Will the real Jesus please stand up.

This is a wonderful description of how a skeptic with a questing heart and open mind came to find God. That Holy Spirit—she sneaks up on you sometimes.

Coffee with Carolanne

Dedicated to my best mate. I promised to be quiet, not absent. I cannot get there but I never left you.

Sat by a riverbank, soaking in the sunshine, in June 2017 I posed a question it took me another 18 months to answer: IF God were real, what would it look like?

It triggered a process that lead me into faith one researched step at a time. I didn’t grow up in faith, my best friend had pushed open a door for me to want to seek God. Slowly and painfully I began to claw fingernail holds into what others seemed to skim over with blithe assurance. When I finally stood on the first ledge and admired the view, I realised I had gone around faith backwards to most.

Friends who grew up with a Christian faith take for granted their closeness to Jesus Christ. As a child he’s…

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This Moment

Thoughts Along the Way…

I came across a meme today on Facebook that really made me stop and think.  The heading was Ancestral Mathematics.  Here’s what it said:

“In order to be born, you needed:

2 parents

4 grandparents

8 great-grandparents

16 second great grandparents

32 third great-grandparents

64 fourth great-grandparents

128 fifth great-grandparents

256 sixth great-grandparents

512 seventh great-grandparents

1,024 eighth great-grandparents

2,048 ninth great-grandparents

For you to be born today from 12 previous generations, you needed a total of 4,094 ancestors over the last 400 years.  Think for a moment—How many struggles?  How many battles?  How many difficulties?  How much sadness?  How much happiness?  How many love stories?  How many expressions of hope for the future?—did your ancestors have to undergo for you to exist in this present moment…”

Some of my cousins connected me to a website called Family Search.  I’m not nearly as involved in exploring our family tree as some of them, but I do find it interesting to trace things back a few generations.  I’ve become curious about the lives of these people to whom I am directly related.  I’ve heard bits and snatches of some of their stories, but I know nothing at all about most of them.  I’ve been surprised by all the surnames that I didn’t know even though their DNA is part of me and their story is part of my story.  Beckham, I know, of course.  But there is  also Curtis, Casey, Owen, Whitely, Moody, Maynard, Wayne, Stapleton, Lawrence, Malmgren, Davidson, Larm, Carlson, Andersdotter, Flykt…  The names take me on a journey not only back in time but to other parts of the continent and other parts of the world.   I have inherited something, however small, from each of them.  

As I thought about all of this, I realized two things.  First, the universe, and Christ who is in, with, and under everything the universe does, has worked long and hard to bring us here.  All the generations before us with all their struggles and all their joys have brought us, you and me, to this place and this time.  That’s got to mean something.  And if it doesn’t mean anything existentially in and of itself, then we can bring meaning to it.  We can bring love to it.  We can see the moment and we can love the moment.  And we can love each other in the moment.  We can love God in the moment.  That’s part of what being the Beloved Community is all about: honoring the moment and honoring everything it took to bring us here.

And that brings me to the second thing I realized.  We have inherited our faith, too.  Whether you grew up in a home where faith in Christ was part of the atmosphere or whether you came to faith in Christ in some other circumstances in some other context, by some unexpected path, faith was handed down to you by others.  It was a gift of grace.  It has been passed down to us in a steady succession of believers all the way back to the apostles.  “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received,” wrote St. Paul to the saints in Corinth (1 Cor 15:3),  and they in turn handed it on to their children and their friends.  And so on through the ages.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,  looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)   But first, let’s take a moment to appreciate all those who have given us this moment.

A Tale of Two Daughters

Mark 5:21-43

In her book The Dream of God, Verna Dozier writes,  “The important question to ask is not, ‘What do you believe?’ but ‘What difference does it make that you believe?’ Does the world come nearer to the dream of God because of what you believe?”

In today’s Gospel lesson we have a dramatic story of two desperate people from very different circumstances who acted in faith.  They reached out to Jesus because they believed he could help them.  Both of them act on their desperate hopes in public, and take significant risks in doing so, but to understand what’s at stake for them, we need to understand more about two important dynamics in  their culture.  

Ancient Palestine, like most of the ancient world, operated socially as what cultural anthropologists call an “honor culture.”  Sometimes it’s called an “honor/shame” culture.”  This was a highly formal system based on one’s status in society.  Your position and place in society determined with whom you could associate and how you could speak and interact with them.  Male roles and female roles were governed by rigid boundaries and those boundaries were strictly observed.  Shame was the tool that was used to enforce those boundaries.   A person’s reputation and status were vitally important.  One could quite literally take them to the bank,  and if you had any kind of status and reputation at all you were always careful not to do anything to risk your standing in the community.

The other dynamic that’s important in this Gospel lesson is the concept of “clean and unclean” as it was defined by Levitical law in Torah.  I think after 15 months of “social distancing” and Covid-19 precautions we might understand this one a little better than we did in the past.

Most common things were assumed to be “clean” but there were a number of ways to become “unclean.”  Any scaly skin condition made one unclean.  Psoriasis, for instance.  Any discharge of bodily fluids, including menstruation, made one unclean.  Touching a non-kosher animal, touching a dead animal or touching a human corpse made one unclean.  Touching a clay pot that had been touched by an unclean person could make you unclean.  Touching a garment worn by an unclean person could make you unclean.  Unclean was contagious.  So persons who were unclean were isolated.  And persons who were long-term unclean, such as lepers or the hemorrhaging woman in today’s Gospel story, were outcast—they were forbidden to put themselves in any kind of situation where they might “contaminate” others.  

So now with all of that as background, maybe we can begin to see that these two stories, especially as Mark has woven them together, would have been absolutely shocking to those who were originally reading or hearing them.

The two main characters could not be more different, in fact, they stand in sharp contrast to each other.  Jairus is male, wealthy, president of the synagogue.  He is at the top of the “honor” ladder.  For what it is worth, he is one of the few characters other than the disciples who is named in Mark’s gospel.  The hemorrhaging woman is female, impoverished, excluded from the synagogue because of her condition.  She is anonymous. 

But both of them break rules and cross boundaries because they are desperate and they believe Jesus can help them.

When Jairus saw Jesus, he fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”  Remember those rules of honor culture and social standing?  A man in Jairus position would be expected to bow deeply to Jesus when making a request if he regarded Jesus as an equal.  With the whole crowd looking on, Jairus falls at Jesus’ feet and begs repeatedly for Jesus to come heal his daughter.  In doing this, he puts all his social currency on the line.  If things don’t go well, the crowd will remember how he put his dignity aside and shamed himself.  

For the hemorrhaging woman, it’s another story altogether.  She’s trying to remain invisible, blending into the crowd.  She’s not supposed to be there at all.  But after twelve years of being an outcast, after losing all her money to quack physicians who only made things worse, she had nothing left to lose.  You can imagine her thinking here:  “If touching my clothes can make someone unclean, maybe touching Jesus’ clothes can heal me.”  So she reached out as Jesus was passing by and touched his cloak.

Can you imagine how Jairus feels, what Jairus is thinking, when Jesus suddenly stops.  They’re on the way to his house so Jesus can heal his daughter.  “My little daughter,” he had called her, a term of endearment and affection.  My baby girl.  Time is of the essence.  She is “at the point of death.”  And now, suddenly, Jesus stops and says, “Who touched my clothes?” 

Poor Jairus has got to be going out of his mind.  He must be getting frantic.  He’s got to be thinking what the disciples are saying: “Look at the crowd pressing in on you.  Who didn’t touch you?”  

But Jesus knew that this touch was different.  This touch had faith in it.  And desire.  And hope.  And longing.  And Jesus isn’t taking another step until he knows who it was who reached out to him with all that in her heart. 

