Prayers We Pray

Some prayers have been given to us, that we might have words to direct the deepest groaning and cries of our heart, when words won’t come on their own.  I think of the Psalms that teach us to cry out with prayers like, “How long, O Lord?!”

There is a prayer that has been welling up in my heart and mind this evening as I spent some time reflecting on the hate and violence and sin of white supremacy and the latest and most public expression of these things in Charlottesville.  That prayer is the Prayer of St. Francis.  I’d like to share it here and maybe over the next couple days reflect on it just a bit.

Lord make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may
not so much seek to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it’s in dying that we are born to eternal life
Amen.

Let’s just start with the first paragraph.  And I guess what follows is more an invitation to prayer than anything else.  So, let’s pray…

Take the images and things you have seen this weekend from Charlottesville.  Holding them in your heart and mind, pray the first part of the prayer.  Pausing at the end of each phrase… allowing the Spirit to call to mind places of hatred, injury, doubt, despair, darkness, sadness.  Move one by one, line by line.  Then let yourself be stretched into those places with seeds to sow.  Seeds of love, of faith, of hope, of light, of joy.  Spend as much time with each part as you need.  Let this be a prayer that clarifies your work in this world.  Maybe you have some questions about what it could even look like for hope or joy to be planted in some of these places and situations.  Direct that prayer to Jesus.

Now I invite you to follow this same pattern, but thinking about your own community, this time:  Your town, your school, the place you work, the people you spend your day with, the web of relationships and day-to-day situations that you know best.  Take your time, let the Spirit be your guide.  Let this clarify your work in this world.

Now one more time.  This time let the words of this prayer address your own heart, your own ways of thinking.  Where does hatred have a hold?  Where does despair take root?  Where is darkness all you see?  Spend time here.  Be specific.  Name these places.  And begin to do the small but important work of letting new seed be sown.  Let this clarify your work in this world.

Lord, Make me an instrument of your peace…

Amen.

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More About the Questions

This is a kind of part 2 to my previous post “An Intuitive Activity”.  I couldn’t decide if I should call it “More about the Questions” or “Following the Rabbit Trail”.  So you can pick.

But I want to begin again w/ a quote by artists Robert Irwin and then consider it for just a bit in the light of vocational discernment and discovering who we are and who we’re called to be.

So the quote:

“During those years… the answers seemed to matter less and less: I was becoming much more a question person than an answer person.  There is a strain in the Jewish mystical tradition that asserts that there exists questions larger than the sum of their answers, questions all of whose possible answers would never exhaust them.” seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees, p. 89

Ok.  So here’s the thing: I think we really like the idea of arrival, of landing at a irwinuntitled6061destination.  I always feel very happy when my google maps says to me at the end of a road trip, “You have arrived.”  I always say, “Thanks!”  or “Finally!” and sit there for just a moment basking in the accomplishment of the fact that I have arrived.

And I think that having a goal or an aim or a sense of direction or trajectory… those are good things and actually pretty important for life in general.

BUT, I don’t think there is actually such a thing as a fixed or static goal or aim.  Because you are not fixed or static.  And God, the divine, is not fixed or static (we are warned again and again in Scripture that this is a living God we’re dealing with!)

And you are, hopefully, growing and learning and changing.  And so what you see and understand and how you hold it or approach it is moving, shifting, developing, blowing up… all of the above at different points along the way.

And this is why the questions become more important.  The questions are the next step.  The questions are the thing that point the way forward.  They are the guide.  So those nagging, burning questions.  The thing that is deep down inside of you that won’t let up.  That thing that is shut up like fire in your bones… that question, like Irwin is talking about, that is more than the sum of it’s answers…

Pay attention to that.

Follow where it leads.

Don’t be afraid.

And you don’t do this so that you will arrive at the answer.  You do this because this is the ONLY way to uncover the NEXT question:  What will this stir up in you?  Where will this lead you?

And you follow the rabbit trail and see how deep it goes.

