Our Faithfulness, like Grass

Isa 40.1-11

There is a certain mercilessness in perfectionism because it expects the impossible. The despot expects perfect obedience, the addict attempts to be perfectly addiction free, and the hopeful believer attempts to “be perfect, as the LORD you God is perfect.” (But only God is perfect, and besides, the Greek word used there is telos “complete, goal, destination, end” not some etherial Platonic ideal). Reality however shows us that humans have the constancy of grass.

Isaiah looks at humans capacity for fidelity and says “[human’s] constancy is like the flowers of the field,” the very flowers that spring up in the morning and dry out by midday. Well thank you very much, Debbie Downer. “But wait,” says the circus barker “there’s more!”

The word translated as constancy in the NRSV (goodliness in KJV and faithfulness in NIV) is hesed . It’s a word that means ‘steadfast love, mercy, covenantal faithfulness’ and is used as Shakespeare put it “an attribute of God himself.” The word is most famously used Psalm 136 where every half verse has the reply “for to eternity his hesed.” In other words, the answer to every part of praise in that psalm is “God’s hesed is eternal.” The word is even part of the compound Name of God.

Whatever way we chose to translate hesed it is divine and perfect. Isaiah rather rubs our noses in this by saying ‘human hesed is like grass that dies out in a day.’ Ouch. Sadly, a quick look at oh… divorce statistics, broken friendships, and gosh, just about any record of human history show that it’s true.

There is however, a mercy in this too. When we realize that our best hesed, our most noble constancy is frail as the grass, we can put our efforts into things that lead to life instead of chasing and impossible perfection.

Our words can’t stand up forever, but God’s can. Furthermore, because God’s words can stand and God’s promise can remain, ours can too but only if they are connected to and deeply rooted in, God’s own word.

This reality is at the heart of much spiritual growth and the understanding of those who have lived lives of faith before us. Where their strength ends, God begins. Some of the saints have even expressed that their spiritual lives were at their strongest when they were at their weakest. By having to rely on God because there was no one else, they grew in grace and trust. When all supports were swept away, they found that Jesus truly was then (as the song says) “all [their] hope and stay.”

Faced with the challenge of proclaiming God’s almighty word, Isaiah says, in essence, ‘how can you ask a frail human to bear the weight of your perfection?’ In this he is right, humans as we are cannot bear the weight of perfect grace and mercy. He goes on to say ‘all the goodness we can do and be is like the flowers that fall, the grass that withers in the sun.’

God’s answer to his (entirely legitimate) fear is “yes, the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word (davar in Hebrew, which means both word and deed) stands up forever.” In other words, yes, your strength will fail you, your faithfulness is not enough to carry perfection into the world, but God’s is. Furthermore, God’s strength is in you through your union with God and because of that, you can actually bear perfect love and perfect life to our neighbors. You can even bear that love to your own self.

So thank God our hesed, our constancy, is like the grass because now we can rely on the hesed of the God who spoke the world into being. We can come to the end of our strength and rely on the strength of the God who made us and gave this cosmos new life.

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Come and You Will See

John 1.35-42

It’s the first serious dialogue in the Gospel of John. The baptist sees Jesus walking about and tells his disciples “look, look! There he is!” Some of them start to follow Jesus (becoming thereby some of the first Christ Followers). Jesus notices them and asks a very Advent-y question ti sdeteitewhat do you seek?” In all the things of the world, all the desires that drive our hearts, what is it that you seek? (Hold that thought, we’ll come back to it in a minute).

They answer pou meneis? “where do you dwell/remain?” The NRSV uses the inadequate “where are you staying?” as if they are inquiring which hotel Jesus has chosen during his visit to their town. The word is used for that famous saying about “in my father’s house there are many dwelling places” it is also used to describe what the branches do in the vine. This is vastly more than a question about hotel rooms. They ask “where do you dwell, what is your abiding place, in what is your life centered?” And Jesus takes them seriously.

He answers their question with erchesthe kai opsesthe “come and see.” While this may sound kind of flip at first, he is actually giving them something deeply important. He offers himself instead of an explanation. This is actually key to our understanding of Jesus and we see this most clearly in the bible verse we all know from John. We’ve been told that the “so” in “God so loved” is “God loved sooooooo much” but the Greek word translated “so” also means “thus” and “in this way.” So it is correct to read it “for thus God loved the world” It is also correct to say “For in this way God loved the world.” God loves the world (cosmos in Greek) through Jesus.

