Saturday, December 20, 2014

Psalms of Advent: Magnification, Joy, and Loss of Control

    The wonder of a late fall sunrise, Jesuit Retreat Center,
    Wernersville, Pa.
    With all my heart I glorify the Lord! In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior. He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant. Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored because the mighty one has done great things for me. Holy is his name. He shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God.
    He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones  and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed. He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, just as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever. Luke 1: 46-55
    In just the first chapter of Luke, we have the only birth psalm of the third Gospel that is not spoken by an old guy. Mary, who is "overshadowed" by the Holy Spirit in Luke 1:35 becomes the fulfillment of Joel's prophecy, that of "maidservants" receiving the Holy Spirit. Luke 1:38, Acts 2:18  Mary, who waits with apostles for the Holy Spirit in Acts, becomes the thematic hinge for Luke's two-piece work, Luke-Acts.   
    But when it comes to the words of this psalm, which takes as its title, Mary's soul which in other versions, MAGNIFIES the Lord, like mother, like son. Researchers in faith development once concluded that most enduring faith is the kind a child gets from a mother, even more than from father. It is all about what is actually believed and lived.  
    It shouldn't surprise us that Mary had the key role in Jesus' faith. (Luke 2:58) So much that Jesus, again in Luke, will teach Magnificat values in Luke 6, where he says, almost antiphonally:
    Happy are you who are poor,
        because God’s kingdom is yours.
        Happy are you who hunger now,
        because you will be satisfied...
     But how terrible for you who are rich,
        because you have already received your comfort.
      How terrible for you who have plenty now,
        because you will be hungry.
    In both places, the poor and hungry are filled, the rich and filled are emptied. The lowly are lifted up, the powerful, along with the self-exalted, are "pulled" down. Think of Psalm 146, where the plans of even princes and kings vanish the day they die, where the Lord gives food to the hungry and lifts up those who are bowed down.

    The imaginary and false self with all its pretense that we have life, God, and others under control, is "scattered," like the enemies of God in Maccabees. Meeting this God means the pulling down of the hopes and joys that fill our lives for a few minutes or hours or a few days, then leave us drained. Until the next thrill comes along. The alternative is to let God fill our empty souls, even as we let go of the fake, short- term fillers. 
    This declaration of praise from Mary is her response to God's tender mercy and mother love- the source of a joy that  resounds in the "depths" of who she is. It is enough to overthrow all our illusions of control. For a second, I think of anything that neither I nor life can guarantee, and I'm freer to rejoice and live in the present with the One who is alone is real and whose mercy never runs dry.    

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Psalms of Advent: Benedictus, Dawn of God's Tender Mercy

 Because of our God’s deep compassion,
  the dawn from heaven will break upon us,
 to give light to those who are sitting in darkness
  and in the shadow of death,
  to guide us on the path of peace.
Luke 1: 78-79

The dawn breaks
The third in Luke's trilogy of birth narrative psalms is Luke 1: 68-79. They're the words of the priest Zechariah, the expectant father of the one who would become John the Baptizer.
They are the first words spoken by Zechariah after Gabriel rendered him unable to speak. Zechariah did not initially believe the angel's words about his aged wife Elizabeth bearing a son, one who would have an amazing mission. 
Maybe the heavenly messenger realized too late that Elizabeth was the better first option. Was the concern that Zechariah would say or do something that might endanger the mother or the soon to arrive son?
But Zechariah teaches us something when it comes to men and compassion. The late great Congresswoman from Texas, *Barbara Jordon, once spoke of men not really getting compassion because men are not physically set up for it.
She was taking about a mother's love for her children. The Hebrew Bible uses compassion in different ways, the most common is the kind of mercy a king grants a subject. But the second most prevalent meaning is the kind of mercy a mother has for a child. This mercy is not in the head or heart, but visceral, the kind that exists in gut, womb, or even bowels.  
God's womb-love? The inclusion of "tender mercy"  (NRSV) or in the CEB, "deep compassion" shows that Zechariah and of course Luke, know all about it from the Hebrew Scriptures and even more from the ministry of Jesus. You could make the case that the many faceted and unique Lukan parables (all of Luke 15 comes to mind, for example) cannot be read and understood apart from God's womb mercy. 
I love these words of Zechariah because they seem to indicate that I, too, can both learn and receive something amazing in God's tender mercy. It's God's love and compassion that makes my life possible and worthwhile. There is nothing more to be added, there is nothing to be deleted.  
* "I believe that women have a capacity for understanding and compassion which a man structurally does not have, does not have it because he cannot have it. He's just incapable of it."



Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Psalms of Advent: Nunc Dimittis, Simeon's Departing in Peace

What does God want to give me?
Am I open to receiving it? 
Now, master, let your servant go in peace...
 because my eyes have seen your salvation.
You prepared this salvation
   in the presence of all peoples.
 It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles
      and a glory for your people Israel.
---Luke 2:29-32 CEB
With this little Lukan psalm, we approach one of the many paradoxes of the season: the more we push our ego agenda of needs, wants, should-s, and have to-s on ourselves and others,  the less peace we experience. 
The promise of blessing in our going out and coming in (Psalm 121) becomes painfully unattainable when all we allow ourselves to hear is the cacophony within and around us. How many times must I  be asked the progressively annoying question, "Are you ready for Christmas yet?"

