From the Inside Out

Scripture Passage:  Jeremiah 31: 31-34 (Lent 5B)

31The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Most of us know this passage well.  It is telling of a new covenant, a covenant that is different from any that came before.  It is not a covenant that you can see; it is a covenant that you become.  The days are surely coming when that will come to be.  When would that be that the new covenant will come to be?  We Christians like to put on our post-Resurrection lens and read this with the view of Jesus, the Cross, and the empty tomb in our mind.  Ah…we think, Jesus, Jesus is the new covenant.  Jesus is the covenant that is written on our hearts.  Jesus is the one. Isn’t he?  So are the days surely here?

OK, be honest, have you looked around?  Have you listened to the news today?  BUT, “the days are surely coming!”  But I’m not sure they’re here yet.  I think we’re still wandering a little in the wilderness.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I DO believe that Jesus is an embodiment of the New Covenant, the embodiment of God’s Promise, the embodiment of The Way.  And yet, the idea of this being “written on our hearts”, of this New Covenant becoming not just something to which we aspire, not just something by which we try to abide, but something that is part of us just downright eludes most of us.  If it is written on our hearts, then this covenant is something that should be part of our body, our soul, our heart, our mind, our very being.  The promise is certain, but it doesn’t end there and we have to be open to seeing beyond ourselves to embrace it.

In his book, The Naked Now:  Learning to See as the Mystics See, Catholic priest and writer Fr. Richard Rohr tells of the experiences of three men who stand at the edge of the ocean, looking at the same sunset.  One man saw the immense physical beauty and enjoyed the event in itself.  This man…deals with what he can see, feel, touch, move, and fix.  This was enough reality for him, for he had little interest in larger ideas, intuitions, or the grand scheme of things.

A second man saw the sunset.  He enjoyed all the beauty that the first man did.  Like all lovers of coherent thought, technology, and science, he also enjoyed his power to make sense of the universe and explain what he discovered.  He thought about the cyclical rotations of planets and stars.  Through imagination, intuition, and reason, he saw…even [more].

The third man saw the sunset, knowing and enjoying all that the first and the second men did.  But in his ability to progress from seeing to explaining to “tasting,” he also remained in awe before an underlying mystery, coherence, and spaciousness that connected him with everything else.  He [saw] the full goal of all seeing and all knowing.  This was the best.  It was seeing with full understanding.  It was seeing beyond the obvious.  It was seeing not just with his eyes, but with all that he was.  It was seeing beyond himself and beyond what he was capable of seeing, beyond even what he was capable of understanding.  In essence, he was open not to just the sunset but what it meant to embrace it as part of who he was.

So, then, what does it mean for a covenant to be “written on our hearts”?  That means it’s part of who we are.  No longer are we looking at rainbows or holding tablets.  God’s vision is written on our hearts, permanently tattooed into our very being.  For us followers of Christ, the new covenant, then, is not just a vision of Christ; it is rather a vision of us as we live through Christ, as we FINALLY see Jesus in the light of who Jesus is.  What that tells us is that, yes, we are to be change agents, being a part of bringing God’s Kingdom into being.  But more than that, we are to BE the change.  The change happens in us as well as through us.

It is as if God is remaking us from the inside out.  The vision of that new covenant that God has is a vision of a new us.  That’s what Jesus was trying to show us, trying to lead us toward understanding.  That’s what following Jesus through life’s wilderness means.  But in order to do that, we need to become willing to let go—to let go of our lives, to let go of our things, to let go even of the images that we have God that get in the way of our following and being this Way of Christ.  We have to clear our lenses of those things that are clouding the vision that God has for us.

Think about it.  Read the words.  This is not about God just tossing some words out there in the hopes that someone will be curious enough or scared enough or ready enough to pick them up.  God is much more nuanced than that.  Rather, God’s vision is that they are written on our hearts, permanently tattooed, part of our very being.  It is as if God is remaking us from the inside out.  Maybe that’s our whole problem.  Maybe we’re trying to make ourselves and maybe, just maybe, we’re doing it backwards.  Maybe we’re trying to do the right things and say the right things and fast and pray and live our lives with the hopes that our hearts will be made right.  Maybe we’re trying so desperately to find our way out of the wilderness that we have missed what is happening to our very heart.  Because while we’re wandering, while we’re trying desperately to make everything right, God is inside, with heart-wrenching fervor, remaking us from the inside out and waiting patiently for us to stop and notice.  Amazingly, our hearts do not need to be made right; rather, we need to listen to what God has already written into them.