This is, I would suggest, what our faith, at its best, means by the word “vocation”.  The word literally means “calling” or “voice”.  It’s about learning to hear those questions that seem to be given to you in a way that they aren’t given to anyone else.  It’s about learning to hear who you are and the part you’ve been given to play… not in some kind of resolved way as if, “Oh now I see it all the way and know who I am and where I’m going.” But in a continued unfolding that requires us to be able to listen well to what is being stirred in us and to let that stirring be turned to action, to steps, to work in the world.

Parker Palmer talks about it this way in his book, Let Your Life Speak

Vocation… comes from listening.  I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about — quite apart from what I would like it to be about — or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions.  That insight is hidden in the word vocation itself.  It does not mean a goal that I pursue.  It means a calling that I hear: Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.

So how are you listening to your life?  What questions are being stirred in you?  What is it that feels like fire shut up in your bones?  Can you trust God’s work in this?  Can you start down that path?  What does the first step look like?

An Intuitive Activity

I want to share an extended quote from artist Robert Irwin.  Then I want to explore it just a bit in light of questions I hear from young adults about how you know what you’re supposed to do or be and when did I know what I was called to do and be.  I think this will be a two-part entry.  So…

Part 1:

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First the quote… Robert Irwin talking to the guy that would be writing the book about him and his life as an artist…

You have to be careful in taking these things I’m saying and working them into too clear an evolving narrative.  There’s a danger in spelling these recollections out so lucidly that your reader gains the impression that at the time I knew what I was doing and where all this was leading in some sort of intellectual way.  You have to make it very clear to anyone who might happen to pick it up, that my whole process was really an intuitive activity in which all of the time I was only putting one foot in front of the other, and that each step was not that resolved.  Most of the time I didn’t have any idea where I was going; I had no real intellectual clarity as to what it was I thought I was doing.  Usually it was just a straightforward commitment in terms of pursing the particular problems or questions which had been raised in the doing of the work.  (from: seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees, p. 89)

I know there are people who have a really clear sense of who they’re called to be in the world.  They know what major to declare to help get there, they seemingly see the path laid out before them.

But for at least as many people (if not for way more of us) this isn’t how it works.  We don’t see 10 steps ahead.  We don’t have a 5 year plan.  We aren’t real clear on where this will end up, where we’re called or headed.  And Irwin says it in such a beautiful and concise way here.  To say, “Yeah you can look back, given years of time and have a perspective on life from which you might be able to narrate a clear and steady ascending path.  But don’t be fooled!  That’s not how it felt.  That’s not how it really happened, as it happened.”

It is, he says, “an intuitive activity… putting one foot in front of the other.”  To say it is an intuitive activity means you can’t find it by looking ahead, by trying to map it out.  But you find it by paying attention to where you are now and the work you’ve been given to do today.

Our household of faith has a lot to offer and teach us about how to do this intuitive activity.  How to, as it were, pay attention to who you are, where you are, and what you’ve been given to do TODAY and see where that takes us.

The Jesuits in particular have a lot to offer us in terms of discernment and practicing presence.  The ONE thing that Ignatius of Loyal said was to NEVER be neglected by a Jesuit as a daily practice was ending the day by prayerfully reflecting back through each encounter, conversation, emotion of that particular day, directing questions like this toward Jesus, “When was I most alive today?”  “When was I least alive today?”  “When was I most aware of you today?”  “When was I least aware of you today?” And pay attention to where this goes.  And then the prayer ends by seeking, out of THIS day, an invitation for tomorrow… In other words, in light of this day and this work and this place, what does it look like for me to put my foot in front of the other and take the next step?

What would it look like for you, if this was a practice that you and I did not neglect each day? Maybe we should try!

Stay tuned for Part 2…

Grace + Peace,

The Paradox of the Incarnation

My brother-in-law is called to creatively share and engage the story of Jesus in ways and in places that some might call “non-traditional” or something.  He’s always creating new content and finding ways of getting it out there, inviting people to join the conversation, to get their hands on it, too.

He started a podcast this last year.  And for the summer, while the podcast takes a break, he’s cued up some guests to share about a variety of different subjects.  He invited me to join in the fun!  I’m grateful for that.  It’s pretty different than most of what I write, produce, share these days. But I really liked getting to think through what has been several different ideas floating around inside me for some time now.

Hope you’ll check it out…

http://www.brianniece.com/paradox-incarnation/

The Prophets, part 4: Jesus, the Prophet

So over the last few weeks we’ve looked at the work of the Prophets.  As they show up in our midst and offer an in-house critique of all the ways that we’ve buried the plot and missed the point of what it means to be people who are drawn into God’s work in the world.  We’ve looked at how the prophet’s work always begins by putting their finger where it hurts… to come among a people who are super practiced at begin numb and insulated from the hurt and pain in themselves and in the people all around them.

And then the prophets work continues as they announce among the people who find themselves in the grips of the pain and confusion of exile – their the prophets work is to announce the reality of who God is.  That God is the one who has always called forth something out of nothing, who takes the thing that is as good as dead and THERE springs up a life and a future.

Tonight, as we wrap up this series, we’re going to look at the gospels in the light of this and see how Jesus embodies in some REALLY powerful ways the work of the prophets.

First – Luke 4:16-30 

The first thing I want to remind us is how the prophets hardest work is always in bringing the in-house critique.  The fact that is central to the work of the prophets tells us that there are apparently lots of ways in which our religiousness can become nothing more than practices in keeping things the way we like them, they become the gatherings that tell us only those things that affirm us and our ways of thinking, speaking, acting in the world.

And this is VERY much the case when Jesus shows up in the gospels.  And so when he’s home for the weekend and goes to synagogue, watch what Jesus does – he identifies himself w/ the work of the prophets ALL the way through what he says in Luke 4.  The passage he is given to read announces that second 1/2 of the prophets work.  How God’s liberation comes to the poor, those weighted down w/ debt, to the blind, to those who are under the thumb of those w/ all the power.

But the interesting thing is to ask – Ok, Jesus the prophet is here… so what will that work look like among this people in Nazareth… like putting your finger where it hurts or announcing the new life God is calling forth?  His sermon for the day is about how God is stirring and at work among the people that are NOT them.  Jesus is lippy here, he has an edge, sharp and incisive words… he’s feeling in front of them what they refuse to feel.  He’s putting his finger on the way their religious practice has become a way of affirming that they’re little tribe is ok and everything among them is good… but woe to everyone outside of that…

AND when he does that… they want to kill him!

Is there anyway that Jesus, when he shows up – that he has that kind of work to do among us – here at Wesley, w/ you one-on-one.  Where this thing has turned in on itself and we just keep liking and affirming one another and we call that church.  It seems that we should at least be a little nervous about whether or not we’re really tracking along w/ Jesus if there aren’t times when Jesus opens his mouth and speaks against us, our ways of thinking and acting and being together.

I wonder when you hear Jesus speak like that to you, to us… what is he saying?

(Spend some time in prayer w/ this)

Now – Luke 6:20-26

Luke’s version of the beatitudes,  Jesus speaking of blessing, and in Luke it’s coupled by some “woes” too.  And watch how Jesus’ words work here – His promise of blessing, of life, of presence is for those who have already woken up to the pain and brokenness in themselves and in people around them – they are the ones who are poor, who are hungry, who are weeping, who are are reviled for the way they join Jesus in his work – the work Jesus says is the work of the prophets.  They’re the one’s who aren’t numb to pain in themselves and those around them, but who let it all in.  To them, what Jesus declares is a life and a future and a hope that they cannot create for themselves… to them Jesus announces the dawning of the Kingdom, the springing up of new life from the rubble all around them.

But to those who are numbed and insulated – the ones who are rich and full and laughing, who show up saying everything is good, it’s working for us – Jesus says  woe to you… exile is coming your way.

