Young Jesus at the Temple

We briefly meditated on some of the events of Jesus’ birth. Now, I want to take us on a brief side trip to the Temple at Jerusalem when Jesus was a young boy. This meditation is based on text from the Gospel according to Luke.

I am following the actual text with a brief explanation of why I think that these types of meditations can have real meaning. Later this week, I’ll share the meditation from this text.

Luke 2:41-52 (NASB)

41) Now His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the
Passover.

42) And when He became twelve, they went up there according to the custom of the Feast;
43) and as they were returning, after spending the full number of days, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. But His parents were unaware of it,
44) but supposed Him to be in the caravan, and went a day’s journey; and they began looking for Him among their relatives and acquaintances.
45) When they did not find Him, they returned to Jerusalem looking for Him.
46) Then, after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions.
47) And all who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers.
48) When they saw Him, they were astonished; and His mother said to Him, “Son, why have You treated us this way? Behold, Your father and I have been anxiously looking for You.
49) And He said to them, “Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?”
50) But they did not understand the statement which He had made to them.
51) And He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and He continued them; and His mother treasured all these things in her heart.
52) And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.


It’s important to remember that the purpose of these exercises is to learn to know Jesus better in order to love him more. That’s a difficult endeavor. After all, Jesus died 2,000 years ago. I’m sure that many of you have heard the statement, “dead men tell no tales.” But, the New Testament does tell a tale. It is the story of a young man who lived and loved passionately. He had a special place in his life for those who dwelt on the margins of society. The sick and infirm; the hungry and poor; the oppressed and rejected. These were the people he was drawn to…and, who were drawn to him.

At the end, the tale seems to grow taller. This young man was cruelly put to death by the Roman occupiers of his homeland. He was buried in a tomb. Three days later, so the story goes, he came back from the dead. He was seen by many others who later attested to this miraculous event. Then, he was gone. There are many people who try to say where it is that he went. The consensus opinion is that he went to a heavenly paradise where he lives to this day.

If there is any veracity to this tale, then perhaps it is possible for us, today, to get to know him. Of course, it’s easier to get to know folks on Facebook. At least there we can see text and images that real flesh and blood people share. We can’t know Jesus that way. We can only know him through something that the ancients called ‘faith.’ That’s a really hard word to get a handle on. So, let’s change it a bit. The New Testament was written in a form of Greek. The word that was used to express ‘faith’ is the same word that was often used to denote ‘trust.’ So, let’s say that we can know the person, Jesus bar Joseph, if we trust him. If we trust that when we use our minds to enter the stories as participants or observers, Jesus actually guides us. How does that work? Well, what do you get when you cross an elephant with a rhino? But, I trust. I truly think that as I insinuate myself into the stories, Jesus somehow shares a bit of himself with me. He allows me to know him a little better. And, the more I get to know him, the more likely I am to follow him.

Yeah, it’s a convoluted process. It depends on thinking somewhere outside the box. But, for me, it’s reality.

And, I’m sharing a bit of my reality with you. A part of me hopes that I can introduce the human Jesus to you. Not that theological, otherworldly myth created by the church. You know, the one where Jesus stands with his finger on the ‘Smite’ button. Ready to squash any so-called sinner or heathen for the slightest misstep. But, the Jesus who touched and healed a blind beggar. The man who released people from the bondage of disease and death. The person who loved his friends and literally gave his life so that they could live.

I want to introduce you to Jesus, my friend.

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From Nazareth to Bethlemhem

This is part two of the Nativity meditations. This one is about the journey that Joseph and Mary took from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea for a census that Rome had decreed. Part one is here.

It was early spring in Galilee. The early rains had been good and the crops were beginning to break through the surface of the rich earth.

Joseph made arrangements for he and Mary to travel to Bethlehem in Judea. Judea! All that way just to make Rome happy.  What a pain! It was one of the busiest times of the year for the young carpenter. Plows and tools needed to be fixed. There were carts and wagons to prepare. And, there was talk of rebuilding the town of Sepphoris about 4 miles north. But, is any time really a good time for Rome’s nonsense?

Mary wasn’t looking forward to the trip, either. She was nearly to term with her firstborn. Childbirth was hard and dangerous for any woman. It was especially so for a girl barely beyond childhood herself. She would be leavingf her family and the other women who had supported her throughout the pregnancy.

