Free

Deuteronomy 18:15-20 | Psalm 111 | 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 | Mark 1:21-28

When I was at St. Paul’s, the Servant Leadership classes they offered enriched my spiritual growth and development. The classes taught and introduced me to ways of expressing my experiences that I didn’t get by attending church every Sunday. (It seems funny to me that we would think that an hour or so a week will give us all we need to make our joy complete, but I digress…) One of the classes was on Compassion, one of the main tenets of servant leadership. It was in this class that we talked about the effect we have on one another. If you’re like my husband, you think this is where I start sounding new age-y: we read about studies of coherence, how researchers quantify the feeling, the energy, the aura–if you will–that we put off ourselves and that we experience when we’re in the proximity of others. I’m pretty open-minded and tend to let my experience guide me. It seemed to me like we are measuring our heart rate, how calm we are, but still . . . that sense of presence extends beyond us, and  invites or distances others from ourselves. So when I talk about imagining being in the presence of Jesus and how compelling it must have been, I’m trying to imagine being in the presence of God made manifest, in the presence of holiness, in the presence of the imago dei–the image of God, that says, “This. This is who you are called to be. Beloved. At one with me.”

Coherence defined is “the quality of forming a unified whole.” In physics, coherence is “a fixed relationship between the phase of waves in a beam of radiation of a single frequency. Two beams of light are coherent when the phase difference between their waves is constant.” So in class when we focused on compassion, among other things, we talked about being coherent with ourselves and one another. If we want to feel at one with one another, in sync, we focus on recognizing suffering and not inflicting it ourselves: we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. As Christians, this looks like recognizing the lack of belovedness that’s present in the world around us, and we show love.

One of the greatest exercises we did in the class and that I’ve done in small groups many times since, is a compassion exercise of taking a moment of love and joy in my life, breathing it in and exhaling it, intentionally spreading it beyond myself until it expands to God beyond the cosmos . . . and bringing it back in to me, here and now. I think we often forget that we have a great capacity to make a difference in our world, near and far.

This matter of forgetting is of critical importance. In the Jewish tradition, recall the imperative behind telling the stories to the children, to the future generations so that the people wouldn’t forget who they are, whose they are, the imperative behind maintaining their identity. Isn’t that true in every cultural group? What’s your story? What’s your narrative? What do you know in your bones, tell to others, and share with the world? What are the most used words on your social media sites? Who do you surround yourself with and share in the same narrative?

We are inclined these days to align with our social or interest groups, right? A big game is happening next week: are you Eagles or Patriots? People get passionate about their recreation. We also identify with our employment or lack thereof. Politics, too. Republican or Democrat? Conservative, mainstream, progressive, or liberal? Our place of origin. East or West? North or South? Legal or Immigrant? Our very identity: gender; ethnicity; sexuality; fertility . . . every which way we have to classify and sort ourselves, we accomplish it by furthering whatever story we have to affirm for ourselves, even if that means part of our story is to separate or alienate ourselves from others.

I’ve mentioned Brené Brown so many times, and she preached in the National Cathedral last week, so I’ll revisit her words again: she states flat-out that we’re in a spiritual crisis. Our spirituality is based on belief that we are connected, not only to ourselves but also to something greater. Sure, our spirituality can be that we’re die-hard Eagles fans, and we’re bonded with other Eagles fans. But is the Eagles that “something greater”? We’re dyed in the wool Democrats or Republicans, Yankees or Rebels . . . but is our political or geographical homeland that “something greater”? I’m a priest in The Episcopal Church. Is the National Cathedral or even the organizing bodies at 815 my “something greater”? Our “something greaters” have a tendency to become idols, false gods, lifted up by false prophets, stumbling blocks to the weak. These idols don’t sever our connection with one another even from the “other” who doesn’t support or understand where we’re coming from, why we do what we do; they can’t sever that connection anymore than they can destroy the frequency between us: it can make it incoherent. The idols have a way of distancing ourselves from what is truly greater, making things in life so discordant and segregated that we forget what is truly great. As Christians, what is truly great is God, the God who imprinted God’s own image in each of us, whose divine imprint is breathed within every living thing. Especially as humans, who bear the image of God, we are inextricably connected to one another, and this is so important that we make vows in our baptism to respect the dignity of every human being. And when one person hurts in the whole world, our compassion compels us to recognize that suffering and work to alleviate the pain that it might not be inflicted upon them or us so that we can be whole with God.

Buddhism taught me the word compassion. “This is what Christ is all about!” I nearly exclaimed to my professor. “Why have I never heard this word before?” I had never heard the word, but I had seen it in practice. We see it now. Students are dying in schools from gun violence, and we hurt. MOMS Demand groups sprang up five years ago after Sandy Hook to say no more children will die this way . . . my child won’t die that way. Every week, the possibility draws closer to kids we know. God forbid it be our own. What are we doing to bring coherence? To manifest compassion.

We all know someone affected by the layoffs, right? Maybe you’ve experienced in the past if not now. Maybe you’ve had to deliver the news yourself if not with Walmart then in other lines of work. No one wants to fire or lay off anyone. We want everyone to have gainful employment. We want to plug people in and make deeper, truer connections, enable fruitful labor. Yet I hear rumblings that people are recognized as humans but rather as just another employee, just another calculation affecting the bottom line. What are we doing within our places of employment to reinforce our dignity and humanity and connection? Our work isn’t the greatest thing we do. Our lives are the greatest thing we have to show forth the love we have. Yes, we need to pay the bills in our homes and offices and churches, but at the end of the day, even at the end of our lives, how did we show the world our love of God and God’s love for us?

Jesus taught with authority in the synagogue and cast out the demon from the man who never speaks for himself. And those gathered around him wondered at his words and work. Great crowds followed Jesus. Where was their focus? Where was their “something greater”? They made famous a man who did amazing things.

The unclean spirit, however, called Jesus “the Holy One of God.” The demon, the embodiment of evil knew the coherence of Jesus, perceived the frequency, knew the divinity Jesus possessed, and the demon was powerless at His command though it did not leave without convulsions and crying out. The unclean spirit made a scene.

Our idols or our demons don’t call out divinity when it appears, but they are mighty strong at enabling us to forget our imago dei, to forget the Christ Light we bear, to forget our connection with others, even to forget our connection to God. If we’re inclined to forget all this, how dim becomes the story of Jesus, the life he lived, the death he suffered, the resurrection and ascension he showed us as he returned to full Glory in God, in unity, wholeness, and perfect coherence.

Hear our prayers, O God, and grant us peace, that we might be free from all that binds us and blinds us to the power of the Life and Love of Christ to restore us all to God.

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For further reading on compassion, I commend Karen Armstrong’s work on compassion, highlighted by this article on Brainpickings.

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For God Alone . . .

