The Doors Of Love Are Always Open

“Again he entered the synagogue and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward … Stretch out your hand.’”

—The Gospel of Mark

I was hopeful.
So very optimistic.
Perhaps, just maybe, I would get there before the store closed. Green light. Green light. Wonderful. I was making good time.
Green light.
Red light.
Now, I wasn’t so sure.
The store closed at 6 p.m. and the clock in my car showed 5:59 as I pulled into a parking space right out front and hurriedly got out.
Whew! The store’s lights were still on and I could see people inside. Employees were still there. I gave the door a push.
Drat! (Or worse). Locked.
I knocked, nearly pressing my face against the glass like a kid at Christmas. Good, someone saw me. Here he comes.
But instead of opening the door, the young man points to the store’s hours, clearly shown on the door. “We’re closed,” I hear him say through the glass. And then he turns around and walks away.
“But,” I begin to say, and then realize I have about as much chance of getting in that store as an armadillo looking for a reserved front-row seat at the Oscar awards.
They could have let me in so easily, but the hours of this store’s operation were set in stone. They would not be bent for me, even for just one minute.
That is precisely the attitude Jesus confronts when challenged by the Pharisees for preparing to heal a man on the Sabbath. As far as those letter-of-the-law religious authorities are concerned the healing shop was and should be closed. The hours of compassion were clearly displayed and there must be no deviation.
But Jesus isn’t about rules, unless it’s about breaking those that seek to assert human control over God’s love and healing grace.
Jesus knew that the doors of love are always open, 24-7, every day of the week, each hour of the month, with no second of the year displaying a “closed” sign.
God’s love isn’t measured out in teaspoons and tablespoons. There is no minimum or maximum daily dose. What we truly need is what God truly gives.
God’s Holy Spirit is always telling us to “Come forward” with whatever feels withered in our lives.
If we seek, we shall find, and if we knock the door shall be opened, just as Jesus said.
The answer will come. It may not always be in the exact way, shape or form that we expect. (It’s best not to try to answer our own prayers by put ting words in God’s mouth, which I freely admit to having done more than once in my life.) But we can trust that an answer will come and that God will be with us as that answer unfolds in our lives.
So, let us confidently follow Jesus’ advice and “stretch out” to God, confident that God is already stretching out to us.

The Voice Of The Morning Wind

“You must be born from above. The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

—The Gospel of John

I heard the wind blowing in the tops of the trees at the dawning of this new day.
A vast sea of breeze skimming along the bottom of the sky.
The leaves reaching for the passing skirt of the wind as it skipped along the uppermost limbs and branches.
I stood in the greening shadows of a night that lingered but could grip its darkness no longer.
Alone and lost without you in this empty lane beneath the trees.
Just through the narrow gate.
Wondering what I might find if I followed your Galilean words that had led me here.
If only the wind—and you—could reach me, I said, though I knew no one could hear me.
If only it would touch me, let me taste its spirit.
If only I could feel its soft caress of love.
I took a few steps and heard a shepherd’s bell ring.
A note of soft beauty.
But I saw no lambs at all.
There was only me walking along this empty lane.
And then it happened.
The wind was all around me.
Whispered something in my ear.
The wind wanted me.
Desired all of me.
No matter what.
“I give myself to you entirely,” I heard the wind declare.
And I knew that it was true because I felt it filling every pore.
As if the sky were wrapping me up with the ribbons and bows of heaven.
Oh, wondrous gift.
But the wind was not alone.
“Raise your eyes, my beloved,” the wind told me.
So I did.
The light of a new day dawning was brush-stroking the tops of the trees.
“Touch the light. I brought it here with me for you,” the wind urged.
“But I cannot possibly reach such heights,” I protested, raising both arms above my head in sheer futility.
I felt the wind smiling. “Lift your spirit up to the Lord. Lift your heart and raise your soul,” I heard it say. “That is where the light will find you, as if you were the tallest tree that ever grew from the earth.”
And the light did find me.
The light now joined as one with the wind.
The windy light rustling my leaves.
The sun shining right down to my deepest roots.
Newly born in this shimmering forest.
A symphony of shepherd’s bells caroling in my heart as I feel a hand upon my shoulder.
“This way,” I hear you say with the voice of the morning wind in my ear.

The ‘Wild Goose’ Of Pentecost

“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.’”

