27 Feb
Photo via Flickr user John

Photo via Flickr user John

Our church has three Ash Wednesday services, one of which is a family service. The children’s choir sings, and the pastor sets a bowl of palms on fire during the sermon, burning them into ashes. Each family is given a Lenten daily devotional book full of prayers created by children. “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)

Families come up together to receive a blessing, and then the family members place ashes on each other. I stood at a station blessing families, watching them remind each other of their dust-i-ness. As families filed up to the altar, the sanctuary was charged with love, affection, humility, mindfulness and a touch of melancholy.

My spouse approached my station with our sleeping three-month old son in his arms. I started crying while blessing us:

Holy God, we praise you for sending your Son into the world to show us how much you love us. Bless us with your grace and strengthen us in faith, now and always. We ask this in Jesus’ Name. Amen.

I continued crying as I placed my pointer finger into the bowl of ashes and made the sign of the cross on his little forehead:

Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Dan and I exchange ashes, and I was filled with gratitude for this life we are given, this moment of consciousness together on earth as the dust brought our mortality undeniably into focus. I was not filled with fear of our dust-i-ness, but filled with wonder of the depth of goodness that occurs between dust and dust.

Just a year ago, I sat by myself during the family service, watching parents place ashes on their children’s foreheads. I didn’t go up to a station to get blessed. I didn’t want to place ashes on myself. I waited for the next service that wasn’t so focused on children. We were living in the grief of two miscarriages, and exhausted, sad and lonely, I leaned hard on God. Alone in the pew, I laid my heart bare to God. It was an Ash Wednesday and Lent that felt comforting, appropriate, raw and honest to me in my melancholy, in my grief. We are dust. We are human. We are dependent, like children, on our God.

I kissed my baby’s warm, soft cheek before they returned to their pew, and my heart sang with joy. Here is this person, given to us to care for for a short time. He is such a gift, and the ashes on his forehead, sitting right between his bright blue eyes on his tiny, innocent face reminded us that there was nothing and now there is something, and that something is so good. It reminded us of our need for God who gives us life now and promises life for us forever.

Gospel Reflection for March 1, 2015, 2nd Sunday of Lent

24 Feb

Sunday Readings: Genesis 22.1-2, 9, 10-13, 15-18; Romans 8.31-34; Mark 9.2-10

“Suddenly looking around, Peter, James, and John no longer saw anyone with them — only Jesus.”

(Mark 9.8)

The Orthodox Church sees in the transfiguration what the whole of Christian life is about — transformation into Christ. Prayer leads to transforming communion with God. This mystical experience to the prophetic; communion leads to action.

Both Jesus and his disciples need the profound, prayerful heartening of the transfiguration moment to sustain them on the journey to Jerusalem and beyond. Life at the foot of the mountain will test the vision.

What vision for your Christian future are you testing at the foot of the mountain?

If you enjoy this Gospel Reflection,
please visit the Sunday By Sunday page
to order a subscription or request a free sample.
Start a small bible study. Be a leader.

What Else?

20 Feb
via Flickr user Mufidah Kassalias

via Flickr user Mufidah Kassalias

Another day, a man stopped Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” Jesus said, “Why do you question me about what’s good? God is the One who is good. If you want to enter the life of God, just do what he tells you.” The man asked, “What in particular?” Jesus said, “Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie, honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as you do yourself.” The young man said, “I’ve done all that. What’s left?”

“If you want to give it all you’ve got,” Jesus replied, “go sell your possessions; give everything to the poor. All your wealth will then be in heaven. Then come follow me.” That was the last thing the young man expected to hear. And so, crestfallen, he walked away. He was holding on tight to a lot of things, and he couldn’t bear to let go.

–Matthew 19:16-22

I identify with the young man in this story, so much so that I have to chuckle. I am a doer, an achiever, one who wants to earn God’s love and promises on my own accord. In school and more recently as an employee, I acted like this young man, saying to my teachers and supervisors, “Ok, done. Did that. Checklist complete. What’s next? What else can I do?” Read: How can I show you even more how competent, efficient and productive I am and thus gain your respect and approval?

