Thursday, September 29, 2022

Go Home

 “Go home to your friends and family and tell them all the things the Lord has done for you, and that he has had mercy on you.” (Mark 5:19)

The man who had had many demons wanted to be part of Jesus’s wandering community of disciples.

He begged to be allowed to follow Jesus.

There were no other believers among the Gerasenes to have fellowship with. For Jesus to leave him in that country was to strand him apart from the life that had restored him to sanity.

Jesus told him, “No, don’t follow me. Go home. But tell your people what God has done for you.”

Hard words.

Why would Jesus set such an ardent and grateful believer adrift?

No doubt, Jesus did what was best for the man and what would best serve God.

By telling the man to go back to his family, Jesus was following through with the healing work of the exorcism by restoring what the possession had destroyed, namely the man’s relationship with his own community.

But I suspect there is another reason for Jesus’s refusal.

I think Jesus foresaw that the man wouldn’t fit in with his community of disciples.

The man was a gentile who lived among herders who raised pigs for meat.

The man would have had different customs, different values, a different way of speaking, and a very different religious background.

The church needed more time before it could accommodate such differences.

In addition to all this, there was the man’s history of demon-possession.

Would he have been welcomed with open arms by the other disciples?

Jesus knew this wouldn’t happen.

No, Jesus did not invite everyone who believed in him to be part of his main body of followers.

He gave the church time to mature so that it might eventually be able to integrate legitimate differences.

Many of us are still waiting for that to happen.

Meanwhile, solitary Christians belong as much to Jesus as anyone does.

Monday, August 29, 2022

This is the Judgement

“This is the judgement: the light has come into the universe, and people loved the darkness instead of the light because their actions were bad.” (John 3:19)

In this passage, judgement is not something that comes on a day in the indefinite future.

No, judgement has already come. It’s been in effect since the day Jesus spoke.

And we know what the judgement is: “the light has come into the universe, and people loved the darkness instead of the light because their actions were bad.”

What does this mean?

The light is truth—the recognition and acknowledgement of reality as it really is. Some of us don’t like this truth. We reject it, because we have done bad things.

Who has done bad things? Probably all of us.

And at some level we know we’ve done these things. And so we don’t let the light in, because to do so is to bring into the full light of consciousness the knowledge we would rather relegate to the darkest corner of our mind.

George MacDonald calls God, “the bleaching sun of righteousness.”

If we bring what is shameful in us before God’s eyes, with no place to hide, the light of God’s honest and compassionate love will bleach away its shamefulness.

Jesus urges us to do this.

But we are not yet willing. And so we remain under this old judgement.

The Greek word for judgement is crisis.

And this is the crisis—that we are chasing after darkness. We are chasing after something that is not our true life, that is not of the truth, but whose very essence is a flight from truth.

And we are in crisis as long as we try to escape truth. Because there is no place to run. Wherever we go, the truth is there.

And all the while, the God of Truth, our loving and merciful Father, is patiently waiting to cooperate with us to bring this crisis to a satisfactory resolution. 


A warning.

The work of confession is perilous. Proceed with caution. Don't confess to anyone who is not worthy of your trust. Better yet, begin by confessing only to God. But even there be careful. If your understanding of God is lacking in mercy, love, compassion, or forgiveness, your confession may warp you rather than heal you. Similarly, if your understanding of God is lacking in truth and justice, your confession may fail to instill the integrity and responsibility we are all called to.


A second warning.

What is our conscience accountable to? If you are a Christian, your conscience is accountable to a God of Truth and Love. Your conscience is not accountable to society, to the church, to any theological system, to our family, to our political party, or to the Bible. We can only know what is right by knowing what is genuinely true and what is genuinely loving. In practice, this means developing a degree of ethical independence from the values of the people who we happen to spend time with. And this requires the courage to be willing to disagree with the people and institutions we see as moral authorities.

I add this warning because it is so easy to believe what other people tell us is good or bad, even when they are quite mistaken, and that leads to a great deal of unnecessary suffering. When someone tells themself that they are bad for doing what is good, a deep psychological and spiritual damage can result. And so compassion requires not only that we treat genuinely bad actions with mercy, but that we recognize when our conscience itself is lying to us and telling us that something is bad when it is really God's will for us.