Jonah 3:1-5, 10 | Psalm 62:6-14 | 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 | Mark 1:14-20

I don’t normally talk about specific theologies, but there’s one out there called “prosperity theology” or “prosperity gospel.” What do you think of when you hear the word prosperity? Success? Wealth? Favor? You’re doing good, right? The main premise, as I understand it, is that if you’re doing good, living right, giving generously (especially to your church), then God will bless you with an abundance of health and wealth. It’s like the really good Good News. Actually, someone sent me an email linking to an article that said one of these prosperity gospel pastors was calling for her congregation to give the equivalent of one month’s salary to the church. I don’t know if this was to tithe or if it was a bonus gift requirement, but the joke was that this could help us shore up the budget at All Saints’. But that’s not what we do or how we do it. Because what happens when you’re doing everything right, and suddenly the wheels fall of? What happens when bad things happen to good people? Does that mean God has rejected you or punished you? When everything’s going right, it’s easy to celebrate abundance. It’s easy to celebrate Nineveh’s repentance and God changing God’s mind. Our Psalm is like a cheerful lullaby, for of course we wait for God alone our hope and strength. And of course the disciples are just going to pick up and follow the charismatic Jesus along his way. All is good! The kingdom of God is theirs. Honestly, this view of doing good and being good and getting abundance and blessing in return sounds conditional and very me-centered. What am I getting out of my living a seemingly godly life?

Anymore, when things seem a little too good to be true or a little too shiny, perfect, or easy, I wonder where the mess is. Because real life is messy and complicated. Real life has uncompromising people and shutdowns, poverty and illness, affluence and addiction. Real life has bad things happen to good people without our understanding why, and if our whole view of God is that we get the good when we are good, then to get reality means that we’re bad. That’s not our theology. That’s not our understanding of God because that’s not what’s been revealed to us in our Scripture nor in the life of Jesus Christ.

Did you hear the reading from Jonah? Was this account from his first call from God? No. It’s the second time…because the first time he got a call from God, he thought it would be a good idea to run the other way; only that plan led him to the belly of a big fish. He ended up in Nineveh anyway. This, the second time, he decided to go ahead and do what God told him to. I imagine him walking across a big city like Little Rock, a three days’ walk across, proclaiming the city’s doom. But the people actually listen and repent, and then what’s God do but see their repentance and change God’s mind! That’s great for the people and God, but where does that leave Jonah? What kind of prophet is he if what he says doesn’t come true? What kind of credibility does he have? Jonah goes into a pretty deep pity party, feeling sorry for himself, and he more accurately reflects the Psalms that describe the doubt and despair than hope and praise.

When we hear about faithful and imperfect lives of people more like ourselves, what do we see revealed about God? How do we read “For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly, there is my hope”? It comes not always from a place of richness and abundance with a tone of rejoicing; we can read the same line from a place of wondering, wandering . . . a place of wilderness . . . a place where we are really hoping there is hope at all.

Maybe we can hear the letter to the Corinthians not as a dismissal of things of this world but of a non-attachment grounded in the assurance of the kingdom of heaven, consistent with love of neighbor and self and God. As we navigate the reality of our lives, we see that it is but for the grace of God that any of us experience the gift of life, let alone that of abundance. And our concept and perception of what is rich in this life truly depends on what we value . . . and not just materially. Jesus’s Way set forth the example of living into a life of radical hospitality and welcome, of invitation and generosity, and of inverting the status quo. I repeat often: this doesn’t mean it will be easy. Jesus shows us the way of life, death, and resurrection; therein lies our hope.

Before we hear about Simon and Andrew, James and John dropping what they’re doing to follow Jesus, we hear that this happens after John has been arrested. John was doing what he did, being the prophet that he was. He had said that he would decrease and that the one to come would increase. We know John doesn’t get a happy ending. Lest we too lightly see the apostles cheerfully following Jesus, we’re given the simple fact that John had been arrested. There is reason for pause. There are risks to be taken. Risks not just in living life as we are given it to live but especially if we are living into who God has called us to be.

Here’s a big clue for whether or not we’re following the way of Christ: who stands to receive the glory? If we are living deeply into a life for the glory of God, it’s God who gets the glory, and that’s not something our ego likes to hear.

But it’s so good for our hearts.

I took the time to hear Scarlett Lewis talk about the Choose Love Movement when she came to St. Thomas in Springdale. Her child Jesse was one of those murdered at Sandy Hook. Rather than be anchored by the weight of the tragedy, she had the presence to notice signs that surrounded her and grace to give her strength that the best thing she could do would be to choose love and to forgive. What an incredible witness to following Christ.

I also know that we’re forming a Faith Voices NWA, a regional group of Faith Voices Arkansas. As a regional group, the intent is to bring together clergy in our area so that we can share a united voice that can be louder and stronger on moral issues of our time. But before we can be united in one voice, we have to build relationships not just between faiths but even between denominations. What can we do to reach across the denominational divide so that we can actually be one Body? Such relationship-building truly requires us to know ourselves and be open enough to let God work through us.

For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly, there is my hope.

It’s okay to be still. It’s okay to step aside and let the Holy Spirit move through us. Because isn’t the hope for us all that God’s dream for us be manifest, that the presence of Christ be realized in, through, and by us and our neighbors? That’s our invitation. Jesus, in inviting the apostles to follow him, is likewise inviting us. “Follow me, and I’ll teach you to fish for people,” he’s saying. Follow him, and we’ll learn how to be caught up in the net of unconditional love, grace, and mercy of God. Therein lies our hope.

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Called Out

1 Samuel 3:1-20 | Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17 | 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 | John 1:43-51

Back in November (Proper 28) was when we had to opportunity to look at Judges as our Old Testament reading, when Deborah is named as a prophet of the time and when Jael made a surprising move involving a tent peg and Sisera’s skull (and that’s not even the worst thing accounted for in the time of the judges). Now, in the season after Epiphany we hear a bit of Samuel’s story. I say “a bit” because his life from before conception to after his death is accounted for in the Bible, which is quite a rarity. This also the transition from the period of judges (which wasn’t working out so well for the Israelites) to the rise of the monarchs.

Today we have this opening sentence setting the scene for us, a brief yet telling commentary of the time.

“Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”

Samuel, a young lad, ministers to the high priest Eli, who is all but blind and depends greatly upon Samuel. And the word of Lord–revelations of God–were rare; visions or prophecies were equally sparse. Since we’re reading the Word of God, a God of abundance and in our season when Christ Light is manifest, our sense of anticipation builds. What happens next? We know it’s the LORD calling out to Samuel in the night, but Samuel, naturally thinks it’s his master.  Even the High Priest isn’t aware of the LORD’s voice, as infrequent as it had become, until the voice has called out three times. The faithful master gives his “son” instruction on heeding the voice of the LORD, little does he know it will indicate his own ruin. For Eli’s sons had blasphemed God, disobeying laws regarding how fat and meat are separated and offered to God before they are consumed. It seems a little outrageous to us, to be judged for such a minor offense, but these were the commandments the faithful were to abide by, and Eli as a High Priest has standards against which to be held. He, like most parents these days, loved his kids, and probably chided them like I do mine for their transgressions, but things were different then. The LORD proclaimed what he was going to do, and Samuel was to be the one to deliver the news. Samuel, who has heard the voice of God is, as his first task as prophet, to deliver the news to Eli. Was this call a joy to Samuel? Was this something he looked forward to? Don’t you know the weight and dread he carried to the next day when Eli convinced him to share? And Eli, good and faithful as he was, accepted the LORD’s judgment, not arguing or protesting, showing us the way of obedience. Similarly, we see Samuel assuming his call, and we are told that he becomes a trustworthy prophet as he continues to heed the voice of the LORD, bearing the burden of responsibility faithfully, obediently.

