Healing Waters

After all the people were baptized, Jesus was baptized. As he was praying, the sky opened up and the Holy Spirit, like a dove descending, came down on him. And along with the Spirit, a voice: “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.”

The Gospel according to Luke (3:21-22)

On Sunday the Christian year told the story of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. It is a beautiful story of Jesus approaching among the crowds and receiving a message of divine affirmation from God: “this is my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”

As I reflected upon the story, I remembered a moment from my doctoral work several years ago. During one of my final residencies we ventured south of the Fleming Island, Florida campus to the beautiful St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Green Cove Springs on the banks of the St. Johns River. The building was adorned with the motto “Come to the Waters” and was an appropriate place for a baptismal renewal service. After several days of immersion in a theology of baptism the trip was a welcome respite from the headiness of our studies, allowing us to practice with our bodies the rituals of the Church.

We gathered in the sanctuary for song and prayer then moved outside to the banks of the river to remember our baptisms: the drawing up of our very selves into the divine. One of our professors, an Episcopal priest, invited us forward to dip our hands into the water and share a story of our experience of baptismal renewal. I shared of my ongoing struggle with depression, deep sadness and loneliness, and the trouble I have experienced finding a theological and liturgical home. I told of a particular time, during my novitiate in the Order of Saint Luke, when the depression and oppressive feelings of failure were so heavy upon my spirit that the only thing that would get me out of bed was the ritual each morning in our order of remembering our baptism. I shared that, in the days when the sadness was so deep, and the loneliness so raw, I would place the water on my forehead. For when I could feel nothing of the Divine, my body felt what my spirit could not. And it is exactly what I needed.

For me, being a Christian is living this kind of mystery. Baptism is a ritual of bearing for and in us a grace of God, speaking to the beautiful and mysterious way in which God draws us up into the restoration of all things in Christ. Baptism is God’s doing, not ours. The narrative thread of water that is woven throughout the Bible is one of healing and hope that God brings to us.

Baptism and its remembrance as a way to live into God’s ongoing healing is necessary for us as Church. It touches our bodies and spirits with the essence of earth and reminds us that God cares for our most basic needs. And without that kind of remembrance in the pilgrim journey we will be anemic in our witness of beauty and truth.

God desires our spirits and bodies to be healed, and baptism is God’s work in moving us toward that healing. In past dark days of loneliness and sadness, as I splashed water on my forehead and remembered my baptismal identity, God’s spirit was with me even though I didn’t feel it. In these days, when I still feel the lingerings of loneliness, sadness, and failure, God offers the cool running waters of hope and renewal. They are the same waters that touched my face years ago. They are the same waters that Jesus felt pour over his head. And it is the same sentiment that God speaks to us that was said to Jesus: “you are my beloved.”

I think God understands that sometimes our bodies need to feel God’s love so that our spirits can understand it. So, friends, feel the beauty of God in the waters today. And experience how God is nourishing you in the journey of faith.

May the peace of Christ be with you in your journey,

God Beyond the Walls

Kings remote and legendary will pay homage,
    kings rich and resplendent will turn over their wealth.
All kings will fall down and worship,
    and godless nations sign up to serve him,
Because he rescues the poor at the first sign of need,
    the destitute who have run out of luck.
He opens a place in his heart for the down-and-out,
    he restores the wretched of the earth.
He frees them from tyranny and torture—
    when they bleed, he bleeds;
    when they die, he dies.

Psalm 72:10-14 (The Message)

I have never been a powerful person. In fact, I have lived most of my life as an outsider. I grew up poor, ministered as a high-church liturgist in the low-church tradition, advocated for a disavowal of the nationalistic fervor in American Christianity in a religious movement steeped in patriotism, and moved theologically leftward as many of my friends and family remained conservative. While none of these parts of my life necessarily warrant an outsider label, it is the context in which they occurred that caused me to feel like I was standing beyond the wall, gazing in. Would I ever be able to go inside?

Perhaps you, pilgrim, feel the same way.

The Feast of the Epiphany, which we celebrated on Sunday, January 6, is a reminder that the God of the Christian tradition is a God of those on the outside. The appointed Psalm text in the liturgy for Sunday is a rich song of irony to those at the center of power inside the walls. It is a song that emphatically declares God’s priorities. And in so doing, it tells us something profound about how God both understands and exercises power.

Psalm 72 sings, triumphantly, that a true exercise of power isn’t dwelling inside the walls and basking in the glory of protection. It is the active pursuit of liberation and solidarity. The mystery of the divine is that God not only sides with those who find themselves down-on-their-luck or purposely oppressed, God is part of that group. God doesn’t stand at the center of the religious bureaucracy, God walks with those who are cast outside the walls. God “opens a place in [God’s] heart” for such people, but even more, God bleeds “when they bleed,” God dies “when they die.” God dwells in the margins in solidarity with the outsider – a wondrous and beautiful mystery.

I think Psalm 72 sings the good news of Christianity. It is good news for you who have been pushed out of the church. It is good news for you who have been pressed down under the thumb of someone wielding their power. It is good news for you who have been hurt, broken, betrayed by those who had the ability to stand up and help you. It is good news because when you are pushed out, pressed down, hurt, broken, betrayed, God is there with you, lamenting with you and opening a place in the divine heart for you. 

The Magi, whom we remember on Epiphany, were stargazing magician-priests from far outside the religious and cultural power centers of first-century Judaism. Yet they go to find Jesus, heralded as kings, and pay homage to the God wrapped in fragile flesh, held in the arms of a poor, young, seemingly insignificant girl in Bethlehem.

