Saturday, June 23, 2018

Discipleship: becoming one's true self

My seminary advisor was a renowned New Testament scholar, one of his protege students turned out to be Sarge Thomas' daughter, Amy, who taught one of the New Testament classes I took. Small world. Anyway, one day my advisor was talking to me about something, I don't recall what exactly. I do remember he said to me that he thought that the reason I didn't ask a lot of questions in class was because I had grown up in the Mormon church and that church doesn't encourage thinking and questioning.  No doubt I was raised to be the good girl, quiet, well behaved, and my childhood goal was perfection. However, I'm not sure if that's exactly why I was quiet in class. I suspect it had more to do with fear. I've mentioned before that Faithwalking course a number of us have taken and are taking, invites us to look deep at our lives, to ponder the things we learned about ourselves before we were 20 years old, especially the things that hurt us, shamed us, and left us feeling bad about ourselves. One of the things I learned when my mother announced that my brother scored higher on an IQ test than I had scored is that I wasn't smart. It's not what my mother said, but it's what I heard and the memory I made from that moment and how I defined myself. I'm not smart. So of course, if I think I'm not smart, and I'm sitting in class with students who have bachelors from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton - yeah, that's my seminary class - then you bet I'm not going to ask questions out loud, in front of the class. I didn't need anyone to know just how not smart I was.

But here's the thing. I've always had a lot of questions. Questions about myself, about the way the world works, about where God is in the world, about how God is working in my life and in the world.  I came to the Episcopal Church when I was in my early 30's because I was told that this is a church where I can ask questions and ponder life and faith.

So when I live by the idea that I'm not smart and I won't ask questions because I don't want people to see just how not smart I am, and yet I live with lots of questions inside of me that I hide away, then I am living a false self. I hide my true self behind being quiet, not asking the questions I have inside of me, out of fear of being judged, of people finding out that I am not smart, out fear of being shamed, like the shame I felt when my mother said that about me all those years ago. And living from my false self means I live a small, narrow life, one that denies me the fullness of myself,  prevents me from being whole and healthy and happy.

Jesus shows us how to live that whole, healthy true sense of self life because that's the life he lives. Jesus calls this true self, this whole self, discipleship - because following Jesus, being one of Jesus disciples leads one to the fullness of life.

The Gospel of Mark teaches that discipleship means setting aside fear of authorities, power, imperial pretense, and religious hypocrisy, because disciples learn to live from a place of true self. This true self lives within the values and principles that guide one's life.  For me that means that I try to live from the principle that God loves me just as I am, that I am made just as God desires me to be, and that what I value in life, how I love God, love myself, and love my neighbors, is what matters because this is the primary value of my life.

In our reading today from Daniel we hear the story of Shadrach, Mesach, and Abednago, and their response to King Nebuchadnezzar.  This king has built a giant statue of himself and has ordered everyone to kneel to it. But these three men, councils to the king from the Jewish people, refuse to kneel. Enraged the king throws them into a fire to kill them. But instead of dying these men are joined by an agent of God who walks in the fire with them and they come out unscathed. The king is so astonished that he allows the worship of the Jewish God in his nation.

In both the Gospel reading, with the rocking boat and pounding waves that nearly tip the boat over, and in the reading from Daniel with the men who survive the fire, we learn that life is full of challenges - literal and figurative - real fire, real wind, and figurative fires and wind. Holding steady to what one believes and values, living from one's true self enables one to weather the storms and challenges intact and whole.

a little reflection on the readings for Proper 7B, Daniel 3; Mark 4:35-41

Saturday, June 16, 2018

How to know what I don't know that I don't know....

What are the things that I don't know that I don't know?

This is the primary question that Faithwalking asks each person to consider. And then, how can I begin to know what I don't know?

One way I can do this is to learn to listen differently. Instead of listening for only 3-9 seconds before I begin to decide what is right or wrong about what another is saying, before I begin to formulate my argument back, before my autopilot reactive response that is formed by previous wounds and hurts kicks in, I can decide instead to listen differently. I may not ever agree with what you say, but I can listen with the idea that what you are saying is true for you, and maybe I can learn something from that. At the very least I can be fully present to you and hear what you say.

At some point in time each one of us has been broken, deeply truly broken, shamed, hurt, rejected, embarrassed, neglected or abused.

Listening for right or wrong/ agree or disagree will close me off to something that God wants me to hear, and if I close myself off to what God wants me to hear I will not grow fully into the person God desires me to be, I will stand in the way of my own transformation.

And so learning to listen differently is critical.

Listening differently puts me in a place of vulnerability because as I listen differently I will also BE different. I may end up being more human, more authentic, more real, I may disclose more of my real self.

But there is healing in our ability to be real, to listen deeply, to be present with others.

You and I may hold very different values and beliefs. I can learn from listening to you. Maybe you will learn something from listening to me. You do not need to be me. I don't intend to be you.

Sometimes I am the parable in the Gospel reading today: just as I am about to grow full and ripe  the shame and pain of previous wounds cuts me off like a sickle cuts off grain,  and I retreat into my wounded self Other times I have the courage and the inspiration to grow more fully, pain and all, and then I find that the growing pains have actually made me a better, happier, wise person.