—The Gospel of John

Celtic Christians accurately described the Holy Spirit as the “Wild Goose” because it cannot be predicted and will not be tamed. It comes and goes as it pleases, plotting its own course in our lives. Just when we think we’ll never feel it so close again, the Holy Spirit knocks on our soul’s front door.
The Holy Spirit often comes to us in brief inspirational flashes, instantaneous realizations. Not unlike an Instagram or FaceBook post. The Holy Spirit can zip us a “tweet” or a “text” out of the blue.
The difference, however, is that, where so much of social media is inherently too abbreviated to be truly meaningful, the Holy Spirit’s “tweets” and “posts” are deeper than the sky.
And they invite us to go further still with the insights and understandings they provide.
The Holy Spirit’s messages are trail blazes on our spiritual journey, showing us which way to turn when we arrive at a crossroads and pray for direction.
And even when we don’t pray for guidance. Because the Holy Spirit is fully capable of picking the lock of our closed door if we refuse to answer its knocking.
This “Wild Goose” is not constrained or restricted by any flight pattern. The “Wild Goose” doesn’t join flocks of geese in the sky. Instead, it cares for each sheep and every single lamb in the Good Shepherd’s flock.
Loving and caring for you and I.
The Holy Spirit’s “voice” can resemble a feeling, a thought, an intuition, a hunch. Seemingly trivial and mundane things take on great meaning: a passing car with a message license plate that speaks like the direct answer to prayer that it is: God-incidence, not coincidence. If we are watching, if we listen. The Holy Spirit is able to use anything and everything to communicate with us. It might be an otherwise completely inexplicable occurrence or experience.
On a terrifically gusty day in February of 2017, I had just completed the manuscript for a book I believe God told me to write. (Two years earlier, the Holy Spirit had given me a sudden “vision” of this book, a book I’d never intended to write and hadn’t been thinking about at all.) I had just emailed it to my agent, who was pitching it that afternoon to a publisher he thought would be the perfect fit. I was out with my dog, letting him do his business, when I saw a leaf dancing mid-air in the windy distance. I had a flash of intuition that I was going to somehow catch this leaf.
The wind suddenly quieted, parting like the Red Sea, and the leaf floated straight toward me, closer and closer and then directly into my left hand. At that moment I “understood” that a path had been cleared for my book and that this particular publisher was, indeed, THE publisher. “I just ‘know’ the Holy Spirit was saying so with that leaf,” I told my wife that night. I signed a contract with that publisher a few months later.
The clearest sign that we have received and understood a message from the Holy Spirit will be a deep sense of peace, as if every blustering gust of wind has been calmed inside us. That’s just the way I felt on that wind-swept day after I caught that leaf even though I had been leashed to a particular spot with my dog. Or, I should say, after the leaf caught me.
None of us can fly on our own but, if we follow its “nudge,” the “Wild Goose” will give us its wings when we need it most, and in the way we most need it: a flight to our soul’s next understanding of how much God loves us.
Just as Jesus promised.

Listening For ‘The Voice Of Full Nets’

We are not so very different than these disciples: Peter and no-longer-doubting Thomas, along with Nathanael, the sons of Zebedee and two others were gathered on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias, another name by which the Sea of Galilee was known.
They are adjusting to this new life without the physical presence of Jesus as a daily companion. The disciples no longer doubt but seem to be at something of a loose end. There mission compass has not yet been firmly set.
So they do, on that evening, what many of them had done to make ends meet before Jesus called them to follow him. They got in a boat and went out into the darkness to fish. The disciples caught nothing, however, until, in the dawn’s early light, the voice of someone standing on the shore directed them to cast their net on the right side of the boat. When they do so, they catch so many fish they can barely bring them to shore.
From emptiness to fulfillment. From absence to presence.
The transformation occurs when they respond to a voice from the shore. The voice of someone they cannot distinctly see—and so a spirit voice, almost, in the un-gathered light of a new day dawning—telling them where their net should be.
And then, of course, they see the voice belongs to Jesus.
Jesus, the voice of full nets.
What a powerful symbol. Relying totally on themselves, the disciples could not snag a single minnow. Following Jesus, their filled net nearly bursts.
Yes, we are very much like the disciples in today’s lesson. Every morning we get up and leave the shore in our boats to see what the day’s catch will bring us. At work or at home. We put ourselves upon the waters and cast our net, hoping to live a purposeful, and purpose-filled, day.
I know that when I set out on my own, determined to rely entirely on myself, my net is so very often empty and I feel adrift in the darkness, waiting for the dawn. But, when I sit still, listening to the gentle lapping of waves against my hull and the plaintive cry of seagulls, I can feel the voice of Jesus within me, the Holy Spirit urging, “cast your net on the right side of the boat.”
When I make room in my boat for Jesus, I never return to shore empty-handed, and certainly never empty-hearted.
Abundance comes in many forms. Abundance, when we fish with Jesus, is not defined by dollars and cents, not by possessions or material forms of life at all.
Yes, it is true that when we fish with Jesus we can find a mission and ministry within our professional lives, one that may, or may not, increase our earnings but will certainly enrich the corner of the world and the lives we touch. There are so many times through the hours of our lives when “net-casting moments” occur.
So there is Jesus, standing on the shore, inviting us to sit down with him and share a meal of fish and bread that he has prepared over a fire of coals, embers that he also means to warm us until we go out on the waters again, wondering what the future might hold and where the spirit voice of Jesus will tell us to cast our nets, as individuals and as a congregation.
All the while faithfully knowing that he is both in the boat with us, when we make room, and waiting on the shore to welcome us home.