As we have said many times, wandering in this wilderness is hard.  It’s full of change.  But this passage points not to changes around us but changes within us.  Change comes at us usually unexpectedly.  Change comes when we’re not prepared for it at all.  But change is indeed part of the wilderness.  Change is indeed part of life.  Change is the way we grow.  Change softens us, like sandpaper on a piece of rough-hewed wood, making us touchable and real.  Change reminds us that we need to look beyond where we’re accustomed to looking.  Change makes us who God envisions we can be.  Look in your heart.  It’s written right there.

Deep within us all there is an amazing sanctuary of the soul,, a holy place…to which we may continuously return. Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives, warming us…calling us home unto Itself. Yielding to these persuasions…utterly and completely, to the Light within, is the beginning of true life. (Thomas R. Kelly)

Grace and Peace,


The New Normal

Scripture Passage:  Isaiah 40: 3-5

3A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” 

So, here we wander in the wilderness, hoping against hope that it will all be over soon, that things will finally, once and for all, get back to normal (or at least a more normalized “new normal” that everyone keeps touting). So, what IS normal? Is it places that are not the wilderness? It is times that are not now? Is it ways of being that were before? Here, the exiles, just released from captivity, dripping with newfound freedom, are beginning to return. They are making their way through the wilderness, headed toward “getting back to normal”. But their city and their way of life lies in ruins. They can’t just go back and pick where they left off. They are looking for comfort, for solace, for a promise that God will put things back the way they were before.

But the problem is that’s not the promise that has been made. Rather than repair, God promises re-creation; rather than vindication, God promises redemption; and rather than solace, God promises transformation. God is making something new—lifting valleys, lowering mountains, and, ultimately, when all is said and done, revealing a glory that we’ve never seen before. The truth is, there is no going back. So what is normal? Perhaps “normal” is newness, going forward, becoming re-created. What if THAT was normal?

To be honest, have you ever really witnessed a highway being built? (If you haven’t, you don’t live where I do!) It’s not easy. It takes preparation and time and lots of heavy lifting. You have to recruit people to do it, you have to clear the way, you have to show people how to navigate through it. And once in a while (or every other weekend, as the case may be where we live), they have to close the road so that it can be made new. See, lifting valleys and lowering mountains is not an easy feat. God is not a magician. (Oh, sure, God could raise and flatten with the wave of a hand, I’m sure, but what fun is that?) In fact, I’m thinking the world, all of Creation, is even now groaning and shaking with all the movement that is happening, wanting at its very core to burst forth into being, to ignore God’s prodding to wait and be patient. And, no, it will never be like it was before. There is no going back. There is never any going back. In this life of faith, “normal” is newness, it is going forward through the wilderness toward a new normal.

At the end of the exile, the people realized that their former lives did not exist. And so, in this new normal, they had to rethink and recast their image of God. Rather than relying on what was familiar and comfortable, they had to find God again in the midst of a strange, new world. They had to discover that God was not in the repair business, that God was not there to clean up their mess and fix their woes, that God loves us too much to put things back the way they were before.

We are no different. This wilderness journey that we are on is not a “break” from our lives. Lent is not a season of denying ourselves and giving up sweets and talking about sin and suffering and repentance over and over and then sliding into to Easter morning with a “whew, glad THAT’S over…now we can go back.” If that were the case, there would be no point. If that’s what you think, there is a chocolate bunny that you can have right now! See, the deal is, the wilderness changes you; it changes your life; it changes the world. God is doing something new. There is a new normal. You can never, ever go back. But you CAN go home again. THAT’S what the wilderness teaches you.

