February 28, 2013

Lenten Journey: The Voice from the Cloud

While he was still speaking, a cloud came and cast a shadow over them, and they became frightened when they entered the cloud.  Then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my chosen Son; listen to him."  After the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.
- Luke 9:34-36

For Reflection...

The cloud is God's form of self-revelation to the Israelites as the flee from Egypt.  As here, on this mountain, the voice from the cloud recalls the voice from heaven declaring Jesus as the beloved Son in his baptism (Luke 3:21-22).  Moses and Elijah are gone, so the one to whom we are to listen is made clear.  It is Jesus.

What does it look like for me to listen to Jesus?  It was easy for Peter, James, and John, I might say.  Jesus was with them in the flesh.  And even they struggled to hear and understand (see, for example, Luke 9:45, just a few verses from the passage above).

How can we listen to the voice of God in our lives today?  Our noisy, busy world, all marketplace and technology, does not make it easy.

As Jesus brings the disciples up the mountain, as we have paused to take up these Lenten devotions, we might consider time apart as the first movement in hearing God speak.  The next movement is allowing our time apart to be bathed in silence.

For some people, silence may seem easy and natural, but, if you are anything like me, it may have to begin as an uncomfortable discipline.  And why is that?  For me, when I enter the silence, my first experience is to notice the deafening noise in my head.  The radio, television, chatter, and whatnot aside, nothing could be more preoccupying than the voice nattering inside of me.

I can't turn it off.  Trying only makes it worse.

The problem isn't new to me, to us, to our generation.  Centuries ago, in the late Middle Ages, a now anonymous author wrote about this challenge.  His work has come down to us as The Cloud of Unknowing, and he is known only as the author of The Cloud.  He offers pointed advice to the disciple searching to meet the God whose voice comes from the cloud.  He directly addresses the need to be relieved of the tyranny of the interior noise that blocks our meeting.

The advice of the author of The Cloud is unexpectedly simple.  He suggests choosing a word:
[Take] a short word, preferably of one syllable...The shorter the word the better, being more like the working of the Spirit.  A word like "God" or "love."  Choose which you like, or perhaps some other, so long as it is of one syllable.  And fix this word fast to your heart, so that it is always there, come what may.
That's the centerpiece.  Choose a word.  Fasten it to your heart.  When distractions arise, allow the word to rise up instead.  This is the beginning of contemplation, of surrendering all else in the expectation of hearing the voice that is spoken from the cloud.

For Entering In...

Spend a few moments becoming present to yourself.  If your mind is preoccupied, allow the thoughts to come and to go.  Notice what you feel in your body, in your heart.

Invite God to be present with you.

Reflect on these questions:
  • There are many ways we might listen for God's voice -- the words of scripture, prayers, sermons, or books, the voices of friends, children, or teachers.  Where have you heard God's speaking?
  • What do you think about listening for the voice of Jesus inside of yourself, the indwelling voice of the Holy Spirit?  Have you heard him speak?
  • How do you feel about silence?  Have you had any experience of spending time in intentional silence? If so, how has that been for you?
  • Make a plan to spend some time in silence during the next few days.  Notice what you hear.  Is there noise inside when the noise outside stops?  What is that like?
  • Choose a word to "fasten to your heart."  Pray about what it might be.  Maybe it will be a single syllable, maybe two.  It can be a "spiritual" word or any word that speaks to your heart.  Some examples might be Jesus, God, one, peace, love, quiet, Spirit, joy.  You can't do this wrong.  
  • Carry your word around with you, in your heart.  Return to it during the day, or even if you awake at night.  Let it speak in your heart. 
As you finish this quiet time, take a moment to connect with your soul and with the God who dwells there.  

February 27, 2013

Lenten Journey: Setting Up Camp

As [Moses and Elijah] were about to part from him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah."  But he did not know what he was saying.  
- Luke 9:33

For Reflection...

Perhaps, had we been there with Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration, once we shook ourselves fully awake to bear witness to God's glory, we would likewise have been tempted to set up camp.  It's hard not to love the mountaintop.

When I go to the mountaintop, I feel my doubts melt away.  I feel the presence of God so tangibly.  I know in my bones that God is good and that, however much worldly woes might seek to dissuade me, all shall be well.  All I want to do when I'm there is set up a tent and move in.

The Jewish Feast of Booths or Sukkot -- to which Peter's tent building likely refers -- is a commemoration of the provision of God for the people of Israel as they wandered forty years in the desert.  It is also a harvest festival, a celebration of the time for reaping what had been sown.

Maybe Peter believed that they had arrived at the harvest, here, on this mountain.  Jesus talks about the harvest (e.g., especially, John 4) as a way of pointing to the appointed time for God's fulfillment of God's plan.  Peter sees the radiance of God's glory in Jesus transfigured and believes that they are home at last.

It is not insignificant that a few verses early in the ninth chapter of Luke Peter has affirmed his understanding of Jesus as Messiah.  In Matthew's gospel (chapter 16), immediately following Peter's declaration, that same Peter roundly rejects the idea that the Messiah "must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised" (v. 21).  Although Jesus rebukes him in the strongest terms ("Get behind me, Satan!" v. 23), perhaps Peter is still determined that the fulfillment can happen on the mountaintop.

That's what I want too.  When I'm riding high up on the mountaintop, I want to stay.  I want to believe that, at last, all of my problems will be solved, that I can be forever peaceful and carefree.

But I, like Peter, do not know what I'm saying.  There is only one road to ultimate freedom, and it leads through death.  I don't want to hear it.  I don't want to think about it.  Like Peter, I want to say to the Master, "God forbid it, Lord.  This must never happen to you!" (Matthew 16:22), by which I also mean, this must never happen to me.

For Entering In...

Spend a few moments becoming present to yourself.  If your mind is preoccupied, allow the thoughts to come and to go.  Notice what you feel in your body, in your heart.

Invite God to be present with you.

Reflect on these questions:
  • Have you had a mountaintop experience where you wanted to remain?  Close your eyes, take your time, and really remember what that felt like.
  • Have there been times in your life when you have been faced with a truth ("[The] Messiah must...undergo great suffering...") that you didn't want to confront?  What was that like for you?
  • Have you experienced a significant death or deaths in your life?  Are you ever willing to pause and consider your own mortality?
  • This season of Lent can be a time of reckoning with our own mortality.  The Christian creeds include the confession that death is not the end of our existence.  What are your beliefs about death and mortality or immortality?
  • In "The Weight of Glory", C.S. Lewis says something about immortality that is worth quoting at length:
"It is a serious thing to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship [like Jesus in his transfigured state], or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.  All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations...There are no ordinary people.  You have never talked to a mere mortal...[It] is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit -- immortal horrors or everlasting splendors."
What does this passage say to you about immortality -- yours and others'? 

As you finish this quiet time, take a moment to connect with your soul and with the God who dwells there.  Rejoice in God's intention for you to be reborn as an everlasting splendor.

Lenten Journey: Waking Up

Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, but becoming fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him.
- Luke 9:32

For Reflection...

Peter, James, and John had been called to the mountaintop to watch the Master pray.  That is the way with disciples of a rabbi; they watch and do as the rabbi does.  Do as I do, invites Jesus, as these three are called apart.  He prays and is transformed from glory to glory.  Do as I do.  But they fall asleep.

We are called up the mountain too.  We can recall our own mountaintop experiences, the times when our faces were aglow with God's glory.  We were awake then, awake to the Something More that tends to elude us in our day to day lives.  We knew the joy and presence of God not only in our heads, but in our hearts, our souls.  We became its embodiment.  And then we fell asleep.

It's easy to forget the mountaintop from the valley.  That's why we're here, on this journey together.  We, you and I, are keeping each other awake.  When we meet here, in this virtual communion, we remind each other to stay awake.