“The woman, knowing what had happened to her, came to him with fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.”  

Fear and trembling.  Even if she were whole and healthy, it was inappropriate in their culture for her to touch him.  As it was, in her condition, it had been a flagrant violation of the Torah.  Would he rebuke her?  Would he somehow revoke her healing?  Would Jairus, the president of the synagogue demand that she be punished? Would the crowd become indignant and drag her off and stone her?  

Jesus said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” 

He called her daughter.  He gave her status and identity.  She would forever be the one Jesus had called daughter.  A daughter of Israel.  A daughter of the kingdom.  A daughter of Jesus.  He told her to go in peace—a word not just to her, but to the crowd in case they had any ideas about punishing her.  He protected her with a word of peace, a safe passage.  He commended her faith and reaffirmed that she was healed.  He returned her to wholeness.  He returned her to community.

And that’s when the bottom fell out of Jairus’ world.  While Jesus was still speaking, some people came from his house to tell him that his daughter had died and there was no point in troubling the teacher any further.  I wonder what he thought, then, when Jesus turned to him and said, “Do not fear, only believe.”  Did he still believe at that point that Jesus could save his little daughter?

When they got to Jairus’ house all the wailing and weeping and noise of Palestinian mourning was already in progress, and when Jesus asked, “Why are you weeping and making all this noise?  She’s not dead, only sleeping,” they laughed at him.  But he shooed them all outside then took Jairus and the child’s mother in to where the child was laid on her bed.  

He took her hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means.  “Little girl, get up!”  And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about. And they were overcome with amazement.

There are all kinds of boundaries that are crossed in these two stories.  All kinds of rules that are broken.  All kinds of traditions that are ignored.

Jesus is on his way to help an important person from the top rung of the social ladder with a life-and-death emergency, but he stops to help a “nobody” who has been removed from the social ladder entirely.  

The hemorrhaging woman touched him, making him unclean.  But he ignores this law and restores her to health, restores her cleanness, and protects her with a word of peace. 

When he takes the dead girls’ hand, he is technically unclean yet again.  Yet again he ignores the whole clean/unclean business.

Jesus is teaching his disciples and teaching us that sometimes for the sake of healing, for the sake of compassion, for the sake of simply doing the right thing, boundaries have to be crossed, traditions have to be ignored, and laws may even have to be broken.  When faith reaches out in hope asking for help, then we do what we have to do, following the example of Jesus.

And that brings us back around to Verna Dozier’s question: “The important question to ask is not, ‘What do you believe?’ but ‘What difference does it make that you believe?’ Does the world come nearer to the dream of God because of what you believe?”

Is your faith moving you to do what needs to be done for those who are reaching out in hope and asking for help, even if it means  you have to cross some boundaries?

Cross to the Other Side

Mark 4:35-41

  On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Welcome back!  Welcome back to the world!  Welcome back to gathering together!  Welcome back to seeing each other’s faces without masks—well in most cases anyway. Welcome back to church in church!  Welcome back to life as almost normal.  Almost.  

I think today’s Gospel lesson from Mark is a good one for us to think about as we sail into a new reality.  And let’s face it, we’re not going to simply sail back into our old reality.  Too much has changed in the past 15 months.  

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus and his disciples set out in the evening, of all things, to sail across the Sea of Galilee.  A great windstorm blows up and the boat is being swamped.  We know it’s a serious storm because even the fishermen who are out on this water all the time are frightened. Through all of this, Jesus is sleeping soundly on a cushion in the stern of the boat. Finally, the disciples cry out, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?!?” At that point, Jesus gets up, rebukes the storm, the sea becomes dead calm, and the disciples are left wondering just who Jesus is, now that they’ve seen this new dimension of his power and abilities.

When we read or hear these stories, these episodes from the life and ministry of Jesus, it’s natural for us to ask ourselves, “Okay, what does that mean for me or for us?”  Yes, we’re also supposed to try hear it in its original context if we’re able, but we also hope there’s something in the story that we can take home with us, some lesson that fits our lives right here and right now.  That’s why we do this little exercise with the Gospel every week.

With this particular story, it has been far too tempting for far too long to personalize it a little too much.  And I confess I’ve been as guilty as any preacher out there in doing this.  That message goes something like this:  “When storms arise in your life, just remember that Jesus is in the boat with you…even if he’s taking a nap at the moment.  He has the power to quiet the storm.  Maybe he’s asking you, ‘Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?’  Muster up some courage.  Maybe it’s your turn to stand up and tell your storm, ‘Peace!  Be still.’”  I have preached that sermon.

Listen, there are probably worse ways to go with this story.  We’ve all had moments in our lives when we’ve wanted to join the disciples in yelling, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re perishing?!?”  I know I’ve been there a few times.  But the fact is, there is something greater at stake in this story than a bromide to help us face our fears.  There is something greater at stake here not just for them in their time, but for us in our time.  But to know what that is, we have to range beyond the boundaries of these six verses.

From the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus has been announcing that the Kingdom of God is imminent.  Actually, imminent is not quite the right word.  The Greek word is engikken.  It’s often translated as “has come near,” but there is an even greater sense of immediacy in the word.  Think of it as a train coming into the station.  It’s not all the way into the station yet but the engine has already reached the edge of the platform.  That’s the sense of it.  The kingdom of God’s engine has already reached the platform.  Get ready to board.

Everything Jesus says and does in the Gospel of Mark is said and done to demonstrate the power and presence of this new reality he calls the kingdom of God.  He is not just telling people about the kingdom, he is showing them what it looks like and how it acts.  When Jesus calls the disciples, he is recruiting them to build a new community, a Beloved Community, based on the ideals and principles of “The Way,” which is another name Mark uses for the kingdom of God.  

Another thing to understand about the Gospel of Mark is that everything that happens in the Gospel is heavily weighted with myth and symbolism.  That’s not to say that the events in the Gospel didn’t happen, but that it is important to pay attention to how Mark is describing and using them as he tells the story of Jesus, and what kind of language he is using.  We need to ask questions.  What other scriptural connections does he make—or expect us to be making?  What apocalyptic expectations and understandings are at  work in their culture?  What mythic stories are at work in the background as he tells the story of Jesus?  What cultural boundaries and expectations are being crossed?  If we don’t catch all these clues, then we might not get the point Mark is trying to make. We’ll get some other point instead.

When we see the disciples and Jesus set off from the shore in a boat in the evening, Mark wants us to be nervous.  We’re supposed to remember that in their mythic understanding the sea is the home of Chaos and Destruction.  Dread, unpredictable, cosmic forces hide in its depths and the only thing that could tame it at creation was the Spirit of God hovering over it.  That they are setting out as night falls with the intention of crossing all the way to the other side—well, if we were Mark’s first readers or listeners we would know they’re heading for trouble.

As the story unfolds, Mark assumes that somewhere in the back of our minds we are maybe remembering Psalm 107: “Some went down into the sea in boats…then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves were hushed.” (107:23,39)  When we read that Jesus was asleep on a cushion in the stern of the boat, Mark wants us to remember how Jonah slept as his boat was about to break up in a mighty tempest. (Jonah 1:4, 10).  Mark puts all these things together so that we will understand that this storm that the disciples face out there on the sea of Chaos is not just a metaphor for the troubles of life.  This is a Cosmic storm.  They are pitted against cosmic forces.  Some great elemental power wants very much to keep them from getting to the other side of the lake.  But what?  And why?

To understand that, it’s important to understand why Jesus wanted to cross the lake in the first place.  