James has it right: "You don't have because you don't ask. You ask and don't have because you ask with evil intentions, to waste it on your own cravings." The promise for Simeon and for us is enduring peace, peace born of the Holy Spirit, as we surrender our false expectations for having life on our terms.

We are not necessarily good at waiting for what we want and even less patient when it comes to what God wants. The wonder of Advent is not our patience, but God's. Holy Spirit is now, of this moment. God's advent is already here--the prime question is, where am I?
As far as I can see, righteous Simeon remains the only man who was truly ready to welcome the Redeemer, the Christ, the Messiah. He didn't need one more thing. His spirit was full- out of surrender, empty and open to receiving the gift of God, the Christ. So much so that he could both "lie down and sleep in peace."
Now, let your servant depart in peace. Could it be that using Simeon's prayer each evening as a simple Compline, or completion of my day, will help me unload, empty, and wash away whatever is most false within? 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Advent: Not the Time to Ignore History

Why skip history?

Being told to wait doesn't seem to help me with impatience. We may be uneasy with the chaos of history or the pain of our personal biographies, but that's not a very good reason to ignore a most intriguing and educational piece of the biblical story. The oft- forgotten history takes us up to a few short decades within the actual century of Jesus Christ.
In the story of the Maccabees in the Protestant Apocrypha (actually in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Canon), we discover that the people of God did not, in fact, "wait." They rebelled against tyrants and persecutors.

They fought- and won- a gruesome guerrilla war against the Seleucid kings of Syria who were ruling Palestine. A new, independent Judah was born in 150 BCE. The first king was Simon, the third son of Mattathias, a priest and initiator of the original revolt. 

The Hasmoneans ruled Judah from 142- 63 BCE and provided a significant period of peace and freedom, between the supremacy of the Greeks and Romans. Skipping history means that we miss the story of the Rededication of the Temple, Hanukkah. Also overlooked is what could be considered the zenith of the Sadducees and Pharisees as key players in a sovereign nation state (Judah). By the time they are mentioned in the New Testament, they are no longer rulers but vassals of Rome, their power severely weakened and limited.

The end of this short but important dynasty introduces us to one of worst villains in the New Testament story, Herod.  But he was a murderer long before the Slaughter of the Innocents that Matthew describes. Wouldn't we like to ignore the treachery of this Idumean, Herod the Great? Herod became a Roman puppet, and conquered Judah with Roman armies. And in an attempt to protect his power, he murdered everyone in his family with any Hasmonean lineage, including his wife and children.

Have you ever heard that the people of Israel had 400 years of "waiting," between the last book of the Protestant Old Testament, Malachi, and the "next" book in the Christian Scriptures, Matthew? The years between the two books may be roughly accurate. But people did anything but wait. As illustrated from the psalms below, the line of connection is intimate and living through Maccabees- not Malachi:

Lord, Lord God, creator of all,
you are fearsome, mighty,
just, and merciful.
You are the only king
and only generous one.
You are the only provider,
the only just, almighty, and eternal one.
You save Israel from all evil.
You chose the patriarchs
and made them holy.
Receive this sacrifice on behalf of all your people Israel. 
Guard your portion and make it holy. 
Gather together our scattered people, 
free the ones enslaved among the nations, 
watch over those who are despised and loathed, 
and let the nations know that you are our God. 
Punish the oppressors and those who commit arrogant acts of violence. 
Plant your people in your holy place, just as Moses said.

2 Maccabees 1: 24 ff.

Bless the Lord God of Israel
because he has come to help and has delivered his people.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us in his servant David’s house,
just as he said through the mouths of his holy prophets long ago.
He has brought salvation from our enemies
and from the power of all those who hate us.
He has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and remembered his holy covenant,
the solemn pledge he made to our ancestor Abraham.
He has granted that we would be rescued
from the power of our enemies
so that we could serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness in God’s eyes,
for as long as we live.
You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.
You will tell his people how to be saved
through the forgiveness of their sins.
Because of our God’s deep compassion,
the dawn from heaven will break upon us,
to give light to those who are sitting in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide us on the path of peace.

Luke 1:68 ff.


Friday, November 7, 2014

Trusting our own best self

Camp Miniwanca,  Lake Michigan
To thine own self be true. William Shakespeare

On this day, I will nurture my true self by no longer living in fear and by not worrying about things that are none of my business. Daily Affirmations

It came as a laser beam of light and energy: my own self, at my very best,all of the time. It happened on the shores of Lake Michigan. I was 17. It has served as a north star for me ever since.
But this isn't about creating a false self, apart from God. It is about trusting our God-given and created self. If I never learn to trust anyone, how will I trust God?  One of the tasks of human development is to learn to trust. The play between trust and distrust is emblematic of any phase of our lives, from infancy to old old adulthood. 

Of course, we are not our own best selves all of the time. We may try to improve on being created in God's image and likeness.  We may have learned to distrust. Maybe we were hurt by someone who claimed to be religious, who used the name of Christ to judge us instead of to accept us. Perhaps we were told that the abuse we suffered as children was for our own good - or it was supposed to protect us when in reality, the opposite was true. We lost trust- in ourselves, in others, in God- to keep us safe.

Recovering the image of God in us means we can trust ourselves as God created us and loved us to be. Accepting our powerlessness over the actions and words of others is a start. Better to move toward self- acceptance, the good from which trusting God and other people is possible.

