A Tale of Two Birth Announcements

Look over Luke 1:5-25; 57-66.

cappella_tornabuoni2c_102c_annuncio_dell27angelo_a_zaccaria
Annunciation of the Angel to Zechariah by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1490, fresco in the Tornabuoni Chapel, Florence) Public Domain

We all know the story, don’t we? Zacharias (an “official” “ordained-type” priest) goes in his proper time to offer incense within the Temple. The Angel Gabriel appears to him there, announcing the upcoming birth of John the Baptist, along with his role as forerunner and preparer of the way of the Lord.

Zacharias responds, objecting, “How will I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.” [v. 18] Gabriel then identifies himself by name, and declares that Zacharias will be mute until his words were fulfilled.

Time passes and so things come about. Zacharias regains his voice finally upon naming his son “John” at his circumcision, in response to community objections because this is not family name of their line.

We all know the story.

Now, please look over Luke 1:26-56.

pinturicchio2c_cappella_baglioni_02
The Annunciation by Pinturicchio (1501, fresco in the Cappella Baglioni, Collegiata di Santa Maria Maggiore, Spello) Public Domain

We all know this story, too, don’t we? We see this played out in Christmas pageants almost annually, no? The Angel Gabriel appears to Mary, declares her favored, calms her confusion, and announces that she will conceive the Son of the Most High and name Him Jesus.

Mary seems to respond much as did Zacharias, pointing out a physical incongruity as she says, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” [v. 34]

But far from punishing her, as it could seem Gabriel did to Zacharias, the angel answers graciously with not only the answer to her question (that the power of the Most High would overshadow her), but he gives her an additional sign declaring that Elizabeth (her kinswoman) is six months along expecting the birth of John. Their exchange ends with “’nothing will be impossible with God.’ And Mary said, ‘Behold the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.’ And the angel departed from her” [vv. 37-38]

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

So, like, am I the only one who ever wondered, “what’s the difference here?”

Zacharias clearly ticked Gabriel off, while Mary didn’t. It’s one thing to point to the “rank order” difference between them. There’s certainly a difference of “graciousness” between them. Lots of flavorful differences, but I always sensed there was more here than that.

And… why should we care? What difference does, or should, it make to us… to you and me… here and now… why these two encounters went the way they did?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I think the answer to both questions is the same one… “Faith”.

The difference between the two encounters is “Faith”. And the reason we should care, is also “Faith”.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

It never dawned on me, until very recently, that Zacharias… even faced as he was with the terrifying countenance of an Angel of God Almighty… doubted the truth of his words. Even INSIDE the Temple, standing next to the Altar of Incense as he offered up incense to God!

Seriously?

All of Gabriel’s words spoke to FUTURE events, not present events. Zacharias was going to have to go from that place, be with his wife in the proper time, conceive John, and watch nature take its course for the next nine months.

But that wasn’t good enough for Zacharias.  He says, “how will I know this for certain?” (We know italicized words are inserted by editors.) So he wants to know, right here, right now, why he should believe Gabriel. Waiting apparently isn’t good enough. (We know for certain that the issue is doubt, because Gabriel tells us that.) Zacharias is rendered mute until all was fulfilled “because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time.” [v. 20]

Zacharias needed to know these things were true before he was willing to do his part. Clearly, his part in this miracle would be of crucial importance. It was he and Elizabeth who needed to conceive this child. But before he would go to that trouble, before he would dare go communicate this to Elizabeth, before he would risk Elizabeth’s heartbreak, disappointment, or disgrace… he had to have a sign. He had to KNOW this was true, before he could obey.

Gabriel gives him an unmistakable sign of his authority and power, using his words alone to stop all words for Zacharias until the truth was borne out.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

So what is different about Mary? She, too, asks a “how” question.

The difference is that her question is one of “means”, not “verification”. She was perplexed at the appearance of Gabriel, not terrified. Gabriel declares the upcoming conception, birth, and kingship of Jesus, and Mary does not express doubt at the announcement. Rather, she asks how this is to come about, what is she to do? She knows she is virgin. Is that to change for this miracle? How should she obey the will of God?

