Rachel Sensenig

Prayer is Transformational

Prayer is often viewed as very mystical and mysterious, and in some 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 importance of communicating with God! Jesus even gives us specific words for it. But mostly, it comforts me how often he demonstrates prayer throughout the gospels. Instead of trying to muscle his way from one event to the next, he regularly escapes to pray, or talks with his Father right where he is. If the Son of God consistently related to God to receive wisdom and comfort and direction for what’s next, why in the world would I try to muscle through life without it?

Jesus talked about 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. It’s not for the attention of others; it’s because you need to be with God and to receive from God, and God wants to be with you and provide for you. 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 boundary setting. It’s not gonna just happen; you have to show up for it but there will be a reward. The reward is in the relationship, and you probably won’t know anything about that until you 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 a kind of being together that causes transformation. And you 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 you think he 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 so we can keep sharing it!

 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, but using Jesus’s words are good too!

  • 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. This prayer invites God to deliver his mercy in the very human way that he does.
  • Hallowed be thy name. Holy, consecrated, set-apart is God’s name. 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 it transcends life and death.  It is uncontainable. It tells us that there is more than we can touch or 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. This is our 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! Instead of celebrating someone who tried 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 want the transformation that Jesus brings; those who grieve and know that the world isn’t as it should be, but long for it’s renewal and but trust God to keep making it new…even through us.
  • Your will be done. This part calls us to trust in God’s goodness, that the Creator knows and loves everyone and wants what is best for us. Prayer is opening ourselves up to that goodness. It involves some dying to 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? Sometimes I need some space to discern, or I need to simply “get out of the way” as my friends in recovery say. When we hold open our self-talk, our interior dialogue, our fears, wants, needs, preferences, daydreams, and fantasies, we entrust ourselves to a deeper aliveness, resisting that tendency of the mind to check in on itself all the time. This makes us less full of smaller wills and more full of capacity for God’s will. On earth as it is in heaven! Can you imagine heaven here? I think that’s what we’re getting into.
  • Give us this day our daily bread. We need daily spiritual nourishment from God, but Jesus tells us to ask for just enough. Not extra! Our fears makes us want more than daily bread. As an Italian cook, I want more bread than I can eat so that I can make croutons and bread crumbs and put some dough in the freezer for the morning. But God is calling me to TRUST. 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 what I need in the morning.
  • Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Jesus was more often talking to those who owed debts than those who were owed, at least financially. 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. I believe that it’s only in being forgiven and understanding our own need for forgiveness 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. I’m not sure that forgiveness is possible without the power of God, at least for me! Forgiveness is not easy, but the Spirit can help us and Jesus tells us to ask for that help.
  • 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 challenging place, and our own vulnerabilities can certainly lead us into temptation. Jesus warns us about that and urges us to be wise and ask for God’s help, the empowerment of his Spirit, to protect us from the ways the enemy might try to steal our life and joy. A life of prayer helps us know what evil we’re vulnerable to, IMHO. One of my favorite medieval saints, Clare of Assisi, describes prayer as a mirror. We see ourselves in Christ in this mirror and we also see our vulnerabilities. We learn about our wounds in prayer and call on the healing power of God to meet us there. Evil is real, but God is greater; prayer helps us lean into that. The apostle Paul describes the opportunity as an armor of protection: salvation, Spirit, faith, peace, righteousness, truth. When we first moved into our ex-funeral home building on South Broad Street, I talked with neighbors about what had gone on there and became slightly creeped out. But when we worshipped together on that first Sunday, I knew all was well and have never looked back. The message I heard from God is that the love of Christ is greater than an evil the world has ever known, or will know. We can lean into that through prayer. 
  • Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. This calls the deepest truth and realest reality to our awareness: that this is all about God and God’s love. And God wants and plans to restore all things. We only see a bit now, through a glass darkly, but Jesus will make it all new and nothing will be wasted. is coming back. He will return to remake this beautiful, hurting earth and every life in it. That is our hope. Your Christian life is not just about your limitations about inadequacy. This is about Jesus, and us in him together. The Lords prayer is a communal prayer: notice that Jesus uses the word “us.”  Jesus is saying that a personal relationship with God expands us into an us.

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 a day after we read that chapter. It’s hard to shut the door on our deadlines and other distractions, but this invitation from God remains. Lord, give us the wisdom to make this space in our lives for You, for us…not as a transaction but for the transformation and care of our being, and our being together…on earth as it is in heaven!

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. 

How do I resist materialism and the need-it-now culture?

This question came from a financially-savvy friend who had offered some basic budgeting workshops for us and discovered that more than budgeting, folks were really asking: how do I resist materialism and the need-it-now culture? They already knew how to make a budget! Their struggle was sticking to the budget in our culture where all it takes is one trip to Target or a click on Amazon to see and want a ton of stuff that we probably don’t need. That might be NBD for most of us once in awhile, but a habit of doing that shapes our lives. Our dreams of supporting favorite our causes might not be getting realized because our money is going who-knows-where. And many of us are struggling just to survive financially from month-to-month! My friends were looking for some heart wisdom and direction around money because we want our money to make a difference, not just toward our own survival.

It’s a great question because Jesus said that our hearts are located with our money. The stuff we spend money on is indicative of what we care about. We can look at our bank statements and discover what is important to us.

And it’s worth a look, in fact it’s a good spiritual practice, because it’s just so normal in our culture to keep buying stuff, whether we’re rich or poor. And to feel like we need that stuff right now, as the questioner called our culture a “need-it-now culture.” We do have a need-it-now culture, don’t we? I felt like I needed coffee today, so I got one, when I might have been satisfied at the water fountain in our building. We want gratification as quick as we can get it. That’s part of why people are dying of drug overdoses in our streets. That’s why it was so radical what Mable was telling us last week about embracing discomfort. That is countercultural, Jesus, counter-intuitive, life-embracing wisdom. It’s not the message from the corporations and advertisers that appeal to our lower instincts. The message from the corporations is that we’re entitled to feel better right now, via the pill, the dress, the car, the vacation, and they’ll keep pumping out ways for us to do that, probably to the detriment of our hearts and real lives. Amazon just topped Walmart in sales this week — even though Walmart’s sales increased this year too! The pandemic certainly contributed to Amazon’s assent (we needed some stuff to be delivered to our doors) but do we need all that stuff? And I hope I’m not shaming anybody, because I am right there with you in having lots of stuff I don’t need. I don’t even know offhand how many pairs of shoes I own; do you? Even though most of my shoes are from the thrift store, I have way more of them than I actually need. 

So how do we answer the heart question that this questioner is asking? How do I resist materialism and the need-it-now culture? I believe it starts by honing in on what we really do need. What do you really need? Aside from food, water, shelter, and friendship, I think that most of us would agree with the rich young guy who came to Jesus to ask what he needed to do to have eternal life. He had soul needs that his wealth couldn’t touch. Most of us here are here because we’re aware of the same need too: we have this soul part of us that is made for a life with God that is in and beyond all this, and there is no substitute for that need.

Let me read you the story from the gospel of Mark, though this story is so important it’s in the Bible three times. I emphasized a few things.

As He was setting out on a journey, a young ruler ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do so that I may inherit eternal life?” But Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not give false testimony, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said to Him, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth.” Looking at him with LOVE, Jesus said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But he was deeply dismayed by these words, and he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property.