Our gospel shows us a different call commencing. Jesus decides to go to Galilee and finds Philip, telling him to “Follow me.” I’m sure it was Jesus’ charisma and presence that compelled Philip to follow, but Philip finds Nathanael and tells him that they need to follow Jesus of Nazareth, the one of whom prophecies have been told. Nathanael protests: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”

Now, in the news lately there’s been lots said about countries from which the outcome would be questionable. I’ve seen memes already generated calling Nazareth one of these kind of countries.

Philip doesn’t react much, though. He just says, “Come and See.”

Isn’t that what we have to do? We can’t tell someone how they’re going to experience Jesus. We can love our experience at church and feel like it’s helping us live a godly life, but we can’t describe or even pretend to know how someone else will experience Christ here. They have to come and see for themselves. First, they have to be invited. (That’s our ongoing responsibility, to invite others to come and see the presence of Christ in our midst!) Thankfully, Nathanael does go with Philip, and what happens next? Nathanael calls Jesus “Rabbi,” “Son of God, “King of Israel.”

What happened in the point between saying “What good can come out of Nazareth?” to “Rabbi, Son of God, King of Isarel”? Nathanael encountered Jesus and something transformative happened, something we can’t understand except that it was some kind of epiphany, some kind of realization about God being manifest before him. That’s the kind of thing we expect in the presence of Christ, but where do we see that around us today? Maybe we are attuned to see it all the time, but maybe not.

A couple of weeks ago, comedian Sarah Silverman was called something profane on Twitter. It would have been completely normal for her, a witty comedian, to fire back an intelligent insult, invoking the supporting rage of her followers and erupting a flame war of epic proportions. No one would have thought much about it.

But she didn’t.

Sarah said something to the effect of: “Behind all your hate and rage, I see pain. I see you just trying to get kicked off Twitter.” She took a moment before quipping back to him to look at his profile and saw that this was a desperate, pain-riddled guy who was on the path to further isolate himself and seek further into despair. And she wasn’t having it. She identified with him and invited him to see a different way, to choose love, to have a little hope. And she offered tangible hope to him, helping him out tremendously, networking him with resources in his community. She didn’t have to. When he asked why she was offering him hope, why she was offering to help him, she basically admitted that she didn’t know but that maybe it was something in his eyes. I looked at the guy’s profile. I’m not sure that I would have reacted the same way she did. I might have just chosen not to react at all, turned a blind eye.

But that’s always a choice we have when we are called out. How do we react? Do we hear it at all? Do we understand what’s being asked of us? Do we reply with a smart-alec response? Do we choose love? It’s up to us, but however we reply, I’m not sure we always perceive that we are in the presence of God or that we have the eyes of many paying attention. We just don’t realize the importance of our lives in the scheme of things. It takes someone who knows us fully, intimately, someone who knows our rising up and going down, someone who knit us in our mother’s womb, someone like God. God knows us intimately, loves us deeply, and calls us always to live fully into the life for which we were created. It’s up for us to discern how we are to do this, and it’s not going to be easy. But it’s up for us to decide what it looks like to choose to heed the voice of God, to follow Christ, and to choose love.

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Light & Spirit

Epiphany

Isaiah 60:1-6 | Psalm 72:1-7,10-14 | Ephesians 3:1-12 | Matthew 2:1-12

Baptism of our Lord

Genesis 1:1-5 | Psalm 29 | Acts 19:1-7 | Mark 1:4-11

The 12th Night party was both delicious and fun, a beautiful way to mark the end of the Christmas season and turn to the light of Epiphany. Last week we were reminded of the Word made flesh, and I emphasized that the Word was Light: what’s born in Jesus Christ is Light. So it’s appropriate that a celestial star guided the three magi from the East to the birthplace of Jesus, though they checked at the palace in Jerusalem first–the likely abode of a newly born king–surprising King Herod who thinks he’s the only king in town. The star guides the magi to the true King of kings, and they pay him homage, bringing gifts decidedly not for a baby but perfect markers of royalty. And these three from afar are not Jews but gentiles and are part of the manger scene we see as complete, for Jesus Christ is the Lord of all nations, a Light for all. Epiphany commonly means a realization, an a-ha moment. Our Epiphany is when Christ was manifested to the gentile magi, as our gospel tells it. Christ’s manifestation for all is reaffirmed in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. The Light of Christ knows no bounds.

This Sunday marks the feast of the Baptism of our Lord, instantly not a baby but a grown man, arriving just as John the Baptist, the witness, said he would. Jesus, just one of the crowd. John, obedient unto death, baptized Jesus as he had so many others. But at Jesus’ baptism, the heavens broke open, and the Spirit descended upon him, proclaiming him as the Son, the Beloved, with whom God is well please. (I truly kind of anticipate this happening at every baptism, and it only increases the excitement of the event!) There had to be some at Jesus’ baptism who heard the voice of God and decided to ignore it, others who missed it, and still others who heard it and couldn’t shake off what happened. So they followed the one, not fully understanding why. We, too, will follow Jesus into his ministry this season of Epiphany as he calls his disciples and does that risky thing of living into who he is–one of Light and Spirit.

As Christians, as faithful people, we seek after Christ, his Light and Spirit. In our baptism, we confess our belief in Jesus Christ and receive the power of the Holy Spirit. To keep our faith strong, we look for affirmation in the world around us, or we use tools at hand to strengthen or renew our faith. Think about what you do to look for the light of Christ in the world. Where do you look for strengthening of Spirit or even the presence of Spirit?

I asked a few of my friends so that my experiences wouldn’t be all you hear, but in their responses I heard my own answers. Maybe you hear yours, too.

  • A candle during meditation
  • Music
  • Being with others, especially connecting with their humanity
  • Poetry
  • Sitting in the sunlight
  • Reading holy words about light

All these energize the Christ-light within for us and maybe for you, too.

And when we’re looking for strength and presence of Spirit, you can probably guess our go-to’s:

  • Meditation,
  • Church, especially to sit alone,
  • Silence,
  • A retreat,
  • A garden, and
  • The outdoors in general.

As much as these are ways we seek the Christ-light or discern the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, sometimes–a lot of times, actually, especially if we have an active prayer life–light and spirit have a way of showing up and finding us. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that where they appear are often the same:

  • Places of good word: food banks/pantries, social justice events, social service agencies/organization,
  • Times of birth and death and other significant life events,
  • Relationships, be they brief encounters or long-term, and
  • Difficult situations.

These name just a few instances, and these are just times we actually notice.

Truthfully, the Light of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit are with us all along, anxiously waiting for us to cooperate in this “divine dance,” as Richard Rohr calls the Holy Trinity. How much more could God invite us into divine relationship than by offering us the only Son and giving us the power of the Holy Spirit? We’re not here just to follow the example of Christ; we’re here to live into Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. And like our church calendar, it’s cyclical, repetitive, and hopefully enriching and truly enlightening, deepening our relationship with the Holy Mystery that draws us near and holds us in perfect love, even when we ourselves are far from perfect.

