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.

****************************************************

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?

March 18, 2013

Lenten Journey: Who Are You?




For Reflection...

She will make a perfect test-case.  There's no grey here; she was caught in the act.  Choose.  They will make him choose.  It's either honor the law or violate the law.  They will finally know where he stands.

But he will confound their expectations.  They see her as an adulterer.  She is nameless, faceless, a case-in-point.  Instead of joining in their argument, he circumvents it.  He does not answer the question about stoning an adulterer.  It's the wrong question, he seems to say.

He points them to a different question.  Who are you?  Can you identify your own humanity?  You are not Pharisee or scribe or accuser any more than she is adulterer.  Who are you?  Who do you want to be?

He doesn't dissuade them.  He gives them permission.  Stone her if you will, but first, look inside to see who is doing the stoning.

What do they see?  The elders see it first and slip away, and then all the others.  Whatever drove them there, whatever their motives, something else has replaced those things.  Their attention has been diverted.  Something has superseded their desire to prove a point.

They came with an argument, an abstraction.  They leave looking into their own souls and leave him to look to her, Woman, not example.

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?

Reflect on these questions:
  • When we get caught up in our own beliefs or judgments, we can fail to see people as people.  They become objects:  The poor.  The wealthy.  Conservatives.  Liberals.  Christians.  Atheists.  What groups of people do you tend to objectify?
  • By objectifying someone else, I stand apart.  He is other than I; I am other than she.  Reflect on a person or group you think of as "other."  What labels do you apply to them?
  • When I see myself in relation to others , we become objects to ourselves:  If they are conservatives, I'm a liberal; if they are poor, I'm rich.  Make a list of the labels you apply to yourself.  How does your personhood, your being, transcend those labels?
  • When we see an other as a person not an object, we can experience compassion.  What is the risk for you if you feel compassion toward the "other"?  What is the potential reward?
  • In the same way, when we see ourselves as more than a set of labels, we can hold our own souls with compassion.  Can you show yourself the same compassion that you might show someone else?  What is one way that you can treat yourself with compassion today?
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?

Lenten Journey: Fifth Sunday - Mercy

Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
Philippians 3:8-14
John 8:1-11


For Reflection...

We're down to our final week of Lent.  We stand with the woman caught in adultery before the judgment seat.  In a week we will watch from the crowd as Jesus before Pilate stands in our place.

Our judge is not Pilate nor any of the world's Pilates, but Jesus.  With the woman caught in adultery, we appear before him knowing that we have sinned in ways we cannot deny.  We deserve judgment.  Do we believe we can receive mercy instead?

Can we, with the Lord, forget the past and see that the God is doing something new in us (Isaiah 43:18-19)?  Can we, with Paul, forget our worldly pretensions, leave them behind as rubbish, and strain toward what lies ahead (Philippians 3)?  Are we ready to make this final turn toward Jerusalem?

For Entering In...

As you become present to God, notice how you are feeling about God, about yourself.  We will have times when we feel close and connected, times when God feels far or our own hearts feel inaccessible.  Welcome whatever comes today.

Reflect on these questions:

  • During this final week of Lent, reflect again on your experience of fasting, if you have chosen to fast.  Is this a practice that you might continue into the future?  How might fasting be supporting your intention to draw closer to God?  If you have not fasted thus far, consider picking a day and fasting from something on just that day.  What do you notice about your experience?
  • Have you been giving alms, money or other aid, as a Lenten practice?  Spend some time this week noticing who around you is in need.  In your prayer time, ask God what God might be calling you to do in service.  No one of us can do everything.  To what are you called?  To give some money?  To offer a listening ear?  Or something else?
  • When, where, and how have you been praying?  Where do you feel you stand in relationship to God today?  Where does God stand in relationship to you?
  • Have you been using a prayer word to keep you connected to God as you go about your daily activities?  That word is only a reminder that God is ever present, loving you, calling you to awareness of that love.
  • How has your Lenten journey been so far?  From where have you come?  Where are you going?  Where is God calling you?  Where do you wish to be?
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 16, 2013

Lenten Journey: Ambassadors for Christ


So whoever is in Christ is a new creation:  the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.  And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.  So we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us.  We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.
- 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 

For Reflection...

We are beloved of the Father for our own sake and not for our sake alone.

It is the Father's prodigal love that first creates us and then recreates us. We are reconciled within a world immersed in bitter conflict.  The world is, as we were, laboring under the old regime, persisting in enmity not only with God, but with itself.  Give me my inheritance, it says, against its own best good.

We have been there, in the far distant country, but we have come to our senses (Luke 15:17) and made our return.  When we arrived home, we found God's reconciling mercy running down the road to meet us, embracing us before we could utter the words of repentance, fitting us with the finest robes and rings.
We've been to the party, eaten of the fatted calf.  We greet the dawn of our own new creation.