And Jesus, looking around, said to His disciples, “How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at His words. But Jesus responded again and said to them, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were even more astonished, and said to Him, “Then who can be saved?” (What a great question.) Looking at them, Jesus said, “With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.”

This wealthy young man is so sincere, like all of you. Even though he is a ruler, he kneels down in humble recognition of who Jesus is. He knows Jesus has something he needs. 

He calls Jesus “good,” but Jesus makes the point right away that no one is good, in order to communicate to this guy that all of our goodness isn’t enough to earn us eternal life either. Jesus asks him for the one thing that would require that he put his faith in the grace and mercy of God to save him, and this poor guy just can’t do it. Too much of his hope and identity is wrapped up in his wealth. So that’s what’s between them! Jesus knows that for this guy, he’d have to stop putting his trust in his assets in order to really trust God for his life. And Jesus knows, that in general, that’s a huge challenge for all people who can rely on their money for security and esteem and power. (That’s all white people, to some degree, in our country. Big unconscous barrier for us in trusting and knowing God, because we have unearned privileges we can rely upon instead.)

Jesus compares this challenge to the largest animal in their culture getting through the smallest opening. Pretty impossible.  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” Only with God could something this miraculous happen — and that’s the point of the story. That eternal life is impossible without God. But Jesus is making a way for us! Our invitation is to trust him, more than anything we have or can do. It’s something God gifts us through God’s self.

So to the question of “how can I resist materialism and the need-it-now culture?” I’d say know that what you actually need is a life that relies on God’s grace and mercy and love. And organize your life around that love. Practice going deeper into it, like we are here in this meeting. Do hard things that make you rely on God, not just your own strengths. 

The practice of Ignatian indifference helps me turn my heart around when I get to thinking that I really need more of some thing I don’t have in order to be worthy of love. Ignatian indifference is the capacity to LET GO of what doesn’t help me love God or love others, while staying engaged with what does. 

Indifference, in this sense, does not mean not caring. In fact, since God is love and God’s redemptive work takes place through love, we cannot be indifferent in the Ignatian sense unless we love and love deeply. Each time I became a new mother, I fell in love with my child, in a way that had me awe of the gift of them. The glory of sunlight sparkling off ocean waves on an endless horizon often leads me to a sense of wonder and praise. The delight that I feel in mutually supportive friendships fills me with gratitude. But Ignatian indifference means that when the baby grows up, the friend moves away, or the day at the ocean is stormy, I can still find ways to love God and people.

This is not always easy. I often get attached beyond my capacity. But when that happens (and you’ll know when that happens because you’ll get frustrated about your needs not being met) I’m thrown upon the mercy and grace of God again. And it’s only resting in God’s love for me that I can freely love others and see everything as a gift. God is enough for me and I’m enough for God. That’s the secure place I need to come back to, that helps me resist materialism and anything else I’m tempted to think I might need right now. Gratitude and God-worship brings me back there to that place of knowing I already have what I need in God’s love. God’s love and friendship are the foundation of Ignatian indifference.

It’s God’s self-giving love that enables us to choose to love others, because we’re never undertaking love alone, but always in friendship with God. So my second suggestion for resisting materialism is to make a regular plan to SHARE what you’ve been given. Even if it’s just an unemployment check we’re giving out of, we need to give, even “just” for our own soul-care, to keep from losing ourselves to a scarcity mindset. 

We face a lot of poverty in our city, even our own city, around 50%. But did you know that if you work a minimum wage in the US at 40 hours a week, you make more annual income than 92% of the world’s population? That puts our global needs in perspective for me, along with the call to keep sharing what we’ve been given. Even as a church, we’re able to share money around the world through our thrift stores. That’s why they exist: for relief and development all over, and they keep stuff out of landfills by re-selling it, so they care for the earth, too. In addition to that, we’re committed to sharing 20% of our common fund sharing to needs beyond of our own body. That’s because a life in Christ is abundant in ways we can’t even codify, even in our own poverty! Our common fund also exists to help us help each other with real needs that exist among us; sometimes a “scarcity mindset” is indicative that we actually have bills we can’t pay! And we need the Body of Christ to work together to help make up for wage gaps and unjust systems of inequality, as well as unforeseen disaster. 

We are all in this together in more ways than not. In the midst of my many unearned privileges, I feel a lot of financial solidarity with almost everyone I know, because all of the really big money in the world is tied up together and owned by an elite few (God help them.) For example, one of world’s largest asset management firms, BlackRock, is all over the crisis in Afghanistan right now, setting up new business that profits from the current arrangement, and at the same time manages (along with another firm) more than half of the funds in the Thrift Savings Plan, which is our government’s retirement plan for federal employees that includes the servicemen and women that are distraught about the United States pullout there. Do you see the competing interests there, working together financially? Big money is usually tied up together, protecting its own interest in big money regardless of all other interests. They own most of the wealth in the world, while most of the world’s population is together on the same underside, comparatively speaking. So why wouldn’t we help each other out? Why wouldn’t we build an alternative economy of abundant love and sharing?

I want to leave you with the story of Eustace from the last book in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, to illustrate the ongoing heart change that Jesus offers us in answer to this question about materialism.

Eustace is a never-content little guy who is in love with his treasures. One night, he falls asleep with a gold bracelet on his arm and transforms into a dragon, becoming an outward manifestation of his inward self. The bracelet gets tighter and tighter, and he can’t get it off. He’s driven from humanity, and in a moment of great loneliness begins to cry. Aslan the lion, the Jesus figure, arrives and asks Eustace to follow him.

They go down to a well. The water clear and inviting. Eustace senses that the well can heal him. But before getting in, Aslan tells him to undress. Of course, dragons don’t wear clothes, so Eustace realizes Aslan meant he must shed his skin first. So he starts scratching and scratching. He says, “And then I scratched a little deeper and, instead of just scales coming off here and there, my whole skin started peeling off beautifully, like it does after an illness, or as if I was a banana. In a minute or two I just stepped out of it. I could see it lying there beside me, looking rather nasty. It was a most lovely feeling. So I started to go down into the well for my bath.”

But his scales grew back. So he goes through the exercise again. But it grows back again and again. Until Aslan says, “You will have to let me undress you.” Eustace was afraid, but he saw the task was impossible in his own hands.

“I was afraid of his claws,” Eustace said, “but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it. The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off… Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off — just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only that hadn’t hurt — and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me — I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again…

After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me…in new clothes.”

The rich young ruler who approached Jesus was the Eustace of his day. He needed to be de-dragoned by God in order to be content as his true self. We all do. We need Jesus to undress our fears and insecurities in order to know that life-giving water of abundance in him and only him, as we really are. He saves who we really are underneath all the stuff we put on top to protect ourselves. He saves us as we really are, not as who we’d like to be. He can remove our false saviors—the stuff we think gives us the esteem and security and power and control that we think we need — and shows us how to be loved and cared for as we are in him. The rich young ruler didn’t trust Jesus enough to lay down and let him tear deep. But we can. And so doing, we are freed to stay with Jesus in his mission of abundant liberation instead of walking away sad. 

Lord, help us to keep building this new economy of trust in You. Not relying on anything we’ve worked for or been given, but laying them before You for Your work: our freedom and Your abundance for all. And when we feel like it’s impossible to change (like every day) — help us. Remind us that this is YOUR work and you can do it in us, until everyone has more than enough. That’s what we really want, Lord. For everyone to be cared for and have enough. Show us how it’s possible in You.

