Ask. Search. Knock.

Hosea 1:2-10 | Psalm 85 | Colossians 2:6-19 | Luke 11:1-13


Many years ago, a disciple waited for Jesus to finish praying that he might beg of him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” I wonder if Jesus looked around at his followers, sort of bewildered, and thought, “What have we been doing all this time that they don’t know how to pray?” But Jesus gives a simple yet profound prayer, topped off with a little parable speaking to the payoffs of persistence and a not-so-subtle reminder of how great and gracious the heavenly Father is when it comes to responding to His children. As much as I would like to elaborate on each line of the Lord’s Prayer and swap stories about perseverance and answered prayers, these chairs are only comfortable for so long.

For our time in the Parish Hall, Lynn has very cleverly snuck in not only one of my favorite hymns but also a key to our message today: “Seek ye first.” (Now, for 8 o’clock, we don’t get to sing it, but hopefully you know it well.  Hymn 711, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God.”) It’s one of my favorites because it’s one of the first songs in The CampMitchellChapel-evening2016Episcopal Church that got into my heart and mind. I learned it at Camp Mitchell on retreat. No matter where I sing it, I imagine the echo of women’s voices singing it in the round, some voices breaking into parts. It has a Taizé-like quality to it: a simple hymn, easily repeated. The hymn draws from verse 9 of today’s reading, the second verse echoing what Jesus said to the disciples, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” Then we sing our refrain of Alleluias.

As far as I can tell, we’re flat-out being told that we’ll get what we ask for and find what we’re looking for, and if we just keep knocking, we’re going to get the door open. According to St. Bede, it’s the door to the Kingdom of God we’re striving to enter. Our asking is our prayer. Our searching is our proper living. Our knocking is our perseverance in our life and prayer. These three things help grant us entrance to the Kingdom of God, alleluia!

I think Bede’s onto something, and I certainly don’t question what Jesus says to his disciples. I do wonder, however, at how we think of asking, seeking, and knocking. We might get so caught up in asking and seeking and making sure we’re knocking at the right door that we get a little preoccupied with our self-righteousness and piety. In such cases, we end up playing the part of the hypocrite, our prayers false and our lives full of pretense but no depth. Or what of the faithful who pray devotedly, live righteously, and persevere mightily and who cannot seem to get a break? Maybe we know a few in that category, too.

As we look to Jesus for guidance in our praying, it’s important to think of how we ask of God.

Here I say “God” so freely, but Jesus instructs us in our prayer that we address the almighty as “Father,” perhaps because the name is so holy and revered, so hallowed, that we dare not presume to address the Most High directly . . . except as the most beloved Father we share through Christ. Before we ask the Father for anything, we acknowledge that it is God’s kingdom we wish to be manifest. Here the Matthean addition of “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Mtw 6:10) elaborates on the priority of God’s will over our own. The foundation before we ask for anything is that we acknowledge our God in holiness and our God in relationship to us. We also surrender ourselves as obedient children of God. Our surrender is to a good and loving God of whom we don’t necessarily have to ask, we sort of state to God: “Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” In our petitions, we are asking of God but also reminding ourselves of what God provides. We ask that God’s will be done and that we have the sustenance, forgiveness, and perseverance to be a part of the kingdom. So, how do we ask of God? Humbly and expectantly. No matter how old we are, we are but a child addressing our heavenly Father, and as such we do expect to receive, though we might not understand how the Holy Spirit is at work in God’s will or how God’s will is at work in us.

Our understanding can be improved, however, when we persist in our searching. It’s important to consider how we search for God.

Honestly, I wanted to say that it’s important to consider how we “look” for God, but we “look” for our keys when we’ve lost them. When we have asked something of God and are searching for where Spirit is at work in our lives, we aren’t just looking for signs, though we do hope to see them. In our searching, there is hope and yearning. In our searching, there is commitment. Maybe it plays on the psychology of intention, but when we focus our search on something, we become more aware, more likely to notice whatever it is we are searching for. We needn’t look any farther than ourselves. Rowan Williams says, “Prayer is the life of Jesus coming alive in you, so it is hardly surprising if it is absolutely bound up with a certain way of being human which is about reconciliation, mercy, and freely extending welcome and the love of God to others.” One of the best examples of this kind of Jesus-becoming is told in our book of saints, Holy Women, Holy Men. This past Wednesday, we honored Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Amelia Bloomer, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman. Reading their incredible bios, Sojourner Truth at one point took to the streets as an evangelist, proclaiming the Word. What she found on the streets, however, were people cold and hungry and homeless and unemployed. No doubt they needed the Word, but they needed daily bread and coats. They needed a place to live, so Sojourner established a home for them. What better way to preach the Gospel? What better way to discover God in the midst of the people? When we are living our lives as prayer, we can find God even when we think we aren’t searching. Finally for this morning,

 it’s important to consider where we think of God.

Where we think of God hinges on a fairly simple premise: is God here or in a great beyond? Are we praying to some far off God whose door to the kingdom is in some nearly mythical “heaven” that we’ll only know in death? Or, do we believe that the Holy One is closer than the air we breathe? Where is the door we need to knock on to let the kingdom come? Maybe it’s no farther than our mind and hearts. We have asked for it and sought it, why wouldn’t it be here for us to enter into? As comforting to us as it might be that the kingdom can be found in the here and now, there is great responsibility in choosing to knock and enter into the graciousness of God’s kingdom. It means returning to prayer again and again, discerning moment to moment. But it also means doing so in fullness of Spirit, as a revealed child of God, and for that glory, we heartily sing our alleluias before we get back to work, asking, seeking, and knocking.

 

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On Listening

Amos 8:1-12 | Psalm 52 | Colossians 1:15-28 | Luke 10:38-42


How grateful I am that we are able to come together this morning. We may have an altered location, but we have set apart a time and place to come together in worship and prayer, no matter what is going on in the world around us. We have set apart a time and a place to engage the Word of God, to offer our thanksgiving, and to receive the body and blood of Christ into our person. All this we do as is our habit, our custom. For most everyone here, it’s just our Sunday morning routine. Many could do it without a prayer book or bulletin. Indeed, you can do it without saying anything at all. You could just go through the motions, literally, but I invite you this morning

to be fully present.

In this holy place where more than two or three are gathered, I assure you that the presence of the Lord is here. I invite you this morning

to open your heart.

As sure as the presence of the Lord is here, so also is the Spirit speaking to us. I invite you this morning

to listen.

If we are present, open, and listening, we will not leave this place the same person as when we first entered. A true encounter with God leaves us a changed person.

Getting to that place of encounter, though, can be difficult. Even now, some of your minds may have already wandered, my voice a blur in the background to the interior monologue of your mind playing your tape of things to do, reminding you of things you might have forgotten. Or maybe you’re still struggling to be present, as I invited you to do just a minute ago. No, it hasn’t been long, but our brains these days are wired to focus for a max of about three minutes. If we were communicating online, our focus would only last about 45 seconds. I’m not making these numbers up. I listened to a program a couple of weeks ago called “Infomagical: BOOTCAMP.” “Infomagical” was about a 5-day challenge to fight information overload, but in this particular podcast bootcamp, they focused on the one thing that was most effective for being productive and anxiety-free: single-tasking. They interviewed a neuroscientist who affirmed that we truly only do one thing at a time, though we can shift quite quickly between our many tasks, cashing in a bit of glucose in exchange each time and increasing our stress levels. It’s no wonder Martha gets frantic. If we continue to follow the pace set by media Martha&MaryWindow-StLukesHSoutlets and social media networks, we’re all on a trajectory leading to burnout and exhaustion.

