Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Jenny Williams, in this article for the Ekklesia Project, lifts up Mary as someone who was faithful to God in, really, a smallish way. It had real and serious, life-changing consequences for her, but what was at work through God was way beyond her. While acknowledging that the Christmas story is about salvation on a cosmic scale, she gives us this provocative quote: "But I wonder if this Sunday is a time to instead give credit to the small acts of subversion that we really don’t see as subversive at all, or that come from places or people who do not see themselves as subversive."

I wonder, along with her, if this Advent, we're called to give special attention to the ways each of us is able to do the work of Mary and Elizabeth. Our scripture, from Luke's gospel, tells of Mary--having just had her encounter with the Angel Gabriel and having just assented to God's mysterious work in her--fleeing for the hills, to be with her cousin Elizabeth. There, Elizabeth recognizes the powerful mystery at work in her.

I think there's space for both kinds of actions: being willing to be bearers of the Holy Spirits work in our world (like Mary) and being willing to name, acknowlege and celebrate the Holy Spirit's work in others (like Elizabeth). Powerful.

Our Christmas stories have so much to offer in terms of hope and possibility. This week, they made me think of a story from Barbara Kingsolver that I read several years ago, and have posted as in the entry below. Enjoy!

Small Wonders: Nature, Stillness, Foreign Policy | Barbara Kingsolver | Orion Magazine

Small Wonders: Nature, Stillness, Foreign Policy | Barbara Kingsolver | Orion Magazine

Posted using ShareThis

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Advent Waiting

Originally uploaded by alan(ator)
Since Advent is a season of waiting, and since I hate waiting rooms, long waits and generally have a negative conception of "waiting," I thought I ought to dig a bit deeper in this.

Turns out, "wait" has a wonderfully rich history of definition. Entries on the word span 5 pages in my old OED. The first definition clues me in that something is going on here: "In various phrases with the general sense: To take up a concealed position in order to make an unforeseen attack, or to be in readiness to intercept one's enemy or intended prey in passing; to lurk in ambush."

Perhaps our Advent waiting is more than just killing time until Christmas--delaying the celebration so that we can have had the appropriate (and probably holy) period of restraint.

Maybe the kind of "waiting" that a waiter does is more apt--tending to, preparing for, watching for Christ's coming.

But there are other fabulous definitions of wait. My favorites involve music: first, in 1300, a watchman who would sound an alarm by horn or trumpet. Then, by 1430, a watchman attached to the royal household who would sound the royal trumpets. In 1438, it was used for a small band of wind instrumentalists, kept by a city for festive occasions, often strolling the streets. In 1773, it was used for a band of musicians and singers who would roam the streets near Christmas and the New Year, playing carols and seasonal music (!).

Waiting, in most of the 5 pages of entries, is much more than mere delay. It implies watchfulness and readiness for something big happening. Maybe there's even trumpets.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Just a glimpse

This week, we mark the end of our Christian year as we celebrate Christ the King Sunday. Which we like to catch a glimpse of the much-better work we think possible through God. As we were peering into God's Kingdom...

Which, really, is a little like what we tend to do on Thanksgiving every year: share in a meal that looks like the kind of eating we'd always like to do. It gathers together extended and often separate family and friends, plenty of nourishing and delicious food, and is as lovely as possible. And, as far as I can tell, it's the one day when more of us are more likely to take time to pause and give thanks for the good stuff we enjoy. Even if these things don't happen every day, maybe we do them once a year to remind us that they're possible.

The thing is, this Christ the King Sunday celebration is even better: it gathers together a wild and diverse assortment of people and is open to the whole world, the sacrament of Holy Communion sustains our souls and is divinely beautiful. As usual, we pass time in worship giving thanks, confessing our failures, and seeking to be remade in God's image.

And, most importantly, it reminds us that we belong in a reality even bigger, more powerful and important that the perfect Thanksgiving holiday feast.

(This is very good news for those of us whose Thanksgiving feasts won't look like the pages of Martha Stewart Living. Nothing against Martha; I just know that distance from loved ones, grief over those missing from the table, budgets that are already stretched and cannot include the foods or decorations we might rather have, work schedules, ongoing interpersonal conflicts and tensions and many other things get in the way of our "perfect" holidays.)

We're reminded this weekend that Christ is Alpha and Omega, A-through-Z. God's power is bigger and more amazing than anything else. And, though it's not always fully obvious in the midst of our current troubles, God's truth is on a whole 'nother level. It means justice, peace and life for all creation.