It is interesting to note that the gospels demonstrate to us the way that Jesus embodies both of these moves of the prophets… yet by far the gospels move much more quickly past Jesus’ prophetic work to tear down the part that is dead and not working and coming to an end… and in contrast the gospels are MUCH more interested in the ways Jesus announces and demonstrates the NEW thing that God is stirring and launching… Jesus called it the Kingdom of God/heaven.  Jesus’ actions and teachings are overwhelmingly preoccupied w/ this Kingdom… and the Kingdom is nothing less than the fullness of that life and future and hope that we cannot do on our own, but, thanks be to God, has sprung up in our midst in Jesus!!!

And it drives the church people nuts that Jesus is so preoccupied w/ announcing and demonstrating this kind of Kingdom among people that don’t seem to look very nice, very holy or very deserving.

And I think we’ve got to be REALLY honest here: This is part of what we have gotten so backward in our churchy-ness.  We have our eyes on the look out for the people who already have their act together and who behave and believe like us and we gravitate toward those people like that’s our job, like that’s what we’re called to do…

priest-prophet-king-jesus-664x299But when we watch the prophet Jesus, his work makes more sense in the places where the wheels have come off, where the whole thing has unraveled, where there is hurt and confusion and disillusionment.  That’s where you find Jesus and THAT’S where he’s doing the INTERESTING work of announcing and demonstrating the Kingdom of God.

So I wonder if you’ll join him.  I wonder if we will join him.

Let’s pray…

Two Kinds of Laughter – a sermon on Genesis 18:1-12, 21:1-7 and Romans 5:1-8

This was my final sermon in the parish churches, preached on Sunday June 18

Read Genesis 18:1-12, 21:1-7 and Romans 5:1-8

Today is a lot of different days for me.  Today is my last day in the parish churches, today is me and Stephy’s 12th wedding anniversary, and it’s Father’s day.  I thought about selecting some kind of special Scripture to share from instead of working from the lectionary texts for the day.  Because the lectionary doesn’t really  care about any of those things I just named… my last day, anniversaries or Father’s day.

But as I sat w/ the lectionary Scriptures over the course of this last week, I had a couple different thoughts…

One: In our two years together we have worked hard to let what we share be rooted deeply in the Scriptures… and not be determined by the preacher’s preference… so why mess w/ that today.  And above anything else, I want to tell you how grateful I am for the chance I’ve been given here, along side the student pastors, to open up Scripture together, week-after-week and to do our best to strain our hearts and ears to listen for the ways God’s Spirit continues to speak in and through these old words.

Two: The Scriptures for today seem to have a lot to say to the season we find ourselves in, as we wonder about our future as a church and we are perhaps a little suspicious of anything that wants to offer easy optimism or quick hope…

We’ve experienced a little to much loss to fall for that.

In the story we hear from Genesis – we watch Abraham… OLD Abraham, who set out on this journey at the call of the God that he is only really just getting to know.  And this God has, just a few chapters earlier told Abraham that God was going to, through him, make a family so great that it would grow to extend blessing to ALL the people on earth.  Now I do wonder how Abraham would hear this call/promise from God.  The gods Abraham would have been familiar w/ were tribal in their affiliation and blessing.  If you and your people were good, then the best you could hope for was that your particular tribal god would take care of you and yours… and a part of what that blessing would entail was protection from and victory over the other competing tribes/their gods.  But this God who calls Abraham makes a promise to him that would have been way beyond what Abraham’s imagination could have handled.  I’ll make a family from you so great that ALL the tribes, ALL the people will be blessed.

And so it seems that Abraham, not given much more than this strange and over the top promise, is learning to make his journey out into who knows where/what, living in the expectation that God will show up somewhere along the way and make good on this promise.

And so when these strangers come wandering through, he’s ready – he pulls out the best in-the-middle-of-the-desert hospitality he can muster, as quickly as he can: “Clean your feet, sit in the shade, drink this, eat this…”

And in ways that are at once clear and unclear – these guests are the divine.  God meets Abraham in his hospitality to these strangers.  And the promise becomes a bit more concrete, even if all the more unlikely!

“Where’s your wife Sarah?” they ask.  “We’ll visit again in due season and she will have for you a son.” Now the Genesis text seems to down play this just a bit in its description, “They were advanced in age and it ceased to be w/ her, the way of a women.”  She had never been able to have kids and now was WAY past the age where that was a possibility… and Abraham was EVEN older!

