Begin with Prayer

What follows is excerpted and morphed from a sermon I delivered recently on Prayer as the foundation for Evangelism.

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The time has never been greater for Christians to live as Christ Ones. Our world, our neighbourhoods, our families all need a freshly invigorated, Spirit-filled kiss from God through lives made whole and real in the Gospel.

As with everything else, Jesus is our example, our inspiration, and our guide. Because the topic of prayer is so vast, I’m paring it down to three episodes in the life of Jesus in order to see how he goes about this business of prayer.

Episode I – Jesus Prays for Enlightenment

Luke 6:12-13

12 Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. 13And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles:

Jesus prays for Enlightenment, for help in decision-making. At a key moment early in his ministry, Jesus prays all night to hone his spiritual spidey-senses to hear clearly from his Father. The time had come for him to choose his team. His apprentices. Those who would represent the Kingdom of God. We know them of course as the Apostles.

He didn’t consult his notes, or do background checks, or call references. He didn’t consult his Purpose Driven Life book or call up Joel Osteen. He didn’t check his horoscope.

He prayed.

He stopped everything he was doing, turned off his cell phone, and talked to God all night. And, upon his return, chooses twelve of the most influential people in human history.

As we live the Christian Way among our neighbours, we will need a spiritual sensitivity, honed and heightened by prayer. “Lord, where are those most hungry for a touch from you today? Lord, how do I know to whom you may be calling me to offer a word of hope? To help share a burden? To be a willing listener?”

The same way Jesus did. By prayer. In prayer we learn to trust the “holy hunch.”

Rae and I learned this lesson again a few weeks ago while on our way back from Seattle. We’d stopped to eat at Salty’s Restaurant on Alki Beach, a favourite haunt of ours. Our waitress was a young, intelligent, and gregarious young woman. She was quite chatty really. A Psychology student who is trying to make it in real estate. 

Before long we found ourselves buried in conversation with her. Then, the conversation moved very naturally into discussing matters of soul. She is feeling distanced from the faith of her parents who worshipped in a fundamentalist fashion. Her relationship with her parents was a bit strained to say the least.

In fact, she asked if she could stay after her shift was over. She longed to speak with us longer about her distant faith and of her disillusionment with the present state of Christianity in this country. She stayed for two hours! We enjoyed a very intense and moving conversation that was wonderfully beneficial to all of us.

We’re now good friends with her and her fiancée, a young man from Yakima, actually. And last weekend we were in Seattle again and ended up with an extra ticket to see Ed Sheeran in concert. We took him with us.

Why do we Begin with Prayer? Because we cannot see the way forward to just the right conversations with just the right people at just the right time in any other way.

Episode II – Jesus Prays for Empowerment

Mark 1:35-39 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ 38He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ 39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

Prior to this Jesus had been engaging in a flurry of teaching engagements, healing and helping and listening and dealing with the religious leaders. Apparently, healing people, casting out demons, raising people from the dead, losing friends, gaining enemies, and engaging in constant conflict with the religious brass was exhausting. Who knew?

The life to which we are called is a demanding one. Not just because of our own survival. But, because there will always be those around us who need God’s love. There will always be one more child to adopt. One more disease to cure. One more demon to cast out. One more lonely person to befriend. One more lost soul who needs the companionship of Jesus.

Kingdom work tired Jesus. It will tire us, too.  Prayer is to the soul what sleep is to the body; what sex is to a relationship. It nourishes and restores and sustains. Jesus needed prayer. So will we.

Why do we Begin with Prayer? Because relationships are beautiful but tiring.

Episode III – Jesus Prays for Encouragement

Matthew 26:36-44 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I go over there and pray.’ 37He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee and began to be grieved and agitated. 38Then he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.’ 39And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’ 40Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? 41Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ 42Again he went away for the second time and prayed, ‘My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.’ 43Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words.

Life at times puts the squeeze on us. All of us at some point must carry the burden of the cross. We will confront fear, disappointment, pain, doubt, failure. We will face our own fox-hole faith moment when all our waning energies rally to a single point of bursting emotion: “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me…”

Life lived as Good News is challenging. It will ask of us everything. Our time, our trust, our energy, our finances, our faith, our doubts…all of it. We will often be taxed well beyond what we can manage on our own.

Prayer is the place we are given enlightenment – seeing what we most need to see. Prayer wakes us up to what’s happening all around us.

Prayer is where we are empowered to do the work set before us. It is the oatmeal of our faith journey – where we are enlivened and sustained in Kingdom work.

And, prayer is where we will find encouragement to persist when all around seems bleak and impossible.

