Monday, August 22, 2011

In my house

In my house
mice and fireflies
get along.

By Kobayashi Issa
(1763 - 1828)
English version by Lucien Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

My Mother's Zinnias

Standing quietly by the fence,
you smile your wondrous smile.
I am speechless, and my senses are filled
by the sounds of your beautiful song,
beginningless and endless.
I bow deeply to you.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Happy Birthday Mom!
poem by Thich Nhat Hanh, title by me, inspired by my mother's wonder at her zinnias on this her birthday.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Is it true?

Is it true you
know each bird
that flies and falls,
each backward facing
hallux and frontward
facing toe, each layered
feather on each wing?

This very child,
her gameness gone,
her sweet cheer,
her beak closed not
on seeds, but death –
this very one,
if it's true,
you see and know.

And each and every
newborn's fuzz,
each graying hair,
each sprouting beard,
each rosebud offered,
each and every
offering made –
you see and know?

Is it true you see and
hear each bullet fired,
each vow torn, each victim
and each burn, each
dance, each note, each silent
tear, the sound of every smile?
Then tell me ‘cause
I need to know
how true is it – as I’ve
been told, that
even more than this,
you love and that

Linda McConnell

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Monday, August 08, 2011

Loss cannot be thought

Loss cannot be thought. It is, quite simply, fallen into
as a hiker in Yosemite might. Loss cannot be thought.
It pours over your head and puddles and rises up past
your calves and groin and breast and stops short
of your mouth and nose, or not.

Too morbid?

Then it is like the sunshine bathing the leggy dandelions and the red
geraniums now already receding into the shade of the house.
It is like the distant highway sounds,carried into the bedroom
on the breeze. One has no say about any of this.

Loss is fallen into. It cannot be thought and it is not personal.
It does not depend upon your agreement or your disagreement.
It does not depend on you. It is independent.
Loss knows it's own way and easily has it's own way and
the river knows and the dandelions and geraniums know
and the packets of sound waves and the breezes know
what I am going to tell you now.

Submit. Submit.

@Linda McConnell

Where did the Sermons Go?

Linda's Sermons can now be found at:

Please visit this site for poetry and prose.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Neither Heaven Nor Hell

I grew up outside the Episcopal Church – outside the Book of Common Prayer – outside a three year lectionary cycle – outside the church calendar with it's seasons and colors. I knew nothing about the Season after Pentecost, for instance, and that green was the associated color. The idea that there would be formally written prayers for virtually any situation imaginable, was unimaginable.

We made up our prayers – out of our own hearts, out of our own experiences, and out of our own courage and conviction. Instead of Prayers of the People, we prayed our “Joys and Concerns” out loud and spontaneously. That made for some rather simple prayers – but they were, for the most part, deeply heartfelt. They were also, often – too often – centered on family, friends and self. And it's true - our Heavenly Father wants us to tell him what is on our heart and our mind, and to pray deeply and fervently for those we love.

Belonging to a “free” church is a heritage I treasure – But perhaps because of that background, I am even more conscious of the treasury of the Book of Common Prayer, and the lectionary and colors and all the rest that goes along with being a “liturgical” church – because each of those things takes us beyond our personal joys and sorrows and plunks us into the wider sphere of the grand diversity of biblical witness, the depth of church tradition, the heritage of the saints who have lived faithfully in a variety of circumstances, and in the world around us.

The structured format of the prayers of the people causes us to lift our eyes up from only personal needs to also look into the eyes of hungry children around the world. We are compelled by the structure of the prayers themselves to look outward to the needs of creation, to the decimation of species and to political and social needs – to continue begging of God that our leaders would be inclined towards the ways of justice and compassion, rather than self-centered interest.

But the truth is, whether our prayers are inward and silent, or out loud and informal, or out loud and formal – they are nothing but clanging brass if our hearts are not turned in the direction of love and if the Holy Spirit is not present – praying with us and through us and for us. It is an illusion to believe that the powerfulness of our words, or the beauty of our phrasing or the poetry of our position before God can weave any spell that would make God bend his ear in our direction and do as we have asked. God does indeed care – more than you can imagine – and God provides – in ways you cannot fathom. But you cannot command his caring and provision, whether your prayer is homemade or formal. What you can do is ask for a discerning heart that wants what he wills and trusts in his ultimate goodness and never failing love.

This is what Paul was pointing towards - this discerning heart that wants what God wills and trusts in God's goodness and love. He was convinced that all things work together for good for those that love God – not because he’d had a bad time and then things got better – but because he saw everything that happened through the lens of the cross and resurrection of Jesus - this trust that Jesus had towards his Father even as he shouldered the cross down the stone streets of Jerusalem. Paul lived through eight attempts on his life, countless beatings and being jailed, hunger, loneliness, betrayal, being shipwrecked. He was eventually martyred in Rome. So – he is not saying that if you love God enough, with enough fervor, and if you pray just right – everything is going to work out hunky dory.

It may seem odd – but I find that comforting – because it reflects reality. And as I get older, I find that I want truth more than anything else – I find myself more and more attuned to what is authentic and what is not, what is real and what is not. Children are like that as well, I’ve noticed. So I like that Paul tells the truth – sin brings death, following Christ can be difficult, suffering is real – And I like that his vision is very deep and thoroughly grounded in the death and resurrection of Jesus – because it leads to this other truth that Paul is adamant about - this truth that has been tested and lived out by so many saints and believers through the ages - that there is nothing – no dire circumstance, no hardship, no illness, no loneliness, no bad choice, no personal disappointment, no bad business deal, no boss, no public failure, no dark dream, no anxiety, no economic meltdown, no crazy congress, no power on heaven or on earth – that can ever separate us from the love of God through Jesus Christ.

It is easy enough for this truth to get obscured and lost amidst the daily ups and downs of life. It’s easy to forget that God is unequivocally for us, especially when outward appearances don’t easily reflect that depth of divine love. The parables are helpful to restore our vision. Because Jesus tell us that the presence of God’s kingdom is like a tiny mustard seed – almost imperceptible, found in what might seem like insignificant gestures of kindness and goodness, in fragile beginnings of understanding and compassion – in unlikely places of hope. We tend to look for the big and the obvious. But Jesus tells us that the presence of God’s kingdom is more like the 2 tablespoons of yeast that leavens an entire loaf of bread. You must pay attention or you will miss it.

Paradoxically, God’s reign is also large enough and perfect enough to contain the wheat and the weeds, the good and the bad, your prayers and mine, handmade and formal - all are undergirded and empowered and held in the hands of his perfect, unconditional, utterly trustworthy love.

Photo of Dominus Flevit Franciscan church, Mt. of Olives, Jerusalem, by author

Friday, July 15, 2011

Blackberry Bliss

Ever been to Jamba Juice? My favorite is Blackberry Bliss. And there's all kinds of add-ons – protein powder, vitamins – I usually get one - it's free! - and it makes me think my drink is healthier.

Now, I’m going to make a really awful comparison – so please don’t boo at me too much – but - Jesus is not protein powder – He’s not an add-on to an already full life. He’s the Blackberry Bliss itself.

Because the biggest thing about Jesus is Resurrection. The biggest thing about Jesus is what God can do - The biggest thing about Jesus is that there is nothing that sin can do to us or through us or with us that God cannot redeem and raise up to new life. There is no barrier to new life in the Spirit – and by that I mean, and Paul means, new life through and through – in your body, in your mind, in your spirit, in your soul. God can, and does – all the time - create something out of nothing - create in you and in gatherings of believers, an entirely new order of being. At the baptismal font, an Ontologically new order of being is created – grafted into the eternal vine that is Christ, and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, that never leaves, regardless of what life brings.

This is happening now. It’s happening to you and to me and it’s happening in the world around us. The Lord of Life is free and on the move – and there is no power in hell or on earth, or above the earth or below the earth, or in the halls of the greatest powers of the nations or the multi-nationals or the militaries or the police states or at the heart of gang violence or in war plagued places, where the Son of Man, the Lord of Life, is not raised up by the Eternal and Everlasting and Almighty Power of Life and Love. God claimed Jesus as his own Son and there is nothing that can undo that and no power that can sever that connection and flow of energy and life.

And you and I belong to that same Source. That same Eternal and Everlasting and Almighty Power. The biggest thing about Jesus is Resurrection – and it’s the biggest thing about you and me as well. We are Resurrected and Resurrecting people.