So, come help us peek ahead to the kingdom, and get a glimpse of the other world that is possible.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

daring prayer

Originally uploaded by Matthew San Diego
This week's scripture, from 1 Samuel, tells another story of a faithful woman; here, Hannah is a model of a faithful, prayerful follower of God.

At a time when few trusted in the mess that was their political and religious structure, Hannah's personal life is full of struggle, too. Unable to bear children, she's taunted by her husband's other wife, and haunted by her own desire for a child.

So, she does a bold thing: she prays about it. Fervently, and without the help of a priest or the interceding powers of an offering. Her prayer is so wild that the priest assumes she's drunk; after they talk, though, he affirms the power of her genuine, deep, whole-hearted prayer.

She doesn't behave as though she's entitled to what she wants; she is willing to make promises and sacrifices, too.

When her child, Samuel, is born, she sings another bold prayer. It tells of the power of a God who turns things around and upside down, inverting everything we think we know about the world.

As I read Hannah's prayers--the one where she pleaded and bargained with God and the one where she sang God's praises--I'm struck by how genuine they are. They are authentic, unmitigated, heartfelt expressions of herself. They need to polishing, no professional's help, no gold-embossed typesetting. They are real.

Perhaps this is what God is asking of us: that we would come to God with our pain and our joy, trusting in and celebrating connection to a God in whom all things are possible.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

widows and heroes

This week, we get the end of the book of Ruth--a beautiful (if a bit racy) story of faithfulness and redemption. Having risked the little she had left in following her mother-in-law Naomi back to Judah, she now follows Naomi's direction, using the small window of opportunity she had available, and secures not only a husband for herself, but a future for Naomi, too.

Where there seemed to be very little opportunity no hopeful future, a new way forward emerged. It relied on the goodwill of Boaz, Ruth's new husband, but also on the planning and action of the two widows in the story: Ruth and Naomi.

In our gospel lesson from Mark, there's mention of more widows: first, as the scribes are called out for preying on them, and then as one humble, faithful widow gives all she has to God--her last dollar.

I love that in all these stories, we're taught important values: that we should give care to the vulnerable in our midst. It is sinful to take advantage of those who are poor.

But I also love that the most vulnerable in these stories--the "have-nots"--also show themselves to have a whole lot: a power to proclaim something important about how God works in the world. No mere recipients of abuse or of care, these widows are agents in the world, showing us all how to live.

This makes we wonder who I should be looking to for lessons on faithfulness...

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

remembering the saints

This Sunday, we celebrate All Saints' Day.

Our worship is always a special time--besides getting us together in God's presence, it also becomes a way of transcending our own time and place. I think worship is more than a little like time travel.

Only, unlike the Land of the Lost kind of time travel, worship doesn't transport us to some distant past. It's projects us forward to the Kingdom of God, where the whole of God's community--all through time and space--is gathered together. Worship is a glimpse into the future that God holds, and it's a good time...

There's lots of things I love the tradition of painting the images of saints on the walls of churches. Mostly, I love the way it reminds us of our belonging in this really big community, and that our church life today comes along with the blessing and spiritual presence of our ancestors in faith. "A cloud of witnesses," Paul called them, in his letter to the Hebrews.

When I visited Crete recently, with the World Council of Churches' Faith and Order Plenary, we worshiped on Sunday at the Cathedral of Kastelli-Kissamos on western Crete. Though the Divine Liturgy was ancient, the cathedral building is modern, and some of the frescoes were still being painted. Which left this set of saints toward the back of the main nave:

Some others and I wondered if these were left here as in invitation--a sort of "if you were a saint, your picture could be here." An invitation to church to remember that we are among those called to be witnesses to Christ's love in a way that has power even after our deaths.

This week, we'll read a story from the Hebrew Bible of a woman who made a powerful choice for belonging with another, as we begin Ruth's story. And, we'll remember the law that's at the heart of our life in the church: our command to love God and neighbor.

In all this, we'll also be remembering the saints in our midst--members of our congregation, families and community who have died in the past year. And, as always, we'll gather at the communion table in a feast that connects us to them, by the mystery of God.

Hope to see you there.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

For such a time as this

When I was a kid, I used to spend hours reading stories from the Old Testament. I loved them--all those vivid accounts of God interacting with his people; all those fascinating characters.

Esther was always one of my favorites... As a little girl, I loved to read about the beautiful woman who became a queen, and who dared to bend the rules and save her people from destruction. See, Esther started out as just another girl, but God used her to deliver an entire population from death. Talk about being in the right place at the right time.