Do I have to believe in the resurrection?

This great question came from one of my cellmates around Easter, but it holds year-round. We were talking about our sunrise meeting and the meaning of the holiday and she got real honest and said something like…”I really like this Jesus thing we’re doing: community love and goodness. But it’s hard for me to believe that anyone actually rose from the dead. Do I have to really believe that to be a Christian?”

We all thought it was a great question, because as central as the resurrection is to our faith, it may be really hard for most people to actually believe, at least cognitively or intellectually. How could a person actually could come back to life after being dead for three days, especially after a torturous and disfiguring historic death? My friend who was asking this question is really smart, multiple graduate degrees, and she knows how biology works. Who can actually reverse the natural process of death? Plus, we are all so surrounded by death, and most of us have sort of sinking sense of it in our own lives, so it’s much easier to believe that “all good things must come an end” more than that everything is going to have a new beginning. Which is what the resurrection actually means! That Jesus was the first to rise, and eventually all else will be restores and made new,  nothing wasted or lost. What if we actually believed THAT???

More on that later…

Because the easiest answer to this question is no, you don’t HAVE to believe anything. Faith cannot be forced and doesn’t have to be faked. Our doubts and questions are all part of the God-seeking and faith-finding process. My dear friend was wondering if she was in or out of the club for her lack of faith, but the fact is that many dedicated Jesus-followers through the centuries (and ones that I know personally) have gone through long seasons of struggling with cognitive belief. And many folks who don’t call themselves Christians seem to produce the most beautiful fruit of resurrection faith in their life and work. So only God can judge, and we probably put too much emphasis on cognitive “belief” vs a trust in God that is lived and practiced and sought and wrestled out through all the tensions of our everyday modern lives. In all of it, I think God’s heart holds all of us of “little faith.” Remember when he affectionately called the disciples “little faiths?” He understood their struggle to believe even though the miracles were happening right before their eyes. 

Part of why I hold cognitive “belief” loosely is that we’re all on a journey of working with the revelation we’ve been given. Life hands us so many versions of the “truth;” it’s hard to know who and how to trust. People sometimes make up their own realities sometimes to survive, and alternative facts were a thing long before Donald Trump. My dad likes to tell a story of being a military commander in Uzbekistan, when he asked his lieutenant for a report on a complicated situation, the lieutenant said, “Sir, nobody’s lying, but the truth keeps changing.

This happened with our car two weeks ago. A man who was high and asleep at the wheel flew down our street in his car and slammed into our minivan that was parked across the street from our house, totaling it. My son Zach heard the crash and ran outside in time to see the driver waking up and trying to gather his needles and dope bags from the front seat of the car. About 10 neighbors saw this whole thing too, and one neighbor even has it on video from their surveillance camera that’s apparently always filming our street! 

But what the police report says is totally different. They have a woman driving the car with a guy in the passenger seat, and they said it was raining and the car slid in the rain! None of that is actually true, but I imagine they are trying to protect this driver from being charged, who is incidentally is a white man who had a “Back the Blue” sticker on his car. “Nobody’s lying, but the truth keeps changing.”  

The “truth” changes so much in our world, and justice so often eludes us. That’s why it’s understandable to me that it’s difficult to accept something as purely wonderful as eternal life and the victory of God over death forever. We might be afraid that it’s too good to be true. 

Jesus understands our challenge, too; so much so that he mentions us modern people in this great story at the very end of John’s gospel. I added some explanation and bolding:

Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus first came to them (in his resurrected body.) So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, (because Jesus must have known Thomas’s struggle!) “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Blessed. Blessed are you who haven’t seen and yet believe. That’s us! Jesus is pronouncing a special blessing over all of us here today who weren’t around 2000 years ago to put our hand in his side. He is acknowledging that it might be hard to believe this ending to his story, (that is really just a beginning.) It might be hard for us to believe, so he offers us this gift, saying that we are blessed when we do believe. What does he mean by blessed?

It’s not the #blessed that we like to throw around when we feel good or get some desired outcome in our lives. There actually no word in the English language to describe what Jesus means by makarios, the Greek term for this kind of blessing, but I’m going to try to describe it.

Makarios is a happiness that comes only comes by God’s intervention. It’s not just a feeling as much as it is satisfaction and comfort in God’s grace and mercy. It’s about being in a position to RECIEVE from God, and it’s a gift that cannot be forced on another. It is received by those who are hungry for it and not willing to accept any purely human substitute. (You can see how this annoyed the violent revolutionaries who want to force God’s will on the world, and it really annoyed the religious leaders who wanted to earn their favor with God.) Makarios “blessed” cannot be earned or forced, it is the gift of faith from the Spirit. My friend Zach just pointed out to me that we might replace the word “belief” with “hope” to understand what Jesus is offering.  I agree! “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.” (Hebrews 11:1)

We might be setting the bar way too high on our ability to work ourselves into cognitive belief, when the invitation is to receive something miraculous from God. Part of why it’s so difficult to believe in the resurrection, friends, is because we’re addicted to thinking that we have to do everything ourselves! We’ve gone through so many difficult things that we assume we have to take everything into our hands to make it happen. We’ve become so capable and smart and self-reliant that it’s really difficult to accept what we don’t understand or can’t control.

This is why we need Holy Saturday. I love the practice on the day before Easter of just sitting around in the nothingness of the grave and wondering again if anything is going to happen. Will God save us again, or is it all for nothing? Will we waste away in our grief forever, or will God rescue us? I think we need a day, in fact, a life posture of waiting on God to receive instead of running ahead of God to do. We might not actually have to pump and work our way into happiness like we think we do. We could learn to receive the miracle from God, unexpected grace and mercy that we might never fully understand. 

That’s the resurrection, friends. My friend Dave Michaux and I love Walter Brueggemann, a modern-day prophet who likes to dig into this Easter mystery. One year he wrote on his blog (emphasis mine):

Christ is risen.

We give thanks for the gift of Easter

that runs beyond our expectations,

beyond our categories of reason,

even more, beyond the sinking sense of our own lives.

We know about the powers of death,

powers that persist among us,

powers that drive us from You, and

from our neighbour, and

from our best selves.

We know about the powers of fear and greed and anxiety,

and brutality and certitude.

powers before which we are helpless.

But then You – You at dawn, unquenched,

You in the darkness,

You on Sunday,

You who breaks the world to joy.

Yours is the kingdom…not the kingdom of death,

Yours is the power…not the power of death,

Yours is the glory…not the glory of death.

Yours…You…and we give thanks

for the newness beyond our achieving.

It’s hard to believe in the resurrection, friends, because we can’t achieve it. It breaks all the rules and norms that we’re comfortable with. That’s why the religious leaders killed Jesus right after he raised his friend Lazarus to life. Resurrection was too much; too uncontrollable and uncontainable and unachievable for them, too.

But what if we opened our minds and hearts to God for it? What if we asked for the faith to believe that the resurrection is true? What would happen? Would hope leak into the hidden corners of our hearts? What new risks of love might we take? What would be possible Jesus was right here alive and at work in the midst of our worst conflicts and biggest worries? Then we are blessed, makarios, to trust him to keep moving beyond our understanding to make all things new. To make us new. The resurrection gives us a glimpse of an eternal future where there will be no more sorrow, sickness, violence, death, or any separation from God or each other. Can you imagine that? I can barely imagine it, either. But it know it brings hope through the suffering and death I face now. I believe in the resurrection because I need to know there is more. 