So we can be like the moon, planets, and comets and merely reflect the light of the Son. (I hope you saw the full moon this past week!) Honestly, I’m a lot like the moon, the strength of my faith and spirit waxing or waning, depending on the day or season. But we are more like stars ourselves. For stars radiate their own light “through nuclear reactions, using energy stored in the tiny nucleus at the center of atoms.” Our sun is a huge star. Who’s to say we can’t be like tiny stars, trying to shine as brightly as the sun? Where is that Christ Light and power of the Holy Spirit if not at the center of our being? Why do we feel the need to be still and quiet or seek out others who radiate a light and power we sense as familiar, if we didn’t already know it in the center of our being?

Whoever we are, wherever we come from, the Light of all ages shines for us and within us, and by the power of the Holy Spirit we shine brightly in our lives through not just the extraordinary but also in the ordinary things we do. Living into our baptismal covenant gives us guidance on how to keep living into the Light and reminding us that we do all things with God’s help, thanks to the power of the Holy Spirit. It could be that our star is one that might lead others to Christ.

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In the beginning was the Word . . .

Isaiah 61:10-62:3 | Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7 | Psalm 147:13-21 | John 1:1-18

The gospel reading we have today is the same one from Christmas Day (maybe just in case you missed your Christmas observance that busy day). After the Christmas Eve emphasis on all the people at the manger-side, the Fourth Gospel brings to us a cosmic-level view, quite literally expanding our horizons if not blowing our minds, emphasizing both the eternal and the temporal spheres. In the Prologue of John, we are distinctly taken out of our carefully imagined, precious nativity scene following the long search for an inn . . . all the labor pains, sweat and tears, and animal scents and sounds . . . and brought to “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Like a high-speed, rewound montage of one’s life flashed before our eyes, we’re instantly time-warped back to before Creation. These words ignite a memory of similar words that are hopefully as familiar to us as they were to our Jewish ancestors. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth” . . . or “When God began to create,” there was a wind of God or “spirit of God” that “swept over the face of the waters.” And then what did God say? “Let there be light.” And there was light, and it was good. (Gen 1:1-3)

Through the Word, light manifests, revealed of God, from God’s self. Ever-present, luminous, inspiring, yet intangible. And the Word of God throughout the Old Testament establishes God’s relationship with the people in covenantal relationship, intertwining word and deed. God’s promise endures faithfully, even as the people’s thoughts, words, and deeds fail again and again. It is the Word of God that sustains the people of Israel, keeping them in relationship with God, their strength and their refuge, their creator and defender, their assurance that they are the chosen ones. Eternal and Almighty God in heaven above maintains a covenant with the obedient, chosen people below. That’s the way it was.

But what if the story changes. It’s the same but new, familiar yet different.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He–word/logos, masculine in Greek, different from the feminine Spirit/pneuma in Greek or the breath/wind/ruach of Hebrew–He, the Word, was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being; all of creation is in unity through the Word. What has come into being through and in him is life, and the life is the light of all people. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” And it was good, very good, I want to add, because my mind’s eye is set on Creation and God’s proclamation of the goodness of it all. God is. The Word is. The breath of God carries the Word over all that is to be in creation, filling all things through the divine inspiration, bringing Light and Life. And it is good, eternal, holy, divine, and beyond any concept I have of time and history.

Then the Prologue pulls us to a very real, earthly, temporal time and place in the person of John. Not known here as John the Baptist but rather John the witness. Twice we’re told John’s purpose is to testify to the light. John is not the light, but he’s a witness to it, to the divine light, the same light that we’ve heard was present at the beginning, that was coming into the world, to humanity and its domain, so that all who received this true light, who believed in his name, had power to become children of God, to be born of God, not of flesh but of Spirit (as Nicodemus would help clarify for us later in his exchange with Jesus).

I mentioned on Christmas Day the St. John’s Bible, illustrated beautifully, truly illuminated. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us” takes the gilded words and suggests they form the ethereal haloed figure who seems to be walking forward, toward the reader, full of grace, though with such an indistinct figure. How they’ve conveyed such grace, I cannot know but just perceive. And it is through the person of Jesus Christ that we receive grace upon grace, grace and truth. It is through Christ that we are revealed the heart of the Father, the heart of God.

Our story has changed from one of a chosen few to all of Creation imbued with this Light of the Word that has been made flesh in Jesus. As it was in the beginning is now present in all that lives. And if we choose to live a life in the Light that overcomes the darkness, we, too, are children of God, not just in this sphere but in the eternal as well. Our story becomes not just one of deliverance and promise–though it is that, too–but ours is mainly a story of love, good and true. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). It’s not just a love story written in the stars but a love that was bold enough to become flesh. The Word, the Light and Life, was strong enough to become weak and vulnerable. The Word, the Love, need only to be named and known to be restored in its fullness.

And you know that fullness of love, right, when your heart feels like it will explode with love for another, be it family, friend, or lover? It feels all-consuming it its goodness, its joy, its truth. That kind of love exists for our souls, yearns to be acknowledged, recognized, and loved in return. The beauty of this love is that it’s not contained just for ourselves but naturally spreads to those around us because in its fullness, it enlightens the life of the Word in others, the Christ-light, the Life of all, whatever we choose to call it.

This is all that is, if we believe. The Light overcomes the darkness, but it does not mean that the darkness isn’t there, too, that there will be trials, tribulations, obstacles, barriers, fortresses that attempt to persuade us that the Light is a wish-dream we only thought was real. Our hope is folly, weak, and vulnerable, the darkness would have us believe. Remember, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” and I believe with all my heart and soul and strength that that Word brought Love into our lives in a way only God knew would fulfill us and restore us to the fulness of the image we were created to be in God, a reflection of the Light and Life of Christ.

God came to our world through the Word in the person of Jesus. As we enter a new year, what word will you carry with you that might remind you of the Light you bear, thanks be to Jesus Christ? What might unlock the barriers of your love and joy in life that most connect you to God? To your brothers and sisters in Christ? What word will motivate you in your spiritual gifts and talents to be a defender of the faith and the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, and the stranger? What word might empower you to be the Christian this community needs, an ambassador for the love of Christ?

A friend of mine these past few years has herself chosen a word for the year, and the artist that she is, she decorated the word and hung it on her fridge or mirror or wherever she would encounter it often. The last couple of years at least, she took tiny canvases and using paint and paper and stamps and pen, decorated the canvas, emblazoned with a word, chosen by the one who commissioned her artistry . . . not only her art but also her prayers. Since she introduced me to the practice, I was reminded how years ago, a dear friend of mine and I set intentions for the new year, writing them on slips of paper, putting them in a special box. These special words have a way of addressing the truth of who we are, what we truly need. I don’t mean to sound flippant when I say, “All we need is love,” but in a way, all we need is the love of God to be manifest in our lives, fully and completely. What word do you need to help you reveal the light? My word is courage this next year, to be strong of heart. Because when the Word became flesh, our world broke open to the reality of a fierce love available to all, and it takes all of us to keep the life-light emblazoned not only for ourselves but for others. I need courage. Like John, we are called to testify to the Light, the Light that brought heaven to earth in a story of enduring love. And Love itself is a powerful Word.

