Wednesday, February 29, 2012

God When We're Hanging by a Thread

Each Wednesday in Lent, our midday service will explore the psalm from the prior Sunday's appointed lectionary. This week we consider Psalm 25. Note to Hebrew geeks, "soul" is nephesh- which is much more than saying "soul"-it is life breath, essence, source of life

On my morning walks with Toby, I get the chance to see things I might normally pass by. Especially in the morning light, one of the things that I am mesmerized by are spider webs. I admire their beauty and how intricately spun they are. But they defy understanding. When covered in dew, they look like lots of tiny little dots that cling together. It all seems incredibly fragile and yet webs are designed to sustain winds, rain and being buffeted about by forces far greater than they are. I am mystified, seeing the spider in the web. How can that spider can just hang and twist in the wind, sometimes by one slender thread, working methodically to build and repair? God created and gifted the spider with a mechanism for making, and rebuilding the web, over and over again. The spider seems able to wait it out even in the tension of threats that take things to the breaking point. That kind of waiting and trusting is hard. I’m not sure about you, but I wouldn’t make a very good spider.

Waiting in the tension, enduring people and places that seem to test us to the breaking point takes more than the other times in our life, It is less of a challenge to ask God to hear us and show us the way when life is going good. But when our whole web of existence is threatened, having someone tell us a cliché like “you’ll work it out”, or to “just have faith”, rings hollow in the midst of it all.

These places demand something deeper. Most of us have been in such a place where we had to wonder what we can count on. For one woman  it was when her daughter ended up in the emergency room with a serious stroke. Not only was she overwhelmed, she wondered if there was something she’d done wrong or should’ve done differently. Yet, as I waited with her in the consultation room, after the doctor gave bad news and left, she almost instinctively whipped out a rosary from her pocket and pulled me down onto the floor with her, and together we prayed on our knees. This was, for her, a well tuned response to whenever she found herself in a place where other ways to keep calm would not do.

Something to hang onto.

Someone once said, ““You can't connect the dots looking forward; perhaps you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect…You have to trust in something.”

The psalmist is in such a fragile place and would say the something we trust is someone-It’s God. While it sounds lovely to say “I lift up my soul to you,” this psalm prayer goes much, much farther. In the fragile places straining to survive, this prayer recalls: 

God breathed life into us in creation, and now that very existence is on the line. How we're counting on God to stay connected. It’s a place that responds to the unspoken question of “how will this end?” and says- “I’m hanging by a thread, my hands are empty- I have nothing left. I lift up everything that I am- my very essence. I’m entrusting even my next breath and beat of my heart- to you.
God, ALL of my hope hangs upon YOU.”

This is not a simple prayer to pray. Embodying this level of trust and hope while waiting for God in the tension takes practice and faith there is something to rely upon.
Perhaps we can then hear the words, “show me, lead me, guide me, walk with me” as a request to internalize the words we say when we cry out- “Get me through this God.” These words are critical.

This psalm is a teaching psalm and reminds us why deepening our prayer life on a regular basis is so vital. It's training us to respond so that when and if we really need to know it, we can engage it. So this pattern becomes such a part of who we are, that even in the midst of a challenge, we remember what God has given us. We have something to hold onto when we feel like we’re hanging by a single thread. And that we can rely on this even if we had a role in how we got to that place.

As we do this time and again, we deepen our faith- what God has given us. We too are created and given a way to tend our web. When we pray this psalm, we hear ourselves telling God who God is, but more so telling ourselves that God will remember us. To try to live our faith surrounded by those who do not, remembering God’s desire for us. God gives us this way to connect, to build and to strengthen our picture of God. To shape our faith, both for us as individuals and us together.

By continuing to turn to God in all things as a discipline, we can more deeply internalize the response of faith- turning to God and lifting up all of our desires and emotions to God. In hope, in trust and waiting. Deepening our ability to withstand whatever feels threatening to us. Believing we will not be abandoned. Even when it seems like we are just mouthing the words. God meets us there and helps us remember who God has been and is. A God who won’t decide to walk away and leave us swinging in the wind. 

 "We know that is not you, God."

May we remember that from eternity God is lovingkindness and goodness, and God remembers us for who we were created to be. In all of the strains, and tensions, and things that toss us about. God continues to walk, to teach and to guide. God is the source that shapes all of our hope, all of our trust, and all that we are. And God has promised and brought salvation and deliverance- Christ is the message that God is forever guarding this promise as God’s very essence loves and protects ours.

This is you and only you, O God.  

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Thank God It's Not All About Us

Once on a middle school retreat, a girl had a shirt that said, “It really IS all about me.” She spent a lot of time that weekend living this out. She had to be seen doing the most important things with the right people so she could say she was faithful. But she also carefully carved out the world she thought ought to be, and banished anything that might wreck her world view. What mattered was keeping everything just right in HER youth group. When she was asked to interact with those beyond her limits you’d have thought she was being sent out to be with wild animals. Because they just didn’t have anything to do with her and her world. But for just this weekend she supposed she could compromise her needs, as long as you knew just how much she was sacrificing. It was like keeping score and it really was all about her.

