Saturday, March 25, 2017

Encounter Love

On a beautiful Sunday morning, in an old white stucco church with red doors and antique wood pews, a young couple baptized their first baby, a little boy.  Dan and I, and our two small children were present. I was in seminary at the time and our parish priest was a semi-retired gentle old man who had moved to the area because his wife took a prestigious position as the head chaplain at a local retirement community. Although I was only beginning to learn about liturgy and the sacraments, I was surprised when the priest eliminated portions of the baptism service, specifically all references to sin as it pertained to the infant being baptized. Later when I asked the priest about this he said that the couple could not imagine their precious new born baby being sinful and they didn’t want the idea of evil to be associated with the baptism. I understood that, newborn babies being sweet, innocent, and a gift of joy and delight. Apparently, this has had a lasting impact on me because now when I offer baptismal preparation for families I encourage us to have a conversation about the ways that evil and sin manifest in our lives and the world around us. I want every person who stands at the font to have their own understanding of what they are renouncing as sinful and evil and what they are affirming as good and holy. To a person this is both the most significant conversation we have and the most challenging because sin and evil are difficult subject matters. But not talking about them nor gaining insight into what one thinks about them isn’t helpful, either. Sin is complex and nuanced, and pertains to the disparity of hurting relationships one has with one’s self, with other people, and even the impact of one’s life on the global community through acts that affect racism, economic conditions, or the environment. The confession we pray each Sunday speaks about sins known and unknown and our responsibility to become aware of who we are, what we do, and how one life impacts another. Growing one’s ability to speak about sin and recognize its role in the world is a process of deepening one’s spiritual life and growing a more mature faith. 

In this season of Lent we have been focusing on the Lenten spiritual disciplines that support Christians in their faith formation, in recognizing God’s presence in one’s life by considering what sin is and how one can live a good and holy life. These spiritual disciplines are listed for us in the Ash Wednesday service: prayer, self-examination, repentance, fasting, and reading scripture. So far we’ve talked about prayer and some of the ways one can engage in prayerful activity from silent prayer, or reading, writing, or taking walks in nature, with the focus on making room for God to be present in one’s life. 

We’ve talked about self-examination as a spiritual discipline that was developed by St. Ignatius in his spiritual exercises. Self-examination is a daily exercise of reviewing one’s life and making note of what has gone well that day, what one has found challenging, working to make amends and heal broken relationships, finding gratitude in some aspect of the day, and looking forward to tomorrow.

Fasting has a long history in religious traditions. Sometimes one fasts from a particular food or beverage. Perhaps one fasts from an activity, like staying off of Facebook for the season of Lent. Some choose to fast from busyness. Busyness is a real phenomenon in our society. By staying really busy one does not have time to focus on building relationships or mending challenging relationships, one is simply too busy to do this deeper work, too busy to even make a little time for God and the formation of a spiritual life. Fasting from busyness provides an opportunity to enhance the quality of one’s spiritual life.

Today we are reflecting on the spiritual discipline of repentance. Repentance literally means turning around. As a Christian discipline it is the act of turn toward God or returning to God when one has strayed. It builds on the idea that sin is, essentially, broken relationship in all its forms - broken with God, broken with self, and broken with others. Relationships are broken, for example, when one fails to nurture them, pulls away or distances one’s self from another, chooses to not work through challenges, diminishes one’s self or another, shames or blames self or another person, among other ways that relationships might be broken. Repentance is the act of recognizing one’s broken state in light of God’s desire for all people to live in healthy, mature relationships, loving God, self, and others, and working to make amends.

The Gospel reading this morning challenges the listener; what is really going on in this story? Some people in the story think that the man’s blindness is the result of sin. In the ancient world  illness was thought to be the consequence of sin. Jesus refutes this idea, sin was not the cause of blindness. Notice that the blind man doesn’t ask Jesus for anything, and yet Jesus heals him. This is a story about what happens when one encounters the love of God. Encountering God’s love in human flesh causes a radical transformation, a change in one’s very being. Whether the act of encountering God’s love causes a literal physical healing or whether it causes a spiritual healing, the end result is similar, one is able to see in a new way. 

