by whitneyrice

With the Wild Beasts

You’re going to croak. And there’s an app for that.

My friend Suzanne told me about this simple smartphone app called “We Croak” that’s a fabulous spiritual tool.

At five random times throughout the day, it sends you a notification on your smartphone reminding you that you will one day die. It gives you a quote on death by an artist or spiritual teacher or public figure.

The point is to help us put the everyday concerns that dominate our minds into perspective.

When you are reminded that your life is short, your time on this earth is limited, and in the end, very little will remain of your daily preoccupations once you’re gone, things lessen in intensity a bit.

You’re reminded of what really matters.

You step back from the everyday grind, the sometimes relentless stress of trying to keep up with your to-do list, and remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

There is a rich tradition of meditating on mortality in both the Christian and the Buddhist traditions.

Human life is fleeting, but we are all too prone to waste our precious time on small, petty concerns. We can’t help it. The urgent takes over the important, and the years fly by.

But we have an entire church season devoted to contemplating our mortality.

It’s a ready-made tool to think about how we’re using the time we’ve been given, and the best part is that we take it on together. Lent is a communal journey.

There’s no better place to wrestle with the great questions of life and death and eternity, of sin and redemption and love, than in our Christian community.

And it turns out that a simple tool on a smartphone could help us keep those deep questions a little closer to the forefront of our minds. Who says technology and spirituality are diametrically opposed?

A line from our gospel today caught my eye.

Mark’s account of Jesus’ time in the wilderness is so sparse that it’s frustrating. We have to use our imaginations to fill in the blanks.

Jesus gets baptized, he goes into the desert, and then he’s back in Galilee, beginning his public ministry and preaching.

And all we get to describe that pivotal wilderness period is two paltry sentences from Mark: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

The phrase that jumped out at me as I read it this time was “he was with the wild beasts.”

That sounds kind of intimidating.

What was that really like? Continue reading

Why Is God’s Revelation So Unhelpful?

It’s the Last Sunday of Epiphany, which means we read the story of the Transfiguration.

“Transfiguration” is the fancy church word to describe this story of Jesus being transformed before his disciples on the mountaintop, his clothes becoming dazzling white as he talks with Moses and Elijah. The voice of God speaks out of the cloud and proclaims, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

Why do we always end Epiphany with this story?

We end Epiphany with the Transfiguration, or “The Fig” as it’s affectionately known among preachers, because it is the closest anyone on earth has ever come to seeing the fullness of Christ in his divine nature.

Peter, James, and John get to see the end of the story, Jesus in all his heavenly glory, while they’re still in the middle of the story.

It’s a revelation to them about this man they’ve been following around for the last few years. They’ve seen him do amazing things—heal the sick, feed the thousands, and walk on water—but this surpasses it all.

The season of Epiphany is all about revelation. It’s about the world coming to understand who Jesus is and why he came to earth.

During this season, we read of Jesus’ Presentation in the Temple as a baby, of his baptism in the River Jordon, and of his first miracles.

The Transfiguration is the pinnacle, quite literally. It’s a mountaintop experience for the disciples.

But here’s the thing. It’s revelation, but it’s not particularly helpful revelation.

What do we learn about Jesus in this miracle?

What lesson for living an ethical life does it teach us?

How do we come away from seeing Jesus in dazzling white clothes better able to love our neighbors?

I don’t think we particularly do, which is why I hate the Transfiguration.

Well, perhaps “hate” is too strong a word. Let’s just say it’s not among my top ten miracle stories from the Gospels. I moan and groan about having to preach on it every single year.

What I want out of my revelations from God, whatever they are, is something practical.

“What am I supposed to do next?” I ask God. “What’s the right path forward? How do you want me to change?”

Reveal that to me, God, if you’d really like to be helpful.

And that, I realized this year, is precisely my problem. Continue reading

Are We Charging People for the Gospel?

We have a fascinating window into the life of early-career Jesus in our gospel lesson today.

This is right at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, in chapter 1. Jesus has been baptized, called the disciples, healed one other person, and then we arrive in our scene today.

Simon and Andrew take Jesus to their house, presumably to show their other relatives this amazing person they’ve decided to follow.

