Advent I Year C: Better Than The Best

Jeremiah 33: 14-16
I Thessalonians 3: 9-13
Luke 21: 25-36

For the next four weeks, we will be hearing a lot about hope. The Hope of the World is coming to us, the One in whom we put all our hope, the only True Hope. We will be hearing about letting go of our fear, because we have hope, and we can hope in the Savior of the World, who will be coming among us, who is among us, and who will be among us again. Moving from fear to hope is good, and is something we all desire to do every moment and every day. We are not created to live in fear, and anything we can do to bring hope to the world is good.

However, as we heard in our Compline readings from The Conferences of John Cassian a few weeks ago, hope is not the end of the journey. Both fear and hope imply a certain amount of self-centeredness (we fear for our selves and hope for ourselves), although we can also fear and hope for others, which is good. But Abba Chaeremon says there is another stage of the journey after hope, one that involves no self-centeredness at all:Love.

When we truly love, we take our wants and desires out of the picture and work for the best of everyone and everything. We don’t try to control things so that we can be comfortable, we let others grow into their best selves no matter how uncomfortable that might make us feel. Love frees us from all the time and effort we would otherwise spend trying to make everyone and everything act the way we think it should be. When we love, we realize that the only things we can control are our own actions and reactions, so we spend time and energy working on ourselves so that we can make the world a better place. That doesn’t mean that we deny any other’s wrongdoings, it just means that we work to become the best persons we can be so that we can confront and help change others’ wrongdoings in an objective and helpful manner. It also means that we look at others with compassion, acknowledging their faults while giving them some slack to work on them, as we would want done for us. Maybe even more importantly, it means that we look on ourselves with compassion – acknowledging our own faults while giving ourselves some slack to work on them, and then honestly working on them.

Love also frees us from self-centered motives in our work. In love, we do things not because those actions might one day bring us some benefit. Instead, we do things simply because they are good things to do and will make the world a better place and help some people. Working out of love lightens our workload and makes us happier, not because we do less, but because we are freed from the burden of making sure we see the fruits of our work. In love, we simply do our work to the best of our abilities and then let God take care of the results. Of course, that has the unexpected consequence of us actually doing a better job than if we were working from self-centered reasons and worrying about the outcome of our work. The question of “what’s in it for me” is never raised, consciously or unconsciously, but amazingly, all of our deepest desires are met more profoundly than we ever could have imagined. We actually slowly learn to love people, not just the way some people sometimes make us feel.

I know that I have never moved from hope to love, and I am not sure if I have ever met anyone who has. (I am not even sure I have moved from fear to hope yet, but someday, maybe that will happen.) There is a Buddhist proverb that says: “There are no enlightened people, only enlightened actions.” Maybe we can make that into a Christian proverb: “There are no loving people, only loving actions.” By doing things out of love, we slowly become loving people. Like Aristotle said: “One becomes a virtuous person by doing virtuous things.” One slowly becomes loving by doing loving things. And it is slow, and sometimes it feels fake, but that is ok, we are to be judged by what we do, not by how we feel. But the more we get used to doing loving actions, the more we actually grow into a loving person. There will always be times when we fall down in our attempts to love, but we can always get back up again and try some more.

We will sometimes despair of ever growing, but at least that means that deep down, we want to grow, and that is a major step in itself. The only way we grow at all is through the grace of God, and God will give us growth when God knows we need it, and maybe even more importantly, when we can handle it. All we can do is admit that we need hope and love. Doing that is not easy, but it is necessary. It takes work and humility but is worth it when we finally do it. And we need to do it every day and every moment, if we are honest with ourselves and with God. Like Paul in our second reading this morning, we need to pray that God will “make us increase and abound in love for one another and for all, and may he strengthen our hearts in holiness so that we may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus…”

God will save us from ourselves, that is his job, and when he does so, we enter into bliss that we never knew could exist. We live in a fearful world, but our hope is in Jesus, who is Love and brings us to love. As Jesus says in our gospel story this morning, when we see all the fearful things in our world, all we need to do is : “…stand up and raise our heads, because our redemption is drawing near.” So for the next four weeks, we can hear with confidence all the prophets, evangelists, angels, wise men, shepherds, and little drummer boys singing “Do you see what I see?”. We will see one day – in our fear and doubt we will see the Hope of the Universe who is Love Himself, coming to us to live in us and among us. He is here right now and invites us to share a meal with him as he feeds us with himself.   AMEN

