What are you waiting for?

What are you waiting for?

This rhetorical question is often used to get us moving and doing.  But that’s not the intent today.

Our Psalm proclaims “I will wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope…my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.”

The words make me picture a long cold sleepless night.  Sometimes I have a little taste of it when I camp; when I wake, and it is still dark, and I cannot sleep again.  How I long for the light of morning and the bird’s twittering proclamation that night has become day.  But there’s something else that helps me get through the night.  For a little ways away from me in our tent is my daughter and all I have to do is take her in my arms, share warmth, and all is well.

O Israel, hope in the LORD!   Shouts the Psalmist

For with the Lord there is steadfast love,

And with him is the power to redeem.

Notice–the Psalmist is in relationship with God, with the Lord.  You may know that, while it isn’t the majority of the scholar’s view anymore, the Psalms were, traditionally, ascribed to David.  The same man who was guilty of adultery, the one who took down Saul, the harp playing king of kings was thought to have authored the Psalms because the words sound like what a broken man of faith would sing.  Indeed scholars have simply expanded the authorship to include a larger community of faith.  Not one voice but many.  What is most important is not trying to figure out who wrote what but that these words were spoken in a faith community during worship.  These are the words spoken and sung by the broken people of faith–those who know the worst of life and the worst of themselves and yet dare believe God is near.   The Psalmist knows the love of the Lord.  The community who sings the Psalmist’s song have felt the power of redemption.  In their singing they open their arms wide to the God of love.  In some respect, the wait is over.  Even the words that come out of a long night ring with joyous faith.

Faith is always an invitation to take hold of a love and power that is beyond and yet with us.  We can choose to set our mind to wait, to believe all will be well someday, and then we will know love.  Or we can choose to set our mind to take hold of love already given.  As Victor Frankl, a survivor of the extermination camps of World War II writes, “Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”  (http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/v/viktor_e_frankl.html#35iLDEkBbRxkeaY6.99)

Frankl’s writing comes out his observations that those who survived the camps held to something higher, more powerful than the overwhelming evil of the camp.  They could feel something else at work.

Faith is an invitation to make a choice to believe God is moving among us.  But when we are busy doing, we are often not even conscious of our choice to exclude God.

In college, my Sociology professor assigned his students to go to a public place and stand.  We weren’t to wait for anyone or anything.  The assignment was to stand for 30 minutes and then write about the experience.

Years later, I remember how out of place I felt at first.  I wasn’t doing what everyone else was doing around me.  I had no purpose and felt uncomfortable with my lack of intent.  But, then, after awhile, I began to see the laughing teenagers pass by; the baby calling for his mother’s attention; the man waiting for his wife outside a store.  I began to see.  And, as I stood there, instead of feeling the frenetic pull I often feel in a Mall, I felt more and more peaceful.  I didn’t need anything from the stores.  I wasn’t waiting for someone outside of a store I had grown tired of.  I wasn’t worried about being lost or left behind.  It was okay to not have a purpose.  It was enough to watch a bit of God’s work in the faces of those who passed by.

The difference between waiting for God and waiting for something less is when we wait for God there are no limits.  We give God permission to work outside of the lines.  In contrast, when we wait for someone or something, we become captive to one idea–like, waiting for a loved one at an airport.  Lots of people pass by before the one we desire appears.  We don’t really see their faces, just the fact that they aren’t the one we are expecting.

When we are waiting for the one, we can become irritated.  Our time, that precious commodity, is being wasted.   We are angry at those who keep us from what we are waiting for.  We feel both the loneliness and fear of being lost.

It is this kind of waiting that is most familiar to all of us and to those who disbelieved the words of Jesus.

When Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will not hunger.  Whoever believes in me will never thirst.”  Those who heard him argue saying, “How can he say such a thing?  Is he not Joseph’s boy who grew up in Galilee?”

You can almost see the scripture writer’s smile.