It is from here, from home, that we must set out again.  We have a new job to do.  We have been entrusted with the message of reconciliation.  Our business card reads:  Ambassador for Christ.

God is appealing through us.  What do people see?  Do they see the remnants of the pig sty under the festal garments?  Do we embody the Christ who has stepped into our transgression so we could step into his righteousness?  How are we calling others, inviting them to come to their senses and head for home?  How do we witness to the reality of the welcome of prodigal love?

For Entering In...

- Take a moment to recall your own belovedness before our prodigal God.  Whatever you bring to this moment, God knows it all, and God loves the You who brings it.

Reflect on these questions:
  • Consider some ways that you have acted against your own best good.  How might God be acting in your life, now or in the past, to reconcile you not only to God, but to your own best self?
  • Take time again today to abide in gratitude.  This is not an exercise in guilt:  I ought to be grateful.  Rather, sit in the quiet with the reality of who you are and what you have in your life -- possessions, relationships, gifts, the natural world.  Notice what feels like blessing to your heart, and give thanks for that.
  • How are you living the message of reconciliation?  Where have you experienced being reconciled?  What can you offer to others who need to be reconciled?
  • The prodigal love of the father is the gospel message we are called to preach as ambassadors for Christ.  How have you experienced that prodigal love?  How can you witness to that experience?
  • There is a legend that says Saint Francis of Assisi instructed his charges, "Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words."  How can you -- or do you -- preach the gospel in light of this instruction?
- As you remember your own belovedness in the eyes of God, make a point today to allow someone else to see that prodigal love of God reflected through your eyes back at him or her.

March 15, 2013

Lenten Journey: The Father


"He said to him, 'My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours.  But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.'"
- Luke 15:31-32 

For Reflection...

Here is the father's last word, his bottom line:  I love you, and I love you.  That is all there is.  No rebuke to the younger.  No rebuff to the elder.  Both are given everything.  Both are called to celebrate and rejoice.  Both, both, are called to life, to be found.

This, finally, is what God is doing in me.  God rejects nothing.  God redeems and reconciles all.  There is nothing in me that is so dead that God cannot resurrect it, nothing so lost that God cannot restore it.

I am the elder brother, and God will take my resentment and turn it to acceptance, my self-righteousness and make of it humility, and my stubbornness God will soften into receptivity.

I am the younger brother, and God will take my thoughtlessness and turn it to compassion, my selfishness and make of it a willingness to serve, and my self-will God will soften into trust.

The father holds out faith that the younger son will return, hope that the elder will come to the feast, and love  for them both, not after they fulfill his will for them, but before and ever and always (Romans 5:8).

It is not a story of a prodigal son, but of a prodigal father.  He is a father whose generosity, whose gift of freedom, whose love is prodigal, "a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, ...poured into your lap" (Luke 6:38).

For Entering In...

If you are reading this, our prodigal Father has called you and desires for you to know he has given you everything.  Become aware that you stand now and always in the presence of that God.

Reflect on these questions:
  • Take three minutes to watch this video, then answer this question:  Do you believe that God loves you?
  • What in you have you despaired of ever seeing transformed?  Give it to God, today.  This isn't about trying to fix yourself or even having any idea of how your life could be different.  Simply open your heart to the possibility that nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:37). 
  • What would it look like for you to come in to the celebration today?  What do you need to step through or around in order to feast on the fatted calf?  The door is open.  The Father is waiting.  The party is for you.  What is one thing you can do to say, yes, to your invitation to the feast?
  • List all of the things that you feel have been poured into your life from the fount of love.  Write a prayer of thanksgiving and rejoicing.
  • If you haven't already, watch this video.  Really.  If you watched it once, watch it again.  God loves you.
Carry with you into the rest of your day the sure knowledge that a celebration more wonderful than the most resplendent feast you can imagine is being prepared for you.  That is how much you are loved.  Bask in the glow of your belovedness.

March 14, 2013

Lenten Journey: The Inheritance

Then he said, "A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.' So the father divided the property between them.
- Luke 15:11-12
For Reflection...

What was the father thinking?  It was as if he were dead, only he wasn't.  If he had been, if the inheritance had come to his sons in the standard way, he wouldn't have been present to witness the consequences.  Instead, in an act of fearless generosity, or reckless abandon, he gives them everything and stands by to watch the drama unfold.

What does he see?  He sees his older son continue unwaveringly on the well-worn path.  He doesn't spend his inheritance.  Maybe he buries it (Matthew 25:18).  All is safe and sound.  No reward, no risk.  The father sees him day by day, sees the groove he walks become a rut.

The father also sees his younger son.  He sees him pack his things.  He sees him walk down the road to God-knows-where.  Will he ever lay eyes on him again?  Where is he going?  Away.  To a far distant country.

The father can't be surprised.  He knows his sons, knew this might happen.  One son, stolid but tethered, the other, untethered but wanton.  The father might even have dreaded seeing it, but he has allowed it.

