God with Skin On

blogpic GodintheHelpersA Reflection on John 1:1-18 for the New Year

Pernicious Amnesia- that’s what my favorite seminary professor called it – we have a case of pernicious amnesia. Verse 10 of John 1 says, He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.

The world did not know the Word. Pernicious amnesia - how can we forget where we came from? How do we forget we came from God, forget who we are and whose we are?

We love the story of the self-made man or woman, the rugged individualism of our culture, the pull yourself up from your boostraps, mentality as if any person came into being of their own free will and grew up without the intimate participation of dozens, if not hundreds of other people.

The new year is a time of special amnesia—we put on our Nike trainers, we have our Starbucks in hand, and we’ve got our apps to track our fitness, our to do lists, our sleep, our job, our schedules, our kids and commitments - we’ve got the world by the tail and we’re going to whip 2016 into shape.

Well, we may work hard, and that can be a wonderful thing and result in great outcomes, but none of us came into the world and got to today by the sheer force our will.
• We do not exist of our own will or merit—none of us willed our life into being;
• We do not create the air we breathe, our body’s ability to live, move, act and think'
• We did not participate in the creation of the environment in which we will live—the oxygen that keeps us alive, the soil beneath our feet, the trees that shade us or the miracle of how a tiny seed becomes the wheat or the fruit we eat.

It’s so easy to forget these basic truths about our very existence. I can pray in the morning and by lunch I’ve forgotten that my life is created and rooted in a power much, much greater than myself. Instead I’m trying to hold the earth on it’s axis while managing, mothering, manipulating everyone else’s life and work, believing it’s all up to me (no wonder I have migraines!).

That’s why it’s pernicious amnesia—because even after I remember that I came from God and will return to God and God’s in the midst everything and every moment, I forget again, many times a day, no less, and believe all of life is up to me.

Evelyn Underwood, an early 20th century mystic said it this way:
Just plain self-forgetfulness is the greatest of graces. The true relationship between the soul and God is the perfectly simple one of a childlike dependence. Well then, be simple and dependent: acknowledge once for all the plain fact that you have nothing of your own.
It’s so easy for me to forget that I have nothing of my own.

But God sees our amnesia and decided to enter our world to help us remember who we are and where we came from. So God came like a child—God came in childlike dependence to demonstrate the fundamental truth that God our Source, our Sustainer and End. God sent Godself to us to cure us of our pernicious amnesia- to help us re-member. To remember literally means “to put back together." God sent Godself to put back together our primary relationship with God who exists since the beginning of time.

John says,
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. We just celebrated this truth at Christmas and in all the busy-ness, the parties, the shopping, the traveling the gatherings and the gifts, we may have missed this radical thing that God is up to:

This cosmic God who is the Source and Sustainer of the universe - where there are – 200 billion stars in our solar system! Our solar system lives in a universe of galaxies; there are 100 billion galaxies in the universe! This God of 100 billion galaxies pressed Godself into human DNA, into the size of a tiny embryo and into a female uterus, which is size of a man’s fist! (I first learned this phrase from Sr. Carla Mae Streeter, a theology professor emeritus at Aquinas Institute). God clothed himself in flesh and blood and limitation and emotion and finiteness. God put on the limits of flesh and bone. The light that was God’s first creation - this light comes to us, dressed in human skin.

What do we make of this kind of God? God will go to any length to make sure that you and I know that we are born of God, loved by God and that nothing delights God more than being with us, living in us, dwelling in our humanity and daily life. God will spare no expense and no effort to communicate love to us. God will stop at nothing so that we know God’s love us and gives power to become children of God, born of the will of God (not of will of flesh or world) and we receive grace upon grace.

God came in human form so as to say “don’t’ forget!” Remember who you came from, remember who you are as my child, remember who loves you into being. The One who was In the Beginning created your beginning.

This is why we have worship every 7 days- because we forget who are. So in the beginning of the week, we remember and put back together who we are. It’s why daily prayer matters because it helps cure us of our amnesia: so that in the beginning of the day,in the beginning of a meal, in the beginning of our nights' rest, we acknowledge the Source of our life and pull ourselves back from forgetfulness. Short Daily prayers ground us in God’s love and presence - that because Jesus took on our humanity, Jesus is clothed in your humanity, in your life and work, in your relationships and actions and daily breath. The Creator of the universe has given birth to you and wraps you in love and power, in light and truth.

