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Broken and Shared

I’m writing to respond to some of my friends who are legitimately asking: How can anyone talk about God when the world is so f’d up right now? Let us have our feelings!!!

Well, I think everyone should go ahead and have their feelings today and every day. That is part of how I came to faith: realizing that God cares so much he came to meet me in a real person with real feelings. I don’t have to stuff or ignore mine anymore.

So when I woke up to the presidential news this morning, I wept. Even though I don’t put my hope in the government, the slap of the misogynist, elitist whitelash was painful. My 13-year old son asked, This guy molested women and bragged about it and now he is our president, Mom?  Yes. This guy has also labeled and demonstrated hate toward people based on the color of their skin, their sexual desire, their paperwork and their socioeconomic status. My daughter curled up in a fetal position on my bed and asked in all seriousness if we could move to Canada. Apparently they’re not too young to sense the real leadership chasm here.

What keeps going through my mind are the words of Jesus that we repeated last night as we broke bread: this is my body broken for you. Broken. I do not follow a God who has not experienced the pain and injustice of the world. I follow a God who is experiencing it right now with me and billions of others. I am going to die and rise with him today and tomorrow and the next day. My pain is known and touched. How can I not know and touch others, and see what we can build together to transform this mess? That’s what Jesus is doing, as far as I can see.

The government of the United States, or any government for that matter, has never been a transformative system. I hoped and fought for that in graduate school when I was just angry about all the injustice in the world. I still get angry now, but I have received the grace and mercy of God, and I need to keep receiving it. The brokenness of Jesus guides me to use and release my anger now through love and service.

We will really have to take care of each other now. Not just in a polite way, but in an open your heart and your home and your wallet kind of way. That has always been the purpose of Jesus and the church — love one another as I have loved you.  But now perhaps with the illusion of the US-government-care falling down we will see our importance in the process a little more clearly.  A few hours before my friend Karen died last year, she whispered to me that we should “Strengthen our feeble arms and weak knees. Make level paths for your feet, so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed. Make every effort to live in peace with everyone…” I knew that she was quoting the writer of Hebrews, who was talking about taking courage and having spiritual discipline in difficult times. As a black woman who gave up a lucrative career in private law to be a public defender for the city, she knew what she was talking about.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heartHebrews 12

It would be easy to grow weary and lose heart right now. But we are called to take heart. We might do that by considering him who is with us in all disappointment and fear, bearing it with us with great love. If you can’t muster up any faith today, maybe you can let yourself be carried by the faith of others who love you. That’s part of the process of transformation.

 

Radical means root

I was glad when we talked about this last week during our Doing Theology time. The modern meaning of “radical” has come to suggest something extremist or beyond the intensity of its predecessor. But the word actually comes from the Latin radix “root,” and even means root in math and linguistics and botany.  The radicle is the the embryonic root inside the seed that breaks out first and grows downward into the soil to establish the plant. It becomes its primary source of sustenance. So a radical is basic, expressing the heart of the matter, vitally connected to the source.

I have this tattooed on my arm because I think this organic meaning of radical says a lot more about who we are a Circle of Hope than the extremist one. Our root is Jesus who establishes us in love. There’s no need to complicate this too much. He breaks through the wall of death to call out the new life in us…to allow us to be planted, fed and nurtured toward spiritual reproduction.

This week in my cell meeting we got to the root again. Hannah brought the story of the woman caught in adultery who was about to be stoned by the mob of religious leaders.  Jesus gets down in the dirt with her. He breaks through the wall of judgement and challenges them to only throw a stone if they haven’t ever sinned. One by one, they leave and he poses the obvious question to the woman, “Does no one condemn you?” There’s no one left with rocks in their hands, and he affirms, “Then neither do I. Now go and leave your life of sin.”

Jesus breaks through the law to create the safe place for new life to emerge and get planted. He sees the opportunity for this woman to get established and cared for instead of blown around by bad choices and judgement. He embodied the grace she would need to get into something new. It was a rather mysterious, simple, calming scene. Jesus quietly de-escalated a violent crowd by his presence and identification with the transgressors.