Sometimes I am like the people Paul is speaking to in his letter to the Corinthians, I argue and want to be right, even if I am wrong. I won't listen, I act out of my first formation - the way I learned to be from the good and the challenges of my childhood - a way that may have helped when I was kid but fails me now as an adult. I don't want to behave like that broken 11 year old, I want to behave like a mature 61 year old, with compassion and wisdom.

I often wish I could be like Vashti in the reading from Esther - a woman who knew herself well enough, who valued her worth enough that instead of showing up wearing ONLY the crown before a room full of drunken men, she said no, she defied the king. She lost her role as queen but she retained her integrity. Or maybe I would be more like Esther, more meek and seemingly docile, and yet she too defied the King and saved her people.

As I prepare to begin the Faithwalking 201 course I am thinking about what it means to listen to God and follow Jesus, to live by the mission I hear God calling me into.

Will I live a small, narrow life, that seeks safety and avoids risk? Sometimes I really want that. But I fear that if I do that I will also feel incomplete, unhappy, inauthentic, not fully me, which will leave me feeling sad and empty.

To be the person God is calling me to be I need to listen and respect the human being that others are by not name-calling or belittling.  But that does not mean I have to agree nor support what they are doing. I can speak out, especially when someone uses scripture, the foundation of the faith I hold dear, to promote unjust actions which clearly go against what God intends - and God's intentions are clear if one reads all of the Bible instead of just pulling one or two sentences out of context.

So yes. I hope to be the person who speaks up, like Vashti or Esther, to be the seed that grows a deep faith and produces and active spirituality. You don't have to live your faith the same that I am feeling called to live, but I do hope that you too will learn to listen in a new way. To respect others, even if when you disagree, and to wonder, what can I learn from this? What I usually learn in situations like this is more about myself, how I can become more of who I want to be, how I can do more to make a difference. I can't change anyone else, but I can change me. This does not mean that I will be passive in the face of injustice, only that I will not demean others, even those whose values and beliefs are radically different from mine. I will, however, aim to speak up, to be like Vashti.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Listening as a Way of Life

Over twenty four years ago I began a process of deep listening to God. I had a volunteer ministry in a hospital offering massages to parents of sick children. Being a licensed massage therapist was prayerful, profound work for me, that took me to places of deep listening. I listened to people. I listened to God. I listened to myself. Eventually I discerned from all this listening that I needed to do more. So I entered a dual degree program to acquire a Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Social Work, intending to be a hospital chaplain providing opportunities to guide people into deep healing of mind, body, and spirit. I had not yet decided if I was going to do this as an ordained person, that came later. It was difficult to listen to God and discern if I was called to the priesthood when I was already in seminary, surrounded by people who had already made that decision and had it affirmed by the lay committees, diocesan committees, and Bishops. Eventually I did make that decision and it was affirmed by all the people who needed to affirm it. 

However, I did not end up serving as hospital chaplain. By the time I was finished with my formal education I had heard another call, one that I had rejected initially because I knew it would be hard, but it was a call to parish ministry. While my call to the priesthood took an unexpected turn, I can only say now, 18 years into it, that I believe I heard God correctly and have lived faithfully the vocation God intended for me. 

Yesterday a number of us attended the ordination of Halim to the priesthood. It was a day that culminated many years of prayer and discernment of him. And already his life as a priest is not turning out exactly as he thought it would, because he is here in Dearborn, not Lebanon, and he is being called into a ministry he never imagined. I suspect, however, that following this call is just what God intends for Halim.

Soon Mitch will be ordained. He too has a sense of call, and it will be interesting to see how God calls him forward into ministry.

This parish has just spent a year in prayer and discernment, listening to God and pondering how we are being called into new life, what our purpose is here and now as Christ Church in Dearborn. I doubt that any of us knew last year what we know this year. It’s been a difficult year but in the end I believe we’ve heard God well and our decision to claim three goals for this parish is a response to that listening. Our goals are: deepen spirituality, engage in works of justice, and build relationships with ourselves, with the groups who use this building, and with the wider community. As we strive to live into these goals I suspect that God will take us places we never imagined. It is what God does, and how God works.

Likewise we hear stories in our scripture readings this morning of people listening to God. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is listening to God even though he does not fully know who he is or what is purpose is. Still he knows that he is called to bring forth God’s love into the world and to do that in radical ways - to literally love every one: the poor, the sick, the taxpayers, women, even the rich young man. Jesus’ family is not so certain that they are comfortable with how Jesus is living his life, they fear for him and want to contain him so he stays safe. At least they do that for awhile. I can’t imagine the Mary - who took a big risk for God to birth Jesus, nor Joseph who took big risk for God by staying with Mary - are actually fearful people who live limited, small lives. I suspect they get on board with Jesus and embrace his ministry. We know for certain that Mary was with him to the very end, risking even her own life to be at the foot of the cross. But at least for today his family appears to be fearful. And when we are fearful it is more difficult to listen to God. Our fear closes us off to possibility and we live smaller, more narrow lives.

Paul knew something about living a smaller life. Before he became a Christian he persecuted Christians. Then he literally had his sight taken away from him and new sight given to him - he because a Christian and began to work for good of all people. His letters to the churches aim to teach people how to live the Gospel, how to live in relationship with one another as Jesus taught, how to live by loving one’s self, loving others, and loving God. In today’s reading he talks about the nature of God’s presence with us, like a tent, a garment - God surrounds us and remains with us as we strive to do the work that God has called forth in us.

