“Self Seeds Wantonly”

Mark 4.26-34

Some plants can be a pain to propagate. They’re finicky about where they grow, need particular pollinators, they don’t make a lot of viable seed,.. The list goes on and on of reasons it is hard to get some plants to grow from seed. Other plants have no problem at all, in fact they seem eager to set and scatter new seed. Gardeners warn each other of these kind of plants, They may be beautiful and easy to care for but they “self-seed freely” as the guides usually say.

They can start from a few plants in one corner of the garden but if you don’t watch them, they will soon take over the whole place. You’ll find flowers growing up through cracks in the pavement, running riot through the grass, and turning even the most well ordered garden plot into a mass of whatever this new flower is. They are easy to establish and spread, but they can become a nuisance so, as I said, we warn each other. “Watch out for that one, it self-seeds.”

This does not however mean that we do not use them, one of my favorite old time flowers is Nigella damascena also called “love in the mist” for it’s feathery leaves and beautiful, profuse flowers. But Nigella is also a special case, because it doesn’t just self-seed feely, it does so wantonly (as one guide put it so memorably).

A handful of Nigella seeds can become a whole flower bed full in very little time. In fact, if the climate is kind, this annual can actually go through two life cycles each year, going from seed to flower to seed pod twice in the same time “normal” and “decent” flowers bloom just once.

But it is beautiful enough and easy to weed out of your flower beds so keeping it in line is not a major effort. It does however illustrate the power in the seed

I have mentioned this before but it bears repeating. The life and power in us is very like what is in a seed. This is because a seed has within itself all the power, all the energy, it needs to grow and thrive. Get a hand lens and a peanut and you’ll see what I mean. Pop the peanut open and look at that little bumpy bit in the middle with the lens. You’ll see proto-leaves at one end and a point at the other. This is the heart of the plant, coiled with energy and waiting to grow.

The life in us is at times harder to see, especially when we are tired and overwhelmed with living. Life is made up of a myriad of choices and those choices are not always clear or easy. In fact, they are often everything but clear and easy.

Faced with the complexity we may well be tempted to curl up and hide, to look at all we face and say “the journey is too much” for us (but note, we have a rather famous bible story about someone who said just that). As the angel showed Elijah, so Jesus told his parables. The seed of life in us is indeed the power that wells up in us to eternal life.

That’s why, even though the seed of life in us seems small, even though the touch of Christ in our hearts feels faint, that seed has the power and it will grow if given the slightest chance. Christians understand that we have the seed of God’s life in us through baptism, and that from the seed grows a mighty oak of grace and life.

Therefore, faced with the challenge of growing and in need of the confidence to become as tall and strong as we can in the face of the junk we have inherited from the world around, you have the Seed of Life in you and it is all the power you need.

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Raising our Ebenezer

1 Samuel 7.12

We love the song, but do we even remember what it means to “raise our Ebenezer?” For that matter, what is an Ebenezer?

It’s a compound of Eben “stone” and Ezer “help” and the scripture reference is 1 Sam 7.12. The Israelites had gathered together and their Philistine neighbors decided to pull a surprise attack. Caught in the open and unprepared, the Israelites were afraid but God thundered from on high and the Philistines fled. In commemoration of this deliverance, Samuel put up a marker stone.

This was a common practice back in the day. Jacob took the stone he’d slept on the night he saw the vision of angels and made it a marker that “the LORD was in this place and I had no idea.” The Pillar at Mizpah was a witness between Jacob and Laban. And what did Joshua have the Israelites do when the crossed the Jordan? Set up a pile of stones. Even today, when marking trails above treeline, we use piles of rocks called cairns. Furthermore, we still used stones to remind us of important events. Both the Cenotaph in London and the Vietnam Wall mark painful but important happenings.

So Ebenezer (Stone of Help) is a stone that marks a moment in our life. It is, to push  the Hebrew a bit, a Stone of Help to mark that “God has helped (Ezer) us this far” in life. So that stone marked the place where God had helped the people. Where are your stones? Really, where are the memorial markers you’ve put down to remember how far you’ve come and how you’ve been brought thus far?