Where We Are: Thanksgiving Day Year B

Joel 2:21-27
I Timothy 2:1-7
Matthew 6:25-33

Usually on Thanksgiving Day, we focus on the blessings we have received from God regarding the outward things in our life: material possessions, food, family and friends. All of those things are good, and we should be thankful for whatever we have in those areas. But it might be good every once in a while to stop and think about how we have been blessed in the intangible things in life, and how we ourselves are growing in our life with God. We can do that not only in regards to our personal individual lives, but in our families, monastery, parishes, denominations, the church as a whole, our nation, and our world as a whole. How are all those things growing in their lives with God? After all, in our gospel reading this morning, Jesus tells us to “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness…”

If people were honest, they would all have to say that they are not where they should be as individual Christians, as monks, as a monastery, denomination, church, nation, or world. Of course, we also need to realise that we might never reach our fullest potential in any of those areas, because our goal is God, and we as finite humans in finite human organizations can never match up with any part of the infinite God. I tend to think of it as the asymptote from math class (there is a limit toward which certain functions tend to get closer to, but can never reach) so it is in our life with God, we can always get nearer, but we can never reach the goal. And anyway, if we are honest, we would have to say that our relationship with God is erratic – we draw close for awhile and then we drift apart, we draw close, and drift apart again. That might seem depressing to some people, but it need not be if we understand the growth or journey or whatever metaphor is used is a goal itself. The moment we admit that we can not save ourselves and we need God to help us, we have reached the kingdom of God. And we must not pretend that the admission of our own incapacity to live as we should is a one-time thing, as so many preachers say it is. We must admit to ourselves and to God every day and every moment that only God can carry us where we need to be. God will not fail to do for us what needs to be done to insure our best life, but we do need to accept the gift of life he offers us, and stop pretending that we can give life to ourselves.

Sometimes, it might seem that God is not giving us any life at all, but as God’s words speak to us through the prophet Joel that we heard in our first reading this morning, we should “not fear…for the Lord has done great things”, he has “dealt wondrously” with us, and is “in the midst” of us. Actually, in our first reading, God is talking to the soil, telling it not to worry about being able to produce a harvest. Likewise, we do not need to worry about the fruit that we bear – what kind, how much, or when it will ripen. We also don’t need to compare our fruit with any other, either individually or as groups. God will use us to produce just the right harvest at just the right time, and it need not be like any others. We just need to prepare the soil of our lives with humility, gratitude, and constancy, and let God do the rest. We can look with gratitude at all our failures and shortcomings and inabilities, because they are the things that bring us to our knees in the knowledge that we desperatley need God’s help, just like everyone else.

So, no one person or group is where we should be as mature Christians, monks, monastery, denomination, nation, or world. However, we can enjoy who we are now and what we have now, because since it is in God’s hands, it is good. We can look with gratitude at where we have been and the people who have helped us along the way. We can look with gratitude and joy to the future, knowing that God has more and better in store for us than we could ever imagine. Things aren’t as they “should be”, but they never are. A book in our library talks about the imprisoning obsession with how things “should be” ( the author always puts that phrase in parentheses, because often it i s a subjective judgement base on our ever changing moods) as compared to the freeing acceptance of life as it is coupled with the knowledge that it can always be improved. All we have is now, and now is pretty good. Someday, things will be different, and if we are intent in our humble relationship with God, that difference will be better – on the other hand, if we insist on angrily and exasperatedly telling God how things should be, that difference will be a hell for us and those around us.

