The Work of Christmas

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

The First Sunday after Christmas doesn’t always fall so close to Christmas Day. Here we are on the Third Day of Christmas, and if your house is anything like mine, there are still a couple of recipes left to make, some cards to send, some movies to watch. It’s hard to maintain the Christmas excitement because it’s been widely manufactured into one day’s experience, to be consumed and done with in 24 hours or less.

Mary and Joseph know what most new parents experience: the birth of Jesus was just the beginning. When I was a doula and childbirth instructor, I would caution the mamas that three days after birth was a day to watch out for because hormones shift. Maybe the milk has come in, maybe not. Maybe the baby is sleeping too much or too little. Maybe we have good support, maybe not. There are many variables at play, but one thing is certain, it’s still a liminal time. The birthing experience itself throws things out of whack, so consuming is the labor of birth. Time is irrelevant. And now this healing of a mother’s body and the caring of the fragile, completely dependent new life is equally consuming work. It’s not only time for healing and nourishing, but it is also, we hope, time for bonding, nurturing, resting (as much as possible), and being fully in the moment. All of this doesn’t happen on its own; we have to make a conscious effort. Being a parent is a lot of work, and those early days are just the beginning.

Our gospel lesson today speaks of another beginning, of Word becoming flesh and living among us. That Word is life itself, light–the kind that enlightens everyone and isn’t overcome by darkness, and glory full of grace and truth. But this Word is not known to everyone. Those who do recognize, know, and believe, are filled with faith, and their lives are transformed.

How are lives transformed? Well, at our baptism, we are given the name Christian. As Paul says to the Galatians, we are adopted as children of God. As God’s children, recipients of the Holy Spirit, we have tremendous power to extend our personal transformation beyond ourselves. We may not all have a conversion story as dramatic as Paul’s. We may not have experienced a life-threatening illness or crippling addiction to overcome but by the grace of God and support of many. We do have–what everyone has–is choice. We all live in a time when the choices we make are intended to serve ourselves better if not best. When we choose to live a life to offer glory to God, to share the light of Christ with others, to participate in the life-giving, liberating, loving will of God, we make a personal shift to consider ourselves one among many among the children of God. Our hearts are broken open to bleed for the world, not in an act of dying but in an act of surrender to something greater than ourselves. We might be afraid to name the “greater thing” as God, and I would challenge you to consider where that fear comes from. Does naming something that exceeds our comprehension take away our sense of control? Is that what we fear? Lack of control? Because that’s valid. Being out of control is scary. Not being able to contain a deadly virus is terrifying. Not being able to heal the sick is heart-wrenching. Watching events unfold for self-serving reasons while billions suffer is sickening in and of itself. The actions of others is out of our control. But what is in our control? Our own choices. Our own actions. How we understand ourselves and how we relate to others . . . and how we relate to that which is greater than. How we relate to God.

As Christians, we name God. We try to understand God through Jesus. We believe that Jesus is the greatest gift. God’s giving of God’s self through Jesus, as through a son–the only way we could try to comprehend how God loves us. Through Jesus comes our salvation, redemption, and adoption. We have to choose whether to recognize that for ourselves, to allow ourselves to be transformed, to let go of our ego enough to let God’s grace and truth shine through our lives. When we do this, our lives are changed.

Being transformed by God’s grace, we, too, can share in God’s work. God’s work–the work that began in the beginning of Creation and which continues to this day and forever more. Here at All Saints’, we are keen to hear the gospel call to care for others, to lift up the lowly, and we act on it, sharing whenever and however we can. The words of Thomas R. Steagald in his commentary on our reading from Galatians gave me pause: “Social renderings of the gospel are incomplete unless founded on or accompanied by personal transformation.” Do we hear the call to care for our neighbors as something we do because it is the code of Christians, a law to follow, or do we share love of neighbors out of the experience of being loved by God? Does it matter, so long as we are acting compassionately? Probably not to the recipient. But in my experience, it matters to me, and it affects my relationship with God. The authenticity of work done in and out of love for God enriches the lives of all.

Just like being a parent requires time and attention, being a Christian isn’t a passive identity. Others may know we are Christians by our love, but that love takes work and requires all of ourselves. We know this because the story of Jesus’ life and death is not compartmentalized: it’s all about living in accord with God’s will–loving God with all heart, mind, soul, and strength and loving neighbors as ourselves. The gift that we’re given each Christmas we celebrate is as joyful and triumphant as it is heartbreaking and demanding. And if we are to receive the gift of Christ, we, too, are wrapped into the work of God to share that light with the world. 

All that we can or might do in our own work pales in comparison to what God has done, is doing, and has yet to do. Our Psalm today counts the ways God reveals God’s majesty, and these are beautiful images of provision and protection, intimacy and blessing, in heaven and on earth. A God who does all this isn’t impressed by human extravagance but is pleased by reverence, by those who heed the statutes given. Those who know humility in the encounter with God are the ones who will bring the transformational change into the world, who will share the goodwill and peace that Jesus Christ embodied.