We need not just to open our eyes, but, like the disciples, to become fully awake.  Half measures won't do.  The world is too much.  If we doze, even for a moment, if we pause to rest our eyes, we are overcome.  We do.  We succumb to sleep, so we have to be vigilant, and not just for ourselves, but for one another.  I will never be able to shake myself awake, but I can keep watch for you, and you can keep watch for me.

Because when we are fully awake, we witness the glory of God.

For Entering In...

Spend a few moments becoming present to yourself.  If your mind is preoccupied, allow the thoughts to come and to go.  Notice what you feel in your body, in your heart.

Invite God to be present with you.

Reflect on these questions:
  • In what ways do you sleep through your life?  Where are you being called to wake up?
  • Who are the people in your life who help you to stay awake?  Who might you ask to walk with you in this way?  If you feel hesitant to ask, notice that hesitation and wonder what it might be saying to you.
  • Who can you serve who might desire your help to stay awake?  Don't offer if you haven't been asked, but listen.  Listen especially in prayer.  Who might be crying out for your companionship?
  • We often wake up only to fall asleep again.  When we are fully awake, we cannot avoid the truth as it comes to us, and sometimes that feels hard.  What keeps you from staying awake?
  • How is your prayer life today?  Will you set aside time, today, to stay awake?  You may witness the glory of God and come away with your face radiant.
As you finish this quiet time, take a moment to connect with your soul and enjoy the goodness that God has created in you.

February 26, 2013

It's All Well and Good Until It's You

I can talk a good game about suffering.  I have a very well-developed theology of the cross and the desert.  It's one thing talking about it and another thing to live it.

I wanted my life to be easy.  I suppose everybody wants their lives to be easy.  I wonder what it is in us that can generate that expectation when all we have to do is look at the world around us to see that life is hard.  But not my life, I thought.  I will do everything right, and I will thereby prevent every difficult consequence.  Never mind that I couldn't prevent my parents' divorce.  I couldn't prevent my mother from dying.   Nothing would dissuade me from the idea that I could control my own destiny.

The irony is that, rather than diminishing my suffering, my desperate desire to manage my life down to the smallest details served to increase my suffering instead.  There is a lot of life to be managed.  I worked at it full-time and then some.  The pressure was amazing.  It squeezed out of me not goodness and peace, but anger and frustration borne of the unacknowledged impossibility of the task to which I had set myself.

I have given up the quest.  I have laid down my sword and surrendered to the dragons.  The fact is, they will come and breathe their fire either way.

At first I was terrified, thinking that I would be immediately consumed by what was to come.  If I wasn't constantly on guard against the onslaught of the world, I reasoned, I would be overtaken and vanquished.  That is not what happened.  I am still alive.

That doesn't mean it's not hard.  It is.  The onslaught does come.  It's painful, sometimes so painful I feel like I won't be able to endure it, that I will come apart at the seams and there won't be anything left of me.

I've had to practice sitting with the pain.  My first impulse is still to wish it away and, when that doesn't work, to somehow make it go away.  That's the impulse I have to check, again and again and again.  Instead, I allow the pain to come.  I do exactly the opposite of what that initial instinct demands.  I welcome the pain.

That doesn't mean I want it, but I allow it.  It washes over me.  I have to keep breathing and breathing.  Sometimes, when it's bad, the desire to push it away keeps resurging, and I allow that too, allow it to come and go.  And I ride the pain.

Then there comes a glimmer of peace.  It's not in place of the pain; it's in the midst of it.  It's the eye of the storm.  That's a good image, because it feels like it's right in the center, with the pain swirling all around it.  But that center is a place of rest.  In the center, there is no pain.  I simply am.  It is difficult to remain there and not get drawn immediately back into the swirling vortex, but I keep breathing, keep returning, and the pain recedes, and I realize that I am not my pain.

A wise spiritual teacher has said that that swirling of emotion is like the weather around a mountain.  "I" am the mountain.  And the mountain is the dwelling place of God.

Lenten Journey: Exodus

And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem. 
- Luke 9:30-31

For Reflection...

We talked last week about Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.  That identity could hardly be more evident than it is here, on the Mount of Transfiguration.  Who should be conversing with Jesus, but Moses, the lawgiver, and Elijah, prophet among prophets?  In Matthew 7:15, Jesus asserts that he has come not to abolish, but to fulfill the Law and the prophets.  He is the completion of the story that Moses and Elijah both represent and embody.

All three appear in glory.  They shine forth with the light of God in their faithful witness to God's purpose -- which is exodus and Jerusalem.

I am grateful that this translation (New American Bible, rev.) uses the word exodus, where others translate departure or death.  No.  Exodus is critical, because we are meant to be recalled to the exodus from Egypt, the foundational story of Israel and, thus, of Israel's Messiah.

The exodus from Egypt is the saving event in Israel's story of God's saving work.  Israel escapes slavery only through the Passover, the sparing of the firstborn of Israel amidst the death of the firstborn of Egypt.  The Israelites are kept safe by being marked with the blood of the sacrificial lamb (Exodus 12).  They will be saved through the waters of the parted sea (Exodus 14).  They will wander in the desert for forty years.  They will inherit the land God has promised.

Jesus prophetically enacts every move -- passing through the waters in his baptism (at the Jordan, the river across which the Israelites under Joshua finally enter the Promised Land; see Joshua 3), spending forty days in the desert.  He is leading us on a new exodus from slavery -- to sin -- into a new land of promise, the Kingdom of God.

And the road goes through Jerusalem.

Even from the mountaintop, we must set our faces toward Jerusalem (Luke 9:51).  Beyond Egypt, beyond the desert, Jerusalem is ground zero for the story of salvation.  Jerusalem is the capital, the Holy City, the place of sacrifice.  It is our final destination, the only destination.  God's glory shines forth from this city on this hill.  If we are going to be light-bearers, God-image-bearers, we too will have to continue on from the mountaintop toward Jerusalem.

For Entering In...

Spend a few moments becoming present to yourself.  If your mind is preoccupied, allow the thoughts to come and to go.  Notice what you feel in your body, in your heart.

Invite God to be present with you.

Reflect on these questions:
  • The law can be seen as a way of maintaining a sound boundary.  It keeps us safe.  It can also keep others out, and it can oppress those who are "in."  How do you understand the role of the law in your spiritual life?  How does it relate to your sense of freedom?  Of responsibility?
  • Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Bible, is a hymn in praise of God's law.  Spend the next few days reading some or all of it.  Write or reflect about what you discover about the law.  Does Psalm 119 change your view?  Reinforce it?
  • Who have been the lawgivers and keepers in your life?  What are the laws you have been expected to live by, either by others or by yourself?  Which, if any, would you like to have seen abolished?  Which laws, if any, have been flouted that you wanted to defend?
  • Jesus says that he has come not to abolish -- and not to defend -- but to fulfill the law.  Spend some time reflecting on this saying.  What might it mean to you, in your life today?
  • From what in your life are you looking to experience an "exodus" of freedom and deliverance?  Can you ask God to lead you out of your enslavement, your Egypt?
As you finish this quiet time, take a moment to connect with your soul and with the God who made you and is sustaining you this day, in this moment.  Notice your breathing.  Remember that it is a gift.

February 25, 2013

I've Decided to Grow Up

I thought I was grown up when I was ten.  My parents split and I had some new responsibilities, but that wasn't really it.  The grown-ups were emotionally entangled in their own affairs, and I intuited, long before I had words to describe what was happening, that I needed to take care of my own emotional self.  Add to that a proclivity to feeling like I had to take care of everyone else's emotional self.  It was the death knell of my emotionally dependent child.  I declared my emotional independence.

Or so I thought.