It is God's gift to give.  

Thursday, October 30, 2014

'Hate Sin, Love Sinner' not about love

There so much NOT in the Bible. But that doesn't stop us from using certain phrases as if they were.   

I'm flushing another one: "love the sinner, hate the sin." Although I've seen this saying referenced by a good many biblical texts, not one can be cited with any proximity to those words. 

Where does it come from? My best answer is St. Augustine: "With love for mankind and hatred of sins." But the words "hate the sin, etc" is also attributed to Ghandi.  St. Augustine's words are more about loving humanity but hating our brokenness.

Our saying is more akin to hating what we don't like in others, even if we use "love" to make it sound better. But I don't remember this actually working to better any relationship in my life.

When it comes to using this apocryphal saying as a guide for love, we get to judge where our love stops. We love because God first loved us, and that love includes all of us if it is for any part of us. As far as we know, Jesus, never said to love a sinner but hate their sin. Nor did he ask us to decide for ourselves when to judge and when to love:
Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. You’ll receive the same judgment you give. Whatever you deal out will be dealt out to you. Why do you see the splinter that’s in your brother’s or sister’s eye, but don’t notice the log in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when there’s a log in your eye? You deceive yourself! First take the log out of your eye, and then you’ll see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s or sister’s eye. Matthew 7: 1-5
Is hating the sin while claiming to love a mental construct, a fantasy of our minds? Attempting it, we may realize how blind we really are. Another gimmick is trying to make God's limitless love more palatable. The love Jesus told us to exercise isn't about setting limits:
As the Father loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.  I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete. This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. John 15: 9-12  Italics added
How do you separate your love for a person from your judgement of the person? You divide and dissect them, extracting their behavior from themselves.You choose what you hate most in them and judge them for it, calling it "sin."  But "love" here is not the love that Jesus commands, nor the all encompassing, life-giving love the Father has for the Son, nor is it anything like Christ's love for us. 

As often is the case, when we reduce God's love to something we can better handle, it becomes something else. But don't call it love.     

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Walking on Egg Shells & Boyhood

Recovery is possible 
A review of Boyhood only touches on what you could call the film's elephant in the room, that of growing up in an alcoholic  or dysfunctional family.

The accurate translation of walking on egg shells, however, is really "don't trust, don't talk, don't feel." If you are an adult child of an alcoholic or a dysfunctional family, find out more about our recovery in the Big Red Book.

Walking on eggshells means that hyper-vigilance becomes our default. We do not say or think or feel anything that we have learned the drunk cannot handle, which is everything. It does no good to "stand up for each other," as the review queries.

The healthiest possibility is to learn to care for ourselves.
Boyhood was truthful in depicting the violence and trauma of trying to live safely or "survive" with the insanity of family alcoholism or dysfunction. But survival is a complete misnomer- in reality, it means sacrificing- not nurturing- our true selves. By telling ourselves the lie that we can assuage or fix the alcoholic, we create a false self, one that is empty at its core, because it's all about people pleasing, and not being present to our true self.   

Yes, the movie well- portrayed family roles in an alcoholic and para-alcoholic family. The non-drinking parent continued to be needed through workaholism and taking care of the alcoholics she chose to marry.

The last scene showed the once young boy, now young man in college, numbing out chemically- a very predictable course for an adult child. I only wish there was a hint of hope, that recovery is possible at any age.  And that applies to the review as well.     

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Judging the Judge

With a superb cast, a tout story line and an amazing ending, The Judge delivers a wisely written drama about family dysfunction and healing, and of choosing a spiritual legacy.

Hank Palmer, played by Robert Downey, Jr., is a crafty defense attorney. Although successful professionally with a pedigree from Northwestern Law, he is estranged from his wife. In fact, most of Hank's relationships have suffered for years: he is mostly absent from his parents' and brothers' lives.   

My favorite for 2014!
Hank's father, Joseph Palmer, a small town Indiana judge, is played brilliantly by Robert Duvall. Much of the movie is about Duvall's character, why he is the way he is, which indirectly, tells us alot about Hank. It's only during the visit home for his mother's funeral that we have a sense of movement in the relationship between Hank and the Judge.

The Judge becomes a suspect in a hit and run fatality. But while Hank is at home and available, the Judge decides that a local lawyer will defend him. Hank insists on defending his father, and so the dance between these two gets interesting.

There are many twists and turns in this father-son, attorney-client relationship, to see how the principled judge and less scrupulous son configure the defense of the case. There are other variables thrown  into the story: the Judge's drinking again after many years of sobriety- and his quickly declining health.

I'm reminded of something Robert Capon once wrote that has seared into my consciousness: everyone of us loves their children- and all of us will do something to screw them up. It seems the movie does not miss this basic paradox in father-son relationships.

The most anecdotal, formulaic aspect was the treatment of Hank's romantic life: for the trouble in his marriage, there's the quick fix of an old crush and an old romance- either, waiting to save him. No, it isn't the law of the universe- nor of real life- that there is, or will be, anyone waiting to save us from the pain of a lost or broken love. That happens only in the minds of writers or relationship addicts.
Finally, The Judge crystallizes key questions about a good life and death: What do we want to remembered for? What quality of relationships are we  leaving behind? How will we close our accounts? How do we wish to die? How then shall we live- here, now?  