On one level, there is truth to their complaint.  It would be difficult to believe that someone who grew up in your neighborhood is the one sent by God.  It is totally ridiculous.  On another level, the gospel suggests that disbelief and complaint go hand in hand.

You can fill in the larger conversation:  “Jesus can’t be what we are waiting for.   If he is the real thing, let him perform a miracle, like the one God did that day when our ancestors were in the wilderness and God sent manna from heaven.  Let Jesus do something grand like that.”

And Jesus retorts: “Stop your complaining.  Stop looking up to heaven.   I am here.  Besides, that miracle in the wilderness wasn’t so grand.  It didn’t overcome your ancestor’s disbelief.  Those complainers died before they entered into the promises of God.  Look at me.  I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.”

“I am here.”

What are you waiting for?

A young man worried about his soul going to hell because he didn’t go to church except on Christmas and Easter.  Some of his Christian friends had told him that he was doomed.  He, being at the age when the thought of death becomes scary (remember that age in your life…we don’t talk about it much, but it is part of our development), found it hard to sleep at night.

Pause here a moment.  Understand, when we are spiritually alone, it is easy for fear to take hold of us.  On one level, his friend was right.  Church could help bring this young man closer to God and love.  A faith community could love and shape him.  Where the friend went wrong is in deciding for God what God would do.

I asked the young man, What do you know about God?

God is a good being, he replied.

That got me thinking.  How do we know God is good?  How do we know God is the one we should look for in the morning?

There are plenty who would question God’s goodness and love because this side of heaven is not all good and sometimes acts against love.  How do you know God is good?

The Bible tells me so?  The preacher tells me so?

How do you know God is good?

Your Dad?  Your Grandmother?  Your Friend?  Your Sunday School teacher?

How about an experience you had one day.

How many of you here have had an experience of God’s goodness?

If I probed further, if we had time in this short hour to share of these experiences, I trust that many of your stories would be set in a time when you were forced outside of your normal habits and were able to see more clearly.

To wait on the Lord is to seek out the Lord as if God is here.  To take hold of the one we love in the middle of the night and let the Holy One warm our soul.   It is to believe that when Jesus stands in front of his hometown peeps and says “I am the living bread” that Jesus means to give us all we need.  It is to wait, not for someone to arrive, but to see the possibilities in the life that has been given all around us.  It is to stop complaining so God can get to work in us.

Henri Nouwen writes:

A few years ago I met an old professor at the University of Notre Dame, Looking back on his long life of teaching, he said with a funny wrinkle in his eyes: “I have always been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, until I slowly discovered that my interruptions were my work.”

 That is the great conversion in our life: to recognize and believe that the many unexpected events are not just disturbing interruptions of our projects, but the way in which God molds our hearts and prepares us for his return. Our great temptations are boredom and bitterness. When our good plans are interrupted by poor weather, our well-organized careers by illness or bad luck, our peace of mind by inner turmoil, our hope by a constant changing of the guards, and our desire for immortality by real death, we are tempted to give in to a paralyzing boredom or to strike back in destructive bitterness. But when we believe that patience can make our expectations grow, then ‘fate’ can be converted into a vocation, wounds into a call for deeper understanding, and sadness into a birthplace for joy.

– from Out of Solitude by Henri J. Nouwen

What are we waiting for?

I’m sure you have your lists.  I know I have mine.  It has been exactly one year since my last day at Community and there is no sign of a church call; nor a sign of full time work; nor a sign of financial stability.  There is much we all can complain about as the economy saps our confidence in keeping what we have.  There are those among us who are single after all these years who wish for a loving partner to share their lives with.  There are those among us who wish for a more just politic.  There are those here who wish desperately that their son/daughter will come back to a path of love.

Nouwen says,  “Fate can be converted into a vocation, wounds into a call for deeper understanding, and sadness into a birthplace for joy.”