Gabriel responds to the “how” of the question… that “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.” [v. 34-35] (By the way, that word “overshadow” only appears 5 times in the New Testament. Once here; then three times referring to the Cloud around Jesus, Moses, and Elijah in the time of the Transfiguration that came upon (and terrified) Peter, James and John, from which came the Voice saying “This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!”[Luke 9:34-35]; and third when Peter’s shadow heals the sick [Acts 5:15].)

Unsolicited, Gabriel offers Mary the sign of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Mary yields unconditionally to God’s will and embraces Gabriel’s words, the hurries off to aid Elizabeth in her first pregnancy. Isn’t it interesting that Elizabeth had only “come out”, publicly acknowledging her pregnancy in the month before Mary’s arrival? No way was Elizabeth going to endure the risk of disappointment had she miscarried, or been merely deluded into thinking she was pregnant. She would not face either the jibes or the condescending looks of other village women as her face began to round and her figure became more full. She was an elder of her town, disgraced by the curse of barrenness perhaps, but nonetheless righteous and dignified of demeanor. She would not be mocked.

But by the time Mary arrives, Elizabeth KNOWS. She knows for sure that she carries life within her. The baby has quickened, and for the first time she has the glorious sensation of life moving inside her as he responds to her motions or sounds around them. No words describe the joy of hugging new life with your very self, as a woman can in this time.

Mary comes, calls out in greeting, and the Holy Spirit already filling John [v. 15] now fills Elizabeth as well, and her joyful encounter with Mary as they attend to one another’s needs for the next three months (Elizabeth’s third trimester, Mary’s first), offers blessing to them both. Even as I type those words, I can only pause and wonder in awe at what those months must have been like. What would evenings have been like in such a home? Zacharias silent (no choice there), Elizabeth growing ever more excited even as getting around gets more difficult and stilted, and Mary finding her appetite less predictable, perhaps napping now and again, and sensing the changes in her body as the Christ waxes in form…

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

What does all this mean to us, Gentle Reader?

Well, God does the impossible all the time. For those who are ready and seek Him, miracles are all around.

When they come, sometimes they are hard to believe in. That’s just the truth. But! When one is willing to yield to them, God grants. When one is willing if and only if there is a sign attesting to the truth… well, God accommodates and a sign will be given. We see this over and over again throughout the Scriptures (Gideon, etc.) However, as we see from this text, while faith that may be, it is a flawed sort of faith. (I, for one, have engaged in such flawed faith countless times, so no judgment here!)

But there’s another kind of faith. There’s a faith that takes a truth on the authority of the speaker, and simply says “Yes!” before it asks “How?”

There, I think is both the difference between the two Gabriel missions, and the significance to us today.

Zacharias wanted proof before he would act. Mary was willing to act before any proof was offered.

Both were engaged in astonishing blessing and miracle. Zacharias just had to go about it with a bit more inconvenience. That and, frankly, their lingering doubts certainly would have robbed him and Elizabeth of months of joy and consolation.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The Holy Spirit, the overshadowing Power of the Lord Most High, certainly wins out in every miracle. Let us simply say “Yes!” first, ask “How?” afterwards, and watch events unfold!

Grace to you, Gentle Reader!

3 x S = 42

Have you ever wanted “The Answer”?Cosmic Twist

“What answer?” you reply.

THE Answer. You know… THE ANSWER. Like the Answer to The Question. The Great Question. The Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything!

For those of us who are Douglas Adams fans, we know how he dealt with the Question and the Answer… thus:

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Well, this has never entirely satisfied me, though I applaud Adams’ willingness to take on the subject. Libraries for centuries untold have been filled with the efforts of sages to solve the Mystery of Life. And, while my conclusions may well differ from Sage Adams here, I must say that a lot of my cogitation shares some strong commonalities.

So, here and now, I’d like to submit my own, subjective, non-scientific, anecdotal, take-it-or-leave-it-as-you-please, contribution to…

The Answer… to Life, the Universe, and Everything…

It is… 3 x S (Read as: “Three times S”)

[Consistent with the style of Adams, we will first describe the Answer, and then consider… What is the Question?]