Thursday, August 18, 2022

Receiving the Kingdom Like a Child

 “Whoever won’t receive the Kingdom of God like a little child most certainly won’t enter into it.” (Mark 10:15)

Parents brought their children to Jesus, and the children rushed up to touch him.

The disciples said, “Control your kids,” but this only annoyed Jesus.

He took the children in his arms and laid his hands on them and blessed them.

Jesus wants us to be like children so we can receive the Kingdom.

When we receive the Kingdom, the Kingdom receives us and we enter in.

Children are direct. In their innocence and harmlessness and simplicity, they rush up and take hold of your hand.

We are to come to Jesus in the same childlike spirit.

In our immaturity, we really are like children. Let’s own our immaturity by acting with the impulsive affection of a child.

We approach Jesus not pretending to be anything great, good, holy, or wise, but just as we are. Jesus can handle us. We are not too much for him.

Children are open because there is space in their hearts for the world and all its people. They rush up to the world to receive it.

As we get older, we become suspicious, and the spaciousness in our hearts turns into a cramped and derelict emptiness.

Invite Jesus into your emptiness.

He will enter. With him he will bring his commitment to doing his Father’s will.

And wherever the will of the Father is done, the Kingdom has come.

Let the Kingdom enter your heart and fill its emptiness. Let the Kingdom within you be a joy and everlasting delight to you. Let it give you the strength to live with open-hearted health and integrity.

Only remember that we cannot receive what we reject.

Whenever we approach the Kingdom with dishonesty or self-importance or self-righteousness, the Kingdom finds no place in our hearts. We have rejected its whole childlike ethos and remain outside.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Full of Grace

 “We observed his glory—glory like that of an only child of a father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

I think of grace as the experience of coming to an impasse and then having a brand new possibility open up, an unexpected way forward.

Grace is the wonderful recognition that we have a place full of promise to explore.

We experience grace every day. It is a part of life, a basic fact of experience. Life depends on grace.

We can rarely foresee how things will work out, but somehow they do. That’s grace.

A person full of grace is someone whose speech, behavior, and very presence is a continual gift, an opening up of one unexpected possibility after another.

Jesus is full of grace.

In the gospels, grace characterizes all his interactions. When we read about these encounters, we can ask ourselves, “Where is the grace here?”

This question helps reveal the new things Jesus is bringing into the world. It also points us to the practical meaning of scripture.

Jesus’s whole life was an example of grace.

His life made possible much of the moral, spiritual, intellectual, and artistic development of humanity.

John uses the image of an only child to describe grace. Anyone who has struggled to have children will understand why John uses this image. The birth of such a child is a renewal of the possibilities of life.

Grace is always accessible. When you feel stuck, ask Jesus for grace. Ask until grace arrives.

I said above that grace opens up a way forward. Another way to think of it is that grace opens up a way in—a way for us to move inwards towards the heart of things.

Grace unfolds the space of possibilities we already inhabit. Freeing us to see clearly, to act decisively, to change meaningfully, and to connect authentically with others.

No real problem is ever solved except through grace.

Monday, July 4, 2022

Kneel Before Me

 “If you kneel before me, all things will be yours.” (Luke 4:7)

 How is it possible that Jesus was tempted by the devil?

Jesus was a good man. He wanted good things. One of those things, I am certain, was a swift end to injustice and oppression.

Like many of us, he may have been impatient to bring this about.

Jesus likely didn't know all his father's reasons for delaying the good things that are surely coming as soon as possible.  While he walked the earth, Jesus did not know everything.

The devil argued that if all things belonged to Jesus, he could order them according to his own will, without having to wait for his father's mysterious will to unfold.

But Jesus was not fooled.

He answered, Where I do not know, I will trust. I do not serve my own will, and I certainly do not serve the devil's. Nor do I serve any good, no matter how noble, lower than the perfect good which my father is bringing about.