And then we our reading from the Faces of Our Faith curriculum, today the story of Deborah from Judges. We’ve heard the story of the creation of human beings, the story of Shiphrah and Puah who saved the Hebrew boys at birth which lead to the birth of Moses. To Moses leading the people into exile and five daughters of Zelophehed who had the courage to speak up and claim their father’s land, and now the story of Deborah. We are moving through the books of the Hebrew Bible and hearing the story of the formation of God’s people. Today’s story tells about the judge and prophet Deborah who gave wise counsel to Barak, the military commander. The battle fought in this text takes place in the promised land as the Hebrew people claim what they believe God has given to them. Deborah models a strong woman, faithfully listening to God, and Barak models someone who is willing to take the time to seek counsel, even from a woman, and listen before charging into battle. 

Listening is clearly a theme for our readings and for our common life together. Last week a number of us participated in the Faithwalking retreat where we practiced active listening - listening to the presenters as they taught us some of the foundational principles of Faithwalking. We spent time listening to God and reflecting deeply into our own lives. We practiced listening to each other. Do you know that the average person only listens to another person for 3-9 seconds before we stop listening and begin to formulate our argument back. And once we stop listening we have no idea what the person has actually said. In practicing active listening we were working on not responding, not judging, not arguing, not debating. Just listening and being able to say, I hear you. I hear you.

Being heard is a profound experience for both the person who was heard and for those listening. Listening to God, is a curious act of actually listening and hearing deeply the truth of one’s own life. God will only lead one more deeply into one’s most authentic sense of self. God can only do that when one takes the time to listen deeply. 

Today marks the end of a program year. We will celebrate a number of life transitions and give thanks for the ways we have grown in life and faith. It also marks new beginnings: for Halim, for this parish, for each of us. I’m excited and curious to see where God will lead us. I hopeful that we will step out in faith, courageously taking on the challenges that God has given us, trusting that God is with us, clothing us in faith, hope, love, so that this church can be its most authentic self in the world today.

Reflection on the readings for today: Proper 5B ( Psalm 130, 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1, Mark 3:20-35, and from the Faces of Our Faith curriculum - Judges 4-5)

Sunday, April 08, 2018

God is IN the Darkness

Although I am preaching without a manuscript here is the gist of what I intended to say for Easter 2B, commenting on the readings appointed for the day. What I actually said was more, and included comments from the members of the congregation. 

Here are portions of the readings I was commenting on: 
1 John 1:1-2:2 "that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all" 

and from the Gospel - John 20:19-31"When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." 

I woke up last Sunday, Easter, to find a story a friend of mine posted on his Facebook page.  Following the Great Vigil he came outside of his church last Saturday night and was awestruck by the full moon. He knelt to take a photo of it with his cell phone and while kneeling a car drove up to him. Two police officers got out of that car and my friend, a soft spoken gentle soul of a man, a black man with a wife and two kids, slowly stood up, terrified as he thought, I am a black man with a cell phone in my hand facing two police officers on a dark street. He was terrified as he faced his church, where he is the priest, where his name is on the sign outside, and realized just how vulnerable felt and terrified he was. Nothing happened, the cops didn’t do anything. But that’s not the story. The story is how terrified he was, a black man on a dark street, with a cell phone in his hand, confronted by two police officers.

I want to talk about darkness in 1 John – where it says that God is not in darkness, and how much I dislike that phrase. God is in darkness, God births new life through darkness. And, how it is that imagery like this has been used to teach “us” that darkness is bad and therefor dark people are bad. I hate that it appears in scripture and I can’t let it go unacknowledged.

I want to talk about the Gospel of John, and that the disciples were afraid of the Jews. Of the Jews – how weird that is because, well, they all were still Jews. Not by the time the Gospel was written, but they were when the story takes place.

I want to talk about the way we internalize prejudices of all sorts, and hear things like this so often that they flow over us without any thought.  

I want to talk about fear, which is at the heart of these two readings, the image in 1 John and the Gospel story. How fear causes reactivity and paralyzes at the same time. Fear can be useful for survival. The instinct to protect one’s self, for flight or fight, is embedded in the core of all life. However,  learning to recognize one’s fear’s and sort out when one’s fear is justified and when it is not also helpful. Fear can be the place from which one steps out in risk, becomes more creative and is propelled into new life. 

If the disciples had allowed their fear to remain they would have stayed holed up in that room. Living through their fear, asking questions, literally placing their hands into the wounds of Jesus, into their most broken and fear filled place, lead them to something deeper, to a mission of new life instead of hunkering down in fear and refusing to move. 

Instead we should be provoked, unsettled. We should be more like Thomas, questioning, doubting, walking into the darkness and finding Jesus there. Jesus who, through his wounds, brings new life and points the way to truth, who shows us how God is in and with and for everyone. And because of that no one should ever have to live in fear.

