December 12, 2013

Do Not Be Afraid

"When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit.  Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly.  Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, 'Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.  For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.  She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.' All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:  "Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means "God is with us."'  When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home." (Matthew 1:18-24)

It has been said that the most frequent exhortation in the scriptures is, "Do not be afraid."  At the very least, it is the common introduction to all of the angelic messages delivered in our Advent Gospel stories -- the announcements to Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, and the shepherds.

What is our experience of Emmanuel, God-with-us?  What if we trusted that the voice we heard, the feeling in our hearts or guts was really the presence of a messenger of God?  Might we not find ourselves at least a little afraid?

These Advent stories, like our own meetings with angels, may strike us as both familiar and strange.  We may get lost in the familiarity of these scriptures, no longer able to hear the message because we know the words so well.  Conversely, we can get lost in their foreignness.  Can my experience of God in prayer be anything like Joseph's or Mary's encounter with an angel?  Should I be afraid?

One way to renew our sense of awe at the particularity of how God's angel (a word which in Greek means messanger) speaks to us in prayer is by reading the scriptures according to the ancient practice of lectio divina or "sacred reading."  Lectio divina is not Bible study or even devotional reading.  It is a contemplative practice that invites the Spirit to speak through the scripture into my life as it is, as I am, right now.

Fr. Luke Dysinger, O.S.B. has written a beautifully detailed article on lectio divina including instruction for doing lectio with a group, but here is the basic form of the practice:  Lectio proceeds through four phases.  I like to think of them as movements, like in a musical composition or a dance.  The dance metaphor is perhaps more apt, because, while they are always presented in order, my own experience is of sometimes moving back and forth among them as I pray.

The first of the four movements is called lectio, or reading.  This is where we first encounter the passage.  Note that this practice of prayer can be applied not only to scripture, but to any reading that inspires the heart.  What's more, I have found that these movements, this way of thinking, applies as well to things I might see or experience, an encounter with nature, a conversation with a loved one, an image that strikes me.  So, while we call the first movement, "reading," it is really about becoming aware of the details of the object of our prayer.

If we are dealing with a text, lectio is the time where we read for understanding.  What is happening in the text?  What are the meanings of the words?  If we are reflecting on an image or an experience, this is the time for noticing all the sensory details.  Just get to know the object of our meditation.

For how long should we remain in this phase?  Until we feel our hearts drawn more deeply into our reflection.  We then pass quite naturally into meditatio, mediation, the second movement.  In the Benedictine tradition, from which this practice comes, meditatio is also called rumination, literally, chewing on, as a cow chews her cud.

During the process of meditatio we allow the text or the image or experience to speak to us in this moment.  What do we notice?  Is there a word or a phrase that seems to stick with us?  Does an image come up?  What do we see or hear?  I experience meditatio as the heart of the experience.  If I trust the Word to speak, I almost always notice something arise that wants my attention.

Once I recognize the something that is speaking to me, I just attend to it.  I let it unpack itself in me.  Why that? I might wonder.  I listen for the thing in me that feels resonance with the word or phrase or image or idea that has come up.  Where is this awareness leading me?  What is it pointing to in my life?  What does it have to teach me?  Of what is it reminding me?

As I recognize how this text or image or experience is speaking particularly to me in this moment, I am led to the next movement of the prayer, oratio.  Oratio means prayer.  Here I reach out to God who is reaching out to me through the Word.  What response does the awareness that has arisen in meditatio call forth from me?  Does it remind me of my need or the needs of others?  Does it lead me to thanksgiving?  Does it call forth praise or awe?  Whatever it is I express it to God.

As God has now spoken to me through the Word and I have responded to God, there is nothing left to say.  At this point we are invited into the final movement of the dance, contemplatio, or contemplation.  In contemplatio we simply rest in the presence of God.  There is nothing to do, only to be.

As we abide in God and allow the message we have received to rest in us, we begin to experience the peace on which the angel's exhortation rests:  Do not be afraid.

Practice:

Using either the passage from Matthew above, last Sunday's Gospel, or any devotional reading or passage that comes to you, try the practice of lectio divina.  Give yourself twenty minutes of quiet.  Don't worry about doing it right.  Slow down and let the passage you have selected open itself up to you.  As a wise Benedictine sister said as she introduced us to lectio, "You may have heard this scripture passage a hundred times, but you haven't heard it today."

If you want more information about the process, you can refer to the article cited above or try this one, which is brief and direct.

If you want to go deeper into learning about the practice, try here or here.

After you have experienced this form of prayer, notice how it felt to you.  What was the experience like?  Are you willing to try it again?  What did you like about it?  Did anything trouble you?

Consider using a different sort of text or an experience from your own life.  There is nothing that comes to us in which we cannot discover sacredness.

Next week:  "Let It Be Done to Me"



Who Would Pope Francis Have Named "Person of the Year"?

He would choose someone poor.  Not 'The Poor,' but a someone who happens to be poor.  It would be Someone, a person with a face and a name and a particular story.  Maybe the story would be sad, a story of loss or of suffering.  Maybe the story would be happy, of hope and restoration.

He would make sure that we knew that this particular Someone was not simply an example.  He would not make of him or of her an anecdote.  The meaning of this Someone's story would not illustrate any point or serve as a metaphor for something else.  The individual person and her story would stand only for what they are.

Pope Francis' Person of the Year would live in a poor country.  He might be Catholic or Hindu or Buddhist.  It wouldn't matter.  What would matter is that this person would be otherwise unknown to the world at large, but not unknown to God.  Pope Francis would lead us into the heart of this Someone, who to the world is no one, and in knowing her heart, I, another no one to the world, would discover my own heart.

In Pope Francis' Person of the Year, I would glimpse the face of Christ.  In glimpsing Christ in him, I would see the Christ in me.  In seeing Christ in me, I would see myself anew.  I would see my poverty and my loss or suffering or hope or restoration.

Pope Francis would raise up this very particular Someone not as a way to garner attention or sell a magazine, but in awe and wonder, respecting the mystery of soul breathed into dust by God.  He would raise her up the way he raises the bread and the wine and calls on the Spirit to make them holy, knowing that they already are made holy and that we raise them up in order to remember and restore the unity of Spirit and creation and humanity that God intended from the first fiat.

We would watch the raising up and know our own participation in it, in the raising and in the being raised, if only we allow that it is true.  As we never stop seeing the bread and the wine, even as we receive them as the Body and Blood, neither would we stop seeing the Someone in all his uniqueness, flawed and gifted, but we would see too the transfiguration of man, of woman, into the Body of Christ, glorified.

This is sacrament, the raising, the recognition of truth in the breaking of bread, in the breaking of bodies and spirits by a still-sin-filled world, through which brokenness the light of Spirit breaks in and heals and makes whole and makes holy.

Not metaphor, but sacrament, this Person of the Year.  No magazine cover can capture this truth.

As for me, for you, for us, who would we choose?  Who is our Person of the Year?  In whose eyes have we looked this year and recognized in them the complexity of their humanity and the holiness of the indwelling Spirit of God?  In whose eyes have we seen our own humanity, our own holiness?

December 11, 2013

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Why am I surprised by how easy it still is for me to become lost in myself?  You'll forgive me if I explain.  If I tell you that I've had unremitting joint pain for five solid weeks, you'll feel sad for me.  You'll ask if I'm okay, if I need anything.  You won't think, Wow, how self-centered.  And yet, self-centered is exactly what I have been.

Pain is a funny thing.  It hasn't been intolerable pain.  I've had aches.  I haven't been able to pull the curtains or open a jar or bend my knees enough to reach the bottom shelf.  I've been able to do most everything else, save getting a decent night's sleep.  The thing about the pain and the stiffness, though, is that it makes me especially aware of me.

That could be a good thing.  Every contemplative teacher there ever was teaches us to become more aware.  At first, that was it exactly.  It almost felt good.  I knew something about living in my body that I usually  forget.  It was like having worked out with weights and the next day noticing muscles I had forgot I had.

But it got old.  And I got scared.

It wasn't normal, this pain.  What was it?  I decided I had to know.  I couldn't rest until I knew, because if I knew what it was, then I'd know what to do, and then I would fix it.  Somehow.  So I stopped feeling it, stopped just being aware of it, and turned it into my personal Problem to Solve.