I want to leave you with a little discovery from the Hebrew language that helps me believe in the resurrection, too. The Bible begins with the words, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” and in just that very first phrase the ancient Hebrew holds the message “the Son of God pressed by his own hand to a cross.” It blows my mind that right from the beginning, God foretells this miraculous story of love. That right from the very beginning, God presents a way for new beginnings. And it’s an open conversation; the Hebrew language is organized more around verbs than nouns (unlike western languages) so there is lots of room for doubt and revelation over fixed ideology and certitude.  God is making a way for our becoming, in ongoing relationship. We really are blessed in this hope that nothing we face right now is the end. God’s grace and mercy is at work on our behalf in ways we don’t have to understand in order to live in faith and hope. The invitation is to trust Jesus to save us from death both now and forever, and that hope is the heart of the Christian faith. It’s as wild and miraculous and wonderful as it sounds, and we can hope for the hope from wherever we are on our spiritual journeys. If we can’t muster up the hope on our own; even better; we can ask the question and seek him in community like my brave friend. He doesn’t leave us alone in our seeking; he comes to our side like he did with Thomas. 

Can the church be safe place for everyone?

What a great question. My mind immediately goes to the times that I did not feel safe in church meetings as a kid, like the times I’d be sitting with my friends and one of us would start laughing about something, and then none of us could stop laughing. (Did you ever notice how it’s harder to stop laughing when you’re supposed to be quiet?) That would happen, and sure enough, one of the church elders would come back and give us a threatening stare, and I’d feel so terrible.

On a deeper note, it wasn’t very welcoming to my little psyche that there were never any women up front in church unless they were speaking as a foreign missionary or asked to publicly confess a (sexual) sin. And I never learned about the many women leaders of the early church mentioned in Paul’s letters or throughout medieval church history until I got to Circle of Hope. In spite of Jesus’s obvious love and trust for women as co-laborers in the gospel, misogyny had worked its way back into church culture.

When I got to Circle of Hope, my now-friend Tracey was up front preaching from the book of Isaiah, vulnerably and bravely connecting her own personal grief around an issue the prophet was connecting with the bride that was Israel, and suddenly my whole body was kind of welcomed into the experience with God in a new way. I felt seen in a way I didn’t consciously process at that time. But I was able to relax into an openness to hear from God because I felt God’s acceptance for people like me (women) AND Tracey was giving us all permission to be vulnerable and honest with our grief, not having to be shiny happy people who have to have it all together. I was able to let my guard down and let God see my sadness, too, and that began a journey of real conversion and transformation for me.

I’d love for everyone to find that kind of “safe place” in the church. To be seen and known and accepted by God on the way to transformation.

Safety is kind of a loaded word that may not be ever fully achievable in this world, because after all, the world is not safe and here’s Jesus is inviting us to pick up our crosses! But I know that this questioner is asking about a space of welcome and acceptance that is crucial for most of us to even get in the door and experience the love of God that keeps inviting us deeper.

Jesus gives us a good recipe for a safe place in Matthew 18. We typically look at a tiny piece of this chapter when we talk about forgiveness and reconciliation in Circle of Hope, but I want to look at the entire chapter with you because it leans toward the transformation of the whole self and the whole world that Jesus is after.

Jesus reveals here that he wants the church to be a safe place for “little ones” in faith, and he does this by calling an actual child among them and saying we need to become like little children in order to enter the kingdom of God. He shows how the safe place is created when give up our ideas about making ourselves great, and respond instead to God’s love and care and guidance for us.

Our ideas about greatness are probably highly influenced by individualism, capitalism, whiteness, fear, greed, self-reliance. We are trained to think that we must acquire wealth, status, knowledge, esteem and affirmation from others, or at least some fame on Instagram. Our ideas about greatness might be religious too! We might think we have to be good and righteous in order to receive God’s favor.

Jesus is saying the opposite by telling us to be like children: children regularly make messes and they need help. They are dependent on the goodwill of others for survival and relationship. God would like to relate to us like that – as we really are. No illusions of our grandeur. We need help, too! And Jesus is ready to offer that guidance and provision and love.

Why do you think the children were so drawn to Jesus? I think it’s because they were seen and known and delighted in as the “imperfect” and needy little ones they were. They were fully accepted that way and they knew it. They recognized the Holy in that acceptance and delight, and were in a position to receive from God what God was doing and what God is about. No pressure to direct and perform and manage and manipulate and achieve, to prop themselves up any further. They were already elevated by God!

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”  He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them.  And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

Jesus says that he is like these little ones! And we know that he is, in relationship with the Father! Always listening and receiving and looking to his “higher power” (even though we’re talking about the same power) for his affirmation and guidance.

Jesus is calling us into a relationship with God that creates a safe place for others. If our ego needs are filled by God, we are less likely to hurt other little ones. If we’re waiting for God to elevate us instead of propping ourselves up, we’re less likely to step on others. If we know that we don’t have all the answers, we are more likely to create spaces of learning and curiosity, where others can have all their questions too. (That’s why we’re agreeing with our questions this season.) If we don’t have to be perfect because God loves and forgives us, then others can find God’s acceptance too. Remember, the people that Jesus challenged the most were not the Roman political oppressors, they were the religious leaders who though they were so self-righteous and had all the answers! They were so full of themselves and their striving for goodness and esteem and busy religious lives of important purposes that they didn’t need or have room for the active work and presence of God.

Jesus calls us grownups to be dependent again, looking to God for all that we need and trusting that we’ll be provided for because we are intimately seen and loved. This is a lifelong journey of downward mobility – very countercultural – and it will feel like death to our self-sufficiency because it is! But Jesus offers his protection for us little ones – those who believe in him – and calls us to protect other little ones.

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.  Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!  If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire.  And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.

Wow. I won’t get into a conversation here about what Jesus might mean by “hell” but suffice it to say that Jesus is very committed to a place of safety for those who believe in him. He knows we are little and it’s easy to stumble, but we are responsible for each other in our vulnerability. That means we don’t bowl over the new person in the cell meeting with our great Bible knowledge or any easy answers. It means we’re open to inviting the poorest person on our block to the meeting, and we don’t count out our atheist friend who’s only the tiniest little bit curious. It means we don’t give up on the one who struggles with addiction like so many in our neighborhoods right now, and we don’t cancel our neighbors with different views and lifestyles. Instead we stay open to transformation – theirs and ours. It doesn’t matter if we’ve been a Christian for 40 years and have a lot of experience and know a lot of things; we are relating to the little ones in faith by recognizing that we ourselves are little ones, too! We don’t have all the answers either yet, thank God. We are looking to God for more, beginning again each day, surrendering to the great mystery that is Creator and redeemer God. We are confounded by this God’s sense of justice, who leaves the 99 beloved sheep to go look for the one who is lost! Could we be that one sometimes?

“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.

This tells me that Jesus is serious about our transformation. All of us. Even us when we’re wandering way far off from our transformation. We are his beloved little ones, and he’s not willing that any of us should perish in our rebellion or arrogance or blindness, so he’s looking to find where we are, and call us back into community, the “safe” place of transformation with God.

