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Apple Trees in Blossom, in Lyme by Childe Hassam

Happy are they who have not walked
 in the counsel of the wicked,
nor lingered in the way of sinners,
nor sat in the seats of the scornful! 

Their delight is in the law of the LORD,
and they meditate on his law day and night. 

They are like trees planted by streams of water,
bearing fruit in due season,
with leaves that do not wither;
everything they do shall prosper.

Psalm 1:1-3


The word of God came to Moses on a mountaintop, full of fire and smoke and thunder. With the coming of Jesus, the "word" made flesh, we see God as one of us, only more so. Not only are we are given a model to follow, we are introduced to an elder brother who understands and offers encouragement and strength . And with the advent of the Spirit, we are allowed the privilege of moving even deeper into the heart of God - no longer even beside us, but now residing in our very souls.

Each movement of divine love, each reaching out to us, God's cherished children, comes with a desire for our flourishing, our fruitfulness. We come to realize that the streams of love continuously flow, bringing us all we need for life. Believing this truth, pondering how this love can be drawn up into our lives, and then acting upon it - these pasttimes become our delight and allow our souls to prosper in whatever they do.
 
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The Risen Christ by He, Qi


“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete."
(John 15:9-11) 

Last night I sat around a table with my three daughters, sharing Mother's Day dinner in a bustling Macaroni Grill. I couldn't be happier when I spend time with these amazingly wonderful young women - reflective, kind, creative, loving, silly, profound. I love them, I love what they do, I love supporting what they do and learning from them. I'm happy we're connected, that love flows freely between us. I know I'm blessed with these relationships and they fill me with joy.

When Jesus talks about staying connected to him, "abiding in him" as a branch stays connected to a vine, it's not about moral imperatives. We don't "please God" so that he won't be angry with us. Far from it. As Julian of Norwich is surprised to discover in her visions of God, never can she even catch a hint of God being angry with us. Rather, it's that living in love allows us to fully inhabit the sphere of God. and participate in the joy that comes from deep relationships bound together by a common purpose.

All through Eastertide, I've been captivated by the Henry Dyke hymn, Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee, set to Beethoven's Ode to Joy. Dyke picks up on John's twin themes of connectedness (in 1 John he'll refer to it as fellowship) and joy. It's the phrase from the third stanza that's been running around in my mind: "All who live in love are thine." But as I consider Jesus' words in John 15, I can imagine him saying, "All who live in love are mine, and living, working, loving together with you brings me more joy than you will ever know."


Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee
Henry Dyke

Joyful, joyful, we adore thee,
God of glory, Lord of love;
hearts unfold like flowers before thee,
opening to the sun above. 
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness;
drive the dark of doubt away.  
Giver of immortal gladness,
fill us with the light of day!

All thy works with joy surround thee,
earth and heaven reflect thy rays,
stars and angels sing around thee,
center of unbroken praise. 
Field and forest, vale and mountain,
flowery meadow, flashing sea,
chanting bird and flowing fountain,
call us to rejoice in thee.

Thou art giving and forgiving,
ever blessing, ever blest,
well-spring of the joy of living,
ocean depth of happy rest! 
Thou our Father, Christ our brother,
all who live in love are thine;
teach us how to love each other,
lift us to the joy divine.

Mortals, join the mighty chorus
which the morning stars began;
love divine is reigning o'er us,
binding all within its span. 
Ever singing, march we onward,
victors in the midst of strife;
joyful music leads us sunward,
in the triumph song of life.

 
 
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Harp by Vered Fishman


Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. (1John 4:7,8)

 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear  much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)


The season of Easter (which in liturgical churches lasts until Pentecost) has us reading through portions of John's writings. As I read John, I can't help but feel like he understands, perhaps in a mystical way, the true heart of God. In John's Gospel, he refers to himself as "the disciple whom Jesus loved," as if the wonder of this reality is never far from his mind. In his Epistles, he, like Jesus, will cut to the core of the truth of God: God is love, and all who love are in fellowship with God.