“Take plenty of towels and clothes.”
“More blankets would be better.”
“Don’t let those ‘men’ tell you how you feel or what you need to do!”

Mary would miss them hovering over her.
So much to remember! So much to do!

Joseph put Mary into the cart he had arranged. She could not walk that great distance. And, riding a donkey? Not hardly in her condition! The pack animal was laden with the food, water, and other essentials they would need. Joseph said goodbye to his friends and led the animals down the road.

At the edge of town the young couple met the person who had helped make the arrangements. He was a short man with a gray-flecked beard and a quick smile. He looked like the typical person who didn’t do ‘real’ work for a living. But, he had a gift for bargaining and had an eye for details.

“Hello, my friends!” he called to them. “The soldiers are here and the others from Capernaum will be along shortly.”

The soldiers were from a local Roman garrison. Several of them were going to new assignments in Judea. The man had talked with a Centurion and arranged this trip so that his group could have the added protection. Although the trip would not take too long, the road was fraught with danger. There were bands of thieves and Zealots who had no problem robbing and killing unwary travelers.

Joseph and Mary had traveled South many times for the festival at Jerusalem. They joined with family and friends to sing and dance.  The events of that night so many long years ago were remembered. No, more like reenacted.  Their ancestors had sacrificed lambs and sprinkled some of the blood on the door posts and lintels of their homes in Egypt.The angel of death then ‘passed over’ those houses. It was a time to celebrate and remember that God had chosen them for God’s own people! And, for the children? The trip was a great adventure!

This time was different. There was no celebration to look forward to. Joseph was now a responsible adult. He was about to become a father!

The afternoon Galilean sun was brutal. So, they traveled during the cool mornings and evenings. Progress was slow. Mary had to stop often to ‘relieve’ herself. Pregnancy was not all fun and games! The soldiers mocked that Jewish woman with the weak bladder.

“C’mon woman! We don’t have all day!”
“Carry a bucket!”

As these men laughed and mocked, Joseph and the others did their best to hide their hatred for these invaders. Yes, they brought a kind of peace to Palestine. But, at what cost? Their freedom?

The caravan followed a road that went through Samaria. They could follow the main trade route and pick up the road from Caesarea Maritima. That would take them to Jerusalem. From there it was only a few miles further on to Bethlehem.

At night they would stop and make camp. Several small fires sprang up. Clay pots clanked as they were brought out for the evening meal.  The women began to prepare the meal while the men tended to the animals and made up the camp.

The soldiers moved off by themselves. Joseph could hear their coarse joking and laughter.

After they ate and cleaned up, someone lead them in saying the Shema. Another began singing one of the Psalms of Ascent. Those sacred verses that had been sung by countless pilgrims on their way “up” to Jerusalem.

As they turned East on the road to Jerusalem, Mary started to worry. A few times along the way she had experienced pains and cramps that told her the child was becoming impatient. Some of the older women noticed and stayed close to her. This road was no place for a child to give birth to a child!

The caravan finally arrived at Jerusalem. There were people everywhere! Shops were open and the keepers stood outside calling to any who would listen.

“Come in! I have the best and purest oil for your lamps!”
“Chickens! I have chickens that are the tenderest and tastiest anywhere! Hey! You travelers! Come and buy! These will sustain you on your journey for many days!”

Some  said goodbye to the young couple. They had ancient roots here. The soldiers also went off to the garrison near the Temple mount. Joseph and Mary turned to the road that would lead them West out of Jerusalem then South to Bethlehem.

Soon they saw the town. Although it was small, Bethlehem boasted of being the burial place of their ancestor Rachel. She was the beloved wife of the Patriarch Jacob. It was also the hometown of the greatest King to ever sit on the throne of Israel: David! Oh, to have a King like him again! Not some lackey like Herod. That half-breed was nothing but a Roman puppet.

In their hearts, every person in Judea and Galilee hoped and prayed for the day when Adonai, the Lord, would raise up the promised Son of David. This Messiah King would return Israel to its former glory and strength.

“Hear, O Israel…”

Joseph took Mary and the cart to the center of town. He saw a well and a few shops. He inquired about the location of a certain family, relatives of his. Someone directed him to a small home near the edge of town. When they arrived, Joseph called out, “Shalom! I am Joseph bar Yakov! I have come with my wife for the census!”

A man came out looking rather put out at this interruption. His gray beard matched the scowl on his face.