Jesus offers himself; a living, three dimensional being, not a book or a lecture. He answers their seeking with an invitation to come, see and be seen, know and be known. He deals with three dimensional, spiritually purblind humans in a concrete, unignorable way. And he’s not very polite about it either.

He gives an order (the imperative “come!”) and makes a promise (“and you will see” it’s a future tense indicative, it points to what will happen in the future). This isn’t a business card or one of those timid “I know you hate church-y stuff, but I like it and would like you to come too (even though I’m sure you’ll hate it)” invitations we hate to give. Jesus flat out says “yes, your life is very interesting and fun and stuff but get off your sit bones, stop dreaming, and get over here.”

The command to “get over here” can be a very different thing tepending on our tone of voice. When it is hollered with the tone of voice that promises “there will be tears” we wonder if there isn’t some totally important errand we needed to have gone on a week ago. But if it is murmured in that soft, warm tone that says “come over here and… kiss me” we tend to go to warp speed in a happier direction.

So while the statement “come” is an imperative, it is also an invitation to a serious, life altering way of being. It is God’s sly “kiss me you fool” delivered in an unexpected way. Finally it is an invitation to “leave the gloomy haunts of sadness” and “come into the daylight’s splendor.” And what happens when we are in the light? We can see.

Which brings us at last to the final part of Jesus’ invitation. “Come” he says “and you will see.” We transltate it “come and see” for the purposes of flow, but the word for “see” is a future tense indicative, it points to what will happen as a result of our coming after Jesus. Come and you will see, you will see Jesus, you will see who he is and how he lives. You will see God through him and in him and finally, you will see yourself, beautiful, bruised, and beloved. You will see him as he is, knowing and being known by him. Truly. Madly. Deeply.


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Keeping Awake

Mark 13.24-37

For those of us who missed it, the beginning of Advent starts with a look at the coming completion of the cosmos in Justice i.e. with an apocalypse. Even more than that, the text drops us right into the middle of Jesus’ last good chat with the disciples before he is betrayed, hauled off to the cross, and then dragged to the tomb. He doesn’t have time to shilly shally around here, time is short and the people need to know what’s coming. He talks about a darkened sun and lightless moon, starfall and heavenshake.

None of these things are particularly subtle or easily ignorable. They are, frankly, terrifying. So does Jesus really think that what we need after this thunderous warning is some obscure story about keeping awake? Well, yes.

Humans have an absolutely amazing ability to sleep through nearly anything. Back in the US Civil War, infantry was moved by fife and drum while cavalry would respond to bugle calls. Units would intermingle at night on the march but while the cavalry would respond to a bugle wake up, the infantry would sleep through until the drums called them. People slept during the Blitz and fall asleep at the wheel of their cars. The human capacity to turn off the world and snooze is actually pretty phenomenal.

And that’s just physical sleep, our ability to mentally sleep through life is the stuff of legends. I’m not even talking about the bystander effect here either. In itself, that’s bad enough but we live in a world where we can nod off in the morning and awaken at bed time to a hardly remembered day filled with a vast array of busy nothings. That’s assuming that we can even remember what we did during the day. Half the time, our lives flow by us with a few notable remembrances amid the long swathes of pink (or grey or polka dot for that matter) fluffy clouds that fill our memories.

Some people keep journals to remember their days, others fill day planners and thoroughly review them in order to retain what was done when. Most folks though? Zzzzzzzz

From Satan’s perspective, this is all to the good because half (and fully) asleep minds will never notice when true beauty and hope are taken away and replaced with tin fiddle fakery. Distracted children discover that their candy has been stolen with no idea how that happened. Distracted adults? Oh boy, we can be much worse. We miss seeing our spouse’s emotional pain, our children’s confusion. We let sloganeers lead us into inadvisable business deals and unhelpful political decisions. Best of all (from Satan’s perspective at least) distracted people never do much self reflection, don’t open their lives to God, and thus don’t really grow up spiritually. The distraction and sleepiness lead quite quickly to septuagenarian spiritual toddlers who are no threat to anyone but themselves.

Given this, we’d bloody well want to be awake and growing, alert and becoming. To help this work, we have the season of Advent, a four week time of preparation and reflection. But we cannot expect to get away with doing hard spiritual work without someone from the distraction industry trying to interfere. And this season of Advent, so rich in opportunities to reflect on how our hearts and lives are ready to receive new life in Christ? We had better expect a few bright-shinies being thrown in our face.

