Sunday, January 25, 2015

As One Possessed: Recognizing Jesus

Mark 1:21-28

Very often when we listen to a story like the one before us now, we find ourselves wondering who we would have been within it had we been there.  At least that's what I find myself doing today as I imagine the events relayed in Mark's Gospel:

  • Would I be among the crowd --- those so astounded by what they have heard and seen --- that I could not help but join in as they spread the news?

  • Would I be among the scribes  --- accustomed to and pretty good at talking about holy things --- but suddenly thrust aside by this new one who 'speaks with authority?

  • Or am I most like the man with the unclean spirit -- the one who calls out Jesus for who he is --- and in that calling out demonstrates how profoundly threatened I am by this one who would 'destroy me' and so much of what I have come to at least take for granted if not actually count on?
Oh yes, surely, I can see myself in all three. 

Or at least I hope I still have the capacity to be 'astounded' by the amazing gifts of God.

And if I am, in fact, one of the scribes, I hope I have the grace to step aside and turn to the one with true authority, although honestly, I'm not entirely sure.

And as for the one with the unclean spirit?  The one who would rather hang on to illness than embrace the new life Jesus promises?  This broken  human being who is so possessed by the struggle that while he does not come seeking healing, he receives it anyway?  Do you suppose that could be me most of all?

At least that's where I have found myself settling in these last days.

Oh, it makes sense to understand this one as suffering from some kind of severe mental illness and I am grateful to say this has not been my own particular journey. Even so.  I have known myself to be 'possessed' by things which are less than God's intent for me. I cling to them for I know them.  And even when I know they are not good for me?  Oh yes, too much I cling to them still:
  • My reliance on caffeine or sugar to give me a lift when I need them;
  • A need to be in control;
  • A fear of looking foolish;
  • A need to be busy so as to be deemed of value;
  • Or old grudges which still sting when I turn my attention to them.
Need I go on?

While all of the above are true, I do have to say that the last one I name is what keeps coming to mind.  For you see, more than once in my life I have been party to conflict where in its wake I was unwilling to let it go.  I would continue to poke at the bruise to help me remember the injustice I experienced.  I would keep looking for evidence to confirm my negative opinion of the offending party.  Oh yes, I would, in fact, take some measure of satisfaction in my honestly earned anger or resentment.  After a time I would no longer always be able to remember what had hurt me in the first place, but I knew I had been wounded and I was not quick to move on.  Oh yes, I was, in fact, 'possessed.'

Perhaps I clung to those long held grudges because they were familiar.  Or maybe because I felt somehow that I 'looked better' in comparison to the other as I told the story again. Or maybe because letting them go would have meant letting go of part of what I had become. No, I am not 'possessed' by an unclean spirit, but I have known myself to be possessed by a great deal which would keep me from embracing all God intends for me.

It is so that this story is mostly about the 'authority of Jesus.'  It is about recognizing Jesus as one of authenticity and power.  And surely the one possessed knew this most of all, for he is the one in the story who articulates his fear that an encounter with Jesus changes everything that ever was and ever will be.  He knows who Jesus is and he knows what this means.

So while I am glad I am not him, I hope that in some ways I am exactly like him. That I can still be awakened to the power of Jesus and all it means for me.  And for starters, today at least I think of this in terms of how I let go of old hurts. And how an encounter with Jesus means embracing another way than what I have known.   How about you?

  • Where do you see yourself in this story? Who are you most like?  Who do you want to be most like?
  • How do you think the one possessed knew that Jesus had such authority?
  • It's not the same of course, but what 'possesses' you which keeps you from embracing all that God intends for you?  How does encountering Jesus change that?

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Gone Fishing

Mark 1:14-20

Or not...

