November 25, 2012

Thin Places can be found in Community

This last Sunday before Advent is known as Christus Rex Sunday. Christus Rex means “Christ the King”. In looking at the risen and crowned Christ, we can perhaps forget that there were times in the life of our Lord that He needed the assurance of God’s presence. In the wilderness, on the Mount of Transfiguration, and most deeply in the garden. Throughout His life, Jesus found God in prayer, and also in community and fellowship.
The first thing Jesus did was to form a community. He asked some rather unexpected men to follow him on his journey. Among them were fishermen, a tax collector, a questioner, and (ultimately) a traitor. Yet, with these men, Jesus created a community that supported Him in ministry and whom He entrusted with ministry.
We might look at them and say that they were an unlikely bunch to build a new ministry with. After all, at the most crucial time, when He needed them most, they abandoned him and fled to protect their own skins.
Still, Jesus trusted them with the message of a new Way of Life. After the Resurrection, He tells Peter, “Feed my sheep” (John 21: 15-17) and commissions them all to “Go to all the word and proclaim the Good News” (Mark 16:15). He tells them “go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always.” (Matthew 25:19-20)
We are part of that community that Jesus started. It is essential that we remain in community with each other for mutual support, and because it is with one another that we can experience God in the Thin Place that is Community.
The past 2 weekends I have experienced two separate communities coming together for retreat and leaving inspired and invigorated for ministry. On Nov. 9-10, a group of Women in the Diocese of the Rio Grande came together and did some joyful visioning of ministry. Last weekend, a group of men and women who have been active in the renewal movement known as Cursillo came together to start rebuilding that ministry.
In both cases, it was within the community of friends old and new that God was discovered and the Holy Spirit was felt in the love, sharing, friendship, and yes the work of planning, dreaming, discussing, and working together.
We can, sometimes, fall into the trap of thinking we can do it all by ourselves, but it is in and within the community that we really can accomplish ministry and hear the voice of God saying ‘Go, proclaim, preach, heal, teach for I am with you always when 2 or 3 are gathered together in my Name!’
Next Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent! The church year starts again. 

November 18, 2012

Thanksgiving is a Thin Tinme

This week we celebrate Thanksgiving. I think every culture in the world has some sort of celebration in recognition of the bringing in of the harvest and rejoicing that there is food in the barns for the winter months. In most traditions this takes place at the end of the growing season rather than later in the fall as we, in America, celebrate it.
For the Celtic Christians and many other traditions, the harvest festival was a time to celebrate, and also to share and ensure that others in the community were not hungry. It often came in late summer-August or September. Like most harvest traditions, special foods were associated with it. One is a kind of biscuit or scone called Bannock:
Pitcaithly Bannock
1 cup flour
½ cup butter
¼ cup sugar
2 T. chopped almonds
2 T. mixed candied citrus peel

Set oven to 325oF. Grease a baking sheet. Mix flour, butter, and sugar to form a dough. Add the almonds and the peel, making sure they are evenly distributed. Form a thick round on a lightly floured surface and prick all over with a fork. Place on the baking sheet and bake for about 45-60 minutes. Allow to cool and serve sliced thinly, buttered or with fruit jelly.
The Jewish festival of Sukkot (Succoth), in the fall, is the celebration of the ingathering of the fruits of the fields, and a reminder of the time in the wilderness. In Leviticus, Moses tells the people, "On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook" (Lev. 23:40), and "You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt" (Lev. 23:42-43).
By creating booths of the branches, the Jewish people are reminded of their sacred history. They are made aware of the thin time when God was present and led them in the wilderness wanderings until they came to their new home. There are special foods for Sukkot. Challah, the soft, egg bread braid is one, as is apple crisp.
The Celtic Christians, and the Jewish people, and we all celebrate God’s providing for our needs during the harvest festivals of our lives. Whether we call it Lughnasadh, Sukkot, or Thanksgiving we need to take a moment to remember that God is near when we give Thanks and that there are those who are less fortunate who need our care.
There is a prayer from the Celtic book of prayers The Carmina Gadelica that reminds us that God in Jesus Christ is in all things and that we should give praise and thanks.
It were as easy for Jesu
To renew the withered tree
As to wither the new
Were it His will to do so.
Jesu! Jesu! Jesu! Jesu!
Meet it were to praise him.
There is no plant in the ground
But it is full of his virtue,
There is no form in the strand
But is full of his blessing
There is no life in the sea
There is no creature in the river
There is naught in the firmament
But proclaims his goodness
There is not bird on the wing,
There is no star in the sky
There is nothing beneath the sun,
But proclaims his goodness.
I hope you have blessed Thanksgiving times with family and friends. In this season there are many who are not as blessed as we are. Some may even be our neighbors. Keep them in your prayers and perhaps take some kind of action as your heart leads you.
Next week we will look at a Thin Time in the life of Jesus himself.

November 11, 2012

Thin Times-When God gets our Attention

All of the thin places and thin times we’ve looked at have been instances when the Lord interrupted lives and came close to breathe new life into ministry. Jacob in his dream and while wrestling with God had his life refocused to become a real leader. Elijah, hearing the still small voice of God, was reassured and empowered. Moses at the burning bush found himself saying ‘yes’ to a great change in his life and in the history of the world.

In the New Testament, there are thin times and places. One of these is the conversion of Saul (soon to be Paul). The zealous young Pharisee is on his way to further persecute the heretical sect of Judaism (in his mind at least) in Damascus. He planned “that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” (Acts 9:2).  

This was at least a 5 day journey. For most of the trip it was uneventful, boring even. Then, “as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’” (Acts 9:3-6)

Saul finds himself confronted by the Living God who he thought he was serving by persecuting the “Way”. Sometimes, God has to get our attention with a 2 x 4, or a light from heaven. Not only is he knocked to the ground, Saul is struck blind, “so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.” (Acts 9:8b-9) He is made dependent on others to learn true dependence on God.