While these liminal days between Christmas and New Year’s offer many folks time off from work, time to rest and stay home, my son reminded me that I have one of the jobs that doesn’t take time off for Christmas. That’s true, but it’s true of all of us who believe that we never take time off from being Christian. It’s who we are, when we’re working, resting, and playing, 365, 24/7. 

And in case we lose sight of what our work is, Howard Thurmas summed it up well:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.

from The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations

That music in the heart is the sweet harmony of finding where our lives meet God’s will, when we accomplish any aspect of this holy work. Now is as good a time as ever to make a plan for what we’ll do next. I know Padre and I are taking time this next week to plan for the year to come and maybe take an extra nap or two. May we all find a few moments to allow room for the Holy Word into our lives, to let God guide us for once, to offer thanks for all that is given to us, and to accept responsibility for what is given to us to do. We have holy work to do, and we have everything we need to do it, if we so choose.

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Humble Work

Jeremiah 2:4-13 | Psalm 81:1, 10-16 | Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 | Luke 14:1, 7-14

This weekend, many enjoy the celebration of Labor Day, extending the time to re-create into Monday, offering a final farewell to summer with one more picnic, barbecue, or blow-out sale. Labor Day is another one of those holidays I take for granted, so I did a quick Wikipedia review of the origins of Labor Day. I was reminded that it is, indeed, a holiday for the working class, its origins in the early 1880s (about 1882) meant to benefit the labor unions and celebrate the labor laws. Unions aren’t what they could be around here, but we definitely benefit from federal labor laws they advocated for and achieved. Interestingly, there was an effort to make “Labor Sunday” a thing–a day to focus on spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement. Obviously the effort didn’t work out, maybe because it lacked the more appealing parades and picnics. Fortunately for us, we have processionals, food, and fellowship, and we have the opportunity to think about our Christian work and labor from spiritual and educational perspectives.

In our readings today, we can think about our spiritual work from a “what-not-to-do” perspective. The prophet Jeremiah, who has accepted the call to share the Word of God even if it means sharing God’s judgment on the people, plainly states two evils the people have committed:

  1. They have forsaken God.
  2. They have dug out cisterns for themselves.

The people have abandoned God, deserted the Almighty. Despite all that God has done for them, despite God being the eternal, living water, the people have turned away from God. AND, they have sought to be self-sufficient. These people of the desert think they can create their own containers for the water that sustains them, but God says their cisterns are cracked and can hold no water. Do we as humans have anything that can contain all the life that God gives us? Even if we put someone on life support, can we restore the life that we know? To abandon God and to presume that we can hold what truly gives us life, these are evil acts, according to God through the prophet Jeremiah.

Similarly, in our gospel lesson, we get words of caution from Jesus, more what-not-to-do’s. Jesus offers a parable to illustrate what is a familiar quote from Proverbs: “for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble” (25:7). Jesus cautions against our arrogance and conceit, for he knows we are susceptible to pride. Jesus also warns us not to give expecting return. Don’t invite someone to your party or give someone a fancy gift and then expect the same invitation or “generosity” to be returned. True generosity is when what we give is a blessing, filled with grace, and absent any expectation except that it might glorify God.

Sometimes some of us need to be told, “Don’t do this or that!” Other times we need direction on what to do. This is what we get in the life of Jesus when we pay attention, as he did. He was invited to a meal, and he watched others scramble to get the best seats. His own power and authority didn’t come from wealth, but he had enough privilege to make the guest list. In his person, in his being, the Son of God lived humbly, with great humility. He knew that with his privilege there is great responsibility. For the Son of God this meant ultimately sacrificing his life, but while he lived it also meant walking every day with the intention to proclaim the love of God and to pursue peace, justice, and love. With every step, every story, every meal, and every prayer, Jesus perpetually reveals to us the presence of God in every moment AND shows us how we can, too, if we put God first.

In our psalm today, the voice of God says, “Oh, that my people would listen to me.” If they had been listening, they would have known God’s promise: “Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.” It wasn’t intended to be a one-time manna in the desert experience. God’s promise to provide nourishment, daily bread, living water, and all good things is continual. This promise continues today. There is enough. There is plenty for everyone. God will and does provide.

What do we do to show that we haven’t forsaken God, that we don’t rely on ourselves exclusively or seek our own glory?

The lesson in Hebrews offers guidance, even some helpful suggestions. “Let mutual love continue.” If we love God as much as we profess we do, then by extension, we love our neighbor, too. We love God, we believe in God, we are nourished by our God, and we show others that we are God-loving Christians in our work: work of showing hospitality to strangers, trusting that there truly is enough, even an abundance–again, not expecting anything in return; work of remembering those in prison or being tortured–spiritually, emotionally, or physically–having empathy and compassion for them so that their human dignity is maintained, that they are not forgotten, and that as a child of God they are entitled to repentance, reconciliation, and restoration. We do the work of upholding our relationships, our marriages and friendships, keeping God in our midst and as our greatest love so that we don’t lose ourselves or become too full of ourselves. We keep free from the love of money and work to be content with what we have. All this is summed up: “do good” and “share what you have.” This will be a sacrifice–we have to let go of something we think solely to be ours–but “such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” Pleasing God is work toward which we can all aspire.