We do not belong to the powers of death and sin – sin being that orientation of mind and life towards self over and above all others, preservation of self over everyone else. Sin destroys community and it eats up soul spirit. And it is a fact of life. You cannot escape it because it is woven into you – there is no moral judgment about that – it just is – it just is as surely as your feet are below your head. When I say there is no judgment about that, I mean that there is no God pointing his finger at you because of it. You are born into it – you cannot help it.

Let me tell you a story about this...

When my daughter was five, she was invited to a birthday party. She knew about birthdays and she was very excited. When her daddy picked her up, she got into the car and burst out crying. When he asked her what happened, she said, between sobs, that there were lots of presents – but none of them were for her. We explained that the presents were for the birthday girl and that when it was her birthday again, she would be the one getting presents. She said, “I don’t want that other girl to get presents. I want all the presents.”

We learn, of course, that it isn’t nice to want all or most of the presents – and that we need to share. But deep down – when we’re not getting presents and other people are – there is that little voice in us all that refuses to believe – believe in the sense of trusting- that we are one body in Christ – and that if you get something good – it is just as good as if I got something good. That when Jesus said to love others as yourself – he surely meant others as yourself – that we are that fundamentally related. This desire to consume more than we need and almost always at someone else’s expense is built into us – until we enter a new way of being – a new order of being.

And that new order of being that we are born into through the action of the Holy Spirit in us – it changes our orientation – it changes our mindset – it changes who we are from the inside out and from the outside in.

We begin to see differently. Not all at once of course …. We still live in a world that sees things as separate and some people as lesser than and others as greater than but gradually we notice that we are more and more content with whatever our lives have brought to us, and more and more at peace with our bodies and our neighbors and our spouses and our lives. More and more at peace.

As we are working through this letter to the Romans, I have to say - it's really growing on me. This letter is a practical working out of the resurrected life in a community of real people who are beginning to come apart over matters of race and class and gender –just like we find ourselves in our own culture. This letter is about the practical working out of what it means to be a forgiven, healed, renewed, restored, resurrected people who belong to God and who are “in” Christ – and our reading today begins with this astonishing amazing truth about this new order of being –

There is, Now, in Christ, No Condemnation. Take that in..... No condemnation for those in Christ....

Yes – you want all the presents - or at least more of the presents. Yes – you lied on your taxes. Yes – you cheated your brother when you were older and were supposed to be taking care of him. Yes – you don’t know what you think about Jesus, and you doubt his resurrection. Yes – you took the shortcut the wrong way down a one way street.

But you can turn yourself in, and feel the full relief of it – you can know intimacy with God again. Even though there most likely are consequences - there is no condemnation - no secret burden that needs to be carried. No torment from which you cannot be free, no corner of guilt or shame that needs to remain in the shadows, sucking away at your energy and your joy.

Now if you can delve down into your mind and into your soul – and find no shade of guilt or shame that you’ve covered over and hoped would just disappear eventually – you are truly an Enlightened Being or just terribly unconscious – but for most of us –well – the news that there is No Condemnation – well, it knocks me over.

It’s more than astounding, really. It is terribly, terribly freeing – and that may be, in fact, why we prefer to run back to imposing rules and breaking rules – because it is a terrifying gift to be really and truly free. It is a huge responsibility. I mean, now what! What are you going to do with this freedom? This awesome freedom that is yours, in Christ.

Mary Oliver asks the question this way – "tell me, what is it that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" This one wild and precious life that has been given to you by God, redeemed for you by Jesus – and the central truth about this precious life of unbounded freedom is that the Holy Spirit dwells in you – abides in you. So you don’t have to retreat into fear about making mistakes or not making the perfect choices – God has already forgiven you – you are already free – and you can go down a different road, or continue on the course you are on – either way, and always, you have the Holy Spirit of God within you and within this community to guide you and to listen to you and to love you – eternally.

When you came in - you were given two pieces of paper. One is there to write some hindrance, some burden, some condemnation that you have secreted away, that is in like a thorn in your heart – and destructive to your joy - write it down – and if you’re brave enough to claim your freedom in Christ, you can throw it away in this trash can. During the Confession, during the Absolution – or during the Peace that follows – you can throw it away. There is Now NO Condemnation in Christ – that is the truth - it can be your truth.

The second piece of paper is to imagine what you might do with your one wild and precious life – with your Freedom in Christ . That paper is to keep – put it in your pocket or in your purse and bring it out from time to time – to remind yourself that the biggest thing about you is resurrection and freedom.

And all of this is in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Summer Day, by Mary Oliver - one of my favorite poems!
Romans 8: 1 - 11

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Commentary on the Human Condition via St. Paul

If there is a policeman here - I am sorry that you are going to hear this - but I have broken the law – and even when it was pointed out to me, I have continued, on occasion, to do so.

I drive to church very early on Sunday mornings. There is no one else on the road – or barely anyone else, and I have gotten into the bad habit of doing one of those slow rolling stops at one corner. Now the truth is, for a long time, I was not conscious of this. But one day, a friend was with me – and she pointed out to me that I had in fact, not come to a complete and total stop.

Well then, it became a problem. Before my friend pointed out my law breaking nature – I was perfectly at peace on my drive to church. But after she pointed out to me the inexactness of my stop – it became a contested spot on the road. Internal arguments erupted:

My “ought to”: The sign says “STOP” not “SLOW ROLL”
My “want to”: In the two years I’ve been driving here, I have never seen anyone at this corner, ever. No one will get hurt, and I will not get into trouble for this.
My “ought to”: And your point is….?
My “want to”: It wastes gas to come to a complete stop and then step on the pedal again.
My “ought to”: OK, that’s a good argument – but the Law still says “STOP.” *

Not to spoil your view of me - but even living in the grace of Christ, in the reign of God’s kingdom - I don’t always do what is right, I don’t always do what the better part of me wants to do, I often end up doing the very things the larger part of me doesn’t want to do. Anyone with me?

We are, after all, children of Adam and Eve... “There’s an abundance of ripe, juicy, delicious, tasty, inviting fruits all through the garden just for you, I will walk and talk with you every day, you will delight in each other, and you will talk with the animals,” God said, “There’s just one tree that’s not good for you, so don’t touch it.”

Even if you’d never heard the story before, you could guess exactly what was going to happen! Because they did exactly like you or I do - they became obsessed and zeroed in on the one thing that was off limits.

Here is Augustine from the 17th century:

“There was a pear tree near our vineyard, he writes, laden with fruit. One stormy night, we rascally youths set out to rob it and carry our spoils away. We took off a huge load of pears – not to feast upon ourselves, but to throw to the pigs, though we ate just enough to have the pleasure of this forbidden fruit. They were nice pears, but it was not the pears that I coveted because I had plenty better ones at home. I picked them simply in order to do it …. The desire to steal was awakened by the prohibition against stealing. “ *

Sound similar to any of our shoplifting starlets – awash in money and fame? It is certainly not for the junk jewelry they lift, but because there is something about a boundary that is so sorely tempting.

Whether we live in luxury or not – the truth is, it’s not easy to change our nature. We are fortunate in that there are many more resources available to us than Paul had – resources that are beneficial and helpful – psychotherapy, behavior modification, interventions, medicine and drugs, self-help books that sell because they help, a wide array of spiritual practices from all around the world, we have Oprah! – but the truth of the matter remains: trying harder to follow the rules, whatever those rules might be, rarely produces genuine goodness, deep transformation, real peace of mind.

What can reliably produce transformative change is Grace –– letting your guard down and taking in God Love; Blood of Jesus Love; the "I know exactly who you are, everything you have done and not done and everything you have ever thought and every boundary you’ve ever crossed or wanted to cross, I know your weaknesses and your strengths, and your sadness and your grief and your joy and your brokenness – and I love you and I will always catch you in my arms" love - receiving that kind of love transforms us and puts us on the road to re-patterning our lives.

....puts us on the road …. Even Amazing Grace of God Love doesn’t automatically - abracadabra shazamm! – make all temptation go away, or make it easy to be good and to do good and to love and serve in kindness and compassion.

It's not automatic that our lives become more integrated and whole – but thanks be to God, we are on the way – being re-patterned by grace so that gradually there are fewer divisions between what we want to do and what we ought to do and more peace of mind and heart because our walk and our talk are more and more closely aligned. And of course, there are still many of those times when we completely lose it and fail miserably.