Jesus tells us who does the converting: “Do not complain among yourselves.  No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me….”  (John 6:44)

”unless drawn by the Father who sent me.”

It is God who draws us to Jesus, to healing, to hope, to love present now.  It is God who converts fate into vocation, wounds into deeper understanding, and sadness into a birthplace for joy.  There no stronger image of God breaking into this world than the heaven sent Jesus standing in front of us, saying, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.”

“I am here.”

Today, hear the call:  Let go of the lists, the complaints, the worries, and frenzied acts.  Instead, take hold of the invitation of faith…Wait on God … wait on God

I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 

July 28, 2012

John 6:  35 – 51; Psalm 130

Reverend Heather Miner

Change Your World

The Bible never depicts this world as being fair but it does show us a way through the trouble.

A very Jewish tale is told in Mark 6: 17 – 29.  In summary, Herod divorces his first wife to marry Herodias.  John the Baptists suggests that this is not a good idea.  His advice angers Herodias who decides he needs to die.

Herod liked John the Baptist.  He liked to listen to him even though he didn’t understand him.  He didn’t understand him because he refused to follow the heart of the message–to repent.  He refused to turn from being his own Lord to the humility and faith which allows what is good and holy to take hold of him.  So, when Herodias became angry, in order to keep the peace in his home, Herod had John the Baptist arrested.

On the day of Herod Antipas’ birthday, Herodias gets her revenge.  It begins when her daughter dances for King Herord and all the guests.  Artists have captured this dance on many canvases.  This one, from Reni who lived in late 1500s, portrays the daughter as aloof, dancing, holding the hair of John’s head as it is presented to her.

It is a picture of a great wrong.

I wonder what she, the daughter of Herodias, understood?  Did she know the game of power being played by her mother?  Maybe not for the word used for the daughter is “girl” not “woman.”  The same Greek word is used earlier in Mark for a 12 year old girl who Jesus lifts out of death.  When the dancing girl of the banquet is offered half of the King’s kingdom, instead of saying, “alright!” and living large, she goes to her mother, and says “what shall I ask for?”

Evil manipulates the one with the crown, of one who refused to learn the language of humility, or faith, or grace.  Take heed.

The story suggests evil is born of a grudge and spread by the innocent.

A simple birthday party, a celebration of life, corrupted.

On the one hand, I want to condemn Herod Antipas.  Herod–the man who is the center of his own dance.  He makes himself an easy target.

On the other hand, how many times have we held in higher regard something other than what is right and holy?  Even Peter denies Jesus when push comes to shove.

It is hard to hold on to what is right and holy.

I have opportunity to speak to couples now and then.  Everyone fights.  There should be a book about that for couples similar to the one for mothers and their little children called “Everyone Poops.”  Everyone fights.  This is true about all our relationships—friends and coworkers alike.  What often happens is we feel slighted in some way.  The other doesn’t understand us.   Lists of wrongs are kept.  Anger grows.  We’ve tried everything, we say, as the one who we once loved and respected becomes the enemy to our peace.

The best general reminder scripture gives about all of our relationships is that our first priority is not the happiness of the other person.  Herod tried to make his wife and niece happy and it led to the death of the holy one.

Our first priority is to do right by God, to hold on to what is right and holy in ourselves and in the other.

As Christians, we do this by looking to see Jesus.

In this scene from the rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar, Jesus has been brought to Herod Antipas having been arrested for treason.

It takes time to find Herod among the dancers, underneath the many bulbs that light up the “H.”  But it is not hard to see Jesus there in white lit robe in the foreground.   In the midst of all that is wrong, there is Jesus, waiting.

When we look to see Jesus at work in us and in the other person, we will often find him there, kneeling before the Herodian dance, the ego’s masquerade, waiting for us to repent.

Look for him.  Call for him to stand up.  Unbind him.

He is there in the one who is hurting herself beyond recognition.  He is there in the boss whose heavy hand you have felt.  He is there in the “other” and he is there in you.