And (as if by a miracle) in the middle of this reflective time… we have The Christmas Season(tm). Sure, it shares the same name as our religious festival but we’ve had so many expectations shoved at us over the years that the probability for bright-shiny distraction is quite high. After all, we don’t want to be mean now do we? It’s for the kiddies (and holds out the hope that this time we’ll finally have that Perfect Christmas(tm) we never got as kids).

All our heart strings are getting plucked, the music of a thousand dreams play in our ears, and over it all comes the sound so siren-like and gentle “go to sleep, delight in dreams. (pay no attention to your spiritual life or the lives of those around you).” Yes people, the secular rush to get stuff, fill our houses, and feed our faces can, if it lulls us into a sleepy sort of satiation, be the absolute enemy of our life of faith.

It doesn’t have to however, and parties and food and gifts can be fun (I rather like carrying those I love in my heart each day and looking for something that perfectly fits who they are). As long as we keep awake, we can have all the fun we can handle, eat all the food we can stuff in our face, and share the Dumbest Jokes(tm) with our besties. The thing is to stay awake.

And so Jesus starts us off on this journey to the little child born in the manger of our heart by telling us to (as one great author put it) “open your eyes, and then open them again.”

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We Need a Little Lent-Mas

The Advent Season

In the rushing, hurry, hurry, super scurry of all the things we Must Finish in order to have a Perfect Christmas(tm) the notion that this season is one for spiritual reflection is mocked with the universal condemnation “Scrooge!” But in the life and wisdom of the church, we havediscovered that this season is a rich time for some Lenten reflection. Lent does initially seem out of place in our happyhappyhappy Christmas world, but that’s because there’s a mechanism of life we haven’t noticed yet.

Each year the church flows through two iterations of the prepare-party-reflect pattern so helpful for life and growth. We get ready for the Big Day, The Day finally comes, and then we remember what happened on that Big, Beautiful Day. This way we think ahead, are aware of what’s going on when it is happening, and then savor what happened. It’s a good way to live life too BTW.

The parties are Christmas and Easter, their reflection periods are Epiphany and Pentecost, and thus the seasons of preparation are Advent and Lent. This is part of why the color for Advent has been the same as the color for Lent (purple). But because Advent is more of a joyful preparation than a penitential one, the church has also used blue as the color of the season. It is still a Little Lent however, so the tasks of Lent: personal reflection and spiritual housecleaning are still part of what the season invites us to do.

In fact, Advent, sandwiched between the two great secular feast and family festivals of the year, invites us out of the whole mess. When the culture we live in goes on and on about how we need to fill the house with stuff, get the right toy, cook the perfect food, and host the perfect party, Advent says “rest and reflect on who you are.” When our schedules fill up to the eyebrows with Things We Must Do, Advent invites us away for a little inward look.

This is the sort of look which invites our awareness of the things that drive us. Why do we have to be with the family that emotionally stunts us? Why is it mandatory that our Christmas be just perfect (or else)? What are the things in our life that need to go in order to make new room?

That last item, the clearing out of old stuff to make room for new is really the point of the season. Though we have allowed the season to be Sanitized by Hallmark ™, the truth is that we are preparing ourselves for the coming of a baby. Those who have borne a child can cast their mind back to when they were in the last month of pregnancy, for the rest of us we’ll need to imagine. The baby is Christ, and just like he was in Mary, he is being born in us on Christmas (that’s the real gift we await on Christmas Day BTW).

But bearing a child is long, hard, monotonous work. Sure, we can go about our daily work (albeit with an increase in appetite, waddle, and frequency of bathroom visits). And on the outside our lives look the same (mostly). But at the deepest level of living our bodies are making space for a new life. Just as a mother of the body must make space within her being for this new life within her, so a mother of the heart will need to make space in her life for the life that is coming to her. In the same way, we are in the work of making space in our life for the new life of God as he is being born in us.

Advent then is a time to make that space. A time to go through the chaotic junk pile that seems to collect in our heart everytime we get distracted by the 10,000 things. From this housecleaning, we rise up with chains broken and new life beginning again. By building this restful, open space within our heart and in our lives while schedules and expectations push us about, we gain the strength to have new life in ourselves and be new life for others.