I even acted like the young man in Matthew 19 during Lent. I got good at giving things up as a young girl. When I was twelve I gave up soda and candy and eating between meals. It was easy. So then decided to give things up and do more good. For example, one Lent I sent a nice note to someone different every day in addition to giving up everything I thought to be a vice. Look at me go, God.

The young man in Matthew goes so far as to treat the Ten Commandments like a checklist. Check, check, check. Got it. Now what? What else can I do? What is next? I, like this young man, was looking to Jesus for the same rewards I got from my teachers and bosses. Jesus, like he so often does in his ministry, elevates the conversation. He let’s me and the young man know that we are not even playing the right game. Following Jesus requires a lighter load.

The season of Lent is a time that invites us to downshift our lives. We take a deep breath, look around, and take stock of what we are holding tightly and what we can’t bear to let go. Jesus gives us a hint that it’s probably the wrong stuff, and it’s the stuff that is limiting us from following him. For years, I couldn’t bear to let go of my accomplishments. I clung to my competence and my ability to do do do more and do it well. And when I was finished, I’d go back to see what else there was for me to do. I don’t need to let go of chocolate and add more to my Good Samaritan to-do list. This Lent, I am praying about playing the wrong game. It’s not about doing more. What I cling to is doing more. For me, it is about embracing the being part of human being. Following Jesus means letting go of the spiritual checklist to be more free to love.

Gospel Reflection for February 22, 2015, 1st Sunday of Lent

19 Feb

Sunday Readings: Genesis 9.8-15; 1 Peter 3.18-22; Mark 1.12-15

“Immediately after his baptism the Spirit drove Jesus into the desert.”

(Mark 1.12)

Every Lent we tend to own up to our self-destructive habits and recommit to become more kind, loving, and prayerful, to say nothing of healthier. What if it is our affections that pull us more strongly to accomplish our dreams than the ascetic disciplines we often consider?

What if our senses are not the problem, leading us into temptation at every side, but are the catalysts for meeting the people in our lives? The senses are doorways to community. They stir our memories of connections with others and open our hearts to those we see, hear, and touch each day.

What if we need to fall in love again with those closest to us, giving them time and ear to reengage? What if we make a point this Lent to do with family and friends what unfailingly brings us joy and recharges our batteries?

With whom or what might you fall in love again this Lent?

If you enjoy this Gospel Reflection,
please visit the Sunday By Sunday page
to order a subscription or request a free sample.
Start a small bible study. Be a leader.

Sin of Hiding

13 Feb

In my undergraduate program, a fellow religion major wrote her thesis on the shadow side of Augustine’s Confessions. The sin of arrogance, for example, has a shadow side: the sin of hiding. It has stuck with me because at times Augustine’s writing is easy for me to dismiss in my personal life. My struggles are different than his. Like Aristotle’s virtues, it’s helpful for me to remember that there are two ditches to avoid, the excess and the deficiency. After reading through Matthew 6 with high school students

When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18)

I asked them, “Do you know any showy Christians?” I got a resounding affirmative, accompanied by groans and eye rolls. “Okay, what does that look like in your world, when Christians are showy?”

“There are people in my school who are really vocal about their faith on Twitter and can go over the top. It seems a little inauthentic because it is just words.”

“Or the kids who hang out with people who drink but need everyone to know that they don’t drink, like they are better somehow.”

“How about the football players who gather to pray in the middle of the field? It makes me wonder if people of different faiths feel excluded.”

I wondered, due to the strength of their negative reaction, if in their quest to not be showy, they were hiding. I didn’t even have to raise the idea of a shadow side. One young woman pushed back, “Is there a difference between showing off and being authentic? Aren’t there times when it is appropriate to claim your story and beliefs publicly?”

We talked about how, as a group, we tend to be good at taking verses like Matthew 6:16-18 seriously. We can take it too far, as stoic Scandinavians, and hide. We use passages like this one to justify our hiding. I’m guilty of it. Sometimes I write safe, not venturing into controversial territory so as to not offend. Telling people that I teach theology, what I see assumptions and projections in their nonverbal, subtle reactions makes me want to downplay my role to the next person. I let the showy Christians have the floor. But there is room for my story, there is space for my beliefs if I am brave enough to come out of hiding.