We need not fear, God is in our midst. We need only to seek God’s kingdom with humility (admitting things aren’t as they should be), gratitude (knowing that God will give us life), and constancy (willing to do the work that it takes to admit our need for God). Every day can be a harvest festival, enjoying the little bits of heaven God gives us. We can start by coming to be fed at God’s table as we continue our Great Thanksgiving and sacrifice of praise. God feeds us by giving us Godself. The way we take the food is by giving God ourselves. AMEN

Proper 24 Year B: Our Part

Isaiah 53:4-12
Hebrews 5:1-10
Mark 10:35-45

Jesus has saved us. Then why is there so much evidence contrary to that fact? Why is there hatred, greed, pride, sickness, oppression, and misery all over the world? Why is there so much sin in ourselves and consequently in our  world, nation, families, parishes, and monastery? If he bore all our sins and if we are healed by his bruises, as Isaiah says in our first reading this morning, why do we still sin and get sick? No matter who one thinks Isaiah is talking about, or one’s opinion of the idea of substitutionary atonement, it does not seem to have worked very well.
Or maybe it has, and we just don’t have the proper perspective to see it. Maybe we need to not say that Jesus has saved us – maybe it is more true to say that Jesus is saving us. Every sickness, every sin, every misery is taken up by Jesus every day and every moment, bringing them into God’s own being where they are healed and sent back out to the world as a blessing.

Jesus is saving us and the whole world, and he gives us an opportunity to be part of the process, as he tells James and John in our gospel story. The true glory of following Jesus is the opportunity to take on the pain of the world around us so that it can be healed. Of course, in order to do that, we must first realize that the world is worth being saved. The cross of Jesus is not an indication that the world is bad, it is an indication that the world is of infinite worth and so the infinite God suffers and dies infinitely for its sake. In the same way we should not take up our crosses out of disdain for the world, but rather out of deep, intense love for every part of creation and every person in it. We must believe that the world is worth dying for, and we must believe it is worth living for.

Jesus has saved us and the whole world, but because of our finite point of view, we just don’t see it yet. Jesus is saving us from our own pride, fear, and anger. We can nail those things to the cross of Jesus so that we have room on our own cross to absorb the consequences of those who have not yet been able to do that. We can also be grateful to those who willingly absorb the consequences of our own sin when we deny our own cross and try instead to sit on our self-appointed throne in the center of the universe. It is our choice: to pretend that it is all about me and cultivate pity for ourselves and indifference for others, or to allow our pain to help us grow in love and gratitude so that we can be a blessing to others. We can choose to wallow in our own mess, or we can realize that since there are six billion other people on the planet, it can’t all be all about me – it is only one-six-billionth about me. That perception can be a great help in lessening our crippling fixation on ourselves. Saying that does not minimize or dismiss the severity of many problems, but it does give them some positive value, if we so choose the way of the cross.

Jesus has saved us and  the whole world, Jesus is saving us and the whole world. That is his job. We don’t need to tell him how to do it, or always demand that he does it in ways that immediately benefit us. He knows how to do it. The amazing thing is the fact that he offers us a chance to be part of that process, and as usual with the things of God, we can’t understand how or why it works – and all the study done, all the books written, all the conferences and councils held can not figure it out. We just need to follow him, do our small part, and trust.   AMEN

Proper 19 Year B: American Idols

Isaiah 50:4-9
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

Our scripture readings this morning talk about five truths in life:
1 – at some point, everyone and everything will let us down, anger us, and disappoint us
2 – at some point, we will let everyone and everything down, anger them, and disappoint them
3 – at some point, we will let ourselves down, anger ourselves, and disappoint ourselves
4 – at some point, our mistaken self-centered conceptions of God will let us down, anger us, and disappoint us
5 – the true living God will almost always anger, shock and surprise us, but will never let us down or disappoint us

The Letter of James (our second reading) talks about the first three truths – we all make mistakes, even and maybe especially people who are in positions of authority. That does not mean we are stupid and evil, it just means we are human. That doesn’t mean we should have low standards of behavior for ourselves or anyone else, it just means we need to realize that noone can always reach those standards, so we need to deal with the failures in a mature way – giving people time and space to heal from mistakes and being willing to work with them to grow out of them. Failures and disappointments of ourselves and others can lead to either bitterness and scornfulness, or they can lead to wisdom and compassion.

