Shalom is together

A few weeks ago our friend Mariya talked about the concept of Shalom in talkback. Rand had just given a great sermon on Jesus’s blessed are the peacemakers, and Mariya reflected that peace isn’t just the absence of conflict, it’s about wholeness, completeness and harmony, everything working together. It’s about the way things are supposed to be. In scripture, that is the concept of shalom.

We can’t experience wholeness on our own. Bell hooks said it well: “Rarely, if ever, are any of us healed in isolation. Healing is an act of communion.” And that’s the main point of our message today. Shalom happens together, with others. We can’t get to this much longed-for completeness in ourselves, no matter how self-actualized we become. But every American is taught to try, since we are raised on the religion of individualism! Unfortunately it’s an empty religion, since God is shalom and designed us in connection with the earth and each other. Trying to separate ourselves out is damaging and futile; that’s why we’re making this mural together, to visualize the connection in all of creation! Seeds can’t open without this mycelium network. We literally can’t become complete on our own; we can’t realize the fullness of God’s plan as individuals or even within our nuclear family. We need others, especially the community of faith. And that’s hard, because we have differences from each other!

Paul wrote to the Ephesian church about it:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.  Ephesians 2:13-18

The groups that Paul is talking about are the Jews and Gentiles. The Jews were a small group of people through which the story of God relating to humanity had come, and the Gentiles were everybody else. Jesus was a Jew, and after centuries of rich tradition, the Jews in the early church felt like they had a lot of spiritual privilege. They were special; God had looked out for them in spite of their frequent disobedience. But this was more about the nature of God than it was about the particularities of any group of people! God was expanding the blessing and promise to all people through Christ. 

But the Jewish Christians were just discovering this after Jesus’s resurrection; it was all new and messy in community. These believers had grown up with a literal stone wall in their temple in Jerusalem that separated the Court of the Gentiles from the temple proper. There was a sign on the wall that read that it could only be breached by pain of death. Gentiles were not allowed to worship with Jews! In fact, Paul was eventually arrested and condemned by the Jewish religious leaders by accusation of taking a Gentile Ephesian across this barrier. This wasn’t just a wall of hostility, it was the law. Similar to how the lie of white supremacy was literally written into the laws in the United States!

What Jesus is doing through his death on the cross was fulfilling the law that said that Jews and Gentiles had to be kept apart. He was bringing them together in his body. See these lines that go in different directions? (on the cross.) They come together in the center. He is becoming the new meeting place, the way of fellowship in himself. Paul wrote to the Colossian church: For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him,  and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. He is our peace, Yawheh Shalom, the one who brings people together through seemingly impossible history and barriers.

Paul knows what a huge deal this is, for Jews to give up their legacied centuries of spiritual privilege. Remember Paul had been so bought in to the concept of his own spiritual privilege as a Jewish leader that he’d been murdering people who threatened it Jewish privilege with this wild new gospel! Paul also had some sense of how impossible it would be for Gentiles to see themself as full partners in this new gospel, Jesus being a Jew and all, and to actually feel included enough to make something new together! Steeped in our own culture, it’s hard for us to imagine the difficulty of this cultural divide in the early church and what a miracle of transformation it was in its coming together.

The word that Paul uses for new here in new humanity is “kainos”, and it implies something that literally has not existed before in the world. This is not just people putting up with each other and minimizing differences. This is beyond our concepts of “unity” and “reconciliation” that have too often been the dominant culture forcing everyone to fit into their mold, like the racist assimilation process in the United States. This is God creating something brand new with God’s own self, an opportunity for fellowship in which everyone has equal access through faith. This had never been done before.

The Jews had to repent of their spiritual privilege to get into this newness, because the only way to come to Jesus is through grace; nobody is entitled to Him by any human privilege or capacity. They will have to participate in destroying the enmity, the wall of hostility that has been upheld by their laws and regulations. They will have to set their laws aside, as Paul says.

The Gentiles will have to be brought near by a new invitation that acknowledges how they’ve been excluded in the past and what new thing God is making now through Christ. Paul does that in this chapter of Ephesians around our passage today. He recognizes and articulates how the Gentile believers had been separated and excluded from the covenant of promise that God made with the Jews, but now, through Christ, God is making us all a dwelling place of his Spirit together! You are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people, he says. And “God’s people” is now a brand new thing that has never existed before. We’re all called to get beyond your entitlements, because all of us were once addicted to the cycle of just trying to please ourselves, he says in the beginning of the chapter. We were all dead in our sins by being self-absorbed, but how Jesus has made us alive by his grace. What God is doing in us is beyond the sin and injustice that has kept us apart. Praise him! He is transforming us.

There’s a guy in the Old Testament that God keeps putting on my radar this week, even though I didn’t plan to talk about him. He was also transformed by Yahweh Shalom, Jesus our peace. He was a scared, needy guy in a real bad situation, and his story shows how Jesus our peace comes to do the impossible. The amazing irony of how the peace of God shows up through our weakness and vulnerability and simple availability to the Spirit, NOT through our great capacity to be reconcilers, but through our great surrender to Jesus. I need to keep talking about it because we’re still tempted to believe that this gospel is about our goodness or specialness, and it’s not.

Gideon was the youngest in his family, and his family was a mess, and his people were being wrecked by more powerful neighbors. In fact his people were living in hideouts in the mountains because their crops and livestock kept getting plundered by their enemies. They were so completely getting wiped out that when we meet Gideon he is grinding wheat in a wine press, which shows how little food they had. 

An angel of the Lord comes to him and says, “The Lord is with you mighty warrior, and he literally says “pardon me” to the angel. LOL. He asks HOW is God with us if all this terrible stuff has happened to us? And the angel doesn’t answer that question, but tells him to go in the strength he has to save his people. And Gideon says “pardon me?” to the angel again! It seems to me like one of the most realistic dialogues in the Bible. This word from God is way beyond Gideon’s capacity. But the angel promises that God will be with him and he is not going to die. 

And so Gideon builds an altar to remember this Word from Yahweh Shalom, the Lord is peace. He gets instructions about how to move forward, and he argues sometimes, but he generally obeys. And what God asks him to do gets harder and weirder. Gideon gathers thousands of warriors, but God thins out the army so that the Hebrew people won’t think they won the battle in their own strength. Gideon ends up saving his people with just 300 partners. And everyone, even the enemies, knew this was about the power of God.

I think God knew I needed to remember that story this week. Because we too have lost so much in the pandemic. But God is looking out for us, and doing something new in us, asking us to go in the strength we have. It’s not about our exceptionalism or great capacity; it’s about our willingness to follow Yahweh Shalom, Jesus our peace.

He brings it all together on the cross, vulnerably offering his whole self. I need to plan for our sunrise service on Easter Sunday and I keep waking up with the hymn Crown Him with Many Crowns on my heart. Do you know that one? It’s so beautiful, and as I imagine the crown of thorns jammed into his head to mock him and make him suffer, I see it replaced with a tender crown of flowers now. We should put a crown of flowers on this cross on Easter, to show the beauty he has made through his sacrificial love. 

And then I remembered that Ukrainian people have a tradition of making and wearing beautiful crowns of flowers, called vinoks. It’s heartbreaking to think about what they are going through now, no doubt not wearing vinoks. They are traditionally used in times of celebration, like in wedding ceremonies and they’re also a symbol for peace. I was reading an article where a model who wore one at her wedding said,  “Peace may indeed be the most prevalent reason for wearing the flower crown in today’s world. I think we are coming back to floral themes because fashion is starting to react to wars that we are having around the globe. We need some tenderness.” And that was before the war her people are experiencing now.

Let us practice this tenderness with each other. We honor Jesus’s sacrifice as we open ourselves to the possibility coming together this season in new ways. The center of the cross is a new place of fellowship in him. We should hang a vinok there on Easter. But in the meantime, let yourself be brought near by the love of God for you. You don’t have to do all the work of making the impossible happen, God trying to bring us closer to the miracle that God is doing by the work of Her Spirit. Maybe you have to put aside some laws and regulations you’ve been taught that keep you from being vulnerable. Maybe you have to put away some entitlements or privilege, or expectation that you should be exceptional and already have figured things out. Maybe you have to put aside some hostility toward yourself. Maybe you have to hear that you are no longer a foreigner or a stranger to Jesus, but that you are fully seen and included, even if you were excluded before. Wherever you are, Jesus our peace is here. 

Security and promise: the gifts of waiting for the fullness of our transformation

We are thinking of ourselves like seeds this Lent, like Jesus said about his own self, that he was a seed that had to die and be buried in the ground, and rise back to life to produce many seeds. We’re in an organic process too! The spiritual life is an organic, embodied one, one that offers hope that life goes on and on eternally because of Christ’s resurrection. 

Being seeds invites us to be planted in the soil of community, the community of faith – where the Spirit can soften and open us. We need each other. That’s why we’re painting this underground fungal network around the cross – this is the “magic” stuff that is in the soil, like the Spirit’s work in community to encourage us to undergo the process of transformation and change in our lives. The call to love each other helps strip away our old selves, our defenses, our habits and patterns that hold us down and keep us locked inside. This powerful, often invisible network nurtures and empowers us to become our new selves in Christ, our best selves that are already planted in us, like a seed! We are trying to stay in the soil this Lent and trust this process of God’s love working on us and through us together.

I want to focus on the waiting in the process today, and offer two gifts of being buried in the ground until new life happens: security and promise. 

After seeds are planted, they often hang out in the dark earth, buried for a long time until anything happens. We’re right here in the middle of Lent, and if you’re observing the season in a meaningful way it usually feels like it takes a LONG time to get to Easter in the middle of these 40 days. It also takes a long time for the mycelium network in the earth to gently open seeds before the radical, that brave first shoot of new life, can pop out and take root. Some seeds have to be buried for multiple seasons before anything happens; for example, the bamboo seed is buried for 5 years before it germinates!  And the fullness of our transformation takes a long time too. So I hope this post encourages you to be patient with yourself and others. We’re all seeds that need to soak in the environment of God’s love for a lifetime, in order to see what we will be.

