Saturday, January 19, 2019

In Loving Memory...


One of the sheros of my life passed into God's embrace this week...Mary Oliver.

There are so many of Mary's poems that have fed my faith and stirred my soul.

This line comes from the poem, Sometimes

"Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it."

Or I think about the words of the poem, Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.

As the rabbis have said for centuries, "Words create Worlds"...and I have often deeply desired to live in the beautiful/honest/broken world Mary crafted with her words.  She preached through poems.

It is my prayer that we will continue to treasure the insights, humor, ideas, and grace Mary Oliver invited and awoken within us.

With deep, deep gratitude for the trace of God's grace Oliver's words sang to my soul...and will continue to do so.

amen.


Friday, January 18, 2019

Meeting Matthew Again...Anew


Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.  John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.  And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on 
him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

What do you see when you look at the above painting?

I see the waves both embrace/cradle Christ as well as crashing down around him.  Perhaps pointing to the truth that the One claimed as "Beloved" will also face the cross.  Perhaps pointing to the truth that you and I will face moments of profound/powerful love and heartbreaking disappointment.

I see John and Jesus intimately interconnected.  There is a love we can sense of two people sharing in a holy moment. 

I see the dove blessing Jesus.  Just as a dove in the time of Noah showed him the way to dry land, this dove will show Jesus a new meaning and mission in his life.

We are hungry in our world for such a moment.  I wouldn't mind if a dove showed up at my door today and said, "Um, pardon me, but God calls you, 'Beloved,' and you should live that way?"  Only I am not sure that would necessarily give me the kind of map and detailed directions I am searching for.  I am not sure the simply appearance of a dove could break through all the clutter and chaos that swirls around my life/our world to clearly show us the way.

Because the deeper truth is that there are doves all around us. 
But we miss the moments of the sacred stirring.  We miss the kind words timely spoken to ease our harden hearts.  We miss the beauty of a blue sky without a cloud in sight that reveals God's glory.  We miss the holy happening here and now in family...in friends...inside each of us. 

Because the deeper truth is that alongside doves there are waves crashing down.
The moment we are having lunch with a friend, laughing...only to hear that across town another beloved friend was just diagnosed with cancer.  The moment we enjoy our favorite meal...only to realize so many go with so much less. 

Baptism isn't an insurance guarantee for the good life, it is a threshold into the fullness of life.  The beauty AND brokenness sitting side-by-side.  The waves that cradle us and the waves that crash down...simultaneously happening. 

To live, what Richard Rohr calls, "the both/and" of life. 

Welcome to the world. 
Welcome to God's peace.
Welcome to living our baptism in such a time as this...for there is more than a trace of God's grace even here and now.  May you and I see/sense/taste/and encounter/be embrace by this truth this day.

Blessings ~~

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Meeting Matthew Again...Anew


So we have prayerfully pondered the ways we have too easily dismissed and denied John because of his clothing and diet.

Perhaps that has also shined a light on the ways we do that to others who see the world different than we do...still to this day.

And now...we hear John's sermon.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.  Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.  Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

And all that work I did in the last blog post suddenly went right out the window! 
Suddenly all my pleas to take John seriously leave you say, "Seriously Wes...you can't possibly think there is much in that passage."

I mean, brood of vipers...way to win friends and influence people.
I mean, wrath to come...now you know where Jonathan Edwards got the sermon title, "Sinners in the Hands of an Anger God" (which if you have never read...and want the above quote to seem tame... you could click here to read Edwards' famous words..if ye dare!)
I mean, ax at the root...and if you are still reading this blog post, ye are to be commended!

Wait with me...because in the midst of some very harsh and hard words...there is also this gem:
Bear fruit worthy of repentance.  What is the fruit growing in your life right now?  John is saying it is not just enough to be baptized...you have to live it and let God's claim shine through your life.  John is saying, don't just wade in the water, let the water create a tidal wave of change in you.  John is saying, it isn't just enough to sing the doxology on Sunday...we have to live it on Monday.