The Christian disciplines that Ash Wednesday invites us to observe intend to open one’s eyes and help one see in a new way. Lent provides us with a season to focus on how one is living one’s life and growing in faith. Next Sunday members of the Spirituality Commission will offer an adult forum, a sampling of some spiritual practices including: walking the labyrinth, centering prayer, and chanting. You’ll have the opportunity to learn about each of them and then try one of them. The Commission will repeat this forum several times over the spring so you will have the opportunity to try more than one, or to keep working on the one you like. 

 Like the man born blind who encounters Jesus and has his eyes opened, such is the potential for any one who takes on the practice of developing one’s faith. With opened eyes one can better see the broken and the whole places in one’s life and in the world. Practicing the spiritual disciplines of our Christian faith holds the potential that one might develop the capacity and the maturity to navigate one’s life in fuller, deeper, more complex and meaningful ways, one that informs and develops insight and wisdom, compassion and grace, and the ability to love a little more like God loves. But the most compelling potential of practicing the Christian disciplines is the idea that one might be healed of that which blinds one to one’s self and to others, and then, with new sight, one is sent out into the world with eyes wide open, to follow Jesus, feeding people in mind, body, and spirit.

a reflection for Lent 4A: John 9:1-41

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Speaking one's mind, telling one's heart, becoming living water

I had a sixteen year hiatus from church between the years I was fifteen and thirty-one. In my late twenties, when I began to think about my spiritual life and contemplated going to church I was hesitant, fearful. Like most fears my fear was not rational. I was afraid that going to church would mean that I would lose myself. Growing up I was always the obedient daughter who excelled at life, but I never voiced my own opinions. I lost my self in what others wanted me to be and do. The church of my childhood reinforced that role for girls and daughters and I was a good little girl. But when my family left the church and stopped practicing Christianity, I had the opportunity to rethink everything and figure out who I was and what I wanted. So finding out as a 28 year old that I was being pulled back into church life was powerful and terrifying. But my desire to return was two-fold: I wanted a community where I could belong with a group of people who had similar life experiences and hopes and a place where I could ask questions about God and grow a more mature spirituality.
Figuring out how to be a Christian in the world today is challenging because there are many ways to be a Christian, across a wide swath of denominations, values and beliefs. In this season of Lent we have been pondering who we are as a faith community, how we can grow and deepen the spiritual lives of individuals, and how we can expand our identity as a community centered church that feeds people in mind, body, and spirit to make an impact on the world around us. We have been exploring this through our Sunday morning scripture readings, through the five disciplines that help us observe a Holy Lent as defined in the Book of Common Prayer, and through our newly forming Spirituality Commission. 
In each of the Sunday morning sermons I have taken one of the five Lenten disciplines: prayer, self-examination, reading scripture, repentance, and fasting, and connected it to the readings, its history in the Christian tradition, and how it might enhance one’s spirituality. So far I’ve talked about prayer and self examination. Today I’m reflecting on fasting. Fasting is an ancient practice found in many faith traditions. For Christians the point of fasting is to help one focus on God. Whenever one craves what one has given up one is to turn one’s attention to God through prayer and self-examination. When we think about fasting we usually think about not eating some food, like giving up chocolate for Lent. 
One can also fast from something one does. For example, I know a number of people who are fasting from Facebook for Lent. So instead of going on one’s computer and checking out Facebook one spends time in prayer instead. 
I said on Ash Wednesday that my Lenten discipline was going to be a fast from false busyness. I was going to slow down and be more present to my life. I thought of this because of several articles I’ve read recently which say that people have a tendency to stay really busy as a way of avoiding their lives - avoiding challenges in a marriage or parenting - really busy to avoid working on deepening relationships. Or being really busy because just the act of being busy makes one feel important and useful. I’m fasting from that kind of busyness and taking time to look at my life and my relationships. I’m taking time to focus on prayer and self-examination and God’s presence in my life. 
Which is exactly what happens in our scripture reading this morning. Both Jesus and this woman at the well stop long enough to become vulnerable with one another which leads them to take a good hard look at their lives and come to a deeper understanding of self. Who Jesus is and who this woman is.  
It seems that her life did not turn out as she had hoped. As a woman in that day and time she had no choice of who her husband was. And, if one husband died a brother or another male family member of that husband was obligated to take her as his wife. Sometimes no one would do that and the woman was abandoned, left to starve and die. 
This is a story about a woman who has stood up to the challenges in her life and survived. Her ability to enter into a debate with Jesus speaks to her strength. Unlike Nicodemus in the Gospel story from last week who came to Jesus in darkness,  she appears in the light of day. This points to her willingness to be out in the open, honest about who she is, willing to be vulnerable and yet courageous, feeling strength in her sense of self. 
 Brene Brown writes that embracing our vulnerability is risky and takes courage. “The root of the word courage is cor—the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage had a very different definition than it does today. Courage originally meant ‘To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.”’
And so this woman and Jesus have a courageous heart to heart conversation. By the way, this is the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in the Bible. 
In the context of this profound conversation three things happen. 1. Jesus has travelled to Samaria, a land despised by the Hebrew people and with whom the Hebrews are in constant conflict. So, Jesus moves outside of his comfort zone, taking a risk, being vulnerable, and another example of how Jesus often went to the people instead of expecting them to come to him; 2. Jesus is the one who is thirsty, yearning for a cup of water, but he has no means of giving himself that water. This woman can give him a cup of water and she does. Jesus understands that his willingness to be vulnerable creates the opportunity for a deeper relationship to form with this woman, and with others 3. Jesus breaks with the male/female protocol and speaks with her and she with him. Each becomes vulnerable to the other and they end up seeing one another, and themselves, with more depth, understanding, and compassion, which changes each of them forever.  
Another important detail of this story is that the woman leaves her water jar at the well when she runs off to tell the townspeople about her encounter with Jesus. She can fast from that burden because she has a new purpose. Now she is the vessel of living water, she is the bearer of God’s love. Being heard and seen by Jesus she is able to authentically carry within her the fullness of her story, knowing that she is loved for being who she is. She becomes both vulnerable and strong, willing to share this love with the townspeople.
In a similar way, the purpose of our mission to feed people in mind, body, and spirit, is to deepen our relationships with other people through joining them at the well of life, listening deeply, and sharing expansively of our selves, becoming God’s living water to our neighbors far and near. 