Why do we begin with prayer? Because Jesus did. And he’s the reason we’re doing any of this anyway.

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Thanks to www.holyart.com for sponsoring this post

On Writing a Memoir, Part I

poets-pen.jpegSo, dear friends, I need your help. I’ve had a book percolating in me for some time now. But I need your help in pulling it out and getting it down. I’m inviting you, my dear readers, to help guide me on this journey.

Many of you have faithfully followed along with my often random, esoteric ramblings, with grace and dedication. I am utterly gratified to be in this with you. Truly.

Of the pieces you’ve read, what has struck you most? Deepest? What are the bits and bobs that have most touched you, made you laugh, or cry, or angry? I mean, the kinds of bits you’d read more of were they to find themselves between covers? So, this is an open invitation to you, my beloved readers, to walk with me toward some as yet undetermined goal of a memoir.

I appreciate you all so much. Your input is invaluable in the discernment process for this little project. Whaddya say? Can ya help a guy out?”

 

 

Love, Shackled by Unbelief

As a church music director I occasionally get opportunities to preach sermons. That should cause some of you to rejoice that the artsies have a pulpit voice, too. The rest of you will shudder at the idea that we’re allowed anywhere near one.

Ah well, what follows is my sermon from this morning, Sunday, August 5th. It’s been amended a bit to this audience who would tend not to react as negatively to more “spicy” language and approach.

I hope it lodges somewhere good, or at least, hungry.

Mark 6:1-13

6He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. 2On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 3Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him. 4Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ 5And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6And he was amazed at their unbelief. 

Then he went about among the villages teaching. 7He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ 12So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 13They cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

Even a cursory jaunt through the Gospel of Mark gives us a picture of Jesus who doesn’t fit well into pre-existing categories. He is different than the conventional and, as such, is often viewed suspiciously, or as we shall see, even contemptuously.

This sermon takes place among a series entitled “Defiance – Challenging the Norm.” ‘Defiance’ here is intended as a general term meant to convey the prophetic, counter-cultural way in which Jesus lived, taught and related to others. He defied easy categorization.

He was then and shall ever be, a glorious enigma.

Jesus has begun a ministry of healing and teaching, confronting people with a new way of thinking, of being in the world. He’s been busy making waves, making sick people well, hopeless people hopeful, lost people found, demonized people free, the government nervous, and religious people pissed off.

So, with all that success and street cred in tow, Jesus comes now to his hometown. But he comes not on a social call. He arrives bringing with him the kingdom message and is prepared to fulfill the exact same purpose for which he has come. He returns to Nazareth to reveal this new way of looking at God.

And how does he go about doing such a thing? Exactly. He teaches in the synagogue to those who already “know God” (by the way, in the same way doctors make terrible patients, we religious folks can make the worst disciples!). He’s met quickly with disdain and rejection.

“Wait a minute. We know this guy. That’s a lotta book learnin’ coming from that weird kid who grew up down the street from Bob and Lydia’s place. Who the hell does he think he is?!”

In fact, this was what they said, “Where did this man get all this?” They can’t be bothered to use his name! “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary…?” They basically remind him of his status as an illegitimate bastard by referring to him as “the son of Mary.”

Jesus had likely dealt with whispers and sneers his whole life. The self-righteous do-goodery of small town gossips has ripened well. And old grudges die hard.

Their assumptions about Jesus and, by extension what a prophet is “supposed to be” have been challenged. “This is no prophet, this is that snot-nosed carpenter’s kid. And, certainly no Messiah, either.” They make themselves unreceptive to the saving power of grace.

How many of us, having gone out into the world and made something of ourselves have returned to our places of origin only to be met with suspicion, or even derision? This kind of thing happens all the time. There’s something about challenging the status quo that makes people uncomfortable.

Jesus, the small-town lad, returns home. But no longer is he Joseph’s boy who spent many an afternoon fashioning cedar china cabinets and coffee tables. He returns home to Nazareth, a Palestinian redneck town, flashing the equivalent of a Ph.D. and a big city car. And they don’t take kindly to him shoving all this in their faces.

There is an acceptable, well-established role for anyone calling themselves prophet. Do not move outside those lines. In their eyes, miracles of healing, however impressive, may well have been reduced to cheap parlour tricks from someone just showing off. And a salvation message, however profound, met with stony ears unprepared for it.

Love gets shackled by unbelief.  

To call him a prophet would have called into question all the ways they already saw the world and their place in it. It would have been to question their own hearts. And come on, that’s hard for most of us, isn’t it?