The good news is that there is security and belonging in the waiting. The apostle Paul wrote to the Colossian church that our lives are hidden with Christ in God. Our place with Christ, IN Christ, provides a place of safety to learn and grow, no matter how long it takes. This is a place of grace, a truly safe place to be held and nurtured in a dangerous and threatening world. “Safety” is such a wanted and elusive concept these days, but Jesus offers it to each of us personally in a way that nothing can change. No fault of our own can take it away; no terrible circumstance in the world can destroy it. Our lives are hidden with Christ in God. We are protected, spiritually speaking, from the punishment of sin and death. We are held in the mystery of the dark earth, even in the wildness of community, where the Spirit can bring us into fullness. I must admit, it’s an uncomfortable process, much of the time! But nothing can take us out of God’s love. Nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:35-39) We are literally planted in the soil of it. In all the suffering and changing of community, God’s love is the main ingredient in this soil. 

There are times in this soil of the community of faith, even with God’s love, that feel like death. We are dying as we surrender to the process of our transformation here. The dying is what it takes to love each other. The dying is what it takes to be so changed by God’s love that we can see each other with spiritual eyes in this soil. And in this dying process, when it feels like everything is doomed and we are hopelessly losing ourselves and everything we hold dear – that is when we must remember Jesus’s rising. He didn’t just suffer and die. He rose to new life, eternal life, and we will too. He said he was the first to rise and all who come after him will also live forever. 

This is the promise of our transformation. That life will not end in death. Life will not end in this painful process of transformation, no matter how much we have to give up for it. When we feel like failures, or other people hurt us, or when we feel lost or uncertain, when we can’t see the road in front of us, that’s the moment to remember that we are seeds, buried with Christ, and we will rise, even though it takes a long time. Our lives are hidden with Christ in God. 

I used to do some serious underground caving. There were moments when head lamps would burn out, and in those moments, you cannot imagine the darkness sixty feet underground where no light gets in. Being a seed sounds romantic until you are waiting there for rescue in the impenetrable darkness and stillness, unable to see even an inch from your face.

These are the moments to remember the promise of change that comes from being one of Jesus’s seeds. This change happens not just in the life to come, but in this one too! Check out the passage in Colossians to see the change we are called to now, even as we wait for the fullness of our transformation:

“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.  Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3)

So having our lives hidden with Christ in God (which happens simply by having some shred of faith in Jesus) puts us in this process of transformation where we outgrow what we don’t need: lust, greed, idolatry, rage, malice, slander, lying. It might take awhile and a lot of therapy LOL; I got too angry at my kids just last weekend. But the promise is that this soil of God’s love will change us. Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, peace, and gratitude will ultimately win out in us if we can stay in the soil.

Let the soil of God’s love in community work on you this season, even if it feels like dying or you think that nothing good is happening. You are safe in Christ. Nothing can take you out of his love; you are safe to learn and grow and change. But when the change is imperceptible, remember that you’re a seed. This transformation takes time. The promise of rising into your fullness has already been written; by God’s grace it WILL happen, and it’s already happening in ways we can’t see from inside the soil.

They didn’t know we were seeds

The season of Lent invites us to identify with Jesus on his journey to the cross. Ironically, as we look at him there, in scripture and in community, we find him identifying with us and leading us to hope of new life.

The context of his death is so much like ours: world powers competing in dangerous ways, the questioning of religious tradition, the oppression and marginalization of the poor and others, confusion around who God is and what God is doing. It is in this context that God meets people and demonstrates sacrificial love.  

I visited some stations of the cross for my birthday last week and was most drawn to this image: Jesus speaking to the daughters of Jerusalem. Even though he was literally dying, so weak he couldn’t carry his cross anymore, Jesus saw these women crying and stopped to let them know. He acknowledged their pain, even as he was experiencing so much of his own. And he called them daughters, revealing God’s parental Love that keeps finding and saving us.

It is this love that can soften us to new life this Lent. Jesus said, “Unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (John 12:24.) He was talking about his own dying, and us as the new seeds that would come by faith. If we are seeds, then we’re also meant to break open into something new. That process sounds drastic and painful, but the way that it actually happens according to seeds is by a gentle and gradual softening in the ground, a yielding and decay of the outer seed wall in order to release the potential inside. 

I’m comforted by this metaphor that God does not expect us to reinvent ourselves out of thin air or manufacture a new self. Jesus is talking about yielding to a process that God does in and for us, that reveals our fullest life. Instead of striving for goodness we can let go of our defenses. We’re invited to get vulnerable and let each other in. Our beliefs that we are unworthy or hopelessly stuck can fall away. We become open to the presence of a loving higher power who is helping us attend to this new life and keeping us in the soil together. 

I appreciate the words of the poet Dinos Christianopoulos that have been used by liberation movements around the world: “They tried to bury us, but they didn’t know we were seeds.” He was sidelined by the Greek literary community because he was gay, but he could see the overcoming power of nature in himself and his friends. 

You may feel buried by your own struggles this Lent, like those daughters of Jerusalem buried by grief. There’s a lot to grieve and worry about these days, even as pandemic life is opening up a bit again. But maybe our struggles can help melt our seed walls. Maybe we can ask each other for help. Maybe there is a new tender sprout of us forming in the hiddenness of the earth, evidence of who God saw us to be all along. The apostle Paul said that our lives are hidden with Christ in God! So that even if we feel buried for a long time we can trust that something new is growing in the darkness. May Jesus lead the way for us this Lent, revealing that even though this process takes a lifetime, God doesn’t stop short of miraculous resurrection. 

Humility makes humus

We live in a society that views death as a failure. So we try to avoid it…and all the hard stuff that feels like death. If you look around at our culture, we’re into all kinds of escapes through entertainment, substances, fantasy, virtual reality.


So the season of Lent gives us a unique and important opportunity to do something different and crucial and connective for our souls and bodies and minds and relationships: to approach death with acceptance and humility, recognizing that our days are numbered, like the Psalmist says, like we were doing on Ash Wednesday. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Learning to embrace our limitations again, our humanity, our vulnerability, and to work with ourselves as we really are. Lent is all about becoming more fully human. When we accept our finitude and frailty, we can allow the Spirit to reveal the divine in our humanness. Just like Jesus!


Our ultimate inspiration is seeing Jesus move toward death with acceptance, and move through it. That’s why the cross is up here front and center. Jesus takes the fear out of it. He shows us that death is not the end, and that it can be, in fact, a creative process that we can engage in now — learning to embrace our own little “deaths” and sacrifices – letting go – in order to realize the abundance of life. 


Nature is a great teacher of this process, too. The poet George Herbert describes, “Thou (death) art a gard’ner now. We look upon the cross because it declares that death has been disarmed; it is no longer an executioner, ending our stories, but rather a gardener, tilling the fertile soil from which resurrection life rises.”


I think it’s no coincidence that the same root word for humility is contained in the word humus – the organic component of soil, formed by the decomposition of plant and animal matter. Humus is the product of death and decay that is essential for new life to grow! It’s powerful – full of so many nutrients because the mycelium – the bacterial network that we’re painting around the cross – has done its good work to refine and transform what is over into fodder for something new.


This is such a word of hope, friends, because I am so tempted to think when stuff is over, like relationship connections, or projects, that it’s just a failure and a loss. And I think so many of us have felt that way about different aspects of our lives over the past two years, right? Even in our church. We’ve felt terrible about whatever hasn’t worked. We’ve lamented not being to do things like we did them before. We’ve grieved losing connection with people we loved. We’ve questioned systems changing. It’s been so easy to look at all of this as failure and loss.


Yet here is the Spirit of God, even in nature, inviting us to see the opportunity in ourselves for something new. Even the wreckage and all of our terrible feelings and judgements around it are invited to be part of the transformation process. I’m trained in counseling and I learned from my teachers: “it’s all grist for the mill.” We learned to “trust the process” before the Sixers stole it, LOL. Everything in our lives: the good, the bad, the hidden, the obvious, is apparently all useful to the process of healing and new life. Because that’s where this is going!! Through Christ, the Risen King, the God of rebirth and spring-time miracles. The One in whom nothing is impossible, like the angel said to Mary.


But none of the good stuff happens – the really good stuff – the internal transformation that lasts – without the humility to enter this process of decomposition. Now, you might be thoroughly resisting this process of decomposition because it seems like it’s been forced upon you in some ways for the past two years. And really, we are instinctually taught to resist this process by way of survival as a species. We are designed for self-preservation, so we have all kinds of inherent defenses against change, and letting go, and giving things up, and getting vulnerable. If this was easy and inevitable, I wouldn’t be up here preaching about it.


But no, it’s really hard. It’s counter-intuitive, the way of Jesus. It is counter-cultural. It feels like dying, because it kind of is: dying to our ego, confessing our compulsion to try to manage what people think about us, giving up our illusion of control and manipulating outcomes, relinquishing being in charge of getting our own needs met, getting real about our motives and opening to the possibility that God could change us and God could actually take care of us because God loves us…all of this is like dying to an isolated sense of ourselves, and being reborn to our inherent connectedness to God and each other. 


Let’s look at how God embraced that humility in his own humanity — in order to inspire us that it’s possible and to help us get practical with ourselves for how it can be done.


Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. – Philippians 2:1-13


The first thing I’d like to point out here is that it is God who does this good work in us. Dying to an isolated sense of ourselves in life is pretty impossible without the Spirit. That’s why we’re painting all this mycelium around the cross – to remind us that it’s a supernatural power – a higher power that gives us life.


I was stressing out a little bit this weekend trying to communicate to all of our friends, far and wide about the time change in our meeting, to try to call us back together as a congregation after two years in the pandemic, and one of our leaders, Jimmy Weitzel called me out. He told me that Jesus was chillin’ out, smoking a cigarette, while I was running around asking, “What you do need Jesus, what can I do for you?” Jimmy said that Jesus was smiling at me and enjoying his cigarette, saying “I got this.” 


I don’t think Jesus is smoking a cigarette and I do think we work in partnership together. But Jimmy’s point is solid. God does the real work. The Holy Spirit does the heavy lifting in our lives. And Jesus promised that if he was lifted up from the earth, like he was in death on the cross, that he would draw all people to him. He is doing that drawing work right now through the Spirit! And the apostle Paul wants the Philippians church to know and rely on this fact, because following him in “death” – imitating the humility of Christ – is not easy. It’s not Christianity Light. It’s the process that transforms us and enables us to endure the worst of times and circumstances with faith and love that spreads like wildfire. That’s what I want for all of us.