This week, we'll hear a little of Queen Esther's story, and how she was able to use her influence to stand up for a people who didn't have a voice. We're continuing our theme of laying a foundation of good, solid life lessons, and this week's is just that: to speak up for those who can't speak for themselves, even when we might catch some flak for doing so.

Our lesson from Mark gives us more solid advice about dealing with people weaker than ourselves. It's vivid--maybe even a little shocking--but sometimes we need this kind of wake-up call. We're called to be the salt of the earth... And if we don't fill that role, then who will?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

It doesn't all revolve around you.

Solar System.
Originally uploaded by popoPsan
If last week we learned to bite our tongues, this week, we get another lesson for good living from James: remember that it doesn't all revolve around you.

We're to let go of jealousy and selfish ambition, and to take up a "gentleness born of wisdom" that comes from God. And it will be a good life.

And I agree that I'd like to live in a world free of hypocrisy, selfishness, judgmentalism and the like--it's just scary to be the one to start, sometimes. I mean, really: it's hard to be considerate all the time, especially of inconsiderate people.

But, then, I guess it's not an easy work we're called to. As I was pondering this, words of an good ol' hymn popped into my head. (The third verse, so I confess that I had to Google to get 'em all right...) They come from "This is My Father's World" (with apologies for having only masculine images of God):
This is my Father's world.  
O let me ne'er forget
that though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father's world:
why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is King; let the heavens ring!
God reigns; let the earth be glad!
So we also rejoice in the words of Psalm 1, which imagine our faithfulness as infinitely stronger and more "real" than the ways of evil.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

God's ReCreation

Honeycomb drip
Originally uploaded by chrisjohnbeckett

This fall, we're celebrating God's ReCreation for several weeks in worship. (We thought that after spending the summer tearing down walls of injustice, it'd be good to spend some time in re-creating the good stuff, in collaboration with God.)

There will be many good and meaningful things to come, and this week it all begins. Our scripture lessons for the week set us off in the right direction, with some basic ground rules and perspective to help in our work.

James admonishes us to watch what we say: our words can be dangerous weapons against each other and God. But, then, they also have great potential for life-giving power.

Psalm 19 lays a much more lovely vision--it sings of the beauty of God, as present in creation and in God's law. Both are deliciously sweet. (As sweet as the honeycomb's drippings, it says.)

Which is to say, I think, that it's in our power to bear sweetness or only sour. So hold your tongue. Save it for the sweet stuff...

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Passing Judgment

We've all seen him--that old, scruffy guy in the intersection holding a cardboard sign emblazoned with a plea for mercy: "Unemployed, anything helps", it might say, or "Disabled, please help". And while we might roll down our windows and hand over a couple of dollars, or the change in our ash tray; while we might offer to walk over to the nearest 7-Eleven and buy him a sandwich, sometimes less-than-generous thoughts pass through our minds. We think, "Man, just get a job" or "He'll just use the money to get his next fix."

In this week's scripture from James, we are warned not to pass these kinds of judgments on the poor, because God can work through them--bless them--just as he can the rich. He loves us all as his children, rich or poor, and wants us to love each other the same way.

Jesus' ministry was all about this kind of love. We'll hear the story this week of how he met a Gentile woman who was begging for the kind of mercy that only he could give: her daughter "had an unclean spirit", and she knew that Jesus could heal the little girl. Jesus had a strange reaction--he told the woman that "it is wrong for the dogs to eat the food that was meant for the children." She responds by saying that "even the dogs eat the scraps that the children leave behind".

Instead of being affronted, she responds to Jesus with humility. She has a need, and she is not ashamed to beg for Jesus' help. Jesus has pity on her and heals her daughter, even though she is a Gentile.

We are called to this same generosity, but often we fall short. What are some judgments that we pass on those who ask it of us?

We'll use your replies in worship this Sunday, so please post your thoughts in the comments!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

love song for God

This week's texts might seem pretty far from each other: love poetry from Song of Solomon and a story of Jesus challenging the Pharisees and calling them out on hypocrisies.

But really, perhaps, they're not so disconnected. See if you agree:
The love poetry gives voice to what it's like to be caught up in the ecstatic joy of God's amazing love. It's an experience that's really indescribable--as incredible as the fresh beauty of springtime flowers.

When we forget this enchantment--when we lose the life-giving joy of our faith--it's easy to fall back on the lifeless forms of rigid, empty rules. And get all caught up in how other people are breaking them. How other people aren't doing the right things.

