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Tina and I were sitting having breakfast at Original Steve’s Diner in the strip mall on Panorama Trail one morning last week. The waitress had showed us to a booth next to one of the front windows and sitting in a booth directly behind us were four women dressed in bright red and green Christmas sweaters, laughing and exchanging presents wrapped in silver paper with oversized gold and red bows tied to the same color ribbon running lengthwise on the box, obviously the bows and the wrapping were done by someone with great skill and patience.

“I am telling you,” one woman said, “we were all laughing and singing. It was like waking up from a dream about winning the lottery, but the dream was real.”

“It was like after being immersed in darkness for a long time,” another woman spoke. “Dark like in the very beginning of life until God said, “let there be light, then there was light. All of the uncertainty, the troubled dreams, the confusion and chaos were gone because the light chased it all away.”

“Oh, it was just like that,” a third women said. They all laughed and I was starting to very slowly cut my one big blueberry pancake that covered the entire plate, drizzling maple syrup on it while I was listening to the women’s conversation. Of course, Tina was giving me a look that said I shouldn’t be eavesdropping, except they were talking so loud I had a hard time not listening to them.

“Yes,” the second women said, “it was just like that and we were so thankful that we had gone. Sort of the way you are when the lights come back on after a thunderstorm.”

“But, so much more breathtaking.” The third woman said.

“So, when did you get to Bethlehem?” The fourth woman asked.

“Well, this was a regular pilgrimage people make during Advent,” the first woman said. “Thousands of people were there. It was amazing and frightening because it is Israel and the political situation was in upheaval, but at the same time it was exciting, especially finding out where everyone was from.”

“Yes, there were people from England, the US of course, but from Poland..”

“Oh, and the people from Africa, who were taking lots of photos to take back with them, “the third woman said. “One young woman had her whole trip paid for by her village because it was very expensive, so she was taking photos on her cell phone and sending them back home, so they could feel like they were on the trip with her. She said, “I am on a journey from being only about myself to discovering other people, traveling from a familiar place to a promised place.”

“Remember that woman from Poland,” the second woman said,  “who said she wasn’t very religious, but said she had to come because as she said, “You sing about these places and you make nativity scenes and you talk so much about the stories, but you never think that you will actually go here. I cannot say that I am the most religious, but just to be here on this day is significant.”

“Oh yes, it was significant.”

“Tell me, “the fourth woman said, “how did you get to Bethlehem? What was the journey like?”

“Well, it was hard because so many people were going the same way we were.”

“Oh yes, everyone was on the long obedience in the same direction road trip like Pastor Eugene Peterson wrote about in one of his books. And, someone was singing, “it seemed like a dream, too good to be true, when God returned Zion’s exiles. We laughed, we sang, we couldn’t believe our good fortune. We were the talk of the nations: ‘God was wonderful to them!” God was wonderful to us; we are one happy people.”

“That’s right. They were singing Psalm 126. At first I didn’t realize what they were singing because they were using the Message translation. When I realized it I..”

“Yes, anyway,” said the first woman, “we started out going to the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem for prayers, then we attended a mass with hundreds of people at the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem led by a wonderful priest, Father Kelly, I think.”

“Then, “said the second woman, “we traveled to Bethlehem, which took quite a long time and when we arrived there were just long lines after long lines. Kinda like at Disney World because this is the place where Jesus and David were born and people said it was the perfect place to be on Christmas Eve and everyone wanted to be there.”

“Did you see the manger?” the fourth woman asked.

“Well, yes, it took over an hour and half, but we saw the place where the manger had been and I was amazed to think, this is where God came to us. A pretty plain, ordinary looking place, but filled with such joy and wonder.”

“Oh yes. It was like what someone wrote about pilgrims, but I just can’t remember exactly what.

As I listened to the women, I thought about what Rev. Phil Antilla wrote about pilgrims on Passover, Pentecost and Sukkot journeys to Jerusalem. Their “road trip,” he said, “was both literal and metaphorical. Jerusalem was the highest city geographically in Palestine at the time, so nearly anyone who made this trek experienced a quite literal “ascent”. The trip however, also acted as a metaphor, representing a pilgrimage into life with God. Advent is our metaphorical pilgrimage, since every step and every song and every physical motion represents a deeper story of the Christian life.” Indeed, a long obedience in the same direction-the path of living for Christ, as Peterson wrote.

“Yes, I felt, “ the third woman said, “as though I needed to really be aware of how I can be faithful to God because of everything God has done, is doing and will be doing for me and really everybody.”

“It is like William Faulkner wrote,” the first woman said, “the psalms and our pilgrimages are not monuments, but footprints because monuments say, ‘at least I got this far’ but, footprints say, ‘this is where I was when I moved again.”

“The air was still that night in Bethlehem,” the first woman said, “even with all those people, it was quiet. Thousands of people hushed to silence by prayers of their own, recognizing God’s gift of being present with us whether we planted seeds with tears like my grandmother talked about doing in Nebraska, just hoping the seeds would germinate and wheat crops would come up, hoping the rains came at the right time and the hail stones wouldn’t come at all or whether we harvested the wheat and could pay the mortgage and bills for seed and gas for the tractors and such with maybe a little something left over. My grandmother would say the harvest was the joy God brought to them as they celebrated the harvest with songs and dancing and food and laughter from the oldest to the youngest because they came in from the fields carrying armfuls of God’s blessings that only looked like wheat sheaves.”

“Oh yes, I felt it just that way. God’s presence strengthening us and renewing us in the midst of Bethlehem, then somewhere on the journey back from Bethlehem we started singing, laughing and dancing and feeling unbinding, unbounded joy!