Poet John Donne once penned these words:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

We all have a collective grid of preconceptions, shared expectations, and accepted protocols through which we see out to the world and through which the world comes to us. If you don’t believe me, just try changing the rules to a game played for decades at the local social club. I dare you.

Because we have constructs for everything, we will have difficulty seeing Jesus when he challenges our comfortable assumptions. Jesus looks too much like us. We’ve coopted him, repackaged him, made him comfortable, usable, for us. Then, we lose the ability to see him in our daily activities, hear him speaking to us.

Theologian John Dominic Crossan once said, “beware of finding a Jesus entirely congenial to you.” We don’t want a Saviour who is constantly poking around at our idolatries. Our bigotries. How annoying! And to reject the Jesus who welcomes others, is automatically to reject God.

Let’s be honest, sometimes we’re either afraid or ashamed to be challenged because it’s just easier to rest in a Gospel re-envisioned to suit us. No outsiders allowed. Gather with those who look and think like us because it’s safer and more controllable.

This is something hard to see because those we think of as “other” are unique to every time and place. And, whenever we corral some particular group into the “unwanted” or “sinful” category, that’s precisely the place we will find Jesus.

We see this writ large in the ridiculous debacle of contemporary American politics. With ample posing, bluster, and incompetence enough for everyone with leftovers, we’ve decided it a great idea to crystalize our fears by bowing down to a self-proclaimed White House king. We say we want Jesus but really, we want Barabbas. And he means to neanderthalize what once was a cultural mecca for progressive (small ‘p’) values and diversity. Rather than seek to understand one another and enjoy the delightful surprises of acceptance, we vilify and demonize and divide. Indeed, our wrath spilleth over. 

Who here remembers Isaac Asimov? He was a professor of biochemistry at Boston University and a prolific author. He once said, “your assumptions are your window on the world. Scrub them off sometimes or the light won’t come in.”

Jesus is not in the business of satisfying what we already believe to be true. Jesus wants us to follow him who IS true.

You want to find Jesus? Don’t look for him on the courthouse lawn. Find him in the prisons.

Don’t look for him in the backyard suburbia. Find him in tent villages under bridges.

Don’t look for him in the Constitution. Find him in between the lines of graffiti or suicide notes.

Don’t look for him in the hallways of power and priviledge. Find him in the faces of caged children and in the mentally challenged.

See his face staring back through the black eyes and broken nose of the abused housewife.

Find him in the cyber-bullied student or pregnant teen.

See him looking back at you in the eyes of your Republican neighbour, your Democrat sister, your drug-addict brother, your senile grandma.

See him in your enemy.

It is as true now as it was then, Jesus is often the least welcome among those who claim to know him best. We can be slow to accept anything that challenges our deeply embedded assumptions. Over familiarity with what we’re convinced is true about Jesus can keep us on the outside of experiencing the love he offers.

And, at the very heart of the Gospel is love. It is God intruding into our lives, shattering our pre-existing ideas about everything. Not to be a bully. But to help us clean off our windows enough to let in some light.

Let us not be those whose cast iron opinions (of which, obviously, I’m equally guilty) disallow the in-breaking of God’s love into our lives. Let us instead be those who are always willing to be surprised by Jesus. Let us not allow our knowledge about Jesus stand in the way of our love for him.

Who knows, perhaps he’ll be welcome enough in our hearts to perform mighty deeds of power? Lord, in your mercy, may it be so. Amen.

 

Defiance: Introducing Mark’s Jesus

What follows is a “bloggified” version of my sermon from last Sunday, June 3rd.

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Today we begin our summer sermon series entitled “Defiance: Challenging the Norm.” We will focus on Jesus’ radical, counter-cultural life and the ways he defied social norms, religious traditions, and theological expectations. We’ll be using for this exploration the gospel of Mark.

Mark will reveal to us a Jesus offering hope for the abundant life, convincing people that he was the promised Messiah, spending time with disreputable people, challenging the social conventions of his day, healing, teaching, eating and drinking, praying, and teaching his disciples to do the same.

 So, when we hear the word “defiance,” what comes to mind?

The stubborn two-year-old who sits pouting, arms folded, at the kitchen table because he didn’t get his way?

The angry teenager who shouts, “I hate you!” just before slamming shut her bedroom door?

That guy who insists on his right to walk through the shopping mall, teaming with families, with an open carry pistol?

Or, conversely, the PC police, social justice warrior who shouts down a speaker at a university campus because she disagrees with the message?

All of the above? None of the above?

Maybe this is what we think?Defiance 1 (boot).jpgPeople rising up against their oppressors. Jesus did that, although in subtle, subversive ways. And, he starts from the inside out. His weapons of choice? Love and his own life.