Speaking of transformation, we have been longing for our siblings of color to experience more safety in Circle of Hope. We are listening for the stumbling blocks to that safety this year. It requires white people, in particular, to become like little children with Jesus, letting go of answers and tradition and unearned privilege that we’re trained to hide behind. Jesus, the little one, can transform us by drawing us into new ways of loving interdependence with God and each other.

Jesus isn’t just waiting for this to happen. He knows that the world draws us toward power differentials and hierarchy and isolation and cancellation, so he offers a way to do the opposite. He is not just waiting until we all get better and drawing up the boundaries until we do, he is working for our transformation and asking us to partner with him in that work. We can learn from him in this work! (Matthew 11:29) He teaches us about the hope of transformation and inclusion through mercy and forgiveness and direct relating:

 “If your brother or sister sins go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. (Whom Jesus still called, BTW)

“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

“Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’  In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

From the heart! Yikes! Jesus isn’t letting us get away with performative mercy and forgiveness! He is calling for our total transformation. And I believe the only way to consider this possibility is to become a little one with Jesus. To ask for help. To let go of our entitlements and receive from God. Only then can we hope to forgive those who don’t say sorry or understand their offense or choose to reject us and take advantage of us. Only then can we hope to be little enough not to step on others with our successes or unearned privilege. Only as little ones can we wait for God to elevate us instead of needing to prop ourselves up.

This is a journey of downward mobility that Jesus is recommending. It begins in the heart, and it’s very counter-intuitive, because everything about the American way teaches us to acquire status and wealth and prestige and self-sufficiency and personal accomplishment. The way of community – of the kingdom of God – takes us in another direction. And it will take a lifetime of commitment to Jesus to keep moving in this direction, placing our identity and worth and security more in God and community than anything else. That shift from self-sufficiency might even feel like death as we get older, but it is the best kind, opening us up to saving our lives by losing them, as Jesus says. Only the power of the risen Christ can enable us to become like little children with God, trusting the Spirit to meet our needs and guide us. And that dependence is probably our only hope of creating a church space that is safe for anyone. Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord.

Let’s be gentle and loving with ourselves in this transformational process of becoming like little children with God, just you would with a little child! Let’s keep asking for help, above and beyond us, and we will be met by Jesus himself.

“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.” Matthew 18:10

How do I accept loss and start a new journey?

This week someone asked: How do I accept loss and start a new journey? The pandemic changed some of his life plans and expectations and seemed to steal some precious opportunities. My friend didn’t want to be sentimental and stuck in the past, angry or bitter about missed opportunities, but he wasn’t really sure how to imagine the future and move forward in this new reality, either. In many ways, the losses keep coming with covid and the future is uncertain! He was wondering if he should just move to a new place to launch himself into some newness. I think he was facing the difficult challenge we all face: how do I start a new journey in my real life, as the person I am right now, with my same old problems and relationships and surroundings? Is it possible for me to do something new and exciting in my life right now?

We all know that changing our circumstances can be helpful sometimes, but wherever we go, there we are. I love the SNL clip with Adam Sandler playing this Italian tour guide trying to temper people’s expectations: “If you’re sad here, you’re going to be sad in Italy!” Lasting change and transformation comes from a deeper place than moving to another neighborhood or state, or starting over with a new partner, or getting the new dream job. We are not defined by where we are or who we’re with as much as what we’re going after with God. 

There’s a guy in the Bible who shows a path through loss to real transformation and abundance. It’s not a pretty story, it’s super real, but it ends so wonderfully that it might give you hope as it gives me. And it might be the oldest story in the Bible, too, beyond the creation story, so I wonder if it’s meant to be a compass and a roadmap for our journeys through great loss and change.

Job is very successful with all the things we could want: great wealth, family reputation, and a loving relationship with God. The Bible names him as the greatest man in all the East. Three thousand camels, a thousand oxen…you get the picture. He has a bunch of kids that love to get together and celebrate the goodness of all of their lives. 

The enemy goes to God and suggests that Job only loves God because of how great his life is going. So God permits the enemy to take it all away, but not lay a finger on Job’s own body. Job’s children are killed; all of his property and possessions are destroyed. He is devastated and he grieves. He shaves his head but he falls to the ground in worship in his grief. “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, blessed by the name of the Lord” as he sits in ashes.

The first answer to the question “how do I accept loss and start a new journey?” seems to point to grief. It’s not fun to grieve, but it is the only honest response to loss. Emotions are meant to move through us; even the root of the word suggests movement. When we don’t grieve consciously, the sorrow and anger can get stuck in us in the form of bitterness and other disease. And it ends up “coming out” on those around us in damaging and unconscious ways.

Grieve with God

This is a daily spiritual discipline for me because I don’t want to feel any negative feelings. I’d rather deny them, repress them, numb them, avoid them, spiritualize them, anything to just feel good. But that always comes back to haunt me. So I’ve learned that I must reckon with what’s really going on in me and in the world. What am I sad about? What am I disappointed or angry about? What or who has hurt me? I’ve got to look at that with God so I can move through it eventually. I need to sit with it and cry and be in for a moment. I need to acknowledge it in order for it to lose its power over me. 

Covid has given us many reasons to grieve on top of the reasons we already had. Kids doing over a year of online school, missing proms and sports and other milestones, all of us missing connection and direct communication with others has taken a toll. Some marriages are really on the edge. Some parents are really on the edge after not having enough help or breaks from the caretaking, because it really does take a village to raise a child and we haven’t had the ability to be the village in our regular ways. Some misunderstandings in the church have spun out into big conflicts now. What are we going to do? We need to grieve with God. We need to acknowledge our heartbreak and let God be with us in our grief.

But hat doesn’t mean that things will get better immediately. What happens next to Job is even worse, but God begins to speak out of Job’s lament, and that begins a turnaround.

What happens next is that Job gets physically afflicted, and he’s still not cursing God but he takes the sorrow in on himself. He curses and blames himself. That’s not good because this gives his so-called friends an invitation to do the same. And they pile it on for like 30 chapters in the Bible. Surely Job must have done something terrible to be in such a terrible situation. That’s not true, but when we underestimate God’s presence and activity in the world, we go there. We see human beings as completely responsible for their own problems, and we conclude with shame and blame and condemnation.

Thankfully God finally jumps into the conversation with a bigger truth (in some beautiful, sarcastic poetry)

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?

    Tell me, if you understand.

Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!

    Who stretched a measuring line across it…

while the morning stars sang together

    and all the angels shouted for joy?

Who shut up the sea behind doors

    when it burst forth from the womb,

when I made the clouds its garment

    and wrapped it in thick darkness…

Have you ever given orders to the morning,

    or shown the dawn its place?”

Listen for revelation

God takes Job on a little tour of the expanding universe, so vast and complex that Job sees that who God is and what God does is ALOT bigger than he knows or can know. And Job is humbled to trust God. If God can do all this, if he can hold all this together, then surely there is some good end in sight for Job. And even if not, he’s part of a wonderful, bigger story with a Creator he can trust. 

Then Job replied to the Lord:

“I know that you can do all things;

    no purpose of yours can be thwarted.

You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’

    Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,

    things too wonderful for me to know…

My ears had heard of you

    but now my eyes have seen you.

Therefore I repent…”

He repents of needing to know and understand. He is satisfied with trust in God. That is the beginning of the new journey.

How has God spoken to you in your lament this past year? Can you identify some moments of truth and hope, that God revealed to you in the midst of your sorrow and confusion? The revelation from God that we need for the new journey often comes out of our lament. It might not be a direct answer to our questions, but we glimpse ourselves held in a bigger picture by God.

