By Ken Woodley
On some mornings, I step outside and imagine myself among the Galilean hills, standing by the shore, waiting for the sea to brush my soles with its foam, feeling close to Jesus.
This morning, however, seems to cry all around me, tears falling from the sky as the remnants of Hurricane Zeta begin to drench and ruffle me.
I also feel a spreading sorrow for the summer that has already gone and the autumn whose departure grows too close every day.
Yes, I am full of my usual melancholy as I prepare for the darkness to find me an hour earlier this Sunday, Daylight Saving Time having withdrawn all of its deposits in my 2020 account.
The world is telling us we must “fall back.” Hurricane Zeta only increases my own seasonal backwards momentum.
And, with COVID-19, it’s all going to feel darker, I fear. Then there is the election on Tuesday and my anxiety for the human darkness that may follow in the days and weeks after the votes are counted.
So, “Joy To The World” isn’t hanging on my lips. More like The Doors’ “Riders On The Storm,” for sure.
The Sea of Galilee seems nowhere in sight.
But then I take a second glance.
Just to make sure.
Looking at the world through what my friend, the Rev. Glenn Busch, described in a sermon once as “Easter Eyes.”
My soul now begins tuning my eyes to subtle signs of resurrection amid the descending darkness and winter’s coming eraser.
I find them, subtle whispers of a different kind of dawn.
The invisible sun—stuck behind storming clouds—seems to be shining through the autumn leaves of orange, yellow and red.
Seen through my Easter Eyes, they seem lit up from within to such a degree that the world around me appears to be filled with light.
Each leaf is a glowing ember that eases my mind and warms my soul as I see the truth:
The light that really matters doesn’t rise and fall from the east into the west each day, and the departure of Daylight Saving Time cannot take that spiritual light away. Nor can a hurricane or its remnants blow it away.
We can set our clocks back one, two or 10 hours and that doesn’t matter at all as long as we don’t “fall back” spiritually simply because the darkness seems to be rushing toward us so much faster now.
The light that matters most finds a way to shine despite the world around it.
Just like Jesus said it would.
Like un-corked champagne from a shaken bottle, it simply cannot be stopped.
Each year at this time, I seem to forget this Good News, however, until I stumble on the grace of remembering just in time.
God reaches the light of love into the world through our willing hearts even when every clock on the planet is re-set to accommodate a season of increasing darkness.
Sometimes, in fact, only the dark can translate the immortal language of the truest light into words we can understand and share with one another.
Especially with those who feel leafless and silhouetted against a sky to which they are praying for light—as we all can often feel in the world today.
The Holy Spirit suddenly blows my falling leaves into yours.
And, just now, yours into mine.
They are so mixed up together that I cannot tell whose are which and which are whose.
But, it doesn’t matter.
We shine, however dimly it may sometimes seem.
There is no meaningless light when one feels lost in the dark.
When our faith only has the strength to flicker, it is still, in its own way, incandescent.
Yes, the sun will set an hour earlier on Sunday, but the light that God has given us doesn’t have to follow it into darkness unless we let it slip out of our soul.
Let’s tell the world that we refuse to fall back. Let’s tell the world that we shall keep on springing ahead, instead.
By Ken Woodley
“The people living in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”
Remembering particles of sunlit grace that fell from our grasp,
darkness a rising abyss,
I sit at the edge of the rubbled world
amid shards and splinters of vanquished embers
that no longer flicker.
Hoping for one more final last chance.
I dangle my legs over the side
and cross them like a prayer,
stretching in desperation
into something I do not know,
something I’ve never felt before,
and only—for an instant in the night—dreamed existed
in ancient prophecies.
I am invited now off the edge
of the brokenness surrounding me
into something else.
Into the opposite of feeling shuttered in the darkness.
Over my head.
And that is where
Your arms opened wide.
Your heart opened wider than your arms.
Your love opened widest of all.
I feel the midnight sky inside me
begin to show traces of orange, red and yellow
along the horizon of my own undreamt of dawn,
silhouetting the trees,
and the figures of people
running with wild abandon toward
all of their guns and loaded words left behind them,
rejoicing at their own shadows, instead,
as I am delighting in mine,
because now they are only shadows,
no longer darkness shaped like humans,
all of us embracing the light you can bring
into the world
from within us all,
if only we believe.
By Ken Woodley
“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
I am one leaf at the bottom of the sky.
