Lent, Holy Week, Easter Day – the journey through the Resurrection cycle of the Christian year has brought us to the Great 50 Days. We walk through the time between Easter and Pentecost remembering the stories of the Risen Christ appearing to disciples who were shocked and amazed by his presence.
Nearly 2000 years after those appearances, many of us are still shocked and amazed to recognize the Christ present in our world. Just like the disciples on the Emmaus road, just like Peter and his friends eating breakfast on the beach, we can miss the true identity of that compelling presence, until we suddenly see it. The moments when we become aware that Christ is among us point us directly to the calling Christ has placed on our lives.
Aaric Eisenstein, who calls himself “The Avian Rebbe,” describes his work as “teach[ing] Jewish wisdom seen in the beauty of birds.” Recognizing that the value of everyday work is not always immediately apparent, the Rebbe commented:
The Hebrew word Avodah is an enormously rich tool with multiple meanings. This word is used in the Bible to describe the Hebrew slaves toiling in Egypt. Avodah can mean prayer or worship. Its meaning can be as simple as “work” or “vocation.” And there is a sublime interpretation, which reclaims the “servitude” in Egypt and instead speaks of devotion to HaShem and our community. All of these are valid interpretations, each one – though wildly different in detail – sharing the commonality of “service.” Avodah means to labor on behalf of another, sometimes horrifically – think the slaves in Egypt – sometimes beautifully – think the joyful way we serve God and those around us.
Evaluating work, our own or others’, how do we think of it? …. Avodah, a single word which incorporates meanings from slavery to most worshipful service, is no coincidence. The work we do – the service we offer – is defined by us, not others. It is ennobled by the way we do it and the underlying intention.
Living into our calling often begins with the surprising awareness of what God is up to, and then contributing our own avodah. The work of living into the fullness of a life patterned after Christ may begin with the surprise of Easter; as we learn to perceive Christ’s immediate presence, it can become a lifelong path of daily steps along the Way of Love.
We’re about to enter Holy Week, an opportunity to feel the power and the poignancy of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. We can choose to walk through those eight days as a memorial, a tradition, a liturgical banquet, a personal sacrifice. For me, this Lent, I’m drawn to reflect deeply on how each day’s drama is challenging me to live differently, starting now. How might my daily life be transformed?
My prayer is for God to change my heart. This song, “Last Words” by Karl Kohlhase has offered me a framework to press into opening my heart more fully. It calls me to see the habits I must let go to allow my heart to be – every day – more tender, trusting, thankful, holy, loving, perfect, and faithful.
"Father, forgive them, they know not what they do,”
I hear you pray for those who torture you.
These are the words that tear my grudges all apart.
Create in me a tender heart.
You turn your head to address a dying thief.
“Today you’ll be in paradise with me.”
These are the words where every hopeless soul must start.
Create in me a trusting heart.
Your darkest hour you cried out from the tree,
“My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?”
These words of anguish pierce me through just like a dart.
Create in me a thankful heart.
Then unto Mary, “Woman behold your son,
Behold your mother,” your dying words to John.
These words begin a family of which I’m part.
Create in me a holy heart.
You said, “I thirst,” yet it was not for wine.
You thirst for love from desert souls like mine.
And with these words a flowing river you impart.
Create in me a loving heart.
Then “It is finished!” Your work on earth was done.
For in three days your battle would be won.
These are the words with which you crown your works of art.
Create in me a perfect heart.
“Into your hands, Father, I commend my breath.”
Your final prayer as you close your eyes in death.
And with these words one day I’ll fly to where you are.
Create in me, create in me, create in me a faithful heart.
“Last Words” by Karl Kohlhase
John O’Donohue was an Irishman – a poet, a philosopher, and a former Roman Catholic priest. He died in his sleep just days after his 52nd birthday in 2008.
His book Beauty: The Invisible Embrace carries the subtitle Rediscovering the True Sources of Compassion, Serenity, and Hope. He explores our intimate human relationship with beauty, calling it “a homecoming of the human spirit.”
In the midst of pandemic and war, our souls are parched for the strength, integrity, and imaginative connections that beauty calls forth. O’Donohue summons us to open ourselves to the beauty we can discover in the dailiness of our lives. As we do that, we find ourselves strengthened by the blessings of our daily work.
Blessing of your work
May the light of your soul guide you. May the light of your soul bless the work you do with the secret love and warmth of your heart. May you see in what you do the beauty of your own soul. May the sacredness of your work bring healing, light and renewal to those who work with you and to those who see and receive your work. May your work never weary you. May it release within you wellsprings of refreshment, inspiration and excitement. May you be present in what you do. May you never become lost in the bland absences. May the day never burden you. May dawn find you awake and alert, approaching your new day with dreams, possibilities, and promises. May evening find you gracious and fulfilled. May you go into the night blessed, sheltered and protected. May your soul calm, console, and renew you.