Martin Luther King Jr. fought for equality, not with a violent revolution, but with a Christian witness calling the enemy to take hold of what was holy and good in them.

Look for Jesus.  You may not ever be offered half of the King’s kingdom but you will see your way through to what is good and holy.   That is enough to change your world!

In Christ,

Heather

Speaking Jesus

Christianity certainly has a rich back story found in the Hebrew scriptures.  But today I’m more interested in the “after story,” what happens when the final scene has ended.  The gospel of John tells the story of Jesus but is written long after Jesus died; long after the resurrection encounters.  Yet, despite John being the latest gospel written, it, alone, is filled with Jesus’ speeches, Jesus’ words.  And, it is the only gospel that we hear Jesus pray for us (John 17).  Here scripture points to a principle of faith.  Only after the church has been around awhile, only when they have dwelled within Christ for some time, can they give Jesus a clear voice.  Only when we have dwelled with Christ for some time can we give Jesus a clear voice.  I suspect this is why the epistle, 1 John, talks so much about abiding, dwelling in Christ.  What I understand from this scripture is that there are times when it is best not to act but simply to abide that we might give Jesus his truest voice.

In Christ,

Heather

Samosas and Pi

I listened to a film critic’s debate about whether current cinema has become too easy for us to watch.  Films like The Help or the Shawshank Redemption were criticized as being too sentimental, too satisfying to watch–providing no deep insight into humanity, moving us nowhere.  A few of the critics lamented how movie viewers need to demand to see more challenging movies rather than seeking movies that make us smile.  While they probably aren’t going to win that argument in the marketplace of stories, I felt properly chastised.  When Netflix surfaced a film called Pi, I thought, “okay, I’ll give something that is ‘edgy’ a try.”

More than once I wanted to turn it off.  It seems that when film pushes the boundaries, it invades the psyche.  I was reminded of the time when all freshmen, including me, who took Humanities Core at UC Irvine had to watch A Clockwork Orange.  It was a similarly unpleasant experience.

The premise of the movie, Pi, is that a mathematician (Max Cohen) finds the pattern that describes the ups and down of the stock market.  Because the number of digits matches a number a group of esoteric Jews seek, they believe that this same number is the one that underlies creation itself–or is the pattern that is God.  Max is already subject to migraines, and knowing this pattern increases their frequency and intensity.  Further, within these episodes are harrowing visions.   In the earthly world, the knowledge Max holds sends bad people after him from every direction.  His solution to all of this craziness? <spoiler alert>  Drill a hole in his head.  <end spoiler>  Who wouldn’t want to watch this for 2 hours?

The movie’s intensity made it into my dreams and woke me up in the middle of the night.  I realized what was missing in this man’s search for truth, what was missing in his search to understand the ultimate code of the universe, was relationship.  There is one friendship, but that too is lost in the search for the numerical pattern of the universe.  When a girl knocks on his door bearing Samosas, he slams it shut.

His compulsive need to find a pattern, to know what the pattern means, made me think about that tree in the Garden of Eden, the one God said not to eat from.  It was the tree of knowledge.   The serpent said eating from it would not kill us but would make those who ate of it like God.  Might this movie be a meditation on what it means to disobey God’s garden command?  For it was the human desire to know what it is God knows that took Max out of all relationship and led him into hell.

After the drilling, there is one more scene:  heaven.  Where, on earth, a young girl can give Max complicated arithmetic problems which he solves quickly in his head, in heaven she sits with him on a bench, gives him a math problem, and he smiles and says, “I don’t know.”

The Bible suggests, from the very beginning, that we are not made to know everything but we are made for relationship.  We are made for relationship–with these words I join a chorus of preachers.  But I will differ from many by saying that the Bible isn’t interested in giving you the 10 ways to make your relationships last or in helping you find your life long partner based on 30 bits of scripture.  The fact that such a message means snipping scripture from its context suggests humans are at play.  Remember that the apostle Paul makes clear that, if we can help it, we should not enter into marriage because it will distract us from following Jesus.  The Bible isn’t interested in helping you find your lifelong love.  But the Bible is intent on inviting you into love.