This is a portion of the inheritance -- the freedom to stand still and the freedom to walk away and keep on walking.

The inheritance comes with no strings attached.  Both sons are free to do with the inheritance what they will.  And they do.

Meanwhile, the father watches.  We know he is watching.  Maybe he looks out at the road as he looks  across the fields, seeing one son at his labors, waiting to see the other coming back across the horizon.

For Entering In...

Wherever you are right now, God is present too.  Look around you.  Are your surroundings familiar or new to you?  What do you notice?  Can you recognize that God is here, now?

Reflect on these questions:
  • How do you understand the father's decision to say, yes, to giving the inheritance to his sons?  Do you see it as generous?  Foolish?  Or something else?  
  • What do you think of as your "inheritance"?  From your parents or other family?  From God?  How are you spending it?  Or have you buried it to keep it safe?
  • Have you ever given something of yourself away freely only to see it abused?  Maybe money?  Your friendship?  Your heart?  What happened?  How did -- or does -- that feel?
  • Have you created a rut for yourself?  What is that like?  Or do you keep moving, never finding a comfortable groove?
  • How do you understand freedom?  Are you free to live as you choose?  What does that mean?  What are the potential consequences when you choose to exercise your freedom?  The good?  The not-so-good?
Remember your prayer word?  Return to it, if you have forgotten to do so these past few days.  Breathe into that word.  Where does it reside in your body?  Notice how it feels.

March 12, 2013

Lenten Journey: The Younger Son




For Reflection...

It's taken me a while to get around to the younger son.  I've so identified with the elder.  I have begun to imagine the relationship between the brothers, but it's a further step to put my feet in the sandals of the younger son.  Still...

If I'm honest, there are times I'd like to run away from home.  Give me my inheritance.  I'm tired of the rules.  I'm tired of the responsibilities.  I want to eat, drink, and be merry.

Why is it so much easier to own the older son part of me, the part that is crabbed and resentful and not so much fun?  Why is it so much harder to say, And underneath, I'm someone who wants to hang out and have a good time.

Because I see the younger son only as selfish.  By asking for his inheritance, he basically tells his father he wishes the old man were dead.  By leaving, he saddles the older son with all the work of running the farm.  And yet...

I envy him.  There's a part of me that knows I'd like to do what he does; I just don't have the nerve.  It's easier to judge the younger son than to admit that I have the same desires, even if I don't act on them.

Of course, my running-away-from-home fantasy doesn't include the part about running out of money.  Or the part about slopping the pigs.  Or the part about nearly starving to death.  Or the part where I have to come crawling home.  No, in my fantasy it's all the fun and none of the hangover.

But it's not really the pig sty I'm afraid of.  I'm not afraid of where I'll end up, but of the dust-up I'll leave behind.  I'm not so afraid of where I might go as of what judgments I might stir up in my wake.

Because I'm not so sure that everything about the younger son is so very bad. Sure, running away and leaving it all behind is a questionable strategy, but isn't there something between the younger son's grab for his share and the older son's inability to join in the party?  Is there a place we can find where we can both, older son and younger, help out around the farm and still enjoy sharing the fatted calf?

For Entering In...

Wherever you are right now, God is present too.  Look around you.  Are your surroundings familiar or new to you?  What do you notice?  Can you recognize that God is here, now?

Reflect on these questions:
  • I suspect the older son feels selfless next to the younger son's selfishness.  How do those opposing dynamics play out in you?  What do you do that you think of as selfless?  Dig deep and wonder, what are your true motives?
  • Is there something you do for yourself that you judge as selfish?  Is it really?  Does it hurt others?  Does it hurt you?  If so, pray about what it is you really need.  How can get that need met without hurting anyone?  If it doesn't hurt anyone, pray about whether it is, in fact, selfish.
  • Is there an area of your life where you are being called to pitch in a little more, to take the burden off of someone else?  Is there a way in which you are being called to set aside your own burden and celebrate?
  • Spend some time in the quiet holding in tension what you are discovering about your inner older and younger sons.  Don't try to reconcile them.  Notice what God has to say in the dynamic between them.
Breathe deeply and notice the air as it fills your body.  Every breath is a gift, a dimension of the Father's bounty that belongs to us (Luke 15:22-23, 31).  Carry that awareness back into your day.

March 11, 2013

Lenten Journey: Brothers



For Reflection...

"A man had two sons..."  Can you imagine if these two were real-life brothers, growing up in the same home?  The elder would be charged with keeping a watchful eye on the younger.  He'd know what he was up to -- no good -- and not up to -- any work that needed to be done.  He'd feel superior, self-righteous.

