Merry Christmas!


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


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).


The Unknown


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.