So how do we do it? How do we enter this process again, besides trying to remember that it’s not just about us and our power, it’s about relying on the power of the Spirit?


Well I see alot in here about community. I see a real surrender to ONE ANOTHER. I see a call to share our love and be like minded and be willing to serve each other. And I do not see a lot of qualifiers about that. I do not see clauses in here that say: if these other people share your same instincts and communicate in a way that is kind and acceptable to you, then you should love them. I do not see any justification for tone policing or judging each other in here. I do not see any requirement for even liking each other or having anything in common except a desire to be with Christ. I see a very low bar: if you have ANY encouragement from CHrist, if you have ANY tenderness and compassion, even a shred, then value others above yourselves, and look to the interests of others. Help us Jesus! We have gone so far in the other direction as a culture where it’s our job and a hard one at that to just take care of ourselves and our own families! And here you are showing us that the way to LIFE is through taking care of each other. Help us, Lord.


I think we could start pursuing this communal love by simply meeting back together again, consistently, now that we can, in small groups throughout the week, and Sunday meetings, and see what God could to do. Simply showing up will put us in the environment, the soil, to change and be remade. That is a comfort.  


We are showing up to look at Jesus, after all. He is the main event that makes the imperfections of ourselves and others manageable. He is why we’re here. And if we contemplate him in community and alone, we will become more like him. 


What does it mean to contemplate? It means to take a long look and keep looking. It is a focus, and returning our gaze when we get distracted again and again. All we have to do is come back to look at him again. I keep a cross above my doorway at home, across from the spot on the couch where I think and write and pray and talk to people. As I work, I often bump up against my limitations, and that inspires me to look up at Jesus on that cross and see him there above my doorway, all stretched out in love, actively loving me and the world. And I ask for help to be like that. Sometimes I see myself in his embrace, his eyes of compassion on me, and sometimes I simply feel called to be more in that posture myself. But you get the idea. Looking at Jesus changes us and our perspective. It calls us to our truest selves.


Looking at Jesus is all God really asks of us, and I hope that’s all our church really asks of each other. Because we’re not in charge of controlling and judging the other stuff. We’re not in charge of the transformation. But if Jesus is at the center, and he is, we can look toward him for hope and clarity, even if we feel really far away.


I appreciate how some theologians have been borrowing terms from mathematicians to talk about how groups are held together in the church. A “bounded set” is a group that is held together by a clear line of expectations and rules, doctrine and beliefs. Those who do not meet the expectations are out, but the people who follow all the rules can stay in. 


Without clear expectations and rules, the group could be considered a “fuzzy set.” It’s not clear what keeps these people together and eventually the group dissipates. 


But if the group has a center, like the gravity of Christ, lifted up from the earth in humility and love, everyone has a point of orientation. Everyone who has even a side-eye on Jesus belongs. It’s not the group’s job to measure that distance that anybody is from the center; the invitation is simple to look toward the center. Our gaze and desire for God is what holds us together, even when it’s weak. God does the holding, after all.


When we see Jesus there at the center, we see One who gave up his divine advantage to dominate in order to serve. He yielded his capacity to control. He surrendered to the organic process, to God’s way, even to death, in order to connect and bring us together. He transformed to show us that we can, too. Looking to his humility helps us recognize and dissolve the lines that keep us from each other. By moving toward him, we move closer together.

It’s Okay to Not Be Okay

This week a friend reminded me that Nightbirde, the lovely singer who got famous last year on America’s Got Talent with her original song “It’s Ok” passed away from her struggle with cancer. She was 31 years old.

I watched her performance there again on Youtube and it moved me, partly because her circumstances were really not ok. And that’s what her song is actually about – that it’s okay not not be ok.  Her husband of 5 years left her when she got her second diagnosis a few years back. She didn’t know how she could fight for her life alone, with this heartbreak. She realized she had to forgive him, in order to heal in any way, physically, emotionally, or spiritually.

Her faith in Jesus guided her through the suffering. As I looked into her story, I found out that before she was diagnosed, she had stopped pursuing music for 3 years because she felt like it had become an idol in her life and was hurting her relationships. And then she got diagnosed with breast cancer,  after that sacrifice, and was like, what the heck God?! I gave up my dreams to focus on you and this is what I get?

But during her treatment, she felt like God was saying to her, I want you to look me in the face. And what she realized when she looked God directly in the face, often on the bathroom floor, so sick she couldn’t move for months on end, is that she was LOVED beyond anything she could do to earn that love, beyond any love she had ever known before.

She was able to forgive her husband who left her, partly inspired by the little allegory I keep telling you about: Hinds Feet on High Places. In that story, the main character runs into a beautiful little flower growing out of a rock, and finds out the flower’s name is “Bearing the Cost,” or “Forgiveness.” This flower had been displaced, by no fault of her own, but decided to put roots where she got left, and was watered by drops that fell on the rock and became every bit as beautiful as she was meant to be. Nightbirde realized that she didn’t need to wait for “the other person” to apologize or understand. She could bloom where she was planted in these terrible circumstances. She recalled the parable that Jesus tells about the weeds, where he instructs his disciples not to pull them up, because they might pull up the good crops with the weeds. Her message became that if you try to avoid the hardship in your life, you’ll probably pull up the good work that God is doing there, too.

She wrote in a blog post: “Maybe we missed it—what God showed us when he first introduced himself: that he will crawl into the dirt to be near us.” And she chose her stage name because she dreamt about birds singing in the darkness for three nights in a row. In other blog posts she wrote:

“I remind myself that I’m praying to the God who let the Israelites stay lost for decades. They begged to arrive in the Promised Land, but instead he let them wander, answering prayers they didn’t pray. And for 40 years, their shoes didn’t wear out. Fire lit their path each night. Every morning, he sent them mercy bread from heaven…

When it comes to pain, God isn’t often in the business of taking it away… He is more of a giver than a taker. He doesn’t take away my darkness, he adds light. He doesn’t spare me of thirst, he brings water. He doesn’t cure my loneliness, he comes near. So why do we believe that when we are in pain, it must mean that God is far?

I am still reeling, drenched in sorrow. I am still begging, bargaining, demanding, disappearing. And I guess that means I have all the more reason to say thank you because God is drawing near to me. Again. Again. Again. No matter how many times he is sent away.”

I’m telling you all this not to glamourize suffering (there is nothing glamorous about it) but to offer the seed of possibility that lent holds: that letting God and others in to what we’re going through will lead to transformation. The cross is humanity’s bathroom floor, and Jesus meets us there this season, bearing the cost, grieving with people of Ukraine and all those who are oppressed. Being open and seeking God in our suffering, which is often called confession, enables us to be more in solidarity with one another and to experience how God is in solidarity with us.

So I want to invite us this week to open our eyes to grief and suffering instead of pushing it away like we naturally want to do… I know this might sound very counterproductive and melodramatic after two years in a pandemic and tons of social and relational upheaval. But I want to propose to you that letting ourselves feel it (instead of just trying to move on) might help us come through it transformed, like Jesus. Our patient awareness might help reveal what matters in it, like Nightbirde’s family said after she died, “Grieving is the soul’s way of saying this mattered.” Getting in touch with our need might help us look into the face of God and see how much we’re loved and valued.  If we can resist the urge to pull up the weeds of hardship in our lives, the crops of goodness that are growing there too might come to maturity.

I’m getting into the plant metaphor that is our guide this Lent. I hope it expands our imaginations about who the Holy Spirit is and how she works and what she might be able to do with our grief and suffering, in ways that we literally can’t see right now at the beginning of the journey.

Our worship leaders are  inviting us to paint mycelium networks all over these brown fabric panels in the room, coming out from the cross. (If you don’t know about mycelium, don’t worry, I just learned about it a few months ago when my son got into foraging for mushrooms.) Mycelium is this microscopic network of fungus that creates healthy soil. It breaks things down into nutrients that can be transferred from one plant to another. The mushroom is just the fruit of the bacteria that is a vast and powerful NETWORK that is woven all throughout the soil, to the tune of 8 miles in every square inch! You might have heard of this called “the woodwide web,” because mycelium actually helps trees communicate with one another and assist each other. Mycelium can carry distress signals and then respond by sending more nutrients to other plants and trees that need it. The biggest trees could never survive without these little tiny networks that provide sustenance and connection. You can see how mycelium looks like lung passageways too, or blood vessels. This is the stuff of life, which is also the stuff of change and transformation.

Another way to see mycelium at work is in a compost pile. Composting is a way to turn food scraps into rich soil for new things to grow. The food scraps are mixed with other organic material, like straw, and twigs, and grass clippings, and mycelium starts to grow in this mix to break down the food scraps into fertile soil, powerful enough to break new seeds open so they can germinate and take root and become fresh food.

The nature of the power here, that I want us to note, is in death and decay. This is the upside-down truth of the spiritual life, too. The form of the thing has to fundamentally CHANGE in order to produce new life. This is the hard part for us humans. For a seed to break open in the ground, the seed has to “die.” Jesus said, “unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it will produce an abundant harvest.” He was talking about himself and everyone who follows him. Our hard outer shells have to break open to release the potential energy of who we’re meant to become. Mycelium helps to do that gently, but powerfully, in the earth, and we could compare it to the power of the Spirit in our lives, working through us together.

This is our invitation to Lent. Realizing that the Spirit connects us, and allowing her to gently break us open to change, so we can become the fullness of who we’re designed to be. We could simply start by admitting that it’s okay to not be okay, and nurture a tiny willingness to let God work in our hardship and not avoid it. Recognizing our sadness and frustration, as well as our hope and longing. The apostle James says “confess your sins to one another to be healed.”

The Holy Spirit helps us gently, like a mycelium network, but it’s still uncomfortable, especially for us Americans, and especially for those of us with more social privilege than others. Who wants to admit that you’re not okay? Not me. I was trained to be okay, to keep the whole system running. And the older I get, the more I realize how oppressive and unnecessary that was. Jesus has a new way in mind that isn’t a system, it’s a life where we get to be fully human. Breathing and changing, allowing the Spirit to keep transforming us as we cooperate with grace. After all, we are organic, too! One of my favorite Jesus-followers, paleontologist Tielhard de Chardin wrote this great little note about this spiritual process of transformation we’re in, individually and together, based on how it works in the earth:

Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability and that it may take a very long time. And so I think it is with you. your ideas mature gradually – let them grow, let them shape themselves, without undue haste. Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what time (that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make of you tomorrow. Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.