Meanwhile, the younger son...  Maybe he'd start by looking up to his brother, trying to emulate him.  But it's just not him.  He's got his own gifts.  He might not be the hardest worker, but he knows how to have a good time.  He's funny, charismatic, the life of the party.  He relishes his own verve and wit, but all he gets in return are his brother's stern looks and judgments.  Maybe his parents chime in too:  Why can't you be more like your brother?  The older son is confirmed in his righteousness, the younger in the belief that he can't get what he wants at home.

On the outside, I am all older son -- responsible, serious, practical homebody.  I've never identified with the younger son -- or, perhaps it's more honest to say that I've never allowed myself to.  My older son keeps my younger son firmly in check with no end of stern looks and judgments.  The older son in me knows full well that if my younger son is left to his own devices, things will end badly.  There will go the inheritance, squandered on a life of dissipation.

At the same time, my older son, while wanting to lock my younger son up at home, secretly and sometimes vehemently envies all the younger sons who leave home for distant countries.  Younger sons know what they want -- and they ask for it:  "Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me."  And the father does.  Older sons don't know what they really want -- maybe a party of their own with enough young goat for everyone? -- but they're not so sure, and they don't ask.

The younger son in the story moves out, and the older son is proved right, isn't he?  The inheritance swallowed up by prostitutes.  The younger son's road ends in the worst possible place -- a pig sty.

Or does it?  In fact, the younger son's road ends in a U-turn.  The end of the road is the beginning, only with fresh robes and rings and the fatted calf and a party to end all parties.

The parable ends without any meeting of the brothers.  I wonder what such a confrontation might yield.  What would the older brother see in the younger?  The younger in the elder?

For Entering In...

Where has God been in your day so far?  Can you become quiet and notice the beating of your own heart and know that God is there, breathing along with you?

Reflect on these questions:
  • Is there a "younger son" in you that you deny?  Time to dig deeper:  What would you do if there were no consequences?  To what far distant country would you travel?  What would you do there?
  • What are your judgments about what you want?  What keeps you from asking?  What are you afraid would happen if you allowed your younger son free reign with his portion of the inheritance?
  • The father in the parable gives the younger son what he wants, even while, we presume, knowing how the son is likely to spend it.  What do you think about this sort of radical freedom?  What are the potential risks?  The potential rewards?
  • How might you live your life differently if you believed that the end of the road was never a pig sty, and always the chance to make a U-turn toward home?
Breathe deeply and notice the air as it fills your body.  Every breath is a gift, a dimension of the Father's bounty that belongs to us (Luke 15:22-23, 31).  Carry that awareness back into your day.

Lenten Journey: The Older Son


For Reflection...

"A man had two sons..."  That's how the parable begins.  The next part, the part we know the best, is about the younger son who takes his share of the estate, skips town, parties 'til he's broke, then comes crying home.

The older son doesn't come in until near the end.  That figures, says the older son in me.

It is the older son with whom I most often identify.  He's the one who stays at home.  He's the one working away in the fields.  He does the right thing.  He helps his father.  He doesn't cause any trouble.  He doesn't ask for anything, not so much as a goat.

I'll bet he's a good Jew.  Always says his prayers.  Follows God's Law to the letter.  Except for the part where we're called to "taste and see that the Lord is good" (Psalm 34:9).  I know, because the Father practically begs this older son to come in to the party, and the son won't come.  "Taste and see that the Lord is good," the Father seems to say, but his older son cannot.

Neither can I sometimes.  Like the older son, I get tired, sick and tired.  The party started while I was still out in the field (v. 25).  As a matter of fact, my Father's other son (no brother of mine) has been partying all his life while I've been shoveling the manure.  I'm in no mood to celebrate and rejoice (v. 32).

But the party will go on, with or without the older son, with our without me.  The parable ends with the question implied:  Will he go in, or won't he?


For Entering In...

Take a deep breath.  Close your eyes and feel the surface you're sitting on, notice your body in space.  Think about where you believe your soul resides and breathe into that space, knowing God dwells there too.

Reflect on these questions:
  • In what ways have you, like the older son, tried to do the right thing with your inheritance?  When have you chosen to remain at home in spite of the lure of the distant country?  What are the fields you've labored in?
  • The older son is resentful because he believes that his sacrifice has gone unrecognized (v. 29), not unlike the lament of Cain in Genesis (4:5ff).  Consider sacrifices you feel you've made.  Is there something you've expect in return?  Accolades?  Thanks?  Acknowledgement?  Be honest.  How does has it felt to you if those expectations have not been met?
  • Can you think of a time when you've seen someone get something you don't believe they deserve?  Maybe an advancement at work?  Money or other material wealth?  Some other sort of success?  Or, like the younger son in the parable, excessive pardon for wrongs committed?  How has that made you feel?
  • Jesus repeatedly uses images of celebration to describe what it's like to enter the Kingdom of God (see Matthew 22 and Luke 14).  Do you ever feel reluctant to enter into the party?  If so, what is that like for you?  What is keeping you out?
- Breathe deeply again and notice the air as it fills your body.  Every breath is a gift, a dimension of the Father's bounty that belongs to us (Luke 15:31).  Carry that awareness back into your day.