We live in a culture that corrodes our memories, drawing our attention away from what gives us life and into the hurry, hurry, superscurry of the Next Big Thing(tm). This is actually one of the key reasons why regular gathering for worship is important for a life in faith. If we are not constantly reminded of the transcendent reality surrounding us, we will forget. In our forgetting we then fall away from who we are and who we can become. To quote the Echoing Green, something “goes tragic” in us.

To prevent tragedy then, we remember, We “do this in remembrance” and recall the mighty acts of God in our life, and we raise our Ebenezer. So where are yours? Take a good look at your life and ask where are the signs you’ve put down to say “thus far I have been helped?” If you can’t see any of them, perhaps it’s time to look again. Perhaps it’s time to seriously review what we’ve seen and done and lived to check if our suspicion that we’re alone in this is really true.

Fundamentally, this is the spiritual practice of self-examination. This is not just the practice of looking into ourselves to see motivations and the emotional impulses which drive us. We also look into our history to find contradictions to the social story that “you are all alone” in life and “no one cares.” When we find those stories, we mark them, we raise an ebenezer, a place called remember. We can then point to this place and say “see, here is where I was helped.”

That finally is what an ebenezer is, a marker that we’ve gotten this far by the help of others, by the intervention of God.

For super bonus points, our ezer (helper) doesn’t even have to be an eben (a stone) because in Genesis when God looked at Ha’Adam and said “it is not good to be alone,” God made an ezer k’negedo (helper before you). In other words, the KJV’s “helpmeet” is actually a proper/suitable (the archaic meaning of “meet”) helper to stand before the person. And yes, the k’negedo “before/in front of” is important here. This helper, this marker of God’s Grace, this gift of another into our lives who calls us to become more than we believe we can, can be as much a person as a place.

So where are your ebenezers and what do they mark?

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Preplanned Resentments

Mothering Sunday

In a sense, Mother’s Day is a microcosm of the way we handle Christianity itself. We have massive, unachievable expectations for human beings “be perfect,” “a mother’s love never fails” blah, blah. We are given strong social pressure to pretend that “everything’s fine” in our relationship. But eventually the truth comes out about the way humans fail or even more horribly, violate their call, and we rage at the whole mess.

All of these responses are realistic and understandable. At the same time, if we never talk about them, we’re not going to get past them and into a better place than before. So, let’s talk.

Motherhood, like marriage and the life of faith, is a calling. It is something bigger than the people who take it on. It is full of unexpected pitfalls and triumphs and, deeply embarrassingly, it is full of successes in spite of our best efforts. It is the sort of thing we can get started on without having the least clue of what the real cost is going to be and we will inevitably break our hearts before we’re done. (Gosh, this doesn’t sound very hopeful now, does it? Well, I’m trying to tell the truth here, the Hallmark aisle is over there).

But even though it is a mess and we’ll break our heart doing it, people keep going down this path so what words of hope can we offer and what’s with the title of this post?

In the 12 Steps they have a saying that “expectations are pre-planned resentments.” This points to the reality that when we expect others to do or be something or someone that follows our expectations, we’re setting them up to fail. When parents expect their kids to fill their need to be loved, when kids expect their parents to ‘just know’ the right thing to do, the other can “fail” us. But as the saying points out, it’s not their “failure” that’s the issue, it’s our expectation that the other be somehow super-human.

There are indeed failures that become ‘unrecoverable errors.’ Violence, abuse, and abandonment can irretrievably break a family and sometimes the only mercy we can offer each other is a blessed farewell BUT (and this is deeply huge) one of the fundamental realities of the life of faith is that no fare-well must be forever.

Part of the point of the resurrection is that there is the chance for new life even in the midst of death. Perhaps not today, definitely not as the result of force or coercion, but there may be a time when even this can rise to new life.