Our collect reminds us how we can remain focused in our work as Christians:

  • Have the love of God’s name in our heart–not superficially but permanently written;
  • Grow in true religion, religion that puts God first, not ourselves;
  • Let God provide us with all goodness and recognize the goodness we receive from God; and
  • Pay attention to the fruit of good works we accomplish in God’s name.

We certainly don’t go waving the Bible in people’s faces or putting a cross around everyone’s neck, but we can speak loudly for the love of God in the work that we do . . . if we understand what it means. Do we know the stories and lessons of our faith? Do we realize how they still manifest to this day?

The story of the loaves and fish feeding the multitudes speaks clearly to the abundance God provides. There were loaves and fish leftover, right? Last week there was an article released by the Episcopal News Service about a vicar in North Carolina who leads a small 20-member congregation in English and also meets in a home to celebrate Holy Eucharist in Spanish with about 9 people. The congregation wanted to help the under-served neighbors get health care they needed, so they facilitate a health access ministry where a nurse meets with neighbors to talk about diagnoses and facilitate resources for treatment. While people wait, the congregation decided to offer a free meal also. Over 40 people participate in the ministry, benefitting from the medical attention and a strong sense of community. It’s not about what the people provide or even what they can do: it’s about what God does through and for God’s people when they listen.

Our lives as faithful Christians will always be about putting God first and realizing that everything we think we have or think we’ve accomplished is really all thanks to God. When we’re doing really well and thinking we’re deserving of that front row seat, it’s probably a good time to step back and triple check our priorities–double check that to-do list from Hebrews–and ask ourselves if in our work we labor humbly for love of God and for the benefit of our neighbor, for the good of all. And if it seems like we’re trying to keep a cracked cistern full of water, if for all the work we’re busy doing we feel like we’re running ourselves ragged in a hamster wheel, maybe it’s time for us to pause and listen and reorient ourselves. A holiday, a holy day, can give us the moment we need to pause and do just that.

*For a podcast that deeply reflects about listening:

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Fulfilled and Yet to Be

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 | Psalm 19 | 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a | Luke 4:14-21

When my oldest child is home and knows I’m ruminating on the scriptures for the week in my sermon preparation, she’ll most likely ask, “What’s the gospel reading for this week?” I offer her a quick headline or summary statement. This week, in a kind of frustration, I said, “It’s when Jesus is in the synagogue, reads from Isaiah, and says the scripture has been fulfilled in their hearing.” And I kind of shrugged my shoulders as if to say, not that exciting, huh? It’s not like he turned water into wine like he did last week–that’s the good stuff.

So I read yet again, and the words Jesus chose to read from the scroll stand out anew:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, 

because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Not only the words but what happens afterwards–the attention to his movements of rolling up the scroll, handing it back to the attendant, and sitting down with all eyes fixed on him–slow time. There must have hung a pregnant pause in the air before he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

We might be tempted to say, “Jesus, you’re getting ahead of yourself. Your ministry is just beginning.” He was baptized and survived wandering in the wilderness for 40 days, and now he’s filled with power of the Spirit to teach with authority in the synagogues, even in his hometown. But at least in the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus has yet to perform any miraculous deeds of liberation or healing.

While we might be inclined to focus on the remarkable acts, what Jesus reads from Isaiah is about having the Spirit of the Lord upon him, being anointed to bring good news, being sent to proclaim liberation and restoration. If anything, he’s likening himself to the Prophet Isaiah, who was called to bring the good news to the people of Israel, to announce their deliverance. But those prophecies were already fulfilled

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” Jesus says with both continuity and disruption of tradition. Continuity because he calls to mind the familiar words of Isaiah, pulling from Chapters 61 and 58 (as we know them), and disruption because he’s saying that today the scripture has been fulfilled. There’s yet another era of people who need good news, who need to be freed from their prisons and oppression, who need vision, and who need restoration. And those people were likely sitting among the crowd or would be among the people who heard the reports of this man proclaiming good news. Also sitting among those in the synagogue were likely people who felt uncomfortable at the calling out of those who are oppressed, people who would be uncomfortable with someone filled with spirit and chosen by God to be the one to bring about the year of the Lord’s favor for those vulnerable people, a year of jubilee when people’s fortunes would be restored, debts forgiven. A year of jubilee sounds an awful lot like valleys being raised up and mountains brought low, and those in position on the top don’t necessarily want to move lower, even if it means a more level playing field. We’ll continue with this moment in Jesus’s ministry next week to recall the response of his teaching.

“Today,” Jesus said, and that “today” was over 2,000 years ago. “Today,” our scripture reads in this time and place, and the power of the Holy Spirit hovers about us, waiting to see if we are willing conduits for the work at hand. I imagine it has similarities to the moment there in Nazareth when the people listening to Jesus got to contemplate what he meant.