If you want to be a radical, stay close to the root of love. Receive it from God for you. If the radicle decays, the plant never gets to maturity. It is easy to identify all the people who seem to be making bad choices or picking up rocks against others — especially in an election year — and it’s tempting to throw rocks back. Instead, let God protect the safe place for you to be seen and accepted in order that the best in you can grow. God knows it’s there, even if others don’t see it.

 

Our healing is gradual, too

Last night in our cell meeting we considered a moment when Jesus healed a blind man. The guy’s friends brought him to Jesus and begged Jesus to touch him. Jesus responded to their request. He led the man out of the village by the hand and touched his eyes. At first his vision was fuzzy. So Jesus touched his eyes again and he could see clearly.

We thought about our own journeys and how God relates to us like this too. Many of us were brought into the community of faith by a friend who saw that we needed God’s touch. We didn’t get to God by ourselves. Someone was praying for us, or invited us, and we came on their elbow or at their suggestion.

Like this man, many of us had an encounter with God that sparked something new in us. We were changed, but not all the way. It was just the beginning. Our vision was fuzzy and remains fuzzy. We have to keep going back to Jesus in the community for the next phase of our healing.

Sometimes in this fuzzy phase we get impatient, though. We’re tempted to latch onto the easiest answer. We think we’re seeing clearly even though we’re not. Or we forget that we’ve been touched at all, and that we could go back for more.

Going back for more is the way to be healed. It is true that our salvation is complete, but living like saved people takes a lifetime of exposure to the grace of God. Availing ourselves to a conscious process over and over again is the only way to get from here to there in faith. The miracle of God’s work in our lives is more quiet and incremental than it is an instantaneous spectacle.  That’s why we meet weekly and seek to know one another well enough to bring each other to Jesus. We’re forming a Circle of Hope that is committed to the long haul with everyone who wants a restored relationship with God. Restoration yields real, live, far-reaching results, but the results usually come slowly and quietly.

One example of the gradual nature of healing in my life: in my 20s I became aware of my desire for discipline and my struggle to have it. Specifically I wanted to wake up early in the morning to pray and meditate so that I could let God direct my path instead of reacting to everything that came down the pike. On most days, I couldn’t adjust my habits to get to bed early enough to wake up and have this time. At one point I went out west on retreat and found myself waking up early naturally to pray. I thought I’d been instantly healed, until I realized it was just the the time-zone difference:) The real healing has come much more gradually. I’m waking up to God’s desire toward me and toward all people.  And that has tuned my heart to it’s Source more steadily than anything else.

God will keep clearing up our vision as we reach out in faith and trust. It is a group project, and I’m glad to welcome more friends to the Healer among us.

Six Months In

I’ve been the pastor of our congregation for six months now, and it’s been a good beginning. I’m always learning, and here are three things I’m sure of right now:

1. I love our people. I knew this, as I’ve been part of our congregation for 14 years and leading within in it for almost as long.  But, really. We have different qualities on different days but we are a deeply faithful, generous, & welcoming people. I am thinking of the partners who’ve been around for a long time as well as the new friends I am just getting to know in our meetings — all whom God may be calling to build this movement of the Spirit. All 255 of us and beyond! I see us making room for each other on days when we are hurting, angry, doubtful, fearful, and otherwise jammed up, too.  I am committed to us, and my love keeps growing. It is an honor to lead alongside of so many others who want to do something real with Jesus.

2. Leading as a team is strengthening. That may sound obvious to you, but I was raised to be a fiercely independent citizen. (Like those patriotic posters that say “Eagles fly alone but pigeons flock together.”) While there are leadership lessons to learn from the eagle, it’s clear to me that the gospel of Jesus Christ calls people to flock together for good reason. There is power in unity and mutuality that is not possible alone, no matter how capable or passionate one is. Leading as a team with the other pastors is an iron-sharpens-iron situation. What a gift. Collaboration is not always efficient, but it grows our capacity to understand and communicate the heart of God. It is growing our capacity to get into God’s ambition and imagination for the world. It teaches us love. Leading as a team with all of our leaders and all of our teams is expanding and deepening us. I’m not afraid to fly like the eagle, but I want to be like the pigeons and the sheep who flock together.