I thought I was grown up when I moved out, when I got married, when I had a baby.  I thought I was grown up when I turned 40.  I saw myself as mature, self-directed, and, above all, emotionally self-sufficient.  I wasn't.

It starts with my relationship to people in authority -- parents to pastors, elders and leaders of all kinds.  When I lay out the pattern, I find it to be an embarrassingly obvious childhood reaction to my parents.  Whoever you are, Authority Figure, I want you to notice me.  And not just notice me.  I want you to think I'm good.  And if I'm good, you will like me.  And not just like me.  You will love me!  That's the surface, the lonely, needy, vulnerable part.  That part uses words and actions that shout to be heard.

But that's not all.

There's also this anti-authoritarian part of me.  It says, You, Authority Figure!  What do you think you're doing?  I'm not sure you know.  Can you be trusted?  I can't be sure.  Here, let me take over.  Only this anti-authoritarian part is quiet.  It thinks and whispers to other people, never addressing the Authority Figure, only talking behind her back.  This part is judgmental.  This part is vulnerable too.  This part is afraid.

I wanted the authority figures in my life to be up to the task.  Sometimes they are, and, frankly, sometimes they are not, starting with my parents.  The same thing is true for your parents and me, as a parent, and me, as a person.  And you.  Not one of us is up to the task.

The child in me naturally wanted, expected, to be well-taken-care-of -- and I was.  Let's be honest.  I had a roof over my head, food on the table, shoes on my feet.  I was safe, and I was loved, however imperfectly.  But there was a part of me that never got the memo.

That part of me made it all the way into my forties still thinking that she was a child who didn't get what she needed, not understanding that we are all children who don't get what we need, because the only parents there are also children who didn't get what they needed.  It's universal, so it's true not just of parents but of pastors and elders and leaders of all shapes and sizes.

If I keep wanting those people to give me some sort of validation -- and then keep judging them when they don't do what I want -- I'll never grow up.

I've decided to declare my emotional independence, for real this time.  Here's what I think that looks like:  I will stop expecting other people to be the grown-ups so that I can play the needy, dependent child.  If I need validation, I will not look to some Authority Figure; I will look inside.  I will hold my gifts and my flaws and failures in front of me and look at them without fear.  I will celebrate the gifts and confess the flaws and failures.  And then I will move on.  I will quit waiting for someone to tell me I'm okay and I will take action for myself, whether I feel okay or not.  I will do what I can do today.  I will use my gifts, and I will make mistakes, maybe big ones, but I will take responsibility for them all.  I will act like an adult.

And when we're together, whether you are leading me, following me, or walking beside, I will give you the freedom to do the same.

Lenten Journey: Reflecting God's Glory

Jesus took Peter, John, and James and went up the mountain to pray.  While he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white.  And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.   Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, but becoming fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him.  As they were about to part from him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah."  But he did not know what he was saying.  While he was still speaking, a cloud came and cast a shadow over them, and they became frightened when they entered the cloud.  Then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my chosen Son; listen to him."  After the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.  They fell silent and did not at that time tell anyone what they had seen.
- Luke 9:28b-36 

For Reflection...

"Jesus took Peter, John, and James and went up the mountain to pray. While he was praying..."

Do we notice that this story which we refer to as the transfiguration of Jesus takes place while Jesus was praying?  We've spent some time already this Lent reflecting on prayer and even more time practicing  prayer.  We have talked together about prayer as the act of becoming present to the God who, even now, is waiting for us to notice that God is always present to us.  We have considered the throat-parched cry of the desert prayer; we'll be there, in the desert with Jesus again, before Easter arrives.

But this week we are on the mountaintop.  We, with Peter and James and John, are invited to watch and learn from Jesus who has climbed to the heights to pray.

It is in the midst of this mountaintop prayer that Jesus, like Moses (Exodus 34:29ff), radiates the light of God's presence.  Like Moses in the tent of meeting (Exodus 33:11), Jesus approaches God face to face (cf. Hebrews 9:24), and Jesus invites his disciples -- us -- to do the same.

There is something about being in the presence of God that shows in my face.  I look different, even if the difference fades.  There is a glory in me that, when it encounters the glory of God, shines out of me like a light.  I become like a lamp in the darkness, a city on a hill (Matthew 5:14).

The dark world needs my light.  When I am shining, I become a sign to the nations, promised in Isaiah (49:6).  I become a part of the solution that God always intended to insure through Israel's Messiah.  I am equipped as part of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12) to participate in the work of reconciling the broken world -- healing, loving, forgiving.

It is no accident that Jesus transfigured appears clothed in "dazzling white," and we, at our baptism, are likewise adorned.  We put on the promise of transfiguration.  As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:18:
And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
We are the mirror image of the glorious face of God.  We are called with Christ to be the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15).  Do we believe it?  Do we believe that when the light shines from our faces, it is God that people see?

For Entering In...

Spend a few moments becoming present to yourself.  If your mind is preoccupied, allow the thoughts to come and to go.  Notice what you feel in your body, in your heart.

Invite God to be present with you.

Reflect on these questions:
  • What have been mountaintop experiences in your life?  What are the times when you have glowed with joy or wonder or peace or delight?
  • Choose one or more of your mountaintop experiences.  Ask yourself, when you were there, on the mountaintop, where was God?
  • Sometimes it can be difficult for me to see my own light.  Can you think of a time when you saw someone else's face aglow with the glory of God?  Who was it?  What were the circumstances?  How did it make you feel?
  • How have others been touched by your light?  Has there been a time when you knew you were shining God's light into the world?  What was that experience like for you?  Was there something about that experience and your role in it that stands out for you?
  • Make a list of the ways in which God has gifted you.  What are the talents that you bring to the world?  Can you give humble thanks to God for inviting you into God's healing work?
- As you finish this quiet time, take a moment to connect with your soul and enjoy the goodness that God has created in you.

February 23, 2013

Lenten Journey: Second Sunday - The Mountaintop

Genesis 15: 5-12, 17-18
Psalm 27
Philippians 3:17-4:1
Luke 9:28b-36

For Reflection...

"Jesus took Peter, John, and James and went up the mountain to pray."

The desert is real -- all too real-- but it hardly encompasses our whole experience of our human condition.  There is also the mountaintop.

At times we get a glimpse of Something More.  We know that, while our feet are grounded in the earth, there is a part of us that is made for Heaven.  Maybe it is only a pinprick of light in an otherwise dark country.  Maybe it is as blindingly bright as the sun.  It may last a long time, or it may pass in an instant, but either way, it is a window on eternity.

And something in our souls recognizes it.

There is something about me that resonates with something I cannot finally name.  I might call it Joy or Love or Grace or Glory, and all those things will be true even as they somehow fall short.  I cannot describe what I see or capture what I feel.  Doubt might creep in from the valley.

But from my view from the mountaintop, I know it's absolutely true.

For Entering In...

- Spend a few moments becoming present to yourself.  Notice how it feels to be in your body, here, now.

Invite God to be present with you.

Reflect on these questions:
  • Take some time to read the readings of the day.  Read them all and then choose one -- or just choose one.  
  • Whatever you have chosen, read it again, slowly.  Notice what speaks to you in this passage.  Is it a phrase?  A word?  Jot it down.
  • Hold that word or phrase lightly.  What we are aiming for is for you to take that word or phrase into your heart.  Rather than thinking about what it means, even what it means to you, allow your soul to engage in a kind of free-association.  What comes up for you as you hold the word or phrase?  Just let it come.
  • What might God want you to take from this word into your life this week?  Today?  Ask God and quietly listen.  Again, what does your heart say?  Don't let your head tell you it doesn't make sense.  It's okay if it seems like it doesn't.  Just let it be.
  • Spend a few minutes in silence with God.  Thank God for whatever you heard during this time of prayer.  