Jesus challenges the Pharisees: it's"the things that come out of you are what defiles."

Back in the springtime love poetry, all that comes out are words of love, grace and beauty.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Do it

Hey, everyone: it's good to be back. I've been blessed by 8 weeks of leave for spiritual renewal, and they've been rich. (See above.) I've heard bits and pieces about beautiful and inspiring things that have been going on during this time, and I look forward to hearing more. Thanks to everyone, especially the folks who stepped into new and greater leadership in my absence.

This Sunday, we have a special treat: our youth, who've been preparing for this all summer, are leading worship. The texts they've chosen are Luke 15:8-10, about a widow who loses and then finds something important, and James 1:17-27, which (among other things) invites us to be "doers of the word," not just folks who hear the word.

I'm looking forward to what worship will contain: the youth have been "doing" their faith this summer, at camps and on work trips and elsewhere, and now they're ready to share testimony about it.

I hope you'll be there with us, to worship together and share God's grace in communion.


In other news, we started a new Water's Edge Facebook group. You can join us there, too... Jerry even posted Lollo's videos of our Music Team. It's all very cool.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

walls of injustice

All summer long, we'll be breaking down walls of injustice in our worship.

We labeled this wall in our prayer time a few weeks ago, and ever since, have been working at reminding ourselves how it is that Christ breaks down this wall, and gives us a better view of the Kingdom of God.

I'm excited about how good it will be to keep taking this wall down, and grateful for the many people who are going to help in that work. Mostly, you.

For the next 8 weeks, I'll be away on a renewal leave. I'll miss being in worship, but am excited about the plans already made for powerful and prophetic worship through the summer.

The blog will be even less-regularly updated, but Sunday worship will always be rich.

Hope you can be there!

grace and peace,

Thursday, May 28, 2009


The Art of Flame
Originally uploaded by Jeremy-G
This week, we celebrate Pentecost--the birthday of the church. (And, concurrently, we're marking the 140th Anniversary at First UMC San Diego.) At Water's Edge, there will be bluegrass music (and I get to play spoons).

Pentecost is a bit wild: the Holy Spirit, like tongues of fire, rests on the apostles and gives them the ability to speak to a diverse crowd of people in a multitude of languages which are, for their hearers, everyone's native language.


They hear the same story, but in a mess of different sounds.

How beautiful that the beginning of our church life happened through a unity expressed in vividly diverse ways.

This gives me hope that the future of the church rests secure, as we continue to follow the Spirit's lead, making the good news of Jesus Christ visible in a wide variety of expressions and styles.

I've been excited by the United Methodist Church's new ad campaign, which asks us to "rethink church." Pentecost seems as good a time as any I know to remember that church is not a building, but a way of living. And our call is to be those 10,000 doors that open people to life in the Spirit. May it be so.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Extravagant Generosity

This week's practice is extravagant generosity. Which makes me think of a song in our hymnal:

Cuando el pobre nada tiene y aun reparte, cuando el hombre pasa sed y agua nos da, cuando el d├ębil a su hermano fortalece, va Dios mismo en nuestro mismo caminar, va Dios mismo en nuestro mismo caminar.

When the poor ones who have nothing share with strangers, when the thirsty water give unto us all, when the crippled in their weakness strengthen others, then we know that God still goes that road with us, then we know that God still goes that road with us.

There's something powerful about the extravagance of generosity that God's love inspires in us--not so much that we always have impressively large sums to donate others, but that our giving makes a significant difference to us.

My dad has some favorite sayings related to giving. One of my favorites is an invitation to give until it feels good--somewhere past giving 'til it hurts is a joy that comes in being able to share something that matters to us.
Photo by Jack Hynes, shared through Creative Commons via
In Luke, Jesus tells the story of a woman who gave something that, from the outside, seemed insignificant; for her, it was everything.

Paul's second letter to the Corinthians, we're told how the Macedonian's joy and poverty somehow, mysteriously and miraculously, overflowed in a wealth of generosity.

I'm digging that phrase: a wealth of generosity. More than being about the measurable sum collected, their wealth lay in their spirit of giving. Surely, none would have need if we lived with a true wealth of generosity.

I do, however, think of the times when I have seen just this kind of spirit--courageous, risk-taking generosity inspires others to the same.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Intentional Faith Development

This Sunday, as we focus on intentional faith development as a practice that strengthens our church life, we also celebrate Mother's Day.