Sometimes this is how see the world.
Then we get to Lent and hear about needing to look at who we are, and repent. Often this means giving something up. Out of curiosity I wonder how many gave something up?  Not many. For those who do it’s about giving up something because we confess we’ve failed and feel bad, and hope to be a better person what WE give up. But even for the rest of us, we fall into the same pattern. Perhaps it means giving up some of our time to come to an extra weekly worship service instead of giving up something we eat or do that is an indulgence. Or we remember the poor. Doing things we don’t automatically do. Whatever it is its, it can at times seem like this is about re-setting the score with God. And in church we give up things too-certain music WE listen to, candles or flowers WE normally look at. At least for the 40 days of Lent- I mean, if Jesus made it 40 days so can we.  But we keep it pretty safe-if we give things up, they’re things that are easy. If we take things on, we make them be something we want to do. “If I’m coming to an extra worship service, there better be food.” We should take stock of how we are living as the baptized, but can you hear it? It’s like we are putting on that shirt that says, “It really IS all about me.”  Our Lenten focus can often remains about us- What we do, what
we don’t do. Somehow the greater and more important thing gets lost.

What’s God up to in Jesus and what does this mean not just for us but for God’s vision of all God has created? Today we’re again here at the point where Jesus is baptized but then he is driven out from that place. We just heard this at the beginning of Epiphany and you might be tempted to say- “I’ve already heard this.” But perhaps we can hear it a little differently by focusing on the verse that’s right in the middle- the one that seems a little odd and seems to have nothing to do with US.

The one about Jesus and the wild animals in the wilderness. Why does this matter at ALL to us? Perhaps it shows us Jesus tends to hang out just beyond the edge of everything we consider safe. Or that in the midst of all that’s threatening, God gives protection to carry out God’s will. True, but today let’s focus on the fact that this verse also shows us-it really ISN’T all about us- It’s about God-who cares for all of creation. Who makes promises and acknowledges the problems aren’t all solved. Who was hurt and angry in Genesis, when everything went off the tracks again. Angry enough to just start over, again. But who then decides to hang up the weapons of anger. To hang up the bow in the sky and say, “No more.”  The symbol of the rainbow began as an image that recalled hanging up a real bow in the sky by God-who then promised one who would come to continue restoring what God has created- and this one is Jesus.

So notice where Jesus starts to carry out what God has decided it is time for. He goes back to the outer limits of what’s been set apart, beginning restoration where it all began-and bringing order out of chaos, starting with the wild things-creatures banished after creation went awry. Then he goes on to the people who find themselves in the wilderness. And like pulling on a thread, he starts pulling it all back together. And while there’s risk, this is a story about restoration.

Of course evil tries to tempt Jesus away from this. Because ultimately there’s no room for evil in the kingdom of God drawing near. We are children of this kingdom being drawn near as the baptized. And God wants us to shift from looking only at our world and to see God’s work in God’s world.

Lent is a time for this- to step away things that tempt us- in our distractions. To leave behind our limits, our needs, our failings that convince us not to work for the kingdom. And remember that God in Christ takes who we are- limits and faults and all, and draws us in, remembering the “me” God created in each of us. But God is also remembering the “we” in all of us.  Who we are created to be.

This is the real intent of Lenten disciplines-the disciplines of prayer, giving to the needy, and fasting are about restoring us, and the Kingdom. Self-examination helps us continuing this purpose by drawing us near, and strengthening us in all the places we’ll be tempted not to bother. The discipline of prayer becomes a way to draw us closer in our conversation with God, to remember how God is with us in the good and in the scary. Giving to others becomes really sharing ourselves to draw back those left out.  Fasting becomes rethinking how much we consume and how it governs our lives. All ways to rethink our ability to answer God’s call.

These disciplines aren’t about looking good and resetting the score between God and us to zero. And they aren’t about believing we can change everything that’s wrong.  They are about embracing and drawing closer to everything that’s right-things that are right because God created and arranged it. Deepening our awareness that God’s still here amidst all of brokenness, still drawing us near.

Today in Jesus’ baptism we hear the words “you are my Son.” But by Easter, we’ll hear more- We’ll hear “You are all my children.” This reality is what Lent encourages us to embrace for all of God’s creation.  Let’s make the journey together, learning more about God, and about ourselves. And surrounded by God’s promise to do more than fix us on our terms.  Because it not a scorecard, it’s a relationship. And it really isn’t all about us. Thank God, it’s not all about us.  

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Learning to say "Take Lord"

On my recent retreat, one of the prayers we considered was this one. Below are some of the things that came to mind as I thought about it, and I keep thinking about it, for myself. And I wonder how it sounds to others. I want to see the beauty of it, and yet it gets to the heart of our struggle with trusting God.