February 22, 2013

Lenten Journey: Back to the Desert

For Reflection...

So here I sit, my head in my hands.  I have wondered how I ended up here.  Did I simply wander here on my own?  Or was I called for and sent?  I thought I belonged here, that this might be as good as it gets, but the land is harsh, and I feel far from home.

I have tried to make the best of it.  Even before I realized where I was, I started building, first a shelter, then a home, then a city.  Timber by timber, brick by brick, room by room, block by block, I made my life here.  Now I've been here so long I don't think I could find my way through the trackless desert.  I've made it  comfortable enough, I've managed to survive, but it's dry, and I am thirsty.

I have tried to dig my own well, but I can't dig far enough.  The rain comes down and fills the hole, but it stagnates and finally runs dry.  Day by day, like the Israelites at Sinai or the woman at the well, I cry out for living water.

I wring my hands and wonder why.  My therapist might take me back to my childhood for answers.  I can talk to my friends.  I can work on my self-esteem with Oprah or on my body with a personal trainer.  I can go to my doctor and get a pill.  But when I wake up in the morning, I will still be in my room in my home in the city I've made for myself in the desert.

And then, I came to realize that I am not alone.  There is someone who has traveled to this desert.  He is praying through the hunger and the thirst with me.  He has refused, for my sake, to be whisked away from this barren place, but he has not come to settle down.

I see that he has brought his tools.  If I let him, he will help me take it all down, all the structures that I've built up, the ones that tie me here, to this lifeless spot.  When he leaves, he will take me with him, if I let him.

While we work, he takes a beam of wood, a shepherd's staff, and strikes a rock,.  And the water comes  flowing out.  And all I have to do is drink.

For Entering In...

Enter your quiet space.  Take a deep breath or two and spend a few moments becoming present to yourself.  Notice how it feels to be in your body to be in this place at this time.

Invite God to be present with you.

Reflect on these questions:
  • What are the deserts in your life?  How have you settled for a life that leaves you feeling thirsty?  And what is it you thirst for?  What does your soul long for?
  • Where in your life have you tried to make the best of things?  How?  When you recall those experiences, how do you feel?
  • Where you feel stuck or dissatisfied, how have you tried to make changes in your life?  What have been the results?
  • What about your life would you most like to see changed?  Are there situations you've become resigned to?  Things that you believe can never change?
  • Luke 1:37 says that "nothing is impossible with God."  Do you believe that can be true?  If it were, what seemingly impossible problem in your life would you wish for God to address?  What can you do now, today, to ask God to act?  How can you be ready to "do whatever he tells you" (John 2:5)?
When you have answered these questions in your thoughts or in writing, pause and again become present to yourself and to God.  Can you believe that God, by the Holy Spirit, is with you right now?  Whether you feel that or not, can you take a moment, in faith, to thank God for showing up?

Lenten Journey: Messiah

For Reflection...

Jesus was a faithful Jew, but Christian history has often downplayed, even denigrated, the Jewishness of Jesus.  On the other hand, some people are adamant in saying that Jesus was nothing more than a faithful Jew, a prophet or maybe a wise teacher.  The latter group may claim that Jesus never meant to found a new religion apart from Judaism, that he expected Judaism to carry on as it had before he came on the scene, while the former suggests that Jesus himself disavowed his Jewishness,.

If we adhere to the view of a non-Jewish Jesus, we find that we have to throw out the Old Testament.  With the latter perspective, the New Testament has to go.

There is a middle way.  This view understands Jesus as the very Jewish Messiah who embodied and brought to completion all that Israel was meant to accomplish through its election.

Remember, God made creation, and humans in particular, to be in relationship with God, even as God knew that things would go terribly wrong.  God's plan to make things right always culminated in Jesus, who, as John the Evangelist avows, was with God "in the beginning" (see John 1:1 and Genesis 1:1).  Humans are made in this image, the image of the Word who would be made flesh (John 1:14) in the fullness of time (Galatians 4:4).

Humans' election as stewards of creation prepares the way for the election of the remnant of the nation of Israel -- which itself is reduced to a remnant after the Babylonians conquer the land and exile the people; only a small remainder of Jews would return to the Promised Land under the rule of Cyrus the Persian, and these few would need to carry the responsibility of being the "light to the nations" (Isaiah 49:6).  Out of this remnant comes the final remnant, the one man, Jesus of Nazareth.

Both Matthew (1:1ff) and Luke (3:23ff) offer us a genealogy of Jesus, planting him firmly within Jewish history.  The title he bears in throughout the New Testament, Christ, is a Greek translation of a Hebrew word, anglicized as Messiah, which means anointed one.

In Israel anointing was for the king, the high priest, and the prophets.  The king is the head of the nation and its figurehead, standing in for and representing the whole.  The high priest is a stand-in too, offering up the sacrifice to God for me and for the nation as a whole.  The prophet faces the other direction speaking to the people, to us, on God's behalf, almost always by acting out that message (see, for example, Jeremiah 18 and Hosea 1).  In Jesus, the anointed one, Messiah, Christ, we get all three.

At last, God's purpose is to be accomplished.  One man will stand as the representative for all of humanity, offering up the sacrifice, enacting God's message of reconciling love.

This One accepts his Messianic office by passing through the waters of baptism and thereby identifying entirely with humankind's universal and personal, individual enslavement to sin. Then he is driven into the desert, exactly where we are, where we've been waiting for him.

For Entering In...

Enter your quiet space.  Take a deep breath or two and spend a few moments becoming present to yourself.  Notice how it feels to be in your body to be in this place at this time.

Invite God to be present with you.

Reflect on these questions:
  • What have you thought about Jesus?  How have you understood him in relationship to what you believe or don't believe about God?  What, if anything, does your view of Jesus have to do with your experience of church?  Of the world?  Of your own life?
  • Do you think of yourself as a Christian?  What does that mean to you?
  • In the ancient world most people lived under the rule of some sort of monarchy.  What might it mean for us, for you, today, to consider Jesus as a king?
  • Based on what you know about Jesus' ministry, make a list of some of the signs that he enacted -- e.g., healing the blind (John 9), multiplying the loaves and fishes (Mark 6), turning water to wine (John 2), raising the dead (Mark 5).  Choose one or two and reflect:  What does this action reveal to you about who God is and what God has to say to you?
  • As we journey through Lent, we will eventually arrive at Good Friday, the passion of Jesus, and the cross.  We will look at Jesus as both the high priest and the object of sacrifice.  For today, consider this:  What might you be called to offer back to God from what you've been given?  How would that sacrifice look?  Is it something you need to surrender altogether, or something for which you need to offer up a sacrifice of thanksgiving (Psalm 50:23)?  
When you have answered these questions in your thoughts or in writing, pause and again become present to yourself and to God.  What do you notice?

February 21, 2013

Lenten Journey: Plan A

For Reflection...

All too often I feel like our Christian theology sets up the Jesus story as God's "Plan B."  That version of the story goes something like this:  God created everything, including people.  God gave people free will.  God wanted us to be in right relationship with Him, but we abused our free will and destroyed that relationship.  Uh, oh!  God's plan was ruined!  God needed to start all over with a new idea, a "Plan B."  Plan B, then, is Jesus on the cross, often understood as the sacrifice to placate a justly angry God.

The problem with this story is evident from the first page.  How could an all-knowing God not have seen sin coming?  Surely, surely we must assume that in the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, God knew how the story of humans and our free will to be -- or not be -- in relationship with God would unfold.

In this version of the story, Jesus is Plan A.