And, while Mother's Day is a relatively new holiday (in comparison to our ancient celebrations like the season of Easter), the practice of honoring our foremothers is not new. Our passage for this week from 2 Timothy tells of the important role a mother and grandmother played in shaping a life of faith, as Paul gives thanks for Timothy's mother Eunice, and grandmother, Lois.

As may be expected for a time a culture when women's roles were limited by a boldly patriarchal society, we know little about these two women; we learn, from Paul's mention of them, though, that their role in the shaping of their son and grandson's faith was critical.

In Deuteronomy, just after Moses has shared the central law that God gave on Mt. Sinai in what we've come to call the "Ten Commandments," Moses summarizes the law, and gives clear instruction to pass it on. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might," he says, continuing that we should impress this on our children.

I've been intrigued with the phrase about how to teach them to our children. Some translations say to "impress them" on our children. Others read "teach them diligently." Or, simply, "recite them." The Hebrew word used, shanan, can be defined either as teaching diligently, or (as it's used more commonly in the Hebrew Bible) as having a slightly more visceral definition: something like whetting, piercing or incising. Tattoo them on your kids hearts, perhaps.
Photo by Piero Sierra, shared through Creative Commons via
This doesn't seem to be about the kind of teaching that might allow one to do well on a standardized test; this teaching comes with a kind of whole-self, lifelong demonstration of loving God.

I give thanks for those who have been models for me in this work--who teach by a way of living that models deep love for God and neighbor.

May it write this law incisively on my heart.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Risk-Taking Mission and Service

Our Scripture passages this week are two old favorites of mine:

The prophet Micah clarifies that faithfulness isn't about fancy worship, but about lives of humble service. "What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God."

Then, in Matthew's gospel, Jesus clarifies what kind of criteria God might use in our judgment: how we treated the "least of these" in our midst.

Humility seems to be a key piece in both--a willingness to the unglamorous work of serving.

In a world when marketing strategies tell us that public service can be good for our "brand," when community service improves our college resumes, and when famous personalities are tapped for photo ops for non-profits, these passages seem to call us to something even more.

(Not that making service cool is a bad thing--I think it's pretty fabulous to lift up heroes who model serving others.)

These passages ask us to go a step further--to risk serving people who no one else would choose. Or to take the chance that our investment in another person won't solve their problems and doesn't necessarily depend on them doing things like we think they should.

Risk-taking mission and service also opens up the possibility that our service will change us, our ways of thinking and our priorities in life.

This is risky business.

I wonder what risks you've taken to be in mission and service?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Passionate Worship

Note: My apologies for not posting this sooner--I started it early last week, and then forgot to ever change it from "draft" to "published" status! Hopefully, it might still be fun conversation for this week...
Photo by Sean Dreilinger, shared through Creative Commons via

Our scripture this week includes tale of a dramatic sea crossing and the rejoicing that followed from Exodus, as well as a story of prayerful singing in worship at a time of transition and hope from Luke's gospel.

Worship is a beautiful response to God's liberating work in the world. Both in a narrow escape in a time of very real danger and oppression (as in Exodus) and at a moment when God's salvation is finally incarnate (though still just a little baby), music gives form to thanksgiving, and expresses a joy that can be shared.

I'm especially moved by Simeon's song, the piece from Luke's gospel. Here, and old man gets a chance to meet Jesus--but not full-grown Jesus. He sees little, days-old baby Jesus. And then sings of the fulfillment of God's promise.

How wild to have such confidence and trust in a tiny newborn.

I think this is what I like about worship, though--it's our way of naming and celebrating the wonderful wholeness and salvation of God's kingdom, even though the best we can see these days are our little, tiny signs of grace. Fits and starts, as precarious as a newborn.

But, we gather, holding to what we know matters most, and we let it change us.

May it be so!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Radical Hospitality

Note: For the next five weeks, our whole congregation is going to be reading and praying about Five Practices for Fruitful Congregations. I encourage you to follow the link and participate with us. Our worship will focus on one practice each week. Then, on May 31, we will celebrate them all, as well as Pentecost (the birthday of the church!) and our congregation's 140th anniversary. This should be a rich time, as we look at what makes church "church," as we look at our past, and as we prepare ourselves for bearing good fruit into the future.

This week, we have two texts. One from Deuteronomy and one from the gospel of Luke, each with a lesson about what it means to offer hospitality.

In Deuteronomy, as God delivers the law that will be at the core of the relationship between people and God, we hear words that echo through scripture: that we should love God with our heart and soul. And, then, that we should care for the widows and orphans in our midst. And for the strangers, because we were once strangers in Egypt.