Monday, April 02, 2018

Easter: Gardening for New Life

One year my family and I moved into a new house. The backyard was large with lots of trees and grass. There was one oddity to the yard, a 3 by 5 foot section that was weed-filled. We figured it must have been an herb garden at one time, but now it was nothing but entangled weeds, the result of years of neglect. Not long after we moved in my husband, Dan, and I, decided to dig up the weedy section and let it return to grass. So we took shovels and went outside and tried to dig. We tried and tried, but to no avail. The weeds were too thick and the ground was too impacted by weeds, completely root bound. We called a landscaper to come help, and a few days later a couple of guys showed up with shovels. I started to laugh and thought to myself, "This I have to see." The guys made a valiant effort to dig here, then there. But after several vain attempts they gave up and left. A few hours later they returned with a tractor and dug up that root bound piece of earth. Afterward we filled it in and planted grass. The next spring green grass was growing everywhere. And then something odd happened. Tulips started to pop through the earth and the grass in the section we'd pulled up. The weed bound, life sucking section was now producing gorgeous tulips. Every spring thereafter tulips would pop up and bloom.

The season of Lent has come and gone. A season when we are asked to consider the weed infected, root bound, life taking areas of life and consider what we can dig up, let go of, or let die, in order for new life to take root and bloom. What are the ways that we are crowding God out, leaving no room, no place, no time for God in our lives? And, if we have lived through Lent effectively we have dug up those root bound places and made room for God, so that now, in the season of Easter, God can bring forth new life in and through us.

Some believe that the resurrection of Jesus was an actual embodied event, that Jesus really appeared in his body. Others, especially in this day and age, doubt the full embodiment of Jesus. But even still something happened 2000 years ago. Some kind of resurrection occurred and Jesus was made known again to the disciples. How is that Jesus will appear again, this year? What kind of resurrection will we encounter?

If we have made room for God to be in our lives, if we take the time to look at our lives, we will see God anew in many ways. Life giving ways.

Some of the ways we symbolize new life and the resurrection in this church can be seen in the alleluias. Our kids made these alleluias and buried them in that box, the tomb, on the first Sunday of Lent. There they stayed, hidden, until yesterday when we unearthed them and hung them on the windows for all to see. Then we tipped the box over and filled it with eggs, with new life.

We also see signs of new life in the plants and flowers that fill this space. In lighter colors, the incense, and the music. These celebrate the idea that out of despair God always brings forth new life and hope. In these next few weeks, through Pentecost on May 20th, pay attention to how and when God appears anew in your life, what new signs of life is God pulling forth in you? What are the signs of resurrection in your life? 

God is the gardener of our souls, planting seeds for new life, working with us to nurture and grow the fruits of faith. May you have a blessed Easter this day, and in the days to come.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Good Friday: Meditation on the Last Seven Words of Jesus

Meditation on The Traditional Last Seven Words of Jesus, with scripture references from the Gospel of John

Begins with singing this slowly twice:

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Pilate brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge's bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, "Here is your King!" They cried out, "Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!" Pilate asked them, "Shall I crucify your King?" The chief priests answered, "We have no king but the emperor." Then Pilate handed Jesus over to them to be crucified.

How often do human beings break God’s heart? Surely God must weep over the refugee crisis in this world and all the ways and means that human beings turn other people into objects, subhumans, demeaning and diminishing others? God weeps over those who are dying from war, famine, cruelty, greed, genocide. Every day people crucify Jesus. Like this crown of thorns placed on Jesus’ head to humiliate, scorn, and devalue him, consider the ways that this is happening in our world today. Strive to recognize how each of us may be complicit in ways known and unknown in daily crucifixions,  and aim to live with greater awareness and the desire to respect the dignity of every human being. (Place the crown of thorns on the cross)

Loving God, to whom Jesus prayed for the forgiveness of those who did not know what they were doing, grant that we too may be included in that prayer. Whether we sin out of ignorance or intention, be merciful to us, guide us to change our ways, and bring us peace in the name of Jesus Christ, our suffering Savior. Amen.

“Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two rebels, one on either side, with Jesus between them. One rebel said to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus replied, “You will be with me in paradise.”

Even as he was dying, Jesus revealed himself as God’s love in the world, a love that seeks to restore hope and dignity, to all human kind. A love that seeks to reconcile the broken and hurting. A love that seeks life not death. A love freely given for all. Like this mallet, used to pound the nails into Jesus’ hands and feet, a common tool intended to build up not destroy, may we be the hands of Christ, building up the body of love in the world. (Place the mallet on the floor at the foot of the cross).

O Lord Jesus Christ, who promised to the repentant the joy of paradise, enable us by the Holy Spirit to repent and to receive your grace in this world and in the world to come. Amen.

“Woman, behold your son. . . . Behold your mother.”

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, "Woman, here is your son." Then he said to the disciple, "Here is your mother." And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

Jesus sought to bring all people to the fullness of their humanity, to create equality for women, for people of every race and nation, that all marginalized people may be seen as God’s beloved. These nails, a symbol of the binding together one to another, bound Jesus to the cross and insured his death and humility. May we, instead, have the courage and compassion to bind together love and mercy, hope and grace, in God’s name. (Place the nails on the floor, at the foot of the cross).

O love of God, Jesus Christ, in your hour of greatest suffering you expressed compassion for women through the care of your mother; grant that we who seek to follow your example may show our concern for the needs of others, reaching out to provide for those who suffer in our human family. Hear this our prayer for your mercy’s sake. Amen.