Mothers face huge expectations of “perfect love” as if they are somehow supposed to deny their temper, frustration, sleeplessness, and at times deep ambivalence about these semi-parasitic organisms who demand everything with the bare preface of “mom, mom.” (A preface mind you which they can keep up for hours if needed).

Being a “Good Mom” is such an existential demand that it has become one of the biggest culturally programmed vulnerable points on women everywhere. There are the people who are moms of the body who are “normal and good.” And then there are the women who “don’t measure up,” the “biological failures” who are (oh so subtly) reminded that they are “less than” everyone else because: they ‘couldn’t get a man,’ have a ‘biological malfunction,’ or are just otherwise ‘unworthy.’

In all these cases, our expectations (or more correctly the expectations culture has sold us) break hearts, minds, and sometimes even bodies on the altar of perfection. This is fundamentally inhumane and vile. So what are we to do?

Start by celebrating Mothering Sunday (along with Father’s Day, Birthdays, in fact any day ending in ‘y’) as a day in which we are called to something bigger than ourselves. Life itself is bigger than we are, relationships are beyond our grasp, and the one thing that keeps us clinging to the twin illusions of perfection and control is our own expectation that Life Should Be This Way.

Amid the flowers, chocolates, and complete mess of “we made you breakfast in bed, you can clean up later,” let’s extend mercy. Let’s admit that this is a calling which we will answer as best we can. A calling we will fail, and a calling which, once we let go of our expectations of inhuman perfection, can indeed lift us up.

Mothers (and fathers, and Christians) should indeed be loving (that is in fact, The Commandment) but we won’t manage it perfectly. Instead, we will love imperfectly, be loved imperfectly, and at times hurt each other horribly. We can scream and yell at each other for this, or even turn a cold shoulder and reject the other completely or (and this is my preference) find a way to show each other mercy.

Rather than creating expectations of perfection in ourselves and each other, expectations which inevitably turn into resentments; cling to the promise of faith. This is the promise that life is big and we are small but we are not abandoned to merciless and inveitable failure. Instead, we are held, we are not alone. And the Perfect Parent who can be who our parents weren’t to us and who we were unable to be for our children, can and will parent for us where we failed and were failed.

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Just As You Are Loved

John 15.9-17

Little words turn big meanings and this passage is an excellent example. The first word is kathos “just as, inasmuch as, in the same way that” God has loved me and I have loved you, you dwell (meno dwell/remain) in my love. Just as, in the same way as, because the Father has loved me AND I love you, you remain in love. Our translation’s preference for the rather bland “as” is just… blah.

Wrapped in the reality of God’s love for you, and Jesus’ love which flows from the Father, you remain/dwell/exist within (the Greek noun is in “locative” case, indicating a location, a place) love. Our dwelling is love because our lovers (Father, Son, and Spirit) hold us in that deep love.

While this notion of love would be warm and wonderful enough for us just as it is, a fluffy blanket against the storms of the world, that kind of love is passive. A baby cannot love their parent with the fullness of a lover. This does not mean that baby love (or even puppy love) is not actually valid, just that next to the full rose of delight, it is rather pale and scentless by comparison.

We do however need to know that we are loved first before we can give love to others. Until our own certainty of being beloved can be anchored in truth, our love often becomes voracious, devouring the object of our affection. But once we know that we are loved, that “just as the Father loves, and I love, you are living in love” then we love others.

The step after learning is always doing. We read books and work our beings until we are ready to make what we have learned concrete and real in the world. If what we’ve learned is important, we practice what we’ve learned until it becomes second nature. On the walk of becoming, learning and living in a better, healthier, more loving way would certainly be important.

So then, having said “just as/in the same way that, the Father has loved me and I have loved you, remain/dwell/live located in my love” (a nice general statement) Jesus explains the ‘how’ of this ‘what.’

Should you keep/guard the commandments of mine, you will remain/dwell/live in my love.” Using a bit of mathmatical logic here, guarding the commandments (A) equals living in Jesus’ love (B). Thus A=B so in v.9 when it says ‘in the same way that I have been loved and I love, B, one could just as accurately substitute in A because dwelling located in Jesus’ love is the same as keeping/guarding Jesus’ commandments.