Usually, when we first realize the mistakes and failures of ourselves and others, we are in our early teens and react in the bitter, scornful way. That is normal. However, as we grow, one of the keys to maturity is to develop the wisdom and compassion that deals with failures and disappointments in a positive way. Like all forms of growth, cultivating wisdom and compassion are not easy, but they are necessary for a happy, full life. The bitter, scornful reactions are easier at the beginning, but if they linger, they reduce us to bitter, scornful people whom noone, including ourselves, can stand to be around. The wise, compassionate reactions are much more difficult at first, but if they are pursued, they lead us to become wise, compassionate people who are a joy to be around. The way away from bitterness toward compassionate takes a lot of prayer, insight, thought, and internal examination, but it is worth all the years of work . And of course, the wisdom and compassion do not come from ourselves – they are gifts from God that we just need to empty our own selfish wills in order to receive. We will never be there completely all the time, but we can always strive to get closer to that goal. It is true that we are not always wise and compassionate, but it is even more true to say that we are not yet always wise and compassionate. Not yet. We must wait for it – it will come slowly. And we must work and wait for it not with the resignation of patience, but with the joy of constancy.

The fourth truth is talked about in our gospel story this morning. People had ideas about who Jesus were, but they were not who Jesus was. Peter wanted Jesus to do what Peter wanted him to do, not what Jesus knew he had to do. Trying to make God fit into our comfortable ideas and desires is called idolatry, and idol worship always leads to disaster, because it means we have founded our lives on false assumptions. When the disaster strikes, we have the same choice that we do when our idolization of other people or ourselves is seen to be false – we can live bitterly, or we can be grateful for finally seeing the truth and so start on the long road to living wisely and compassionately.

We don’t always want to give up our idols – not yet, because just as in our disappointment with human idols, learning from our disappointment with divine idols takes a long time of prayer and insight. It takes the loss of our false, selfish life in order to gain the true life that Jesus gives, as he tells us in the gospel story we heard. It is the fifth truth and it involves the pain of the cross, but it leads to the glory of the cross – the glory that is the truth that everything is not all about us and our comfort. The life that Jesus gives us might be more scary than the false life we try to build, but in the end, it is much less worrisome and much more safe. The true, living God will never let us down, and will never disappoint us. Everyone else and everything else will. That is ok, true life goes on, bigger and better than anything we could have ever imagined. God is what matters, not us. We will be happy , healthy, whole, and safe, because God has smashed our idols and freed us from their grip. Let us not fall into their grasp again, but when we do, may we wisely and compassionately give each other time and space to heal and start over.   AMEN

Proper 9 Year B: Carpe Snot

Ezekiel 2:1-5
II Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

Ezekiel has an important word for us today: “Thus says the Lord God. Whether they hear or refuse to hear…” God is constantly speaking to us. Everything in creation is a message from God. We can observe those messages, or we can close ourselves off from God’s efforts to communicate with us. We can realize the importance of everything, or we can pretend that only certain things concern us. Of course, in a practical sense, we can’t take in all the information coming to us. But we can be humble enough to admit that usually, we can do more to take in all the love coming to us from every part of the universe from God.

We also need to take that information and allow it to foster our growth in love and compassion, rather than in bitterness and hatred. There is a lot of sad news in the world, and it can be a catalyst for either action and prayer, or for numbness and indifference. There are a lot of people in the world, and we can take their often inept and imperfect attempts at loving us as a catalyst for either growing a friendship, or for growing contempt. The choice is ours. We can be a rebellious house, as God says to Ezekiel in our reading this morning, or we can allow God to replace our stony hearts with hearts of flesh, as he says to Ezekiel in another part of the book.

We are confronted with those choices everyday, every hour, and every minute: listen or isolate, love or bitterness. The listening and love take a lot more work, but in the long run, they don’t wear us out – they make us healthier and happier. The isolation and bitterness are easy in the short term, but eventually turn us into shriveled grumps that no one, including ourselves, can stand to be around.