Within Our Darkest Night sung a few times

“Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)
Jesus reveals his full humanity and his full divinity in his dying. He suffers like all human beings suffer. He doubts and cries out in pain. His suffering helps us remember that God is bigger than our doubt and stronger than our fear. God takes our pain, fear, doubt, and gives us the courage to change, to carry on, to face another day, to find hope even when all seems hopeless. The dice were tossed to divide up Jesus’ clothes, a callous act done as if he didn’t exist at all. (Toss the dice on the floor).

O Lord, I call for help by day, and all night long I cry out. O Lord, hear my prayer, for my soul is troubled; I am weak, cut off as if forsaken by all, forgotten and near the pit of death.
Lost and full of despair, I cry out, where are you oh, God? My hands are lifted up to you. Do you work wonders for the dead? Lord, do not hide your face from me. Darkness is my closest friend for I am all alone. Amen.

“I thirst.”
After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), "I am thirsty." A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a cloth full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. This wine soaked cloth broke open the hard hearts of those who stood by and did nothing, a small act of kindness within the brutality of murder and death. Every day people are killed in senseless deaths, guns which are meant to protect are turned into weapons of fear in an unjust world. Who has the courage to stand up to the violence and offer another way? (Place the cloth on the cross). 

Any act of kindness, no matter how small, is an act of God’s mercy and grace, an opportunity for God to shine forth, to reveal God’s self, to embrace another in compassion. 

O blessed Savior, whose lips were dry and whose throat was parched, grant us the water of life, that we who thirst after righteousness may find it quenched by your love and mercy, leading us to bring this same relief to others. Amen.

“It is finished.”
When Jesus had received the wine, he said, "It is finished." Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Sometimes it seems that death wins and then our grief is deep and our sorrow profound. There is no replacement for the loss of human touch and for the physical presence of the one we love. When it is finished we are left with a huge hole in our heart, which will never be repaired. Although the ragged edges may soften, the love that once was - and it’s gapping hole - will always remain.  Each day, in many ways, human beings try to kill God’s love in the world through acts of injustice, greed, and self-entitlement. 

O Lord Jesus Christ, you came as God’s Word to change the world, to teach us another way, to show us the fullness of God’s love, and in return human beings killed you and tried to kill God’s love, too. Enable us to live and love so faithfully that we become good news to the world, joining your witness, O Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.

“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
Oh God, into whose hands Jesus commended his spirit, grant that we may entrust our lives into your faithful hands of love. May we, with God’s help, transform the senseless death of Jesus into new life, and in his name, strive toward the day that no one dies from violence inflicted by other people. Amen.

 tape paper onto the cross with words that represent the ways we crucify Jesus in our world today - racism, sexism, LGBTQ, gun violence, etc., invite others to add their words

Meditation inspired by SJCPres

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Lent 4: Repentance and Prayer

The summer I was 18 years old I was entering my second year of college. My girlfriends and I had rented a house together. This was in southern Illinois, a beautiful place where the glaciers ended leaving high bluffs and many deep lakes. The weather in southern Illinois during the summer is hot and very humid and so my girlfriends and I would take every opportunity we could to go swimming. We'd find someone with a car to drive us out to the rural area where we'd park the car and hike back into one of the lakes. We'd walk through fields and woods and inevitably run into rattle snakes, who were sunning themselves on rocks. The snakes announced themselves with the rattle and then slithered off into hiding. Then we'd hike down out of the woods and onto the beach front of the lake. The lake was beautiful and very inviting on a hot day. However, it was also full of water moccasins. Yes, we went swimming in a lake with water moccasins. Granted, we threw rocks into the water to scare the snakes away, assuming they actually left. Then we swam for hours before hiking back out. Now, all these years later I look back on those days and wonder, "WHAT WERE WE THINKING?"

Whenever snakes appear in scripture, as we have today in the reading from Numbers and the Gospel of John, you know it's not a good thing. Snakes always represent that which is trying to take one away from God, to distract one from God's desire. In the reading from Numbers God has just released the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt and they're wandering around in the desert eating manna, which is sort of like pieces of Wonder Bread falling from the sky. The people have grown weary of this bland diet, they actually wish they were back in Egypt, back as slaves, and so they complain. God gets angry at their complaining and punishes them with snakes that bit and kill them. Then God realizes thats a bad idea. Moses and the people pray for change and God responds by having Moses build a bronze snake and post it on a pole. Then whenever a person is bitten by a snake they can look at the bronze snake and live.

What in the world does the bronze snake stand for? Has God actually required them to build an idol?Or, is it possible that in turning the snake to bronze and putting it on a pole God has taken all of the power out of the snake? God has taken away all of the power of the snake to distract people and turn them away from God.

In our Ash Wednesday service we are asked to observe a Holy Lent through self-examination and repentance by prayer, fasting, self-denial, and meditating on God's Holy Word. What does repentance mean? (seek forgiveness). Repentance literally means to turn around, or to turn back to God. So in Lent we are asked to look at our lives and how we are living, to consider how we could live healthier fuller lives though fasting from that which keeps us from God, through self-examination by looking at the broken relationships and seeking to make them better, through self-denial which means deny the parts of ourselves that keep us from God - that turn us away from God - and to open ourselves up in prayer to consider where and how God is present in our lives. Sometimes we don't see God until after the fact. But other times we are aware of God's presence in the moment.