 

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Christmas Lessons

Isaiah 9:2-7 | Titus 2:11-14 | Luke 2:1-20 | Psalm 96

My children asked me earlier this week what my favorite Christmas carol was, and I couldn’t think of which one to choose. There are so many, and each one of them highlights a different aspect of the nativity (except for the ones you hear on the radio’s stream of Christmas music that seems to have nothing to do with Jesus and everything about a different sense of the word “baby”). That’s the thing, isn’t it? Christmas is about the birth of the Christ child and everything that entails. The birth of a child changed our world, and imparted upon us themes that recur not only in the music we share but the stories we tell. These are some of the themes I’m picking up on this season:

    • God’s timing is God’s timing. If Mary had her way, they would not have been traveling to Bethlehem in her final days of pregnancy. If Joseph had his way, Mary would not have been pregnant to begin with. If the powers that be had their way, there would not be a game-changer entering the playing field. But God’s timing is perfect as it is mysterious, and it is beyond our understanding. We realize this when circumstances in our life send us reeling. We won’t always know–we can’t always know how or why things happen the way that they do, but we walk in the way of peace and trust that there is a greater wisdom in our midst.
    • There’s no room at the inn. My modern interpretation of “no room at the inn” is that scene in Forrest Gump when he’s looking for a seat on the bus, and kids repeat “seat’s taken” over and over again. He eventually finds a seat, as Joseph and Mary eventually find a place to stay, having been rejected. No one seems to want to welcome the stranger, the poor, the suspiciously unknown. No one wants the mess of birth to happen in their space. It’s all rather inconvenient, discomforting, and disruptive. How true that making space for Jesus in our lives is all of this.
    • You gotta trust the process. After all the rush, there comes a time to be still and wait, when all we can do is to trust the process. We might rush to make it to Bethlehem for a census only to wait for office hours; rush between inns, pausing for contractions; and finally remain in place while the process overtakes the body for new life to emerge into the world. Such trust requires strength and perseverance, and faith helps to keep us moving forward in the process.
    • We depend upon one another. Mary doesn’t give birth alone. She likely learned a great deal from Elizabeth, maybe even witnessed John’s birth to know what to expect. Joseph remains with her, and hopefully he was able to fetch the local midwives to attend, though we’re not surprised not to hear about them. Someone provided the stable. God doesn’t tell us how to love one another, leaving our specific actions up to us, but we need to love one another, to be in relationship with one another to make manifest God’s love for us.
    • God pays attention to all. The stories from the past are often told by those in power, and often it’s the family lore that sustains the stories of unsung heroes, of everyday miracles that impact our lives directly. Our Christian family birth story tells us that God recognizes the weak and vulnerable: a young woman, an ordinary man, and commonplace shepherds. We have a gracious, loving God who recognizes us all as worthy, even if we’re not worthy: that’s why it’s called grace and mercy. That God works miracles out of the ordinary, our hope knows no bounds.
    • God needs us to witness. Goodness bears telling and sharing! The angels didn’t hesitate in their rejoicing, and the shepherds had to see the miracle for themselves, maybe not quite sure what was going on. We, too, get to share the good news of Jesus’s presence. Like yesterday at the Miracle on 14th Street, when 436 families came through for groceries and gifts. Like on Wednesdays for the past few months when folks have come together to have conversation on difficult topics like racism, prejudice, and sexism–not just to talk but also to listen deeply and respectfully, with compassion for self and other. Like how we are a church with doors open to all, and all truly means all, regardless of any demographic we use to categorize ourselves. We are about being in relationship with one another in Christ, and that doesn’t just happen in church; it happens over coffee, in the prison and jail, in the hospitals, on the street corner,  . . . and everywhere when we realize that Jesus Christ is present in our thoughts, words, and deeds AND we give voice to that presence with thanks to God. It’s not fake. It’s not always out loud. (We Episcopalians might have to work on giving thanks in our out-loud voice.) We can extend a hand to someone in need or promise to pray for a family in distress and recall Christ’s presence in our midst, maybe even offer the peace of the Lord to a stranger.
    • We can only go through. Mary became mother having gone through pregnancy and birth. The shepherds became heralds themselves having journeyed to see for themselves and sharing the glad tidings of the angels. God broke into our earthly abode through the flesh of Jesus, and our way to God remains through Jesus Christ. Truth be told, even dramatic moments of conversion are part of a longer story, as we reflect on our relationships with God and one another throughout our lives and through all time. We don’t shortcut, sidestep, or outsmart God (see “God’s timing” above). If we are being true to ourselves and to God, we allow ourselves to be transformed by going through the process of living a life in the Light of Truth and Love of Christ. It is that Light that shows us the way, guides us, directs us, enlightens us, especially when things start to get dark.

So it’s appropriate that the birth story of our Lord starts in the dark, that we might notice the Light more clearly. May we ponder on these things in our hearts, as Mary treasured and pondered the words of the shepherds. Her story and their story are our story, shared in the songs we sing this holy season. But the light of the Son of God is not limited to one night alone. When we leave tonight, may you leave touched by the light of Christ. May you carry that light into the world, witnessing to the good news of love and peace we know because the Christ child is born.

 

P.S. My favorite carol is “O Holy Night”. . . at least for this year.

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The Lord is With You

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 | Romans 16:25-27 | Luke 1:26-38 | Canticle 15

Advent is all about preparation. “Prepare the way, O Zion,” we’ve sung, and theoretically, that’s what we’ve been doing, preparing the way for Jesus Christ to be fully present. These past three weeks have given us clues. As we lit the first candle with a word of peace and heard the Gospel tell us to “keep awake,” we focused on being present and aware. We lit the second candle in hope that we’d be a part of making a straight pathway through the desert, that the pathway of God’s peace might be realized. We lit the third candle with a word of joy and the vivid image of John the Baptist proclaiming, being that voice in the wilderness for the one who stood among them but was not yet known, the one greater than him who would baptize not with water but the Holy Spirit. And today, we light a candle with the word of love on our lips, and we remember the Annunciation of Mary, to whom the angel Gabriel said, “Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you.”

http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/104384.html
The Annunciation, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898

If you went home today or sat in your favorite chair reading or watching a movie tonight and Gabriel appeared to you, would your preparations find you in a place ready to engage God’s will? Because Mary was apparently ready, though I do like the poems and paintings that show her hesitance, reticence, youth, and vulnerability. It is not lost on me that after Gabriel has told her not to be afraid and that she’s chosen to bear the Son of the Most High, her most pressing question is about how that’s to be? How can she be pregnant? Forget the logistics of gestating, birthing, and mothering the Son of God: let’s start with the basics. And she’s told that the power of the Holy Spirit will overshadow her, with her consent. Mary shows us who she is in her devotion, in her strength.

I mentioned that there was one more thing I wanted to share from Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness.

“All too often our so-called strength comes from fear, not love; instead of having a strong back, many of us have a defended front shielding a weak spine. In other words, we walk around brittle and defensive, trying to conceal our lack of confidence. If we strengthen our backs, metaphorically speaking, and develop a spine that’s flexible but sturdy, then we can risk having a front that’s soft and open. . . .” (quote from Roshi Joan Halifax at the beginning of Ch. 7, p.147)

I mention this because while we all take for granted Mary’s strength, we often hear her spoken of as meek and mild. Of course she’s that, too. God knows who she is and favors her. Surely she is one who loves God with all her heart, all her soul, and all her mind. She’s awake and aware. She anticipates the Lord’s presence in her life. Her joy is harder for me to see, so tied up in her love and her surrender, that it must be complete in being so implicated in God’s will. That Mary is all of this in her youth speaks to a wisdom beyond her years, a strength of spirit that even Zechariah failed to show when Gabriel appeared to him. She heeds Gabriel’s message not to be afraid, and her love of God remains steadfast. Zechariah, a high priest and elderly man, powerful in many ways, serves as a contrast to this our Mary in Luke’s telling.