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

S1 = “Superabundance”

The First “S” is “superabundance”, the provision for needs vastly beyond the degree of need. Quantity, quality, diversity… so overwhelming that the result is not merely satiation and satisfaction, but actual delight. Take the Garden of Eden, for example… all the foods available there, all the grains, grasses, fruits, vegetables. The delight and companionship of animals of every description. The mist of the morning, the clarity of the stars, the cool of the evening, the wonder of the sun and moon. Or Psalm 23, being led beside the still waters, sitting at a prepared table, being comforted.

This is to be free of need, and free of greed.

Could it be that the very first requirement of true “Happiness”… of “Wholeness”… is to be free of need?

S2 = “Safety”

The Second “S” is “safety”, the protection from or absence of anything that could threaten or cause harm. Was there anything unknown in Eden to be afraid of at the start? It has never ceased to amaze me that God set man to nurture and tend the Garden (often super-interpreted to mean “God sent man off to WORK, first of all!”… but… what was the “work”? He was assigned to do two things… tend/serve/nurture… and protect/hedge about. But, what did Adam need to DO? Mist rose in the morning to water all, the soil was rich with the vibrancy of pure primal life, there were as yet no “weeds” or “bad plants”, nor any pests or predator bugs or animals. A Garden initially arranged and landscaped by God wouldn’t require a lot of transplanting and corrective design. All that “sweat of brow” and “thorns and thistles” thing came AFTER the fall.

This is to be free of threat, and free of fear.

Could it be that the second requirement of true “Happiness”… of “Wholeness”… is to be utterly safe and free of fear?

S3 = “Significance”

The third “S” is “significance”, the sense that one is meaningful, important, and treasured to at least one other person. In the Garden, there was first… Adam. Adam and God, there they were. Made in God’s image, male and female, Adam and Eve created in God’s own image. Given free reign of the Garden. Able to eat of all but one tree. Naming each animal as presented by God. Called forth to walk with Him in the cool of the evening. Important to God, you think? Significant? Treasured? Or as in Psalm 23, sitting down at a table prepared for man by the Lord in the presence of enemies? Head anointed with oil? Cup running over? To dwell in God’s house forever?

This is to be acknowledged, important, treasured. This is to be free of the all too common fear that we and our lives are meaningless, that we are but cattle in a herd, a nameless cipher among a crowd of equally insignificant parts.

Could it be that the third requirement of true “Happiness”… of “Wholeness”… is to be utterly significant and treasured?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

As I pondered these potential “Answers”, and began to focus on the “Question”, I realized that this is a bigger answer than I can even define. This seems to hold true on every scale, in every application. Countries, races, kingdoms, empires go to war over a lack in one or another of these. Wars and genocides happen when a people gathers strength in order to meet what they consider a “need”, or a “threat”, or the hunger for “prestige”. States go to civil war for what seem to be the same reasons. Families feud, political parties wrangle, and individuals fight, maneuver, argue over these same perceived places of emptiness.

What to do? How do we promote joy, happiness, peace… “Wholeness” and Love?

Each of us have our own piece of Kingdom, our own relationships, our own sphere of influence. Whether this is community, home, workplace, church, or even one relationship at a time…

We know we are to “Love”, but that often breaks down at the “How do we do that?”

What if we try these three…

That every encounter be nurturing, meeting what need stands before us in the moment? Often the need is just some time and attention. Perhaps it is a meal, or a cool drink of water, or a gentle touch, or hug. (Obvious professional cautions apply, depending on the nature of the relationship.) Sometimes, the need is just silent presence.

That every encounter be safe, free of fear? Not just fear of physical harm or danger, but fear of being made to feel bad. Fear of being judged. Fear of being shamed or made to feel small or wrong. What if in each moment, someone felt their burdens lightened in your presence, rather than made heavier?

That every encounter be important and significant? That in the moments of interaction, the other person, group, party, were treasured as relationship to you? As if they were treasured by God Almighty? What if no one were an “interruption” or an “annoyance” or a “burden”, but rather they were a blessing to you as you are meant to be to them?

What’s the question, then?

What if the question is, “How has God always intended us to relate to one another?” What does it take to live a blessed joyful life? The Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything…

And, how do we bring this about in our homes, our days, and our churches?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

3 x S = 42?

