12.25.2009

The great invitation (A Christmas Eve reflection)


Christmas is a time of giving and receiving, and we are used to looking at the miraculous story of Christ’s birth as God’s greatest gift to us. Which it is – God has given us everything we need in Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away our sins.

I want to encourage you this night to think of the Christ-event, the birth of the babe who would be Messiah, as an invitation.

Jesus spent his early ministry inviting fishermen and tax collectors and other marginal types to “follow me!” Then he spent long months on the road with them, inviting them to glimpse and then embody a new kind of life – a life that was ultimately rooted not in their culture and economy, not in their ideas of themselves and the world, but in the Kingdom of God that is here, right now…if you have eyes to see it.

Christ didn’t just issue this invitation to historical figures once-upon-a-time. Christmas reminds us that we are each invited to follow Jesus into a changed life, and that God has blessed us with all we need to receive that gift.

It’s an invitation to be our true selves, our child-of-God selves. An invitation to step out of the rat-race of measuring ourselves by the world’s yardsticks, and looking at ourselves as God sees us – as beloved children. The world tells us that what matters is our job, the school we go to, our net worth, our GPA, our usefulness to our work and our family. God calls us to see ourselves and our neighbors – even our enemies – as equally worthy children of God. As flawed, stubborn sinners, true – but also as beloved, redeemed saints.

Jesus’ invitation is also to come as we are. Like the kings who traveled from the east, taking months to follow a star. And the shepherds, who left their flocks alone and hurried to Bethlehem. It’s tempting for us to think, “Well, that’s OK for them, but I can’t drop my nets and leave the boats. I have responsibilities.” But God doesn’t ask us to be Balthazar, or Peter, or Paul. God asks us to be us, and to use our strengths and weaknesses and the situations we are in to be ambassadors of God’s good news for all people. We don’t have to wait until we have enough time or money, until we’re out of school or retire. God can use who we are and what we have, right now!

Most importantly, Christmas reminds us that the invitation is to join God in healing, reconciling and blessing all people. Christ became human – the Word became flesh – so that God’s people could see what it looks like to live the Kingdom of God here and now. Jesus went about healing those who were sick in body, mind or spirit. He fed the hungry and made the unclean clean. He forgave sins rather than holding them against people. He also challenged hypocrisy and spoke truth to power. Through the Spirit he is still doing this today – and he invites us to be part of this work that is changing the world.

This Christmas, love has come to you just as it has came to that stable in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago.

This Christmas, give yourself the gift of drawing near to the God who is near to you and learn who you truly are, and who you belong to.

This Christmas, give yourself the gift of knowing that God has already given you everything you need to join God’s mission.

This Christmas, give the world the gift of sharing your love like Jesus did, pouring out blessing as the Bethlehem star once poured out light on all the known world.

Amen.



12.15.2009

What are you waiting for?

As we close the season of Advent, a time of waiting, the first few readings for this week ask, "What are you waiting for?"

Monday we saw the religious leaders demanding Jesus' credentials. When they are asked what they think about John's works, they reveal their true intention: They are looking for one with human authority and power. They do not pray to seek God's guidance, nor do they discern what might be happening. Instead they play politics; it's more important for them not to be seen as wrong, and not to risk the anger of the crowd, than to say what they think.

Today's story continues the encounter. In the parable one son shames the father by refusing him, the other shames him by not actually honoring his wishes. In the culture the father would have been angry at both, but more angry at the one who didn't outright defy him publicly (but didn't do the work)? Or at the one who made him look bad but then changed his priorities and served?  Jesus allows that those who don't look so good but believe John (and Jesus) have an advantage over those who say the right things but then act differently. Yet they are waiting one who will confirm the status quo.

Wednesday's reading picks up on how Jesus defies expectations, even John's!  Apparently John must have been looking for something more than Jesus' preaching and miracles.  Jesus points out that his authority comes from fulfilling God's promises (made through the prophets) -- to heal, to bring good news to the poor.

There is a lot about Jesus' life and ministry that gave others offence -- even (especially) good, religious folks.

Does Jesus' style and message offend you?

If our lives of faith and service do not offend anyone, can we be doing all that we are asked?

Which Jesus are you waiting for?  The babe sleeping in the manger?  The healer and teacher?  The revolutionary, overturning religious power like the moneychanger's tables?  The reconciler who invites you into a renewed relationship with God?

12.11.2009

Am I in the game?


Mt. 11:16-19

Let's face it -- we like to pick and choose our obedience.

Sometimes we hear the call to live simply, or Jesus call to drop our nets and follow, or John's call to "Repent!", and we say -- that's too hard!

Other times we Jesus' counsel to receive God's love and care, like the birds and flowers, and we say -- that's too hard!

What is easy to miss here is that, by focusing on what we "can't" do, we are like the children in Christ's parable.  By whining at each other that no one wants to play "our" game, we end up not playing at all!

These people of Jesus' time clung to the status quo because John's call was too much, his behavior out of the box.  At the same time they used Jesus' breaking of the norms -- eating with the unacceptable, for example -- to brand him as out of the box.  They neutralized both Jesus' and John's challenge in order to stay safely where they were already comfortable.

I can play this game, too. But heeding God's wisdom might by figuring out what God's call means in my life, and then going out to "play," just as I am, with what I have, rather than figuring out why I can't be one of the spiritual greats.

Are there ways that you dismiss the challenge in Jesus' words and miss the dance that he invites you into?

Photo: Virginia Woodard/Christian Children's Fund

12.09.2009

What's on your shoulders?

Matthew 11:28-30

This is one of my favorite promises from Jesus, especially the way Eugene Peterson renders it in The Message. "Get away with me and you'll recover your life. ... Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly." This sounds like a relationship that I want to be in!

The traditional reading says that those of us who are "carrying heavy burdens" -- our challenges, our worries, our wants, our striving -- can exchange that for Jesus' "yoke." If we know that at all we know it as linking two farm animals to get more work out of them. I've generally thought of this as something Jesus puts on me.

Peterson's version suggests another reading: That Jesus asks me to join him in the same yoke. Christ invites us to join him in his "easy" task of preaching good news and bringing healing. Scholars say that "easy" here does not mean "less strenuous" but rather "well suited to the task" and "producing beneficial results." Jesus says his yoke is easy not because it allows us to goof off but engages us in holy work here and now.

In other words, he suggests his yoke is the one that best fits our human condition, with our failings, our desire to do good and make a difference, and all the "humanity" that we experience.

What yoke is on your shoulders? Christ's yoke? Or ones of individualism, taking it easy, consumerism? Another?

How does it fit?

What would a yoke that fit you well be like?

12.04.2009

Do you believe?

Matthew 9:27-31

Jesus gets to the heart of the matter with his question, ‘Do you believe that I am able to do this?’ The blind man is asked the central question of faith, the same one we are asked.

Do I believe that God is able to provide for me and my family, to create wholeness in my life? Or do I sometimes think the God might provide a baseline, but if I want more money, more food, a better job, I need to work that out on my own?

This text challenges me to think about where my trust really is, and about how to align my “wants” with what God provides.

12.02.2009

Right in front of your eyes

Matthew 15:29-37

Have you ever missed seeing what God was doing right in front of you?

Jesus has just healed people of serious afflictions -- he has made the blind see, the lame walk, the mute speak.  The crowd is mesmerized, and they eagerly praise God for what they see God doing in their midst.

Could One who performed such miraculous healings have difficulty finding food for the crowd?  Certainly as Jesus healed the paraplegic, the maimed, and the blind because they had enough faith to come to him, so could he turn his compassion for them into bread.

But the disciples don't see it.  Totally practical (and seemingly blind to what Jesus can do), they look around at the size of the crowd and ask, Where are we going to get enough bread for all these people?  So Jesus gives them a lesson in kingdom economics:  With God there is always enough.  What we bring is enough.
Are there areas of your life, like having enough food, or enough money, or something else, where you are blinded to God's desire to give you "enough"?