Drinking the rest of my coffee to wash down the last bite of blueberry pancake, I recalled Silvia Purdie’s version of psalm 126 written as a harvest song,

“Remember feeling amazing!
Remember a time of celebration –
that was the Lord God at work!
Laughter rang out,
everyone was happy,
everyone laughed till they shook with joy!
The Lord has done great things for us
and we reply with shouts of joy!

Remember feeling sad?
Remember tears running down your face –
God was with you then.
Your pain planted seeds
and your tears watered them.
The seeds grew in the tender mercy of God growing fruit of wisdom
fruit of kindness.
Gather the fruit, and celebrate
that all things work for good in God’s ways.
Those who go out weeping
shall come home rejoicing.

The Lord has done great things for us
and we reply with shouts of joy!”

I was just supposed to be having the weekly breakfast out that Tina and I enjoyed together, but the joy, laughter and story of these Advent pilgrims sitting behind me was a gift reminding me to be amazed, to be happy and to be joyful in this Advent because God comes to be with us as a baby born in a plain, ordinary stable to lead us on the path of long obedience in the same direction, so we too might carry God’s blessings from the fields of our lives with shouts of joy at the great things the Lord has done for us.

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The pool of water was still. Only the humming sound of a honeybee across the pool in the tangle of wisteria and willow on the edge of the water and the murmuring wheeze of the old man’s breathing broke the silence.

“Been comin’ here a long time.” The old man whispered to the man sitting next to him. The old man looked up at the sky. It was clear and cobalt. The sun shone like a gold plate reflecting light. “Good day ta be here.” His companion nodded his head in agreement.

“Yes sir. A good day! You know, I think I just might be ready. I know by the look on your face you’re wondering’ ready for what?’ Well, I’ll tell ya. I’m ready for the train to take me home. Finally, I am ready for the train. It took me a long while, but I’m finally ready. I’ve spent my whole life trying to get ready, but I never felt really ready. When Myrna died, what…three years ago….I wasn’t ready.

I was foolin’ myself still. Myrna, she was ready. She was ready near her whole life. Not a better woman around. She lived the good news. She knew it and she lived it! She took care of folks when they were sick. Baked bread for the new wives arriving in town. Helped people when they were down and out. Had me build a house for those young Murphys when they first came here. Didn’t have a nickel, but sure did have babies. Myrna made me find him a job. She was wonderful. She made us go to church every Sunday.  She said, God gave us over a hundred hours a week, we could praise the Lord for at least two of ’em. Praise him, she said. That’s what we did, too. I..I never really understood her until now. Now, I know what she meant, when she said she was ready. Be ready at anytime. Nothin’ ta fear if you’re ready, she said. Now, I know. I’m ready!”

The old man saw the expression on the face of the man sitting next to him, “You have no idea what I’m talkin’ about do you?  Well, I don’t know how ta explain it, but let me try this way.

You see, a man and a woman stood on the platform at the train station. The day was beautiful with the deep blue sky, wispy clouds floatin’ overhead, and a soft, warm breeze ruffling their clothes and coolin’ the heat of the day down to a comfortable 75 degrees.

The man stepped close ta the woman and said, “Are you waiting for the train?”

“Yes, I am.” she said and inched away.

“So am I.” He said without moving. “Have you been waiting long?”

“Not very long,” she said and smiled at him.

“Me either. Do you know when the train will be here?”

“No,” she said, “I am not sure when it will be here.”

“Maybe I should go and ask the ticket seller.”

“If you want, you may, but I’m not worried about it. I know it will be here sooner or later.” She shrugged and walked away to sit down on one of the green painted benches under a wooden canopy.

The man shuffled off ta see when the train would be there. When he came back to the platform, the woman was still sitting on the bench under the canopy. He marched over ta the bench next to her and plopped down with a “humph” and unzipped his jacket.

“Well, the ticket seller was not very helpful. He had no idea when the train would be here. Said it was delayed somewhere. Might be a long time.” The man said.

“Oh. No matter,” said the woman. “It will be here. The time is not really important.” She closed her eyes and leaned back on the bench.

“You seem very calm about all of this.” She did not answer him or open her eyes. “Don’ t you want ta catch the train and be on time?”

“Of course. I already have my ticket and I cannot be late because the train has a schedule to keep, so I know it will arrive here when the time is right.”

“Why did you get your ticket so soon? There’s plenty of time ta git the ticket.” He looked around the near empty train station. “There’s not exactly a lot of people here.”

“Yes,” she sighed heavily, “but it is better to be prepared, so when the train comes one can board it immediately.”

“Why? I can’t imagine seating is a big problem.”

“The train does not stay in the station very long because it has many other stops to make along the way. If one is not ready to board it, one risks being left behind.”

The man frowned and half-turned away, “Poppycock! I can git my ticket and still make the train. Anyway, we’ve got plenty of time.” The man lay down on the bench and fell asleep. The woman fell asleep too.

The daylight faded into darkness. The lights of the canopy shown down on the two sleeping figures as other lights in the train station broke the darkness into circles of light. In the distance, a whistle blew. The shrill sound woke the woman. She heard the stationmaster shout, “Train is comin’. Train is comin’.” She shook her herself awake and stood up. She glanced at the man still sleeping. She reached down and shook the top of his shoulder.

“The train is coming into the station. You should get up.” She said as she shook him. The man woke with a start. He wiped his mouth and sat upright. “The train is coming.” She said as she walked to the edge of the platform.

