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?