But here’s the secret at the heart of the Cross. God still claims you, no matter what.

When I was deeply, deeply distressed over becoming a single parent through divorce, one of the persistent thoughts I had to do battle with was the thought that I no longer really had a place in God’s household – that divorce put me outside the circle – especially the circle of church. So while I continued to go to church, I felt foreign – and at the same time, I tried very hard to hide that sense of alienation. I remember like it was yesterday pushing my youngest on the swing, and hearing Jesus say, “Didn’t I come exactly for the people outside the circle? Isn’t that who I loved to spend time with? You are as much in God’s household now as you ever were.” That was the beginning of a real transformation for me in terms of how I related to church and to other people – because I got it really straight in my heart that God claimed me when I was baptized and that nothing could happen to me that would ever lessen that. That is true for me, and it is true for you.

And here’s one more secret at the heart of the Cross – and it has to do with the hardest word in the English language. Can you guess what that it? It’s a tiny word with two letters – No. The Holy No. No, I am not going to stop loving you even when what you are doing is wrong. No, I don’t need to save gas by rolling that stop sign, I could go 55 miles an hour and save even more gas! No, I don’t need to feel less than or act less then because of my gender or sexual orientation or race or class or income or work status or how many Facebook friends I have. No, I’m not going to buy that because I don’t need it and I don’t LOVE it – it’s on sale and it’s fine, but no. Some of the finest cuisine has developed because of limits - as has music and many other artistic forms. Boundaries and limits turn out to be necessary to creativity!

So - No is a very useful and powerful word – and whether God says it, or the Law says it, or you say it, it has transformative power – and I commend it to you – and both saying it and hearing it is made all the more easier knowing that we stand in the solid and trustworthy grip of God’s eternal grace.

* In the Grip of Grace, Max Lucado, 1996, Thomas Nelson, Inc
The Courage to Create, Rollo May, 1975, W. Norton & Company
Frugal Confessions - Frugal Living
"No", David Lose, Working Preacher

Saturday, July 02, 2011

For The Rev. Christy Laborda and St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, Sebastopol

A couple disclaimers - I was not Christy’s first choice for offering the homily at her installation. But others couldn’t do it – and the advantage of having another priest in your family is that you can back each other up! Actually, I was delighted that she asked me – thrilled in fact. But then I realized I actually needed to offer something more than testimonies as to how wonderful she is! The other disclaimer – her fiancĂ© is my son – so Christy and I are friends and colleagues and come September we will be related to one another.

The truth is, she and I are already related to one another – in the same way that you and I are related to one another and it is the deepest relationship of all, because it exists eternally in God through the Body of Christ. This is the profound mystery of the Church; that above and beyond human welfare, human likes and dislikes, human attractions and alienations, we draw our life from the common bloodstream that is Christ’s. We have many faces, many races, many personality types, many anxieties and dysfunctions, we like each other, we don’t like each other, some of us drive Prius’s and some of us have no clean drinking water – but in Christ, we are one Body and we given this new common life for one purpose – and that is to Love – to love God and to love one another and to serve the world God loves so dearly.

Is the church particularly good at this - Loving and Serving? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But the truth is, the church, you and I are not the subject of the verb Love. God is. God is the subject of our sentences and our lives. God is the one who loves and who woos and who calls and who engages us and who gifts us with this unique way of life – this life whose purpose and whose life source is one and the same – that is, Love.

Of course, I’m not speaking about warm fuzzy feelings – although that happens more often than you might think when the music is good – as I hear it is! - and the worship has integrity. So, I’m guessing that warm, fuzzy feelings happen fairly often here at St. Stephen’s – as things feel right, things click, and the place feels safe, like a place where you can be who you are and know that you are accepted. I’m guessing that you have already wrapped Christy up in the good arms of this parish, and that you know, already, that she carries you in her heart and in her prayers.

She thinks of you – a lot. I know this. I know she loves you – and besides being young and attractive and intelligent and sunny – she has a heart that is trustworthy, because it is a heart that has long been given to Christ.

I also know she is lucky - mostly because she is organized and she thinks things through. When Christy and Kai were packing for Hawaii, a trip she had won through a Bishop’s raffle, she and I went to REI because she wanted a cold carry case the right size for carrying sushi on a hiking excursion she’d planned for one of their vacation days! Right then, I knew she was perfect for my son – and God knows, the Body of Christ can use such detailed strategic thinking!

I know she wonders about the future of the church – about how to bring the good news of God’s compassion and love to an almost wholly secular culture, one that often sees no real need for the Christian God. I know that she struggles with how to message the Gospel for people in their 20’s and 30’s - she thinks about this, she reads about this, she consults with friends and colleagues who are also trying to figure this out. In other words, she brings her whole self to the church – her frustrations, her longings, her dreams, her hopes, her labor and her heart.

Still, even with all of her gifts and abilities, I’m guessing that it felt slightly risky to call Christy to be your Rector. She does not have years of experience – although the experience she does have would take years out of anyone! She has dealt with many difficulties, with aplomb and grace and humility. But the Spirit led, and you listened, and you made a courageous and visionary choice in calling this young woman to lead you into the challenges of tomorrow.

So my hope and charge is that all of you join her at the cutting edge where she lives - between culture and church and that, along with her, you commit your labor and your heart and your resources to continuing to courageously follow the Spirit in moving God’s dream forward into a future that none of you can predict and for which none of you can adequately prepare.

But take heart! You are the Baptized Body of Christ here in this place, and each of you has a God-gifted function that is essential to the working out of God’s purposes for St. Stephen’s at this moment in time. It is tempting of course, to think of the person in the collar and the ones who are most visible to be most important – but from apostolic times forward it has been the church’s witness that there is no one gift that is more essential or more perfect or more valuable to God and to Christ’s Body than any other gift.

This is another of the profound mysteries of the Church and it is one of the distinguishing marks of a Christian gathering – our functions make some of us more visible and give some of us greater authority, but for the mission of the church – which is to Love and to Serve – for this mission to be fulfilled – all must continue growing into the gifts and callings God has given them. Doing that means being ok with some awkwardness as you learn new ways of doing things together, new ways of reaching out, new ways of telling the old, old story of Jesus and His Love.

So, at this inauguration of a new phase of ministry for all of you – a ministry that now embraces Christy as your pastor, priest and leader – I want to direct myself to Christy for a minute.

You cannot possibly do this on your own. I know that seems obvious, but it is amazing how quickly this simple truth can get lost amidst the dozens of balls that you juggle every day. Your life that is hidden in Christ is the single most valuable resource you have to offer – and it must be protected and fed and trusted to be enough.

That means deciding what is essential to your ministry and what is not essential – and learning to be ok with not doing what is not essential. That is harder than it sounds – but doing this one thing – deciding on the essentials and putting those first and foremost will keep your spirit lively and vivacious, because you will be continuously transformed and renewed by the mind of Christ – you will be a green tree planted by streams of living water.

May this be so, now and long into the future.
With all my love. Amen.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The weaving of peace by thine
Peace around thy soul entwine
Peace of the Father flowing free
Peace of the Son sitting over thee
Peace of the Spirit for thee and me
Peace of the one
Peace of the Three
A weaving of peace be upon thee

Around thee twine the Three
The One the Trinity
The Father bind his love
The Son tie his salvation
The Spirit wrap his power
Make you a new creation
Around thee twine the Three
The encircling of the Trinity.

(A Weaving Pattern, by David Adam)

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Good Questions

Yesterday, eight of us from Good Shepherd gathered with Bishop Mary and about a hundred people from around the Diocese to talk with Diana Butler Bass, a historian and sociologist, about religion and spirituality and culture.

The underlying story of everything we talked about what change.

Have you noticed that things in the world are changing? Fast? Will the Arab Spring lapse into Winter or blossom into Summer? Hamas and Fatah have formed a reconciled Palestinian Party and Egypt says it’s going to open the Gaza border, all of which changes things dramatically for Israel as well as for the United States.

I’ve hosted a 34 year old Korean high school science teacher this past week – and learned a bit about education in South Korea. Youth get to school 40 minutes before class in order to study foreign language, class time is a full 8 hours, and then everyone, including teachers, studies, at school, until 10 p.m., at which point, school buses take everyone home. Six days a week. I don’t have to spell out what this means for future American competitiveness.

