May 29, 2011

Transformation in Judgment

Judgment is not a topic we like to talk about. In the Creeds of the Church we say “He will come again to judge the living and the dead,” but we don't really like to think about it. This past weekend there was much anticipation among some people that the end of the world was imminent. Of course it is not the first time a would-be prophet has predicted this. I am always reminded of Jesus’ own words, “You do not know the day or the hour.” Each new challenge or disaster makes us ask if the end is coming or even debate ‘when is the end coming.’ Instead of trying to figure out a time frame for God, we need to be living life to the best of our ability.

Barbara Brown Taylor* recounts the story of legislators in colonial New England. “A meeting of state legislators was plunged into darkness by a sudden eclipse, during which many of those present panicked and others moved to adjourn. But one of them said, ‘Mr. Speaker, if it is not the end of the world and we adjourn, we shall appear to be fools. If it is the end of the world, I should choose to be found doing my duty. I move you, sir, the candles be brought.’”

Brown reminds us that we are called each day to the same decision the Israelites in the wilderness had. “I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil,” says Moses. (Deuteronomy 30:15). Choosing to follow God brings change and transformation, but not necessarily in our time frame. In this blog series, we’ve looked at the way our ‘scars’ can glow, but that transformation often requires wrestling with God and/or waiting on God. There are messengers in our lives and there is judgment that brings us up short. Judgment can make us aware of how far we are from God. However, it is only a short step back. We simply have to take the time to be with God. According to Brown, “Our job is to watch for the one who come to us with healing in his wings and to open the door for him before he raises his hand to knock.”

One of the parables the Dragon tells George* is about a card game between the Devil and God. The stakes are control of the days of the week. “Game followed game, and God allowed the Devil to win six whole days!...A circle of angels who had watched the card game shook their heads in dismay. ‘Why, Lord God,’ they said, ‘did you let that cheating Devil win six of the seven days? What can you do with only one day?’
And God answered, ‘Oh, I’ve got special plans. I need only one day; that’s more than enough!’…‘All I need is one day for them to enjoy me! They can savor me when they enjoy leisure, when they rest. For it is only then that they can recognize and return the love that I have put into all creation.

Judgment is not necessarily a bad thing. It is chance to turn and start over again. Brown says that “Whatever it is that our hearts yearn for, chances are that it has something to do with our vision of what it would be to mean for us to be made whole, to be transformed…more nearly the people God created us to be….Whatever happens to us while we are waiting, however dark it gets before it gets light…[we are in] good hands.”

I suggest you meditate on the questions she asks: “What are you waiting for, and how is it shaping your life? Are you waiting for certainty, for healing, for love?...for recognition, for retirement…peace and justice…?” Think about how the answer impacts your journey of transformation. Do you believe that we are in good hands?

*quotes from Gospel Medicine by Barbara Brown Taylor and St. George and the Dragon and the Quest for the Holy Grail by Edward Hays.

May 22, 2011

Transformation from Messengers

Barbara Brown Taylor* suggests that “If God is silent, it may be because we are not speaking God’s language yet…God has taught us how to break the silence and has even given us the words. “Here I am.” They are the words we long to hear, but they are also the words God longs for us to speak—to stand before a sister, a brother, and say, “Here I am.”

How do we learn the language of God? From the beginning, God has sent messengers. Men like Jonah and Isaiah and Job and John the Baptist all point the way to God. Sometimes the messengers really are straight from heaven. Abraham’s visitors (as seen in this art by Lieferin), the ladder to heaven that Jacob sees, the messenger who comes to Samson’s mother are some, and of course Gabriel’s visit to Mary is an obvious angel messenger.

Very often the people in the Bible don’t like what the messengers have to say. In fact, Jesus sums up the response of most of us in the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Matthew 21:33-41, Mark 12:1-12, or Luke 20:9-19). Taylor sums up the message of this story by saying, “We are God’s sharecroppers…We are expected to represent God’s interests, being as generous with each other as God is with us. We are not owners. We were never meant to be…[however] the harvest will take your breath away.”

