My thoughts this morning were on refreshment, renewal and other such happy life passages. I was in the perky place because of my dog. I’d shared the following on Facebook,
Our Black Lab is aging, but last night she had a shining moment of reclaimed youth.
Because it’s so cold, I stand in the garage and let her go out on a 25′ training leash (which never seemed to train her back in the day).
All of a sudden she growls, barks and just about drags me out the door and across the yard.
She’d spotted a deer in the shadows across the street and wanted to go after it. Needless to say, I didn’t let that happen in the subzero night. I restrained her with some effort and we just watched the deer bound away.
But I gave Lily a lot of praise and a treat back in the warm house.
I’m sure she had a great hunting tale to tell the cat.
We have these flashes of the good times now and then. I was getting ready for Morning Prayer and the Biblical passage about “getting back to your first love” ran through my mind. Last year, in the midst of some struggles and changes, I got back to my old habit of reading Morning and Evening Prayer (I’ll let the italics do the talking), using a schedule that offers the entire Book of Psalms every month.
It was a return to first love – the privilege and pleasure of time with God instead of capitulation to all of each day’s passing urgencies. I began to linger in prayer instead of “getting it done.” I was blessed to wander back into adoration, enjoying the reality and presence of God without any agenda of stuff to fix or fret over.
So what comes up as the New Testament reading this morning?
But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. (Revelation 2:4-5)
Now, being who and what I am, I read that with a momentary thought of Wow! Cool! but then got down to stressing and straining over what me, myself and I needed to do. What was it I had abandoned and needed to rediscover? How could I please God again after falling so far from… from…?
A gentle but terribly subversive awareness intruded. What if that passage coming up just after I’d been thinking about it (rather, having thoughts about it just before it came up) was an affirmation from God? What if it was good news via the Holy Spirit from the One who sent his Son into the world to save it? What if (No! Stop! Perish the thought! Vanity of vanities!) it was God expressing pleasure in me for having accepted His invitation to spend more conscious time with Him?
I realized that my self accusing thoughts were most likely The Accuser’s (that’s what the title Satan – in Hebrew The Satan – means) blather and lies, urging me to seek the good in me, myself and I rather than in the free gift of God.
That 30-day Psalm cycle came to the rescue, as a verse I took with me to bed came back into my mind:
I sought the LORD and he answered me and delivered me from all my terror. Look upon him and be radiant, and let not your faces be ashamed. Psalm 34:4-5
Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. (Matthew 24:42-44 ESV)
Even if we dwell in Christ and he dwells in us, the great secret of the time of his return will be a surprise. Our preparation is not an anxious effort to guess the day and time, but to “be awake,” which his Apostles say is to be living every moment as children of light, disciples of Jesus,
But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. (1 Thessalonians 5:4-5 ESV
Those who live as disciples are out of the dark, no matter how obscure some of God’s mysteries remain to us. And for disciples, the surprise of Christ’s return is a pleasant one (and that’s an understatement),
And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. (Luke 21:25-28 ESV)
When the secret is uncovered, those bowed down by affliction in a fallen world will stand tall and look with joy upon what is causing Christ’s enemies to faint with fear.
So it is that the Lord teaches us to pray for the coming of the kingdom, and John was blessed with the final words of our Bible, a prayer longing for Christ Jesus’ return and for those who belong to him to do no more than abide in the light of unmerited, undeserved favor by which we are his brothers and sisters,
He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen. (Revelation 22:20-21 ESV)
Bible readers know that the animal story about Balaam involves a donkey (Numbers 22). God gave the critter power to speak when its master was riding into trouble, a situation set up by Balaam’s forging ahead on his own terms rather than God’s.
Out of physical exhaustion, sloth, moodiness (are those all related?) or something else, I’ve been forging into recent days without the morning prayer and Bible reading that are a precious part of my relationship with God.
When I do start the day in prayer, it’s at our dining room table. Our dog and cat come and curl up close by, suspending their demands for food and trips outside to let me take in the Word of God and lift my praises and petitions before the problems of the day intrude.
This morning I continued to blow off prayer time and was surfing the internet. The cat started meowing. I went into the dining room to see if she was all right and she was rubbing against the legs of the chair where I sit for morning prayer. It was the affectionate rubbing that she gives my shins before settling down like the Sphinx to let me pray.
