The skies are gray this morning, but the weather forecast says the rain doesn’t come until tonight. That rain promises to come with storms. The darkening of the skies calms me somehow, encouraging me to retreat a minute, get myself in order, and focus on the holy moments at hand.
This morning the scriptures recall how some people thought the voice of God was thunder, while others clearly heard words. Tonight at our Agapé meal we’ll hear Jesus send Judas out to do that which he must do. We know with Jesus that Judas sets out to betray him, but others think he’s going out for supplies for the coming festival. So much of what we understand–or think we understand–is left to our perspective and interpretation. It might be how we understand written words or how we perceive the present moment, and what we experience is true for us. Simply because we see something as true doesn’t mean it is True, though.
The turmoil we read about and the arguments we observe or endure arise from people standing their ground for what is true for the individual. At our best we try to understand everyone’s point of view, where they are coming from, trying to imagine being in their shoes even if we completely disagree with them. One might call this how we exercise empathy. I believe empathy exercised with humility helps us better see the fuller picture of what is real, granting us a bit of objectivity and giving us a chance to increase our personal knowledge and understanding.
From this broader perspective, we might hear the voice that also sounds like thunder and marvel with others at the experience of God’s presence. We might see the exchange between Jesus and Judas as meaningful and look back on it later with clarity. We might see our neighbors, be they rich or poor, as people struggling with life or rejoicing in small moments. In all circumstances, even as we make our first impressions and snap judgments, we leave critical judgment alone and focus on the only person over whom we have even the slightest control–our self.
Without this focus and work for and on the individual for the benefit of better relationships with one another, we lose sight of the whole. A recent story I heard said we’re truly at risk of losing empathy and retreating into separate camps, evidenced in our increasing polarity socially, politically, economically, etc. From where I see it, the grace of God has no boundaries except those that we construct ourselves. It truly is up to each of us to discern whether we want to stay in relationship with one another, how best to do that safely and for the benefit of the whole, and how we glorify God in the process or continue to betray God.
Maybe because it’s back to school time, but I get a feeling from the letter to the Ephesians that this is an “All-I-really-need-to-know-I-learned-in-kindergarten” kind of lesson. There are, of course, posters of the kindergarten lessons that Robert Fulghum found particularly book-worthy, and you can look those up later, but we could also make a poster from Ephesians, I believe. We could call it a “How to Get Along” poster, and on it we’d put:
Speak the truth.
We’re in this together–all of us.
It’s okay to be angry–just don’t sin.
Keep your anger in the light.
Be so filled with good that there’s no room for evil.
Build one another up.
Be kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving.
Live in love.
Or maybe we’d call the poster “How to Live in Love.” Either way, these are as good for us as they were for the church in Ephesus.
We can see how this list pinpoints how David went awry, followed by his sons. For all that they did wrong themselves, even with forgiveness at play after the fact, there were dreadful consequences. We don’t read the in-between to get the backstory for Absalom’s death, and it’s certainly not kindergarten-appropriate. Suffice it to say that if you read Second Samuel between last week’s (Ch. 11) and this week’s readings (Ch. 18), including all the verses skipped in our lectionary, you’d read a sampling of the stories which often turn people away from the Bible. It’s like learning about those from whom you are descended but whom no one really likes to talk about–the parts of the family tree that are left to get overgrown and hopefully overshadowed by the healthier branches.
Basically, Absalom rose up to rebel against his father, even after he had been brought back into his father’s good favor, and we know from today’s reading it ended badly for Absalom. Ironically, it was Joab who facilitated the reconciliation between Absalom and David, and then it was Joab who dealt the first of many death blows Absalom received. Our history, even that of our religious family, is harsh and violent, full of hubris.
Most of us know this and realize this. It’s knowing our past, our history, and what we are capable of that prevents us from making the same mistakes, right? Until we truly learn from our mistakes, though, we get to repeat the reel. Until we truly know and understand, we’re likely to slip into familiar ruts and get stuck or commit grievous mistakes that wreak havoc in our relationships.
We may think we know, but really we haven’t a clue.
The self-confident knowing of those who heard Jesus claiming to be the bread of life did not serve them well. These people are described as Jews who knew Joseph and Mary, so they think they also know who Jesus is. These are most likely faithful Jews, like Mary and Joseph. They’ve seen each other at synagogue, said prayers with them, attended festivals, but now Jesus is off the rails, claiming a different father, hearkening to the Almighty. Jesus even claims–in his flesh–to be greater than the manna that rained from heaven to save their ancestors through the Exodus.
How dare he.