Our church has been in a real process of transformation over the past year and a half. Our founding pastors retired at the same time we felt a deeper call to racial justice. The process has not gone as I have anticipated. It has been very difficult. But God keeps calling me to a deeper surrender to the process of his Spirit moving in our Body. It really is the process that the apostle Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians – that the parts of the body that have received less honor must receive greater honor so the whole body can heal and work together. Centering the voices of BIPOC, LGBTQIA, and disabled persons among us connects us in a new and necessary way. Recognizing and tending to the suffering in our own body allows us all to be more fully human.

We could think about the invitation to Lent like bringing ourselves to God’s compost pile, acknowledging our need for the Spirit’s healing work. We could compost our grief and suffering instead of hiding and avoiding it in the regular garbage, where it’s instantly out of sight and out of mind.

Do you know what happens when you put food scraps in the regular trash? They not only don’t get a chance to break down and regenerate into new food, they get stuck between layers of plastics and other non-organic matter that produces methane that harms the atmosphere. The quick fix really doesn’t work, which can be compared to our avoidance and resistance to letting God see and help us metabolize our pain.

We have 40 days to make a proverbial compost pile of our grief and sin to see what God can do, slowly and gently, to make us soft and fertile for new life. I hope the plant metaphor helps to remind you that this is a natural process; even though it’s uncomfortable and difficult (dirty and stinky, if you go with the metaphor), we’re made for it. Jesus died and is risen, so this transformation process won’t stay in the grave with us either. It will make something new of us. 

Let’s take it one gentle step at a time, being gentle with ourselves though as God is toward us. I saw an older woman jogging in FDR park the other day, and she was hobbling along so feebly, with such tiny, painful-looking steps that I felt so much gentleness for her. And God said to me something like, “Rachel, that’s how I feel about you and your process. Here you are being so hard on yourself, but I have the same feeling of gentleness and compassion for you as you do for that lady.” Can we trust in God’s heart for us this Lent, enough to acknowledge what we want and need? Like Nightbirde discovered the suffering face of Christ in her own, you are each seen and loved with an immoveable Love that can bring us through changes.

God, in all that is not ok, meet us this season. Show us your face, on the bathroom floor or wherever. Help us not avoid our suffering or the suffering of others. Help us to see and accept ourselves and others in deeper, fuller ways, connected by your Spirit who is working to transform us into nourishment for the world.

A church where everyone can thrive

Many folks have asked me recently, where are we going? What kind of church are we trying to be? We’ve gone through some difficult and confusing changes over the past year with the retirement of our founding pastors, in a pandemic with layers of upheaval. What are we becoming now?

I believe we are trying to become a church where everyone can thrive. We have been acknowledging that the table of Circle of Hope was built and maintained mostly by cisgender, white, middle-class, educated folks, and not as accessible to others as we intended to be. Our foundation was always in Christ, but the culture we developed along the way was not as open as Jesus is.

Jesus is for everyone. So we are building a new table alongside BIPOC, queer, differently-abled and other societally marginalized voices, in hopes that we might be a place where the fullness of humanity is seen and known and loved and celebrated. Jesus is helping us to make this new table together, even through loss and change, humbly listening to the Spirit in one another and our neighbors.

Soil is another metaphor that describes our goal of becoming a church in which everyone can thrive. Jesus talked about seeds of faith rooting and growing and multiplying in “good” soil, meaning soil that is healthy and ready and open to receive new seeds. We’ve realized that some of our soil has gotten hard and rocky and impenetrable over the years. Wealth, busy lifestyles, defensiveness about impact over intent, more mentalizing than embodiment, and resistance to examining our culture has kept us from fully seeing one another and others who might want to know Jesus with us. We are in the painful process of digging up our soil now to allow the oxygen and light of Christ to free us of habits and structures and assumptions that have been consciously or unconsciously oppressive. 

Here’s an example from the disability group that came together during our current listening process this year. They noted that we seem to have a “run yourself ragged” culture of church planting. Ambition is important (Jesus does say “go and make disciples of all nations!”) but we know that white supremacy culture pushes production and “results” in a way that thingifies people, as MLK described. Our differently-abled members are showing us the need for more gentleness and attention to caring for our bodies and whole selves. I agree. More patience and embodied attention will help us experience what Jesus described in the second part of that great commission above: “surely I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Taking time to care for ourselves and others wholelly helps and feel and know that God is, in fact, with us. Learning from members who are differently abled helps us get beyond our limited understandings about ability and strength, and into the way of Jesus.

We are trying to become anti-oppressive soil, in which everyone thrives more. Soil that is receptive and nurturing, curious and welcoming and celebrating of difference, open and humble in the acknowledgement that we don’t know where the wind of the Spirit comes from or how it blows (John 3:8, Ecclesiastes 11:5) We haven’t arrived yet. We are learning as we open our eyes and hearts to where God might want to take us. A humble posture is key. Weakness is strength in God’s eyes; our greatest power is in our vulnerability and need and willingness to follow our servant king. We are shedding the empire assumptions and habits that so easily creep into our lives in this country, especially for those of us who are given more unearned societal privilege than others. It takes ongoing intention to shed our self-sufficiency, the assumption that we need to be good and right and correct already. The gospel of Jesus is that we receive those things from God in community; we don’t have them on our own! Our egos are invited to decrease in order for the Spirit to increase in us.

The invitation doesn’t mean that anyone needs to leave the community. The invitation is to be transformed together. Soil doesn’t get remediated by taking things out! (Removing toxins from soil is nearly impossible.) You get healthier soil by adding to it (compost, fertilizer, air, water, limestone or whatever is needed to counteract the problem) and working with it over and over and over, turning it around. My point is: we need each other, more love, more listening, more humility, especially from us straight white folks. None of us can do this on our own. If anyone is willing to hold the tensions in these questions, and perhaps die to our precious memories of church, and enter into this ongoing process of conversion in the way of Jesus, we want to partner with you! Our transformation together will welcome others into the transformative power of God’s love.

On Sunday, we explored Jesus’s promise: blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. We discovered that Jesus wasn’t talking about being uncontaminated when he mentions purity. He is talking about focus, desire, and child-like trust. He is talking about really going for it; really going for God. He is saying that if we want God with our whole hearts (which is another word for our whole lives in scripture), we will find God. If we really look for God, we will see God in all things, even in really difficult things. 

It’s difficult to be whole-hearted, when we want many things, and can see things from many different perspectives, and we face lots of temptations and distractions all the time. So the prophet Ezekiel gives us some good news, that God can give us new hearts. God can remove our hard and fearful hearts that are crusted over with rejections and doubts and defenses like armor from all the hurts we’ve endured…and give us hearts of flesh (just like the ones we have!) that can open to others and stretch and suffer and trust in new ways again. It’s painful to stretch, but it can bring a joy of mutuality and partnership that we might not have experienced yet! The Spirit will help us in our weakness. God can help us become a church in which everyone can thrive. God can make us soft, fertile soil for patient growth and healing. God can help us build a new table together, where everyone gets fed abundantly, not just with one kind of food but with many! Jesus is a gate that is open, where everyone is invited to come in and out and find spiritual safety and provision (John 10:9). Jesus, make us like You.

The Power of a Blessing

In our Temple cell meeting this week, I had an embarrassing pastor moment. We were reading Hebrews 7 (we’ve been going through that book of the Bible, chapter by chapter) and it was all about this ancient guy named Melchizedek, and I couldn’t remember a thing about him. My embarrassment was quickly comforted by the reminder that the church is the “priesthood of all believers” and the Spirit can be trusted to show up in every one of our meetings, to illuminate and guide us. That happened, in spite of my lack of recollection about Melchizedek; God spoke through us and a quick google search. But my subsequent discoveries this week were so meaningful to me that I have to bring them to you here on All Souls Day. 

Melchizedek is a spiritual ancestor worth noting and celebrating because he is compared to Christ. That’s a big deal! And interestingly, even though the book of Hebrews is written originally to Jews, Melchizedek wasn’t a Jew! He was a gentile, a foreigner, yet here he is bestowed this great honor. So right away we get the message that God is not about maintaining an inside club of privilege. He is for ALL souls. His purpose through Christ is deeply connected to expanding the reign of God beyond expected rules and traditions…maybe even especially the religious ones that Melchizedek didn’t uphold.

So what did Melchizedek do to get himself this great status? What could an outlier have possibly done to make his strange name reverberate through history in such a favorable light?

Well, the one thing we know about Melchizedek is that he brought somebody a meal. For real. That’s his big contribution. When Abraham wins a battle, Melchizedek brings him some bread and wine as an expression of blessing. (As a leader who likes to give gifts with food, this legitimizes my whole existence.) But it’s what Melchizedek says about God to another person in a particular moment of need that makes the gift so powerful.

The battle that Abraham had just won was for his nephew Lot. Lot lived in a declining city that was overtaken by enemies, and Abraham went in with around 300 men to rescue him. He succeeded at rescuing Lot as well as the rest of the people and their possessions! 

The king of Lot’s defeated city came out to meet Abraham first, and tried to make a wicked deal with him: “you can keep all the wealth if you give me the people.”

It was just in that moment that Melchizedek comes in with the blessing. Along with the wine and bread, his words of wisdom and hope give Abraham the strength to resist this wicked proposal.  He says, “Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth: and blessed be the most high God, who has delivered your enemies into your hand.” (Genesis 14)

This blessing helps Abraham remember who he is based on who God is. The blessing helps Abraham make a decision from his true self in a crucial moment. Melchizedek names God’s favor for Abraham, and points out the limitlessness of God’s resources. Possessor of heaven and earth! So when the king of Sodom offers Abraham a few material things, Abraham knows he doesn’t need it. Abraham recalls and repeats that his God possesses all things in heaven and on earth, and that he has no need to accept anything from this earthly king. And I think the meal makes the promise taste real because it’s a tangible experience of provision and sustenance and nurture. It’s symbolic, but not just symbolic. I think it brings the point home to Abraham’s body, mind, and soul that our sustenance and satisfaction are ultimately and regularly here, from God and from those who listen to God. 