Why choose shriveling? Life is too short to waste on bitterness. I know that, and we all know that, because we have all chosen the bitter route several times in life. But now is the day to hear the voice of God and allow it to sink into us and grow us.  We can seize every opportunity every day to take in the love that God gives us and give it out to others, and we can accept the love that others give us, no matter how flawed it is. We can be like Jeremy, the main character in the cartoon ZITS, who had a good day and came home shouting “I seized the snot out of today!” May we seize the snot out of every day, opening our hearts and minds to God’s word coming to us from all of creation. As God says to Ezekiel, we have been rebellious, stubborn, impudent transgressors, but God still calls to us. God knows us, and still loves us and wants us to be healthy and joyful. May we know the truth of what God says to Ezekiel: “…there has been a prophet among them.” Every thing and person around us can be prophetic, if we listen closely. May we listen, obey, and slowly but surely find peace with ourselves, our God, and our neighbor.   AMEN

Which One Of You Moved: Pentecost Year B

Acts 2:1-21
Romans 8:22-27
John 15:26-27,16:4b-15

Our first reading this morning has a lot of drama, and for many people, drama is what the Holy Spirit is all about: tremendously changed lives, miracles of healing and deliverance form danger, and flamboyant worship. To me (and maybe to some others), the second reading is more descriptive of our experience of the Holy Spirit: deep inside, carrying us through life in hidden ways. The drama might come every once in awhile, but mostly, we know that the Holy Spirit is there, in us and on us, as a lover’s breath, covering us with no need for drama or even for words (because words can’t express what our lover is to us). Without that breath of our lover in us and on us, we have no life. In fact, we are alive because God took the dust of our planet, formed us, and breathed his spirit into our lungs, bringing us to life, kissing us into existence. God our lover can’t seem to stop giving us gifts. The entire universe is a token of God’s love for, and infatuation with, us. Every sight, smell, sound, and touch is a reminder of our lover’s breath on us and in us – so close that usually we do not know that it is there. In fact, it is so close that sometimes we fear that it is gone. That is when it is most important to remember to not rely on our feelings, but rather on our faith that God is with us and for us, and God’s Holy Spirit is the basis of our existence. One time, a preacher on television said a very smart thing. It was a snowy winter day several years ago, the Lions were losing, it was halftime, so I flipped around the channels, and came across the preacher who said: “People are mistaken about love. Love is not made in bed. Love is celebrated in bed. Love is made earlier in the day, cooking, cleaning, earning a living. If that does not happen, then there is not much to celebrate, and it soon grows old and bothersome.”

That is a good warning to us in our relationship with God, in whatever vocation we are working out that relationship – monastic life, family life, parish life. The truth is, the excitement will all go away in all those vocations. That is normal, right, and good. The tragedy comes with our sadly mistaken conclusion that because the excitement is gone, the vocation is over. Pentecost only comes once a year. After that , the drama is over, the intimate love-celebration is over, and we have to get on with life. As long as we keep making love, though, it will come back at times. It will never stay, but it will always be coming back, usually when we least expect it, and it is always better than before, because we are more comfortable with it, and can be more active, mature partners. But, it does not last. The celebration does not last, but the work of love must never end, if we ever want the celebration. Wanting only the celebration without the work is like a teenage romance where we think all that matters is how we feel, because we think we are the center of everything.

That is why God has so graciously given us all the irritating details and people that inhabit our respective vocations. They are opportunities for us to get over ourselves so that the Holy Spirit has more room to fill when we let him in. Of course , it is up to us to make the choice of using those irritations to help us grow more humble, rather than to use them to grow angry, frustrated, and even more self-centered. It is up to us to cultivate our relationship with God, and the way we do that is to cultivate the relationships and situations that surround us everyday. Whether or not we are in the monastery, in a family, or in a parish, we must use that vocation as the means of our growth in holiness and happiness. All the private prayer, scripture reading, and self examination involved in our chosen way of life must be pursued with good intent, as well as the public aspects of work, social life, and public prayer. Without that, we have no basis for opening up to the Holy Spirit, either for the drama described in the Book of Acts, or the intimacy described in the Letter to the Romans. As the saying goes: “If you are not as close to God as you once were, which one of you moved?” It certainly is not God who moves away from us.

