Sunday, December 30, 2012

Praying Christmastide

God of love, on this bright and beaming morning, your glory fills the skies and lifts our spirits! You are the One and Only God, we honor and bless your holy name, we praise and marvel in your presence, we delight and rejoice with joy unspeakable for who you are and all you have done for us! Thank you for loving us so much that you entered the pain of our world, took on our humanity, and came in the face of Jesus our Christ, the Word made flesh for us.

God, we pray over our lives, our world. Do not, we pray, waste our pain or the suffering of this world, but bring good out of evil. We often do not choose the way of life. Forgive us our sins and help us to forgive those who have hurt or wronged us. Redeem the broken places of our lives, and renew the face of the earth in peace and harmony, trust and obedience. Teach us to stand up and walk after we have failed, to always be willing to try again with the gifts of insight and learning and wisdom.

Lord, we pray for others in our lives- friends, family, children and parents, co-workers, neighbors, and also strangers, and all of those that you will bring into our lives this week.  We also pray for those that always seem to make our life difficult and stressful- our adversaries. We give them to you Lord, praying your grace on each one as we see them in these moments, and praying that you would allow us to minister to them with a kindness and patience.

Keep us on the look-out for our spiritual adversaries:  entitlement, ingratitude,  any root of bitterness or resentment which hinders or harms our walking in love and joy. We pray for all those who do not know your love and do not know the love or acceptance of others. Give us a compassionate heart for all those who are recovering from bad church experiences. Keep us from ever using your name to hurt or wound others.

Hear our prayers for your people across this earth and crown your church with a power and grace that heals divisions, reconciles opponents, forgives and lets go of old hurts, and witnesses to your redeeming love. Pour your Spirit on us all, so that when we have left this place, we go as Ones sent out to make a difference in Jesus name. Amen.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Sacrament is Strangely Absent for Many

No love that in a family dwells,
No caroling in frosty air,
No all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare-
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
 -G.K. Chesterton
Quoted from New Reflections on Advent,
 Donald Neary, p. 81

I've come to admire and appreciate the weekly Mass that many Roman Catholic churches provide for their parishioners who simply can't get to church. No matter where I visit church members in health care facilities, it seems mid-week Mass is offered.

That the Eucharist is a celebration of the real presence of Jesus is the reason for its importance in the Anglo- Catholic tradition, and thus, why the Catholic observance seems more available for long term care residents and hospital patients than are the Protestant offerings of Holy Communion and the Lord's Supper.  

Even though United Methodists teach that Christ is present in the bread and cup in a "spiritual manner," most of us follow the pattern of Protestant practice. That is, we give the Eucharist lesser importance generally, and this is reflected in fewer opportunities for off-site Communion- with people we could be reaching. 

Wouldn't you appreciate any and all attempts to celebrate the Sacrament? Recognizing the presence of Jesus (Luke 24:30, 35) is a one of the great gifts of our faith. Moreover, United Methodism's Open Table tradition is at once sacramental and evangelical: one and all are invited, whomever desires it, no if and-s or but-s.

A renewed practice of the Holy Meal means ministry in the forgotten places with those who have been pushed to the margins of power and privilege. It's emergent Christianity in a pure form. The Apostle James cites visiting widows and orphans in their affliction and keeping unstained from the world as the defining practices of authentic religion. James 1:26-27  It's also about being unhindered by the voices of apathy and neglect within and around us.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Simple Prayer for the World

Christmastide/Epiphany is about God's love for the world, manifested in the Word becoming flesh.  A few years back, I discovered a prayer at the Cenacle Retreat House in Houston, Texas. Part of it is below.

Father, hear our prayers for the salvation of the world. Gather your children from the east and west, from the north and south. Grant mercy to all souls that turn away from you. Open our hearts and minds with your light. 
We bless and praise you O Lord, for you are our Savior, the hope of all the ends of the earth and the distant seas. We put the world in your hands; fill us with your love. Grant us peace through Christ, our Lord. Amen.  

