Words to Live By

Exodus 20:1-17 | Psalm 19 | 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 | John 2:13-22

Back when we had the Works of Light series in Epiphany during Christian Education, Cathy Luck came and spoke to us about a local program modeled after the Magdalene House (Oasis NWA), and Deacon John Reese spoke to us about efforts to get an Oxford House started. Both of these programs helps people who might otherwise be homeless. The Oxford Houses are specifically geared to be homes for those in recovery. They’re not halfway houses or transition homes: they’re an Oxford House, which brings with it nationwide credibility and accountability. Places like this are desperately needed not only because affordable housing is a critical need but also because addicts who are striving each day to stay in recovery are among a very vulnerable population. If ever a time we needed to step in and offer assistance, it’s now. I learned just this weekend that as far as mortality rates go, the mortality rate in working-age adults has actually risen, in large part due to the opioid crisis. We need homes like these to help people who are pushed to the margins, forgotten about, and sometimes even left to die. I’m reminded of the Collect for the Day: “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.”

The Oxford House is a successful model in large part because they have a 43-year history of refining details that work to help. About 80% of their folks stay clean, and they never remove someone from a house unless they break one of the three rules. The basic rules are: 1) participate in the democratically-run house; 2) stay clean–zero tolerance for relapse; 3) share in chores and expenses. That’s it, and the houses are financially self-sustaining by the rent the residents pay per week. Now, they probably also have further charters or agreements particular to each house, depending on where they live, but the ground rules are set, rooted in the nine traditions of the Oxford House program. These rules and requirements create a safety net and an accountability network that helps people stay clean–in body and house (they really are particular about keeping a clean home!).

Likewise, in the Magdalene House model, the are 24 Principles that the women of the house follow, things like “cry with your Creator,” “find your place in the circle,” “forgive and feel freedom,” and “laugh at yourself.” These principles shape the sense of who each woman is in the house community but also helps form the important Circle with consistency and intention, deeply rooted in listening to self and other around a single candle.

So when I hear about Moses receiving the words of the Ten Commandments (and I have to try hard not to just picture Charlton Heston with his white beard and outstretched arms holding stone tablets!), I absolutely hear them as law coming to the people of Israel as a means of helping them survive so that they’ll make it to and through the Promised Land to live out their lives and that of their descendents as faithful chosen ones. These are their rules to live by, though they’re not the only ones. They begin with “I am the LORD your God.” God is making sure God’s people know that it is He who has delivered them from Egypt, and it is only God who will keep the covenants with them. God is the only God they’re to worship–not that there weren’t other gods to contend with in the polytheistic culture they lived in–but that this God is the only one for them. These Ten Commandments are basically broken down into the first four being about duty to God, in believing and trusting in God, and about duty to neighbors, in loving them as ourselves and doing to them as we would have them do to us. The Catechism in our Book of Common Prayer offers more of a present-day read on the Commandments, because it turns out that these laws remain valid in our Christian life. As the Jews did, we’ve done, too: we’ve added a lot of charters, agreements, and even unspoken rules and cultural norms.

But at the Interfaith workshop at Hendrix I went to yesterday (“Cultivating an Interfaith Mindset in Rural Arkansas”), Dr. Jay McDaniel pointed out that when we’re trying to understand people from different faith traditions, we don’t go up to them and ask them what their 10 guiding principles are; we don’t say, “What are your 10 Rules for being x?” If we do, we might get a sense of why the do/don’t do what they do, but we lose sight of who they are in relationship with others around them.

When Jesus entered the temple and fashioned a whip bound by his righteous anger, he cleared the place and overturned the tables. It was all wrong, apparently. Often we hear that Jesus was angry because people who come to make sacrifices have been taken advantage of, being forced to pay inflated prices for whatever it is they needed. (I liken it to having to pay for gas at the only gas station for 50 miles; convenience comes at a price.) But this year I read this as Jesus clearing it all out. All the material, all the consumerism, all the stuff that also includes the ridiculously complicated laws/rules/requirements for living and practicing a faithful Jewish life. I say this because Jesus clears the temple and then draws the attention to the true House of God in their midst, his own Body, the Temple that will be destroyed and risen again in three days. This doesn’t make sense to anyone, and they would rather have a miraculous sign now. But Jesus has given them a sign, told them what to look for. When they look back on this moment, the disciples remember his words. Jesus’s whole ministry has been about providing signs, working miracles, showing the incredible power in their midst–if only they had eyes to see and ears to hear, if only they weren’t so jaded in their self-perceived wisdom.

In the human body the Divine worked to break down the boundaries and barriers that all the laws and rules and regulations had created. Jesus supped with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus defended the accused, healed the leperous, spoke with the outcast even if it was the opposite sex, and never turns away anyone who recognized the Life and Love he offered. Jesus tells them and us what the most important commandment is: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. We’re also to love our neighbors as ourselves. It really hasn’t changed, though everything changed with Christ. In Jesus Christ, God gives us our new covenant that knows no boundaries. In Jesus Christ, the new word that God gives God’s people is Love, Love revealed to us in the Word made flesh.

And how are we doing with that?