And now you want to dismiss John for reasons other than his clothing and diet.

See what I mean about John still challenging us.

Here we are half way through the first month of the year.  What fruits are growing in my life?  What ways is baptism making a difference not just to me but to the world God so loves?  Those questions are as powerful as the day John spoke them on the edge of the Jordan River.  I don't want just to be a tourist at the Jordan River this year, I want this moment to transform my living every day.  I don't want to just causally stand by, observing all this...I want to take seriously that through being immersed in water, we are forever immersed in God.

That might mean that I let God get a word in edgewise...to show me what is actually wheat and chaff in my life right now.  That will probably mean that I will disagree with God.  Perhaps that thing I do which I think is helping, God might say is hurting me and others.  Perhaps that committee I am on where I get to be the important chair is really just chaff..dust in the wind.  Perhaps that thing I cling to, God is saying let go of.

See what I mean about John still challenging us.

But now, I don't want to dismiss John.  Now I see why people went down to the river to pray, studying about the good old day and who should wear the crown of thorns, good Lord, show us the way. 

So may the questions of fruitfulness sing to your heart...stir your soul...and find expression in this month and every month this year.  May there be more than a trace of God's grace for you in these days.

Blessings ~~

Monday, January 14, 2019

Meeting Matthew Again...Anew


In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”  Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.  Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan,  and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

What memories flood to overflowing your mind when you hear the word, "Water?"

I remember splashing in the community pool with friends playing Marco Polo.

I remember fishing with my dad along the Cedar River using corn to catch the fish...because these were Iowa fish!  It didn't really work.

I remember canoeing with my wife Gina during our honeymoon....which even more than wallpapering helped to define our marriage.

On the Sunday after Epiphany every year we make our annual track out to the wilderness to encounter John the Baptizer.  We are familiar with his eccentric and odd ways.  His unusual fashion choices...his strange diet (and I thought the Paleo Diet was out there)...and yet people come in droves.

Perhaps the church growth strategy we have all been searching for was in Scripture all along.  Just need to find a Camel's hair robe online and develop a taste for locust!

Yet, let's really dig deeper into the little bit of information we get.  John is wearing camel’s hair, which is exactly what the prophet Elijah wore.  For John to wear camel’s hair would be like me showing up wearing a sequin jump suit, dying my hair jet black, while eating a peanut butter and banana fried sandwich as an ode to Elvis.  People in Jesus day knew John was paying homage to Elijah.  They also knew that rabbis had told, taught them that Elijah had to come back to earth before the Messiah would arrive.

 John is not content to only let his clothing style speak for him.  He goes and eats locust and honey.  In John’s day, locust was considered poor people’s food.  In a world where there was no grocery store to go buy chicken or beef, in a world where most people could barely afford some grain to make bread, locust provided much needed protein.  Locust were readily available and because locust tend to be extroverts hanging out together, if you found one; you found a whole bunch.

And yet, John is not content to just letting his clothing and dietary choices speak to the people.  He goes down to the Jordan River.  The Jordan is on the edge of the Promised Land.  The Jordan was the space Joshua, the leader after Moses, parted to have people cross over, finally stop camping in the wilderness, and settle down.  It would be the same if I would say to you, “Let’s go to the Delaware River where George Washington crossed over, while eating apple pie, and talking about baseball.”  Place and space speak louder more than words.

It is easy to picture John with unkempt hair, locust legs sticking out of his matted beard, and shouting at people.  We do this, because then it is easier to dismiss and deny that what he is saying might have relevance for us.  If we picture him in this way then we don’t have to take him seriously.  What John is about to preach (which we will look at in the next post)...will challenge and convict us to our very core.  What John is on the edge of saying has an edge that can cut what we cling so tightly to and the ways we like to think we are in control.  What John is about to say we might was to dismiss as said by some weird odd guy centuries ago...and thank God Jesus came along to make things all warm and fuzzy again.