Maybe so. I just ponder these things now and again…

Grace to you, Gentle Reader! Bless! — The Little Monk

What is Sin… Really?

accountability pageYou see this article on “Accountability”, and read this Inventory List for Conscience. It helps you know how and when you’ve “sinned” so you can get forgiveness for it. And your heart responds that there’s value to this, it isn’t “bad”… but somehow you feel it hasn’t quite hit the mark.

USCCB You do more research, you find a Catholic treatment for the Examination of Conscience, and you look it over. Again, not that it’s “bad”, but it just doesn’t seem to scratch the itch in your spirit as you ponder the questions of living in righteousness, versus committing sin. Somehow, virtue and sin don’t seem so cumbersome, so convoluted.

You decide to teach on this topic, and so you begin…

Sin… righteousness… love… peace… one day you are sitting and pondering, studying, working on a lesson or a sermon, and you find yourself grieving, praying, seeking how effectively to communicate something you see in your heart as so simple… You lean back, your brow furrows, your eyes close for a moment…

And suddenly, you no longer seem to be at your desk… You realize that God has heard your heart and your prayers, and He is going to teach you something, show you something, to help you understand and teach…

You find yourself standing out in a large empty space, dim but not utterly dark, neutral neither warm nor cold, with just a sense of vastness, not fearful or threatening. There in the distance you see light on the horizon and you choose to walk towards it. Startled with surprise, you find that each step moves you very far, as if your will moves you forward by thought, not physics.

As you approach closer to the light that a moment before was on the horizon, you realize that you are about to look upon the Father… God… the Almighty over All. Somehow, you know you are at the very Beginning, the Before the Beginning. This, is the Void, the Formless Void, and God (in whatever form and manner you perceive Him/Her) is smiling in welcome at your arrival. Amazingly, when He smiles, He smiles all over… His eyes, His hands, His heart… all welcomes you, and you stand just steps away from Him, unsure of whether to look up or down, to bow or to stand.

He takes your hand, raises your chin, smiles, and simply says, “Behold…”

He turns towards the Void around Him, extends His arms, and the radiance from His heart moves outwards reaching to touch all around Him. You realize, you are watching Creation. As you stand there, awestruck, you know that matter and energy have come into Being.

With another sweeping gesture, His arms raise again, and with a pulsing motion forms take shape all around you, near and far. You see planets, stars, sand, rocks, the forms of grass, trees, even animals. But all seems still.

“Now watch…” He says with a smile, as He turns to you, then back to His work.

You see a richer glow begin at His heart, as it flows upwards and outwards through His arms and fingers. You know, without knowing how you know, that He has just brought forth Life… and you see all these living things now begin to move.

Then, in a way you cannot describe, you see Him touching all of this… Everything… all at the same moment, and you realize that He is loving, He is feeding, He is upholding… All that is. All that He has created. That all of this is from Him, part of Him, has come from Him and is yet Him and His.

He turns to you again, and says… “Here is the best part…”

Again He faces His creation and the glow from His heart moves out through both His hands and His lips as He sings forth music unspeakable. Now there appear… “children”… is the word that goes through your mind. You hear Him sing, “My Children”. And you see that He is singing forth everyone, everywhere, everywhen. The beauty of it all leaves you breathless.

He turns to you again, reaches forth, and puts His hand on your chest.

You are filled with warmth, as a glow lights you up and flows outwards from your heart through every part of your being. You can feel and see that this warmth, this glow, are extending themselves from your heart outwards to your hands, and upwards to your tongue and lips.

You feel moved, without knowing why, and you embrace Him… God… the Father… the Lord of All. Fear doesn’t even enter your mind, though you’d never have imagined doing such a thing before. And He returns the embrace, kisses you on the top of the head, and you are filled with a fullness of love, safety, and nurturance such as you have never known before. You realize, for the first time all the way through you, that He is truly, utterly, and only Good… and you never need doubt, never need ever but to trust Him completely forevermore.

He directs your gaze to the world we know. And He bids you observe His children, their hearts, hands, and lips.

As you look at the world, you see people. Myriads of people… good, bad, young… old… confident, frightened, hurting, healing… You see all kinds of people, doing all the kinds of things people do.

You see some people with dim hearts, laying hands on other people who glow a bit, and where they touch their hands glow as the object of their touch grows dimmer. The heart of the takers has a reddish dim glow, while children start with brilliant white and gold.