Or perhaps this?Defiance 7 (truth behind the lies).jpgPealing back lies to reveal truth. Jesus did that. “You have heard it said, but I tell you…” “I Am the way, the truth, and the life…”

Or maybe this?Defiance 8 (truth to power).jpgAlone, or together, having the courage to speak truth to power? Jesus did that, too. “Woe to you blind guides…” “You brood of vipers…” You know, the kind of things you say to your grandparents at family dinner.

How about this?Defiance 5 (overturning tables).jpgHere we see Jesus turning over the tables of the money-changers. This is Jesus, in defiance of the business of faith: T-shirt, bumper-sticker religion.

The image we decided on for at least the first part of the series is this one.Defiance 2 (little girl).jpgA little girl stands courageously against a raging bull. We see here the weak against the strong. The vulnerable against the bull-y (no extra charge for that one).

The dictionary defines “defiance” as follows:Slide 1-Defiance (definition).jpgLet’s explore how this might apply to Jesus.

All four Gospels are unique. They are four unique authors speaking from unique perspectives saying unique things about the unique, but complex person of Jesus.

Matthew wrote primarily to the Jews. Matthew’s Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s covenant promise to Abraham and of all the Law and Prophets.

Luke, a doctor, presents us with Jesus, the son of Man, lover of the poor and downtrodden, the hated prodigals now welcomed into the presence of God through him.

John was the mystic. He was the closest friend of Jesus and had heard his very heartbeat. It has this scent of tender familiarity. John’s Jesus takes us deep into the loving heart of God.

And then there’s Mark.

In the space of fifteen verses we get:

  1. The proclamation of a wild man – John the Baptist.
  2. The baptism of Jesus in the Jordan.
  3. A voice from heaven (freaky at the best of times).
  4. The temptation of Jesus, who Mark says was “driven” into the wilderness.
  5. The arrest of John. You know, the guy mentioned a couple sentences earlier!
  6. And, the beginning of Jesus’ Galilean ministry!

Mark’s gospel reads like a Hollywood blockbuster that opens with a car chase. It’s the biblical equivalent of the Fast and Furious! He’s so excited to tell us about Jesus that he spares no time. He. Is. Focused. Let’s just git ‘r done!

My wife and I are both lit-geeks. But Rae is really more the story-teller. She says that, in any study of story, the question of pacing is incredibly important. Too fast and it can lack the heart, depth, and staying power of great storytelling.          T    o    o     s    l    o    w    and    y   o   u    r   i   s   k     l   o   s   i   n   g     y  o  u  r    audience.

Hence, even Mark’s very pacing teaches us. Something has happened that radically changes the way we look at and experience the world, and he can’t wait to tell us about it. There is no more waiting. It’s happening right here, right now, in real time. It is decisive, dramatic and begs a response.

But how does Mark’s Jesus illustrate defiance?

We can do that in a single verse. Mark 1:1 says,

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

How is this defiant, exactly? Well, this is a significant statement for many reasons.

What do we know of ancient Rome? It was a military occupation possessing a particular skill in “crowd control.” It was marked by its efficiency, technology, discipline, and finely-honed bureaucracy.

Rome was intimidating and ruled by means of the well-known adage – “the beatings shall continue until morale improves.” The Jews were all huddled up under the great shadow of Rome, longing for the promised Messiah to come and kick some Roman ass.

But what kind of Messiah did they get? Mark’s point is to convince them that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, just not in the sense they wanted him to be.

Let’s read that statement again:

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

You may recall that Herod considered Jesus such a threat that he slaughtered an entire generation of Hebrew children. What was he so afraid of?

A child, rumoured to be king of the Jews, would have posed no small threat to a bumbling narcissist like Herod (sound familiar?).

Many Roman Caesars believed themselves to be God incarnate, a notion they were only too happy to enforce. For anyone other than Caesar to make such a claim would have been foolhardy in the extreme. To the Romans, for Jesus to be described as “the Son of God” was not a theological matter. It was a political threat.

And, guess what form of death was designed specifically for political dissidents?

Crucifixion.

Mark’s opening statement therefore is already a dangerously defiant one!

This Messiah does not set out to conquer. He sets out to suffer that the notion of conquering might come to an end. He doesn’t conquer Rome. He conquers death at Rome’s hands, forgiving them the whole time.

A defiant bait ‘n switch if ever there was one! His non-violent love defied – said ‘no’ – to blind hate and aggression and, through death, led ultimately to the freedom of all.

Jesus defied hatred with love.

He defied exclusion with invitation.