The Garden of Eden warns when we allow our search for anything to get in the way of relationship with God we lose ourselves.  It isn’t that the pursuit of knowledge is bad.  There was much to learn about in the garden, and God was there to be Adam and Eve’s guide.  But when their search for truth overrides their relationships what is left is scary.  The Garden of Eden story seems less frightening than was the movie in that it describes not one who has literally lost his mind, but how the world really is…pain in childbirth, backbreaking work to till the land, and a distance between us and God.  If we’re looking for something more akin to a nightmare we might recall those scenes from the prophets where God is fed up with loving a people who refuse to love. There the enemy is allowed to enter into the people’s homes, to destroy their place of worship, and to send them away.  The language of God’s ire is vivid and abundant.

There are many who draw out that Biblical language and state that they will not believe in any religion with such a God.  They miss the point.  It is exactly because the “chosen people” turned away from relationship with God that God became the one who condemns.  When we turn away from love, from loving, from relationship, we are left, as was Max Cohen, with people, with a God, who just want to use us.  However, when we turn towards love, we experience God’s love.

Relationship is at the heart of faith.  Faith deepens when we choose to love God and love our neighbors.  And faith compels us, when we are struggling, to do the things that allow love to take hold of us.

Practically speaking, from my own experience, this means that when we are feeling low, apart, even attacked, it helps to enter more fully into relationships, to become more vulnerable, and to allow love to act.  It is the opposite of what I want to do when I’m tired, uncertain, or hurting.  My first impulse is to run away, whether it be in imagining a solo road trip or playing on my computer.  I confess, I allow myself a little of both.  But what’s even better…?  Being held tight by my family and holding them tight; sharing some of my life with people I meet at the gym as they share of their lives; allowing the people I meet in church to walk with me and I with them in the ways of faith; writing these messages where I seek to know God’s word for this time and place and reading the writings of others who are engaged in a similar task; reading and watching creative endeavors–some that are satisfying to watch and others which wake me up at night; and prayer.  Some prayers I focus on Jesus, in others I rest in God’s word, sometimes I talk a lot, other times I’m quiet.    None of these are “the way,” but each is an example of how I enter more fully into love at this time of my life.

Thankfully, I suspect none of us are as extreme as Max.  When someone knocks on the door with Samosas we are going to, at the very least, open the door.  But still, the question remains…how will you move closer, be more intimate, love more deeply God and neighbor?  What are the habits you already have or one you might add into your life which allow you to remain open to love?  Within your list, there is your garden where you walk with God.

In Christ,  Heather

Far and Wide

In seminary at Yale Divinity School I was awed to find myself in a vast landscape–that of the Christian witness spoken through the centuries.  My perspective, having grown up in the Southern California United Church of Christ, was limited by comparison.  I realized I had only seen faith from one small corner of scholarship in this time and place.  There were more voices to hear, endless voices of faith and ways of understanding God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.  Add to that the Jewish traditions that are woven into scripture, and the totality of the Judeo-Christian witness reaches back to the days of creation.  This faith tradition is varied and beautiful, reaching far and wide, inviting us into a relationship with the living Creator, God’s self.

The vastness of the Judeo-Christian faith starkly contrasts with the image of the temple, the day Jesus arrived, as described in the gospel of John.

“In the temple Jesus found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.”  (2: 14)

Entering into the space where people came to meet God, Jesus is accosted by the sights and sounds of animals being sold for sacrifice to atone for sin.

In the claustrophobic chaos, the faithful find their way to the stalls in order to buy the appropriate animal as described in Jewish law.  Imagine the sounds, the smells, and the difficulty of holding an animal long enough to carry it to the priest for the altar.  How easy it would be to lose the intent, to lose God’s larger story, in the business of what must be done.