3. We are becoming more accessible.  The way of Jesus is narrow in some ways that we are not going to change. (Giving up our lives in order to find them is not necessarily easy.) But as we relate with friends who are spiritually hungry and increasingly isolated we are understanding the universality of God’s invitation to ALL people. The mosaic on our wall of the sunrise here is a good symbol. It would behoove us to not become a boutique-y secret society. The light is shining for everyone, and the world would be better to know that there are no regional, socio-economic, educational, moral, or political requirements with Jesus. We want to demonstrate that radical acceptance and opportunity to connect and to act for redemption. That’s why our stakeholders were considering last week how we can better communicate this love—from the signage in our windows to the posts on our facebook walls.

This is just a beginning, and I am looking to keep learning, growing, studying, and connecting with many of you. Let’s see what God can do with us this year together.

 

The ridiculous hope of Christmas

In many ways the struggle is real right now in Philly. More murder, racial tension, and hate crimes happened in our neighborhoods this week. Terrorism is no longer an overseas problem: there’s been a mass shooting in the United States for every day in 2015. The economy has not recovered from the 2008/9 wage recession; the jobs that have been recreated are paying on average $14,000 less than the ones we lost a few years ago. Philly’s “deep poverty” rate (people with incomes below half of the poverty line) is almost twice the national average, making us the poorest big city in America.  (Our sister Camden’s rate is 3 times the national mark.) Sixty thousand of our children live in deep poverty.  The Philadelphia School District at one time had 176 professionally staffed school libraries; now there are 11 left.  If that’s not enough, many types of cancer are being found in younger people, and scientists are predicting that we’ll experience dire consequences to global warming in the next fifty years or less. It’s no wonder that political candidates can find a lot of anxious and angry people to incite.

Fear is real, as might be expected.  People are into self-protection and self-medication. Many of us know someone who overdosed recently or is caught in the addictive cycle. Families are fragmented, and loneliness is not alleviated by social media or hook-up encounters.  Smith & Wesson’s profits have tripled in the past 4 months. Many of our friends with mental health issues are having a tough time right now.  Heck, many people are having a tough time right now, period.

What IS totally unexpected is Christmas. The more I understand it, the more surprised I am. The prophet Isaiah who predicted Christmas was part of the tiniest nation surrounded by the largest and most brutal military power the world had ever known. It was an terrifying situation, but he foretold the birth of a baby (of all the seemingly powerless and insignificant things) who would rule with mercy and change the world. Poor young Mary was totally surprised by God’s favor and the announcement of the impossibility inside her. The no-name shepherds were not expecting the sky to light up on their lonely hillside, and to be gifted with the news of the incarnation before anyone else more reputable and religious would know and have a chance to meet him. John the Baptizer was shocked when Jesus asked to be baptized by him, and his theology of judgement and law was upended by love and identification and mutuality. The whole story is full of ridiculous reversals, impossibilities, and unexpected grace in the midst of tension and conflict.

I see these miracles among us too, regularly, in our Circle of Hope. Sometimes it’s a cool “coincidence” like someone telling me they have a bunch of handmade blankets to give away right before a refugee comes to our cell meeting with that exact need. Or two young mothers looking to donate breastmilk on the same day that my new 4-week old foster niece arrives underfed. More often, though, it’s an everyday thing: leaders rising up with faith, compelled through their own struggle to share hope with others. People not withholding themselves from God and others, even though relationships can be scary. People learning to pray because they are hungry for change. People freed up by forgiveness. People making space in their already busy lives to serve because they are compelled by something greater than their limitations.  People sharing their limited money and resources to build something amazingly generative together. People trusting God in the church and forming it together even though “religious” groups are suspect.

In our uncertain times, fear makes sense. It’s the default norm, for obvious reasons. But the surprising message of Christmas comes to us again… quiet, small, out of left field, but spot-on. “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy for all people. A Savior has been born for you.”  It’s still as surprisingly personal and indwelling as Mary experienced it, too: God has been mindful of me. He lifts up the humble and fills the hungry with good things. May God surprise you in midst of your struggle this season too. May we be humble and quiet and open enough to receive the word, even if all our fear impulses seem louder or even more sensible than Jesus. 

 

 

Wanting what is given

I am on retreat in the Clare hermitage, and so I am taking inspiration from one of my favorite sisters in faith.

Clare of Assisi is a contradiction.  She gave up feminine assets (beauty, wealth, family connections, eligibility) as eagerly as most women longed for them. She fought for the ‘privilege of poverty’ like others protect stability and success.  She upended accepted values by choosing a life that looked like restriction and enclosure and daily hardship.

She had enjoyed a refined and privileged childhood. Her father was a knight and her mother was a charitable religious matron. Little Chiara and her sisters were raised in castle in Italy where they learned needlework and music, reading, and writing. She was turning out to be a very lovely young noblewoman until she began the secret, chaperoned meetings with Francis that watered the seeds of her faith at 16 years old.

Francis was 28 and had already founded the Friars Minor and astounded Assisi with his radical conversion and joy and preaching of repentance. Their admiration for each other was consumed in their mutual love for Jesus Christ. Clare was compelled to start an order for other women who were seeking to commit themselves to Christ. On the night of Palm Sunday in 1212, Clare took a vow of poverty with Francis and never looked back:  “I want only Jesus Christ, and to live by the gospel, owning nothing and in chastity.”

For the next 42 years, Clare slept on a straw mattress, fasted three days a week, wore a coarse brown habit, often did penance, and woke up throughout the night to pray with her sisters as they cared for the poor and changed the world. She and Francis rarely saw each other because he would not allow himself the pleasure of her company. He felt that the lovely Chiara belonged totally to his Lord. She was, in fact, sustained so well by the love of Christ that her reputation as a compassionate healer and wise spiritual counselor made her famous even in her time. Popes sought her wisdom and partnership and urged her to accept a more comfortable life, but she would not compromise her vow. She was content “in God, and for God” and she wrote:

“His affection holds one fast…His kindness fills one to the brim; his sweetness is in overflowing measure. Now, since he is the splendor of eternal glory and the mirror without spot, look steadfastly into this mirror every day, and see in it every time you look—your own face.”  She discovered the truth of Jesus’s promise: Abide in me and I will abide in you.

I am encouraged by her story again today because I talk with friends who want what they don’t have, and don’t want what they do have. I get this, too—the longing, the ache, the striving for that elusive thing or person or job or substance or future season of life that looks like it will scratch the itch.  The itch never goes away, and the illusions can be instructive in our development. But when they eclipse our view of what we do have right now, we are like cared-for whiny toddlers throwing temper tantrums, or gourmet Christians turning up our noses at the food before us. Clare reminds us that our deepest longing is for the eternal God who is here. We will not be satisfied by anyone or anything else. And that’s OK because the Giver himself has been given. People who want God get what they want! She was able to connect her wanting to its source.

Clare’s enclosure was liberating, too — another contradiction in her story. She stayed in the cloister at San Damiano (the church building that Francis restored) in service and prayer throughout her whole life. She took no pilgrimages or vacations. Instead she fixed the anchor of her soul in the house of God and God made his dwelling in her. She was his tiny house, and she grew in wisdom and grace. Through her and others, the cloister at San Damiano became a source of spiritual energy that radiated throughout the Church, even beyond the borders of her country.

In a way, all of us are cloistered within the boundaries of our lives—even if they are self-imposed—whether by geography, finances, relationship, jobs, recovery, children, illness, or aging. If we take wisdom from Clare, we could look as these “restrictions” as a holy container for God to fill. My first enclosure were the trees because no one would drive me to my friend’s houses—they were too far away. This was not a bad cloister!  Some of our enclosures may be toxic, though, and may need to change. But I imagine that many can be embraced like the enclosure of Mary’s womb, the narrow manger, the home of a carpenter, the nails to a cross. Meeting God in the limitations of what has not been given may be part of the journey to our own resurrection, the place where God saves us and reveals the expansive gifts of love.

3 Steps to Build Your Spiritual Fire

I learned how to build a fire before I could read—not with lighter fluid or paper or starter logs either! I learned that it’s more about process than explosion.

We usually want our lives to yield instant amazing results. We want to make a difference. This is good, because we can. The secret is in building your spiritual fire. Here are three steps in the process to apply:

  1. Gather your kindling.  Fires start small. In the woods, you need to find small, dry twigs to start your fire. The really tiny dry stuff called tinder is most important for getting started. The basis for your spiritual fire might seem small and hidden too. You might have to look for it underneath your responsibilities and fears and other distractions, but it’s there: the basic instinct to know God and to be known. Curiosity is good enough too. Gather it up and find some others who have it too, like in a cell or Sunday meeting. It’s ready for flame when it takes shape (like a teepee or log cabin formation) with other kindling.
  2. Feed your fire incrementally. If you put a big log on your little flame, the air can’t get to it. Oxygen is necessary for fire and we need to breathe  like that too.  We need to have our questions and bounce them off of one another. We need space to ponder ideas, try them out and see what happens. This is how we learn to hear God’s voice, and are led by the Spirit. Instead of trying to tackle the whole Bible, start reading the Daily Prayer or a book your cell leader recommends because they know you.  Little by little, you’ll put thicker logs on your fire. But don’t snuff it out with giant expectations.
  3. Tend your mature fire. When you start to notice some hot coals glowing at the base of your fire, you’ve got a reliable source of heat and light on your hands. But even hot coals will eventually go out if they are not fed. The way to feed your hot coals is by lighting someone else’s spiritual log. This can look a lot of different ways depending on how God is forming you, but serving others and sharing the light and heat that we’ve got is what fans our own flame. We are fed by feeding.

God bless you in your process—may we grow into a holy flame that warms up our corner of the world all winter long, and beyond.

Rise up, Lord Jesus, by thy life burning

Show to us beauty, wisdom and truth.

Send away death, send away sorrow,

With resurrection, bringing new life.

Words of comfort and conviction

Most of us have complex problems and relationships. That’s why it’s good to run into people with the spiritual gifts of exhortation (encouragement), prophecy, and wisdom. There are differences between these gifts but they all work toward the same basic purpose: revelation.  They reveal Jesus. They bring hope and clarity to the messy and the mundane. They demonstrate the gist of what God is doing: reconciling all people to himself and to one another through Jesus.

Paul was doing this with two men who met Jesus through him. One man (Onesimus) was a slave to the other (Philemon). Slavery was not based on race in Roman times but it was no less evil. Paul’s encouragement to Philemon was to forgive Onesimus, who had stolen money from him and run away, and receive him back as brother, no longer a slave.  Paul was appealing to the Really Real (as some people call the Holy Spirit) in them: that through faith in Jesus they were brothers already. And that this identity supercedes all history of offenses and cultural boundaries. It was possible to be reconciled and live a new life together as partners in mission. Onesimus risked his life and freedom in going back to Philemon with this letter.

People who get into the mess with others like this bring the facts of God’s presence and the facts of salvation to bear on the situation at hand. It’s not making a moral appeal to someone to “do what is right!” It is asking them to stand firm in grace because it is based on the saving power of Jesus. People who exhort stand with others and encourage their life of faith with words of comfort and conviction. Their words are based on the present and future acts of God, like God is with you in this and will lead you into what is best.  They are banking on the fact that salvation has been accomplished in Christ, and that that reality makes a difference for everything.

