The Baptism of Jesus

Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee to be baptized by John at the Jordan at the same time everyone else did. John protested, saying “I should be baptized by you, yet you want me to baptize you?” Jesus said “It must be done the proper and legal way.” So then John baptized Jesus.

Jesus was praying the moment he came up out of the water after being baptized and immediately the heavens opened. The Holy Spirit of God descended upon him, looking like a dove, and a voice came from heaven, saying “You are my beloved Son and I am very pleased with you!”

MT 3:13-17, MK 1:9-11, LK 3:21-22

The beginning of the ministry of John the Baptist

God sent John to serve as a witness to testify about the light that is Christ, so that everyone could believe through that light. John himself was not the light, but he came to tell others about it. The true light, who gives enlightenment to everyone, was about to be revealed to the world. Christ was in the world and the world was created through Christ, yet the world did not recognize him. He came to those he was called to and yet they did not welcome him. But to those who did welcome him, he gave them the honor of being the children of God. Those who believed in Christ were born out of the will of God and not by way of genealogy or human desire.

The word of God that is Christ took on human form and lived among us. We saw his glory as the only begotten Son of the heavenly Father, and that glory was full of grace and truth.

John testified about him by telling people “This is the One I was talking about when I said ‘There is someone who is coming after me, who is greater than I am because he existed before me.’ Indeed we have all received blessing upon blessing from him, because even though the Law was given through Moses, Christ has brought us the grace of forgiveness. No one has ever seen God, but he has been revealed to us through his one and only Son, who is at the Father’s side.”

JN 1:6-18

God’s word came to John the son of Zechariah while he was in the wilderness. This was in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, while Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea. At the same time, Herod was the ruler of Galilee and his brother Philip ruled the region of Iturea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruled Abilene. Annas and Caiaphas were high priests during this time as well.

John went out into the wilderness of Judea and everywhere around the Jordan, preaching about a baptism to forgive sins for those who are repentant. He was saying “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has arrived.” Everyone from the countryside of Judea and the city of Jerusalem came to him and he baptized them in the Jordan River while they confessed their sins.

He is the one the prophet Isaiah spoke about when he said –

“Look! I am sending my messenger ahead of you who will prepare the way before you. He is a lone voice crying out into the wilderness, saying ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make his paths straight!’ Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, the crooked path will straighten, the rough path will become smooth, and the entire world will see God’s salvation.”

MT 3:1-3, MK 1:1-5, LK 3:1-6

John’s clothing was made of camel hair and he wore a leather belt around his waist. He ate only locusts and wild honey.

MT 3:4, MK 1:6

When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to be baptized by him, he said “You are a nest of snakes! Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is coming? You need to act in a way that proves you are repentant. Don’t think you can get away with saying ‘We have Abraham as our father’, because God can produce children for Abraham from the stones that are here! Even now the ax is poised to chop away at the root of the tree! Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.”

MT 3:7-10, LK 3:7-9

The crowds asked John “What should we do?” He answered “Anyone who has two shirts should give one to the person who has nothing to wear, and if you have extra food you should give it to those who are hungry.” Tax collectors came to be baptized by him and they asked “What should we do?” He answered “Collect only what you are required to by law and nothing more.” Soldiers questioned him in the same manner and he replied “Don’t use force or false accusations to extort money from anyone – be satisfied with what you get paid.”

LK 3:10-14

All the people were debating amongst themselves if John was the Messiah or not. Priests and Levites were sent from Jerusalem to ask him “Who are you?” John said “I am not the Messiah.” Then they asked him “Are you Elijah?” John again said no. Then they asked him “Are you the Prophet?” John again answered “No.” “Then who are you?” they asked. “We have to give an answer to the people who sent us. What do you have to say about yourself?” John said “I am a lone person crying out in the wilderness – Make straight the path of the Lord – just like the prophet Isaiah said.”

LK 3:15, JN 1:19-23

Since they had been sent from the Pharisees they asked him “Why do you baptize if you aren’t the Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet?”

John said “I baptize using water, but there is One coming after me who is more powerful than I am. I am not even worthy to take off his shoes. He will baptize you using the Holy Spirit and fire. He stands among you but you don’t recognize him. He is ready to separate the good from the bad, just like how a farmer gathers the good wheat into his barn but burns the chaff in an unending fire.”

He used many other similar warnings to announce the good news of the kingdom of heaven to everyone. All this happened across the Jordan in Bethany, where John was baptizing.

MT 3:11-12, MK 1:7-8, LK 3:16-18, JN 1:24-28

Travel (by) stamps

Some journeys are private…

1 …where we venture out alone, with few provisions.
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2 Everything is a surprise, or a delight,or a wonder, or a challenge…
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3 to be enjoyed or dealt with on our own.
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But sometimes we travel with others. Then there are more decisions to make.