If we are to make space for this life, we need to spend time seeing, thinking, reflecting, and becoming in the quiet of candlelight.

Blessed Advent to you all.

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Sheep, Goats, Hmmmm

Matthew 25.31-46

Hooo Boy, it’s another parable of judgment and this one is much beloved of people who like to subtly threaten us with our “unloving” behavior. “Do it unto the least of these” we are told with a smirk, for surely we don’t want to “be one of the goats” who will be rejected by Jesus?

And yet, I have seen these same “now ‘be loving’ (you little snot)” people react with horror at the notion that Those People are Sitting In the Same Pew With Me. This has led me to a harder interpretation of the text, and one which I suggest for our study.

Thesis: The “least of these” are the people we do not want to have near us in church, on the street, or anywhere else for that matter.

It doesn’t really matter what category they fall into: they could be white supremacists, homophobes, antifa, Black Lives Matter, rethuglicans, demokkkkrats, gun owners, gun haters, gay, straight, trans… the list goes on (for me it’s (shudder) Yankees fans). If you don’t want ’em in your church, if you would struggle to be civil to them on the street then that’s your “least of these.”

Now go and greet them as you would Christ, “do unto them” as if you were doing unto Jesus. And in your doing, discover that this is part of the way God hollows out our stuck, stupid, pride-full self to make room for the Love of God to pour through you. (no, I didn’t say this was going to be easy, the people who tell you faith and growth are easy are selling something).

The part I really like about this test is that it allows us to continue to actively check our heart instead of simply ticking off a completable (and never re-checked) list. It means that as our hearts are widened and we discover that our princess is in another castle, we can continue to grow and deepen our life. Thus this parable becomes part of our daily practice of spiritual self-reflection instead of a string of trophies we can put up on the mantle.

The best (or perhaps worst) part of this test is that it has biblical support in Jesus’ words no less. Far from being a static, fulfillable checklist, the way to faithful life is made up of constant attention to who we are and what we are doing in each moment.

A certain type of preaching has held up unchangeable perfection as our life goal (“be perfect as God is perfect”) and focused on perfection as a pinacle of life, as if we were working to “get that A” instead of becoming complete humans. But this translation (and its obsession with lists and acheivements) ignores the Greek understanding of the text.

This is because the word translated “perfect” is focused on motion, on going somewhere and becoming someone. The word is from the Greek root telos which means “destination/goal.” So this call to “be perfect,” to give to and live with “the least of these” is one that is focused on our goal, our destination in God. To use the trite phrase it is focused on the fact that we are journeying into God rather than that we are already at our destination.

The perfection we are seeking is the kind that comes when we are at unity, integrated, whole, real, and the person we were made to become. This is in stark contrast to the  pinch faced checklist peruser much favored by our current crop of Teachers of Righteousness. And that finally brings us back to this whole sheep/goats thing.

Folks who use this parable as a club to beat the unrighteous into heaven are missing the point. The sheep and the goats did what they did out of the fullness of their hearts. Both are surprised that they did this for Jesus because they weren’t even thinking of Jesus when they did what they did. The sheep were’n following a list or going in fear of a voice that would say “how could you be so unloving?” Their hearts were open to recieving and giving while they would sit with everyone, talk with everyone, and be with everyone.

To be entirely honest, the sheep people probably didn’t need the test I proposed (that the ‘least of these’ are the people we don’t want to be around) because their hearts were already unscarred. For those of us with half-open, half-healed, still-scarred hearts, the test may help us on the way. It ought not however, become our ultimate checklist, because our destination is life in Christ and not even “being loving according to this test.”

As is usual with God’s invitation to life, this is a lot harder to do than simply ‘follow the rules.’ It requires a relentless, every day, living trust in a God who is greater than us. It requires confidence in a God who is not only capable of supporting us as we walk step after faltering step on the Walk of Living into Life that is faith but in fact joyfully eager to do so.

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Using it to Pieces

Matthew 25.14-30

Here’s another of the three parables of judgment that make up Matthew 25. As usual when handling these stories, it is vital to remember that they are illustrations and are not intended to explain every single part of reality. They cannot, and should not be expected to, be a broad ranging theological explanation of all things in God’s economy. They are pointed stories on a theme of judgment and judgment must at least entertain the notion of “no” if its “yes” is to be anything more than a participation award. That said, let’s begin.