Here and there you see clusters of brilliance, often among whom are hearts that reach out with pulsing connection with this heart of God alongside you. You see that God continues to touch, to nurture, to maintain all His children, all these people. But there are vast differences among individuals how they respond to His touch.

Some people welcome, embrace, and reach towards it. Others simply receive it without response or seeming to notice Him. While still others, those with the dimmest glow, seek to avoid His touch and His love and life (for you realize these all are one in Him).

But as you watch longer, you see that everyone, even the most golden or brilliant, have moments when their hearts flash red, and they touch others with a dimming effect. And much touching seems not to have impact. And some touching, brings light to others and eases their way.

“What am I seeing, Father? (or Lord?)” you ask.

“You are seeing the answer to your questions, My child. Righteousness, sin, virtue, love, life… all of it. It is as simple as ‘relationship’… with Me, with others, with yourself. I, and Only I, give life through love. That is all I do, always. And life only comes through love. But children of free will as you are, you may choose at any given moment to GIVE life through loving another and giving from Me through your heart, your hands, your words… to love another and so give them life. Or, you may choose to TAKE life from another, deprive, neglect, injure, or wound another… diminishing their life, feeding upon them, to love yourself.

“It is quite simple, but very difficult to put in words. Nothing living stands still. Life requires consumption. I Alone am the source of life. I alone can feed you with love, life, and being. When you feed from Me, (I once expressed this as ‘eat My body’), I can fill you utterly and beyond. Water that you never thirst again, bread that you never die. To let Me fill you, and then to pass along such love, such life, such abundance to those around you through your heart… this is love, this is righteousness, this is virtue.

“But to choose instead to feed on others, to love the self at the expense of others, is to deprive them of life. This is to consume others for the sake of the self. Whether materially, or emotionally… to feed the ego by belittling others and making them smaller, is no less a taking of their life as to wound them physically. This is predation. This is vampirism. This… is sin.

“Not only is it wrong, for it takes life from another. It is also ineffective. You cannot truly live on ‘second hand life’. Only I Alone can give full life through love. To steal the life of another will never fill or sustain a person. It can barely maintain them. Eventually, such predation leaves only the empty shell of a life.

“Sin leaves you empty and hungry, no matter how much you grasp or take. Like ’empty calories’, there is no real life to it. The hunger gnaws, and will continue to do so until real life, real love, real Light is found.

“So there you are, Blessed child. To give life to others through love of them and Me, is righteousness. To take life from others for love of yourself, without Me, is sin. Any questions?”

You shake your head, a bit bewildered. This really is quite simple. He hugs you again, kisses you atop the head, and your eyes open…

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

You are again seated at your desk wondering how in the world you can ever find the words to explain this.

Then you remember, Jesus said,Do you not understand that everything that goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and is eliminated? But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders. These are the things which defile the man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man.” [Matthew 15:17-20]

And you get it… everything is sacred. It is ALL held together in His hands, His heart, His love. To treat anything, especially ANYONE… as less than sacred… to fail to love anything or anyone that He died to redeem in the greatness of His love… Yeah, that’s just not OK. You get it now. Righteousness is treating sacred things that He loves as precious. Not to do so… well, yeah, that’s sin. And we do it, because sometimes we choose to… but still He breathes us, He touches us, He loves us… and thus, He lives us.

“Ain’t that somethin’?”  you ponder, silently…

Tearing his costume off!

costumeIt’s that time of year again… Halloween… with all the “Harvest Festivals” and “Trunk or Treat” alternatives.

But as Christians we have such a diversity of “views” regarding Satan, the Adversary, the Devil.

For some, there’s a casual nonchalance… like, “well, you know, life goes on and I don’t know how any of this religious stuff works so… whatever.” For others there’s a nearly unhealthy terror and fascination about darkness stuff, almost like the constant making of gestures to ward off the “evil eye” of the Enemy, lurking in every dark corner.

This Halloween, I just want to put something out there with which you are welcome to agree or disagree, embrace or cast away as you feel led…

If we accept that the scriptures of the Holy Bible are true, then we accept that “intelligent others” exist… including both angels and demons. We are told that Lucifer exists. We understand that creatures of darkness, demons, roam the world and seek our harm. All right then. That is a simple statement of fact, one fact of life, not to be focused upon to the exclusion of all else. In fact, a great deal of the impact of the Incarnation and coming of Jesus’ Kingdom has to do with His having freed us from that dominion and domination.