I went to the doctor and reported to the lab and watched them draw vial after vial of (as it turns out) perfectly healthful blood.  Every one of the ten or more lab tests came back stamped with the same result:  Normal, normal, normal.  I was not reassured.

Something was wrong, and I had to know, so I turned to Dr. Google for answers.  Do you have any idea how many ways different ways there are to Google-search joint pain.  If you came and secretly reviewed my internet browser history (and you'd have to do it secretly, because I wouldn't allow it otherwise due to the inevitable mortifying embarrassment I would suffer), you would, doubtless, find dozens and dozens of different queries, each providing its own reinforcing little twist. The truth is out there on the internet, I thought, and I am going to find it.  I googled everything but "Chris Sullivan's joint pain."  It's a small mark in favor of my sanity that I didn't try.

I could never find what I was really looking for, because it wasn't there.  Behind all of that desperate web-surfing, what I really wanted was relief -- not from the joint pain, but from the self-absorption that led me to the keyboard over and over again.

I had turned inward on myself.  I wandered into a dark and all-too-familiar room, inside, where I've habituated myself to retreating at times like these.  As long as I keep scrabbling in the dark I'm in control and I avoid all the messy feelings that come when I stop and rest in awareness. There I was in firm control of the nothingness -- no feelings, no answers, just groping around alone in the dark, safe, but futile.

Then one day a dear friend said, "How can I pray for you?"  In that moment I was caught up short, struck with awareness that it had not once occurred to me to ask for help.  I wanted people to know what was going on, but never once had I thought to ask a real-life person for support.  I was a little shocked.  I thought I didn't do that anymore, withdraw and isolate myself when I was struggling.  I was wrong..

Something opened up in that moment.  It was this little pinhole of light.  I had been so busy looking in that I hadn't once looked out.  I remembered that I was not alone, not in the dark, not being expected to solve anything, not in control and not needing to be.

I saw a real doctor today and trusted her to give me pills to make me feel better while we wait.  Either the pain will go away as my immune system sweeps away the remnants of some never-to-be-identified, pesky virus, or it'll reemerge when the bottle of prednisone is empty.  Then I may be tempted to return, alone, to my dark little room.  I'm hoping to remember that what I want isn't there.






December 3, 2013

The Lord Is with You

"In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David.  The virgin's name was Mary.  And he came to her and said, 'Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you.' But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be."
- Luke 1:26-29

"Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you."

What does that feel like?  How does it feel for you to hear that you are favored by God?  The Lord is with you.  God, the Creator of the universe, favors you, is with you.

How perplexing.  What sort of greeting?  What can this mean?

How can I be favored by God when I'm so terribly ordinary?  How can I be favored by God if bad things happen to me or to the people I love?

How can I be favored by God if God knows all about me:  My angry outbursts.  My laziness.  My lustful thoughts.  My irregular church attendance.  My sporadic prayer life.  The times I wonder whether God is really good or trustworthy or loving.  Or whether God even exists.

And yet, the Lord is with us.  Emmanuel, the name of God that we hear over and over again in Advent means, God-with-us.

The essence of prayer is the recognition that the Lord is with us.  We are invited to joint with Mary, whose encounter with God, like our own encounters with the Divine, confounds all sense of reason and defies our expectations.  It is about daring to open our hearts to a God who, heedless of the cost, entered into His own creation in the womb of a poor Jewish girl, clothing eternal glory and majesty in mortal flesh -- a God who does the same when, by the Spirit, God lives in and through us.

God comes to us at all times, unbidden.  As the angel Gabriel came to Mary, so God comes to us and announces His favor and His intention to take our flesh and make it one with His Spirit as we are the living Body of Christ.  Our journey in relationship with God is a journey into that reality, the reality that God abides with us, here, now, always.

It is no accident that you are reading these words.  Why have you come?  What are you hoping for?  Are you ready, are you willing to discover what God has prepared for you, beyond your expectations, your hopes, your fears?

The truth is, God is with us by the Spirit right now.  Our purpose together this Advent is not to talk about abiding in the presence of God, but to practice.  My hope is that what you experience in these few short weeks of preparation for Christmas you will be able to take into your continuing practice of the presence of God in your private prayer.

Practice:

Every one of us has had experiences of awareness of Emmanuel, God-with us.  Maybe you haven't called those times God-awarenesses.  What I am talking about are the moments that felt like more, moments of transcendence or wonder or awe or deep tranquility.  They are the moments when, however briefly, we've had a sense that there is something -- or someone -- some sense of life resonating in us beyond the bare facts of the moment in which we find ourselves.

The purpose of this exercise is to practice listening for God in this moment and discovering what it feels like for you when you experience what I will call the presence of God.  This sort of practice hearkens to the recommendations of St. Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises. St. Ignatius taught that we could employ all of our faculties, including our imaginations and our memories, in approaching God in prayer.

Find a quiet space and time.  You'll need 10-15 minutes.  You'll likely want to read through the instructions a couple of times, so you don't have to stop in the middle of the exercise.  You don't have to do it exactly as it's written.  Use it as a starting place and see where it takes you.

Sit where you can have your feet on the floor.  You should be comfortable, but alert.  Close your eyes.
Ground yourself in your body by taking a deep breath...and letting it out.  Another breath, noticing the air entering...and leaving your body.  Once more...  It is God who provides the very air we breathe. 
Welcome the Holy Spirit to be with you in this time.  Invite the Spirit to open your heart and your mind. 
Take another conscious breath...  We are going to spend some time remembering...
When have you been conscious of the presence of God with you?  Invite the Spirit to lead you, to call your attention to the times, the experiences, the fleeting moments that God may be inviting you to recall.
Maybe you have known God's presence in prayer...at church...in the sacraments...at home...at work...or school...in the car...with someone you love...with someone who was ill or dying...in a time of great joy...  Maybe what you remember is a small, private moment, a moment known only to you...  Continue to return your attention to the Spirit.  Let the Spirit direct your thoughts.  There is no right or wrong.  You may recollect only one experience...or a few...or many.
As you reflect, listening for the Holy Spirit, notice:  Which one experience of the presence of God seems especially compelling to you right now?  With your eyes still closed, hold that experience in your mind, in your heart.
As you reflect on that time, when you experienced the presence of God, notice what you feel in your body.  Do you feel tension?  Lightness?  Something else?  Where in your body do you feel the presence of God.  Place your hand there.
If that feeling in your body had a color or a shape, what would it be?  What is it like?  Does any image arise for you?  This is only for you, so that you can know what your unique experience of the presence of God feels like for you.
Continue to sit with the feeling for as long as seems right for you.
When you feel ready, open your eyes and gently return to the space you are in.
Offer a prayer of thanksgiving for this time.

Next week:  "Do Not Be Afraid"

November 25, 2013

On Becoming Ourselves

“We sense that something is missing from our lives and search the world for it, not understanding that what is missing is us.” – Parker J. Palmer in A HiddenWholeness

It is the most basic question of our existence:  Who am I?  Am I the person I see when I look in the mirror, this assemblage of cells formed by the blueprint of my unique DNA?  Am I the expression of a personality?  An accumulation of experiences?  Am I who I am in relationship – daughter, sister, wife, mother, friend?  What does it mean to be me?

The I that I am in the world is a construct.  I am what I wish I were.  I am what I think you want me to be.  I am what I think is needed in the moment lest conflict be provoked.  I am a chameleon, a shadow.

There comes an invitation.  Those who know better than I assure me that it always starts with pain.  It looks less like a welcome and more like a death sentence.  It is a beckoning and a reckoning.  Come, says the voice, says the pain, come and discover yourself.

And so we do, or we don't, or we do and then don't and then do.  Usually the latter, because it's hard to remember all of the time why we said yes in the first place.  It's hard to remain convinced that the descent -- and it's always descent -- is worth it, and that the ground underneath will be solid but not so solid that it will shatter us into an irreparable heap of broken shards.  Just solid enough to hold us once we get there.

We don't know who will be there, at the bottom, until we get there.  We get glimpses along the way -- sometimes in the mirror or in the eyes of love.  That is who I am.  Then it fades, the sense, at last, of being real and substantial and whole, and I go back to being a ghost -- only maybe a little less insubstantial than before.  But not less transparent.  More transparent.