Heaven seems to end just where I begin.
The last breath of angels just where I first inhale.
A leaf I am.
And shall always be.
Never a tree.
Not even a twig.
But, small as I am, I give this tree communion with the sun.
Through me this tree is fed and rises higher toward the sky.
Through all of us leaves
the kingdom of heaven draws nearer.
But I am changing colors now.
All of us are.
Just like the sky that seems to end right where I begin.
Just like the sky when the sun comes and goes,
or is it me spinning away from all the light I will ever see
but then—always—spinning back again?
Red, yellow and orange are turning my green inside out.
Just like all the rest.
The leaves that have fallen before me
and will fall after I am gone.
Green together at the bottom of the sky
until the sky began to paint us with its colors of dawn and dusk,
heaven brush-stroking me in ways I never dreamed possible.
The sky always listening.
The sky always there.
Even in the darkness when I cannot see a thing
and I whisper leaf words toward where I believe the sky to be,
hoping heaven will hear me
even though I am just one leaf.
Even though I am not a forest.
Not even a sapling’s dream.
But the wind seems to give me wings.
I am flying in place.
Being somewhere already.
Right where God put me.
A leaf until I finally leave,
dropping into my fall,
fluttering like a butterfly
into the rising sky.
Angels all around.
Dry leaves crunching
beneath the feet of those
seeking the kingdom of heaven
By Ken Woodley
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Okay, Jesus, but who is my neighbor?
The most common dictionary definition tells me it’s the person who lives next door. That means there is a neighbor to the left and to the right of me.
Sounds a bit political.
Might I somehow love the whole wide world by simply loving my next door neighbors?
Could a “relay of love” spread household by household and neighbor-to-neighbor until one day there is nothing left in the world but love?
A cure for the pandemic of hate?
Sure. Right. Anything you say, Lord….
….But, seriously, the clouds will become chocolate chip cookies before that happens.
Haven’t you heard, Lord, that there’s a pandemic and everything is more upside down and inside out than ever?
Still, I must admit, kindness can spread kindness. A smile may beget a smile. I’ve seen and felt both happen.
Jesus knows that the biggest answers to the toughest questions all come from the same place: the human heart.
Every evil. All goodness.
Darkness and every light are born in the human heart before they ever flip a single switch in the world. That is why Jesus took relentless aim at the human heart, even to his dying breath of forgiveness on the cross.
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” he tells us, beseeches us, begs us. An upside down and inside out world needs it now more than ever, he’d add.
And we don’t need clinical trials or FDA approval to do it because we are the disease, but we are also the cure.
Everything Jesus ever said is easier to say than it is to do—until we actually go out and do it, and then we wonder what took us so long.
But before we begin this healing mission there is a singular first step.
We must begin by loving ourselves. Not in a selfish, egotistical way, but as a child of God—vanity replaced by humble, joyous gratitude at the beauty all around us, and within us.
Beauty that COVID-19 cannot reach. Only then can we recognize, and love, the child of God next door, down the street and on the other side of every border.
The borders between nations and the borders we create between each other.
From that moment we may begin to realize that our neighbors fill every nook and cranny in the world.
We are all different.
And we are all the same.
Why hate each other and, therefore ourselves, any longer?
By Ken Woodley
“He said to them, ‘You also go out into the vineyard.”
If Jesus tells us to go out into the vineyard—and he is telling us to do exactly that—we go.
We don’t need the president’s permission. We don’t require congressional approval. There is no ring that we must kiss.
We just go out into the vineyard.
And, my Lord, the vineyard needs us now.
The grapes of compassion have withered on the vine and grapes of wrath have usurped their place.
There are weeds of intolerance everywhere and killing frosts of injustice rime the lives of African Americans.
Hate stalks the vineyard where love once left footprints for us to follow.
Yes, by God, we shall go out into the vineyard and cut down the thorns of darkness and sow seeds of light.
Throughout the New Testament, Jesus empowers his disciples to get up, go out and try to change the world one person at a time.
And he meant at that very moment. No waiting. No debating. No choosing teams.
Just get up and go.
As we must do so now.
Feed his sheep by opening and emptying the cupboard of our heart. Share the good news by being the good news in the lives of others.
Be the justice they seek.
And the freedom.
And the love.
Do this in remembrance of him because healing the world as he taught us to is a holy communion for all of us to share.
The wolves are howling now.