Nonetheless, we “deal with the devil” every day in some form or another. He seeks to rob us of our joy, our peace, our focus on love, light, and truth. THAT is his primary purpose. Not simply to “get us to do bad stuff of darkness”, but rather to “stop us from focus on light and good”.

I once had a pastor phone me and ask, “Is it necessary to name a demon in order to cast it out? Do you have to know its name?”

My immediate answer, thinking he was involved in some ministry of major occult deliverance, was, “Um, no. In fact, you seldom know the name, unless they reveal it. In general, we know the names of very few demons, and the studies needed to acquire that knowledge are not ones I recommend to anyone unless called to that type of ministry very specifically. Why do you ask? What is the need?”

And he went on, clarifying… He did not mean specific entity name, he meant things like,  lust, or greed, or covetousness, and so on.

Ah, I got it. Well, the answer, in my experience, was pretty much the same. When temptation is consistent and methodical, and a spirit is oppressing one’s soul, the real “power and authority” for its dismissal is that of Christ, of love, of light, and the power of the Cross. One releases one’s hold on the temptation, rebukes the darkness itself, and grasps Jesus instead. Often, one may not even recognize what the darkness was, until it is gone and light fills that part of the heart. There may simply be the sense of something being “off”… or the recognition that one’s heart and attitude is far from that of Christ within. Then, back away from that shadow, release it, rebuke it, and intentionally turn towards light, love, and Christ. When one is under the influence of the shadow itself, the discernment can be fuddled, and recognition impossible.

We deal with such mundane interactions with shadow all the time. We take them in stride.

But we seldom recognize them as “suits” or “costumes” worn by the Enemy, Satan, the Adversary, the Devil.

If we did, at least many of us, would run off screaming in terror. (Please note: the enemy certainly DOES do some more “dramatic manifestations”, especially when doors are opened through occult or arcane practices. Recommendation? Don’t do those things.)

But this Halloween I just wanted to take a moment and recognize that the pitchfork, horns, and pointy tail costume of the “scary Devil” is far less common than his ordinary business suit, flowered frock, or jeans and T-Shirt. We’re perfectly willing to recognize the Enemy in the dramatic, but far less likely to grant him the credit he deserves in the mundane. Even though it’s still well and truly him and his who are at work.

Here’s the Apostle Paul with some timely teaching to the Galatians…

For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us not become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another. [Galatians 5:13-26]

That’s not a bad list of “Devil Suits”. And we see them all the time, don’t we? In our homes, our communities, even our churches? Paul gives the antidote, even before naming the toxins…

Love your neighbor as yourself, and SERVE one another in that love. (Bear in mind, the Lord’s clarification of “who is my neighbor”.) Don’t freak out. Don’t get focused and fascinated. Just love, serve, and trust Jesus in both His authority and His love.

Let’s defrock the devil, and send him home!

Grace to you, Gentle Readers!

 

Getting it “Right”

Back in the day, at the beginnings of my ministry life, but far enough along where I’d begun to question my own “omniscience”, I was privileged to intern under a very gifted teacher. I was quite driven, quite passionate, to “get it all right”. I wanted to be perfect, to make no mistakes, to minister the “right” way, with the touch, finesse, and wisdom I saw among so many of my elders.

(Been there? Remember those days?)

From time to time, more frequently than I care to remember, I fell short of this self-imposed standard. I came away from an encounter realizing that while it was “mostly right”, it “could have been better”. One or another place there had been a lack of grace, an injection of ego, or impatience, or my own content and wisdom rather than inspiration. These places would highlight in aftermoments, like “worn spots” or “scuffs” on the surface of an otherwise acceptable textile or leatherwork.

Time and time again, I would take such encounters in review to my mentor, with the question, “How would YOU have handled this? How could this have been better?”