“Joseph? Son of Jacob? I know a Jacob who had a son who was a little brat! Always chasing the animals and making a nuisance of himself. But, you! You are a grown man! How can this be?”

“Uncle!” cried Joseph.

A big smile broke out on the old man’s face and the two men embraced and kissed. It had been a long time, nearly a year since they had seen each other.

Joseph helped Mary climb out of the cart and presented her to his Uncle Elihud. Others flowed out of the house and a great welcome was made.

After many hugs, kisses and slaps on the back, the young parents-to-be were taken into the house and upstairs to the living quarters.

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Greetings, Mary!

This is the first meditation on the Nativity that I wrote about. It’s a story that I envisioned as I followed the prompts of Ignatius. This one focuses on what the Church has called The Annunciation, the calling of Mary to be the mother of Jesus.

I heard a loud call from above. Looking up, I saw a great eagle flying in large loops. Leisurely, he floated on the currents of air, rising and falling like the terrain before me. As I watched, it seemed as though my mind was floating, like the eagle. Higher and higher it rose until I was looking out at the world through the eyes of my friend far above.

“Wow! Look at this! I can see forever!” I thought.

We began to fly faster. In and out of clouds, the landscape far below became a blur. I saw rivers and lowlands slowly morph into the checkerboard of cultivated fields of wheat and maze. A sudden updraft carried us into a range of mountains. Alpine forests gave way to snow capped peaks. Dark slices of granite cut its way out of the white world where nothing grows.

Soon we dove nearly straight down toward a small town at the base of the mountains. There were people and animals going about their daily business. Sellers and buyers, traders and farmers. Simple folk. Living life as their forefathers had taught them.

Without warning we were suddenly flying over a large city. What a diversity of people! So many colors and smells. Merchants in their stalls calling out to anyone who would listen, “Come here! We have the most exotic cloth from the far reaches of the world! Come see! Come buy!”

Others were herding animals through narrow streets to sell to those who sold hides and meat. So many people! Laughing, crying, loving, and dying. Humanity.

I also saw many…too many…who were on the margins. Those destitute multitudes whose lives were truly without hope. Poverty and disease stalked them like wolves stalk sheep. They were helpless victims of systems that ostracized them because they were somehow “different.” They looked different and they sure smelled different! Not everything is rosy in this world.

Suddenly, I was standing in a large room with thousands of other beings. It was brightly lit and there was singing throughout. In the center of all of this there was a round table at which three beings sat. One clearly had the shape of a person. But, this person seemed to be the very source of light in the room. Next sat someone whom I can’t describe clearly. He or she did seem to have a feminine quality. But, beyond that I could not tell. The third was simply there. This one seemed to be “Being” itself. No gender, no age, no anything that I could tell for certain other than “Presence.”

I saw scenes like I had just experienced with the eagle. People. Everywhere. But, these people seemed to be walking aimlessly. They simply wandered around as if lost.

“It’s time,” I heard the Third Being say.

“Yes,” the others agreed.

I heard what sounded like a trumpet and suddenly there was another being standing next to the table.

“Gabriel,” the First One said. “It’s time for you to go and prepare for my departure. Hurry!”

This other simply nodded and was gone.

“It has begun.”

I blinked, and found myself on a hill outside of a small village. On my left I saw a young man walking toward the village. I knew that this was the person that I had just seen leaving on some sort of mission. I followed him into the village. The street was lined with buildings built of mud bricks and wood. We walked toward one at the far end of the street. It appeared to be a shop of some sort. Above the shop were living quarters. He walked up stairs on the side of the building to the roof where he found other steps leading down into the main part of the upper floor.

He walked confidently down a narrow hallway. Wool curtains covered the entryways to various rooms. Pulling back one of the curtains, he entered room. Inside was a young girl, maybe 14 years old, sitting on a bed.

“Greetings, Mary!” the young man said.

The young girl, Mary, jumped. She was terrified to suddenly find herself in the presence of a young man!

“Who are YOU?!” she cried. “How did you get in here? Where is my father?”

“Peace to you. You have found favor with God, the Ruler of the Universe!” he said. “God has chosen you to share in God’s own mission. From above, the Spirit of God will come to you and fill you with God’s presence. Soon, you will bear a son who will bring about the redemption of his people.”

Mary sat dumbstruck. Who was this person? How does he know me? Doesn’t he know that I’m not married yet? I can’t have a child! I will be taken out of the village and stoned as a whore!