The tragedy is that so many people live and die without ever finding the true self hidden under all the hype.  As we fall, we pass it, the hype, along the way, and we’re tempted to reach out and grab and hold on for dear life.  My stuff and my image and my canny wit and my knowledge and my reputation.  Self-protection decays into self-deception and keeps me from the final fall and the knowing that only comes when I land and discover that what shatters at the bottom is not me at all.

I emerge from the rubble and the horizon is wide and I am free.

November 21, 2013

Starts and Stops

Along my journey, I have heard 12 Steppers say, "It's easier to stay on than to get on."  The wagon, that is.  Recently, a friend of mine invited me to think about it differently, to consider that maturity is evinced by the willingness to get on over and over again.  Whether I jump off, fall off, or am pushed, when I find myself on the ground again, am I willing to catch up with the wagon, to ask the driver to stop for me if necessary, and clamber back on?

It's an act of humility.  In my strength of pride, I make promises that my future self has to fulfill.  "I will always, from now on..."  "I will never again..."  I incur a debt to my own future, a debt I sometimes find I do not have the means to pay.  The test of my character is what I do when the bill comes due.

I'm tempted by shame.  It's sometimes easier to resort to the old tapes, to collapse into long-held beliefs about myself and what I can't do.  "I'm just not...up to the task...worth it...enough."  If those stories are true, I can rest there.  I can quit without remorse.  It's not my fault.  Right?

It's considerably more difficult to decide to take up a new song, the song of I can.  It takes courage and often requires reinforcement from people who know me and love me, to stand up to the part of me that is satisfied with can't.  It's not enough to beat that part down.  That's just another way of singing the old song.  Instead, the courageous me has to embrace the old beliefs, bless them for the ways they tried to save me from my over-promising self, and invite them to take a well-deserved vacation.  They would rather stay behind the wagon.  Let them, in peace.

Then I can start again with a new lyric.  At first it comes out as questions:  Am I up to the task?  Could I be worth it?  What if I'm enough?  Then the leap of faith, the unconditional if improbable yes -- yes, I am, yes, I could be, yes.


August 15, 2013

Assumptions

Today Catholics celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of Mary.  I celebrated too.  I went to Mass, arriving early to pray a rosary.

I grew up Catholic, but we were not the rosary-praying-and-attending-Mass-on-the-Feast-of-the-Assumption sort of Catholics.  My first rosary memory dates from when I was a pre-schooler; I wore my rosary as a necklace.  Later, I remember going to my grandmother -- not a particularly devout Catholic herself -- and asking her what one was supposed to do with this string of beads anyway.  In time, I learned.

I had been taught to memorize the Lord's Prayer and the Hail Mary at my mother's knee, book-ended by the Sign of the Cross.  Sacred words, these are the backbone of the rosary.  Add a Glory Be and you're almost there.  Apostle's Creed at the beginning, while holding the crucifix in your hand.  Big bead, Our Father.  Little beads, three, then tens, decades, Hail Mary's followed by one Glory Be.  End with Hail Holy Queen, and you're done.

There are other details:  Now the Glory Be can be followed by "O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, and lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of thy mercy."  As you begin to pray, name your intention, the cause for which you desire for Mary and her Son to intercede.  And reflect on the sacred mysteries.

There used to be three sets of five mysteries.  Altogether this made for 150 Hail Mary's (less the three at the beginning of the recitation, by which we ask God to increase our faith, hope, and charity).  I have read that this 150 -- reflecting the number of the psalms -- was the layman's way of entering into the daily life of prayer of the Church, doing what they, the illiterate masses, could, as the monastics and learned clergy prayed the whole Psalter in the daily Divine Office.  Pope John Paul II added another five mysteries, the Luminous now joining the Joyful, the Sorrowful, and the Glorious.

I memorized each set of five by memorizing the first, last, and third.  Then I could usually fill in the second and the fourth.  If the first Joyful Mystery is the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to Mary and the last is the Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple and the third is the Nativity of Jesus in Bethlehem, the second must be the Visitation to Elizabeth and the fourth the Presentation of the Infant Jesus at the Temple.  It worked for me.

The Assumption of Mary into Heaven is the fourth Glorious Mystery.  If it were not, I would never have spent much time thinking about it.  While I have never established a regular habit of praying the rosary, I have turned to this devotion from time to time, sometimes daily for weeks at a time.  Whenever I get to the Glorious Mysteries (Sundays and Wednesdays and any day during the Easter season), I have an Our Father and ten Hail Mary's to think about the Assumption.

Roman Catholic teaching says that Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven.  Catholics are free to believe that Mary died first or that, like Elijah on his fiery chariot, she didn't.  We were told this morning by the priest that this feast is a reminder of what God is planning for our future, just like Mary says in the Magnificat, that magnificent prayer from Luke 1 (vv 46ff), "...he has remembered his promise of mercy" (v. 54b).

I have always imagined the Assumption like this:  Our life as Christians is the life of "now and not yet," the experience of living in this world and simultaneously living in and helping to bring to the present reality the fullness of the Kingdom of God.  The more I live in God's Kingdom now, the less difference I will experience between my life today and my life in eternity.  If Mary lived perfectly the Kingdom life on this side of death, what could death mean to her?  She was "in heaven," body and soul, already.

At least that's how I think about it, when I think about it.

And I do think about Mary.  Growing up, I wanted to be a more traditional Catholic.  I secretly longed to absorb myself in the candles and incense, the statuary, kneelers and bells at the moment of consecration.  That's why I wanted to know what the rosary was all about.  I could see that being a real Catholic, as I imagined such to be, meant being devoted to Mary.   

There are many people -- Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican even -- who take this sort of devotion to Mary for granted.  For them it is assumed.  For me, it hasn't been so easy.  One way or another, my head keeps getting in the way.  

But my heart?  My heart wants a mother, and there is the Church, holding out to me Mary, the perfect, spotless, immaculately conceived Mother.  I want her to be in heaven, body and soul, crowned as Queen, interceding with her Son for me and for all of us.  I want her to be the Mother of God and the Mother of the Church and my Mother.  I want to adore her, and I want her to love me as she loves her Son.  I want to surrender to this exalted picture of Mary even though -- or maybe because -- she sounds too good to be true.

As I sat in the pew and knelt on my kneeler this morning, I wanted to silence my skeptical, rational mind as rose up to have its logical say.  I wanted the Protestant voice that now lives alongside the Catholic voice in my head to stop telling me that there is nothing in the Bible about the Assumption of Mary.  I wanted to be free to assume that all that the Church says and has ever said about the Blessed Virgin Mary is right and true.


July 21, 2013

Martha, Martha


As the continued their journey he entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him.  She had a sister named Mary [who] sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak.  Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving?  Tell her to help me."  The Lord said to her in reply, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.  There is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her." - Luke 10:  38-42


Poor Martha.  Someone needs to set the table, don't they?  Someone needs to fix the food and wash the dishes and make up the beds.

I get tired of the bad rap Martha gets.  How many times have I heard faithful Christian sisters say, in dismay or despair, "I'm such a Martha.  I need to be more of a Mary."

I imagine Martha as a woman like me, always wanting to help, always trying so hard.  Maybe too hard.  I hear in her resentment my own resentment.  "Why am I the only one who cares about..."  A tidy house?  Getting dinner on the table?  Taking care of things and people?  Why is it always me?  Surely I've cried out with Martha, "Lord, do you not care that my sister/husband/children/friends have left me by myself to do the serving?  Tell them to help me!"

I see so much selfishness around me. ("That Mary, just sitting there!  How selfish!") I can't bear it.  I am not going to be the selfish one, that's for sure.

And yet, Luke says that Martha is "burdened."  And Jesus says, elsewhere (Matthew 11:30), "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

"There is need of only one thing," says Jesus.  I don't really understand what that "one thing" is.  I know, I know, sitting at the feet of Jesus.  But that doesn't seem quite right.  We know we really can't all sit at the feet of Jesus all the time, in the way that Mary does.  Dinner does need to get to the table.  What can this "one thing" be?

And while we're pondering, take a look at that next line, the one that used to make me really mad: "Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her."  Ouch!  For years and years, those words sounded to me like a sharp slap in Martha's face.  And mine.  And all of those self-identified "Marthas" out there.