Friday, October 10, 2014

A Peaceful Night and a Perfect End

May the Lord grant you a peaceful night
Compline reminds us to face our fears, give thanks for protection from harm, and pray for a restful sleep and good dreams, releasing our trust to the Almighty. Kenneth V. Peterson, Prayer as Night Falls.

My first experience of Compline was with a small group of clergy in a series of four retreat gatherings over two years. That experience  over 25 years ago created an appreciation for evening prayer that been renewed and deepened in the reading of Kenneth V. Peterson's excellent volume on experiencing compline entitled, Prayer as Night Falls (2013) 

This book is a well written weaving of Peterson's experience of singing in the St. Mark's Cathedral Compline Choir in Seattle since 1964. It includes the origins and development of the Office of Compline, from pre- St. Benedict to the present. The book is well referenced with notes and Appendices 1 and 2 provide the order of musical example for Compline. 

If you go to Peterson's website, you can find the churches that offer the service in the U.S. and Canada. In fact, I wrongly assumed that, as hard as it was to find a Vespers service in Houston, no Compline offering existed.

Beyond providing everything you would want to know about Compline's prayers and music, I find Peterson's themes of Compline to be nicely unfolded throughout the book: practicing vigilance, accepting mortality, the mystic path, beauty and seeking good, community and compassion, and finding lasting peace. Too, there is lovely poetry that Peterson uses to illustrate the spirituality of Compline, as well as the beautiful words to the hymns the St. Mark's choir uses. 

I loved exploring the Compline Psalms, and the book does provide a complete listing of all the Psalms that have been apart of Compline through the ages.     

The central virtue of Compline, Peterson, maintains, is faith and trust. In Compline, whether we experience it privately, in a small group such as a monastery, or in a church, we choose trust over fear and anxiety. No, the idea is not to get a measurable of "better sleep" over taking pills, etc.  But think of this: when Compline is used in monastic communities, it is the last word spoken or heard until daybreak. For most of us, we would have to replace our usual evening ritual with Compline and silence.

Friday, September 12, 2014

On Telling and Hearing Secrets

"We help people move toward grace and love, as we receive confessions of secrets bound by shame, and people are able to share confessions when they find themselves in a community of hospitality."  Emma Justes

Who listens to your secrets?
Are we as sick as our secrets?  One of the costs of never letting go of secrets is not living the life that is ours to live. Secrets and shame require isolation, which makes for a very lonely life. We cobble together a fake and false self, until we are ready to let go of the shame and its exhausting toll on our lives.

In Please Don't Tell (2014) Emma Justes, Distinguished Professor of Pastoral Care at United Theological Seminary, writes a volume to prepare clergy and spiritual companions how to listen to the long guarded, shame filled secrets of others. In doing so, Justes shows great compassion for those who, in telling, can receive the healing love of God, and the freedom to be. 

A person chooses to tell us their shameful secret. What should the secret sharer expect from those of us who listen? Justes argues that the character of our openness and hospitality will determine how effectively we can listen- or if we can be approached to begin with. Try this: hear what the speaker is actually saying. 

But there are so many blocks to honest listening:

  • Discerning truth instead of just listening

  • My physical limitations, such as fatigue and tiredness

  • Poor self-awareness, which will distract me with self concern

  • My thoughts which race ahead of the speaker's words-  to prepare an answer, judge or fix

  • My discomfort with any parts of another's secret

  • My secret(s)

  • These dynamics can prevent us from hearing what is actually said by the secret bearer. Which means that the opportunity to be heard and begin healing can be diminished and disrupted by our own intrusive stuff.

    Secrets are like confessions, in that they are kept in families or churches for life-times and generations (King David's family and Joseph and his brothers are referenced later in the book). Some secrets  may never see the light of day. However, confidentiality has limits and does not include a charge of child or elder abuse, which must be reported to the authorities. Clergy, according to Justes, also should report any threat of another doing harm to self or someone else. The statute regarding child abuse and neglect in Texas is here.

    I found Justes' discussion of lying, in the context of secret-keeping, more helpful than what she has to say about shame. "Both truth telling and lying can function in the service of healing or doing harm, sometimes both," Justes asserts. Justes then tells of the abuse suffered by her mother and kept secret for many years. Regardless, the secret-keeping did not hinder Justes' mother from taking action to protect and safeguard her own children from the abuser.
    On shame, a play on shamelessness is used to suggest that shame, like truth telling, isn't unambiguous. Shame, according to Justes, is best understood on a continuum between extreme self-disregard and complete autonomy. Is a little shame thus a good thing? While balance is a favorite tool of psychologists, Justes describes it mostly via negative with little, if any, explanation of how the balance is discovered. Or do you just use balance and healing interchangeably?

    The discussion of the place of memory in secret telling prompted me to look at the seven "sins" of memory, especially the nature of a persistent painful personal memory of many decades ago. Exploring certain memories is not about knowing what happened objectively, but about context, and how we experience, store, and recall the event, all of which can change throughout a lifetime. 
    What about forgiveness? Healing from secrets "depends on having someone to talk with about the secret over a period of time and may include forgiveness of one's self or of others." Or, it may not, since forgiveness is a choice the secret- keeper makes. If we force it, "the secret -keeper is likely to experience more shame for not being able to forgive."
    I recommend this volume for anyone who is given the ministry of hearing the confessions or secrets of others. Whether or not we discern that a referral to a mental health professional, etc. is appropriate, we are responsible for checking in with those who share their secrets with us, offering continued support.