He defied the misguided hope for military salvation (take note America) and brought instead, freedom from sin and death.

He defied the kingdom of Caesar with the kingdom of God.

He defied everyone’s expectations, trading pride for humility.

Jesus should have baptized others. Instead, he allowed John to baptize him.

Jesus, Lord of the wilderness is, himself, driven there to starve and face down the archetypal temptations we all face. Why? That he might truly be one of us, in every way.

Jesus could have ruled a heavenly army. Instead, he says “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Let’s ask Mark to take us on a journey, shall we? A journey into the heart of God, a God who does not look like what we’d expect.

He looks like Good News.

Amen.

“Do you want to be healed?”

“Do you want to be healed?”

For the longest time I had attributed it to the insistent paradigm of the poet’s logic, the lover’s unrequited dreams, the shifting clouds of the philosopher’s quest – all searching for something – a reality as numinous and perfect as it is deceptively secret and stubbornly resistant to conquest.

An ever-present sense of melancholy, a numbing ache, an unnameable yearning – desolation even – has draped my consciousness for many years. It seems I am a walking advertisement for mood enhancing substances and the pharmaceutical drug trade (or, maybe just self-pity?)

Sometimes, and inexplicably, my soul is shot through with little darts of light – suggestions of heaven, of how things truly are. They come unbidden mostly as ghostly sojourners, inhabitants of a more perfect realm come to slake my wheezing soul with wine, bread, and perhaps a song or two.

In recent days, this ubiquitous, verbose Demon of Grey Souls has gnawed at me for so long that it seems, by virtue of that fact, to have overplayed its hand. The hide ‘n seek after contentment, so long now the haunt of my days, has been smoldering behind its best hiding places under new rays of sun. I had willingly become a pawn in a cat and mouse game and my overseer has grown too fat to hide well.

New light, still diffuse and weak, but less coy or troublesome, is asking me a question; the ironic question Jesus once posed to some poor bugger by the Jerusalem Sheep Gate: do you want to be healed?

On the surface it’s a question as ridiculous as asking two young lovers, separated by time and circumstance, whether they’d like to make love. Upon reflection however, it reveals shear genius and a profound knowledge of the human psyche. In asking such a question, Jesus becomes more than just miracle-worker, more than a first-century doctor. He becomes psychologist and spiritual director.

He gazes beyond the obvious malady to which this fellow is chained and sees something else. His question is aimed at the man’s fear, not of remaining ill, but of the unknown world that might just open to him in the face of his healing. To be healed is to rejoin society. It is to refuse the Hogwart’s sorting hat from placing you once again into the House of Sufferin’. It is to relinquish the comfortable role of pitied and pitiful, dependent on the succoring cries of others, and take up one’s place responsibly as contributor and co-builder of a just and compassionate world.

The Spirit of God is revealing to me just how long I have sat beside my own Beth-zatha (see Jn. 5:2ff) with the expectation of healing but full of excuses for why it shouldn’t have or hasn’t yet happened. The brooding and mysterious artist persona, complete with philosopher-poet mystique and generous helping of eyes-down, hood-up melancholy is no longer a big enough hiding place for the overwhelming presence of this question, posed by Jehovah-Rapha (God, our healer).

Perhaps it’s about timing, we must wait until our own “fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4)? Perhaps God is content, as in the case of Job, to let us sit in our sackcloth and ashes long enough to remove all doubt that we’re so buried that only another can save us? Perhaps it’s just “our turn?”

Says Marilyn Gardiner, “We sit, often for years, with our paralysis. It may not be physical paralysis, but it is just as debilitating and defeating as physical paralysis. It prevents us from truly living, from being who we are called to be.”*

Whatever the case, I am ready to answer ‘yes’ to the question of Jesus. I am ready to shed one skin, now old and overused, and don a better one.  I am ready to see what has always existed just below the surface of my murky water. 

I think I’m ready to say ‘yes.’

I’m ready to say ‘yes.’

I say, ‘yes.’

Yes.

Will you?

_________

*Excerpted from Marilyn R. Gardiner’s wonderful blog, Communicating Across Boundaries

Words – A Good Friday Meditation

The first word: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

Father, forgive them

As people, we assign significance to many things, deserving or not. But, if there is anything to which we assign particularly deep significance, it is to the words spoken to us by others we hold dear. A jaunty “good morning” from a work associate could never hold the same weight as if the words are spoken by that special someone whose attentions we’d been trying to attract. The regard we give to words spoken to us is directly proportionate to the one from whom and the context in which they are spoken.