Some people are very artful about their words of wisdom and prophecy and exhortation, and that can be beautiful. But more than waiting to give our gifts perfectly, I think that God needs people to take the risks to step into the mess of people’s pain and isolation, stand with them, and offer the word of comfort or conviction that comes to them. (As our world leans toward the machine, we need this from real humans even more.) My cell tried it last night and it was beautiful. On the fly, we pointed out to one another how we see God working in each of our lives. It was good to see ourselves through one another’s eyes, and to hear the encouragement to keep going with Jesus together.

We’re not just animals, Rick Grimes

In our Sunday meetings, we’re talking about gifts of the Spirit—-ways that people express God’s nature. Spiritual gifts are more than personality traits or talents. They are basic ways we are empowered to do God’s work. They are signs of being regenerated through Jesus. When we exercise them we reveal God’s nature and ours. We strengthen others and expand God’s influence in the world.

The Bible mentions three gifts that embrace emptiness in order to be filled by God: poverty, celibacy, and martyrdom. The early church got a lot of juice out of these gifts.  They are given with the understanding that ALL is gift, and Jesus will satisfy us in due time. They express true spiritual freedom beyond a transactional relating with God and others.

Americans are taught to start with fullness and strive to get fuller. We are even entitled to it. The growing national deficit and perpetual war indicate the striving to fill up on more stuff and the fear around not having enough.  Entitlement breeds animalistic behavior—the desperation to do anything it takes to fill the emptiness.  We get into addictions and violence when the expectations aren’t met.  Rick Grimes starts off the first season of the Walking Dead with great moralistic intention to not kill any of the living and by the third season he’s doing whatever it takes to protect his turf.

Jesus exposes the limitations of moralistic and animalistic law by offering a way of living that is even more potent.  Instead of working harder, faster, and stronger, he goes out into the desert—a place of lack and limitation and emptiness—to be empty and receive the strength of the Spirit to fulfill his mission. After 40 days without food, he is tempted to relieve himself with physical comfort, ego recognition, and a shortcut to the suffering he will face.  He chooses hunger over satisfaction, obscurity over glory, and costly obedience over the shortcut. He chooses love for God and others. He chooses the unexpected, hidden way of trust and relationship. His victory is not just some moralistic lesson for how we can win our battles with temptation; he is literally doing it for us. He is conquering death and slavery to animalistic law so that we might live in the fullness of the Spirit. In him we are more than animal urges for sex, power, and survival.

Most of us will probably be spared the honor of dying for our faith, the married among us didn’t choose the gift of celibacy, and many of us have a lot of stuff to give away before we claim poverty. But all of us can practice the emptiness that makes fertile ground for relating to God. Louis CK alludes to the emptiness in this clip but doesn’t get to the fullness and power of meeting God in that emptiness and allowing God to fill us.  When Jesus emerged from the desert in the power of the Spirit it was enough to save the whole world. His Spirit filling our emptiness enables us to do that, too.

Born to be wild: the power of serving

We have an award culture.  I don’t know if I go so far as to agree with Jerry Seinfeld that “all awards are stupid” but it is remarkable how communities cultivate the hunger for extrinsic motivation in children by handing out awards for almost everything, including participation. The hunger for recognition seems to translate into competition in almost every industry, and the media becomes a platform for heroes and anti-heroes alike.

Jesus’s disciples were not immune to the competition for recognition and power. James and John asked Jesus if they could secure a spot on either side of him in his glory. Jesus had been alluding to his impending glorification and rising, and they imagined Jesus rising to power like a wealthy king and saving them from their political oppressors. They wanted to share some of that power and recognition and rule the world with Jesus, from either side of his throne.

The fly in the ointment was that Jesus’s concept of glory was in dying.  His entire purpose and mission — the very nature of God — is revealed in this description: “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” God was coming to serve us, not to rule over us from the iron throne.  He was bearing the death of the whole world, so that we might be free to not conform to the world’s systems of hierarchy and power. He was upending the world with service.

jesus on the crossThe word ransom implies being liberated beyond ourselves.  God’s service to us frees us from bondage to our false selves, and our service to God for others expresses that wild regeneration in us. It is not like a person obligated to doing the dishes because they have low self-esteem or their roommate is a jerk.  It is more like untamed love not withheld. It is doing to the dishes to defy the rules of the world and love your roommate. It is like Jesus giving up his equality with God to become a servant.

