Praying By Candlelight

A number of years ago, I began to light a taper candle when I would sit to read or pray or write. Doing so reminds me of the presence of God, and the flame is mesmerizing; it creates in me a blessed stillness. With the lit candle next to me, it is also as if I have a silent, soul companion, which allows me to feel less anxious and to receive inspiration for the day and the task at hand.

Candlelight on a table:desk

I look at the candle longer during these moments of meditation than when we light candles on other occasions, and I began to notice how the match flame catches to the wick and sizzles, how the wick soaks up the melting wax like fuel, how the flame itself is multicolored, and how the top of the candle becomes luminous as it is consumed. It struck me that a taper candle is a finely tuned, light producing system, one to which a human life might be compared.

lit taper candle full length

Thus I started envisioning the wick as the soul or essence of me running down through the ‘candlewax’ of my work, relationships, and daily life. The flaming match represents the spark of God, and when it touches the wick ‘in me,’ my own light is born. So it is that who I am and how I am living in my body and in the world in relationship to the flame of the Spirit becomes a witness to others. If air currents are calm, often my light witnesses to this stillness and reaches upward, growing brighter, but sometimes even the breeze from a window threatens to extinguish it. On yet other mornings, my candle flame pulsates and seems to dance with joy before my eyes, allowing me to ask myself what kind of witness I am actually bearing.

So it is that praying by candlelight gives me the opportunity on any given day to assess my spiritual state and invite God’s grace into it, the lit candle serving as a sort of spiritual director. If the wick is buried in the pileup of the stuff of my life, for instance, I can “dig” around in prayer to free it and catch the spark. If the flame is terribly erratic, I can pray about the troubles in society and seek serenity.

In the early years of this spiritual practice, I also watched in suspense as the candle burned down over time. I observed how the wick can catch hold even at the bottom of the taper, and by the generosity of God, the little nub of a candle can still produce a large flame of bright vigor. Finally, at the moment the melted wax gives its all and the wick is no more, the flame simply goes to dark, emitting yet a wisp of rising smoke, like prayerful incense before God, and leaving the gift of profound peace in my soul.

candle flame to wisp of smoke

(This piece was just included in the summer spiritual practices booklet produced by the Christian Education committee at Trinitarian Congregational Church, Concord, MA.)

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What are we going to do today, God?

little-girl-very-excited

This isn’t a childhood picture of me, but at times I look like this little girl, because from a young age, I have rubbed my hands together briskly when I’m excited or getting ready to do something new or interesting. My 60th birthday tomorrow. Starting a new interim ministry next week. It’s possible that I picked up this habit from my father, but now it’s all mine, and it has even come to carry theological meaning.

You see, during my years of ministry, my hand habit expanded. When I work on the sermon, for example, and I sense the message coming together, I spontaneously rub my hands. It has become a reliable sign of the movement of the Holy Spirit. Whenever I perceive that God is up to something and I’m participating in it, well, it’s a personal, down to earth eschatological moment (see my last blog post).

In this same vein, I recall a friend’s story. Jim is a seasoned educator, and at one time, he was in charge of the media resources for his elementary school. There was a student there – we’ll call him Mark – who didn’t fit in too well with his classmates or in the structure of the traditional classroom. Teachers were having trouble with him, and Jim offered to try to relate to him, enlisting him as his student assistant. The two would travel from class to class, meeting their audiovisual needs, and Mark flourished in this learning environment. Every morning he’d come to school early, find Jim, and, probably rubbing his hands together, ask: “What are we going to do today, Jim, what are we going to do today?”

It occurs to me that if we believe in a living, loving, leading God, every day will be new and full of potential, Jesus Christ will be the good teacher, and the Holy Spirit will be flowing through the channels in and between us, just waiting to be noticed. What would it be like to have such faith? To live like this? I imagine it would be an adventure, one of putting our hands together in expectation, asking: “What are we going to do today, God, what are we going to do today?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eschatology Down to Earth

 

plowing-paintingparable

Over the past few months my personal bible-reading has been the gospel of Mark. Early on, I was so taken by the Common English Bible’s translation of Mark 1:15 that during my reading of the subsequent doings and teachings of Jesus, I would read each pericope aloud and then, like a liturgical refrain, insert Mark 1:15:

NOW IS THE TIME! HERE COMES GOD’S KINGDOM!

CHANGE YOUR HEARTS AND LIVES, AND TRUST THIS GOOD NEWS!

This refrain summarizes Jesus’ preaching and teaching – his gospel – and, as I suggested in the post of last month, it captures the anticipation that surrounded Jesus’ ministry. But what did he mean by it?