How do we pray? In our Sunday morning services we might pray in the silence before the service beings. We pray through the incense that lifts our prayers up to God in smoke and scent. We pray in song through the Taize pieces we are singing, each one created from words of scripture. We pray  in words too, in the prayers of the people and in the prayer of the Eucharist.

Each of the Eucharistic prayers tells our salvation history story, what God is doing in and through the life of Jesus and in and through our lives, and how we are called to share the bread, to take and receive, and share in this holy meal.

We are coming to the end of Lent, just one more Sunday and then its Palm Sunday and Holy Week. In this season we are called to ponder how God is active in our lives and how we are making room in our lives to be more present to God. Soon it will be Easter, the confession will be gone, the quiet somber tone of the service will be gone. We'll be more celebratory, joyful. We'll rejoice in the life God has given us, in spring, in blooming flowers, in warmer sunnier days, in new life and hope. In turning and returning to God, loving as God asks of us, loving God, loving self, loving others.

This sermon was preached without a manuscript, this is what I recall saying for Lent 4B: Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21

Monday, February 26, 2018


As I mentioned in a previous post, I threw out my Ash Wednesday sermon and decided to preach extemporaneously. I've continued that practice on the first and second Sundays in Lent - praying, pondering, thinking about what the readings are saying to me and what I want to lift up in my reflection. It actually takes a lot of work and takes a lot out of me to do this. However, almost everyone is telling me how much they appreciate what I'm saying.

What am I saying? I don't actually remember a lot of what I say. I remember the broad themes but not the word for word.

Lent 1: I reflected on what it means to "observe a Holy Lent' through the lens of "fasting." I don't remember how I started the sermons, which were slightly different between 8am and 10am. I only remember that I considered the various ways one might fast: from food or drink, from being busy, from social media...and then also, from being angry, hostile, fasting is intended to empty one's self and make room for God. At 10am I spoke about the worship space: the incense lifting our prayers up to God (we NEVER use incense), the icon of the Pontecrator and what it means to pray with an icon, the rocks I have available in bowls outside the church which people can hold and put their worries and concerns in and then use to build a prayer cairn around the icon which is at the foot of the altar, the silence we've built into the service - how these are all tools to help open us up and make room for God, like a fast opens us up....

Lent 2: I reflected again on observing a holy Lent, this time through the Book of Common Prayer instruction to practice self-examination (through prayer, fasting, self-denial, and meditating on God's holy word).

I spoke about the ways one might practice "self-examination" - in preparation for the confession which comes first in the service during Lent, or as an "examen" in the way of St. Ignatius by taking some time each night to consider what has gone well in one's day and what has not and how one might strive for a better day tomorrow, or how one might practice self-examination by being attentive to what one is feeling and thinking throughout the day and instead of being reactive.

I spoke about the liturgical cycle offering Christians different ways into the life of Jesus and opportunities for us to live the life God call us to live - that Advent is a season of waiting for birth, Christmas is a season of celebrating the incarnation - that God chose to act in and through the life of Jesus and now, by virtue of the incarnation, chooses to act in and through us - that God is embodied in us, how Epiphany is the season that looks at Jesus' ordinary every day life and the Lent is the season that asks us to consider the broken places in our lives and how we can mend them, to consider what needs to "die" before there can be new life, to remember that Good Friday leads to Easter - and that Easter is where we are headed too, new life, spring, hope.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Rend Your Heart

"...Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
rend your hearts and not your clothing." (Joel 2:12-13)

On Ash Wednesday I offered four services. One was with four year olds from our preschool, kids who are not necessarily Christian or even religious. I aim to teach them a little bit about Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent. I begin by reading Judith Viorst's book, "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day." I get the kids to repeat the refrain with me every time it shows up in the story. Then we talk about days when every thing goes wrong and we feel bad, those days when we have to say "sorry" to someone or when we need someone to say "sorry" to us. I talked about how the ashes remind Christians of the importance of saying "I'm sorry" and trying to treat others kindly. I then invite the kids to touch the rough ashes which are the remnants of the palms from Palm Sunday, burned on Shrove Tuesday for the Ash Wednesday services. I don't actually use these rough ashes for the cross I apply on people, although I could if I shifted them and added a little chrism oil. But I do use the rough ashes as part of the Ash Wednesday decor. Then I offer to use the refined ashes to make the sign of the cross on a child's forehead or hand, if they wish. 

At the noon service I had a four year in the front row, so I threw out my "formal" sermon and did a repeat of the conversation I had with the preschoolers. I asked the four year old to help me and I expanded on the idea of saying we're sorry to address more adult concerns of mending broken relationships. 

Then I had a 2pm service at the local retirement facility and there I preached my formal sermon, the one that I written, and I used my text. It was rather boring if I say so myself. 

At the final service at 5:30pm I threw out the formal sermon and in the spur of the moment offered a reflection on this portion of Joel - rend your heart. Open your heart to God. Observe a holy Lent by opening our hearts to God. I told the story about being with the preschoolers and then with the four year old, sharing how the day had progressed from the simple delight of sharing ashes with kids to this final invitation to observe a holy Lent. To ponder what it means to rend open one's heart, to be present to God, and follow where God leads one in the course of this season.

