We Shine!

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Isaiah 60:1-6

A phrase often heard – and an action often encouraged – in my yoga studio is “Shine your heart.” To shine your heart means that you draw forward your heart cavity, which is your sternum and upper rib cage, through your shoulders as if a beam of light began shining from your heart onto the wall next to you, the ceiling above you, or the person in front of you. Shining your heart rotates your shoulders back and down, which brings them into proper alignment over your hips and creates space and broadness across your shoulders.

Why is this phrase often heard and action often encouraged? Because my yoga teachers see so many people walking with hunched shoulders…I see so many people walking with hunched shoulders. These persons, their hearts are not shining forward; their hearts are receding, their lights mere flickers. They are bracing for impact. They are in survival mode. They have only just endured the last moment. They are fearful of the next moment. Their shoulders reflect their burdens caused by life’s innumerable weights.

When we walk with hunched shoulders long enough, our bodies begin to accept that shape as our natural shape. When our bodies accept that hunched shape as natural, it cannot be reversed, and we live with its effects permanently.

When I first returned to yoga I walked as someone that rounded forward my shoulders. My body physically manifested the stress I carried. I thought that the way to protect my heart was to shield it rather than shine it. I experienced physical discomfort in drawing my heart forward, in rolling my shoulders into proper alignment.

After years of practice I am growing in comfort with shining my heart. It took time to cultivate this practice. It took courage to face what was causing me to shield rather than shine. It took several brave steps towards vulnerability.

I had to let things go physically and emotionally. I had to forgive. I had to be forgiven. I had to walk away from burdens. I had to open myself to shining and to light.

This week we will ring in a new year that is full of promises, possibilities and potentialities (as the song goes). With the close of one year and the beginning of another we are afforded the opportunity to let things go, to lessen and release burdens, to forgive and be forgiven, to commit or resolve ourselves to shining our hearts rather than continuing to shield them.

Folks that shield their hearts know well the “darkness [that] covers the earth and thick darkness the peoples” (Isa 40:2a). “Arise and shine!” Isaiah says (Isa 40:1a). Christ’s light and life has lightened our burden. Our Christ has revealed a new way forward. What way forward is that for you in 2016? What commitments or changes is God calling you to make so that you can shine your heart in offering to God and shine God’s heart in offering to others?

I find that when I begin with gratitude – for where I have come from, for where I am going, for the people and places and experiences I’ve had along the way – I am more able and wanting to shine my heart.

Steve Harper, a retired pastor and professor in the Florida Conference – and a continuing mentor to many! – shared this reflection as we move to the new year, “Thinking this final week of 2015 about influencers: the people who have influenced me most have not spent their lives identifying the darkness, but rather have devoted themselves to intensifying the light.”

“We shall see and be radiant”says the prophet (Isa 40:5a). We shall see and be radiant as we devote ourselves to intensifying Christ’s light.

With renewal and rejoicing we move on, we move forward, we move towards 2016.

In this New Year, may we open up, invite in, and grow. May we choose light. May we choose life. May we shine.

Prayer: “O God, you made of one blood all nations, and, by a star in the East, revealed to all peoples him whose name is Emmanuel. Enable us who know your presence with us so to proclaim his unsearchable riches that all may come to his light and bow before the brightness of his rising, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.”*

*”Epiphany,” The United Methodist Hymnal 255.

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Atonement: Offering For Sin

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Isaiah 52:13-53:12

My fabulous Hebrew Bible professor in seminary, Dr. David Petersen, taught me great love for a great many things.  Among them are mutton-chop sideburns, fly fishing, liver divination, and last but certainly not least, reception history.

(He also taught me a great love for Hebrew Bible…don’t worry!)

Reception history is evidence of how a biblical text has been received over time and how it has been recreated or remembered throughout history.  Reception history spans the world of the arts – literature, music, sculpture, theatre, poetry, painting, film, and more.

I believe a biblical text can be helped as well as harmed by reception history.  Helped because it draws people back towards the biblical narrative and engenders feelings of curiosity and exploration.  Harmed because sometimes folks do not make it back to the biblical text and take what they read or view at face value as what the biblical text says…which is why I stay away from most of what debuts on a certain television station that thinks it explores “history” but there is a whole lot more of “opinion” and “creative storytelling” than actual “fact.”  But I digress…

In 1741 George Frideric Handel composed his masterwork oratorio,  Messiah.  The oratorio is an extended reflection on Jesus Christ as Messiah – and an excellent example of a text’s reception history – singing through birth prophecies, his nativity, his passion, his crucifixion, his resurrection, and his exaltation.  I had the privilege to sing selections from this masterwork while in concert chorale during undergraduate.  The enormity of the piece – both its length and its meaning – remain on my heart to this day.

Four musical reflections in Messiah come from our Scripture passage for this week, which through the lens of the prophet Isaiah, gazes upon the humble yet extremely powerful offering of the suffering servant.  I have included the links to watch and listen to this scripture sung by mass choir.  May it be for all of us a meditative practice as we draw near to our study of Scripture this week.

Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs – Isaiah 53:4-5

And With His Stripes We Are Healed – Isaiah 53:5

All We Like Sheep – Isaiah 53:6

He Was Cut Off Out Of The Land Of The Living – Isaiah 53:8

Prayer: “Man of Sorrows! what a name for the Son of God, who came ruined sinners to reclaim.  Hallelujah!  What a Savior!  Bearing shame and scoffing rude, in my place condemned he stood; sealed my pardon with his blood.  Hallelujah!  What a Savior!  Guilty, vile, and helpless we; spotless Lamb of God was he; full atonement can it be?  Hallelujah!  What a Savior!  Lifted up was he to die; “It is finished” was his cry; now in heaven exalted high.  Hallelujah!  What a Savior!  When he comes, our glorious King, all his ransomed home to bring, then anew this song we’ll sing: Hallelujah!  What a Savior!”* Amen.

*”Hallelujah!  What a Savior,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 165.

The Coming King: Pilgrimage

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Isaiah 2:1-5

Believe it or not – even though I am a native Floridian – I have hiked my fair share of mountains both domestically and abroad.  I have hiked in Georgia, North Carolina, Maryland, Tennessee, West Virginia, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, and Maine domestically.  I have hiked in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Austria, Switzerland, and Germany abroad.  These haven’t been major backpacking trips, although I would love to train for and complete one of those adventures – or more than one!  These hikes have been day trips – up and down the mountain, volcano, or glacier – depending on where I was – in eight hours or less.

Now…growing up in Florida has a lot of advantages.  Close to the beach.  Grew up hearing the sonic boom as our astronauts returned to Cape Canavral.  On the cool and clear mornings you can smell the salt water even if you are in the middle of the state.  Open-toed and open-heeled footwear is acceptable 365 days a year.  Owning one sweater is all that’s necessary.  Winter lasts about nine-and-a-half days.

Like I said – lots of advantages.

Big disadvantage – it’s flat…we think a 30-degree incline for 30 feet is a mountain!  So you can only imagine when I approached that first mountain…and every subsequent mountain…my reaction was something like, “you expect me to hike up that?!”

My calves are aching just at the thought of it.

Those hikes were hard freaking work.  In the words of Kid President – who alludes to a poem by the great Robert Frost – “‘Two roads diverged in the woods (or on the mountain for me) and I took the road less traveled’ and it hurt man!  Really bad!  Rocks, thorns, and glass…my pants broke!  Not cool, Robert Frost!”  Those ascents were such struggles.  I felt dizzy.  I felt faint.  I wanted to quit.  I thought because I had hiked a mountain before that hiking now would be easier – not so.  Each ascent was a new experience.  Each ascent was a new challenge full of obstacles shared yet unique between all the mountains.

Equally shared and unique was what I saw and felt at the summit – freedom and stillness.  I could see for miles.  I could breathe deeply.  I could feel the pressure in my ears build and release, build and release.  Never have I seen skies more blue – and I’m a Floridian – we know a thing or two about blue skies.  Never have I felt more accomplished.  Never have I felt more refreshed.  I think the opportunity to see anew, to feel accomplished, to be refreshed is what entices me to take these hikes when the occasions arise.

I wonder if these same opportunities – to see anew, to feel accomplished following a great struggle, to be refreshed – is what God had in mind for humanity when God used Isaiah as God’s mouthpiece to beckon humanity toward Zion.  It wouldn’t be an easy journey.  The people – us – you and me – would and do have to leave our ways and practices that have become home yet separate us from home with God.  We have to leave our sin, our deceit, our idolatry behind and that we can begin moving towards God.  That’s a struggle in and of itself.  But that action simply moves us to the base of Zion…we still have to climb it.

Any 90s kids (or their parents who had to watch it – I know mine did!) remember that show called Nickelodeon Guts where the final challenge facing the contestants was climbing The Crag – a mountain chock-full of disasters lying in wait to snare the unsuspecting player?  Yeah…our God is not doing that.  God doesn’t place obstacles before us as we make our climb.  We are our own obstacles.  What seems like a treacherous mountain climb could indeed be an easy stroll.  I believe that’s the way God desires it.  The struggle and overcoming obstacles comes in through those moments where we have to confront our sin, peel it away, and walk away from it and onward towards God.  That’s the work we have to do.  That’s the work God invites us to do and God doesn’t leave us alone in doing it.

An advantage of climbing God’s mountain is that you can do it right where you are.  I can climb it right where I am.  During this Advent Season in preparation for the birth of the Savior I’ll be working on my ascent.  I hope you’ll be a fellow hiker on the trail.

Prayer: “Come, we that love The Lord, and let our joys be known; join in a song with sweet accord, join in a song of sweet accord and thus surround the throne and thus surround the throne.  Then let our songs abound, and every tear be dry; we’re marching through Emmanuel’s ground, we’re marching through Emmanuel’s ground, to fairer world’s on high, to fairer worlds on high.  We’re marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion; we’re marching upward to Zion, the beautiful city of God.”* Amen.

*”Marching to Zion,” The United Methodist Church, 733.