For example, if we’re honest, how many of us would admit to twinges of discouragement, disappointment, or even anger at statements on social media that seem dismissive, flippant or maybe even abusive? They may never have been intended that way. But, devoid of a significant person’s voice and presence, and accompanying body language, we’re left to interpret from one-dimensional communication a multi-dimensional message.

We may read on our Facebook wall: “so, you’re happy with that, then?” Pretty benign really, isn’t it? Or is it? We don’t know. Those same words feel quite different when heard directly from the mouth of our best friend standing in front of us with a quirky grin on his or her face…”so, you’re happy with that, then?” We don’t have to “fill in the blanks.” We “get it.”

The generally agreed upon “7 last words of Jesus” from the cross have the deepest significance when understood in the broader context in which and by whom they were spoken.

To a group of men called out of their settled lives into the nomadic, unsettled life of Rabbinic apprentices, Jesus’ words already had weight. They may not always have understood. But they respected the source and therefore the words. But, remember that, by this point, they were busy licking their emotional wounds from having dismissed, betrayed, denied, disowned and finally abandoned him when he needed them most. They were literally swimming in grief and shame.

Therefore, it was significant that the first words from Jesus’ mouth were not of condemnation as one might reasonably expect. No, they were of forgiveness. They are also of particular importance given the shady circumstances surrounding his death.

Jesus had been handed over to be killed, not as a religious heretic or prophetic martyr, but as a political revolutionary. Jesus’ ignominious death was never really about blasphemy, or heresy as the religious leaders were fond of contending. Those were surface issues that made it easier to get rid of him. They were the straw man that became the elephant in the living room. Since we can’t seem to deal with this guy by theological means, let’s play the political card. Let’s throw him at Caesar and see what happens. Let’s appeal to the mass hysteria induced by authority figures telling people what they should be thinking about something. It was about a threat to power and control. He represented a genuine threat to the religious establishment.

The cross tells us many, many things. It tells us firstly, that Jesus didn’t give up, either on his mission or on the first recipients of that mission. He saw it through to the end. Not just any end, but an ignominious end at the hands of his own people willingly handing him over as nothing more than troublemaker to the Roman powers-that-be. It also tells us that his own people distanced themselves from him spiritually by insisting on crucifixion as the means of his death; a form of torture reserved for enemies of the state, not the nation of Israel.

That’s the context. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Under such shameful circumstances, no other words could possibly hold more powerful meaning.

Before Jesus says, “It is finished” he says, “Father, forgive them.” We are drawn to faith not in the hope of forgiveness but in the reality of forgiveness. We rush into the arms of a God not waiting to forgive, but a God who has already forgiven. The first words from the cross frame all the rest. We do not have to assign any other significance to them because God himself is the one who has answered the cry of Jesus.

Friends, forgiveness isn’t the end game of the cross. It’s the starting point. It isn’t the result. It’s the means of revealing a result. Our journey with God doesn’t come to a point of forgiveness. It begins there. Relationship doesn’t happen once forgiveness is offered. It can happen precisely BECAUSE forgiveness has been offered.

Amen.

Image found here

 

 

 

 

 

Eyes in the Alley – Beauty from Ashes

dark_alley_bigShe fumbled through her purse for her phone. Its unnecessarily loud wring matched the other bells and whistles blasting in her head. They were the kind that told her old lies, played old tapes.

Lipstick, business cards, flash cards for her Spanish class, gloves, make-up mirror…where the hell is that damn thing? she cursed. Out loud apparently. The pastor, full-robed, full-throated, and in full-sermon, rebuked her with a glare, one she’d seen before. It would have been less humiliating to slap her.

She was flustered and wound up tight as a bedspring. And, she was frustrated at her own lack of discernment. Why the hell didn’t I turn this thing off? Who’d be calling now? It’s Sunday, they shouldn’t even be open today she thought, half angry, half relieved. After dropping almost everything, she fingered the noisy culprit. Sliding sideways past her pew neighbors, she answered just in time to catch the call she wished she hadn’t “Your test results are in, ma’am. Can you meet with the doctor tomorrow?”

Ashes.

He fell backwards against the brick wall, his guts, freshly emptied of the remains of fish-dinner-a-la-dumpster. His head, swimming in too much shit wine, conspired with his stomach against all lucidity and balance, let alone self-respect. He smelled of piss, puke and pain. These days, only shame kept him alive and the dull remembrance of a life once lived, once alive with the common promise of…well, promise.

