Merry Christmas!

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A meditation I wrote for today sent out via the Living Church Daily Devotional: CLICK HERE.

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Detail of tiled wall, All Saints Church, Margaret Street, via Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P./Flickr

elixir of life

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It’s a tall order for a simple cup of tea, but this one almost lives up to it.

When I was in NYC this spring for my brother’s graduation from college, my husband and I stumbled upon a small tearoom on the Lower East Side late one semi-rainy evening. There was one little table left, meant just for us, at Bosie, and their description of L’Age de Thé’s Tulsi Basil infusion clicked. It was touted as the “elixir of life” with spicy notes and no caffeine—perfect for a pre-bedtime cup.

By July, I’d already run out of the two ounces I’d brought home from Bosie, and sought out more at Dobrá Tea in Asheville. Their blend is bolder, with a strong licorice scent and flavor; I’m not sure if it’s lengthening my life, but brewing up these herbs on my travels provides a soothing regularity to the unpredictability that accompanies being away from home.

Reflecting on the many, varied environs I’d dragged my trusty tin of tea through over the last few months (above, at choir camp, right now!), I realized that—of course—God is the same way. God comes with us wherever we go, providing regularity, familiarity, to even the newest and most unpredictable of places.

Not that I need to let go of my Tulsi Basil tin, or shun the ritual I’ve come to love—boiling (or tracking down hot) water, measuring out the loose leaves into my mesh ball, letting the leaves steep extra long (it takes a lot for this tea to get bitter), and enjoying the delicious scented steam that rises off the cup almost as much as the infusion itself—but that I can also turn to God for regular, ritual calming (“peace”—to put it more deeply and expansively).

Of course, God is the true elixir of life. Through the peace which comes as a gift from God, we are able to love each other, to support each other in our lives–in our trials and in our successes.  Continually returning to God as our touchstone, Lord, focus, and animating spirit is the only “magical” potion in which we can hope to find life.

The Original “Lean In”

Sheryl Sandberg has stolen from Jesus.  As usual, Jesus is pretty gracious, and as far as I know, Sheryl hasn’t yet been struck dead, but you hear the words of Sheryl’s best-seller in our Gospel text for this morning: “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile” (Matthew 8:41).  Sandberg is the COO of Facebook and author of the book “Lean In.”  Her message is more specifically about women in the workforce and in society, but she’s tapped into something much larger, deeper, and more important than how to narrow the gender gap in Fortune 500 companies.

Part of what made her words so popular is that they don’t quite line up with the messages that we’re used to hearing from secular sources.  She challenges her readers that when doors start to close, you should stick your foot in them before they shut completely, when someone won’t answer you, knock harder instead of walking away.  Women throughout history have been known as the necks that move the heads of state; gaining ground through unofficial back channels–there are plenty of examples in the Old Testament alone.  To face problems head-on and refuse to back down is how Sheryl asserts women should tackle the last hurdles toward gender equality.  This is not the way that most women have been taught to respond to resistance; giving away a shirt is not the way most people have been taught to respond to someone who demands your coat.

Of course her audience is women in the workplace, and the dogged ambition that motivates the message might raise some concern, but I wonder why we don’t approach God’s message with the same ruthless determination.  Through Jesus, God teaches us a new kind of math in this Sermon on the Mount: meant to awake in the hearer the story of Moses and Mt. Sinai, Jesus gives a new summary of the law here in the fifth chapter of Matthew.  You hear again and again the refrain, “You have heard it said… but I say to you…”  Jesus is painting the picture of the Gospel as clearly as he can: when someone wrongs you, lean in.  When someone steals from you, lean in.  When all sorts of evil comes your way, batten down the hatches, turn your face toward the rain, and let it do its worst.

The strength to face these trials comes not from ourselves but from God, through the Holy Spirit.  It is only when we’re leaning on God that we can lean in to the kinds of lifestyle that Jesus is outlining for us in the Gospel lesson today, and that’s what the whole of Scripture is about.