To try with violence to force justice to come before its time is only to delay God's justice—the only justice that can satisfy us.

We may see the things of the world as ours to order as we think right, but they do not belong to us or to anyone who pretends to be able to give them to us.

The things of the world are the Father's. It is from him and on his terms that we receive them.

That we receive them on his terms means we must give up any attempt to bring about justice through injustice.

The Father is putting things right in his own way in his own time. God's way is infinitely better than ours.

So let's work for justice with determination, discernment, and patience. And let's work in harmony with our Father's will.*


* I'd like to acknowledge my debt to George MacDonald's sermons, "The Temptation in the Wilderness" and "Jesus in the World."

Monday, June 20, 2022

And the Words of the Prophets Agree with This

“And the words of the prophets agree with this.” (Acts 15:15)

James is standing up at the council of Jerusalem to support Paul and Barnabas who have been converting the Gentiles.

These new non-Jewish converts have been receiving the Holy Spirit.

Paul, Barnabas, and James are advocating for an open door policy for non-Jews.

Other Christians would require Gentile converts to adopt the ritual and cultural practices of Judaism. That would be a huge barrier to entry!

James offers an argument from Jewish scripture.

When we think of the Hebrew Bible, we often think of the great many rules, laws, and commandments imposed on God’s people. And so it might surprise us that James goes to scripture to support relaxing these laws.

But if you read the Old Testament attentively, as the early Christians did, you find it not only full of laws, but also full of promises and prophetic hope for a renewed and expanded relationship between humanity and God.

James is saying that to take these prophecies seriously requires an openness to change. This means letting go of many scriptural laws and adopting rules appropriate for what the Holy Spirit is doing in the world.

The Greek word James uses for agree is symphonousin. It is the same word that comes into English as symphony. It literally means to sound together or speak in harmony.

One way of interpreting the Bible sees scripture not as a set of fixed commandments forever determining what is and isn’t allowed, but as a harmonious voice singing along with and confirming the new things God is doing.

This is the symphonic way of reading the Bible. It was the practice of James and the early Christians.

Let’s make it our practice.

Nothing in the Bible is intended to limit the new things God is always doing and has always known he would do.

Monday, April 11, 2022

Righteous Before God and Blameless

 “They were both righteous before God and blameless, following all the commandments and requirements of the Lord.” (Luke 1:6)

Luke’s Gospel begins with the story of a pious couple, Zacharias and Elizabeth.

Zacharias is a priest working in the Temple. He is the first person in history to hear any inkling of the good news—direct from the mouth of the angel Gabriel.

He is performing rituals and burning incense alone in the sanctuary of the Temple when Gabriel appears.

Later, his wife Elizabeth receives the Holy Spirit from Jesus when Jesus is still in his mother’s womb.

They are the first to be transformed by Jesus’s coming into the world.

What prepares them for this transformation? It is the blameless life they lead—their righteousness and justice and willingness to do God’s will.

They take their religious obligations seriously.

They make that essential leap from being religious to having good hearts which shows they understand the inner meaning of religion. They are exemplars of their Jewish faith.

Their son John the Baptist, also deeply pious, would go on to live a very different and much less conventional life. He would finally offend the powers that be and pay a heavy price.

John would prepare the way for Jesus who likewise would live a life outside the religious mainstream, ultimately suffering a fate even worse than John’s.

On one hand, there are the radicals who shake things up like Jesus and John, and on the other, there are the ordinary faithful like John’s parents.

Their ordinary goodness made Elizabeth and Zacharias extraordinary. Extraordinary things happened through them, and the world is better forever because of them.

They were the ones God came to first when he decided to intervene in history in a new way.

And so it’s appropriate that, for Luke, Elizabeth and Zacharias’s simple piety is the beginning of the story of Jesus.

May we be more like them.

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

He Will Serve Them

 “Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds awake when he arrives. Truly I tell you that he will make himself ready and seat them at table and come and serve them.” (Luke 12:37)

When I try to understand Jesus, I end up looking into his historical and political context.

If I understand his context, I can understand the political and social implications of his words.