    Because it's impossible to offer what you do not have, I can't help noting the clear implications of this book for pastors and spiritual directors: we need trustworthy people in our lives who listen, carefully, to our secrets.         

    Thursday, September 4, 2014

    Prayer of Proverbs

    Two things I ask of you;
        do not deny them to me before I die:
    Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
        give me neither poverty nor riches;
        feed me with the food that I need,
    or I shall be full, and deny you,
        and say, “Who is the Lord?”
    or I shall be poor, and steal,
        and profane the name of my God. 
    Proverbs 30:7-9 NRSV 

    Naomi Feil: Validation Therapy for Memory Care

    • Location: Chapelwood United Methodist Church
    • 11140 Greenbay Street
    • Houston, TX 77024
    • Date: 9/18/2014
    • Time: 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM

    Naomi Feil, developer of the world renown Validation Therapy, will be holding an all day workshop. 6.5 Hours of CUE credit will be offered to all Registered Nurses and Social Workers, free of charge. To RSVP, please email and leave your name, title, and phone number. RSVP is required. Email:

    Friday, August 29, 2014

    Live well in the 'uninstagrammable'

    How can we become less avoidant of- and more present- to life?
    "The Twitter stream of a thousand thoughts in real time and the Instagram curation of an unsustainable aesthetic imposed on everyday living and the Facebook Likes and Friend Requests and Updates Updates Updates and the emails in my inbox about designing a smartphone app to win a chance to meet the Dalai Lama — “Tech for compassion!” it reads, and I shiver.

    We live in era obsessed with capturing, keeping, sharing, spreading. But it is the moments we can hold only in our flawed and failing minds that make up our real lives. It is those moments, then, reckless and out of sight, uninstagrammable and untweetable and lost in the instant, that make us human."

    From The Stanford Daily and by Jennifer Schaffer, Book Review: “The Circle” and the Masking of Workaholicism  

    Thursday, August 28, 2014

    Sabbath: A School for the Desires

    It occurs to me that Sabbath is a school for our desires, an expose and critique of the false desires that focus on idolatry and greed that have immense power for us. When we do not pause for Sabbath, these false desires take power over us. Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance

    Like a searing diatribe of a Micah or James or Jesus, Walter Brueggemann's latest volume doesn't waste words or time getting to core of the biblical theme of the Fourth Commandment in Sabbath as Resistance: Saying NO to the Culture of NOW. (2014) Yes, it's a short 88 pages.

    needed: a sabbatical from multitasking 
    A long time reader and admirer of his writing, I'm always appreciative of Brueggemann's facility in the Bible whole and the interconnections of the Decalogue.

    My first question was answered fairly early on: God didn't need a Sabbath in Jesus' declaration in John 5:17  (there's no work stoppage with him or the Father). But, however you read this passage, it's clearly not about God actually needing a break, it's more about God taking a break, resting on the seventh day of creation, for our sake. The Sabbath was made and modeled by God for the purpose of humanity.   

    Readers will find an excellent discussion of the Sabbath in the context of the Exodus, and Brueggeman's well-known juxtaposition of the Sinai covenant community versus the system of Pharaoh's Egypt. Israel is delivered from slavery, a place where the only thing that matters is the number and speed of commodities produced. Neighbor- and God- are reduced to a means of self-service.     

    The Sinai covenant represents a deliverance from a system of both idolatry, covered by the first two Commandments, and greed, addressed in the last Commandment. The Sabbath, the Fourth Commandment, is thus the fulcrum on which the first and later Commandments turn. It both bridges our worship of one God and our living in a community of "neighborliness,"  facets of which are harmony, consideration for others, and shalom (peace with justice).     

    The author shows that wherever the prophets of Israel do denounce the Sabbath, it was not Sabbath itself that was the issue, but rather, using it to justify idolatry, greed and injustice to neighbor. As a part of the biblical prophetic critique, multitasking is lambasted. Why? Multitasking in the prophets is about scheming to get what's not ours (coveting), all the while supposedly at worship.

    We deceive ourselves if we think that the multitasking that infects every facet of our living doesn't also somehow greatly diminish our spiritual health and our loving God, neighbor, and self.  But that's what idolatry does. The Sabbath is intended to break the cycle of our own competing, coveting, and planning to get and do more and more and more. And more, in the end, can never be enough.  

    The reader will find Brueggeman's insight into- and the range of- biblical texts to be impressive, the basis for a grand invitation to rest- and let that be enough. Preachers need to drink deeply of the message of this little volume. With the teaching of Sabbath comes the recognition that Christian clergy have been, as a rule, poor practitioners of true, life-giving Sabbath, often in the name of successful ministry, production of numbers-  and the more recent fixation on formulaic "fruitfulness."

    If we do not Sabbath, then why would we expect the ones we serve to do the same? Or to care? Should we be surprised whenever we discover ourselves running on empty? 

    Thursday, August 7, 2014

    Does Everything 'Happen for a Reason'?

    Time to engage, not suspend, thought 
    Can there be a more deadening chorus of our culture than everything happens for a reason? Its prevalence is probably a good indicator of the complete dearth of thoughtful reflection, a malady caused, in part, by life-in-nanosecond.  