Did you know that in 2008 1 out of every 10 couples that got married, met online? In 2011, 1 out of every 5 couples have met online. Journalists have no idea what to do, where the future of print lies. After Katrina and 9/11 and ongoing wars and the Wall Street meltdown and on and on….it is growing more and more difficult to turn on the news each morning.

This is all to say out loud, something that we all know in our bones. We are in the midst of epic cultural and economic and political upheaval and disillusionment and change – and faith communities are just as much affected by that as every other institution. People under 30 who believe in God, much less attend church, is at an historical low. The overall decline in people who say they are religious has happened at an astounding rate of change. Every institutional faith community is experiencing declining cultural importance and participation – now most especially the conservative evangelical churches that were, just a short time ago, experiencing explosive growth.

There are a couple of exceptions: Mormons - which I'm not going to deal with; and small communities of people gathering together, sometimes under denominational sponsorship, and sometimes not – communities of people who are more focused on their spiritual formation and growth then they are on institutional maintenance and order. While they would usually describe themselves as both spiritual and religious, they emphasize the spiritual – and by spiritual I mean experience, imagination, trust, relationship.

The questions these people are asking – the questions that drive their growth have to do with belief, behavior and belonging – but in a very different way than in the past.

In the past - the question of what you believed was answered by pointing to creeds and dogmas. Here’s what we believe – read it and sign it. At one point in my life, I began receiving instruction to become Roman Catholic – but when it came to reading and signing – I was very sure that I could not do that. While I could not have articulated the problem at the time – I understand now that the problem had to do with the whole gestalt – I was hungry for trust worthy meaningful relationship and a community rooted in beauty and in tradition. I was not in need of more concepts and dogmas. And I am not uncommon in this. For most people in our world today, the question of belief has much more to do with personal experience, with what someone you trust has told you they’ve experienced, with the stories you’ve heard from sources that you hold in esteem – in other words, our beliefs have much more to do with relationship and experience and trust, than with concepts and doctrines.

The question of behavior has undergone similar change. In the past, once you’d signed on to what you believed, you knew what rules to follow. Christianity, like other religions, is still very much associated, in the popular mind, with moral do’s and don’ts. With rules and regulations. You want to have a drink after work? Change from Baptist to Episcopalian. Both of which come with their own set of behavioral rules. But I’m guessing that you are like most people – in that what you hunger for is not more policing in what is right and what is wrong. What we hunger for is connecting our experience of the divine, of goodness and of beauty, with what we actually practice in the world. With how we live. Telling me over and over that it is right to use my cloth bags rather than plastic bags doesn’t really motivate me – though it is true and I acknowledge that it is how I should behave. What is far more motivating is to have love for animals and the ocean and the earth strengthened – to be in a community that prays for the right use of resources and sings about love for the earth and it’s creator, and talks about intentional practices that heal the earth and humanity – So The question is not so much “How do I behave?” but “What do I do with my life?” What do I do when I learn that plastic is harming the earth? What do I do when I learn that 7/10’s of the world’s population goes to bed hungry at night? The faith communities that are growing pay attention to this kind of context.

And finally, the question of belonging. Ever ask the question, Who am I? A very common question, right? And ultimately, incredibly isolating. We each have our own history that we could recite – family, geography, education, religion. We still ask and answer this question – who are you? But it is not very satisfying. The question of belonging that has much more juice – more potential – more significance – is the question “whose am I?” It’s a baptismal question – You are Christ’s own forever - and it’s a tribal question – We belong to the one who leads us beside still waters and restores our soul and leads us in pathways of justice and guides us through suffering and death and invites us to sit in the presence of enemies without fear or shame. We belong to the One who provides us with the food of compassion and the shelter of eternal love. We belong to the Shepherding God, the one in whom we are brothers and sisters with all of creation and by whom we see the face of Jesus in one another and in the poorest of the poor. The question “Who am I” can lead to anxiety – the question “Whose am I” can lead to freedom and to peace.

So what does all this have to do with the gospel?

Our reading from Acts is a description of this kind of community – I know – we all get a little scared when we read about the communism of this description of the early church in Acts. Clearly, this was not the path the church followed – it’s a utopian vision that was either idealized in this description, or did not work. Either way, we do not need to get hung up on the particular details of combining resources and giving out as people have need – whether this attracts you or scares you or both.

What is central to this passage is that an ordinary, common group of people had an extraordinary experience. In a common life, they gave expression to that experience and calling and became a very uncommon people. They became people who were more interested in service than status, more interested in opportunities than problems, more interested in preference than potential.” AND– their beliefs were based in their experience of the Living Jesus, their answer to “what do we do with our lives” was answered with intentional practices– they studied the apostle’s teachings and scriptures, they prayed, they enjoyed the fellowship of one another’s company, and they broke bread together – in the sacraments and by eating together, and they knew to whom they belonged – they belonged to a relational community in communion with God. A community that operated in the power of God’s Spirit, who understood themselves as united in purpose and identity – not a dispersed collection of individual churchgoers.

I’m guessing that if you look back on your experiences at Good Shepherd that fed you the most – it would have to do with one or more of these things – the joy of belonging to a community that loves one another; practices that made an impact on you – small group study, a party or hike or eating together; prayers and worship, – and that these experiences contribute to your believing.

I’m thinking that we are and can be one of these thriving small communities gathered around the basics, doing God’s work in God’s way, enjoying God’s blessing. As we make our way ever deeper into the 21st century, and change happening at a pace far more rapid than our human hearts and brains can manage to keep up with, we can trust this ancient path laid out for us in the tradition of the early church and we can ask God to make 301 Corral de Tierra a place where some of the questions of our postmodern world are being asked and answered.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Glorious Christ

Glorious Christ,
you whose divine influence is active at the very heart of matter,
and at the dazzling centre where the innumerable fibres of the multiple meet:
you whose power is as implacable as the world and as warm as life,
you whose forehead is of the whiteness of snow,
whose eyes are of fire, and whose feet are brighter than molten gold;
you whose hands imprison the stars;
you are the first and the last, the living and the dead and the risen again;
it is to you to whom our being cries out a desire as vast as the universe:
In truth you are our Lord and our God! Amen.

—Teilhard de Chardin, The Mass on the World

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Already Wondering - the 2nd Sunday of Easter

Many of you believe whole-heartedly in prayer, as I do. There are also some here this morning who have given up on it after praying for months and years for the sake of a loved one, to no apparent effect. Either way, I want you to know that you're in the right place.

Some of you believe in physical resurrection, as I do, others of you believe in only a spiritual resurrection, but there may be some here this morning who do not believe in an after-life at all. Whatever you believe, I want you to know that you're in the right place.

The truth is, we are uncomfortable with doubt, but when we pretend it doesn’t exist, and when we hide it from each other, we lose out – we lose our ability to be real and we lose our ability to be a healing presence in the world. We don't gain anything by pretending total confidence. As Voltaire said in the 18th century, “doubt is not a pleasant state of mind, but certainty is absurd."

Truthfully, total confidence is not what faith is about. Faith is not so much about believing a certain set of propositions – a list that we can check off – virgin birth, yes. Star in the sky, yes. Walk on water, yes. I happen to believe these things mostly because I find them beautiful – but I know lots of very faithful Christians who don’t believe them at all. A checklist of beliefs is not what make us who we are.

Honest relationship is what makes us a people alive in God’s Spirit.

When we say the Nicene Creed together - to outsiders and maybe to you - it may sound like a set of propositions. You may, in fact, believe every one of these things but that is not the important thing about the Creed. The essential reason this is in our liturgy, week after week, is that it puts us in relationship - in communion - with people around the world now and across time – and we value this relationship above all else. Credere – what we translate as "I believe" - is much more about our heart – it’s about where we put our trust and the weight of our being. Our religion is not so much about believing certain things as it is about what St. Peter calls "a living hope" – a living relationship with the Lord of Life and with each other. Like all relationships, it takes being present and available when we feel close to God and when we do not, when we are in love with God and when we are not, when we totally believe – and when we do not.

One of the books I keep on my shelf for the title as much as for the content – is called “May I Hate God?” and the Catholic author’s answer is "yes – hating is as much a part of relationship as is loving." When we are deeply disappointed or hurt or feeling abandoned, our love can temporarily turn to hate – but if we continue in relationship, it does not harden there, or remain in that state. It’s only when we refuse to engage, when we don't care, when we refuse to reveal the true state of our heart that we can get stuck and gradually find our love grown cold and our inner life increasingly dead.