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

God's Wondrous Love Always Surprises: Advent Midweek Missal (3)

Luke 7:18-23

John’s disciples informed him about all these things. John called two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord. They were to ask him, “ Are you the one who is coming, or should we look for someone else?” When they reached Jesus, they said, “ John the Baptist sent us to you. He asks, ‘Are you the one who is coming, or should we look for someone else?’ ” Right then, Jesus healed many of their diseases, illnesses, and evil spirits, and he gave sight to a number of blind people. Then he replied to John’s disciples, “ Go, report to John what you have seen and heard. Those who were blind are able to see. Those who were crippled now walk. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up. And good news is preached to the poor. Happy is anyone who doesn’t stumble along the way because of me. ” 

"The kingdom of God dawns in that moment when, from the ditch, you look down the Jericho Road, having lost your last, best hope of rescue by a nice savior, only to see coming toward you, the lousy Samaritan you despise."  Will Willimon, Why Jesus? p. 30

This reading tells of how false expectations lead to desolation. Some have to do with success. All of these constructs are based on the lie of that by controlling life, events, others, and God, we can have it our way. The religious version goes like this: If I do the right things, God will reward me with whatever is "in store for me." The gifts of faith become bargaining chips. Prayer becomes magic so that with little or no effort on our part to create a more peaceful, nonviolent future, public prayer in schools will zap them into becoming safer. Easier to do that than to buck the NRA.  
But the problem's in us, and what's in us is the desire to rule over others, for God to conform to our wishes, and to get what we want. It's amazing to think that John's own best hopes for messianic change are shattered!  Both liberation from oppression and the freeing of prisoners are omitted in the Luke 7 report of Jesus' ministry to ahem, the imprisoned John the Baptist. They are clearly included by Jesus himself in Luke 4!
It happens to all of us. Especially clergy. We can easily experience disillusionment when hopes for our kind of church or ministry are lost. The better part of spiritual maturity is to keep taking the next step in faith. Especially when we don't get our way or when we're drained of all reserves.  

It is not about manipulating God or others. It is about asking for and receiving what God gives to all who ask: life and love here, now, and always.  The absolute "wonder of his love" is the miracle of God's continuing "pure, unbounded love" despite the barriers we erect and the violence we do to each other. 

And, "Happy is anyone who doesn’t stumble along the way because of me.” 


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Peace, God are already here: Advent Midweek Missal (2)

Matthew 11:28-30 
Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light. ” 

 Jesus is a giver not a taker  
Something written by Julian Norwich many centuries ago in a book called Revelations of Divine Love: stays with me: "Peace is always with us; but we don't always live in peace." There are few statements that better describe the reality of our spiritual work than this little proverb. In this second week of Advent, we may well have already experienced all too well the reality the 14th Century parish anchoress and spiritual friend was talking about. 

Without letting this verse from Matthew soak over into every part of us, the promise of rest just stays in our head swirling around. Nothing is accomplished by just wishing things were different. One time when I was on an individual retreat, my spiritual director suggested to begin the time away by resting instead of praying, studying, or reading, or anything else. If we are sapped of physical reserves and energy, then deep rest is where we need to begin. It is one way to say 'yes' to Jesus' invitation, "come to me."

The week's reading from the Roman Missal causes us to stop and to note the quality of the inner life we bring to any and all situations. The New Testament's insistence that the Lord is already here and "at hand" (Phil. 4) makes Advent an exercise in orienting and forming our lives around that reality. We do that by accepting Jesus' generous offer of life.

Here in Matthew 11, Jesus' invitation is in stark contrast to John the Baptizer's preaching in Advent. Some of John's audience is comprised of showy religious big wigs from Jerusalem, and others who abused the office and power of the Roman Empire. Jesus addresses the "little ones" here and wants nothing from them except that they come. This is good news, because many on the outside of our churches see Christians not as givers but as takers- with all the manipulation that implies.

The Lord has already come; the Lord is already here, and has never left! It's for us to simply come to Jesus, the Shepherd and Guardian of our souls. Jesus the Christ wants nothing more or less than for us to be present, to be aware, and to be mindful of the Holy One's abiding, with us, in us, for us.  


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

God is enough: Advent Midweek Missal (1)

Matthew 15: 29-37 (CEB)

In what ways does God want to transform your desert?

Jesus moved on from there along the shore of the Galilee Sea. He went up a mountain and sat down.  Large crowds came to him, including those who were paralyzed, blind, injured, and unable to speak, and many others. They laid them at his feet, and he healed them. So the crowd was amazed when they saw those who had been unable to speak talking, and the paralyzed cured, and the injured walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel. 