Messengers from God very often demand change or warn that it is coming. We however, long for an easier way. We ask “for protection, for prosperity, for a God who will operate within the domestic boundaries we have set for ourselves, without doing anything to frighten us unnecessarily. We want to be chosen. We want to be saved, only gently, please, by gradual degrees, so that we can see where we are going…No one in his or her right mind asks to be attacked, frightened, wounded. And yet that is how it comes sometimes, the presence and blessing of God…the answer to all our prayers.” (Taylor)

She goes on to say, “In this dance, it is not God’s job to keep bad things from happening…God’s job is to stay present in them and to keep on being God…Sometimes the voice seems to come straight from heaven and sometimes it comes through the voices of strangers and friends.” Sometimes it comes in other ways, too.

Last week I watched the Jim Henson movie Dark Crystal. It was not at all what I expected from Jim Henson (no Muppets), but it was a moving metaphor for the need to embrace the scars or ‘dark side’ of our lives. According to the story, once there was one race on Thra, but when the Crystal was damaged, two races emerged. The Skeksis, dark and evil, are in control of the castle and the Crystal. Far away the Mystics, peaceful and gentle, live. The leader of the Mystics raises a Gefling, last of a race destroyed by the Skeksis. There is a prophecy that a Gefling will restore the Crystal and end the reign of the Skeksis. As the story moves toward its climax, Jen, the Gefling discovers that there is one other Gefling. Together they bring the Crystal shard to the castle. The Mystics are also moving toward the castle. We come to realize that the two races are really one people. When Jen returns the shard to the Crystal, it is transformed from a dark to bright crystal and the Mystics and Skeksis reunite as beings of light.

To me, the movie was a metaphor for embracing the parts of ourselves that we often try to hide or deny. Only when we accept our “scars”, as the Dragon does, can they glow and give us strength and confidence.

In St. George and the Dragon*, George is given books by the Dragon who says “Read between the lines and you will be surprised at what you find.” Then as always, the Dragon has a story about the ways God is revealed to us.

“[God is meeting with the Review Board committee of angels and archangels about creation.] ‘I feel,’ said God, ‘that it is time for me to speak more directly to my children on earth. Until now I have spoken to them by means of a flood, fire, rainbows and, of course, a quiet whisper in the heart of certain chosen ones. But I feel that they need to hear more directly from me.’ … [The angels ask why a new method is needed and great discussion arises. Until...] “The static stillness around the conference table was broken by the voice of one angel. ‘My Lord God, why not come to earth in the form of writing?’…‘Marvelous idea,’ shouted God, ‘marvelous…I shall come as word.!’… ‘But Lord God,’ said the bass-voiced angel, ‘which alphabet will you be?...You cannot discriminate and still be God.’ [God considers this and then God makes an announcement.] ‘I have decided-upon careful consideration of your suggestions and objections-I have decided to come into the world as ink!...Then I can reside in the letters of all alphabets…the possibilities are unlimited.’…God did indeed come into the world as ink. And the people of earth recognized the Divine Presence in the Hebrew letters of the Torah, in the Sanskrit…the Chinese characters…the Arabic letters…”

God’s messengers are everywhere. Messengers can be the people we meet, the books we read, the movies we watch, or they can be the scars we are working on transforming through these Easter season mediations. What messengers have you heard recently?

Next week, our journey of transformation comes up to the reality of ‘judgment’. See you then. The parable of the Tenants reminds us. “When the owner of the vineyard comes…‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.’” Are we good sharecroppers or greedy wretches?
*quotes from Gospel Medicine by Barbara Brown Taylor and St. George and the Dragon and the Quest for the Holy Grail by Edward Hays.

May 15, 2011

Transformation when God seems Absent

Transformation is about acknowledging our scars and wrestling with God in order to draw near to God’s grace and truth. So why does it sometimes feel like God is pulling away or absent? The road stretches out empty in front of you and there doesn't seem to be an oasis anywhere in sight.

It happened to the Chosen People-the Israelites-throughout the Bible. Sometimes they turned from God to serve idols of the tribes around them, sometimes it just seemed that God wasn’t there when they needed help. In Exodus, we learn “the people of Israel groaned under their bondage and cried out for help.” (Exodus 2:23) God seemed far away and the people thought that they were forgotten. After all, for 400 years Pharaoh “made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field.” (Exodus 1:14) We know that they were not really forgotten, because we know the rest of the story-we know how God "brought them us out of Egypt with a mighty hand." (Deuteronony 26:8)

In Isaiah God says, “For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you.” (Isaiah 54:7) The disciples felt abandoned after the Crucifixion, but Jesus comes and gathers them back with reassurance. While they still doubt and do not understand what has happened, He meets them where they are. Jesus comes to them in locked rooms, on the road to Emmaus, and on the seashore where he has fixed them breakfast. In each case, Jesus reassures the men and women that he will be with them.