Take Lord, receive my liberty, my memory, my understanding, my entire will.
You gave me all these gifts.
To you, I return them. Dispose of them entirely according to your will.
Give me only your love and grace. This is all I ask.

Can I really in each day and all moments surrender in this way?
All my decisions
All my choices
All of what I see as opporunties before me?
All of my options
All of my preferences
All of my desires?
All of my preconceived notions
All of my fondnesses
All of my aversions
All of my fears that protect me?
All of my joys
All of the moments I want to hold onto forever
All of my comforts
All of my crutches?
All of the things I consider dear
All of the things I don't want to change
All of the people I rely on
All of my happiness?
All of what seems right or fair to me
All of my hopes
All of my resources
All of my biases?

It is not mine
It is yours- to give, to use, to remove, to transform

Can I really believe in your love and grace that is your beginning and ending, your Word and cross, in this way?
I think I will have to pray this prayer all of my days to even remotely get close. I am learning.
Good thing your love and grace are bigger.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Promise From These Ashes

When our daughter Catherine was about three, one of her first memories of church came on Ash Wednesday. On this day, the beloved Pastor who had baptized her and blessed her at the communion rail each week when she stuck out her pudgy hand for bread, instead reached out to place ashes on her forehead. And at three, she was just old enough. Just old enough to realize that his booming baritone voice was telling her she was “DUST.” And that she was not getting bread, but instead a large black thumb was headed for her forehead. And to our little girl, “DUST” boomed forth and smudged a giant flaky black cross on her head. Little black flecks fell down on her face, and on her shirt. And the more she tried to fix it, the worse it got. And she shrieked out in a pitch known mainly to preschoolers, and was inconsolable. We nervously hauled our wailing child out of the church as quickly as possible, so as not to offend the rest of the quiet and reverent people dutifully coming forward to receive their ashes, many still dressed in their suits and skirts from work, or in their immaculately maintained choir robes.  Moving with precision and just the right amount of piety. Not behaving like this disruptive sobbing child who suddenly felt that all of the grace and happiness had been ripped away, and all that was left was a big black smudge that felt like the world had changed.  The poor pastor was beside himself as week after week our daughter would not take what was once grace-filled bread from his hand. In fact, she could not even look at him, still scared and confused.

And yet, I think she simply was more honest than we are. I wonder if a poll had been taken that night, how many people were trying to ignore the fact their existence at times felt more like ashes than not. Walter Brueggemann has written a poem entitled Marked by Ashes which captures this feeling:

This Wednesday burdens us with the tasks of the day, for we are already halfway home
halfway back to committees and memos,
halfway back to calls and appointments,
halfway on to next Sunday,
halfway back, half frazzled, half expectant,
half turned toward you, half rather not..

All our Wednesdays are marked by ashes —
we begin this day with that taste of ash in our mouth:
of failed hope and broken promises,
of forgotten children and frightened women,
we ourselves are ashes to ashes, dust to dust;
we can taste our mortality as we roll the ash around on our tongues.*

Maybe if we could get away with it, we too have days we would wail inconsolably, wondering about the future of grace filled bread for the day. Times we are half turned toward God, and half rather not. When we hold on more fiercely to our ashes and dust, perhaps hoping that if we do a few expected things, they’ll make up for what’s missing deep down. Yet we long for the words Jesus tells us to pray that are found in the missing verse from today’s gospel-you can say them without thinking, I know. 
Your kingdom come. Your will be done, here.11Give us this day our daily bread.12Forgive us… as we also have forgiven… Do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from evil.” How many times we pray these words out of habit and quickly. Yet perhaps quickly before our ashen-ness reminds us how it really is, the messes we have made, and the places where we are led to the temptation of believing it takes us to fix these things. Times we trust in thinking we have to hold onto everything, or it will come to nothing but dust and ashes.

When we do this, we hold onto our hearts and turn away from the giving and sustaining relationships God brings. We miss the amazing paradox that the cross on our heads is really about. That what seems like death and limitation, brings freedom and life. We focus on what it seems like God will take and forget what we receive. If this cross and this life are seen only as being about duty and giving up, if it is only this, we keep the focus on ourselves and our fears.

Today we enter a time to remember not only how ashy we are, but how we can let go of our ashes and dust and fear. Because while life is messy and seems unsure, in the cross God calls us, to return because the world has changed. In the cross God shows the power and mercy that offer the grace of a deeper relationship only God can bring forth. God is calling us again to turn toward what is new, restoring, and sufficient. Because this cross is not only a sign our ashen-ness, but of the very love and grace that saves us. This black dust is not a sad substitute for grace filled bread, but a reminder of how our limitations are exceeded by the power and hope God brings. When we stop trying to fill our hearts with all of our ashes we can give them over to God’s newness.