It’s important to understand that Jesus’s Palestine was not free.

In a world in the iron grip of slavery and imperialism, Jesus’s teachings loosened the shackles.

Couldn’t Jesus have called down twelve legions of angels and abolished slavery and imperialism by force?

Without changing people’s minds, such force could only be another form of slavery and imperialism.

Force may be necessary eventually, but persuasion comes first.

All change in society begins with persuasion—with an articulated vision of how things could be different.

Jesus spoke a lot about slavery. Slavery was the institution familiar to everyone.

To be clear, slavery is abominable. When Jesus spoke about slavery, he couched moral truths in the terms of an immoral institution.

Jesus did not support slavery, but he used slavery as a point of reference familiar to his audience.

The moral truths he articulated ultimately proved incompatible with slavery.

Jesus said God is our true master. He said slaves should not beat other slaves. And he said true service is characterized by a vigilant and consistent integrity.

In the verse quoted above, Jesus describes a “slavery” characterized by mutual devoted service.

Though Jesus could have condemned slavery outright, he chose the long, slow, reliable path of moral development over the quick, violent, unreliable path of political rebellion.

Jesus appeals to our innate capacity for moral clarity. He said things that would ring true in the consciences of his hearers and begin to wake them up from their fixed ideas about how things must be.

If we understand it, the Spirit of Jesus’s words can be as liberating today as it ever was.

Monday, March 28, 2022

Give Them Food at the Proper Time

 “Who is the faithful and wise slave whom the master will set over his household slaves to give them food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find doing so when he arrives.” (Matthew 24:45-46)

English translations of the Bible often render the Greek word doulos as servant, but that’s inaccurate. The precise meaning is slave.

The economic and social order of the time depended on slavery—so much so, that the idea of abolishing slavery was practically unthinkable.

Slaves generally hoped to buy their own freedom, and sometimes they rebelled to escape slavery. However, there's little evidence that anyone in ancient times imagined a possible society without slavery.

There are ancient records of freed slaves going on to acquire other people as slaves.

All power, violence, and money in society supported slavery. Slavish ways of thinking structured everyone’s hearts and minds.

Jesus chose to enter an enslaved world and speak to enslaved people. We sometimes forget this, and in forgetting it, we forget who Jesus is.

Jesus did what had to be done to liberate the world—I’m not speaking only of spiritual liberation, but of literal legal emancipation. He spoke to a slavish mentality and worked to defeat it with the power of its own logic.

In Matthew, chapter twenty-four, Jesus tells slaves to provide for the needs of their fellow slaves. He also tells slaves in supervisory roles not to beat their subordinates. These are not metaphors. Jesus is speaking literally.

He tells slaves not to contribute to the brutality of slavery, but to care for others.

He tells them they are answerable to God who is their real lord and who will hold them accountable.

This accountability to God was Jesus’s message to all, including slave owners.

Though Jesus didn't directly condemn slavery, the body of his teachings tended to make the institution untenable.

Three centuries later, St. Gregory of Nyssa—who arguably understood the drift of Jesus’s teachings better than anyone who came before—declared for the first time that slavery was sin and blasphemy.

* * *

For more on Gregory of Nyssa’s opposition to slavery, see here.

Monday, March 21, 2022

I Honor my Father

 “The Judeans said to him, ‘Do we not say correctly that you are a Samaritan and that you have a demon?’ Jesus answered, ‘I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me.’” (John 9:48-49)

The Gospels give an account of the conflicts Jesus had with the religious establishment of his day.

How is this good news? What is new or good about conflict?

The god of this world always pits people against each other. Each faction defends its own half-truths while dismissing and abusing any truth on the other side.

Does Jesus add fuel to this fire?

I think Jesus’s life shows us that, despite all the destructive and futile conflicts in this world, some battles are necessary.

Jesus fought the religious establishment knowing what would happen to him. He fought not to win but to maintain his integrity.

He fought because to fight was to be who he was. Not to fight would have been to lose himself.

Who was he? He was what he is—the one who honors his Father.