How wild that here, at the very heart of God's commandment, is the expectation that we offer hospitality and care. And that we acknowledge our own need for hospitality, too.

That we should welcome the "stranger" has pretty powerful implications in our own time. Other translations use terms like "alien" or "foreigner." Without regard to citizenship status.

I wonder who we're most called to offer hospitality to, today? Who ought we be welcoming, and how will we find ways of offering that hospitality?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Helping us Get It

How do you explain your faith to others?

What helps you "get it" yourself?

I marvel at the many ways Jesus tries to help Nicodemus understand faith. In the third chapter of John's Gospel, Jesus tries in many differing ways to help Nicodemus understand faith. (The part we'll consider this week is here.

Most confusing for Nicodemus, a Pharisee who came go Jesus under cover of night, was the concept of grace.

God didn't send the Son into the world to condemn the world.

This is not about judgment. This is about new life.

The Vernal Equinox -- Spring -- seems a wonderful time to celebrate faith as new life, transformed life, new birth.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!

This week's gospel sound-bite catches another shockingly confrontational moment in Jesus life: in his first moments of public ministry (according to John), Jesus makes as scene at the temple where he's come to celebrate Passover.

Finding the courtyard full of people selling animals to offer to God, and moneychangers to help folks from lots of different places make those offerings, Jesus fashions a whip and chases them all out.  

"Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!"
The other Gospels give him another line, about turning the temple into a "den of thieves."  But John leaves his complaint with having made God's house a "marketplace."  Which makes me wonder what the difference is between a marketplace and a den of thieves...

It leaves me to imagine that what set Jesus off wasn't that the booths are charging outrageous tourist prices for the sheep, doves and cattle folks would have been purchasing to fulfill their obligations to make offerings to God on this holy day.  It was something about them selling sheep, doves and cattle at all.

I'm wondering if maybe he was overcome by a shocking realization that people were giving way more energy to buying the right sheep, doves and cattle for worship than they were to worshipping God?  

I confess: I sometimes spend way too much time thinking (obsessing?) about things that aren't what really matters.  And I wonder how clearly my life--what people see me spending my time on and giving myself to--communicates about God's role in my life. 

What if we're not supposed to ask "Am I putting the cart before the horse," but "Am I putting the sheep, doves and cattle before real worship?"

Monday, March 02, 2009

Get behind me, Satan!

We are continuing our "Gospel Sound Bites" with this quick quip from Jesus to Peter: "Get behind me, Satan!"

I'm sort-of kicking myself this Monday, wondering what I was thinking in picking this phrase out of this week's rich text from Mark. (I could have easily gone for "Take up your cross and follow me," for example...)

I confess: articulating a theological understand of Satan's power is not the pastoral task that puts me most at-ease.

(You can see a clever cartoon of the dilemma here, from ASBO Jesus in England.)

Last week, we focused on repentance. This week Satan. Dangerous ground--these ideas are laden with the baggage of a legacy of self-righteous, judgmental use. And yet, I admit my own curious inability to resist giving them a go.

(As if I can be the one to wrest new, true, life-giving, liberating meaning out of the stuff of fear-mongering fire-and-brimstone preaching, and hand-painted signs waved by end-predicting fanatics.)

I suppose this would be a good place for a little Lenten humility. I can't claim to understand exactly why Jesus chose this angry rebuke, renaming Peter (who, incidentally, was given the name "Peter" by Jesus, too, because, apparently, because of his rock-like foundational leadership) as Satan.

Satan, in Mark's gospel, is the one who was testing Jesus in the wilderness. And the one who steals the Word of God before it can bear fruit, in the language of the Parable of the Sower. An adversary, at the least, and, somehow, the incarnation of temptation to the opposite of God's intentions for the world.

What did Peter do to earn this name? He spoke up in opposition to Jesus' description of the suffering and rejection he was to experience from the folks in power at the time.

It looks as though Peter had a different vision of what the Messiah should experience--something other than suffering in the hands of those in power. I imagine Peter thought Jesus would become the hands in power.

(Which, come to think of it, is one of the temptations Satan offered to Jesus in the wilderness, according to Matthew and Luke's gospels.)

In Lent, we're tempted to talk a lot about suffering. Many take on Lenten practices that are uncomfortable--fasting, for example. (Or, perhaps, giving up chocolate. Or Facebook.) I suspect, though, that this is not the kind of suffering that Jesus was taking about. Not fasting, or self-flagellation, or ever self-imposed guilt.