Then there’s Mary, who has chosen to listen to Jesus, devouring his every word. Mary knew how to single-task. We might say, like Augustine, that she is feasting on the Word before her. Mary sat at the feet of Jesus so transfixed upon him that we don’t hear her speak. Whether her mind is racing with questions or whether she’s struck with awe, we don’t know. But Jesus knew. Jesus knew she chose to stay attentive to his word, completely abandoning her duties as a first century woman. Jesus probably knew the weight of her heart and the truth of her soul.

For when we are present and open-hearted, we tend to reside in truth . . . vulnerable, naked truth.

When we listen in this state, it feels like another dimension opens up. It feels like an alternate reality because the walls that divide us are let down. My armor is cast aside; our barriers disappear. I don’t need a hearing aid or a microphone to hear or be heard because my whole being is attuned to you. Our minds track our thoughts, our eyes speak volumes, our hearts beat in time, and our voice when we speak gives voice to our soul. I hope with all hope that you’ve experienced this kind of listening with another. It is a gift. I can only imagine what Mary experienced listening to Jesus, both in what was said and unsaid.

Reflecting on this act of listening, I am reminded that the invitation to sit and feast on the Word is always available. CB last week reminded us that amidst all the distraction of the media and our own worries and concerns, that it is the Bible to which we should return for our guidance. Even as Jesus last week reminded us of our command to love our neighbors, this week he reminds us, too, to be attentive to Him, to be present and open to Him, and to listen to Him.

If you think that you’ve gone too far away from a life lived in truth or that it’s been too long since last you felt the presence of Christ as the word whispered in your heart, I share this story with you.

There is a practice of holy listening that I’ve experienced. I learned it through Parker Palmer’s work. As a Quaker, Palmer is quite familiar with the art of listening. He explains that often we need a third thing, something between us and Wisdom to invite that suppressed or too quiet voice to be heard. Like a wild fox in the forest, Wisdom waits for us to be very still, waits for us to be ready for the truth so we can hear it with love and without fear.

A poem makes for an excellent third thing because a good poem captures a moment yet reveals a universal truth which can then relate to our lives in myriad ways.

To a few men at the Garland County jail a couple of months ago, I brought a poem. Before I brought the poem, I brought the desire to hear their truths. I brought the belief that each of them is a beloved child of God. I brought the desire to listen to them and to help them listen to God.

With mutual trust we read the poem aloud. We highlighted words or phrases from David Whyte’s poem “Sometimes.” Some of the phrases that stood out were “move carefully,” “frightening requests,” and “questions that have no right to go away.” We shared what the phrases made us think of and what the images might mean to us individually. Each of us entered that sacred dimension of holy listening.

The poem is set in the woods. I invited the men to imagine walking in the woods with a beloved companion, someone they loved, trusted, and truly respected, someone who always had their back. And we asked questions of this beloved companion, honest, open questions that I didn’t know the answers to. We also let the companion respond to our questions. After a period of silence, most shared their responses, and I wish you could have felt the stillness of the room, how even in a cinderblock, windowless space, there was the presence of the holy.

Daring to break the silence, I invited them to regard their companion as their own best self, the child God created them to be. If that was too hard, they could regard their companion as Jesus. Either way, the encounter they had was with the Wisdom within, the Truth that abides in the Word, the Truth in which we are all held together through Christ Jesus.

With an “Amen,” I brought our exercise to a close. One of the guys looked at me directly and said, “I’ve never done anything like that before. That was intense.” Other guys nodded, and I saw in their eyes that some truly had encountered something. It wasn’t necessarily joyful and awesome. It wasn’t something they could necessarily give voice to beyond affirming its intensity. Whether their encounter changed them or not, that’s up to them to choose, but God was there to speak to them, to offer an invitation.

We don’t have to have a third thing to get to the one thing that matters most: opening our heart to Christ. It doesn’t simply mean opening the door to let Jesus in then getting on with our agenda. Opening our hearts to Christ means deeply ingesting the Word of God and receiving the fire of the Holy Spirit.

Opening our hearts to Christ means living in this world with a love so fierce that our hearts break in the suffering and bleed in the violence, trusting that our love in Christ remains steadfast and true and heals us all.

We listen to the Word as it fills our hearts and minds and then . . . and then we rise to do the work we have been given to do.

When we leave this place today after our prayerful encounter with God, we leave changed that we might change the world.

Amen.

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Priceless Discipleship

1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21 | Psalm 16 | Galatians 5:1, 13-25 | Luke 9:51-62


Rarely does one walk into an employment obligation without really knowing the full range of requirements, expectations, and compensation. Sure, a teenager might take a summer job and not know what her hourly wage will be, and her mother might sign up to be part of summer camp staff for a couple of weeks without a clue as what exactly to expect. But most people most of the time know what they’re signing up for. We want to make sure that we’ll be able to fulfill expectations and that the effort we put into something will be justly compensated. Our needs and abilities are paramount when we make these important decisions about how we invest our time and energy. When it comes to how we make our living, it’s a matter of getting the math to work in our favor. When it comes to how we live a life, however, especially a Christian life, it’s a matter of something else entirely. When we signed on to be Christians, we signed on to a life of discipleship. Even though discipleship is spelled out for us in the Word, we’re still trying to figure out what it means for us … and what it will cost us.

From what we learn from Elisha and the would-be followers of Jesus, one has to be crazy to be a disciple. Crazy because it doesn’t make sense in our fight or flight world to leave what is comfortable, to surrender oneself, or to let go of control. Who gives up everything to take on something new and unknown? But that’s what Elisha did when Elijah called him. Maybe not right at first, but when he realized that Elijah meant business, Elisha cut his ties quickly and followed Elijah completely, becoming his servant. Likewise, Jesus makes no qualms about the expectations of his followers. It’s going to be difficult. There are going to be times of alienation, and it’s going to require everything, all of their being, all of their focus. It’s all or nothing, and the same is true even today: Jesus demands our all with a focus as determined as he was with his sight set on Jerusalem.

This full demand of ourselves perhaps doesn’t sit so well with us because humanity’s evolutionary process and technological advances strive to make our lives successful and efficient. “We live in an environment of ease and abundance,” says National Geographic explorer and Blue Zones author Dan Buettner, but it turns out that ease and abundance are not serving us well. As we focus on making a living to keep life easy and abundant, we can end up caught in a hamster wheel of stress, illness, and discontent, chasing an illusion. Continuing that cycle seems crazy, too.

The Blue Zones that Buettner studied are places where people live longer, healthier, and happier lives. Yes, diet and natural exercise are important factors, but so are one’s outlook on life and sense of belonging. Having a sense of purpose, knowing what one’s purpose is, along with belonging to a family and practicing a faith tradition are crucial components of living a fulfilling life. (I’m fairly certain some of you are already in on these not-so-secret ideas.)

There was also a recent article about an assistant professor of psychology at Sewanee who conducted a study to compare “the emotional efficacy of strategies that people might use to make themselves feel better–doing something nice for themselves, doing something to benefit another person, and doing something for the betterment of the world.” Again, not-so-surprisingly, doing something for others or for the world enhances one’s well-being by increasing experiences of feelings like love, gratitude, and trust. Contrary to media and advertising, doing something self-indulgent like getting a massage, going shopping, or eating a decadent dessert has the same long-lasting effect on well-being and happiness as doing nothing.