In our Old Testament reading today (Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18), we hear about the ways that God set out for his people, the Hebrews, to behave.  They were to avoid corruption and deception, they were to be generous and fair to each other, to the less fortunate, and to the strangers in their midst.  At the end of each exhortation or law, there is a refrain, “I am the LORD.”  It refers back to the beginning of the passage, where God says to Moses, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2).  It’s a sort of shorthand, you see–every line, every law that’s being laid out by Moses to the people on God’s behalf is about holiness.  It’s about living in a way that imitates God, that makes the world holy like God is holy.  That’s what being “sanctified” is–being made holy.

Even back in Leviticus, God knew that we humans weren’t quite capable of being holy on our own.  God says that his people will be holy because of his own holiness–the promise that God made back in Leviticus came true when Jesus arrived on the scene.  That’s part of the reason why Matthew’s gospel draws so many lines back and forth between the Old and New Testaments–he wants his readers to see clearly that God is fulfilling his centuries-old promises in the person of Jesus Christ.

So, how do we live these words that God has given us today?  How do we “lean in”?

The truth that we know deep down, that we see witnessed to in the pages of Scripture, and that we hear in our prayers every Sunday, is that we can’t “lean in” on our own.  We can’t make ourselves do any good thing apart from God’s power through the Holy Spirit.  We’re helpless to our selfishness, our desire to keep our coats, to do the bare minimum required, to ask for our possessions back as soon as we lend them out.

And so, we pray.  We use the words that God himself taught us through Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer, we use words that faithful people throughout time have used in our Book of Common Prayer, we use our own words, offering up our souls and bodies to be used by God.

What does God do?  He sent his son, our Lord Jesus Christ; we disciples take this gift into our own bodies in the Eucharist every time we gather here together.  He sent the Holy Spirit to transform us into holy people, to give us strength to lean in when we have got nothing left.  From the beginning of God’s relationship with people, he’s always told us that he is only as far away as we push him; he’s always standing just as close as we’ll let him, ready to give us the strength we need to face whatever evil may throw at us to try to destroy us.

“You have heard that it was said, `You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45).  No matter how hard evil and violence push, God pushes back with peace and love.  Through his strength, which we gain in prayer and in our sacraments, we can push right back, too.

We have learned through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that when death–the greatest evil–does its worst, God’s power is still stronger.  Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God; this is the truth upon which each of us may stand–and when we do, even the gates of hell cannot prevail against us (Matthew 16:16-18).

Amen.

The Unknown

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On Tuesday, here in Columbia, South Carolina, we began to batten down the proverbial hatches for Leon, the Snowpocalypse.  Most children were out of school (though the weather didn’t start till after school time, Atlanta’s is a cautionary tale), the roads were treated, the university and the government were closed.

Among those of us who gathered at work, diverse attitudes abounded.  I was soon struck by the variety of responses to the same news, and realized that a bit of what we were experiencing was how each of us–where ever the impending ice-meggedon found us emotionally that morning–dealt with change and uncertainty.  Of course, no sleep the night before, or a big deadline, or experience driving in snowy weather surely affected our outlooks as well, I was struck that the way we respond to small things may inform the way we respond to large uncertainties in life as well (then again, a death in the family and a possible snow day are rather different things).

There were those who greeted the possibility as a gift–an unexpected opportunity for something different, an adventure, a change of pace, a tool to knock us out of the “norm” and into whatever the day or the weather might have in store for us.

A few others of us looked at the sunshine, the empty, dry roads, and slivered our eyes, “Is there really weather coming?” we asked the skies.  The existence of the storm was doubtful, its effect unproven.  These folk were unimpressed-till-snowed-in; crossing the bridge if it happened to materialize out of the sunny skies, pragmatically focusing on the task at hand till then.

Though there weren’t any in our offices yesterday, I suspect (judging from the empty OJ, milk, and bread shelves at supermarkets) that another significant group was gripped with fear of the unknown.  Would it come?  Would it not-come?  What would happen?  The anxiety of an uncertain future was debilitating, and so they busied themselves laying in supplies.

For a Christian, there are bits of truth in each of these life-attitudes.  We need not fear or be anxious about the future, but we ought to be wise as serpents, shrewd in our decisions and prepared for unexpected events (thinking of the virgins and their oil lamps).  Of course, we ought not run about as a chicken sans-head; being so preoccupied with the unknowable possibilities of the future as to forget the task we’ve been set to here and now isn’t for the best interest of our earthly companions or for the glory of God’s kingdom.  Finally, life is indeed a joyful adventure, though hopefully we can remember that when the weather (or a day) is unremarkable as well.