March 10, 2013

Lenten Journey: Fourth Sunday - Coming Home

Joshua  5:9a, 10-12
Psalm 34
2 Corinthians 5:17-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32


For Reflection...

In the book of Joshua, the Israelites finally come home to the Promised Land.  In the gospel, the younger son comes home to his prodigal father.  And in 2 Corinthians we -- and all the world with us -- come home to God through Christ.

We spend so much of our lives feeling like exiles wandering in a distant country.  We are desert dwellers, refugees from Egypt, surviving on manna and quail.  We have gone our own way, squandered our inheritance, and are reduced to slopping the pigs.

We live with the persistent sense that wherever we are, we are not at home.  And the moments when we feel as though we have finally arrived, in their passing, only serve to reinforce that we're not there yet.

Still, we continue to wander.  We can't build our cities in the desert.  We don't finally eat from the slop bucket, hungry though we are.  Our restless longing is for a place we know we know.  There is something inside of us that won't let us rest until we've made our return.

For Entering In...

- Have you come to feel comfortable in a space where you can spend time in the quiet?  What do you need to have that space, that time, to become present to yourself and to God?

Reflect on these questions:
  • Think about your experience of home.  What comes to mind?  A particular place?  A structure?  Furnishings?  People?  Close your eyes and know what it feels like in your body when you are at "home."
  • What has been your experience of leaving home?  Maybe when you went to college.  Maybe when you got married.  Maybe when you went on a trip without your parents for the first time.  Maybe when you moved to a new city or state or country.  Maybe something else.  What is that feeling?  What does it feel like in your body when you reflect on leaving home?
  • Have you ever been lost?  Have you ever been homesick?  Have you ever wanted to go home and somehow couldn't?  What happened?  Can you remember how that felt?
  • Do you relate to the idea that we live with a sense of "restless longing"?  What do you long for?  Spend a few minutes with yourself taking inventory -- what are all the things that are standing between you and feeling at home in your life?  Notice each thing that comes up.  Don't think of these experiences as problems to be solved.  Just acknowledge them and let them be.
- As you wind down this time apart, consider the degree to which your interludes of focused prayer lead you to feel at home -- or in exile.

March 9, 2013

Lenten Journey: God's Will for Me



For Reflection...

We know that all of us are called to bear fruit for the Kingdom of God.  That is God's will for all of us.  But how might I discern what fruit I am called to bear?  What is God's will for me?

In 1 Corinthians 12:4-6, Paul says, "Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone."  We're all called to bear fruit, all called according to the same Spirit, but not all gifted or called to serve or to act in the same way.

There are common fruits, "fruits of the Spirit":  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).  These offer us a framework, a rubric against which to measure our own pursuits.  If we are using our gifts, and our actions and service are yielding these fruits of the Spirit, we are surely in accord with God's will.

Still, that leaves us a wide playing field.  There are many paths that may lead to love, joy, peace, and the rest.  Which one am I called to take?

As we have pursued this Lenten journey of prayer, opening ourselves to be drawn ever more deeply into the heart of God, we may find that we are growing in awareness of our own hearts, where God dwells.  As good as it is in and of itself for us to be in relationship with God -- it is, after all, what we are made for -- there is a public dimension to that relationship.  Remember Isaiah 49:6?  We are called to be a light to the nations.

Our light -- which is another way of talking about the fruit we produce -- is meant not to illuminate our minds only, but to be a beacon to the world, leading others into the healing, reconciling, saving Kingdom of God.

As we deepen our walk with God, we are ever being transformed into Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18), who is the "image of the invisible God" (Colossians 1:15).  It is that transformation, the cultivation of the soil from which we grow, that creates the conditions that allow us to be fruitful.

For Entering In...

Spend a few moments in silence becoming present to yourself and to God.

Reflect on these questions:
  • There is no gift that God gives that is wasted; all of our gifts are needed (see 1 Corinthians 12:14-25). Think about what you do, what you've done, what you love to do.  What are the gifts that you have been given?  What are you good at?  What about you do others affirm?
  • Back when we were looking at sin, we asked this question:  "If it is true that all of creation is broken by sin, what do you see as the most egregious manifestations of that brokenness?  In what circumstances does your heart most cry out for God to act in healing and saving ways?"  If you haven't yet answered this question, answer it now.
  • Theologian Frederick Buechner said, "The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."  Spend some time reflecting on your gifts together with the broken places your heart most yearns to see healed.  What might God be saying to you about your personal call?
  • God's will for me is not only about the broad contours of my vocation.  It can be about how I am living my life day to day.  As you listen to God in the stillness, is there something about your daily life, where you are and what you are doing today, that is called to your attention?  What do you know?  What do you wonder about what God might be saying to you?
We are growing to see our time apart, our quiet time with God, not as a discreet time of prayer, but as a reminder that all our life is prayer.  Rather than ending your prayer time, can you move out of your quiet reflection carrying with you into the rest of your day the knowledge that you are deeply connected to God in your soul in all that you do?

