November 27, 2016

When God Suddenly Says 'Yes'

This Advent we’ll explore aspects of Creation Spirituality in the lives of some of the main actors in the Christmas drama. First a brief overview of Matthew Fox’s definition of Creation Spirituality from his website
Fox explains “Creation Spirituality derives from the oldest tradition in the Bible (the J source) and it is the Wisdom Tradition in the Hebrew Bible–the tradition that scholars agree was the tradition of the historical Jesus...Honoring all of creation as Original Blessing, Creation Spirituality integrates the wisdom of Eastern and Western spirituality and global indigenous cultures, with the emerging scientific understanding of the universe, and the passion of creativity. It is both a tradition and a movement, celebrated by mystics and agents of social change from every age and culture. It is also the tradition of the historical Jesus himself since it is the wisdom tradition of Israel.”
Fox says, “Our inner work can be understood as a four-fold journey involving:
– awe, delight, amazement (known as the Via Positiva
– uncertainty, darkness, suffering, letting go (Via Negativa)
– birthing, creativity, passion (Via Creativa)
– justice, healing, celebration (Via Transformativa)
We weave through these paths like a spiral danced, not a ladder climbed.”

Now, on to the fun and meat of this series.
This week we’ll consider how the lives of Elizabeth and Zechariah were impacted along the ‘four-fold journey’ when God suddenly said ‘Yes’ to their prayers. The story is found in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke. Zechariah was of the tribe of Levi, as was his wife Elizabeth. The tribe of Levi was designated during the Exodus, to be the priests of Israel through the lineage of Aaron, Moses’ brother. (See Exodus 28:1) Zechariah is “chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood“ for the, once in a lifetime, opportunity to “enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense.” He was selected to go past the curtain of the Temple into the Holy of Holies. This was an awesome honor and great responsibility.
From the Gospel account we learn a little about Zechariah and his wife. “Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.” (Luke 1:6) In a society where childlessness was considered a mark of God’s disfavor, it must have been difficult to maintain their faith in the goodness of God. Yet somehow, the couple remained ‘righteous’. They clung to the belief that God is good and that God can bring something good out of seeming sorrow or disaster.
Then came the day when Zechariah was in the Temple and God said a surprising and resounding ‘yes’ to their prayers. “There appeared to [Zechariah] an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth…He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God…to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’” (Luke 1:11-17)

The Via Positiva tells us that God wants to give us good things and has created everything ‘good’. We may insist that we believe God is good, seeing God at work in vague ways, such as in nature. Then something happens, like an answer to years of prayer. Then the distant God becomes almost too close.
Sometimes when God acts it is hard to believe at first. Zechariah, despite being a priest with years of experience in worshiping God, was unable to comprehend the action of God in his own life. “Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’” I don’t know if I’d have had the courage to argue with an angel. On the other hand, there probably are times when God is trying to give me a wonderful surprise and I am blind to it.
Stop and Think: From the beginning God has said ‘it is good’ about all creation. God continues to want to gift his creation with good things.
Has there ever been a time when you may have rejected something God wanted to give you? Have you clung to your old belief in how God acts and remained blind to something new that was happening in your life?

The Via Negativa is the place where we may feel uncertainty about whether God really means what God says. It is the time when we feel separate from God, or even turn our back on God.
Zechariah was unable to comprehend and accept the gift that God wanted to give him. He argued with the angel, who replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” (Luke 1:19-20)
I suspect that any doubt Zechariah had was erased when he realized that Gabriel wasn’t joking. He lingered in the Holy Place perhaps trying to talk until everyone ‘wondered at his delay’. When he finally emerged from the sanctuary, “he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak.” (Luke 1:22)
Zechariah was probably embarrassed by being unable to talk. He probably wanted to explain to the High Priest why he took so long. He likely also would have liked to share the news from his angelic vision. After all, the angel had told him, “He will…make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 16-17) Gabriel had spoken words prophesying the imminent coming of Messiah and Zechariah was unable to tell anyone. The long anticipated Promised One was near, and Zechariah was silenced.
Stop and Think: Zechariah doubted God and could not speak. The Via Negativa often makes us stop and reevaluate our faith. His silence gave him time to think about God’s creative and re-creative work.
Has there been a time when your doubt about God’s action in your life gave you time to pause and consider your faith or ministry or life journey?