Then we can receive joy and energy, courage and freedom. We can grow into becoming fearless-for God’s truth, and mercy and justice. For God’s peace and generosity. We can dare to “ponder our ashy state with some confidence, and grow to see that every Wednesday of ashes anticipates God’s Easter victory over that dry, flaky taste of death.”
This is the meaning of the cross-Our world is a dusty mess, but God’s cross speaks promise from these ashes, this Wednesday and forever. AMEN

*poem in full found in Prayers for a Priviledged People.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Keep Following, Keep Listening


From the very beginning of Mark, we’re compelled to listen. To the voice of the one crying in the wilderness, to the voice of God proclaiming at Jesus’ baptism, “You are my Son, in whom I am well pleased.” To listen to Jesus as he calls the disciples saying, “Follow me and I will transform your lives.” But after that it gets hard. Hard to know what to listen to and to figure out what Jesus means. He makes unclean spirits listen and be gone, heals the sick, lepers, the paralyzed and blind, in entire towns and regions, and He gets really popular. His followers listen to the demands of the people for more-"let’s stay and be celebrities." But Jesus says “Listen- we have other places to go.”

He gathers people to eat with him and listen to his teaching, while the powers that be and those who fear him, refuse to listen and try to get others to stop listening. Yet, he calls more disciples and transforms them to carry out his work, even though they’re not quite sure they get what they’re listening to. At one point, confused people wonder if maybe Jesus is really the devil. Rather than listen to him even his own family worries and tries to carry him away thinking he’s lost it.  But he keeps teaching, sometimes in stories that begin by saying “Listen.”

After he commands a storm to listen, he asks his frightened disciples in the boat, “Why are you so scared? Haven’t you been listening? ” But his hometown rejects him, and the prophet who proclaimed him is killed. Maybe it is Jesus who should listen and lay low, but he goes on- feeding thousands, walking on water, healing not only Jews but others and continuing to say, “Listen.”

But is it any wonder, with all of the competing voices, the disciples whose lives are being transformed feel like they are racing to keep up? On any given day, you could never be sure where the road would go next. It’s hard to get what it’s all about.

Even though everything Jesus is doing is what he meant when he first got them to listen, saying-“follow me and we’ll transform lives.”

 So Jesus does a reality check, asking them- “what’s the word on the street?” They repeat well what they’ve been listening to in the crowds. And he responds-“OK, but how closely have you been listening to ME? Who am I to YOU?” Peter proclaims, “You are the Messiah!” And given all the buzz-worthy events this ought to be the turning point. Now it'll be power and fame and glory. Stories that’ll be told in history-“Listen, as I tell you how we were with him in the early days. We took a chance and got in at the right time.”

Instead, Jesus says, “You’re right, this is the turning point, but listen-I will die because of this truth.” And this isn’t at all what they want to listen to.

This is the big picture of everything that happens leading up to what we hear in the Gospel this day. And given the disciples continual disconnect, Jesus could’ve decided to start over with better followers. Instead Jesus keeps leading and takes his closest ones up the mountain and there in the silence, transformation happens before their eyes.  They see him with Moses and Elijah- so he isn’t one of them, and he’s blindingly bright. They’re baffled.

He looks like God, but they know if they look on God directly they’ll die. God needs to hide in a cloud or a bush or something. Perhaps nervously, Peter says “Hey! I’ve got an idea! Let’s stay here and hang out with Moses and Elijah. And Jesus, did I mention you are a GREAT Rabbi?” Maybe they even wonder if they are alive now or dead. They had every right to be terrified. It’s hard to imagine standing there in this moment that drives them toward the answer to the question everyone has been asking- “who is this?” Jesus is the chosen Son of God.

And this is the turning point. Because everything that follows will reveal what Jesus is chosen for and how far God’s transformation will go.

To even begin to respond to what that means for them,  they need to hear the directive God speaks that overpowers the confusion-“Listen!”

 Because then the moment is over. One little glimpse of glory before back down the mountain, still trying to figure it out. On a road with twists and turns, and times they’ll forget to listen, or be confused, or scared, or doubt. Just like us.

At best we get little glimpses of God’s presence on a journey that we can’t really fathom. We speak of an amazing and powerful God, but it’s hard for us to grasp what it means, or to go where God’s transformation is leading. And with all the competing voices, frankly, we wish we had a little more to work with, as we fight the feeling of staying put. And our fears, our interests, our desires tell us not to listen to the will of God, or we at least convince ourselves that what we want is God’s will. And yet... we want to truly follow. We really do.

To sort out what it all means, we continue to need God to overpower the confusion- and we need to listen. Thomas Merton captures this with these words:

MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing .I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And…that you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.