I have to admit that I was moved by her antics. If the prayer time imparts an intangible, positive something that even dumb animals desire, can’t I spare the few minutes?
Unlike Balaam’s donkey, the cat wasn’t sounding a warning. It wasn’t that God was angry at me for not plopping down to appease him with a morning sacrifice. Rather, God was reminding me of the good that prayer brings into the creation and, more than this, of the pleasure he takes in his children.
The readings this morning were a great blessing, affirming some new directions I’m taking and also giving guidance in the face of some challenges.
Her duty done, the cat indulged her bird watching hobby.
Did I mention that her name is Sophia, which means wisdom?
Although nothing in this fallen world is pure. She’s actually named for an object of lust.
Any ways that God is meowing or otherwise calling to you through his creation? Keep your ears, eyes, other senses and most of all your heart open.
The Jesus Prayer is a staple of Eastern (primarily Greek Orthodox) Christianity.
Seeing it pop up on social media tonight gave me pause, as the prayer is a surprise guest in my life of late. I’ve been in a challenging season of changes, and there’s been considerable spiritual struggling. In the midst of late night assaults of anxiety, doubt, shame and fear, this prayer (of which I’ve been aware but not a practitioner) asserted itself and gave me respite in God’s presence.
I’ve been seeking some guidance on the prayer, and found the website Chotki, which includes The Jesus Prayer Resource Library. There are links to articles and books by recognized Orthodox authorities, such as the late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, who oversaw Russian Orthodoxy in Great Britain. He wrote,
…the Jesus Prayer aims at bringing us to stand in God’s presence with no other thought but the miracle of our standing there and God with us, because in the use of the Jesus Prayer there is nothing and no one except God and us.
That evokes what the prayer brought me on anxious nights. It stopped my fixation on passing circumstances, silenced accusing and fretting thoughts, and gave me rest in the eternal and merciful God.
I’m not out to make it a fetish – The Lord’s Prayer is what Jesus gave us and is sufficient. But The Jesus Prayer has been a precious gift in a time of need, so I share it not as an exhortation to do anything but to praise God for such kindness to me, a sinner.
An incident in Jesus’ ministry is reported uniquely and briefly in the Gospel of Luke:
Soon afterward he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him. As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!” And this report about him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country. (Luke 7:11-17 ESV)
It is one of three passages in the Gospels in which Jesus previewed his resurrection power by raising someone from the dead (the others were Lazarus, recorded at length in John 11 and a preteen girl brought back in Mark 5. In the Book of Acts Jesus’ apostles use his name and power to raise the dead as well ).*
Part of the power of Luke’s description is a traffic jam. The text mentions a gate, indicating a walled city. For defensive purposes, such cities often featured a “Solomonic gate” which constricted movement and forced attackers to squeeze through in small numbers under flank attacks from the defenders.
Exiting through this gate is a procession of death. The residents of Nain are trekking out to bury a dead body. This procession exudes not only the sadness of death, but the affliction of life as a widow has lost her only son and, with no male to establish her standing and well being in the culture, faces impoverishment and the real risk of being exploited in order to survive.
Coming the other way is a procession of life. Jesus is heading toward the gate, accompanied by a great crowd inspired by his recent preaching and awed by his power to heal.
The opposing traffic meets in a jam near the gate. One group is going to have to give way.
Jesus wades into the funeral procession, going against traffic, and seeks to comfort the widow. Then he stops the group entirely, halting the “hearse” and, with a word, restoring life to the dead man. With both processions stuck, the only movement is Jesus bringing the son back to his mother, restoring not just physical life but a family’s hope for the future.
The two processions now unite in an outburst of praise to God, and, we assume, join in the same direction into the city to celebrate the miracle and hear the teaching of the one who ended the traffic jam by asserting life against death.
May Jesus come against the procession of sins, errant thoughts, wounded emotions, damaging situations, spiritual foes and all other forces that would waddle you toward eternal death. May His compassion stop the traffic and turn it all around, parading you to a joyous welcome in the heavenly city.
The birth of Jesus, in which the Word of God becomes flesh and lives among us, is celebrated in advance in Isaiah 11:2-3, one of the Advent prophecies with which the church waits for Christmas,
The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, A spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD, and his delight shall be the fear of the LORD. (NAB)
St. Thomas Aquinas (who says Christianity doesn’t produce great intellects?) distilled this passage into what are known as The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. The Catechism of the Catholic Church 1831 lists them as
wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.