The Via Creativa is a time when we begin to see how God is acting and what is being ‘birthed’. In the Gospel we learn, “When his time of service was ended, he went to his home. After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion.” (Luke 1:23-24)
Imagine for a moment what Elizabeth felt and thought when Zechariah came home mute. Fear for his health must have been uppermost until he reassured her that he was healthy. There was certainly talk among the neighbors about ‘poor Zechariah’. If it was me, I would be angry about that. Luke does not give us any indication that Zechariah was able to communicate with Elizabeth about the promise from Gabriel. Maybe, being the wife of a learned priest, she knew how to read and he wrote her a note. Perhaps he just made signs to her like he did to the other priests and the congregation.
When Elizabeth discovers that, like Sarah of old, she is pregnant even though she is elderly it was a pleasant and almost unbelievable surprise. We get a glimpse of the scorn she endured from other women for her childless years by her comment, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” After five months, when she is completely certain that she is truly pregnant, with baby bump is showing, Elizabeth dares to venture out into public again.
I can imagine that her pregnancy was the cause for even more gossip. Through it all, Elizabeth could walk proudly, serene in the knowledge that she was finally going to have a child. Then at about 6 months along, she gets an unexpected visit from her cousin from Nazareth. Luke tells us, “In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’” (Luke 39-45)
Mary’s arrival is further affirmation of God working actively in the lives of Elizabeth and Zechariah. Elizabeth recognizes that Mary is the chosen Theotokis (God-bearer). In fact, John in utero recognizes it as well. The two women share a time of mutual praise to God.
Stop and Think: The Via Creativa brings us back toward God and understanding that God is present and active.
When have you experienced God’s presence so clearly that you knew everything was going to be alright, even if the way forward wasn’t yet clear?

The Via Transformativa is the part of the path where we begin to become partners in God’s creativity and work of Redemption. For Elizabeth this started when she became pregnant. Mary’s visit affirmed to both women that miraculous things were happening in their lives and in the world. “Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.” (Luke 1:56-57)
For Zechariah, it was not until “the eighth day they came to circumcise the child” that he came to the Via Transformativa. When “they were going to name him Zechariah after his father...his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’…they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.” (Luke 1:59-66)
Zechariah is given back his voice, lost to the Via Negativa of doubt. He then is “filled with the Holy Spirit” and begins to prophecy about the transformation of the cosmos through social justice and re-creation. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:68-79)
Stop and Think: The Via Transformativa brings us back to relationship with God and with God we begin to work for the good of the world.
What is on your heart to ‘prepare the way’ for the Lord or to ‘give light to those who sit in darkness’?

Next week, we’ll look at another main character in the Christmas drama: Mary of Nazareth. 

November 20, 2016

The Gifts of the Spirit

This fall we have been looking at some of the various aspects of the Holy Spirit. This Spirit is the promised Advocate or Helper that Jesus promised to his disciples at the Last Supper (John 14). God has given us the Spirit to live in us. This Spirit is still acting in our lives. We may not be aware and call something a coincidence or synchronicity. In reality, it is God working in our lives through the living Spirit to renew, empower, sanctify, comfort, and help us discern things. This results is the fruits of the Spirit that we looked at last week. The same Spirit also gives us ‘gifts’ that help us encourage and strengthen one another in our life work and play. (Fruits of the Spirit are attributes of our personality and Gifts of the Spirit are things that we do because of the Spirit working in us.)
In the First Letter to the Corinthians, we are told, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.” (1 Corinthians 12:4-11)
The Holy Spirit of God ‘activates’ the gifts as is individually and corporately needed. As the graphic says, a spiritual gift is “an ability that is empowered by the Holy Spirit and used in love to build up the church.” Using our gifts in Love is the key
I Corinthians 13 goes on to expound the best gift of the Spirit, which is indeed love. If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13)
As we’ve seen in our fall meditations, the Spirit is a gift from God, promised by Jesus. The Spirit of the Living God is active in our lives to help us live out the Great Commandment to “love one another”. The Spirit gives us courage and strength to live into our ministry and life in community and in love.
Think about how each of the gifts of the Spirit is a manifestation of love. How can we allow the Spirit to help us more fully live out the mandate to Love one another?
Is there something you can do today or this week to make I Corinthians 13 visible in your life?