The key to unraveling Plan A is to see the underlying pattern of election in God's Master Plan.  In the Plan A version, God recognized that we humans generally would fail in our God-given mission to steward creation.  So God's plan included calling a little group of humans, a remnant of the whole bunch of us, to carry on with the Plan.  That remnant is called the nation of Israel.  God calls Abram, whom he renames Abraham (Genesis 12), and from his seed and stock, God raises up a nation who will do what all of humanity was meant to do -- stand in the gap between God and the rest of creation.

Notice, God's plan was not for Israel just to be God's chosen people, but for Israel to be God's chosen so that they could intercede between God and the rest of humanity and the rest of creation (see, importantly, Isaiah 49:6).  Israel's election is for a purpose, to fulfill God's original role for all of humanity.  But just like the rest of humanity, Israel itself decides to go its own way (see, for example, the indictments contained in every prophetic book in the Old Testament).  Once again God's purpose goes unfulfilled.

Or so it seems.  God has a final move.

Out of the remnant Israel, God will raise up one faithful Israelite, that is, one human, a new Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45), to do what humans were meant to do all along -- to bridge the gap, to intercede between God and humans.  This One, the final remnant of all of humanity, will be anointed like a king to stand at the head of the nation and of the human race.  He will be a king who functions like a priest; by definition, a priest stands in the space between Man and the gods and offers some sacrifice from the earth back to heaven, thus restoring any discord in the relationship between them.

Thus do we come to Jesus.

For Entering In...

Spend a few moments in the quiet becoming present to yourself.  Notice how it feels to be in your body to be here, now.

Invite God to be present with you.  Notice what it feels like to be in God's presence.

Theology is the study of God.  Every one of us, when we consider God at all, is engaged in doing theology.  Our theology, whether we're atheists or theists, Buddhists or Christians, monotheists or pantheists, matters.  It defines how we think about God, ourselves, and the world.  With that in mind, reflect on these questions:
  • How have you come to your personal theology, your understanding of who God is and what God has done and/or is doing in the world?
  • Are you acquainted with the stories of Israel in the Old Testament?  If not, consider reading through one or more books, beginning with Genesis (skipping over the genealogies, if you prefer) and Exodus and the books of 1 and 2 Samuel.  These will give you a flavor for some of the more engaging pre-historical and historical narratives.  Choose a translation of the Bible that resonates for you.*
  • The Bible is often called the story of the history of salvation.  Having taken some time to reflect on temptation and our personal and collective sin, what are your thoughts about our need for salvation?  How have you come to understand the problem of sin for you personally or for the world?  Or do you see it as a problem?

- It has been a week since we began this Lenten journey together.  As you consider the time you have spent in prayer, reflection, and writing:
  • Have you been able to set aside some daily quiet time for yourself?  If so, how has that been for you?  If not, why not?
  • Is there anything new you have learned about yourself?  About God?

*If you would like more suggestions about where to start in reading from the Bible, e-mail me:  chris@livingthetruthinlove.org.

February 19, 2013

Lenten Journey: Original Sin

Wretched man that I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! 
- Romans 7:24-25

For Reflection...

Once upon a time God created human beings.  I don't know how God did it.  Evolution seems indisputable, but God can create however God wants.  In any event, self-consciousness arose in the fullness of time according to a plan in the eternal mind of God, and there was adam, which in Hebrew is human.  
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
- Genesis 1:27
Created in the very image of God.  It is no wonder that God declares them not just good but "very good" (Genesis 1:31).

What does it mean that we are created in God's good image?  Here's what I think:  The Son of God always was, and we are made like him.  He becomes "like us" (cf. Hebrews 4:15) only in that we were made in his image.  What separates us from him is what we call sin.

How have we fallen so far?  Yesterday we took up our courage and began to look at our own sin, but the Christian story teaches us that my personal sin is only a latter chapter in the story of humanity's collective sin.   Even if we move past the idea of self-help to a recognition of our dependence upon God, we often understand God's plan for our salvation to be about God and me alone, my personal relationship, as we say. While it is true that my relationship with God matters -- and we'll get there -- if we're to understand what any of this has to do with Jesus, we need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

If we're to see the creation stories in Genesis as in any sense True, we must give credence to humankind's place at the pinnacle of the created order.  We humans, out of all creation, are God's elect.  That doesn't mean we're better than rocks or trees or cows or stars or angels.  It means we were given a particular role to play.  We were given the task to be the stewards of the rest of creation (Genesis 1:26).  We humans are the intermediaries between God and everything God has created.  We humans are meant to bridge the gap.

But something went wrong on our end.  There are many, many interpretations of Genesis 3, where the first man and first woman, enticed by the serpent, succumb to temptation and eat the forbidden fruit.  What does this allegory signify?  In earlier times, it was seen as some sort of sexual sin.  Looking at the text, we might wonder if their original sin is disobedience? Or is it ingratitude, as suggested in something I recently read?  Or, as I am inclined to believe, is it the most basic form of idolatry, wherein I eschew the idea of any god other than my own self will and confuse my true dependence for a false freedom?

What is certain is that there is a rupture in the relationship between humans and our Creator God.  We, who were supposed to hold the space between the Creator and creation walked away to do our own thing.  Faced with temptation, we acquiesced, leaving creation to be overrun by the "powers and principalities" (Ephesians 6:12).

We know it's true.  All we have to do is read the morning news.  It is not just our own souls that are broken; it is the whole world, from the most intimate human relationships to nature itself.  Things are not as they should be.  But God never intended to leave it that way.

For Entering In...

Spend a few moments in the quiet becoming present to yourself.  Notice how it feels to be in your body to be here, now.

Invite God to be present with you.  Notice what it feels like to be in God's presence.

Reflect on these questions:
  • What does it mean to you that humans are created "in the image of God"?
  • How do you understand human beings in relationship to the rest of creation?  What do you think it means that God made humans to be the stewards of creation?
  • What have you learned or thought about "original sin"?  What, if anything, do you believe it has to do with you and your personal relationship to God?
  • What do you think is meant by "powers and principalities"?  What powers do you see acting for ill in the world today?
  • 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?  Write these down.  They will be important later, when we reflect more on how each of us is called into mission in God's kingdom.

- As you complete today's reflection, take a moment to consider your own personal failings.  Can you confess them to God and receive the forgiveness that God is holding out to you even now?

February 18, 2013

Lenten Journey: Sin

For Reflection...

Having reflected that which tempts us, we have no choice but to consider a concept at which our modern world tends to turn up its nose -- that is, sin.  We live in an era, in our western world, that has little use for the idea of sin.  We are told that I'm okay and you're okay and that, if we feel we might not be, a diet of self-help is all we need to improve.

Any suggestion that there is a right and a wrong, is seen as moralizing -- which is seen as unhealthy and exclusive.  We don't want to judge, many of us.  And those who are quite comfortable judging, declaring who is "in" and who is "out" of God's good graces, nearly always judge themselves to be in and someone with whom they disagree or who they don't understand to be out.

It is tempting to abandon the whole conversation.  The problem is, we know that there is something in us that is not right.  As we embark on a journey of prayer and self-reflection, that knowledge begins to loom larger. When I am living unconsciously, perhaps I can ignore what I know.  I can watch another episode of something, have another drink, send another text -- whatever it takes to distract me.  But as soon as I start to tune in to my own soul and to God's presence there, it becomes impossible to ignore the sense of my own unworthiness.

God is good.  We can get lost in the weeds of the world, looking at cancer and war and abuse and question God's goodness, but when we become present to God in our own souls, we know in a deeper place than our rational thoughts that God is good -- and that we are not.  Now, I am no Calvinist, nor even a good Lutheran; I believe that there is good in us -- because God has made it so.  Still, it is clear that we are not as good as we might be, as we long to be, and not good as God is good.  As we draw near to God, we become painfully aware of our own failings, our sin.