    Perhaps post modernism has had its way, but instead of post- modern faith, which supposedly finds whatever works, regardless of origin, these words have become the mantra. The purpose of mantras is to suspend thought, not engage it. 

    Like bumper sticker theology before it, theology by hash tag can come up with some goofy stuff. No, there isn't a reason for everything that happens. In Scripture, we again turn to The Preacher in the famous third chapter to find what's actually in the Bible: 
     There’s a season for everything
        and a time for every matter under the heavens:
      a time for giving birth and a time for dying,
     a time for planting and a time for uprooting what was planted
      a time for killing and a time for healing
     a time for tearing down and a time for building up,
      a time for crying and a time for laughing,
        a time for mourning and a time for dancing,
     a time for throwing stones and a time for gathering stones,
        a time for embracing and a time for avoiding embraces,
     a time for searching and a time for losing,
        a time for keeping and a time for throwing away,
    a time for tearing and a time for repairing,
        a time for keeping silent and a time for speaking,
     a time for loving and a time for hating,
        a time for war and a time for peace.

    We'll note that there is a time and season for absolutely everything. God designates the seasons, the times, and the nations. Acts 17:26  What about reasons for everything? Not for us to worry about, or at least to know about, right now. Or maybe ever.

    Who cares who said it first?  When it comes to actually explaining goofy, catch phrases, like the old-school game kick- the- can, whomever last says 'there's a reason for everything' is IT."    

    Tuesday, August 5, 2014

    Expect the Unexpected- More Senseless 'Advice'

    Being slow to speak is a virtue, according to James 1:19
    "God will never give you more than you can handle."  "There but the grace of God go I." Like other words that come out of our mouths to make us feel better, offering a popular phrase like "expect the unexpected" may be more cruel than beneficial.    

    This trite bit of verbiage I've heard from physicians, clergy, spiritual directors, and others who should know better. Maybe it's a simple confession of ignorance, but using these words does not help.  

    Where does it come from? The best I come up with is Ecclesiastes 9:11 (CEB):

    I also observed under the sun that the race doesn’t always go to the swift, nor the battle to the mighty, nor food to the wise, nor wealth to the intelligent, nor favor to the knowledgeable, because accidents can happen to anyone. People most definitely don’t know when their time will come. (italics added) 

    I appreciate italicized words in the NRSV. It simply states "time and chance happen to everyone." 

    I get it, life is unpredictable and fragile. Most of us prefer certainty to mystery, because like fool's gold, the thought that life can be had on our terms may keep us avoiding our own powerlessness. But when someone is in crisis, mouthing this little ditty to them is not wisdom but idiocy. Yes, we know life is unpredictable. We didn't choose to be in this difficult place. Don't heap on the misery by stating the obvious. If it helps you, save it- and keep it- for yourself.  

    The best way to overcome living by thoughtless sound bites is to be ourselves, as we really are- with another human being. It is to be our own best self. That means when faced with the terrifying uncertainty of our own -or another's- living or dying- we don't rely on catch phrases, but on the compassion of God as we have nurtured it-  and have experienced it.  

    If we don't have God's compassion, we cannot offer it. No amount of repeating what you heard in that Dale Carnegie Seminar will change that.  

    Thursday, May 8, 2014

    God's Love Doesn't Shame

    A stained glass of Thomas and Jesus, Jn.20
    I think if more people were willing to treat beliefs as beliefs instead of facts, it would make talking with each other easier... I guess I’d just like Christians and church leaders to be more honest…with everyone. Stop treating faith as a fact. Call it hope. Call it confidence, not certainty.” Matt Casper,  Jim and Casper Go to Church.

    Picture it now: Thomas asks the risen Jesus for a sign, a clue as to Jesus' identity. Just as surely as Jesus was known in the breaking of the bread (Luke 23), Jesus is known by the wounds of his execution at the hands of the Romans eight days earlier. (John 20) 

    What if Jesus had bullied or shamed Thomas, his own disciple, by discounting both him and his search for the honest truth? The ugly reality is that churches are susceptible of being as shame- based as any family, organization, or individual. If we can see ourselves, our family, or our church in these characteristics, it may be time start moving from shame-based to grace-based behaviors.   

    Even if we grew up being shamed for who we were, for having the feelings and thoughts and behaviors we had,  the good news is that it's possible to identify the places in our lives where we can change and choose to live by grace. We don't have to live by what our shame says we are.  

    Because works- righteousness is a shame-based theology (we're not good enough or worthy to receive God's free acceptance of us), then I really wonder how many who say we have accepted Christ have also accepted ourselves? Is this self acceptance embedded all the way to our psyches, our spirits, our bodies, not just our heads, not just "deciding" for Jesus in one moment? 

    I don't and cannot believe Jesus shattered a shame-based sacrificial system in order to create another one! I believe that we're still wrestling with the fact that Jesus died to show us that the true nature of God is love. Jesus didn't die to buy off an angry God. Our sin killed Jesus. This is what was at stake in Jesus' death: not God's rage but rather, God's love and grace, mercy and compassion. 

    Jesus, in the suffering he endured to his death, showed us that God is love. (I John 4:19) That's not shaming, but freeing, now and forever, from our sick slavery to shame, sin, and death.  

