Mirror, Mirror, On the Wall

Listen to these three quotes and tell me which one is the most familiar to you.

“For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.”

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.”

“Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”

I’m guessing that in that order, those quotes go from least familiar, to somewhat familiar, to very familiar.

That’s right, in order of importance, or at least exposure, a Disney movie takes number one, followed by the First Letter to the Corinthians, and then our text appointed for today, the Letter of James.

That verse from James captured my attention this week, and I’ve thought a lot about mirrors.

Human beings have always longed to know what they look like, how others see them.  The seeming magic of being able to see one’s reflection has led to myths connecting mirrors to the soul.

Different cultures have attached different superstitions to mirrors, for example that breaking one creates seven years of bad luck, or that all the mirrors in the house must be covered when someone dies so that the departing soul doesn’t get trapped in one by the Devil.  Vampires, the undead, supposedly lack a reflection in a mirror.

The ancient Greek myth of Narcissus tells the story of a beautiful youth who, upon glimpsing his own likeness in water, falls in love with his own reflection and wastes away to death.

Narcissus is where we get the modern psychological concept of narcissism, which is all too relevant in our current social and political climate. The ancient Greeks, as much as both they and the Romans loved mirrors, saw their dangers. Continue reading

Things We Don’t Talk About: Jesus and Depression

Have you ever found a scripture that changed your life?

I did, and it’s not even Jesus who said it. It’s not from the gospels or Paul.

It’s actually our psalm today, Psalm 84.

Take a look back at it in your bulletin if you’d like—sometimes the psalm can kind of speed past us in the service and we don’t always absorb it—and I’ll tell you how Psalm 84 and I began our journey together.

I’ve dealt with clinical depression all of my adult life.

There were signs that it was emerging in high school and then it really crashed in on me catastrophically my freshman year in college.

The bottom dropped out of my mind and spirit quite abruptly.

Those of you who have dealt with this yourselves or walked this with family members know what it’s like to see the world in grayscale, as though your body has somehow biologically lost the ability to see color.

You know what it’s like to have to fight every single day to get out of bed, to struggle to fulfill the most basic responsibilities, to feel your world shrinking smaller and smaller around you.

You know what it’s like to feel suicide creeping closer and closer, tempting you with the idea of such blessed rest and peace, until the only things holding you back are the pain of your friends and family and frankly, the effort it would actually take to kill yourself.

Most people who have suicidal ideation have one specific temptation for how they would go about it.

For me it was driving my car into the supports of an overpass on the freeway.

At one point my junior year I had to give my car keys to my roommate because I didn’t trust myself not to do it.

I know I’m not the only one who’s been there. Continue reading

Becoming a People of Wisdom

It’s been an amazing week of discovery, learning, and fellowship at Senior VBS. I am so grateful to this congregation for taking this crazy idea of mine and running with it.

Our lay leaders have been tremendous in helping get this program off the ground, and although I can only speak for myself, I think we all had a lot of fun.

The main theme of our time together was discernment of call, a theme I preached about to the whole congregation last week and what I wrote about in my newsletter article this week.

I’ve been hitting that theme so hard because today is Welcoming Sunday, when we sign up for all the ministries we’re going to take part in for the next year.

I wanted us to spend this conscious time in spiritual reflection on vocation and call because as one of our lay leaders, Nicole Seiler, I think, said, the actual day of Welcoming Sunday is no time to be in discernment.

It’s a crowded, happy, festive day, with ice cream and conversation and noise and kids running around. It’s fabulous, but it’s not a time for deep reflection on your vocation in ministry.

That needs to come before Welcoming Sunday, and I hope over the last couple of weeks we’ve provided you with the tools, including the Ministry Guide, to have that conversation with God and your family about your call to ministry this year.

So we talked a lot about vocation at Senior VBS, and about how to build holistic practices of health and sustainability that make us able to answer our call. We talked about health, law, finances, grief and loss, caregiving—the full spectrum of life that affects us as ministers of the gospel.

But the Holy Spirit loves to throw me a curve ball now and then, and I felt deeply led as I began the program on Sunday to include another strand of reflection for which I had done no preparation at all.

And that theme was this: what does it mean to be an elder? Continue reading

A Message From An Angel: “Get Up and Eat.”

I love this passage from 1 Kings because it has to be the most endearingly prosaic theophany in the Bible.

