Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Upheaval


Mary said,
“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
     In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
 He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
    Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
         because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
     He shows mercy to everyone,
        from one generation to the next,
        who honors him as God.
 He has shown strength with his arm.
    He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
     He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
        and lifted up the lowly.
 He has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away empty-handed.
 He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
        remembering his mercy,
     just as he promised to our ancestors,
        to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”
                                                                Luke 1:46-55



Mary’s song of praise, the Magnificat, does more than hint at the upheaval that her son’s coming brings. Her prophetic word is clear. The coming of God in human form will reverse the usual order of things. The hungry will be fed. The lowly will be lifted. The powerful are stripped of their influence. The rich are sent away empty.

If you only read this text once a year during Advent, you might simply enjoy its poetic quality and miss the power of the words themselves. Mary’s song is regularly recited as part of Vespers, the evening prayer service of the daily office. This daily reading of this text allows the words to sink into us, and, in our affluent culture, may cause us to wonder if we truly welcome this change of affairs.

Mary has much to teach us beyond her prophecy. Mary shows us that our power and influence are less important than our availability. Loretta Ross-Gotta says: God asks us to give away everything of ourselves. The gift of greatest efficacy and power that we can offer God and creation is not our skills, gifts, abilities, and possessions. The wise men had their gold, frankincense, and myrrh, Paul and Peter had their preaching. Mary offered only space, love, belief. What is it that delivers Christ into the world—preaching, art, writing, scholarship, social justice? Those are all gifts well worth sharing. But preachers lose their charisma, scholarship grows pedantic, social justice alone cannot save us. In the end, when all other human gifts have met their inevitable limitation, it is . . . the bold virgin with a heart in love with God who makes a sanctuary of her life, who delivers Christ who then delivers us.

Mary’s prophecy is an invitation to us who are rich and powerful in comparison to the rest of the world. Mary encourages us to no longer rely on our influence or wealth, but to empty ourselves, give ourselves away, die to ourselves, and instead offer space and love to Christ who becomes our food, our wealth, our strength.

We cannot deliver ourselves. Our possessions, our influence, even the good works we do—none of these can deliver us. When we truly believe that God, who made us and loves us, will deliver us, we can sing with Mary, “With all my heart I glorify the Lord! In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.”

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Holiness


Holiness does not lie on the other side of temptation; it is to be found in the midst of temptation. It does not sit waiting for us on a level above our weakness; it is given us in weakness, or else we would elude the power of God that is operative only in our weakness. . . It is only in our weakness that we are vulnerable to his love and power. Accordingly, to continue in the situation of temptation and weakness is the only way for us to connect with grace, the only way we can become miracles of God’s mercy. 
                          –Andre Louf

In my observation, it seems there are two categories of people in church. There are those who believe themselves to be holy because they feel themselves to be morally flawless, and there are those who believe they will never be holy because they struggle with temptation.

Those who equate morality with holiness are generally hard folks to be around. They see Christianity as a list of rules to be followed. If you follow the rules, you are good; if you come up short, then you are unacceptable. When one lives this way, they find it hard to have compassion for others who don’t measure up to the standards they deem important. And it’s not at all Christlike, for Jesus didn’t limit access to himself based on who followed rules. On the contrary, he spent more time with those whom we might judge to be morally deficient.

Morality, however, is not the measure of one’s holiness. Holiness is not about being correct, saying the right words, doing the right things, or following the right rules. Holiness is about knowing who we are—that we are subject to temptation and that God is with us in the struggle, whether or not we succumb to temptation. God’s grace comes to us when we are able to accept that we are weak and in need of God’s grace. If we are so certain of our moral purity, then we really don’t acknowledge a need for God’s grace.

Julian of Norwich is one of my favorite Christian mystics. She offers us a gracious image of God, as both strong Father and nurturing Mother. She even says that when we fall (succumb to temptation) it gives God occasion to care for us, to show us mercy and forgiveness. It’s not that we try to fall, for we don’t really have to try. It’s going to happen because falling is simply part of our nature (and those who don’t think they are falling are fooling only themselves).

When we can receive the gracious love and forgiveness of God for our own falling, we actually are more closely connected to God than when we feel ourselves morally correct. And those who know themselves as ones who fall receive the strength and compassion of God for themselves, and are likewise able to share God’s compassion with others who fall. A church full of compassionate souls who fall is a beautiful expression of the body of Christ.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Hostility vs Joy


While Jesus predicts that people will die of fear “as they await what menaces the world” (Luke 21:26), he says to his followers: “Stay awake, praying at all times for the strength to survive all that is going to happen, and to stand with confidence before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:36). After I gazed for a long time at [Andrei] Rublev’s Trinity [icon] these words spoke to me with new power, “Praying at all times” has come to mean “dwelling in the house of God all the days of our lives.” “Surviving all that is going to happen” now tells me that I no longer need to be victim of the fear, hatred, and violence that rule the world. “Standing with confidence before the Son of Man” no longer just refers to the end of time, but opens for me the possibility of living confidently, that is, with trust (the literal meaning of con-fide) in the midst of hostility and violence.     –Henri Nouwen

There is so much hostility and violence on display in the world. War, violent crime, oppression against groups of people—these may be the first things that come to mind when we think of hostility and violence. Social media though, increasingly reveals to me that hostility and violence are not just “out there” in other countries, in certain neighborhoods, and perpetrated by dictators, gang members or others that might fit our definition of “likely suspects.”

The perpetrators of violence I am most familiar with are people of comfortable means, church goers, business leaders—the folks we work with, worship with, play tennis with, travel with. Hostility, violence and hatred show up in what is posted or shared on Facebook and Twitter. What such postings reveal to me is that many who would claim to be Christian are not interested in living with confidence in the midst of hostility but would rather participate in promoting hatred, hostility and violence.