– by John O’Donohue, from To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings
Nathalie is a young business owner, entrepreneur, and mother of a toddler, expecting her second child. She was taught to sew by nuns in a Kenyan orphanage and now designs and makes beautiful clothes that combine African colors with French and American styles. During Nathalie’s early childhood, war raged in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and she and her siblings were forced to flee after their parents were murdered. The nuns recognized her gift and encouraged her to pursue her passion.
Faith and resilience led Nathalie to apply for refugee status in the US as a 14-year-old. She continued to sew; found community with both a local Refugee Choir and an Episcopal congregation; completed a business development program; started her own business at age 21; and then saved enough money to locate and bring her younger sister and brother to the US.
Yet, despite the trauma and hardship that she has experienced in her young life, Nathalie strives to encourage and support others in the name of Christ. She recognized that, although fellow refugees could speak English fluently, their inability to read and write limited their job prospects. So she began to hold reading and writing classes. And because of her own difficulties moving out of the foster care system at age 18, she began advocating for refugees – and others. When her shop was vandalized and a GoFundMe account was established on her behalf, she pledged to give any excess money to neighboring business owners whose shops were also vandalized.
Stitch by stitch, Nathalie sows and sews God’s love as she transforms the colorful fabric into clothing. Each choice of fabric and each stitch reflect the merciful and saving love that Nathalie has received from God and that she shares with others – through her encouragement of others, her Christlike actions, and her vibrant and unique fashion creations.
Baptism is about belonging and identity. When we know whose we are, we know who we are. We are “Christ’s own forever”! That is our truest, fundamental identity, which has the power to set us free. We already belong to God. Our struggle now is to become what we already are.
When I worked as a community newspaper editor and publisher, I often stood with parents and families sending their high school athletes and band members off to an away game or tournament. In Central Texas, along with admonitions to “be safe,” “play hard,” and “be a good sport,” always part of the send-off was the shout from at least one adult: “Remember who you are and where you’re from!” Part “do us proud” and part “don’t shame us,” those words also carried the message: “Be the amazing people we know you to be.” They were reminding teenagers that their behavior testified to their character, witnessed to their values, and proclaimed their true identity.
Teenagers aren’t the only folks who need reminding. As Br. Geoffrey offers in our lead-in, “our truest, fundamental identity … has the power to set us free.” Every time we renew our baptismal vows, or stand as witness to a baptism, we have an opportunity to remember the identity and behavior that makes us most truly who we are. Br. Geoffrey affirms, “As we promise to serve Christ in all persons, to strive for justice and peace for all people, to respect the dignity of every human being, we are proclaiming before God, before ourselves, and before all the world, ‘This is who we are!’” Each of us lays claim to our true identity: Child of God, beloved and called.
Through scripture and our faith community, as well as the day-to-day world we encounter, God reminds us again and again both who we are and whose we are. As we daily practice walking the Way of Love, our life-long task – our ministry in our daily lives – is to become what we already are.
“Be Kind” were the words written on our 2½ year-old granddaughter’s shirt on the same day that a new book arrived. The cover of the book, 10 Hidden Heroes, shows children and adults helping others as they go about their everyday lives. Because I believe strongly in making our world more loving by living out our baptismal promises in daily life, I was eager to share this book with our little granddaughter.
She and I sat down together and searched through the pictures on each two-page spread. One set of pictures features hidden heroes nursing others back to health. Although one setting was in a hospital with nurses and doctors caring for patients, there was also a child tending to another child’s scraped knee and a girl caring for her injured cat. Another set of pictures highlights hidden heroes striving to protect the environment by planting trees, recycling, composting, and riding bikes. A boy stocking shelves in a food bank shows young readers how to serve those less fortunate. There are even hidden heroes who invent and do research to develop medicines and “treasures for humankind.”
Hidden Heroes author, Mark K. Shriver, is the president of Save the Children Action Network, and hopes that it can help children and their parents make the world a better place. When I read the book with our granddaughter, not only is she learning to count as she searches for the hidden heroes in the pictures, together we’re also making connections as we look to her family, friends, preschool, and community for examples of kindness and compassion. And this is a time for talking, too, about how she herself can be kinder and more compassionate.
Who are the hidden heroes in your life, and how might they inspire you – us – to make our world more loving and just?
Thomas Mousin, an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Maine, has created daily Keeping Advent reflections for many years. Using scriptural passages he finds Advent themes and elaborates on them with apt insight and relevance. As a subscriber I have found them consistently evocative and pertinent in my baptismal journey to Christmas.
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
We can spend a lot of time thinking about the life to come. Such was the question asked by the lawyer who was testing Jesus. In one sense, Jesus answered clearly, saying these are the things you need to do. He also knew that the lawyer, having asked the question, already knew the answer.
But the truth of that answer has not to do with what ensures our eternal fate, but what it means to live each moment of each day. What does it mean to love God with all our heart, all our soul, all our strength, and all our mind? And what does it mean to love our neighbor as ourselves? These are the questions we work out in the everydayness of our lives.
When Jesus commended the lawyer on his response, he did not say, “You have given the right answer; you will do this and you will have eternal life.” Instead, he said, “You have given the right answer; you will do this and you will live.” We are meant to live, today in this moment and every moment, as we love God and our neighbor as ourselves for the life we are given today.
