And then there was that time when we were fishing and a storm kicked up and we thought we were all going to be thrown into the sea. Jesus, as we had come to expect, was sleeping in the front of the boat. He never cared much for the actual work of fishing, although it seemed he always knew where to throw the nets to catch the most fish, so he was useful to have around. Anyway, there he was sleeping right in the middle of this raging storm and we didn’t know what to do.
I’m not sure he was entirely happy to be woken up by our screams for help, but he stood up and looked around, as if the whole thing was just a gnat on his arm. He looked at us and smiled a smile that seemed to say, “When will you believe in me? When will you have a little faith?” Then he just held up a hand and, as if speaking to one of us, whispered, “Stop. Just stop.” And then a calm came over the sea and over us. It was a calm I had never felt before and I thought, “what kind of man is this, that even winds and the sea obey him?” (Matthew 8:23-27)
Storms come and go in our lives. They happen to us and to those around us. These storms test us and shake us and sometimes break our hearts and weather our faith. People die and leave huge holes in our lives where they used to be. Our faith in God does not take away the storms, for they rain down on us all, believers and unbelievers alike.
The difference is the presence in the boat. For we who believe, Christ is there in the bow of the boat of our lives, wrapped in a blanket and waiting for us to wake him and ask for help. And he will arise at just the moment we need him most, stretching out his hands and whispering, “stop,” and calming the sea at least enough so that we can make it back to shore, a way through the storm to safe harbor. And that’s enough, has to be enough, because it is all we need.
Ask yourself in silence: When was my last storm? Am I in the midst of one right now? And where is Jesus?
(Based on John 6:1-15)
I was sent to the market by my mother with very clear instructions: Buy five small barley loaves and two dried and salted fish. Nothing more. And come right back home. I was only 12 at the time, so I never could have imagined how much my life would change that day…
I was walking home from the market along the shore of the Galilee when I saw a crowd gathering, pointing toward a small boat just then coming ashore. As it beached, a couple of the men in the boat jumped out and hauled it the rest of the way in, away from the tide. They were fisherman, and I could smell the fish in their nets and on their clothes. People just kept coming and coming, running along the shore and from the market square, and I kept hearing one name over and over — Jesus. Jesus is here. The rabbi, the healer, the prophet. I had no idea who this man was, had never heard his name before. But here he was standing in front of me, the one that everyone else deferred to, pointed at, sought to get closer to. And I was right there, a pretty exciting thing for a kid from a small fishing village.
Since I was a child, I Ioved the story in Luke’s gospel (Luke 19: 1-10) of Zacchaeus the tax collector who, because he was so short, ran ahead of the crowd following Jesus and did a surprising, almost childlike thing — he climbed a Sycamore tree so he could get a better view and try to get Jesus’ attention. The child in me could relate, especially because I was a “wee little one” and always one of the smallest in my class until I was about 15 and had a growth spurt. Some of you will, indeed, remember this childhood Sunday School song:
Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a Sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see.
And as the Savior passed that way, he looked up in the tree,
And he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down.”
For I’m going to your house today…for I’m going to your house today.
Zacchaeus is rewarded for his effort. Jesus sees him, calls him by name, and then invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house for dinner. This leaves the crowd stunned, for Jesus does something we will see him do over and over in the scriptures: He dines with sinners. He prefers the company of those who need him and his healing and transforming ways to the pious and self-righteous who just want to be seen in his company.
Today, I pray that my inmost desire is still the view from that tree, sitting in that gnarly crook awaiting the one who knows me by name, knows all of my shortcomings and failures and loves and accepts me as I am. It is my passionate desire to hear that voice say, “Come, let’s spend some time together,” because I know that time of presence can take away all my other false and misplaced desires. To hear my name called by the one who created me is to know I am loved; it is to know my purpose, my foundation.
Ask yourself in silence: What do I need to overcome and rise above in order to see Jesus more clearly? What’s blocking my view of God?
Tell us that story again, Uncle Bartimaeus. Tell us how you were blind and then how you could see. Tell us so that we might believe…
I couldn’t see a thing, had never been able to see the sun or my father’s face. So I sat outside Jericho every day, next to the gate and across from the big tree where everyone gathered, and I awaited alms, prayed for prophets to pass, hoped for healing. I had nothing better to do. Because I am blind, some assumed I was an idiot, too, but I was not, am not. I’d heard of this Jesus, heard stories of him related by passersby who ignored me, listened as they talked of his miracles, of his gentle and healing hand.
So on that day I began to hear the buzz around noon that he was coming to town and might be heading my way. I staked out my place across from the tree. No one told me, of course, because no one paid attention to me at all back then except maybe to throw a mite my way once in a while. But I knew he was coming, knew before everyone else because I heard the crowd before it even turned the corner by the market stalls. I heard and knew — and began to believe — that he might actually pass my way.