It's been many years since I have preached without a text, although that was my preferred style for a long time. I found something very freeing to preach from the heart on Ash Wednesday. It was not an unprepared homily, it was actually a deeply prepared homily, in which I opened my heart and allowed what was inside to pour forth.

Saturday, February 03, 2018

Nothing is Impossible

Twelve years ago I suffered a life threatening illness. From a fractured tooth came an abscess, and then the abscess infected the bone in my jaw. The infection followed the nerve in my jaw, leaving me unable to feel most of my bottom lip and teeth. The infection then travelled up the side of my face. All of this developed over the course of one week, taking me from a dentist who thought I had TMJ to a hospital room and a team of doctors including a surgeon, an internist, and an infectious disease specialist. At first the hospital attempted to cure me with IV antibiotics. But 48 hours later, with the infection increasing, I was prepped and waiting for surgery. Following surgery to drain the infection I remained in the hospital another week and then, because the infection was in the bone, I went home with a pic line so I could apply iv antibiotics myself, four times a day for the next 9 weeks, until they were certain that no infection lingered in the bone.
As we hear in our Gospel this morning, Peter’s mother in law is sick with fever. Having a fever was no small matter in the ancient world – people knew that fever carried a high potential for death. Then, Jesus comes into the home and into her room, and heals her. Upon which she immediately rises from the bed and begins to serve her guests. “Being raised up” is how the Gospel describes this healing, using a verb, egerio, that is common in the Gospel of Mark. This verb suggests that a new strength has been imparted to an individual laid low by illness in order that they may rise up and take their place in the world.
Think about that – a new strength imparted to one laid low in order that they may rise up and take their place in the world. 
The same verb “To serve” is used in Mark to describe both the actions of the mother-in-law  AND the actions of Jesus – both are called to serve in the same way. Using that same verb for the woman and for Jesus indicates that serving is a call from God, to serve is holy. Apart from Jesus she is the first person who is described with this verb – making her the first disciple of Jesus, doing God’s work in the world by serving others. Only later is the verb used to describe the ministry of the other twelve disciples.
Following this story about the mother in law we find Jesus healing many others. We see Jesus in action, serving others, as an agent of God’s healing love in the world. It’s as if the door of the woman’s house, where she was healed, becomes the doorway where all in the city are healed.
However, it’s important to note that being healed and being cured are two different realities. Being cured is what the doctors did for me, cured me of an infection. Being cured comes from medical intervention or the body’s own natural immune system. Healing however is an expression of God’s power, grace, love, mercy, and compassion. Healing happens deeper inside, in the realm of one’s soul. Because healing comes from God, one might be healed even though one is not cured of the disease.
 One of the primary ways we access the healing that God offers is through prayer.  Jesus takes time out for stillness, to pray, to reflect and from it he finds his direction. 
One of the primary purposes of Sunday morning worship is to offer us this time for stillness and prayer, a time to be lifted up out of the concerns of our lives and be reminded of who we are and whose we are. Walter Bruggeman, a biblical scholar, has studied the Psalms and written extensively on them. The Psalms were the foundation of worship for the ancient Hebrew people, they were prayers sung during worship. Bruggeman speculates that worship for these people found its anchor in a theological understanding of God that began in Genesis 18, the story of the strangers who appear to Abraham and Sarah and tell them that Sarah will have a baby, even though she is old. It is a story that articulates the primary belief of these people, that nothing is impossible for God. That belief continues throughout the Hebrew Bible, from Judges to Jeremiah, to all the prophets, through most of the Psalms, and into the New Testament, from the Gospel stories that end in resurrection to Paul’s letters to the churches, and even in the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible. The primary tenant of faith, proclaimed throughout the ages is, "nothing is impossible for God.” 
Of course today we are practical, learned, modern people and this belief probably sounds naive to many of us. Or at the very least we may give it lip service but we don’t really actually believe it because there is no empirical evidence to support this belief. No tangible proof that God can do anything. I mean, look at the world we live, at the divisiveness, the anger, poverty, violence, the seeming decay of every institution, if God could do anything, why doesn’t God fix this mess? 
As Christians we learn that God intervenes in the world through us, through human beings. The incarnation, the birth of God’s Word made flesh, and the calling of people to be disciples of God, is the calling of each of us to partner with God to bring forth God’s kingdom in every age and every time. God is seeking to raise us up, to work with us and through us. 
How can we possibly know how God is trying to use us if we don’t take the time to be still and listen, to avail ourselves to God in prayer?
Next week Ken Shuman from Faithwalking will be us. He will lead the vestry retreat on Friday and Saturday, preach on Sunday, and lead an adult forum. Faithwalking is an ecumenical group of Christians who are working to be healed from the trauma’s of life, physical, spiritual, or emotional trauma,  the kind of trauma that hold one back and keep’s one from living a full authentic life, from being our true selves. In being healed, Faithwalking raises up individuals and communities to their true mission, their true calling from God - healed and raised and sent out to serve others, partnering with God to bring forth God’s love to every corner of world, living in the most authentic way. 