Taylor* uses the analogy of a parent who leaves the children with an older sibling as babysitter. We (as Christians) are like that responsible sibling. We may feel like we’ve been orphaned because we cannot see or hear God. However, Jesus promises, “I will not leave you desolate…We will come and make our home with you [us].” (John 14:23) Taylor says this “is very good news for babysitters…there is someone else at home, in us and in those for whom we care, which means we do not have to be God-sized for them. We can be human-sized instead, with room within us for God to dwell and heal all our hearts from the inside out.” Instead of having to be in charge, we can be children together and hold each other's hands.

Edward Hays’ Dragon* tells George “The desert is not always a pleasant place. Our littleness and our inabilities usually come to the surface when we are left alone.” Then the Dragon tells a story that can point the way to finding God when it feels like there is only silence or emptiness.

This is a story about the Our Father…Secure and comfortable, the Our Father was at peace with his spiritual life…then…a sense of hollowness and a lack of meaning became a shadow that followed him each time he went to pray…he read articles and attended conferences…sought out an Indian guru…his prayer life remained as barren as the Sahara. So in frustration, like so many others, he completely abandoned praying and became involved in social reform. [Even after living for a year in the Rocky Mountains as a hermit he was aware that his problem was still with him. He finds an old man in a cabin on his way down the mountain and shares his story of frustration with the old man, who told him] “You are a special and sacred word of God made flesh. To pronounce your own unique word is to pray the most beautiful and holiest of prayers…God doesn’t create things; God only creates prayers…To learn how to pray is to learn to pronounce your own sacred word-to speak yourself!...You must see yourself as you are. Everything about the original you is perfect. God does not have bad ideas…Speak your own word clearly and with dignity. That is what it means to submit to the will of God…when you are true to your special word, what Jesus said will be true in your life-he and the Father will come and make their dwelling place with you, always!”

Being transformed is about acknowledging that we have scars that need to glow, about wrestling with God to find the Truth that God speaks in and through us. Transformation is also about trusting that God is present even when it feels like God is absent. The disciples didn’t recognize Jesus immediately after his Resurrection. Sometimes we don’t realize God is with us, esp. in the dark and painful times of life. God met the Israelites in their bondage in Egypt, Jesus met the disciples in their despair and lonliness, God will meet us when we think that there is no where to go.

Taylor notes that “when we too are marooned on the sea in the middle of night, afraid that we have come to the end of something without any idea how to begin again…it is probably a good idea to pay attention to [strangers] since Jesus has a whole closet full of disguises…How does any of us know [‘it is the Lord’]? watching…by listening…by living in great expectation and refusing to believe that our nets will stay empty…for those with ears to hear, there is a voice that can turn all our dead ends into new beginnings.”
Where are you in being transformed by God? Hurting from your scars? Wrestling with God? Wondering where God is? Listen and you may just hear a messenger offering hope. See you next week when we’ll explore some of the messengers God uses.

May 8, 2011

Transformation of Grace

Transformation begins with knowing that change is needed. We need to change our relationship with God in order to find real freedom. We cannot become whole and free on our own. In order to be transformed into new creations, we need Grace. That is something God loves to give away. From the beginning, God says “I will be your God and you shall be my people.”

Change often requires wrestling with God. The Dragon* tells George a parable about an up-to-date Jacob. Jake and God wrestle about all sorts of modern issues. At the end, “Jake limped away wounded…but not the loser; for like his namesake of old, he had “contended and prevailed.” And God? Well, God did not limp away from the contest, but skipped happily away into the sunrise.” The Dragon then explains that those on a quest “need to wrestle with the important questions in your life...with the self you see…and you must wrestle with God as well…You can’t wrestle God or confront the way you live with what you believe without being wounded.” The result of the wrestling, however, is to “hear the voice within that calls you to truth.” (This image of Jacob Wrestling is by Delacroix)

Barbara Brown Taylor* calls us to remember the many times God has come close to humankind with promises of grace. Taylor says, “The rainbow is God’s pure gift to us, a colorful corrective for anyone who believes that all the grace in the Bible is in the New Testament. It is not. The sacred story is full of grace from the very beginning, although we have always had a perverse way of fighting it off. It is almost as if we cannot stand so much good news.”