They hunger for our fear.
They want us to lock ourselves away inside our own lives and throw away the key.
If we do that the vineyard is doomed.
If we do that the vintage of 2020 will taste like a vinegar-filled sponge on the point of a spear atop Golgotha.
We must stop crucifying each other.
Let us rise together, instead.
By Ken Woodley
Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
Man, that’s a ton of forgiveness.
Not sure I can carry all of it.
Or how far I can carry even half that much.
Peter had wanted to know how many times he must forgive someone who sinned against him. Probably thinking himself extravagantly generous, Peter suggested seven times. Forgiving someone a single time can be a struggle. Sometimes even once can feel like it is one time too many.
But seven times is not enough, Jesus made clear to Peter, and so to us.
Seventy-seven times, Jesus answered.
Seventy-seven times? Turning the other cheek that often could give us whiplash, couldn’t it? But that is what we must do.
It’s instructive to return to a point Jesus made in last Sunday’s Gospel lesson. If a brother sins against you, Jesus said, and refuses all attempts at reconciliation, then treat that individual as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
If Jesus is to be our guide, our Good Shepherd and our Savior, let us ask ourselves how Jesus treated tax collectors. Did he condemn and shun them, make an example out of them as evil and worthy of our disdain?
No, Jesus did not.
Jesus forgave them. Jesus loved them. Jesus opened his heart and God’s grace to them. Jesus, in fact, brought one of them into his inner circle of disciples.
How ironic that the Gospel of Matthew tells this story because Matthew, himself, was a tax collector when he first encountered Jesus.
So, how perfect that Matthew tells us this story because he knew from personal experience how Jesus treated tax collectors.
If we are to treat those who sin against us as pagans and tax collectors, that means we are meant to forgive them. It means forgiveness is for everyone.
Even for us.
Forgiveness is one more example of the narrow gate that opens up to the wide place of God’s love and grace. But how very hard it can be to fit feelings of forgiveness through the small opening in our heart when someone harms us. How difficult to squeeze forgiveness through the shrinking passageway in our wounded feelings.
But how far our hearts can travel when we do because forgiveness is a road with two lanes: forgiveness is for the person being forgiven but it is also for the person offering the forgiveness.
When we offer forgiveness—whether it is accepted or not—we free ourselves of the soul-harming burden of carrying that piece of pain forward day by day, like a heavy and ponderous chain dragging down moments of possible joy.
Seventy-seven times is a lot of repetitions, a whole lot of exercise. If forgiveness were a muscle, seventy-seven repetitions would strengthen it until we could forgive even the heaviest hurt.
By the seventy-seventh time, as we wrestled with the angel of absolution, forgiveness would have become a reflex action in our heart.
Whether seven times or seventy-seven times, forgiveness becomes less difficult when we understand what Jesus understood:
God loves us all and that necessarily includes those who have sinned against us.
We know that to be true because God keeps loving us even when we sin against someone, even when we sin against the love of God, itself.
As he hung dying on the cross, Jesus forgave those who hammered the nails. He set the standard for forgiveness. He walked his talk. But, I wonder if Jesus struggled to speak those words of mercy. If so, how many times did Jesus swallow his pardon into silence before declaring his exoneration for all eternity?
Forgiveness is not always easy but it is always worth the effort because it opens up the wide space where redemption may gather us in its embrace.
And where healing, too, may find us.
Redemption and healing for the forgiven and the forgiver.
A ton of each seems about right.
Reckon it’s time to take first one step forward and then another.
No matter how heavy.
By Ken Woodley
“Then Jesus told the disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
We each have a cross to bear.
During this pandemic, it often feels like we’ve got two or three.
Our crosses are not of equal size or weight. They are unique to us, shaped by the life only we have lived. And only we, truly, know what our own life’s “hammer and nails” feel like.
But what does Jesus mean by “take up”?
We can “take up” gardening. We can “take up” meditation. And we can “take up” crossword puzzles.
But can we truly also “take up” our cross?
The cross words of Jesus tell that we can and he doesn’t tell us to do so because he enjoys a parade. Jesus is urging us to take up our cross and make something meaningful of it because he knows that our own pain helps us to understand, and so minister to, the pain of others.
When we take up our cross and use it to lighten the world of some of its darkness, then we are following Jesus in the truest way possible.
Tellingly, from a certain perspective, a cross, in its physical appearance, can resemble a key.