Melchizedek then reminds Abraham about God’s involvement in this battle – “this victory came about as a result of God delivering your enemies into your hands” (Gen 14:20). He was calling Abraham’s attention to a power beyond his own. Priests were responsible to do that when people were going to battle, especially with enemies that were greater than them. They were responsible to remind the people that God is a deliverer who goes with them and fights for them, to save them. Abraham didn’t have those words written down at the time; he didn’t have a Bible to read, but he learned them from Melchizedek’s personal offering.  We too need to remember that our battles are not fought by our own strength, but that we need to rely on the presence and power of God with us. The friends who bring that to your attention are like priests, or pastors in your life. And you are probably that person for someone else.

Our moments of victory and decision often go together, too. Opportunities often lead to greater opportunities to remember the wisdom in this blessing: that each of us is of God, the creator and sustainer of the universe, and that people are always the most valuable resource, regardless of how the economy pressures us to operate. We can trust God to provide for us even when we are up against impossible odds.

The greatest part of Melchizedek’s legacy, in my humble opinion, is that he made the first move. He initiated this blessing. He came out to find Abraham. He wasn’t a leader who just ruled from where he was, he brought the peace; he built the bridge. He delivered the love and truth; he didn’t try to make Abraham come and get it, and I think following Jesus calls us to the same. To initiate the blessing! We follow a God who comes alongside us in moments of need and temptation and victory, bringing the throne of grace TO us. Some scholars even think that Melchizedek was a physical manifestation of Jesus, bringing the first communion meal, reminding Abraham who he could trust.

Melchizedek’s priesthood and kingliness beyond religious law shows us the way of Jesus. Hebrew religious law preached that priests had to come from the Levitical blood line. But here’s Melchizedek without that ancestry, showing us even in ancient times that salvation is bigger than all laws. My favorite verses in Hebrews 7 say: “The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God.” That better hope is Jesus, who is a lot like Melchizedek: “one who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life.”

The gift of this life, and the gift of eternal life is indestructible! Beyond all laws, rules, and traditions… even the ones God made. God is limitless in generosity and love. He comes to us now in the person of Jesus, and in the spirit of Jesus in one another. 

I’m watching this show on Netflix called Lucifer right now. It’s got some biblical but mostly unbiblical stuff in there in relation to the devil and God. Lol. I’m only on season 2 but there is this undeniable thread of redemption in there, the hope and possibility of the redemption of all things that does remind me of the God I know in Jesus. A God who’s working out this family thing with all of us, and no one is left out.

Life and death are both sacred in this season, and that’s fitting. If you’ve ever been with someone who is dying, I’m sure you’ve sensed the “thin” place between heaven and earth there. And I’m sure you’ve sense the holiness of this life in some everyday moments of yours. I was just in Colorado for my daughter, and I got that sense of the holy when I saw the Rocky Mountains again. I could feel that thin place between heaven and earth, and not just from the altitude! The vastness of the mountains, the beauty of the snow-capped peaks against the blue sky pierced my heart with wonder and praise, and I was overcome with God’s greatness. Who could create such majesty?

There is a thin place between heaven and earth, and we are in it everyday, even in the grit and grime of life in Philly. I kept cracking up when my daughter and her friends were surprised by the pleasantness and even happiness of some of the folks we met in Colorado. Workers at the ski resort and the car rental place, and even the airport and the Motel 6. Their surprise reminded me that Philly often has a unique vibe of angst and misery that feels like home, too, and it’s all part of this thin place between heaven and earth… the place where God is, too, because of Jesus.

I felt the holiness in another cell meeting this week. I was coming late from another meeting, and my people had already started talking. When I sat down in our circle, I was confronted by this sense that I had just walked into a very sacred space. A vulnerable, holy space that was alive. It was beautiful and stunning, better than the mountains even, because it was PEOPLE whom I love! People filled with the Spirit of God, sharing their lives with each other. What could be more beautiful and powerful than that?

The best thing we can probably do in this season is not just to honor the spiritual ancestors that came before us, like Melchizedek, but to give gifts to the living. To honor one another and call one another to our true selves. Because of Christ’s resurrection, his indestructible life, we no longer have to make sacrifices to the dead. He has redeemed the living and the dead. So we can spend our time giving each other the blessing of living into this indestructible life. We can encourage one another in faith. We can remind one another of who God is and who we are IN God. That’s the power of a blessing: the naming — the acknowledgement — the recognition — of our deepest value and purpose that points us to our strength and our hope. It helps us chose wisely and resist the evil of things over people. It gives us courage to stay in the battle and keep going. It reveals our truest selves. The blessing helps to save us again and again in real time! And we all need that, especially in these times when it’s easy to lose faith and to be discouraged. I know I wouldn’t be who I am today without real live people loving me and even fighting with me and speaking truth to me. The text or your phone call or package you send to a friend, or an enemy, could be a life-saving one. You just don’t know, but let me tell you, it feels so good to offer it and put the results and expectations in God’s hands. We are not necessarily in charge of outcomes, but we’re called to be faithful to those nudges from the Spirit to reach out and to give, to go to the other like Melchizedek did and offer a blessing. It’s beyond law, it’s beyond ancestry, it’s beyond reason, really; this generous and limitless love of God. 

Interruptions can help us begin again

This season we’re looking to Jesus to help us “begin again, again.” I noticed this week that new beginnings sometimes grow out of unwanted interruptions in our lives, especially when Jesus is consciously involved. But let’s start by acknowledging how annoying and inconvenient and sometimes devastating these interruptions are!

One time in college I was on my way to a very fancy wedding in NYC when I discovered a tick on the back of my neck, right on the hairline behind my ear. Yep. It was nasty because the tick was fully embedded and rather large from being there for who knows how long. I did a lot of wilderness activities in college, often sleeping outside, so I could imagine how this happened. But here I was, with my most urban best friend who knew nothing about removing ticks safely, and we were going to be late for her sister’s wedding if we stopped anywhere. There was nothing I could do except put my hair down and endure the cognitive dissonance throughout the wedding until I could get back to my wilderness friends that night to extract it. What an interruption! I don’t remember anything about that probably-beautiful wedding except that parasite on my neck. But I did realize that I was strong enough to endure an interruption for others.

Obviously this was a pretty harmless interruption. But many of us have experienced costly and devastating interruptions in life: breakups and breakdowns, job loss, car accidents, miscarriage, health problems, death of loved ones, and of course, this pandemic. 

One thing I notice about Jesus this week is that he acknowledges interruptions. He didn’t just blow through them in the gospels. He stopped and was curious about them, like Ted Lasso. He wanted to attend to what was happening, and often they became new beginnings.

I want to learn this openness and patience because often I am so focused on my plans or what I think I’m supposed to be doing, that I miss the opportunity for a new beginning. I don’t want to do that; I want to be changed. I think it’s no coincidence that Matthew records Jesus talking about becoming new wineskins right before a story about a big interruption that Jesus turns into a double new beginning. I think it’s foreshadowing! Jesus is saying that in order to be able to hold and mature this new wine of the Spirit we need to become new, too. Otherwise we’re only going to see the interruptions as inconveniences or failures or bad luck. Becoming new with the Spirit seems to involve a flexibility, like a new wineskin, that can add breathability to the wine so it can ferment into something delicious. We need to be flexible too. The Spirit can help us be flexible and curious about the interruptions in our lives.

In this story, Jesus gets approached by a desperate loving father. His only daughter is dying and he knows that if Jesus will lay his hands on her, she will live. She is actively dying though, and he’s begging Jesus to hurry.

Probably Jesus does try to hurry; he is moved by our pain. But someone else needs him along the way. Someone rather invisible and outcast reaches out and touches the bottom of his clothing. That means she’s on the ground, and she really is in every way as a person. She’s been bleeding for 12 years with something incurable, and bleeding makes one ceremonially unclean so this poor woman probably lived in isolation. Jesus could have just healed her silently and kept moving, but he embraced the interruption instead.

He asks, “who touched me?” His curiosity is real. His disciples think he’s being so ridiculous because so many people touched him, the crowd is pressing in, and they’re in a rush to get to this dying little girl of a prominent family. They didn’t have time for vagrants and outcasts. But Jesus doesn’t view the woman on the ground as any less than the prominent father of the dying little girl. 

Jesus is not annoyed by the interruption; it seems to be what he is for. What really is our purpose in life? Is it to get things done, or please others, the important people with status, or is it to be present to the power of God? Being present to God means pausing and tending to the least of these, even in our selves, the tender parts that can’t just keep moving sometimes. Jesus stops for that, and applies his power there.

It’s a touchpoint. I have a friend who calls interruptions “touchpoints” and I love the resonance with this story because this desperate woman who’s been bleeding for 12 years literally touches Jesus’s clothing and that is her new beginning. She gets close enough to touch, even though by law she’s not supposed to do that with anybody because it would make them “unclean.” The misogyny in the culture was real; women were considered unclean when they were on their monthly cycle. But Jesus came to undo misogyny. He not only wants to heal this woman, he wants to change this culture. He wants to put an end to shame that has isolated her. So he won’t stop looking around until this woman is seen and named and gets to tell her story, until she is healed from shame and restored to community. “Seeing she could not go unnoticed, she told WHY she touched him and how she had been healed.” What a brave act on her part! She obviously feels safe with Jesus. The power of God restored her and she doesn’t seem to feel held back by embarrassment or rejection anymore. Everyone can see her full humanity as she tells her story of suffering and healing and faith. Jesus tells her that her faith has healed her. How empowering is that?!

Did someone ever see your suffering and interrupt their schedule for you? Did you ever get vulnerable enough with Jesus or someone else to reach out for help? I bet not everyone would just keep on moving, I wonder who would stop to be like Jesus to you.

One of our members is in his final days with cancer. Recently one of our other members wen over to check on his friend and discovered how bad it was, and set up hospice care. This friend has barely left his side; he allowed his whole life to be interrupted because he loves his friend. Love enables us to be interrupted and not to count the cost. There is a new beginning for both friends in here somewhere. 

Jesus’s interruption was costly, too, because in the time it took for Jesus to attend to the bleeding woman, the little girl died. Someone came over and said, “don’t bother the teacher anymore.” Don’t worry about coming over, Jesus, it’s done. It’s all over. They don’t realize yet that there’s nothing that can interrupt the flow of God’s love and compassion and grace. It’s limitless.