When We Lay Down Our Lives For Others

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love … I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete … This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

—The Gospel of John—

In July of 1967—smack dab in the middle of the “Summer of Love”—the Beatles released “All You Need Is Love” as a single. The song’s author, John Lennon, wasn’t kidding. Not as far as I’m concerned.
If love isn’t all I need, it sure comes close.
Food?
Without love, I’d starve.
Water?
Without love, I’d die of thirst.
Shelter?
Without love, I’d be vulnerable to every tempest.
This four-letter word dominates the Gospel of John as Jesus seeks to counter the obscenity of hate, indifference, intolerance, self-absorption and apathy toward the needs of others.
The kind of love that Jesus is talking about is a love that we can swallow, a love that we can breathe, a love that comes through every pore of our skin, saturates our soul and leaves us joyfully splashing in the wonder of it all.
The love that Jesus is talking about is a love that we can call home. Literally.
We can live there. We can fall asleep at night in this love and wake up inside this love in the morning.
That’s why Jesus tells us to,“Abide in my love.”
Don’t just visit. Stay there. Take your shoes off. Put your feet up.
Tell the postal carrier: “This is where I live. Deliver all of my mail here.”
The kind of love that Jesus is talking about is a love that keeps the front door open. The back door, too. And all of the windows.
Nobody is locked out. God, in fact, has removed all locks and thrown away the key.
It’s the kind of love that convinced Jesus to lay down his life for us to ensure that the message and meaning of this mind-boggling love would be passed down through the ages to us all. As he said:
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Thankfully, we can follow this teaching without being crucified.
We lay down our life when we put aside our own desires and give ourselves to the needs of someone else.
When we lay our own life down and pick up someone else’s life, carrying it as far as we can because they cannot bear their life alone.
And when we do that we may be surprised to discover that the love of God has been guiding both of us toward each other for that very purpose.
That very purpose and even more.
Because only by laying down our own life can we be picked up and carried, as well, by the love of someone else.
In such love is God made vividly manifest. Feeding us. Quenching our deepest thirst. Sheltering us like no roof ever could. In that love is our joy made complete.
The love of God carrying us both.
The love of God bearing us all.
And that really is all we truly need.

A Quick Update About My Forthcoming Book

Dear Companions,

I want to share a quick update from my book publisher. NewSouth Books made a FaceBook post this week on Barbara Johns—about whom I wrote in several of my Forward Day By Day meditations in January—and my forthcoming book. So many of you expressed an interest in the book that I don’t feel too shamefully self-plugging sharing this news with you. You can read about it at http://www.newsouthbooks.com and then simply click the FaceBook icon.