I have sat through many a sermon, particularly Lenten sermons, where I have been instructed in how to be better.  Call it pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps theology.  It is not, however Christian theology.  Self-help, doing better, is not the answer.  That is the culture talking.  Is it so very difficult to see that if we could be better on our own, we would be better already?  Paul says it famously in Romans 7:15ff:  

I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.  Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law [what God wills] is good.  But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.  For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh [as opposed to my spirit].  I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.  Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.  So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.
Paul continues, "Who will rescue me from this body of death?"  Because I cannot rescue myself.

For Entering In...

Spend a few moments in the quiet becoming present to yourself.  Notice how it feels to be in your body to be here, now.

Invite God to be present with you.  Notice what it feels like to be in God's presence.

Reflect on these questions:
  • How do you understand the idea of sin?  Have you learned something about sin from your childhood?  Your church?  What are the associations that the word sin conjures up for you?
  • What is your personal moral code?  What actions or behaviors do you think of as "good" or "bad"?  How does your personal sense of morality compare with that of your family of origin?  Your church?  Your social circle?  Society at large?
  • How does it feel when you are out of step with the professed or implied moral code of someone else or the culture?  How does it feel when you judge you have violated your own moral standards?
  • Have you tried to reform something you don't like about yourself?  How did you go about it?  What happened?
  • Notice as you enter into prayer this week whether you are becoming more aware of your own failings.  What does that feel like?  Can you sit with that feeling, without judging it, just noticing it, in the presence of God?  

February 17, 2013

Lenten Journey: Temptation

Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil.  He ate nothing during those days, and when they were over he was hungry.  The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread."  Jesus answered him, "It is written, One does not live on bread alone."  Then he took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant.  The devil said to him, "I shall give to you all this power and glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I may give it to whomever I wish.  All this will be yours, if you worship me."  Jesus said to him in reply, "It is written:  You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve."  Then he led him to Jerusalem, made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written:  He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you, and:  With their hands they will support you lest you dash your foot against a stone."  Jesus said to him in reply, "It also says, You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test."  When the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from him for a time.
- Luke 4:1-13

For Reflection...

If Jesus provides the pattern for the spiritual journey of the Christian, it should come as no surprise to us that as soon as God declares to us that we are his beloved (Luke 3:22), we are driven into the desert.

The desert is the testing ground.  From our election as God's chosen, we must pass through the rigors of the desert to be equipped to live out our mission.

The testing we endure is "common to everyone" (1 Corinthians 10:13), and so to Jesus as to us.  We may think of the temptations we face in the flesh as unique; it is true that no two of us experience temptation in quite the same way.  To one, the Siren's call may be the lure of money.  To another, it might be sex.  Envy, avarice, gluttony, sloth -- every temptation has its adherents.  But the temptations Jesus faces in the desert embody them all.  

Stones into bread.  Power and glory.  Vanity projects.  It's all here.  We have different strategies for getting them, but in the end, what we want is the material security, strength, and recognition that the kingdom of this world rewards. In a ploy built on cunning and deceit, the father of lies tells us that the way to affirm our status as the children of God is to claim these worldly prizes. The devil in the desert tells us that they are his to give -- if only we will worship him.  And we are tempted.

Are we not?  Which of us has not longed for a bigger house, a nicer car, a softer bed?  Which has not imagined controlling the world -- or at least our little corner of it?  Have we not all wanted to be the object of  the ministrations of angels?  Would not that bounty signify our value in the eyes of God?

Such is the gospel of prosperity, but not that of Jesus Christ.  No.  He accepts hunger and thirst, weakness, and obscurity as the hallmarks of abiding in God's will.  He endures the desert.  He invites us to do the same, knowing that he has gone before us, goes ahead of us, carries us.

For Entering In...

Spend a few moments in the quiet becoming present to yourself.  Notice how it feels to be in your body to be here, now.

Invite God to be present with you.  Notice what it feels like to be in God's presence.

Reflect on these questions:
  • In what ways have you felt tested in your life, particularly in your life of faith?
  • In what way are you tempted by material security?  How much money would be enough?  What material goods do you covet?  For what do you hunger?
  • When do you notice your desire for power or control?  Under what circumstances?  What have you done to assert your power over others?
  • What kind of recognition have you sought?  Who do you want to notice you?  To hold you in high regard?  To like you or appreciate you?
  • Which seems most challenging to you:  The call to hunger, to weakness, or to obscurity?  Why?  
When you have answered these questions in your thoughts or in writing, pause and again become present to yourself and to God.  What do you notice?

Lenten Journey: First Sunday - The Desert

Deuteronomy 26:4-10
Psalm 91
Romans 10:8-13
Luke 4:1-13

For Reflection...

They should have warned us.  We should have known.  The first lesson of the spiritual life is a hard lesson:   The road to salvation -- to peace and gratitude and joy -- passes straight through the desert.  If you have begun more intentionally to pray, perhaps you know what I mean.

For the new convert or the committed person of faith the words of Romans 10:10-11 may seem to proffer the guarantee of an easy road:
...if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For one believes with the heart and so is justified and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.  For the Scripture says, No one who believes in him will be put to shame.
Paul makes it sound so easy.  I want his words to mean that the road to on-going conversion and sanctification is a carefree one.  Once I put my faith in God through Christ, I think I ought to be home free.  I am justified, saved, free.  I confess, I believe --  yet I struggle.

Sometimes I find that the more I turn to God, the more I pray, the harder the journey becomes for a time.  Just in the moment when I begin to think that my confession is rooted more deeply in my heart and my belief is grounded in works of faith (James 2:14), I discover new temptations at every turn -- temptations, moreover, that I do not feel equipped to face in faith.  In just the moment when I expect to feel strong and consoled, I instead feel weak and alone.

What is God doing in me, in us?  Is this the abundant life of which Jesus assures us (John 10:10)?  This is the promise?  How will we endure it?

For Entering In...

Are you feeling at home in your quiet spot?  Have you begun to look forward to this time?  Spend a few moments becoming present to yourself.  Notice how it feels to be in your body, here, now.

Invite God to be present with you.

Reflect on these questions:
  • Have you spent more time in prayer since last Wednesday?  What has that been like for you?  If not, are you willing to set aside any judgments and jump in where you are?
  • What have you expected from a life of faith?  Are there things you learned as a child or as an adult convert?  What have your parents or church or the media or culture taught you about what a believer's life is "supposed to" be like?
  • Have you ever experienced a time of renewed faith, only then to be beset by more difficult spiritual challenges?  How did that feel?  What did you do?
  • What are the most difficult temptations you struggle with in your life today?
  • As we enter this first full week of Lent, are you willing to consider persevering despite challenges that may arise?  Is there someone in your life who can help you stay accountable?  A friend?  A pastor?  A spiritual director?  
When you have answered these questions in your thoughts or in writing, pause and again become present to yourself and to God.  What do you notice?

February 16, 2013

Lenten Journey: Prayer - Deep Calling Unto Deep

"When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them.  Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.  But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.  And your Father who sees in secret will repay you."
- Matthew 6:5-6 
For reflection...

It always strikes me as ironic that the passage from Matthew above is read as we begin the Lenten season on Ash Wednesday.  We're warned not to be exhibitionists in prayer even as we all gather, sometimes in the company of the local news crew, and depart with big black smudges of ash on our foreheads, declaring to the unsuspecting world, "I was just praying."  Have we already received our reward?  And what sort of reward or repayment for praying might we expect anyway?

We're better off, says Matthew's Jesus, praying in secret, in our inner room.  I wonder what that could mean in a culture where people lived in houses with a single room where everyone ate and slept.  Good luck finding a secret, inner room.

There are contemplative teachers who believe that the "inner room" of which Jesus speaks is the inner room of the pray-er's heart.  That might be true.  I don't know.  What I do know is that Jesus is trying to tell us that what we receive when we pray is somehow hidden, mysterious to the pray-er herself.