The gospel for us this day is not only that Jesus was revealed to be the Son of God. But that Jesus repeatedly labors, walking with us, leading us to understanding. To get us to listen, saying- “follow me and not the crowd.” “Don’t be afraid, I am with you.” And across Scripture, this is God’s story-  continuing to choose and stay with people like us-who for every moment of “getting it” have lots of moments of lost, afraid and doubting and times of asking- “ you want me to do what?!” God continues to choose us, to lead us and to teach us. Transforming us to be more like the image of the Son. With a love and grace and patience that will go all the way to the cross.

As we prepare to enter the season of Lent, God is calling us again to deepen this relationship and our understanding. To continue to be transformed by listening. God knows we continue to wrestle with how to respond.

Our questions remain-“Who is Jesus?” “What’s it really all about for us?” “How can I know?” “How can we do that?”

To all these age old questions, God’s answer continues to be-“Look to my Son. Don’t be afraid, I'm here."

Keep following.

Keep listening.


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Sleeping with Bread

While on retreat I found a delightful book in the Resource Center entitled Sleeping with Bread-Holding What Gives You Life.  (Dennis Linn, Stephanie Fabricant Linn,Matthew Linn). This is a very approachable book about something that has become a true part of my practice, the Examen of Consciousness, or the daily Examen. The book was intended to be a resource for families but is one of the most engaging and thoughtful books that make a practice with a slightly off-name much easier to grab onto.
The title for the book comes from recalling that during the bombing raids in World War II, many children were orphaned and left to starve. Those who were fortunate enough to be rescued and end up in refugee camps found that in spite of food and housing and care, they could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to discover they were hungry and homeless again. It was a challenge to comfort them in this insecurity, but someone came upon the idea of giving them a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. They were able to sleep believing, " I ate today and I will eat tomorrow." This simple act provided hope and healing and a sense of interior freedom.

The Examen keeps our relation with God on track in a similar way. After beginning with imagining I am in God's presence, I remember how God has loved me and what God has given me in the day. This is not just an accounting but seeing our relationship. This time allows for seeing things in our day that have made us feel blessed, the gifts in others, and a chance to reflect on moments big and small, that have been endearing, sustaining, affirming. Even the patience to act with grace in a challenging time is a moment of thanks. Always begin with thanks. "I ate today."

I also read the moments of the day in my heart.
This time also allows me to recall what has left me unsettled, disappointed, sad, unfulfilled. Were there times when the spirits that moved our decisions were perhaps less of God and more the temptation to darker places? What are these concerns for which I seek guidance or amendment? Were there things I hoped to be about that did not come to pass? What emerges? I ask for true vision.

Sometimes there are in addition to the good, there are those that are bad- places where I should seek forgiveness. I do so knowing God is more ready to forgive than I am to forgive myself. Places where I need grace to strengthen and direct. Then there are places that are ambiguous. These are places where conversation with God will be about seeking clarity.

But whatever the need, I know I have not only received my daily bread today, Jesus is with me and I am promised bread for tomorrow as a beloved child of God. This helps me look to tomorrow and contemplate where I will most need to sense God's presence, and if there are particular struggles I am seeking to overcome, contemplate how I will remember I am not alone.
Believing I will eat tomorrow.

As each day I remember to connect with God in this way, I realize how God is talking all day. And as one Jesuit has shared, the examen allows us to turn up the volume of what God is saying and hear " I am with you, my friend!"Living with Christ, laboring with Christ and loving with Christ- seeing things in a whole new light. Not only given the peace to rest for tomorrow but the ability to give our bread away knowing we are loved and free to do so.
As the time of the examen ends, one can pray the Lord's Prayer-it is then that I am reminded just how great that daily bread really is.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Itinerant Traveller Returns

The somewhat itinerant traveller, I returned to the Jesuit Center and a time of silent retreat was something I intuitively felt compelled to do. As I had on internship, in another time that seems so long ago, I felt this nudge to intentionally plan time apart to step back and reflect and take stock and see what God might be saying. Our time in silence comes after a meal where everyone has gathered and has a chance to say "hello" and become acquainted before a liturgy and entering of the silence. Likewise at the end, we break the silence and catch up as we wish. This year, we were asked in the final liturgy to share a grace we had received (more about that later perhaps). One woman stood up and told of the first time she came, she had signed up for a seven day retreat never having made one before. And it had kind of escaped her that this was a silent retreat. She was at dinner and said to her table companion- I'll talk to you tomorrow!" To which the reply was- "No, you won't." After her initial trepidation she found it to be an enriching time and she has been coming for ten years. Looking back now on my first retreat I was nervous about being able to keep silence. I remember that while I did, the first full day it took a lot to step out of the noise of the world and my own thoughts.  I remember how I was never quite sure what to do at dinner- do you look at others or not? If you do will someone be tempted to talk? By the end I realized how much my own anxiety was talking to me.

