Archive for January, 2009

Just sitting there is not going to make it happen.

Sunday, January 18th, 2009

“What you been doing, Nathanael?”

“Just sitting.”

“Figures.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Well. There’s got to be more to it than selling a few fish every day, and then just sitting under some tree and watching this little world of ours go by.”

“It’s not so bad. And it’s the only world I’ve got.”

“Exactly. I think it’s time for something else.”

“Like go find another world in Jerusalem or something? Not me. Galilee may not be much, but it’s fine.”

“I’m thinking more about creating another world.”

“Is this about that wanderer whose been making the rounds? Believe me, getting caught up with him is more of a waste of time than just sitting around. And he’s likely to end up in jail anyway. The Romans will quickly put an end to him if he starts making too much noise.”

“Well, Andrew and Peter and I…”

“Andrew and Peter? I thought they were tied in with that crazy guy who has been holding services down by the river.”

“They have been. But John told them the Nazarene is the one they should really be following. And they are. And now me, too.”

“Philip. Look. What do you know about him? Everybody is a prophet these days. He’s not the first one I’ve seen go by while I’ve been ‘just sitting,’ as you so elegantly put it.”

“He’s different. There is something to him that is not in the others. You’ve got to come and see.”

“See what?”

“See for yourself. He isn’t like the rest. He isn’t like anybody else. I don’t even understand a lot of what he is saying, but I know he’s right.”

“Oh, yeah. That makes a lot of sense.”

“Come and see. And you will know what I mean. There is life in him.”

“If I go and see, will you get off my back? I don’t want to keep hearing about this. This guy is from Nazareth, for heaven’s sake. Nothing good is going to come out of this hole we live in, much less Nazareth of all places. We may not have much going for us but this is not Nazareth, at least.”

“Let’s go find him. I think he was going to be somewhere around Peter’s place…. Look there’s a bunch of people over there. He must be there. Come on.”

“Look at that. You’re Philip’s brother, Nathanael. You’re a good man. And you care about the truth. The big truth.”

“Wait a minute. You don’t know me. We’ve never even met before. I don’t even know your name.”

“It’s Jesus. I’m glad to meet you. I’ve seen you sitting out under that tree. Philip is right. There’s more. And you know it. You haven’t just been sitting under that tree watching the world go by. You’re trying to figure it out and your place in it. You are looking for something so much more to life than what you have already found. You’ve just got to be willing to take the risk to find it. I think you are up to it. You see, I know you better than you could ever imagine.”

“You do know me! You really are the Son of God, the King we’ve been waiting for!”

“Back off. I don’t know about that king thing or any of the rest. But here’s what I do know. You may be impressed that I’ve figured you out. But that’s nothing compared to what you are going to see if you come with me like your brother Philip, and Andrew and Simon and all the rest. You are going to see the heavens open up. Angels descending. The Son of Man ascending. You in?”

“I am. Surprisingly enough, I am.”

“Great. I’ve got to get going. I’ll see the both of you later. We’re meeting at Peter’s for supper. I’m glad you’re going to be there Nathanael.”

“Are we really doing this Philip? A couple of hours ago, I thought you were turning into some kind of religious fanatic. Now I’m one of you and we are following Jesus. Do you even know where he is going?”

“I have no idea.”

“Does he?”

“I’m not sure. But wherever it is he is going, I can’t imagine not going with him.”

“Me neither. And I just met the guy?”

“I told you there was something different about him. And he really likes you.”

“But he doesn’t know me. Sometimes I’m not sure I like me.”

“But he seems to know you well enough that he wants to take you on as one of his own students.”

“Students? That’s another crazy thing about all of this. Let’s face it, you and me aren’t the theology school types. No other Rabbi has come looking for people like us.”

“I know. That’s one of the things that makes him so intriguing. It’s not business as usual for him. If we really do this I think there are probably going to be lots of surprises along the way.”

“He was right. You know there is not much surprising that happens once you’ve sat under a fig tree for a few days. And I have been looking for something more. I just didn’t believe it could really be out there. And what was all that stuff about angels descending and the Son of Man ascending?”

“Let me tell you, Nat, he says a lot of stuff like that. And then just walks away. It can get irritating. But it seems that he likes raising questions more than giving answers.”

“I like that, Philip.”