The Sea of Galilee, was also called Lake Gennesaret or Lake Tiberias.  It depended on who was talking about it.  It served as a clear geographic boundary between the territories of Philip and Agrippa in the tetrarchy when the Emperor Augustus divided up the region between the sons of Herod the Great, and it continued to serve as a clear social boundary between the Jews of Galilee on the south side and the Hellenized Jews and Gentiles of various nationalities of the Decapolis on the north side. 

Why did Jesus want to go to the other side of the lake?  Quite simply because that’s where the gentiles were.  

Jesus was fighting racism.  He wanted his new kingdom community to embrace everyone—Jew, Gentile, people of all nationalities and types.  People who had differences in how they worshipped. So he took his mission of healing and exorcism and teaching across the sea to invite them to be part of “the way.” He also wanted to teach his disciples that in the kingdom of God there simply is no room for such nonsense as racial division or historical division or anything like that.  In the kingdom of God no one can call anyone else “unclean.”  

That storm that rose up against them was symbolic of all the storms that rise up to resist our attempts at reconciliation and renewal.  It was the elemental, cosmic something in our world that wants to resist healing and unifying humanity.  And I want you to notice something here.  The words that Jesus speaks to that storm are the words of exorcism.  Most of our translations make those words prettier than they actually are, but they are the same words that Jesus speaks when he casts out the demon in Mark 1:25.  “Peace.  Be still.”  Sure.  But the full force of the words is more like “Silence!  Shut up!  I muzzle you!”  

Maybe  this is how we need to speak to racism.  Maybe this is how we need to speak to the forces that try to dissuade and discourage us from reaching out to each other to make new bonds of friendship.  Maybe this is how we need to speak to those voices who keep dragging up tradition and history as reasons to preserve symbols of hatred and violence in public display.  Maybe this is the plain kind of speech we need to use with those who continue to pursue paths that have done nothing but separate us and poison us against each other.  Maybe instead of trying to be reasonable and persuasive against such divisive winds it’s time to simply say, “Silence!  I muzzle you. I will not let you speak hate.  I will not let you keep us from getting to the other shore.  I will not let you stop us from building the Beloved Community.”

We have had fifteen months to sit apart and consider all the things that are dividing us.  We have had fifteen months to witness as 600,000 people have died from a disease that could have been curtailed much more easily and much earlier if we had been more  unified.  We have had 15 months to watch as unreasonable political forces have assaulted the foundations of our democracy and truth, itself.  We have had 15 months to see racial tensions repeatedly exacerbated by hate and violence and unfortunate systemic conditioning.  We have had fifteen months to sit apart in our homes and miss each other and think about what it means to be friends, to be church, to be disciples of Jesus, to be people of The Way.  

And now the doors are open.  We’re back together.  We get to be “us” again.  But there are people “not like us” across the road, across town, across the lake.  And Jesus is saying, “Let’s go across to the other side.”  So how about it?  Shall we take this boat out for a ride?

Scattering Seeds

Mark 4:26-34

With what can we compare the kingdom of God…  

What do you think of when you hear or read that phrase: the kingdom of God?  I think it’s hard for us to really grasp what Jesus was talking about when he talked about the kingdom of God not only because he described it in metaphors and parables, but because a kingdom, itself, is a thing entirely outside of our experience for almost all of us.

Most of us think of kingdoms in terms of physical territory, but clearly Jesus is talking about something that transcends mere physical boundaries.  Kingdom can also mean a sphere of authority or rule, and that might be closer to what Jesus is getting at.  The rule of God.  The authority of God.  But most of us can’t relate too well to that because we have never lived under the authority of a monarch or a lord or a master.  And those monarchies that are still active in our world are either almost entirely symbolic or wildly dysfunctional or utterly despotic, and I don’t think we want to attribute any of those qualities to God.

Also, words like authority and rule can have a coercive edge to them, and the kingdom, as Jesus describes it, seems to be much more about influence, persuasion and cooperation.  It’s more organic.  It’s something that grows in us and around us and among us.  I have often used the phrase “kin-dom of God” for that reason—to try to capture some of the cooperative, love-based nature of God’s sovereign rule as Jesus describes it in the beatitudes and parables, and I think that might be more in the right direction.  Maybe.  But it’s also important to remember that the kingdom of God is not a democracy.  God is sovereign.  God’s rule is absolute.  Fortunately for us, so is God’s love, and that love is the very fabric of this thing Jesus is trying to describe as “the kingdom of God.”  The kin-dom of God.

When Jesus told these parables, and thirty-some years later when Mark wrote them down, trouble was brewing in Galilee and Judah and pretty much throughout all of Palestine.  Landowners were putting pressure on tenant farmers for rents they could barely pay.  Scribes from the temple in Jerusalem were demanding a crushing and complex levy of tithes from those same farmers.  Herod Antipas was demanding taxes from the landowners because Rome was demanding taxes from him.  Unemployment was high.  Bandits roamed the highways.  Soldiers patrolled everywhere.  Rome’s colonial government was heavy-handed and oppressive.  People wanted a heavenly anointed messiah to step in and fix things before they exploded—or maybe to light the fuse. It’s no wonder that the disciples kept asking Jesus, “Is this the time when you will bring in the kingdom?”

Jesus kept trying to tell them and all the crowds following him, “No, the kingdom of God is not like that.  It’s not what you’re thinking.  It won’t do any good to simply replace one coercive external system with another one even if the ruler is God!”  

The change has to be internal.  It has to be organic.  Seeds have to be planted.  Human hearts and minds have to be changed. It’s not about imposing a new kind of law and order.  It’s about implanting a new kind of love and respect.  That’s what will fix the world.

“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.”

For generations we had a family farm in Kansas—my  mother’s family farm—where we grew winter wheat.  Winter wheat is planted in late September or early October, depending on the weather.  Not long after it’s planted, it starts to sprout.    Beautiful little shoots that look like blades of grass start to poke their heads up out of the soil.  And then just as they’re getting started, the cold hits them.  And it looks like it’s killed them.  They slump back down to the dirt and go dormant, and they’ll just lie there all through the winter.  The ground will freeze.  Snow will drift and blanket over them.  And there’s nothing you can do.  All winter long you go about your business.  You sleep and rise night and day.  And then you get up one spring morning and notice that the weather is a bit warmer, and the snow is patchy or mostly gone, and you look out the window to see that you suddenly have a field full of beautiful green wheat starting to rise from the earth.  It’s an amazing thing to see, and if you have half a sense of wonder, you thank God for the natural everyday miracle of it and marvel at it for at least a moment before you get on with your work.  

The kingdom of God is like that, says Jesus.  It is seeds, scattered on the earth.  Seeds of ideas and vison. And sometimes it looks like they’ve died.  Or been crushed.  Or been frozen out or buried.  Or simply forgotten.  But they’re there, just waiting for their moment.  

The kingdom of God is seeds of ideas and vision and understanding.  They are ideas about fairness and justice and cooperation.  They are an understanding about fuller and more generous ways to love each other and take care of each other.  The kingdom is a resolve to make a world that is healthier for everyone.  It’s a resolution to embrace God’s vision for how the world is supposed to work—a world where everyone is housed and everyone is fed and everyone can learn and everyone is safe and everyone is free to be their true self.  The kingdom is a determination to repair the damage we’ve done and restore creation so that we and all the creatures who share this world with us can breathe clean air and have clean water.

The kingdom of God, the rule of God, the reign of God, the kin-dom of God is a commitment to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with God and with each other.  It is a continual correction of our vision so we keep learning how to see the image and likeness of God in each other—in each and every face we face so that racism and classism and every other kind of ism evaporate from the earth.  It is the seed of courage taking root in our hearts and minds so that we learn not to be afraid of something or someone simply because it or they are different from us or from what we know or what we expect or what we are used to.