He’d listen, carefully and prayerfully, without interruption… never a grimace of disapproval or disappointment crossing his features. Then he’d usually reach for his Bible and find a passage, and set it aside for the moment. He’d then speak, reviewing my narrative, agreeing and affirming what went “well”, and then highlighting and restating the “scuff mark” I was asking about. He always wanted to be sure that he’d rightly “heard” what someone thought they’d “said”. (These do not always match, I’ve since then learned.)

Then, he would teach two lessons. One was a lesson of “content“. He would, before we finished, address the specific question or issue I had come with. This lesson I had no trouble identifying, understanding, and implementing. But the other lesson… the other was a lesson of “context“. He would point out a fallacy in the way I framed the question and teaching paradigm. THIS lesson, this message, I consistently failed to identify, understand, or implement. Not until years later, when “all these words came back to me” and suddenly, it all made sense.

Amazing, isn’t it? Someone can repeat the same words to us, time and time again, but if we aren’t yet “ready to hear” them, they just don’t seem to impress themselves on the brain or in the memory? Such were these words, oft repeated to me…

“You ask how this could be done better, how you could minister more perfectly. That’s a great question, and we’ll address that. But, you ask ‘how would *I* have done this?’ Thank you for that, but that shouldn’t be your first or primary question. There is only One Perfect Minister, and He is within you and you have access to Him. The first question is, ‘how was He doing this…’ for the parts that you sense as ‘right’… and ‘how would He have done this’ for the other parts. A second approach, if we don’t know that answer, is to go to scripture and see how DID Jesus handle parallel situations, as shown through the gospels? I’ve never yet found a situation here, that He did not face there in some form or another. Once we look at THAT, have that exemplar of the Perfect Minister in mind, THEN, if it is helpful we can look at how I, or anyone else you learn from, might apply that lesson.

“Don’t look first at what *I* would do. For I, too, am frail and limited in my understanding. First look at how Jesus handles such things, and then… if application and example from my walk are helpful to illustrate, we can discuss that, too. But I am not the exemplar of Perfect Ministry, He is. I am just another learner a bit further along the road.”

And we’d then begin to look at the specifics, look at the text of a parallel situation Jesus faced, and… often… he would share an illustration from his experience in applying the principle involved.

I always “got” the “content lessons”. I tended to make mistakes but once.

(My brother used to say, “The only person who makes no mistakes is a dead man. The trick is always to improve the quality of your mistakes.”)

But it took years before I actually caught on to the “context lesson”. The Holy Spirit who resides within us is the fullness of the Presence of Christ. He is not deaf/mute. He is not passive. He is not uni-directional, aiming and firing His divine nature towards the Father alone. He is Love, He is radiant (like radioactive), and He engages us in every way we are open to.

The more we can relax and flow with the love, care, and nurturance that are innate within the heart of God, the more clearly He can express Himself through us.

“Nothing missing, nothing broken. Graduated, complete and mature.” The meaning of “perfect” as in “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” So to be Christlike, to be Christ-ian, we seek to let Jesus be Jesus in and through us. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing “proud” or “arrogant” about that. We are not claiming that by dint of our efforts, intelligence, will, or righteousness, we can equal Jesus. Quite the opposite. We’re saying that by embracing our own weakness and “letting go” our own life, He can fill us with His.

So dare to reach towards “perfect ministry”. Don’t let false humility foreclose us at the starting gate. Just let us embrace the template and realization that it will be in the same model as Jesus did, and does. And that is thrilling to explore.

Question: For those who preach, teach, and guide… What would Jesus talk about in your pulpit, your podium, your classroom, or your study… this Sunday. (or this week?).

Open Mike Time………….

What’s Your Name?

See what ye think.

The Postmodern Mystic

How often do we pray… “Dear Lord… thank You for [fill in blessing]… and please [intention, intention, intention]. We ask this in the name of Jesus… Amen.”

We say or hear this as often as Christians gather, do we not? Nothing wrong with this at all.

But lately, over the past couple years, my “prayer circuit” has been modifying somewhat. I sense far less call to “direct God and His grace” through the micro-management of my prayer, and far greater call to “ride the wave” of His love and care from the voice of the Spirit within my heart, as He expresses Himself back to the Father. I guess you could say I “amen” Him, far more than generating my own words.