These thoughts and many others raced through her young mind.

But then, she stopped. What if the things this person said are true?

“Let it be as you have said,” she replied at last.

With that, the visitor turned and walked out of the room. Mary quickly got up and looked out into the hallway. There was no one there.

——————————————————————————————————————

I want to share a couple thoughts about this story. This is drawn from my journal as I was meditating with Ignatius’ prompts. Although Ignatius wanted people to see the sin and depravity in the world by looking at all of the people and cultures, I couldn’t do that. He saw all of these people as destined for an eternity in hell. I saw them as simply lost, like “sheep without a shepherd.”

In Gabriel’s encounter with Mary, (in my imagination angels don’t have wings and wear diapers. In fact, in this case I could almost envision Gabe wearing a brown UPS uniform), there was a reciprocity that most people miss. I wrote in my journal, “Thus began the history of humanity cooperating together with God.” In every other interaction between humans and the Divine, the human is usually “acted upon.” Abraham was told to go to a land that God would show him. He was also told to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice. Moses was told to go to Egypt and free his people. He protested, but God basically told him to shut it and Go! Now, I know that there are hairs here that can be split. But, I see Mary as being the first person who really had a choice. She could have said, “Uh, no thanks. I think I’ll pass.” Considering the culture, that would have probably been the expedient thing to do. Like I heard her say in the story, she very likely could have been put to death for a pregnancy out of wedlock. Looking at it like this, Mary literally “gave her life” in order to agree with God.

How can I do any less?

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A Walk with St. Ignatius

I’m currently revisiting “The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius.”
I first went through these exercises a few year ago with my spiritual director.
Recently, in my morning quiet time I have felt a need to go back and take another look. Why? I don’t know. It’s just a feeling. I’ve found that feelings I get like this during contemplation should not be dismissed. They usually lead to something pretty cool.
For the exercises, Ignatius encouraged meditation that involved the use of “fantasy,” or, the imagination. This is a form of meditation is what the old timey theologians described as “kataphatic.” This type of meditation is usually defined “prayer [that] has content; it uses words, images, symbols, ideas.” It involves the conscious memory to place a person in a relationship with God. In the Exercises this involves imagining various situations, mainly from Gospel stories, where the person meditating “places” him/herself in the story as a participant or observer. One is encouraged to see the environment, taste the food, smell the animals, touch and feel things like the wind. The text becomes a tour guide while the imagination supplies the world being toured.
I realize that our own personalities, memories, and knowledge will color these meditations. That cannot, nor should it, be avoided. After all, the purpose of these exercises is to forge a deeper relationship with God for ourselves. So, we must bring our entire self to them.
Yet, God’s grace guides us. That’s where faith comes in. We can trust that we’re not going too far afield. Plus, these exercises are primarily designed to be used with a trusted Spiritual Director. Someone who will assist in discernment and help keep us on track.
With that in mind, some interesting interpretations and understanding can come out of the experiences. I want to share some of mine.

During what Ignatius called “the First Week,” there are a couple of meditations on the Incarnation of Jesus and His Nativity. Those are just a couple of high-sounding words that mean “when Jesus was born.” I am using the following text for the outline of the meditation. For those of you keeping score, this particular passage is taken from the New International Version, Biblica, Inc., 2011.

We’ll begin our journey with my next post.

Luke 1:26-38
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God went the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.
The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.
But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God.
You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.
Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month.
For no word from God will ever fail.”
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered.
“May your word to me be fulfilled.”
The the angel left her.

Luke 2:1-7
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.
While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

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On My First Official Preaching Gig

Today I had the pleasure of sharing a message with the folks at Nova United Methodist Church in Nova, OH. What a great group of people! Below is a transcript of that sermon. I didn’t present it verbatim. But, this is close enough.

Thank you all for allowing me to share this morning with you. It’s a great pleasure for my wife and me to join with you.

I also want to express a special thanks to Bro. Harry for inviting me. You have a real treasure in him. He is blessed and a blessing.

When Bro. Harry asked me to share, he suggested that it might be good to share a little of my experience with him. Especially, the time we have spent working through what are called the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. For those who are unfamiliar with that, I will explain a little more later. For now, though, I’ll just say that these Exercises were developed by Ignatius of Loyola in the late 16th century as a practical means of discerning, or determining God’s desire and will for a person. In a way, many of us are on that very journey of discovery. Ignatius simply wrote down his method for others to follow.