Did anybody ever say “don’t worry about it” to you but you knew they still needed help? How many times have you said that to others when you were really in need? Did you hold back because you thought there was a limit to their love and capacity?

Jesus tells the wailers at the little girls house to quiet down. He takes two of the disciples in with her parents, and takes the dead little girl by the hand and speaks to her. He tells her to rise up, and she does. Her spirit returns to her body. Jesus attending to the interruption of the bleeding woman doesn’t stop this little girl from living. There’s more than enough love to go around!

Our cell church is built on that truth. But we have fearful thoughts sometimes that if we attend to the interruption that the more important thing won’t get done or there won’t be enough resources to survive. But that’s not the case in God’s economy. Each person is infinitely valuable.

Jesus interrupted the norms of social exclusion and death in this story, so following him might lead us to cause some interruptions. When the norms are hurting or excluding people, we may need to interrupt. 

I have a friend who is kinda shy and working on this in corporate meetings. When he feels afraid to bring up a hard topic he’ll try to say something like, “I noticed that there’s something I want to say that’s messy, can I take a moment to try to put words to it?” Or for someone else: “I noticed that so-and-so was going to say something back there, can we go back?” He’s realizing he needs to embrace clumsiness and awkwardness in order to be an interrupter of things that might need to change. He’s making room for marginalized voices to get into the conversation, and for all of us to be as imperfect as we are in this process of transformation. There’s no getting it perfectly right when it comes to interrupting. We are trying to start something new, and that will always be messy.

When a new person comes to the cell meeting it interrupts the social dynamics of the meeting in a wonderful way. It’s harder to become an insular clique when new friends are regularly included, and that’s the whole point: being part of a culture that is flexible and open to the Spirit through others!

Interruptions offer new opportunities to love and receive love, even and maybe especially when they’re difficult. Some of the biggest interruptions of my life have become the greatest gifts: becoming a Jesus-follower by needing God to interrupt my depression, becoming a parent before I planned it, becoming a pastor when that hadn’t been my goal. These were and are all new beginnings. Now our Circle of Hope is feeling the need to begin again with antiracism, to interrupt the harm to our BIPOC members that has occurred at times even through us. We are reaching out to Jesus and each other for help and healing. May we take his hand to begin again. May we allow him to make us new so we can stretch to hold the fullness of his unexpectedly abundant life.

Prayer is Transformational

Prayer is often viewed as mystical and mysterious, and in many ways it is. But Jesus is actually really clear about it, too. In fact, not many things in the Bible are as clear as the invitation to communicate directly with God! Jesus even gives us specific words for it. And even better, he demonstrates himself doing it throughout the gospels. Instead of trying to muscle his way through life, he regularly escapes to pray, or talks with his Father right where he is. If the Son of God consistently looked to God to receive wisdom and comfort and direction for what’s next, why in the world would I try to get by on my own?

Jesus gave instructions for prayer in his first big sermon, recorded in Matthew 6:

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

This, then, is how you should pray: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. (For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.)”

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

I get two main messages from that first paragraph:

  1. This is for you. Prayer is not for the attention of others; it’s because we need to be with God and to receive from God, and God wants to be with us and provide for us. Most people didn’t have a lot of privacy in their homes in Jesus’s time (one or maybe two rooms) so actually shutting the door might not have been an option unless they had a little closet. Jesus was going to some length to say that prayer might require some special actions. It’s not gonna just happen; we have to show up for it but there will be a reward. The reward is in the relationship, and we probably won’t know about that until we show up for it!
  2. It’s not a transaction. People who babbled on and on were often trying to manipulate the deities into doing things. Jesus says, no need. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him! There is way more than a transaction being offered here in prayer. It’s about being together heart to heart, spirit to Spirit that causes transformation. And we don’t even need words! This story about Mother Theresa is one of my favorites:

One time an interviewer asked Mother Theresa “When you pray, what do you say to God?” Mother Teresa replied, “I don’t talk, I simply listen.” Believing he understood what she had just said, the interviewer next asked, “Ah, then what is it that God says to you when you pray?” Mother Teresa replied, “He also doesn’t talk. He also simply listens.” There was a long silence, with the interviewer seeming a bit confused and not knowing what to ask next. Finally Mother Teresa broke the silence by saying, “If you can’t understand the meaning of what I’ve just said, I’m sorry but there’s no way I can explain it any better.”

I imagine that Mother Theresa probably learned the hard way that prayer is not so much about getting God to do what we think God should do (heal the sick, end all poverty), but that the purpose of prayer is to absorb God’s heart, and to become more like Jesus, to see even the most depressing circumstances of our world through his compassionate eyes, and to be filled with his love to share.

 To be honest, I hardly ever have too many words for my prayers, either. That’s OK, because it turns out that God can do a lot of good work in silence. Centering prayer is way of just being quiet with God, opening your awareness to the invisible but always present Presence of love that holds all things together. Cynthia Bourgeault instructs, “Whenever a thought comes in to your mind, you simply let the thought go and return to that silent attending upon the depths. Not because thinking is bad, but because it pulls you back to the surface of yourself. You use a short word or phrase (I use Jesus) to help you let go of the thought…What goes on in those silent depths during the time of centering prayer is no one’s business, not even your own; it is that place where God is closer to your soul than you are yourself. Your own subjective experience of the prayer may be that nothing happened….but in fact, plenty has been going on, and things are quietly but firmly being rearranged.” That interior rearrangement is a spiritual awakening, an attunement to the Spirit of God who transforms the world through ordinary folks like each of us. Praying like this helps me experience the meaning of the Lord’s prayer:

  • Our Father in heaven: We’re addressing God, reaching out for what Jesus brings down. As our love goes to Father / Mother God, Jesus brings it near. My friend, Anita Grace Brown, had a beautiful revelation about that last week. She wrote: “I misunderstood the pace of Jesus’s walk with us. I thought that we were as strong as our strongest link (HIM) and that His strength pulled us up with HIM in secure attachment… but HE is our weakest link in a sense–for his pace is staying with the most vulnerable of lambs, the ones with the limp or maybe even without limbs altogether.  He always comes down to us. I was always rushing the body in my attempts to witness thriving (a lovely goal!) but that is not how Christ’s upside-down kingdom works (that’s how capitalism works, how the domination system works, how those of us with worldly goals work). The compassionate love of God comes “down” to us through Jesus, just where we are, at our pace. Prayer invites God to deliver mercy in the very human way that God does.
  • Hallowed be thy name. God’s name is holy, consecrated, set-apart. I love how the Jewish culture and others describe God’s name as unspeakable. Even the band Iron Maiden wrote a song called “Hallowed by thy name,” and there’s a line in there that reveals the nature of holiness: “Don’t I believe that there never is an end?” God’s name is hallowed because Jesus transcends life and death. He is uncontainable. His name, “God is salvation” tells us that there is more hope incarnate than we might understand.
  • Your kingdom come:  Here’s an invitation for revelation. This is saying YES to the creative resurrection power that restores the earth. It is asking God to lead, and be in charge. We long for this because we do not see the fullness of it now. We have an eschatological, prophetic hope in this in-between time.  We see and experience how broken the world is, and we are, and at the same time we long and pray and live into its healing, bit by bit.  Indigenous People’s Day today is a little sign of that movement, a kingdom movement in its counter-celebration. Instead of celebrating the Empire’s attempt to dominate and obscure the humanity of native people, we are seeing and affirming the honor of those people. The kingdom is for those who long for transformation, those who grieve and know that the world isn’t as it should be, but look to God to make it new.
  • Your will be done. This part calls us to trust in God’s goodness. Prayer is opening ourselves up to that goodness. It involves an opening of self: being willing to hold loosely what we think we want in order to create space for God to direct, lead, and guide us into a truer and fuller way of being. I might think I know what should happen at any given moment. But do I really know? I need space to discern, to get my initial preferences “out of the way” as my friends in recovery say. When we hold open our self-talk, our interior dialogue, our fears, wants, needs, daydreams, and fantasies, we entrust ourselves to a deeper aliveness. One that is less self-referential and more aware of others. This probably gives us more capacity for “God’s will,” on earth as it is in heaven. Can you imagine heaven here now? I think that’s what we’re tasting in prayer and the communion it can spark with others.
  • Give us this day our daily bread. We need spiritual nourishment from God, but Jesus tells us to ask for just enough for today. Our fears makes us want more than daily bread. As an Italian cook, I want bread not just for my own eating, but bread to make croutons and bread to make bread crumbs for the cutlet, and bread dough in the freezer for the morning. But God is calling me to enjoy and use what I have today, and trust for the rest. God is calling me to receive tomorrow’s bread tomorrow. Recently when I go to bed exhausted I have been realizing that’s how it should be. God will give me the inspiration and strength I need in the morning.
  • Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Jesus was probably more often talking to those who owed debts than those who were owed, at least financially. I think there’s a vibe here that our whole lives are from God. What can we do to give back? Where have I taken more than I needed? Forgive me my sins as I am committed to forgiving. Repentance is a daily part of our calling, and prayer can show us specifically where we’ve been amiss. I believe that it’s only in asking for forgiveness and being forgiven that we are able to forgive others. Jesus connects this so directly. I think it’s no coincidence that Jesus talks about forgiveness in his sermon right after prayer, because I’m not sure that forgiveness is possible without the power of God! It’s hard. But the Spirit can help us, and Jesus tells us to ask for that particular help every day.
  • Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. This part suggests, and I think rightly so, that God doesn’t test us. The world is a testy, challenging place, and our own vulnerabilities can certainly lead us into temptation. Jesus is real about that and teaches us to ask for deliverance, the empowerment of his Spirit, to protect us from the ways we might be tempted to give up our life and joy. Prayer helps us know our vulnerabilities AND our salvation. One of my favorite medieval saints, Clare of Assisi, describes prayer as a mirror. We see our vulnerabilities and we also see Christ there, even in them. The love of Christ is greater than any evil the world has ever known, and we can lean into that truth in direct connection with God.
  • Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. This calls us the deepest truth and realest reality to our awareness: that all things belong to God, and there is a redemption plan for the whole universe. We only see a bit now, through a glass darkly, but Jesus is returning to remake this beautiful, hurting earth and every life in it. Nothing is wasted. Our lives are not just about our limitations and inadequacy. This is about God, and how we’re part of God’s glory. The Lords prayer is a communal prayer: notice that Jesus uses the word “us.”  Jesus is saying that a personal life of prayer expands us into an us. A Body, a movement of Love together.