“Uh. What?” The man said. “Oh. The train. The train is comin’.” He jumped up and ran to the woman. “How far out is it?”

“I do not know exactly, but I see a light down the tracks.” She said over her shoulder.

“Oh. Oh. Do I…”he glanced toward the station “Do I have time to get a ticket?” The woman shrugged. “How about you. Did you get an extra ticket? Can I get on board with you?”

“No. Everyone needs their own ticket, their own life. I only have one. You better go and get your own.”

“Yeah,” The man dashed off.

“And, you better hurry. The train is almost here.” She shouted after him.

The great diesel train whooshed into the station. The great silver and black compartments gleaming in the circles of light. The train stopped and a door opened in front of the woman. She smiled at the conductor, handed him her ticket, and boarded the train. As soon as she was inside and sitting comfortably in a compartment, the train roared and whooshed off.

The man came running out of the station house toward the train. “Wait! Wait! he shouted. The train roared down the tracks into the darkness. He stood at the edge of the platform. He crumbled his ticket in his hand and threw it down on the tracks. He turned round and walked back to the bench under the canopy.

Somewhere in the darkness an old gospel song played, “Are you ready? Are you ready?  Are you ready to sit by throne? For the Lord is comin’ to carry you home.”

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Bob Diehl was on his way up the corporate ladder in New York City. He knew where he wanted to go and how he was going to get there.

“I was determined,” he said, “to make a lot of money and be president of a corporation.” He saw his future clearly. Knew every step to take along the path he was walking. He clearly knew who he was, what he thought about himself and his family, his place in the world, and the way life was supposed to be.

Then, as that wonderful theologian John Lennon said, “real life got in the way while he was making other plans” because suddenly and unexpectedly he was caught by the challenge of the mysterious and uncertain call to “drop his nets and follow Jesus.”

“I was a good Catholic,” he said, “which meant I went to mass on Sunday mornings.” But as he got closer to the top of the corporate ladder, “the more I realized that to play the corporate game I had to play meant giving up my faith. It was then; I realized God was calling me to change the direction of my life.”

Calling he and his wife to leave their suburban lifestyle with all the trappings of big and expensive house, two cars, the technological gadgets and recreational toys to begin a journey like the one Peter, Andrew, James and John began one early morning on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

The mist of the early morning had dissolved in the brightness of the early morning and Zebedee, a fisherman of no great importance, sat on the deck of his boat with his two sons James and John. The fishing was done for the day. The catch of fish had been taken to market. Now, they were sitting on the deck of the boat that was resting at ease on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and they were tending to the busyness of mending their nets, planning the next morning’s fishing when a voice from the shore calls.

“James! John! Sons of Zebedee! Come. Follow me! And, I will make you fishers of men and woman.”

Without a word, James and John drop their nets to join Jesus and Peter and Andrew.

Now, I wonder what Zebedee thought about this because when I finally realized God was calling me to pastoral ministry and I was about to enter seminary, I called my Dad, who was living in California. I said, “Dad, I am going to seminary to become a minister.” Silence. Absolute silence. It had taken me forty-six years, but I finally made the old man speechless. So, I wonder what Zebedee felt when his two sons dropped their nets. What did he think? What would he have said?

Might he have said, “You know, I heard the voice calling, “James! John!” but, I didn’t know who it was. I just saw a young man accompanied by two other men I recognized as the fishermen Simon Peter and his brother Andrew. I only later learned his name is Jesus. Well, John and James dropped their nets in mid-mend. Just like that. They drop their mending hooks, hemp strands, climb off the boat to join that young man. No good-bye. No, “Shalom, Poppa.” They do not even ask if they could leave. They just drop their work. I was stunned. Of course, my sons are known to be hot heads, the kind of men who act first and think later, but never had they just left in the middle of doing their work. Yet, this Jesus summons them to follow him and they obey immediately. I was stunned. They never obeyed me like that. Later, I heard Simon Peter and his brother Andrew were in the midst of fishing when this Jesus called them, “Come follow me. I will make you fishers of men and women.”

They, too, just dropped their nets and left their boat. They did not even stop to fold their nets or give their boat to someone for safekeeping. No! Jesus calls; they drop their nets, and go off to who knows where and doing who knows what. He just barges into their lives like with my sons. My sons were not thinking about following this Jesus. They were not thinking about changing their lives all around.  That was the farthest thing from their minds. We were talking about the fishing, the nets, our family, and when they would inherit the boat when Jesus intrudes into our lives, disrupting everything, and changing everything with his, “Come follow me.”

Of course, that’s how God calls people. He intrudes in people’s lives without asking their permission. He disrupts their neatly laid plans and the way they think the world works. Think about Abraham and Sarah. I doubt they were planning to leave Ur and everything including their family to wander around until God told them to stop. Moses wasn’t planning to return to Egypt. David was a child watching his father’s sheep. Every Prophet from Elisha to Malachi was just living their lives when God showed up to call them to prophetic ministry. Mary was doing household chores like the good Jewish girl she was when Gabriel showed up saying, “Greetings, favored one!” Even Joseph was simply sleeping when he received the call to name Jesus.

So, it really makes perfect sense for Jesus to just show up with his” come follow me” not as a question or a request, rather as an invitation to begin a journey without really knowing exactly the destination or all that will be required of a person. After all, Jesus is God with us. Why wouldn’t he do a very God kind of thing?