This week, the third week in Advent, began with Gaudete Sunday, the customary day for lighting the pink candle on the Advent wreath. Often thought of as honoring Mary the mother of Jesus, the pink candle signals a “breather” at the halfway point in Advent – an opportunity to “lighten up” the intensity of our Advent observances on our way to Christmas. A time to “let it be.” That same Sunday, Dec. 12, was the traditional day for celebrating the feast of the Virgen de Guadalupe, patron saint of the Americas. La Virgen appeared to Juan Diego as a pregnant indigenous woman and spoke to him in Nahuatl, his native language.
This past Saturday, the Center for Action and Contemplation featured a meditation and practice outlined by Brian McLaren, centering around the dimension that Mary brings to Christianity.
In Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus, God aligns with the creative feminine power of womanhood rather than the violent masculine power of statehood. The doctrine of the virgin birth, it turns out, isn’t about bypassing sex but about subverting violence. The violent power of top-down patriarchy is subverted not by counterviolence but by the creative power of pregnancy. It is through what proud men have considered “the weaker sex” that God’s true power enters and changes the world. That, it turns out, is exactly what Mary understood the messenger to be saying: [read her Magnificat, especially Luke 1:48, 51, 52, 53]. . . .
“I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:, Mt 9:13 and 12:17). Again and again, through scripture and witness, God calls us to practice generativity, not violence. In our daily lives, when our work springs from our gifts and our calling, we access God’s power as co-creators. We are empowered to change the world through love.
For years I commuted to Seattle, often by bus. I found the bus drivers to be courteous and helpful – some friendly, and others, business-like. And, like anyone who faces the public daily, they encounter gracious passengers and rude, even unruly, passengers while trying to treat them respectfully.
Linda Wilson-Allen takes her role as a bus driver to a whole new level. A 2013 article in the San Francisco Chronicle describes Linda as someone who “loves the people on the bus, knows the regulars, learns their names. She will wait for them if they are late, and then make up the time on her route. She would get out of the driver’s seat of her bus to help seniors.” One day, Linda even reached out to a passenger who was lost and afraid and then invited her to join her family for Thanksgiving dinner. Her kindness has touched people so powerfully that some passengers will let another bus pass by just so they can ride with Linda.
Linda’s story inspired the pastors of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church (MPPC). Because her job can be thankless and filled with frustrations from cranky passengers to traffic jams and breakdowns, they invited her to share with the congregation how she keeps such a positive attitude. Linda told them that her work is to minister to God’s people. She begins her day with prayer – at the crack of dawn. She asks God for guidance and how God might help her bless the people she encounters on her route. She asks God to help her shine light into dark places.
After she shared her story at MPPC, senior pastor John Ortberg reminded his congregation of the wider lesson we all can learn from Linda about ministry. He said, “My patients are my ministry. My clients are my ministry. My neighborhood is my ministry. My store is my ministry. I’m just going to go through every day and reach up to Jesus so that the power of the Holy Spirit is in me all the time, and then be a part of a little community here where I have people I can know and love and care about and serve for and who can help me grow, and then I’m going out. I will go out and bless.”
Many Episcopal congregations observe the Feast of All Saints in early November by renewing their baptismal covenant, that shared set of beliefs and practices that are recited by all baptized Episcopalians. While for many All Saints Day is a remembrance of the saints who have gone before us, that renewal of vows is a reminder that baptism marks the first step for many Christians in their journey with Jesus.
We can’t start a spiritual journey on a negative foundation. If we just seek God out of fear or guilt or shame (which is often the legacy of original sin), we won’t go very far. If we start negative, we stay negative. We have to begin positive—by a wonderful experience, by something that’s larger than life, by something that dips us into the depths of our own being. That’s what the word baptism means, “to be dipped into.”
Jesus is thirty years old when his baptism happens. According to Mark’s Gospel, he hasn’t said a single thing up to now. Until we know we’re a beloved son or beloved daughter or even just beloved, we don’t have anything to say. We’re so filled with self-doubt that we have no good news for the world. In his baptism, Jesus was dipped in the unifying mystery of life and death and love. That’s where it all begins—even for him! The unique Son of God had to hear it with his own ears and then he couldn’t be stopped. Then he has plenty to say for the next three years, because he has finally found his own soul, his own identity, and his own life’s purpose….
This is the good news of God for our hurting world: we are all beloved by God. That fundamental understanding equips us to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving [our] neighbor as [ourselves],” and, further, “respect the dignity of every human being.” (from the Baptismal Covenant, Book of Common Prayer, p. 305) In the midst of our brokenness and blindness, the truth of that belovedness is the good news that the world hungers for. It sets us on the path that early Jesus-followers called “the Way,” the Way of Love.
…. The only purpose of the gospel, and even religion, is to communicate that one and eternal truth. Once we have that straight, nothing can stop us and no one can take it away from us, because it is given only, always, and everywhere by God—for those who will accept it freely. My only job and any preacher’s job is to try to replicate and resound that eternal message of God that initiates everything good on this earth—You are beloved children of God