Recall, the Jewish people have come to the Jerusalem temple to celebrate the Passover, the day when God freed Israel from Egyptian bondage.  They remembered a day of blood and horror and salvation.  The night before Passover, each family of Israel was to sacrifice a lamb and put the lamb’s blood on their door.  God passed over the households that had this sign, inflicting the last plague on the rest of Egypt, killing their first born sons.  Only this last plague turned Pharaoh’s head long enough to allow Israel to leave his service and enter into a new life with God.

Israel, the freed people, enters into the wilderness, a vast landscape which opened them to experiences of God they had never before known.  Beautiful experiences, as when they saw God as a pillar of cloud and fire.  Frightening experiences, like a snake rising up from the desert floor.  After a generation had passed away, the new generation led by Joshua, entered, with God, into the land God promised.  God’s presence there is marked by the Jerusalem temple.

Having come to the temple, the symbol of God’s promise and presence, the crowd enters in thinking about what must be done to atone for sin. How small is their view as the din of animal noises and seller’s voices echo off the high walls of the courtyard.  Is this really the freedom that God envisioned long ago when blood was shed in Egypt?

Jesus gets angry…very angry.

“Making a whip of cords, [Jesus] drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle.  He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.  He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here!  Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (2:15 – 17)

I’m sure Jesus’ actions confused the temple leaders of the day.  They were only doing what was expected.  Maybe the root of that which would debilitate the churches of this day is similar.  It is all too easy to get into a business that, in its essentials, is quite similar to selling sin offerings: we do what has always been done in order to placate what someone has said is the Holy Way instead of seeking to invite all people into God’s grace.

Jesus was angry because the temple had created a way for people to placate the Holy One instead of opening the doors to a relationship with His Father and our Father.

Church practices are rarely questioned, indeed, just as in Jesus’ time, there is always a scripture to point to defend them.  Every such practice can be justified through tradition…and will continue to be as long as we are trading in our earthly temples.

Would that Jesus enter in, whip in hand, to tell us to get out.  Stop selling your doves here, your narrow way to peace with God.  This is my Father’s house.

In Christianity, we come to know God through Jesus.  When Jesus saw the faithful confined to buying sin offerings, he overturned the tables.  Given this, is it not possible that God is unhappy with tradition bound rules even if they can be justified by a small portion of scripture?  Isn’t possible that, even now, God continues to overturn the tables of our limited understanding that we might better know God’s way?

When Jesus saw that the temple, the place where one could come to enter into God’s presence, had as its first and foremost concern making people act according to tradition, he told them to get out.

Then, he pointed to himself as the temple which would be destroyed and in 3 days raised up.

Of course, the temple faithful had no idea of that which he spoke.  For it required leaving behind expectations in order to imagine God in a new form, one who would not kill, but would die to set us free.

May we allow God to make us free to enter a faith which is varied and beautiful, which reaches far and wide, and invites us into a relationship with the living God.

In Christ,

Heather

In the Care of Angels

I’ve always been skeptical about talk of angels. When the popular television show “Touched by an Angel” aired some time ago, I found myself avoiding it. Angels are too often used to sentimentalize Christianity. The Way becomes a set of grandmotherly clichés about how to live a wholesome life.

And yet, as I read scripture, I am stuck by the relevance of scripture’s picture of angels to those who seek to experience the spiritual reality of God breaking into this world. Carlos Casteneda’s description of native people’s vision quests has nothing on Christianity. For Jesus, too, went on a quest in the desert and there entered into a conversation which gave form to his future.

After Jesus is baptized, the “Spirit” leads him into the wilderness (Mark 1:12, Matthew 4:1, Luke 4:1). We, who have seen the heavens torn apart and God’s voice saying “this is my son, with whom I am well pleased,” now journey with Jesus into a desert place. There we enter into a spiritual world which opens the door to Satan (here appearing in an analogous role to that of the trickster in some native American traditions) and to angels (messengers from God).