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?,” said Jesus.  “It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

The mustard seed!  That tiny seed that produces the most egalitarian, most democratic of plants!  That’s what the kingdom is like.  It shares itself and all it has most freely.  Given half a chance it spreads itself everywhere.  The mustard plant doesn’t care if you are rich or poor.  You don’t have to buy one.  It will come to you and give you and your family food and medicine and spices for your cuisine and healing oils for what ails you.  A most amazing, versatile and humble plant.  And it starts with such a small seed.

The kingdom of God is the planting of seeds. The seeds don’t have to be eloquent preaching or brilliant explanations of theology—probably better if they’re not.  “Preach the gospel at all times,” said St. Francis. “When necessary, use words.”  At a time when the city of Assisi was a rough and dangerous place, he would walk through the town from the top of the hill to the bottom and say as he went, “Good morning, good people!”  When he got to the bottom of the hill he would say to the brother who accompanied him, “There.  I have preached my sermon.”  He planted a seed—the reminder that the day was good and that they had it in them to be good people.

The seeds of the kingdom may be little acts of habit, like bowing your head for a moment to say grace before a meal in a restaurant, even if you don’t say it out loud.  That simple thing might remind those around you to pause, to be thankful, to remember all the connections that bring food to our tables, to remember the goodness of the earth, to remember the presence of God.

The seeds of the kingdom might be small acts of kindness.  When Oscar Wilde was being brought down to court for his trial, feeling more alone and abandoned than he had ever felt in his life, he looked up and saw an old acquaintance in the crowd.  “He performed an action so sweet and simple that it has remained with me ever since,” wrote Wilde. “He simply raised his hat to me and gave me the kindest smile that I have ever received as I passed by, handcuffed and with bowed head. Men have gone to heaven for smaller things than that. It was in this spirit, and with this mode of love, that the saints knelt down to wash the feet of the poor, or stooped to kiss the leper on the cheek. I have never said one single word to him about what he did … I store it in the treasure-house of my heart … That small bit of kindness brought me out of the bitterness of lonely exile into harmony with the wounded, broken, and great heart of the world.”

The seeds of the kingdom might be a word of affirmation and encouragement when it’s needed most.  Helen Mrsola was teaching ninth graders new math years ago.  They were struggling with it.  The atmosphere in the classroom was becoming more tense and irritable every day.  So one Friday afternoon Helen decided to take a break from the lesson plan.  She told her students to write down the name of each of their classmates on a piece of paper, then to also write down something nice about that student.  She collected the papers, and over the weekend Helen compiled a list for each student of what the other students had written. On Monday, she gave each student a paper with list of what the other students liked about them.  The atmosphere in the class changed instantly; her students were smiling again. Helen overheard one student whisper, “I never knew that I meant anything to anyone!” 

Years later, a number of the students, all young adults now, found themselves together again at a school function.  One of them came up to Helen and said, “I have something to show you.”  He opened his wallet and carefully pulled out two worn pieces of notebook paper that had obviously been opened and folded and taped many times.  It was the list of things his classmates liked about him.  “I keep mine in my desk at work,” said another classmate.  Another classmate pulled hers out of her purse, saying she carried it with her everywhere she went.  Still another had placed his in his wedding album.

The kingdom of God.  The rule of God.  The reign of God.  The kin-dom of God.

To what shall we compare it?

It’s like seeds scattered on the earth, says Jesus.  It’s like mustard seeds.  Seeds of righteousness.  Seeds of justice. Seeds of vision.  Seeds of kindness.  Seeds of help.  Seeds of hope.  Seeds of mercy.  Seeds of peace.  Seeds of affirmation.  Seeds of goodness.  Seeds of love.  

You don’t know how they grow.  But they do.

On earth as in heaven.

Dear Nicodemus

John 3:1-17

Dear Nicodemus,

I owe you an apology.  I confess that I have not always held you in very high esteem.  The fact is, in the past I thought you were—how to say this?—too cautious and, well, more than a little timid—and, if I’m being really honest, I sometimes thought that you were not the sharpest quill in the inkwell.  I’m sorry I was so quick to judge you.  I confess I hadn’t really read the story from your point of view. 

I realize now, Nicodemus, that it was actually very brave of you to seek out Jesus that night when you two sat down to talk.  Nothing timid about it.  Some people think you came at night just because you didn’t want to be seen talking to the “enemy.”   That’s the frame a lot of people put around your meeting with Jesus.  They see the antagonism and contempt that some of your fellow Pharisees had for Jesus—but to be fair, he gave as good as he got, better really—anyway, people see that enmity in his back-and-forth with your fellow Pharisees, so they assume that you came to that meeting that night with a little malice and a big agenda.   

I hadn’t really thought about it before, Nicodemus, but I can see now how much was at stake for you.  John says that you were an archon, a leader or ruler of the people.  And the language he uses indicates that you were a most highly respected teacher among your people.  Plus you were wealthy.  You had standing in your community as a righteous man, blessed by God.  You had a big reputation to protect, and you were putting all that at risk in order to have a meeting of the minds with a man who many of your community regarded as a troublemaker.  That could have badly tarnished your reputation, and I admire you for putting that concern aside so you could have an honest, personal discussion with Jesus, rabbi to rabbi.

Having said all that, I realize now that you probably came at night simply to avoid the crowds.  I see now that what you wanted was a real conversation with someone who cared deeply about the same things you cared about.

Some have said that your coming at night was symbolic.  They see you as a caricature of  “those who walk in darkness.”  That idea makes a certain kind of sense based on the ways that John’s gospel uses the themes of light and darkness.  But since you came to Jesus, who later calls himself “the light of the world,”  wouldn’t it make more sense to see you as someone who was moving out of darkness and into the light?  You remind us that faith is a process.  Understanding unfolds by degrees.  Too often we forget that.

I’ve also been thinking, Nicodemus, about that first thing you said to Jesus when you sat down to talk:  “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.”  It’s kind of sad, really, but in our time and our culture, when someone greets you with flattery like that, our first impulse is to hold onto our wallets.  But I’ve come to think you were really in earnest when you said it.  You showed him such respect, calling him rabbi and acknowledging not just the powerful things he had done, but the source of that power.  You acknowledged his relationship with the one he called Father, though you couldn’t possibly have understood the true nature of that relationship.  

But then, who does?  Oh, we have no shortage of doctrinal formulas and illustrations to describe that relationship—relationships, really, because the Holy Spirit is part of that eternal dance of love we call the Trinity.  But when you get right down to it, who can really understand the relationship between the Maker, the Christ and the Spirit?  We recite the illustrations and restate the formulas and then think that because we found some language to corral it, we understand that mystic communion of love that is God.  Our language, itself, betrays our lack of real understanding.  In naming them Father, Son, and Spirit, we insert a separateness between them and ascribe roles. That is the antithesis of their relationship, their existence, their being, where they cannot and will not be separate.  As Frederick Buechner said, they are the Mystery beyond us, the Mystery within us, and the Mystery among us—and it’s all one deep and eternal Mystery that gives us life.  The best we can do is enter the Mystery and experience it—and understand that we will never completely understand.  Saint Augustine said that it’s like trying to pour the ocean into a seashell.  