God opened a place in the divine heart for these pilgrims. The Magi followed the light to that place, and they still show us the way. So, don’t gaze up at the wall and lament your status on the outside. Gaze up at the heavens, beyond the paltry constructs of the “powerful,” and behold the wonder of starlight that is illuminating to you the Holy One, standing right beside you.

May the peace of Christ be with you in your journey,

Learning from the Stranger

The first episode of the Pilgrims’ Notes podcast explores the story of the Magi from Matthew’s gospel account in preparation for the feast of the Epiphany on January 6, 2019. I talk about learning from the stranger, keeping our eyes open to wonder, and the dangers of trying to hold on to power.

You can stream the episode at ThePilgrimHouse.org or download it here. Podcasts will soon be available on iTunes and Google Play for regular download.

Music is copyright by Purple Planet Music and is used by permission.

Trust, Love, and Acceptance

The Word became flesh and blood,
    and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
    the one-of-a-kind glory,
    like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
    true from start to finish.

John 1:14 (The Message)

Advent, which ended last night, is the season in which we learn to be patient. We don’t like waiting. We hate the simple waits, like long lines in the store or traffic or packages to arrive. We hate the bigger waiting. When will the world be made right? When will the injustice be rectified? When will children’s thirst be quenched instead of dying of dehydration at borders? In our current politic climate, the promise of peace seems distant and unattainable, outside the reach of our waiting.

Advent is the season in which we learn to recognize the mystery of our human journey and confront, in holy waiting, its complexities. Today, as we begin the wondrous season of Christmas, we begin the process again of learning that God walks with us in that journey of expectation. The story of Christmas isn’t so much about a baby or a manger or shepherds or angels, though it is all those things. The story of Christmas is about the divine sustainer of the cosmos robing in human flesh in the most vulnerable and innocent way to experience what it’s like to do things like wait and hope, even in frustration.

Lest we fall victim to cynicism in our reflection, we should remember that our journey through the wastelands of the earth is marked with moments of stunning beauty. I often wonder how newborns see the world as their eyes begin to flutter open, their mouths and hands grasping for their mother in unfiltered trust. I recently read an author who described babies as thinking, not in words, but in feelings. They think in feelings of trust, love, and acceptance.

Dear friends, imagine God innocently swaddled in Mary’s arms thinking not of the complexities of divine existence or the tragedies of the world, but simply and gently grasping Mary’s finger and feeling pure trust and love and acceptance. Christmas is the season in which we learn that God not only loves and accepts us, but also trusts us. And in this profound trust, we are given a great gift: the ability to do good. As Jesus grasps Mary’s finger, Mary responds in motherly affection and joy.

So, you’ve waited. The Advent season of waiting has now given way to the Christmas season of light, a season of wonder and beauty. You’ve thought about the world and its tragedies as you’ve confessed and lamented during Advent. During the 12 days of Christmas, revel in God enfleshed and what that means for the world. How will you act upon God’s pure and profound trust in humanity? What good will you do, and what love will you extend? How will you accept the pure loving hand of God, eyes filled with wonder and a heart bursting with love, and give back in simple affection and joy?

May the peace of Christ be with you in your journey,

Launching the Pilgrim House

Stop at the crossroads and look around;
ask for the ancient paths.
Where is the good way?
Then walk in it and find a resting place for yourselves.

Set up markers, put up signs;
think about the road you have traveled,
the path you have taken.

– The Book of Jeremiah (6:16, 31:21)

Humans have engaged in pilgrimage since the earliest days of religion and faith. A pilgrimage is a venture, a movement, a journey toward a place where the presence and mystery of God is encountered.

But much of the institutional church has lost this spirit. We’ve filled our houses of worship with division, bitterness, and power-struggles. In our work to make the church an effective organization we’ve lost the wonder and beauty that was pilgrimage, a sacred journey on which we encounter God in unexpected ways.

My own journey has included great sorrow and hardship. After a challenging childhood, I was a traditional pastor for 15 difficult years. I know what it’s like to be on a journey, encountering God in profound ways and yet not finding places or times to express that joy without the baggage that accompanies most institutional Christianity. Rather than asking, “Where have you seen the beauty of God?” our churches have lengthy business meetings and endless committees. Wonder is exchanged for capitalism, true charity is abandoned in the quest for profit, and people are valued less than property that sits unused most of the week.

In the next few weeks I will be launching a new personal ministry called The Pilgrim House, initially a one-year experiment through the end of 2019.

The Pilgrim House will strive to be a ministry of times, places, and resources for the moments in pilgrimage when you need to rest. It is in these moments that we feast, share, and imagine. It is here where we make our sign-posts and consider the paths we’ve taken. The Pilgrim House will include reflective blog entries, encouraging podcasts, celebratory liturgies in various locations, and learning events. The Pilgrim House will hopefully be an ever-changing way to stop and re-discover the beauty and wonder of Christianity in new expressions of faith.

After being raised by fundamentalists, educated by evangelicals and reformed and Anglicans, and time spent ministering among Anabaptists, I now consider myself a post-denominational pastor to pilgrims who are hurt, wandering, or simply curious and questioning, and I hope that this new turn in the path will lead to peace and hope for those that journey with me.

So, where can we go from here?

  1. You can learn more about me here, or follow on Twitter or Facebook.
  2. Along the journey you can read encouraging letters called Pilgrims’ Notes, published weekly (beginning Tuesday, December 25).
  3. Or, you can listen to a periodic podcast on journeying with Jesus (first episode coming Sunday, December 30).
  4. You are invited to participate in a Pilgrim House liturgy that will ritually celebrate themes discussed in the podcast (beginning around Sunday, January 6).
  5. If you find this ministry helpful in your faith pilgrimage, you could consider becoming a patron and support The Pilgrim House into something long-term.

I look forward to the ways we can journey together.

Blessings, friends, on your pilgrimage!