The author of this slim little book points to the Psalms as one place among many in the Bible where people reveal the true state of their doubts about God’s loving intentions, their experiences of his abandonment, their laments and their sorrows and yes, even their angers, at their experiences of God’s absence and neglect. And lo and behold, those psalms almost always turn somewhere in the middle or towards the end into praise – because the very act of honesty, the very act of authentic revelation of what is really happening with your heart gives the Holy Spirit room to act and sufficient space to provide refreshment.

In Jesus’ resurrected body, his essential qualities remained. His kindness and compassion were entirely intact. He breathed peace and forgiveness and completely allowed for the very human need to touch and to see for themselves – in other words, through betrayal and abandonment and death and loss, Jesus continued in relationship. And his friends did as well - through their own fears and disappointments and disillusionments, they continued to meet with each other, and to be available for Jesus to come and find them. And out of the gift of that relationship, the gift of that commitment, new life was born, the Holy Spirit was breathed into them, and they were sent out to preach peace and to practice forgiveness.

Do you need to forgive God for not keeping you or your loved ones entirely safe and protected, or for not saving us from ourselves in this oh so broken world? Do you need to forgive your children for not being who you wanted them to be? Do you need to forgive yourself for not being honest with yourself, for not siding with yourself, for anything at all? We are a people whose gift to the world is relationship, peace and forgiveness. And that starts in here, at home, with those around us, and spreads out from there.

I invite you to place your hands on your heart, breathe in the Holy Spirit, and breathe out, saying “Peace be with you.”

Then turn to your neighbor, breathe the Spirit and say “Peace be with you.”

And when you receive the Host, you may want to offer your peace to God and breathe in his holy breath of peace to you.

Resources: The Rev. Buzz Stevens, Ministry Matters, 2010, for the beginning thoughts.
Garrison Keillor, Thinking Weaselish Thoughts at Eastertide,, 2008
Voltaire, 1694 - 1778
Pierre Wolfe, May I Hate God, Paulist Press, 1978

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Easter Morning

A detail of Matthew’s account caught my attention this year: There was an earthquake at the tomb – an earthquake that caused the soldiers guarding the tomb to fall to the ground like dead men. An earthquake of sufficient magnitude to cause the huge boulder in front of the stone cave to roll. Can you imagine the noise and the shifting and rolling of the ground under the women’s feet? The heart stopping, adrenaline fear that would come upon any of us?

We Californians can imagine it. Most of us have been in one or more earthquakes – we fasten our water heaters to the wall, and we make sure that we don’t have books or heavy objects above our beds. And this year, the world, but especially the dear people of Japan are living with the horrific consequences of the recent earthquake and tsunami.

Earthquakes literally shift the ground – nothing is the same afterwards.

Matthew’s gospel is very physical. Jesus’ birth was announced by a new hydrogen exploding star in the sky, and his resurrection, this birth of humanity into an entirely new reality is announced by the plates of the earth bumping and grinding into one another, causing the ground beneath their feet to roll and part.

Whether Matthew’s account is metaphorical or actual doesn’t really matter does it? Either way, something tremendously shocking and fear producing and ground shifting happened.

And he doesn’t explain it. None of the gospel writers do. In Matthew, the ground shifting earthquake – the bright beings of golden light – and the message – go and tell. And when they run to do just that - they meet Jesus on the way. By this time, I imagine that they are so discombobulated that they accept seeing him, the one that they’ve just gone to wrap in spices, and just kind of nod.

They hear him tell them also - "Go and tell my brothers to meet me in Galilee."

We gathered here this past Thursday for a very intimate feeling evening, an evening of friendship, of receiving one another’s friendship through our gestures of word and touch, and then of receiving Jesus’ friendship through his gesture of offering his own body and blood to us through the common elements of bread and wine.

We gathered to hear him say to us, "you are no longer just my students. When you act out love and service towards one another, you are my friends."

That was on the eve of his death.

And now, through the grief and trauma of his death and the emptiness of his absence, at the grave, that dark hole in our hearts, something completely outside the laws of nature has happened. Something that shifts the ground so thoroughly that the pieces of the old order cannot be put back together again.

If you are skeptical about this – you’re in good company. None of the gospels record anyone saying – “Wow! I knew it! Just like he said! Hallelujah! Praise God! That’s the way I knew it was going to turn out!”

They record fear, confusion, bewilderment, disbelief, doubt, waiting to see, and running to go and tell. Tell what is not quite spelled out, but telling that something has happened. Something has happened, and the betrayal and denial and the perversion of justice and the sentence of death and the crucifixion of innocence and the burial of hope and love has gone into reverse. The Lord is alive. And you will see him.

Something has happened. The ground has unalterably shifted. Might in fact does not make right. He who dies with the most toys is not necessarily the winner. Despair at the wretched state of the world does not need to be your go to emotion. Peacemaking is not a lost cause. Rejoicing is not foolish. We can, in all sincerity, tell our children that hope and goodness and kindness and creativity and imagination and honesty and integrity, even when these might not get you the big tax breaks, will get you Life and Joy and an incredible group of Forever Friends. Christ is alive. Love wins, on earth as well as in heaven. No matter how bleak and crazy things look.

That’s what the women go and tell – and they initiate a long line of witnesses – go and tell, go and tell – on and on through the generations, on and on through the ages, until we arrive at you and me. The brothers and sisters and friends of Jesus, here, in this place and in this time.

The letter to the Colossians is working out some of what this means – we’re still working out what this means. What difference it makes. But one of the first things that the Christians figured out that it means is that we are entirely safe and secure. Our life is hidden with Christ in God. That’s very mystical and mysterious. And, like the resurrection, it isn’t meant to be picked apart for exactly how this is the case. It is like love and relationship. Can you honestly say how and why it is that you love your husband or wife or children or friends? The truth is, Love goes far beyond explanation. And so it is with our life that hidden with Christ, in God. What we can say for sure though, is that there is nothing on heaven or on earth, no suffering or mishap or economic dislocation or disaster, that can ever separate us from the Source of Life that continues coursing through our hearts for all of time and beyond.

The Acts of the Apostles is also working out what it means to be the community of Jesus, the intimate friends whom he calls his brothers and sisters. And one of the things that they discover it means is that we exist for the sake of the other. That we exist, not solely for our own comfort and joy, but to transform the world – to go and tell that God’s love and life are not just for a few, but for all.

There’s been an earthquake my friends – and the structures of empire and temple and war making and the entire machinery of death, as loud and as imperious and as threatening as it may look – is the old reality that has crumbled and continues to crumble under the weight of the boulder that has rolled away from the grave – that is crumbling in the midst of a new reality that is creating a garden right smack in the graveyard – a flowered cross – a new Eden – a community of friends that holds hands through time with the Risen Lord of Life himself, a community of friends whose life is hidden safely and securely in the very heart of God, and who exist here on earth for the sake of transformation and healing and witnessing – telling wherever and however we see new life arising.

The Lord be with you.
Let us pray.

"O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen." *

* Book of Common Prayer, 1979
Resource: Working Preacher

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Holding Up Half the Sky

“So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.”

The story of Jacob and Joseph and this small plot of land is found in the Book of Genesis – This plot of land is now in the Palestinian city of Nablus in the West Bank. There is an Eastern Orthodox church built over the site of what has been known as “Jacob’s well” for millennia. The well was the center of village life – not just because of the water but because that’s where women gathered to catch up on the latest news and gossip. It was at the center of their social lives – it’s where they could find out how to relieve a fever, or how to please a husband, or how to get along with a difficult mother in law. And this all happened in the early morning or the evenings, when it was cool. Nobody came to the well at noon, the hottest, dustiest time of day. That’s when you’d want to be indoors, out of the heat.

“Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)”

He was thirsty and she was lonely. Coming to the well at the time when she was guaranteed not to have to converse with other women, when her outsider-ness might be less noticeable, because there wasn’t any one there to notice her. Except Jesus and he “spoke to her. The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)”

That's an understatement. Jewish and Samaritan religious leaders both taught that it was wrong to have any contact with the opposite group, and neither was to enter each other’s territories or even to speak to one another. Throughout the first half of the century that this gospel was written, there were violent clashes between Jews and Samaritans.