Speaking of understanding, I now understand that I have greatly misunderstood your conversation with Jesus.  When I dug a little deeper, did a little more homework, I came to realize that the dialogue between you two was typical of the way rabbis talked to each other and mulled over ideas in your time.  I didn’t realize before that you were actually inviting Jesus to elaborate more on “being born from above” when you asked, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”  You gave the obvious “dunce” response to Jesus so that he had a reason to go deeper into what he was teaching.  It was a rhetorical device.  You are far from a dunce, Nicodemus.  I may be wrong, but your dialogue with Jesus now sounds to me like you and he were using a familiar and respected rabbinic method to engage in a kind of team teaching for the disciples.  And you, with grace and humility, played the role of the “not so bright” student.  

Even when Jesus says, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things,”  it reads to me now as if he’s using you as a foil, and you great teacher that you are, you graciously play along.  You help him make the point to those gathered around and listening, that these are not simple, easy concepts to grasp, these things that you two are discussing.  Even a “great teacher of Israel” has to wrestle these ideas.  You help him spur the other listeners into thinking more deeply and opening their minds and hearts more fully to the Mystery of God in, with, under and around them.  You give them permission to have questions.

If you’re wondering why I’ve reassessed my opinion of you, Nicodemus, it’s because I took a good look at the two other times you are mentioned in John’s gospel, particularly that time in chapter 7 when the other Pharisees in the Sanhedrin are upset with the temple police for not arresting Jesus.  They throw shade on him because he’s from Galilee, which is just pure prejudice.  They say he should be arrested for misleading the people because “he does not know the law.”  But you stood up for him, and with perfect irony said, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”  That one cost you, I know.  Somebody in that group tried to throw shade on you, too, when he said, “Oh are you from Galilee, too?  Nobody’s ever heard of a prophet coming from Galilee.”  But I think you were maybe beginning to suspect that he really was a prophet, and maybe something more than a prophet.  Even if he was from Galilee.

And then there’s that other thing you did—that beautiful, generous, heart breaking thing.  You were there when he was crucified.  When his disciples had deserted him, you stayed.  Right there at the foot of the cross.  And when you and Joseph of Arimathea took his body down from the cross, you brought a mixture of myrrh and spices—a hundred pounds of myrrh and spices—to prepare his body for a decent burial even though the scriptures said he was cursed for hanging on a tree.  Some have said that in preparing his body you were betraying that you didn’t really believe what he had said about resurrection.  Well if that’s the case it’s no shame on you.  Nobody else believed it either.  Not then, anyway.

No…that was an extravagant act of deep respect, one teacher for another.  That was an act of love.  And that is why, Nicodemus, I have had to revisit what I thought about you.  I realized that you were a person of profound integrity and generosity of spirit.  I realized that you were a righteous man.  I realized that I had no right to judge you to begin with.  

So please forgive me, Nicodemus.  And please know, teacher of Israel, that you have taught me a great deal.

With Us All Along

It’s hard to believe that we’ve already come to the season of Pentecost.  In one way, of course, we live in Pentecost, inspired and sustained by the Holy Spirit.  But if you’re like me, maybe you don’t think about the Spirit in particular as often as, say, you think about Jesus.  

We’ve all seen countless depictions of Jesus, and even though all of those pictures are merely artist’s conceptions (since we don’t really know what he looked like), it’s easier to picture him in our minds when we talk to him in prayer because our brains already have some images to work with.  The Spirit, on the other hand, is…spirit.  We have symbols for the Spirit, but they are just that: symbolic.  We know the Spirit is not a dove (or a wild goose if you’re Celtic).  Those symbols can call the Holy Spirit to mind, but they’re not always helpful to hold in our imaginations as we pray.  The Spirit is like the wind or breath, but that’s kind of hard to picture and personalize when it’s prayer time.  And that’s a bit unfortunate because she’s the one who is nudging us to pray in the first place.

Some people don’t like it when they hear or see the Holy Spirit referred to as “she.”  There are good reasons, though, to use the feminine pronoun when referring to the Spirit.  Genesis 1:27 tells us that God created humanity in God’s own image, male and female.  So there is a strong suggestion there of a feminine presence in the Trinity.  The Hebrew word for spirit, ruach, is a feminine word, so in Genesis when the wind or Spirit hovers of the waters it’s that feminine voice bringing order out of Chaos.  The Spirit also appears in the Tanakh (Old Testament) as Sophia, Wisdom, a feminine name with feminine pronouns.  And we must not forget Shekinah, the powerful, shining presence of God which settles on the prophets and sometime upon the people.  Shekinah appears numerous places in the Tanakh.  The word Shekinah is feminine, and the presence has always been understood as presenting a feminine aspect of God.  So if it helps you to mentally visualize who you’re praying to when you pray to the Holy Spirit, maybe you could imagine her as a feminine personage composed of wind and light and the flames of Pentecost.

Or you could learn to experience her presence in other ways, because she comes to us in limitless ways and forms.  That’s the advantage of being Spirit.

The other day I was struggling to write my sermon for Pentecost.  My thoughts were all over the place and I had a serious case of Writer’s Block.  I had pages of notes but no central idea was pulling them all together.  I sat at my computer here in the guest bedroom that has become my home office and stared blankly out the window, not really seeing anything.  In frustration, I offered up a little prayer.  “Okay, Holy Spirit, how about a little help here?”  

At that moment the light shifted outside the window and movement caught my eye.  The layer of overcast had parted and bright sunlight was flooding down on the trumpet vines on the fence outside the window.  The bright, almost garish vermillion flowers with their yellow throats were suddenly dancing in the breeze, raising their trumpet faces to the sun against the backdrop of deep green leaves, and I could almost hear them singing a song of praise: “Life! Life! Life in all its fullness!” 

I felt immersed in the presence of God, Shekinah, as I watched the wind, ruach, playing with the flowers and vines, shaking them to get my attention.  And the Sophia of God, Wisdom, spoke to my heart and head, telling me to rest and come back to the writing later.

Pentecost comes to us when we learn to see that the Holy Spirit has been with us all along.

Conspiring with God

When you think of all the things the disciples of Jesus saw and experienced in their three or so years with him—exorcisms, healings, calming of storms, raising people from the dead, and then his own crucifixion and resurrection—it’s a wonder they didn’t become unhinged.  Maybe they did a little.  I think it’s safe to say that conspiring with Jesus had fundamentally changed their understanding of reality.  They had seen things.

The Book of Acts tells us that Jesus stayed with his disciples for another 40 days after his resurrection, teaching them about the kingdom of God. He told them to stay in Jerusalem and wait for “the promise of the Father.”  “John baptized with water,” he said, “but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”  And was while he was saying all this “he was lifted up and a cloud took him from their sight.”  I wonder if they had any clue what was going to happen next.  Things were about to get even stranger.

On the sixth day of Sivan, seven weeks and one day after the Feast of Unleavened Bread, on the day of Shavuot, which the Hellenized Jews call Pentekosta, the streets of Jerusalem were filled with people from every tribe and nation, from the far reaches of the empire and beyond, some even from Cush, Iberia and Ethiopia, from Scythia and the Parthian Empire.  Jews and proselytes, curious gentiles and ambitious traders had come from everywhere to be in the Holy City for the festival of the first fruits of spring and to remember when God gave the Torah to Moses.  

The followers of Jesus were there, too.  They had stayed all together in one place, in one room, waiting as Jesus had instructed—waiting for a signal, praying for something to happen.  Suddenly the house was filled with a sound like a hurricane.  It filled the house and drove them to their feet while something that looked like tongues of fire danced between them until a flame seemed to alight on the head of each one of them.  They felt a presence swell up inside them and knew it was the Holy Spirit. 

They poured out into the street where they began to speak to the crowd in languages they had never learned, the Spirit speaking through them, proclaiming the love and grace of God as it had been made known to them in Jesus the Christ.  They spoke of God’s works of power through Jesus, his feeding of multitudes, his healings, his teaching.  They spoke of how he welcomed strangers and touched lepers.  They spoke of how he challenged the self-righteous and embraced the neglected.