Then, about a year ago, after reading this text a thousand times, I heard Jesus say something I had never heard before.  Maybe he meant this:  "Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her.  Martha, you could choose it too, and it will not be taken from you."

Could that possibly be true?  I can sit at the feet of Jesus?  But who will set the table?  Who will cook the meal and wipe the dishes and sweep the floors?  If I don't, won't that make me selfish?

And Jesus says to me, "You don't have to be anxious and worried about that."

Really?  The better part can be mine too?  I can give up the anxious worry and have that sort of freedom?  But what will happen?  Who will set the table?

I guess I'll have to sit at Jesus' feet if I want to find out.

June 3, 2013

Summer

In my first-ever paid writing assignment, I wrote about summer and God and finding God in the natural world in summer.  My husband laughed that I would be writing about nature in that way, I who prefer my existence climate-controlled, and, generally, controlled, bug-free and clean.  Nature is messy and unpredictable.

When I was a little girl, I loved summer, like most children do, but not because there was no school.  The only way in which leaving off school for the summer was good was because of fall.  Then we would go to the mall with my mother, my sisters and I.  We would leave with new wardrobes for a new school year, Brownie uniforms, shoes.  The first day of school was always too hot, but we would wear our new clothes anyway.

Fall always meant new beginnings.  I had a new grade and a new teacher.  It was all fresh and full of possibility.

Now every season suggests a new beginning, a turn in the rhythm of life.  Where I grew up in California, it didn't snow save on a rare morning when we'd get a dusting of white powder that we wished could be made into snowballs and snowmen but which melted almost as soon as the sun was above the horizon, before we finished the walk from home to school.

In Colorado where I live now, there are four seasons, but they bleed into each other in unruly ways.  This year spring was snowier than winter, tulips and daffodils deprived of their best showing by a blanket of cold, wet, white.  Summer burst forth in a couple of days as the trees, with what seemed like a pent-up energy, went from barren to full-leaf.

Summer makes me restless.  Even I feel drawn out-of-doors where the sun is shining.  It seems an affront to stay in the house in the same way that fall and winter and spring allow.  But going out is riskier than staying in.  In, I get what I get and I know what that is.  I know who will be here.  I know what to do.

In two days I leave on a plane to fly east across the country then across the Atlantic, for only the second time in my life.  This time I will not have my husband next to me, as I did the first time, ten years ago.  He will be with the kids, staying in.  I am going out and I won't know what I'll get or who will be there or quite what to do.

Life is messy and unpredictable out there.  If the rhythms of home are regular and slow, melodic, the rhythms of the world beyond are syncopated, improvised.  Aren't you excited to go? everyone asks.  Yes.  And no.

I cannot deny my desire to stay at home even when the world, when God, is calling me out, out of what is controlled and predictable and clean.  It would be an affront to stay in, I know, but knowing does nothing to lessen the draw and temptation of the familiar.

Newness in fall seemed safe.  Newness in restless summer is wild.


May 19, 2013

The Accuser and the Advocate

From the original language of the Hebrew Bible, we get the "name" satan.  It is a word that means accuser or adversary.  Today, on Pentecost Sunday, as we close the Easter season, we are introduced to the Advocate.  It's the original legal smack-down:  The Accuser vs The Advocate.

From Perry Mason to L.A. Law to Law and Order, television has taught us how this legal business works, even if we've never actually sat in a trial.  Enter the defendant, or, if you prefer, the accused.  She stands before the judge.  She faces her accuser.

The accuser claims to have been wronged by the accused.  Sometimes the accuser is the state, a representation of the idea that we citizens collectively stand behind the idea of right adherence to the law.  The accusation is that the accused has violated the just law.  And often, she has.  And we have.

We can say that our adversary, the Accuser, is out to get us.  But what if we're guilty?  What if what I've been accused of is exactly what I've done?

We live in a culture, in the 21st century, in the developed Western world, that says in nearly every imaginable way, It's all good.  I'm okay; you're okay.  We elevate personal freedom as the highest possible good.  We ratify every choice in the name of individual liberty -- or the preservation of national liberty.  We're entitled, and we raise entitlement to the status of right.  The problem is, we know it's wrong.

I know it, because I feel guilty.  I have food to spare while others starve.  I take long showers while others don't have clean water to drink.  I want a smartphone while others want their governments to stop shooting at them.

We try to live post-guilt, but guilt is not a bad thing.  It's the sign of a well-formed conscience.  I'm guilty.  I'm guilty of lots of things.  It's not just the social/cultural sin of being a rich white girl.  It's in the ways I'm petty.  It's when I gossip.  It's the countless times I don't show up or show up mean.  It's the inescapable truth that I don't live up to the potential I'm given to be a God-image-bearer.  If I stand accused, it's because I'm guilty.

The Accuser is right.

So I need an Advocate.  Standing on my own, I stand condemned.  But notice that Jesus identifies the Advocate with the Spirit of Truth (John 14:16-17).  That means that the Advocate isn't given in order to excuse or cover up my guilt.  The Advocate will reveal what's true, and that includes my guilt.

But that's not all.

There is more that is true of me.  It's not just that, along with my weakness and, yes, sin, there is good.  There is.  But there is an even truer truth.  I am beloved of God just as I am.

The Advocate stands behind me, before the judge.  All too often, I am the judge.  I can be my own worst adversary, ready to condemn myself in my guilt.  The Advocate pleads my case.  The Advocate sees my potential to reform.  The Advocate knows, even when I'm not so sure myself, that I'm worth saving.


May 4, 2013

Give Us This Day

I am among the slim majority of American adults who do not use a smartphone.  My phone looks, roughly, like this.  I'm told it's indestructible, and I'm not going to get another phone until this one is unusable, so it may be a while.  The real question is, Why do I care?

I don't need a smartphone.  I don't.  I'm home a lot of the time, and there's internet access here.  I actually like not being accessible by e-mail when I'm out.  My phone can call and text, and that's plenty.

But there's this part of me that really wants a smartphone.

That part sounds like this:  Everybody else has one, she whines.  I could have my calendar when I'm out, she reasons.  It would be fun, she imagines.  It's not fair, she protests.

My teenage son got a smartphone today.  No data plan, just wi fi.  And I have phone envy.

I've been thinking a lot lately about these two, competing parts of me, these two seats of want.  I want to be like everybody else, and I want to be different.  I want what I want, and I want to sit with the discipline of doing without.  I want to indulge and I want to fast.

It's Id vs. Ego.

It's not a tug-of-war I can win.  Either way, I'm trying to have what I want.  It's a zero-sum game.  Either way, I lose.

If my Id gets what she wants, the satisfaction is fleeting and shallow.  Newness never lasts.  Glitter fades.  If Ego wins, the satisfaction is brittle, dry, a little sour.  Good for you.

I have begun to wonder what the other choice, the third choice, might be.  I used to think I didn't know what I wanted.  I thought the question was, What do I want?  Now I think that's wrong.  I want lots of things, and they cancel each other out and they don't amount to much anyway.  No, there must be a different question.

It's too pithy to say, What does God want for me? even though that's a very important question.  Maybe it strikes me as lacking because it begs another question, Who is the "me"?  Who am I?

Because I'm both the girl who wants a smartphone to play with and the woman who wants a break from technology.  I'm the woman who sees the practicality of having the internet in her pocket and the girl who wants to be free of the responsibility of being available all the time.

I keep imagining that if I could hold it all in tension, something new would emerge, the "me" underneath.  I suspect that the problem is not that that woman doesn't know what she wants.  The fact is, she has what she wants.  The woman under, or maybe within, has every single thing she has ever wanted right now.  Her sense of completeness precludes any questions about having or not having.

"Give us this day our daily bread..."  I, at least, typically take those words to mean, give us enough for this day, just what we need for now.  And I suspect they are meant to mean that.  But I read once that they might also refer to the feast we're meant to share in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Give us this day...  Not simply what we need to survive, but the grandest feast there is.  If I believe that the Kingdom is here and now, I can join in the feast today.  I don't have to wait.  There's nothing more to wait for.  It's all here now.  Nothing to want.  Just dig in.