I know I'm not alone in this, but to tell you the truth, this has long struck me as a metaphor which breaks down pretty quickly.  On the one hand, Jesus' invitation to Simon and Andrew, James and John is simply brilliant. Without skipping a beat, he ties into the world they know best and expands and deepens the possibilities that all their lives can hold.  On the other hand?  To think of the evangelical mission we are all called to as a 'fishing expedition?'  Well, it just doesn't seem right.  Oh, yes, I know those first called fishermen used nets and not hooks, but even so...  And when we think that the goal of 'fishing' is catching something we can eventually consume. Well, I for one can't bring myself to see those we are called to reach with the Good News of Jesus as 'dinner.'  Nor does Jesus mean us to, of course.  For in everything that he teaches these former fishermen in the time he spends with them, he demonstrates the deepest regard for those he's come to reach.

Now, I don't fish, of course.  I haven't picked up a pole since I was a young girl and even then, I'm not certain I had the patience to do very well at it.  Of course, we weren't fishing in the best waters anyway... my greatest catch was probably a tiny bluegill or a bullhead pulled in off the pier on a family vacation.  I don't fish, and yet I have picked up some things 'about' fishing which, if used carefully, might just make this metaphor somewhat useful.

  • It helps to know what you're fishing for.  Some kinds of 'bait' attract one kind of fish --- and others attract another.  And yet, people are less predictable than fish.  I remember, for instance, a mission developer I worked with some time ago.  Ken had been called to plant a church on the edge of a retirement community and so before their first worship he had focused all of his energy on inviting people over the age of 60.  At their first gathering, though, they had as many young families with children as they did retirees.  Someone, somehow, had missed the fact that this community also hosted the fastest growing school district in the state of Illinois.  You can be certain that the focus of the mission became quickly more balanced after that!  Even so? The same invitation somehow drew them all!

  • There are certain times of the day which are apparently better for fishing than others.  And yes, there are probably certain times in life which may or may not be better than others to reach others with the gifts of God.  Times when people are already asking big questions... times of great joy and great sadness, for instance.  Or certain times of year when people just find themselves thinking about matters of faith --- Christmas or Easter, for instance.  Certainly you and I who are bearers of this good news would do well to 'follow' Jesus into such times and places.  Certainly we are called to be as present as we possibly can be then so that we won't miss an opportunity to share what we have been given to pass along.

  • And, of course, there will be no fish to be 'caught' if the water is polluted or has run dry.  This surely is a call to people of faith to care for people as they seek to meet the basic needs of their lives.  And to seek to change things when necessary.  If people are hungry or afraid, for instance, they may not have the time, the energy, or the will to even consider larger questions.  If people are stretched too thin by the demands of everyday life, I expect the result is the same.

  • Finally, fishing takes patience.  (This, of course, I know from life and ministry for sure.)  There is a beautiful song by Carrie Newcomer which speaks of this and more.... Indeed, there is one line in the song where a young person asks her dad what they are fishing 'for' and he replies 'for an hour or two.'  You can listen to the song here:  My Father's Only Son.  We are not likely to know 'success' the first time we drop a line into the water.  Of course, Newcomer's song speaks of much more than that as she tells the story of a relationship deepened by this side by side sharing of this activity.  This is an 'extra' gift from the story we share today.  Jesus calls not one but four in these few short verses.  And we are called to do this together.

One more thing --- and here I find myself returning again to where I started.  In this story, Jesus calls four fishermen from lives they knew by heart into lives they could not have imagined --- although at least part of them must have been wondering or they would not have left their nets so quickly to take up after Jesus. I wonder now what it is that Jesus is calling us away from and what Jesus is calling us to, don't you?  I wonder how our worlds would change if we just 'left our nets behind' and stepped into the new life before us. I wonder how the world itself would change if we just did this, too.

  1. How do you respond to Jesus' use of the metaphor: 'fishing for people?'  Does it 'work' for you?  Why or why not?  Above I have attempted to make it 'work.'  What would you add or take away?
  2. As much as I dislike the 'metaphor' --- do you think 'bait' needs to be geared to the people we are inviting?  Or does one kind work for all? 
  3. How are you being called to 'leave your nets behind?'  What new life might you be being called into? 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

God Calling in the Night

1 Samuel 3:1-20

"The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread."                      (1 Samuel 3:1)
It was years ago now.  I was still living in Rock Island and found myself traveling a great deal --- so much so that it was almost more 'normal' for me to be sleeping away from home than climbing the stairs to sleep in my second floor bedroom on 22nd Avenue.  When I was home though, it was not unusual to have a certain dream.  At least it seemed like a dream.