Many times in scripture, people’s encounters with God or God’s messengers are grand and stirring.

There are flashing lights, wheels in the sky, chariots of fire, angels walking around inside fiery furnaces, or a multitude of the heavenly host in the skies proclaiming the glory of God.

Not for Elijah.

His angel functions something like a cross between a rude alarm clock and a nagging parent.

No “Greetings, highly favored one,” like Mary got, or, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of Hosts,” like Isaiah heard.

Elijah’s angel says, “Get up and eat.”

That’s the entirety of the message.

Elijah, worn out, downtrodden, and ready to give up, lies down to die. To be fair, he is being slightly melodramatic.

But the angel of the Lord is having none of it. “Suddenly an angel touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat.’”

Part of why I love this text is that neither Elijah nor we want God to communicate with us like this. We want the lights and the fireworks, or at least something poetic and beautiful.

Give us a gorgeous sunset and the words of the 23rd psalm at least.

Give us an overwhelming sense of eternal love and “Behold, I am with you to the end of the age.”

“Get up and eat?”

That’s hardly reassuring, or even encouraging. It’s so…normal. So basic.

God might as well remind us to quit losing our car keys and take out the trash while God’s at it.

It reminds me of a parishioner who once told me she wished God would quit hinting that she mop her floors more often. Continue reading

Eat Dirt and Live

The theme of my spiritual life lately, and thusly of my preaching, seems to be: “God will give you good things, but not in the way you want God to.”

And the Israelites in our Exodus text are examples par excellence of that phenomenon.

In the grand tradition of internet culture somehow describing ancient dynamics in more vivid ways than ever before, it often appears as though God is “trolling” the Israelites.

And I’m sure I’m not the only who feels that God has trolled me—in a loving, humorous, and exceedingly frustrating way.

We’re in the midst of “Bread of Heaven Summer” as the gospel texts for these propers in Year B is are known.

Jesus wants to make really clear to us that he is the Bread of Heaven, and if we want A. everlasting life, and B. a decent quality of life here and now, we need to turn to him for sustenance. This is a theme that rarely can be overdone.

But where things get interesting is in the contrast between how straightforwardly Jesus offers sustenance, and how roundabout and backdoor of a path God the Father seems to take in our Hebrew Scripture texts.

In the gospel lessons, Jesus does clear, concrete things, like literally feed 5000 people with actual bread and fish.

And when it comes to spirituality, he offers forthright teaching like, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” That’s pretty clear.

But the Lord is much sneakier in Exodus. Continue reading

Holy Communion Gritty Reboot

I learned several new things this week that I really probably should have known before now.

This is not an unusual experience for me, to be honest.

I was talking in my sermon planning group with my friends Suzanne and Jeff, and we were thinking about different routes we could take with our text from John this week, the Feeding of the 5000.

And Suzanne said, “Well, you could use this gospel to give an open communion sermon.”

That caught me off-guard. Really? How?

It turns out that there are several interesting facts about the Gospel of John that frankly I should have known before now.

There is no scene in John of what we would call “The Last Supper.”

In John, as the end of his life approaches, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, and continues to teach them. He says to the disciples, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.”

They want to know who it is, and Jesus says, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish,” and then he gives it to Judas.

He tells Judas to do quickly what he plans to do, and then Judas leaves.

That’s it.

No blessing and breaking of bread.

No, “Take, eat, this is my Body.”

No giving thanks for the cup of wine, declaring it his blood of the New Covenant, and passing it around.

None of that. We can’t trace our idea of Eucharist today to a Last Supper scene in the Gospel of John, because there isn’t one. Continue reading

Celebrity Jesus

One of the reasons the gospels have endured as scriptures that give shape and meaning to our lives is that they consistently speak directly to our cultural moment.

In every era since they were written, the gathered faithful have found signposts of wisdom that speak to the controversies and struggles of their time. The same is true for us.

Today we read in our gospel about Jesus and fame.

Celebrity is the currency of choice in our culture. Even money and power fade before the respect given to the famous.

There are a number of rungs on the celebrity ladder of status.

It starts with metrics as small and simple as Facebook likes or Instagram and Twitter followers.

Then it progresses to a ratio: how minute of a level of trivia about your life can you get multiple news outlets to cover?