April 24, 2013

I Want to Live Like That

I'm so good at capturing sad moments, moments of pain.  Those seem so thick, heavy, laden with meaning.  I'm so much less adept at marking the happy times,  maybe because they seem airy, insubstantial.  They're like soap bubbles, shimmering, rainbow-beautiful -- until a sharp word pierces them and they evaporate as if they never were.

We laughed together, danced the mom dance, ate homemade pizza with red wine for me.  Richness of life.  A text to him reminding him, and reminding me, that I love him and miss him when he's gone.

For this fleeting moment, the world is charged -- fire fall, Spirit-filled, shining, glorified.

I want to live like that.

Forgiving the Unforgivable


I have a pastor friend who has written a thoughtful blog post on forgiveness in the wake of the Boston bombings.  His initial take is different than mine.  He’s got me thinking about forgiving the unforgivable.

Maybe it’s too easy for me to look at the accused bombing suspect, Dzokhar Tsarnaev, and see a broken and hurting kid.  He is, after all, half a continent away, safely in the hospital, and he didn’t hurt anyone I love.  He’s not really my enemy, so if I can love him and forgive him from this safe distance, it doesn’t reflect any particular virtue in me.

In a way, Tsarnaev, or any public bad guy we could think of, is a sort of straw man.  We set him up as a case-in-point, a generic enemy.  We test on him our resolve to be forgiving, if we have such resolve.  What would I do if…?  Even if I don’t ask the question out loud, or even internally, specifically, intentionally, I’m sounding the depths – or shallows – of my own capacity to say, with Jesus, “Father, forgive them…”

There’s something so comfortingly clear about someone who hurts innocent bystanders.  We know who’s right, who’s been wronged.  It’s why we like old-time westerns or action movies where there’s no moral ambiguity and the man in the white hat will always stand against and overcome the man in the black hat.  In real life, in my commonplace, quotidian encounters, it’s not so clear.

I hurt other people.  They hurt me.  It’s not a bullet or a bomb, but a careless word or look or tone.  Sometimes it’s not so careless, but stealthily planned to hurt, to wreak a little bit of vengeance in the name of self-defense.  I’ve been hurt; I want to hurt someone, to release my pain by inflicting it on you.  At first, it feels good not to forgive, to give like for like, like scratching an itch.  But it doesn’t really help, because the itch is a symptom, not the disease.  I will scratch and scratch until I’m the one who’s bleeding.

As long as I keep looking outside, at some enemy who is set against me, I will want to strike back, and my wound will never heal.  In a way, it doesn’t matter whether I harbor the unwillingness to forgive against my neighbor or against the Osama bin Ladens or Adam Lanzas of the world.  “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” reminds me to count the cost to my own soul when I bind that which I’m called to loose.  If I hold a grudge against the most distant enemy, my grudge will maintain a hold on me.
 
I agree with Pastor Rob, that forgiving doesn’t necessarily mean forgetting.  I have known enough people who have been harmed – physically, emotionally, spiritually – by people close to them to know that forgetting can mean inviting further abuse.  That’s not what forgiveness is about.  I have seen those same people, though, genuinely forgive acts of violence, lack of love, cruelty, neglect, and abandonment – and experience healing transformation in their own souls in the process.

We are called to forgive the unforgivable, but it’s a mistake to assume that it’s simply an act of charity toward the offender.  Forgiveness is finally a choice to allow my own soul to heal.

April 23, 2013

Why I'm Praying for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

This young man, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev allegedly committed an act of inexplicable evil.  We have to start there. I was as fixated as anyone as I listened to the radio last Friday, marveling that a whole city could be locked down, praying that they would catch the bad guy before anyone else got hurt.

They found him, bleeding, half-dead, half a mile from where he'd abandoned the car-jacked SUV so many hours earlier.  Suddenly I saw in my mind's eye not a terror suspect, but a nineteen year old kid.  What was he thinking during all those hours?  I don't imagine he knew that Boston had been effectively closed on his account.  Did he know his brother was dead?  I expect he was terrified, maybe hoping to die.

Somewhere, once, in a town very far from here, this man was a boy and before that a baby.  Someone cradled him in her arms, nursed him, patted him, kissed his soft head, caressed him.  He was innocent.

How does such a thing happen?  How does innocence turn to hatred and violence and cruelty?  If he is guilty, this man, barely past his own childhood, has ravaged the innocence of so many others who believed that the world was safe, only to come face to face with chaos reminiscent of a war zone.

It's easier, so much easier, if we can label Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as some sort of monster, sub-human.  It's easier to blame his religion or country-of-origin -- anything to distance ourselves from him.  He's not like us.

But of course, he is just like us.  He has a family and friends.  He went to school and to parties.  And, in all likelihood, he helped to make and plant bombs that killed three people and maimed so many others.  How are we to reconcile it all?

Perhaps it is natural to react with a wish for vengeance.  We look at this man and desire nothing more than to punish him for his crimes.  But, as Jim Wallis tweeted earlier today, the Biblical meaning of justice is "making things right."  What would it take to make what happened in Boston, in any imaginable sense, "right"?

The state will seek to prosecute Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  They will, I imagine, ask not only that he be found guilty, but that he be put to death on account of his guilt.  Some people will say that only his death will make things right.

I do not see how the death of a 19 year old boy, however vicious his crime, balances the scales of justice.  It does not restore to life the five people, including the other alleged perpetrator, who are dead as a result of this episode of senseless violence.  Only Jesus can restore to life Martin Richard, Lu Lingzi, Krystle Campbell, and Sean Collier.  Only in resurrection life will the dozens of people who lost limbs be made whole.  Killing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will not accomplish any sort of restoration.

What's more, and here's the piece that may be hard to swallow, Jesus can also restore Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  Jesus can redeem whatever it is in this young man that is so broken, whatever allowed him to cooperate with evil.

Do we believe that?  Do we believe in a God who offers redemption to the same souls that call for and abet his crucifixion?  Who bleeds and dies to save the lives of the ones who nailed him to the cross?  Do we believe that as much as Jesus died with those innocents who died, he died too with Tamerlan Tsarnaev, a bomb strapped to his chest?  Do we believe that as Jesus weeps and suffers with the dismembered in their hospital beds, he suffered too with the bleeding boy in the boat?

I hope if Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is guilty that he goes to jail.  But I hope too that he lives long enough to experience the love that frees us from evil.  I hope that he is transformed from sinner to repentant sinner.  I believe in a God who can do that.  I believe in a God who can use this mayhem, which God in no way wills, for some final good.  That is why I am praying for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

April 11, 2013

Six Hours

For a little over a year now, my kids have all been in school.  I'm not talking about my baby starting kindergarten.  My baby is in 4th grade, but until last January, he was home schooled.  My two elder children -- nearly 15 and 17 -- started school a year ago last fall.  For twelve months, I gave myself permission to do nothing.  For sixteen years I had been a full-time parent, a child under my primary supervision 24/7.  Suddenly, overnight, I was free for six hours a day.  I didn't have the first notion of what to do.

I was, in equal measure, surprised and unsurprised to discover that six hours wasn't as long as it looked from the outside.  The time flew...and it dragged.  I was inexplicably busy with the tasks of daily living -- cooking, dish washing, cleaning, laundry.  The mystery is that these were all occupations in which I'd been engaged forever, along with overseeing math and history and spelling.  How in the world did they now fill all my time?

Maybe the answer was in the radical difference in the rhythm of my days.  Home schooling, our days started early, and our work moved at an even, one might say leisurely, pace.  By mid-afternoon we'd completed all of our lessons and everyone had moved on to his and her own pursuits, including me.  Not so the school day.  The mornings, especially in the beginning, were intense with activity until the door closed behind me when I walked in after having driven the youngest to school.  Then, quiet, until 2:45, when the middle schooler walked through the door.  The rest of the day was a further flurry of activity -- homework and school lunches and arguments over piano practice -- until we all collapsed into bed.

Things have improved.  We've grown more accustomed to the new family routine.

But there are still those six hours of quiet.  I expected, when I anticipated them, just before my baby left home for the third grade, that they would be sad and lonely.  I simultaneously expect a wave of relief.  I got some of both, and more besides -- restlessness, puzzlement, curiosity, anxiety, ennui.

What to do?  I have tried scrubbing toilets, lunch with friends, writing, laundry, prayer, reading, walking, listening, talking, volunteering, yoga, therapy, cooking, shopping.  None of it has relieved me of loneliness, restlessness, or boredom.