The Holy Spirit is given to all freely, but we must take the initiative to open up that gift and make sure there is room inside of us to house the Holy Spirit. The excitement of God breaking into our lives will come and go, but the true work of love is up to us to manifest. We must learn to love God, not just the way God makes us feel sometimes; we must learn to love our vocations, not just the way our vocations make us feel sometimes; we must learn to love people, not just the some people make us feel sometimes, and we must learn to love ourselves, not just the way we make ourselves feel sometimes. As we establish those patterns of truly making love: all the everyday tasks of cleaning, answering difficult telephone calls and letters, driving guests to and from the airport and train station, cooking, getting up early to pray, reading scripture and studying, showing mercy when confronted with each others’ personalty quirks, then all of that becomes its own celebration of love – so deep that we can’t express it, because we have made so much room in our hearts that the Holy Spirit is at levels too deep for us to even know that he is there. But he is there, and we are mature and spiritual enough not to need to feel it. Rather, we know it. We know God. We know ourselves. We know our neighbors. And we see how truly beautiful all of us are – beautiful enough for God to desperately want to inhabit each of us, deeply and eternally.

So, today we can talk about excitement, intimacy, and goosebumps. Tomorrow it is back to cultivating our lives to make all that possible. AMEN

Easter IV Year B: Fruit, Or Lack Thereof

Acts 4:5-12
I John 3:16-24
John 10:11-18

In a few days, we will be celebrating the completion of our latest building project, and hopefully, the last building project we will have, at least for awhile. Our new bell tower is the fruit of a lot of labor expended by the community, by our donors, and by all the people around the world who pray for us daily. We should be proud of it, and of the work done to finally finish it. It is good to see fruit of that sort.

However, it is not the same for our prayer life, our monastic life, and our Christian life. Contrary to the joy of seeing our new building and hearing the bell, I hope none of us ever sees the fruit of his monastic life, his prayer life, or his Christian life. I do not say that I hope our lives have no fruit – I just hope that we never see it. Because if we see the fruit of our work, then we are in danger of working in order to get the results, rather than working out of love. Basing our lives on results is a sure plan for disappointment and grief, while basing our lives on love is a sure plan for joy. The results of our lives are not our business, they are completely up to the Holy Spirit. We just need to willingly put in the work, and knowing we are working because of love for ourselves, our God, and our neighbor is a joy that never depends on any results.

There is a book in our library (Being Nobody, Going Nowhere by Sister Ayya Khema) by a nun who state that it is always better to practice constancy than to practice patience, because often, patience implies that we are waiting for thing to get better, while constancy often implies that it doesn’t matter if things ever get better. If we are waiting for things to get better, we are in for never-ending disappointment. If we are living in the joy of God’s love even within our imperfect and difficult situation, we are already in heaven, and we bring heaven to the world around us.

I must admit that this past winter, I was not to apt to live in joy and constancy. I chose instead to grudgingly wait for the building to be finished, for the post office to stop changing things,for the snow to stop, for our new database to be finished, and for a dozen healthy people to join the monastery and do most of the work. It was not a happy winter, and that was my choice. I chose to allow everchanging things control my thoughts, words, and actions, rather than choosing to allow the always reliable God to form my life. I chose to demand happiness rather than to live in joy. I wanted everything but me to change, or more accurately, I wanted everything I didn’t like to change, rather than growing up and dealing with reality.

Maybe someday, I will learn better. Maybe, someday, I will learn the truth of what John says in our second reading this morning: “..God is greater than our hearts..” No matter our fears, worries, and uncertainties, God is greater. No matter our physical, financial, or organizational state, God is greater. We only need to heed John’s words and: “…have boldness before God…and obey his commandments…” Then we will “…abide in him, and he abides in us…”, and we will know it because of  “…the Spirit that he has given us.”

Abiding in God and having God abide in us is so much better than choosing to be dragged around by the ever-changing happenings around us, and by our ever-changing reactions and emotions. The only real thing is God, everything else is quickly gone and unreliable. As Peter says in our first reading this morning: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” God is real, and is constant. We can be real and constant, but only in and through God. Our fears, worries, and conflicts will not go away, but they will no longer be the bases of an ever-shifting queasy way of life. Real life is found only in God. May we choose that constancy and reality. May we choose the unspeakable joy that comes with constancy and perseverance. Our lives will have fruit, but none of it is our business. We monks are lucky and blessed in that area- we hardly ever get to see the fruit of our prayer common life and prayer. Rolling up our sleeves and working, gathering in the church to pray, being grateful for all the things everyone else does for us – all of that is our business.