In Matthew 6 we talk about using oil while fasting instead of looking somber. Today social media raises new questions about the heart of the verse in our quest to follow Jesus’ teaching. The #UseMeInstead campaign is one example, or maybe we’ll see another round of #Ashtag next week. Where is the line between acts of integrity and acts of arrogance using our faith for good versus using our faith for harm? Where is the line between my public faith and my private practice? Knowing my tendencies, it’s important for me to remember that there is a tension to be sought day in and day out between the sin of arrogance and the sin of hiding.

Gospel Reflection for February 15, 2015, 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time

9 Feb

Sunday Readings: Leviticus 13.1-2, 44-46; 1 Corinthians 10.31-11.1; Mark 1.40-45

A leper cam to Jesus begging him  and kneeling. The leper said to Jesus, “If you choose you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said, “I do choose. Be made clean!”

(Mark 1.40-45)

Like the leper’s voice, the voices of the poor and powerless call for inclusion in society. In Israel’s earliest traditions, it is slaves crying out against their masters that God hears and sends Moses to free them. It is the voices of those left out who call us to widen our tents and add chairs at our tables. In asking for justice and equality, people express their dignity as human beings made in God’s image and likeness. They give voice to God’s purpose for us all — wholeness, a community of love on Earth that mirrors the divine community of love that is God.

With whom might you build a bridge from isolation to participation in economic life, parish life, or family life?

If you enjoy this Gospel Reflection,
please visit the Sunday By Sunday page
to order a subscription or request a free sample.
Start a small bible study. Be a leader.

Drawing in the Dirt

6 Feb


Photo via Flickr user Garry Wilmore

Photo via Flickr user Garry Wilmore

The other day I was tasked with teaching the story of Jesus and the Adulteress to seventh graders (John 8:1-11). In the heart of the story, Jesus does what he does so well throughout his ministry: He reframes the situation, and in so doing, he elevates the conversation. The Pharisees are trying to catch him yet again, and instead of engaging in their line of questioning, he addresses the heart of the matter. The woman, according to the law, deserves to be stoned to death. But Jesus doesn’t engage in an argument about the law. In elevating the conversation to one about sin, the woman is able to walk away. We talked about this for a bit. I asked where the adulterer is, and why the punishment is so unequal for the two consenting parties.

Then I admitted that with these stories of Jesus that we know so well, I sometimes like to stray from the center of the tale and imagine my way into the periphery to see if there are any other details that teach us about Jesus. I re-read them:

Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger in the dirt. They kept at him, badgering him. He straightened up and said, “The sinless one among you, go first: Throw the stone.” Bending down again, he wrote some more in the dirt.

The quote by Jesus is the heart of the story, the part is repeated again and again as Jesus’ lesson. On either end of it, though, bookended, we hear that Jesus wrote in the dirt. I love this detail. I meditate on this detail. Perhaps it is inconsequential. Sure. I like, however, picturing Jesus writing in the dirt. The image for me, conjures up a child in the corner of a sandbox drawing in sand, a student intently doodling on a piece of paper, a T-ball player picking dandelions in right field instead of watching for a fly ball. The image makes Jesus seem human to me.

What was he writing? We don’t know what it said in part, I assume, because words in dirt are temporary. As the story teaches, words and particulars, lessons and law aren’t always the point. And the not knowing what he wrote continues to invite us into the story to wonder. He was not dictating things to get etched in stone, but chose dirt that day instead. It has for me, the feel of him holding on loosely, confidently, and embracing the temporary like the man who writes poetry with water on stone. He was okay with his words, his drawing, his doodles, washing away without being captured.

Am I projecting too much into the story? Maybe. But imagining in front of the seventh graders, I saw some smiles and some minds start daydreaming. They were wondering, too, about Jesus and his personality. Was he the type of guy who liked to doodle? To draw in the sand? To pick dandelions? Maybe. Even the wondering reminded us that Jesus was fully human, with a personality all his own, and for just a moment, that brought this man who saved a woman’s life, this Jesus, a little closer. It invited him to be more fully present in the room with us.