Next week we’ll enter Advent and do an interesting contemplation of what Matthew Fox calls Original Blessing. He calls this the way of the Via Positiva, Via Negativa, Via  Creativa, and Via Transformativa. We’ll look at how some familiar Christmas story participants experienced these 4 parts of God’s love.

November 13, 2016

The Spirit Who Bears Fruit

For the past couple weeks we took a break from thinking about “The Spirit Who…” We considered the masks we wear and the idea that we are all saints of God. Even if our name never makes it to the calendar of Saints, we are part of those, who as the song says: “lived not only in ages past; there are hundreds of thousands still. the world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus' will. You can meet them in school, on the street, in the store, in church, by the sea, in the house next door; they are saints of God, whether rich or poor, and I mean to be one too.” (I Sing a Song of the Saints of God)
As we work on being a saint of God, it is reassuring to know that we are not alone. The Holy Spirit of God bears fruit in our hearts. In the Letter to the Galatians, we are told, “Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control...If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.” (Galatians 5:16, 22-26)
Jesus warns his disciples several times in the Gospel that they should not compete or compare their fruits or results of ministry to each other. One such instance is in Mark 9:33-37 where when “they came to Capernaum...he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.” Jesus “sat down and called the twelve; and he said to them, 'if anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.’”
It can be very easy to compare the success, or failure, of our work to each other and say ‘mine is better or more important’. Alternatively we might sadly admit that ‘I don’t seem to be able to be as generous as others.’ Galatians warns "Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.” In God’s eyes all the fruits of the Spirit are equal. 
The way of living out the Fruit of the Spirit in our lives is different for each of us. Jesus’ words to his disciples, and the warning in the Letter to the Galatians, can remind us that even the smallest and weakest among us is important to God. The homeless man on the street may have more compassion than the man in the corner office. The poor widow may offer more of herself than her wealthy neighbor.
But it isn’t a competition. In God’s eyes, we are equal. 
Let’s start looking at each other as equals not as competitors. 
Let’s see each other as family, beloved by one Father instead of insisting that ‘you have to be just like me’. 
Let’s be humble enough to say ‘I don’t have all the answers’ and listen to each other. 
Let’s support each other to build up the fruits of the Spirit so that we are all strengthened.
Have you ever compared your ministry or gifts to someone else and felt you were better, or that you fell short?
What can you do this week to encourage someone who may feel that the Fruit of their lives doesn't matter?