Was it only yesterday that he’d felt the warm body of a wife sleeping next to him? She had stayed with him through the final merger, the one he’d promised would bring them financial freedom. She muscled through his two affairs and the drinking that bridged them both. Now, two years, a foreclosure, divorce, and bankruptcy later, he thought he smelled her hair, the fragrance of mint intermingled in aching reminiscence. But it was only the smell of loss mixed with dog shit on his one remaining shoe. He’d lost the other earlier that day foraging for what was left of his meal, now part of his concrete pillow. And, as it began to snow, he blacked out.

Ashes.

new life from ashes II

She was desperate. It had been too long between hits and her most regular but equally violent trick had just buzzed to be let in. She frantically ravaged through her regular places searching for her small bag of white, powdered courage. If she could get high enough quick enough, perhaps he would get enough soon enough and leave her just enough to start the whole process again.

He pounded on the buzzer. Now, he wasn’t just horny but pissed off and, most likely, more violent as a result. Her lust to forget competed with his to be remembered and a battle ensued as to whose needs would be met first. She gave up. This time, a paying customer in person overruled her quest to be absent. After safely shewing her daughter away in a back room, yelling for her to lock the door, with quivering hand she buzzed him in.

He stormed and swore his way up the four flights of stairs. It was a distance not her friend when it came to her chances of getting through this unscathed. Her door flew open, along with his zipper and a stream of obscenities. Everything aligned in a perfect storm, conspiring against her and sealing her fate. She lucked out this time and suffered only one punch before he got down to business. Through a left eye, now starting to swell, she toughed it out through one more indignity.

Ashes.

Ash Wednesday. Ashes indicate something. They tell us something has been used up, finished. There is nothing left. Any fuel that had provided light or heat no longer exists. It is rendered useless. Ashes are basically meaningless and, at one level, can provide a bleak picture of what many of us feel about our lives. Sometimes, life offers little more than the used up fodder of someone else’s fire.

In the Gospel however ashes become something more than foul smelling carbon. Jesus reveals to us how the ashes of death are turned to the fertilizer of new life. In his name, we trade our ashes for God’s beauty. Death and dying for life and living.

An anxiety-ridden woman receives the call; a washed up businessman is now one with the streets; a hooker walks a tightrope of addiction and fear to survive the only lifestyle she knows

All of us are only a hair’s breadth away from ruin or reward, disaster or dream, life or lies. We’re in this together. And wherever our lives may be in ruins, God can bring about beauty from our ashes.

May it be so.

Pictures from here and here

My ongoing prayer experiment

A while back I began to write about my big prayer experiment. In that piece, I shared the three greatest gifts to my prayer life:

1. Contemplative prayer, I.e. prayer without agenda/lovingly gazing at God.

2. Total honesty in the presence of a God who already knows all my shit.

3. The gift of Intercession.

Nothing has changed with this experiment. I do want to add something, however; something that has utterly revolutionized my prayer life, turning it into something to which I cannot wait to return.

I pray the Rosary.

Big deal, right? Millions do. Well, here’s the thing – I’m a Protestant. We’re supposed to look with suspicion, pity or even hatred at such wayward, Medieval practices believing them to be the rote, meaningless prayers pooh-poohed by Jesus in the Gospels. How could such a ridiculous thing, something held in regard by little, old ladies and superstitious saintly wannabes possibly lead one to the expected spontaneity and relationship we’re led to accept through our more enlightened “salvation prayer” at the end of the 4 Spiritual Laws booklet? Or so we Protestants are taught to think. You remember…the “Accept you’re a sinner/Believe in the Good News/Confess your sins” prayer that, like magic, whisks us from the apparent hell of our present existence into the Thomas Kinkade wonderland of Jesusy goodness? It’s actually a very good prayer. A necessary one.

It’s just so…incomplete.

Actually, I prayed that prayer once, too. Not necessarily that exact prayer, but one just like it. I credit that prayer for bringing a keener sense of articulation and focus to my otherwise meandering picture of me and God. I suppose I could even credit that “salvation prayer” as my come-to-Jesus moment, with the beginning (continuation?) of a journey even deeper into the heart of prayer.