Like branches on a vine, sharing the same life-giving sap, our continued connection to God allows love to flow through us, uniting us all with the very source of love, and allowing us to bring forth all the fruit of love. Those who don't love are disconnected, not only from God, but also from their neighbor, and just as importantly, from themselves.

How is it that love is able to connect us? This is the work of the Holy Spirit, which flows continuously from God, bringing all the power and wisdom and grace that we need to flourish. The celebration of Pentecost, still several weeks away, reminds us that this was a new phenomenon, a gift of the Christ; the ability to be a channel for the Spirit of God is now available to all people, not just a select few.

Mechthild of Magdeburg, a medieval mystic, lived in the 13th century. Her visions of God were written down in a book called The Flowing Light of Divinity. In this poem, she captures the essence of love, which is to flow "effortlessly" from the lover toward the beloved. Like the hawk, or eagle, who stay afloat without flapping a wing, riding the currents of air, so Mechthild sees that to love is not a chore for God. As Julian of Norwich is shown, for God to love is a joy, and the very nature of God's being.

What makes this poem compelling is the action that the love of God takes. The Holy Spirit, like a heavenly harpist, sweeps across the varied strings of humanity, desiring to play on and with us. It seems that it is not our responsibility to make the music, rather our effort comes in choosing to be open to the Spirit, open to the love that is endlessly being poured into us. Then, like the branch connected to the healthy vine which cannot help but bear fruit, we, feeling ourselves "touched in love," will have no choice but to respond in kind.

Love Flows
Mechthild of Magdeburg

Effortlessly,
Love flows from God into man,
Like a bird
Who rivers the air
Without moving her wings.
Thus we move in His world
One in body and soul,
Though outwardly separate in form.
As the Source strikes the note,
Humanity sings--
The Holy Spirit is our harpist,
And all strings touched in Love
Must sound.

 
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The Bride of the Wind by Oskar Kokoschka

Last night, friends and I watched George Clooney's The Descendants, a story about a family in the process of losing their wife and mother. The impending death provides the opportunity to untangle a jumble of emotions - grief, anger, loss, betrayal, sadness, hurt, regret, thankfulness. Unruly and at times unwelcome, each makes its presence known, demanding both an acknowledgement and a response.

All of us yearn to love and be loved deeply, and because of that openness and need, it is the relationships we care about most that not only bring us our greatest joys, but also deal us our deepest wounds. Still, as a friend said after the movie, by watching the complexity of other relationships, at times we can see the truth about someone who has hurt us in the past, and recognize that things are not as simple as they seem.

It's the awareness of these inner complexities that anchors the following poem by Robert Hayden. Sometimes the contradictions between longing and hurt, between love and anger cannot be resolved. We state the truth: the consistency of "banked fires" blazing, or good shoes being polished (and all without thanks), but we state with equal certainty that "chronic angers" produced a cold that was never splintered or broken.

And yet, even these truths are not the end of the truth-telling. That, too, must be acknowledged, for what do we really know of another? The whole truth, like life itself,  remains unfathomable


Those Winter Sundays
Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?



Note: The painting above shows Kokoschka and his lover Alma Mahler as a shipwrecked pair in stormy seas. "He satisfied my life and he  destroyed it", Mahler is quoted as saying. Born in 1886, the Austrian painter, poet, and playwright is best known for his intense expressionistic style.
 
Human beings have deep-seated identity needs. In 1943 Psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed a hierarchy of needs which included self-actualization, self-esteem, love/belonging, safety and physiological needs. Vern Redekop, who discusses Conflict Resolution in his book "From Violence to Blessing," identifies 7 needs, beginning with the need to be a legitimate self, a person whose needs and desires are worth being met. Moving on from there, Redekop proposes others: meaning, action, recognition, security, and connectedness. Whichever list of needs one focuses on, it doesn't seem much of a leap to me to define love as an awareness of and a commitment to seeing these needs met - not only in ourselves (appropriate self-love) but also in our neighbors. In fact, that's one of the ways that you can interpret the Gospel reading from yesterday's lectionary.