So, that being said, I would like to share with you a story. I like stories. I like to read them and I like to write them. Stories allow us to share our perception of the world. More importantly, they provide an avenue in which our stories intersect with the stories of others.

I began my story with Jesus about 43 years ago. I was in high school at a time when we in the West were in the throes of tectonic cultural upheaval. There was a war raging in Southeast Asia, morés and traditions were questioned, and many times abandoned. There was growing unrest among young people. And, there was an immense amount of mistrust. In the midst of this, God’s grace touched me. I was soon involved with various religious and church groups. I found stability and acceptance in that time of great change.

Soon, I began to have thoughts of pursuing a career in pastoral ministry. I knew that would involve earning an undergraduate degree followed by seminary. As the time for my departure to college neared, I found a job that paid real money! As an eighteen year old with a car and a few bucks in my pocket, I decided to enter the workplace and lay college aside.

Over the next 30 some odd years I became a father and a soccer coach. I was involved in a couple different music ministries that had the opportunities to play throughout the northern Ohio/Western Pennsylvania region. We also were able to team up with other organizations and play in Australia and Brazil. I worked as the music/worship leader of a small church in Elyria for over 15 years. During that time I realized that much of the music that was being sold as ‘Christian’ was very shallow and theologically questionable. That was the primary reason that I sought a seminary education. I needed to know what God really expected from us mere mortals.

In 2005 we were at our daughter’s graduation from Mt. Vernon Nazarene University. As I watch her cross the platform to accept her degree, I sensed that I should attempt to go back and pursue my own degree. I inquired at Ashland Theological Seminary and attended a fact finding weekend. I asked one of the admissions representatives about my chances. Especially, since I had no undergrad degree. She told me that the chances were slim, but that they were allowed to admit a certain number of ‘special’ students each year. So, I began the admissions process. In June of 2006 I received my letter of acceptance. I was going to college!

During my time at Ashland God began to touch my heart in new ways. My 1st year I took Theology 1. I learned something profound that colored the rest of my time there…and since. I found out that it was ok for Christians to think! Imagine that! Up until that time I had been in a community that pretty much taught us that we needed to accept whatever the leadership said because, well…they were God’s anointed leaders. We were taught not to question them much. And, especially, not to question God.

Later, I was introduced to people who practiced what we today refer to as the ‘spiritual disciplines.’ These involve practices of prayer, meditation, contemplation, fasting, etc.

I began to understand that there were many ways to approach God. There was more than just the Lord’s Prayer and saying grace at the table. I began to follow what is called the Daily Office. This is a series of prayers for each day. Normally, morning & evening prayers and readings taken from a source like the Book of Common Prayer and the Roman Catholic Breviary. Those in my church tradition felt that reciting prepared prayers dampened the spontaneity of the Spirit. These kinds of prayers were always wooden and unfruitful because they could not voice what was happening right here; right now. But, I found freedom and life in this practice. I felt as though I was truly part of a larger body of believers. People around the world were saying these very same prayers. I experienced a sense of unity with followers of Christ world-wide.

After I graduated from Ashland in 2011, I continued many of the practices that I had begun there. Then, on November 3rd of that year, things changed. I woke up on that Monday morning and got ready for work. I didn’t feel well. I bent down to tie my shoes and immediately felt something like bad heartburn. But, it was different in some ways. I told my wife and she, being the dutiful nurse that she is, gave me some aspirin and we drove to the hospital. We arrived at the ER and the folks there hooked me up to an EKG machine. Within minutes I heard a voice over the overhead speaker say, ‘Code Crimson; room 4’. That was my room. They called the code and I was suddenly surrounded by a crowd of people poking me with needles, taking my clothes off, starting IVs and shoving aspirin and Nitroglycerin in my mouth. I was having a heart attack. They wheeled me into the Cardiac Cath lab and began to look at my heart. The main artery of my heart, the so-called Widow maker was 100% blocked. By all accounts, I should have died that morning. But, thanks to the people at the hospital and God’s grace, I’m still here to talk with you.

During my recuperation, I began to get up earlier to spend time just ‘being’ with God. Sometimes I would pray vocally. But, most of the time I was simply quiet in God’s presence. I started each morning by saying, “Here I am, Lord, your servant.” This was my way of stating that I was present and attentive to God. And, I began to pray each day, “Jesus, please come, abide in me. And, let me abide in you.” I figured that if Jesus had said this in John’s Gospel, then it must be a real possibility.