This time as I entered the massive wrought iron gates and traveled toward the Novitiate House, it felt like home. So much so, that this past fall when I was on the campus but not for time apart, it felt a little irritating. This time on retreat I now live about 25 minutes away and discovered several people with whom I had distant connections, previously unknown. And there was a comfort in having learned how to communicate social graces in silence. And I re-found all of my favorite places to walk, to pray, to reflect. I reconnected with the person who provided necessary and sustaining direction and shared the joy of being able to tell of just how much that direction had helped with the perspective of time.

And at the same time, I am a different person, on a different part of my journey and now ready to delve more deeply into Ignatian spirituality and to refine how I engage spiritual practices for who and what I am and where my calling is now. Which is, to me, the beauty of the process- that rather than marching through the psalms as a group because that is what the schedule says, there is also a place for experiencing God in all things, in all of creation, and uniting those experiences with Scripture and prayer. And while we are not all gathered and doing that together in a uniform way, there is a definite unity in the house when you know that everyone has gathered around the same Christ and is in prayer and discernment. Somehow this is what makes the beginning and ending times of conversation or times of direction so rich- the basic connectivity of Christ.

To be with others who can both support discernment and share their own challenges and graces in a space that invites this, is in itself a grace. But for me one of the deeper graces was the ability to enrich my own use of the Examen of Consciousness at the end of each day, that chance to go looking for God in the day. And to say, I humbly welcome your word. I behold you, beholding me-and then have a conversation.

Today's music is for all those who travel in this way.
Tomorrow, more on the Examen and the notion of Sleeping with Bread

Friday, February 10, 2012

Meeting God in the Silence

It's almost exactly two years since I took time apart to make a retreat. Two years ago I was in the middle of internship and God wisely planted the seed that it would be a good idea to stop mid-process and take time to reflect. More importantly to take time to listen, not to my own natterings, but to God's voice. I had never made a silent retreat before, and part of me was intrigued, but the extrovert in me was more than a little anxious. Yet I felt compelled to go. I even had the added opportunity to bail when a snow storm prompted them to call and tell me that I was still welcome, but if I was concerned about the roads, they understood. I could have a good reason to have bailed.
But I went and it was one of the richest experiences in deepening faith and discernment.

Now here I am, five months into my first call. And awhile ago I felt that same nudge to take time apart. Real time apart. It has been a blessing to know that a very gifted retired pastor who has joined the congregation will preach and lead worship. Since she is originally connected with them before her own calls, it is a gift to the congregation that she can be there. And it is a comfort to me that allows me to set aside any anxiety I have about going. Probably a good sign that going is not only good but necessary.

And there is much for me to ponder as I continue to be surprised and delighted by the unexpected things that serve as a steady reminder of how God is at work in the people, and in our collective ministry. At the same time, this wondrous activity brings a need for perspective so that our energy and our commitment are properly placed. As we prepare to engage in some unexpected but necessary changes, we will also be challenged as idea moves to reality. This is the curve of change Gil Rendle describes- I know that as we come down off of the mountain, there is a path down into the struggle of reality and the challenge to committed discipleship.
How well we  care for each other and show grace will depend upon how we allow Christ to lead, how we are able to see God in all things, and how we engage the cross as mirror of existence and unbounded forgiveness.
Next Sunday it will be Transfiguration. The baffling mix of theophany and awe, joy and fear, followed by having to carry that little glimpse back into the overwhelming world that will still cry "Crucify!" And for every moment where I am moved by joy there are moments of heartbreak and the crushing realization that the world around me has problems that loom writ large. Too large for me, though not for God.

How will we hold onto Christ in our time when somewhere after blessed moments we remember everything else that tells us to let go, or that it won't last?

It is good to take time apart, in prayer, and in reflection and to silence my own words that crowd out God's, and to remember the myriad ways God uses to speak. So later today, I will point the Honda toward this place to meet God in the silence, where my focus will be "Experiencing God in All Things."

Friday, February 3, 2012

Until there are no outsiders

Today we’re drawn into God’s house in a special way. Some of you normally worship somewhere else, but came through the door to support our boys on Scout Sunday. And together we celebrate the Cub pack here, where each week there are new people at the door wanting to come in. All kinds of people: Some are younger than others, or taller. Some talk more, or faster. Whatever the differences are, when they are here as the Pack, the boundaries fall away. I’ve watched kids literally get down on the ground to be with someone trying a new somersault, speaking an encouraging word of hope and support, offering a hand up. God’s been here in their midst even though they may not know it. Drawing them together in fun, and bringing healing and solidarity, especially for some who weren’t sure how to fit in. There's a popular public service announcement for kids being bullied and the slogan is “it gets better.” But the truth is that when someone feels like they are on the outside looking in, they don’t want to hear “it gets better” they want it to really be better NOW. As I watch our boys, living into who God created them to be, it makes me wonder if they in fact get this in a way we adults forget. We get good at boundaries and can lose sight of the meaning of God’s healing and love and the radical ways it changes life NOW.