Now Jesus called his disciples and said, “ I feel sorry for the crowd because they have been with me for three days and have nothing to eat. I don’t want to send them away hungry for fear they won’t have enough strength to travel. ” His disciples replied, “ Where are we going to get enough food in this wilderness to satisfy such a big crowd? ”  Jesus said, “ How much bread do you have? ”  They responded, “ Seven loaves and a few fish. ” 

He told the crowd to sit on the ground. He took the seven loaves of bread and the fish. After he gave thanks, he broke them into pieces and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. Everyone ate until they were full. The disciples collected seven baskets full of leftovers.

Similar to the Feeding of the Five Thousand, this story provides a wonderful statement of Jesus as the Good Shepherd of Psalm 23. The two movements in this feeding "encore" are 1) being healed and 2) being filled. Both are described with overwhelming abundance in Psalm 23, in the CEB: "You bathe my head in oil; my cup is so full it spills over!" Jesus' "feeling sorry" for the crowd without food provisions is translated as "compassion" in other versions. Compassion means to "feel with," and can be likened to "tender mercy," or even mother (womb) love. 

This is a reading we need to hear the first week of Advent. Because the voices in and around us crying "not enough" only become louder, and more incessant if we listen to them. And so we need to start not with our own insufficiency,  but with God's all-sufficient love and grace. We are bathed in God's healing love and our cup spills over!

The miracle of God's grace is that even after everyone has eaten their fill of what Jesus has to offer, there is still as much left over as at the very beginning! How does that happen? 

There are additives in pet and even human food that make us feel full for awhile. But the trick doesn't last long. Soon we realize that we may not be as full as we thought an hour or two after eating food with "fillers." With Jesus, however, the everything that God has is ours, now and forever!  God's mercy is all new, every morning, and God doesn't run out of mercy.

The important footnote to this story is that it all takes place in the desert, the wilderness, an experience notorious for scarcity, not abundance. There are no provisions for daily bread. So whatever the desert may be for you, to me it often looks or feels like "not enough."

Transforming our deserts into places where we can discover God is enough is a gift God has to give, and it's there for the taking. 

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Do a Fly Over Stinkin' Thinkin'

Honk! Honk!
In the days when folks were free to smoke everywhere, the most difficult person to be with was not necessarily a smoker but the former one. Did you ever hear one complain about those irritating smokers clogging everyone's lungs?

It's similar to a new religious convert who believes he was wrong about everything before he saw the light. Now, he's suddenly right about everything.      

The "dry drunk" as known in AA, is the one who thinks and can even behave like the worst addict, but is abstinent. The pain brought on by  all-or-nothing thinking can be so tortuous that another cycle of abuse- or the creation of substitute addictions- easily begins. Too, the ceaseless judgmental and condemnatory attitudes and behaviors can drive others to drink, or just run away.  

Some compare the "first stepper" dry alcoholic to a Christian who never goes beyond conformity to the expectations of others. Well- explained by Richard Rohr in Breathing Under Water,  The result is a sacrificial, elder brother religion, driven by resentment and unhappiness- with God, others, and self. The deeper experiences in the classic stages of prayer and faith, such as purgation, illumination, and union, have to be set aside to keep appearances.

Not being able to serve two masters, professional clergy can easily sacrifice genuine spirituality for something that looks good instead. And while looking the part has its rewards, one of them is not progress in loving God and others God has given you to love. Matthew 6:1-18  The Apostle Paul knew that growth in love was the best fruit of our spiritual life, and even if we sacrifice our lives in martyrdom, if not rooted in love, there is no spiritual benefit for anyone, including ourselves. I Cor. 13:3
Brown Barr, who wrote his reflections on ministry in High Flying Geese, maintained that it would be a new day for all of us if we could stop asking what was right or wrong, good or bad. He suggested we try to make moral decisions by what is beautiful or ugly. Using aesthetics to inform our ethics provides a vision for the beautiful as God intends our life and all creation to be.        

The truest and best gifts are also beautiful: faith, hope, love, gratitude, joy, peace, gentleness, compassion. And these gifts- virtues- come about as we continue on the journey toward freedom, wherever we are on that road. And "focus your thoughts" on all that is holy, just, pure, lovely. God's peace will be yours. (Philippians 4:8-9, CEB)      


Oldies but Goodies