When I could tell he was within earshot, I cried out, “Jesus, son of David, have pity on me.” And then a second time, when some were trying to hush me up, “Jesus, son of David, have pity on me.” Then there was just silence, my favorite sound, for in silence I find the real and the holy. For me, sacred always follows silence. I steeled myself, and I could sense all heads turning in my direction, all their cloaks swooshing toward me. I heard sandals shuffling, the dust flying in my face. I held my breath, as I always did, for I was used to life at ground level. Then someone said, “Take courage, he is calling you.”
And I remember thinking: calling me? No one calls me. No one knows my name. And what do you know about courage, anyway? Still, I threw aside my cloak and jumped to my feet, wishing I could see their faces, see how surprised they were to see me moving so quickly and deliberately. As if I was a person who mattered and should be paid attention to. Someone reached out and touched my arm, gently, and led me 15, 16, 17 steps…and we stopped. Silence again.
“What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. And that voice…that voice. What was it about that voice? Such authority and kindness. Eternal, somehow, as if it had always been here. I almost laughed but didn’t. What did he think I wanted?
“I want to see.”
And then there was light. That’s all I know. There was light.
Ask yourself in silence: What do I want from God? What do I need to see?
Over time, through my reading and prayer and good, sacred conversation with friends and spiritual companions, I have come to see one very clear choice in life: We can choose power, or we can choose love. This basic choice plays itself out in nearly every aspect of our lives. We make many choices in the course of our days — big and small, important and insignificant — but they can nearly always be boiled down to this. Do we opt for power or love?
Relationships based on power do not and cannot last. Love and power may for a while hold each other in some kind of unnatural and predatory balance as one person (or country or corporation or political entity) lords it over the other — one cowering and the other threatening in ways both subtle and severe — but this tension cannot last, for the weight of the power of one on the other will eventually crush and kill. This is true in our marriages, families and friendships, and it is true at nearly every level of existence and civilization. But the truth is, we can only control the choices we make.
We can choose the way of power and see where it leads. And it can lead to some seemingly wondrous places, filled with piles of money and the power to influence others. It can lead to grand houses and positions of authority. It can lead us to unimaginable opportunities to taste the many seductions of the world. But the way of power can never last. It will eventually crumble under its own weight for it has no real foundation and no connection with the divine. For God, however powerful, is love, and love always cares first for the other and gives up any power it might have for the good of the other. And love, as we have been taught and have come to know, never fails, which is pretty powerful.
Ask yourself in silence: Which do I exercise more, love or power? Which do I rely on?
Over the past week I’ve read and heard several times now the story in Matthew’s gospel about Joseph and Mary’s exile into Egypt following the birth of Jesus. This is not a story to which we usually pay much attention. It’s a post-Christmas, dark tale about threats of death and the murder of innocent children, and who wants to spend much time thinking about that?
But here’s what I’ve found. There’s a message of hope for us in this story, for we have all experienced exile at one time or another in our lives. Maybe you’re there right now. It could be an exile from God or maybe from a friend or family member. Maybe it’s an exile from yourself, a time of running away from what you think might hurt you. But whatever form it takes, exile can be a time of great spiritual growth if we leave ourselves open to hearing the voice of God in the wilderness. Joseph, a much under-appreciated character in the life of Jesus, is the hero of this story because he was willing to listen for and act upon the voice of God. “Take Mary and Jesus to Egypt, Joseph,” God says. And Joseph does. “Time to come back to Judea,” God says, and Joseph heads back to Israel. “On second thought,” God says, “better go to Galilee,” and Joseph settles his family in Nazareth. Listen. Obey. Act.
This is the call to a life of active contemplation, to a life of listening for the voice of God and actually expecting to hear something. Not a sound, perhaps, but nevertheless a knowing, a sense of God’s presence and direction. It is a life of staying the course and trusting the journey because something tells you it’s right. It’s a life of acting on the still small voice inside of us.
Ask yourself in silence: Am I trusting the journey I am on? Am I even aware of the journey?
Memo to the Church: Beginning next Sunday, we will have a new vision statement: “Do justice, love goodness and walk humbly with your God.” Thanks to Micah and the mission and vision committee for putting in all the hard work and wordsmithing. I think this has a nice ring to it.
Here’s the only problem I see with adopting this motto: Far too many of you already think you’re doing these three things and, well, sorry but it just ain’t so. Let’s take a look at what we might look like as church if we really take these words to heart.
Do justice: We’ve got to start seeing the people around us and responding more fully to their needs. We’ve got to be more inviting and open to those who don’t look like us, live like us, sound like us or drive the same kinds of cars. We’ve got to look outside of our zip codes and tax brackets if we want to find the Christ that we sing about so joyously. (But thanks to the choir!)