Which leads to the tricky part because “keeping the commandments” has been the province of a whole host of grim-faced enemies of fun time out of mind. How then can keeping commandments be a practice of love instead of an invitation to hart-heartedness?

Start with the verse that follows. “These things I have said to you ina (in order that/with the [expected] result that) the my joy in you might be and the joy in you might plerothe (fill, overflow, be so abundant that it bursts all bounds).” Unless one is an utter sadist, being an irredemable jerk to those who cannot fight back is decidedly not a joy. (If one truly is a sadist, a few more steps of conversion really need to be taken before you are ready to give advice to others).

Keeping/guarding the directions/commandments of God in our life is Joy. How does that work? Have you actually read them? Not the grim ‘don’t you even dare breathe wrong’ version society tells you is true, the actual text. Just like the Curse of Ham is not actually in the bible (even though idiots still insist it is), the grim faced commands of Do This Or Be Blasted To Dust stuff turn out to be a lot less of an excuse to kill us and more a nudge to get us into life. Did I mention that the word Torah which we translate as “law” is based on the word “teach” as in “The Law” could just as easily be translated “The Teachings.”

So the commands, the teachings, of God are a pathway into life AND a source of Joy. Perhaps we’ve just been reading them wrong, listening to the lying voice of self-hatred (from someone or another) instead of the words of life. If they are a place in which we dwell, a home in which we live, and the life that comes from this is love, maybe our view of love is skewed?


So, the Father loves the Son, and the Son loves the earth-creature (you) and then invites you to live in the love which wraps you already. While this is exactly the opposite of the cruelty we’ve been taught and in which we have been raised, this loving God inviting us deeper into love is actually much more biblical. And then there’s the postgraduate level of commandment following right at the end. “I have commanded you ina (with the result that) you love each other.”

Such little words laying down life for each other, dwelling in love, and being able ultimately to love completely.

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Apart from Me

John 15.1-8

Folks look at the “apart from me, you can do nothing” passage and, with some justification, ask if this is some kind of condemnation of those outside the church. That whataboutism bugs me because it assumes that the most important story in our life is someone else’s. Instead of accepting that our story is our own and that no one knows (or can know) someone else’s story completely, we’re focused on them and their story instead of our own heart.

And since our own heart, our own life, our own heathenry (if you will) is the only thing over which we either have control or responsibility, maybe it’s time to turn the question back on ourselves. If we bear fruit (are fruitful in life) by abiding in Jesus, how’s our abide going?

For that matter, what does it even mean to abide? The Greek word here is meno the root of the English word “remain” and also means “dwell” as in “living place.” The passage about “In my father’s house there are many dwellings” uses meno as a participle (i.e. verb: “to dwell/remain” participle: “dwelling/remaining”). Thus in the house of God there are many remainings, many dwellings.

So to abide in Jesus, the True Vine, is to dwell, to remain, to live within him. How do we make him our dwelling? Well, how does a branch make the vine its dwelling? By putting roots deep in the vine, by drawing strength and support from the vine. Biologically speaking, the branch also passes glucose back into the vine and from thence to the root to provide energy for growth. It also puts the glucose and other nutrients into its fruit.

So a vine gains support, water, and nutrients from the vine while returning energy to the vine and bearing fruit for others. But its ability to do all these things depends on its connection. If there is no connection, nothing moves and the branch dies. If the connection is partial, then the movement is anemic and the growth stunted. The best growth, the healthiest giving and receiving, comes from full body and being connection. It comes from the sense of self where we can truly say “I do not know where I end and you begin” because our lives are so thoroughly interwoven.

How do we get to that point of barrier down interwoven life? Our sisters and brothers in the faith have over the centuries learned through the spiritual practices to open themselves to God. Not all practices work for all people nor do practices that worked before for one necessarily work forever into our future. What I have seen is my reading and in my life is that knowing the practices and experimenting keeps us open and flexible to what new thing may open our life.