We first encounter the Spirit who gives these gifts in the beginning, initiating the seven days of creation,
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. (Genesis 1:1-2 ESV)
Are there any correspondences between the Spirit’s original creative work and how the Spirit continues to visit the creation with gifts?
Day 1/Gift 1: Light and Wisdom
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. (Genesis 1:3 ESV) Human instinct equates wisdom with light. The word “enlighten” captures this. Ancient wisdom says, And I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness (Ecclesiastes 2:13 NASB). Likewise we state the inverse, that darkness is deprivation of wisdom, You’re wrong, you madman. There’s no darkness except ignorance (Shakespeare, Twelfth Night 4.2).
Then Jesus spoke to them again, saying, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.” (John 8:12 NKJV)
Day 2/Gift 2: Heaven and Understanding
And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so.(Genesis 1:7 ESV) Heaven is the “expanse” and separates the waters of the earth from the waters of the clouds. Yet we know that rain and snow will fall and evaporation will take place. The waters are in constant interplay as liquid, solid and gas.
The Spirit weaves the very nature of God into the creation here. Father, Son and Spirit are three distinct persons but are one substance, one God. The Christian revelation of God as a mysterious, always existing relationship is reflected in the fluid (sorry, but it’s the best word here) division of the waters.
Understanding is the gift that overcomes division. It’s more than our paltry “toleration” of difference; it is the establishment of unity, even compassion.
The Spirit prepares the creation for human beings, creatures separated from the Creator yet bearing His image and intended to enjoy the creation with Him for eternity.
Jesus is God and human being, and he works to restore lost understanding. As he told his followers after stooping to wash their feet,
“You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” (John 13:7 NIV)
Day 3/Gift 3: Land, plant life and counsel.
The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:12 ESV)
Although humanity, rebellion and death have not warped the creation to this point, God brings forth life that will be tended by people and can be cultivated for greater abundance. Or wasted.
Counsel will emerge as generations pass on guidance as to which plants are good to eat, what is required for their growth and how to farm for plentiful harvests.
Counsel will be needed to warn about behavior that depletes the earth or hoards the bounty.
Jesus points to the fruit of the earth as he counsels gratitude toward God and generosity toward other people,
And He told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man was very productive.And he began reasoning to himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?’Then he said, ‘This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.”’But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?’So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:16-21 NASB)
Day 4/Gift 4: Heavenly Bodies and Fortitude
And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:14-15 ESV)
What does God hanging all those lights have to do with us exercising fortitude or enduring strength?
God reveals that the heavens will become a source of power and responsibility to humanity. We work in the light and rest in the dark. We recognize or ignore signs; we understand the demands and priorities of seasons; we tie our efforts and deadlines to calendars reflecting the patterns in the skies.
Navigating signs and seasons, days and years requires fortitude. Strength against cynicism when the same routines come and go. Endurance for work that must be maintained “in season and out.” The courage to cease work on an appointed day of rest and exercise faith that the cosmos depends upon God, not us.
In his season on the Earth, Jesus pointed to himself as the ultimate heavenly light, the sign that needs to be seen and followed in the fortitude of faith,
Jesus replied, “My light will shine for you just a little longer. Walk in the light while you can, so the darkness will not overtake you. Those who walk in the darkness cannot see where they are going.Put your trust in the light while there is still time; then you will become children of the light.” (John 12:35-36 NLT)
Day 5/Gift 5: Aquatic Life, Birds and Knowledge
And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.” So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:20-21 ESV)
After the plants, God creates more complex life. These creatures live in environments that the soon-to-be human race cannot naturally inhabit, the water and the sky.
Yet when humans come to be, we look at these creatures and categorize them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. (Genesis 2:19 ESV) Be it a scientific descriptor like chondrichthyes or the more common dubbing, these creatures take their names from our point of view; we relate to them based on our knowledge of the creation.
And by our knowledge we gain ability to inhabit their environments, at least for limited stretches. We observe that wood floats, so we build rafts. We know more of what makes for buoyancy, and we build vessels of other materials. We know we need air, so we devise snorkels, scuba gear, submarines and other means to visit the sea creatures where they live. We know the birds and how they stay aloft, and we fashion our own flying machines to keep us airborne for awhile.