Of course I’m not saying I’m Jesus in this moment! What I am saying is that I am a child of God, having been baptized in the name of the Trinity like most of you, I presume (if not, we need to talk about baptism!). I’ve been given gifts of the Spirit, marked as Christ’s own forever, and confirmed by the bishop to assume responsibility for my journey in faith. I strive daily to live into the promises I’ve made, and some days are better than others. And like you, I am one of many who make up the Body of Christ in this world.

Paul, advising the church in Corinth, is trying to maintain cohesiveness among the peoples. He’s told them there are many gifts, and now he’s telling them there are many members, each with their own role to play, individually and collectively. Not only is Paul trying to overcome personally competitive behaviors, but he is also trying to overcome a communal mindset that is governed by a top-down political view that was inclined to see Jesus as Caesar more than Jesus as shepherd. An egalitarian view of the body, incorporating all members be they weak or strong, was not normative. Striving as a corporate body for a greater good challenged the Corinthians then as much as it challenges us today.

So here we are, members of the Body of Christ, lingering in this holy place with the Spirit of the Lord hovering, ready to course through all of us and each of us like a central nervous system activating us for a greater good.

How does that make us feel, knowing that all of us, rich or poor, weak or strong, are an invaluable component of the Body of Christ?

How does it feel to hover for an extended moment at the threshold of what is yet to be?

In that kind of moment, do we feel vulnerable? Scared? Intimidated? Would we rather put our head down and pretend we haven’t seen or known or experienced delight in the Lord our God, effectively hiding our light under a bushel? Do we feel helpless? Or, do we feel well-equipped, ready to rise to the challenge? Elizabeth Gilbert in her book Big Magic writes about creativity seeking outlets and how if one person doesn’t latch onto it and run with whatever idea is trying to be conceived, that it will find another conduit through which to be birthed.

Thankfully, the creative Holy Spirit with which we identify is already finding willing conduits in this place and in our community, and because of that, the work that Jesus began continues. The work of Christ continues to be fulfilled, but it’s not yet complete.

Work like sharing good news to the poor. The food pantry at Christ the King, our discretionary assistance, our openness to everyone regardless of their financial or spiritual portfolio are ways we share the message that God loves–inclusive of and especially–the poor, be it in body, mind, or spirit. The simple message of “God loves you” is a powerful one. There are other churches and organizations that share this message, too, and collectively we partner with them to be advocates for the poor because we have the privilege to do so. Because if people of privilege don’t advocate the poor, who do you see in our governance that does? If I am an immigrant from Guatemala, who do I see in our city/state/nation who represents me and my interest, my struggle?

Work like release to the captives, setting the oppressed free. This doesn’t mean that we go to the jails and release all prisoners. When we commit crimes, we do suffer consequences. We also, however, offer means of reciliation, and when it’s called for, priests and bishops can offer absolution. We believe in being released from the bondage of sin, of making way for reconciliation. This is why we support recovery and rehabilitation programs. We’ve already put word out that when there’s an AA or Al-anon group who needs a meeting space, we’re available. Padre Guillermo and I have ability to go into our county jail. David Myers, a deacon at St. Andrew’s, is instrumental in the gardening program at the Benton County Jail. The Episcopal Church advocates for the abolition of the death penalty, incarceration reform, and support of refugees, those seeking asylum. Remembering that our prisons or what binds us aren’t always visible opens the gates of empathy and compassion to relate to one another on a level plane. We all stand to benefit from the message of liberation from the bondage to sin, captivity to our self-will. We have the Way to be released to something greater.

Giving sight to the blind can be enabling one another to have the vision to see God’s dream for us, the “something greater” of which we are all a part. Enabling each other in hope and imagination helps restore the ability to see things that maybe we thought were impossible or had lost sight of given the way we’ve always experienced the world. One way we do this is through Continuing the Conversation, where we talk about racism and prejudice and where we see that our eyes are being open to see injustices that take place in our lives and in our world. Sure, Jesus restored literal sight to the blind, but we are much more likely to remove blinders in our worldviews, revealing the Truth of what really is.

The work of revealing the year of the Lord’s favor would be a tremendous accomplishment. Imagine erasing all student loan debt and mortgages. Imagine everything being returned to its natural state so that we remembered that all of Creation is actually God’s, and we are merely stewards of Creation, no one of us more entitled to “ownership” than another. God’s blessing is unbounded by human limitations and is available abundantly to all. In our burial rite, we offer the same message of resurrection, offer the same liturgy, use the same pall, whether you were a high level CEO or a homeless addict with multiple felony charges. God’s favor is for everyone.

As always, it’s up to us to decide what we do in any given moment. Maybe it’s our moment to be on the receiving end of the good news, liberation, and abundance. If that’s the case, you’ve come to the right place–the table is set for you. Maybe it’s our moment to rise up, and bow our heads and lift our hands in “Amen” like the people listening to Ezra, receiving the law, repentant for their disobedience, and turning the to joy of the Lord for their strength. They were hungry for guidance, for direction, and the law of Moses filled them.