The gift of service cannot be reduced to a role or a task or a job—it is way too wild. It is not “volunteering.” It is more like coming into your fullness as a Jesus-follower, and you can note its power.  People cry when the Pope kisses babies and handicapped children because people do not walk around doing that all the time. Mother Theresa influenced world leaders by relentlessly caring for the poor and dying. St. Francis got locked in a closet by his father for trying to give all of his money to the church.  Chris Mintz took bullets in his body to protect other students in Oregon last week, and his story went viral.  Serving is powerful.

Our own serving might not feel powerful all the time.  But in the way of Jesus it is the path to greatness, and it does make a difference.  Here are three traits of a servant to encourage your gift:

  1. Servants reject natural estimations of worth in people, time, and money. Instead they express the new pattern of relationships Jesus institutes. They invest in people that others have given up on. They share their resources instead of saving for that bigger vacation.
  2. Servants are practical, like love is. They burn to get it done. They don’t get stuck in sentimentality and they’re not worried about who else should be doing it.
  3. Servants focus on God. They don’t do it for the affirmation from other people.

Servants suffer the loneliness or whatever it takes to go where Jesus is leading.  It’s not Joel Osteen-esque where everything is promised to work out bountifully if you have enough faith or something. Everything will work out bountifully in the end with Jesus, but those who follow the suffering servant will suffer too.  They will also accomplish great things, like the redemption of the world.  And they are often bubbling over with the love and nearness of the Servant.

 

 

 

 

Empty spaces and the generous host

Jesus tells a story about a host who prepares a big banquet. As an Italian, I picture a veranda on the glowing Tuscan countryside.  The grapes have ripened on the vine, the olives have been pressed, and the bread is warm. The best cheeses and wine are coming out of the cellar to the outside table, where friends are gathering to celebrate.

When the host sends his servant out to personally invite the guests, the first people on the list give lame excuses about why they can’t come to the party….excuses that don’t even make sense. One person says they need to go look at a field that they just bought. Who buys a field without looking at it first? The excuses reveal their attachments to other interests or their lack of love for the host. Or maybe they don’t recognize the servant.

The servant in the story is Jesus, the host is Father/Mother/Creator God. Many of the people who were listening to the story at the time did not, in fact, recognize Jesus as the one they were waiting for. They wanted a god who would make their lives work in the world—someone who would rescue them from their political enemies, keep them physically safe, and make them winners. Only someone with visible power and wealth and status could ease their fears. Why would they listen to a servant who was just as poor and homegrown and seemingly powerless as they were? After all, this servant looked just like them. So the banquet remained shrouded in mystery to most people.

It’s still easy to overlook Jesus, or mistake him for the gods of our making. Our economy thrives on the sale of safety, power & possessions. For example, most Philadelphians didn’t seem bothered by the occupation of soldiers on our street corners last weekend. In fact, they seemed grateful for more “safety.” I love soldiers, but it seemed like an odd way bring the message of the suffering servant to our city. Jesus did not arrive with any weaponry or display of force.  He gave up power and was vulnerable to the world to demonstrate vulnerability and real power—the power of God that saves us. I didn’t want to burst any bubbles that they soldiers weren’t really here for our safety anyway or they’d be here all the time. They were for the advancement of a powerful political system that protects a few chosen ones. Without casting shade on Pope Francis—who seems wonderful—there are differences between the way of Jesus and systems of power and wealth that rely on coercion and threat of violence.  If we rely on safety and power (like the $600 billion, over half of our federal discretionary spending, spent on military this year) then people may have trouble recognizing the servant and getting to the banquet too.