Jesus challenges what they believe at the very foundation, with something as simple as bread. The Almighty One had saved the Hebrews through the desert with a bread from heaven, and true enough they all died. Jesus is now saying that he is the Bread of Life, “the living bread that came down from heaven” so that “whoever eats of (him) will live forever.”
From where they’re standing, from all they understand and think they know, Jesus isn’t making any kind of sense–no more than telling a preschooler to share with everyone the brand new box of markers that their mama bought especially for them. Sometimes we can’t reasonably explain what is, whether it’s because we can’t comprehend given our personal limitations or whether it’s because we can’t fully comprehend the Mystery that’s at play.
Jesus is following all the guidelines for getting along with others; he’s already in the midst of the relationships. It’s on the side of others that things get tricky. The Jews to whom Jesus is speaking think they know who Jesus is. They also understand their lives centered in their Jewish faith, steeped in the stories of their people, their ancestors. When Jesus steps up to say again, “I am the bread of life,” they don’t understand his truthful speech; it doesn’t resonate with them but rather challenges them. Rather than seek to build one another up, the rest of the gospel according to John reveals how they seek to destroy this one who challenges what they have understood all their lives.
In our tradition, we trust that all unfolded as Scripture intended, and even the crucifixion of Jesus gave way to a life triumphant. “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh,” Jesus says. The Word of God made incarnate was not so much taken as offered in an act of divine, ultimate, self-sacrificial love, and each time we come to the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Great Thanksgiving, our Holy Eucharist, we partake again in the Presence of the one who gives us life, not only in body but also in Spirit. There’s nothing we can do to earn the grace and mercy already given to us, but if we believe, then the life lived in God through Christ is ours to be had.
Such a blessed life doesn’t mean that we’ll always live life in love. From the early decades following the resurrection, the apostles and Paul and those documenting events reveal how the faithful strive to navigate church politics and difficult relationships. Surely they fall back on the Ten Commandments and societal laws upholding the common good, and they outline these ethical codes to help guide the morale of the whole. Their intent is to keep the Body, with all its members, in unity and accord. Remember the call given to all and the plea to maintain the unity of the Spirit through the bonds of peace, as we heard last week in Ephesians (4:3). Consequences of not living into the life of love resemble the sorrow and heartbreak we hear from King David in Ps. 51 and today’s Ps. 130. But no matter how desperate we become or how horrible we’ve been, our belief holds us within God’s embrace, God’s presence. In our desperation, we, too, can wait for the LORD, “more than watchmenfor the morning.”
What might that look like? What do we wait for “more than watchmen for the morning”? What do we yearn for so much that we’d stay awake through the deepest darkness and wait in anticipation for the slightest ray of light? When it comes to our relationships with one another, as we start school and enter the midterm elections, what does it feel like or look like to let our soul wait for the LORD first, before we interject all we think we know into our relationships?
If we wait for the LORD first, before we make any sort of declaration or assumption, we more humbly take our next step. Maybe that’s closer to the person near to us, or maybe it’s taking a few more steps around the person who doesn’t want to engage in a loving relationship right now. God’s time so often isn’t set to the agenda we have or want. But God’s time is filled with grace and patience as we struggle to remember what it is that our teachers taught us in kindergarten and what it is that God’s already written on our hearts for how to live life fully, nourished by Jesus Christ.
Take a moment to breathe. How are you doing? Because there is a lot going on right now.
Even if everything is wonderful for you, there are people in Houston digging through mold and mud. An earthquake struck South America, and now Florida is being battered by Hurricane Irma. There are people directly affected by the DACA decision, and there are also those being persecuted in Myanmar and refugees fleeing war-torn countries. Thanks be to widespread communications, we are aware of what a mess things are right now, and it is a lot. In the wake of so much that seems like death and destruction, we might ask, “Where is God in all of this?” It’s a faithful question to ask, and how we respond to it says a lot about our theology, our understanding of God.
I have heard some respond that God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle, that hurricanes or disasters are either given to help us be the strong people we are, or that are some kind of consequence for being sinners. Given this line of thinking, God is at the hand of destruction. So much like in Exodus, God is the agent behind the angel of death that destroys the firstborn in Egypt, unless they have been signified as households of God. We might gratefully wipe our brow and dismiss this as “not our position,” relegating it as a position of Jewish theology, this view of a wrathful God who hardens hearts and sacrifices the living. We separate our good selves from people who attribute natural disasters to some trite meaning.
It’s okay for us to say and believe that we don’t understand–we don’t know–why these horrible things are happening, especially to the vulnerable, to people who don’t have options or the ability to change their circumstances. As people who can rationalize anything, we can assign meaning to anything, too, but I caution myself when it comes to ascribing attributes to God based on my finite understanding of how things work. I don’t know. I can’t know. (Along this line, there was also this response to God and the disasters at hand.)