In Matthew 5:31-46, Jesus tells us how it will be when the Son of Man returns to claim hiis rightful place as Ruler adn King. As he separates "sheep" from "goats,"  Jesus gives a description of the sort of person who will enter the kingdom of God.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your  inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the  world. For I was hungry  and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to  drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ " (v 34-36)

While these verses are often an encouragement to do more good, to give more time and money towards those who are in the margins of society, it can be expanded beyond that to incorporate willingness to meet whatever the appropriate need is of our neighbor. Yes, it is true that some around us are hungry and thirsty, and so donating food to the local foodbank throughout the year is a valid and necessary way of showing love. But what about the stranger? Meeting his or her needs may not be about giving at all. Instead, we may show love by receiving someone new into our circle of family and friends. In doing so, we offer a place at the table, recognizing the newcomers' differences and valuing them as gifts. By stepping back and not doing for them, we allow them the opportunity to act in meaningful ways, to be a blessing to us.

And perhaps it is the need for connectedness that underlies Jesus commendation for his followers who remember the prisoners. My guess is that he is referring here to men and women who have been put under lock and key for their belief in Christ, enduring persecution for their faith. But we can also go beyond this to those who are imprisoned for any reason. To love in this way is to validate the common bond we all share as members of the human race, to continue to offer support and community in the midst of isolating and dehumanizing circumstances.

In this teaching, His last before he heads to the cross, Jesus shows us what it means to fulfill the two great commandments: to love God and to love others as ourselves.  They are two sides of one coin, for it is in loving the other, that we show our love for Christ. "‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me,'" says the King to his true followers. And he will say it again to Peter on the lakeside, "If you love me, then feed my sheep." But we need to slow down if we are to appreciate the full dimensions of love. For love isn't always about giving, although that is an important aspect of showing care. It's also about welcoming and receiving, about keeping connected. It's in the give and take and faithful companioning of loving community that our needs are truly met.
 

Yesterday's sermon took up the matter of pride. It was a needed and powerful encouragement to not think more highly of ourselves than we should, to not puff ourselves up by comparison with others, but acknowledge truthfully our strengths and our limitations. And while it is true that we can harbor an inflated view of ourselves, I don't think that we can set our desires too high. Writing to the Colossians, Paul says that he is laboring with all the energy of God to teach and admonish all of the Gentiles concerning a truth which has been hidden and is now revealed. This astonishing mystery is that Christ is in each of the believers, the hope of glory. (Col 1:24-27)

What does it mean that because of Christ's presence in us, we have the hope of glory? A saying from the desert fathers has always intrigued me. In this story, Abba Lot goes to see Abba Joseph and says to him, 'Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace, and, as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?' At this, Abba Joseph stands up and stretches his hands towards heaven. His fingers become like ten lamps of fire and he says to Abba Lot, 'If you will, you can become all flame.'

"If you will," says Abba Joseph. Do we want to become all flame? Or, to put it another way, Do we want the Holy Spirit to so invade our lives that we are filled with the energy and love, "the glory," of God, And if so, how can we handle this fire without being consumed, how can we be as resilient as the burning bush that caught the attention of Moses out in the desert?

These are questions that guide my journey of faith. I am under no delusions. To be filled with the fire of God means that I need to stay open to the purifying this fire brings, which can be a painful process. It also means that I'm taking seriously the body that this Spirit desires to fill. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus tells his disciples that "the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak." Becoming healthy and strong makes sense if I don't want to be overwhelmed by the power of God surging through me.

Like Paul, I'm struggling to grasp hold of the gift that God has given each of us - the ability to become truly sons and daughters of God. It's pretty audacious, I know. Perhaps it sounds prideful to even admit, but I don't think so. No, the desire to be all flame is fueled by the desire to become one with the love of God. This yearning takes the Father, the Son and the Spirit seriously as they gracious pursue humanity to make us one with themselves.

I want to be all love, to channel the power of God's love, to cauterize, heal, strengthen, encourage, enjoy, empower. I want to share in God's glory because I think that's what God wants. If He desires all of us to become flame, should I want less?
 