November 6, 2016

All saints of God

Long ago in Sunday School I learned a hymn: I Sing a Song of the Saints of God*. It remains one of my favorites because of the emphasis on the fact that we are all saints of God. We may never be recognized with our own 'day' in the church calendar, but we each live our lives in sincere hope that we are doing God's will. The songs say, "I sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true, who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew. 
This past weekend I heard 2 sermons. Each was presented by a dedicated pastor/priest-a saint of God. Both were offered for the upbuilding of the hearers. One spoke about Christ’s ‘new commandment…[to] love one another’, noting that as we live this commandment we become more like Jesus and change the world. The other based his sermon on Romans 16:17-20, urging his hearers to beware of those who might destroy the community of faith, and stating that such people should be removed until they change their ways.
I could not help but be struck by the contrast. Yet both these preachers were sincere in their words and spoke to build up and encourage their audience. Each felt the Spirit working in their life. In fact, each is a saint of God.
One speaker referenced John 13:34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” noting that the “way of love is the way of life”. This was most fully shown at the Cross. Listeners were reminded that ‘we are not the center of the universe-God is’. Therefore, our life needs to look like Love so that the world may know Christ through us. This preacher took the broad view that our Christian lives lived in Love will change the world.
The other was speaking from concern for the good of the whole when urging that divisive entities must be rooted out. The congregation had previously experienced great distress from similar attacks and for love of the whole, the pastor stated that the evil must go. While admitting that from the outside, this might look un-Christian, he pointed to Paul’s words to the church in Rome “I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offences, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them. For such people do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the simple-minded. For while your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, I want you to be wise in what is good, and guileless in what is evil. The God of peace will shortly crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
The pastor’s concern for keeping deceivers out of the ‘flock’ relates to the other speaker’s comment that ‘religion’ can be hijacked when the “golden calf of self [is] raised”. (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: Not in God’s Name, Confronting Religious Violence). Because it is not rooted in Love, the same self-centeredness that caused the Israelites to form the golden calf in the wilderness, can destroy churches, families, countries, even the world. The pastor was, in fact working to protect the congregation from destruction by keeping trouble-makers out. The sermon was a declaration of love for the people of the congregation. With the hymn this pastor was proclaiming "They loved their Lord so dear, so dear, and his love made them strong; and they followed the right for Jesus' sake the whole of their good lives long."
Without knowing all the details, I dare not judge whether the one pastor might have tried loving those who were a negative influence. Perhaps the love and reconciliation was offered and rejected. Perhaps the dissension was too deep rooted to be allowed to linger and grow and destroy. The pastor felt led by the Spirit to speak out against this division and to work to bring about healing in the congregation so people could find their way to living the commandment to Love one Another.
We are called, as followers of the One who gave the new commandment of Love, to live a life that looks like Love. The other preacher stated that the ‘way of Love is a game changer. It changes us, it changes the church, it changes the world. We should not be ashamed of the way of Love.’
It is not easy to live under the new Order that says, ‘give up self to live in love for one another’. Yet there is the promise that ‘if you love me, you will follow me’ in the path of Love that makes room for all. The way of Love liberates and is life-giving, while the way of self is destructive. With one another we ARE called to be saints of God who "lived not only in ages past; there are hundreds of thousands still. The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus' will. You can meet them in school, on the street, in the store, in church, by the sea, in the house next door; they are saints of God, whether rich or poor, and I mean to be one too." 
As we look at the saints of God in our lives, I hope we can see where they, and we, are living out the new movement that will indeed turn the world around. The way of Love breaks down dividing walls-of race, culture, religion, fear, anger and unites us. As the image says, "It will be OK" because God is with and in each of us. No matter how difficult it is to live the Way of Love-God is there. 

Consider who you know who might show you more fully how to live the Way of Love.
Take time to think about how you might give up some of self, in order to more fully show the Love of God.

Next time we’ll return to our series about the work of the Spirit by thinking about how the Spirit bears fruit in a life given over to following God. 

*1. I sing a song of the saints of God, 
patient and brave and true, 
who toiled and fought and lived and died 
for the Lord they loved and knew. 
And one was a doctor, and one was a queen, 
and one was a shepherdess on the green; 
they were all of them saints of God, and I mean, 
God helping, to be one too. 

2. They loved their Lord so dear, so dear, 
and his love made them strong; 
and they followed the right for Jesus' sake 
the whole of their good lives long. 
And one was a soldier, and one was a priest, 
and one was slain by a fierce wild beast; 
and there's not any reason, no, not the least, 
why I shouldn't be one too. 

3. They lived not only in ages past; 
there are hundreds of thousands still. 
The world is bright with the joyous saints 
who love to do Jesus' will. 
You can meet them in school, on the street, in the store, 
in church, by the sea, in the house next door; 
they are saints of God, whether rich or poor, 
and I mean to be one too. 
 (I Sing a Song of the Saints of God, by Lesbia Scott)