Ultimately, integrity is victory.

In his integrity, Jesus bore witness to truth—not in a neutral, non-committal way, but, where necessary, calling out people who were harming others by suppressing the truth. He wants us to do the same.

Of course, the fight for truth begins in ourselves. To have integrity, we must seek, find, and accept the truth—the work of a lifetime.

The opinions of our political or religious tribe should not be enough for us—just as they weren’t enough for Jesus.

Instead, we can interpret what our opponents say charitably, acknowledging whatever truth is in it.

And we can turn from rationalizations to reasons, from prejudice to evidence.

In bearing witness, we might be wrong. For the sake of truth, let’s be willing to be corrected.

Jesus had compassion for those who were wrong. Let’s do the same.

A servant of Truth is both militant and merciful.

The good news is that God fights for truth. We can fight with him.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

They Wash Their Hands

“For the Pharisees and the Judeans as a whole do not eat unless they wash their hands all the way up the length of the forearm, upholding the tradition of the elders.” (Mark 7:3)

Jesus healed and taught and fought.

He fought not so much against blatant evil as against the false appearance of good.

Evil always wants to look good.

Jesus especially fought against the false piety of the religious establishment.

It really looks like he fought mainly against respectable religious people.

The awkward truth is that respectable religious people often make life hell for others.

He fought against those performing rituals and following rules and preaching obedience to the letter of the law.

They were practicing religion in bad faith. They were gleaming white on the outside and dead on the inside.

Jesus was what his enemies only pretended to be. And they called him a lawbreaker.

They were legalists. When they saw something written in scripture, they called it God’s word.

They saw that scripture declared certain meats unclean, and they prohibited them.

Jesus saw the same prohibitions, but he declared all foods clean.

Jesus revered scripture, and yet the letter of scripture meant nothing to him—unless it communicated the living Spirit.

The Spirit can and does contradict scripture. The Spirit is God and scripture is only a thing that God made, imperfect like the people through whom it was made.

What is sacred in scripture is the self-revealing presence of God. God is present in the imperfect.

Jesus does not read scripture as a lawyer but as a child listening for the voice of his Father.

Legalism never hears God’s voice. It only worships the traditions of men.

To be clear, respect for the law isn't legalism. Law is a tool that helps maintain order. We must respect it.

And legalism isn’t morality. A legalist will immorally follow rules even if it means wronging their neighbor.

Either laws enforce our neighborly love, or they must bow to the higher Law.


Monday, January 3, 2022

Do Not Judge. Judge Righteous Judgement.

“Do not judge.” (Luke 6:37)

“Judge righteous judgement.” (John 7:24)

We are commanded to judge righteously and forbidden from judging at all.

The word judge cannot have the same meaning in both sentences. That would be a contradiction.

We know Jesus doesn’t contradict himself. What he says makes sense and describes reality. A contradiction can do neither.

But why did Jesus use one word to mean two things?

Isn’t this what we do? We praise one person, saying, “She judges fairly.” And we criticize another, saying, “She’s always judging.”

The bad kind of judging we call judgemental. The good kind we just call good judgement.

We often confuse them.

Sometimes we assume an angry person is judgemental and a calm person is judging fairly.

Though that can be true, there are people who express judgemental attitudes in the most infuriatingly calm way.

And then there’s Jesus who called such people a brood of vipers and said their father was Satan.

He spoke his mind with a freedom that scandalized the respectable folk of his day—and still scandalizes us.

But he wants us to speak as freely as he does. And we can—if, like him, we never judge and always judge righteously.

Try as we might, we can find no outward sign that infallibly distinguishes judging in the bad sense from judging justly.

The distinction is an inner distinction. It is in fact a spiritual distinction. Good judgement comes from a spirit of caring, concern, scrupulous honesty, integrity, and fairness.

Judgementalism comes from another spirit altogether.

This distinction is not conceptual. Thinking alone cannot show us the difference. The smartest people often fail to make it correctly.

The only person who can reliably make a spiritual distinction is the person who acts in the Spirit of Truth and Love.

We are such a person when we do as Jesus tells us.