And so, Sarah, just inside the tent, over hears the words of the sacred guests and she laughs.  And of course she does!  I was telling this story to Raena at bed time a couple nights ago and was trying to think of how to help her get at why Sarah would respond this way and so I said, “It would be like if when you see Nana she say, ‘guess what?! I’m going to have a baby!!’”  And Raena laughed out loud!!

Because that’s what you do when you hear something that you know is WAY out of the realm of possibility, so far fetched that it cannot in any way be taken seriously.

Sarah had lived her whole life coming to grips w/ the fact that she would not be able to have a child, in a time when this carried w/ it some serious social stigma and shame.  She was now, in her old age, perhaps finally past this; at peace w/ her lot in life…

And now here comes these three randos out of no where and they say, This time next year she’s going to have a baby boy.  And so she laughs, “Right, sure, NOW this is going to happen to me.”

But the strange guests call her on this saying, “Why did you laugh?”  She denies it.  But they come back again, “Oh yes you did laugh!”

And here’s what it seems is being challenged in this first kind of laugh of Sarah by the divine, by God Almighty…

Why do you live your life as though the only possible future for you is the one that you can make for yourself?  Why do you insist on living in the world as though it was closed off and self-contained and manageable? Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?

This first kind of laugher comes to us when we have been disappointed too many times and are now fully aware of what’s possible and what’s not, what’s realistic and what’s not.  And we refuses to imagine what God might do, were God to show up, like an unexpected stranger outside our door.

But when the story picks back up a few chapters later it is sure to name the way that God made good on what had been said and promised to Abraham and Sarah.  And they name the child Isaac – which means laughter – and she says God has brought laughter for me… and everyone who hears will laugh w/ me!  Whoever would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children… yet here we are!”

And as she laughs… this second kind of laughter is the one that happens when you get a taste of the future God can call forth out of nothingness, barrenness, heart ache, loss.  It’s the kind of laughter that says, “Can you believe this?  What a world we’re in – a world where God will keep finding ways to make a future for God’s people.”

Learning to be people of this second kind of laughter – as Sarah would surely tell us, does not come easy, but it comes precisely through what we suffer.  And this is what our passage from Romans is trying to get at.  That this family of people who are finding themselves at peace w/ God through Jesus – they even rejoice in their suffering for they know that it produces endurance, which produces character, with leads to hope… And hope doesn’t disappoint us…

But what is Paul saying?  Suffering is not straightforwardly a path to hope!  We all know that much.  That when we suffer there are all kinds of ways that it can go.  There is no formula which guarantees suffering leads to hope.  And yet this is what God does w/ Jesus – his death and resurrection… And what Paul is saying is that this is the way it works w/ God!  Will you be open to rejoicing in what you suffer, w/ an eye toward God, wondering and waiting for what it will be like when God comes opens up a future for you through what you’ve suffered?

I said I would stick to the lectionary text – but well – I want to close w/ one small deviation.

If there is a place in Scripture that I come to again and again, that if pressed, I would say, is my favorite – it would be Luke 15.  The chapter about the lost things – sheep, coin, son.

In these stories the point of each of them is the rejoicing that happens when God’s rescue becomes reality.  Jesus tells these stories at the occasion of some Pharisees who are grumbling that Jesus welcomes sinners and eats w/ them.  And these stories are full of surprises and a great deal of rejoicing – laughter and celebration at every turn!

And the only two people we meet in these stories that can’t seem to get in on the laugh are the Pharisees who Jesus is telling the stories to and the older son in the last story who can’t believe that the Father would welcome back w/ so much joy and love, laughter and celebration the son that had so insulted the Father and lived so reckless a life.   And we don’t get a hard and fast conclusion on how it ends for that older son who seems so embittered about how this is all playing out.  Will he come into the celebration?  Will he share in the laughter?  Or will he insist that it is unfair and an outrage – that the Father would have hope and a future for this reckless, mess of a son.  But the Father says, as if to remind him that there is hope and a future even for this angry embittered son, if he would be learn this second kind of laughter… “You are always w/ me and all I have is yours.”