Jesus was to suffer rejection by the powerful leaders of his time, because he presented a different way of living in the world. His message and his ministry were a threat to the established power and priorities of his time. (And, come to think of it, in a whole bunch of ways, ours...)

So, when Jesus called Peter out, he was clarifying that this ministry is not about accumulating power. It's about being fully-committed to a new way of living.

I'm not thinking that I'd much like being called Satan, but I do admit to my need for help in staying on track toward God's kingdom values.

In the midst of a world filled with far too much suffering, we are called to honor a God who calls us out when we put our own power above the needs of the suffering of the world.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

repent and believe the good news

Photo by slworking2 on; used by creative commons license.
So much in our world gets reduced to sound bites--quick sayings, repeated over and over become the way we know things. Which is, really, the only way I can win that one part of Cranium where you have to impersonate funny people. I succeed best when I draw someone known by a sound bite. You know: "I am not a crook." "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." "I have a dream." "Yes we can."

Reading the gospel lessons for this Lent--a season in our church life that begins today--Jesus' gospel sound bites jumped out at me.

For reasons very different from those in our over-saturated news of today, short, powerful quotes became one of the primary ways that folks in the early church passed Jesus' message on.

This week, Jesus delivers a sound bite that invites us into this season of Lent, a time of repentance, refocusing and devotion: "Repent and believe the good news."

Now and then, I get quite infatuated with little things. This week, its the word "and." See, when I searched the internet for depictions of repentance, the most common images I found were end-times predictions: "repent or perish." "Repent or else." "Repent sinner."

Not a single "repent and..."

So I tried a bit of biblical research. The Greek work for repentance is metanoia, which literally implies a turning--a changing of one's mind. In Mark, the shortest and earliest-written gospel, Jesus is quoted as saying, "repent and believe the good news." In Matthew, the similar message, translated into English, comes: "repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand."

I love these translations--at the turning of repentance, which orients us away from our previous, isolated lives, we turn toward God's good news and set our vision on the kingdom of God. In both Matthew and Mark, these words become a sound bite that condenses the basic message Jesus takes as he begins his ministry in the world.

You have to look to Luke to get "repent or..." line from Jesus. And, there, it comes much later in his ministry, in a particular story about the necessity of change (as opposed to as a condensation of the whole message.)

Where am I going with all this, you wonder?

I'm feeling like, on this Ash Wednesday, as we enter into Lent together, we're called to change our hearts and minds. But not because we're afraid, or because we're threatened; we are invited to change because there's good news to be found when we turn to God.

Change (if you'll indulge me) that we can believe in.

So, here at Ash Wednesday, as we are invited to make confession to God, we are invited to turn our lives toward a new and life-giving possibility: the good news of God's kingdom.

Justice and peace. Abundance. Infinite, generous love.

Repent and believe the good news.


I hope you'll join us in worship tonight, on Ash Wednesday. I love the humbling and reorienting act of confessing our own sins, and of being marked with a cross of ashes. We are mortal, and called to repent so that we can receive God's good news.

During this whole lenten season, we will orient our worship around the Gospel sound bites that carry core message of our faith. I hope to see you at the Water's Edge as we journey through this season.

We also invite you to pray along with our congregation, daily, starting Monday. Devotions will be posted online, here.

Monday, February 16, 2009

a revelation

This week, we celebrate the Transfiguration--a moment when Jesus reveals something of his divine identity with dazzling clarity.  Our scripture (linked above) tells the account: Jesus hikes up a mountain with three of the disciples, and suddenly appears in a brighter light than the disciples knew possible.  Moses and Elijah appear with him, as if to clarify that Jesus belongs in their tradition, but is more than they were.  Then a voice is heard--God speaking, claiming Jesus as a son.

Things that were true before were revealed suddenly, with new clarity.

Revelation and apocalypse, in their most literal definitions, are just that: an uncovering of what is truest.  Sometimes, what is most real is hidden to our eyes--then in a moment, they are revealed.  Jesus' image was transfigured, appearing differently and making the reality of his power clearer.

If revelation and apocalypse are about uncovering, in confess that they make me think of artists who do just the opposite: Christo and Jeanne-Claude are known for their large-scale works which often cover, wrap or obscure things.  For instance, this installation in Switzerland, where they wrapped the trees in a park.
Funny how wrapping these trees up makes me much more aware of their beauty and the particularities of their shapes.