Monday, December 27, 2021

Do Not Judge. Do Not Be Afraid.

“Do not judge.” (Matthew 7:1)

“Do not be afraid.” (Matthew 10:31)

Jesus wants us to live in a place of dignity without fear or judgement.

Fear and judgement reinforce each other.

We fear being judged, and we judge what makes us afraid.

With painful intensity we often pinball between fear and judgement. The consequence is our own dysfunction and the dysfunction of society.

Falling into fear and judgement means being lost in a labyrinth. We can spend most of our lives trying to find our way out.

Jesus lives a different way. He trusts his Father. He carries himself with unfailing dignity.

As he walked the earth, in the midst of threats and injustice, he remained in possession of himself.

He did not judge and was not afraid. He acted always with courage and compassion.

He felt deeply and sensitively but was not overwhelmed.

He shows us how to live like him.

What does it mean not to judge or be afraid? To begin with, it means making a commitment to find real and practical alternatives to fear and judgement.

It means patiently learning to live like Jesus in the place that is courageously above the cringing of fear and humbly below the haughtiness of judgement. Neither too high nor too low.

I’m not saying we should be afraid of fear or judgemental of judgement.

Rather, I think as our hearts grow, we become able to see things more clearly, as they are, without getting upset. We become aware—in a kind and non-judgemental way—of the dynamics of fear and judgement. We come to understand them and start to transform them.

But what can we do when we are already overwhelmed? One thing we can always do is reach out directly to God.

God in his mercy restores us to ourselves. He leads us to the place of dignity where we belong.

Monday, December 6, 2021

Salted with Fire

 “For everyone will be salted with fire.” (Mark 9:49)

Today we use salt to make food tasty. Before modern technology, people used salt to preserve food.

Salt was as necessary then as refrigeration is today. Salt was the difference between edible food and rotten food, between eating and starving.

For Jesus, salt is something that preserves and prevents spoilage. Fire, in contrast, is something that burns and destroys.

And so Jesus is saying something deliberately paradoxical.

It’s as if he’s saying, “Everything will be refrigerated in an incinerator.”

A paradox is not a contradiction—it only seems like a contradiction. A paradox is a riddle. You try to figure out how something that seems to make no sense actually does make sense.

Now, imagine buying a container of strawberries. You open it, and there’s one with mold on it. What do you do? You pick it out and throw it in the compost. Because one berry is composted, the others can remain fresh.

God helps us do this within ourselves. Each of us is like a container of strawberries, some of which are moldy. They need to go in the compost to keep the others from spoiling.

And what do these strawberries represent? For one thing, they represent our habits.

When I was younger, I was habitually—almost compulsively—sarcastic. One day I realized I needed to resist this habit. I had to say no to the sarcastic impulse that was controlling me. I had to throw that part of myself in the fire.

In God, there is a yes and a no. God cares for us unconditionally and has an unwavering commitment to our well-being. This is why he leads us inevitably to freely affirm his yes and his no.

In doing this, God shows us both mercy and justice.

Jesus is reminding us of the unyielding nature of God’s no.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Stay in Me

 “I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away; and every branch that bears fruit he prunes so that it might bear more fruit. You are already pruned because of the word I have spoken to you. Stay in me—and I in you.” (John 15:1-4)

There was something about my grandmother. She held our family together. She didn’t try to hold it together. She just did it, effortlessly. At least that’s how it seemed to me.

She was there at the heart of things. Even when she wasn’t present, she was still there. Now that she is gone, she is still somehow with us, holding us together.

She cared for us all. She made us all feel that we belonged. Because we belonged to her, we also belonged to each other.

The life of our family flowed from her. She was our source.

I imagine that in any close-knit family, there is someone who does what my grandmother did—give a group of very different people a single collective life.

Which is exactly what Jesus does.

Before his death, he prepared his closest friends—his devoted students—for his departure.

He told them they need not be separated from him—that as long as they continued as disciples, following his commandments, they would remain with him. And he would remain with them.

He would be as close to them as a tree is to its own branches. He invited them to stay in him, as part of him.