God’s love and grace to you all,
Ken

Not Seeing Is Believing

“Seeing is believing.”
Those three words have traveled together for years. And, who knows, perhaps the expression was born through the ultimatum of Doubting Thomas.
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe,” Doubting Thomas tells the disciples after their tale of Jesus’ appearance in the house where they met.
Thomas definitely doubted.
But what of those shut and locked doors behind which the disciples cowered, fearing for their very lives? Before Jesus appeared to them the first time, weren’t all of the disciples doubters? If they really believed what Mary Magdalene told them about seeing Jesus resurrected in the garden they surely would have been out preaching the good news. We know that’s true because once the disciples did come to believe in the resurrection that is exactly what they did, risking their own lives to preach that message. But until then they hid behind the closed and locked doors of doubt.
And what does Jesus do?
Jesus walks right through those doors anyway. Twice. First, when he came to the disciples at the time when Thomas was gone. And then again when Thomas was there. Jesus came to the disciples and to Thomas, just as he comes to us, even if the door is locked.
But I wonder why Thomas wasn’t there the first time. Perhaps he was out, risking his life doing the Lord’s work, less afraid than the others, not staying cowering in that room even though he faced the same dangers.
And it isn’t too big a stretch to believe that Jesus knew Thomas wasn’t there before his first appearance to the disciples. Jesus could have waited, certainly, until Thomas returned from whatever it was he was doing.
The fact that Jesus came anyway raises an interesting possibility.
Perhaps Jesus’ second appearance wasn’t simply for Thomas alone, but was a reiteration of the risen truth, a re-appearance also for the other disciples who, despite their first resurrection encounter with Jesus, remained behind those closed doors.
But Thomas and the other doubting disciples weren’t the sole beneficiaries of that second appearance through those closed doors.
Perhaps that second appearance was also very much, in fact, for us.
Thomas was called the Twin. Might we not be, from time to time, the twin of Doubting Thomas? Despite our faith, there may be times when we also yearn for some tangible sign. Some literal encounter with the risen Christ that will free us of all doubt (but also deprive us of faith).
But, human nature being what it is, even if that were to happen many of us would find it hard to believe our eyes. We might doubt our own senses. If not immediately, then some day. How could that really have happened, we’d ask ourselves? And, soon enough, we might be doubters again, just like the disciples, for whom one appearance of the risen Lord wasn’t enough.
Our doors shut.
And our doors locked.
Yes, the more I contemplate this Gospel lesson the more I believe that the second appearance of Jesus was just as much for us as it was for Thomas. It gave Jesus a chance to make this point:
“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” he tells Thomas, but also every other disciple in that room.
And “those” whom Jesus counts as especially “blessed” are you and me. Each one of us has come to believe, even though we have not seen the Lord.
Thanks to Doubting Thomas and his doubting colleagues, then, we receive a blessing directly from Jesus, right there in the Gospel of John.
A blessing that no door can stop, even if we shut and lock it ourselves.

Into The Undying Light Of Love

“Jesus said, ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.’”

—The Gospel of John

We are lost.
Doomed.
Wolves are everywhere.
Before us and behind us.
To the left and the right of us.
Above and below.
There is no place where there are not wolves.
And they are ravenous.
They howl like a terrible storm.
Our power lines are down.
Trees tumble.
Limbs are broken.
The sky looks and sounds as if it is being torn to shreds.
Our green pastures are scorched.
The still waters have tidal waves.
And the wolves want more.
They want all of us.
Every bit of us.
We thought we were brave enough, smart enough, faithful enough.
What fools we were to wander off on our own.
The wolves are taunting us now.
‘Where,’ they ask, ‘is your good shepherd now? Ha! Nailed to a cross. Crucified. Dead and buried.’
We open our mouths to reply and that is when we hear your voice.
“I am their shepherd,” you say to the wolves. “Now and forever.”
And we are found. We are saved.
Goodness and mercy surround us.
You are before us and behind us.
To the left and to the right of us.
Above and below.
There is no place where you are not with us.
We feel weightless as you revive our souls, anointing our heads with oil. The howling is silenced and the sky is made whole.
The wolves vanish like shadows at noon.
With you by our side that is all they ever could be.
Shadows.
And nothing more.
We pass through them with you, Jesus, into the undying light of love.

The Human Touch Of Divine Grace

“Jesus himself stood among the disciples and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see.’”