The time to come in to this place of rest and trust with God is today, as Hebrews 4 describes. My Temple cellmates challenged each other this week to try five minutes of rest with God a day. It’s hard to shut the door on our deadlines and other distractions, but this invitation from God remains. Lord, give us space to make this space in our lives for You, and for us. Help us experience the care and transformation you offer, not just in heaven but right now on earth, as close and regular as our breath and being. Show us the reward of being with You.

The Gifts of St. Francis: Turning Toward Pain

We celebrated the feast of St Francis this Sunday with our first in-person Sunday morning meeting! It felt joyous and tender to me, like Francis’s own embodied faith. He and his partner in mission, Clare, have inspired my own journey so much over the years that when I had a chance to go to Italy with my dad to find my grandparent’s hometown, I planned to stop in Assisi first. It was glorious, though I thought that Francis might be having a good laugh about this beautifully manicured lawn and fancy building in his name! (That was kind of the opposite of what he valued.) 

Francis’s faith in Jesus was a real “beginning again” process in his life. It took a couple of years to develop, as most of our spiritual transformations do (they are not instant), but a personal relationship with God transformed him into the deeply communal saint we know, the guy who through deeper humility kicked off a giant revolution of love in his part of the world.

Francis was born into a wealthy family and enjoyed a very comfortable, carefree life. He enjoyed the best of food and clothing and education and art and privileged celebrations. He wasn’t a scoundrel, but he was an upwardly mobile hometown guy with a passion for life and beauty.

His charmed life started to change when Assisi went to war with Perugia, the neighboring town that is now famous for making those BACI chocolates with the hazelnuts inside — except that Francis was not eating chocolates in Perugia. Assisi lost the war, and Francis was a prisoner of war in a dungeon in Perugia where he knew suffering for perhaps the first time. His wealthy father rescued him, but he was sick and bedridden for awhile when he got home, and in this inability to resume his old fun life, God began to speak to his soul with deeper truth and comfort. He began to feel a kinship with others who knew suffering like Jesus: the marginalized, the poor and the outcast. He began to be hungry for deeper spiritual food because he needed it. He was suffering, and the talk of his former friends just seemed shallow.

But when he got better, he got sucked back into the illusions of comfort and status. He tried to join a crusade with a friend of nobility, but on his way there, God spoke to him in a dream and told him to go back to his hometown. He actually listened, even though the shame of giving up on a military mission would be great. But God’s voice was beginning to be bigger than other voices and expectations. So he followed that voice to Rome, where he felt like he should test out this unknown calling by praying at the place where the church started, where the apostle Peter was buried. There he found himself praying with beggars, whom he lived with for awhile, exchanging his silk clothes for their clothes.

When he went home, he was drawn to the dilapidated Sam Damiano church on the outskirts of town, and once in praying inside before a crucifix there, he heard God asking him to rebuild the church. He started to repair the church building at San Damiano, but later came to understand there was a deeper calling, to call the church back to it’s heart, to reveal its true nature of love by following Jesus simply and purely. He did that by renouncing all the trappings of wealth and status, and following Jesus to the hurting places. His freedom and joy were in total dependence on God. 

Part of this “beginning again” came through an encounter with a person who had leprosy. Leprosy is a communicable disease that oozes and disfigures, and people who had leprosy had to wear bells around their necks in public places so that people would be warned of their coming and stay away. Francis was used to running away when he heard these bells — much like we often tend to run from our fears — because he didn’t want to be confronted with the pain and suffering.

Perhaps the biggest pain and suffering of having leprosy was how it took over your whole identity. People didn’t see you as a person anymore, they just saw the disease and it threatened them. Francis ran away when he saw the leper, like he always had. But then he turned around. He did something different, and I wonder if all spiritual wisdom could be summed up in the word turning.

Francis turned around and went toward the leper, and saw a real person inside. He embraced and kissed him and gave him money. And when he looked a minute later, the leper was gone! Francis knew that it had been Jesus himself, to show him that God was in all people — that each creature is unspeakably beloved —  and that God was calling him to move toward the suffering even in himself, the suffering it requires to confront our own fears of holding pain and suffering.

Francis spent a big part of his the rest of his life caring for people with leprosy and living among them, fully embracing their humanity in love, and dying at 44 of complications of leprosy. (It’s not often mentioned that Francis died of leprosy, as if he was supposed to transcend it or be magically protected from it. But he was just as vulnerable as any human, like Jesus.) He wrote later:

When I was in sin (distracted by worldly troubles), it seemed too bitter to me to see lepers. And the Lord himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned in to sweetness of soul and body.

After Francis saw Jesus in the leper, he stopped running from Jesus and realized that he had been running from himself, too! He needed to embrace his own needy humanity to find the sweetness of Christ.

How many times do we run from our own neediness without even thinking, filling up on other things and relationships because we can? Perhaps we are missing the real yearnings of our hearts, and the cries of others for connection, to be seen and known. Because it turns out that suffering reveals our humanity.

God himself led Francis to this wisdom. Three of the gospel writers record Jesus encountering a person with leprosy. The person was crying out, “Lord if you are willing, make me clean!” I think he wondered if Jesus was willing because it was not only a kind of a death sentence to touch a leper, it was illegal in Jesus’s culture. But Mark records that Jesus is filled with compassion and he moves towards this man with leprosy, and he TOUCHES him. Can you imagine what it must have felt like to be touched after not being touched for who knows how long? I think Jesus knew he needed to be touched to be healed. Jesus knew his wounds were deeper than the surface; they were wounds of isolation, lost humanity and identity, loss of knowing his belovedness. Jesus begins to restore all this with this healing touch. 

And it was a moment of justice. Mark records that when Jesus saw and heard this man, Jesus was “indignant.” That’s the word that Mark uses for “filled with compassion.” Indignation is a little spicier, because it’s connected to anger about something being wrong or unfair. It is grief about the suffering of the world! It is feeling the suffering, not just seeing it or talking about it.

I felt that grief when I heard about the security guard, Nassir Day, who was shot and killed at Pathways to Housing on Friday, a young Black man with an unborn child on the way. Why another young Black man, Lord? I want Jesus to be near this pain. I want Jesus to stop this pain, and I sense that He is suffering badly too.

How can we move with our indignation this week?

We might have to be willing to start with ourselves. 

I asked a friend in recovery to tell me about willingness, because it’s a big thing in recovery. My friends in recovery are smart because they acknowledge that on our own, we’re usually NOT willing to move toward the pain (ours or others’). We naturally run from it, like Francis first did. We need God’s help to move toward it. We need to pray for willingness to move toward pain and not hide from ourselves. We need to acknowledge that we too are spiritually poor and suffering and God wants to embrace us there, so we can learn to embrace others.

Where are you hurting today? If you’re like me, you have a lot of defenses against even knowing the answer to that question. Most of us learned early on to stuff feelings way down and keep it moving. Most of us have a lifetime of unconscious coping strategies and defense mechanisms in our daily toolbox. Of course we don’t want to feel rejection, or loneliness, or sadness, anger, embarrassment, inadequacy, shame, or fear. But only in turning toward our real experiences can we move in for God’s touch.

My sober friend told me that willingness is related to trust. Am I willing to believe that someone I can’t see or feel can really help us?

Jesus and Francis were willing to move toward the person with leprosy and touch them. Maybe we can borrow some of their willingness to open ourselves up to the One who knows and loves and suffers with us. This Love and acceptance is the lifeline to our humanity and healing.

(art by wORKINGaRTs)

Staying Off the Edge, Just For Today

The pandemic has been a hard time, all around the world. Many of us have gone toward our “edges,” or felt them more acutely than ever before: the edges of our patience, sense of security, identity. So I was comforted to rediscover the time in Jesus’s life where he goes to the edge….and doesn’t go off of it. In some great “not today, Satan!” moments he is protected and saved, and I believe his promise holds for all of us on the edges, too.

Jesus’s ministry doesn’t begin with success. It begins with temptation, deprivation, and rejection. If the son of God is not exempt from that experience, we might not be either. In fact, Jesus spends the first 30 years of his life in relative obscurity, and when he finally comes out as who he is, he is met not with fanfare but with hunger, repudiation and dismissal, and enemies.

The good news is that if you are facing any of those things, don’t be ashamed. It might mean that you have a part in the story of salvation, too. You might even have a glorious destiny like Jesus (you do).

In the power of the Spirit, Jesus sees the temptations in Luke 4 for the lies that they are. He doesn’t fall off that edge, so he’s empowered to stay off other edges. I think that’s how it works. For every “yes” we say to life/the Spirit, and resisting the illusory quick fix, we are strengthened. Giving in to the quick fix usually depletes us even though it looks so promising in the moment. We need eyes to see things for what they are, and we have those eyes in Christ.

After Jesus comes out of the desert, he goes back to his hometown for the moment we’ve all been waiting for. (I hope he got some food at his mom’s house first there). He also goes into the temple on the Sabbath like he probably did throughout his whole life. This time he volunteers to read, and the scroll of Isaiah 61 is handed to him. Isaiah means “The Lord saves.” He reads the first verse, but doesn’t even finish the second verse before rolling up the scroll and handing it back with this mic drop:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners  and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free,  to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Something about the way Jesus reads this causes everyone to look at him and he drops probably the most significant line in the whole Bible: Today this scripture is fulfilled. It’s happening, people, in Jesus: freedom for prisoners and sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed and good news for the poor. This is the day because I AM the day, he’s saying. All of this is true right now in me. And he leaves out the vengeance part in the last line of Isiah’s prophecy because it seems there’s no need to talk about vengeance anymore when he’s around. He is here to communicate God’s love and favor.

I wish I could tell you that they received the love and favor, but instead, they didn’t believe him. And he called them out on it. I don’t think he seemed impressive enough to be the one they were waiting for. All they saw was Joseph’s kid from the carpenter shop; the everyday guy they knew! (AKA Son of Man.) This couldn’t be the promised one; he didn’t meet their expectations, and maybe on a deeper level, they couldn’t see themselves as the folks he was reading about, favored by God. Maybe they couldn’t imagine blind people seeing or prisoners going free or oppressed people being relieved, which Isaiah describes as binding up the brokenhearted. I just love that. Wrapping the heart-wounds of the downtrodden, the ones who are discouraged and in despair. That’s why Jesus is here.