Did Jesus mean that in that moment and in him personally, God was fulfilling the Jewish hopes for the arrival of the Messiah? Did he mean that somehow, not then clear, yet imminently, God’s kingdom would arrive on earth? Or in another dimension? Before or after their individual deaths? Apart from him or only through him? Did he mean that it would come whether they were ready or not? Or did their changing and trusting usher it in, even in the slightest?

 alpha-and-omega-eschatology

These are not all the possibilities of interpretation by a long shot! Indeed, it’s no wonder that so many schools of thought have arisen over the nature of God’s Kingdom. “Eschatology” is the theological term that refers to the study of the end things, the future of humanity and creation, and the Kingdom or Reign or Rule of God, and by my count there are at least nine approaches or types.

Realized eschatology conceives of the Kingdom as having already arrived in Jesus and his ministry. The Preterist view thinks of God’s rule as having occurred in the past too, but particularly that the events in the book of Revelation point to historical people and events that happened in the first and second century. A futurist would say that Jesus meant that the rule of God would take place in the future, and of course there are variations on this idea. Imminent eschatology thinks of the Kingdom as soon and in-breaking. A historist would emphasize its future nature, but the second coming on a specific date that one might determine through prophecies, and a millennialist (of which there are numerous kinds) anticipates a thousand years of Christ’s rule, either after or before his second coming. An inaugurated eschatology is a stance that combines the reign arriving now and not yet; Jesus ushered it in and it is growing, either through the efforts of the church or by mysterious means, but its fulfillment is still to be. Besides these types, there are those who hold to the Kingdom of God as a symbol of an ideal, experienced by us spiritually, but not necessarily a social instantiation on earth as it is in heaven.

I did not ask the participants in my dissertation project – the members of the case study congregations – to reveal their personal or congregational eschatology, and they did not explicitly name the “Kingdom” or “Reign of God” as that which was motivating or empowering their transformation as church. However, they described their church life before transformation efforts as having been negative, turned inward, dull, confused, lost, and even dead – God was not real to them – but since their prayerful efforts at change, church had become positive, turned outward, vibrant, and more clear; they felt “found,” and alive, and they gave God/Jesus Christ/the Holy Spirit the credit for the change.

love_is_a_verb

In the here and now, I contend, they were experiencing the living, loving, and leading God. Because they had experienced the Divine at work and active in their midst, they had a present and a future to look forward to. In Markan eschatological terms, they had changed their hearts and minds, and were now trusting God’s lead (reign/kingdom). It was my conclusion that they were practicing the reign of God, allowing God to rule, or in other words, dancing to the lead of God in the present, while awaiting its completion in God’s good time.

What these congregations experienced is a transformation that is available to all of us – an eschatology that is faithful to the good news of Jesus and worthy of our yearning and participation. I think this down-to-earth, dancing eschatology is one that can especially nourish the church of today. To trust the leadership of God above all earthly leaders, to test the spirits through the Holy Spirit as we move together in the world, and to know that as individuals and as the church, we can avoid getting stuck in the status quo or in our own impatience is really good news, just as it was in Mark 1:15, plus a really good way to live what Jesus meant!

 

Anticipation in New Years and Epiphany

new-year-blue

I really like this picture of the blue cityscape with fireworks in the sky because it visually reminds me of both New Years and Epiphany. The two always fall in the same week on the calendar: the New Year on January 1 and Epiphany on January 6, but in our thoughts and actions, I think we usually keep these secular and religious holidays separate from each other. Even though colorful fireworks usher in the New Year and a bright, singular star, Epiphany, we think of January 1 as being for recovery and resolutions, while Epiphany is about the Light shining in the darkness, the Magi bowing to the Christ child with gifts, and the baptism of the adult Jesus in the Jordan River. Where’s the link? Well, I think one thing connecting the two days is anticipation.

This coming Sunday, for instance, the first after the Epiphany, many folks in the pews will hear anew the story of Jesus’ baptism, this year from Matthew’s version. The lead up is John preaching about the Reign of God: “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the Kingdom of Heaven!” (Common English Bible) It was their anticipation of God’s leadership in their time that drew the crowds and Jesus to that liminal river to be baptized. It was anticipation that their world could be different, sin and foolishness washed away, and their own lives new, full of light and purpose!

For some people a new year stirs up anticipation and serves as that sort of threshold. They hope that in and of itself 2017 will give them the verve to realize their goals and dreams. The changing of the year does do this, I’m sure, to a degree, but I find that I need more fuel for the long haul than just typing that new number on the emails I send. So to sustain my feelings of anticipation, excitement, and hope, I find myself returning to the sacred story.