His life would flow into them and bring them spiritual health.

Someone once asked me to do a simple task and I said no. My grandmother heard this and told me, “When someone asks you to do something, you say yes.”

I didn’t know then, but she was repeating Jesus’s commandment, “Give to everyone who asks.”

I was like a branch with dead twigs. She removed them so life could flow freely through me—so I could treat people with kindness.

She pruned me so I could bear fruit.

Which is how the Father prunes us when we are part of Jesus.

Monday, November 29, 2021

Invite the Poor

 “When you give a lunch or a supper, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your rich neighbours, in case they also invite you in return, and then you have your repayment. But when you make a big meal, invite the poor, the injured, the disabled, the blind, and you will be blessed that they can’t repay you, because you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Luke 14:12-14)

There is a commanding quality in Jesus’s words. It’s as if he’s saying, “I know this might not make total sense to you now, but trust me this is important. Do what I say, and you will see what I mean.”

Jesus is recommending that we throw parties for those in need rather than our friends and family.

When we do anything with the expectation of being repaid in the forseeable future, we are working to advance ourselves in this world. That means we are accumulating perishable rewards. But Jesus tells us to accumulate only imperishable rewards.

He never tells us not to seek rewards. He says what matters is the kind of reward our heart is set on.

Sometimes we are told we should be selfless and give up wanting any reward.

But Jesus tells us to accumulate treasure in heaven—and to seek the blessing that comes from being repaid at the resurrection of the just.

Jesus himself is fully alive because he does what’s right. Being fully alive is the natural reward for doing what’s right. And so, we can expect a reward for every act of justice.

And for Jesus, giving to those in need is justice.

Jesus wants us to give freely—meeting someone’s need because that need matters to us—without any expectation or demand that they will repay us.

Jesus wants us to give as God gives.

One of the rewards for generosity is learning to care for others in a pure and simple way. Being able to truly care for others is an imperishable reward, and I cannot imagine a better one in this life or the next.

I’ll be happy to spend quality time this Christmas with friends, family, and acquaintances, including some who I know are especially in need of connection and belonging.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

No One Could Bind Him

“And when [Jesus] had come out of the boat, there met him out of the tombs a man with an impure spirit, who lived among the tombs. And no one could bind him any longer with a chain since he had often been bound with fetters and chains, but the chains had been torn apart by him, and the fetters broken in pieces. And no one had the strength to control him.” (Mark 5:2-4)

I was once in a foreign city, walking along a lonely street. Through a door across the way, a man came out. He was in a violent rage. He kept up with me as I walked. Some woman had done something, and the man was spitting out angry judgements about her and all women. Even as a man, I was scared.

We don’t talk about demon-possession any longer, except when we do. We say things like, “that man has his demons,” and everybody knows what it means.

The Gerasenes lived with such a man, and they tried to control him. Repeatedly they put him in chains, and repeatedly he tore the chains apart. He was strong and violent and terrifying.

Imagine what it would be like to live around such a man every day.

What did Jesus do differently? Did he bring a bigger chain?

No, he saw the poor man, and being unafraid, he helped him. Jesus commanded the unclean things inside the man to come out, and they came out. The man was restored first to his right mind and then to his family.

How do we imitate Jesus, cleansing ourselves and others of the unclean things that invade our hearts and minds?

I’m not talking about exorcism. There are ordinary, non-miraculous ways of freeing people from impure spirits. How can we learn these ways?

The world has its demons. Few tasks are more urgent than training ourselves to cast them out.

Let’s start with our own impure spirits.

With trust in God, with prayer and reflection, some small meaningful step is always possible.

It’s not about chains and fetters. It’s not about force and condemnation. One day, we’ll have the compassion, clarity, and power, and we will tell our impure things to leave, and they will go.


Monday, November 22, 2021

I Will Give You Rest

 “Come to me, all who are worn out and weighed down, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)

I burnt out three times before I was forty. I worked harder than I could sustain, I accumulated unhealed emotional wounds, and I didn’t take proper care of myself.