So where does that leave us? I think it leaves us pondering upon Paul’s words to the Galatians. “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another” (Gal 5:13). We have the freedom to do what we want, which means we can remain contained in a finite web centered upon ourselves. But we also have the freedom to seek and to serve the kingdom of God, opening our lives to the infinite. We cannot open to the infinite on our own but only through Christ. We are invited to be willing servants to one another through Christ, through love, and it’s not without compensation.

As disciples of Christ, we follow his way, expressing our love of God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. We follow his way, loving our neighbors as ourselves. We follow his way, teaching the Good News of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension, making way for more disciples. We use the resources and gifts that we have because we realize that they are all from God. Even in our feeble understanding and humKeller Dining Hall, Camp Mitchell, Arkansasble efforts, God sees fit to nurture within us fruits of the Spirit. These are our rewards in our faithful service: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. When manifest, these fruits further empower the works of the devoted disciples to do things we didn’t think we were capable of. Moments marked with signs of these fruits are beyond precious and remind us how near and dear God moves through the Holy Spirit.

It’s okay to be the crazy Christian. We can all be the disciple who accepts the call of God, who embarks upon the thankless, sometimes dangerous, and unpredictable adventure of discipleship. “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit” (Gal 5:25). We can trust the work that we do or the hobbies that we have to enrich our witness to Christ as we proclaim the name of God and not only make disciples of others but become better disciples ourselves.

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Jesus Was Amazed

1 Kings 18:20-39 | Psalm 96 | Galatians 1:1-12 | Luke 7:1-10

It occurs to me that to get our attention these days, things are either all or nothing, really bad or really good. The news tends toward the overly dramatic, creating sound bytes or headlines that grab our attention or get our adrenaline pumping. How often do we think or say “That’s horrible!” or “That’s amazing!” Perhaps like me, you’ve become a little numb to all the drama, especially when it’s mostly horrible. Maybe we’ve forgotten what it’s like or how to be amazed.

If we sort the information we receive into buckets we label either horrible or amazing, our “horrible” bucket is overflowing. Thanks to our ability to communicate instantly worldwide and distribute information nearly as quickly, we can know about almost anything anywhere, especially if it’s tragic. In the car in the mornings, I sometimes brace myself to listen to Morning Edition on NPR. I listen to the most recent bombings, conflicts, debates, crashes, market reports, and research–all in the matter of a few minutes. This past week there was a report released from the World Health Organization that in the past two years there have been 1,000 deaths in the Doctors Without Borders organization, 60% of which were intentional attacks on the medical facilities themselves. This statistic strikes particularly hard because we realize that the victims are medical professionals there to help the defenseless in the tumultuous and under-served regions…or are the defenseless themselves.

With this report lingering in my consciousness, I was looking forward in our church calendar, looking up readings in our lectionary for this next weekend’s Women’s Institute. We have lesser feasts that honor not only saints but also martyrs, those who have died in defense of the faith. Thursday and Friday this next week we commemorate martyrs of the church, people whose lives were cut short by others who were threatened by the faithful and their work, their mission to spread the gospel.

The way our minds work and make associations, I found myself making a connection between the victims of violence–those associated with Doctors Without Borders–and their desire to serve and heal those who otherwise wouldn’t have access to care. The techs, nurses, doctors, and others knew the risks of their assignment and went forth bravely, much like the fallen soldiers we remember on Monday. In this moment of connection, I get a sense of the courage, purpose, and determination that exists in the willingness to face whatever may come because there is something good at stake. There is liberty to defend. There is an orphaned child to be nursed in hope. There are traumatized men and women who need to be reminded that there is a future worth defending not just with military might but also with compassion. That good is worth our very life.

This connection, this bit of insight, doesn’t make the news less horrible, but it does allow me to contribute something unsaid yet understood toward the amazing side of things. The services contributed by Doctors Without Borders and other humanitarian organizations, let alone the services offered by our military are often, I’m sorry to say, taken for granted . . . until we meet someone or hear a story that reminds us how much is at stake when they commit to serve, especially in dangerous territory. Their willingness to serve, even to death, is truly amazing and worthy of every remembrance we can offer.

Another bit of news recently was something of a different nature, something that immediately came across as amazing: the laughing Chewbacca mom video that went viral on Facebook, watched by more than 151 million people. If you’re among the few that haven’t seen the video, I can tell you that it’s a phone video of a mom in her van in a Kohl’s parking lot. The mom wants to show off her birthday gift to her friends. She makes clear the gift is for herself and not her kids and then reveals her plastic Star Wars Chewbacca mask. The mask has this great feature that when you open your mouth or lower your jaw, it makes the Wookie talking sound. That doesn’t seem all that amazing, but what happens is that the woman gets tickled when she sees herself in the mask and hears the Wookie-speak. She laughs and laughs. Belly-shaking, tear-producing laughter. When she finally removes the mask, she wipes away her laughing tears and tells her viewers, “Have an incredible day; it’s the simple joys,” as she ends the recording laughing some more.

Her name is Candace, a mom squeezing in time to do something for herself before she picks up her kids from school. What’s amazing is that in just over a week, millions of people have laughed with her. For almost four minutes, they tasted her simple joy and were able to pause for a moment and delight in life. Not surprisingly, that’s something Candace intended. She also happens to be a worship leader and church volunteer in Texas and gives all thanks to God for the joy in her life. Maybe that’s what people tasted and shared so readily–so hungry are we for the amazingly good and joyful in life. Have we forgotten how simple it is to be joyful?

A willingness to serve and a joyful heart are undoubtedly significant ingredients in creating the amazing. With the upcoming music festival, I’m sure many will be amazed. Musicians pour their hearts and souls into hours of practice and rehearsal and attention to all the details that make for a memorable performance. (I’m sure Lynn might add that there’s sometimes blood, sweat, and tears, too.) I was listening to an interview with cellist Yo-Yo Ma the other day, and he shared that in his understanding of life, our role as humans is to participate fully, to show up and ask, “What can I do to help?” Because we often don’t know the answer, we’re in a vulnerable position. If we mean it, we’re asking selflessly, for a purpose greater than ourselves. If we mean it, we ask humbly because we’re not trying to prove anything. Yo-Yo Ma says later in the interview that we’re just showing that what we do makes us all better. Having an outlook that chooses joy and embodies hospitality, Yo-Yo Ma makes incredible music whether he plays solo or with others, music that inspires awe and wonder. That’s what he does to participate fully, to the benefit of us all.

A doctor’s service, a mother’s infectious laugh, a musician’s talent–however simple or profound–they are all amazing in their connection with others. Their dedication and joy reveals the beauty of what is readily available to us all when we reach beyond ourselves.

One man selflessly, vulnerably, and humbly sought out another’s help to heal his slave. Rather than ignore the slave or chalk it up as another tally in a list of horrible events, he recalled someone different, someone with power similar to but even greater than his own. For a moment he might have wondered, but so certain was the centurion in Jesus’ might and power, that he asked Jesus only to speak his word, and the centurion knew that it would be done.

Yet it was Jesus who was amazed.

To amaze someone doesn’t only mean to be surprised. It can mean to be filled with wonder. In our gospel today, the most amazing thing is not that the slave was healed–at a distance, even without a verbal command that we know of, as awesome as that is. What was most amazing–enough to amaze the Son of God–was the faith of one to come forward, respectfully and humbly, to petition on behalf of his slave. The faith of the centurion, one presumed to be an enemy to the Jews, amazed Jesus. Maybe in that moment when Jesus recognized the faith of the centurion, the truth of his heart, he recognized the opening of the hearts of those whom had previously seemed closed to following His way. Maybe Jesus was both surprised at the man’s turn toward God and filled with wonder at what it meant for the future of the God’s kingdom.