Trust and forgive

Job’s story has a very surprising ending that speaks to our question. His new journey moves from trust to forgiveness. And I wonder if it is forgiveness that thrusts him forward into new abundance.

God asks Job to pray for his friends who had been so condemning to him. God is angry at those friends on Job’s behalf, and says that if Job will pray for them and love them, God will show mercy to them.

Well, WOW. That’s a big ask: “pray for your friends who are so unloving and I’ll forgive them.” But Job does, and that opens up rivers of abundance in Job’s life. All of his stuff is restored. And he builds a new beautiful family, incidentally where only the daughters are named, and they have an inheritance along with the sons, which seems like a beautiful prophetic detail of the kingdom of Jesus to come. And Job has twice as much as he had before, as an outpouring of his willingness to keep trusting God first and forgiving those who misjudged him.

Is this a word for us or what? Real transformation and change begins inside us, relating to God, growing trust in God’s power and provision, and our willingness to forgive. The new journey is not so much in the new job, the new school, the new partner, as it is in what we do with God. Will we be honest enough to grieve our losses and tell God our sorrow? Will we be patient enough to hear God speak? Will we trust God enough to forgive those who hurt us? If we do, we just might open ourselves up to a world of renewal and revival right here in us and among us. And may it spread out into the streets around us.

What is the “kingdom of God?”

The seaside is one of my favorite places to be, and I was able to go there recently with some extended family. One day we woke up early to squeeze in some paddle boarding before a tropical storm. The wind was already picking up and the water was choppy, but we discovered that if we paddled into the wind and hugged the shore, the wind would scoot us right back home when we turned around.

My 13-year-old niece thought she might just enjoy the ride and let the wind take her where it wanted to go. In a matter of seconds, it seemed, she was a tiny dot on the horizon and the wind was continuing to take her further out! My family ran up the shoreline to try to keep her in sight while I looked around for help.

Just at that moment an official-looking guy came up to me on shore to warn me to be careful because of the tornado watch—that the wind was getting stronger—and I told him that we were well aware because my niece had just disappeared into the horizon! He went for his jet ski and rescued her.

Later he told us what we really needed to know: that the water was only three feet deep, even all the way out! The sound looked endless and deep because of the seaweed on the bottom, but if my niece had simply jumped off the paddle board she could have stood up in the water to keep from getting carried away. But she didn’t know how close the bottom was, and so the distance between us grew while she felt helpless and afraid.

Closer than we think

Many of us felt that way at some point during this pandemic, but the kingdom of God might be closer than we may know as well. It’s like the solid bottom we can stand on to keep from getting carried away by the wind of separation and isolation and fear. Jesus often said that the kingdom of God was near, or “at hand,” which is even closer than the ocean bottom to my niece. Stick your arm out and picture Jesus right there where your hand is. Jesus IS the kingdom of God in person and he was describing its nearness as he stood in front of people.

This week someone asked me, “What is the kingdom of God anyway?” It’s this great mystery that Jesus described in so many different ways, so it’s a good question! We’re embracing all of our questions this season.

When people hear the kingdom of God, many of us get stuck on the word kingdom because it’s old fashioned and it implies rulership and authority. It is about God’s authority in the sense that Jesus is Lord over life and death, but that’s very different than rulership of an empire. People have suffered from oppressive empire throughout history, but Jesus embodies a totally different kind of authority: one that vulnerably shows up to love.

Jesus uses several small organic metaphors to describe the kingdom of God, normal everyday miracles like seeds. They don’t look like anything special, but they contain infinite possibilities and potential. Compare this to a small act of love and kindness that changes your day. The kingdom of God is like that! And these seeds are in us, in our mouth and in our heart, as Jesus said, and they are us. We are seeds of the kingdom.

The kingdom is a treasure

Jesus also talks about the kingdom like a joyful discovery of something really valuable, and maybe unexpected, maybe something lost and longed for like a treasure. It’s like finding a pearl in an oyster, or finding your lost pet, or coming back together for Sunday meetings after a long time apart, like we are now. Jesus is saying that finding God and being found by God is like that. It’s a discovery moment of something real and wonderful that makes you want more of it. He tells this story about a person who finds a treasure buried in a field and what they do next is get all their money together to buy that whole field, not just to secure their asset but to see if there is more treasure buried there! They’re allured by the potential. The kingdom of God is like that, an implied promise of what is MORE. That the best is yet to come. This promise is worth the investment of our whole lives, our whole selves, in order to fully experience it.

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a person found it, they hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. Matt 13:44

This is our theme verse for this season around 2212 S Broad Street in Philly, because we’re discovering again that this communion with God and others is what we’re really looking for. It’s the realest thing. It’s almost like before the pandemic we could pass by the field of this treasure and not know how much we needed and wanted it. We didn’t buy the whole field because we didn’t know how valuable it was. “Oh, there’s that church meeting I should go to. But the Eagles are playing and I gotta rest up for work tomorrow.” Or “I don’t have anybody to go with and nobody really cares if I’m there.” Or “Christians are the worst. With all the hypocrisy and harm done in the name of religion we’d be better off without it.” And so a lot of us passed by the field, not knowing what treasure could be found.

But during the pandemic we’ve faced our pain and problems in a deeper way. We’re getting closer to our longing for what is most real. We’re glimpsing treasures in ourselves and others that may have been buried for a long time. Some of us hit our own rock bottom and found some treasure there.

A season of healing and re-creation

So we move into this moment now with new awareness and wisdom and longing. We’re entering a season of healing, and the kingdom of God is all about healing. It keeps seeking us, like the treasure we are. Each time Jesus healed someone it was like a little taste of the resurrection to come. That’s the ultimate promise of the kingdom of God: that death will never have the last word. The kingdom of God is life upon life upon life, especially when it looks like all is lost! That’s when the surprise comes again and there is a new beginning, just in time. In the kingdom of God, the field is vast and there is more space than pressure. Time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God exists in the fullness of time, just like Jesus was born “when the fullness of the time had come.” In the kingdom of God, the invitation is always, “just stay here for a little longer…breathe.”

That’s because the kingdom is here right now and not just some other place in the future. The kingdom of God got indestructibly planted into the earth through the cross, and God’s self-giving love initiated infinite possibilities of recreation and renewal, including everything and everyone on this hurting and wounded earth. The possibility of violence becoming peace, and everything lost being found keeps being revealed, or at least planted like a seed. I know these sound like impossible ideas, but Jesus actually came to do it in his body, to make all things new. And he will complete this work of recreation in the end, which is really another beginning! In fact, the kingdom of God could literally be translated in some places as “recreation.” A new beginning here! When Jesus said “my kingdom didn’t come from this world,” he was talking about origin, not location right now. The Spirit empowers us to be part of the work of recreation right here and now in our bodies, our relationships, our willingness to move toward our hurting and wounded parts with this vulnerable hope of becoming something new.

The new beginning

This is the treasure in the field, my friends. It is endless new beginnings for all of us.

In my experience, the new beginning often starts with forgiveness. The grace and mercy of God reveals a new opportunity to become. Extending that to others expands the field. The kingdom isn’t a theocracy that is about God’s authority—it is a oneness with God through Jesus as friends. We share God’s power to forgive and renew, even with ourselves.