“it is as if a man went on a journey” where to and why is not explained, the person (anthropos) is leaving the place and calls his own servants (tous idious doulous) together and hands over (paradidomi) what he controls/what is his (uparcho, from upo “under”+ archo “rule” i.e. the things under his rule/control). He divides this up unevenly according to each one’s own power/ability (kata ten idian dunamin) and then he goes off. The curtain falls. Eventually a stagehand wanders out with a sign that reads “time passes.” Later, another stagehand comes out with a sign “And then, The Reckoning.” And at last the curtain rises.

The scene it rises on is familiar, the giver comes back to see what has been done with the gifts given, praises some and condemns others and then takes what little the least had and gives to the one with the most. (“But wait!” you say, “what about the last shall be first? What about God’s economy of Justice?” You do remember that this is a story to make a point not a doctrinal statement to make all points?)

Sharp eyed cultural historians will note that by the understandings of the time, there are precisely zero ethical ways for the first two servants to get a 100% return on their money. Even today this kind of return requires phenomenal luck and extreme risk taking. Deeper observers will note that the one who burried the gift was actually doing the rabbinically approved thing for an unwanted gift given into their care. So not only is the giver rewarding the unethical, they are punishing the one person who wanted to have nothing to do with the gift in the first place.

Again, it’s time to remind us all to take a deep breath and remember that the story is not a neat allegory with every person symbolizing something, nor is it intended to make all points so let’s look at it as it is.

The two who gained (kerdaino) did so by working (ergazomai) with the gift. Yes, our translations give us “trade” rather than “work” but the root of the verb is “to work” so the first two worked their gift. They worked their gift quite hard by the way, because the only way to get 100% return on your money is to either have a lot of time or take a lot of risk.

While economics may be a “dismal science” and psychology a frustrating mass of often conflicting ideas about how to rationally understand and improve the life of people who come across as fundamentally irrational, these rules are pretty sound. To obtain profound change we need either a lot of time or a lot of luck in our risk-taking.

This, I think, is the key to understanding this story. It is not a tale that affirms our notion of justice in the world or a comforting reminder that God will restore all things, it is a demand for action on our part. Really, all the parables of judgment are intended at some level to call, demand, and hammer-on-the-fortress-door-of-our-heart-in-frustration, in order to get us to change our attitude toward what we are doing today.

The thought experiment “if you knew you had a week to live, how would you live differently?” is at the heart of these parables. We do not like to think about dying, we do not generally welcome death as a boon companion on our walk of life. We definitely do not want to think about endings (no matter how pretty the song may be). And because we don’t like to entertain the notion of endings, the end usually catches us unprepared.

So what’s the alternative to the la-la-la “nothing bad will happen” fingers-in-our-ears way of life? Do we become conversational killjoys unwilling to “engage in frivolity” or “do anything light-minded” in the face of our Impending Judgment? Do we become a mad prepper, stockpiling supplies and building an asteroid-proof bunker while constantly checking to be sure that our bug-out bag is always with us? Not really.

While it is good to evaluate our life and give serious thought to the way we live and it is wise to be ready for emergencies, being a perpetual gloomy gus is contraindicated. What is indicated is an absolute “use it till it falls apart” approach to life.

There is no way to get 100% return on an investment without taking massive, intelligent risks, involving yourself whole-heartedly in the enterprise, and trusting God’s grace for every inch of life. There is little life in a cautiously lived “life.” You tend to end up “safe” but dead because in the lightless, airless Chamber of Safety things fester in the dark and the flowers of living cannot bloom.

In contrast to the stasis of the sour faced, the passionately safe, and the paranoically prepared, Jesus gives us “fullness of life” and in this story invites us to live our life to the very edges. We are given the challenge to ‘use the hell out of’ every gift we have, to live our lives ’till the covers fall off (as one pastor put it). Or as Bujold put it “we fail at some of the things we attempt and all of the ones we don’t attempt.” In this text, Jesus invites us to the bold attempt.

While this is a word of judgment and a warning against letting our minds go to sleep, it is also an invitation to live absolutely and boldly in the face of uncertainty. Far from an Osteen-like proclamation to “just believe in yourself” this is the reality that we truly can live lives abandoned to grace but anchored in love, that we can “live dangerously in the hands of God” as someone sang. And that is how even this word of judgment becomes what it is, a call to life and not a disqisition upon all things.


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