Now, Peter, Andrew, John and James had no idea where they were going or what exactly they were going to be doing by following Jesus. They probably didn’t know any better than we do what being a fisher of men really meant. However, they would soon learn what Jesus was calling them to do as they followed him throughout Galilee. Going to Capernaum by the sea then down to Mt. Carmel and then around Gilead. Tracing the outline of the ancient tribal lands of Zebulon and Naphtali, lands lost and people lost when Assyria conquered the land and scattered the people in exile like blades of grass blown far and wide by the wind, they would witness words of the prophet Isaiah coming true, “In the former times he brought into contempt the land of Zebulon and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. A people who lived in deep darkness on them light has shined.”  These first disciples of Jesus they were fishing on the Sea of Galilee. They were part of those people who lived in darkness until the light of Christ came to shine upon them and that light was calling them to choose to change by following Jesus.

You see, as they witnessed with their eyes Jesus’ healing and witnessed with their ears Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God, they were experiencing directly all of God’s promises that Isaiah prophesied, “You have multiplied the nation, and you have increased its joy. They rejoice before you with joy at the harvest, for the yoke of their burden and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. See, a child has been born to us, a son given to us, authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.”

As they saw Jesus healing every disease, every sickness and every affliction what they were experiencing was a foretaste of the pouring out of God’s steadfast love and mercy that all people of the world would receive on the day of Jesus’ self-offering on the cross and the resurrection.

And, what they would learn on the journey with Jesus was that Jesus was calling them to not only drop their nets and be eye witnesses and ear witnesses to the coming reality of what Isaiah said, “Once a people walked in darkness, dwelled in a land of deep darkness, but the people have seen a great light;” the great light of God’s endless peace, justice and righteousness, but Jesus was calling them to participate in this new thing God was doing. Calling them to cast out their nets woven together of the good news of God’s grace and be part of God’s gathering all people of the world into the new life of God’s kingdom through Jesus the Christ because it is in God’s kingdom where the whole community of humanity’s life would be sustained, where every human community would discover its well-being. That’s what Jesus meant when he said and I’ll teach you to be fishers of men and women because God’s gathering of people into the community of God’s people would come through their discipleship and through actions as God’s servants. They left their nets behind them along with families and friends and their settled seemingly predictable lives to learn from Jesus how to serve God’s plans for humanity and not their own plans, their own ambitions, their own bias or their own desires.

As a matter of fact, one of the most important lessons they had to learn was to trust God and not to look back about all the changes that were happening to them. It was a little like climbing a mountain. One of the first things experienced mountain climbers tell people is” don’t look down” as Kari Myers writes it,” because when you have a long way to fall then your attention is focused on falling and fear grasps hold of you and all you can think about are all the problems and barriers to climbing the mountain. That happens to individuals and it happens to congregations. We can always come up with a list of substantial reasons why we cannot overcome the challenges God sets before us. Sometimes it’s too hard, too big, too complicated, too unmanageable, too new, and uncertain, unproven. Yet, it really isn’t about how high the mountain is or how weak the climber is. Rather, it is about God and it is about the disciples realizing that when they focus on God and going where Jesus is leading then they could do whatever God in Christ is calling them to do.

The second lesson they had to learn was that being God’s servant meant serving others and recognizing that, “as Barbara De Grote Sorenson and David Allen Sorenson tells us, “that servant hood is a gift of grace God gives to those who are givers to heal us of our sinfulness, our self-centeredness, our self-preoccupation, and selfishness” so we might sustain and promote the well-being of others without worrying about rewards or what we get out of it. Because, we know as lesson one reminds us that we trust God’s generosity. After all God is the one who gave us life in the first place.

Finally, the disciples had to learn that in every generation God is calling men, women, old and young alike to “Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of people.

Indeed, Jesus called all of us. Oh, it may sound like a tiny voice calling you to get up out of bed  and go to worship or shovel your neighbor’s sidewalk after a snowfall or maybe it was a deep, unnamed feeling that told you that you needed to be focused on God’s agenda for humanity; or it may have been Jesus calling you through the voice of your mother, your father, your wife, your husband, your child, or simply the rhythm of life telling you today is the Sabbath, the resting time of God’s Kairos time, but it was Jesus calling you.

And, just to be clear, Jesus will be continuing to call all of you. Intruding into your life. Disrupting your neatly laid plans. Calling each of you to take a journey whose destination is not exactly known, to participate in a ministry that is the new thing God is doing now in your midst, which in this moment remains a mystery, somewhat uncertain and may when it is known make you or others speechless.

It might be as advocates for food justice or immigration justice for farm workers and farmers alike. It might be becoming a healing center for those suffering from moral injury and Post Traumatic Stress or being advocates for better access to mental health treatments.

It might be…. anything. But, it will be a ministry that will gather people together in community to sustain and promote the well being of this community and the whole community of God’s people around the world.

The only real question all of us need answer is, will we drop our nets and follow Christ?

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“I’ve heard your anguish, I’ve heard your hearts cry out,

’ we are tired, we are weary and we are torn out,’

set down your chains until only faith remains,

set down your chains and lend your voices only to the sounds of freedom,

no longer lend your strength to that which you wish to be free from.

Fill your lives with love and bravery and we shall lead a life uncommon,” these song lyrics written by Jewell remind us God calls us to an expansive, deep, commitment in a life where humanity’s imagination is beckoned to embrace a vision of the possibilities for a vibrant, thriving community life far different than the fear based life so many people feel trapped within,

This life begins with the risen Christ coming to quicken, to bring alive, a festival of eternal springtime in the innermost heart of humanity,” Brother Roger of Taize wrote in 1970, “Christ is preparing for us a springtime of the Church-a Church devoid of the means of power, ready to share with all persons a place of visible communion. Christ is going to give us enough imagination and courage to open up a way of reconciliation, of unity. Christ is going to prepare us to give our lives so that one person will no longer be the victim of another person.”