But there was Jesus, a thirsty Jewish man, and there was the woman, isolated and lonely. He took her seriously. He saw her and engaged her and did not talk down to her.

“Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

Living water was not necessarily a spiritual term, it was used for any water that bubbled up from underground - a well or a spring – living water was the kind of water that kept replenishing itself, water that was ever new, ever fresh. So, “the woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”

Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

You know, this is the longest recorded conversation that Jesus has in any of the gospels. And it is with a woman. In Samaria. At the height of the day. It could hardly be more different than the story from last week – the story of Nicodemus, the ultimate religious insider, a Jew, in Jerusalem, who came to Jesus at night, and who could not wrap his head around Jesus’ image of new birth, spiritual birth, who could not see anything fresh and new with God’s eyes.

But, "the woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Unlike Nicodemus, this outsider woman trusted and moved ever deeper, ever further into that amazing conversation. And so did Jesus.

“Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. “

How many of you think that there is something sinful and loose and Elizabeth Taylor-like about this Samaritan woman – may Elizabeth rest in peace? The truth is, there is nothing of the sort in this story. Jesus sees and respects the reality of her life. Whether she was widowed, divorced or abandoned, the truth was, she had virtually no control over her life, or over who took her in. Her primary reality was sadness, grief, and loneliness, not immorality and sinfulness. I don’t know how many of you have read Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Women Hold Up Half the Sky, but it is a book that opens your eyes to the sickening reality of ongoing world wide treatment of women and girls as commodities – to the economic devastation as well as the moral and psychological and spiritual devastation this oppression wreaks – AND it opens your eyes to the awesome and inspiring power of what the living water of hope and new identity can do in individual lives – that has far ranging ripple effects.

So Jesus, thirsty and tired as he is, saw this woman and respected her and opened his heart to her – and she did the same. She saw him. Seeing is central to John’s gospel. To see with the eyes of one’s heart is to be transformed, it is to be born again. And so, she assumed this new identity as someone worth seeing, and as someone worth having a conversation with and launched directly into the most pressing theological question that had separated her people from the Jews, which was.....

Where is the right place to worship? Gerazim, in the north, or Jerusalem, in the south. An argument that had been going on for centuries. To the Judeans in the south, the northerners were sinful. To the northerners, the Jews in the south were false followers of Moses.

Ah, Jesus said, let’s let all that go. That was then. This is now. “…the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain of Gerazim nor in Jerusalem. The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will know that God is spirit, and those who worship him worship in spirit and truth.”

The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” Jesus said to her, “I am, the one who is speaking to you.” I AM…. The one who is to come is here. I AM. Worship is not about a building or a place. It is about a relationship and a community and the person of Christ.

“Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city.” She dropped her burdens and her subservient identity and stepped into the new identity that Jesus has just offered her. She was now a witness. A Gospel story teller. An Evangelist.

“She said to the people, “Come and see….” Come and see, by the way, is exactly what Jesus told the disciples at the beginning of the gospel when they asked him where he was staying – “Come and see.” Come and See – we might want to begin using that phrase ourselves! Come and see how this church has touched and transformed me. Come and see how, working together, we are making a difference in the world. Come and see how Jesus will show up for you how he will make himself known to you – how it is to be seen and loved.

So, I wonder, as you come and see - where you are in this story? I wonder, if like Jesus, you are thirsty. I wonder if, like the Samaritans and the Jews, there are barriers that have existed for so long in your life that you no longer question them, and if, in Jesus’ company, you might risk crossing over into territory that has been alien to you. I wonder if there is loneliness and sadness in your life that you might let God see and speak to. I wonder if you need another drink of that living water that gushes up into new life. And I wonder if, like the woman dropping her jar, there is something you need to let drop so you too can step into your new identity as God’s beloved and trustworthy witness. I wonder if you will go and tell your story and invite someone else to come and see?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Holy No's

To turn towards life, you must turn away from what is not life. To grow closer to God, or your partner, or your children, or your church, you must turn away from what takes you further away from God or your partner or your children or your church. Turning towards also involves turning away.

Turning away from is our first act in baptism. The first three questions we answer in the baptismal covenant are these: Do you renounce the Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God? Do you renounce the evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?

On this the first Sunday in Lent, we are at the beginning of our yearly retreat that we take to ground ourselves once again in the our goal – that is complete communion with the Divine. We retreat so that we can remember again that what we are about is growing into the full stature of Christ. And so, at the beginning of our 40 day retreat, we return again to the first steps – in order to go towards love and life with God, dwelling in Jeru-shalom – or in the peace of the City of God – we renounce what does not serve the peace of God, what does not serve peace in our own hearts – we renounce whatever takes us away from wholeness.

Saying no is as freeing as saying yes – but this came as revelation to me.

I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s. Even though my family was conservative, the culture was not. It was all about Yes to all kinds of experiences, and foods, and substances, and relationships – Yes! And I love the word Yes! I love e.e.cummings wonderful poem

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

Sister Mary Corita Kent was particularly popular during the social upheavals of that time. If you don’t know of her work, it can be still be seen in almost any retreat center – beautiful silk screens and colorful seriographs of Yes to love and peace and life.

So when I began to read the theologian Karl Barth, I was unprepared for the forcefulness of his No. Unprepared, but immediately grabbed by it because he spoke a truth that was critical to any real ability to say yes.

Barth was a Lutheran pastor and theologian in pre-war Germany who grew increasingly alarmed at the growing militarism of his country and the support for this among his former professors and fellow pastors. This support was a result of what he saw as the moral weakness of liberal theology. That is, a theology that increasingly was focused on making peace with the world, and believed that humans, on their own, were progressing towards greater and greater enlightenment. The concentration camps of WWII, and Hiroshima, and later, the mass graves of Cambodia and Rwanda threw cold water on the idea of humanity’s progressive enlightenment – but at the time the result was churches which accommodated the prevailing politics rather than speaking out the distinctive word of the Lordship of Jesus the Christ.

In an attempt to understand what was happening to his country and his church he began a deep study of the Book of Romans, and he came away with the overwhelming conviction of the victorious reality of Christ’s resurrection – that is, that all the death dealing powers in the world were not able to dismantle and destroy the Irrevocable Intention of God to Love. God is absolutely sovereign – he is not dependent upon us – and he exercises complete freedom in revealing himself through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. At the same time, we can never know God the way we can know a patron saint. God is not our patron saint, and he is certainly not the patron saint of any one country or any one group of people.

Faith, Barth said, is " awe in the presence of the divine incognito; Faith is the love of God that is aware of the qualitative difference between God and human beings and God and the world."

Barth, almost single handedly, brought back the idea of the utter transcendence of God, the apophatic God before whom we bow and are silent, because we essentially do not know and certainly cannot control.

He founded what came to be called The Confessing Church in Germany, the small underground group of pastors and laity, who pitted the revelation of Jesus Christ against the “truth” of Hitler and the death machine of Hitler’s party. For a people immersed in churches that for decades had made peace with militarism and a political system in which classes of people – Jews, Gypsy’s, homosexuals, cripples - were made scapegoats and eventually rounded up and murdered, this thundering No, was an essential if bitter tasting corrective.

The truth is this No is the starting point of any authentic religious life. Any life that desires intimacy with God must begin with understanding that God does not belong to you, that God is not a vending machine, that God does not need to cure your cancer, or provide you with a job, or insure your prevailing in lawsuits, or make your life comfortable or easy.

Real Life, Life with God, begins on our knees. Begins with this recognition that God is beyond our thoughts and our imaginations, beyond our rules and our regulations, beyond our potlucks and our passions. God, in God’s essence, cannot be known – except in the way that God chooses to be known.

So, renunciation is the way that we begin this journey of Lent. Because the Holy Yes to the leaping greenly spirits of trees and the blue true dream of sky requires the Holy No to waste and pollution. The Holy Yes to seeking and serving Christ in all persons requires the Holy No to envy or pointing the finger at Muslims or illegal immigrants. The Holy Yes to healing and abundance requires the Holy No to blindness to human suffering and lack of compassion.

The truth is that at times this No is quite costly. It may mean saying no to what we most treasure in order that we may yes to what is more helpful and healthful. It may mean awkward and painful letting go of what does not belong in order that we may say yes to what truly does belong. It may mean asking for help in discerning what is standing in our way of love and accepting help in changing behaviors that are, in the long run, destructive. In other words, this saying no and this saying yes are not one time events, but are questions that we must return to over and over again.