Changing Seasons; New Year’s Challenge

As the days of Advent dwindled this year, I saw myself grasping–begging it not to go.  There’s something sweet about the way nights have been dark and quiet with hot tea, a fire in the ‘place, and a craft project in hand.  It almost feels like we’ve been building a ship, lovingly sanding the boards, carefully melding them together, adding sail and rudder and varnish.  Now, though, the dry dock about to be filled and the supports are ready to give way, and it’s time to test all the preparation we’ve made.  We’re going into the fray, the incarnation is coming; just when waiting and preparing got really comfortable, the adventure begins.

I think I sort of forgot about the adventure, the incarnation–I preferred to ponder the waiting.  There’s not much you can do when you’re waiting, you just keep your head down, say your prayers, do your work.  When the water rushes in, you suddenly have to swim, to put to the test all the pondering, learning, and preparing you’d done.

Many autumn days (long before Advent began) felt like this, too.  There was too much that threatened to push in and change things–to make me into a new kind of person; exhausting me out of bad habits and shoving me into good ones.  I resist.  I cling to tv shows and drag my feet to yoga class.  I lie in bed in the early morning, willing myself back to sleep, though my journal, and books, and coffeemaker all lie ready to be used.  Just keep your head down, do your work, say your prayers, don’t look around.

Christmas is here, and even now (especially those of us in clericals), we begin to look forward to Epiphany, which pushes in on us with great, blinding, demanding light.  Epiphany’s a little like New Year’s–it says to us, “Here’s an enormous, dizzying, life-changing gift…  What’re you going to do with it?”  As W.H. Auden said in the poem I read in church last Sunday,

…Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.

For a month in 2013, I had no job, no contract to promise a job, no illusion of my independence from God (my husband is a Ph.D. student, no real income there, either).  It was the most peaceful, joyful month of my entire life.  I knew in the deepest way possible that God was truly our only hope and foundation–my paycheck, my functioning as a parish priest, my local support network (largely), had all been asked of me if we were to continue following God’s call.  So we prayed, and we plunged.

We’re called to live in a way that our lives look insane if our triune God does not exist.

Who Are We?

A wise woman blogging through a difficult transition recently wrote that she’s “trying to set energy aside for dealing with life’s daily hiccups before they derail [her].”  Immediately, I knew what she meant; I call it “emotional fat”–that energy, a shock-absorber, that keeps spilled milk from becoming a puddle of tears and torn-out hair.

Sometimes we lose our way when it comes to an equal-and-opposite reaction, or even better–no “reaction” at all, but being a non-anxious presence in the midst of upheaval.

Coming back from a place of emotional-boney-ness (which may come up suddenly and without warning, or you may know very well whence it comes, but it’s still unexpected when its impact is so great) takes time, of course, and it happens gradually, with the help of loved ones, and sometimes doctors, and often (for me) chocolate and pastry.  Then one day, you look back, and though you’ve got plenty of new stressors, you realize you don’t even want that pastry you promised to yourself for completing the task–the task being done is plenty, or perhaps the task itself was a joy.  You make a mental note, “Remember, Self: you love this task which you do.  You may not think so, but the moment you get yourself out of bed, or into the car, or onto the phone, you love the way the task reminds you of who you are, and the way the task helps you to be connected.”

I wonder if some of the emotional-boney-ness comes from losing track of who you are.  We are the relationships we have–I wouldn’t be Emily if I didn’t have two brothers who live in NYC and with whom I became who I am; I wouldn’t be Emily if I didn’t have lots of family of varying blood-relation splattered all over the globe.  Apart from our relationships, we don’t exist, and being un-connected can sort of make us feel as if we aren’t there at all.

On the deepest level, the relationship which truly defines us is Jesus.  God came to rub shoulders with each of us, and in relationship to us, with so much love, peacefully, willingly gave up his life for each of us, that we may all be together at the end of time with no death or disconnection ever again.  Our worth and energy and emotional fat comes from working to believe* that God really does love you so much as to give up everything for you.

*this is “faith,” and it is a gift, not something we can really work our way into, but it does seem that we’re told a lot of lies about our worth and what makes us worthy.  we continue to pray.