Young as she is, dependent upon her family and now her betrothed though between the two households, and about to be pregnant…could she be more vulnerable?

“Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you.”

God knew in Mary the strength of her spine, her strong back, not only to withstand the strain of childbirth but to endure the trials of raising a son who would have to go the way of the heavenly Father. He would break her heart in rejecting his earthly family. He would dismiss her when she called him out at the wedding feast, though she did not dismiss him. She would be close always to the news of him, as a mother does, and stand there even at his death. The song “Mary Did You Know” wrenches our hearts because we know that all this will come to pass, but how could she? God knows she’s strong of heart, and she has a strong back.

And she’s soft. Soft enough to swell with a child. Soft in her vulnerability, which means not only that she can be broken but also that she can break into newness of life. She’s not hardened to possibilities or unresponsive to that which is far greater than herself. Naive as it may be, she knows who she is and where she is in this world. She doesn’t have God’s approval like Zechariah and Elizabeth; she has God’s favor.

And the Lord is with her. Already. Before he was conceived. Before he was born.

“How can we give and accept care with strong-back, soft-front compassion, moving past fear into a place of genuine tenderness? I believe it comes about when we can be truly transparent, seeing the world clearly–and letting the world see into us.” (rest of Halifax’s quote on p. 147)

We see the Virgin Mary, in her youth and vulnerability, in her obedience and devotion, in her strength and love beyond her years. The Lord’s favor was with her, indeed, radiating to all through the generations, this most highly favored lady. But before all the generations called her blessed, she had to brave the wilderness of her wild-hearted response, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Mary’s “yes,” Mary’s consent to participate in the will of God took her further into vulnerability, the wilderness of walking a way alone. Like we said last week, though, when we take a light into the darkness of the wilderness, we tend to find others who have also ventured into a way that was right even if it wasn’t popular, a way that is true even if it’s uncomfortable. Mary makes it to Elizabeth’s house. Mary makes it to the birth with Joseph. The Lord is with her all the while.

We may not get Gabriel visiting us today or ever. Our calls are not as dramatic most of the time as we navigate our jobs and vocations, our lives and loves, but the decisions we make are often life-altering. When we approach a precipice having done the training in mindfulness and presence, with knowledge of our story and stories, and with a strong back and soft front and wild heart . . . what does our decision look like if we not only believe but know that the Lord is with us?

Beloved, the Lord is with you.

How do our decisions make space for the presence of the Lord to grow in our lives? Are we responding out of fear? Are we putting up a shield to defend ourselves from what is uncomfortable, terrifying, or different? Or are we showing our soft front, our wild, open hearts? Can we take that step into the wilderness even if it’s dark and unknown but we feel it to be true?

With this kind of walk in faith, the Light grows, and we make way for the Incarnation.

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Breaking In, Making Way

Isaiah 40:1-11 | 2 Peter 3:8-15a | Mark 1:1-8 | Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

There’s part of me that wants a rally cry from the church to come down from above, stop us in our tracks, and realign everything so that we’re all fixed in God’s will. So when I hear the words of Isaiah to “make straight in the desert a highway for our God,” I get excited. Yes! This is it. Finally, “every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low.” We’ll get the level playing field for equality and justice to be manifest so the Glory of God can be revealed, for all to see it together. That’s the beloved community I long for. And the Gospel of Mark repeats this, basically. Only, it’s not so much a rally cry as it is an introduction . . . for John the Baptist, a man of the wilderness, humble and unworthy, yet baptizing many.

This is why we can’t solely proof-text the Bible, why we can’t just pick and choose verses of Scripture to hold onto. Well, we can certainly hold onto verses of Scripture for the strength and assurance we need; I have one stuck to my laptop screen (Jn 15:11). But we also need to know the context of the greater picture.

As much as I want Isaiah to be a rally cry for social justice–and it very well can be–it’s also part of an image of the way the world is when God’s will is manifest. The Israelites have suffered under oppression and are at that time returning to their land, something they didn’t think could or would happen. What’s happening is that what they least expected is actually happening, what they don’t deserve is being granted because God is faithful in God’s covenant with them. Their journey this time won’t be forty years’ wandering in the wilderness, but the path will be straight for them. In that moment, this is an observation of the mercy of God, even as we also get a picture of the fickleness of the people with whom God is in relationship and know their struggles are not over.

We get an even richer image of God’s manifestation in Psalm 85. God is speaking peace (shalom) to the faithful: peace, the fruit of forgiveness. What does it look like? Like mercy and truth meeting together, like righteousness and peace kissing each other, like truth springing up from the earth and righteousness looking down from heaven, like abundance for all and peace as the pathway. Just thinking this fills my imagination and heart with goodness, but it’s highly conceptual. I read a story about a group who created a physical “Road to Shalom” so youth groups could actually walk a way of peace. They had signs that said “Steadfast Love,” “Faithfulness,” “Righteousness,” and “Peace.” Using Ps. 85, vs. 10, they had youth hold the signs and act out the verse. Steadfast Love and Faithfulness met one another (our “Mercy” and “Truth” in the NRSV translation; NIV has “love” and “faithfulness”), and Righteousness and Peace exchanged a kiss (among much giggling). This was a very physical, tangible experience, a way to embody the path of peace so that our finite minds can try to fathom the greatness of God’s glory.

Whereas the Word of God does stand forever, we are more like the grass and flowers that wither and fade. Our Epistle reading reminds us that with God “one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” We know with God there’s that timelessness and all time, the kairos time I’ve referred to before. With that perspective of all time, I cannot even imagine the kind of enduring patience that waits for us to turn our hearts toward the way of peace. That kind of steadfast love that waits for us to acknowledge the truth of our condition of suffering. That kind of goodness that accepts us wholly and unconditionally.

I want a rally cry, and I’m offered a way of Peace. I’m reminded of the patience of God who is waiting on me, when I think I’m waiting on God.

I’m waiting for God to intervene in the Middle East crisis and the poverty crisis and the refugee crisis and every single one of our life crises. And I think surely this Christmas we’ll remember that Christ has come and been made manifest and that we have all the power of the Holy Spirit to make all things new, . . . but I’m told to wait. To be still. To listen. To be alert and awake. And to heed the messengers who have gone before me. And to repent for my sins. So that I can be ready to meet Christ at his Birth and at his Second Coming. That’s a lot to do for one “just” waiting.

I want a rally cry to make the world a better place, and I’m so outwardly focused that I miss that God is waiting on me. And on you.

Wait. Be still. Prepare yourself. Listen. A rally cry will come…has already come…and broken into our world. God has prepared a way of peace, determined a pathway long ago. Who’s to say it’s not already written on our hearts? We might stumble upon the path of peace, but what happens when we prepare ourselves for it? What happens if we help reveal it to others?

What does it mean for us to “make straight in the desert a highway for our God”? Would it be like parting the Red Sea or the Jordan River? Or making way through the crowds clamoring for healing or throwing down palm fronds on the way into Jerusalem? Is it really the people doing the “making way”? Or are the people the ones noticing enough to direct attention at what is breaking into the world, right into the midst of all the messiness and struggle, settling into our heart and spreading to our minds and lives.