A life uncommon is the vision Paul is writing the house churches of Corinth to embrace as God’s call filled with immense possibilities that go beyond the little, trivial status seeking, having arrived self assured, individualistic salvation sometimes articulated as ”I have my Jesus, my salvation, my ticket to heaven is punched, so don’t bother me about some commitment to the world, to other people.” This was, of course, part of the Corinthian church’s conflict fueled by spiritual arrogance, attachment to a charismatic-celebrity teacher, wanting everyone to be like minded, and the misconceptions about why they existed as a community of faith in the first place.

Now, private faith in a personal future is more comforting and marketable as so many television preachers from Tammy Faye Bakker to Joel Osteen have discovered, however such faith has little to do with the hope Jesus came to bring and doesn’t really spell good news for the poor, the imprisoned, the oppressed, and the left out. Not only that, but such individualism is unbiblical because God is not focused on saving one person, God aims to save all the people, to transform the whole of humanity. But more importantly, such a private faith is simply too small, too shallow to be the call of the God, who makes mountains rise up from the seas, who makes deserts into an oasis, who turns the cries of mourning into giggling laughter, whose way of creating human life is the image for how creation itself was created in the beginning and is being created even in this very moment.

Which is why, Paul is encouraging the Corinthians toward this life uncommon by beginning this letter with his call to be an apostle of Jesus Christ. Paul asserts his call to this ministry is not by his choosing. This wasn’t his desire. Remember Paul was the Pharisee’s Pharisee. He was a persecutor of the church because his understanding of who God was, and is as well as how God intended the life of God’s people to be lived did not include Jesus as messiah. However, God had other plans for Paul, plans that began on the road to Damascus. Plans sending Paul to be an apostle to the Gentiles and a church planter in places like Thessalonica and Corinth. This wasn’t Paul’s plan for his life, it was God’s plan for Paul’s life and, by the way, it wasn’t so Paul could be rich and famous, a celebrity of the church because if you sent Paul’s resume out to any church, including this one he’d never get called to be a pastor. Indeed, there is a story about a church that received Paul’s resume when they were searching for a pastor and they even rejected Paul. I know Paul is telling the truth because if you asked anyone I went to high school with if they thought I’d be a pastor; they’d be rolling on the floor laughing. Indeed, it took me years before I really thought God might be calling me to ministry.

The point is that Paul was called by God to be Christ’s apostle just as the house congregations of Corinth were gathered together by God and called by God to witness by their lives to God’s grace in Christ-together with ALL those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours. The ALL are not simply those in Corinth, they are every Christian community from Jerusalem to Ethiopia to India to Pakistan to Rome to Spain to the Slavic tribes of Central Asia to China and Korea. God’s community of faith is not limited to any one congregation in any one place, rather God’s community stretches north, south, east, west and all the way to the ends of the earth and every community of faith has all the knowledge, the ability to speak and witness to the gospel, all the spiritual gifts it needs to be God’s people. It is by God’s acts in Jesus Christ that the Christian church exists at all.

Which is the reason, the church of Jesus Christ is so much larger than just one congregation in one city or town or village or denomination, which ought to make us more aware that American Christianity is growing in amazing, yet hidden ways. For decades, we have heard that Christian churches in America are declining, so we need to work to get stores to have Christmas sales, we need the ten commandments carved into the stones of our public buildings, and we need have government sanctioned prayer in schools otherwise we’ll stop being a predominately Christian nation-if we ever really were one in the first place. What nonsense!

Yes the mainline Protestant churches’ membership have been declining, however the truth is captured in this tidbit of information. There were 200 churches in the city of Boston in 1970, but thirty years later there were 412 churches. From 2001 to 2006, 98 new churches were planted in Boston. Does this sound like decline? Of course not, but here is the important part of the story. Most of these “new” churches were immigrant or multiethnic congregations of Asian, Haitian Creole, Hispanic and other immigrant peoples. It is true that mainline, ethnically northern European congregations declined, but God’s church, the church of Jesus Christ wasn’t declining. It was growing!!! It is becoming more diverse because it is reaching to the ends of the earth and ALL those who call on the name of Jesus are called to be Christ’s body because as Teresa of Avila, a sixteenth century Spanish mystic, wrote her Carmelite sisters, “Christ has no body now on earth, but yours, no hands, but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which to look out Christ’s compassion to the world; yours are the feet with which Christ is to go about doing well; yours are the hands with which Christ is to bless men and women now.”  This is what some call an incarnational theology-the idea we are to be Christ to the world by fully embracing  and embodying God’s love for the world, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our bodies,” as Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthian churches.

This is the life uncommon God calls every person to embrace, yet it is a life that can at times make one feel tired and worn out as the prophet Isaiah speaks about. This servant experiences this call from God beginning when God was creating and forming this person in the womb to the moment when the servant was tired and worn out as though he has done everything he could do, everything God called him to do, and still his efforts have not borne the fruit he desired. This servant in whom God was to be glorified had momentarily forgotten one thing, it wasn’t up to him to make his efforts bear fruit, God would do that.