11.28.2009

What weighs you down?

Luke 21:34-36

Jesus knows that this world is a difficult and dangerous place. He knows that we can be attacked and afflicted by people and powers that seek to destroy us. He also knows that our hearts can be weighed down by the busyness of life and by our own pursuit of the good life.

Whatever situation we find ourselves in, in trouble or at ease, we are called to pay attention to Christ. The center of our life and energy is not to be our sufferings or our success, our lack or our riches, but Christ. If we are alert to him, in a relationship nurtured by constant conversation (prayer), we will be able to look past bad times and blessings and engage what really matters, which is joining Jesus in sharing God's love and healing and provision with the whole world.

What weighs your heart down today? Can you picture releasing this weight into God's loving hands, and imagine life without this weight?

11.27.2009

Be the sign

Luke 21:29-33

So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.

Just as we read the seasons, we can see signs that God's kingdom is bigger and better than "ours." And even better, when we follow Jesus' example, we are signs to our neighbors that God's kingdom is here, now. If we are freed from fear, greed and a quest for power, we can be signs that there is a better way.

11.26.2009

Which direction do I point?

Luke 21:20-28

Jesus told us (v8) not to be enamored of the "prophets" who predict the end.  But we do see signs.  We all know of Jerusalem surrounded by armies and divided.  We see the earth groaning from exploitation, with species disappearing at an alarming rate and dangerous CO2 levels.  We see endless conflict and an economic meltdown that threatens to get worse.

How do we react to these "signs?"  Are we paralyzed by fear?  Or driven by fear to hunker down and protect ourselves and our families?  Do we raise up more and more weapons and soldiers, and look for hedge investments to protect us when others are wiped out?

Jesus suggests another way: "stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."  One way to look at this is to hear Jesus say: "Don't be distracted by fear and self-protection. Be a sign of the new life in God's kingdom that I have been telling you about."

God's kingdom, Jesus has said, is a place where perfect love casts out fear, and where God provides sustanance for everyone (as the birds and the flowers).  It is a place where the lion lays down with the lamb, swords are beaten into plowshares, the rich provide for the poor.

In the midst of the anxiety and uncertainty of our times (which, truthfully, is the anxiety of *every* time), what does it look like for us to be signs of God's kingdom?

11.25.2009

Relational theology

All theology is systemic. Theology is about how God relates with all of creation. It's not just about "me," focused on the situations I experience and might experience. It's about all the experiences, good and bad, that affect others but not me -- about the wealth and relationships I might not have, about the loss I might not experience. Theology is about how God views and works in systems -- economies, politics, religions, empires -- and not just in relation to "us."

But can theology be systematic? Theology is not an engineering problem, one in which all the inputs and outputs can be known and measured, and the processes clearly explained, allowing for predictive laws to address any set of circumstances. Or it might be. All that we know is that the experimental data is not all in yet.

Theology encompasses revelation and mystery. It is informed by what God has revealed of God's self and by the historic record, and is open to the ways God's Spirit chooses to move in the midst of our ever changing reality. If we are engaged in a relationship with God, what we learn about God and ourselves as well as the world and community we live in will be reflected in a relational theology.

What is yours to give?

Luke 21:1-4

Quaker educator Parker Palmer writes that we can only give away what is truly ours.  He writes this in the context of our "calling," that we can only serve in ways that we are gifted to serve, and that trying to give what we "should" and serve as we "ought" can damage ourselves and the recipients. 

But perhaps his idea applies to possessions, as well. Stuff has a way of owning us instead of the other way around.  I find that I can let my fear of not having what I am used to be more powerful that the joy I experience in "having" or in giving away.  Maybe this widow could give all she had not because she didn't need it -- she certainly did -- but because she knew her coins did not define her, and that she controlled them and not vice versa.

11.22.2009

Persistent faith

Luke 18:1-8

"Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart."

Last week's Kairos explored this parable, in which Jesus calls the disciples to persistent prayer. In this story, Jesus tells of a widow denied justice by a judge. She keeps going back to him, petitioning for justice. Eventually this judge gives her what she asks for. Not because he respects God or wants to do justice, but essentially to get this woman off his back. Jesus caps the story by saying the God, who loves us more than the judge cares for the widow, will be even quicker to respond to our cries for justice.

As we discussed this, several of us admitted to being uncomfortable with badgering God for what we want. One of the group expressed it well: "If I'm resting in my faith that God is supporting me all the time, then continually asking for what I want seems to mock that trust." Someone else pointed out that the widow is seeking "justice," not her own advantage; perhaps that is an acceptable thing to ask for.

Another question came up: Does Jesus have a deeper meaning in telling us to "pray always and not lose heart"? What could he be pointing to? The parable's example of asking for justice, and our discussion about asking for our needs/wants, are focused on outward circumstances, looking for God's intervention in our external world. What would it look like if we focused Jesus' example on our internal reality?

We turned to an excerpt from Speaking of Faith's interview with "the happiest man in the world," Buddhist teacher Mattieu Ricard. We watched a portion of Krista Tippett's video interview with Ricard, a scientist who is involved in the Dalai Lama's investigation of the links between science and faith. We focused on this exchange:

Ms. Tippett: So I imagine that people ask you how do I become happy? What do you say? How do you respond to that?

Mr. Ricard: Well, clearly by first saying yes, outward circumstances are important, I should do whatever I can. But I should certainly see that at the root of all that, there are inner circumstances, inner conditions. What are they? Well, just look at you. So if I say, OK, come, we'll spend a weekend cultivating jealousy, now who is going to go for that?

We all know that even though that's part of human nature, but we are not interested in cultivating more jealousy, neither for hatred, neither for arrogance. So those will be much better off if they were not ... didn't have such a grip on our mind. So there are ways to counteract those, to dissolve those.

I mean, you cannot, in the same moment of thought, wish to do something good to someone or harm that person. So those are mutually incompatible like hot and cold water. So the more you will bring benevolence in your mind, at every of those moments there's no space for hatred. It's just very simple, but we don't do that. We do exercise every morning 20 minutes to be fit. We don't sit for 20 minutes to cultivate compassion. If we want to do so, our mind will change, our brain will change. What we are will change. So those are skills. They need to be, first, identified, then cultivated. What is good to learn chess, well, you have to practice and all that. In the same way, we all have thoughts of altruistic love. Who didn't have that? But the common goal, we don't cultivate that.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Ricard: Do you learn to piano by playing 20 seconds every two weeks? It doesn't work. So why, by what kind of mystery some of the most important quality of human beings will be optimal just because you wish so, doesn't make any sense.

I have a friend who is 63 years old. He used to be a runner when he was young. He gave up running. Now, a few years ago, he started again. He said, "When I started again, I could not run more than five minutes without panting for breath." Now, last week, he ran the Montreal Marathon at 63. He had the potential, but it was useless until he actualize it. So same potential we have for mind training. But if we don't do anything, it's not going to happen because we wish so.

Ricard is pointing to two realities that I think are encompassed in Jesus' teaching.

First, there is more to life than the externals. More that what we experience, and how we appear to others. We can respond to what happens to us, what we experience, in ways that are healthy or unhealthy. If someone attacks us we can fight back, or we can turn the other cheek, as Jesus suggests in the sermon on the mount. The former makes us just like our attacker. Turning the other cheek was a radical response, because in Jesus' time this would have challenged the attacker to respond with an open-handed slap. Because it was common to slap a perceived inferior with the back of the hand (an insult), this was a statement of equality with the attacker, rather than pure submission. The first response diminishes the self, the latter elevates the self.

When Jesus speaks of pray often he does not just mean to ask for what we want, or even justice (although that is part of prayer). As he taught the disciples, prayer is also submission of our will to God's, acknowledgment of what we *have* received, and developing an ongoing relationship with our Father.