Because nothing is impossible with God. 

a reflection on Mark 1:29-38 for Epiphany 5B

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Risky Business of the Thin Place

A number of years ago I drove highway 12 in Utah, which is a loop from Bryce Canyon east to Escalante then north and finally west again where it reconnects to the main highway leading to Salt Lake City. This scenic drive takes one on a winding road up to the very peak of the Rocky Mountains. One section was a mere two lane road with sheer 9,000 foot drop offs on both sides, straight down the mountain sides. I had the impression that a strong wind could blow us right off the edge. It was a terrifying yet absolutely awe inspiring drive, leaving me with the sense that I had been in the presence of our creator, experiencing the beauty of this world as God intends it to be.

I felt something similar when I lived near Lake Michigan and could walk the beaches and experience the changes of seasons in that immense body of water, from the rich deep colors of summer to the muted tones of winter with snow and ice.

Spiritually speaking experiences of God breaking into our every day lives are described as a “thin” place, when the veil between this realm and the next is thin or lifted. 

Thin place experiences are always unexpected and may be totally missed if one is not paying attention. Some people yearn for thin place experiences, where the veil is lifted and one’s awareness of God’s presence is enhanced. Finding one’s self in a thin place is often the result of a journey through risky terrain. 

We live in a world today that often runs contrary to thin places, that is instead thick and wooly. 

Some say that society is deep in what Murray Bowen Family System’s Theory calls “Societal Regression.” Societal regression is always symptomatic of a society that is clamping down from chronic anxiety and fear of change. The last time society went through a major regression was in the Middle Ages. Then the angst and fear produced the crusades and instituted an idea that the world was flat and that nothing existed beyond a few known countries and continents. That regression was broken open when some explorers dared to break through the fear and set sail across the waters. Fear was replaced by a few brave souls who were willing to step out into the unknown with creative imagination. That ushered in the era of Renaissance and eventually the reformation of church and state. 

Bowen theory says that the United States began a downward slope of societal regression in the late 1950’s, post WWII. This regression is the result of chronic anxiety caused by wage stagnation, fewer job opportunities, increased population growth, fewer natural resources, and is influenced by changing social norms around racism and gender as well as the reality of larger global influences, all changes that are increasing fear and anxiety around change, and thus a reactive pull inward, in an effort to limit change. The cycle of regression lasts until the society can turn around and engage in brave, creative, inspired, risk taking endeavors.

In the mean time, one of the primary symptoms of anxious times is a tendency to criticize, to dissect and take apart what others say and do. In all forms of social media, on Sunday “news programs,”  in political arenas, and in other community relationships, arguments are polarizing; with people aligning at the ends, leaving little room for thoughtful discussions and the seeking of a middle ground.

How we speak to one another, and our capacity to listen and ponder the grace and the gift in the other, is crucial in order to move out of anxiety and into hope and grace. Our reading this morning from Deuteronomy addresses this by asking the question “How does one know a prophet is from God?” “Who speaks for God?
Likewise Paul, in his first letter to the church in Corinth says we know that "all of us possess knowledge…(however) knowledge puffs up, but love builds up… Prophets speaking the word of God are always pointing the way toward love and justice as  God proclaims it all are loved, all are valued.

In December Bishop Gibbs spoke to us in an adult forum regarding what it means to be Episcopalian in the world today. He also offered us a gift, the potential to have another Curate for three years, for which he would pay half of the curate’s package if we can pay the other half. 

Shortly after the Bishop made this offer we went into Christmas break, with some people leaving town and others preparing for the many upcoming services we were hosting, including Lessons and Carols, Christmas, the Martin Luther King interfaith service, and today’s annual meeting. In the weeks since the Bishop was here we created and passed a budget for 2018. We’ve all been hard at work tending to year end and new year items that need to be addressed in a timely manner. We have not had time to thoughtfully consider what the Bishop offered us. 

However the five members of the Vestry who will continue on next year, and I, were able to begin a conversation about this when we met for dinner last Wednesday night. With a little intentionality we managed a conversation that was considered, thoughtful, and respectful of the Bishop’s offer, of the differing views we each hold, and of the views that others have already shared on this idea. Some have raised valid points about money while others have, in equally valid ways, have called us to pay attention to God’s call to us. 

I believe, and some members of the Vestry said as much, that beginning this conversation from our most anxiety-filled place, which right now is money and finances, is not the place to begin. I believe this even as we are keenly aware of and respect the financial concern and recognize its validity. 

The vestry and I, having heard a number of viewpoints on the matter, are entering into a time of prayer, listening, and discerning where God is present and how God is calling us. In the next weeks and months the Vestry will invite opportunities for deeper and wider community listening, reflection, discerning. This is not a time to criticize one another, nor to speak derisively of this idea, other ideas, of the bishop nor of one another. We’re aiming for gracious listening, for gratitude and kindness, for creativity and imagination, and regardless of where we finally end up, that this may lead us all into a thin place, into the holy and sacredness of God’s desire and purpose for us, now, in this time and place.

I pray that we can see with our spiritual eyes, gazing through the veil to embrace the vision of ourselves that God sees in us, and then have the courage and inspiration to follow God, being willing to be risk takers, however that is revealed to us…and letting love build us up instead of knowledge puffing us up. 

Thus, with love and through love, of God and one another, let us see what good can come out of us.

a reflection on 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Discipleship: becoming one's true self

My seminary advisor was a renowned New Testament scholar, one of his protege students turned out to be Sarge Thomas' daughter, Amy, who ...