We reflected on secrecy yesterday, the secret, hidden from our own awareness, of how God uses us in our brokenness to bless others.  I wonder if prayer isn't a way that this same hiddenness blesses us.

We need to take a step back and consider, What is prayer anyway?  Talking about prayer can immediately conjure a sense of confusion.  How am I supposed to pray?  The prayers of childhood might seem pointless, the heaping up of empty phrases of Matthew 6:7.  Articles, books, classes, and blog posts abound, all claiming to lead us in how to pray.  There are methods and types of prayer -- contemplation, meditation, devotional reading, lectio divina, intercession, and praise, to name but a few.

Then there is the guilt.  I ought to pray.  Or, I ought to pray more, more often, with more attention, more regularly.

Here's the truth:  No one knows how you ought to pray.  And the only time to pray is now.

I think we make prayer too complicated.  Not that there isn't room enough for guidance; there are indeed ways to deepen or expand our experience of prayer, especially if we need motivation or encouragement in dry times.  But at its most fundamental level, prayer is nothing more or less than noticing that God is present, here, now.

When I've prayed with my young children and have heard them hurrying into some rote words, I've asked them to pause and notice to whom they are speaking.  Do I do that?  Do I rattle off some words, whether from my memory, the scriptures, or off the top of my head, without pausing to consider to whom I'm addressing those words?

That is a big question.  Who is this God?  What do I know about Him or Her?  Is this god the God of my childhood?  What does this God want or expect of me?  I read once about a bishop who was also a college professor, who routinely asked his students who professed belief in God, "Which god is it that you believe in?"  It is a fair question for us.  If we are going to explore prayer, before we bother with how, we need to wonder about who -- who am I praying to, and who am I, who am praying?

Prayer is the point, the foundation of all that I hope we can explore and experience together this Lent:   Prayer as quiet pause in the midst of the bustle of life.  Prayer as an awareness of my own heart.  Prayer as relationship with Someone.  Prayer as the depth of my Self calling out and hearing a deeper Depth answering back and knowing that what I hear is more than the echo of my own voice.

I believe that the gift that is offered to us when we enter into this hidden space where prayer happens -- not so much because of as in spite of us -- is a connection with that Someone who is, in fact, closer to me than I am to myself.  In knowing that Someone, I start to know something more about who I am, what I most long for, and where my life is going.

For entering in...

Find a quiet place to be.  Spend a few moments becoming present to yourself.  Notice how it feels to be in your body, in this place, at this time.

Even if you're not sure there's anyone listening, invite God to be present with you.

- It's time to start going deeper.  Reflect on these questions:
  • Get out your journal or a piece of paper.  Yesterday I invited you to reflect on the kind of love you want from God.  Today we're going to look more deeply at what you believe -- or don't believe -- about who God is.  If you've made it this far, I suspect it's because, even if you're not sure, you're hoping that there is a God who loves you.
    • If you believed in a god earlier in your life, as a child or a young adult, what was that god like?  What did that god expect or want from you?  What did that god offer you?
    • Is that still how you see God?  How would you describe God as you understand God today?
    • Does the God of your understanding work for you?  How would you describe a god who would?
  • What has been your experience of prayer?  How did you pray as a child, if you did?  Do you pray now?  How and how often?  What is the relationship, if any, between your practice of prayer and your day-to-day life?  Have you ever felt rewarded in some way as a result of praying?
  • Have you tried the suggestion to quiet yourself and become present to the Someone who is always waiting for you?  What has that felt like?  Can you see that as the beginning of prayer?  What do you notice about yourself in these times?  What is happening in your heart?
  • Are you willing to consider practicing that attention to Presence once or twice (or more often) every day?
  • As you look ahead, what do you hope to be able to say about your life of prayer 40 days from now?
When you have answered these questions in your thoughts or in writing, pause and again become present to yourself and to God.  What do you notice?  Has what you notice changed since Wednesday?

February 15, 2013

I'm Not Surprised, Just Sad

The Valentine reports have been coming in today.  One friend reported on a happy memory from time gone by.  I've seen Facebook-posted pictures of flowers and status updates chronicling renewed promises of love.  Then there are the stories from the high school set.

Mostly the stories I've heard are sweet or bittersweet, innocent and often deeply heartfelt Valentine wishes accepted and rejected.  And this one:  "Mom, you know such-and-such and so-and-so were home alone last night having sex."  I guess I either gasped or sighed.  "Mom!  Are you surprised?"

I wish I were.  I know these kids only by sight, really.  It's not these particular kids anyway.  I know it could be any teen couple.  I am nowhere near na├»ve enough to imagine that high school kids aren't having sex.

I've read all the enlightened, post-modern thinking about sex and empowerment.  "Girls can be as free to have sex as boys!"  "Hooray for the hook-up culture!"  "Three cheers for condoms and the Pill."  I don't buy it.

I know I risk sounding old-fashioned, or, worse, like a prude.  Who else thinks sex should be saved for marriage anymore?  Puh-leese.

Honestly, I don't know if my kids will wait until they're married to have sex.  The odds are that they won't, but I hope they do, and not because of some abstract moralism. 

It's not that I think there is anything inherently wrong with living by a set of abstract moral standards, but we can all point to the human damage of shame that such standards and their bearers tend to wring from us.

Neither do I hearken to some misty bygone era when no one had sex before marriage or committed adultery after.  Such a time never was, of course, and to pretend that some earlier time was more sexually innocent than ours is silly at best.  People have always been people and have always had hormones and desires, which they have, to a greater or lesser degree, chosen to indulge or to discipline.

I don't think sex is bad.  How could it be, when it is part of how God created us to be in relationship with each other?  What I think is that sex is very, very powerful -- too powerful to be engaged in by kids.

Here's what I tell my own:  Sex is the way that God gave us to make new people.  Now, I realize that it's more than that too, but think for a minute about the procreative part.  Making new people is a big deal.  It's why we all, whatever side of the argument we may fall on, get worked up about abortion or even parenting choices.  We think it's a big deal to make a person and then to take care of that person until that person can take care of her or himself.

As for the more-than-that-part, the intimacy-between-partners part, that's powerful too.  Are we ever more vulnerable, men or women, than when we're sexually intimate?  Even if we choose to reserve our emotional investment in this particular partner, we become physically as vulnerable as a person can be -- naked (usually) and a little out of control.  That's what makes it beautiful and fulfilling, and that's what makes it perilous.

There is a difference between sex that serves only me and my needs and sex where I can both give and receive.  The former turns my partner into an object; the latter flows out of love.  If I think I'm getting the love but end up feeling like an object, the damage to my soul is all too real.  

I recently read an article summarizing a study that showed how profoundly our first sexual experience shapes our sexuality, maybe for our whole lives.  Too many young people have already had their sexual selves exploited through abuse.  I believe that sex-as-nothing-more-than-a-good-time also threatens to harm our sense of value as sexual beings.

Because sex is more than having a good time.  It is a way of connecting with one other person at a level of intimacy that no other bond can replicate, save, perhaps, that between a mother and her infant.

It's obvious, at least to anyone who is married or in a long-term, committed adult partnership, that every individual act of sex is not going to create that level of closeness.  But the commitment to one person, over time, does.  The willingness to continue, year after year, to be united in this unique way, knowing that the union is exclusive, even through times when we might not like each other all that much, creates something bigger and more genuine than hooking up can.

That's what I want for my kids.

Lenten Journey: Alms - Keeping Secrets from Ourselves

"When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others.  Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.  But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret.  And your Father who sees in secret will repay you." - Matthew 6:2-3
"Any material favor done to assist the needy, and prompted by charity, is almsgiving." (quoted from the Catholic Encyclopedia)
For reflection...