What are we needing now? Personally and communally? The Holy Spirit surrounds us, waiting to fill our hunger, waiting to empower us, if we are ready to receive and be sent to do the will of God.


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The Work We Must Do

Exodus 17:1-7 | Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 | Philippians 2:1-13 | Matthew 21:23-32

Saturday night marks the end of Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement, one of if not the most important day in the Jewish calendar. A day of prayer and fasting begun at sundown Friday evening, it’s not only a time of acknowledging one’s own wrongdoing, such as unfulfilled vows to God, but also a time to seek forgiveness. Every time we come together for corporate worship–whether it’s the Daily Office or the Holy Eucharist–we can pray our general confession as well as the Lord’s prayer. Twice in our worship today, we ask forgiveness not only for what we’ve done in thought, word, and deed but also for what we’ve left undone and for forgiveness of our trespasses, where we’ve crossed a line or committed an offense against someone else . . . as well as forgiving their trespasses toward us. We do this not to live in perpetual guilt but so we remain awake, fully aware of what is going on in our whole lives, mind, body, and spirit. We do this because when we make our baptismal vows, we promise that when we sin (not if but when), we will repent; we will re-orient ourselves toward God. We do this because we are not perfect, because on our own, we don’t have the ability to fulfill the yearning for a life lived fully, authentically, rich with wonder and purpose.

Throughout Scripture, time and time again, we get the message that it’s not us who can solve things alone.

In Exodus, again we hear the people raising their voices at Moses. They “quarreled” with him. If they didn’t have water to drink–in the desert of all places–I cannot imagine this is a lighthearted disagreement, and we get clarification when Moses tells the Lord that the people “are almost ready to stone (him).” Not only are they quarreling with Moses, but Moses says they are testing the LORD. All the things the LORD has done, now they test Him again, questioning as Moses said, “Is the LORD among us or not?” Yet God provides. Here in Exodus, Moses and Aaron do what the LORD says. The same story in Numbers (Chapter 20) has Moses strike the rock and take credit for what God has provided, receiving the promise that he will not make it to the promised land. It wasn’t Moses alone who provided water for the people of God.

In the Gospel according to Matthew, the chief priests and elders deceitfully prompt Jesus with a trick question, one they hope will incriminate himself. Jesus, however, turns the table with full transparency, unveiling the very criteria to which they themselves are held accountable. In their unwillingness to state their own position about where John the Baptist came from, they showed themselves unworthy before Jesus to receive the Truth. How different the moment in the gospel would have been if the elders had been honest about their struggle, given ear to Jesus as the Philippians did to Paul about what constituted righteousness, about what mattered. If they had, Jesus could have shared with them what Paul shares to the Philippians, what Jesus shared with his disciples: that there is complete joy to be had in love of one another through Christ who comes from the Father, that abiding in love with love of God is the utmost fulfillment we can attain this side of Glory.

Presumably written from prison, Paul shares his letter to the Philippians with love and affection, including in our reading today what may have been a “Christ hymn,” something familiar to the community. What truly matters to the welfare of the people is having the same mind, love, and agreement–rooted in Christ. This was to be their work, to “work out (their) own salvation with fear and trembling” since it “is God who is at work in you.” Reading this correspondence, it doesn’t take a great stretch of imagination to hear how the Holy Spirit might speak to us from the Word. Are we as a people of one mind? Are we willing to let God work through us, in us, for the sake of love of God alone? For love? For joy?

There’s an article titled “America Wasn’t Built for Humans” by Andrew Sullivan, noted to be a conservative political commentator. In it, the whole premise is that because humans are tribal creatures, America isn’t the best set-up. From the beginning of humanity, tribalism was a good thing, necessary for survival. You know who your people are, you’re working toward the same goals, you share the same myths to understand the world and the supernatural. I want nothing more for my daughter at college than for her to find her tribe, because our tribes can be a good thing. But tribes of around 50 are quite different than a tribe of 323 million. Naturally, we have many tribes within America, and we want to sort and classify everyone so we can understand not only others but also ourselves. From the beginning of our nation, Sullivan figures, “Tribalism was an urge our Founding Fathers assumed we could overcome. And so it has become our greatest vulnerability.” Surely they must have thought that common values rooted in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness would be enough to keep us united. Sullivan himself hopes that America can find common ground under one president.

But I warrant that placing our hopes upon any one person or even a group of persons alone is not enough. This is hard work, this working out of our survival, especially our salvation. It’s okay for it to be a struggle. Our tradition provides many examples of people wrestling physically, verbally, and emotionally with God or God’s messengers. Think of Jacob, Jonah, and Paul. Like them, if we truly engage, we are not the same person after a genuine encounter with God. Most of the time, if our endeavor is entered whole-heartedly, we are transformed by the experience because the struggle moves us deeper into relationship with God. The closer we are to God, the clearer it can be to see how we’ve lost our way, how much we need God and one another to be fully restored.

The key to a full restoration, the hope for us all is that our humanity can be transformed by the life of Christ, by an understanding and practice of life that restores us to unity in God.