I can imagine the skepticism of their parents, spouses, and other siblings. “He’s who? And he does what? Heals people? Proclaims the Kingdom of God? And you’re going to follow him? What about your job and your responsibilities?”

Peter and Andrew are totally sold on Jesus, but the rest of their family isn’t. And so it’s not surprising that they want proof of the miraculous works Jesus supposedly can accomplish.

Conveniently, Peter’s mother-in-law is right there, and she is ill.

And Jesus heals her.

The word spreads through the town like wildfire, and by suppertime, as Mark says, “the whole city was gathered around the door.”

Scores of broken and hurting people offer themselves to Jesus in desperate hope of being healed.

And he heals them all.

But it takes a severe toll. Continue reading

Why You Don’t Have a Conscience

We all want to “do the right thing.”

We want to make ethically and morally sound decisions. (Most of the time.)

But how do we know what the right thing to do is? How do we decide?

Most of us rely on vague intuition mixed with general social pressure.

We basically try to do what everyone else does.

Some of us have a highly developed inner moral voice that cracks the whip and dangles us over the fiery flames of hell.

This usually comes from early (sometimes abusive) religious training that focused more on strict and rigid moral codes than God’s loving forgiveness.

Most people “do the right thing” out of shame, wanting to be liked, or fear of punishment.

That doesn’t seem like a very sound foundation for living a good life, especially one that abounds with joy, peace, patience, and the other fruits of the Spirit.

As Christians we rely on conscience to help us make moral choices.

But most of us have not taken the time as mature adults to reexamine whatever childhood images we had of “the still small voice.”

Conscience is not just the internalized voice of the parent or the authority figure. That’s a child’s vision of conscience.

It’s a good place to start—we all learn how to care for other people by coming up against structure and boundaries as children.

But moral decision-making as adults should have a spiritual character deeper than a memorized set of rules.

(And many times, those most obsessed with “the rules” use them mostly to build up their own power and beat others down with shame.)

So how do we explore conscience as adult actors in a moral universe? Continue reading

Draw the Other Arc

Today’s scriptures are nothing but a bunch of fish stories.

You know what I mean, “I went out today and I caught a disciple this big!”

Or in Jonah’s case, “I got thrown off a ship in the middle of a hurricane and got eaten by a fish this big!”

What is it about fish stories?

Why does the fish always have to be this big?

We do that about a lot of things in our lives, though, don’t we?

We may not talk about it in terms exactly that blunt and unsubtle, but we’re happy to tell our friends about our big car or our big job or our super successful children or our ministry that is growing by the day.

There’s one thing we don’t often brag about, maybe because many of us can’t, myself included.

The size and depth of our commitment to our discipleship.

How far we’re willing to go for Jesus.

What we’re really willing to give up for the sake of the gospel. Continue reading

Come and See: The Unreturned Invitation

“Come and see.”  I discovered something new as I studied these words in Gospel of John, and it totally changed how I think about them and what I think they mean.

In our gospel passage today, we read, “Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’”

Nathanael is doubtful.

He has the prejudice that probably many of his friends had, that Nazareth was a do-nothing backwater town.

It would be like hearing that someone from the local junior high basketball team had just been drafted by the NBA.

Possible? Yes. Likely? No.

So Philip invites Nathanael to come and see for himself what the big deal is with Jesus.

But the I don’t believe Philip says those particular words or makes that invitation just out of his own inspiration.

Jesus has already said these words of invitation himself, just a few verses earlier: “The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’”

Philip’s “come and see” invitation to Nathanael is born out of Jesus’ “come and see” invitation to him. It all begins with Jesus.

And Jesus is not displaying a resume and a list of qualifications that make him the Lamb of God.

It is an invitation to experience it yourself, with no prerequisites at all.

Just show up, and see what Jesus is doing.

That is an invitation that Jesus is making to us all the time.

But the disciples, in their usual loveable cluelessness, spend the next weeks and months mostly failing to understand what Jesus is trying to do.

They’ve made a start—Jesus asked them to come and see, and they did. And Philip invites Nathanael to come and see—they have learned that they need to extend the invitation to others.