On the day of Shavuot, the Festival of Harvest which was also called Pentekosta, the day on which Moses had been give the Law, the Holy Spirit began to spread the good news of the Reign of God through Jesus, the Christ, across the empire of Caesar and beyond.  That day, that Pentecost, was the birthday of the church.  We sometimes think of it as the day that the Holy Spirit entered the story, but the Spirit had been part of the story from before the beginning.

When Jesus was baptized, the Spirit descended upon him in the form of a dove.  That’s why the Spirit is usually depicted as a dove.  In Celtic Christianity, though, the Spirit is often portrayed as a wild goose.  

When you think about a dove, you think of something graceful and gentle and sweet.  It’s easy to ignore a dove.  Their cooing is soft and quiet.  It can lull you to sleep.  A wild goose, on the other hand, is a different bird altogether.  Geese are loud and intrusive.  They can be downright aggressive.  A goose will wake you right up.  There is no complacency with a wild goose.  If a goose wants you to move, it will find a way to move you.  A wild goose isn’t safe or tame, and neither is the Holy Spirit.  If the Spirit wants you to move, she will find a way to move you.  

The Holy Spirit is sometimes depicted as fire.  The Apostles experienced tongues of fire filling the room then resting on them.  The prophet Jeremiah said that when he tried to be silent the unspoken word of God, inspired by the Spirit, “is like a fire shut up in my bones.”  John the Baptist had told people, “I baptize you with water, but the one who is coming will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”  In 2 Timothy 1:6-7 we read, “I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you … for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”  

The Spirit is sometimes understood as wind or breath.  The Hebrew word for Spirit, ruach, also means breath or wind.  It’s the same with the Greek word for Spirit, pneuma; it also means wind or breath.  In the Genesis story of creation, it is the ruach of God—the breath of God or wind of God—the Spirit that hovers over the waters, bringing order out of chaos.  When the prophet Ezekiel had a vision of a valley full of dead and dry bones, it was the ruach breath of God that filled those bones with life.  In the Gospel of John, the resurrected Jesus surprised the disciples in the locked room where they are hiding then breathed on them—pneuma­­­­—and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  

The Spirit inspires us to envision God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven, and energizes us to work to make that transformation a reality.  The Spirit inspires our imaginations,  she gives us visions and dreams of the better world that God is calling us to build.  Our word “inspire” comes from the Latin word spirare, to breathe.  We breathe in the Holy Spirit, acknowledging that the life and power of God are in the very air we breathe.  We breathe in and call it inspiration.  When we die, we expire—ex (out of) spirare (breath)—we give up our breath, our spirit.  And in all of this, in all our life of faith, we are called to conspire with God. Conspire, con-spirare—to breathe with.  The Holy Spirit invites us to breathe as one with God, to change our understanding of reality, to learn to see the world through God’s eyes and love the world with God’s heart, to bless the world with God’s presence flowing through us.

It is by the Holy Spirit that we can say that Christ is in us and that we are in Christ.   It is the Holy Spirit who opens our hearts and opens our eyes to the presence of Christ in, with, and under everything.  It is the Holy Spirit who guides us to the future that God has envisioned for all of us.

When we conspire with God, the Spirit takes root in our lives to produce the fruit that builds and sustains community.  Love inspires us to invite and welcome others, to create a place of safety and comfort for them.  Goodness makes us trustworthy and moves us to treat others well.  Peace creates openness so that we can know each other more deeply.  Faithfulness ensures that we are deeply loyal to God and the Spirit’s calling.  Gentleness shows that we care for God’s creation, that we will treat each other, and animals, and creation, itself, with care and respect.  Joy keeps us from sinking into cynicism or bitterness.  It keeps our hope alive and flourishing.  Joy is a testimony to the presence of God within us and to our participation in the life of God.  Kindness, shows that we understand that we are all of the same kind—created in the likeness and image of God and that sometimes we all need a little help, some understanding, grace, and love.  Patience is the inspired virtue that shows that we understand that we are each learning and growing at a different pace and that life is teaching us different lessons.  Self-Control means that, with the Spirit’s help, I keep a rein on both my appetites and my temper.  It means I keep track of how well I’m doing at bringing love, goodness, peace, faithfulness, gentleness, joy, kindness, and patience—the fruit of the Spirit[1]—into the world around me.

We say sometimes—I’ve said it myself—that the church needs a new Pentecost, another outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  I think what we really need, though, is to revisit the ways that the Spirit is still alive and moving in our midst, and to open ourselves more fully to the wind and the fire.  We’ve been happy with the quiet cooing of the dove.  It has sustained us and calmed our anxieties.  I think, though, that it’s time to wake up the wild goose.  It’s time to rekindle the fire.

Symeon the New Theologian, writing in the late 10th or early 11th century said, “When you light a flame from a flame, it is the same flame that you receive.”  We’ve received that flame of the Spirit down through the centuries as it passed from one to another of us in our baptism.  That flame goes all the way back to the Apostles.  It’s the same flame that danced on their heads on that day of Shavuot so long ago.  It has been waiting to dance on our heads and in our hearts.  She[2] has been waiting to change our understanding of reality.  She has been waiting for us to conspire with God.


[1] Galatians 5:22

[2] I know that some object to using the feminine pronoun to identify the Holy Spirit, however, there is a long tradition of this which is rooted in both the original languages of the Bible and in theology.  In Genesis 1:27 we read that humanity was created in the image and likeness of God, “male and female he created them.”  The Hebrew word for Spirit, ruach, is a feminine word.  Another name for the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament is Wisdom—Sophia—another feminine name and word.  Then there is the Shekinah of God, another term for the Presence or Spirit of God which falls upon or rests upon the prophets and others.  Shekinah is not only a feminine word, but has always been understood to be a feminine aspect of God.  Pneuma the Greek word for Spirit, is gender neutral. 

image credit: ©2013, Hilary Ann Golden

When You Haven’t Got a Prayer (you really do)

John 17:6-19

“Prayer for many is like a foreign land,” said Robert McAfee Brown.  “When we go there, we go as tourists.  Like most tourists, we feel uncomfortable and out of place.  Like most tourists, we therefore move on before too long and go somewhere else.”

If you’ve ever felt even a little bit uncomfortable or awkward about praying, if you’ve ever felt like a “tourist in a foreign land” when you pray,  here in the 17th chapter of the Gospel of John, is an example of Jesus praying for his disciples that should make us all a lot more comfortable about our own prayer life.  Jesus is clearly praying from the heart here.  He knows the end is near.  There is a lot to say and not much time left to say it.  He prays for protection for these friends who have been his travel companions and students for three years and are heading into more difficulty than they can begin to imagine.  He prays for their unity.  That has to be comforting for them.  There is comfort here for us, too, especially as his request for protection and unity for his followers travels down through the ages to include us here and now.  But there is something else in this prayer that should make us more at ease in our own prayers.

Jesus rambles.  I mean no disrespect or sacrilege when I say that.  In this prayer, Jesus rambles.  We could, of course, ascribe that rambling to the writer of the Gospel.  But we can’t deny it.  In this wonderful, passionate, heartfelt prayer for the unity and protection of his disciples, Jesus rambles.  A bit.

I, for one, find that very comforting.  Because I ramble in my prayers.  Often.   I talk to God a lot, and it’s a rare blue day when I come into the conversation with all my thoughts completely organized.  I know people who do, but that’s just not my personality type.  