Yet, John is important and perhaps still as something vital to say to us.  But for now, as we gather at the river...as we prepare to wade in the water...as we celebrate that through baptism we are claimed as beloved by God...let us sense that even in the most unlikely spaces we can still find more than a trace of God's grace.

May it be so for you and me this week.

Blessings ~

Friday, January 11, 2019

Meeting Matthew Again...Anew


If you keep reading in Matthew 2, you will encounter Mary and Joseph fleeing from Herod's fear based policy causing hurt and harm to all infants. 

Mary and Joseph save Jesus' life...God's life...continue the promise of Emmanuel (God with us and for us).

Which brings me to this question:

What is bringing you life right now? 

Here we are eleven days into a new year.  While your diet program might be struggling.  I mean really, why doesn't water taste more like chocolate?  Or why can't chocolate have zero calories?  Or maybe you are clinging to your other resolutions like hanging from the top ledge of a 10 story building.  The question, what is bringing you life might just help.

What brings me life is: family, friends, laughter, writing, and music.  So, let me share some music today from the Piano Guys.  I pray it brings you more than a trace of grace.  Blessings ~~


Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Meeting Matthew Again...Anew


In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.  Matthew 2:1-3

What are you afraid of?

Perhaps your first thought is to puff out your chest and think, "Nothing."

Or maybe that still small voice with whispers, "Death."

Or maybe that still smaller voice more vulnerably and honestly says almost unheard, "Not being love or accepted or knowing what to do."

Or maybe like Charlie Brown when Lucy says, "Maybe you have Panophobia or the fear of everything."  To which Charlie says, "That's it!!!"  Knocking Lucy over with his enthusiastic excitement.

Fear hovers and hangs around us.

This has been true for most of my ministry which began right after September 11th.  Yet, I also know fear has been around for longer than that.  Ask kids who ducked under their desks during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Ask kids who grew up with fathers going off to fight World War two...before that World War one...before that a world where vaccination was even available.  Life has risks.  With risks comes the fear that things might now work out right...and stories proofing that is the case.

Fear is an emotion in our lives. 

But to say that we could ever confine or contain fear might not be the point.  As a matter of fact, fear can awaken some of our creativity...that is why people cram for tests or stay up all night writing term papers.  Fear can motivate.  But fear can paralyze.  Fear is a bit like playing with fire.  Fire can keep you warm or burn down a house.  Rain can water the ground or wash away your home, destroying it.  Perhaps now you feel like Charlie Brown and wonder if you too have panophobia.

Beside the brokenness is beauty. 

The irony in this story is what awakens fear is a baby/toddler (Matthew doesn't tell us Jesus' age and some suggest it might have taken a year for the Magi to arrive).  A toddler?  While, looking back there is a reason it was called, "the terrible twos!"

The beauty of God coming as a baby...but even that event brings disruption and awakens fear.

For me, the point isn't always to alleviate all fear - I don't know if that is possible.  But to understand why I am feeling fear.  Am I afraid no one will like this blog post?  Am I afraid of being misunderstood or misquoted?  Am I afraid no one will even read this so perhaps it doesn't even matter?  The more you get acquainted with fear, the more it ceases to consume us.  To be sure, it is still there.  Which might be okay, especially if you see a bear or come across a snake or get behind the wheel of a car or try talking to someone...especially if you don't agree on politics or religion.  The fear says, "Something might go wrong!"  But, to constantly let fear have the final words or pick the radio station of your life won't get us very far. 

As a matter of fact...Herod's fear will cause Mary and Joseph to flee to Egypt for fear that he will kill Jesus.  Fear is like a virus that is so easily transmitted and translated.  Fear is like an illness and the vaccine is for us to honestly name that, "Yes, this fear is real, but it isn't the only reality either."

So may you have the Mary-like courage to face the fear in this world.  May you have the Joseph like conviction that the Herod's of today don't have a monopoly on the truth.  May you sense more than a trace of God's grace...and may you share that with others.