So – the first and most basic question of our Lenten retreat is this: Do you renounce the works of Satan and all the evil powers of this world that would corrupt and destroy the works of creation?

And the response is: I renounce them.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

What happens when your world goes “kaboom!” – the word Donna used when she told me what happened for her when the pieces fell together and she knew her life’s direction and work.

Kaboom! Perfect word for this experience – this free fall kind of experience when everything is unified – everything falls together – and in that moment, in that free fall moment, all structure is temporarily gone, definitions are meaningless, there is no you / me / it / Everything melds into one and you see. You see in a totally different light – you see what has always been there, but is most always hidden.

Mystics of every faith describe these moments – these moments of great light, of shattering light – when it is not necessarily what you see that is transfigured, but your sight that is transfigured.

Listen to Teresa of Avila, the great Carmelite mystic of the 16th century, who wrote about prayer and the exquisite beauty and infinite value of every soul. She writes about herself in the 3rd person – “the Lord revealed himself one day to her, when she had just received Communion, in great splendor and beauty and majesty, as He did after his Resurrection..” He spoke to her and her life, her relationship with God and with everyone around her was permanently altered. This mystic Teresa, by the way, was not withdrawn from the world – she was a businesswoman, an entrepreneur. She established monasteries and convents under difficult conditions, and oversaw administrators of every variety.

Was her experience a flight of fancy? The writer of 2 Peter says, no. “We are not talking to you about clever, sophisticated myths. We are telling you about something we witnessed and a voice that we heard." The vision permanently changed them - even though it took time to live into all that it meant.

And remember Paul- blinded by this great Light, who heard a Voice from Heaven speak directly to him – and whose life changed direction after that experience? The fruitfulness of his life ever afterwards speaks for itself.

Paul did not think that this experience was meant for him alone. It was meant even for the Corinthian Christians, who were an ornery, argumentative, worldly wise congregation. He wrote to them that they and he ‘are being transfigured into Christ’s likeness with ever-increasing glory." (2 Corinthians 3:18)

Paul had this on good authority. Jesus said that those who hear the Word of God and do it will “shine forth like the sun." (Matthew 13:43) In other words – transfiguration is at the heart of what God is doing in our lives, you and me - here and now - “Transfiguring us into Christ’s likeness – with ever-increasing glory - so that we shine forth like the sun.” Kaboom!

It's very hard to take it in. This truth that permeation by Divine Light "is the destiny of our human nature*", and the even greater mystery revealed on the mountain that "the suffering endured on the Cross and the Majestic Glory of God are one." (Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury)

I'm guessing that most of the time, you understand those two things as separate - and that, if you're like me - you are actually more comfortable going down the mountain with Jesus towards the Cross than you are hanging out with him in blinding Glory. After all, we understand violence, scape goating, betrayal, suffering, death. Those things are human, and while we abhor them, we understand them – they fit into our framework.

The Transfiguration does not. The truth is, mostly we don’t know what to do with moments like these – moments of blinding clarity and beauty. I don’t know about you – but I totally get Peter and James and John wanting to erect tents – wanting desperately to make the experience fit into some kind of familiar framework. But God didn’t even wait for Peter to finish his sentence.... “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.”

And of course, Listen, in the Old and the New Testament, is a loaded word. Listen equals Do. Obey. Trust. Follow.

And so, since ancient times, Christians have listened - and they have climbed Mt. Tabor - through imagination and contemplation. They have climbed up the mountain, with Peter and James and John, and have fallen on their faces, overcome with the Glory of God, revealed in Jesus the Christ. Seen it for themselves and been transformed. So, my friends, let us also ... "consider the Mystery of the Transfiguration of the Lord…., and strive to be illumined by this Light ourselves and encourage in ourselves love and striving towards the Unfading Glory and Beauty….” (St. Gregory of Palamas)

They have also learned to listen for those smaller moments, those more individual moments of clarity and transformation that also come from God in which the pieces of their lives fall into place – whether that is vocation, or faith, or relationships, or the desire to co-create with God some part of the kingdom of heaven here on earth. I'm guessing that you too know some of those moment of clarity in which you see in a way that you did not imagine or make up. And if you pay attention, and do not dismiss those moments or ignore them, they have the power to guide you for a very long time – even when the initial flush of beauty and clarity are long gone.

After all, the letter of 2 Peter was written some eighty years after Christ’s death and resurrection - almost an entire generation – and yet this one experience of clarity on the mountain top was still providing sustenance and hope and encouragement for entire communities of Christians – especially, especially in the midst of serious questioning and doubts. It was providing sustenance because they took those moments of clarity seriously and re-presented them over and over again, in telling the story and in re-enacting the power and presence of Christ with them in the moment.

So – contemplate the Glory of Christ – AND reflect back into your own life, or the life of your family, or the life of this community – and re-visit a time in which you KNEW the power and presence of God, in which you SAW things in a new way, in a more unified way, in a way that had the potential to change you, if you let it. Revisit that time, maybe even come out of the closet and tell someone about it – you’re not crazy!

Linger on the mountain – don’t immediately descend into the cross of daily living – the mounds of laundry and the dishes and the office paperwork,– linger in that moment of clarity that was a gift from God. Lean into it and trust it and Listen – as God commanded – so that when you do descend the mountain – you do so as one who is beginning to shine like the sun - in however small or large a way.

Top photo from
Quote from Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, from the Seventh Mansion
Icon Fresco of St. Paul dates back to the 4th Century AD, and was discovered during restoration work at the Catacomb of Saint Thekla in March, 2011
*Michael Ramsey, 100th Archbishop of Canterbury, (1904 – 1988)
*St. Gregory of Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonica (1296-1359), Sermon on The Transfiguration

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Which God?

So how many of you have been up in the middle of the night this past week because you had something on your mind? I have friends who swear by Ambien - the drug of choice for worriers and middle aged people whose bodies don’t rest well through the whole night.

Anxiety and worry are the new normal – the underlying tone, the background noise that is so omnipresent that we don’t even hear it although we are deeply affected by it.

We don’t worry about our next meal or how we are going to shelter our children – thank God. But we do worry about our weight, about what’s in our food, about the stylishness of our clothing and the solvency of our retirement plans. We do worry about our relationships, about our health, and about really big things over which we have actually very little control – the price of oil, the effect that will have on economic recovery, global warming of our planet, national security.

I may not be talking now exactly to you – you, as a person of faith, might not be deeply worried about these things – but we are steeping in a culture that is – and responds to that free floating worry and anxiety with ideas such as attempting to build a gigantic fence between California and Mexico, or Texas and Mexico, under the impression that this will actually make things better on either side.

Jesus goes to the heart of the issue – an issue that affected people in the 1st century just as much as it affects us in the 21st century.

You worry because you are divided, he says. Your attention is split. You are trying to serve two gods when that is not possible to do. That’s not because of some ethical failing – it’s just not possible. You can’t go two different directions at the same time.

I mean, when you drive to Lake Tahoe, there’s different routes you can take – but you can’t drive to Lake Tahoe and to Los Angeles at the same time. You need to decide – Snow or Oscars. They both might be great – but you can’t do both at the same time.

Likewise, Jesus says that a lot of our worry has to do with indecision – with trying to go in different directions. Will it be Kingdom of God? Or will it be Kingdom of Money?

If you decide Kingdom of God – that does not mean money is evil or scary or unnecessary. It doesn’t mean you can go pick flowers all day. It just means that it’s not your first priority – and it’s not your destination.

But what happens when you make the kingdom of money your destination? It turns out it’s governed by a god who isn’t very reliable, who is fickle and who – in the end – doesn’t take very good care of his people.

The god’s name is Scarcity. The rules? There’s only so much to go around and if you don’t get enough, you’ll suffer – and, it turns out, there’s never really an end to enough. No matter how much you get – it’s not quite enough.

It’s a kingdom of Musical Chairs. Remember the adrenaline of musical chairs? Grown up musical chairs is not any prettier. Even the ones sitting pretty can’t rest -– because conditions can change, sometimes quite rapidly, and then they are out - hungry and cold – either for real, or metaphorically speaking.

We basically live in the kingdom of Money, and the voice of its god, Scarcity, is all around us. We are all of us, every one of us, susceptible, and at one time or another we have all worshipped at its feet. Hoping we will be among the winners, we will be among those not caught on the outside.