But I do know this: when I look for God in situations, I find God in relationship with people who are looking for God.
God was there in the midst of Pharaoh and Moses, giving Pharaoh the chance to heed the warnings being given.
God was guiding the people in their preparations for their meal.
God is with the people crying out for protection, help, guidance, and deliverance . . . ALL the people.
And God is with us who have the ability to respond to the needs of our neighbors.
As part of my job, I consider it a perk to visit with people who have questions about the church, and I love when people ask what’s truly on their minds because it means we’re developing a level of trust between us, we’re entering a loving relationship. After general questions about what my collar’s made of and about some “Episcopalianisms” being clarified, somehow the topic came up about how part of my role as a member of the clergy, is to bring the presence of Christ. As much as my clericals say “the priest is in,” so also do they signify that a person is present who believes that when two or three are gathered, Christ is here. She asked me sincerely, “So do you think Christ is present now?” Yes, of course. Not just because we were talking about religious things, but because we were giving attention to one another. We were listening to one another share stories of who we are, where we were in our lives and work. Surely the presence of the Lord was with us.
I attended the public discussion about the Confederate soldier statue on the square, along with about 140 others. In that mediated discussion, a room full of people agreed to hear what others had to say, even if it meant hearing an opinion that differed from their own. I heard things that made me smile and things that gave me pause. At times, it felt like my heart seized a moment as I wondered if a person truly meant what they said or understood its implications, and at other times, my heart swelled at truth–even painful truth–being spoken. It was a room of people that was trying to be in relationship, and it wasn’t without times of tension. Even though it wasn’t a religious gathering, I felt that there, too, God was in our midst.
Driving home from the event, I was kind of rushed because I hadn’t yet had lunch, and the Saturday night service wasn’t far off. I take a sort of short cut to my neighborhood through another one. Right in front of the stop sign, there’s a house that almost always has its garage door open and at least five or six kids playing with an adult or two sitting in the garage. It’s an African American family, and I almost always smile and wave at them because I admire that the kids are actually playing outside (something I struggle to get my kids to do), and I am grateful to see people of color living in Bentonville. The diversity in Bentonville today is much richer than it was 30 years ago. (Out of the 140 people at the forum, only 3 black people were present.) Rather than just be the crazy lady who waves at them, I’ve always wanted to stop and introduce myself, but it never seems like the right time. I’m always just driving by. This time wasn’t any different, but so filled was I in hope of dialogue and relationship, that I turned left instead of right and parked my car on the street in front of their house and went up to introduce myself in the midst of the little dog and playing children. I met the youngest of the adult children who helps with watching the other kids. They shared some of their family story, and I listened. I mentioned the dialogue about the statue and the lack of presence of black folks, and he wasn’t surprised. I mentioned racism and prejudice and discrimination, not all at the same time, but throughout the conversation, and he mentioned that he had “been black all his life.” Before I left, I told him I just wanted to stop by and introduce myself as a neighbor who was glad to meet them, and he told me I was welcome to stop by anytime. At the end of the day, it’s all about being a good neighbor, right? Living into the commandment to love one another?
It’s easy to get caught up in talking about what to do and leaving ideals in the ideological realm, but I’m more of a mind that we don’t have time for just that. It’s not enough to talk about something. It’s not enough to point out how nice something is for others to do or for theories to exist.
What are we doing now?
As a church we’re signing up to serve, so all of you check out the ministry fair today! We actively serve in our church, a church where everyone is a part of our work and worship. It’s not just about what we do as clergy but what we do as a body. But it’s also not just about what we do in here, within church walls, but about what we do outside. So talk to your neighbors if you don’t already. Bring awareness of the presence of Christ to your midst. If I can do it, anyone can; it just takes getting over that initial barrier outside your comfort zone to find what you didn’t know you were missing.
And there’s something to sharing a meal together. We do it every week here. There’s something about setting a table with intention for nourishment. So, starting next month, I’ll host a “Dinner with the Vicar.” It will be a sign up to come join my family and me for a simple meal, nothing fancy. (I have pets, too, so be forewarned!) Over a meal, we can share our lives together more intimately than just a quick greeting at the back. I’ll continue to meet with folks as much as I can over coffee or wine or at your homes, but I consider this opening a path to deeper relationship. I also consider it an invitation for the church to start a “Dinners for 8” model, where we take turns hosting a meal for folks in our congregation, always open for visitors, so we can share our lives together in a meaningful way, share our stories that we don’t otherwise get a chance to share. Not only for our church family, but I’m opening this up even more broadly by signing up for a People’s Supper. There’s a group that set up a model for “healing suppers” and “bridging suppers,” doing what they suggest in bringing together like-minded folks and then broadening to invite others with a different viewpoint–over a meal.