When we remember who we are, when we remember how we came into being, when we remember the Creator dwells with us and in us, then the world is a completely new place. Since the Word and Light and Presence of God took on the double helix of our make-up and embraced the whole human experience, we are given the gift of seeing the sacred presence of God in our daily life, our daily world—in the creation and in the people God has created and called into being.

I like to call them, “God-sightings” – places where now we can see God’s presence and work in the everyday life we share. God-sightings are where we see light, grace and truth hidden in the ordinary. Perhaps you have heard the story of the young child who's afraid of the dark. Their mom tucks them into bed and the child says, "Don't leave me because I'm scared of the dark." And the mom says, "You don't need to be afraid because Jesus is with you!" And the child says, "Yeah, but, I need Jesus with some skin on.”

That’s what God-sightings are about – seeing Jesus with some skin on. PrThe psence of God, or what the bible calls the “glory” of God is hidden inside each person. Since God arrives in a stable with the beasts, then surely God is in the flooded houses, and with the people who lost their business in our recent flooding. We see Jesus with some skin on in those who are filling sandbags and donating blood and new furnishings, those who help the re-building and donate money. Those who bring hope and light and a way to start again. A colleague shared with me that the way she tells children to see God in the midst of a crisis is to, "look for the helpers." The helpers are the ones who are Jesus with some skin on—where divine energy and light are breaking through in the world.

When we remember who we are and where we come from and see God at work in the world, then we can join John the Baptist in this Gospel reading and testify to the light. When others forget, when they suffer from amnesia, when all they can see is loss and hurt and heartache, we can say, "see the light here and the light there:  God is in the unexpected smile, the shoulder to cry on, the meal prepared and brought to your door, the friend who takes you to the doctor, the neighbors who leave their tasks and help you clean up and rebuild, the prayers offered, the love and encouragement shared." God is here and wrapped in the ordinary stuff of our daily life.

When I was in chemotherapy for breast cancer, I was just plastered to the bed with exhaustion. After one treatment, a friend came over sat on the bed with me while I rested. She would knit, and I would doze off. I would wake up and there she would be knitting. We would chat for a minute, and then I'd doze off again. I'd wake up and she would be there, knitting. I had forgotten that God was in this terrible, desolate pit with me. But this friend became for me, Jesus with skin on and knitting, helping me to re-member that I was not alone. Several years later, when I have a amnesia now, I remember how it felt to wake up and see her next to me, knitting, and it helps me remember.

In her poem, Earth’s Crammed with Heaven, Elizabeth Barrette Browning said,
Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

Earth is crammed with heaven, the very presence of God in every cell, every plant, every person. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.

So, re-member, remember you are born of the will of God so you can see this ordinary life crammed full of the light and presence of the Word made flesh—that’s a new year goal worth embracing.

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The Church in Fluxx

blogpic fluxxOver Christmas break Dan and I played a card game with our kids called, Fluxx. It’s not like anything we’ve ever played before because with each play, the rules of the game shift. One is dealt five cards and when played, some of the cards change how many cards you have in your hand, how many you can play, whose hand is yours, and even changing what wins the game. The goal is not to have a flawless strategy, but to have a flexible mind that can keep adapting strategy as the game changes with each card played.

We played Fluxx two times in a row, and in both instances the winner almost accidentally won—they kind of backed into it and winning came more as a realization rather than a well-planned and executed victory. We laughed hysterically trying to keep track of the play and Dan and I both noticed that the point of the game is not the winning, but the experience of being together when everything was in flux.

Afterward, Dan and I talked about how much this game is a mirror of being church in our current culture—everything is in flux. As soon as we think we have a handle on the norms, the technology, the way to do ministry or what we expect to be doing in the next six months, it changes and we find ourselves scrambling to catch up to the latest cultural shifts.