It was always in those first moments after I had drifted off to sleep.  I would awake with a start, disoriented and convinced that I had a guest in my home.  Only I was not prepared.  For you see, I did not have guests often. And so my guest room was used as 'storage' --- things were almost always piled on the single bed in there.

So there I would lie in my confusion, trying to sort out who it was who was there and as a result of my lack of hospitality, had no place to sleep.  Eventually I would wake up enough to realize that it was, in fact, only a 'dream.'

This happened more than once.  It happened so many times, in fact that finally I began to share it with friends, who, though patient enough to hear me out as I described my 'dream,' could only shake their heads, as unable as I was to make sense of it.

This had been going on for some time before one friend suggested that I take it to my spiritual director. And so one Friday morning I did --- describing once more this dream and my reaction to it. I can still see Sister Audrey leaning forward, listening intently.  When I was finished she paused and said, "Well, I can't say for sure, of course, but I can't help but wonder if your guest is Jesus."

To tell you the truth, at the time I was more than a little bit embarrassed.  Of course, I couldn't say for sure either, but if it WAS Jesus? Well, then clearly I was not making room --- I was unprepared.  And I was not proud of this.

Looking back now, I find I'm shaking my head at my reaction then.  As if one could ever be fully prepared.  More than that, what a wonder it is to think that perhaps Jesus would be so persistent in a way that I could sense it ---- to get near to me.  Too much of the time it seems as though 'the word of the Lord is rare.'  If I was, in fact, the recipient of such an experience?  Well wouldn't that be something?

And so I listen in today as the boy Samuel is being summoned in the night --- being called by name. Oh, I expect that together, you and I feel and completely understand his confusion for it was and still is a thing of wonder that God's voice would be calling us in the night.  And yet, for all of Eli's family's distance then from such a time when 'the word of the Lord' came more often, Eli still knew, somehow, that it was the Lord calling the boy and so he sent Samuel back with an appropriate response; "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening."  Much as Sister Audrey did for me so long ago.

And yes, while the particulars are different, it would seem that God 'calling' me in the night is for much the same purpose He had with young Samuel so many generations ago.  To be near to us. To make a home with us.  To settle into our guest rooms --- and more than that, into the center of our lives.

I stopped dreaming that particular 'dream' years and years ago.  I'm not exactly certain why it came and went as it did.  And I'm not altogether certain all that much changed in my life after that.  Except ever since I've had a deeper sense of the possibility of God speaking.  Even now. Even to me. Indeed, perhaps it is not so rare after all.  And even more than that?  I've never forgotten that unsettled feeling when I would first awaken wondering who my guest was.  Ever since I have tried to pay attention to make sure there is room for Jesus.... in all those places Jesus seeks to make a home with me, with all of us.

  • Have you ever had an experience like young Samuel?  If so, did you recognize the God's voice then?  Did you, like me, have your own "Eli" who pointed you in the right direction?
  • If you have had such an experience, what did you take from it?  What was the message for you?
  • Above, I have surely oversimplified the message given to Samuel so long ago.  How might you 'translate' the 'word of the Lord' spoken then into today's world?

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Father's Voice

Mark 1:4-11

I came across my dad's old compass a few weeks back. It was in a plastic bag nestled in a trunk which holds pretty much all the stuff of his that we have held on to. The trunk has been in a closet at my mother's home and it was only as we were emptying out her house, that I had reason to come upon it again.  I couldn't resist taking a look.  When I pushed the lid open, I was overcome by the smell of leather and wool....him.  And I found myself pushed back on my heels, blinking back tears. It will have been eighteen years this January and we do still miss him so.

As for the compass.  It is silver and worn smooth by time and human hands --- his, I'm certain of this.  It's a nautical compass which was made in Germany.  Probably he got it when he served in the Navy during the Korean Conflict.  Although, he grew up on the Atlantic Ocean, so maybe he picked it up before that.  There is, of course, no way of knowing now.

