There’s a song that says Life is a highway; I want to ride it all day long. My experience has been that life is a spiral that spins ever inward, or maybe ever outward. Sometimes it moves fast, like an exhilarating highway ride on a sunny spring day with the windows open and my hair blowing in the breeze. Sometimes it creeps along like a slug, a slow slog through muck and mire. Most of the time it’s somewhere in the middle – a walk, a stroll, a bike ride, an amble.
The thing about life’s spiral is that it touches on the same places each time we come around. Here, this is the place where I remember what it’s like to feel God’s face shining on me like the sun. And here, this is the place where I remember I have only a limited amount of time, so I should savor and cherish every moment. And there, that’s the place where I let some 30-second task slide and slide and slide until it takes me 2 hours to catch up and fix everything. And this one, oh, this is the one where I’m reminded that I am not in control, that God is. Some of these places are frustrating; some are sad; some are glorious.
Each time I come around the spiral — inward, toward the immanent God, or outward, toward the transcendent God of the entire universe — I remember the times I have spent at this place before. It can be difficult to learn from our mistakes. We like to do things the way we’ve done them before, even if we know good and well that the way we’ve done them doesn’t work. Sometimes it takes us three or five or seventeen times around before we figure it out, but that’s okay.
The Good News is that while we wend this spiral, we are not alone. Even when it feels like the walls are closing in on us, the love of God surrounds us and upholds us. When we stumble or trip or make the same damned mistake again, Jesus is there beside us – Jesus who stumbled under the weight of the cross, Jesus who tramped all over the Middle East in sandals (and probably stepped in goat dung more than once), Jesus who knows what it means to walk the spiral of human life. And when we don’t know what to do, the Holy Spirit guides us through the spiral — giving us breath, giving us life — and helps us find the wisdom to make those rough places better on the next trip ’round.
I pray today that – wherever you are on the spiral – you will be filled with the wisdom and light of the Holy One, the triune God, who walks beside you and never leaves you alone, God who loves you into life.
As I drove to work Tuesday morning, an unmarked police car passed me. I had to smile when I passed it again not a minute later, as it waited to turn left into a doughnut shop. It is so cliche and stereotypical that I have to laugh: I don’t think I have ever passed or stopped by this doughnut shop without seeing a police car in the parking lot.
I pray that the Holy Spirit will send you a reason to smile and have joy today!
Have you ever wondered why God would trust you with something you don’t feel capable of handling? It happens to me pretty frequently. Here is the one for today (so far).
My boss has given me leadership responsibility for a small team. I have two coworkers reporting to me for direction, and it terrifies me. I find this ironic, because 12 or 15 years ago, I was champing at the bit and absolutely couldn’t WAIT to be in management. I think it may be the fear that means I’m ready for this responsibility, because it means I take the authority seriously and I don’t want to abuse it. But still: God, why are you entrusting me with this? Can’t you see how undeserving I am?
So I just had a conflict situation with another coworker, only, it didn’t need to be a conflict situation. My snake brain recognized it as a danger, and so I stalked in with guns drawn, prepared to take no prisoners, to not give up no matter what. If only I’d taken a deep breath and considered how to get my point across without being hostile! I don’t always (often? ever?) do well at conflict situations, and my relationships suffer as a result.
My first marriage instilled quite the programming about conflict, and it goes thus: Conflict causes carnage; conflict triggers overwhelming hostility and rage toward me; conflict is never won, only lost, whether I’m in the right or not; conflict brings me frustration at my utter helplessness in the face of such rage. As a result, before I engage in conflict, I’d better win it immediately, or I will lose. And losing means that I’m worthless, useless, hopeless, a failure at life, and fundamentally unlovable.
I know these things are not true. At least, my rational brain knows this. But my poor snake brain is the one who manages the adrenaline and cortisol, the one who pulls out the six-shooters.
So after this conflict, which got peacefully and productively resolved, I remembered that relationship is what matters, more than anything else. Relationship is the gift from God — our covenant with God — that gives us life and gives life meaning. God initiates relationship with us, enabling us to be in relationship with each other. This is the great truth that underlies both the Jewish and the Christian faiths, which are not about right behavior but about living in right relationship.
As I got up from my desk to clear my head, I prayed as I walked to the ladies’ room.
Sweet Lord Jesus,
you know I’m not good at this relationship thing,
and you know it’s hard to do.
Help me to stop and think
before I go blasting into a situation
where I should instead listen and consider,
ponder these things in my heart.
Help me to remember
that relationship is the most important thing there is,
so that I can reflect your perfect image
in a flawed and broken world.