Second, Jesus spoke often of the need to cultivate good habits of life and spirit, so that we could reap what we sow. The way we live can cultivate anxiety or peace, generosity or selfishness, aggression or cooperation. Jesus calls us to persistence because we will not become peaceful, joyful, generous or self-sacrificing "because we wish so," in Ricard's phrase. Like playing the piano or running a marathon, we develop those spiritual muscles because we exercise them.

When was the last time you got off the treadmill of life and simply spent time in God's presence?

What would happen if, in your prayer, you did not ask God for what you want, but asked God to show you how to be more present with him?

Not of this world


This is the last Sunday of the liturgical year, the celebration of Christ the King, the culmination of the Gospel story of birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection.

The image of Christ as a king sounds odd to us today. We Americans revolted against our last king for imposing duties that we did not consent to. Today we choose our leaders and feel free to reject them as soon as their policies don’t suit our liking.

But Jesus is clear that he isn’t the kind of king we know. His kingship, and his kingdom, is “not of this world.” It does not call us to follow a triumphant leader into battle. It calls us to follow Christ in a path of service and solidarity with our neighbors, to heal, feed, liberate and reconcile, to share our resources and our lives as he did, for the sake of the world.

11.19.2009

Blinded by the light

Luke 19:41-44

Looking at what leads up to this I'm struck by the fact that Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem...i.e, he is on the way to pay the ultimate price -- to die. Chapter 19 is about multiple kinds of blindness: Those who can't see any good in Zaccheus (while this supposedly unclean tax collector "gets" Jesus and impulsively offers restitution). The servant who is so afraid of the master that he wastes his talents rather than investing them. The Pharisees demanding that Jesus stop the natural outpouring at the arrival of the Messiah. He goes on to drive out those who are selling what is "necessary" for restoring relationship with God, completely blind to the fact that in Christ God is reaching out directly to those excluded by the religious system.

I think Jesus is weeping here for God's chosen, who seem completely blind to what God is about. Their pre-conceptions seem far too strong to allow even the evidence of God's action among them to change them.

Do we ever allow our pre-conceptions, our notions of what God "should" be doing (according to us), get in the way of seeing the Spirit working among us?

11.17.2009

And justice for all?

Two news headlines from yesterday:



The Bank of America ad on the hunger article (and the Wells Fargo ad I had to click through to get there) add to the irony.

As always, it's nothing new...

7 You who turn justice into bitterness
and cast righteousness to the ground
8 (he who made the Pleiades and Orion,
who turns blackness into dawn
and darkens day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea
and pours them out over the face of the land—
the LORD is his name-
9 he flashes destruction on the stronghold
and brings the fortified city to ruin),
10 you hate the one who reproves in court
and despise him who tells the truth.
11 You trample on the poor
and force him to give you grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards,
you will not drink their wine.
12 For I know how many are your offenses
and how great your sins.
You oppress the righteous and take bribes
and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts.
13 Therefore the prudent man keeps quiet in such times,
for the times are evil.
14 Seek good, not evil,
that you may live.
Then the LORD God Almighty will be with you,
just as you say he is.
(Amos 5)

11.16.2009

The more things change...

"To put it bluntly: the call to evangelism is often little else than a call to restore "Christendom," the Corpus Christianum, as a solid, well-integrated cultural complex, directed and dominated by the church. And the sense of urgency is often nothing but a nervous feeling of insecurity, with the established church endangered; a flurried activity to save the remnants of a time now irrevocably past... In fact, the word "evangelize" often means a Biblical camouflage of what should be rightly called the reconquest of ecclesiastical influence. Hence this undue respect for statistics and this insatiable ecclesiastical hunger for ever more areas of life." -- J.C. Hoekendijk, The Church Inside Out, Chapter 1 (1966)

What do you want?

Luke 18:35-43

Last night @Ka1r0s we talked about how many of us are reluctant to ask God for things, as it seems selfish. At the beginning of this chapter Jesus told us to be persistent in prayer. To me that means a consistent prayer, being connected with God in high times, low times, and the much more frequent boring times.

What I love about this story is that the blind beggar knows what he needs, and isn't afraid to say it. Curing his blindness is not just a nice thing for him. Restoring his sight restores him to the whole community. It takes him off the side of the road begging and allows him to be productive and perhaps self-supporting. It allows him to reconnect with his family. It moves him from unclean in the view of the religious community (afflictions such as blindness were thought of as signs of sin) to clean, he is included again in the circle rather than excluded. Jesus isn't just healing him, he is fulfilling his mission, bringing healing and shalom. And by seeking healing and shalom, the beggar is also participating in God's mission, because healed he can also spread shalom rather than being just a recipient of it.

If Jesus asked you what you wanted, what would you say? Would it be about stuff or your own desires, or about God's shalom?

11.12.2009

Looking for a sign

Luke 17:20-25

Rather than looking for miraculous signs or portents of doom, Jesus directs his followers to be on the watch for signs of his presences *in and around them.* While it is tempting to look for blessings or signs of the end of the world, Jesus reminds us that "the kingdom of God is among (or within) us." When we are homesick for his presence we don't need to search the headlines or ancient prophesies. We need to be aware of the ordinary, everyday signs that God is present in daily life.

What do you see God doing in and around you these days? Ask God for eyes to see these ordinary signs more clearly.

11.11.2009

Duty and devotion

Luke 17:11-19

In healing these lepers Jesus doesn't absolve them of their religious duty, he commands them to fulfill it: Go, show yourselves to the priests.

What is interesting is that nine of the ten -- the implication is that they are not Samaritans/outsiders -- take their religious duty as enough, rather than also coming back to worship their healer. Why would those who are "inside" that faith take the miracle for granted, while the "outsider" gets it?

How do religious duty and giving glory to God -- ritual and your spiritual life -- interplay? Do you ever get caught up in going through the motions and forget to kneel at Jesus' feet? Do you sometimes give glory to God but without a sense of discipline and regularity that comes from ritual?

11.10.2009

It's my job...

Years ago, Jimmy Buffett recorded a Mac McAnally song called "It's my job." The lyric tells the story of a down-and-out man sitting on a curb watching a smiling, whistling city worker sweeping up the refuse along the curb. When asked why he's happy, the street sweeper replies: "It's my job to be cleaning up this mess, and that's enough reason to go for me."

This came to mind reflecting on Luke 17:1-10 this morning.

The apostles request for "more faith, sir!" comes in response to Jesus telling them that their imperfections are bound to cause them to stumble and misuse his message, and that they are to warn each other if they are missing the mark and forgive each other when they do.

The essence here is that Jesus is telling the disciples that they do have the faith that they need. They need to live it out.

Yet they are disciples, not the Lord. They know that they are not in control, so they ask for faith from its source: Jesus.

Jesus' story about the duty of slaves expands on this. It suggests that as we grow into our faith by being obedient to God, we will act out our faith and grow into the people we were created to be, on mission with our Lord. But it doesn’t change who is the master and who is the disciple.

One commentator notes that the idea of “thanking” the slave (v9) doesn’t mean verbalizing a social nicety but indicates that the master is now in the slave’s debt. We may want or receive thanks for the ministry that we do, but we need to be careful not to believe our own PR and think that now we have arrived, now people (and God) owe us something. We’re just doing our job…what we were created to do.

I keep coming back to the disciples' original plea: Give us more faith! I beg for this sometimes, often when I don't have the guts or the discipline to do what the faith that I have (a mustard seed?) is urging me to do. Do I really want more faith, if faith is what makes me a dutiful "slave" to God?

In his exegetical notes on this passage, Lutheran pastor Brian Stoffregen writes:

I'm not sure that a lot of people really want more faith. They may want more of the faith that will help them out – a faith that might heal themselves or a loved one, a faith that will help them pass a test, a faith that gives them assurance of eternal life; but do they really want a faith that will make them more Christ-like in sacrificial giving, in sacrificial loving, in sacrificial forgiving? I'm not sure if people want that.