“Sometimes, Nathanael, I like it too. Anyway, I remember some Rabbi talking about the story of Jacob and the angels descending on the ladder. He said the point wasn’t that we are supposed to climb the ladder, you know that every rung gets higher, higher bit, but that the ladder brings down the angels to us. He said the ladder was about heaven and earth coming together, that God provides ways for us to see what heaven is about and for heaven to shape our lives. Maybe Jesus was telling us that in himself, a connection is made between heaven and earth, between God and us. And that God comes down the ladder to us. If that is really true, who knows what kinds of amazing things we will see.”

“Like miracles and stuff?”

“Yeah, but more than that. Like I said this morning, I’m looking for a new world. Maybe Jesus will set things into motion that are going to make a difference for a long time to come. Who knows what might happen if we really take him seriously, really believe God is doing something special in him. Maybe this world can be different.”

“Like I said, I’m no theology student. But it sure does seem like God is in him in a powerful way. And a way so different than you expect. And Jesus wants us to follow him. To be his students, his disciples. Us.”

“So you really do think we are doing the right thing, don’t you Nathanael?”

“I do. But it is kind of scary and confusing. And maybe dangerous. But I don’t think we could turn back if we wanted to. I am willing to take the risk to see what we can find by following him. I think it’s going to be worth it.

“Dangerous? Really? I hadn’t thought about that.”

“Could be. I mean he is challenging the status quo. He doesn’t seem like the ‘lets just go to synagogue type and that’s it.’ And like I said, Rome might end up noticing him. He’s going to want a whole lot more from us, from those who follow him. Hopefully, along the way, people will be willing to take the risk and put what he is saying into practice. Even if it is dangerous.”

“Whatever is ahead, I know he has a lot of faith. He talks about God and eternal life all the time. He seems ready to trust God for whatever is ahead, because he believes God will be with him no matter what. And he has a vision for what God wants for our lives and this world. I wish I had that kind of faith?”

“Who knows. Maybe we do.”

“We’ll find out. So here we go Nathanael. I wonder where this whole thing is going to end up?”

“Yeah. I know what you mean. So what’s next, Philip?”

“Go tell Mom, I guess.”

Drenched in the Spirit

Sunday, January 11th, 2009

In the beginning of the beginnings, the Spirit of the Living God brooded over the formless chaos. Ruach was her name. Yes, this Hebrew word for the Spirit was feminine, neutered in the Greek language of the New Testament and rendered masculine in the Latin Vulgate Bible on which so many of our western translations are patterned.

The Spirit was not alone. In this beginning of beginnings was God-in-community, creating all that was made in the divine image of interdependence and mutuality. Ruach, that wild wind of God, blew over the formless chaos, birthing order out of disorder. She hovered like a mother bird over creation, her masterpiece.

Again and again ruach appears in the biblical story, impossible to tame or contain, blowing, blowing wherever she will. In Matthew’s Gospel, she impregnates a young woman with the seed of God. In Luke’s Gospel, this story is told in another voice. In Mark’s Gospel, however, there is no birthing story about a baby in a manger. Instead, Mark’s birthing story–his Christmas story, if you will–is the epiphany, or manifestation, of the Spirit to a carpenter who long before reached adulthood.

The location of Mark’s birthing story bears no resemblance to the dirty stable in Bethlehem. Instead it is situated on the banks of the lush Jordan River, in the cold rush of the teeming waters. John, the cousin of Jesus, is announcing the reign of God and calling fellow Jews to repent! All sorts of people flock to the river–commoners, soldiers, religious folk. Some are sincere; others the baptizer deems fraudulent of heart.

John minces no words in his fiery call. He urges all to come, but there is one he never expects to see there. It is his cousin, Jesus. “Why are you here?” he asks. “I am not worthy to baptize you! You should be baptizing me!” John protests. He tells the crowd, “I baptize you with water, but this one will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

John’s protestations do not sway his cousin. Jesus is determined to be drenched in the baptismal waters, to identify with this baptism of repentance. His isn’t like the other baptisms, though. And Jesus isn’t like the other Seekers, either. At the moment when he rises from the waters, the heavens split open, the Spirit descends like a dove and a Voice speaks words of affirmation, even delight in this One come from God.

The phrase that Mark uses, “split open,” appears once more in his Gospel. The second time is at the crucifixion of Jesus. As Jesus breathes his last breath on the cross, commending his spirit to God, the Temple curtain is “split open,” rent in two, the earth separates, and some dead arise from their graves.

In these two primal stories of Mark’s Gospel, the heavens and earth itself are literally shaken by the cataclysmic events that take place. I use the word “cataclysmic” not with the meaning of “catastrophic” but with the sense of being life-altering to the very depths. The veil between this world and the next is pulled back, even if just for a moment–long enough to give Jesus the tools for his impending journey into the wilderness with the Tempter hounding him all the way; long enough for cynical soldiers tossing dice for Jesus’ garment to stop, astonished, and declare, “Surely, this is the Son of God.”