Wherever we find ourselves, in whatever kind of predicament either good or bad, it’s okay to ask “Where is God in this?” It’s a faithful question to ask because we only ever find what we seek. If we want to find God, look at our relationships. Look at how we care for one another. If we want to find God, look for how we love. If there’s not evidence of love there, maybe it’s up to us to bring the presence of Christ.
It’s not a rule; it’s a way to measure how I’m doing in life.
I tell myself this so that I don’t panic with all the responsibility or rebel against the “requirements.” Knowing beforehand that I will be imperfect at this is being gracious with myself. Thomas Merton prayed something to this effect: we hope that the desire to please God does, in fact, please God. I believe this wholeheartedly, and I also believe that holding myself accountable is the responsible thing to do good for me. My resistance to post this, to hold it out in the light instead of tucked away in my journal speaks to how truthful this is, what power it can unleash.
I guess I don’t often think about what a gift it is when we share blessings with one another. Sometimes they are said aloud like on birthdays or holidays, but often it’s just a smile and shiny, teary eyes that say, “Bless you.” Wrapped with each blessing is a bit of gratitude as well . . . and love . . . and recognition . . . and hope.
We are a blessing to each other when we take the time see one another not only as we hope to see each other but as we really are. In this one day alone, I’ve been privileged to share in conversation with people younger and older than me. I don’t know if they know how much they enrich my life, how much I see the Light of Christ in them.
The younger folks I visited with was through an elementary school mentoring program. This week they’re studying poetry, particularly that of Langston Hughes. In their eagerness to share their work with me, I saw the creative Spirit breaking through the surface, mostly untouched by criticism. A bit of creativity introduced and nurtured, set free to interact with each child–I only hope it catches on and sticks around to grow into the potential I heard and saw.
I hope that these children are able to pursue their dreams without false pretenses, saving themselves the time and energy of putting on guises to present who others want/expect to see. Still a prolific writer, how much more so would Hughes have been if he had been encouraged to follow his creativity at an even earlier age?
How much richer would our society be if we took time to acknowledge the Spirit unleashed in each other, blessing each other and the gifts that we offer? True, we have to know what our gifts are; furthermore, we have to know who we are first. This takes time (and sometimes therapy!), but the more people I meet and get to know, the more certain I am that each of us is a blessing if we choose to be.
As God’s beloved, we are blessed. If we can live into that, we can’t help but be a blessing to others.
Hungry for a spark of creativity from an author of beautiful blessings? I cannot get too much of John O’Donohue.
With this thought, the bell tower rings nearby. Affirmation, I suppose, of the divine sort.
I’m meeting many new faces these days, learning new stories, discovering new personalities, hearing new laughter. This also means, of course, that I’m uncovering other aspects of myself. In particular, I’m noticing how people relate to me, now that I’m in the “professional” realm (for which motherhood has been the best training ground), and also how I relate to them.
Through my world-view, my lenses, I easily see everyone as child, regardless of age, and somehow I feel how to relate to them as fellow child or as mother. I find myself listening with compassion. It’s not unusual to see glistening eyes in this other who is not so different from me after all.
I realize people are beautiful, in so many different ways, on so many different levels . . . myself included.
I remember the night I sat in a class about the “authentic” journey, making a list of those I admire. I remember the shock, near horror, of being told that I possess the qualities of those I admire. How could I possibly possess their qualities, their potential? But my denial or disbelief doesn’t change what is.
Now it’s a new year, particularly the Twelfth Day of Christmas, and I find myself richly blessed, ready to embrace the present truly as the gift it is. I give thanks for all the past has brought me. I read through my gratitude journal from the past year, and I could feel the radiance of love, warmth, and joy. Looking forward into this year, I know these blessings will continue. I have an optimistic yet realistic view on what this year brings. It includes hard work, but it also brings growth and progress in all aspects of my life. I hope your friendship will endure my work. Though I may not seem as available as I’ve been, know that your presence abides with me.
I realize that you, too, are on the list among those I admire, and you, too, teach me much about who I can be, who I am. Your love, companionship, laughter, warmth, appreciation, humor, gratitude, hope, inspiration, gentleness, faith, doubt, will, strength, perseverance and openness are just a few of the things I count among our treasures. Thank you for teaching me and allowing me to teach you, as the aikido sensei is fond of saying.