It’s a cruel god – but we serve this god because we are trying to make ourselves secure, even when, deep down, we recognize that this god will not take care of us, will abandon us and let us down, and will ultimately make us insecure and increase our worry.

It’s just that it looks so true. It really does look like there’s not quite enough.

And we do not have to look far to see examples of real suffering because of not enough. In our backyard, there are homeless. And then, there are places of deep entrenched poverty, places like Haiti.

Jesus says that the true God – the God of the Kingdom of Heaven – the God of Abundance knows what you have need of and will provide. How?

A friend of mine spent yesterday rounding up blankets and jacket, hats and gloves and taking them out to the homeless men she knows who come to eat Sunday breakfast at her church. The weather forecast was deep cold – and her friends were going to be suffering – and tucked away in the closets of her more fortunate friends, were enough warm things to go around – to be shared.

I’m guessing that her fortunate friends might have wanted some of those coats and blankets. When you live in the Kingdom of Heaven, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have nice things – it just means that you have a different relationship with those things.

They are Not the source of your security or your contentment or your sense of value and worth. They are yours for as long as they are yours – and when the Generous God of Abundance has need of them elsewhere, you offer them, knowing that this God has your welfare in mind just as much as everyone else’s, and that there’s enough to go around – so long as no one hoards. Knowing that the intention in the Kingdom of Heaven is that no one get left out in the cold. That everyone has a chair.

Again - living into this Kingdom does not mean that you don’t plan for the future or that you are not prudent with one’s resources. It doesn’t help the poor to plan poorly.

But it does mean you can unhook yourself from the governing god of scarcity, this fear of not enough, and trust the true God of creation, the God who will not abandon you or turn his back on you.

You can learn to trust the God who has inscribed – tattooed – permanently marked you - onto the palm of his hand – who will not forget you - Ever.

Is this easy to trust? No. It goes counter to everything around us. That’s why we do it in community. That’s why we practice and work at building our muscles of trust by bringing food for the food bank, by making presents at Christmas for strangers, by pledging ever increasing proportions of our income to God’s work in the church and in the world.

It’s not easy. But it gets easier the more we find that it works – the more we find there is enough when everyone shares – and it gets easier when we begin to see examples of God’s provident care everywhere we look.

So choose your kingdom and your god – even if it’s a choice you have to make over and over again –which it is, for most of us.

Leave the kingdom of scarcity and choose the Kingdom of Heaven. Practice giving your undivided attention to the God who cares for you and see if the siren song of worry does not cease to trouble you.

photos: driving to Lake Tahoe, by Kai Harris
Luis Renteria, Monterey Food Bank Warehouse Manager, taken at Good Shepherd, Salinas, CA

Monday, February 14, 2011

Traveling ever Deeper into the Realm of Heaven

The events in the Middle East, in Egypt particularly have been mesmerizing this past week. We have been transfixed by scenes of determination, togetherness, nonviolent revolution – and then celebration. Those who have been there report that for hours and hours, Egyptians kept pouring into Tahrir: whole families, fathers with small children on their shoulders, throngs and throngs of jubilant young men and boys, committed activists and health and safety volunteers, rich and poor, Muslim and Christian, all floating in a sea of Egyptian flags.

Radical change - and the need to be radically welcoming of such change – even as it alters our relationships and even when we don’t know exactly what it will mean as the balance of power shifts, yet again. As Mitch McConnell, minority leader of the Senate, said, ?We have a big stake in the outcome, but limited ability to affect it."

We are in the midst of sea change in the world. Not just in Egypt. But in India. In China. And here at home.

I do not, as a rule, follow financial news - but my ears perked up this week to hear that a German exchange company, Deutsche Borse, is negotiating to acquire that icon of American capitalism, the New York Stock Exchange.

Change is happening fast. And unpredictably.

It was happening fast in Matthew’s day as well. The central question around which the Gospel of Matthew revolves is – "how do we face change?" The Temple, the icon of Jewish and Christian worship and the central focus of how their society was organized, was completely destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. Razed to the ground. And not just the Temple, but all the priests AND their families. Executed. The Romans had had it with the Jewish propensity for revolt, and so they attacked the very heart of their society, culture, economics and worship.

Christians were mixed up in this as well Jews. The first Christians were a sect within the Jewish faith – they were not a separate religion. They worshipped at the Temple just as their Jewish kin did, just as Jesus did. The Temple was Holy. We, in our secular culture, have little understanding of how significant Holy Place is - but the Temple was where the people came close to God and God came close to them.

Now it was gone. And that meant massive upheaval and change – the cosmic rug pulled from under their feet. With the priests gone, laymen stepped in. We reflexively boo and hiss when Pharisees and Scribes enter the story – but they were lay lawyers, and they stepped in to do the best that they could to hold the people together and to pull them through this tragedy. The Temple, the place of God on earth, was gone. Their sacramental life was no more. But they still had the Law of Moses to serve as the link between them and God and to serve as their identity – and the Pharisees set out to teach it and to uphold it to the utmost of their ability. And so – after the razing of the Temple in 70 A.D., the Jewish community became more home-based and more Law based.

One reason for this was to provide organization. Another was to maintain their identity as a people. And a third was because the lens through which they viewed this disaster was that God was angry with them, and so, in order to appease God, they would study harder and become ever more Law-Abiding. Upright. Righteous. As perfect as possible.

So where did that leave Christian Jews? It left them increasingly at odds with their own community. At some fundamental level, their identity had already shifted. They were followers of what was known simply as “The Way.” They experienced the living Christ in their midst – and they were pretty convinced that God was not angry with them, and that keeping the Law as perfectly as possible was not the way to salvation.

When they continued to experience the living Christ in their midst, independent of any building or indeed of any one place – they were set free, in some incredibly awesome ways. The Gospel of Matthew is birthed out of this radical change – it points backwards repeatedly to the Law and the Prophets, but it does so in order to point forward to this new way. A new way of life based in the deeply held conviction that they were precious human beings, baptized and claimed as Christ’s own forever, and that this Christ lived at the heart and center of their gatherings – gatherings that had no buildings, no parish halls, no organs or pianos. Gatherings that had as their sole focus hearing the Word in community, praying, passing the Peace of the Lord to one another, and blessing, breaking and sharing the Bread of Christ.

So the Gospel of Matthew was written to Jewish Christians undergoing radical change - thrown out of the synagogues and in many cases, alienated from family members.

How to deal with change... Anyone who has undergone deep change knows that it can put a tremendous stress on relationships. Amen?

Today’s passage from the Sermon on the Mount deals with those stresses. How to organize community and relationships in a way that is consistent with the old way – with what is known – Torah Law – but now deepening and widening out into this new Realm known simply as the Kingdom of Heaven. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus leads his followers deep into the Realm of the Living Christ – the Christ who lives within the believers, and within their gathered body. Deep into this Realm, relationships shift – they are no longer simply about abiding by the Law or about lopping off outward manifestations of relational difficulties – but about going inward, to the heart, to attitude, gaining an inward orientation.

Where does murder begin? It begins in anger. Where does treating someone else as an object? It begins in lust. Where does swearing begin? It begins in exaggeration and irreverence. We might think of these things as relatively small on the scale of world affairs. But on the scale of the building blocks of the relationships in which people live their lives – they are not so small – and they can wreak havoc.

The Jewish Christians of the 1st century knew Torah Law for sure. And they were able, in the presence and with the guidance of Jesus, to radicalize the Law, to deepen it, to penetrate its depths and alter it to fit their new realities.

So what about us? I wonder what Law we know for sure and what the Living Christ in our midst is calling us to radicalize to fit today's fast paced changing realities?

One Law we know for sure is that we are all created in the image of the Living God, and that there is no place where God is not. We know for sure that God loves everyone, unconditionally and indiscriminately, and we know for sure that we, as a community of Christ, are not dependent upon buildings or land for our existence. I believe the Living Lord in our midst is challenging us and inviting us to live ever deeper into that Law of Unconditional and Indiscriminate Love and Ever Abiding Presence – away from dependence upon external realities and into the Kingdom of Heaven here, in our midst, on earth. Amen.

Photograph: Reuters, from The Guardian, Feb. 12, 2011
Photograph: Mark Lennihan, AP, from NPR, Feb. 10, 2011