Begin again

Interruptions can help us begin again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prayer is Transformational

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

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

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

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

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

I get two main messages from that first paragraph:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gifts of St. Francis: Turning Toward Pain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How can we move with our indignation this week?

We might have to be willing to start with ourselves. 

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

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

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

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

(art by wORKINGaRTs)

Staying Off the Edge, Just For Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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