But the problem is that the invitation to “come and see” is all about Jesus in his role as a miracle-worker and potential king and rescuer of Israel.

It’s all about what Jesus can do that is eye-catching and extraordinary, that bends the laws of nature and gathers a crowd.

It’s not about actual relationship with Jesus.

Jesus invites the disciples to come and see, but they think he’s just inviting them to see miracles like walking on water or feeding five thousand people with just a few loaves and fish.

They will come and see, but they’re coming to see the wrong things. Continue reading

Is Your Baptism Incomplete?

What does it mean to have an incomplete baptism?

That is the question suddenly confronting the believers in Ephesus we read of in our lesson from Acts.

Paul arrives and says to them, “‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?’ They replied, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ Then he said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ They answered, ‘Into John’s baptism.’ Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.’”

We might initially assure ourselves that this story has nothing to do with us.

We were baptized into Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, in the name of God the Father. Our Trinitarian credentials are secure.

But to read this text on that literal, surface level is to miss what it has to teach us.

Let’s take a step back and ask in what ways we were baptized into John’s baptism, why that was valuable, and what might still be missing from our baptism.

How are we failing to live into the full baptism of Christ? Continue reading

Day 7 to Day 8: Naming the Truth

One week. In the nativity story, Jesus is one week old.

We in the Church are still knee-deep in the Feast of Christmas, even though most of the rest of the world has moved onto after-Christmas sales and New Year’s Eve partying.

There are twelve days of Christmas, and we’re only on Day 7.

So today we celebrate the First Sunday of Christmas, and we have what I think are jarringly grand scriptures.

In Isaiah, we read phrases like, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.”

In Galatians, we hear, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.”

And then, of course, we have John’s Prologue. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”

It’s all this sweeping cosmic theology, and in the case of Isaiah, seriously grand celebration.

It’s all very appropriate for examining the deep eternal meaning of Christmas and the world-changing implications of the Incarnation.

But I can tell you right now that it has precious little to do with what’s happening to the Holy Family at this moment. Continue reading

True Confessions of a Grinchy Priest

Okay, St. Francis, I’ve been on board with you now for over a year, and it’s time for me to come clean, publicly, from the pulpit. It’s time for you to know the full truth about your Associate Rector, and I hope you still love me after I tell you.

I’m a Grinch.

It’s true. It’s awful but it’s true.

I do not want to jingle all the way.

I don’t deck my halls—I don’t own a single Christmas decoration, not even a sad Charlie Brown Christmas tree.

I do not ding dong merrily on high, or on low for that matter, nor am I interested in participating in any reindeer games.

I am a Grinch.

There. I said it. Let Father Davies know if you’d like him to ask for my letter of resignation.

Here’s where I need to clarify.

I do love the Feast of the Incarnation.

The birth of the infant Christ is deeply meaningful to me, and the Holy Family are three of my absolute favorite people on earth—I even have an icon of them in my office.

But I do not love American Christmas, which is very different from the Feast of the Incarnation, and every year I find it harder and harder to tolerate.

I know it makes me sound like an 85-year-old telling those kids to get off my lawn, but I can’t help it—the noise, the materialism, the smearing of badly considered theology on top of secular pagan traditions—blech.

It just wears me out. I basically stick my fingers in my ears on the day after Thanksgiving, close my eyes and shout Advent hymns to drown it all out.

But what I’ve gotten up here to tell you today is that this year I’ve received an additional insight as to why I hate American Christmas so much, and it’s actually much closer to the Feast of the Incarnation than I expected.

And to explain it, I have to tell two stories. Continue reading

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day Are Not the Same Thing

We made it! We’ve arrived!

Every bow has been tied, every stocking has been stuffed, every cookie has been baked and every Christmas tree light has been lit.

Or if that’s not all done, well, it’s too late now, so don’t worry about it.

The storm is over and we have gathered in a quiet country barn with the family who found no room at the inn to see and experience the miracle that changed the world.

This is the most sacred hour of the year. The whole world hushes to anticipate the arrival of the incarnate God, our savior Jesus Christ being born.

The interesting thing is that along with all the holiness and awe, there is a great deal of pain. Continue reading