The church that I grew up in was based on established rules, patterns and expectations; when one followed the norms, one would usually get measurable results—good worship attendance, a balanced budget, growing numbers of children in Sunday School, Confirmation and Youth programs, adults engaged as programmatic volunteers. Pastors (myself included) and church members operated with the unspoken rule that as a member of the church, you would receive competent, attentive ministry from the hired staff (pastoral care, preaching, education classes, funerals, weddings, baptisms and so one, done all to your general liking). “Good” pastors would get the measurable results named above in this almost fee-for-service model.

But now in the “postmodern” era, all of this is in flux. We have thankfully shifted our understanding of the Christian church in that ministry is not “done” by the hired pastor and staff, but takes place in the lives of the people who the staff empowers and equips. The church members are the missionaries, rather than the recipients of ministry. The community, the city, the nation and the world make up the location of the mission carried out by the laity in the local congregation. Such mission is often harder to measure than the “butts and bucks” we so love to count, share, compare, and publish in our national church directories.

I think if the young Millennial generation experienced church more like a game of Fluxx, they would be more inclined to participate in doing good in the world through it. How flexible and adaptable is our leadership? Are we willing to ditch what no longer helps people deepen their relationship with God, even though we’ve always done it that way? Do we really incorporate new ideas from younger leadership or just want them to run a committee the way the last person did it and do we even need that Committee? Can we begin to experience the power of the Spirit in ministry experimentation in our neighborhood and let go of needing measurable results that can beef up our annual report?

Jesus did this very thing when he sent out the seventy in Luke 10. They were sent into the community in pairs to experiment with sharing God’s peace, love, and healing, and to experience the power of the Spirit who responds in the moment—in the flux of daily life and changing culture.

Play a game or two of Fluxx at your next church retreat or at the beginning of your meetings throughout the New Year as a way to practice adaptive, ever-changing, frustrating, hilarious community (there is even a Christian Fluxx!). It’s the way of the 21st century and it’s already 2016. Oh, and people like being a part of communities, even churches that have fun while sharing God's love.

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Enter God's On-going Story this Christmas

blogpic nativitysceneI have often heard congregations explain Christmas to children by telling them we are celebrating Jesus’ birthday. We’re having a party! This makes it easy to explain our Christmas traditions: On Jesus’ birthday we all give and receive presents, we light candles and sing, we have special cake or cookies or other desserts, and so on. It makes Jesus seem more like us – we have a birthday, Jesus was a baby and he has a birthday. I have seen religious supply stores offer the sale of hats, party bags and Jesus cake decorations all around this birthday-theme.

While this is fun to do with young kids, we as adults might also be attracted to this explanation because the truth requires more of us. There isn’t anyone else for whom we celebrate their 2,015th (approxiamately) birthday . The limitation of this birthday language reinforces the idea that Jesus was born once in history, a long time ago and that’s it. We celebrate a past event, and like other birthdays, once the party is over, we move on with our own life as if nothing has changed.

But something has changed for us – something radical and life-transforming. The real story of Christmas is not that Jesus was born once in history, but that he continues to be born—not just once a year, but every single day. He is born right now; Jesus is born in us and becomes an intimate part of our lives and our life story. Our lives change every day that we allow Jesus to be born in us.

Perhaps this is why the story of Jesus is so compelling and why the Bible is the best- selling book of all time. Because it’s really about God’s intimate involvement in humanity – in the lives of those who came before us and in our lives today. The Bible shares the narrative about God’s relationship—God’s deep involvement in human life—and how we experience it and what it means. It’s not just about past events, the Bible is about how God continues to be present in our lives here and now and in the future.

We are the on-going narrative of God’s love for and activity in the world. This is why we love to hear the Christmas story over and over and over–we find ourselves in this very human story, opening us up to see how God is present and at work in our lives today. This kind of deep truth asks us for our attention, our involvement, our willingness to be changed and shaped by this Jesus who is born not just in history, but in us today.

As Jesus is born in us, God invites us into the story as it unfolds and seeks to meet us with this message of love, forgiveness and hope. We enter the story at different points depending on the circumstances and time of our life; we enter the story with the diverse characters depending on the emotions and needs of our soul.