Jesus came preaching and healing, casting out all the things that are tormenting people. People who were on the “outs.” Then he comes into Simon Peter’s house and meets the mother in law who’s unwell. It’s unclear what’s wrong but she’s someone Jesus should avoid. He not only stays, he crosses another boundary. He touches her hand. She’s unclean and not related to him. He should NEVER touch her. But he meets her and then lifts her up. To do that, he has to get down to where she is. But through him, God’s love restores and draws her back into places cut off from her. She can return to being who she was created to be. She won’t be in the back room anymore. She can walk out that door and in to life!

This is what the presence of God’s love does. It breaks down boundaries, draws people in, and brings healing and wholeness. Who wouldn’t want that?  No wonder the news spreads and now eveyone is OUTSIDE the door wanting IN, wanting to be where Jesus is.  Where limits are cast out, divisions are healed and all the people touched are now IN again. Everyone there is restored, but then Jesus doesn’t say, “Let’s just celebrate all of the IN people here.” He keeps going. Because there are more places to break down boundaries, and more people to touch, and more love and healing and wholeness to bring. He continues to reclaim the kingdom and to proclaim God’s saving action. Because this is what Jesus came IN to our world to do.

Then Jesus empowered his followers to continue this mission. The IN are to go OUT and proclaim the good news- breaking down boundaries, connecting with others, living out God’s love and healing and wholeness and meeting all who stand at the threshold, just beyond this good news, and drawing them IN.

But to meet those others, is hard. When we become the IN people, it’s a struggle as others also want in. Old labels are hard to cast off, whether it’s “Jew, slave, weak” or the ones we use today. And as people move in and out, and struggle to survive, we fall into worrying about our fair share, and how welcoming we should be. We worry we’ll lose our identity. So we sort each other out, and fall into boasting, deciding who we are based upon who we’re not. It’s hard to remember we all have been met by Christ. And we can forget what and who we have in common is Christ. The deeper result then is that those who are at the door and want to be healed and lifted up, AREN’T.  
While we struggle, God gives us the one thing that can help us rise above this. It’s the same thing that saves us-God’s love. It’s the real thing we have in common and it’s the power we receive. When we let this shape us we stop identifying enemies, boundaries and competitors. Living out God’s saving love means abandoning boundaries so no one will be abandoned. Like our boys, we may have to get down alongside others in lots of places to exist with them. But to really proclaim God’s love we must exist in someone else’s world and meet them there. This is more than doing something for someone, or doing it with them. It’s experiencing their perspective to end separation. When we exist with someone who is poor, we begin to grasp poverty so we can proclaim God’s saving action in a way that’s meaningful. When we exist with the immigrant, we discover their fears so we can proclaim “no boundaries” in a way that is real. When we abandon boundaries, we “Exist with” others. We set aside our labels and our priorities and experience directly how fragile someone else’s world is-how it is hard to feel good or healthy or safe. Then God uses us to really lift them up, draw them in and speak of the love we share as equals. NOW. This radical way of loving challenges everything. It’s costly physically, emotionally and in every way. Those outside our understanding of it will mock us, or proclaim it’s foolishness as we give up what’s ours in the eyes of the world.
The only thing that can motivate us in such times is the awareness of the depth of love God has for each of us. God came into our midst and is with us for no other reason than the fact God loves us for our own sake.[1] As deeply as we will sacrifice as parents for our children, for us as God’s children, God’s love is even deeper. By imitating this love, we proclaim the good news that when God’s love is present there actually are no outsiders.  That love is so broad it heals all our divisions. May God empower us to touch, to speak, and to exist with others in all the fragile places until the time when, in the fullness of God’s world, there will be no one left outside at the door -because God will have drawn them all in.

[1] Sam Wells and Marica Owen Living without Enemies  and Gretchen E Ziegenhals, Chrisitan Century, 1 25 2012

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Power to Heal a Tormented World

When I look at the choir I remember that I was a teenager our church choir traveled to Nashville. In our free time we visited the “Grand Ole Opry.” Minnie Pearl and the gang weren’t there that day. Instead, a faith healer was putting on a show. He’s actually still on TV these days but I won’t name names. But, there was a lot of flash and drama and people were coming forward in droves to be healed. One man who might have been considered demon possessed in Jesus’ day, came forward. He could talk but it was all garbled. He couldn’t speak clearly. They kept trying to get him to say “Jesus” but it never really happened. I watched as the faith healer hit the man on the forehead and he fell to the ground. He commanded the man to speak. What he said simply sounded like a louder version of the same man. After all he had just been hit on the head. But they pulled him up, said he was healed and took his money. It was not amazing.  It was heartbreaking.
Healing in Jesus’ day wasn’t much different. People put together a series of incantations, sometimes literally with smoke and mirrors. It didn’t work but it’s all people expected. But then Jesus comes into their midst, and they were amazed. Not in the way we use the word today-like some new amazing gadget we see on TV like “the Amazing Bamboo Steamer.” Amazed to experience something they’d never seen before, not sure what to make of it. Faith healers and exorcists had a lot of flash, but the synagogue did not. People weren’t flocking there perhaps because no one expected to be amazed.