Everything that God has created is potentially holy, and our task as humans is to find that holiness in seemingly unholy situations…We must remember that everything in this world has God’s fingerprints on it—that alone makes it special.  Our inability to see beauty doesn’t suggest in the slightest that it is not there.  Rather, it suggests that we are not looking carefully enough or with broad enough perspective to see it.  (Harold Kushner)

Grace and Peace,



This Sunday’s Lectionary Passage:  Mark 1: 21-28

21They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

Can you hear me now?…Can you hear me now?…Can you hear me now?…Remember that Verizon campaign with that now famous slogan.   It lasted for nine years and always showed a guy going to different places with his cell phone to show what fabulous network reception Verizon had.  He’d be out in a field or down in a hole or in some sort of tunnel and with those words, would test out how well his phone worked.  I suppose it was a fairly clever advertising campaign for the phone itself.  But it also acknowledged that there are other factors in play when it comes to trying to hear someone.  There’s the instrument of hearing itself.  There’s the distance between the hearer and what he or she is trying to hear.  And then there are those things that get in the way, whether they are physical impediments that stop the sound or other sounds and voices that interfere.  As we know, hearing is not that easy.  It involves listening and sometimes that’s not as clear as it sounds.  Sometimes we, too, have to hone our reception capabilities.  

But how do you hear the voice of God in the midst of this noisy, chaotic world?  Jesus…Jesus showed us that.  If we just pay attention, Jesus taught less about how to act and more about how to listen to the voice of God.  At first reading, our Gospel passage for this week seems to be about some sort of exorcism of demons or some sort of evil spirits.  Now, admittedly, that’s just downright odd for us.  But before we relegate it to the status of a B-rated horror flick, let us look at it from the standpoint of the one who Jesus healed rather than the demons themselves. 

Think about it.  I don’t think this was what we think of as “demonic possession”.  This is not “The Shining”.  This person was an interruption.  He didn’t fit.  He didn’t belong.  He was in the way of proper society and right religion.  But not only did Jesus acknowledge him but he also welcomed him and healed him.  Yes, the world as it was known with its comfortable rules and its “right” ways of being was ending.  Even that which doesn’t “belong” is being redeemed.  God is gathering everything in so that it can be re-created—even, I suppose the demons, whatever those might be.

We are told that Jesus brought an unquestioned authority to his teaching.  What was that?  Well of course, it was the Word of God.  But what does that mean?  It was not an overpowering; it was not a violent overtaking; it was a silencing, a silencing of the powers and voices of this world that are not part of that vision that God holds.  The Greek word is the same one used to depict the way Jesus calmed the storm, created order out of chaos.  Maybe that where we’re called to be.  Maybe that’s how God speaks—in the silences, when we’re listening.  You see, Jesus’ teaching was not just about words; it was about transformation.  It was about taking that which did not belong and speaking it into being again.  It was about silencing those voices that were in the way of hearing the voice that we’re called to hear.  It’s about clearing those things from our lives that are so loud that we can’t listen to that which we’re supposed to be listening.   Shhh!  Can you hear me now?

Listening is about more than just words.  A listening faith affirms that God sees more than we see, imagines more than we imagine, and believes in us more than we believe in ourselves.  We’d like this voice to which we’re called to listen to be clear and concise and controllable.  If we’re honest, we’d like to be able to turn it off once in a while when it’s uncomfortable or inconvenient.  But that’s not how it works.  Changing the world (and changing ourselves) is sometimes messy and wild and even dangerous.  Living into God’s vision might sometimes mean that we have to speak the voice of God and probably more likely that we will actually be called to silence our own perceptions and desires and fears that the world might not be what we think it should look like so that we can hear God speaking our Creation into being once again.  Our main work is listening, rather than speaking.  In fact, on some level, we have neglected to perfect the language of listening.  We have not learned to empty our filled-up lives so that God can speak them into being.

Barbara Brown Taylor wrote a little book called When God Is Silent that is so full of words and thoughts that we people of faith need to hear.  In it, she quotes French philosopher Max Picard who claimed that silence was the central place of faith, the place where we give the Word back to the God from whom we first received it.  Surrendering the Word, we surrender the medium of our creation.  We unsay ourselves, voluntarily returning to the source of our being, where we must trust God to say us once again.  She speaks of silence as the womb from which we came and so returning to it, is to allow ourselves to be recreated.

We need to remember that faith is not about affirming our old shopworn lives.  It’s about newness; it’s about re-creation; it’s about following God down pathways that we’ve never walked before.  Faith is drifting off a little in a sermon and then finding yourself in a new land. Faith is about singing a song that you’ve never heard before and realizing that in the deepest part of you, you already know the tune.  Faith is about hearing unexpected voices say things that we never thought we’d hear.  Faith is listening and learning when to speak and when to hear.  And the more faithfully we listen to the voice within us, the better we will hear what the world is trying to tell us and what God envisions that we should hear.