Gospel Reflection for February 8, 2015, 5th Sunday Ordinary Time

2 Feb

Sunday Readings: Job 7.1-4, 6-7; 1 Corinthians 9.16-19, 22-23; Mark 1.29-39

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew with James and John. Now Peter’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told Jesus about her at once. Jesus took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

(Mark 1.29-31)

Jesus heals many people in Capernaum and moves on to preach and heal in other villages of Galilee. Jesus also heals Peter’s mother-in-law, who becomes his first woman disciple. Mark tells her story in a single verse (1.31). Jesus takes her hand and lifts her up. The Greek word for lifts up is the same verb Mark uses to describe Jesus’ resurrection. The woman responds to Jesus’ healing. She begins to serve the new community gathered in her house. The New American Bible translates the word serve(diakonie in Greek) as begins to wait on. Peter’s mother-in-law has one of the two credentials that distinguish the women from Galilee who stand at the cross after the men flee. They followed and served Jesus. Peter’s mother-in-law could have been among them with Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and Salome.

Who models a discipleship of service that you try to follow in your life?

If you enjoy this Gospel Reflection,
please visit the Sunday By Sunday page
to order a subscription or request a free sample.
Start a small bible study. Be a leader.

Power and Limits of Words

30 Jan
Photo via Flickr user JayRaz

Photo via Flickr user JayRaz

A couple I know are torn about which church to attend. One enjoys a more traditional worship and the other tends toward emerging churches with contemporary worship, but they want to worship together. The former read to me the vision and mission statement of the latter’s favorite church and asked me, “Do you even think it’s Christian?”

My immediate response was, “I don’t know enough about the church to say if it’s Christian or not. I don’t know that it’s my place to say.” I thought for a second and added, “That might not be the most important question to ask.” In moments like these, my instinct is to shy away from labeling. In moments like these, I think it may be good to recognize both the power and limitation of words. Take another look at the second sentence of this post. What micro emotions came up as you read the words traditional, emerging and contemporary? We all may react differently to these terms because of our different backgrounds, beliefs and experiences. It quickly gets tricky to talk about these things without defining terms.

It was Kathleen Norris who first got me thinking about semantics when it comes to religion. Her beautiful, powerful book, Amazing Grace, tries to unlock words that have been trapped by years of projection and religious piety. Each vignette is titled with a word that is especially loaded. Instead of defining the terms, she tells a story in hopes of breaking the word back open. Telling stories with people instead of defining terms can counter some of the potential hurt that comes from the power and limitations of words.

Another trick I like is to study other languages. There are words and cultural concepts in other languages that just don’t exist in English. Take, for example, the word hygge. Hygge is a mental state that is loosely defined at coziness or togetherness. But those words don’t cut it. English is too limited to capture the idea. According to Denmark’s official tourism site:

The warm glow of candlelight is hygge. Friends and family — that’s hygge too.  And let’s not forget the eating and drinking — preferably sitting around the table for hours on end discussing the big and small things in life.

When I am curled up by the fire in sweatpants, snuggling with my loved ones, sipping tea and reading, that is hygge. One word in another language evokes an entire scene with bubbles of emotion and nostalgia. We don’t have a word in English that does it justice. That reminder of the limitation of our language also invites me to approach religious semantics with humility and curiosity. The Bible I read is a translation, and religious experience can be so personal and powerful that words sometimes do not capture the heart of what is going on.

The church being questioned is welcoming people on the margins of society who are coming back to worship after feeling hurt by organized religion. It is, then, I believe, doing healing work of reconciliation that Jesus would approve of. The people who attend that church have stories to tell and moments in their lives that are too big for words.

Gospel Reflection for February 1, 2015, 4th Sunday Ordinary Time

26 Jan

Sunday Readings: Deuteronomy 18.15-20; 1 Corinthians 7.32-35; Mark 1.21-28

Just then there was in the synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?”

(Mark 1.23-24)

All of us have the work of discerning the spirits that drive us. What possesses us? Maybe ambition, an advanced degree, a higher-paying job. Alcohol or chocolate or drugs can possess us, becoming a comfort in our stress more perfect and pliant than any human friend. The unclean spirits are right to ask Jesus if he has come to destroy them. The answer is yes. Jesus claims us for wholeness.

What clamors for attention in yourself? What erodes your energy? What enlivens you?

If you enjoy this Gospel Reflection,
please visit the Sunday By Sunday page
to order a subscription or request a free sample.
Start a small bible study. Be a leader.

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,475 other followers

%d bloggers like this: