Unlikely Sanctuaries – Yup, That’s Us…

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“Do you not know that you yourselves are God’s [sanctuary] and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”  1 Corinthians 3:16

Yesterday I walked at length in a park and wilderness area known as Horn Pond.    It is a place away from it all, even though it is adjacent to a municipal power station and not far from a mall.    Wanting to escape, I left its crowded parking lot and followed along a paved road to a system of dirt trails that bordered smaller ponds and a marsh area.

Once on the trail itself, I stopped mid-way and closed my eyes.  Here the path overlooked a marsh filled with reeds.   Hearing the intoxicating song of birds, I felt the breeze on my cheek.   Breathing slowed.   Muscles relaxed.   I had arrived.

I had discovered a outdoor sanctuary.    But it was in the unlikeliest of places.

In scripture, our bodies too are regarded as being the temples or sanctuaries of the Holy Spirit.    For that matter, this also applies to the mass of humanity across the regional, ethnic, cultural and political spectrum.    An outrageous claim when you think about it.

But what if God actually deems our bodies as places of wondrous and holy habitation, as temples and sanctuaries?   What if the divine indwelling is a manifestation of God’s grace and yearning to be (dare I say it?) in union with us?   What if this profound and intimate encounter with God is the agent that finally changes us?

 

Beyond the Profane

“But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.'”  Acts 11:9

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another… [for in this way] everyone will know that you are my disciples.”  John 13:34-35

 

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What God has made clean, you shall not call profane.

In the Hebrew scriptures and later in the Second or New Testament, a lot of energy was directed to remaining as holy and distinctive before God.    Taking the form of law or regulations, these applied across the spectrum in terms of prohibitions applying to kinds of animal life as well as certain birds, shellfish, and insects.   Deemed as detestable or profane, abstaining from their consumption coupled with other prohibitions – allowed the faithful to be set apart and thereby, live in holiness or wholeness before God.

Millennia later, we are still setting ourselves apart.   But the reasons aren’t necessarily faithful ones.   Consider whom you prefer eating with because of dietary preferences, or whom you associate with or avoid, if you live under a roof or are homeless, or the country you owe allegiance to or renounce?  What about whom you voted for, what you do for a living or if you’re the right sexual orientation or not.  The list goes on

In the New Testament, there is a curious but compelling account where all species of animals, birds, fish, and insects – are pronounced by God as clean.   No longer would the dietary prohibitions apply.   But was God’s pronouncement done to broaden the width of the Israelite palate?   Or was God’s expansive embrace enacted so those once separated by dietary restrictions, culture, history, and ethnicity, could now eat at a common table?

But if dietary preferences, culture, history, geography, race, gender, employment, religious and political affiliation are not what distinguishes us  – then what does?

Jesus said just hours before his arrest, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another… [for in this way] everyone will know that you are my disciples…”   John 13:34-35

Talk about distinctiveness.   But given how annoying it is to be in the company of those whom we dislike, disagree with, think are stupid or find repugnant, can we still consider ourselves as loving but refrain from associating with them (especially at the table)?  Can we love those whom we like and merely tolerate those whom we don’t?

Evidently and according to Jesus, that answer is ‘no.’

Writes Aisha Brooks-Lytle, “…it is easy to rationalize our way out of loving one another. We want to qualify love. We want to complicate it by adding stipulations as to who is worthy to receive it and who is not. We want to pat ourselves on the back for tolerating the unlovable and loving those we tolerate.” [1]

What if merely tolerating those whom we deem as unloveable – makes us unloveable in the eyes of God?   What if we are the ones who are most in need of God’s love and acceptance – as generously offered through the “least of these?”

 

[1] Image from HikingArtist.com

[2] Aisha Brook-Lytle, Living by the Word – John 13:31-31, (Christian Century, April 23, 2019).

 

 

 

 

 

 

It Doesn’t Belong to Us

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“The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it;” Psalm 24:1

Does claiming ownership defy mortality?    Consider that in the course of our lifetimes, we acquire any number of possessions – land, homes, automobiles, furnishings, businesses and a plethora of other personal property.   What if in claiming it as ours, we achieve a modicum of permanency?   Why think about the brevity of our lifespan when we’re comfortably situated in our own backyards.

Writes Jim Antal, author, and environmental activist:

“Only a misinterpretation of scripture justifies human domination and control of the land…Once the claim of a Creator God had been sidelined, instead of regarding land as creation, society began to regard land as a possession.   Our consumer society only reinforces this, leading to aggressive and absurd claims such as the ‘oil’ found on God’s earth is ‘our oil.'”   [1]

I confess that nothing gives me more satisfaction than to lay claim to my own little plot of land.  The rituals of tending the garden, planting shrubs and spring flowers and beholding young seedlings help me forget the limitations of finitude.   And yes, there is a huge part of me that wants to claim it all as MINE.    But when God’s creation is viewed as something to be used (because it belongs to us) rather than being cherished, are we really escaping the inevitability of our own demise?

What if we were to not only offer words of thanksgiving for all of God’s Creation – but prayerfully ask that God would make us stewards and guardians – not just for this generation but for future ones?    What if we were to live each day protecting what rightly belongs to God?   Such that by giving assent to safeguarding what is NOT OURS, our lives can be a blessing for future generations, through acts of preservation, activism, and love.

[1] Jim Antal, Climate Church, Climate World: How People of Faith Must Work for Change, (Landham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018), pg. 151

 

 

A Good Friday Reflection & Prayer

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Holy One, we have arrived at Good Friday – but it is not the arrival we welcomed or wanted.   Betrayal is in the air and with it centuries of broken promises and violated agreements.   Daggers emerge and whole lives are swallowed up.   We see the road before us.  We quake in fear.

Yet when we turn and look to our left or to our right, you are there – standing alongside us.   Your brow is furrowed from pain and your clothes tattered, but it is your eyes that capture our attention.   You look upon us and it is as if eternity passes.   Shadows we’ve long denied are utterly laid bare.   Falsified selves of our own making are wholly exposed.

There is nowhere to hide.   But strangely, we’re not afraid.

And then, there is the faintest of smiles on your lips.   You recognize us completely – down to the very core of our being.   We gasp in amazement.

It is YOU after all.

Your breathing labored, you lurch forward and then, pause.   But your head does not turn back.   Instead, your gaze is unwavering.   Though the anguished road before you uncoils its tortured path, it is the road you must travel.    It is the way.

Looking down at my feet, I do my best to coax them forward.

Now that you have seen me, where else can I go?

When Action is Prayer

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“For many of us, the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”  Abraham Heschel [1]

When does action become prayer?

Fifty-four years ago today, thousands of marchers crossed over the bridge from Selma and made their way to Montgomery, Alabama.   Only a month earlier they were bludgeoned by local law enforcement as they attempted to cross.   On the second attempt, they were ordered to turn back.

Fifty-four years ago today, marching in the front and arm and arm with Dr. King, was his friend and colleague, Abraham Heschel.   As they marched step in step with the others, Heschel likened their actions to prayer.

During this Lenten Season, I’ve thought much about the necessity of action…when it would be far easier to just pray.   Don’t get me wrong.   Prayer is wholly essential in our covenanted life.    It is our sustenance, our guide and at times, the anvil that decisively shapes us.

But I can’t tell you the number of times I’d rather not act at all, and thereby, not bear the cost of putting myself on the line.  Being good at self-justification, invariably I manage to come up with any number of reasons for why action is unnecessary.   Believe me – throughout my adult life – I’ve become adept at this line of reasoning.

Why should we have to bear the cost, endure the discomfort, and put ourselves on the line?

During this Lenten Season, what if Christ is calling us beyond the notion that faith is only a “spiritual” undertaking?  By professing to follow Christ, what if we are making a statement about our whole selves – our feet and arms as well as our lips?  What if Christ asks us to “bear his cross” [2] so that current and future generations need not bear the burdens we’ve unjustly placed upon them?

What if you and I are being actively summoned to bind up the wounds of all of God’s good creation – and in so doing – let this be our prayer?

 

Image from Dancing with the Word, an online resource

[1] from the Writer’s Almanac, March 21, 2019, (Prarie Home Productions, 2018)

[2] Jesus’ directive as found in the Gospels of Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34 and Luke 9:23, “If anyone wants to become my followers, let them [renounce self-centeredness] and follow me.”

 

 

When darkness follows into sleep

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“…a deep sleep fell upon Abraham, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.” Genesis 15:12

It happened while I was sleeping.    Longing to escape, I sought the anesthesia of slumber to overcome and numb my senses.    Believing I would be spared if I fled the reality of this storm-tossed existence – the terror followed me down the corridors of my unconscious, troubling my dreams and invading my sleep.

But it is these dark and terrifying places, where your covenants are made, O Lord.   When the guardrails we relied upon have fallen away, it is precisely in the precipitous places where your promises are made known.  So speak to us, maker of dreams – those terrifying as well as tender – so that we may know that your assurance lives on not just in the light but particularly in times of darkness and fear.  Amen

[1] Image from an online source, https://www.msn.com/ Stargazing in Chile: dark skies in the Atacama desert.

Wilderness Crossings

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“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit…was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.”    Luke 4:1

When was the last time you were lost or even led into an overwhelming situation?   Did you find your way out?

Or are you still in the thick of it?

Scripture recounts Jesus being led into the wilderness.   Historically, this raw and forsaken setting was the Wilderness of Judea.   Covering an area five hundred and twenty-five square miles, this vast desert’s name in Biblical Times was referred to as Jeshimmon or “The Devastation.”   With ridges sprawling in all directions, it is a contorted desert-scape.   With distant hills described as dust heaps, and though gnawingly cold in the dead of night, during the daylight hours, the surface of the landscape glows like a furnace. [1]

But what if the use of this seemingly god-forsaken place as described in the Bible is also a literary device?   What if the wilderness as spoken of in scripture here and elsewhere is intended to address deeply challenging places in our own lives?    Where the resources we’ve turned to help us in the past (supportive friends, a steady job, devoted family members, a stable marriage or our health) unravels – and the scarcity is as acute as a waterless and wind-swept landscape?   

Writes Winn Collier,

“…Jesus’ story is also in many ways a recapitulation of several other stories scripture tells, in which humans find themselves in desperate situations and unable to do the right thing, to withstand temptation, to rescue themselves from their troubles. With Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, we find Jesus again enacting the very things we humans have been entirely unable to enact on our own.” [2]

What if scripture here and elsewhere is showing a pattern of living as Christ’s followers?   Such that when you and I are in the wilderness of life – when reeling from a cancer diagnosis, mourning the death of a loved one, suffering from the loss of income or a beloved home, or feeling powerless in the face of injustice and environmental degradation – what if the Spirit that led Jesus is also available to us?

Written as a letter of encouragement to wilderness travelers, we hear these words from scripture, “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid but gives us power, love, and self-discipline.”  [3]

What if scripture here and elsewhere shows us a pattern of living as Christ’s followers?

 

 

[1] William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke, (Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2001), pg. 52.

[2] Winn Collier, Other Stories of Desperation, Luke 4:1-13, (Sunday’s Coming: Christian Century, March 4, 2019).

[3] 2 Timothy 1:7, NIV