The beauty of this story is in the host’s generosity and commitment to having a full house anyway.  When the servant comes back with the report that the guests are preoccupied, the host tells him to go out to the broken down places, to find the cast-offs of society and bring them in. Like Jesus, the messenger replies that it’s already been done. The broken already recognized him and understood what the banquet was all about: the place where we are known and loved and forgiven and made whole, reconciled to God and to one another, partners with the host in setting the table for the next guest. The host commands the servant to go out further then, to the highways and hedges, and bring in all the strangers who have eyes to see and ears to hear of their dignity and belovedness through the compelling love of the servant. The table of God is a place of belonging.

The space at the table is my favorite detail in Andrei Rublev’s famous painting, The Hospitality of Abraham.  He’s depicting a scene where God (as the trinity) is not just the host but also the stranger who visits Abraham with miraculous news. The divinity and oneness of the figures are suggested by their blue cloaks and same faces.  The Father’s light and almost transparent outer cloak suggests he is the hidden Creator. His head is lifted high toward the other two, and he blesses the son for the sacrifice he will make. The Son, in the middle in red for priesthood, accepts the cup of sacrifice and bows his head in submission to the Father. The Spirit is on the right in green for life and regeneration. His hand is resting on the table next to the cup, suggesting that he will be with the Son as he carries out his mission, and his gaze is toward the open space at the table, suggesting his desire to bring others to this banquet of communion and oneness.

There’s a beautiful circular movement in this icon that reflects our Circle of Hope, especially our cells, which are like mini-banquets of communion.  The Son and the Spirit incline their heads toward the Father and he directs his gaze back at them.  The Father blesses the Son, the Son accepts the cup of sacrifice, the Spirit comforts the Son in his mission, and the Father shows he is pleased with the Son.  Love is initiated by the Father, embodied by the Son (and now in our body), and accomplished through the Spirit.  

The Spirit is at work in us now with an eye toward the empty space at the table, always helping us to create the environment for reconciliation and wholeness for all those who long to be filled but haven’t got the invitation yet. There is room for more at the banquet. And it’s in this communion that our own emptiness is brought to fullness, too.  

 

 

 

 

Your mercy instead of my battle

Bryan Stevenson, the author of “Just Mercy,” has worked to free 115 wrongfully condemned people from death row.  He says that if you want to change a problem, you have to get up close to it, like Jesus does. “To me, the Great Commission is a call to get approximate,” Stevenson said.  Although he experiences the presumed dangerousness and guilt of being a black man in the mess of racial injustice, he stays in the struggle and responds to the call.  He asks for faith over fear.

Fear is the great distancer.  When we are afraid, we are tempted to run, to isolate, to hide.  After Jesus was arrested, one of his closest friends and most serious disciples ran away. In my reinterpretation of Caravaggio’s painting, you can see the fear in Peter’s eyes: he is coming between Jesus and the guard to protect him. He draws his weapon and fights. When Jesus is taken away, Peter is left without control and without the person who had come to mean the most to him.  Fear gets the best of him, and he denies that he ever knew the one he loves.

Peter is not there for Jesus in his most difficult, dying moments on the cross.  He is off somewhere turning his weapons inward,  jammed up with regret, confusion, and fear. I imagine that he feels lost.  He had been such a loyal, eager follower and great leader among the disciples. Now he has no idea what’s next.

Instead of distancing himself in betrayal and abandonment, the risen Jesus goes to him. He shows up at Peter’s old jobsite, and in a way that only the two of them fully understand, he lets Peter know that he is known not for his worst mistakes but for who he really is: loved, trusted, called. Jesus is not worried about what happened before; he is wondering what is next. He calls Peter to greatness with mercy.  And the greatness is in extending mercy to others, and leading the church in the way of mercy.

The mercy of God is not aloof like pity, or sentimental like sympathy, or even merely understanding like compassion. It takes action on behalf of the suffering. It covers the distance. It demonstrates love and calls out the best. It gets close and stays, beyond requirements. It is not hanging on to yesterday, it is expectant for today. It is Jesus for each of us. Like the song written by my friend Angie that we sing in our Sunday meetings:

Your mercy instead of my battle/ Your love instead of my fight/ When I’m broken and sore, Your grace gives me more/ I’ll lay down my weapons tonight.