—The Gospel of John

By Ken Woodley

Jesus wasn’t afraid of his wounds.
They plainly showed.
He did not try to hide them.
He points them out to his disbelieving disciples as proof that he has risen from the dead and that he is no ghost.
The disciples evidently believed that they were being haunted rather than visited by their risen Savior. That is why Jesus invites them to touch him, to touch his wounds, so that their haunted fears may vanish.
No, Jesus was not afraid of his wounds.
And he allowed others to touch them.
By touching his wounds, Jesus knew, his disciples would be healed of the raw anxiety that was so destructive to the life Jesus hoped they would live after his crucifixion and resurrection.
Jesus offers us a great lesson.
Like Jesus, we should not be afraid of our wounds, either.
A wound is more than a cut, bruise or scratch, and all of us are wounded in some way. Nobody goes through life wound-free.
Some are wounded more deeply than others but there are no trivial wounds. Wounds are terribly real. For that reason it can be easy to be afraid of them, perhaps even ashamed. We want to hide them from others. Hide them from ourselves. Pretend they don’t exist.
But running from our wounds is not the path toward healing.
Instead, trying to escape leads to us feeling hunted and haunted by our wounds, just as the disciples were hunted and haunted by the wounding loss of Jesus in their lives when he was crucified. That escapist mentality makes the wound worse, not better.
No, we don’t have to parade our wounds around or make a big song and dance about them. There is no “Wound Olympics.” It’s not a competition.
But we do need to acknowledge them, believe that we can live with them and, crucially, be open to the way God can bring healing through the loving touch of others in our lives.
Because, so often, that is the way God reaches out to us. The way the risen Christ is able to anoint our heads with oil and restore our soul:
By bringing someone into our life who is not afraid of our wounds and who seeks, through loving compassion, to bring us healing.
But, the healing of wounds is a double-edge plowshare. Sometimes the effect of our own wounding empowers us to be effective healers of others. Sometimes the shape of our lives fits perfectly into the wound of someone else.
Therefore, just as we must not be afraid of our own wounds, we also must not fear the wounds of others. We must not be afraid to touch their wounds with God’s loving purpose that can, if we allow the Holy Spirit to guide us, have our fingerprints all over that touch of divine grace.
And, sometimes, when we reach out with that divine healing grace toward others, we find God reaching out to us through them. Our reach meets theirs and in that moment God’s love for us is made most profoundly manifest.
That is a truth worth embracing with all of our might.

When The Wilderness Is Real

There are very few true wildernesses left in the world. Certainly not within easy reach of me here in Appomattox County, Virginia. If Moses had to lead the Israelites to The Promised Land today, he’d have Siri, MapQuest and GPS technologies available to him. They’d cross the Jordan River with little delay.
So, relating to the prophet Isaiah’s wilderness passages might be harder for us than it was for someone in Jesus’ day.
“…I will make a way in the wilderness…” God promises in Isaiah. But we hardly ever need God’s help through physical places of wilderness in the world.
Looking down from this hillside at James River State Park, I see a wild profusion of trees, bushes, meadows, marshland and the bluff rising steeply above the opposite bank. There, too, is the river, itself, glimpsed in flowing snatches between the white-trunked trees. There is a feel of wilderness and the surrounding howl of coyotes last night emphasized that impression. But, then I turn around and see the cabins, the cars, and the paved roadway in the morning’s light.
And in my hand is a map of every trail through this slice of natural wonder 30 minutes down the road from my home. The trails are also well marked and blazed. If I forget the map, as I probably will, no grave problem will arise.
Still, I believe God’s promise. We all can believe it. God will make a way in the wilderness for us. And I know I need it.
The wildernesses most of us face in our lifetimes are those occasions that make us feel lost and alone. Whether it’s the loss of a job, an illness, the death of a loved one, a decision about where to go to college…or a difficult memory, life is full of wilderness moments that turn our mapped and modern world into a tangled maze.
Such occasions create wilderness feelings inside us and that is where we often get lost. Thankfully, God is there to help us through such times. “…I will make a way in the wilderness,” God promises me, and promises you.
As important as those eight words are, the words that come before them hold the key to following God out of the wilderness in which we are lost and wandering, especially if there is something deep in our lives that we find troubling, something perhaps even years ago that still creates coyote-howling wilderness moments in our otherwise orderly and civilized lives.
“Do not remember the former things,” God urges us, through the prophet’s writing, “or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
Those are words that provide us with an internal and eternal map through our wilderness moments. They are words that blaze a trail to what is, in truth, a “promised land” that God offers us all, one that abounds with love and grace.
Don’t dwell on hurts and pains and sorrows, God is telling us.
Have faith in that new thing that God is about to do. Like the leaves budding on the trees and the daffodils dotting the landscape, what God promises will spring up—is springing up now, somehow, if we turn our minds from whatever wilderness has us in its grasp and discover, instead, the God-sent feeling that is springing up in our hearts and in our souls—springing up in that deepest part of ourselves.
God is marking the trail through our trials and tribulations. Let us each journey with faith in that guiding love and grace which leads us out of the wilderness by actually transforming the wilderness, itself, giving us rivers in the desert and turning the howl of coyotes into the sound of cooing doves of peace.