I’ve been thinking about St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast day is October 4. He saw God’s light in creation. He found joy in what others bemoaned as paltry. He reached out in love to those who practiced a different religion than his. He let go of the values and culture of his family and joyfully embraced a life outside the mainstream, eschewing status and wealth and instead embracing poverty and simplicity.

He could do this because he had nothing to protect or defend. He was dwelling in the house of God while living in a world of hostility and violence. He trusted God to be God for him. He lived the gospel of Jesus, and his rootedness in God’s love meant he poured love out wherever he went.

In the midst of a society that is more interested in bringing a kingdom of hostility and violence than in bringing the kingdom of God I want to emulate his joy, his vision, his way of dwelling in the house of God. We need the spirit and theology of St. Francis.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Wounds


You were seen with the eyes of perfect love long before you entered into the dark valley of life. The spiritual life begins at the moment that you can go beyond all the wounds and claim there was a love that was perfect and unlimited long before that perfect love became reflected in the imperfect and limited, conditional love of people.                                             –Henri Nouwen


We often have one of two reactions to wounds, both physical and emotional:  we either try to hide them or we become defined by them. To have a healthy relationship to our wounds enables us to be transformed by them. Our wounds are part of us, but we are more than our wounds.

Our wounds can make us stronger. Years ago, my younger son had surgery to correct a recurring spontaneous pneumothorax. The surgeon made scar tissue on the exterior of the lung so it would basically act like glue to hold the lung in place so it would no longer collapse. The wound of scar tissue corrected his issue.

Our wounds do not make us less than. As Henri Nouwen says, we are loved perfectly by God without any reserve, without any consideration of what we’ve done or what we fail to do, or what anyone has done to us. Just as Jesus rose with and was loved with his wounds, so are we.

Jesus did not try to hide his wounds. In fact, he used his wounds to identify himself to his disciples after his resurrection. They connect him to us; they are a sign that being human means suffering, and that in what is apparent weakness, God overcomes and brings new life.

We cannot see the beauty that comes from our wounds when we are in the midst of pain and hurt. Yet when we can live our wounds through, rather than ignoring them or becoming defined by them, God is able to bring beauty from even the darkest places of pain. And often that beauty is beyond anything we could have ever hoped or imagined.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

God's Abundance


“We have nothing here except five loaves of bread and two fish.” –Matthew 14:17

 We have nothing here except. . . All day long Jesus has been with this large group of people. Their emotions ay have been mixed, as those of Jesus likely were. The news of John’s death at the command of Herod likely created an atmosphere of fear, heaviness and loss.

Into that scene Jesus proposes a shared meal. Symbolism and sustenance meet in this event. There is enough food for everyone, literally, as abundant leftovers are collected. God is not a God of fear, scarcity and small-mindedness.

Jesus had been healing the sick, but I expect the meal healed the fear of many present that day. Yes, John was dead, but God is not. God is in community, in bread and fish shared among all—disciples, questioners, the sick, children, women, men—no one turned away. God is a God of abundance, hospitality and community—found in the most ordinary of places, people and food.

There is always enough, plenty, more than enough. No need for fear, jealousy or greed. God’s economy is for all and in abundance. God’s work is larger than we can see or know.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Some Thoughts About Yoga as Spiritual Practice


Only in the context of grace can we face our sin; only in the place of healing do we dare to show our wounds; only with a single-minded attention to Christ can we give up our clinging fears and face our true nature.  –Henri Nouwen

Nouwen is speaking of the importance of solitude, but I also believe these words have applicability to the practice of yoga if one is approaching yoga as more than simply a way to exercise. I encourage students to come to yoga with openness, because the physical practice is only a part of the overall aim and philosophy of yoga.

The physical practice of yoga becomes a spiritual practice when we are able to extend grace to ourselves. We learn our limitations and do not view these as deficiencies. We accept and honor our capability, yet always seek to do the best we can do. When we can accept and honor our own capacity, it then becomes possible to accept and honor the capacity of others.

Our ability to accept our wounds makes the physical practice of yoga an exercise in spiritual growth. We may have injuries or conditions or aches and pains that bring us to yoga in the hope of finding relief. It requires vulnerability to accept and work with the wounds we have, be they physical or emotional. As we learn to love our bodies and what they are capable of doing, we find healing of attitudes that may be more limiting than the wounds themselves. Our culture does not encourage vulnerability, so the ability to hold our woundedness lovingly grows us spiritually.

Finally, there are poses in yoga that challenge us, that invite us to move past fear of failure, that coax us to try, in a safe space, something we may not have thought we could do. For me, that was a significant aspect of spiritual growth. Yoga helped me to be strong in the face of fear, to “breathe through the pose,” and come out on the other side more confident than before. In yoga, I discovered strength within me that I wasn’t aware I possessed. I know where that strength came from, so yoga has helped me to tune in more fully to the presence of God’s spirit in me.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Vacant


“When an unclean spirit leaves a person, it wanders through dry places looking for a place to rest. But it doesn’t find any. Then it says, ‘I’ll go back to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the place vacant, cleaned up, and decorated. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself. They go in and make their home there. That person is worse off at the end than at the beginning.  
–Matthew 12:43-45


Let my heart not be found vacant, Lord,
well-adorned yet empty. Let my heart be
filled with warmth, love and your presence,
that I may walk in your way,
that I may radiate your love to others.
Fill me full of yourself, O God.
Leave no cell void of you
that I may dissolve into you
fully,
completely,
wholly.
Amen.