It has been suggested that many people want only an inoculation of Christianity – just enough of it to protect them from catching the real thing. There is a danger in asking God to give you more faith. You might get it – then what?

Then what, indeed. Jesus spends a lot of time telling the disciples that his way is not a picnic or a free ride, but a way of surrender and submission. As Martin Luther put it, Jesus' followers are perfectly free...to be the slave of others.

If this is the job description, do I want smile and hum "It's my job to be cleaning up this mess"? Or am I drawn instead to that country classic, "Take this job and..."? How 'bout you?

11.09.2009

Can the church come out and play?

A friend was just telling me of a church experience that embodied the first half of this exchange. He was visiting a church that was making a pitch for members to get involved...and everything mentioned was inside the box: committees, programs, worship. Not even a nod of the head to getting out in the community, trying to connect with or serve people outside the box. It reminds me of a former colleague's description of the Lutheran approach to evangelism, hoping that somehow fish will jump into our boat so we never have to deploy a net.

I am concerned by the number of people I meet who seem to either be daring the church to come meet them on their terms, or can't cross the street because of some old hurt, or (most frightening) don't even notice that there is a church as they walk down the street. These gulfs can't be overcome by appeals to community or belonging (there are no shortage of places to belong at some level) or by invitations to join in work that the invitees don't really see as relevant.

Only listening and sharing in the concerns of the community -- coming out of the box to play on the same playing field -- can start the process of connecting.

(ASBOJesus via Jonny Baker)

Monday gratitude


I took this morning off to finish the raking that Suzanne was kind enough to start. The back yard is green again, liberated from its blanket of gold and brown and yellow. I'm tired, a little sore -- and grateful.

  • I'm grateful that I have a yard to rake.
  • I'm grateful for a beautiful November day when I can rake in a t-shirt rather than a parka.
  • I'm grateful that I can take a personal day.
  • I'm grateful for a tree that provides shade from the south sun spring and summer yet only takes a couple of hours to clean up after in the fall.
  • I'm grateful that all the leaves are off the tree so I don't have to do this again.
  • I'm grateful that even though my back spasmed a bit I could continue thanks to stretching and Ben-Gay.
  • I'm grateful for some physical work to help my mind let go.
  • I'm grateful that Quakertown still sends around the Leaf-Vac to suck up our piles for mulch.
It's amazing how much there is to be grateful in such a simple project!

What are you grateful for today?


10.06.2009

The choice is yours


Luke 10:38-42

It is interesting that Jesus does not try to convince Martha to give up her kitchen work to join Mary at his feet. He only affirms Mary’s choice as the better way, and leaves Martha to go back to the dishes if she chooses. God lets me make choices — altruistic, selfish, good, foolish or just plain bad — while reminding me of what is healthy and life-giving.

God lets us make our own choices and live with them. If we worry about the menu and the dishes instead of sitting and listening with him, we will not be condemned — but we will have the satisfaction and stress of putting on the party and will not have the benefit of the time with God.

This reading is paired with a section of Jonah 3 in the lectionary. The parallel I see is that both Jonah and Martha have very rigid expectations of God, that the God-thing is doing the “respectable, responsible thing.” Martha thinks Mary should help serve (remember, in this time, men were disciples and women served), and Jonah things the Ninevites should pay for their wrongs. Reasonable enough, on the surface. Jonah even tells God, “I knew you were sheer grace and mercy” as if this is a bad thing! Well, if you are looking for God to be a defender of the status quo, then the radical grace and revised priorities in these texts (choosing Jesus over a pre-defined expectation, choosing to seek restoration rather than punish) is bad news! In both cases God responds with room for people to choose the better way.

Mary and the king of Nineveh know one important thing…there are times, whether because you recognize God’s presence with you or you are reminded of how far you have strayed, when you need to stop, sit down, fast from food or work or whatever is getting in your way, and be with God.

9.30.2009

Authority, responsibility and freedom

Luke 9:1-6

Jesus' approach to sending his followers out on mission is pure genius.  His sending begins with the authority to cast out demons and cure diseases.  It does not start with proclaiming the kingdom (that comes later).  This is so critical because, first, it focuses on the issues that keep people from hearing or even perceiving the kingdom.  "Demons" of all kinds, like possession by possessions, wealth and privilege, and like lack of hope, cynicism (my favorite) and damaged trust, as well as physical and social ills often keep us too self-absorbed to listen to the possibilities Jesus offers. 

Leadership gurus have preached for years that people need to have authority to accomplish the responsibilities they are given in order to be productive and healthy.  Without authority, the tasks one is responsible to accomplish become a burden, or worse.  Rather than being creative problem solvers, people who work for leaders who don't give authority play it safe, don't take risks for the mission, seek permission for everything.  Clearly Jesus is not launching this type of all-to-common organization!

Having given authority Jesus turns to the mission -- proclaim the kingdom and heal.  There's no separation here.  The disciples' responsibility for helping people become whole and well -- spiritually and mentally as well as physically -- is not just preparation for God's mission, it is God's mission.

Next Jesus equips the twelve with instructions that impart his wisdom about the task they will face.  This is not a micro-manager's procedure manual.  Rather, it is an approach that will leave the disciples open to the changing needs of the mission, unencumbered by stuff and its attendant worries.  The Message offers a wonderful amplification: "Don't load yourselves up with equipment. Keep it simple; you are the equipment."

Finally, Jesus adds to the disciples freedom to be flexible and responsive to their context the freedom to discern when their message is not being heard, and to move on to more fertile fields. Note that Jesus doesn't condemn those who don't pay attention to the message, he just tells the disciples to make it clear they are moving on (which is really more release for the disciples than judgment on the unresponsive).

Luke tells us that the disciples had success "everywhere" following Jesus' wisdom. 

Today, at least in my neck of the church, there is some anxiety about decline, a tendency to throw more authority and responsibility on leaders instead of disciples, and the complexity of structures (institutional and physical) that limit flexibility in working with God's mission.  Asking good questions about the status quo can help us to re-balance authority, responsibility and freedom in ministry.

I am often frustrated by the barriers these objections present to connecting with people about my faith, and theirs.  I wonder what it would look like to act as if we actually have this ultimate authority over these stumbling blocks?  What would be effective ways to work with people who are not yet in a place to perceive the message?

Do the disciples we want to be responsible to share the Good News have the authority to do so? Have we equipped them to engage people where they are as well as tell their story of the kingdom?  Do leaders create a climate where people can take risks, say the wrong thing, even fail?  Or are disciples paralyzed by fear of "not getting it right"?

Are we keeping things simple, so that buildings and staff and programs serve a mission? Or are these things being served by more and more time, money and energy that is drained from God's mission? Do we have the freedom to release tools that no longer work and try something new?

9.28.2009

For us, or against us?

Mark 9:33-48

Luke 9:46-50

Sunday's and Monday's readings repeat the story of the unknown follower casting out demons in Jesus' name, and the disciples attempt to stop him.

Both renderings are very much the same.  The disciples come across someone they don't know using the Master's name to heal.  What would you do in this situation?  For the disciples the answer is clear: This fellow isn't following Jesus with them (and to be fair, they seem to be pretty much alone in this journey, against a lot of powerful opposition), so they try to stop him.  They might be thinking this man could be a spy attempting to draw them out and make them know to authorities who could stop them, or they may be afraid that he is using Jesus' name incorrectly, or maybe their identities as the closest followers of Christ are threatened.  But the bottom line is that they make "being one of us" more important than "doing the work of Jesus."

Which makes is an historical and contemporary story.  Sections of Christ's body have walled themselves off from others for reasons of orthodoxy, or power, or piety, or national/ethnic identity.  Denominations require decades of conversation to recognize valid ministry in each other, and churches still threaten to split over different interpretations of scripture and theology (witness the discord in the Episcopal Church and the ELCA over homosexuality).  "Are you one of us?" is still an important question for some Christians.