And this in-breaking presence of God speaks peace to the faithful, to those who have their hearts turned toward God.

So we don’t have to go to someplace that tells us it’s trying to create a visual of the path of peace. We live it. Frederick Buechner said, “The birth of the child into the darkness of the world made possible not just a new way of understanding life but a new way of living it.” People the world over don’t have to wonder what it’s like to live outside of God’s love because God’s love already broke into our world and prepared for us the Way to salvation. But we forget that we’re in this eternal covenant of God’s steadfast love and grace and mercy. And we have to be reminded that when we greet one another with peace, whether we’re in church or in our cars or on the phone or in the restaurant or the grocery store, we are walking along the path of peace, one that was and is and yet will be.

Steadfast love/mercy and faithfulness/truth meet not just like teenagers on a youth trip, shaking hands and exchanging names. Mercy and truth meeting looks like legislators listening to the constituents showing up at their offices in D.C., outlining the affect health care has on their lives, how grateful they’ve been for the dialysis they’ve received or for every effort made by the medical team to heal the child and provide a refuge for the parents as they watched their child die. In this coming together of mercy and truth, righteousness and peace kiss, coming together in a communion of intimacy and love that bears fruit of something good for all, in legislation that benefits the most, especially the least recognized, the most invisible.

I want a rally cry, and I’m invited to be still. Be alert. Notice the pathway of peace that signals where the feet of God have trod–to the altar, to the food bank doors, to the waiting rooms of health centers, to the kitchen table, to the artist’s canvas, to the inventor’s studio, the programmer’s desk, to the child’s imagination, and to the student’s mind–to everywhere Holy Spirit gives us a taste of the grace and mercy, righteousness and peace that creates what is Good for each of us and all of us. In our haste, chances are we’ve paved over the holy with our good intentions and self-interest, creating a different kind of highway that helps us navigate the mountains and valleys without thinking too much about it. And we have the soundtrack of our lives playing so loudly that there’s no way we’ll hear the voice of a weird-looking guy in the wilderness or even a still, small voice within, nudging us to stop a minute and notice the glimmer of light out of the corner of our eye.

There’s a way that’s been prepared for us. There’s a light that’s broken in in the most unlikely of ways. God’s waiting for us to notice and follow the path.

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Anticipation & Presence

Isaiah 64:1-9 | Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18 | 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 | Mark 13:24-37

Quite unlike our January 1st New Year’s Day, we in the Church have a less festive way of celebrating our turn of the calendar year, for this is a new year. If you’re keeping track of readings, we’re in Year B now, a year we’ll get to read lots from Mark, and for the Daily Office, we’re starting Year Two. But I doubt many of you stayed up until midnight to mark the occasion–no fireworks, singing, or festive parties. Then you come to church (you faithful lot), and solemnly light one candle and proclaim to you to KEEP AWAKE since second coming may be nigh. What does it all mean?

We say “keep awake” as we enter the darkest time of the year. The last thing I do to keep awake is to turn out all the lights and let things get quiet; that’s actually the perfect setting for really good sleep. We do need good sleep. We’re tired and weary from all our worries and concerns and trying to get everything done. We need rest. We need our basics to be taken care of. So “take care of you” is what I often say. I might have borrowed it from Pretty Woman, but the words get at the oft-forgotten need to truly care for ourselves. When we are rested up, taken care of, safe, and prayed up, there’s something about entering into darkness, letting things be shadowed. We’re aware and alert, appreciative for the intensity of the darkness, grateful for our safety in the unknown, and incredibly sensitive to the liminality of space and time when we just don’t know what might happen next.

Liminal times seem to sneak up on us but are pretty predictable. We find them in our traditions. They have a way of taking us out of chronos, out of chronological, sequential time, and putting us into that no-time and all-time, the moments of kairos time. I was fortunate to be able to attend my friend’s funeral this past week. It was an unexpected death, though we all know we will one day die. Hugging his mother outside the church on the beautiful sunny day, she said, “Good morning,” though it was afternoon, and then laughed through grieving eyes as she said she really didn’t know what time it was. I held her arms and smiled, knowing that in birth and death and all times marked by deep love, these are particular times when the separation between heaven and earth and all dimensions seems so very thin–that if we just closed our eyes, we could reach into the unknown. As we listened to the Word, the music, and the homily, our hearts open and vulnerable, the distance between us and our beloved was not far, and the connection between each of us gathered was nearly palpable.

After the funeral, on the way back home, I opted for the road less traveled. But you know how when you gotta go, you gotta go? That was me. Let me tell you, there aren’t many amenities to choose from in the Ouachita Mountains between Hot Springs and Russellville, but there is a campground at Hollis. If I had listened to my body the first time, I could have stopped at the nice visitor’s center, but I didn’t (that’s another lesson: listen to our bodies!). At the Hollis stop, there was what looked like little yellow Post-It notes on the bathroom doors. I thought it was weird but maybe a new thing to leave notes for folks. (You never know what the new trend is!) Bringing my keys and phone with me, I realized that it wasn’t notes but yellow duct tape over bullet holes that went through the door; the ones that didn’t go through just dented the door and removed the paint. Glad I brought my phone with me (because this is obviously how scary movies get made), I also realized there is no light inside this old-school forestry cinderblock outhouse.

When I got out and stepped back into the fresh air, I was caught in a pause. Maybe it was the fresh air tinged with smoke from the forest fires; maybe it was the twilight. Maybe it was the stillness . . . the stillness of being in the woods when I stop walking along making all manner of noise because it feels like I’m the one disturbing the sacred silence for the lives of those all around me. It’s a feeling of being watched, knowing I’m not alone but also of being unafraid. It’s still. I’m keenly aware, with heightened senses, actually. Looking around expectantly but also waiting patiently because I know I don’t know, but I might just feel the presence of Spirit in my goosebumps or in the swell of my heart or a deep sigh or in an even deeper knowing, though I can’t quite put my finger on it or words to it. It’s a connection to a deep mystery in a brief moment.

I pondered this concept of alertness in stillness and silence and found myself taking a seat at Crystal Bridges in one of my favorite sections of art. Having just been outside, I knew that darkness had settled all around. The lighting in the museum is soft, almost hushed, intentionally angled to highlight pieces, to invite illumination and shadow. We need the light and the dark to see the relief, the detail in the sculptures, the shadows in the painted compositions. It’s amazing and to me conveys the energy the pieces bear. The pieces themselves are alert and vivid but perfectly still . . . silent . . . waiting for the next person to round the corner and engage and notice so that the hidden meanings, the random strokes, every shade and hue can reveal itself to the reaction of another–be it fascination, disgust, or ambivalence. We need light to see, but we don’t need light to feel. We only need relationship, consent to engage one another that we might reveal to the world our beauty of creation, including our shadows, which are part of our beauty. We’re just waiting for the light to come and fully illumine us, that we might be restored in full relationship with God, one another, and ourselves. We yearn to be restored to the fullness of this Holy Presence.