The other person in this story who finds himself confronted by God is Ananias, already a convert to the ‘Way’ who lived in Damascus. He has a vision in which “’The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’” (Acts 9:10-12)

Imagine how Ananias felt. God has asked him to go to an enemy of the fledgling church. He argues, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” (Acts 9:13-14) Like with Moses generations earlier, God reassures his chosen instrument and sends him out, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 9:15-16) Ananias, no doubt with fear and trembling, goes to see Saul. He trusts his Lord enough to act even when common sense would say 'this could be a trap'. Are there times when you have acted out of faith even when, by human standards, the task seems dangerous or impossible?

The two men who have been confronted by God now come together and the direction of the early life of the church is set. “Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.” (Acts 9:17-19) Adversaries are made friends and the Saul's old way of looking at his faith is transformed into living faith in the new 'Way.' Isn't it amazing what God can do when we obey?

God often asks us to do things we may not feel strong enough, or wise enough, or powerful enough, or any number of other excuses. As Ananias discovered, you cannot say ‘no’ to God. The Lord has a plan for our lives that we don’t necessarily understand. God challenges us and even knocks us off our feet in order to get our attention. We can say ‘no’ and even try to hide (like Jonah), but God’s love for us won’t leave us alone. No matter how much we argue, God will keep urging and nudging until we do offer our life to God’s service. The Hound of Heaven, by Francis Thompson (1859-1907) gives a poetic turn to this seeking by God’s love and our flight from it (this is a much abridged version, you can find the whole poem online):

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
  I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
  Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
                  Up vistaed hopes I sped;
                  And shot, precipitated,

Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,

From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
                  But with unhurrying chase,
                  And unperturb√®d pace,
                Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
                  They beat--and a Voice beat
                  More instant than the Feet--
                "All things betray thee, who betrayest Me."
                  I pleaded, outlaw-wise,
Still with unhurrying chase,
                  And unperturb√®d pace,
                Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
                  Came on the following Feet,
                  And a Voice above their beat--
                "Naught shelters thee, who wilt not shelter Me."
Now of that long pursuit
                  Comes on at hand the bruit;
                That Voice is round me like a bursting sea:
                  "And is thy earth so marred,
                  Shattered in shard on shard?
                Lo, all things fly thee, for thou fliest Me!
                Strange, piteous, futile thing,
Wherefore should any set thee love apart?
Seeing none but I makes much of naught," He said,
"And human love needs human meriting,
                How hast thou merited--
Of all man's clotted clay rhe dingiest clot?
                Alack, thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee
                Save Me, save only Me?
All which I took from thee I did but take,
                Not for thy harms.
But just that thou might'st seek it in my arms.
                All which thy child's mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for the at home;
                Rise, clasp My hand, and come!"

  Halts by me that footfall;
  Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstreched caressingly?
  "Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
  I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me."

God loved Saul so much that God had to get his attention by striking him blind. God loved Ananias so much that God helped him move past fear to ministry. God loves Francis Thompsons's poetic character so much that God follows until the protagonist finds that "I am He Whom thou seekest." God loves you and me so much that God is there in good times and bad and even, maybe esp., when God gets our attention! Thanks be to God that God is persistent!
Next time we will look at God present in our thanks-giving-when we know the Holy is near and rejoice.

November 4, 2012

Thin Places-Holy Groung

Thin places are times and locations where God comes very close to humanity. Since the beginning of October, we’ve seen that this can be in dreams, in acts of nature, even in seasons of the year. In Celtic Christianity, all of life was a part of the holiness of God and God was within and without and around all parts of life. Many prayers gathered from the few writings of ancient Gaelic and Irish sources focus on asking God to be present in the minutia of the day. From getting up and dressing, to milking the cow and kindling the fire, to going to bed and traveling-God is invoked into each of these actions.

Moses could have related to seeing God into all parts of life. During his early life in Egypt he learned to worship gods for every part of life. Various gods were credited with causing the annual Nile floods, providing fertility to land and creature, giving light and dark, etc. Coming to Midian and learning about the Yahweh might have been a challenge to him as he learned that there is only One God over all things. Then he had his own encounter with that One God.

We know the story. “Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian; and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.” (Exodus 3:1) The scene that follows has been immortalized in song and cinema and art throughout the ages.

The shepherd Moses is confronted by the Living God in a “bush that was burning, yet it was not consumed.” Moses decides to “turn aside and see this great sight.” (Exodus 3:2-3) It is then that he meets God in this ‘thin place’. God tells him to “put off your shoes…for the place on which you are standing is holy ground…I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” (Exodus 3:5)

Moses was willing to take a moment to check out “this great sight” and because he did, God was able to meet him and commission him to free the Children of Israel from their bondage in Egypt. Of course Moses hesitates and argues with God saying, “who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?” (Don’t we all have that tendency when we sense God is calling us to step outside our comfort zone?)

When Moses left the path to see the bush, he was already on the road to saying ‘yes’ to God, even if he didn’t know it. He was aware of God’s presence around him and responded to the flaming bush-partly with curiosity and partly in faith.

How often do we take time to notice whether the bush in our path is burning or not? I have to admit that too often I rush on by, focused on getting to ‘my’ destination. Stopping to ‘smell the roses’ gets put on the back burner as I scamper on my busy way. Lao-Tzu is quoted as saying, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Our faith journeys also start with a single step toward God. When we pause long enough to notice that there is a bush or ministry or event alive with the holiness of God, we are already allowing God to break into our life and, very likely, transform it.

Next time we’ll consider times when God has to ‘get our attention’.