That is not to say that there aren't moments of respite.  I sometimes find myself so engrossed in writing, conversation, prayer, or manual labor that I forget myself, and forgetting myself is a blessed relief.

I imagine that that's what sainthood is, utter self-forgetfulness.  In a moment of perfect conversion, might it not be the case that I disappear into Christ entirely?  Not that I cease to be me, but that my self-consciousness is subsumed into something that is more than I.  I, a drop of water, experience myself as ocean, without ceasing to be a drop; the ocean is ocean even without tiny me, but even in its great vastness it is diminished without me.  As Christ increases, I decrease; as I decrease, I become complete.

For eighteen hours a day I still sleep and manage my family relationships, but those six hours call out to me a challenge.  I have sought to discern what it is I'm to do with them.  I shout or whisper the question to heaven, consumed with furious urgency or blissful in patient surrender.  Sainthood remains beyond my grasp.

To what degree am I called to do, to be?  To introspect or act?  Which is grasping and which surrender?  Is the answer the same today as it was yesterday or will be tomorrow?

It's a lot to ask from six hours.


Journeying

What does judgment say?  What mercy?  Will He look on me with compassion or declare that I knew what I knew, knew what was wanted, needed, expected and failed to deliver it -- failed in spite of being given advantage after advantage -- intelligence, support, examples?

I almost don't know which to hope for.  Compassion seems too weak, forgiving that which merits condemnation.  It's not how I would, do, rule me.  The heart searches out justice, right for right until the balance is made level and there rests, irrespective of the fear.  And the fear is muted because the heart cannot really conceive of the judgment merited by sin.  Not really.  If it could, it would eschew the balance and beg for mercy.  It would plead with the judge to look with compassion and mete out not what is deserved, but something lesser -- and greater.  Which the Judge will do.

But wait.  Is it only for those who seek it, this mercy?  For those who render it.  Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.  To whom am I more in debt than to myself?  Fifty pounds, fifty years.  It cannot be repaid, can only be forgive, relinquished, if at all.  Nothing can be repaid, because time does run in one direction only.  But can what was lost or what should have been nevertheless be restored?  Can it be?  Not patched, or the patch will tear.

Maybe it's patching that I do, can do.  And then I pour in and watch again and again as the wine I want to ripen expands and splits the seams and spills and stains and is lost but for the memory of the harvest and the crushing and the straining and the pouring, never drunk.  And what splits and spills is a feint compared with what might have been, too thick, too sweet, too immature to serve at the feast.

It is I who need to mature, and will I ever?  For ages I thought I had, long before I'd even begun.  And still, the chief impediment to aging well seems to be the idea that I already have.  Hastening leads only to some false idea of having arrived.  Tents pitched not in the promised land but on the side of a side road.

The journey is not yet over.  We must pack up and continue on.  But sick as we may be of quail and manna, they are reliable and the sun is hot and we can still sit in the shade of the tent and dream of the Egypt we left behind when we set out into the desert.  And we have not turned to salt for looking back, not entirely, not yet.

Milk and honey -- who can imagine them who has not tasted them?  And even if we have, the memory fades, being more subtle than the memory of fleshpots.  Even with pillars, not to mark the immovable place of sacrifice, but leading, guiding, by day and by night.  It should have been enough.  Can it be still?

Close your eyes.  See the cloud and the fire.  But only ahead.  You may die in the desert, but die following, your tent on your back, packed and prepared to journey one more day, even if that day never comes.  Your children, they at least, may yet enter into the promised land.

April 3, 2013

Living the Truth in Love

I'm involved in a women's ministry in which we support each other in allowing God to heal our emotional and spiritual wounds so that we can live the mission to which God has called each of us.  It took me months to discern my mission -- and I have refined its expression over time:
As a woman walking with Christ I co-create a world of deep connection where we can discover and live the truth in love by opening myself to the Holy Spirit and by communicating with clarity and compassion.
That's it.  That's why God has me alive today, to do that.  Sometimes being able to name it helps me to do it.  But not always.

I'm in a stage of radical transition in my life right now.  It's not the forced kind that might come with tragedy.  It's the natural sort that comes with time.  In short, my children are growing up.  For going on seventeen years, I have been first a mother and then everything else that I may be.  Now my children don't need me like they once did.  It seems like it happened overnight.  Of course it didn't.

Still, I find myself wildly unprepared.  In a devotion I read this morning, Richard Rohr said, "We are told that St. Francis used to spend whole nights praying the same prayer:  'Who are you, O God?  And who am I?'"  I wonder if he received an answer, because those are my questions:  Who are you, O God?  Who am I?

I get stuck on the second question.  Who am I?  I thrash around with a sort of helpless desperation as I struggle to answer it.  I approach it by way of sub-questions:  What should I do?  Where do I belong?  How do other people see me?  It's no wonder I never get to an answer or any sort of peace.  Those are surely not the right questions.

If I really want to know who I am, I need to begin with asking Who is God?  Not that I will arrive at an answer, but it is only in abiding in that question that I have any hope of approaching the question of who I am.

Who I am only makes sense in terms of who I am in God.  And who I am in God only makes sense if I have some notion of who God is.

I may not have a complete answer, but I do have a partial one, and that might just be enough.

I know that God is love (1 John 4:8).  I know that God so loved the world that He gave his beloved Son to die so that we might live (John 3:16).  And I know that the way to God passes through Truth (John 8:32 and 14:6).

So, love and truth it is.  Thus, my personal life mission.  I will never fully uncover the mystery of who God is or who I am.  I don't know where this journey is leading.  I know only that the path is paved with truth and with love.

March 30, 2013

Why Easter Matters

I have been studying the writings of N.T. (Tom) Wright, Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar, for many years.  He has the most cogent theology of orthodox (small o) Christianity that I have read anywhere.  He is as serious as a person can be about God, the meaning of Jesus as Christ, history, and social justice in the here and now.  As am I.  He explains the import of the resurrection better than I could hope to do.

Jesus is risen.  He is risen indeed.  And it matters -- to you, to me, today.

March 28, 2013

Habemus Papam, Holy Thursday Edition

I had no idea.  Since Pope Francis was named I have been reveling in the daily news about him.  He takes the bus!  He cooks his own meals!  Not an article has been published, it seems, that does not identify humility as Pope Francis' chief attribute.  

So I was caught off-guard when I stumbled upon this blog, which I imagine to be only one portal into a conversation that has been going on out of my earshot among "traditionalist" Catholics.  

This particular post concerns the Pope's celebration of Holy Thursday mass at a youth prison and washing the feet of two women and two Muslims among the symbolic twelve.  The comments are stunning to me in their panicked judgments that all hell is breaking loose at the Vatican.  This incident seems to be insult to injury for a community of Catholics who have felt that the previous two Popes were on their team, supporting their point of view and finally rectifying the trouble called by the "Hippie council" (which is the way in which at least one comment referred to Vatican II).

So let me get this straight:  When the Pope is doing what the traditionalists want, he is the spiritual leader of the church, the seat of moral authority.  When he's not, well, he's not.  Pope John XXIII presided over a the Second Vatican Council, but we disagree with its findings so we can disparage it and him.  Pope Francis doesn't want to live in the fancy papal apartments, so he's denigrating the authority of his office.

Jesus, help us.

Remember Jesus?  The Son of Man, who had "no place to lay his head" (Luke 9:58)?  Remember Peter, the ostensible prototype for the papacy, who was a "sinful" fisherman when Jesus called him (Luke 5:1-11)?  Neither of them ever lived in a palace.  Jesus was more often seen hanging around with the likes of youths in prison and women than with the religious elite, who, when they were around, were usually complaining about how Jesus was breaking with tradition in dangerous ways.  Sound familiar?

As Christians, we do not worship a tradition.  We worship the God who is revealed in the man Jesus of Nazareth.  This is a God who identified with the poor and the sinner (2 Corinthians 5:21).  This is the God who preferred a servant's towel and a brutal death to being separated from the men and women he created and loved (cf. John 13 and Philippians 2).  This is the God who died for sinners, not the righteous (Roman 5:8).