How often do we amaze the Divine?

How often do we move forward in the defense of our faith, in the defense of the good, for the benefit of our neighbor, a stranger, or our enemy? How often does our delight in God erupt as joy so as to transcend all barriers and kindle light and life and love where there had been an abundance of death and fear? My guess is that it happens way more often than we realize because we are preoccupied with protecting ourselves from what is horrible in this world. Being Christian, we didn’t sign up for a safe and easy way of life, nor did we sign up to be ignorant and oblivious. We signed up to follow Jesus, and today Jesus shows us that we are to be amazed–amazed at unexpected realizations, simple joys, beauty abundant, and the power of our faith in Christ. And all thanks be to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we also signed up to be amazing.

 

 

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On Glory

Acts 16:16-34 | Psalm 97 | Revelation 22:12-14,16-17,20-21 | John 17:20-26

Wednesday morning chapel is now one of the highlights of my week during the school year. Looking out into the sea of about 60 bright eyed children and the dedicated, nurturing teachers, I hope that what I say in the few moments of my homily will plant a seed of God’s whole and everlasting love in them. I hope they have something to take away with them because I won’t always be there to remind them that they are beloved children of God, and I know that they are growing up in a world of pain and suffering.

Isn’t that typical of a good mother? To want to protect her children?

And there are lots of children to be protected.

The little second-grade boy who, while we were standing in the lunch line, told me his mom was in jail, and the boy behind him who told me he was about to get out of DHS.

The 13-year-old girl who tried to commit suicide.

The 17-year-old transgendered child kicked out of the house.

The 25-year-old busted for meth, though he’s been using since he was 14.

The 35-year-old refugee whose spouse died, leaving him with the toddler and no home.

The 45-year-old single mom who went in for a routine mammogram and ended up with a same-day biopsy.

The 59-year-old who learns about her biological parents and siblings for the first time.

The 64-year-old who hears the confession and remorse of her molester who is dying and thinks she is someone else.

The 80-something-year-old who loses mobility, not just outside the home but within the house, too.

And the 98-year-old who grimaces with pain and fear of the unknown.

These—all of these—are children, precious babies who are in the midst of suffering. Mamas who care want to eliminate the pain.

How many of you have heard or said, “Honey, if I could take away your pain, I would”? How many of you have actually crossed hell and high water to do so, or at least to try?

Glennon Doyle Melton spoke at Trinity Cathedral a couple of weeks ago, wrapping up the Insights lecture series. She’s acclaimed for writing her truth on her blog Momastery.com.

In her writing, she shares the truth she knows as a wife, mother, recovering addict, and lover of Jesus, and people have discovered that her speaking matches her writing. The cathedral was literally full of giddy women, excited to hear her in person. She shared her stories and how they intersected with other women’s stories, usually meeting at that important point of vulnerability.

One woman told her what a failure she thought herself as a mother because her son was in the throws of addiction, of pain. Glennon, in the crazy-wise way she has, basically said to the woman, “Oh, honey, I hear you. I heard you say you’re a failure. So what is it that you think a mother does? What’s your job description?”

And the woman says, “Well, to protect my child, to keep him from getting hurt.”

“Mmm-hmmm, and what are your hopes for your child?” Glennon asks.

“That he grows into a strong, resilient, confident man,” the mother says.

“And how do we become strong and resilient?” Glennon asks.

The dawn of realization can be awesomely beautiful and painfully brutal, like life itself, which is why Glennon coined the term brutiful. The brutiful truth, they tearfully acknowledged, is that we go through suffering and emerge stronger than we were before, resilient in an enduring sort of way, and confident of our place in this brutiful life.

Maybe a more realistic job description for mothers is to love and sustain life, life that is given to us. All life originates in God, and we are given the care of life in this world. We just have to make it through the suffering parts. Just.

God knows we need help.

So the Son of God comes and lives among us. Jesus goes to the sick and the suffering or they come to him, and he heals them. Their pain is taken away. It seems miraculous and magical and transactional, but really it’s transformational. When it happens so quickly, it’s hard to distinguish, except that for the healed persons, their life is forever changed in a way only they and God know. They’ve not just been physically healed by God; they’ve been restored to wholeness, their full glory.

Do we even know what that means?

Glory?

Because it caused me pause.

I had to stop and realize that I didn’t really know what Jesus meant when he said to God that he wanted us to be with him, to see his glory, the glory given to him because God loved him before the foundation of the world. It sounds great. It resonates within me but doesn’t register consciously in my brain.

So I looked at different definitions of “glory” and how we use it in our liturgy (because we use it a lot). We have our doxology: “Glory to God in the highest,” we sing. We partner glory and honor because it can mean high regard and esteem, and we do hold God in the highest regard, so we use glory because it’s the best we can do with our finite language.

But what about this glory that’s given to Jesus by God? The glory restored in those who are healed? Wouldn’t you know that I opened my e-mail Friday morning to the daily message from the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, and in the little preview line on my phone, their word for the day in bold was GLORY.

I gasped out loud because I had seriously been wondering about glory. (Y’all, when we seriously wonder in the presence of God, we need to keep our eyes and ears open because we’re going to run smack dab into it.) Brother Curtis told me—because I know he was just speaking to me (let alone the thousands others who read these things)—

“Glory, or to be glorified, is to teem with God’s light and life and love. It’s to draw from the deepest waters of life, how the psalmist prays: ‘For you are the well of life, and in your light we see light.’ The Gospel writers speak of glory as if someone were simply luminous, irradiated with God’s light and life and love.”

That’s the understanding of glory that resonates within me so deeply that it strikes the chord of Truth and sends chills up my spine.

Jesus, Son of God, perfectly shone forth in glory, though he was disguised to those who did not believe. It looks like he healed by flicking a switch, but it was the power of recognition that transformed lives. Letting ourselves see Jesus in full glory and doing the even harder thing of recognizing the glory within us changes things. That glory of light and life and love is already in us, being as we are, created in God’s image, but our glory gets buried under layers upon layers of stuff we accumulate throughout life. To let that light and life and love break through is going to hurt, and often it’s going to hurt badly.

Our God knows this too, and I imagine God saying, “Son, go and show my children—your brothers and sisters—go show them Truth. You go and live out your life revealing our glory, and there are those who will recognize us. You’re going to go through the suffering of them all, for them all, to show them the way back to me. You’re going to die, but you’ll go back to them after three days to show them Life and Love and Light fully revealed. You’re going to be among them in your fullness of Glory, and you’re going to tell them that you will be with them forever. And then you’re going to return to Me, and we will abide and welcome all the children as they come to us.”

Jesus knew this to be true and lives out his brutiful life even through death.

Now we are in the season where Jesus has ascended and is gone again, even though he said he’d be with us always, and it doesn’t seem to make much sense.

But Jesus said those things about being one with the Father and with us. He said that thing about giving us the glory that he had been given. He said that thing about love being most important, and he did that thing about redeeming all suffering.

So what are we left to do?

Maybe instead of thinking about being a perfect mom or dad, friend or relative, husband or wife… Maybe instead we should ask ourselves:

What is my role as a child of God?

What is my responsibility to the One who gives me life and light and love?