Let those words sink into your soul.  When it feels your hope and future have been given away in all kinds of ways that seem unfair, in ways that cause you to feel angry and embittered… May you hear the voice of the Father speak to you, “You are always w/ me and ALL I have is yours.  And may those words cause you to fill w/ hope and to laugh w/ joy because of the God we’ve got.

“Why Jesus?” – ch 12

This post wraps up the series reflecting on Will Willimon’s book “Why Jesus?” 

Ch 12 – Body 

Willimon wraps up this book on Jesus by having us do some serious reflection on the embodied-ness of our faith, hope and love in Jesus!  He begins w/ some words of correction for those who want to make Jesus into some kind of etherial, whispy soul floating around twinkling about “spiritual” things.

To that he says,

“Wrong.  The Christian faith, taking its cues from Jesus, is insistently material, corporeal, anthropomorphic, muscular, and incarnational.” (123)

That Jesus not only WAS in the flesh… but even after his death, in his resurrection he is with his disciples, bodily!  And Willimon does a really good job of affirming what the gospels and the rest of the new testament say, which is that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead was not a ghostly appearance or some kind of vision, but was flesh and blood.  But the Risen Jesus’ body is somehow different (not less real or physical, but different) from our bodies as we know them now.  The bible doesn’t even try to explain how it is different or detail exactly in what ways they are different.

That can be frustrating when the bible doesn’t seem interested in the questions that interest us.  But Willmon tries to demonstrate the way that the bible’s proclamation of Jesus’ bodily resurrection can’t easily be dismissed as “the way people in those antiquated bible days thought about things.”  He shows how they had very little imagination for resurrection and that it would not have been straightforwardly obvious that Jesus rising from the dead was a good thing or something that “of course” God would do.

He says,

“… the main reaction of the disciples to ‘Jesus is raised’ was fear.  They didn’t expect Jesus to be raised from the dead; in a sense they didn’t really want him raised from the dead.  For another thing, has anything you have learned thus far about Peter suggested to you that he had a fertile imagination or creative mind?

Even when, at the end of the Matthew’s Gospel, the risen Jesus appears to his disciples on the mountain top for a final commissioning, Matthew says that though some of the disciples ‘saw’ and ‘worshiped him’ still ‘some doubted.’  Jesus was right there before them, and some holdouts doubted!  You see what these early Christian preachers like Matthew are doing? If you have trouble swallowing all this, don’t worry; this has always been our reaction to the risen Christ.  The gospels are not asserting a knockdown argument for Jesus’ resurrection.  They are telling the story in an honest way, truthfully admitting their doubts, not providing much evidence for their claims, other than their own cockeyed conviction that it’s all true.” (132-133)

Jesus’ resurrection from the dead wasn’t what caused the earliest communities of his followers to say, “Now we’ll go to heaven when we die” (see 131), but instead it was the commissioning of the risen Jesus to his followers that caused them to live now, in this world, in ways that make visible and tangible the reality of the Kingdom of the Risen Jesus here and now.

Willimon talks about the church as Jesus’ body saying this:

“… abstract, general truth does not stir much among us.  When truth becomes embodied, up close and personal, present truth, then truth becomes intersting and we know for sure that the Kingdom of God has come near.” (129)

But just to make sure that we’re all clear that Jesus and his Kingdom is not the same thing as the church, Willimon goes on to say,

“Not that Christ is fully contained by the church; nothing human can do that.  It is more true to say that Christ graciously visits the church, becomes uniquely present to the church, commands and criticizes most often the church, keeps rescuing and resurrecting the church, so much so that the church has good reason to call itself his body in motion.”  (129)

And may that be true for us and for what happens in and through the Auburn Wesley Foundation… may Christ graciously visit us, be present to us, command and criticize us, and keep on rescuing and resurrecting us – that in us the grace and love of Jesus may be seen as we find ways of sharing life and hope and love with our campus community!