Jesus' answer challenges that impulse.  As Mark tells it, Jesus says: "Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me.  Whoever is not against us is for us." (Mark 9:39-40)

This sounds very odd to a culture that uses "If you ain't for us, you're against us" as its rallying cry.  But its a necessary corrective.

The reality of God, Jesus says, is much larger than "our group" (even if it is a group, like the disciples, that is physically, personally following Jesus).  The mission of healing, blessing, restoring wholeness to creation transcends questions of whether a person is "one of us."  If Jesus can look upon a stranger casting out demons as "for us," shouldn't Christians today take a similar view?  This is a vital question today, as people of all faiths and no faith join in work to heal and unite and serve God's people (sometimes even across boundaries of religion).  Yet too often the church is seen as pulling apart with folks like us rather than embracing all who are participating in God's mission.

But some will ask, isn't this a watering down of the requirements of faith?  I think the key is in the part of the passage that Luke omits: for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me.  Jesus is open to the power of action to shape belief.  Many in the church today are noticing that the old formula of believing before belonging and then serving is being turned on its head.  For many, especially younger generations, action and service are the routes into faith, not just the fruit of it.  Churches are starting to grasp "servant evangelism" as a way of igniting the imagination and sparks of faith through service projects and mission trips that include people who are not already "one of us."  In modern terms, it is moving from our old assumption that if we get people's belief right they'll do the right thing, to accepting that people can, with God's help, act their way into a new way of thinking and believing.

Jesus is realistic about this.  He notes that this suspension of skepticism only exists "soon afterwards" this engagement in God's mission.  Occasional random acts of kindness and service do not make a life of faith -- for a Christian or a non-Christian.  These openings, though, leave room for the Holy Spirit to work in a person's life, and that sounds very Lutheran to me.  Brother Martin noted that I cannot choose to have faith, nor can you compel me to have faith.  Only the Spirit can cause me to have faith.  Yet that work of the Spirit is rarely an isolated, mystical, me-and-God experience.  For most people, the Spirit's work is facilitated by faith mentors and communities that model both the tenets of belief and the actions that it produces.

Its good that the church is re-engaging this sense of participating in God's mission with renewed vigor.  This space is now occupied by many governmental and secular organizations that picked up where the church left off as some Christians abandoned the social gospel and retreated into their minds and hearts, and others out-sourced justice to professional agencies and moved it farther from the center of the individual Christian life.  In this environment will our witness be to say "you're not one of us" and try to compete to take back the work of the kingdom?  Or will our witness be to recognize the inbreaking of the kingdom in many unlikely places and build bridges across which Jesus can continue to form faith and meaning through the performing of deeds of power?

8.28.2009

Fool's errands

‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids* took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.* 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” 7Then all those bridesmaids* got up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” 9But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” 10And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the other bridesmaids* came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” 12But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” 13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.* (Matthew 25, NRSV)
It's always interesting to parse out Jesus' stories, especially those that reference cultural customs that no longer make sense to us. People of Jesus' time would get the necessity to carry oil with one's lamp on an errand of indeterminate length.  For us its harder to hear much beyond the implied threat in Jesus' response.

I was once part of a pretty conservative church that use the "Keep awake...you know neither the day nor the hour" to scare us into "good" behavior.  The concern about being "ready" for the Lord's return (read: second coming to judge the heathen) is known in a lot of traditions, from old concerns about dying outside of a state of grace to current worries about being "left behind."

So its natural to read this as being about preparedness, much like we have concern, this fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, that we are "ready" for the next monster storm.

If the lamp represents our reflection of Christ's love in our lives, the reading says we need to keep that lamp lit until that day Jesus comes for us.  The oil that keeps that lamp lit is prayer, the story of God's salvation, time spent connected to Jesus.  So the message (as I originally wrote at our community bible discussion) is: Devote yourself to these things so that you are ready when the kingdom presents itself.

This begs some deeper questions.  When am I foolish, or ill-prepared, or indifferent? (Almost all the time.)  When am I not ready for the kingdom, unfaithful, or selfish? (Only when I am breathing.)  What do I want to do to be more ready, wise, and expectant? (As little as possible, please.)

I wonder if wisdom and foolishness is quite as clear cut.  Are the bridesmaids who head out sans oil foolish or expectant, more sure of the coming of the bridegroom than those who packed oil just in case?  Jesus on more than one occasion told his disciples to travel light, with only what they need for the moment.  Is the desire for security embodied in carrying extra oil faithful, or an example of trust in self?

Note that all of the bridesmaids become drowsy and doze off.  When the bridegroom finally comes, all are awakened with a shout.  All trim their lamps -- the "foolish" ones are running out of oil.  And the "wise" ones send them off to the dealers to stock up -- not to the bridegroom they all await!  They need oil while they wait in a dark world.  But do they need a lamp when they are in the presence of the light of the world?

Back to the metaphors of light and oil -- isn't it possible to read light as the result of the goodness embodied in the oil?  In that case, do the bridesmaids running off to buy more oil represent us in our moments of thinking that we are not good enough, smart enough, holy enough, faithful enough to be in God's presence?  Isn't this idea of running off to "get right" before meeting Jesus counter to our theology of grace, that Jesus comes to us where we are, as we are, in the midst of our foolishness and unpreparedness?  Of course, this is not license to stay ill-prepared fools, but at the end of the day it is Christ's light and love, not our own, that illumines the world and our lives.

Hearing "Truly, I do not know you" can and should frighten us -- that is the last thing we want to ear the Lord say to us. But does Jesus "not know" the "foolish" ones because they didn't carry enough oil? Or because they did not trust him enough to provide oil and light for them?

4.11.2009

Easter Sunday prayers

Beautify prayer and video from Christine Sine. Enjoy!

Jesus Christ you have risen and we see you,

In the faces of the poor,

In the hurting of the sick,

In the anguish of the oppressed

Jesus Christ you are risen and we see you,

In the weakness of the vulnerable,

In the questions of the doubting,

In the fears of the dying.

Jesus Christ you are risen and we see you,

In the celebration of the saints,

In the generosity of the faithful,

In the compassion of the caring.

Jesus Christ you are risen and we see you,

You transform our world with love and hope,

You ignite our hearts of stone with compassion and care,

You transfigure our world with the spirit of life.

Hallelujah, Jesus Christ you are risen and we see you.


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Propelled into God's future



Life-changing and world-changing events are hard to fathom, at first. Mary, reeling with grief for her executed Lord, goes to the tomb expecting to prepare his body. The open tomb has her thinking more of grave robbers than resurrection. Peter and "the other disciple" race to the scene of the crime, and looking at the evidence, the light begins to dawn. So...they go back home.

Would you or I respond differently? Without the perspective of 2000 years of tradition, the roller coaster of emotions from "Hail, King Jesus!" to the trial and execution of the "King of the Jews" to dark despair to an empty tomb would seem just as perplexing and disorienting. Would we run off to tell anyone what we had seen?

The meaning of these events, and the subsequent appearances of the risen Jesus, will become clear with time. But these disciples are starting to get the message: Nothing will be the same again, because Easter does not look back into our experience or history but propels us into God's future!

4.07.2009

Broken connections

This Lent's theme was "brokenness," and our kairos exploration followed Christine Sine's excellent guide.  We summed up the season by looking at the broken connections that allow us to accept hunger, homelessness, and abuse of our environment. 

We started with a discussion of how we fragment God's family:
  • Look at where we erect barriers – when have you been conscious of being “out”? When have you erected barriers to keep others out?
  • In what ways do you notice the fragmenting and breaking of the family of God in the world you live, work and play in?
Most of our time was a deep meditation on Matthew 25:
31-33"When he finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, the Son of Man will take his place on his glorious throne. Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to his right and goats to his left.
34-36"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what's coming to you in this kingdom. It's been ready for you since the world's foundation. And here's why:
I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.'