At first I closed up the trunk and latched it.  But half an hour later I went back and pulled out that compass and slipped it into my pocket. It's a piece of him, of course, but so much more. It speaks to a basic human yearning for points and places to ground us --- and for a sense of direction.  I think, now, of him, of course, and what gave his life boundaries and meaning and direction.  And I think of all of us and wonder about where our sense of direction comes from, too.

As I settled into this week's Gospel lesson from Mark, I found myself reading beyond just the baptism of Jesus and here is what I noted.  The first chapter of this shortest Gospel is chock full of activity.  Now, of course, it could be the evangelist's perspective and his own felt need to get to Holy Week as quickly as possible. Either way, as we hear it in Matthew and Luke, too, immediately after his baptism, Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness (which here take up all of two verses).  Right after that we hear about Jesus' preaching and calling disciples and teaching and healing, and healing and healing.  Before the end of this first chapter, we already hear about Jesus' need to retreat from it all --- where Simon and his companions 'hunt him down' and then again, we hear he is out preaching and healing.  And so I wonder now, what is it in these verses before us this week which receive more attention than anything else that comes after in this first chapter --- what is it that gives Jesus this clear sense of direction as to where he is called to be and what he is called to do next?  Because he certainly seem s to move forward with a real sense of purpose.

The clues are few, it seems.  We don't hear what compels Jesus to go to John to be baptized.  Perhaps it was simply that John's message of repentance rang true in terms of the new life it pointed to.  And John, of course, is pointing to the coming of Jesus so it's only fitting that they meet up.  Either way, there is a certain humility exhibited here as Jesus submits to John's baptism.  Whatever it was that brought Jesus to the Jordan River, we do know this: the boundary between heaven and earth was rent wide open.  We hear about the Spirit moving then and a voice addressing Jesus:
 "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
And no, of course we don't hear what it was that was so pleasing about Jesus.  Perhaps it was the very humility he shows today.  Or maybe it was the Spirit knowing the truth that even then Jesus was bending himself to God's will. Mark's Gospel doesn't really offer us anything more except this truth that from here on out that boundary between heaven and earth continues to be torn wide open in Jesus' preaching and healing, teaching and calling. 

And it could be that the sound of God's voice in his ear telling him who he was, and that he was uniquely loved and pleasing to God --- it could be that was enough to get him moving in the right direction.

Perhaps it would be the same for all of us.  Indeed, it was so very long ago now, but I can remember as a young teenager sitting at my dad's feet.  My back was to him as I sat quietly --- perhaps the television was on, maybe I was reading a book.  Out of the blue he reached down and touched my head and said softly, 'You are my beloved child... with you I am well pleased."  Such sentiment was not necessarily like him.  And yes, of course, he was speaking words he had heard every time the Baptism of Our Lord rolled around again. I have never forgotten the love in his voice though.  Or the sense of belonging and confidence those words instilled.  And if this so from an earthly father?  How much more so if we can imagine the voice of God speaking these words to us as well?

For while none of us are Jesus, we are, of course, all of us still God's children. Each one uniquely loved. And yes, God is pleased with us as well as we bend ourselves to God's will: seeking as Jesus did to be hands of healing and hope for a hurting world.

We don't need an earthly compass for this. The voice of God in our ear is enough for through these words we, too, are reminded of who we are and that we are called to something more as Jesus was: wherever we may find ourselves.  And I for one, can't help but wonder if that boundary between heaven and earth wouldn't keep on being torn wide open if we only were to listen to that voice and believe it and live like it were so. What do you think?

  • Where do you think Jesus gets his clear sense of direction from? Why do you think this?
  • The words heard at Jesus' baptism were surely meant for him. What about you and me?  Does it make sense in any way to hear them as meant for us as well?
  • How does it give your life shape and meaning to know that you are God's child and that you are uniquely loved?  How does it give you a sense of direction to know that bending yourself to God's will is pleasing to God?