Quite honestly, this is a common mistake. It is made every time church folks say, “we’re bringing the kingdom of God to fulfillment or we’re bringing God to this city” as if God’s kingdom weren’t already here, as if God was late because JetBlue grounded the flight due to weather. However, it is a serious concern as one young, high school woman told Rodger Nishioka several years ago when the What Would Jesus Do campaign was at peak. She had been given a bracelet with the WWJD on it, as Rodger tells the story, and she fully understood it was to be reminder that we follow Jesus and that we are to be guided by Jesus’ actions in every facet of our lives. Her problem, she said, was that she didn’t see how it was possible to know what Jesus would actually do, let alone do it faithfully because as she said, somewhat exasperated by being reminded that we have scriptures and a wide community of believers to help us, “yeah, but don’t you see! I’m not Jesus I am fully human, but I am not fully divine. I just don’t think it’s fair to even assume that I could imagine what Jesus would do because I am not God.”

And, she has a point. None of us are God. None of us are Jesus and for sure, even those of us we have received Master of Divinity degrees are not really Masters of the Divine. Yes, what we are really to be doing is living lives that embody Christ and to love the world as God loves the world, but we must understand the world will not be saved by what I do or what you do.

Rather, it will be saved by what God has done, is doing and continues to do in the world around us and for the world through us by being present with us, strengthening us when we need the strength to, like the servant in Isaiah, keep on keeping on being those whose lives point other people to Christ like John the Baptist, who calls people to see Jesus Christ, to see God at work in the world by saying, “Hey look, God is alive, God is in our midst. Behold the Lamb of God .Behold, the Holy Spirit is weaving among us and within us, transforming circumstance and people,” for a life uncommon.

A life that is a festival of eternal springtime here and now lived in the visible communion of the whole humanity, whose voices sing songs of freedom and who lend their strength only to living into the expansive possibilities of God’s call setting them free to live lives filled with love and bravery.

 

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Water. Simple. Common.

We are surrounded by water in the lakes, the rivers, in the snow visible on lawns and along sidewalks and roads, in the water that comes rushing out of our faucets at the flick of wrist and in the. water covering more of the earth’s surface than land.

Indeed, there is enough water on the earth to cover the entire United States to a depth measured in miles and water makes up between 50-90% of the body weight of every living organism. Human anatomy textbooks tell us we can live longer without food than we can without water because water is in every cell of every organ in our bodies and our cells and organs cannot function without water and the same is true for all living organisms. We cannot grow food or grass without water, just ask the Texas and California farmers who have suffered from years long drought, the folks in Atlanta who watched their reservoirs dry up several years ago, or folks living in Flint, Michigan.

Of course, water has other uses. We clean our clothes, cars, and our dishes with water. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries water powered many of the industrial machines and ocean liners as well as being part of a national transportation network that included the Erie Canal.

Water is simple. It is common.

Yet, water becomes much more when it is poured into or baptismal font. For in this font our simple and common water is transformed into the waters of creation, the flood, the Red Sea, and the Jordan River.

When I hold an infant in my arms and I take water from here and splash it on the child, the water is transformed into the gift of God’s grace that comes to us without our having to do anything to earn it or deserve it. God just gives it to us freely, without any conditions being placed upon it because like the infant in my arms we simply receive this magnificent gift of God’s love. In this water borne love we are claimed by God to be one of God’s own beloved for the entirety of our lives as if saying, “You are God’s beloved child deserving love and respect just because you are you.”

When an adult stands next to the font and I take water and splash it on her head, the water is still transformed into the gift of God’s amazing love, but that person’s past is also washed away, it no longer exists, it is dead and it is buried in a tomb. She is liberated by God to live her life confident that all of God’s promises of an abundant, vibrant life are hers. She is a new creation and may begin writing her life story anew, writing it with the freshness and the joy that comes every time new life springs forth.

All of this happens on the day Jesus wades into the waters of the Jordan River, the waters John used to symbolically wash clean those who chose to turn their life around. Who chose to say, “I don’t want to live my life the way I have been living it. I want a different life. I want a new life with God and God’s people.” The same waters their ancestors crossed through to claim the land and life God promised them both in exodus and exile. A promise affirmed by God declaring, “I am your God and you are my people, my people who will show the rest of humanity what living in shalom looks like when lived fully.”

The people John baptized were assured of that same new life with God and God’s people because Jesus waded into the same water they had waded into and just as John baptized them, so too did John baptize Jesus. Not because Jesus needed to repent, rather because God chose to live in solidarity with all humanity by sharing the entirety of our lives with us. Experiencing all we experience.

That is what God was doing through Jesus from the moment of his birth to ordinary folks like Joseph and Mary in the everyday. common surroundings of a barn witnessed by ordinary folks like the shepherds and villagers of Bethlehem to the day Jesus wades in the water and is baptized.

Yet, God, also, came to be with us to write humanity’s life story anew. To move humanity away from the life of a world that hungers for more whether that is more profits, more body surgery, more cosmetics, more cars, more beer, more sex, more certitude, more security, more power, more oil, or more of whatever is the latest and greatest shiny, new thing, acquiring it and possessing it through coercion, hate, trickery, or game-rigging mechanisms without compassion or concern for others lower in the social hierarchy. You see, God comes to be with us to move humanity toward a righteous life, which is the point of Jesus saying “so we might fulfill all righteousness.” However, being righteous gets kind of a bad rap because the centuries long stereotype of a righteous person is being self-righteous, which deludes a person into thinking they are morally superior and, perhaps the arbiter of everyone else’s morality, as if they are themselves God and so end up in the idolatry of worshipping themselves. By the way, one of the essentials of reformed theology is sin.  Specifically, the sin the reformers were concerned about was idolatry. Indeed, this stereotype is so old that Christians in the second century told the joke about how when Jesus released everyone from hell, the devil wept, until Jesus said, “don’t worry when the self-righteous start dying, the place will be filled up again.”