We’re often tempted to look at the people Jesus mentions as categories of people that we need to do good to. It’s natural to think of them as “others,” as unfortunate, as different than us.

This passage comes late in Matthew’s gospel, and by this time we know that Jesus has met, fed, chastised, wept with, challenged, healed and marveled at the faith of thousands and thousands of people. Looked them right in the eye. Touched them and been touched by them. It’s very safe to say, in my view, that Jesus is not talking about abstract categories. He is talking about the woman who sought him out and stole healing power from a touch of his cloak. He is talking about the blind man who called out to the Son of David when he heard Jesus coming. He is talking about his friend Lazarus, dead and stinking in the tomb, and his friends Martha and Mary in their busyness and their grief. And I believe that he is also picturing you and I, and all the people his father has given him.

We did an exercise of looking deeply into the people in this story in order to really see what Jesus is talking about.
  • Think of people who need to be fed and clothed. Do you know of anyone who lacks for these basics of life? What is it the causes their lack? Who is at fault? In what ways might you be in need of these things? In what way are you blessed with these things? How do your blessings relate to the needs around you?
  • Think of people who need wholeness and inclusion. Who do you know who needs to be healed, or is excluded because of the color of their skin, or their sexual orientation? What causes them to be on the “outside” of what we think of as normal? In what ways have you ever felt excluded or left out? In what ways do you need healing? Does your experience make you want to open your circle or create healing…or does it make you protective and suspicious?
  • Think of people in prison. Do you know someone who is or has been imprisoned? In an actual jail, or in an inner torment, or dangerous relationship, or addiction, or trapped by their wealth and stuff? Are you imprisoned by anything? Visualize some of the reasons people are imprisoned. In what ways might your life help to facilitate such imprisonment, or work to free people from it?
It is important to note that Jesus was not speaking to middle class America. Israel was a poor land, occupied by great political powers. There were rich people storing up grain (that would spoil) and other precious goods (that would rust). But most of his hearers were ordinary folks scraping by, just like their ancestors, satisfied by the just-in-time provision of manna. Debt or an expression of anger at the occupying power could land any of them in jail, just like that! Basic shelter, and water, were precious. What would Jesus’ call have sounded like in this situation?

I think the call to feed the hungry would sound more like the widow who gave all the food she had for herself and her son to a traveling prophet, than my buying an extra bag of cans for the food pantry.
This Lent we have been looking at varying ways God’s beautiful, plentiful creation has been broken and scarred by humanity. We’ve looked at the inequalities of hunger, where enough food to feed everyone is grown but isn’t distributed fairly. We’ve looked at the tragedy of homelessness, where basic shelter is out of reach of many people who work. We’ve looked at the ways we abuse and take advantage of the earth that we are called to be stewards and co-creators/re-creators of, and now the ways that we build walls between them and us.

Jesus’ message is that there is no them, there is only us. The common thread, it seems to me, is that it’s in our interest to lose this connection to the whole of God’s family. Mother Teresa said it well: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”

So how do we maintain and renew this connection? Here are some ideas from our community:

Look deeply. When you gather for supper, or come to the communion table, look at the food as given for you and representing all that God has put in place to care for his people – and hear the cries of those who don’t have food or water. When you adjust the thermostat, thank God for the blessing of energy, remember that in many places people have less than their share of energy because we have more than ours – and see those who, even if they have a room instead of a car or a sidewalk, don’t have a home. When you notice your health, pray for those who care for the sick, and think about how you would cope without your knowledge of keeping yourself healthy, and insurance.

Look where you are. We are not called to solve global crises, we are called to live faithfully and mindfully in our families and communities.

4.06.2009

Missing the point?

My notes from the teaching moment at Kairos' Palm Sunday gathering at Quakertown Memorial Park:

It’s time to celebrate!  Israel has its king!  God has heard our cries!  God is acting to free us from the terrible power of Rome!  All hail, King Jesus!

Right?

Wrong.

Jesus’ ministry has a lot of great examples of people completely missing his point.  He announces his fulfillment of the prophecies and his hometown neighbors want to kill him – how can a local boy say these things?  Don’t we know him?  He declares himself the bread of heaven and even some of his followers are grossed out at the idea of eating his flesh. He offers freedom and the Jews squabble about never having been physically or financially slaves. 

Here Jesus offers himself to the punishment, to the humiliation, to the execution that he knows is coming, entering the city humbly on an ass, and the people are overjoyed!  Here is our king!  All hail King Jesus!

We’re suckers for a success story, aren’t we?  Theologically, this is known as the theology of glory.  We love it when God rides in and saves the day, wins the war, hits a home run, provides prosperity and material rewards.  We love it when the forces of right sweep evil right off the map.

But this isn’t the way our God works.  Our God’s power is not revealed in his glory, but in weakness.  In the way he attends to the poor and downtrodden.  In the way he uses cracked pots like us to accomplish God’s mission.  But most importantly in the way he overcame our most insidious enemies – sin and death – by taking on sin and submitting to death.  Jesus points us to a theology of the cross, a way of understanding the world in which we don’t simply equate success with God’s favor but look for God’s action even in the weak and broken places and people – even in ourselves.

Jesus takes it so far as to say that, in order to see him, we have to see those who are poor, and sick, and imprisioned, and lame – in his words, “the least of these.”  So its appropriate that we have brought offerings of food for the hungry as our tribute to Jesus today.  But the story doesn’t end here. And it doesn’t jump right to the glory of Easter.

We get to Easter through the cross.  So I invite you this week to spend time with Christ and his passion, in Scripture, in reflection, in prayer and in community.
 

3.13.2009

You are salt...


Clipped from The Onion's website today. While it's fun to laugh about "Lutheran hot dogs" (known a couple of them, have you?) this is a great commentary on the tendency of some Christians to want to "brand" everything, and also on the way people react to such proclamations -- "Great, now I can go to hell for eating the wrong salt." Funny, but are we listening? Are we speaking to what really matters to people? Jesus did.

The New Reformation

No, I'm not fasting from technology for Lent, though it may look like it. Len at Next Reformation posted this great quote from Reggie McNeal's "The Present Future," which I read several years ago and helped me get a new picture of not just the church but of my faith journey. This is fascinating. wonder...how well does this resonate with what you/we are living? Which of these many polarities are the most relevant to you? How do you feel being part of a new Reformation? What does his description of the new Reformation say to you?

“The first Reformation was about freeing the church. The new Reformation is about freeing God’s people from the chruch (the institution). The original Reformation decentralized the church. The new Reformation decentralizes ministry. The former Reformation occurred when clergy were no longer willing to take marching orders from the Pope. The current Reformation finds church members no longer willing for clergy to script their personal spiritual ministry journey. The last Reformation moved the church closer to home. The new Reformation is moving the church closer to the world. The historic Reformation distinguished Christians one from the other. The current Reformation is distinguishing followers of Jesus from religious people. The European Reformation assumed the church to be a part of the cultural political order. The Reformation currently underway does not rely on the cultural political order to prop up the church. The initial Reformation was about church. The new Reformation is about mission.”
Reggie McNeal, The Present Future
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2.24.2009

Lead us to repentance

Christine Sine posted a beautiful video meditation to start off Lent. Enjoy!

Flying upside-down?

Dallas Willard begins his classic treatise on the spiritual life, “The Divine Conspiracy,” with an anecdote about a pilot who, disoriented, pulls back on the stick to ascend and flies straight into the ground.
“This is a parable of human existence in our times … most of us as individuals, and world society as a whole, live at high speed, and often with no clue to whether we are flying upside-down or right side up. Indeed, we are haunted by a strong suspicion that there may be no difference…” (2)

Life today feels similarly out of control. Many of our old assumptions no longer hold water. Its hard to know if course corrections will launch us into the clear, trigger a “Mayday!” or auger directly into the ground.