It makes me think of how they’ve been wrapping some of the giant sequoia trees in fire blankets, to protect them from blazes fueled by climate change. Giant sequoias are normally adapted to fire; it can help them thrive by releasing seeds from their cones and creating clearings that allow young sequoias to grow. But the extraordinary intensity of these fires fueled by climate change can overwhelm the trees. That happened last year when the Castle fire killed around 10,000 large sequoias, according to the National Park Service. So several of the big ones now are being wrapped in fire blankets, and I pray they survive.

Jesus came to bind up the brokenhearted. He was able to do that because he didn’t go off the edge of his hunger for satisfaction and security and significance. (And all those things were granted to him soon after! It seems that the enemy always tries to sell us the things that we already have, or are about to be given.) Jesus trusted the Father instead; he let the Spirit bind up his own heart in the desert of temptation.

When Jesus called the people out on their inhospitality toward him, they got so triggered that they drove him to the edge of a cliff and tried to throw him off! But he slipped through the crowd and miraculously, quietly escaped their anger. I think their anger was a sign of how much they needed and LONGED for that hope he was bringing. Our anger is often a sign of our need. They were brokenhearted, hopeless and oppressed. I wonder how much they wanted to be free to claim and experience God’s favor. But they didn’t know it could be true for them through this guy, so they almost threw their shred of hope off a cliff.

What drives you to the edge of the cliff in your life these days? What takes you to that hopeless place where you cannot imagine how God will possibly provide for you? This happens unconsciously for many of us; suddenly we’re deep in the despair, maybe freaking out on someone else OR bottling it all up inside through condemning thoughts and self-destructive behaviors. We might be trying to throw Jesus off the cliff when he’s there to help us.

One of my favorite authors, Resmaa Menakem, writes about the difference between clean pain and dirty pain in his book My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies. He describes clean pain as the pain of doing the right thing even when it’s hard, OR vulnerably entering into the unknown and uncomfortable space of not knowing what to do, and pausing to ask for help. When we accept clean pain, it helps us expand our capacity for growth and healing; in fact, it actually expands our nervous systems. But dirty pain is the pain of avoidance, blame, and denial. It’s when we respond to fear and conflict from our most wounded parts. I think that’s what those people were doing with Jesus. Their broken hearts couldn’t hold the possibility that he could deliver on this great promise of freedom for the oppressed, so they denied it, and blamed him for bringing it up, and avoided the struggle of faith.

But Jesus hangs on to his anointing. He goes around healing people, especially strangers who welcome him. He frees people from demon possession, and the demons recognize who he is! They ask if Jesus has come to destroy them because they know about this “day of the Lord” that Jesus was reading about it. They were rightly on to it, because this was prophesied to be the moment when humanity would be rescued from evil and God’s good reign would be re-established, and the synoptic gospels present Jesus carrying out this task. THIS WAS the moment Jesus was describing, foretold by Isaiah 700 years before. Jesus wasn’t kidding that today this scripture is fulfilled.

I believe this scripture continues to be fulfilled when WE hang on to OUR anointing in Christ. When we believe that the Spirit of the Lord is upon us….enabling us to resist temptation and move through rejection or deprivation as clean pain, still choosing to do the next right thing, not responding from our most wounded parts in denial and blame and avoidance. Hanging on to our anointing in Christ means letting God wrap and hold our wounds in tender and protective care like those trees.  Jesus cares about our broken hearts and honors our poverty of spirit by offering us his own. Our anointing allows us to to hold our tensions with love, even when our conflicts are confusing and seemingly impossible. The Spirit of the Lord is upon you and can make a way for you to “escape through the crowd” and stay off that edge. 

Sometimes when the crowd is amped, our “going off the cliff” feels so inevitable. I wonder if we could let God do something different for us this weekend, something surprising like Isaiah prophesied: a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. Maybe just for today.

The One who holds it all together

I love questions, and recently a friend asked why’d they’d need Jesus if they were already deeply spiritual. This friend IS deeply spiritual and speaks on behalf of many of my friends who wonder the same thing. What’s so special about Jesus?  Why would I need him in my life if I’m already a spiritual person? These friends already have a sense of God in their lives, in their work and friendships and 12-step communities. They experience meaning and transcendence through music, nature, art, exercise, astrology, yoga, higher education, gaming, friendship. They experience a sense of the holy at concerts and in relationships, in regular spiritual practices that have been life-saving and purposeful, like working for justice and love and recovery. So why do they need Jesus? It’s a great question. 

Doesn’t Jesus just narrow and limit the options for experiencing life in all of its fullness? Isn’t Jesus too specific and particular and exclusive by being one human life in a particular time and place? And hasn’t his legacy been part of a rule-bound system of doctrine that’s connected to so much violence and division in the world? Why would I need that when I’m trying to get healthy and balanced and less depressed, and expand my horizons, not narrow them?

These are great questions. And YET. My friend who asked it was kind of mysteriously drawn to Jesus anyway. He could not explain why, but he was curious. There’s just Something about Jesus. So he came to a meeting and asked the question.

I’m going to offer some of the answers I heard from my cellmates, with their permission. My cell often helps with life’s most important questions!

One of my cellmates was raised Hindu. She described being raised to worship idols when she was little, and noticing that none of them spoke back to her. But Jesus did. Jesus answered her prayer, not in an audible voice, but something big and deep in her spirit that she knew was God. Now as an adult, she is amazed at how sometimes she can literally feel God’s presence, as if he is alive. 

Another cellmate said that she felt like she was always running away from God for most of her life, wanting to NOT “need” Jesus. She was trying to resist the love and truth she sensed there, but what she couldn’t deny after awhile was this sense that Jesus kept gently pursuing her no matter how much she kept trying to get away. At one point she decided to read other religious texts like the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, and she decided she would just note when she read something that reminded her of the God she knew. Well. She ended up making a LOT of notecards and concluding that Jesus was present all over the place in ways she didn’t even understand and couldn’t contain. She couldn’t even keep him in the “Christianity” box. 

Both of these friends were surprised by the simultaneous limitlessness (big, cosmic, inclusive, generous) nature of God along with a personal and pursuing revelation of love. I like how the apostle Paul describes the fullness of Jesus’s being and purpose in his letter to the Colossians:

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might be Lord. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

I think my friends were on to something big in their discoveries of Jesus: that he wasn’t just a great human teacher and prophet, founder of another religious program. Apparently he was present before time began, in order to do something new and connective right now, and forevermore!

It’s difficult to even wrap our minds around it or put into words. It is beyond words, and we need more than words right now, as my friend Mable said yesterday. It is grammatically impossible to describe the invisible force of love that created the energy of the expanding universe and organized it into the beauty we can barely glimpse, let alone understand, through our microscopes and telescopes and relationships. That this love would reveal itself in the most vulnerable human form is rather unspeakable. Sometimes I can only close my eyes and feel it. And that is what some of my spiritual-but-not-religious friends do, too. Many of us “know” even in our unknowing. On some level we can sense this magnitude of love that mysteriously and miraculously holds all things together even, and maybe especially, when it seems like everything is falling apart. We know because we are human, and God shared in our humanity through Jesus. 

I love how my friend described Jesus pursuing her, because it shines a new ray of light on this question. Maybe it’s not so much a question of “needing” Jesus as much as God wanting us! Maybe it’s primarily about God’s love and desire to be with us. The Bible says “we love him because he first loved us.” God initiates this relationship. Other programs may need to be striven for, or achieved, but in the Bible we see a God, even in the Old Testament, who calls people into belonging even when they’re wandering around complaining and not paying any attention. Jesus offers an image of standing at a door and knocking, and if anyone hears him they can open the door and feast with him. He also offers an image of a shepherd who goes out looking for sheep who get lost from the rest of the crew, even when it’s just one.

Did you ever see that old picture of Jesus hanging off the side of a cliff to rescue that one sheep who is ready to go off the edge? I keep that picture in my office to remind myself that God is like that, looking out for me even when I consciously forget his love and go wandering off toward danger. I appreciate that painting partly because I did fall off a 60-ft  literal cliff when I was 19. It was a rock climbing accident that I probably shouldn’t have survived, but by some mystery, I did. 

So the painting reminds me that this Good Shepherd can’t really be underestimated or fully understood or explained. All I know is that when I wander off blindly, thinking there are no options left and everything is doomed and I should pull the proverbial covers over my head because people keep hurting each other and the earth continues to warm up, the Great Shepherd comes looking for me again on the cliffside. Jesus is the soul friend who finds me there. He reaches down and brings me back to into the fold of fellowship with the other ones to who love him, too. He takes me to quiet waters where I can be refreshed. He shows me what I can do to share that refreshment with others who are looking.

To me, the most mind-blowing part of that description of Jesus in Colossians is the part where “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in Jesus.” That word fullness in Greek, pleroma, tries to describe the totality of aeons — all atoms, matter, energy, and essence of being from the beginning of time into eternity. And it’s hard to distinguish between whether the word fullness or God is the more probable subject of the sentence! It suggests that everything good and beautiful and “spiritual” and EVERYTHING?! is revealed and disclosed in Jesus. It is distributed through him personally in a way that holds all things together. 

I don’t understand it. I can’t understand it. But it does give me great comfort in this time where it often feels like many things are breaking up and breaking down. What if Jesus is holding everything together beyond what we can see, designing and creating something new from the pieces that seem to be flying in opposite directions? That is the God of the impossible that we are promised through the Spirit. The Comforter who advocates for us without words. The seed of hope that is planted in people in the worst of times and situations. The One who feeds us in the desert of our despair, whispering that we’ll rise again. 

In sum, I believe that all of my spiritual friends already know something about Jesus, being the essence of spirituality that he is. I believe he’s already in the recovery group, the work, the advocacy, the art, the exercise, the books, the music, the wonder of creation and friendship, all the ways and times we experience transcendence and meaning and holiness. He is there, holding it all together, especially in our seeking and questions. And we can know him personally, just as we are known.