I see this picture third-hand, from a friend of a friend of a friend. Friend #3’s church had Communion on Sunday, and they were surprised by what they received. There’s an itty-bitty-wafer in the package, and a tiny bit of liquid; I don’t know whether it is wine or grape juice, and I really don’t have a dog in that particular fight.
The fight I do engage in, though, is that I deny most emphatically that this is Communion. Communion starts with com – with. Where is the with in this feast? Each person has their individually wrapped mini-meal. Dishes are not passed around the table, like at a big family feast. The bread is not broken or even sliced for sharing. Setting aside debates around the common cup, we don’t even see the grape-based-liquid poured out from the same bottle! Where is the unity here? How does this help us to see ourselves as part of the family of God, gathered around God’s great table for the greatest Feast there is?
I have other objections, but this is the primary one. I do not insist that Communion must be celebrated exactly as Jesus would have presided over that Passover meal. But I do strongly believe that Communion is supposed to gather us together for the Feast, not separate us with pre-packaged “airline meal” elements of bread and (grape-based-liquid).
I ended up not writing a lectionary post last week, based on the readings appointed for yesterday. I fully intended to. I read through the lessons a number of times. But I kept getting stuck at the same place: I loathe the passage from 1 Corinthians about love. I’ve come to know that when something really pushes my buttons, I need to look more closely to puzzle out why.
Love is patient;
love is kind;
love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing,
but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends.
This reading is often chosen for weddings, which, in the twenty-first century western world, are a recognition and blessing of a committed love relationship. Even when I was a fresh-faced twenty-year-old, long before I fell into cynicism, I knew this reading was not a good one for weddings. Why? It sets goals that can never be reached in any earthly marriage. The inappropriateness struck even more deeply at me when that twenty-year-old began to suffer emotional and verbal abuse. Patient? Kind? Rejoicing in truth? Not hardly! And finally I had to admit that I could not believe all things, that I lost hope, that I could no longer endure all things. The love was gone, leaving only attachment and exploitation. That marriage ended.
This kind of love — or as is expressed elsewhere in scripture, loving-kindness — is absolutely beyond my reach. I know that I am impatient and rude; I am unkind, sarcastic, and cynical; I certainly don’t believe all things. And yet, our inability to achieve this amazing love does not allow us to give up, to not even try it. At the Last Supper, Jesus gave us a new commandment, not only to love each other, but to love each other as he loves us.
God is patient. God is kind. God is not envious or boastful or rude. God is not irritable or resentful, and God certainly does not rejoice in wrongdoing. Jesus tells us that the truth will free us. Jesus bears all things, even setting aside God’s infinite glory to exist as one of us. Jesus believes all things; Jesus hopes all things. Jesus endures even death, a humiliating and painful death, and he endures it for us. And Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to us, so that we are never alone.
There is another marriage, one that all Christians are part of. Imagery of Israel as the bride of God fills the Hebrew scripture, and Jesus extends this imagery to include all of us. The family of Christians makes up the bride of Jesus; Jesus is the true spouse of our soul. Through God’s presence among us, through the Holy Spirit, we encounter Christ in this divine marriage. Jesus invites us into relationship so that this divine marriage should shape all of our relationships.
I was once asked how I could be a vowed Religious Sister — the bride of Christ — and be married at the same time. It isn’t easy. There are times when one relationship or the other seems to become more important. This is not the only relationship conflict: have you ever had to choose between your spouse and your child? or between your employer and your spouse? God calls us into this messy place, where it is difficult to balance our relationships. We do the best we can, making the best decisions we can with the knowledge and information we have, and we stumble and bumble and sometimes fall flat on our faces. But the good news is that God is always there with us. Jesus always has a hand outstretched to pick us up.
I still struggle with this passage, because I am uncomfortable when I have a goal that I don’t think I can reach. When I find myself being rude or envious or impatient or unkind, I’m disappointed; it’s often easier to forgive someone else for rudeness or impatience than it is to forgive myself. In recent years, I’ve become more keenly aware of my sinfulness, and it feels like a needle in my heart when I realize that my behavior (or even my thinking) is unloving. So this reading stabs me like a dozen daggers. And so I pray: O God, help me to love like you do!
Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him.
Reading through the gospel appointed for next Sunday, I first noticed the poetry, the beautiful lines from Isaiah about God’s upside-down kingdom. I have a deep love for these words; they resonate so powerfully within me.
As with any text, from scripture to science fiction, it can be easy for our eye to jump to a word or phrase that catches our attention so that we skip part of the story. This isn’t a bad thing, but it means that sometimes we miss something important. And in this story from Luke’s gospel, there are some good things we miss about Jesus, if we let ourselves skip to Isaiah’s poetry.