So where are those voices to which we should be listening?  I think they’re here, all around us.  They are out there on the street.  They’re on that chaotic mess that we call television and they are all over the internet.  They’re in the sanctuary and they’re on the Zoom call and they’re in the streaming worship to which you’ve become so accustomed.  They are there.  But we have to learn to hear the voices that God is calling us to hear.  God is not silent.  God is straining to be heard by us above all the other voices.  But knowing which voice is one to which we should listen is deep within us.  In the moment of silence when we begin to hear, the words settle into our hearts and begin to be claimed and shaped into who we were meant to be.  And, through it all, we “unsay” ourselves so that God can re-create us. So, can you hear me now?

God speaks in the silence of the heart.  Listening is the beginning of prayer. (Mother Teresa)

Grace and Peace,


Standing in the Waters

This Sunday’s Lectionary Passage:  Mark 1: 4-11

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” 9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

So after weeks of going through the announcement and birth of Jesus, suddenly the story seems to stop.  We must wait, almost suspended in time, until Jesus grows into an adult.  From our 21st century seat, we know that Jesus is figuratively waiting in the wings, waiting to emerge with the Spirit of God in his very being. But remember, it wasn’t just the thirty years before Jesus committed to public ministry that we waited.  It was the centuries upon centuries and ages upon ages that all of Creation had waited for the dawn to break.  In essence, Creation has been groaning and straining for this very moment. And so Jesus goes to John at the Jordan to be baptized.  And just as each of us received the gift of water in our own Baptism, Jesus kneels in the Jordan and John bends over him and baptizes him.  The work has begun.

The writer of the Gospel According to Mark depicts that at this moment of Jesus’ baptism, the heavens are opened and the Spirit emerges in the form of a dove.  We read of the heavens being “torn”, violently ripped apart so that they could not go back together in the same way.  The Greek word there is a form of the verb schitzo as in schism or schizophrenia. It is not the same word as open. I open the door. I close the door. The door looks the same, but something torn apart is not easily closed again. The ragged edges never go back together as they were. Mark wasn’t careless in using that word: schitzo. He remembered Isaiah’s plea centuries before when the prophet cried out to God, “Oh, that you would tear the heavens open and come down to make your name known to your enemies and make the nations tremble at your presence.” In other words, at this moment, God’s Spirit on earth becomes present in a brand new way.  A new ordering of Creation has begun. 

It was at that moment that the heavens opened and spilled onto the earth.  The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove.  And we hear what the world has always been straining to hear: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”  Even though the writers of several of the Gospels have presented Jesus as the Son of God in the birth stories, it is not until this moment that the title is actually conferred.  This is the moment toward which all of Creation has been moving.  This the moment for which we’ve been waiting.

The story of Jesus’ Baptism calls us to remember our own.  It, too, is our beginning as the gift of God’s grace washes away those things that impede our relationship with God and gives us new birth, new life.  And it calls us to do something with our life.  But I actually don’t remember the day of my baptism.  It happened when I was a little over seven months old, on Palm Sunday, April 15, 1962.  It was at First United Methodist Church, Brookshire, TX and Rev. Bert Condrey was the officiant.  I had a special dress and lots of family present.  That would be all I really know and the only reason I know that is from one picture of my grandfather holding me in front of the church.

And, yet, we are reminded to “remember our baptism”.  What does that mean for those of us who don’t?  I think “remembering” is something bigger than a chronological recount of our own memories.  It is bigger than remembering what we wore or where we stood or who the actual person was that touched our head with or even immersed us in water. It means remembering our very identity, our creation, what it is that made us, that collective memory that is part of our tradition, our liturgy, our family.  That is what “remembering” our baptism is.  It’s not just remembering the moment that we felt that baptismal stream; it is remembering the story into which we entered.  It is at that point that we affirmed who we are (or it was affirmed for us) and we began to become who God intends us to be.  And for each of us, whether or not we noticed it, the heavens tore apart, spilled out, and the Holy Spirit emerged.  And we, too, were conferred with a title.  “This is my child, my daughter, my son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

And in that moment, whether we are infants or older, we are ordained for ministry in the name of Jesus Christ.  We are ordained to the work of Christ and the work of Christ’s church.  Caroline Westerhoff says that “at baptism we are incorporated into Christ’s body, infused with Christ’s character, and empowered to be Christ’s presence in the world.  [So then], ministry is not something in particular that we do; it is what we are about in everything we do.”  In other words, our own Baptism sweeps us into that dawn that Jesus began.  And, like Jesus, our own Baptism calls us and empowers us to empty ourselves before God.  As we begin to find ourselves standing in those waters with Christ, we also find ourselves ready to be followers of Christ.  