It’s true that we don’t have to be Christian to be good people, but as Christians, we have a unique responsibility to bring about reconciliation and restoration to unity to God through Jesus Christ. How do we do that? As Paul told the Philippians, we have to be of one mind in Christ. This might sound idealistic, but I believe it gets at the core of what a Beloved Community is. It’s neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female: it’s here and now, inclusive of all. But it’s going to be hard, admitting when we’re wrong and losing our lives–especially losing perceived control of our lives–for the sake of true salvation in God. If we can make this sacrifice, then we might be able to taste the exquisite beauty and ultimate freedom in a life given over to God . . . our best opportunity to experience joy made complete.

All this is easy to talk about, especially in context of characters of the past. But the Holy Spirit speaks to us through our Scripture now as then. The clarion call for us all to have the mind of Christ rings loudly and earnestly today, but how do we get it? As Episcopalians, we do engage in Scripture; we have Bible studies. I challenge you to take this reading from Philippians, to take it and read it at least two to three times per day this week. When the Bishop comes next week, see how you hear his message, notice how you welcome our newly confirmed and received, observe how you listen to the news. Will it have changed with a constant focus on who Christ is? Can we put on the mind of Christ and “be the change we wish to see in the world” (to borrow a quote from Gandhi)? We won’t know if we don’t try, and this is the work we must do.


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Changing the Rule

Exodus 16:2-15  | Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 | Philippians 1:21-30 | Matthew 20: 1-16

Everybody stretch your shoulders a minute for a brief exercise, if you are able. By a show of hands, how many of you here today are cradle Episcopalians, meaning you’ve been Episcopalian since your infancy? . . . (keep ‘em up, if you can) How many of you have been Episcopalian for 20 years or more? . . . How many of you have been here at All Saints’ since its beginning in 2007 or have been in The Episcopal Church at least 10 years? (you’re probably getting tired, cradle folks–hang in there!) Five years or more? For how many of you is this your first visit, or you’re not even part of The Episcopal Church but have landed here at this point in your spiritual journey? Here’s the thing:

All of you are welcome here, in this place and at this table.

(You can put your arms down now.) All of you are invited now as ever to taste and see God’s grace and mercy. Is there more grace and mercy available to you if you’ve always been faithful and devout? Do you have special privileges if you’re an old timer, get more bread at communion for holding your arm the longest? No. It’s the same for everyone, infinitely and abundantly the same. The kingdom of heaven, according to our gospel today, shows no partiality amongst its workers.

This is good news. We are all equal, have the same access to God through Christ, receive gifts of the Spirit. Why can’t we leave it at that?

Well, Jesus said, “the last will be first and the first will be last.” All I hear at first glance is that there’s a first and a last, and Jesus knows I want to be first. I want to be rewarded for my efforts. I want it to show how much I love and serve, how close I am to Jesus as His number one fan. Last week (I’m sure you remember) I mentioned that Peter’s question about how many times to forgive was a question of quantity: just how much do we have to do to be good or right? This is a humanly economical thing to do, to quantify something so we can measure rank or amount, put “stock” in something. With such a measure, we can gauge our self-worth, estimate our value. We can also judge others. I want to be first in my devotion and faithfulness, not the least devout and most unfaithful. In my striving to be the best and most, I compare myself to others. I might even begin to think that I don’t have what it takes to be first. So focused am I on increasing my value in the system that I complain when things fall short, I complain that I don’t have enough. I might even think that I am not enough.

When we lived in Fayetteville from 2004-2012, I noticed this increased lingo about who was “native” or not in Arkansas, especially in Northwest Arkansas. Returning to the area of my nativity, I can’t help but notice that this distinction between natives and non-natives has reached almost a fever pitch, as if only those born and raised here have a right to give voice to the way things should be, now or going forward. We’ve been here longer than they have, so we have greater value.

Consider also the young children brought here with their aspiring immigrant parents, parents who were hoping to find their place in the economy, establish their value in the social and cultural constructs. These children, many now adults, are struggling to maintain a sense of security in the only place they know as home. They are looking to the others who have been here longer to help them, to protect them. Somewhere along the way they heard and believed that people were to look after the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner, that people were to love their neighbor. As they clamor to rush paperwork, our DREAMers are trying to navigate a system that sees them as another statistic, another number.

With our emphasis on earthly things, we cling to our human economy, constantly compare, and make our value judgments based on what we determine matters most. We get anxious thinking that we will come up short in this valuation, afraid that we won’t measure up.

And then Jesus goes and affirms that if we’re first, we’re going to be last.

That makes us even more anxious, unless we understand the love and compassion Jesus shares in these words. Can you hear him saying that you can be first, third, 50th, or last; what matters is that you’re part of the kingdom. You’re in. Notably, however, we’re not the boss. We’re the hired laborers doing the work, tending to the resources made available to us by nature of our position. We tend to think that the materials we work with, the resources we use, the compensation we’re given is all ours. So we hold onto it. We might even do a really good job of tending it well, watching the quantity multiply. But holding it to ourselves traps it, in a sense, keeping it from being in circulation. Whether it’s money or time or products or anything valuable, if we hoard it, we prevent it from being in the flow, being part of what Eric Law of the Kaleidoscope Institute calls “holy currency” (he has a whole book about it). Healthy congregations, healthy societies, healthy systems reap the cycle of blessings when the holy currencies are enabled to flow and fulfill the will of God, to manifest the Kingdom.