    Friday, May 2, 2014

    Peace is Possible

    “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you. I give to you not as the world gives. Don’t be troubled or afraid." John 14:27  I've said these things to you so that you will have peace in me. In the world you have distress. But be encouraged! I have conquered the world.” John 16:32-33        
    What would it mean to receive Christ's peace?

    It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” John 20:19

    Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” John 20:27

    We're a multitasking, ADD culture. And fidgeting with many things challenges our brains and can jeopardize our physical safety. In a quiet moment alone, we may be especially confronted with the cacophony of our own racing thoughts. We can't run away from ourselves, no matter how good at avoidance we may be.

    But while solitude can nurture and strengthen us if we let it, isolation is a captivity all its own. Isolation seems to have been a real temptation for the disciples in the post Easter narrative of John. After running scared, they were in hiding behind "locked doors." The natural response to fear is usually to run and hide.

    Jesus always seems to show up, even through our locked doors. In John 3 and 4, Jesus enters into the shame of a Nicodemus and a nameless Samaritan woman. For Nicodemus, it was fear of being found out: he was a leading teacher and yet was coming to Jesus with total lack of answers about spiritual life with God. For the Samaritan woman, it was the addictive pattern of the past and another toxic relationship in a continuing cycle of brief and broken ones.

    Yet our way of fixing things causes more, not less, pain. Into the mess that we create, Jesus Christ speaks his peace. The Spirit is breathed on the disciples, and even as the wind moves across the waters of Genesis 1, so are we are recreated in the presence of the living Christ. 

    Friday, April 25, 2014

    Wake Up to Freedom

    A few years ago, Alone with the Alone became the basis for a year long retreat. Here's what the author, Jesuit George Maloney, has to say about Jesus' freedom, the key to our freedom:
    To be loved is also to be set free

    "The freedom of Jesus cannot be understood except in light of the infinite love of the Father that was constantly poured into his heart: "I am in the Father and Father is in me." (John 14:11). "In his body lives the fullness of divinity" Colossians 2:9, since the Father continually pours into his being the gift of himself in the Spirit of love. Joy, ecstasy, peace and happiness pour over Jesus as he not only receives the Father as gift but he becomes a gift, freely given back in self-surrendering love to the Father. Jesus constantly was wrapped in the loving presence of his Father who poured his Spirit of love into Jesus' being. With joyful response Jesus delighted to love..."

    We can choose to live consciously- in a God-infused world. And if Jesus' gift was total self- giving love with himself and the Father and Holy Spirit, then why should we not draw continually on the same love that is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that is given to us? 

    Thursday, April 24, 2014

    Wake Up to Joy

    Lasting joy is God's gift to give 
    "Because he lives, all fear is gone." Really? If having no fear is the measure of Christian spirituality, then I know many believers, including myself, that don't make the cut.

    Nowhere does Jesus promise that all our fears will dissolve. Instead, relationship with him is about asking, and receiving fullness of joy. John 16:23-24 The truth is, we will never understand what Jesus is talking about, what joy is, until we know ourselves to be loved. Joy is a true and lasting fruit of Holy Spirit, and it's the result of being loved by God. 

    Most, if not all, joys are short- lived, and come with attachment and addiction. And harmful consequences to ourselves and others. The fix that we get from a drink, a shiny new sports car, a drug, money, power, or relationship, is a toxic substitute for the joy of loving and accepting our true selves. We cannot have enough of anything that isn't working.

    Looking on the outside in the world of things and people and relationships will not save us from unhappiness. The joy of John 16 is an inside job, to use words parallel the famous Jesuit author, John S. Powell.  Joy comes as a result of the gift, the inheritance of God's eternal life and love. I Peter 1.

    The way to joy lies in affirming that what God did in creation was good. God first loved us, and we let that become our joy.   

    Wednesday, April 23, 2014

    Wake Up to Love

    It's time to wake up
    But your dead will live, LORD; their bodies will rise-- let those who dwell in the dust wake up and shout for joy-- your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead. Isaiah 26:19

    But all things become visible when they are exposed by the light, for everything that becomes visible is light. For this reason it says, "Awake, sleeper, And arise from the dead, And Christ will shine on you." Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise.... Ephesians 5:13-15

    The act of de-cluttering our lives begins in receiving the light, the joy, and the renewal that only God can give. Trusting the living Christ now and receiving the promise of being like him in the resurrection is apart of purgation, according to I John 3:3. 

    Even before we walk, we choose to do so. We want and will to move in God's direction. We repent and change course, if at first only in our thinking. But it begins in knowing ourselves as first loved by God.

    Becoming known and loved in the deepest sense is God's gift to give. For now, we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. I Cor. 13:12. That kind of seeing, here and now, is a promise received through faith. 

    The best news is that it is much easier to know God, whose intentions are clear from the beginning, than it is to know ourselves. We hide behind the false, ego - created self. We sculpt something else that we think will give us a better chance at having love, security, power, or happiness. We do not see ourselves for who we really are. We have trouble knowing and accepting and loving ourselves as we are.

    But God doesn't have a hidden agenda. God creates life out of abundance, without needing to, and calls our creation very good! Our God-image and birth right is rooted in being created and loved by God. Simply put, it really isn't your opinion of yourself that matters so much anymore. Rather, it's God opinion of you that matters. We regard no one, including ourselves, from what St. Paul referred to as "a human point of view." 