It may be a new year, but it is just another day. Each day the sun rises, we have the opportunity to take yet another cleansing breath, let it all go, and begin again. Thank you for sharing your journey with me. I look forward to all that is to come, but mostly, I give thanks for all that is. You here, now, is a gift. You have my love and gratitude, now as always.
Walking in public places, do you notice the awkwardness of when to make contact with others? Should I look into their eyes? Smile? What if they look up just as I’m looking away? Should I send good energy their way or conserve?
Then I think about how ridiculous the whole concept is if, in fact, the energy isn’t mine to give but ours to share. I sense an obligation to make contact with others who participate in this life with me, as I participate in this life with them. I offer my smiles, my focus, even if it’s just a moment, as it usually is. Maybe that moment of contact, of relation, with all its sincerity and lack of expectation, can be like the butterfly in the chaos theory, changing the course of events for the better.
It only takes a moment to let someone know, “I hear you. I witness you here and now. You are not alone.”
In our Circle of Trust, during our small group time, we conclude each focus person’s time with “We hear you. We honor you. We bless you. We love you. We are blessed by you.” (something like that, anyway) And the miraculous thing is we really mean it. How often do you get to say these words and feel in your heart of hearts the deep connection? This practice is spreading into the rest of my life, opening my heart so that it’s not just those with whom I work closely that I feel a connection, that I experience a deep, genuine love. I daresay this practice of compassion is growing into Compassion.
There is no one point of contact, no quantitative measure of when and where to do this or that in society, regarding when to smile and/or make eye contact or not. It’s just as true to form not to make eye contact, so long as we feel the connection, honor the other and participate in our wholeness.
Your suffering is my suffering. Your joys are my joys. Your life is mine, as mine is yours. I bow to the Buddha in you as you see the Christ in me. Here we are, as One.
I hear you. I honor you. I bless you. I love you. I am blessed by you.
adjective : made or done the same way as an original: true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character
I don’t take for granted the fact that it is a luxury to do inner work, to find who it is I really am, whom I’ve been created to be. Surely if I lived in a region where to survive was the daily goal, my focus would entirely be to secure water, shelter, food, safety. Hopefully I could do so with a content heart, not bitter at my lot in life.
This life I’ve been given, however, is a comfortable one, my basics assured (relatively). I don’t have to dwell solely in my external life, the physical. I do have a responsibility to keep a healthy demeanor, to care for my body, but even to that extent, I have been richly blessed. I have food, sanitation, water and medical care — all things to keep me healthy and lead toward a long life.
The very substance of my being, though, the undercurrent of my life, is the steady stream of Spirit, the flow of Love that has been ever-present. The drop that was given to me to begin this life has continued to grow and swell, and now it is time to release the flood gates, to pour that wealth into the receiving bowls of others. It’s a beautiful energy to share. It needs no words, only an open heart. Of course, as a writer, I will share my experiences through words, as meager as they might seem, to offer to others to read or hear. In some ways, that will do.
All this comes to mind after starting a new childbirth class last night with parents eager and willing to learn, sitting at dinner with a group of passionate, open, honest women, and sharing coffee, dessert and soulful conversation with a dear friend who, like me, is finding that she’s doing what she’s meant to be doing, even if she doesn’t know exactly how it will work or where it will lead.
There’s a happiness that fills my heart and brings a smile to my face. Surely this is what it feels like to be authentic, to live connected to, with and through that drop of the Divine.
I’m finding it difficult to focus on that which must be done. I’m caught in the mental quagmire of thinking about those who are faced with life-threatening illness and preparing myself for a weekend retreat. Some are facing the reality of their mortality, and I am delighting in the vitality of my life, the blessings of my nurturing community and ability.
Life is full of these paradoxes, though. There is birth and death every day, but this is just what we see with our limited vision. If we could take our focus away from the blatant physical dimension, perhaps we would be able to sense the divine spark in everything, feel the Presence that is the source of life, imbuing us with the energy and very vitality that we describe as “life.” Energy is neither created nor destroyed.
One of my responsibilities is to trust that all that unfolds has meaning, that ultimately, everything contributes to the greater good, even if I can’t see how. My vision and understanding are finite, very limited. If I allow myself to trust, however, I feel like my understanding is broadened; I feel hope. One of my other responsibilities might be to help others sense this trust and hope. Some might call it faith.
Whether our body is overtaken with cancer or if we have years stretched before us, the truth is that in every moment, we may not know the difference. The truth is that the only thing that truly matters in every moment is that we love and love deeply with reckless abandon. In that, there are no regrets. And that is a responsibility we all have.