Over the years of my ministry I’ve been asked a number of times to teach a class or workshop on prayer.   I confess it always catches me by surprise.  Part of me wants to say, “How do you not know how to pray?”  But I realized years ago that a lot of people think there is a proper method for praying and they suspect they’re not doing it right.  Or they think that if they learn some secret formula for prayer they have a better chance of their prayers being answered the way they want them answered.  

Here’s the thing.  Prayer is not that complicated.   There really aren’t any secrets.

“Prayer is simply a two-way conversation with God.”  Billy Graham said that.  And since God doesn’t talk all that much, that means that you can simply share your thoughts with God.  That’s prayer.  You don’t have to kneel or fold your hands—although if it helps you pray to do that, then by all means do so.  

If you’re the kind of person who likes more structure than that, you can try the ACTS model for prayer.  A-C-T-S.  A for Adoration, C for Confession, T for Thanksgiving, S-for supplication.  Start by telling God all the wonderful things you’re seeing and experiencing and how much you love God for filling the world with such wonders.  When’s the last time you said, “I love you” to God?  You might be surprise at how much that simple act can change you.  So, Adoration.  Then do some introspection and Confess your mistakes and shortcomings.  You don’t have to beat yourself up.  Just acknowledge them.  Follow that by Thanking God for all the ways you’ve been blessed, all the ways you’ve been protected and cared for, for the food on your table, for, well, everything that makes your life livable.  “If the only prayer you ever say in your life is thank you, that will be enough,” said Meister Eckhart.  After you’ve said “thank you,” then you can ask for things.  That’s the time for Supplication. Unless it’s an emergency, of course.  If something is bleeding or broken—and that includes your heart—you can lead with supplication.

Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication.  ACTS.  The nice thing about this model is that it keeps you from leaping right into your conversation with God with your requests.  It keeps us from treating God like Santa Claus or a celestial vending machine.

The point of prayer, after all, is not to get things from God or keep giving God your wish list. Remember, Jesus told us, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask.” (Matthew 6:8)  The real point of prayer is to develop and deepen your relationship with God.  “Prayer is nothing else than being on terms of friendship with God,”  said St. Theresa of Avila.  Henri Nouwen said, “Prayer is the most concrete way to make our home in God.” “What if,” asked Richard Rohr, “what if instead of prayer, we used the word communing?  When you’re communing with someone, it isn’t long before you’re loving them.”

As for doing it right…there are as many ways to pray as there are people praying.  “Those who sing pray twice,” said Martin Luther.  So singing is an option.  So is dancing.  You can pray while walking.  You can pray while exercising.  Saint Ignatius said, “Bodily exercise, when it is well ordered, is also prayer and pleasing to our Lord.”  So there you go!  Pray while you’re at the gym!  

Back before I lost most of my hearing I used to lose myself  in improvising on my guitar and I would offer that time to God as a kind of prayer.  Kelsey Grammer said, “Prayer is when you talk to God.  Meditation is when you’re listening.  Playing the piano allows you to do both at the same time.”  I think most musicians have had that kind of experience.  There are times in music when you experience a  holy presence that goes beyond words.  You can experience that even when you’re just listening if you really immerse yourself in the music.

“The Glory of God is the human being fully alive;” said Saint Irenaeus, “the life of a human being is the vision of God.”  So if you’re singing or you’re dancing or riffing on your bagpipes, let that flow to the perichoresis of the ever-dancing Holy Trinity as a communion of Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication.  Let that activity speak for your heart and don’t worry about impressing God with churchy-sounding words and phrases.  “In prayer it is better to have a heart without words,” said Gandhi, “than words without heart.”  “The fewer the words, the better the prayer,” said  Martin Luther.

And don’t worry about whether you should address God as Father, or Jesus, or Spirit, or Lord.  It’s all one to the Three-in-One.  When you speak to one of them you speak to all three. 

Prayer is a powerful way to center yourself in difficult times.  Adolfo Perez Esquivel, the artist and sculptor who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980 for organizing and leading the opposition to Argentina’s military dictatorship said, “For me it is essential to have the inner peace and serenity of prayer in order to listen to the silence of God, which speaks to us, in our personal life and the history of our times, of the power of love.”  Such an extraordinary thing—to find through prayer the strength and resolve to love in the face of brutal opposition.  “Prayer,” said Myles Monroe, “is our invitation to God to intervene in the affairs of the world.”   “Prayer is not an old woman’s idle amusement,” said Gandhi.  “Properly understood and properly applied, it is the most potent instrument of action.”  “To clasp the hands in prayer,” said Karl Barth, “is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”

Prayer is a powerful tool for difficult times, and we tend to turn to it automatically in times of crisis. But we shouldn’t wait for a crisis to turn to God.  As I said at the beginning, the main purpose of prayer is to deepen and strengthen our relationship with God.  “The moment you wake up each morning, all your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals,” wrote C.S. Lewis.  “And the first job each morning consists in shoving it all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other, larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in.”  

That, in the end, is what prayer is all about:  letting that other, larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in.  And letting our lives flow more deeply into the life of God in whom we live, and move, and have our being.

Living in Love

John 15:9-17

In 1938, during the Great Depression, a group of doctors at Harvard Medical School began a long-term study to determine what factors contributed most to long-term health and well-being in men.  The Study of Adult Development has been going on for more than 80 years now.  Once selected, participants are followed for the rest of their lives.  They fill out a questionnaire every other year covering their physical and mental health, financial status, relationship status, and general level of happiness.  Every five years some of the men are selected at random for more in-depth study.  

Some of the findings in the study haven’t been all that surprising.  For instance, they’ve verified that alcoholism is destructive.  It has been the main cause of divorce among study participants and it strongly correlates with neurosis and depression.  So, no big surprise there.  But here’s one that is surprising:  financial success depends more on warm relationships than on intelligence. In fact “warm relationships” play a huge role in lifetime satisfaction, wealth, and well-being.

The warmth of the childhood relationship with the mother matters long into adulthood:

  • Men who had “warm” childhood relationships with their mothers earned considerably more per year than men whose mothers were uncaring.
  • Men who had poor childhood relationships with their mothers were much more likely to develop dementia when old.
  • Late in their professional lives, the men’s boyhood relationships with their mothers—but not with their fathers—were associated with effectiveness at work.

The warmth of childhood relationships with fathers correlated with:

  • Lower rates of adult anxiety.
  • Greater enjoyment of vacations.
  • Increased life satisfaction at age 75.

When George Vaillant, the current director of the study, was interviewed by The Atlantic, his main conclusion was that “warm relationships” throughout life had a greater positive influence on “life satisfaction” than anything else—greater than money, greater than achievement, greater than acquisition and accumulation of things.  Warm relationships were the greatest predictor of happiness.  By far.  “Put differently,” Vaillant says,  “The study shows happiness is love. Full stop.”[1]  When a Canadian broadcaster suggested that his statement was overly broad and sentimental, Vaillant looked down at his data then looked up and replied,  “The answer is L-O-V-E.”[2]

So Jackie DeShannon was right back in 1965 when she sang What the World Needs Now is Love, Sweet Love[3].  And the Beatles were right two years later when they sang All You Need is Love.  But Jesus said it first.  A long time before they did.

  “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you,” said Jesus.  “Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”

The word “love” here is agape which is a particular kind of love.  This isn’t a sentimental or emotional love, although it can develop into warm feelings.  But agape doesn’t start that way.  Agape is a decision.  It starts in the head before it moves to the heart.  Madeleine L’Engle described it this way:  “Agape love is…profound concern for the well-being of another, without any desire to control that other, to be thanked by that other, or to enjoy the process.”   Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people, or any qualities people possess.  It begins by loving others for their own sakes… Therefore, agape makes no distinction between friend and enemy; it is directed toward both. It is redemptive goodwill for all people.  It is a love that asks nothing in return.  It is an overflowing love…And when you rise to love on this level, you begin to love people not because they are likeable, but because God loves them.”   When Saint Paul writes that Love is patient and kind, that love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude,  that it doesn’t insist on its own way, that love it is not irritable or resentful, that it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth…when he writes that love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things,  when he writes that love never quits, he is describing agape.  

When Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you,” that’s the kind of love he is talking about.  Talk about a “warm relationship!”  Agape may start in the head as a decision, but how could you not have warm feelings for someone who loves you like that?  And how could you not develop a certain tenderness in your heart when you’ve decided to love someone that way?  You can’t help it.  Because when you love, you make yourself vulnerable.  That’s part of the decision.

“Abide in my love,” says Jesus.  Most of us don’t use the word “Abide” too often unless we’re huge fans of The Big Lebowski.  The Greek word that’s at work here is meno, which means to stay, to remain, to continue, to continue to exist.  It’s in the imperative form, so Jesus says it as a command.  “Continue to exist in my love.”  That puts a bit of a different spin on it, doesn’t it?

There are two ways to think about that.  One is that Jesus surrounds us with divine love and commands us to stay inside the parameters of that love as we act and interact with each other and the world.  This is something of the understanding Saint Paul has when he talks about being “in Christ.”  The other way to understand it is to see that our lives have been infused with the love of Jesus and we are now commanded to continue to regenerate that love for those around us.  Both understandings work and keep the love of God flowing.  And Jesus assures us that if we keep the commandment to love, we will continue to abide, to exist, within the love of God.

“I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” This statement always catches me by surprise.  I’ll be honest, I don’t usually think of Jesus as joyful.  You certainly don’t see him depicted that way very often in the gospels.  We see him arguing with scribes and Pharisees or impatient with his disciples when they’re being dense. Healing people, yes.  Casting out demons, there’s certainly something energetic about that. But joyful?  But when you think about it, these episodes of cranky Jesus that we see depicted are brief and they’re probably very much the exception rather than the rule.  We do see him dining with tax collectors and sinners.  Those were probably fun times.  He does tell the occasional joke—you know, a camel through the eye of a needle?  And joy would explain why huge crowds came to see him.  Joy is attractive.  It’s charismatic.

So Jesus commands us to continue to exist in his agape love so that his joy may be in us and so that our joy may be complete.  And then to make it crystal clear that he’s serious about this—joyfully serious—he makes love a commandment.  “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

As I have loved you.    

“No one has greater love than this,” continues Jesus, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  He’s referring to the cross here, of course, hinting at just how far he will go to demonstrate his agape love for all of us.  He will lay down his physical life.

But he might be referring to even more if we dive down below the surface.  The word that’s translated as “life” here is psyche.  It means living soul, inner self, mind.  It can also mean what we refer to as “ego.”  Richard Rohr has said that in order to learn how to fully and truly love we have to learn how to get our egos out of the way.  No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s ego for one’s friends.

“Authentic Christianity,” says Rohr, “is not so much a belief system as a life-and-death system that shows you how to give away your life, how to give away your love, and eventually how to give away your death.  Basically, how to give away—and in doing so, to connect with the world, with all other creatures, and with God…Here the primary language is unlearning, letting go, surrendering, serving others, and not the language of self-development—which often lurks behind our popular notions of salvation.[4]

Paul Tillich once wrote about meeting a Swedish woman who had spent time in a prison camp for giving aid and comfort to prisoners and orphans during World War I.  He found in her a personification of that “greater love.”  “It is a rare gift to meet a human being in whom love – this means God – is so overwhelmingly manifest,” he wrote. “It undercuts theological arrogance as well as pious isolation. It is more than justice and greater than faith or hope. It is the very presence of God in the form of a human being. For God is love. In every moment of genuine love we are dwelling in God and God in us.”

When you love with divine love, when you let divine love flow through you, you begin to love, as John Duns Scotus says, things in themselves, for themselves, and not for what they do for you.  That’s when you begin to love your spouse.  That’s when you begin to love your neighbors–when you start seeing them detached from you, what they do for you, or how they make you look, or what they can get for you.  It takes work to learn to love them in themselves, and for themselves, as living images of God.

When you love things and people in themselves, you are looking out at the world with the eyes of God.  When you look out from those eyes, you see that it’s not about you.  And you will see things that will give you joy.  Simple things will make you happy.

Reality will start giving you joy, inherently.  And you will start overcoming the gap between you and everything else.

Abide in Christ’s love.  Be a friend of Jesus.  Build those warm relationships in the world.  So that Christ’s joy may be in you.  And your joy may be complete.

Amen.

Prayers of Intercession – Easter 6B 

Growing in faith, lifted by hope, guided by love, and alive in the risen Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, we bring our prayers before God who promises to hear us and answer in steadfast love.

A brief silence

Loving God, you call us to be your fruit-bearing church.  Strengthen the bonds among all Christian churches.  Toda we pray for the Moravian Church, giving thanks for the life and witness of Nicolaus von Zinzendorf, renewer of the church and hymnwriter.  Hear us, O God.  Your mercy is great. 

Creating God, the earth praises you.  The seas roar and the hills sing for joy.  Fill the earth with your love so that by their song , all creatures of land and sea and sky, burrowing and soaring, may call us to join with them in praise.  Hear us, O God.  Your mercy is great.  

Faithful Savior, you conquer the world not with weapons but with undying love.  Plant your word in the hearts of the nations’ leaders and give them your Spirit, so that the peoples of the world may live in peace.  Hear us, O God.  Your mercy is great. 

Gracious God, as a loving mother comforts her child, you comfort us.  Bless mothers and mothering people in our lives.  Comfort those who miss their mothers, mothers who grieve, those who grieve because they cannot be mothers, and those who have never known a loving mother.  Your mercy is great.  

Caring Healer, you forget no one and accompany the lonely.  Be present with those who are sick or suffering.  Provide for those needing homes or medical care and point us towards life-changing responses to these needs in our own communities.  Be present with those who are sick or suffering.  We pray especially for  Lance Hailstone, for Donna’s grandson, Matthew Erickson, for Edie’s grandson, Harry Plummer as he recovers from a broken back, a punctured lung and a broken leg, we pray for Baby Arthur, the child of Candy’s friend, for Peggy Bockman, for Charley Hartwell, for Mike Engle,  for Janet Simms, for Vickie Gammar, for Jim Schoup, for Dianne Keil, Judi Mellow, Dee Perretta, Ranae Wright, for Sandy Nelson and for Bruce Chinn, for Lyn Hicks, and for all those on the Prayer Wall.  Reveal your power to heal and save.  Hear us, O God.  Your mercy is great. 

Gentle Redeemer, all who die in you abide in your presence forever.  We remember with thanksgiving those who shared your love throughout their lives.  Keep us united with them in lasting love.  In the hope of new life in Christ, we raise our prayers to you, trusting in your never-ending goodness and mercy, through Jesus Christ our Lord who taught us to pray…


[1] Stossel, Scott (May 2013). “What Makes Us Happy, Revisited: A new look at the famous Harvard study of what makes people thrive”The AtlanticArchived from the original on 7 June 2017. Retrieved 25 June 2017.

[2] CBC News Staff (31 July 2009). “Study proves Beatles right: All you need is love”Canadian Broadcasting CorporationArchived from the original on 26 April 2017. Retrieved 25 June 2017

[3] Written by Hal David and Burt Bacharach

[4] The Universal Christ, Richard Rohr (213-214; 219)