After Jesus’ baptism and that glorious beginning, the same Holy Spirit that had descended upon him in the form of a dove drove him into the wilderness where the temptations surfaced. I think of that period when a New Year’s resolution to lose weight meets the discipline of working out and eating less, only way more so. Jesus comes up against his deep and largely hidden desires for fame and power, the limits of the flesh, and enticements to abuse divine authority. This is the crucible that not only he has known, the intersection where one’s anticipation of the Reign of God is forced to learn the discipline of letting God actually rule!

This is the between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place, where the rubber meets the road, when push comes to shove, when one has to cut bait or fish, and John realized it, even when he issued the invitation to the water. On the Jordan boundary between the former things and the Promised Land, he declared: “Here comes the Kingdom of Heaven. Change your hearts and lives.”

To receive and experience the Kingdom that we say we so anticipate, to forgive ourselves and others, to be new, and in order for 2017 to be a truly different year, you and I must change our hearts and lives, that is, practice following the lead of the Holy One whom we love, through hunger, temptation, and wilderness, here and now. Indeed, at the very crux of the anticipation of God’s leadership fulfilled on earth as it is in heaven is us taking the extended hand and actively praying, moment-to-moment, with Jesus.

Your will be done” is the surest and strongest connection between New Years and Epiphany.

open-hand-thy-will-be-done

 

 

How do we witness boldly in the aftermath of the elections?

No matter who you voted for November 8, if you claim to be a Christian and you are part of a church community, you are asking yourself: “What should/can I do now, in the aftermath of the elections?”

what-next-after-the-vote

Like many Christians (not all, I realize), I was both surprised and deeply concerned after Donald Trump won the electoral college, and it has taken a while to process my feelings and the facts, and to develop some footing for future action. The Sunday before we voted on Tuesday, I was glad to hear from the pastor of our home church, Hope Central Church in Jamaica Plain, MA – not knowing at that point just what the outcome of the election would be – that our church sanctuary would be open on Wednesday for people to gather in silence “after the noise” of the contentious campaign. This was what was needed. People came, and from the surrounding community as well, to rest in the Holy Spirit and to regroup. In my view this was a simple and profound, non-politicized act of witness to the reign of God.

The research I conducted with congregations in transformation showed that one of the things that changed about them from before transformation to the present was their new practiced belief that church is to be about witness. Church is not just for them. They lived into this shift through twelve areas of church life. Worship was now about witness, education was about witness, welcome was about witness, etc., as well as was their increased visibility and action in the wider community. Their witness in word and deed also became bolder than it had been when they were in the throws of decline. As I reflected theologically upon the way they were now practicing their beliefs, and sought to name that to which they were now bearing witness, I concluded that it was to the good news of God’s leadership/reign – the good news that Jesus proclaimed and embodied.

In my estimation, this season of our country’s life calls for more than the kind of comfortable silence that supports the status quo, or a superficial unity. It requires bold witness from people of faith, the kind that is prayerfully grounded in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, reflects the reign of God, and is Spirit-led. As such, your bold witness will be contextualized to your church and your community. It will arise with integrity from your gifts, but amplified, and it will transform you as much or more than others. It will be a witness of integrity; strategic, never violent, and for the long haul.

goldfish-taking-a-risk

So in my context, were I pastoring a congregation, I would push my shy self to:

  1. Boldly gather circles of conversation, even across political differences and surely across color, class, and gender, in order to process the elections together, understand one another, and find common ground; maybe even to discern the lead of God for action. Yes, participants would indeed need to agree to behaviors of “generous listening” (Susan Garrett) and respectful speech, building their capacity for such in the process of this dialogue.
  2. Boldly stand vigil in solidarity and advocate for “the least of these” as Jesus commanded (credit for this thought to Rachel Bell). Following this call of Christ will mean witness not in words alone, but service unto the poor, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned…and to those who are most vulnerable and afraid for their safety in the wake of campaign rhetoric and life experience: people of color, immigrants, Muslims, and LGBTQ sisters and brothers.
  3. Boldly speak and write, with respect and compassion, about our deepest moral values. To me, this means describing what the world would be like if what God wanted was desired and done, that is, to draw a compelling picture of what Jesus prayed for: “the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven.” What does that world look like? And as compared to what we have now? Exercising the courage of the Holy Spirit, you and I and our congregations can ask this question out loud at appropriate junctures, and we just may provoke Amen Action from others as they catch the reign of God vision.mercywitnesslifetogether

 

There’s a Light in the Darkness – Look For It

starlit_sky_

My husband teaches physics and astronomy at the high school level, and every so often he invites his classes to go out stargazing at a local park. It is darker there at night than in other parts of the city, making it more conducive to finding constellations.