Jesus was still wet with water after John had baptized him when he stood to enter his ministry in full submission to God.  As he stood in the Jordan and the heavens tore apart and spilled into the earth, all of humanity stood with him.  We now stand, wet with those same waters, as we, too, are called into ministry in the name of Christ.  As we emerge, we feel a cool refreshing breeze of new life.  Breathe in.  It will be with you always. Submit your life, empty yourself, so that there will finally be room for Christ in this world.  Then…it is up to you to finish the story.  This day and every day, remember your baptism, remember that you are a daughter or son of God with whom God is well pleased and be thankful. You are now part of the story, part of this ordering of chaos, part of light emerging from darkness, part of life born from death.  You are part of God’s re-creation.  And it is very, very good.

You must give birth to your images.  They are the future waiting to be born.  Fear not the strangeness you feel.  The future must enter you long before it happens.  Just wait for the birth, for the hour of new clarity.” (Rainer Maria Rilke)

Grace and Peace,


Wilderness Re-Creation

ADVENT 2B: Isaiah 40: 1-11

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 40: 3-5)

First of all, with all due respect to Mr. Handel’s presentation, this passage was probably not originally written with us or our tradition in mind! This really is talking about the people of Israel. It really is talking about bringing comfort to a people who have wandered in the Judean wilderness. Probably written toward the end of the Babylonian exile, this writing offers a vision where a highway (a REAL man-made highway) through the wilderness will be made level and straight. If, as most assume, this part of the book that we know as Isaiah was written after the exile, it would have been soon after 539 BCE when Cyrus of Persia conquered the Babylonians and, not really caring whether or not the Israelites stayed, allowed them to return to Jerusalem. So imagine a highway that, typical of the ancient world, would have originally been built to accommodate royal processions. And so God is depicting a highway made for a grand procession led by the Almighty.

The just-released exiles are returning. But to what? Their city and their way of life lay in ruins. They can’t just go back and pick up where they left off. They have to feel that God has deserted them. They are looking for comfort. They are looking for solace. They are looking for God to put things back the way they were before. But God has something different in mind. Rather than repair, God promises recreation; rather than vindication, God promises redemption; and rather than solace, God promises transformation. God is making something new–lifting valleys, lowering mountains, and ultimately, when all is said and done, revealing a glory that we’ve never seen before.

So 2020 has handed most of us a new understanding of this passage.  (Wow! Thanks 2020!)  As a community, as a country, as a people, we sort of have our own little wilderness thing going right now. Now we haven’t been conquered by Babylonians yet (and for that we ARE thankful!), but our life has changed—probably, if we’re honest, forever. And in this season that so quickly elicits traditions and memories of past years, it is easy to start to feel like we are truly walking through an unknown wilderness, full of masked strangers, distanced friends, and communication via these little boxes of faces on Zoom.  The wilderness sometimes seems to be closing in on us.  And the pathway out seems to be murky at best.

But think about this passage.  We are given a vision.  We are not promised solace. We are not promised that Emmanuel, God With Us, is coming to put our lives back together. In fact, can you feel it? The world has begun to shake. The valleys are rising; the mountains are leveling. Something incredible is about to happen. The light is just beginning to dawn. Life as we know it will never be the same again. Soon the fog will lift and we will see that the road does not lead back to where we were. It instead leads us home. But we’re going to have to be willing to leave what we know–forever.

When we prepare ourselves in this Season, we’re not looking for the Messiah to come and put all the pegs back where they were.  We’re not preparing ourselves to go back to the lives to which we’ve become accustomed.  God is not going to “fix” it.  I mean, think about it.  God’s not usually in the “fixing” business.  God is more into making all things new.  So we have to open ourselves to the new creation that God promises and here in the wilderness, God will re-create us too.  So, open your eyes, learn to wait, prepare your hearts for something new, for the glory of the Lord to be revealed.  And, in the meantime, wear your mask!

The Wilderness holds answers to more questions than we have yet learned to ask. (Nancy Wynne Newhall)

Grace and Peace,