The new beginning is about the humanization of all relationships because God became human. This means that we can understand and accept our humanness, and that we don’t give up on each other in disappointment or failure. We don’t need to solidify images of each other in our worst moments, because the kingdom of God holds out hope for our transformation. We hold out hope for the possibilities in each other because of Jesus. That’s how love works: it banks on transformation even in the acceptance of our now. Sin deforms us in myriad ways: greed and patriarchy and the lie of white supremacy—damaging ways that people are taught to oppress and miss the humanity in each other—but the kingdom of God reveals our true form. Through showing up with curiosity to discover the treasure that is in each other, and going for it with our whole selves, we can be part of the Beloved Community that Dr. King envisioned.

Purpose

So the purpose of the church is not to maintain a status quo (of our own or of the world), but to keep seeking new beginnings. These new beginnings are real and tangible and consequential. Not just mystical or “spiritual.” In fact, everything is spiritual because the kingdom of God is here. Our Circle Mobilizing Because Black Lives Matter team just led us to raise over 30K as a step toward economic justice for our Black covenant members! We know it doesn’t make up for the ongoing wealth gap in our country, but we want to experience some justice now. It is a taste of the age to come.

You probably already know that the more you experience the kingdom of God in your world now, the more you will hurt and long for the fullness of it. That’s why the person who finds the treasure in the field gives everything they have to buy the whole field! The potential for more healing and communion with God and each other is worth everything. Our taste of communion with God and each other keeps us longing for more. And that longing hurts like a hunger sometimes; it’s a tension between the experience of holiness now and the hope of everything included in that whole. The sample taste of what’s truly good allows us to see and feel what’s not done yet. If you have experienced the kingdom of God you will feel angry and powerless sometimes in your longing for it where it’s missing, and you might find yourself saying “Maranatha,” which means “come Lord Jesus!” The more we experience the nearness of the kingdom, the more our chains begin to hurt because we know that freedom is near.

Friends, I hope that’s where we are right now as a church. Closer to the treasure, closer to recognizing Jesus in all of us and all of us in Jesus, closer to letting go of all we don’t need in order to buy the field and dig for the vastness of God’s love and mercy. Let’s pray for each other in our seeking, for perseverance and courage, and for assurance that we can jump off that paddle board when we’re floating away and stand up because we have a firm place in the kingdom of God. It’s here, and we find grace on the bottom, enabled to walk against the winds of fear and separation as we make our way home.

Welcoming Prayer

Welcoming prayer has been so helpful to me on my journey, especially over the past few years. I’m going to keep it real and tell you that I thought I had uncovered and faced most of my problems in therapy in my twenties. LOL. So when I hit my forties, I was surprised that all kinds of seemingly new problems surfaced for me internally and I needed some new resources. Welcoming prayer was one of them. When my old coping mechanisms weren’t working any more, welcoming prayer was a tool for insight from God that helped lead me toward freedom from old wounds. It’s kind of like divine therapy — although it is NOT a replacement for counseling or medication, or spiritual direction. (We need to keep working out our healing with others too.) This is a simple prayer exercise that invites us to pause at the moment of frustration, welcome our difficult emotion and invite Jesus there with us.

I want to offer you two ways to consider welcoming prayer, and the first comes from Friar Thomas Keating, whom you might know for his many contributions to contemplative prayer. His theory is that everyone has unconscious needs that come out of early wounds in our lives, either around a lack of affection, or a lack of security, or a lack of power and control. And we unconsciously organize our lives around trying to get those childhood needs met, until we become aware of the cycle. So the partners and friends we chose, the jobs we take, the way we communicate, and the things we spend money on are all part of this program we think is going to complete us. It’s very behind the scenes, but we’re naturally compelled to try and heal ourselves by getting those unmet childhood needs met. 

Well you can see by the cycle here if you go up clockwise from the bottom that this will eventually land us in some problems. Our hidden agendas to get these needs met will cause us to form attachments or aversions that create conflict in our lives. And hopefully it brings us to a moment of major frustration, which is the place where the cycle can be broken, and that’s where welcoming prayer comes in. If we can pause there in that afflictive emotion and experience it in the compassionate presence of God, we can begin to open to receive that security, and love, and awareness of our agency that we’re seeking. And we can get out of the program loop. But if we continue to repress our experience and avoid it or numb it out, we are bound to end up in the same place again, desperately seeking to get our needs met without really understanding what’s happening with us.

Learning to pause at this moment of frustration is really most of the invitation of welcoming prayer. If you can do that part, the rest will come. But it’s so hard to learn this pause because our emotional programs for happiness are so ingrained in us, and they’ve helped us to survive in life thus far! We are trained, especially by trauma, to just keep it moving. Until we learn to pay attention, most of us don’t even realize that we’re repressing or avoiding that difficult experience because we’ve had to endure it and we don’t know any other way. And that’s how we stay in this loop. But let me tell you, the Spirit doesn’t give up on us. In a life with God this cycle will get tiring if not unbearable. Jesus is so committed to our fullness of life and to our healing that he will make a way for us to be who we really are, which is fully loved and accepted.

Another inspiration for welcoming prayer for me was relating to the Internal Family Systems model in psychotherapy. This theory shows why it’s so hard to learn to pause in that moment of frustration, but it’s also given me so much hope in bringing all parts of myself to the table and into union with God.

In Internal Family Systems, we all have an exile, a manager, and a firefighter inside. This might seem silly but bear with me. These parts aren’t bad, in fact they exist to help us, to protect us from the stuff we can’t handle before we can handle it. The exile functions to take the worst of our hurt away from our consciousness so we don’t have to feel it. The rejection, the abandonment, abuse, neglect that caused emotions that are too threatening or socially unacceptable. The exile takes that shame, guilt, anger, and fear of not being enough and tries to carry it for us.

The manager part of us works hard to keep us functional and meeting the demands of life and relationships. This is the part of us that gets us out of bed when we’d rather sleep in and prompts us to do our work and follow the rules. Managers are wonderful assets to our being, but when they are running the show they can be highly critical, perfectionistic, people-pleasers. When exiled parts get triggered by prolonged lack of physical or relational safety, the managers get activated a lot. When exiles try to garner more attention for care and witness, as they do on the journey to becoming whole, managers can perceive that as a threat to the status quo so far and get more rigid in an attempt to maintain control. Of course, they eventually get overwhelmed and exhausted if they’re overfunctioning, because they’re not meant to be the leader of our internal system, and that’s when firefighters might jump in to save the day.

Firefighters respond to our internal crisis as momentary heroes. They relieve pressure but end up flooding the house. These are the parts of us that seek escape through food, alcohol, internet, games, emotional outbursts or other dissociative behavior. They are escape artists. They provide temporary relief in some ways but in a deeper way they reactivate our exiles whose needs fueled the process to begin with.

So you can see why that moment of frustration is so important to pay attention to. It’s a good sign on the journey toward wholeness! The moment of frustration is our invitation to hear from the true Self there at the center before this whole defense system gets kicked up again. 

The Self is the core sense of who we are, the core place of connection between us and God. Some might call it the soul or the spirit in us that connects with God’s Spirit, and we experience it somatically, in the body. It’s the part of us that is hidden with Christ in God, and I think it’s longing to come out, to rise up and lead freely. Internal Family Systems theory would say that this Self remains even in the midst of life’s most horrific experiences and is always available as a resource for resilient recovery and wisdom. Our parts take the hits of traumatic wounding in protection of the Self. Rather than being shattered or broken or annihilated the Self is covered over by the parts who take on increasing leadership of the person, sometimes in problematic ways. 