In Northwest Arkansas we have a child poverty rate of 27%. While homelessness in Arkansas statistically had dropped 10% since 2010, there are still just over 2,400 homeless in Arkansas, if the counts have collected everyone. The nation-wide Poor People’s Campaign–and we have the Arkansas Poor People’s Campaign in our state–there’s a call for a moral revival because the sins we’re living with now aren’t market extortion for sheep and cattle and doves but the sins of hunger, fear, and poverty. And if we look to the children, about one in three reflect that we’ve fallen behind in duty to our neighbor, and we’ve fallen behind on that because we’re obviously having a hard time with our duty to believe and trust in God. We’ve become pretty good at being self-sufficient at the surface level; most days the market’s going just fine. But the currents of fear that ripple through are eating away at our hearts. For all the measures of success, we’re having to turn a blind eye to more and more of the signs we have now that we’re forgetting our greatest Word: Love. We’re forgetting Jesus Christ.

Maybe we’re waiting for Jesus to come back with a great whip and clear the marketplace and make all things new in a great dramatic show. But in three weeks, we get to recount the Passion that Jesus underwent. If our heart, souls, and minds have been marked by Jesus Christ, when we experience the Passion, we don’t want anything like that to happen again. We certainly don’t want to be an advocate for it. Yet each fatal shooting, each overdose, each homeless, each hallowed face from hunger, each chronically ill and uninsured, each uneducated mind is a sign to us that we’ve put other gods before our God and that the Word God gave us in the Body of the Son, well, there are more important things that have to be done. That’s not the love Jesus brought to our awareness. That “take care of me first” kind of love actually reduces God’s place, and, again, we see signs of that at every corner, in every report about society and environment.

“We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” Thankfully God gives us the power through Christ and the Holy Spirit. But first we have to open our hearts and minds and souls to receive the Love that God gave and continues to give and have to courage to change everything because of that Word, that Love.

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In the beginning was the Word . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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All in a Word

Identity

Who are you at the deepest level? When Jesus looks at you and loves you, who does he see? What is it which truly makes you come alive? Is God inviting you to take a risk and to go deeper?

-Br. Geoffrey Tristram
Society of Saint John the Evangelist

The church’s new year comes at the first of Advent. The calendrical new year comes January first, without fail. My bursts of energy and momentum to get going come in fits and starts like an old Model T; when I’m rearing to go, I’m full throttle, but when I’m not, there’s no end to the strain of getting motivated.

Except now.

At least, for these past few days or weeks.

Or has it been months already?

Barring any unforeseen circumstances, I feel I’m awakening a bit more, becoming more fully who I truly am, realizing the amazing depth of growth. It’s not just about getting older, which I am, but it’s also about being more fully aware. One thing I find most interesting is that when I hear something–even if I’ve heard it before–there are implications and meaning. I am rarely dismissive. Our lives call for interaction, so I either act or not in any given circumstance, fully aware that my non-action has as much repercussion as any action I might take.

Awareness.

That’s a word.

But it’s not my word for this year, which I was trying so hard to have before January One. Like a child’s cooperation, though, I couldn’t force it and have it be authentic. I went through most of Advent following along with SSJE’s “Brother, Give Us a Word,” trying to increase my awareness and attention . . . and intention, probably. My motivation sputtered until it wasn’t even idling. I remained parked through Christmas.

A magical thing about the liturgical cycle is that it gets ingrained in us, and like any habitual practice, it can carry us, moving us onward even when it feels like we aren’t going anywhere. Along comes Epiphany, and maybe it’s because I’ve been thinking about Jesus’s work among the people with whom he lived and breathed that I’ve been thinking deeply about my own work–not as a comparison, mind you, but as a what-am-I-doing-if-I’m-living-into-who-I-truly-am kind of way.

For better or for worse, in our American culture, what we do, what our work is, can be a reflection of who we are, who we identify ourselves as. (Not always, of course, but sometimes.) I work as a priest, which means I have a varied list of tasks and responsibilities. Working at being a Christian is a huge (if not whole) part of who I am. If I whittle down through what I do and filter through my gifts, I remember that as a child, I was always writing stories. I was always listening. Imagining. Think what you will about all the associations of the inner child, but I hear her loudly and clearly calling out to me with every writing utensil and journal I receive or buy, “WRITE!”

And that scares the bejesus out of me. (Pardon the expression.)

Which probably means it is one of the truest things that I can do.

This comes to mind:

I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.  Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. ~ Romans 7:18b-20, NRSV

Writing scares me because in the process I tend to more clearly hear the voice of God, walk alongside Spirit, come face to face with Christ because it is right for me and probably right for others, too. Not doing it encourages me farther away from God, allows me to fill that energy with other, less life-giving things.

Writing scares me because in the sharing of my words, I open my heart even more than I already do (and I think I’m a pretty open-hearted person), making myself even more vulnerable. Vulnerable on many levels but especially the one where what I say might not please you, the reader.

So I’m reading Brené Brown after loving her TEDx talks but not reading the books lest they call me to actually do something daring. Obviously. I’m working on embracing my Wholeheartedness because that’s where I experience Joy. If I embrace the part of me who writes, then I can, perhaps, become even more Wholehearted which, in turn, means an even better Christian.

I accept the challenge. My word for 2016 is WRITE.

Doing that which is hard and scary is best not done alone. So I’m doing an even more ridiculous thing by asking for help. Dammit. <–Apparently my ego doesn’t like this.

  • Ask me how my writing is going, whether it be in my journal or blog or projects. (What writer doesn’t have multiple projects going?)
  • Share what your identity calls you to do.
  • Connect. If not with me, then with others. Find those who are trustworthy with your Wholehearted self, those who are there to help keep us focused when we slip and succumb to that which is not life-giving.

Giving full credit to Ciara Barsotti for the art and Brené Brown for the words, this sits as encouragement on my desk.

And I give myself a gold star today for writing.

 

 

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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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