Leaders were dedicated to memorization of Scripture and the interpretations. It took a long time but probably sounded more like someone reciting the Declaration of Independence than speaking real freedom.  But then Jesus comes into their midst.  And they were amazed because it seemed new and real. It wasn’t like a lecture and a heaping on the demands of the law. He spoke God’s word into life. His words. Engaging the spirit of the words, not just the letter of it.  It was unsettling and amazing. Then things got really interesting.

If you recall, right after his baptism, Jesus had been driven into the wilderness to encounter evil spirits. Now evil came to his house for round 2, demanding Jesus mind his own business. “What have you to do with me? Go play in your own turf.”  You see, the synagogue wasn’t considered by the spirits to be God’s territory.  That ought to be unsettling and amazing too I think. But no one seemed to expect more. It would’ve been powerful but confusing as Jesus began reclaiming God’s world. What the disciples didn’t yet know was they would be given this same power by Jesus to heal and to cast out demons. You see, the spirits got it.  Jesus’ followers did not.

We may still find it hard to imagine. Our modern day “faith healers” still leave us jaded. It’s hard to imagine what demon possession looks like, but we hope we don’t see anyone like that here. Our fears and doubts let us drag our skepticism to church. When this happens we allow sin and evil to claim that this really isn’t God’s turf. Yet, we and others are very much captive to what threatens to separate us from God and each other. It doesn’t need to look like foaming at the mouth to need God’s power to bring healing and freedom. If you want to see what tormented looks like, talk to the unemployed who wonder if there will ever be a job; or the lonely who wonder whether it matters if they get up today or if anyone cares. Talk to the immigrant who’s misunderstood and followed by security in every store just because of how they look; and those who are bullied like the Reading boy whose funeral was yesterday, who think there is nothing left to live for. It’s heartbreaking. Lots of things torment us and tell us we are beyond hope.

I had an experience of being with someone tormented in this way. An experience I never expected to be a part of. My internship church offered free breakfast Sunday mornings for sometimes 140 people in the city. A meal and Bible message. All walks of life shuffled in. Some had spent the night on the street. Others came from shelters, beginning the daily migration from place to place, meal to meal. Others were just hungry, alone or out of money. We met in a large room far away from the sanctuary. One day afterwards, I headed towards the sanctuary among regular worshippers, chatting and moving down the hall. Suddenly, a loud voiced bellowed out- “HEY YOU need to talk to me!” People awkwardly looked around, walking a little faster.  The voice got closer and louder, “HEY! You need to talk to ME!”  I realized he was talking to me, the person in the collar, and turned around confronted by a clearly agitated man. He was shifting and reeling, eyes darting from place to place. People in the hall scurried away to the sides. What was this about? Twitching and breathing rapidly, he kept trying to speak, getting red in the face. Sweat began dripping down the side of his head as he fidgeted with his coat. “I have to tell you something but …” “Well I need help but…”  Lots of sentences without endings. He embodied being possessed and controlled by something.

Then Jesus came into our midst. I felt guided to place my hands on his shoulders and look him in the eye, saying “Stop! Tell me what it is you need to say.” He’d been out of work, staying with friends, but he battled addiction. He’d stolen from them to feed his habit. Battling guilt, he’d left without their knowing. But they’d realize he’d stolen stuff and there would be the law. Wracked with shame, consumed with the horror, as he spoke it was like you could see the torment swirling around him, nipping at him, mocking him, “it’s hopeless, you’re worthless, you can’t win, no one cares.” Around and around, captive to this, his body shook-possessed by the demons. No amount of seminary knowledge would help. I found myself saying, “Before we talk about what to do, you need to hear this: You are forgiven. By the power of Jesus Christ, God has already forgiven you. What God wants to know if you can accept God’s grace and forgive yourself. The cross is more powerful than all your fears.” Tears flowed, I marked him with the cross, his shoulders relaxed, the grip on his face erased, the convulsions stopped.

Real healing power, hope and support replaced heartbreak, isolation and doubt. It was entirely the power of Jesus in our midst that made it possible. Overcoming our doubts and fears. It was unsettling, amazing and real. This is the power to change and reclaim lives in the kingdom. Jesus is our midst today, confronting all of our brokenness, and longings. Reminding us that he heals to show the reign of God is come near. God’s amazing power continues!
So in the name of Christ, and by his power, I invite all who seek any healing and reconciliation: Entrust yourselves to God. Come. Receive a sign of this healing and wholeness from the One who claims us. Come close to the one whose name IS health and salvation, and who calls us to go tell so that all might be healed. And let us proclaim this healing to a tormented world.