The rainbow is only the first of many promises of Grace. Some Bible promises come with name changes, signifying a transformed life. Abram is promised descendents as the stars. His name is changed to Abraham (father of a multitude) to foreshadow his transformed life even before Isaac is born. Jacob wrestles with God. His name is changed from Jacob (Supplanter) to Israel (Strives with God).

Many Bible promises of grace follow God’s actions on behalf of the people. After the Children of Israel leave Egypt, God reminds them, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:4-5) The people do not have to do anything except keep the covenant and they (and you and I) are as the KJV says “a peculiar treasure unto [God] above all people.”

That’s a pretty big transformation-from slaves to God’s own treasure! And we are heirs of that promise. There is an even greater Grace found in the New Testament that we are recipients of. “’Here,’ God said with the gift of a son-the one thing God had to give that was more precious to him than himself. ‘You don’t have to come to me where I am anymore. I will come all the way to you where you are, through this beloved child’…It is God’s promise from before time and forever, spelled out this time in flesh and blood.” [Taylor]

In the New Covenant, we come full circle. Paul claims we have “this ministry by the mercy (grace) of God…for what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” (I Corinthians 4:1-5) As God’s treasured possession through Grace, we are to become servants to one another.

The question before us is; are we willing to accept the grace offered and be transformed? Am I willing to wrestle with God to hear the truth, which may change me and make me into a servant?

*quotes from Gospel Medicine by Barbara Brown Taylor and St. George and the Dragon and the Quest for the Holy Grail by Edward Hays.

May 1, 2011

Transformation-Broken & Scarred

Easter is the season that reminds us that all things are possible with God. For the next few weeks, until Pentecost, I’ll be meditating on Gospel Medicine by the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor and Edward Hays’ book, St. George and the Dragon and the Search for the Holy Grail. Can this Easter season be a time of transformation?
Transformation starts with acknowledging that change is needed. It involves being freed and healed from the scars of the past. In Gospel Medicine, the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor says that “the way you recognize Christ-and his followers-is not by their muscles but by their scars.” That is what makes Christianity truly Good News. We are “to follow [our] leader into the scariest, most dangerous places in the world armed with nothing but a first aid kit, because, like him, [we] are not fighters but physicians-wounded healers-whose credentials are [our] hurt places.”
At the beginning of St. George and the Dragon and the Search for the Holy Grail, George feels called to go on a quest. Almost immediately he meets is a dragon, who is old and scarred. “I noticed that the dragon’s body was covered with old wounds. Whenever the dragon breathed forth fire to light the path…the wounds glowed golden-red in the dark.”

George asks about this phenomenon. The dragon responds, These old wounds are the source of my power and my insights…as we journey through life we have been injured…the possible list of the guilty is long. Each wound has the power to talk…with crooked voices because of the scars.”

In order to be the “wounded healers” that Taylor talks about, we have to accept that we are broken and scarred. In the post-Easter story of Jesus’ appearance on the road to Emmaus, He is known in the “breaking of the bread.” We are known as followers of the Risen Christ in the way we are “broken bread and poured out wine” to each other as Oswald Chambers says. (My Utmost for His Highest)

We have a choice, though. We don’t have to change and follow. The dragon tells George a story that illustrates our choice. “Once upon a time [in] a great prison” the men form an “Escape Committee” that is actually sanctioned by the warden. “The warden’s ingenious plan made life inside the prison better for everyone. He and he guards did not have to worry about anyone escaping; life and work inside the prison went on without trouble…the prisoners, once clouded by despair, now lived with a sense of hope and promise. Their meager, imprisoned lives now had meaning.”

The First Letter of Peter issues a call to transformation for all who seek to follow Christ. “Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good…, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (I Peter 2:1-4)

Peter warns that Christ is "A stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall." (I Peter 2:8). Taylor notes, “The Gospel is not pablum. It is powerful stuff…The peace of God is worth anything it takes to get there…in Christ God has given us someone worth fighting about, and someone with enough clout to end our fighting, for his word is like fire, like a hammer that breaks rocks into pieces.”

Those who choose freedom and transformation are broken. They become what Peter calls “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (I Peter 2:9) Jesus offers freedom in the brokenness of life. We find wholeness when our scars glow.

The dragon asks George, “How many people do you know who settle for something less than freedom?” Are you settling for something less than real freedom?

*quotes from Gospel Medicine by Barbara Brown Taylor and St. George and the Dragon and the Quest for the Holy Grail by Edward Hays.