Yesterday's sermon was anchored in a familiar verse by Paul. Found in his letter to the Philippians (1:21) it is perhaps his "missional statement," the focus of his life's vocation.
"For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain."

Sometimes verses like this seem meaningful, and yet hard to grasp. I found myself yesterday inserting the word "joy" for Christ. I don't think this is irreverent, as Christ comes to give us joy. Perhaps one could also substitute the word "love," another word that Christ embodies.

For to me to live is joy, and to die means even more joy.
For to me to live is love, and to die means even more love.

Playing with the text this way opens it up to more questions, or steps forward. To live in joy might mean that I have to start dancing. (Yesterday I had a distinct sense that my body needs to join my mind for me to experience joy most fully.) To live in love means that my heart continues to expand, that who and what I love continues to broaden, that I grow in my capacity to give, to receive and to creatively companion.

Paul sought to grab onto all that Jesus came to give. His motto is an expression of that commitment, a guiding statement that's worth sharing. It's also a good Monday mantra.
 
And by his own gracious light he wants us to understand the following things: the first is our noble and excellent creation; the second our costly and precious redemption; the third, everything which he has made beneath us to be of use to us and which he sustains out of love for us...And so he means that it befits us to know that that greatest deeds have been done, as Holy Church teaches. And in contemplating this with thanksgiving we
should pray for the deed which is now being done; that is, we pray that he should rule and guide us to his greater glory in this life and brings us to his bliss: and he has done everything to this end. (Julian of Norwich, chapter 42)

As I was kneeling at the altar at the Episcopal church we visited yesterday, I was reminded of a prayer I've often made throughout these past years. "Lord, grant me strength for the journey." To see the elements of the eucharist, bread and wine, as strengthening my soul is not new. What was new, yesterday, was realizing that strength and wisdom, love, peace, joy, gracious expressions of God's love, constantly surround me. They are not something that God needs to give me, as much as what I need to open myself up to. My prayer is the acknowledgement of my lack, yes, but not a means by which God unlocks the heavens. Grace has already been poured out, I need only to open myself to God's love, flowing in its many and varied forms.

This seems to be what Julian of Norwich is getting at in the passage above. If we come to God begging, we miss what is true. God desires to grant us every good gift. He wants to "guide us to his greater glory in this life and bring us to his bliss." To accomplish this, His strongest desire, "the greatest deeds have [already] been done." He has made us, formed us His "noble and excellent creation." Secondly, He has, through the life and death of His Son, Jesus, brought us back into open and free connection with Him and His life-giving, joy-bringing, love-delighting Spirit. Finally, He has made and continues to sustain the world around us for our blessing.

This morning, I found myself slightly anxious, my brow furrowing once again, reinforcing those indelible creases I noticed just a few weeks ago. The self-imposed pressure of writing regularly on this blog was making me anxious. I caught myself up short. Wait - how was this at all connected to the point of this blog, which is to choose joy? If I can't be joyful, why do I even bother? It's true I have some thoughtful points to make, maybe even helpful comments to folks who wander onto this site, but my life has to be first and foremost about joy, or it's all bogus. 

After a minute or so, I realized that I had lost my focus. I had forgotten to begin the day with gratitude. God has given me so many good gifts. As Julian mentions, the gift of life, of his love, of his provision. He's also given me desires, planted in my heart, that He wishes to fill. He continues to surround me with His love. In fact, I am living in the ocean of His love. Some days swimming, some days floating, some days surfing, some days diving deep. This is what's true. This is what God wants me to remember today. To be grateful and let the joy flow in.
 
What if each day is an invitation to love? This question came to me as I was out walking this morning. I've been struggling as of late to find some way to order my life. Choosing to live in the moment has been a great exercise (I'm sure it's expanded my capacity for something) but it's left me feeling a bit adrift. I thought perhaps it was the need to "find my rhythm," to get into a routine, although I had my doubts. No, what I think I need is a compelling world view, something that's big enough to encapsulate the changing circumstances of my life, something succinct enough to remember, to fit into my traveling bags as I continue to wander.