4 How shall we travel? How shall we move from here to there?
Underwater?
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5 By helicopter? Or skis?
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6 Or the unknown and as-yet unnamed?
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7 Perhaps we will take a plane…
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8 …to Spain?
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9 Or a tiny boat with only room enough for five…
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10 …to visit a mountainside where homes crowd atop each other.
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11 Perhaps we will sail away in a ship out of the mists of time…
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12 …to an island fortress long forgotten?
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13 Or take a rickety, rumbling cable car up a hillside…
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14 …to discover a medieval village unaffected by modernity?
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15 Warmer climes, you say? Then we will travel by camel…
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16 …and stay with Bedouins…
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17 …perhaps enlisting the help of a local herdsman…
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18 …to enjoy the wildlife…
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19 …from a safe distance…
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20 …for them…
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21 and for us.
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22 Then maybe you’ll tell me you can fly
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23 …and we discover a land forgotten by time.
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24 Maybe you’ll prove to have secret talents and we will travel in a small black box…
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25 …to visit a large black box.
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26 While there, we fall in love with minarets…
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27 …and towers…
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28 …even discovering that we now notice towers (bell, clock, and otherwise) in Western climes.
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29 We are grateful for the new eyes our travels have given us.
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30 We can fly to islands…
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31 …where animals outnumber people.
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32 There, we can ride a horse into the forest…
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33 …to discover those who stand out …
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34 …and those who hide.
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35 Or we can take a canoe…
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36 …along the shore…
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37 …to see animals at a safe distance,
both large…
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38 …and small.
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39 Even America has undiscovered lands…
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40 …filled with animals who are majestic and rare,
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41 or common and equally beautiful.
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42 p42

43 Travelling further, we see beauty everywhere we look.
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44 Some of it stark…
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45 …some of it serene.
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46 We decide to take some of the beauty home with us, to decorate our table.
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(This was assembled by hand in a 65 x 80 centimeter travel book. I wrote the words on the left side, and glued the stamps to the right. The book was purchased at least 12 years ago as a Christmas gift, yet it never found a home. It stayed in my gift basket all that time. Most of the stamps were given to me by a friend in a massive box from an estate – it was a man’s entire lifetime collection, unsorted, some glued together from damp. I sorted them into categories over a long weekend. That alone took at least 10 hours. Then I sorted out the stamps for this and worked on it over the course of a few weeks. I scanned, cropped, and uploaded this in a day – that took another three hours.)

Blessing for everything

“To ‘bless’ does not mean the same thing as ‘to thank’. …it is too much to expect most people to actually thank God for the bad things that happen to them. Barukh, the Hebrew word for ‘bless’, comes from the same root as the word for knee, berekh. Many scholars see a connection: To bless God is to kneel or bow before the Divine (either literally or symbolically), acknowledging God as greater and more powerful, and the Source of all – both good and bad – that happens.”
– from “Swimming in the Sea of Talmud” by Michael Katz and Gershon Schwartz

To bless God for everything is to acknowledge that God is making everything happen. If we truly believe that God is One, that God made everything and everything is from and of God, then we have to believe that everything that is and everything that happens is from God.

Perhaps we never left the Garden. Perhaps when we ate from the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, we saw with new eyes. Our eyes had seen only things as they are, not differentiating between Good and Evil. Things just were what they were, with no judgment.

When we divide events and people and things into Good and Evil, we have left Paradise, but only mentally. Physically, we are still there.

When we decide to withhold judgment and just see events and people and things as they are, not deciding that they are Good or Evil, then we reenter Paradise.

Nothing is absolute – events that seemed bad at the time turned out to redirect us towards a healthier path. People that seemed bad at the time turned out to have problems that we didn’t know about – we “cut them some slack” and our relationships improve. That food that we didn’t like as children? Years later it is our favorite snack. Things change. Our experiences expand us. We don’t have “the big picture.” Time gives us perspective.

Hold on. Trust. God is in charge. We don’t have to fix it all, and that is a great mercy.

The sages say that the things we perceive as “bad” come from the first two letters of God’s name, the “yud” and the “hey”, while the things we perceive as “good” come from the second two letters, the “vav” and the (second) “hey”. Both are from God. They are neither Good or Evil, deep down.

They just are. No judgment. No definition.

Start blessing God for everything, acknowledging that God is God, and God is good. Ask God for new eyes to see the beauty in everything, and for patience to trust that God is working out God’s plan.

Letter and envelope

There are those people who are simply the carriers of tradition but yet they don’t hold the heart of it. They are more interested in the rules and the rituals rather than the spirit.

They are the envelope,
but not the letter.
They are the vase,
but not the flower.
There the cup,
but not the wine.