As we get out of the car this particular evening, everything looks pitch black. We can’t even see the ground clearly, so we step gingerly, one foot in front of the other, and feel our way up to the highest point on the open field, little by little becoming able to make out the ridge and the trees, the students and the soccer goals. Looking up at the broad expanse of sky, at first we can’t see too much there either. As is the case with the picture pasted in above, our eyes must adjust in order to distinguish the stars from the blackness. The human eye has to recalibrate.

Peering patiently at the sky, our eyes eventually do adjust, and we start to make out the bright pinpoints. More and more of the stars and planets show up above us, revealing that there are actually lights in the darkness. The words from the Gospel of John come to my lips: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Beauty, wonder, and hope show up too.

When we got home from stargazing that night, the final debate between the presidential candidates was on TV. As it proceeded, I couldn’t help but think that I was again having trouble seeing the light! Was it the bright light of the studio getting in the way, too much noise, or political obfuscation? Another kind of darkness seemed to be testing the theological claim that the Light was indeed shining. Later on it became clear to me that I needed to ask myself: Which of these candidates, if either, is looking for the Light? Which, if either, is willing to patiently and persistently let their eyes adjust to reality and truly see? The important question is not which one of them can be a light for our nation, but which is looking for the Light that is greater than him or her, and greater than America? That’s the one that I think deserves my vote.

clintontrumpsplitscreendebate

Forty-eight hours later I faced a sleepless night. I get them every once in a while, what with all the unknowns I’m living right now. Within that profound obscurity, I recalled the lesson of stargazing and told myself again, even when it was hardest to believe: “Look for the light in the darkness, Jean. It is surely shining, even if you can’t see it!” I also lit a prayer candle and waited for my eyes to adjust.

candle-flame-with-glowing-wick

Walking the Way to Healing

walkin feet

“We make the road by walking” is a line drawn from the Spanish poet Antonio Machado, a sentence that others like Paola Freire and Brian McLaren have incorporated into their writing. It’s a proverb that can be employed multiple ways. For example, I have most often heard it addressed to the church as a word of encouragement to keep going step by step since the future is not at all clear. I can bear personal testimony to another application: we can make the road to healing by walking.

Mid-March an uncomfortable pain in my neck and shoulders got worse. After I passed out at home, a brief stay in the hospital ruled out any issue with my heart, but the tests and treatment didn’t explain or get rid of the pain at the source. A week later the pain was radiating down my left arm, wrist, and hand until, during that Holy Week, the increasing level was debilitating and unbearable – a “10” according to the standard established by my past experience with kidney stones. The second hospitalization, across Good Friday to Easter, revealed the cause: I was suffering from cervical radicalopathy due to spinal stenosis. After this second hospitalization, it took a three-month course of medications, physical therapy, and a cervical steroid injection to get my pain to level “1.” I’m glad to report that with the exception of some residual numbness, tingling, and weakness in my left hand, I am back to “normal.”

The prescription the professionals gave me for healing was not to resume my fitness routine. Even if I had felt up to it, there was to be no more cardio in the gym, no weights, no sit-ups, no running or biking, and certainly no Zumba, at least for the time being. They told me, however, that I could walk. So every day, more than once a day, along with the stretches I was learning, I’d get out and walk around our neighborhood, from twenty minutes to an hour at a time. Walking took my mind off and eased the pain. It seemed to align everything in my body and relieve the stiffness, so that upon returning home, I felt better for longer. At the beginning of the healing process, I walked slowly, more like someone in her eighties, but as time passed, I walked faster  and with longer strides. I looked forward to these walks, and one foot in front of the other, I walked the way to physical healing. Praise God!

Let me tell you the rest of this good news: the practice of walking improved other dimensions of my life. For one, it fostered further spiritual connection and growth. It was as if the fresh air mediated the Holy Spirit, filling my frame and lifting my spirits. I realized how lucky I was to be breathing and moving, and at this slower pace, I noticed so much more of the beauty around me, for which I easily whispered prayers of thanksgiving. Bleeding-Heart flowers

I was closer to creation and to the Creator, which did me good. Walking opened the way to deeper experiences of my own limits and God’s grace, and led me toward the healing that comes through humility, wonder, trust, and gratitude.

The spiritual practice of walking also improved my awareness of my own surroundings. In our time and culture it is so incredibly easy to live in an independent, disconnected fashion from our geography and our neighbors. Traveling at the speed of car, we miss more than we realize. By contrast, as my heels touched the sidewalks, I got better acquainted with the community in which we had been living for eleven years – the streets, the trees, the homes, and the people. I began to understand at ground level how the neighborhood fit together, and to imagine that healing could actually take hold in even broader realms, as promised in our faith. “We walk by faith, not by sight.” We make the way by walking.

sidewalk and lake with people