Even with our new buildings, they will need to be cleaned and repaired, and someday fall down. Even without snow on the ground today, it will be back soon enough and need to be shoveled. Even with a new database in the office, it will need to be maintained. Even with new members in the monastery, we will always be wanting more to lessen the work load. Right now, we can simply be ok and abide in God. Right now, we have work to do, gathering at God’s table, and even though we are the guests, we have to set the table.   AMEN

Lent IV Year B: Encrusted By Our Fear

Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

Contrary to what a lot of people say, or what a lot of people used to say, human nature is not bad, corrupt, or sinful. Human nature is good, as Paul says in our second reading this morning: “..we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” In fact, if human nature were not good, then murder, greed, hatred, and oppression would not be corrupt or sinful – they would be laudable because those things would be a fulfillment of our created purpose. However, it does not take a very hard look to see that we do not live up to the good nature God has created for us. Instead, we quickly and profoundly create a second nature for ourselves, and we are so used to it that we forget about our true good nature and think that our self-imposed second nature is the true one.

The amazing thing is, every single person who has ever lived has been successful at creating their own self-centered second nature that so easily crusts over their true God-centered nature. Some people have created their second nature with a lot of help from their families and societies, others have done it in spite of the warnings of their families and societies. There has been only one exception ,and that is why Jesus is called fully human – he lived his true nature (the true God-centered human nature).
One of the amazing things about the second natures that we impose on ourselves is the fact that even though we make them, we can not escape them. We can and should do a lot of things to lessen their poisonous effects on ourselves and our surroundings, but we can not get rid of them. Only God can and does crack them open so that we can crawl out of our little hells and live in the heaven he has created for us. Only God can and does call us to live fully human lives along with Jesus. We often think heaven is too much for us and crawl back into our second nature, but God is always calling us to come out again to taste and see how good real life is.

God lives a true human life in Jesus and calls us to do the same. All we have to do is ask God to save us from ourselves and keep looking toward Jesus who calls us to share his life. We deserve the heaven that God has made for us, because we are good. God created us that way, and nothing we can do will ever change that, no matter how hard we try. We just need to stop pretending that we are doomed to follow our sinful nature. We will keep on sinning, but that is certainly not natural.

It takes a lifetime to get used to not living in our second natures, so we must never be discouraged when we do sin. We must simply acknowledge the truth of it, accept the responsibility for it and consequences of it, and know that God forgives us. Then we must once again rely on God to help us grow into our true natures. God will help. He offers himself to us and feeds us with himself. May we take that help and that food and keep growing, grateful for ourselves and our vacations as God’s children.   AMEN

Epiphany VI Year B: I Do Choose

II Kings 5:1-14
I Corinthians 9:24-27
Mark 1:40-45

Jesus heals people. As it happens in our gospel story this morning, so it can happen anytime, anywhere, with anyone. We say to Jesus: “If you choose, you can make me clean.”, and Jesus says: “I do choose. Be made clean.”. We might think the evidence does not support that, but we need to take into consideration how often we ask Jesus to make us clean versus how often we ask Jesus to solve certain problems in certain specific ways. Jesus knows clean – Jesus knows health and wholeness and happiness. We do not, at least not fully. We are not totally clueless about the fullness of human life, but we need to be careful that our partial knowledge does not lull us into thinking that we understand everything that needs to be done, and therefore if things don’t turn out that way, God has failed us.

Of course, there are tragedies in life, but we can’t blame God for what humans do to each other or to the world around us. We can’t blame God for allowing the planet to run the way it does, because if it ran any differently, we would not be here to enjoy it. We can blame ourselves for not living withing the boundaries of physical and social laws and thereby bringing bad consequences upon ourselves and others. Others can also blame us for the trouble we cause them.