March 8, 2013

Lenten Journey: The Burning Bush


Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian.  Leading the flock across the desert, he came to Horeb, the mountain of God.  There an angel of the LORD appeared to Moses in fire flaming out of a bush.  As he looked on, he was surprised to see that the bush, though on fire, was not consumed.  So Moses decided, "I must go over to look at this remarkable sight, and see why the bush is not burned."
When the LORD saw him coming over to look at it more closely, God called out to him from the bush, "Moses!  Moses!"  He answered, "Here I am."  God said, "Come no nearer!  Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground..." 
- Exodus 3:1-5 
For Reflection...

Moses was spending another day in the desert.  He was tending sheep, but in other ways, I imagine his desert days were not so unlike ours.

What was Moses thinking about there, in the desert?  Was he remembering Egypt?  Growing up in Pharaoh's palace?  The murder he committed that forced him into exile, to the desert?  Was his heart heavy with memories and worries?

Was he thinking instead of the future?  Was he wondering if this was it for him, whether he, son of Pharaoh's daughter would tend sheep forever?  Whether his past would eventually catch up with him?  Whether he was meant for something more than this?

Or, perhaps most likely of all, he wasn't thinking much of anything.  Perhaps his day, like so many of my days, was filled with the ordinary, the routine.  Was he preoccupied with tracking the sheep that tended to stray?  With watching the horizon?  With waiting for something that might distract from the monotony of another day in the desert?

In any case, something did happen that day, something out of the ordinary.  And Moses noticed.  And not only did he notice, he turned aside.

Maybe we forget that that didn't have to be the case.  Moses could have been sufficiently preoccupied with remember the past or worrying over the future or just going about his business, that he would not have noticed the burning bush.  He could have continued on, not turned aside.  He could have, but he didn't.

He turned aside, looked more deeply, and he heard the voice of God.

We've focused our prayer on time apart, a portion of daily quiet in which we might connect with God. We've also explored what it means to fasten a word to our hearts to recall us to God during the day or night.  Today we add this new dimension to our prayer -- becoming aware of the presence of God all around us, in the most ordinary moments of our days -- watching, becoming alert, noticing that there might be a burning bush right now, right here.

For Entering In...

Spend a few moments in silence becoming present to yourself and to God.

Reflect on these questions:
  • What does an ordinary day look like for you?  What are the things that preoccupy your mind?  Do you tend to get caught up in thinking about what's past?  Worrying about the future?
  • Have you had a "burning bush" experience?  Has there been a time, when you were going about an ordinary day and felt called to turn aside and notice something new, something God was doing to break through and attract your attention?  
  • The ground God calls "holy" in this passage is the same desert floor on which Moses always walked.  What would it mean if your ground -- the ground you walk in your home, your workplace, your grocery store, your kids' school, your neighborhood -- was holy?  What would it look like for you to "remove your sandals"?  What does it mean that everything around you is sacred?
  • The voice that speaks to Moses from the burning bush tells Moses God's particular will for him (Exodus 3:10ff).  God draws on Moses' past, his history as a son of Pharaoh, in this present moment, to set Moses on a road to his future.  Spend some quiet prayer reflecting on how God might be using your past -- your relationships, your experiences -- to call you into service for the Kingdom, now and into the future.  How have you been prepared?  Where might you be called?
- As you move out of this period of quiet reflection, consider how you might take your heightened awareness of God with you into the rest of your day.  What can you do to remind yourself that, wherever you stand today, you are on holy ground?

March 6, 2013

Lenten Journey: The Fig Tree


And he told them this parable:  "There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard, and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none, he said to the gardener, 'For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none.  So cut it down.  Why should it exhaust the soil?'  He said to him in reply, 'Sir, leave it for this year also, ans I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future.  If not you can cut it down.'" 
- Luke 13:6-9 
For Reflection...

It's just a simple fact.  Fig trees are meant to bear fruit.  That is God's will.  If I plant one in my orchard, that's what I'm going to expect of it.  Other trees can get by with just providing shade or looking attractive.  Fig trees can do those things too, but they are also supposed to produce a harvest of figs.

Producing fruit is the nature of the fig tree.  It doesn't have to do anything in particular.  It can't, after all.  It can draw water and nutrients from the soil.  Its leaves can capture sunlight and by photosynthesis turn it into life energy.  Beyond that, it just sits there, rooted in the ground, waiting for summer.