He keeps showing up in his distressing disguise, and when we recognize him -- in the feet of a girl who has committed a crime or the hands of the priest who washes them -- he might cause us upset or alarm.  He was a thorn in the sides of the religious authorities of his day and the religious authorities of ours as well.  

In the coming days we will remember him not only thus, on his knees with a towel wrapped around his waist, but stripped and bleeding in the public square, dragging a log through the streets of Jerusalem, and suffocating, a crown of thorns pressed to his head, hanging by nails on a Roman cross.  Nothing was too shameful for him.  He was willing to take the full brunt of the consequences of law and tradition, bearing the curse for us  (Deuteronomy 21:23; Galatians 3:13).

Let us not paint a different picture, one that is cleaner, more palatable for us, one wrapped in clean white linen and the trappings of worldly authority.  That's not what he has given us.  Instead, tonight, we will have to come to terms with dirty feet, a body, as bread, broken, blood poured out.  It might make us uneasy.  I think he wants it to.

On Marriage and Justice

I have not made that red square with the pink equals sign into my Facebook profile picture.  Neither have I shared the equals sign with the cross defending the "Biblical Definition of Marriage."

It's not just that I don't want to offend anyone -- although I don't.  I respect my friends who believe they are defending sacred truth in opposing same-sex marriage.  I respect my gay and lesbian friends (and their defenders) who want to marry the person they love.  I oppose neither difficult grappling with Biblical truth nor the best efforts of any person to carve out a bit of temporal happiness and companionship on the long journey of life.

What I do oppose is a democratic government that preserves the rights of some while denying those same rights to others.  I'm no legal scholar.  I don't have at my fingertips the history of the involvement of the states or the federal government in making marriage laws.  Such laws would include legal minimum ages for marriage and laws prohibiting members of different "races" from intermarrying (a practice that seemed as obvious to some when those laws were established as it is repugnant to most of us today).  That body of law also includes certain benefits for couples whose marriages are recognized under the law, including tax advantages.

I'm no libertarian, heaven knows.  I grew up in a family of FDR-loving, blue-collar Democrats.  I grew up to be the most conservative Democrat among us, but one who still generally favors a government that is actively involved in the grand project of improving people's lives.  But I wonder if the government ought to get itself out of the marriage business.

Why did the priest who married my husband and me have to sign some official government documents to make our union legal?  Why is there this crossover between what we call civil marriage and what my husband and I entered into in a religious (sacramental in our tradition) rite?

Do we need the government to sanction any sort of religious commitment?  If the government wants to regulate or established civic benefits for people in committed unions, why doesn't it do so apart from any sort of religious apparatus?  Why not civil unions for all couples and religious (or spiritual) marriages for any couple whose faith community wants to bless that union?

Now, I'm not so na├»ve as to think that:  1) No one has come up with this idea before, or 2) We can easily divide the concept of marriage, which now is an amalgam of civic and religious traditions.  Nor do I think that this answers the question of what God might intend regarding the marriage of two men or two women.  I do think it addresses more honestly questions about fairness and justice.

I wish I could say that I myself am not torn.  I want to defend the hearts and family lives of gay and lesbian couples who want what I have with my husband.  I also want to make sense of what the Bible says about marriage.  I am no Solomon; I do think there are conflicts between these two views that are beyond my capacity to reconcile satisfactorily.

But unless we, as a society, can figure out some other way to extend all the rights and privileges of citizenship to all couples irrespective of sexual orientation, I think the only just thing to do is to sanction marriage between any pair of consenting adults, man and woman, man and man, woman and woman.

March 25, 2013

Lenten Journey: The Gates of Jerusalem

Forty days have passed since we began this journey on Ash Wednesday.  Forty days of living and of praying, which, I hope we have come to see, are not so much two different things as one and the same.

Where were you forty days ago?  What has happened to you in these desert days?  Have you come to understand something new about yourself?  About God?

We've asked some big questions:  Who are you?  What is God's will for you?  Who is Jesus, and what does it mean to call him messiah?

While we might have some new insights, our answers must always be provisional.  There is ever more to learn, always deeper depths to explore.

This week brings us face to face with the most urgent and compelling mysteries of a life of Christian discipleship.  In churches the world over, people will gather -- ardent believers and those who are not so sure.  Together we will watch again as the story unfolds.  There will be feet washed, bread broken and wine poured out.  There will be darkness and the valley of the shadow of death.  And there will be, at last, an empty tomb.

These are the signs that point to the foundation of meaning for all of life and for our lives.  Who, finally, is this God, the God who created us and calls us beloved?  These mysteries of Holy Week -- the washing, the meal, the crucifixion, the resurrection -- are our answer.

It's not the sort of answer we might expect.  It doesn't satisfy the scientific or philosophical mind-set.  It's neither clean nor tidy.  It's more a story than a solution.

Yet, it compels us.  It does so because in our souls, when we allow this story to penetrate, we recognize that it is not the story only of the man Jesus, but our own story as well.

In the end, there is one story only.  It is a story of falling and of being redeemed, a story of dying and living again.  It is a story that is forever repeated and that we know from our quiet center, will never end.

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If you have followed this journey at all, whether for a day or forty, whether reading and moving on or more intentionally entering in with prayer, I pray that it has been a source of blessing for you.  I pray too that there have been seeds planted that will bear fruit for the Kingdom of God.

I have been blessed to walk this road with you.

If you would like to review any of the material from these past forty days of devotions, the are gathered here:  Lenten Journey.  I would love to hear how these devotions have served you, if they have, or how you would have liked them to be different.  Please e-mail me with any comments or suggestions at chris@livingthetruthinlove.org.

May God bless you this week, into the Easter season, and all the days of your life.

In the grace and peace of Christ~
Chris

March 23, 2013

Lenten Journey: The Goal

It is not that I have already taken hold of it or have already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it, since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ Jesus.  Brothers and sisters, I for my part do not consider myself to have taken possession.  Just one thing:  forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God's upward calling, in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 3:12-14

For Reflection...

Far from attaining perfect maturity am I.  There are days, moments really, when I think, "There it is!  I have arrived."  Those don't last very long.  The next thing I know, I find myself unraveling in this way or that.  The very thing I thought I had, at last, taken hold of, slips through my fingers like so much sand, leaving me wondering how I could ever have imagined I'd arrived.

Other times, just at the moment I feel on the verge of despair -- I'll never get it! -- something shifts, sometimes something so small or subtle that I'd miss it completely if I wasn't paying attention.  I'm quite sure there are plenty of times I'm not paying attention and instead of moving forward I buy myself another go-around on the same spiral.  But those times when I notice, when there is movement large or small, I know that perfect maturity is more than a fantasy.  It's the end for which we're made.

I just can't get there on my own.  On my own, I can reach and grasp and struggle to possess what I want, and I end up bruised and exhausted, but with my hands empty.  I cannot possess a thing without recognizing that it is I who first have been possessed.  In Christ, who has claimed me -- from my creation, in my baptism, sinner that I am -- and only in Christ, I have the capacity to strain forward toward the goal.  And the goal, in the profound paradox that is the Christian life (which is to say, life), Christ himself is the one who strives, the means of striving, and the goal itself.


For Entering In...

As you come more intentionally into the presence of God, see the face of Jesus, the face of Mercy, before you, and know that you are God's beloved.

Reflect on these questions:
  • What have you hoped for for yourself this Lent in your relationship with God?
  • Have you had any experience in the past five and a half weeks of feeling like you have achieved something for which you have hoped?  Have you taken a step toward "perfect maturity" in any area of your inner life?
  • Where do you judge that you have fallen short?  Is there something you have you hoped for for yourself that you feel like giving up on?
  • What allows you to strive ahead?  Do you find it easy or difficult to persevere?  What helps you to try again when it feels like it might be easier to quit?
  • Reflect on Christ as the one who strives in you...as the path of striving...as the goal which we strive toward.  Christ in you, Christ as the way, Christ as the summit of perfection that God intends for us:  Consider using this as the basis for your prayer through Holy Week.
Spend several minutes allowing your body and mind to be at rest.  If thoughts come, let them go by.  What if the only thing that mattered was your being, not your thinking or feeling or doing, not your accomplishments, just you?  And what if you and Christ were in perfect union -- not one and the same, but united, like a bride and her bridegroom?