But even with all that, there are unavoidable human tragedies that we do have a right to be angry about and question God for letting them happen. God doesn’t seem to mind us doing that, but God also doesn’t seem to be too quick to provide answers that we can understand. The Book of Job is a good example of that. What God does instead of providing answers is to live a human life along with us, with all its tragedies and joys. Jesus had his share of bad times, and never tried to pretend they weren’t bad. He asked God to allow the worst of it to pass him by, and when they didn’t, he asked God why he had been forsaken. We, like Jesus, can be fully human and cry to God for answers, even sometimes doubting God’s presence.

But also like Jesus, we can be fully human and choose to share God’s healing with those around us. We don’t know all the answers, but we can do what we can to help. We can also be fully human and ask others for help. We can live in such a way that our lives don’t add to the problems of the world, and sometimes we can even live in such a way that our lives reduce some of the problems in the world.

Jesus heals people. He doesn’t always do it the way we want it done, but he does do it. We just need to ask to be healed, and we need to allow others to ask in their own way, and in their own time.   AMEN

Epiphany II Year B: 10,000 Hours

I Samuel 3:1-20
I Corinthians 6:11b-20
John 1:43-51

It takes a lot of maturity to live the truth of Paul’s statement that we heard in our second reading this morning: “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial. All thing s are lawful for me, but I will not be dominated by anything.” All of our appetites and emotions are good. God made them and gave them to us, so they can’t be bad, but we so often allow them to become skewed and harmful to us and the world around us. In their out-of-balance state, they induce us to falsely live our lives as if everything were about us, rather than living in the truth that everything is about God.

Every once in a while, we come to our senses and remember our true vocations as children of God, and realize that we want to make the world a better place – we want to live fully and help others live fully. In order to do that, we need to bring our appetites and emotions back into their natural, beautiful, helpful state, and that involves making free choices to not allow them to become out of order once again. Those things we do to cultivate healthy appetites are known as disciplines. Unfortunately, discipline can sometimes have a negative meaning for us, because we confuse it with punishment, but the two are not at all the same. Discipline is anything that helps us grow in our chosen vocation. Disciplines are things that disciples do.

Many vocations require discipline in order to fully succeed at them. There is a book in our library that mentions a study done of professional musicians. The study found that in almost every musician interviewed it took roughly 10,000 hours of practice before become competent enough to play professionally. It did not matter if the person showed any talent at the beginning of his musical instruction or not; for persons with either natural talent or not, the 10,000 hour rule prevailed. The people doing the study thought that was interesting, and went on to interview professional athletes and mathematicians. In the cases of both of those professions, it also took roughly 10,000 hours of practice and study before the skills reached a professional level. Once again, it did not mater whether or not the subjects showed any talent or not at the beginning.

The world needs more virtuoso clarinetists, home run hitters, and prime number cataloguers. They are all channels of God’s grace to us. But even more so, we need more people who are less petty, impatient, and loudmouthed know-it-all. At least I know I need to show fewer of those characteristics. That is why discipline is so important in Christian vocation, whether or not it is of the monastic variety. We need to constantly be reminded that we are not the center of the universe, that God is the center of the universe. We need to constantly expand our patience and objectivity so that we can become both more tolerant and more honest. We need to free ourselves from so much self-absorption so that we can become freeflowing channels of God’s grace.

We also need to remember that Christian disciplines are never ends in themselves, they are only means to an end. When discipline of any sort becomes an end in itself, it is no longer discipline – it is a neurosis (something odd we do for no good reason). The end is growth toward and in God. Since God is infinite, the end can never be reached, but we must keep striving for it. Since we are finite, we will always be failing in our growth. 10,000 hours is nothing compared to eternity, but Christian discipline has something that practicing scales and arpeggios and lifting weights and solving equations do not have; grace given by God to both begin and complete the task.

We love the world – truly, madly, and deeply, and we love ourselves and our God in the same way. And so we joyfully do what it takes for us to express that love and put it into practice, no matter how slow the process. Our world is worth the effort, we are worth the effort, and God is certainly worth the effort it takes to love ever more deeply. All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial all the time and in all quantities. We can share, we can wait, we can give away. It is worth it in the end, because then all things are more precious and real to us. Its all about God, not about us.   AMEN