    Sunday, April 6, 2014

    Joining Church: Is a Disclaimer Needed?

    I'm often reminded of what the great comedian Groucho Marx said about membership in a group: "I refuse to join any organization that will have me as one of its members."  Would admitting our flaws protect us against ourselves?

    In groups explaining church membership, I find it helpful to admit that every day, someone is going to say or do something stupid because after all, that's what human beings do. See also Beginnings: An Introduction to Christian Faith.  

    This is how Al-Anon and Adult Children of Alcoholics close many of their meetings. It's a wise disclaimer stating that even our best intentions are not always apparent to those who aren't insiders:
    In closing, I would like to say that the opinions expressed here were strictly those of the person who gave them. Take what you liked and leave the rest. The things you heard were spoken in confidence and should be treated as confidential. Keep them within the walls of this room and the confines of your mind. A few special words to those of you who haven’t been with us long: Whatever your problems, there are those among us who have had them too. If you try to keep an open mind, you will find help. You will come to realize that there is no situation too difficult to be bettered and no unhappiness too great to be lessened. We aren't perfect. The welcome we give you may not show the warmth we have in our hearts for you. After a while you’ll discover that though you may not like all of us, you’ll love us in a very special way - the same way we already love you. Talk to each other, reason things out with someone else, but let there be no gossip or criticism of one another. Instead, let the understanding, love and peace of the program grow in you one day at a time. 
    If we incorporated parts of the above, would we have a better chance of nipping any grandiose expectations about Christ's Body? Would there be less disappointment with our corporate and individual brokenness? Less incongruity between our words and where we actually live? At the very least, we would have a better chance at honesty about who we really are, and a movement toward more, not less, authenticity. 

    Wednesday, March 26, 2014

    Try Love

    If I speak in tongues of human beings and of angels but I don’t have love, 
    I’m a clanging gong...I Corinthians 13:1  

    Jesus' ministry was a miserable failure by any standards we hold so dear in churches: bigger budgets and buildings to hold more behinds in pews.

    Effectiveness? I have to smile every time I see another training manual that touts Jesus' ministry as a blueprint for how to do just about anything successfully, from evangelism to corporate leadership. They talk about how carefully Jesus chose his followers and how, after living intimately with him for three years, they would be prepared to spread the word to all the world. The flow chart forms a holy pyramid with geometric growth.

    Really? The success coaches never talk about how every one of Jesus' disciples ran as fast as they could as far away as they could once Jesus was taken into custody of the Temple authorities.  Mark 14:50. They may point out that Jesus chose Judas Iscariot, the disciple who turned Jesus in, as an exception, or as simple human error. If so, Jesus, who had keen insight into people to begin with, realized, perhaps early on, that he really blew that one and could not undo it. John 6: 70-71

    Any way you look at it, it's not a good idea to choose an untrustworthy son-of-a-gun into your circle of trust, is it? But Jesus ministry, including his suffering, death, and resurrection, is not about having God's little rule book for prosperity and leadership. Anyone who thinks this is the way to the life Jesus offers will end up as crushed as the disciples were when they were confronted with the truth that the top for Jesus was crucifixion, not their equivalent to the corner office.
    The true north of Jesus' ministry then and today, is not the way of following all the right rules or catching pixie dust from the gurus. Instead, it's all about an amazing love- how God creates us in love. And how the love between Jesus and his Daddy becomes our never ending source of love- for God, love for the lives we share, for the world, and the universe.

    That's the epicenter that grows into ministry with others, with any possible sound and light shows following.

    Sunday, March 23, 2014

    A Place to Hit Bottom

    Thank God for Henri! 
    Most guests at our churches probably wonder: "are these folks for real- is this really a safe place for me?" That's one reason why guests prefer to be anonymous, at least for the first few visits.

    Whenever I read the late Henri Nouwen, I'm confronted with a rare, raw honesty. The bare-nakedness is about himself, of course. For me, his best writing was always his depth and honesty about his journey, reminding us that to engage in life with God is not about a quick fix, but a holy longing and life-long pilgrimage. 

    As he wrote, in the Introduction to The Inner Voice of Love, "light and darkness, hope and despair, love and fear are never very far from each other...and spiritual freedom often requires a fierce spiritual battle."  

    Nouwen described a time of extreme anguish, during which he wondered whether "I would be able to hold onto my life. Everything came crashing energy to live and work, my sense of being loved, my hope for healing, my trust in God...everything. Here I was, a writer about the spiritual life, known as someone who loves God and gives hope to people, flat on the ground and in total darkness."  Wow!

    His new ministry setting, the L'Arche community for special needs adults, seemed ideal. But shortly after arriving there was just the time his life was falling apart, as if  "I needed a safe place to hit bottom." Without psychoanalyzing Nouwen's experience, one of the core marks of Christian community is the safety it provides. The people present don't pretend they're something they're not. And that can lead us to a deeper experience of grace. 

    Pastoral leaders can regularly set the default to grace and acceptance- in all types of settings- because if we are alive and honest, we, like Nouwen,  regularly have our own struggles with darkness. With God, there's always more than enough grace and love, the kind of mercy that the Apostle James says always "triumphs" or "rejoices" over judgement. James 2:13  That's exactly what gave saints like Nouwen , and what empowers all of us, with the courage to love and to be loved.

    Oldies but Goodies