us into, the God-Life he called the “kingdom of heaven,” anymore than we bear children into this world and expect them to just figure out how to live in it. As we teach our children, so Jesus teaches his followers.

Here it’s about truth and integrity: 
"Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.' But I say to you, Do not swear at all… Let your word be 'Yes, Yes' or 'No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one."

This teaching seems to need less “unpacking” than others this week – it’s pretty straightforward. Let your word stand for something. Don’t bear false witness against others, or yourself, by saying one thing and doing another. Don’t swear oaths – just let your “Yes” be “Yes,” and your “No” be “No.” Ah, what a nice world it would be if everyone did that simple thing. But so often we seem to feel the need to hide behind falsehoods, small and large.

Never mind for now the cover-ups for major infractions. How about the little white lies, the need to tell people what we think they want to hear instead of what’s honestly in our minds; the need to embellish our resumes as we speak, or to engage in people-pleasing like promising to attend an event or do a task that we’re not sure we’re going to follow through on. What is the remedy for these kinds of responses?

It goes back to love. The key is to stand firm in our belovedness. When we are rooted in our belovedness before God, that fills the picture, and there is less room for shame or insecurity or a desire to control, all those feelings that cause us to say one thing and do another.

Valentine’s Day is a good day to reflect on how loved you are – you might list the people who love you, and meditate on the ways you experience God’s love in your life. You might list the people whom you love, and why. Love is a lot broader than romantic connection, sweet as that is when it happens.

Love is the code in which the holy, wholly Other God communicates with God’s creation, including hard-headed creatures like us. The better we learn that code, and how to communicate in it, the truer we will be, in every sense.

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2-13-20 - Divorced From Reality?

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

Jesus’ teaching on divorce should come with a trigger warning; it's hard for people who've been divorced, especially due to domestic abuse, hear Jesus equate divorce with adultery. This is part of a bigger point he was making, and he's not being nuanced: 
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 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 half of all marriages end in divorce, where many find themselves in more mature and 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? And can we ignore this and other challenging teachings without undermining our trust in Jesus’ authority?

He was telling his would-be disciples that part of the discipline of following him would mean faithfulness. And guess what? Even though they walked and talked with Jesus for three years, they weren’t always so faithful. They may have stayed faithful to their marriages, but not always to him, or to each other. It doesn’t mean the standard wasn’t there – it means they failed to meet it. 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.

So, is divorce sinful or is it forgivable? Yes. There can be no 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 so widens the standards of sinfulness no one can escape. 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?

Today we might pray about times when we have been hurt or affected 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 the ashes. So pray for those 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. More than two people are responsible for a marriage – it is meant to be carried in community. When a marriage fails, so has the community. So even people who are single are involved in the enterprise of marriage.

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

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