March 20, 2013

Lenten Journey: The Loss of All Things

Brothers and sisters:  I consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having any righteousness of my own based on the law but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God, depending on faith to know him and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by being conformed to his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.  
Philippians 3:8-11

For Reflection...

The second reading for the Fifth Sunday in Lent starts with verse 8, but to appreciate the import of what Paul is saying, we have to go back, back to the little autobiography he gives us in verses 3-7:
For we are the circumcision [that is, God's set-apart people], we who worship through the Spirit of God, who boast in Christ Jesus and do not put our confidence in flesh, although I myself have grounds for confidence even in the flesh.  If anyone else thinks he can be confident in flesh, all the more can I.  Circumcised on the eighth day, of the race of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrew parentage, in observance of the law a Pharisee, in zeal I persecuted the church, in righteousness based on the law I was blameless.  [But] whatever gains I had, these I have come to consider a loss because of Christ.
Hear what Paul is saying?  His pedigree as a set-apart-person-for-God is as good as it gets.  He had it all, did it all.  He was born into the right nation, the right tribe, the right family.  He joined the right party and became a ranking member.

You know what he calls all that now?  Rubbish.  I once heard a teacher of scripture say that the Greek might better be translated into English as crap.  All of the things that Paul took pride in, built his life on as a faithful man of God?  Crap.

Paul is not saying that those things are not good in and of themselves.  He's saying that compared to knowing Christ they are nothing and less than nothing.  And when he says knowing Christ he means knowing him in his suffering and his death.  He says so in no uncertain terms.

Worth more than all the certitude of living in blameless religious perfectionism is suffering and dying with Christ in the hope of resurrection life.

For Entering In...

- As you come more intentionally into the presence of God, can you use your imagination to see the face of Jesus, the face of Mercy, before you, knowing that you are greeted as God's beloved?

Reflect on these questions:
  • What do you take pride in?  What about your hereditary lineage, gifts, or accomplishments make you feel special?
  • Consider what you're most proud of.  Now imagine giving that up, having it erased from your biography.  How does that feel?  What do you lose?  Self-esteem?  Identity?  Something else?
  • Think of all the things that make you you -- all of your roles, the things you do, the ways in which others would describe you or you would describe yourself.  What would it mean for all of that to be taken away?  What would remain?  Don't force an answer; sit with the question.
  • Have you ever had an experience of suffering that seemed to you worthwhile, even in the moment?  (As a mother, I think of childbirth as an example.)  Are there things in your life that have been worth suffering for?  What or who do you imagine you would be willing to suffer for?
  • Paul talks about "the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord."  Do you know Jesus as Christ, as Lord?  If so, how is it "good" for you?  Is it your "supreme good"?  If you do not know Jesus as Lord, do you know someone who does -- not just someone who says so, but someone in whom you can see the image and likeness of God?  What do you notice?  What about that seems good?
Spend several minutes allowing your body and mind to be at rest.  If thoughts come, let them go by.  What if the only thing that mattered was your being, not your thinking or feeling or doing, not your accomplishments, just you?

Lenten Journey: Dying Before We Die

Brothers and sisters:  I consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having any righteousness of my own based on the law but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God, depending on faith to know him and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by being conformed to his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.  
Philippians 3:8-11

For Reflection...

She was as good as dead.  She stood before the mercy seat awaiting the just judgment, which she knew was death by stoning.  But then she didn't die.  Or did she?

In a powerful talk entitled The Authority of Those Who Have Suffered (as well as in many other places in his body of work) Richard Rohr reflects a central message of the New Testament:  The journey into Christ passes through death.  Jesus himself talks about the grain of wheat (John 12:24) and the sign of Jonah (Matthew 12:39-40).  Paul says it in Philippians 3:10-11.  Until we descend into the earth, unless we are swallowed whole and end up in the belly of the whale, we cannot become the bearers of life and God's word of mercy.

Isn't this the case for the woman caught in adultery?  From her ordinary, admittedly sinful, life she is dragged forth into the harsh light of judgment.  From her complacency, she finds herself suddenly in the throes of suffering.  She is in the belly of the whale.

It is a baptism by fire this suffering of hers, of ours.  While she escapes physical death, her suffering is a death nonetheless.  When Jesus tells her to go and sin no more (John 8:11), he is acknowledging that her life cannot be, is not, what it was.  Something has changed.  Some part of her has died.  He is inviting her to recognize it.  She has lost something that was once of value to her -- her lover or her sense of safety, perhaps -- but what she has gained, Christ, is so much more.

For Entering In...

Enter into the presence of God as the woman caught in adultery.  Can you use your imagination to see the face of Jesus, the face of Mercy, before you?

Reflect on these questions:
  • Have you experienced a crisis after which your life could not be the same?  Maybe it was something big -- a death of a loved one or some other significant loss.  Maybe it was more subtle.  Maybe it was a series of experiences over time.  Remember your life before.  Remember the dawning awareness that nothing could be the same after.
  • The Christian view of the spiritual life has the death and resurrection of Jesus at its center.  It is the model for all of reality.  (If you doubt the truth of this pattern, look at the cycles of the natural world.)  Take that in:  Death and resurrection is the pattern of our lives.  What does that mean to you?
  • While God does not ordain that bad things happen -- that is a by-product of good creation broken by sin -- God wastes nothing, but uses suffering as the fodder for redemption.  Consider an experience of suffering with which you are familiar, yours or someone else's.  Can you see a way in which God used that experience for good (cf. Romans 8:28)?
  • Using your imagination, consider the woman caught in adultery.  How might her life be different going forward?  Put yourself in her place.  Take your time.  Imagine having been on the brink of just condemnation and death and having come through alive.  How might your life be different?
  • Every new day is a day we don't deserve; it is always a gift of life from God.  How can you live today in awareness of that fact?  Where can you experience gratitude?  How would you live today if it was the only day you will ever have?  
Spend several minutes allowing your body and mind to be at rest.  If thoughts come, let them go by.  What if the only thing that mattered was your being, not your thinking or feeling or doing?

March 19, 2013

Lenten Journey: A Future and a Hope





For Reflection...

Now they stand face to face, the Woman and the Judge.  He has established the terms:  "'Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her'" (v. 7).  What will he do now?

We've heard the story before.  Even if we haven't, we don't expect the Jesus we've come to know to pick up a stone.  But he could.

He is in a position to condemn.  He is right with God himself, without sin.  The law provides for this particular circumstance.  He has said that he has come not to abolish but to fulfill the law (Matthew 5:17).

Here's the fulfillment:  "'Neither do I condemn you.  Go, [and] from now on do not sin any more'" (v. 11).  Not a stoning but instead a release and an invitation.

What can it mean?  Adulterers merit stoning.  But Jesus does not see an adulterer; he sees a woman with a face and a name, a history -- and a future.  He knows that she can be more, is already more, than her sin.  His hope for her transcends the limits of the law.

In Romans 7, Paul explains,
...if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin....I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.  For sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. (vv 7b, 9-11)
In Jesus, we do not bypass the good law (Romans 7:7), but, rather, we move through the death that comes to us in the law into new life (cf. Isaiah 43:19ff).  In spite of our guilt, we are given a future and a new hope (Jeremiah 29:11).

For Entering In...

As you become aware of being in the presence of God, notice -- does God feel close or far?  Do you feel connected or disconnected to God?  To your own heart?  Don't judge, just allow yourself to be wherever you are today.

Reflect on these questions:
  • What laws do you feel bound to live under?  Secular laws?  Religious laws?  Which of those laws to you feel you have upheld?  Which have you violated?
  • When have you expected -- or felt you deserved -- condemnation for some wrong you have done?  What happened?  Did you receive what you expected?  Or did you receive unexpected mercy?  Either way, how did that feel?
  • Have you been in a position to judge someone else?  What would it mean for your hope to transcend the limits of the just law?  Do you feel that would be fair or unfair?  Why?
  • How has the law been death to you?  Where have you experienced some form of spiritual death in relation to the dictates of law and your success or failure in meeting them?
  • What is it that you want Jesus to hope for in you?  What is the future that he sees for you?  Can you imagine a future more filled with abundance and life than you've dared to dream of?
Spend several minutes allowing your body and mind to be at rest.  If thoughts come, let them go by.  What if the only thing that mattered was your being, not your thinking or feeling or doing?