The Rosary has been an important step in solidifying my need to regulate my prayer practice in chronological, tactile and organized ways. It also invites me to see prayer as more than just talking at God. Here, I can sit with another, Someone whose indelible presence ought to leave me breathless and speechless anyway. Although I’ve owned one before, it wasn’t until my dear Catholic friend, Val Dodge Head, gifted me with one I could actually wear around my neck that I began developing a daily practice. Here is the historic Rosary Prayer:

Rosary Prayer

The purpose of the Rosary is to help keep in memory certain principal events or mysteries in the history of our salvation, and to thank and praise God for them. This is the mountain rapids version of the Rosary Prayer. It begins with the Sign of the Cross and the Apostles’ Creed. This is followed, successively, by The Lord’s Prayer (the Our Father or Pater Noster), 3 Hail Marys, the 1st Mystery of Our Father and Hail Holy Queen. There are twenty mysteries reflected upon in the Rosary, all of which are divided into the five JOYFUL MYSTERIES, the five LUMINOUS MYSTERIES, the five SORROWFUL MYSTERIES, and the five GLORIOUS MYSTERIES. The Hail Mary is recited ten times (called a decade) between meditating on the mysteries in question. After each decade is said the following prayer requested by the Blessed Virgin Mary at Fatima: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who have most need of your mercy.” The whole undertaking is a most imaginative blending of redemptive and mystical theology.

Here is my own adaptation.

I begin and end with the Sign of the Cross. The crucifix acts as The Lord’s Prayer both in and out of my Rosary. For morning prayer, the first bead is always Psalm 63 (King James Version), which I memorized many years ago. If in the afternoon, I’ll choose some other Psalm or a Prayer of St. Columba: “Kindle in our hearts, O God, the flame of that love which never ceases, that it may burn in us, giving light to others. May we shine forever in your holy temple, set on fire with your eternal light, even your Son Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Redeemer.” The Hail Mary beads are replaced by 3 Kyries (Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy). In turn, these are followed, respectively, by the well known Ignatian Prayer, the Anima Christi and the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. The decade beads are breath prayers. With these, I practice more contemplative or centering prayer. Phrases such as “peace, be still” or “in the Lord, I’ll be ever thankful” or “holy is your name, O Lord” or, most often, The Jesus Prayer punctuate this time. It is unhurried and allows my mind to cleanse and my soul to pulsate to the sound of God’s own heart. The Mystery beads form a wonderful place for me to pray the daily Lectionary Psalms, various scriptures I have memorized or, on more creative retreat days, I’ll write or read poetry I’ve written. I exit the Rosary the same way I entered, although in reverse order.

The Rosary has been great respite to me since I am living nowhere near the Monasteries I used to frequent in Oregon. God has shown me just how holy even the most unholy places can be. In those places least ideal for luminosity, God has been busily proving me wrong about my previous misconceptions. The mysterious geography of prayer must begin in the cracks and fissures of the human spirit before it gets the added benefit of the babbling brook heard just outside the Monastery gates.

The Rosary has helped. 

Lord, fashion the slow calligraphy of your name

in a once stone heart, broken now as sand.

Spit out the bones of my old, gristled soul revivified on your tongue,

reattached to the sinews of your own holy arm. 

Sear the brand of white hot remembrance into the skin of my brazen back

so that only those I lead can see it.

In the wordless chatter of our silent conversations,

bring up the topics closest to your heart that breaks so much easier than mine.

Let the voices of a hundred thousand saints

crowd out the stifling arrogance of my solitary blethering.

And into that holy community of singing silence,

sing, Holy One, sing.

 

PIcture of Rosary can be found here. Rosary Prayer instructions can be found here.

Examen on a Sunday in the Fall

Lord, like you, I am sweeping leaves,

as the trees eschew their fingers,

and turn their heads on part of themselves.

I looked and saw too many leaves

from too many long winters

heaped up on top of each other,

becoming the worm-infested mulch

of a wayward heart.

But, Lord, you also created worms.

They loosen what would otherwise

pack itself down into a deadening tightness,

choking out what life is yet to come.

You seem to prefer it this way, Lord.

New stuff grows from old,

good from bad,

fresh from foul.

So be it.

A Thursday Prayer of Examen

Lord, tie up my expectations like a pretzel

and replace them with a welcome mat

upon which are written only 4 words:

“Thy will be done.”

Thy will be done

Lord, press into the soft, unmarrowed places

of make believe love and headstrong hypocrisy

your thumbprint still dirty from

pinching me alive.

 

Lord, impale me upon the stake of truth,

not the truth of deception in perfect answers

but the Truth that leaves open wounds

on a heart that only looks for niceties.

 

Lord, sit me down at the base of this wood

pounded together with the same nails

that tore through flesh softer than love,

tougher than hate.

 

Lord, with meddling tongue tied behind my back

let my hands, now free

show my mouth that it’s silence

has gifted those I now serve.

 

Lord, interrupt the long stream of my proclamations

of ideas diminished by my words;

words lesser still than those who listen

for something better than words.

 

Lord, fill my life with the awesome silence

of a boisterous heaven, singing in praise;

for only then will what I say and do

remind others of who you say I am.

 

Painting by James Seward