Let me interject a caveat here. I had been a follower of Jesus for about 40 years. I had tried innumerable methods of prayer. I tried to ‘will’ myself to spend even 10 minutes each day in prayer. Nothing ever worked. Having some kind of regular devotional time just eluded me. Now, I found that it was no problem spending time in God’s presence. I firmly believe that this was not the result of anything I had decided to do. There was no ‘willing’ it to be so. This was entirely the result of God’s grace alone.

This brings me up to the time I met Brother Harry. I felt a need to have someone in my life who could help me to develop this new relationship I was experiencing with God. I searched online and came upon a source that talked about Spiritual Direction. I contacted them and they sent me a list of names. Brother Harry was one of those named. I e-mailed him and we set a time to meet. That was 2 years ago this past March. After a year or so of meeting, Harry suggested that we begin Ignatius’ exercises. We began that process in November of last year. This is where I began to experience the reality of today’s Gospel text. Jesus said, “Abide in me, as I also abide in you.” Many translations of this use words like, “remain in me,” or “dwell in me,” or “live in me.” These are all valid translations. But, I like “abide.” That word, to me, is inviting and homey. It has the sense of being comfortable and relaxing with a friend. That’s exactly what I’ve experienced with the Exercises. Whereas, many people look at this text and see “believe in me,” that is, “give mental assent to what I have taught you,” Ignatius invites us to put ourselves ‘into’ the text. We learn to experience the stories. It allows us to build a relationship with Jesus, the apostles, and the others who were part of Jesus’ life. Memories are made as we imagine the scents, sounds and sights of ancient Palestine. Trust is built. Trust in God that what we are doing is guided by the Holy Spirit. I think that it is all part of our living God’s graciousness toward us.

Let’s take a closer look at this passage in John. I’m not going to do a full-on exegesis of this. There is so much that could be noted in here that I couldn’t possibly touch on all of it. But, I do want to share a little of what I think Jesus was trying to communicate. There’s a lot of talk about ‘pruning,’ and cleansing. This sounds painful. I don’t want anyone coming near me with hedge clippers! However, Jesus stated that the point of that was so that much fruit would grow. Then he said, “Hey, trust me. Abide in me.” At first glance this looks like a conditional statement…“If you abide in me, then I’ll abide in you.” Read this way, the emphasis is placed on human action. Jesus will abide only and if we abide in him first. However, this whole passage is focused on Jesus not on human activity. Jesus is the vine. Jesus abides in the Father. Jesus is the source of life for the branches. It’s all Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. If we can take into account all of the linguistic gymnastics that the translators have gone through, I think that we can find a better understanding of this text. Rather than an ‘if/then’ conditional statement, I think Jesus is offering an invitation. George R. Beasley-Murray, who wrote a commentary on this Gospel, suggests that a better rendering would be, “Come. Step into union with me, and be assured that I am remaining in union with you.” We are invited into a relationship with Jesus because he knows that he is the true source of our faith. Parabolic analogies and metaphor can only go so far. But, I don’t think it would be out of bounds to take the ‘vine and branches’ illustration a step further. Yes, the vine has its roots deep in the earth. From there nutrients are carried upward and outward to the branches. The branches, in turn support the leaves and the fruit. In return, the leaves collect the sunlight and transform that energy into food that supports the vine. It appears that Jesus was stating that he desired to have a living relationship with people. That this was not a one-way deal. We can’t just sit passively by and wait for inspiration to rain down on us from heaven. Yes, God’s grace is the engine that drives the relationship. But, our response to that grace is of vital importance. God really, really wants us to know Jesus. And, God wants us to realize that Jesus really, really wants to know us.

This is revealed explicitly in vv. 13-15. Jesus told the disciples that they were no longer considered servants, but that he thought of them as friends. Friends whom he trusted with the words of God. Friends with whom he found comfort and pleasure. Friends who he was willing to lay down his life for.

The Ignatian exercises are all about this friendship. From the beginning we work to understand our place in God’s world and our world. We travel with Jesus from his baptism through his ascension. We talk with him and allow him to speak to us. Like I stated earlier, we need to trust that the Holy Spirit leads us. But, I think that’s part of having faith. I’ve learned that the Spirit works in our hearts and lives even when we don’t see it. There is renewal and transformation happening for those who love God and are called according God’s purposes.