These things need containers to hold them, certainly. How much of the awakening right now is because tradition has kept things going all along, held it in trust for us? It is as if our ancestors have saved up money for us all these thousands of years and now we are finally able to buy what they were saving for. Not only do we finally have enough saved up but finally what we need to buy is available. This is a time of ripening, of fruition, of opening.

The tradition bearers are confused when the younger generation has started to fill the tradition with heart and meaning. They think the tradition is more important – that it must be kept. They are afraid something will be lost in translation and that the unbroken (they think) chain of transmission will fall apart and the efforts of many generations will be in vain.

It is as if a family kept a house up for many years, cleaning it, repairing it, painting it exactly the same way it had been painted thousands of years ago. They have used the same materials that their ancestors used. But nobody lived there. It was a house, but not a home. Then a new generation comes in and says now is the time for people to live here, and the old generation balks. They are afraid the tenants will damage the house – not understanding the house was maintained for this very purpose.

The same thing is happening with faith traditions right now.

Dessert and difficulty

Remember these words from Psalm 23? “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” and “You prepare a table for me in the midst of my enemies.”

This doesn’t sound like a great deal does it? Rod and staff? Those sound like weapons. We have to eat surrounded by enemies? This is a good thing?

These words let us know that following God isn’t about a life of ease and plenty. It is a life of work and hardship. But it’s also a life of being refined. We are being improved through the difficulties that God gives us. They aren’t tests or punishments. They are how God shapes us and molds us into being better people. This way when it comes time for the separation of the wheat and the chaff, we will be the wheat. God is refining us into gold.

God chooses us, but then we have to choose God. And when we choose God we’re choosing this life of being shaped by God. When the psalmist tells us “You prepare a table for me in the midst of my enemies”, it means that in the middle of a bad situation you will flourish and be well provided for. But you have to be in a bad situation. It doesn’t mean that you get the feast without the fight. You don’t get the desert without the difficulty.

Know that whenever you’re in a bad situation, one that feels impossible, know that God is with you and that God is cheering you on. God wants you to rise above it and get stronger because of that bad situation, not in spite of it. God is using it to strengthen you in the same way that anyone who wants to get stronger muscles has to pick up heavier and heavier weights.

Life change cake

Yesterday was the icing on the cake. I don’t know where the cherry is. And if yesterday was the icing, then I don’t know if that means the cherry is good or bad.

The cake is a multi layer cake.

One layer is made up of a car dying and having to buy new car. I’d paid it off and become very fond of it. It was cute and familiar. I wasn’t planning on buying a new car. For a while we had two car payments, and I was grateful to not have any. I was using the extra money to pay off the mortgage sooner. But I have to have a reliable car, and one that won’t start isn’t acceptable, especially when the dealership can’t even tell me what was causing the problem. Since they didn’t know, they couldn’t fix it. They got it running, for another day, and then it wouldn’t start. I’m grateful that it failed to start while I was at home – so I wasn’t stranded doing errands or at work.

Another layer is finding out that I’m being transferred to another branch a week later. I’ve worked at the same place for almost 15 years. That’s a third of my life. I created the order and routine of the branch I came from. It’s a huge loss to have to go somewhere else. I’m grateful it is close to my home and in a safe neighborhood.

Another layer is the loss of my normal schedule. Because this other library is on an opposite schedule of opening and closing I can’t go to my exercise class like I used to. All the people that I knew at work and at working out are gone to me.

I might as well have moved to another country for the amount of loss that I am experiencing. It would’ve helped if the other branch had even welcomed me. But there was no welcoming note, no welcoming words, not even my desk was cleaned off. It was like it was a catchall for debris. I hate being the only person who is sensitive to other people’s feelings who thinks about how hard things are and is considerate so that they feel welcome and included. I hate feeling so deeply.

Adding to that is that I’m at a place that has three people, and only two do the work. The manager sits in his office and types at his computer, only coming out of his office to go to lunch or yell at the kids when they are loud. I’d love to have a job where I could get paid, yet do my own work (like write books) for 8 hours a day, like he has. But then I’d feel that I’d feel guilty about it, because I know that I’m not doing my real job.

I was reading Proverbs this morning and came across some parts that are applicable. (All translations are HCSB)

Proverbs 3:5 “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding;”
To me, this means that I don’t need to worry about this. To rely upon my own understanding is to say that I’m wiser than God. Ultimately it would mean that I’m setting myself up as an idol. The height of idolatry is to worship yourself. Sadly, a lot of today’s new religious leaders are saying just that. I’ll go further into that another day.

Proverbs 3:31 “Don’t envy a violent man or choose any of his ways;”
I’m taking this to mean more than just violent. I’m taking it to mean someone who shirks his responsibility. I should do my job and not follow the way of someone who isn’t doing his, as I know it to be bad. However, I won’t do extra or wipe myself out to get it all done, either. If I do more than my share, it will not be obvious that he’s not doing his. Upper management knows what is happening but they aren’t doing anything about it. I don’t know why, but I have to trust that God is in charge.