Alms is such a funny word, isn't it?  I don't think I've ever used it in a sentence.  When I hear it, I think of giving money.  I might use language like giving to charity or making a donation or even tithing, but I would never say I'm giving alms.  Even writing it makes me feel like I've stepped into a Charles Dickens story.

But if I'm to believe the definition I found, it's about more than money.  What does it mean, I wonder, as I unpack "material help" for "the needy," prompted by charity"?

Material help seems easy enough.  That includes money, right?  And stuff.  Canned goods or new socks or toothpaste.  For the needy.

Here I have to pause.  Needy.  I'm needy sometimes, and I have plenty of food and clothing and toiletries. So what else might it mean to be needy?  For me, I think of myself as needy when I'm over-stressed and over-planned and overwhelmed and I feel under-equipped, under-prepared, and misunderstood.  I say feel because, what I know from my less needy moments, is that I do have everything I need, if...

If what?  If I remember.  If I ask.  If I stop and breathe and pray and breathe some more.  But I forget, and I don't ask and I hold my breath and try to do it on my own and the next thing you know I feel like I'm suffocating.

The problem is, I am a lot more comfortable being the almsgiver than being the needy.

Which brings us to charity.  "Prompted by charity," says our definition.  Charity is another one of those words, like alms.  It's positively Dickensian, until you look at its roots.

Charity started out as an old Latin word, caritas, which was used in the Latin Bible to translate the Greek word that John and Paul and the other New Testament authors used:  agape.  We're probably familiar with it  in 1 Corinthians 13 and in John 3:16, but what does it mean?

C.S. Lewis wrote a whole book on the different ways the Greeks had of expressing the concept of love.  The nutshell of agape love is that it is what we might call unconditional or sacrificial love, that is, the sort of love that God has for us.

Which is the long way round, but brings us back to what it means for us to be "prompted by charity," or agape.  I have to know my own neediness before I can really meet you in yours with agape.  If I start anywhere else, I'm doing you a favor, because I can.  Because I have more.  Because I see myself in some sense as richer or more privileged or better.  And that's not love.

Love is mutual.  It requires that you and I meet in our shared need.  We come together in a common recognition of our brokenness and helplessness apart from something that is outside of us both -- that is, God.

If I'm going to give someone else a handout or a hand up, I have to start with my hands empty.  It's a mystery, even to me, how I can give from my own nothingness.  It's not mine to give, because I don't have it to give.  It can only be given through me, through my awareness of my own want.

My right hand, doing the giving, can only keep the secret from her partner, the left, when the right doesn't know herself how she's doing it.

For entering in...

Find a quiet place to be.  Spend a few moments becoming present to yourself.  Notice how it feels to be in your body, in this place, at this time.

Even if you're not sure there's anyone listening, invite God to be present with you.

Reflect on these questions:
  • Do you give to charity?  Do you tithe?  Why do you do it?  How have these practices figured into your spiritual life, if at all?
  • Have you ever been in want for material goods?  Under what circumstances?  Were you able to receive help from others?  How did that feel?
  • Do you ever feel emotionally or spiritually needy?  When or under what circumstances?  How do you react?  What do you feel like you need in those moments?
  • Write your own definition of love.  In particular, how would you describe the sort of love you think God has for you?  Is this what you want from God?  If not, rewrite your description to reflect the sort of love you want from God.  Include as much detail as you can.  
  • Look back on what you wrote about the ideal love you wish for from God.  Can you believe that God is offering you that sort of love, right now?  What if it were true?  How would your life be different?  How could you allow that love to pass through you and into the world?
When you have answered these questions in your thoughts or in writing, pause and again become present to yourself and to God.  What do you notice?

February 14, 2013

Paper Hearts

I'm a sucker for romance.  Really, I can be wildly sentimental, so I'm an easy target for any emotional tug at my heartstrings.  The older I get, the more unwilling I am to suffer through stories that don't end happily-ever-after.  But I'm not a fan of Valentine's Day.

Maybe it's my cynical streak.  The greeting card and candy and floral industries are certainly making a killing this week.  It's just another Hallmark holiday.

Maybe it's bitterness leftover from my youth when it was the other girls for whom boys were buying flowers and chocolates and stuffed dogs.

It's probably a little bit of both, but it's more.  A holiday ostensibly about love, even romantic love, should not take love so lightly.

Our secular holiday celebrations are all built around little fantasies, aren't they?  They serve as oases in our lives, breaks from the routine, as festivals always have.  They appeal to children, and to the child in all of us, because they take us away from the hard, cold world into a realm of imagination.  Where they touch our innocence, they are wonderful.  I like holidays.

But there is an inherent rub when the fantasy meets real life.  Then, more disappointing than discovering that Santa won't always bring you what you want or that a scary Halloween mask won't drive away the evil, is the hoax of love perpetuated by Valentine's Day.

Valentine love is easy.  It is never unrequited.  It's always agreeable.  It gives little gifts.  It is candlelight and hand holding.  It is always fresh and new.

Movie love is like Valentine love.  So is storybook love.  I fell for it.

When I was single, I was looking for Valentine love.  Even after I was married.  I wanted it to be easy.  I wanted it to be all hand holding and agreeable.  I wanted little gifts.  That's what it was supposed to be.

Of course, it's nothing of the kind.  Oh, sometimes, on a little oasis, it might be, for a moment.  But that oasis is a mirage; it doesn't slake a desert thirst.  Because the desire for real love is a deep thirst, which can't be satisfied by chocolates or flowers -- or even a wedding ring.

It can feel like hard work.  We are, each of us, so thirsty.  We come together to dig a well, but the water lies deep.  We're now two people digging.  Sometimes only one can bear the burden for a time.  Exhaustion sets in.  More dirt and ash shoveled out of the hole.

Sometimes it feels like we're digging through solid stone.  Maybe it's the trials of life.  Real romantic love has to dig through society's expectations.  Do we get married or live together?  It has to dig through childbearing or infertility or the choice to be childless. There are my parents and yours.  There are trials with money and struggles over sex.  There are illnesses and deaths and the specter of our own deaths.

The hardest stone of all might be my hardened heart or yours.  I want what I want and you want what you want.  If we're not careful, one of us will find herself or himself digging in a different hole altogether.

Or maybe we've never had anyone to dig with at all, and we're ready to put down the spade and lay down at the bottom of the empty well alone.

And the well never fills.

Hearts of stone can't be replaced by paper hearts, however beautifully they may be trimmed with lace and verse.  We need hearts of flesh.

Hearts of flesh are soft, but they're not so attractive.  They are full of life, blood, energy.  They can sputter or bleed or die.  Valentine's Day neglects to tell us that.

But God doesn't.  In Genesis 2:24, when God brings the first man and woman together, he invites them to be "one flesh."  My heart becomes yours and yours mine -- not the paper versions, but the beating, bleeding ones.  We take the risk of giving life to each other or sucking that life away.  If we're going to be able to bear the risk, we need a rest from the digging and relief of our unbearable thirst.

Jesus has a word for us about our thirst and our hearts.  He says it in John 7:37-38:
"Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, 'Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water.'"
We can keep digging, and maybe some day we'll fill the well, but today, now, we can drink from the source. Whether we are coupled or single, any one of us can open his heart, her heart, and drink and be satisfied and find that our own fleshy hearts become a source of living water, the well that won't run dry.

So it doesn't have to be so hard after all.  That doesn't mean that the flowers and candy and paper hearts will suffice.  If you choose, by all means, take a moment today to enjoy the fantasy with roses and red balloons.  But if you are alone today, or if your beloved isn't the flowers-and-candy-giving type, don't despair. It's only Valentine love.  Real love is meant for you, for me, for us.