This morning I’d like us all to reflect and see where God might be working in our lives. Perhaps, God is calling us all into a more intimate relationship. A relationship with Jesus, not just as Lord, but also as friend and brother.

Let’s pray…

Heavenly Father, we are so grateful to you for loving us enough to come and join with us in humanity. You are a God who knows us and understands us. And, You are a God who desires us to know you. Please, allow your Holy Spirit to fill and guide us as we seek to build a meaningful relationship with you. Amen.

More on My Journey with Ignatius

ignacio1I had promised some months ago to share some of my experiences with the Ignatian Exercises. However, the Exercises took away most of my writing time. Now, with my new work hours, I can take a moment to share a bit.

Over the past 6 months I have experienced prayer and contemplation in new and refreshing ways. Perhaps the most dynamic way has been to visualize and ‘enter in to’ the various stories that Ignatius used for prompts. He chose stories from the Gospels and encouraged others to imagine themselves in the stories. I was encouraged to ‘walk’ with and ‘talk’ with Jesus, the disciples, Mary and others. I found this to be an incredibly potent tool in learning to know Jesus as friend and brother. And, for the most part, the images were vivid, full of light and full of hope and joy.

The past few weeks, though, have been spent contemplating the Passion story. Almost immediately I sensed a change. Where there had been light, there was now darkness. Earlier I had clear images and experiences. Now, the images were obscured, as if a dark cloud was between me and the other participants. Before I had sensed joy. This turned to hopelessness and fear.

I shared these things with my Spiritual Director. I was concerned that I was missing something. Or, that my own shortcomings were a wall separating me from fully experiencing the stories.

He said that this was not unusual since the stories, themselves, were of a different nature. In them, Jesus was separated from others. He was pulled away and arrested. He stood alone before the Council and Pilate. Beaten and dragged away to be crucified, he was alone. On the tree of crucifixion, he was abandoned.

Then he was dead.

Joseph and Nicodemus prepared Jesus’ body for burial. Mary and some other women were present. I looked on and felt the despair. They had all hoped that Jesus was the Messiah, the Anointed One of God who was going to restore Israel and reign over God’s kingdom. Now, all they had was a lifeless corpse. Hopelessness; fear; shadow; darkness; cloud; doubt.

I felt doubts creep in. Didn’t Jesus say that his followers would do greater things than he? He healed the sick and raised the dead! Where is that happening? Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God was at hand? Where is it? Why can’t I experience God’s presence throughout each day? GOD! WHERE ARE YOU?

I’ve read where pastors have asked these same questions. And, not having adequate answers, have left the faith entirely. After all, if we can’t hear it, see it, touch it, taste it or smell it…it must not exist.

However, that was not my experience. I know that God is not afraid of, nor hurt by, our doubts. In fact, I think that God encourages them. It’s easy to say, “I believe.” In fact, many in the Church look at doubts as obstacles to belief. They say that they will lead people astray or hinder their experience of God. I have found, though, that it’s much better to embrace them. It’s harder yet I think better, to doubt and still believe.

I suddenly realized that I had experienced these same feelings. Rather than the images and experiences of being in the story, I had been experiencing the actual emotions of those who lived through it. In the desolation of my prayers and in the depression of my days and in my doubts, God had allowed the reality of these stories to become my reality. I was not an observer, or even a participant. I had become one with the story.

I don’t know where the next stage of the exercises will take me. I am sure, however, that Jesus will continue to meet me and continue to say, “Come…follow me.”

What have been your experiences in your life’s journey? Have you encountered yourself revealed in someone else’s story? How are you writing your own story?

Reflection on the Incarnation

Hand of GodThe past month and a half has been a time of deep reflection and introspection for me. The Ignatian exercises have taken me on a journey in which I’ve been compelled to visit my humanness in the light of God’s grace and mercy. Some of what I’ve experienced has been in the realm of Darth Vader…the Dark Side. As I’ve sat with Jesus and allowed his gaze to penetrate into the depths of my heart, I have realized my complete identification with the whole of humanity and the world. I am no different than anyone else. I am not exceptional in relationship to any other member of God’s good creation. We are all part of the whole that God called ‘tov me’od’…very good.