At one of his workshops, Eric Law shared with us an example of how not just someone but a community rallies to perpetuate an economy determined by values of the Kingdom, where everyone and everything has value. It did take the resources of one to help make it happen, but it has involved the whole community to keep it going. It’s the JBJ Soul Kitchen in New Jersey. (JBJ for Jon Bon Jovi, of course.) It’s one of those kitchens with great chefs and many hands and many patrons. Where some pay for their meal with cash, giving whatever they can afford but at least the minimum donation, and some pay with an hour of their time to volunteer, paying for their meal with dignity. What is most valued here is LOVE.

Love is God’s economy, and we can’t get it fully because it defies our understanding. In our human economy we are so predisposed to focus on scarcity, of there not being enough, that accepting even the possibility of there being enough for everyone seems improbable. It’s improbable if our systems adhere to human economy. Enough for everyone is provided by God. We, as caretakers and workers of Creation have imposed our earthly values. Gold is just another metal except that “its rarity, usefulness, and desirability make it command a high price.” What if we replaced greed with love? What if we gave power to those who truly exemplified the love of Christ? What if we frame our hope for the future around a kingdom of heaven that does welcome all, that values love above all things, and requires us to be good and faithful workers in the field, doing whatever work we are gifted to do?

I’m an optimist. Of course I can imagine a place in time where we make the Kingdom a reality this side of heaven. I’m also realistic, so I know that the odds are not in our favor for the whole world to coalesce into a single hum of peace and love. But if we keep making pockets of the kingdom, we are doing good work. We support places like Soul Kitchen–places that affirm and support the dignity of all persons and pay attention to their stewardship of creation. We realize that whether we’re native or alien, we are here together–whether that be in Northwest Arkansas or in this country. Our job is to love one another. That might look like protecting one another. It might look like getting someone out of a ditch, carrying them to the one who has the cure, or standing or kneeling beside them in their deepest, darkest grief. We might have done this all our life or just realized that this is what we’re given to do. Either way, we don’t push our way to the front of the line.

We make a bigger circle so we can gather around the table and marvel at the beautiful tapestry of the heavenly kingdom revealed as beloved community on earth.


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All in a Word


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.


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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A Little More Fuss

I know the woman in the grocery store pushing the cart with the child in the top seat.  I have soft terry pants like that, and though I can’t tell from this distance, I wonder if her old sweatshirt is getting holes at the cuffs and seams like mine, aging from all the washes.  I’ve been this woman.

In another aisle I pass the woman carrying a couple of items in her arms.  She breezes by with a fragrance sophisticated and richly feminine.  She looks like she just came from an executive meeting, winning everyone with her charm.  Could she be as brilliant as she is beautiful?  I can only hope to be this woman.

What being an out-of-the-home working mom has taught me is that I can put forth a little more effort and feel tremendously different.  If I feel different, then how differently will others perceive me?

I style my growing hair.  (I do happen to have rollers from a post-partum drug-store visit for a massive amount of beauty supplies after our third child.)  I wear mascara along with my other makeup.  Occasionally I wear contacts.  I now have a whole wardrobe that can hang-dry only, including many pairs of knee-highs.  I bought a pair of boots (but do not plan to buy “skinny” jeans or “jeggings”).

Doing these small things, putting forth a little more fuss at the beginning of the day, reminds me that I am worth a little extra effort.  I am valuable, and I don’t mind if others appreciate me, too.  None of us really want to be invisible, do we?

Some days warrant the yoga/pajama garb, to be sure, but every day deserves a simple little beauty routine.  Simple can mean lipgloss and earrings or curled hair and a dress.

Beauty is simple by nature, isn’t it?

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Why Am I NOT Writing?

A tree doesn’t try to be a lightpost.  Moonflowers don’t blossom during the day.  When my thoughts continuously, incessantly form themselves into at least somewhat coherent sentences or intriguing essays, why am I not writing them onto a page or screen?

If I believe so much in one’s authentic being, if I know without doubt part of what I am called to do in this life, then why am I not doing it?

It’s hard.

It’s easier to maintain a facade of what’s expected.  It’s easier to flow with the crowd through the mainstream canal, anonymous, seemingly indifferent, unaffected, doing nothing to roughen the waters.

Or is it?

The cacophonous buzz of the masses contrasts greatly with the passionate hum of conversation found amidst a group of people sharing in lives of authenticity.  Is the disquiet of the soul, the unrest of a tortured spirit worth the weight of carrying around a mask, an appearance of being something or someone we’re not?  I’ve always known there is greater beauty in a natural brooke meandering through the woods than in a concrete, polluted city canal.

If all I have to be is myself, then may I have the courage of Lady Godiva to go boldly through the village, my life, claiming nothing but what is mine.