The purpose of all of them is to open our being to God and let God’s life flow through us. They are like the fish trap we use to catch salmon. The point of the trap is to catch something tasty. The particular kind of trap matters much less than the fish we seek to catch. Thus, I approach the practices like smorgasbord of delicious things. Some people find fasting particularly helpful. Others spend time in reading and meditation. Some use prayer beads or icons while others seek imageless prayer. Some meet Christ through service of others, some by finding deeper ways to love each other. Some journal and reflect on their journey through the written word. All of these (and “so much more” as a favorite professor used to say) are ways we have reached for the sacred salmon of living in Jesus.

Sure, the image may seem a bit silly, but if we are to have a “vine to branches” relationship with Jesus, the key exercise is finding a way to root our lives deeply in who Jesus is. The vine feeds the branches, the salmon feeds the eater, we feed on Christ through dwelling in Him, and we dwell by making our life-home-space in who He is.

“I am the true vine, you are the branches.” By dwelling in who God is and how God lives we draw strength, courage, and hope for the day and that is a very good thing.

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The Beautiful Shepherd

John 10.11-18

Part of the fun of translation is that words do not map directly to each other between languages. One word will have two meanings in the other language and the translator will have to choose. A perfect example is John 10.11 where Jesus says “I am (yes, it’s an ‘I am’ saying) the kalos shepherd.” For the more literal minded, he actually says “I am the shepherd the kalos one.” But regardless of the form kalos is what he is.

The fun part of translation is that kalos means both “good” and “beautiful.” Thus Jesus can be the “Good Shepherd” or the “Beautiful Shepherd.” This is not as weird as at first it may seem, the Greek philosophers argued about The Good, The True, and The Beautiful, holding that these were the highest level things about which one could think. That which was Good was held to be True, the Truth was itself Beautiful, and Beauty was the physical reflection of The Good. Thus all three combined as the highest and best of the cosmos, those things about which we could and should truly concern ourselves.

Calling Jesus the Beautiful Shepherd makes sense then (there’s even a popular song about it), but does it change the way we understand who he is or what he does? A little bit yes and a little bit no.

You see, Jesus is still the Good Shepherd even when he is also the Beautiful one. What he does and who he is remains both Good and Beautiful so that part doesn’t change. Our understanding of beauty must however change if we are to take the rest of the passage seriously.

We have been taught to think of beauty as simply prettiness, as if the only point of beauty was to be appreciated by others. Yet beauty is a quality which shines through our being, showing forth what is intrinsically deep within ourselves. Thus Jesus’ beauty is actually his goodness shining into the world. And what is this goodness? Laying down life for ta idia.

We don’t really have this concept in English but ta idia means “one’s own.” It means more than “my stuff, my pile of objects” it means most deeply “the things which are proper to/part of my Self.” We handle this as “one’s own” but in the opening chapter of John the word is used to refer to the people of God. “He came to ta idia and ta idia knew him not” Jesus came to the people and the home which was his and was rejected as “not from these parts.”

Just as in the psalm where his rod and staff comfort, he prepares a table in the presence of our enemies, and is with us even in the valley of the shadow itself, so in this passage the beautiful shepherd faces up to the wolf. He does not flee the threat but stands up to it. Deep in the valley, with the wolf coming over the wall, with enemies around, Jesus lays down his life.

We are used to seeing this as “dying for” and that is certainly the big death we expect in the valley of the shadow, when the wolf comes, but this is not at all mandatory. Jesus can (and does) lay down life itself each day to us and for us. Jesus lays down life so we can live. He lays down life so we can take it up. He gives us the gift of life each morning and looks to hear each evening what we have done with this one wild and precious day.

Yes the beautiful shepherd laid down his life on the cross of us and received it back again but that can be called a one time thing. The truth however is that Jesus is always laying down life for us, just as a perfect parent lays down their life in big and little ways for their children, just as a lover lays down their life for their beloved, Jesus lays down his life for us each day. Our challenge then is seeing this life laid down for us and the beautiful shepherd who lays that life down in us in order to take us up again with him.

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