Knowing that God is present all around us, and that there are signs of the reality of God's kingdom all around us, I wonder what it would take for us (the church) to be better at revealing them?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Walking in faith

When I reflect on the scriptures we will consider in worship this week, the concept I keep coming back to is that faith requires all of who we are.

Faith touches our hearts.

Faith captivates and sometimes challenges our minds.

And, faith breathes through our bodies.

Walking in faith is a full-body experience.

Paul makes this point to the early Christians in Corinth using athletic images. He wants his body -- metaphorically and physically -- to be ready whenever he is called to act on his faith.

In Mark's gospel, a leper comes to Jesus asking to be made clean. To be healed. To be made whole.

How do we need to prepare ourselves to practice our faith?

How do we need to be healed to embody our faith?

As we consider these scriptures and as we prepare for Lent, consider your own preparations, consider what request you would make for healing and wholeness in your life.

How will you walk in faith?

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

meeting needs and pleasing people

Our scripture passages are rich this week. And, for at least this preacher who falls victim to the lure of pleasing people, a bit confusing:

Paul, in his letter to the church in Corinth, talks of how he meets all people where they are, on their own grounds. He says he has "become all things to all people," for the sake of the gospel. The first thing I hear here is an expectation that I should do whatever it takes to meet the needs around me in a way that takes care of everyone.

That's a lot of work.

Then, Jesus, in the first chapter of Mark's gospel, has this weird encounter with the disciples. First, he heals this throng of people who'd come to be healed by him. Then, he takes off, early in the morning, without telling anyone. The disciples sound worried as the "hunt" for him, asking why he took off; they invite him back, because there are more people wanting to see him. But Jesus points them in a different direction: toward the neighboring towns, where he is called to take the gospel.

To me, it feels as if Paul is telling me to meet the whole world's needs, and Jesus is modeling a way of boundary-setting as he moves on, before everything's taken care of.

I wonder if, perhaps, one of the differences here is that Paul is speaking to (and teaching) a community. And, even more, a community of free people, accustomed to enjoying their own personal rights and liberties. Perhaps his claim to be "all things to all people" is an invitation to choose to do things that serve others, rather than doing what we're free to do, for our own selves. A kind of freely chosen obligation to one another.

Clearly, Paul is saying these things because he wants others to try them too: he doesn't mean to be the only person seeking to serve others' needs. Which, I suppose, is one of the tricks of servant ministry--it is most glorious and powerful when shared in community.

(I mean, have you ever been with a group of people who are trying to outdo each other in caring for one another, where no one is left to do the big pile of dishes alone, and folks share in other labor, too? It's good stuff...)

The passage we read today ends with this line: "I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings." The footnote in my New Interpreter's Study Bible tells me that this "sharing in blessings" is a legal term of Paul's time, meaning something like "to be a partner."

So, perhaps, Paul is inviting us to be partners in his firm. People who work together in service, and get a taste of God's kingdom.

I suppose that this work, just as Jesus modeled, often sends us out on new paths--refusing to let us settle for pleasing people in one place as we seek to meet the needs of a hurting, isolated world.

Monday, January 26, 2009

missing the point

I've been thinking about what it means to be a Christian. In my humble opinion, we spend far too much energy defining our belonging in the life of the church by our behavior. Even worse: by what we don't do.

A danger of such definition is that it misses the point of the heart of our gospel message: God's love.

This week's scripture, from I Corinthians, finds Paul writing to the early church, as if answering a question posed about what the outward behavior of Christians should be. (Perhaps they were wondering what should go on the sign at the door?) The main point, he says, is that we remember God's unique place in our world, and that we love.

Lately, I've been thinking about conversations I had while living in Niger, in the midst of a Muslim majority. "I think I'd like to be a Christian," one man said to me. "We have to pray 5 times a day, and you only have to pray once a week."

He, too, missed the point of what it means to be a faithful Christian.

If we reduce our faith to a list of things we do or don't do, it's too easy to measure our success. (And, worse, too easy to waste time measuring and judging others' success...)

If we're captivated by the love of a gracious God, we've got far too much to do in trying to be built up in that love to spend time tallying our adherence to rules. Faithfulness can't be tabulated on a checklist.

And, as Paul goes on to explain, our relationships to one another and to God matter most. If our behavior is going to cause someone else trouble--especially if they're newer in their faith--than we need to be extra cautious. Not because God wants to catch us being bad, but because take seriously our responsibility to one another.

We've got a lot of work to do.

Really, I think I think it all resonates pretty well with those three simple rules we celebrated just after Christmas: do no harm, do good and stay in love with God.