In Wendell Berry's "Hannah Coulter," an old woman reflects on her life. Her voice is saturated with love. It is as palpable as the humidity that blankets Washington, DC during the summer. She speaks out of her experience, the memories deep and rich as a forest floor, where years of decomposing leaves have created a nurturing humus. Early on in the book, she describes life as an invitation to enter a room of love. "Sometimes too I could see that love is a great room with a lot of doors, where we are invited to knock and come in. Though it contains all the world, the sun, moon, and stars, it is so small as to be also in our hearts. It is in the hearts of those who choose to come in. some do not come in, Some may stay out forever."

To enter into the room of love means to be willing to connect to the world around you. To risk being open and vulnerable, allowing the energy of love to flow in and through you, building connections, bringing purpose and desire, power and motivation, joy and delight.

I've blogged in the past about love, (see the categories along the sidebar for those posts) and how I believe it has three main components: giving, enjoying and partnering. Each of these requires an other (even if it means that I see myself in relationship to myself). To be "in love" with the world, is to be actively engaging in these three aspects of love. I choose to give to the things and people I love. I offer my time, my energy, my insight and encouragement. I may bring a casserole or mow a lawn, or craft a quilt. I can volunteer at an animal shelter, or be a part of conservation efforts for our local stream.

I also love by enjoying the world around me. I choose to be fed by the sunlight streaming through the trees on my morning walk, by the peach that's finally ripened and offered for sale by a local farmer. I see and appreciate the kindness of my spouse, and laugh at the outrageous scene cleverly described in the current novel.

Then there is the third component of love: partnering and collaborating. Creative companioning, I've called it. Writing this, I find myself aware that it is the area in which I feel the least energy. Although I am energized by giving (and it's an easy posture for me to fall into), and I am expanding my capacity for enjoyment, the missing component, I can see now, is that of creative collaboration. When I am involved with others and we are working together on what we love, then the energy is reinforced. Have you had this experience? This is what I think is meant by synergy - the concept that the energy of working together is more than the sum of the two energies of the parties involved.

Life as an invitation to love. It gives me my goal, and helps me evaluate where I'm missing out. I like it.
 
The news of the death of Osama bin Laden, long on the top of the "most wanted" list, had me pondering all day yesterday about the correct response. I found myself uncomfortable with those who were dancing in Time Square after the President's announcement on Sunday night, yet had to acknowledge that this is where a "war on terror" takes us. I couldn't help but remember the time we took our children to a trout farm in Costa Rica. We paid a dollar, the guys in charge put on some bait, and in went the lines. Kara, the middle daughter, squealed in delight upon catching a fish, then gasped in horror when one of the men took it from the hook, and slapped its head upon the pavement. What did she expect? Obviously, we hadn't told her the whole story.

The taking of life, even if enacted in the most just of cases, is still a sadness. The Hebrew God, whose "life for life" justice set a standard for centuries states: Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked,” declares the Lord GOD, “rather than that he should turn from his ways and live? (Ezekiel 18:23) And the Proverbs admonishes, "Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice." 

While justice can bring a sense of closure, or even relief, it does not necessarily make the world a better place. At best it takes us back to where we were before. It can stem the tide of negative energy, but cannot generate the positive power we need to move forward. That power comes from love, which is demonstrated so powerfully in the Easter story we celebrated this last week.
 
This little poem by Edwin Markham causes me think about the ways we make (or allow) others to become our enemies. It leaves me wondering if Love really is this ingenious, and if so, what it takes to draw a circle that insists on no divisions.

Outwitted

He drew a circle that shut me out --
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.

UPDATE:
This quote by Martin Luther King Jr. from his "Where do we go from here?" speech says eloquently what I tried to express in the comment "justice cannot generate the positive power we need to move forward." I'm thankful for my FB page, and the many helpful links.

“I’m concerned about a better world. I’m concerned about justice; I’m concerned about brotherhood; I’m concerned about truth. And when one is concerned about that, he can never advocate violence. For through violence you may murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar, but you can’t establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate through violence. Darkness cannot put out darkness; only light can do that.”