Blessings ~~

Monday, January 7, 2019

Meeting Matthew Again...Anew


Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.  But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:  “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”  When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife,  but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.  Matthew 1:18-25

Luke shines a bright, bold light on Mary...as well as Elizabeth (Mary's advanced in age cousin who is also pregnant with the child who will be called John the Baptizer) and Zechariah (Elizabeth's husband who is a priest)...but barely mentions Joseph in his narrative.

Matthew, however, devotes and describes two different scenes where Joseph is a key figure...we will study the other a little later.  Joseph here is stuck between a rock and a hard place.  In Jesus day to be engaged was to be married, there was a legality to it when the dowry had been exchanged.  There might have even been a covenanting ceremony at the engagement.  Joseph has the rest of his life planned and plotted, until Mary tells him she is pregnant. 

Maybe Joseph feels betrayed?
Maybe Joseph feels foolish?
Maybe Joseph feels anger?

When was the last time someone you cared about did something so unexpected?  My guess is that it wasn't tell you she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 

Emotions swirl and stir within Joseph...just as within us when we have difficult decisions where it seems like there is no. good. answer! 

That unanswerable question, "Why?"

Why this?
Why now?
Why me?

In the small spaces between the words of this story, I hear Joseph asking that age old question.

What difficult; rock-and-hard-place decision do you find yourself in during these early days of 2019? 

Can you relate to Joseph's condition?

Or maybe you feel more like Mary.  You are the one who said/did something that hurt someone else, but you felt like you had to do it.

Or maybe you feel like both!

And might we name and claim that God is with both Mary and Joseph?  God is moving both in the midst of the One who has the courage to be the God-bearer in the world AND the One who has the courage to call God, "Jesus".  God is moving both in the midst of the One who risked the hostile glare of others and gossip...as well as the One stood beside her.

So may that truth offer you more than a trace of God's grace in your Joseph like moments this day and this week.

Blessings ~~

Friday, January 4, 2019

Meeting Matthew Again...Anew for the First Time


Matthew begins his gospel with a genealogy...you can click here to read all the names. 

Genealogy and knowing where we come from can be fascinating.  DNA testing companies seem ubiquitous.  The fact that Matthew starts by naming names that make up the roots of Jesus' family tree. 

If you were brave and decided to click on the above link you might have:
A...been interested to read all the generations of Jesus stretching back to Abraham.
B...wondered about the stories behind each of those names.
C...fallen asleep...in which case you are probably not reading this blog any more.
D...you didn't click the link...and the above hasn't resolved any kind of conflict within you.

Genealogies are not for everyone.  My uncle is fascinated in it...my mother never was.  Some people love seeing that the farm in the Midwest went back to the 1800s....some people don't see the relevance to their lives today. 

Jesus' family tree is no less complicated.

What is fascinating about the list is five names in particular:  Tamar; Rahab; Ruth; wife of Uriah; and Mary - as in mother of Jesus.

Notice: all five are women...in a rather long list of men.
Notice: all five have difficult backgrounds - some are the victim of sexual assault in the case of Tamar...Rahab was a prostitute...Ruth was a Moabite woman - which was akin to a woman involved in shows in Las Vegas...wife of Uriah (her name was Bathsheba and David had Uriah killed after he slept with her)....Mary had Jesus out of wedlock. 

That is a fascinating list.

Notice: that Matthew is making a theological claim about God working in the lives of people who do not always confirm to societal norms.  Matthew is claiming that these women's stories, far from being hidden away as a family secret, goes and shines a light.  Perhaps Matthew is saying that if Ruth can be the great grandmother of David and Bathsheba can birth Solomon (who built the temple), then maybe we shouldn't judge Mary so harshly or quickly.

You see, our family trees say more about us than we sometimes think.  We are our parent's children for good...for bad...for worst...for all the above and more.  Matthew bravely and boldly proclaims, this is who Jesus is.  Jesus does not have perfect DNA...because neither do any of us.  Jesus has a past...because all of us do too.  Jesus doesn't hide or run or deny the beauty and brokenness, but says, "God can work in and through this." 