Our responsibility might look more like a challenge, for we are to grow into our God-given glory and show God’s glory to the world as best we can. We already have the glory dwelling within us. It’s our work—even through suffering and death—to grow into that glory.

We do this through grace and steadfast faith, hope, and love and whatever other gifts we are given. We study the Scripture and the lives of those in our tradition that teach us how to grow toward God. We spend our entire lives as children reaching toward our beloved parent. If we choose to grow into God’s glory, we can’t help but radiate with glory, revealing it to the world around us. We might even realize that every bit of everything is all One in God.

Recognizing our glory and seeing God’s glory in others, even if they don’t see it themselves, changes us, changes our worldview.

We come closer to seeing ourselves and those around us as I imagine God sees us,

with whole and everlasting love. So when I look out at the sea of faces, be they the children in chapel or yours here today, I know I don’t have to protect you or give any of you what’s not mine to give. My responsibility and privilege is to love you, be with you, and to share in the hope of our wholeness in God in every way I can. God’s already given you the glory, already planted that seed.

I see it in you.

I hope you see it, too.

 

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O God, You are my God

Exodus 3:1-15 | Psalm 63:1-8 | 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 | Luke 13:1-9

You may have heard about Trinity Cathedral’s new offering Insights, a series of lectures and talks highlighting some of America’s leading religious writers and theologians. There are two more coming up in April that I hope to make it to, but I was able to go to the one on February 18th when Diana Butler Bass was the speaker. Bass has written nine books on American religion, and after holding positions at universities and as a columnist, her bio at the back of the book describes her now as an “independent scholar.” She’s gone rogue, I guess you could say, not because she’s any less grounded in her faith but I’m guessing it’s because how she understands religion and spirituality today isn’t necessarily fitting into a tidy, traditional category in the academy. In fact, her most recent book Grounded is subtitled Finding God in the World / A Spiritual Revolution because she thinks there is a spiritual revolution afoot. That revolution is intricately tied to finding God in the world, and the God we encounter in the world might be quite different from the God we have been taught to believe in.

Maybe she’s preaching somewhere this Sunday or maybe it is, as she said, her favorite Old Testament story, but Bass specifically spoke about Moses and the burning bush. I hate to reduce all of what she said to one takeaway, but a point she emphasized about Moses’ encounter with God was that even though Moses met God on holy ground, Moses’ understanding of where a deity was located was very much based on an understanding of a world where heaven is above, separate from earth. Whatever Moses’ awe and wonder and curiosity, there is fear because God came down to earth. While Moses does question God’s instruction and shows a reluctance to do what God is telling him to do, there’s not really any question about the fact that Moses is going to do what the great I AM is telling him to do. There is a sense of understood obedience, and it’s no wonder that he was obedient, given the show of power and might God provided and the dire consequences God subsequently showed for those who did not cooperate. There’s a sort of do-things-God’s-way-or-else understanding of God.

Paul in First Corinthians affirms such an understanding of God, reminding the Corinthians that “God was not pleased with most of (their ancestors)” who were following Moses and that “they were struck down in the wilderness.” Trying to bring a sense of order to his church plants, it makes perfect sense that Paul would appeal to the authority of tradition and the power of fear. A top-down theology, like a hierarchy, is pretty easy to understand, and it’s easy to maintain so long as everyone falls into their place. If they step out of line, they might get struck down, or they could be cast out. The consolation that the believers will not be tested beyond their strength can still come across as a bit of warning. To be safe, all should be upright and blameless.

If we have grown up with religion telling us what to believe about God and what to do based on those beliefs or else suffer punishment and/or eternal damnation, there is no wonder that our understanding of God is tightly woven with fear and judgment.

So when I read and hear Jesus’s parable about a man telling his gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” what I hear is the litany of my own shortcomings, a lifetime of criticisms real and imagined. My inner critic or what Brené Brown calls the “gremlins” seize the opportunity to remind me how unworthy I am. I’ll never amount to much. I’m just as bad as the worst of the sinners, destined to perish. I’ll just get my handbasket, and you’ll probably need one, too, for where we’re going, where we deserve to go.

This tape I have playing in my head about my unworthiness and my inability to do anything good enough is based upon a judgmental, conditionally loving God. My striving for perfection is a fear of disapproval, that not everyone and especially not God will be pleased. But God’s love is unconditional. “God is faithful,” Paul repeats more than once, and I believe he says it with sincerity.

God is faithful and steadfast. God keeps the covenant. God has given us this wild and beautiful life, has been with us all the while, and we are good.

With life, God has given us choice. Yes, we will all perish; our mortality is certain. Yes, we get off track from God’s will and don’t make the best choices. We perish and die like everyone else, as Jesus said, unless we repent. Whether or not we perish in our life in Christ is up to us.

Repenting does not mean that we call to God and God turns toward us. When we repent, we turn toward God who has been perfectly God all along. When we repent, we see our shortcomings perhaps as God sees them: how they did not celebrate life, did not share in love, and did not glorify God. Most often we are sorry and ashamed, but God sees our repentance as well and good and looks forward to what we will make from our time of fertilization and toward the fruits we will bear. Our very repentance affirms hope and goodness in the world and ourselves, let alone our eternal life in God. This God tending to me is close and personal and knows the intense, intimate joy of mutual love: the psalm we read today conveys a thing or two about such a relationship.

The fastest growing sector in America’s religious landscape is the non-religiously affiliated folks, but it does not mean that these people do not believe in something greater than themselves. They might encounter their “higher power”–whom we call God–while sitting in a kayak on Lake Ouchita, while watching the sun set over the golf course, or while holding the washcloth on their loved one’s feverish forehead. These can be powerful Spirit-filled experiences. I think we would agree that God is very much present at those times, and we can affirm such spiritual experiences within our religious tradition.

But there are those who have no context for a religion that incorporates their spirituality, their personal experiences of God.

Rather than have to “buy in” to a particular religion, especially one that is going to tell them how to encounter God, they prefer to go rogue and encounter Spirit on their own terms. These folks often identify as “spiritual but not religious.”

I understand this perspective, especially as one who broke away from the tradition of my upbringing. What I know of God is greatly shaped by my experiences. I consider myself fortunate to have found a religious tradition in The Episcopal Church that makes sense to me both religiously and spiritually, a tradition that encourages me to continue to ask questions to learn and grow, drawing from a long history of tradition and the deep well of Scripture.

What I also know is the struggle of digging deep and the stench of manure flung far and wide as I grow in faith. There have been parts of me that have died in the wilderness, branches that have been cut down by choices I have made. I take for granted that I am here at all until something happens, like a man looking at me through tired eyes and tears, telling me God has saved his life twice in the past week from being cut down. He looks at me and cries, “Why?” We keep talking, and he’s sure that God has a purpose for him because God won’t just let him die. I pray with him, and he raises his hands in prayer, turning his head up toward God, I presume. I bow my head in reverence. This is a holy moment. Here and now. The man left in hope, in hope that he still has fruit to bear.

We have the tremendous challenge, responsibility, and opportunity to proclaim God’s presence in the world. This might mean each of us has to go rogue in some sense, too, departing from existing norms to break into the freedom of a life lived for and with God. Living into our relationship with God through the Body of Christ, it is up to us not only to recognize God in the unsung glories and small miracles of everyday life but also to recognize and call out when we turn away from God individually and corporately. It is up to us to give witness to the presence of God in our sufferings, when that manure is hitting the fan, when we’re still deep in the wilderness, and the hope of resurrection seems far off. It is up to us to teach what we have learned about life in this world when lived in relationship with Jesus Christ and with one another.