The goal of welcoming prayer then is to invite the parts to come to the table with Jesus and rest, so the Self can be uncovered and lead with the fruits of the Spirit. Our parts don’t need to be banished, they’re meant to be included and understood and healed with Jesus there at the center. Welcoming prayer is a tool for bringing them into the light with compassion, because Jesus totally understands why we are the way we are and how we got that way. And like Isaiah said about him: a bruised reed he will not break, a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. Rather than kick us when we’re down He came to gently tend to our bruised parts and fan the flame of life in us. Welcoming prayer has even helped me see the wisdom and beauty in those bruised parts in me and others.

In short, this is how the tool works: We pause in that moment of frustration, and welcome the negative feeling within ourselves: anger, shame, rejection, fear, whatever it is. We let ourselves feel it, as terrible as it is, instead of employing those defensive parts, and we welcome Jesus there to help us see what’s going on. In so doing, we begin to break the cycle of trying to get our needs met in places they can’t be met. And we allow our exiled parts to be found.

What happens with welcoming prayer over time is that our managers get some rest. Our fire-fighters also get an indefinite vacation because our survival is no longer in question and we don’t need to escape our reality. And what has been exiled gradually begins to come home to the love of God. Nothing is lost, and we’re no longer chasing our “program for happiness” because our needs for esteem and security and agency are finding their Source.

There’s a scene at the end of the new Mulan movie that shows this integration. Mulan comes face to face with an exile; you could even think of this character as Mulan’s own exiled parts. Shian Ling’s gifts were rejected and so she accepted evil in order to be accepted. She’s been confronting Mulan as an enemy, but instead of showing fear, Mulan welcomes her. She moves toward her and even gets vulnerable, asking for her help instead of fighting. Shian Ling responds with the gift of herself, because she recognizes the love and partnership that Mulan is extending to include her. She’s no longer an exile, she is brought into relationship, accepted and known for the goodness and humanity that was there in her all along.

Jesus knows our hurts and pain better than we know ourselves. He can help us welcome all of our parts to be healed. Nothing is wasted and nothing is unacceptable to him. Nothing is ignored or against. We don’t have to be at war with ourselves and each other any more because Love bears all things. In fact, this is what Valentine’s day is really all about; the Roman Emperor Claudius was banning marriage because it weakened the military! Love heals our impulse to fight because it is greater than hate and death. Love at our center with Jesus can help us welcome all the parts of ourselves and others that need to be included and healed. This movement toward wholeness is the movement of the Spirit that welcomes us now..

 

What is the Christian response to police violence?

Our compassion teams asked the question this week and here’s my answer.

I grew up surrounded by military ideology, and from a very young age I sensed that it did not match with the way of Jesus. Jesus raised people from the dead, and was raised himself, so I came to know God as the life-giver and sustainer. That matched with everything I knew from creation, even in my own body. The military, on the other hand, used the power to kill in order to protect national interests, which were mostly about property and other economic resources building and maintaining American supremacy. However well-sounding the interests were sold to me, like my own “freedom,” the loss of any human life did not seem comparable to those interests. Life is an irreplaceable gift from God for all people.

Policing in the United States was developed, trained, and weaponized for essentially the same purpose as the military: to protect the economic interests of those in power. Even many history texts reveal that more than crime control, a system of social control was needed to maintain an orderly work force for business and commerce. From slavery in the American south to the urbanization of the Industrial Revolution, policing was a response to protect mercantile growth and the inequality in labor it required. The construct of whiteness and patriarchy seemed to be tools of the economy in many ways, and the system was maintained under a guise of moral superiority, triumphalism, and exceptionalism. The violence of it was mostly hidden from white Americans.

Unfortunately, police with military training and weaponry to protect wealth results in a government quite literally at war with its own people, especially with those who have been closest to the means of production. This means that Black and brown communities and individuals have been disproportionately affected. The ideology of racism that literally legislated the abuse of BIPOC has been enforced by policing for centuries, and in spite of some new laws it still seems to be perpetuated by implicit bias.

So the Christian response to police violence is first an acknowledgement of this unsafe reality for our Black and brown siblings. It is not a condemnation on individual police or military personnel; it is a recognition of the purpose and function of the institutions. From recognition comes grief: we grieve the loss of life, and the fear that our siblings regularly endure. And finally, we take action together as a church community. That includes protest and lobbying toward change, as well as solidarity and advocacy for our siblings and their families in our neighborhoods. And of course, prayer! Sometimes all together in front of police headquarters.

This year has brought new awareness in our country and renewed grief and passion in our church. We feel the pain and the fear as well as the longing for change. At times, the differences in our experiences and knowledge and communication adds to the pain. I pray for a way to carry each other’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ, which is a bond of love in action. Lord, bring an end to police violence and all violence among us. We don’t want one more life to be lost.

Rest comes through vulnerability

Labor Day is always a good time to think about rest. The founders of the holiday were looking to unify union workers in the U.S. and reduce work time. It’s often a good opportunity to squeeze out the last bits of summer with a BBQ, like we’re having at 2212 South Broad this Sunday before our meetings at 5pm! (You’re invited.) But regular good rest is more valuable than a holiday, and increasing numbers of people are having trouble getting it these days. Our economy and the opportunities of the internet can keep us going around the clock, to the detriment of our mental, spiritual, emotional and physical capacity. Leaders Bethany Stewart and Rachel Spruill were talking about rest recently in our Late Night Sunday meeting, and I thought their message was right on time. 

Good rest doesn’t just happen. Rest seems like it should be the most natural thing in the world, but it’s really not. Brain science shows us that our minds are wired for survival, meaning that they fear the future based on what happened to us in the past. They are naturally wired to try to protect us from those negative experiences again, and this is why they often have trouble shutting down. They can keep us stuck in unconscious anxiety loops. This is why so many people doze off scrolling through the FB or IG feed or using substances to wind down. But those avoidance tactics to the needs of our own minds and hearts and bodies can actually keep us from having real rest. 

Consciousness with God can interrupt the anxiety loop. Jesus said: “Come unto me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” This was my favorite Bible verse as a kid, and it makes even more sense to me now. Instead of doing whatever numbs or distracts us, we’re invited to be aware of God’s all powerful and loving presence as we wind down from the day. This awareness of God’s presence gives me space to know something about what I need, to notice the ways I might be hurting or burdened, and feel God’s compassion to me there. This is the invitation to prayer. As I reflect, I often find many reasons to be grateful, too. But the irony is that good rest comes through meeting God in my need, not through my efforts to control or manage or force my rest. I’m not able to consume rest as much as enter into it vulnerably.

Good rest takes practice. I used to think I was “bad” at resting, but it turns out that I’m just human. Spiritual giants work at rest over the course of a whole lifetime, and our bodies can help us realize that we’re tired. Even though our minds can be all over the place, our bodies are present. We can tune in to our breath or heartbeat to help us slow down. We are safe with God to wake up to all of our senses. I like to repeat the Jesus prayer in my mind, in between slow breaths, to let my over-working mind descend into my heart (as the ancients define all prayer.) It’s not easy to let go of our control systems, but it turns out that we can be strengthened and loved when we do. Let yourself get the good rest you need.