• Sometimes we are Mary pondering the meaning of faith in our hearts;
• Perhaps we are the innkeeper who just doesn’t seem to have any room for God;
• Sometimes we might feel like a barn animal – at such a low place in our life physically, emotionally or spiritually, we are shocked that Jesus has come to live with us;
• Maybe we are like the shepherds, going about our business when God breaks into our lives and we are compelled to follow a new path;
• Perhaps we are like the Wise Sages – on a long journey to encounter God, seeking the holy and sacred for ourselves and the world;
• Sometimes we are like the angels and we enter the story with so much gratitude we can’t help but sing and share the news of what God has done for us.

As we hear God enter the lives of everyone in the story – no matter their station, emotions, circumstances or faith, we experience once again that God enters us. We behold in the baby at Bethlehem, the living Christ who dwells within us and lives out the story of God’s love and engagement in the world through us.

Rather than showing up for a party and leaving unchanged, we become the Incarnation of God as we leave the manger; we become the gift of love and forgiveness for others, we become the people through whom Jesus acts as we follow a God who is deeply involved in the world.

The story was true in history; the story is true today and you are part of it. Jesus is born for you and in you. And you are changed forever. For you are the incarnation of Jesus Christ in God’s unfolding story in the world.

Photo Credit: ValerieTarico.com File:04567 Christmas nativity scene at the Franciscan church in nativity DeviantArt

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A New Conversation for the Holidays

blogpic questionmarkbubbleHave you ever concluded a family visit or holiday gathering feeling like you didn’t have substantive conversation with anyone? That you don’t know anyone more deeply or understand what makes them hopeful or passionate? That you’re not sure how they’ve changed or grown since the last time you saw them? That you’re really tired of superficial chitchat?

With travel, taking care of children, present-opening, special outings, and lots of cooking and eating, we can rush through this holiday time, and not feel any more connected to those we love than before we gathered. When we do have conversation, we often get caught up in reciting our “to-do” or “have-done” lists—what activities our children do, what we do at work, what we’re going to do in the New Year. But laundry lists of activities do not lead to meaningful conversation in my experience.

What if one simple question could change the quality of your conversations, the level of intimacy you feel with people you love and the satisfaction you get from holiday gatherings?

Dan and I saw a marriage counselor when we were making the transition to me staying home full-time with our children instead of working full-time. We wanted to make sure we were aware of the issues such a shift would create and able to have productive conversations about our changing needs and roles. Reporting what we did during the day, with whom and what we ate for lunch and other such minutiae is where we and other couples often begin and end daily conversation, but none of these topics address what’s going on in the heart and soul. Instead, our counselor gave us a magic question to ask each other at the end of the day so that we revealed to each other thoughts and feelings related to our activity; it became a tool to increase intimacy and connection as we each grew and changed over time. Dan and I still use this magic question seventeen years later, especially when we want a more substantive conversation. It’s very simple and easy to remember:

What is the impact of _____ on you?

You fill in the blank with the topic at hand (e.g. your new job, the loss of your mom, your child’s move to college, current political discourse, a health problem, whatever). Asking about the impact helps people reflect on and share what is changing and growing inside them as the result of their activities or circumstances. This leads to more intimate sharing that acknowledges that all events, large and small, continue to shape who we are, how we think and what we’re learning about ourselves and the world.

I use this question in just about every conversational setting I’m in, including work and ministry settings, in addition to family gatherings. Managers can better understand what’s going on with their team if they inquire about the impact of changes to company policy and practice. Imagine how such a question could change how committees report to the governing board in a church or non-profit organization. Boards usually know already if the essential work is getting done or not, so wouldn’t you rather hear about how a program or ministry has had an impact on the participants or the community served?

Engage in some experimental impact questions this holiday season and reflect on how it deepens conversation and increases satisfaction and enjoyment at your gatherings. Maybe it will become part of a goal to have more meaningful, healthy relationships in 2016!

 

Photo Credit: http://www.123rf.com/photo_13955802_speech-bubble-with-question-mark-icons.html?&vti=myp6oe9xid4ydav0mg; Image ID : 13955802; Image Type : Stock Vector
Copyright : Marina Zlochin

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Quotation of the Week

The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.

 

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