I want to share with you four books I read in 2019, all by a Franciscan priest, Father Richard Rohr. In truth, I’ve been sharing them with you all year long. They changed my preaching and how I hear the gospel. Now you can consider the source and perhaps even share them as Christmas gifts:
• The Universal Christ, 2019; 272 pages
• Falling Upward, 2011; 240 pages
• Breathing Under Water, 1989; 160 pages
• Adam's Return, 2004; 280 pages
First, The Universal Christ. From the publisher:
From one of the world’s most influential spiritual thinkers, a long-awaited book exploring what it means that Jesus was called “Christ” and how this forgotten truth can transform everything we see, hope for, and believe.
Reading this book was a spiritual journey. It spoke to my head and heart, exploring both the bible and theology and daily practices that enlarge the soul. I’m considering using this book for a Lenten book study. Stay tuned!
You can “try before you buy” by listening to the podcast based on the book, “Another Name for Every Thing.”
To buy, search for “The Universal Christ” at store.cac.org
Thanks be to God,
Pastor Clark Olson-Smith
"Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour," said Jesus.
The scriptures for Advent go against the grain of what we want Advent to be. We want warm, comforting, familiar--a pre-Christmas, with all the feeling of listening to the Christmas station and putting up the tree and lights early and settling in.
Especially this year. It’s been, nearly universally, a hard year. We truly need rest and safety and love.
The scriptures announce the coming salvation--the love, rest and safety we need--but almost like a drill sergeant jerking us awake at o’dark thirty. In these gospel readings, there are fearful dreams, serious doubt, a shout of “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” And this week, what seems like a threat delivered as if it’s promised good news: Christ will come like a thief in the night.
Cue the hot cocoa spit-take.
Advent is bracing because it is a wake up call. “Beware!” it seems to say. “The lights and trees and silent nights can put you to sleep!”
Take these scriptures seriously and, as you do, take inventory of your holiday traditions. Are they really waking you up to greater love and justice, to taking more responsibility for yourself and the world, to finding more joy and peace? Ask Jesus, “Lord, do I need a warm bath or a cold shower?”
“Do you want the Giver or the gifts?” asked my teacher. She was responding to another student’s question about not feeling anything when she prayed.
Do you want the Giver or the gifts?
Suddenly I saw my own self-centeredness. I want what God gives, not God. But I wondered, What would it be like to desire God more than health, success, comfort, security, esteem, and the like?
Maybe asking for health, success, and so on (for yourself or others) is the only way you’ve ever known pray. After all, Jesus did say, “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it” (John 14) and “Ask, and it will be given you” (Luke 11).
These are prayers of the first half of life: the upward journey. There is another journey, downward. Which is good news, because when you discover that you can only go so high by climbing, you will need to know there’s another way. Go down to go up.
With this second journey, there is a second way to pray. That’s what my teacher was pointing to: prayer of surrender, silence, stillness, and simple presence. These prayers reflect what the psalmist wrote—“Be still and know that I am God.” They’re like the prayer Jesus prayed in Gethsemane—“Not my will, but yours be done.” Prayers of essence. Prayers of being with Christ in God.
Anyone who has lost a loved one to death knows what it means to want the giver and not the gifts. And whoever has experienced a “visitation” (the palpable presence of a beloved after their death in a dream, in the dark, with a chill) knows how good and healing it is. All the more with God.
The Holy Spirit teaches us how to pray and sends us other teachers. When the student is ready, the teacher emerges.
Thanks be to God.
Pastor Clark Olson-Smith
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” said the second criminal crucified beside Jesus.
Look at Jesus from the two criminals’ points of view. Don’t assume they knew anything else about him than what they experienced as they were being crucified together. What led one criminal to yield to Jesus and to acknowledge him--a man naked, humiliated, grievously wounded, and dying--as a king? Does it seem at all wondrous or strange to you that he did?
The first criminal mocked Jesus just like the leaders, the soldiers, and the authority of the Roman Empire. “If you are the Messiah, save yourself and us.” He meant, “Interrupt this crucifixion and stop us from dying.” But Jesus did not “save” anyone in that way--not himself or the criminals, not you and not me.
The second criminal, strangely, did not ask Jesus for help avoiding suffering and death. He seemed to understand death was part of the deal. The only way around is through. How did he know? When others called Jesus “king” to mock him and the whole Jewish people, he instead asked to be part of Jesus’ kingdom. How do you account for this?
As you watch Jesus during his crucifixion, what do Jesus’ words mean to you: “Take up your cross and follow me”? What must you lay down in order to take up your cross? Where must you not go in order to follow Jesus?
What do you want to say now to Christ the King?
“For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3).
“Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him a question,” says the Gospel of Luke.
“That puts things in perspective,” we sometimes say. And Jesus died and was raised so we might live in perspective. In perspective of who God really is and who we really are.
Take Jesus’ debate with the Sadducees. It’s all about perspective.
A life of faith is much more about being in right relationships, rather than having right answers. This is hard news for most of us. We’d rather be right than be in awe.
Awe is what happens when you touch the Absolute. After the Absolute, everything else is relative--including what we consider “foundational,” like marriage. Jesus is not the champion of “family values” some make him out to be.
Instead, Jesus is the champion of Life. God is Absolute, and--Jesus insists--God is Absolute Life, Absolutely Alive. So much so that God’s life gives life to the dead. To God, everyone is alive. And more, this life God gives is new life. It’s not just a rerun of the life we’re living now. It’s different. For example, it’s beyond marriage. Whoa! Think about that.
Did the Sadducees surrender to awe, or did they just prepare their next argument? What awe-some new life does God want to give you right now? What argument must you surrender?
You were born generous, because you were created in the absolute and unchanging image of Christ. Your smile and laugh as an infant was full of the radiance of God. You cried when you were hungry or needed changing, and this expressed such freedom from shame and an inborn trust that love would reach for you. You never lost this true self, this original blessing. You only got lost, wandered, ran away from this “home.” This you lives! The goal of religion, and tithing, is to help you, as Richard Rohr says, “recognize and recover the divine image in everything”—including in you.
There are no shortcuts on this homecoming journey. Or truly, tithing is the shortcut. Or part of it. All the other ways are much longer and more painful!
You gotta learn your ABCs first. Skip them and nothing else makes sense. But as you make the effort, reading opens the whole cosmos to you! In sports, endless drills, conditioning, and strength training pay off on game day and beyond. Same with music. Discipline in “the fundamentals” unlocks a lifetime of “playing” as if it is “second nature.”
That’s the goal of tithing: play, generosity, and love as second nature. Then, the math and percentages fall away like used scaffolding. Then, we give as God gives: freely, endlessly, without counting, competing, or excluding. Then, we cannot not give; it’s become as natural as breath.
Until then, resist the temptation to play fast and loose—or rigidly, gracelessly! —with the time- and soul-tested lessons of our great spiritual tradition. To rediscover the generosity our Most Gracious and Self-Emptying Giver gave you, we wrestle deeply with the first and most basic teachings and let ourselves fall into God’s grace upon grace upon grace.
Thanks be to God.
Pastor Clark Olson-Smith