What does it mean if the tree isn't bearing fruit?  Maybe, as the landowner in the parable might suspect, this tree is a dud.  Or maybe, as the gardener suggests, the tree hasn't been cultivated sufficiently.  More water?  More fertilizer?  A fresh tilling of the soil?  More loving care and nurture?  Maybe that's what's needed.

God's will for the fig tree is that it grow to maturity and bear fruit.  God's will for me is that I grow to maturity (Ephesians 4:14-15) and bear fruit too (Galatians 5:22-23).  I'm made for it, and so are you.  It is our nature.  We don't have to make it happen.

What we are called to do, like the fig tree, is to be receptive to the ministrations of the gardener.  We can reach our roots deeply into the ground and draw from the living waters (Jeremiah 17:8).   And we can endure the work of our cultivation.

The fig tree stands steady through the digging and the spreading of manure and the pruning.  It's messy and it smells.  It's painful to lose branches, even as the branches that remain hold the promise of bearing more fruit (see John 15:2).

And bearing fruit is what we're made for.

For Entering In...

Spend a few moments in silence becoming present to yourself and to God.

Reflect on these questions:
  • God has made a world filled with variety.  As there are many kinds of fruit-bearing trees, so there are many gifts among us.  What do you see as your particular gifts?  What sort of fruit are you made to bear?
  • The fig tree can't make itself bear fruit.  Have you had an experience of trying to demand of yourself that you accomplish something?  How was that for you?  Was it difficult or easy?  Do you feel you were successful or unsuccessful?
  • How are you at waiting?  If the gardener has to do the work, we have to trust the gardener's timing.  What is it like for you when your timing and the gardener's aren't the same?
  • How do you see yourself being cultivated?  What is God doing?  Digging?  Spreading manure?  Pruning?  How receptive are you?  Have you ever experienced your own suffering as a source of the gardener's care?
- Today or tomorrow or this weekend -- or all three, as your time allows -- spend some time in silence with the word you have fastened to your heart.  Just gently hold your word, allowing all other thoughts or feelings that come up to float by.  Know that God is with you.

Lenten Journey: God's Judgment


Some people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.  Jesus said tho them in reply, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?  By no means!  But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!  Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them -- do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem?  By no means!  But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will perish as they did!"
- Luke 13:1-5 
God our Savior...desires everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.
- 1 Timothy 2:3-4 

For Reflection...

We hear it in fiery evangelical messages, the warning of God's imminent judgment.  It is Biblical, from the Old Testament prophets through John the Baptist.  Repent! they say.  Follow God's law.  Turn away from idols.  Or, as I heard on Ash Wednesday, Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.

Or else.

God has established his will, so the argument goes; humans have disobeyed.  God has established his law; humans have gone our own way.  There must be consequences.

Isn't that how it works?  I am not a god, but I am a parent, and there are similarities, if this argument holds.  I bring these children into the world and expect them to adhere to my will and follow the laws I set down or face the consequences.  It's true, and it works -- up to a point.

One of my challenges as a parent has always been that, when my children haven't followed my rules, set down in black and white, I see all the grey.  Is it that they won't, or is it that they can't?  As a friend recently said to me, "It sounds like you're more mercy than judgment."  Exactly.

If that is true of me in any sense, it must be more true of the God whose character is kind and merciful.  If I know of my children, of myself, that sometimes we cannot do the good we might will to do (cf. Romans 7), than God knows that all the more.

So what does Jesus -- Jesus! -- mean when he says that if we don't repent, we will perish in bloody conflict, buried under the rubble of fallen towers?  Is he saying that God will smite us into hell?  I don't think so.

In 1 Timothy, we're told that God "desires everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth."  Everyone.  That is God's will -- that we be saved and not come to destruction.  It is not God's will that threatens my salvation; it is my will.  What I know as a parent is that the rules I make for my children are for their good.  I am trying to keep them safe physically, emotionally, spiritually.  Don't run in the street.  Don't hold a grudge.  Don't forget to say your prayers.  I'm trying to guide them in building lives that will lead them to the knowledge of truth.

Jesus knows the same thing about the God's will for us.  Following the will of God is the way for us to be safe.  It doesn't guarantee a carefree life.  This we know.  Tyrants will still attack.  Towers will still fall.  But our real life, the life that matters, the life that carries on into eternity, will endure.

For Entering In...

Spend a few moments in silence becoming present to yourself and to God. What does it feel like to be alert and aware in God's present?

Reflect on these questions:
  • What have you believed about God's judgment?  What were you taught as a child, if anything?  What have you heard or thought about it as an adult?
  • Have you been in a position to set limits and enforce consequences on someone you love?  As a parent?  Teacher?  Pet owner?  What has your experience been?  How have you held the space between judgment and mercy?
  • Psalm 111:10 says, "The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom."  Spend a few minutes silently reflecting on this verse.  What do you understand it to mean?  What does God have to say to you in prayer about "the fear of God"?
  • Have you had a specific experience where you had a strong sense of God's will for you?  How did you know?  What did you do?  Did you say yes or no?  What were the consequences?
Again today, remember the word that you have fastened to your heart.  Continue to use your word, day and night, to recall you to the truth that God is with you always. 