 What is really meant biblically by righteous is the harmony between faith and acts of daily living that are aligned with the consistent and normative actions of God, which promote wholeness, well being and life for everyone. Being righteous means integrating into a whole, complete self our inner spiritual life with our outer acts of living, reflecting God’s intentions for all humans and human communities as well as the rest of creation.

The first chapter of this new story is written in Jesus’ birth when the world through the Magi’s willingness to follow God’s sign of a star came to a manger to acknowledge Jesus is Lord of life. The second chapter began being written when Jesus rose from the waters and the Spirit of God rested upon him and God declared, “This is my Son, the beloved with whom I am well pleased.” In this moment, we witness Jesus’ identity being clearly articulated publicly to everyone who was present on that day in the river, along the bank of the river and everyone who reads this gospel. But, that’s also when God claimed everyone who shares the waters of Christ, this water, to be God’s own beloved sons and daughters. Here is the moment when God says to all who share in this water, “You are God’s beloved child and you deserve love and respect because you are you, created in the image of God.” This is the moment our identity is clearly articulated publicly, in front of everyone present in the sanctuary of our baptism.

But, that isn’t all because in the aftermath of that moment Jesus goes out into the wilderness of temptation as the prelude to the daily living of who he is and what he is here to do as a righteous person that is spelled out in his actions and his words, most notably in Matthew chapters 5-7 or what we call the sermon on the mount. And, when Jesus calls disciples to “follow me” he is calling everyone whose identity is God’s beloved son or daughter to join in doing what he is doing because the second half of that identity piece is, “God will use me and you to change the world” by all of us being righteous persons joining in doing Missio Dei- the mission of God.

However, God won’t force us to be righteous persons, rather God invites and persuades us to choose to be righteous persons pursuing Missio-Dei. We need to actively choose to do this. It won’t happen by luck, by a series of fortuitous moments linked together, nor by us standing around complaining or whining about the state of the world or our lives. We must actively choose to do this. But here’s the thing to remember, every person, including all of us, has a life story they are writing, not only with words on paper, but through spoken words, actions, decisions, and all the experiences that come from our choices and we have the power to choose how our life story will turn out by choosing whether our inner spiritual life and our outer active life are an integrated whole.

Each one of us has the same power to choose today to trust God’s goodness, mercy, steadfast self-giving love and presence by serving God’s mission of restorative justice, of freeing those kept in bondage whether it is economic, lack of access to education, not having food sovereignty, lack of quality health care or tyrannical oppression, of valuing all life and seeking ways to nurture and promote an abundant life for all, of being the light that breaks through darkness, so other people may reach out for the light of God and in that light find the fullness and the life of shalom God desires for every person.

This will not guarantee that we will know exactly how our lives will go in each present moment because we are living our life as God’s beloved son or daughter joining God in changing the world day by day and writing our life story word by word, choice by choice and action by action and we may still experience pain, disease, sorrow \and suffering, but we will be able to live through those moments assured that God’s promises of life are for us and for our children and their children’s children. This confidence and strength comes to us in the simple, common water that Jesus transformed for all eternity into the grace that is always with us, all around us, bathing us in the life creating love of God.

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Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!

All creation from the highest heaven to the deepest seas raises a chorus of praise for God. Brothers sun, wind and air, Sisters moon, stars, and water, rocks and the hills lift up a strong united voice singing praise to the Lord.  All you great diversity of people over the earth from the rich to the poor, the presidents and prime ministers to citizens who vote, farmers and factory workers to doctors and lawyers, men and women, adults and children raise your voices in songs of God’s praise.

The singer of this psalm invites, “All creation be partners in this song! Praise the Lord!” This invitation is an imperative cry. It is strong and exuberant and loud and demanding! It is a cry that cannot be ignored because there are more important things to do. It is a cry that demands not just a simple, “God is great. God is good.” singsong response or a whispering kind of “God is good.”

It is a cry demanding a strong, exuberant, joy filled, shouting, glad, demanding, happy, celebrating, clap your hands, stomp your feet, “God is good! All the time! God is good! All the time!” response. It is a cry to join in an act that is equally poetic and audacious as it is self-abandoning and subversive.

It is a cry that reminds creation that God took a deep, dark, formless void, a hajata tohu vohu, and brought order, light and shape to it. God took a place where life was not and was not possible, then created a place where life exists and where life not only flourishes, it is sustainable. God created by life by speaking life into being by God’s Word. Each day God spoke life, order, shape came into being. First light for day and dark for night. Second, oceans and sky. Third, dry land called earth. At the same time seas and oceans were given boundaries. Then, fruit trees and all other trees and green plants were brought to life. Fourth, sun in the sky for day and the moon and stars for night were given their reason for being. Together, their movements in the sky would be signs for days, weeks, years. For the changing seasons. Fifth, fish and all the other creatures living in the waters were given life. Then birds flying in the air receive life. Sixth, wild and domestic animals and all the creeping things receive life. Then, human kind, men and women, are created in God’s image and likeness and given their purpose. They are to be stewards of God’s creation by relating and exercising dominion of creation in the way God does; as a servant. Seventh, God rests. Creation is whole and complete, so God rests and by resting, God set within creation’s time God’s rhythm of work and rest.

Where there was only formlessness, God created a complex, highly textured, intricate woven tapestry of a dynamic, organic life containing within it the fingerprints of God’s creative touch from the largest mountains and deepest oceans to the minutest sub-atomic particles.