Amateur celebrities can only get network news to cover them when they win Nobel prizes or maybe die.

Professional celebrities can get wall-to-wall 24-hour cable news and online coverage for which tie they wear or bag they carry to an event.

There is the special class of celebrity that has attained the right to go by only one name, like Beyonce, Madonna, Bono, or Pele.

And then you have the absolute monarchy of celebrity culture: people who have not actually done anything noteworthy, they are simply famous for being famous.

But what’s the real harm in celebrity culture? It’s just fun, right?

It gives us a break from our problems to leaf through a magazine or sit for an hour in front of the TV keeping up with the Kardashians.

Well, it turns out that our culture’s glorification of celebrity has a dark side. Continue reading

Anxiety Procrastination: Ending Up With Your Head on a Platter

This is not a pulpit sermon, this is a blog post, which means I can be irresponsibly personal and say whatever I want.

And that is good, because I really have something on my heart right now.

It’s something small and insignificant in the scope of the issues facing society, but I know you understand how a small, niggling worry can undermine your outlook until it colors your whole world.

So let me go ahead and admit up front: this piece is not some great theological treatise and you may not take anything away from it that deepens your own spiritual journey.

This is just me telling you that I’m stuck.

Here’s the deal: I thought I had written a whole book, but it turns out I’ve only written half a book, and now I’m not sure I can finish it.

It’s called The Darker Blessings: Finding God in Doubt and Depression, and I’m really proud of the work I’ve done so far on it.

So is my editor—he says all the writing I’ve submitted to him is really solid.

His feedback said that I’ve really delved into the darkness and mined it for its treasures. The problem is that there’s not enough light, and I have to admit he’s right.

The basic structure of the book is to explore what we would normally call “dark” emotions or experiences, like anger, fear, or regret, and explore how each of them was a way to God for someone in the Bible.

So I talk about Mary of Bethany’s journey with grief, for example, and Nicodemus’ experience of uncertainty, and Pilate’s relationship with fear.

And with each of these chapters, I tell a bit of my own story.

The problem for the reader, my editor says, is that while they can see clearly how depression and darkness created the crucible for my spiritual journey and held me underwater for my entire young adulthood, they can’t see how I came to the other side of it.

The reader doesn’t magically understand how blessed and fulfilled I am now. I have to tell how I got from there to here, from suicidal to (most days) really happy.

I think there are a couple of things going on here.

First of all, I very much did not want to write a book with a happy ending all tied up in a bow.

Real life is not like that, and real life with God is especially not like that. Continue reading

Stop Offering Hospitality (Yes, I’m Serious)

In our gospel lesson today, Jesus comes to his hometown, and far from welcoming him with open arms and proclaiming him their rightful king, his neighbors scoff at him, imply he’s crazy or deluded, and flatly refuse to believe that he is a prophet and a miracle worker.

Jesus is a big flop in Nazareth.

And he’s not expecting it. “He was amazed at their unbelief,” Mark says.

Poor Jesus. He must have been crushed.

Everyone wants to look good at their high school reunion, to show up twenty pounds lighter and a thousand dollars richer than everyone else.

But Jesus’ friends, the people he grew up with, the people who watched him play in the streets as a little boy and bought benches and tables from his carpentry shop as a young man, turn their back on him.

He wants to show them all the amazing things God is doing through him, but he cannot access his power and he has to leave in disgrace.

Anyone after this humiliating experience would feel vulnerable.

Anyone after this failure might consider approaching things a little more carefully, with a little more thought and planning, would want to ensure success before taking any more risks.

Not Jesus. Continue reading

Crackpot Jesus

No doubt all of you have heard the story of the water pot that has an existential crisis. No? Let me share it with you.

“A water-bearer in India had two large pots. Each hung on opposite ends of a pole that he carried across his neck. One of the pots had a crack in it, while the other was perfect. The latter always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream to the master’s house. The cracked pot arrived only half-full. Every day for a full two years, the water-bearer delivered only one and a half pots of water.

The perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments, because it fulfilled magnificently the purpose for which it had been made. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its imperfection, miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do. After the second year of what it perceived to be a bitter failure, the unhappy pot spoke to the water-bearer one day by the stream.

“I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologize to you,” the pot said.

“Why?” asked the bearer. “What are you ashamed of?” Continue reading

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