What I’ve learned and what you’ve learned in the ongoing story of our faith enlivens our religious tradition and breathes life into the church. The revolution is that our understanding of God is coming from the ground of our being, from our experiences, rather than us understanding God solely from what we’ve been told. God only knows where it leads us, but as long as we keep turning toward God and seeking God, as long as we grow in the way of Jesus, the only baskets we’ll need are those to harvest our fruit.

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Glory & Prayer

Exodus 34:29-35 | Psalm 99 | 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2 | Luke 9:28-43a

There’s a lot of energy buzzing around with it being Super Bowl Sunday, with racing season underway, and with Mardi Gras beads all around. Even the daffodils and hyacinth are blooming around the church. There’s lively spring energy everywhere, life and light shining all around us. To top it all off before we enter the coming season of Lent, we get a glimpse of the glory of God revealed in the radiant transfiguration of Jesus, as Luke would tell it. And as Luke would tell it, “Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray” (Lk 9:28).

If you’ve been doing Bible study (especially with CB) for any length of time or have been in Christian ed these past few weeks, you know that the gospel writers usually have a slightly different account to give for the same event. Such is the case for the account of the Transfiguration. It’s mostly the same, but little things are different between them. For instance, Luke is the only one to say Jesus and all were going up on the mountain to pray and that it was while Jesus was praying that “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” In all three synoptic gospels, however, there’s the voice from the cloud that tells them to listen to Jesus.

We’ve spent these past weeks in Epiphany highlighting Jesus’s life, giving witness to the works of the Son of God, the Light of the world, in what we might call ordinary time. After all, today isn’t the Feast of the Transfiguration (which comes in early August). Today’s gospel is a glimpse into Jesus’s life at the very basic level of who he is–the beloved, chosen Son of God, full of greatness and glory–and of what is to come–his departure.

OptimisticHikeWanting to dig deeper in the text in a different kind of way, I took advantage of this beautiful weather we’re having to go for a hike . . . up a mountain. I hadn’t yet been on any of the trails on West Mountain, so I thought I’d give it a go.

First of all, I didn’t listen to the directions I was given very well, and I ended up at the trailhead on Blacksnake Road, at the Sunset trail.

Second, I had realized earlier in the morning that not only had I forgotten the rest of my coffee but I had also forgotten my water bottle on the kitchen counter at home.

Third, I had no snacks or bars with me, and it was the noon hour, over four hours since I’d eaten breakfast.

For consolation, I told myself that I didn’t have to go far, that the steps would be good for me, and that if I got tired, I could turn back.

As I walked along the uphill trail–for it starts out uphill right away–I had to watch the rocky path and pay attention to my footing, but I also imagined following Jesus up a mountain, not knowing exactly where we were going or what we were going to do. Those thoughts drifted to noticing the trees around me, tall and skeletal, the scurry of something in the dead, dry leaves, my heart pulsing in my ears, and the white hot sun.

Directly over the top of the mountain, there shone the sun, so white it made me wonder why we color it yellow when it’s high in the sky. It shone so brightly that even the shadows of the trees weren’t very dark, and I was grateful for the cool breeze that kept me from feeling too hot, though my body had already begun to sweat. The sunlight was strong and all-encompassing. I could turn away from it, but it was always there, shining all around me and drawing attention to the nakedness of the woods in wintertime.

NotQuiteThereWhen I got to the sign that said I had 1 ¾ mile left to get to the lookout, I was thirsty and tired and wished I had been better prepared. I risked a glance at the sun, and then with spots in my vision, I turned back the way I came, downhill all the way.

No, I didn’t have any grand epiphany on my partial-mountain hike, but through the bare trees, I took in some beautiful views. Up on the trail, the air was fresh and cool, and there was a sense of clarity of thought and vision, helped along, I’m sure, by the bright blue sky. It makes perfect sense why Jesus would go to a mountain top to pray, putting for the effort to escape the crowds that surrounded him below.

It also makes sense that Jesus brought three of his apostles with him, to witness what happened, even if they didn’t understand it, and to hear the voice command them to listen to Jesus. For Jesus had already told them once that he would be killed and rise again. He would tell them again, more than once. He had already told them to take up their cross and follow him at great cost. He would reiterate the cost of discipleship and continue to tell them more about the kingdom of heaven. More than tell them, he would show them, and he would continue to pray with them.

Jesus doesn’t become some esoteric hermit in a mountain top cave. He does everything he sets out to do, with us and among us, before us and beyond us.

And he tries to get it through our thick skulls and our hardened or broken hearts that all of His life here on Earth is to bring us into the glory of God, to bring us into the kingdom sooner or later. I think Luke gives us a hint here today that prayer is a surefire key to tap into the glory of God, which is all-encompassing and strengthens us to make it through the peaks and valleys of our lives. The glory of God gives us strength because it is assurance that love and life prevails.

A great crowd was anxious to get to Jesus when he got back from the mountain top. One of them was a father who had a child who needed to be rid of a demon. Luke shows us an annoyed Jesus who even then is able to heal the boy and show the greatness of God. In Mark’s account, though, which has a kind of private debriefing with the twelve, Jesus tells his bewildered disciples that the kind of demon the boy had could “come out only through prayer” (Mk 9:29).

When darkness descends, when the demons fill our mind, sometimes our only recourse is prayer. Prayers our faith has taught us. Prayers we speak spontaneously. Prayers we repeat again and again because they give voice to our deepest longing, our greatest hopes, and biggest fears. It can be the words of prayer or our place of prayer or our very mindset that we have when we are deep in prayer that recall for us the real presence of Christ in our midst. Prayer can be a soothing balm for our souls or a suit of armor as we live into that hardest prayer of “God’s will be done.”

I think it is in times of prayer that Jesus aligns himself with God’s will. We might like to think he’s going apart to find a little peace and quiet, to get away from the loud and demanding masses. I imagine he is seeking peace and quiet, the kind of stillness that comes from being fully aligned with the will of God. As humans, living into God’s will is our ongoing struggle, one we persevere through with unceasing prayer.

The former admissions coordinator for Sewanee had a saying: “Stay prayed up.” She told me in her Tennessee twang, “If we’re all prayed up, we’re never far from His will.” If we’re prayed up, we realize we don’t have to hike to mountain tops to witness the glory of God. If we’re prayed up, we have the assurance of faith to see us through the valleys. If we’re prayed up, we are ready to traverse some darkness and do some soul clearing and renewing before reaching the Easter Light. Even if we know the glory of God is with us all along, we keep praying.

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Power for Purpose

 

Isaiah 62:1-5 | 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 | John 2:1-11

We pass signs all day long, often reading them without thinking. One of my kids’ kindergarten teachers showed me that children, even before they can read, can tell what company, store, or restaurant a sign–or well-branded logo–represent. Looking at the exercise sheet, I realized at a glance that I could, too. I mean, it’s hard to miss the Golden Arches or the Coca-Cola script. How often is it that when we see something, we know exactly what it means, what it represents? Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding feast, and this is the first of his signs. Honestly, we’re a little clearer on the cross and what it means and choose that for our corporate branding–and it works well, don’t get me wrong. But there’s something to this little water to wine miracle that saved a celebratory feast, something about Jesus doing what only he could do: using his power for a purpose.