We have no idea if anyone else present at Jesus’ baptism heard the Voice or saw the Spirit coming down from heaven and alighting on him. Perhaps the Voice sounded to others like thunder. Perhaps the Spirit felt like a sudden breeze. Perhaps the commissioning came only to Jesus, and he later confided in his disciples.

Regardless of our speculation, this baptism is Mark’s “Christmas Story.” It is a birthing story as deeply and truly as Matthew and Luke’s retelling of the babe born in a manger. Ruach does her birthing work in the waters of the chilly Jordan, in the life of this adult carpenter named Jesus.

“Ah, but that is Jesus! He is different!” we protest like his cousin, John. “I’m not worthy to tie or untie his sandals!” And we distance ourselves from the possibility that we, too, could experience moments of epiphany or divine manifestation. The baptism of Jesus may call us to enter the chilly waters ourselves. Its message may also penetrate deep beyond deep.

Is not the primal story here about ruach, coming down, swooping down, filling this moment with God’s presence? She gathers up this history of the last 30 years of Jesus’ life and welds the story of the babe in the stable to the story of the adult in the Jordan River. They become one journey, one commissioning, one calling. Ruach thunders, she whispers, she blows in the breeze, she drenches in the waters.

Here is the one filled with God’s Spirit who will, indeed, baptize–not with water, but with ruach, with the Holy Spirit of the Living God. Does that hit a little closer to where we live and what we need? Is that not the baptism that each one of us yearns for, an immersion in ruach’s presence and calling for our lives? We need to know, deeply and truly, that it is God that comes to live in us in the presence and power of the Spirit, through the gift of Jesus Christ.

Since my mini-Silent Retreat in August, I’ve been reading and re-reading Colossians devotionally. It is one of the Apostle Paul’s short letters. In its text, he offers this bold claim–“Christ is in you, the hope of glory.” In another letter, Paul reminds the church in Corinth that we carry this treasure in fragile earthen vessels. So much of the Christian journey is first about learning, and then about re-remembering, day by day, what we already know.

This past week a college student interviewed me for her Winter Term Project on Women in Ministry. A religion major, she is considering going to seminary after graduating and is trying to sort out her own sense of direction and call. The questions she asked were very thoughtful. Among them, she wanted to know my greatest struggle in ministry. “Self-care,” I quickly responded. While it was the shortest answer I offered, it was easy to provide a host of illustrations from decades of experience–or even from the past few days!

Central to my own journey of self-care is remembering who and whose I am, remembering where the daily power for serving God comes from, remembering the active role of ruach in my life from the first breath of the morning until the final breath before sleep and even into the night. Remembering what I know means calling upon ruach’s strength when my energy is low, listening for her wisdom when my own insight is lacking, trusting her leading when self-doubt overtakes me.

Where is ruach blowing in your life today? Where is her masterful work taking place? Where is she whispering, tugging, or pulling? Where has she cried out too long because you have not listened for her voice?

Let us seek with our whole hearts this same baptismal presence that Jesus experienced, here and now, in this place, in this moment. Let us pray.

“How about a road trip, Melchior?”

Sunday, January 4th, 2009

The night sky has been pretty impressive these past few weeks. There have been a couple of planets hanging out around the moon, and there have been some fairly clear nights where you can see lots of stars. I’ve even had my binoculars out, trying to get a better look.

Did it ever occur to you that we are looking at the same stars and planets that the Wisemen did when they began their trip that ended up in Bethlehem? Sure things change a bit. A different planet shows up here and there. A comet comes streaking by. The moon rises and sets in different places and at different times. But it’s pretty much the same sky as it was back then.

You, of course, may have seen an article or two like we do every Christmas that tries to figure out what astronomical event might have occurred around the time of the birth of Jesus that would have become a part of the story. Was it some spectacular alignment of planets, or perhaps a supernova?

No reputable astronomer has been able to come up with a definitive answer to what was really going on in the sky then, but the theologian William Herzog offers this alternative. He says “the observed star was not necessarily an extraordinary celestial event, but perhaps an ordinary star seen through the extraordinary eyes of the magi.”

So maybe we need to be thinking not only about the star that lit up the world, but people like those travelers from the East who were light bringers themselves.