What also becomes clear in our remembrance of how God creates life is the relationship between humanity and land, people and place. Wendell Berry, poet and farmer, makes this point clear in his essay “Local Economies to Save the Land and the People,” when he writes, “we must not speak or think of the land alone or the people alone, but always and only both together. If we want to save the land, we must save the people who belong to the land. If we want to save the people, we must save the land the people belong to.” Berry continues to point out how the destructiveness of driving or encouraging people to leave the land in favor of an industrialized life of being consumers instead of being producers, where one has a “Job,” but not a vocational calling or a vocational choice is destroying local communities and local economies. Because,  when a people move to find the “job” to earn the money to buy what one does not produce, they fail to live in a community of mutual usefulness. That place where small store owners know their patrons, skilled craftsman are known by the quality of their work and where farmers grow crops for subsistence and for sale locally because people live in their home counties where they not only know the people going back  generations, but also know the names of all the trees in the forests near them. People were rooted to the land and to the people. Industrialization in all of its forms creates “jobs,” but it also creates the destruction of mutually useful and mutually supportive communities by making people able to be exploited by corporations with wealth and power or to be discarded when the “job” the economy falters or when a machine can perform their jobs.

In our remembrance of how God creates life and how the industrialization of life prompts the need to save both people and the creation in order to save the fragile relationships of mutuality inherent in both, we hear the psalmist’s imperative cry to “Praise the Lord!” as more than a call to exclaim and celebrate our wonderment and awe at God’s creative act. Rather, his loud and demanding cry calls us to speak about God. To describe how our ancestors and we have experienced God’s presence as the key to living into our future.

We speak about God by telling what God has done. We speak about creation because it tells us that God seeks relationships of mutuality defined best by Martin Luther King, Jr. as ”I can never fully be who I ought to be unless you are fully who you are to be.”

We speak about God’s call to Abram, the giving of a child to Sarah and Abram in their old age, the deliverance of the Hebrews out of bondage in Egypt, the Hebrews being brought to the land promised by God to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob because they tell us that God keeps God’s promises and God’s promises are about life.

We speak about the Hebrews being fed manna and quail and water in the desert, God sending prophet after prophet to the people Israel, the bringing of Israel out of exile and back to the promised land, the promise of a Messiah bringing justice and peace because they tell us that God is faithful to the relationship with us despite our unfaithfulness.

We speak about God coming to be with us in the midst of creation as a child born in the humblest and unexpected of places, of the healing ministry of Jesus the Christ, of the self-giving love Jesus lived in his relationships with other persons and taught us was God’s way, of Jesus’ willingness to die on a cross for our sakes, of Jesus’ resurrection and the hope it brings into our lives because they tell us God is merciful and forgiving, seeking to reconcile our broken relationship with God by doing for us what we could never do for ourselves-namely bearing the burden and the consequences of the guilt and shame of our sins that break apart all our relationships. And doing this because God loves us with a love that is the full expression of mutuality. A love we can never be separated from no matter the place, time, or circumstance because not even death can separate us from God’s love.

We speak about how God spoke through an angel to Joseph telling him to get up and take his family to Egypt, so they will be safe and far away from Herod’s murder of thousands of innocent children, about how when we felt confused and lost the Holy Spirit led us out of our confusion to the place we belonged, about the time we were alone and weeping tears of grief and God sat beside us and rocked us in God’s loving embrace because in speaking about these times we witness that God is present to protect us, to lead us, to comfort us, to touch us, and to transform our lives by God’s grace and power.

Our exuberant, shouting, celebrating, songs of praise speak of God’s presence, God’s reliability, God’s steadfast and self-giving love, God’s mercy and faithfulness. Yet, these songs of praise also tell us about ourselves.

We use poetic words and metaphorical phrasings in these songs of praise that evoke for us images of God, that generate and suggest to us concrete ways of understanding who God is-the mother that rocks a crying child to sleep in her lap, a mighty fortress strong and able to keep us safe within protective walls, a confidante who walks and talks with us. Yet, these same poetic words and metaphorical phrasings always resist every closed meaning or attempt to put God in a box to be controlled or manipulated. These poetic words of praise are so open to many meanings and ambiguity they leave wide latitude for us, who sing these words to accept and affirm a different version of reality than the one popular culture affirms. For as Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament scholar and professor reminds us, “If we eventually become the way we talk, if reality sooner or later follows speech than our utterance of praise may eventually wean us from our memo-shaped mastery-our 30 second sound byte shaped world, so we may fully live in the world God created.

Just as our poetic words and metaphorical phrasings open us to the full reality of God’s kingdom, our act of praise is an audacious act because we seek to show how great and significant God is. How prominent God is in our lives. We dare to do this act of praise as though we are giving something to God that God needs or desires until we are met in moment of our praise with the surprising gift of illumination; our relationship with God is refined and deepened. We realize our praise arises out of an intimate communion with the One who is wholly reliable, who is so fully present with us, who loves us so dearly that in this moment of praise singing we give ourselves completely and unreservedly to God as an act of joyful gratitude for all the goodness of life.

We abandon ourselves to God in gratitude and gladly celebrate the Lord’s claim on our whole lives. Here our praise is subversive because we say there are no other gods, kings, or loyalties who can give us gifts, who have benefits to bestow, no summons to make, and no allegiance to claim. They are massively and forcefully dismissed. Every other loyalty that would put a hedge of vested interest between God and us is critiqued and dismissed in our song of praise.

There is only one Lord of the universe, we sing. God alone is sovereign of our lives. And, this sovereignty is embodied in the birth of Jesus the Christ, the Word made flesh embodying the reign of God in the ministry of a suffering servant who creates and renews life for us and for the whole of creation just as God created life by God’s Word in the beginning.

Halleu Adonai! Praise Christ the Lord!

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