I wonder what made Mary think that Jesus could do something about the situation. We’ve probably all been at parties that are starting to turn south–it could be that the d.j. is bad or the food or drink runs out too soon. It gets embarrassing, really; at a wedding it can be truly humiliating. I read in a commentary that perhaps Jesus and his buddies didn’t bring their contribution to the wedding and could have been part of the reason for the early shortage–a good reason for a mother to call out her son. But maybe Mary’s reasoning came from the hunch of a mother who had faced difficult times before and had been comforted by this special child, now a man. Maybe in years before, Jesus has showed her hands that could soothe a tired and weary mind, eyes that could console the sorrowful, and laughter that brought joy to the surface. Maybe those were some of Mary’s experiences that made her, in this situation, look to her beloved son to make things right.

And he could.

And he did.

The act was performed. Witnesses beheld the miracle. A feast was redeemed, made even better than before. Surely the guests were enlivened by the freely flowing spirit around them. (I think there’s some foreshadowing here of what will be when Jesus’s true hour has come.)

Even though he says his hour hasn’t yet come, when called upon, Jesus performs the task at hand. Like us, Mary sees what is before her and can foresee the disaster about to unfold. Jesus, however, with the mind of God, probably thought on a different scale. On a scale both large and small, Jesus makes the world a better place. Jesus brings light into the world by the very nature of who he is, both God and man. Yes, Jesus, the bridal party is out of wine; make these jars full of wine through the power of Spirit, as you will, in time, fill our cups with promise of life everlasting. We see what you’re doing here.

This wedding miracle is not itself a simple sign, a mere advertising gimmick branding Jesus as miracle worker, though a miracle worker he is. He who is wisdom and light bears this gift . . . and all the other gifts of Spirit, too, because that’s his nature. Jesus is the Son of God. His very nature is his power, and he chooses to use it for a purpose, drawing us ever closer into relationship as a bridegroom does his bride.

At our baptisms, we are bestowed with gifts of the Spirit.

Each of us has gifts.

Each of us has power.

A few years ago at the Choir Camp Festival Day at Subiaco Abbey, I saw a friend whom I hadn’t seen in years. It was quiet, of course, prior to the service, so I couldn’t squeal in delight as some of us are prone to do, but I did sort of leap up and outstretch my arms, greeting her with a huge smile and an all-embracing hug. We stepped apart, still holding arms, and smiled some more, not saying a word. It was just a moment. Joyful, beautiful, and heartwarming.

As she turned toward her seat, I heard a man’s voice say, “Sara, be careful how you use that power.” In the pew behind me sat my liaison to the Commission on Ministry. I hadn’t yet left for seminary but was already deep in the discernment process. I still haven’t forgotten what he said or the way he looked at me with wise eyes and a knowing smile.

I have come to see my smile as a gift, one I freely share with others, but it is only a sign of the greater gift that is joy. Though I thank my parents for getting me braces when I was younger, you can’t buy joy that a genuine smile conveys. A true gift is precious and priceless, which is part of the reason why we feel such loss when those who share their gifts with us die. There’s a collective grieving this week with the loss of David Bowie and Alan Rickman. And if we think of others whom we have loved and lost, their gifts, too, often come to mind because when they shared those gifts, we knew we were witnessing something special if not miraculous.

Paul says,

“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”

Our gifts aren’t ours alone. What greater service than to share our gifts with others? What greater good than sharing our gift as a sign of Christ’s presence in the world, shining light into what can often be a dismal scene?

I hope that we are all aware of some of our gifts. Sometimes we need someone to point them out to us. It’s completely normal to take what comes naturally for granted. That doesn’t make it a good thing, but it happens. Moms can be great people to call out our gifts. A friend who knows you well or even a complete stranger can also recognize a gift if they’re paying attention. Just this week at the elementary school where I mentor, while I was signing out of the computer, a man told the others in the office, “You know, if everyone had a smile like that woman, the world would be a better place.”

Maybe it’s your smile. Maybe it’s your music. Maybe it’s your sportsmanship or prowess with numbers; your ability to operate on bodies or manage corporations or build bridges, towers, or spacecraft. Maybe it’s your intuition, your understanding, your ability to be present. Whatever your gifts–because we do have more than one–I urge you to recognize it and nurture it. Give thanks to God for it and pray for guidance in how and when to use it for the common good, especially if it fosters faith, hope, and love. We can’t count on someone else to be or do something better because God needs each of us to shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory in the world as only we can.

Like the servants ladling out the wine from the jars that they were just sure held water, there are going to be times when we are amazed at what we can bring to those in our midst by the power of the Spirit. We do our work to the best of our ability, rising to the occasion when we are called. We, too, can use our power for a purpose. We ourselves are walking billboards, signs of all shapes, colors, and sizes, pointing to the glory of God.

 

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In the Flesh

These days of Christmas after the Nativity of our Lord remind us that we celebrate more than a birthday. We’ve been told from the beginning that this occasion–this child–is something, someone special. Lest we be too attached to the view of Christmas as an oh-so-sweet birth of a baby, today we get this equally miraculous account of God coming into the world from John’s vantage point. That’s part of the beauty of having four gospels, that we get four perspectives on the singular event that is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. John’s account is just as important as Luke’s in shaping how we understand God being in this world; it just doesn’t publicity. How we understand God being in this world shapes the lives we lead as Christians.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.”

Now, I don’t believe John was there at the beginning any more than I think there was a man there to transcribe the accounts of creation offered in Genesis. But as my Old Testament professor said, “We don’t think everything in the Bible is a fact, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t True.”

John offers us an account of the Incarnation that is perhaps more true to the divinity of Jesus than we ever imagined. John’s account hearkens to the one “whose origin if from of old, from ancient days,” (Micah 5:2), one who was there “in the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,” there when “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters,” and there when God said, “Let there be light” and “saw that the light was good” (Gen 1:1-4). The Son is at the beginning of all that we can conceive of knowing, not only in Word spoken but also in the Word, in Logos, which for the Greeks was “the divine principle of reason” that not only “gives order to the universe” but also “links the human mind to the mind of God” (Harold Attridge, Harper Collins Study Bible, 1816).

When I was in Salt Lake City this summer, I had the amazing opportunity to gaze upon the St. John’s Bible, which was on display at St. Mark’s Cathedral. In 1970, master calligrapher Donald Jackson had the idea of creating a Bible that was both hand-written and illuminated, in the style of the monastics centuries earlier but more contemporary, complete with marginalia and abundant detail. His idea was commissioned in 1998, introduced to the public in 1999, and in December of 2011 was finally completed, all seven volumes, each one 2 feet by 3 feet wide when opened. With red leather binding and thick cotton pages, my hands wanted to touch these works of art, but the gloved docent had keen, watchful eyes. In the tight space of the side chapel or whatever it was, I devoured as much as I could, but there was so much. I had so little time, yet I was remarkably aware of the vastness of God outside the confines of time and space, yet ever-present within it.

The font, the style of handwriting used, was created for the project; only a select few were trained and had the privileged yet tedious work of writing the sacred text. The layout of the pages is beautiful, the detail incredible, and the colors of the illuminations are nothing if not intense and vibrant, dark and light. I consciously moved my body to get the best angle for the sun to shine on the pages with the gold highlights because that additional touch made the page even more interactive, bringing even more attention to the tremendous skill and creativity captured on paper.

Each gospel has an opening illumination, and the one for the Gospel according to John has a celestial background, with the top mid-center inspired by an image from the Hubble Space Telescope. The vast expanse of space is in the background, with text to the left of the golden figure emerging at the center, a figure crowned with an iconic halo. The bold, distinct golden letters at the top left read, “And the Word became flesh” and continue on the right side of the figure, “and lived among us.”