Tradition has it that these magi, astrologers, kings, these travelers from the East, whoever and whatever they exactly were, came from Persia, in the part of the world that now makes up parts of Iran and Iraq. Think about that for a minute. To the people of Israel, they were exotic strangers, from the East. By all rights, to the Jewish mind, they would know nothing of the true God. Yet, it was these pagans, not the Rabbis, not the religious scholars, not the leaders of Israel who revealed what God was doing with the birth of a baby in Bethlehem. If they showed up today, they would be, for us in the United States, from the heart of enemy territory with a message of salvation from God.

Their story is pretty inspiring. They may well have been kings and scholars. But even though what they found at the end of their journey was, as Shelley D.B. Copeland writes, “an economically limited toddler, in modest surroundings, lying in a teen mother’s arms,” they fell down and worshiped. Copeland goes on to say, “to the intellectually perceptive, the scene was not a scholar’s formula for success. Yet, by grace, the magi had the faith to experience unbridled joy.”

The Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke of radical amazement as the primary religious virtue. That is surely what the story of the magi is about. This was not simply an intellectual quest they were on, nor was it idol curiosity that brought them to Israel. Glory and praise were in their hearts, qualities that Process Theologian Bruce Epperly suggests have been too long dormant in mainline and progressive Christian churches. He says what we read earlier from Isaiah 60, and I would argue the story of the magi as well, “calls us to an ethic of wonder, illumination, and inclusion and invites us to see traces of God’s glory where we have either overlooked them or denied them.” He also reminds us that the magi were “warned in a dream, and that God is revealed in the night as well as the day, the dark as well as the light, the unconscious as well as the conscious.” The magi show us that faith is about the rational and the non-rational, the mystical as well as the intellectual.

We’re about the wrap up the Christmas celebrations that we began more than five weeks ago. Our tree at home should be going down soon. The nativities will be put away for another year. Now it is time as Howard Thurman reminds us to get about the work of Christmas, the work the magi have left for us to do; “to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among people, to make music in the heart.”

Do you know that the word Epiphany means? It means ‘to show,’ or ‘make known,’ or ‘reveal.’ As we end Christmas, the magi leave us with a task. They weren’t meant to be the only light bringers out there. Epiphany isn’t just about them. They came to reveal, to enlighten who was ever willing to listen about the light they had seen in the sky and the light that had come into the world with the birth of Jesus. Epiphany isn’t only a kind of revelation you get like ‘I had an epiphany the other day about why nobody likes me.’ Epiphany is something we also give by bringing light into the world by bearing witness to the light that is in Jesus Christ. By revealing what we have seen. That’s all the magi were doing. They just wanted folk to know that they had traveled all those miles through deserts and over mountains because the light had come into the world, and as the writer of John’s gospel would say it, nothing was going to put it out.

Kate Huey from the United Church of Christ’s National Office in Cleveland talks about us finding ourselves in this story with the magi. “We want to feel ourselves, strangers from a far off land and a far off time kneeling with the wise ones from the East with awe and joy for the gift before us. And we want to know how God is still at work in this world we live in now, how God is still speaking to us today, as God spoke through the prophets, through dreams and angels, and a bright shining star.”

Like all stories in the Bible, the challenge of this story is to make it our own story. Can we pay enough attention to see a star shining in the sky? The folk in Jerusalem never noticed that star, so it’s easy to miss things. Are we willing to go on that journey God is calling us to filled with wonder and praise, and offering God glory as we go along? Can we adjust to the unexpected at the end of the journey, and realize that God works is ways much different than we have been led to believe?

And, if we understand the magi rightly, we always go home another way. Something in us is changed. This divine encounter with the baby Jesus alters the course of our lives. As the Apostle Paul says it in that section we read from the third chapter of Ephesians, this encounter with God calls us to become insiders, realizing that God’s grace has always called us to know that we are the objects of God’s love and Jesus has shown us we can act on that love, and awaken it in others. We are witnesses, like the magi, to what God is doing in Jesus.  Like the magi, we have a story to tell. We have seen and followed the star.

How did Paul say it? “This is my life work: helping people understand and respond to this Message. And so here I am, preaching and writing about things that are way over my head, the inexhaustible riches and generosity of Christ. My task is to bring out in the open and make plain what God, who created all this in the first place, has been doing in secret and behind the scenes all along. Through followers of Jesus like yourselves gathered in churches, this extraordinary plan of God is becoming known and talked about even among the angels!”

That sounds, to me, like an Epiphany challenge, to see the possibilities and potentials for ourselves, as followers of Jesus, that the angels see in us.  And it’s more than recovering or discovering radical amazement, or praise and glory for the love and forgiveness and the