March 5, 2013

Please Take the Time to Read This

I am passing this along because I think it is vitally important that we all raise our awareness about the signs of depression and potentially suicidal behavior.  I have heard two stories in the past week of young men who have taken their own lives.  Every one of us can help prevent suicide:


Gender and Suicide: Male Youth at Risk
 By Ellen Kelty, MA, NCSP
Nationally Accredited School Suicide Prevention Specialist
 
We know male youth die by suicide five times more frequently than female youth (www.cdc.gov), however the Second Wind Fund of Metro Denver receives fewer referrals for males. This is similar to the fact that some school districts report fewer suicide risk assessments completed on males.
 
Part of this can be explained by the fact that females attempt more often than males yet males use more lethal means than females. (American Association of Suicidology Resource Guide 2009).
 
Male teens frequently downplay their symptoms or try to hide them.   They are less comfortable asking for help and may see that as a sign of weakness. They may try unhealthy coping strategies such as drinking or engaging in high risk behavior to try to deal with their symptoms.
 
It also appears that mental health providers and family members may not recognize when a male youth is at risk. Depression in males often looks different than in females. Depressed teen males may display typical symptoms of depression, including sadness, problems eating and sleeping, and loss of interest in activities. But they may also have different symptoms than those exhibited by teen girls such as: aggression and violence, rage, isolation, sexual behavior, and substance abuse.
 
It is important that everyone that works with youth understand this dynamic. Programs like the Signs of Suicide (SOS) and the FIRE Within are being used in many districts to teach youth what to do if a friend is suicidal. They also teach youth how to recognize depression in a male friend and take the stigma out of asking for help. Help us address this issue by talking to the young males in your life about this problem and what the Second Wind Fund is doing to help youth.

Lenten Journey: The Lord Is Kind and Merciful



For Reflection...

"The Lord is kind and merciful."  That was the refrain we sang on Sunday as the cantor intoned the words of Psalm 103.  As we wonder together about God's will, it will be our refrain as well.

Yesterday we came face to face with the pain and suffering that are all around us.  Despite the platitudinous words we may hear -- It's all for the best.  It was God's will. -- we stand firm in the conviction that God does not will evil and suffering.  As Franciscan Father Richard Rohr says, "God is never less loving than the most loving person you know."

In order to discern God's will, we must reflect on God's character.  And how do we discern character?  Think of someone you know -- a friend, a parent, a sibling, a spouse.  Or think of someone famous, a historical figure about whom you know something and about whom you have some opinion.  What do you know about him or her?  Is he trustworthy?  Is she loyal?  How do you know?

We may judge one another's character by the experiences that we share together and remember.  We listen to what the other says, and observe how she interacts with others.  We hear what other people say about him.  We revere George Washington, because history tells us he was shrewd and courageous in battle and humbly refused to be made a king.  We look up to Mother Teresa because of the way she lived her life among the poorest of the poor.  These details and many others reflect the character of this woman, this man.

So it is with God.  What do we know about God?  What have we heard God say?  What has God done?  What do others say about God, including the authors of scripture?  What does our own, intimate experience of God tell us about who God is?

Finally, if we believe that God's most complete self-revelation is in the person of Jesus, what does that tell us about God's character?

For Entering In...

Spend a few moments in silence becoming present to yourself and to God.  Are you getting to know this God?  What does it feel like to be alert and aware in God's present?

Reflect on these questions:
  • Who is "the most loving person you know"?  How would you describe him or her?  How would you describe God if God were "at least as loving" as that person?
  • If you spend any time at all reading the Bible, you will discover a challenging variety of data about who God is.  Read what Richard Rohr has to say about clearly unloving words and actions attributed to God.  How does this perspective strike you?  Is it consistent with what you've been taught?  With what you yourself have experienced of God?
  • The great hymn in Philippians 2 is thought to be, perhaps, the oldest text in the New Testament.  Read it and spend some time reflecting on or writing about what this passage says about the character of God.
  • We may still find ourselves questioning whether, in fact, "the Lord is kind and merciful," especially when bad things happen.  In prayer, can you hold in tension the suffering that touches your heart and the claim that the Lord is kind and merciful?  Don't try to reconcile the difficulty.  Sit with it and see what you discover.
  •  Is there any attribute of God's character that has particularly spoken to you in this time of reflection?  Continue to reflect on that quality throughout your day.  What is it that resonates for you?  What does it mean to you or say about you?

As you finish this quiet time, remember the word that you have fastened to your heart.  Does this word continue to resonate for you?  If not, perhaps there is another word that you are being called to.  Continue to use your word, day and night, to recall you to the truth that God is with you always.