Love goodness: To begin, we’ve got to be willing to redefine what we mean by goodness. It is not what we own, where we went to college (or high school…St. Louis joke), where we work or how much we earn. It is not even how nice we are to each other. It is what we ARE deep inside, at that place where God touches us and makes us come alive. If we were to see and appreciate that place in everyone, we would be surrounded by goodness.
Walk humbly with your God: To have true humility in this world is tough, for everything around us tends to reward our pride, accomplishments and self interest. To walk humbly means to give that up, to empty ourselves and throw ourselves into the lap of a waiting God like helpless children. Give it a shot.
Please pick up a copy of the new statement on your way out of church today and memorize it. There will be a test.
Ask yourself in silence: What do I need to change about myself in order to help change the church?
A Light in Darkness
A Christmas Villanelle
A light in darkness fights off the cold
thrust into the world yet of its own making.
The new life is fragile but the message is bold.
A gentle king, as the prophets foretold,
stirs in the straw and yawns in his waking.
A light in darkness fights off the cold.
A star from the East beckons prophecies old,
the expanse between heaven and Earth is breaking.
The new life is fragile but the message is bold.
In this child a mystery will unfold,
for wise men there is no mistaking.
A light in darkness fights off the cold.
The angels proclaim what shepherds behold,
for this night the whole world is aching.
The new life is fragile but the message is bold.
A gift from on high more precious than gold,
a life that brings life for the taking.
A light in darkness fights off the cold,
the new life is fragile but the message is bold.
To listen to a recitation of this with music, A Light in Darkness.
Merry Christmas, to all…
This event we are about to celebrate we believe to be genuine — a historic moment in time filled with real people and exact places (even if we cannot pinpoint those exact places 2,000 years later). This story of Bethlehem, we believe, is authentic, as filled with truth as it is with the pungent smells of a stable. But why this moment in this time? How and why could this be? The Christmas story is both human and divine, and the divine lies in the “why” of the story. If we cannot fully understand the why, perhaps we can at least kneel in its presence, recognizing the holy — somehow — when we see it.
+ + +
“Who’s there?” he calls out, hearing me trip on a loose stone at the side of the stable.
I step into the light of the fire the man has made. They both look at me and smile, for I am just a child and no threat. I am speechless.
“Come closer,” she says, “and see my baby. Have you ever seen a new-born baby?”
I nod. “My little sister,” I say.
“Ah, well this one’s a boy,” the man says. “Just like you. You were like this once.”
I come closer, and as the flames of the fire flicker and dart across their faces, I see the child, his eyes still wet, glistening and open wide, seemingly taking me in just as I am taking him in. He holds my gaze, and I have this sense of connection, as if I know him or need to, even though that makes no sense even to my 12-year-old sense of reason. I can’t move or speak. The old folks in the temple speak of awe, and I realize this might be what they’re talking about.
It’s like watching the sun set over the hills on the outside of town where I tend the sheep with my father and uncles. I don’t know where it goes every night but I know it will rise again in the morning, and I am strangely moved by its beauty, by its ever-different colors and movement. It’s like the splash of cold water on my face or down my throat, more refreshing and life giving than I could ever imagine when I thirst for it. There’s something beyond the ordinary and obvious here.
It’s just the sun. Just a cup of water. Just a baby. But I am at once both afraid and at ease, confused and clarified. I feel as if I belong to this child and he belongs to me, like there is a strand of fine thread, like a spider’s silk, that joins us — so light that it cannot be seen and so strong it can never be broken. And although I can’t say exactly why, I kneel and cry.
Ask yourself in silence: What connects you to God? To Jesus? How can you make this Christmas truly a time to reconnect?
‘Tis the season for re-gifting,
Tins of fruitcake are uplifting,
One more year to re-deliver,
Just remember last year’s giver!
I don’t know the etiquette of re-gifting, although I’m sure Miss Manners could teach me a thing or two. But it’s that time of year when, let’s admit it, we sometimes look around and see what we might have that we could offer to others. A gift card we never used, that duplicate toaster oven we never returned, the proverbial ugly Christmas sweater…
Or maybe we give from our own treasures: A book or painting we have that someone else has always admired, or perhaps a family keepsake that perhaps it’s time to pass on. Then again, maybe we can re-gift those most precious things of all, our time and talents. God, of course, is the giver of everything that is good and creative in our lives, even though we tend to call these things “mine.” MY gifts, MY time, MY talents. Carelessly and thoughtlessly, we can convince ourselves that we have earned these things when, in fact, they are pure gifts. No matter how hard we have worked to develop them, build them and use them, our contemplative selves will remind us — in our quiet moments of prayer and reflection — that everything is gift. Our response to the Giver, then, is twofold. The first response is gratitude. The second is re-gifting, passing on that time and talent to someone else in need of something we have. Here, like the family heirloom, we give from our abundance, from our treasure. And God smiles.
Ask yourself in silence: What treasures and talents can I re-gift this year?