I have become vastly less concerned with “persuading God” to move in blessing with power and grace, and far more concerned with simply “loving” the object of my…

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Soup Kitchen Ministry

SoupKitchen If I were a betting monk, I’d bet you think you know what kind of ministry we’re about to discuss. Well, you may be surprised.

Consistent with my own upbringing and training, I don’t administer from the viewpoint that “God ordains/raises/calls forth minist-RIES”, but that He calls minist-ERS with a peculiar burden and calling to meet particular needs of people.

Jesus was going through all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness. Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd. Then He *said to His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.” [Matthew 9:35-38]

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Consider:

An ordained minister who joins the Marine Corps, serves for five years with distinction, does two tours of deployment in the Middle East, and returns safely to demobilize. Upon returning home, rejoining family, and attending his old home church, he finds he can no longer connect. In fact, he comes to the conclusion that he has utterly lost his faith, no longer even certain that God exists.

Or

A dedicated Christian who has served as youth minister and now is early in career as an EMT providing ambulance service with a fire department. Seeks supportive prayer after completing a call to a child injured by abuse who suffered for hours, and may not survive her hospital stay.

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EMT’s, Firefighters, Police, Medical Personnel, Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Veterans… all are people who are (or who may be) exposed at any time to sights, sounds, smells, and situations that none of us need or want to see. When we, as human beings, spend considerable time in horrific situations, we make adjustments… mental, emotional, even spiritual adjustments to maintain our balance and sense of self control. The fancy word for this is often “dissociate”. We “distance ourselves” from empathy, sympathy, and the personal experience of suffering, pain, or trauma.

Such traumatic environments are sometimes called “soup”… and the sojourner new to such traumatic environments will be told, “You’re in the ‘Soup’ now, bud.” (Of course, if not in mixed or polite company, the word “soup” may be replaced with another, more descriptive, term.) Such sojourners may find the raw reality with which they’ve dealt, difficult to reconcile with the “Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild”, or the community church’s domesticated God. They often find it equally difficult to relate to the general community of relationships, or even their own families or spouse.

There is “texture” to a “community”. A shared background of outlook and experiences. When individuals enter into an “alien” or “unpredictable” community they adjust, sometimes creating permanent change. Many of our neighbors, even (probably) a fair number of our congregants or their family members, may have made such adjustments and changes. Perhaps they have “fallen away” from church attendance.

This isn’t a post about “getting more people into the church pews”. Heaven forbid!

This is a post about making Christ, His living Presence accessible to those who may feel disconnected or numb in their spiritual senses. This isn’t a “How To DIY” program outline. I cannot tell you how to engage those who have “lost their first love” relationship with Jesus, and nurture its transformation into a broader, deeper, richer, more mature relationship. But I CAN share a few ideas, principles, seeds… that you and your brethren may care to consider.

(1) Healing comes through trusting relationship, and those relationships are most easily formed with another, or others, who have been there themselves. If you are a veteran, an emergency services worker, or have been a chaplain, then you may be well suited to this personal ministry. If not, do you have one in your congregation? Or do you know one?

(2) Healing comes through grace touching heart to heart, not professional intervention. There is a right place and time for professional services. When everyday living or commonplace relationships are challenged by emotional dysfunction, expert systems are appropriate. But a supportive, encouraging, accepting environment that welcomes people at large, and peers who’ve “been there, done that” in tough situations, is a terrific medium for nurturing healthy relationships.

(3) Healing comes through context more than content. I’m not proposing an “agenda”, a “program”, or a “treatment protocol” by any means. I pose the possibility that making some form of informal fellowship available for interaction among “Been-There-Done-That” folks. Bowling? Cards? Disaster Relief? BBQ Competition Team? Chili Cook-Off Team? Fishing Group? Who knows? Possibilities limited only by imagination.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

So, am I saying “you need” (or “your church needs”) “to go pursue this ministry”? No, no I’m not.

I am asking if this is a need where you are. If it is, I suggest you and others pray and discuss the possibilities, and let the Lord lead and do, as He ever leads and does. You may want to create this unique form of “Soup Kitchen Ministry”, not to provide soup for those who hunger, but to help wash the feet of those who have been mired “in the soup” itself.

Please share any ideas or comments you may have. Particularly if this is something you’ve taken part in addressing, have any suggestions, and are willing to share.

Grace to you, Gentle Reader!