But maybe it has always been this way. In today’s Gospel, Jesus warns the disciples who are busy dividing the spoils of His victory and vying for pride of place in the kingdom that what looks like the head of the line is really the end. ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ (Mark 9:35)

The first must be last. Leaders must serve. Little children have the keys to the deepest insights. Jesus tells us here that seeing is not believing, that there is a deeper and truer reality that lies beyond what our senses tell us is real. This is the same reality that, the prophet Isaiah tells us, levels the mountains and raises up the low places, the reality that Mary sees filling the hungry and sending the rich away empty. And with our solid ideas about security, well-being, risk and reward cracking a bit, if we listen closely we can hear rumblings of this “great reversal” around us.

That’s why Lent is an important part of the life of faith. No matter how certain we are of our beliefs, how comfortable we are with our actions, we need times when we can check our bearings and reset our instruments to be sure we are on the right path.

Popularly, Lent has been for many people a time of self-denial through giving up little pleasures – chocolate, perhaps, or TV or blogging, or dropping our spare change in a charity box. But giving up only gets part of the blessing of Lent. Its fullest expression comes when we give to – give to others, and give to our relationship with God.

My hope and prayer is to use this Lenten season to clear away some of the unnecessary clutter in my life and to focus on who God is calling me to be. In these coming weeks I plan to:
  • Balance my reading and thinking about faith with more listening to God and receiving his love.
  • Engage more deeply in the brokenness in my neighborhood and pay more attention to the signs of hope that are blossoming there.
  • Focus on overcoming inertia and comfort to join in the work God is doin around me all the time.
Tomorrow I will receive a cross of ashes on my forehead with my community, remember that I am dust, and hear the important message of repentance. And as I am turning from the blurred focus, disorientation, and upside-down flying caused by this high-speed life, I will try to keep my focus on the goal I am called to pursue:
So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says,
‘At an acceptable time I have listened to you,
and on a day of salvation I have helped you.’
See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! (2 Cor 5:20-6:2)

The inner child

Mark 9:30-37

The disciples come across as so “human” in this story. First they are so confused by what Jesus is saying about his fate that they don’t even raise a question for fear of looking stupid, an emotion all school children relate to (and many of us adults). Then they are arguing among themselves about which one is the greatest! — like a group of children choosing leaders for a game they aren’t sure how to play. When Jesus calls them on it — you’d think they would know by now that he knows the inner secrets of people’s hearts! — you can see them looking down and keeping their mouths shut, like children caught doing something they know they shouldn’t.

It’s fascinating, then, that Jesus brings a child into their midst and welcomes the child. Jesus is chiding them for their all-too-human need to be “first,” but he is also welcoming them as they are — as children. We try so hard to look smart (or just not look stupid), to be the greatest, and Jesus knows it. In fact it is just these tendencies — knowledge, power and control — that cause so much trouble in “religion,” as Jesus often points out to the religious authorities.

Can you hear yourself welcomed by Jesus despite what you don’t know and your desire to be “first”?

(From our Kairos online scripture discussion)

2.14.2009

Question

Why is the church more concerned about people who are 'spiritual but not religious' than those who are 'religious but not spiritual'?

Where was God?

Just 10 days ago a friend sent me an email titled "What really happened on the Hudson" containing just this image:


The image of God's presence in the near-miraculous landing of the plane in the river, with no loss of life and no serious injuries, barely registered with me. It angered a good friend who also received the email, but didn't know how to respond. Then when Flight 3407 fell from the sky over Buffalo Thursday night, she said to me: "People were quick to see God's role in saving that plane in the Hudson. Where will they say God was in Buffalo?"

While people are quick to assign God credit for the good things that happen to us -- heroic and skillful pilots, the ability to score a touchdown, the ability to earn a good living -- most of us are not quick to look for God's wrath in tragedies. There are some, of course, who see God's direct action there -- who think that God aimed Katrina at "wicked" New Orleans, that the poor somehow deserve to be poor, etc. What's more common is the view that our health, wealth and comfort, our relative safety, and American power are signs of God's special favor.

This is an old theological problem. Martin Luther criticized the "theologians of glory" who discerned God's presence in victory and blessing yet diminished the the importance of Christ's suffering both for and with us. Luther knew that a theology of glory would justify those looking to their own power and victory, but a theology of the cross, a recognition that God's true strength is revealed in vulnerability and even death, is truly good news to all of us who are weak and struggling, as St. Paul put it, with being unable to do the good we want to, and doing the evil we hope not to do.

It's easier to assume that outward blessings are signs of God's favor, and that sickness, poverty and disaster indicate God's displeasure. Years ago I talked with a hospital chaplain who told the story of her work with a mother whose young daughter was gravely ill. The mother belonged to a church whose theology preached that such sickness was a sign of sin, and the people of the church - including the pastor - seemed uncomfortable visiting and comforting her. Jesus confronted this attitude when he met the man born blind in John 9.

His disciples asked, "Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?" (9:2, MSG)

This is not just a misperception by the religious establishment; the question is asked not by the Pharisees but by his followers. Christ turns the question on its head, challenging them to look beyond the outward manifestations of our well being that we attribute to God's glory into what God is able to do (which is headed, ultimately, to the cross).

Jesus said, "You're asking the wrong question. You're looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do. We need to be energetically at work for the One who sent me here, working while the sun shines. When night falls, the workday is over. For as long as I am in the world, there is plenty of light. I am the world's Light." (9:3-5, MSG)

Sadly the "cause-effect" Jesus negates is very much alive for us. Just Thursday night at our Kairos book group were were noting that sometimes the people with the most passionate faith are those whose lives are transformed from the depths of loss, addiction, poverty and rejection. The most passionate conversions may be among those who start out farthest from the church and faith. As Lynette said, "when things are going well, who has need of a savior?" We had some discussion around Suzanne's suggestion that Christians sometimes still look more at a person's works than their faith. We sometimes see God's presence more clearly in healing one person than in accompanying another through illness and death. We may find God less able to work through "unrepentant" homosexuals than through those who choose to gossip. Jesus' claim that he came for those who are sick not just those who are well sounds as strange to us as it did in his day.

When we rely too much on God's glory, we are looking for God to act as we do; to value and reward what is important to us. We desire to be rich, to be healthy, to avoid suffering, so of course that is how God would show favor. And those things are blessings. But if we want to get at who God loves, we have to look beyond glory to the cross, specifically to the foot of the cross, where we gather with all God's people -- the sick and the healthy, the poor and the rich, the afflicted and the comfortable -- who cry out to him for peace.

So where was God in Buffalo? I believe God was in and under Capt. Sullenberger's coolness and skill passing over optional landing zones for the receptive surface of the Hudson, and with the flight crew of Flight 3407 as they struggled to right their rolling craft without time to utter a "Mayday!" I believe God both weeps with that families of the 49 who died Thursday night and celebrates the gift of life for the 155 who walked off of Flight 1549.

Since this question is often asked in the face of tragedy, I raised the question to some friends on Facebook and Twitter. Here's some of what they said:
  • Stuart said that "Because obviously 'God loved those people more' wasn't really helpful...I think someone called that 'sloppy theology.'"
  • Maggie noted that some taunted Jesus with this belief as he was dying: "If you are God's Son, come down off that cross and save yourself"...
  • Christine acknowledged that "we are rather selective in where we see God - only when good things happen. We cannot imagine God in the midst of pain suffering and grieving with us. Only see God when we are rescued from our pain."
  • @Somecomic said that "god is with the families. not a preventer of tragedy but a bearer of pain and a giver of strength."
  • @ReverendAndo said that "God was where expected: with the people on the plane. Cross isn't about personal safety it's about God holding us in the worst."
Who says you can't proclaim the Gospel in 140 characters or less!