There are no good excuses; there are only excuses.  An excuse is merely apologizing for not doing something, being ashamed of what is or justifying the absence of it.  I owe it to myself to be fully honest.  I make my own choices, whatever the circumstances.  I am certainly not sorry for who I am.

I celebrate my gifts and give thanks, whether they be talents God-given or skills I have to work hard at.  I hope you can know enough about yourself to do the same.  May every day bring us the courage to write, to do what we’re given to do, participating in the creativity of Life.

And I figure if I can get up at 5:30 AM to do this, then that’s a good place to begin again.  I hope this is the beginning of a trend.

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Resisting Resistance

It may not make sense to you, but it does to me.


The day’s light gone, the fireplace warm and inviting, all the notions of productivity flee, and I want to sit and (at least pretend to) knit by the fire . . . perhaps even watch a new DVD.  “We could just go to bed by 11,” suggests my wise husband before he returns to his desk.

I feel the inner struggle, stoked by the mug of coffee I shouldn’t have had after 7pm.  There are other projects I could do, things I need to get done.  I allow myself to stare into the fire for a few minutes.  Every moment of every day, we have a choice.  Those of us who are blessed and challenged with working from home, whether we get paid or not, there’s no one but ourselves to hold us accountable.  Thus, the inner struggle arising at all hours of the day.

The trick to feeling good about what we do may very well be making conscious decisions.  Mindfulness, if you will.  I like to feel in dialogue with the Universe/God/whatever you want to say.  How can I co-create with that which is greater than me?  If I feel good about where I am, what I am doing, then I radiate that positive energy, affecting not only those around me but also the rest of the cosmos.  This is a good thing.

Resolutions still holding firm, I removed myself from the fire, returned to my “desk” and made some notes on a project to jump-start the work I have to do today.  Creative, tangible, productive.  I went to bed feeling good.  I read a few pages in Angela’s Ashes before turning out the light, closing my eyes, and hoping for insightful dreams.

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For the Expressive Soul

In the women’s spirituality group I help facilitate, we’re doing what I guess you could call a series on spiritual tools for the journey.  These are a few things that, along the way, I have found to be beneficial to me for hearing the inner longings of my soul.

  • Journaling  Of course, I am a writer by nature, so this one comes easily to me.  But I don’t take this journaling gig lightly.  I have a dream journal, which is written in first before those slippery
    dreams from the subconscious slip away again.  I always date the dreams
    and try to mark when it’s a full moon (because the dreams are usually
    particularly vivid and significant then for me).  After documenting the dreams, I pull out the Gratitude Journal (idea from Sarah ban Breathnach’s Simple Abundance).  I list at least five things for which I’m grateful, and these range from people to things to ideas to states of being.  Lastly, there’s the “morning pages” (term coined by Julia Cameron in her Artist’s Way books) where I vent/muse/list/write for a while.  The goal is three pages, but sometimes three short paragraphs is all I have time for.  Some days the whole process takes about 15 minutes.  I’ve been known to take two hours.
  • Collage  This is another process inspired by Cameron’s Artist’s Way.  My partner in spiritual direction and I use this tool frequently to either find where we are in the present stage in our lives or to help visualize what it is we want or need.  Collages can be done given a prompt, given a time frame or given nothing but freedom of expression.  Most recently, I collaged a manila folder, and it will store items in it particular to this phase of my life.
  • Movement  When our mind and spirit are expressed through the movement of our body, when the energy is released, I anticipate great things happening.  This is an area that I hope to explore more in the future.  I hope to learn t’ai chi.  I have another woman leading this session this week, and I can’t wait to see what we do, how it feels.  Honoring my body, caring for it well, is something I have to work on, but if our body is not well, we are not available to others, let alone to ourselves.  Maintaining a balance and allowing the energy to flow freely improves our overall well-being.
  • Meditation  I was first introduced to sitting meditation (zazen) through a Buddhism class in college.  For this, I am ever grateful.  I went back many times to the Monday night “Journey into Silence.”  I met wonderful people there, though the truth is we didn’t talk all that much.  25 minutes of sitting, 10 minutes walking, 15 minutes of sitting was the schedule, if I recall correctly.  Truly, there are many forms of meditation, and I won’t list technique here.  The point is silence.  Prayerful listening.  Stillness.  Quiet mind.  As busy people, sometimes we don’t have hours to sit in prayer to receive guidance, to experience the presence of God, but we can bring a mindfulness into our present task.  We can do things with a full-bodied awareness that embodies stillness and with prayerful listening be able to hear the still, small voice of Spirit or to experience the joy and gladness of doing the right thing at the right time.

These are just a few of the tools that I use, some more regularly than others, of course.  I encourage you to find what you use to express yourself creatively, what helps you hear the inner voice, what helps guide and assure you in your journey, and make it a regular practice.  You are only too busy if it is not a priority.

If finding what you are supposed to be doing is a priority to you or if you want clarity on anything, you have to be still and honest with yourself long enough to glimpse the truth of the matter.  This isn’t easy, but the rewards are great. 

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