And that is precisely what our cross can become when we take it up.
A key waiting to unlock a particular door because our cross, like our life, is unique to us. There is no other life, and no other cross—and so no other “key”—exactly like ours.
Therefore, our cross is the one and only key that can unlock a door behind which someone in particular waits in prayer, asking God to free them from the darkness of their pain.
We can set them free if we allow God to make that miracle happen.
The choice, as always, is ours. We have the freedom to resign ourselves to the darkness of our own pain, the freedom to remain stuck to our cross, static and going nowhere. But, if we answer ‘Yes, Lord,’ then the miracle may become doubled:
God knows how and where all of us have been broken by life. God also understands how the broken places in you can fit into the broken places in me to bring us both closer to wholeness.
By having faith in Jesus’ call to take up our cross and follow him, we may find that behind the doors that we unlock with our cross “key” are those waiting to use their own crosses as the keys that also set us free along the way.
No, we may not—probably will not—be completely cured. Miracles can and do happen but most of us will have to wait for heaven to forever free us from the effect of every hammer and all of life’s nails.
But God knows how to fit us to each other in ways that soften the jagged edges of the broken places in each of us and bring moments of healing along the way. The most frequent miracle is God-given loving companionship at key moments in our journey. Some will last a lifetime. And beyond.
Jesus, bearing his cross and asking us to shoulder ours, beseeches us to follow him toward those softer places.
When we do, the world becomes a little softer, too.
And its light a little brighter.
The world, and all of us, need that so desperately today.
By Ken Woodley
Just when I thought—for the 500th time—that The Fool couldn’t sink any lower, I learn that he called Jesus a “pathetic patsy” because our Good Shepherd was captured and then died on the cross for us.
How did this guy ever get such a large audience?
There he goes, wheeling through Galilee on a chariot he calls “Fool Force One” and bragging about how his wisdom exceeds that of Solomon, Socrates and Plato.
I weep for our people and this land we love.
One day I heard Jesus talking by the sea. He was teaching about love and light. Blessed are the poor in spirit, he told us, and those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart and the peacemakers.
Everything that Jesus was.
Everything The Fool is not.
Yet, The Fool called Jesus a “pathetic patsy.”
A big chariot, your Foolishness, does not equal greatness.
Jesus exemplified greatness every day of his life because every day he gave his life to us and for us. Jesus could have been anything he wanted to be. Many people wanted him to be king, in fact. But Jesus wanted only to be our Good Shepherd, to give his life to protect us, his sheep.
Greater love has no person than this, that they lay down their life for their friends.
That’s what Jesus said.
That’s what Jesus did.
He sacrificed himself for us.
The Fool never would.
Jesus was a soldier in a war of love against hate.
He gave his life so that love would prevail.
I am certain that love shall one day do so.
And I pray every day that there is never another Fool ever again anywhere in this world with such an audience and power.
Oh—and by now I shouldn’t be surprised—there is one last thing:
The Fool has been calling the gospel truth of the resurrection “phony good news.”
Don’t believe him.
I saw Jesus on the road to Emmaus.
He touched my soul.
The Fool never could.
By Ken Woodley
“Do not be conformed to this world.”
Eight syllables to live by.
Paul’s advice, delivered in his letter to the Romans, is even important today than it was 2,000 years ago.
Seriously, checking out the daily news headlines and soundbites as August turned into September of 2020, who would want to be conformed to this world?
But, as soon as we’re born, the world tries mighty hard to achieve that goal. Almost like some military bootcamp aimed at squeezing out our unique personality traits so that we’ll obey orders without thinking.
“Conformation” classes begin almost immediately and the conformity blues play its tune right on along the rest of our lives, trying to coax us into thinking like everyone else, believing like everyone else, dreaming like everyone else, shopping like everyone else, voting like everyone else, eating like everyone else, dressing like everyone else, shaving, smelling, driving, you-name-it like everyone else.
Oh, and there’s surely one more: Hating like everyone else. Especially hating everyone who thinks differently, looks different, dreams differently, loves differently.
We see that diabolical social disorder all around us.
So much of the world wants us to bring our guns and pull the triggers.
Fighting to wade ashore against the riptide of conformity to find our own grains of sand with which to build dream castles is a difficult, ongoing struggle.
The temptation to fit snuggly into a comfortable and desirable profile or demographic is powerful. We want to belong to something bigger than ourselves so that we don’t feel so terribly small.