As I began to live with my own humanness, which includes all the crap that I’ve done to myself and others, I had a palpable awareness that God was smiling. Far from what I have been taught by people, that God is angered by our shortcomings and failings, I felt complete acceptance. I began to realize that through God’s pitching God’s tent among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God learned first-hand how frail we are. Compassion and empathy grew within God’s heart and God really and truly has become our advocate through Christ. How this all works I haven’t a clue. What I do know is that God is glad to be with us…no matter what.

This morning as I was contemplating the Incarnation, I was directed to consider the world and all of its inhabitants. I thought about the nearly 7.2 billion people who inhabit this planet. We all, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion or any other perceived differences are part of God’s shalom community. We are, in some way, related one to another. So, my thoughts wandered to those who are lonely. (In a world with more than 7 billion people the idea of loneliness boggles my mind.) In that context, we have failed the lonely. I think of the young man whose struggles with his sexuality ultimately cause him to give up and take his own life. We have failed him. The young woman who experiences separation from all, including herself, so that she turns to cutting in order to feel anything. We have failed her. To the other young woman who is afraid of the New Year holiday because she may be alone. We have failed you. I see the bodies of young children being buried because they did not have the necessary food and water to survive. We have failed them. I feel the pain of the homeless people freezing on our city streets. We have failed them. I view the sectarian violence that destroys lives and mars the image of God in each person. We have failed them.

Then, I wonder…does God feel failure, also? Has the reality of the Incarnation allowed God to feel and experience the depths of human depravity and inhumanity? I begin to glimpse a sliver of God’s compassion. I see that God…Emmanuel…feels empathy for/with us. Is there hope, then, that the failure can be turned to triumph? As I reflected on this, I heard that inner voice that I’ve come to identify as the voice of Christ say, “I am forever human. I know the way that we should go. Compassion, love, justice. Always seeking the good and illuminating the bad.” (NOTE: NOT condemning!) “Embracing each person, community and culture as expressions of God’s own image.”

With that, I wish for all of us to experience and celebrate the Incarnation of God at this time of year. I think that the folks who think that there is some sort of war on Christmas need to walk away from that. Rather than shouting, ‘Put Christ back in Christmas,’ I would encourage us all to BE the Christ in Christmas.

My Journey with Loyola

lectioAs promised, I want to take a few moments to share a bit about my journey with Ignatius Loyola. First, however, I think that it’s important to explain a little about my expectations. Loyola first introduced the Spiritual Exercises to aid people in discerning God’s purposes for their lives. Particularly, those who were considering entering religious service…priests and other Religious. Over the years they have also been employed by people who simply desire to deepen their relationship with God. I have a little of both stirring within me. Not so much considering religious service, but certainly career options. As I wrote in my previous post, my current job is leeching the life out of me. So, I have an expectation that somewhere in this process I will either find peace where I’m at, or will discover another option. Secondly, I desire with all of my heart to know my God deeper and more profoundly. Attending seminary helped me to deconstruct much of the religious crap that I had been floundering in. My life reeked of it. Once most of that was shoveled out and disposed of, I found that I had to rebuild my belief, my faith, in God. Through prayer, reflection, relationships and spiritual disciplines new revelations and understandings have begun to fill that void. As I continue to grow as a spiritual person, Loyola’s Exercises seem to be a next logical step. Most importantly, I believe that God has enabled this desire to grow. I have confidence that I am not on this journey alone. The Spirit of God has joined with me as companion and guide.

This first week is a week of preparation. It is simply labeled, “A week of prayer.” My Spiritual Director explained that many people who begin the Exercises need to learn how to pray. They may not have specific time allotted for this practice. Many may not have been introduced to the particular way of prayer that the Exercises employ. So, the purpose of this week is to familiarize people with the process of prayer.

The primary practice of prayer this week is a variation on Lectio Divina, or literally, Divine Reading. The Exercises approach this as “Praying with the Scriptures.” The purpose, as one writer explains, “it, [Lectio], is undertaken not with the intention of gaining information but of using the texts as an aide to contact the living God.” Theological understanding and exegetical practice are not the focus of this kind of reading. Allowing oneself to be drawn into the text, to participate in the story, is what is important. In this way one can experience the drama, the sights and smells, and, hopefully, the presence of God.

Where will this path lead? I’m not sure. I am trying not to allow preconceptions to cloud the way or prejudice me toward one outcome or another. Openness to the gentle breeze of God’s breath is my goal.