Before this story, Jesus is baptized by his relative John, and then he immediately withdraws into the desert for 40 days. Now he returns to his homeland, to a wonderful welcome from people who have heard amazing stories about him. Jesus goes into the synagogues to study and to teach, and everyone loves to listen to him, to learn from him.
Then he goes home to Nazareth, and things are different. Jesus goes to the synagogue where he grew up, as was his custom, but his neighbors and friends have no praise for him. Instead, they try to throw Jesus off a cliff and stone him to death. They say that familiarity breeds contempt, but this is beyond mere contempt; this is active violence!
These four sentences from Luke’s gospel tell us three things about the kind of person Jesus was, and if we take them to heart, they tell us about the kind of person we can be.
- Jesus is filled with the power of the Spirit
- Jesus is faithful in study and in worship
- Jesus knows what is real and eternal, and what is temporary.
Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee — this is how Sunday’s gospel lesson begins. What does it mean for us to be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit? Is any one of us more filled than another? How do we recognize the power of the Spirit in each other? In the stories of Jesus, we have a number of manifestations of the Spirit’s power in Jesus. We see him instantly heal the sick, give sight to the blind, give movement to the lame. We see the Spirit descend on him like a dove when he is baptized. We see him transfigured on the mountaintop. We see him risen and appearing to his friends so that they can see him and hear him and touch him.
But that’s easy, that’s Jesus. Regular people like us can’t do those things. After all, when was the last time you saw a dove flying down to take part in a baptism? When was the last time you saw someone touch a person, healing them instantly? And yet, Jesus tells us that through our faith, we can do acts more powerful than his own. I have to admit: I don’t have that faith. I struggle to understand the miracles of God-with-us, sneer at television pastors whose followers throw away their canes or crutches, and wish so powerfully that I could heal some of the brokenness around me. My daughter has an injured knee, which hurts her so much that she trembles as tears run silently down her face. What would I give to be able to lay my hands on her and say, “Get up, take your mat, and walk”? Yeah, Jesus may be filled with the power of the Spirit, but I don’t think I have more than about a teaspoon of Spirit in me.
Jesus is filled with the power of the Spirit, and Jesus knows that we can be filled by the Spirit, too. The only ones who prevent this are ourselves.
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom — Those last four words say so much, though they are easy to dismiss. It was the custom of Jesus to go to the synagogue on the sabbath day. He learned and taught in the synagogues on his way home to Nazareth, and once there, he went to the synagogue to do the same. But Jesus got a very different reception in his hometown, didn’t he?
Think for a moment about a youth in your congregation or in your neighborhood, a young man or woman you’ve known for several years. You saw them as a child, bumping elbows and skinning knees, and now you see them growing into adulthood. Think about this youth going away to university, and returning at the Christmas break. In Sunday worship, they stand up to read the lessons, as they have while they were away, and then they begin to interpret those scriptures. “Who does he think he is?” you might ask. “Who gave her the authority to preach to us about the bible? Didn’t she grow up here? Don’t we know her parents?” While you probably wouldn’t chase this youth to a cliff, your scorn and contempt would certainly be obvious. And yet, you know this young man or woman to be regular in worship, to be in church every Sunday and to study scripture and display keen insights. You’ve heard about the reputation she or he is getting at college, that peers come to listen and learn. But you just can’t get past knowing this youth as a kid.
Jesus was faithful at study and worship, but not everyone could see and understand this. He did not punish his neighbors who were blind to him, but slipped away so that he could live into his ministry in another place. God calls us to worship in our community, to read and learn from scripture. And sometimes God calls us out of one place into another.
He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. And yet, a few lines down the page, Jesus encounters people who not only don’t praise him but actively try to kill him. People with power usually evoke mixed feelings in us. We like that they did this, but we wish they hadn’t done that. We agree with these decisions, but we rail against those. Being filled with the power of the Spirit, Jesus is no different. The gospels contain many stories about those who loved and admired Jesus and about those who hated him, scorned him, tried to trip him up at every opportunity.
Jesus knows something we struggle with: the praise — and the scorn — of other people does not last. It is a temporary thing, and it has nothing to do with the things that are eternal, the things that give life. Jesus keeps his eyes on what is real: God, faith, love, justice. The reactions of others may hinder us from time to time, but they have no real or lasting power. Jesus shows us how to respond to those who get in our way: he doesn’t bash through them like a linebacker, but he slips around them, always finding a way to let the Spirit work through him.
We can learn about Jesus even in these few sentences, these few lines that set the story for us. Our invitation this week is to find meaning and lessons for ourselves in just a few words. God invites us to be faithful in worship and in learning from the Word. God reminds us to pay little heed to the things that are of this world and fleeting, so that we can fix our eyes on what is real and eternal. And Jesus shows us what it looks like to be filled with the power of the Spirit.