“Show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”

We think we have to go someplace, do something special, say magic words, but as we say in our Psalm (and will say in our prayers Sunday morning), we need only the light of God’s countenance to be saved . . . from ourselves, from resignation, from the sin of turning away from God, losing ourselves in darkness void of Light. How God’s countenance is shown to us–where it manifests–will be many and varied and in moments and places we might otherwise miss, if we’re not anticipating the Presence to be there. The only thing we have to do is consistently be. Maintain wakefulness. Stay alert. Be aware. So that when we encounter those holy moments, we don’t miss them. Let our lights be dim at home this season. Turn off the notifications on our phones. Make space in our calendars to sit in silence or at least to seek stillness. (There are apps to help — Headspace and Calm are a couple.) Listen to the 1A podcast about silence from Thursday morning. Be alert enough to notice what surrounds us.

When we start to feel like we’re drowning in our own chaos, let’s not miss the Presence calling us into wholeness, casting out a cord of light, of hope so we don’t lose our way. This Advent season is about God restoring us through Christ, but we have to be open and alert to hear the message. It helps to slow down and get quiet to hear that still small voice. It’s okay to sit in the darkness, light a single candle, and wait in anticipation for the light to shine in expected and especially in unexpected ways. It’s what we’ve been waiting for, in this moment and the next. We’ve just been trying to get the timing and the light just right to illuminate what’s there all along: God, the presence of Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit.

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Allegiance, Servitude and Servanthood

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 | Psalm 100 | Ephesians 1:15-23 | Matthew 25:31-46

In 1925, Pope Pious XI established Christ the King feast day in the Roman Catholic Church as a response to rising secularism and especially as a counter to the Mexican government that was demanding ultimate allegiance. Those of us following the lectionary get the associated propers to remind us to whom we owe our ultimate allegiance: the King of kings and Lord of lords. As Americans, we have a complicated relationship with allegiance, with to whom or what we pledge our loyalty. We revolted against England to establish our own governance, and we pride ourselves on our independence. One of the reasons Anglicans had to expedite a new prayer book was because we had to remove allegiance paid to the English monarch, who also stood as defender of the faith. Today we are, however, expected to pledge allegiance to the flag and to the Republic for which it stands. Loyalty to the nation is a serious matter, and we’re still not sure how to conduct civil discourse when that loyalty is questioned or challenged.

I kept hearing Bob Dylan’s song, “Gotta Serve Somebody” in my head this week. In it, he’s basically saying it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody. “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord/But you’re gonna have to serve somebody” so the song goes.

Whom do we serve? Can we say with full confidence, like Joshua, “as for me and my household, we … serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:15)? If someone looks at our bank account, does it look like we’re a cheerful giver, not just to the church even but to worthwhile causes, too? If someone looks at our schedule, does it reflect times of prayer? If we believe in God, are we loyal to God? Do we pay allegiance to God?

And maybe a better question is “How do we serve God?”

Because, yes, we serve the Lord, we give, and we pray, but how do we do it? Because we’re told? Because we have to? Because we’re supposed to, so we do what we gotta do and be done with it and live our lives the way we want the rest of the time? You don’t have to tell me, but I bet you can come up with at least something you do that you just have to power through. You don’t want to do it, but it’s good for you, like my going to the gym. Or eating all those vegetables that are so good for you, like celery. There may be other things, too, that you do that are hard but you don’t want to admit but that just are, like going to funerals or nursing homes or even going to parties and special events. Maybe they just aren’t your thing. But you do it. You’re loyal. Sometimes that brings with it a sense of servitude. We don’t like it, but we do it. We push through it. We get it done, and we can probably describe in methodical detail every aspect of our tasks because we’re very conscientious about what it is we have to do, unless we’ve let ourselves develop a habit and stopped paying attention to why we do what we do. If we lose our conscientiousness about it, then we’ve become little more than an automaton going through the motions.

“Be joyful in the LORD, all you lands;/serve the LORD with gladness and come before his presence with a song” (Ps. 100:1) (I always think there should be an exclamation mark at the end of that sentence.) I don’t think an automaton makes a joyful servant. Do we serve God with gladness, with gladness and singleness of heart? Maybe not all the time but even sometimes?

Maybe you do this more than you know. When you are doing what you’re good at, when you’re settled into your groove, and when you’re humming or smiling or focusing so intently that all else fades away, that’s it: you’re serving with gladness and singleness of heart because you are being fully you. So often we try to complicate a sense of being a wholehearted person or someone fully restored to God, but it’s really quite simple. You be you to your fullest, and in that moment when you think you can’t hold anything else, be joyful that God has created you for this moment. Be glad that you are restored to your Creator through our Lord Jesus Christ, for however far away we’ve strayed, every moment we have the chance to return.

It doesn’t sound like we have infinite opportunity when we’ve heard so much about being cast out or accursed, with all the weeping and gnashing of teeth. But things aren’t always what they seem. Jesus wasn’t the stereotypical Messiah; I don’t expect him to be the typical King. How many kings liken themselves to shepherds?

God in Ezekiel likened God to the ultimate Good Shepherd, and then appointed David as prince and shepherd. Jesus likens himself to the Good Shepherd, one of my favorite Godly Play lessons. We want to be sheep of the Good Shepherd, loved, protected, known, and sought after. As archaic as the image seems to us, we get that a good shepherd is what the sheep want.

But what about strength and might, power and dominion?

Even the nations become like sheep and goats when the Son of Man returns, our gospel today imagines. Nations who may have persecuted the early followers of Christ, nations who may persecute the poor and weak today–all are judged by the rule of Christ the King. That rule, that measure isn’t about power; it’s about how well you loved. How well did you love God? How well did you love others? How well did you love yourself so you could reflect that love of God in the mobius strip of holy communion, no beginning, no end?

Ultimately, what matters most is how we are living into our servanthood. As faithful, loyal followers of Jesus Christ, how’s our servant’s heart? Are we humble, merciful, pure, strong, peacemakers (with God’s help, of course!)? Not because we have to but because it’s the right thing to do: do we feed the hungry, water the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, comfort the sick, and visit the imprisoned? Not just as individuals but as a nation? If not, why not? Whom are we serving?

In any of the advocacy work I’ve been a part of or causes I’ve supported, the bottom line in all of them is that true change starts at the ground level. It starts at a point and reaches a critical mass until it becomes a groundswell that changes things, forcing the top to move as the masses mandate. It doesn’t take an expert sociologist to tell us that we’re not a united people right now, not even united as Christians, I’m sorry to say. Some of us would probably rather see the face of God in another religious tradition than work with other members in the Body of Christ. What does that say about our heart? Our faith and love?

“We are his people and the sheep of his pasture.” We have the ability to serve with gladness and singleness of heart, to be joyful and sing. We also have the ability to go out and be a guiding light for our community and our nation. God’s will for us all is to be restored, to be returned to our fullness of glory in the image of God. What each of us does to that end is going to vary, but it’s something we get to do. We can ignore it, do it begrudgingly, or do it with love and joy. I promise it’s so much more rewarding to do it with love and joy. Not easier! Just ask the Ephesians. Ask those persecuted for righteousness’ sake. They wouldn’t describe their allegiance to God as bondage, a servitude suppressing their freedom. Rather, in their oppression by the powers of this world, their allegiance to God through Jesus Christ bound their hearts in solidarity to the Sovereign of all ages. The mutual love and affection to achieve glory not only fulfilled their best selves but also fulfills God’s will.

And Paul gives us a beautiful prayer for our servant-heart:

“I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”

Amen.

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