I pray as we move deeper into the gospel of Matthew, you will hold this theological claim in your heart.  Matthew proclaims and preaches from the beginning that we are who we are because of who we come from.  The DNA we share...not only with our ancestors...for Genesis claims we are made of the same stuff as star dust.  We are woven with the beauty of all creation.  So may we celebrate the moments that make us who we are and whose we are.  May this truth offer more than a trace of God's grace.

Blessings ~~

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Meeting Matthew Again...Anew for the first time


What impressions, if any, do you have of the gospel of Matthew?  I know some folks who like Mark's gospel because it is brief...the shortest of all four...just the facts ma'am kind of gospel.  I know folks who love Luke's earth, Village Voice gospel being the only one with the parables of the Prodigal Son and Good Samaritan.  I know folks who love John's poetry which starts off, "And the Word took on flesh and moved into our neighborhood," which will totally cause you to look at your neighbors differently.

Matthew?

Um Matthew?

Well, he has that Sermon on the Mount, right?

Wait...Matthew, isn't he the one with all the people thrown in outer darkness and gnashing of teeth?

Talk about your anger issues.

Matthew may or may not be at the top of your "Best. Gospel. Of. All. Time!"  list.  But, I think it is worth meeting Matthew again...anew...as if for the first time.  To enter Matthew with a new perspective.  To listen to Matthew...not in the back of your mind thinking, "He is totally going to have someone gnash teeth soon."  But to hear him speak, sing to our souls in such a time as this.

Matthew lived in a tumultuous time.  People were oppressed by the Roman Empire.  People felt their souls weighted down and backs ache because of the spiritual and physical hardships.  It was time of division and anger hovering, hanging in the air.  And if all that wasn't enough...which it was...Matthew also lived around the time Rome came in and destroyed the temple. 

First, as we learned in Isaiah, this wasn't the first time the sacred site had been left in rumble and ruin.  In fact, the western wailing wall where our Jewish brothers and sister pray today is the only part of the temple left...it was never rebuilt after 70 C.E.  So, people knew from their great, great, great, great grandparents and ancestors that such defeat, devastation, and destruction had happened before.  However, they perhaps didn't think it was going to happen again.  Lightening never strikes twice, right?  Until it does.  So, the sacred temple had been defaced and defiled.  Spiritual crisis number one.

Second, Matthew, as someone who proclaims Jesus as Messiah/Christ (same meaning), he is at odds with his Jewish brothers and sisters.  Our Jewish friends say that when the Messiah comes, all oppression shall cease.  Clearly with the temple in flames and fumes of smoke rising, that didn't happen.  Our Jewish friends say that when the Messiah comes, they will be given back the Promised Land.  Yeah, um, Matthew, Rome is still in power right now.  But Matthew, as well as the other gospels, want to say that Jesus as Messiah has another meaning besides the powerful, political one.  There is a spiritual realm within the world we live...within each of us...that the Christ awakens so that we can live differently.  But that doesn't always help when Rome is taxing you at 90 percent...and their boot is on your neck...and there are crosses everywhere causing fear to sit in your throat.  So there was tension between people...divisions...debates that descended to shouting...people blaming each other.

Stop me when this sounds relevant to today.

The above is spiritual crisis number two.

So, Matthew enters the scene in a time of tension, hurt, confusion, chaos ~ echoing Isaiah in some ways in the Exile - perhaps now you realize the previous weeks of blog posts.  What does Isaiah have to do with Matthew?  Perhaps both are trying to lean into and live in times that there less than ideal.

Again...stop me when this sounds relevant to today.

To meet Matthew again...anew...afresh for this first time, I believe can offer us a trace of grace.  Not only historically for what he faced, but for what we are facing today.  This is going to be an amazing journey. 

Blessings ~~