“What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

John cannot emphasize enough to us “that Jesus brought divine life into the world”–not only through creation but also through eternal life of salvation (Harold Attridge, Harper Collins Study Bible, 1816). Our being is wholly credited to what our Creator has bestowed upon us not just at the birth of the Christ child but from the beginning of our world. The figure emerging in the image is not a baby but an adult figure, one we might more likely think of as King or Messiah. But there is no distinct face, no identifiable gender, but this magnificent one lived among us, and was the light of all people.

I don’t think John ever says anything about us having to understand the mechanics of the Incarnation. At some point we brush up on our catechesis, but having perfect comprehension of God from God, Light from Light, isn’t what we’re asked to possess, nor are we expected to.

We are asked to believe, to trust in our heart that there is truth here. We are asked to believe in the gift of grace revealed and offered to us–not only in the Christ child but also in this Word made flesh.

And how we shape our lives because of our belief will naturally vary greatly. It is the nature of light to look different from different angles, under different conditions. It is the nature of creativity to portray quirks of the creator, and our free will means the specifics are up to us.

But our belief also makes known to us our common bonds: that we are united in Christ, that our very lives are illuminations revealing God’s presence in the world.

It’s not just the ordained folks who channel the light of Christ in this world–if we were, the world would probably be a darker place. Thankfully, all Christians are ministers in the church; all of us have the ministry of representing Christ and his Church, to bear witness to him wherever we may be (Catechism, BCP 855). So as we wrap up this calendar year, we remain ever-grateful that God emerged into our world so that we might know God through Christ the child and as Word made flesh. As we look forward into the new calendar year, it is worth our while to ponder not only where we see God in our world but how we represent God in our community. There may be times when we are the only Light another person sees, and it is our belief that fuels the light that shines triumphantly in the darkness.

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What is True at Christmas

Isaiah 9:2-4, 6-7 | Titus 2:11-14 | Luke 2:1-14

Around the ages of 6 to 10, each of my children in turn have been keen to point out to me in polite whispers that people obviously dressed up as Santa aren’t the real Santa. I meet their earnest eyes with a smile and a wink and mouth, “I know.” They, too, smile in their assurance of finding something true, but I remind them that that person dressed as Santa embodies a symbol of the Spirit of Christmas–the joy we have in sharing gifts with one another, given as tokens of our love. The season of Advent has ideally prepared us to share our intangible gifts of faith and love with one another joyfully and especially prepared us to rejoice in the gift that is Christ our Saviour.

Earlier this week in prayer, a line from Psalm 62 called out a reminder:

“For God alone my soul in silence waits;

from him comes my salvation.”

I had to read it again.

“For God alone my soul in silence waits;

from him comes my salvation.”

Whatever the past four weeks have held for us, in this moment we breathe in sacred stillness and let our bodies, minds, and spirits quiet, leaving outside the door all that would distract us.

Fully present here and now, as the gathered faithful, we have come to adore the blessed babe, come to heed the angel’s declaration, come to witness that God is indeed with us. We’ve come to hear the story of the true spirit of Christmas and to welcome our salvation in the form of the infant Christ.

Our story is set with a backdrop of people of all sorts, some righteous but not all. The world has become thick with social, political, and religious constructs, which further constricts one’s freedom. In a time of expectation, an angel, a messenger of God, visits a young woman, asking if she’s willing to serve God’s will. In Matthew’s gospel, Joseph is guided by an angel in a dream to cooperate with God. And shepherds minding their flocks are interrupted by yet another angel to tell them the “good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Lk 2:10-11). Mary births a baby boy, attended by we know not whom, but God is fully present. The angels are rejoicing and singing, and shepherds come to see if all this is true, for the “child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” has changed everything.

Former Archbishop Rowan Williams said in a recent lecture that God doesn’t rend the heavens open to shower upon us the gift of our salvation; rather, God overflows into the world God created and fills from within, like a spring bubbling up from the earth. God changes things in the world in the world’s own terms, in its own life, within human relationship. In fact, he suggests that God “redefines human nature from within by defenseless love.”

“Redefines human nature” because we are shown our full, previously untapped capacity to be in relationship with others and especially with God. We are not so distinctly separate; God has been within us and remains among us. God redefines human nature because it would soon come to pass that no longer are we bound to this world in fear of death. Jesus lay wrapped in cloths as a babe as he would years later in a tomb, but at no point is he bound by this world. God redefines human nature because the least valued are given the greatest responsibility. Mary in her humility and silence bears her strength as she bore the Son of Man, and the shepherds, well, we can only imagine that the flock came with them. The shepherds who are both obedient to the will of God and able to care for and protect their flocks fill a role that resonates deeply with our Lord.

God doesn’t make a command at this moment in creation. God doesn’t say, “Realize today is the day to love me and do my will!” God offers us God’s self, the greatest gift we never thought to ask for.

Williams says that “God values our humanity beyond all imagining” and that “no risk or gift is too great for any one person.” For God it was never doubted that “humanity is supremely worthwhile.” God in infinite wisdom saw a new way to be among us so that we might once again know freedom and perfect love because on our own, we keep moving farther and farther away. Apparently the only way we could know such love was to experience it in the flesh, in flesh like ours. For that to happen, we had to show a mutual interest, a mutual willingness. We had to listen to what God had to say through the ages and trust that God still speaks in the present, yearning to share light and life with us.

The Christ child was and is the gift. God is the giver of God’s self, our greatest gift. The extraordinary was brought to the ordinary not in diminished form but as light from light. This gift born of Love shows us that the true spirit of Christmas is selfless, gracious Love. It is not forced. As much as God could have forcefully burst open the heavens and commanded obedience and loyalty through great power, God waited for the offer, the invitation to be accepted by an unassuming young woman.

The Spirit of Christmas is about receiving God’s in-breaking Love. Being aware of my own humanity and weaknesses, I realize that I needed Jesus to be born into this world those many years ago. I needed Jesus to be born into this world, to live and breathe among friends and foes, to die as one blameless yet crucified. I needed God to show me that I am beloved, that I am worth everything even if I don’t always believe it myself. And because God showed just how creatively love can be shared, just how beautifully life can grow from relationships, I know that God overflows into our world in immeasurable ways.

We try at Christmas to share our love for others in giving of our abundance. It’s what we do, and most of us enjoy the thoughtful preparation of choosing gifts and delight in the giving. We try to imitate God’s giving and do what we can to share. But the true spirit of Christmas comes from God’s giving and depends upon our receiving. Receiving the good news. Receiving God’s love. Opening our whole life to receive God and thereby receive our salvation, which is our perfect freedom and wholeness. Through this Christ child, we see how God breaks through the chaos, the darkness, and shows us that all shall be well. That there is hope.

We have to be able to recognize what is true, what is real. We have to remember the miracle of Jesus’s birth–that it happened at all–and open our lives to receive God fully, not because we’ve earned it or deserve it but just for the sake of receiving God’s unconditional love. We move about in this world not separate from God. There is no glass nor wall nor space between us. When we smile at a stranger, when we kiss a loved one, when we great one another in peace, we have every reason to overflow with joy at the presence of God in our world, in the face of everyone we meet. This night, we not only marvel and rejoice in the birth of Christ but also humbly bow before the babe at the manger and let our Light be ignited by the one true Light. We can imagine looking over to Mary and saying in excited yet hushed tones, “This, this is real.” And her smiling back at us and saying softly, “I know.”

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