That’s one reason history—right up to this very day—is littered with dictators and would-be dictators who find it so easy to manipulate large portions of a nation’s population, to conform them into lock-step thoughts and actions, and always to benefit their own ego-driven self-interest.
Force them into capitulation by tricking them into believing the choice was theirs.
That’s why Jesus is so wonderfully dangerous.
Not for us, but for the powers that wish to conform us to this world by dividing us to each other.
Jesus was—and is—the ultimate non-conformist and his path of non-conformity is open wide for us. So wide that it’s not even a path. So wide that wherever each of us goes individually the path of non-conformity exists.
Cross the road like the non-conformist Good Samaritan.
Turn swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.
Move a mountain.
Plant a mustard seed.
Be a mustard seed.
Turn someone’s water into wine.
Touch a leper.
Get your knee off someone’s neck.
Don’t bring your guns.
Don’t pull your triggers.
Enter through the narrow gate because the other side brings you to a place that is not the least bit narrow at all and wide open to every possibility.
Believe in love.
Not cookie-cutter love.
Not conformist love.
Not one-size-fits-all love.
The actual thing, itself.
The living, breathing holy presence that is God among us.
Waiting for us—longing for us—to become something bigger than ourselves:
By Ken Woodley
What a difficult story to swallow: Jesus has just gone to the district of Tyre and Sidon where he encounters a Canaanite woman who begs for mercy and the healing of her daughter.
Unusually, for him, Jesus says nothing, according to the Gospel of Matthew.
His silence is so disconcerting that the disciples grow irritated with the woman’s continued pleas and ask Jesus to send her away.
What is more disturbing, however, is that Jesus seems to agree with them. When he finally does answer, he says this:
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
In other words, if your daughter cannot breathe because someone is kneeling on her neck, what is that to me? Bullets in the back? Sorry, man. You’re in the wrong tribe.
The woman’s anguished begging for Jesus to heal her daughter is—seemingly—dismissed outright because of who she is and where she lives.
There are several explanations for this uncharacteristic behavior by Jesus: He’s simply exhausted. He’s had a bad day. He’s testing the understanding of his disciples or the faith of the woman.
The first explanation might be true but Jesus had to fully expect being approached by those seeking his blessing and healing. Especially because he was in an area he did not routinely visit.
If his silence and then grudging, seemingly cold-hearted reply are merely a test, it seems to me that the disciples fail but the Canaanite woman passes with flying colors.
“Lord, help me,” she persists, prompting another apparently callous response from Jesus:
“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
The woman’s test of faith—or the disciples’—got harder and harder, but she was up to the challenge, even if the disciples weren’t.
Actually, I suspect Jesus knew the woman wasn’t going to take ‘No’ for an answer. Nor, I believe, did Jesus want her to walk away without her child being healed.
If Jesus was waiting for one of the disciples to challenge his refusal because it ran contrary to his core teaching about loving your neighbor as yourself, Jesus was going to be disappointed. But the woman’s response would not fill him with the least little bit of chagrin.
“Yes, Lord, but even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ tables,” she boldly replies.
Jesus then proclaims her great faith and, just like that, the woman’s daughter is healed.
One can only imagine the startled reaction of the disciples.
Contrary to their expectations, Jesus was telling them that this woman and her child are also God’s children.
Just like George Floyd and Jacob Blake. Like you and me, with them.
The disciples clearly didn’t think so. They had come into the region of Tyre and Sidon with stereotypes and prejudices firmly in place. They had looked at the woman and thought, “She’s not one of us.” She looked different. They had listened to her speak and thought, “She’s not one of us.” She spoke differently. Clearly, the disciples looked at her and listened to her and thought, “She’s one of them.”
Jesus directly challenged that point of view by the end of the Gospel lesson. But, in a real sense, Jesus is trying to get our attention, too.
We are all so blessed that God doesn’t look into the world and divide people into “us” and “them.”
Grace would not be grace if it came with premiums, restrictions based on race, membership guidelines on ethnicity and special zip codes for its delivery—you know, only to those who live on the right side of the tracks and in the best neighborhoods.
The truth is what Jesus taught: We are all children of God and there is a seat for all of us around the Lord’s table.
Ultimately, if that woman and her child are dogs, then we are, too.
The knee is on your neck and mine. The bullets are in the backs of us all.