Oh, and how do we share the cross with people who are only looking for glory? @Somecomic to the rescue:

Somecomic @adiaphora i like to ask hem how thats going for them... :)

2.01.2009

In denial

Pete Rollins (Ikon, author of "How Not to Speak of God") offers a powerful confession on his blog:
Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think…
I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.
However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.

1.26.2009

On call

Our Kairos community has been focusing on the call of the disciples, and our own sense of calling. This has resonated with my personal journey of late. We've been conversing about what it meant for Peter, Andrew, James and John to drop their nets, for Abraham to leave his comfort zone, for Jeremiah to realize he had been called before he was born, for the 12 and then the 70 to get their marching orders.

This topic has generated some deep and really personal conversation. Do I have to leave my job? Is it different for those with families vs. those who are more flexible? Must I "go" at all? Do I just need to be open to what the Spirit might be saying to me? Can I follow right here in my own life?

As I continue to reflect on this, I think we have a tendency to over focus on the big, extreme things. It's too easy to feel that unless I change everything and give up my daily life it isn't enough, or to figure that I can't leave my nets so I can't do anything. We naturally want to focus on what we do, on who we are in the world.

The call of Peter and company, the story of dropping their nets and following, is getting at something much more central and basic to us:
Following Jesus starts with a recognition that our lives are not our own, but Christ's.
When Jesus walked down the shore and these young men turned their back on fishing, their purpose changed more than their occupation. They were no longer just fishermen, whose goal was to bring in a catch. They were now followers of a teacher, whose purpose was to help him change lives and all of history.

There are certainly glimpses in later scripture of these same men out in the boat, putting down and pulling up nets, and cooking fish for breakfast to suggest that they still plied their old trade at least occasionally. But they were not the same old fishermen (just like Jesus was no longer just Joe-the-carpenter's son).
Following meant they had signed on to a mission that was larger than them, and that affected where they went and what they did.
That mission allows us to live purposefully, to ask purposeful questions, and to make intentional changes to our lives to align with that purpose. But that wrestling and "going" only makes sense in light of the bigger recognition that our lives are not our own but God's.

But once we recognize that we are part of something so much bigger than just us, we can live "on call" in the midst of whatever we are doing. Once we believe Jesus when he says "the kingdom of God is within you," once we accept his invitation to help bring that kingdom into our daily reality, we can follow whether we sell it all and move to Africa or raise a family in Bucks County.

1.23.2009

What weighs you down?

Last week at Kairos we talked about how we live in tension between the burdens and imperfections of life and the wholeness and aliveness God intends for us. Using Romans 6, where Paul talks of how we are baptized into Christ's death and resurrection, and Mark 1, where Jesus calls Peter, Andrew, James and John to turn their back on fishing and follow him, we talked about how the reality of Christ calls us to drop our nets, too. We had a beautiful and fascinating discussion. Read about it here if you wish.

Ordinary saints

Mark 3:13-19

Why does God -- the creator of the cosmos, the one who breathed life -- want to work through people like Peter and James and John, and Judas Iscariot, and us? I think God uses ordinary people to tell the story, proclaim good news, and heal not because God can't heal, but because God's intention is to create community among us. I think God wants us to live out his kingdom so it becomes real, rather than imposing it on us.

I am really struck by the opening phrase, that Jesus "called to him those whom he wanted." It is difficult for me to think about being called out by name. It's much easier to know that some are called, but to let myself off the hook by thinking that others are smarter, better trained, more faithful and worthy than I am. But Jesus calls the disciples by name and sends them out to expand the circle even further, one-to-one, through the ordinary acts of conversation, laying on hands and speaking truth.

I am called into the circle and called, by name, to help expand it even further. Why is this so hard to live into?

1.20.2009

Hope

Seth Godin (again!) marks the Inauguration with a nod to the famous Obama "HOPE" poster that became ubiquitous during and since the campaign. The story that all communicators tell, the product that all marketers sell, he says, is hope.

The reason is simple: people need more. We run out. We need it replenished. Hope is almost always in short supply.

The magical thing about selling hope is that it makes everything else work better, every day get better, every project work better, every relationship feel better. If you can actually deliver on the hope you sell, there will be a line out the door.

This resonates with me as a Christian "marketer" and believer. Hope was the core of Jesus' message. Hope that the blind could see and the lame could pick up their mats and dance. Hope that the despised and neglected could be known -- truly known -- and respected. Hope that the kingdom of God could peek into the here and now, in and through ordinary, imperfect folks like us. Hope that God's justice and mercy has a stronger voice than human hate and greed.

The world, not just our nation, desperately needs hope right now. So many of us need our tanks topped off with exactly the core of our faith message -- hope. Jesus delivered this message so well that he drew huge crowds, large enough to threaten the power elites' status quo. When this hope survived even his death, the line got long enough to shape the world, even through its evolution from a revolutonary movement to a political empire to a culture shaping force to whatever the church is emerging into.

Can we as the church speak hope into this historical moment? Or will we settle for more division, fear or, even worse, irrelevance?

Ordinary days of service

Days of service, like Martin Luther King's birthday has become, are a growing trend. Our Synod has had a youth "Helping Hands Day" for years. Toys for Tots collections, holiday food drives, even social media efforts like the @wellwishes campaign to raise money for clean water started by Twitter guru Laura "Pistachio" Fitton are springing up all over the landscape.

At Kairos we have started relationships with two local food pantries. Though we have participated in the traditional Thanksgiving and Christmas food drives, we have focused on also trying to be there in the "off-season," since the needs continue long after people move on from their holiday generosity. We have ongoing collections of food and donate funds each month, and have set up Labor Day food drives along with working in the pantry each month.

The social service agency leaders I've spoken with share this concern: With demand on a sharp increase, how do we get (and keep) people's attention and move them from occasional acts of generosity toward a regular practice of concern for needs in the community -- what President Obama in his Inaugural Address called "the price and promise of citizenship." We seem to be poised to take this call seriously.

Seth Godin captures this shift in service from occasion to practice in his recent blog post on the King National Day of Service. What if, rather than devoting one day a year, all 300 million Americans devoted an hour a day to changing the world?

If every person in the US spent an hour doing something selfless, useful and leveraged, what would happen? What if you and your circle committed to doing it an hour a day for a year? 300 million hours is a lot of hours for just one day, a year of that would change everything.

Seth -- a marketer who really gets the potential of ideas and causes to create change -- also calls for creativity in determining how people can be of service. Many of us who spend hours in soup kitchens and food pantries feel rewarded by the effort, yet struggle with how small our drops of labor are in the sea of suffering we are trying to alleviate. Seth affirms this "standing in the breach" labor, and issues a challenge to think about how people might leverage their skills to help agencies get better at meeting direct needs.

Imagine if foodies developed recipes and taught classes to help the clients of food pantries and soup kitchens learn to prepare and like healthy, balanced diets. Imagine if financiers and bankers taught basic financial literacy to high school students, the poor, and the fiscally clueless (like me!). Imagine if families took on the responsibility of educating (paying tuition, book and transportation costs) for the same number of children in a third-world country. Imagine if writers and bloggers spent time helping children learn to read and write. Imagine if every food pantry volunteer wrote one letter a day to a national or local leader demanding that more be done to end hunger. Think about it. What difference could you or I make?

We sit at the dawn of a new age, and a better world is possible. As President Obama has noted, he and his wife are not going to paint every homeless shelter or clean up every vacant lot in your neighborhood. We, the people, are going to have to do that. It will take each of us, using our blessings and talents as a spiritual discipline, to nibble away at these pressing problems bit by bit, day by day. The good news is that in doing so we will make the kingdom of God a bit more visible, right here and right now.

Update: Here's a great example -- Earl Stafford's "People's Inaugural Party" brings the underserved to the party, and equips them with ways to get a leg up. (HT: JR)