And then I read this, and it confirmed my feelings.
Proverbs 3:35 “The wise will inherit honor, but He holds up fools to dishonor.”

It doesn’t make it a lot easier. I still have to figure out how to live with this situation. I’ve spent a lot of my life with similar bosses.

Jesus teaches us that the best boss is also a worker. When he washed the feet of his disciples, he was teaching them that they needed to lower themselves from thinking they were above everybody. He was teaching them that they had to see themselves as equals. Everybody has to do “the dirty work”.

Sadly, many managers, even ones that are Christian, don’t seem to get this. It draws resentment upon them. Even if they are paid more, they aren’t respected more. I knew a lady who retired after 40 years of “work” and not one of her employees attended her retirement party. There were a lot of people there, but they were her friends – nobody she had worked with or “managed”. Sure, she got paid more than her employees, but she was overdrawn in the respect department.

I’d rather be paid in respect. I’d rather be paid in knowing that I did my best, rather than cheating the system. I’d rather know that the money I make I made honestly.

Ritual to honor a deceased parent

This uses something called “Hell” money. Chinese people use this fake money to show respect and honor to their deceased relatives. It is a way of keeping their memory alive. The Chinese have no “hell” or “heaven” – it is simply the afterlife. It is closer to “purgatory” or a “holding” area. It isn’t a place of punishment – it just simply isn’t a corporal existence here with us. Western missionaries translated the idea as “hell” because they did not understand it. You can obtain Hell money online (I used ArteCrafts on Etsy) or if you are fortunate enough to have a Chinatown section in your town, you can get them there.

If Western culture had a way of showing honor to deceased parents, I’d include it. They don’t. They don’t have a way of respecting and releasing grief. The Mexican Day of the Dead ceremony is very healing – you welcome back your dead ancestors for the day so they are still with you. In Western culture, you visit the grave (maybe) and pretend everything is fine. I’m all for adopting other culture’s ideas if they are healing. This represents my own twist on the idea.

These are the ingredients:
A candle.
Lighter.
Water to put out the fire if necessary.
Tray to hold the ingredients.
An incense stick for each person being honored.
A bell.
Regular and gold-orange Hell money.

You need a safe place to burn things – we used a fire pit. This should preferably be done outside, but could be done inside with a fireplace. There should be a way for the smoke to go up and outside.

To begin –
Cover your head – a hat or a handkerchief will do. This is for safety and for reverence. Avoid a ball cap.

Light the candle and put it at the top center of the burning area. This is not in the middle. Consider if the area is a clock. The center where you will burn the items is in the middle, where the clock arms are. You put the candle at the 12 o’clock position.

Light the incense sticks – one for each person you are remembering. Stick them in the burn area at the edge – at the 9 or 3 o’clock position. Angle them in towards the center, but not sharply. Say the name of each person, saying “I welcome (name) into this moment. I honor, love, and miss you.” (or other words that feel appropriate for you and your relationship)

Ring the bell once, calmly and reverently. This marks the beginning of silence.

Then burn the hell money one at a time, taking turns for each person who is participating in the ceremony. Have several different kinds of hell money. Some include representations of clothing or household goods. The idea is that you are “sending” these items to your relatives to make their stay in the otherworld easier.

If it feels right, burn one together in honor of your shared grief for the other’s parent.

Then burn the golden-orange hell money last. Only burn one of each.

Then ring the bell to signal the end of the ceremony.

Leave the incense burning. You can waft over you to bring some of its healing to you.

Regular Hell money looks like this
hell money2

Gold-orange money looks like this –
hell money1

New Sabbath

“Hear, oh Israel, the Lord your God is one.” The Shema.

The goal is oneness of people, of union, reunion, communion, with God.

The hope is for Sabbath every day, the Sabbath without end. This is a sign that the Messiah has come.

Jesus acted like the Sabbath was every day. He worked on the Sabbath, yet took time to rest whenever he could -on a boat, on mountain tops, in lonely and deserted places.

Perhaps that is the answer. Once we start living as if the Messiah has come we will experience our own personal transformation. Once we live this way, we are freed from the old ways of living.

When we don’t, it is as if we are keeping ourselves in exile, wandering through our own personal deserts for far more than 40 years – for our entire lifetimes.

Sometimes birds have been in cages so long they won’t leave, even when the door is left open. Sometimes we are the same – stuck in old ways, so even when we are told we are free we won’t change.

Jesus frees us. Jesus says we are forgiven and loved. He’s unlocked that cage. Now you have to walk out.

So now, act as if every day is the Sabbath. This doesn’t mean do nothing. Your work is your way of serving God. You serve God through your work. But praise God, delight in God’s creation, and rest, knowing that you don’t have to do anything to get God’s favor, because you already have it.