In Matthew and Luke, using the Jewish imagination, Satan is pictured as intruding upon Jesus’ wilderness prayer. Satan tempts Jesus to be less than who he is and tempts Jesus to make God less than God. Jesus responds to the trickster using words from Deuteronomy. Here’s a summary.

Satan: You’re hungry. Turn these rocks into bread.

Jesus: “It is written man shall not live by bread alone.”

Jesus will not be turned into an animal who lives by instinct. Jesus will not be less than who He is meant to be.

Satan: All these kingdoms can be yours if you will worship me.

Jesus: It is written, “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve. “

Jesus will serve only the one who frees the captives; allowing God to lead.

Satan: If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down and let the angels catch you.

Jesus: Again it is written, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.”

Jesus will not make God or God’s angels into pet servants.

Scripture is the guide to resisting the trickster’s efforts at taking away our humanity and our God– to resisting the temptation to make either less than they are. Angels aren’t depicted as being an active part of the visionary experience guiding Jesus’ words. They are shown to be there with Jesus on the journey.

With regard to angels Luke, who is not prone to sentimentality, drops out, preferring to point to the time when Satan would seem to get his way in the events that lead to the crucifixion [4:13]. Matthew, however, tells of angels coming to minister to Jesus after the temptation [4:11]. Mark, which didn’t have time to relate a dialogue between Satan and Jesus (simply referring to wild beasts), chooses to slip in a word about the angels who ministered to Jesus [1:13]. So while scripture does not provide a uniform witness, two of the gospel writers believed angels important enough to the Christian experience that they tell of the angels ministering to the Son of God.

Recently, an older man, an engineer, told me with wet eyes how, as he grows older, he feels watched over by a guardian angel. Another friend, when going through a difficult loss, saw her lost loved one driving in the car behind her. She described it as an angel, a sign of her mother’s love. Over my years of serving church I’ve heard many stories of angels, usually told with some trepidation and a desire to know if this really could have happened. The easier stories to tell are of a very real person intervening at the right time. Other times, the stories shared are of a more otherworldly nature. Most angel stories make for wet eyes.

I’m not an expert in angels. I do not wish to try to describe a heavenly hierarchy. But I do want to encourage those of you who have had angelic experiences to believe in– to receive– the gift you have been given. To believe in angels is to believe God acts in our lives. It is to say that they who ministered to Jesus also minister to us.

There are the more familiar stories of angels heard during Christmas. The angel appeared to Mary and told her of the son she carried in her womb; angels appeared to the shepherds on the hills announcing Jesus’ birth. In both cases, angels announced something extraordinary had happened. Yet, even amidst the Hosannas from the heavens, the angels minister to those they meet, saying “Do not be afraid.”

Do not be afraid, for God is here.

It doesn’t seem beyond the realm of possibility to believe that, after the temptation, the angels whispered into Jesus’ ear these same words: “Do not be afraid.”

The work of an angel is to release us from fear, to allow us to be who we are meant to be, and to allow God access into our lives. Angels welcome us into a spiritual realm where we need not test God by jumping off a cliff. We know intuitively that if we do fall, even if we feel like we are falling right now, there is one who will always catch us–and lead us to new life. If you feel that is just sentimental tripe meant for the weak-hearted, remember: even Jesus, Son of God, needed to hear the angel’s whisper.

In Christ,

Heather

Life-giving Transformation

Before Jesus begins his ministry, people from all over Judea go out to the wilderness to John the Baptist.  There they hear John’s message to “repent,” to turn toward a new direction, and receive a baptism for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 3: 1- 6, Mark 1: 2 -6, Luke 3: 1-6, John 1: 19-23).  John is pictured as a wild man wearing camel’s hair, eating locusts and honey, announcing to all who come that “there is one coming who is much greater than me.”   As scripture focuses on John’s role of being a herald of Jesus, it is easy to overlook that a multitude of people left the city and went away from the temple in order to have a spiritual experience with this wild man that they could no longer get through their religion.