But knowledge imparted by God is not limited to some dispassionate awareness.If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. (I Corinthians 13:2 NLT)
All creation is an expression of divine love. This is the height of knowledge. We exist because of God’s love, and we are given the high position to know and love all else that He’s made. So Jesus came to tell us,
Notice the ravens: they do not sow or reap; they have neither storehouse nor barn, yet God feeds them. How much more important are you than birds! (Luke 12:24 NAB)
Day 6/Gift 6: Terrestrial Life (including Humans) and Piety
There’s a dog at my feet as I ponder and try to express things. A loving companion of God’s own making.
Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man… (Genesis 2:18-19 ESV)
But God went beyond this on the sixth day, imbuing the human race with more of the divine mystery, complete only as a relationship of persons,
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27 ESV)
Upon this outward and visible expression of God’s image God sent an inward and spiritual reality,
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen. 1:28 ESV)
We not only bear a likeness to our Maker, we share God’s life-giving power and His rule over the creation.
This sets up two possible responses. Our dominion over the earth can be short sighted and self centered, or it can have an eternal point of view filled with the Creator’s love. We can practice piety, seeing the presence and purpose of God in all things and treating every bit of life as holy.
Piety is an identity and a way of life, not an occasional expression of “religion.” This is the offering of life that Jesus made and that Jesus offers for us and to us,
Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.’ (John 6:37-40 NRSV)
Day 7/Gift 7: Rest and The Fear of the Lord
And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation. (Genesis 1:31; 2:1-3 ESV)
Rest and fear? Doesn’t make sense unless you’re having a nightmare.
But look at God’s point of view, revealed by the Spirit in the Scriptures. God appreciated everything – it was good – so he stopped work to just let it be and to take it all in. But He wasn’t passive – he blessed the day, filling it with the Spirit. The day of wonder and appreciation became holy, God’s own.
Notice that he didn’t lean back and look at His infinitely complex masterpiece, full of upcoming disappointments, betrayals and calling for a massive divine sacrifice to restore it, and say, “Oh no, what have I done?” That’s not the “fear” that the Spirit delivers as a gift.
Rather, God entrusts the day to us. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy (Exodus 20:8). Yes, that can be read as one more obligation to be kept with craven fear, to ward off the wrath of a selfish pagan god. But that’s not what Jesus came to reveal,
Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” Mark 2:27 NASB)
The fear of the Lord we are meant to observe is to stand in awe and wonder of a love so great that it overwhelms us and, in doing so renews our lives. It is to sit back and delight in the creation and, more than that, the Creator who loves us and shares it with us forever. Jesus came and taught us,
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. (John 15:9-12)
When I wish you a Merry Christmas, I express the hope – maybe even express the blessing – that the complete joy of the Heavenly Father, through the divine and human Son, in the creative and always gift-giving power of the Holy Spirit be yours now and for eternity. Amen.
I encountered the writings of St. John of the Cross (Dec. 14th is his Feast on the church calendar) in the library of a retreat house overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
I started reading The Ascent of Mount Carmel one evening and stayed up with it all night. I couldn’t put it down and I keep poking around in that book and his other writings today, decades later.
John posits that all things – sins, obviously, but also all “goods” – must be set aside to “ascend” to the summit where the glory and goodness of God are encountered and enjoyed. He labels all that is not God nada, Spanish for “nothing.” He advises spiritual guides to take away favorite devotional aides from those they counsel. A favorite prayer book, place to pray, rosary or other “good” thing is not God, so it must be set aside if one is to ascend the mountain.
In light of that, I should not have been surprised when that wonderful retreat house, a favorite place where I grew in prayer and bumped into John of the Cross, burned to the ground in a wildfire.
The morning prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours on John’s Feast pick up his image of ascent,
Many peoples shall come and say: “Come, let us go up to the LORD’s mountain…” (Isaiah 2:3 NAB)
Although a Feast Day, I can’t help but think of it as just a picnic with Blessed John of the Cross. After all, the world’s richest fare is “nada”when it comes to the banquet to which he and I are invited.
But I do give thanks to God who gave me this spiritual companion from the Communion of Saints, and for John’s poetry, reminding me always that the climb up the mountain isn’t a grim business, but a romance initiated by God,
“How gently and lovingly
you wake in my heart,
where in secret you dwell alone;
and in your sweet breathing,
filled with good and glory,
how tenderly you swell my heart with love.”
(The Living Flame of Love, Stanza 4, Kavanaugh/Rodriguez trans.)