After my last burnout, I made a solemn commitment to attend to my heart. And what my heart needed was rest.

Putting into practice Jesus’s teachings gave me that rest.

The work Jesus sets us to do is a light burden. It is restful work. It is good for the heart.

And the rest Jesus offers is something we can enjoy right away. We don’t have to wait. Even now, we have access to this rest—rest that renews our strength, that lifts our spirits, and that heals our wounds.

That this rest is already available means we don’t have to always be struggling and toiling. There is already a beautiful goodness in the world. We can just relax and let it in.

Jesus says, “Come to me and I will give you rest.”

Have you learned yet how to go to Jesus? Being quiet helps. Solitude helps.

I like to go out for a walk, leaving my phone and all distractions behind.

And as I go out my front door, I greet Jesus, acknowledging his presence. There is no need for many words. I just say, “Hello, Jesus, thank you for being here with me. I am worn out, and I’m coming to you. Please give me rest. I need it.”

And then I walk without thinking much about anything, letting my mind wander, and letting it also return from time to time to Jesus, remembering his presence and his compassion and his kindness to me.

The prince of this world wants us to work to exhaustion.

But Jesus gives us both good work and good rest, knowing we need both.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

My Father Works

“Jesus answered them, 'My Father works even up to the present, and I also work.'” (John 5:17)

Jesus is telling us about his Father. He wants us to know about his Father. If we understand the Father, we understand Jesus.

The Father works. He engages in purposeful action.

Is this just a personal preference? Does the Father just enjoy keeping himself busy? No, it is part of God’s nature to be purposefully, faithfully active.

Reality seems to be such that purposeful activity is a necessity—at least for human beings and other living things. Life and work go together.

And our God is a living God. And so God has work to do.

Some devout people have found a stillness in God’s heart. I suspect this stillness is not stationary, like a boulder sitting on the ground. Rather, it is the stillness of a deep river flowing smoothly, quietly. Always flowing.

God’s being is in purposeful action. His existence is that he works. His power is his movement. He is God because he does what a faithful and worthy God does, unceasingly, inexorably.

Jesus knows God in both time and eternity, and knows God to be the same in both realms.

God works in eternity as he works in time. He acts as the source, maintainer, and perfecter of all that is and all that could possibly be.

This sounds abstract, but it is simple to Jesus. Jesus sees his Father working and so works also. He does this because he wants nothing more than to remain united to his Father.

I see Jesus working, and so I work too—because I want to be united to Jesus and, through him, to the Father.

Like Jesus, do good work. What work did Jesus do? He healed, spoke truth, forgave, ate, slept, and a thousand other things. Go and do likewise.

All genuine work is a participation in God’s work.


Monday, November 15, 2021

Like His Teacher

 “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher.” (Luke 6:40)

I try to always look at Jesus with fresh eyes, aware that I have something important to learn from him.

What can Jesus do for me if I already know everything he might teach me, or think I do?

Everything I’ve learned from Jesus has been rewarding. It’s made me more human. It’s made me more real. And I think I’ve hardly scratched the surface of the things Jesus can teach me.

I’m convinced that what Jesus still has to teach me is more wonderful than anything I can imagine.

I am the student and he is the teacher. And this relationship makes me happy.

There is an inequality between us, but it’s not because Jesus wants me to be lower than him. Quite the opposite. Jesus wants me to be like him. He wants to teach me what he knows. He wants me to understand what he understands. He wants me to be able to do what he can do. His goal—and my goal—is a more equal relationship.

If a teacher wants to transmit her skills and knowledge to her students, she doesn’t tell them, “Your understanding is already perfectly fine and just as good as mine.” That would not be true. The teacher knows what her students don’t. She acknowledges this difference because she wants to raise her students up to her same level of attainment.

To receive what our teacher has to share, we must be willing to learn. Being willing to learn requires a kind of trust, or rather two kinds.

The easier kind is trusting that the teacher has something to teach us. The harder kind is trusting that we need the understanding that our teacher can provide.

Jesus wants us to be teachable. He knows learning to become like him will make us happy.