Give us grace, O Lord,
to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ
and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation,
that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works;
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
You shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give.
Thus says God, through the book of Isaiah in the scriptures appointed for this coming Sunday. There are several stories in the bible of people who receive a new name. Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah, once they enter into covenant with God. Their grandson Jacob becomes known as Israel — the father of God’s chosen people. And during the early days of The Way, the persecutor Saul becomes Paul, dogged and faithful apostle to the world.
We’ve heard three other stories about names just in the last month. The angel Gabriel told Mary to name her child Jesus. The angel who told Zechariah and Elizabeth about their miraculous child also told them the name the child should have. Zechariah laughed at the idea of begetting a child in their old age, for which the angel struck him mute. When it was time to formally name the child John, they heard objections: “But there aren’t any Johns in your family! Choose a different name!” Zechariah wrote down “Name him John,” and his voice returned. And on January 1, we observed the Feast of the Holy Name of Our Lord, celebrating the day when Jesus was ritually named and circumcised.
What’s so important about names? We give names to our children when they are born. Many of us change our name when we marry. We give each other nicknames based on our physical appearance or our behavior. We call those we love by pet names. I’ve called my daughter any number of names, beyond the ones we gave her at birth: Sweetpea, Boo, Angel, Princess, Ladybug. I don’t even notice these until after they leave my mouth, and I’ve even found myself becoming one of those southern women, who call people dear or honey without realizing it. In middle school or high school, we often change from “childish” nicknames (Tommy, Jimmy, Jenny) to take on the more “grown-up” names (Thomas, James, Jennifer). We may even try on our middle name for a while, to see whether it better fits who we believe ourselves to be.
There are other Christian traditions for changing one’s name or for taking a new name. Some choose to take a new name when they are baptized or confirmed. This may be added as an additional middle name, or it may replace one’s first name, and it may or may not be legally changed. Many vowed Religious choose new names–or are given new names–when they take their vows.
Not all naming is positive. There are plenty of epithets we use when we are frustrated or angry, lashing out at the people around us. The media gives names to notorious criminals for shorthand. I remember Dave Barry commenting on his blog some years ago about Donald Thompson. You probably don’t know why anyone would care about him, but if I call him the Penis Pump Judge, you remember the news stories. (Dave Barry said: His mother must be so proud.)
You shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the LORD will give.
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
and your land shall no more be termed Desolate;
but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land Married.
Just a week after we heard the Holy Spirit tell us that we are God’s child, the beloved, in whom God is well pleased, we get to hear this beautiful poetry from Isaiah. Take a moment and read it out loud. Hear these words being spoken to you, directly to you as God’s own beloved child.
We change our names at significant occasions. From the moment we take our new name, we are a new person, at a new start. We have filled one volume of the journal of our lives, and we begin the fresh, empty new journal with a fresh new identity. We were single, and now we are married. We were not a Christian, and now we have died with Christ through baptism and been reborn as God’s child. We made an adult confirmation of our baptismal vow, and now we are fully engaged in the life of God’s church. We were going it on our own, and now we have entered into a covenant with our God. We sneered and rejected Christians for believing in fairy tales, and now we have become believers ourselves.
In the gospel story for Sunday, Jesus performs the first miracle documented in the canonical gospels. The wine runs out at a wedding feast–a truly humiliating situation for the host–and his mother calls on Jesus to help, to save their host from embarrassment. Jesus objects at first (“My hour is not yet come”), but then he submits to his mother in obedience and transforms barrels of water into the best wine anyone at the wedding feast has ever tasted. The reason for Jesus’s objection is that he has not yet made a name for himself; it is not yet time to make a name for himself.
And there that word is again: a name for himself. Only his family and village really know the name of Jesus yet; it has not yet reached the ears of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the Herods have not yet heard of him. His relative, John the Baptizer, is starting to gain fame and notoriety–John is making a name for himself–but it is not yet time for Jesus.
As we hear this story from the gospel, we know what has come before and what will come after. We know that Jesus is the Wonderful Counselor, the Prince of Peace. We know that Jesus is the Way and the Truth and the Life, the Good Shepherd, the Bridegroom, the True Vine, the Living Bread. We know Jesus to be the Lamb of God, the only-begotten Son of God, our Savior, our Christ, our Messiah. We know Jesus as our Brother. And we know that the name of Jesus causes every knee to bow and every tongue confess to his lordship.
So what names has the world given you? What names has your church given you? And what are the names God is giving to you?
For you are God’s own child, the beloved.
From your creation, God has called you very good.
In you, God is well pleased.