They wanted something new–something to shake up their traditional ways.  Perhaps their experience of the temple had become too much like their experience of the world around them.  That some of the religious elite were in partnership with the Roman government to keep the peace is made clear from the battles Jesus would soon fight.

And, yet, the river Jordan is not a pictured as a place of a political rally, but rather as a place of transformation: a place of personal new beginnings, and a place where Jesus comes before he calls his disciples.

Transformation is at the very heart of Christianity.  Two ways scripture leads to it are through the ideas of repentance (to turn around) and forgiveness of sin (release from the past).  It is the releasing of what has kept us apart from God that allows God to move us in a new direction.  The multitude came to the river Jordan.  There they heard John the Baptist affirm their intuition—it is good to turn around and try a new way.  Enter the water, be cleansed of all that holds you to your past, that you may be free to go with God.

Let’s be clear that transformation is as crucial for those who have tried to live pious lives as it is for those who are doing the things their mothers would cry out against.  For all of us there are times when our lives have become too close to what the world expects and, in those times, we lose touch with God.

As a result, the life that once was ours seeps away.  Often, our religion, whatever it is, urges us to do the same old things that have become polluted by community expectations.  We go to church because “good wholesome people” go to church and it is good for our children.  Even spiritual practices meant to help us hear God’s voice can become too familiar, or a way to brag about our spiritual prowess, rather than allowing God the opening to take us on a new journey.

When our way of being which fed our strength and mission has run its course–and it will–to find a new way requires transformation.   Just as it is not easy for the caterpillar to turn into a butterfly, so it is not easy for us to choose to enter into the effort of change.

It takes God to move us.  God-given insight comes in innumerable ways.  After all, God is the Creator, and thus there is no limit to God’s creativity in engaging us.  It could be with a change in employment–or a word from a stranger.  It could be an opportunity that has come your way–or a remembered dream.  The call to take a new path on your journey with God happens more than once in a lifetime.

There were two doctors, one the head of family medicine at UCI, and the other the head of geriatrics in the Presbyterian hospital in New York, who spoke on the radio of the need to continue to keep the brain flexible as we grow older…stay engaged, try new things.  When I was in school they warned us our generation needed to be flexible because the work world would change as we grew older.  Expect to have more than one career, the experts told us.  Even the secular world understands: our ability to walk a new path keeps us alive.

Still, if you are anything like me, when you feel vulnerable (and the need to change yourself makes you feel vulnerable, indeed), your first reaction is to go back to the strengths you’ve developed over the years whether or not they are of God.

It often takes a “God movement” to lead us beyond insight into action–to help us let go, turn around, and walk a new path with our God.

The ministry of Jesus begins with a God movement.  Multitudes came to the river Jordan because there they received a baptism which sanctified, made holy, their need to let go of the familiar and to try a new way.  Jesus began his ministry in the same water.  The baptism in the river Jordan empowered people to turn and follow God’s voice into the wilderness and beyond.

Perhaps today you would like to join in with this God movement of transformation.  Knowing we all need to splash in the river Jordan every now and then, to prepare for what God wants to do with us next, use your imagination and washing time to prepare not just to meet the day, but to find a new mission with God.  Perhaps you can use your day off to find one of the many flowing rivers in the nearby mountains and touch the cold water to your forehead as a sign of your desire to turn around.    Or use the pastor you know or the church to which you belong to take a moment to confess what it is you want to let go, hear the words of forgiveness, and turn a new direction.  However you enter the waters, understand that you don’t go in alone, but in your action you join with the multitudes of the centuries who come to transform their ways,

You go with Jesus.

Heather