A reflection on John 4:5-42 for Lent 3A

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Just, Humane, a spiritual examen of self

When Dan and I were first married he worked in the computer industry designing and selling systems, from servers to computers to software, from installation to training, to law schools, universities, and graphic artists, primarily using Apple products. Beginning in the 1980’s including the twenty-two years that Dan worked in that industry, I’ve been inundated with technology. We had one of the very first Apple desktop computers. I was in seminary in the mid 1990’s when I first started using the internet, on a dial-up access, to do research for papers. I’ve built websites and Facebook pages and blogs for myself and churches I've worked for, including this church, and as well as for the many social justice groups I work with. Soon my son will graduate from Eastern with a degree in internet security, which is primarily about preventing hacking but also considers internet law and ethics. Dan, Peter, and I have lively conversations about all of this, although my input is primarily on the moral and ethical end, not the technical. So, I was intrigued by a recent interview (January 12, 2017) with Krista Tippet and Anil Dash for “On Being.” Anil Dash is a technologist, exploring the unprecedented power, the dangerous learning curves, and the humane potential of technology today. His Twitter profile says he is “Trying to make tech a little bit more humane and ethical.”

Dash spoke about the moral quandary of the industry of technology and its influence on civic behavior though social media.Tippet’s interview with Dash, who is from India, covered the landscape from “fake news to Facebook to Uber to cell phones.” He spoke about social media not wanting to judge what people write and say on the one hand and on the other creating apps that influence how people understand their own behavior with the idea of creating more responsible, kinder, healthier people. The interview focused on the need for there to be an intentional component to technology and social media that considers what is ethical and humane. Tippet said, this technology is in its infancy, and we are the adults in the room. How we develop it and use it requires us to be intelligent, mature, just, ethical, and humane. 

The Ash Wednesday liturgy invited us to observe a Holy Lent by taking on five practices that will deepen one’s faith: prayer, self-examination, fasting, reading scripture, and repentance.  One might consider these spiritual practices to develop the capacity to be just and humane. Last week we explored the spiritual practice of prayer grounded in our reading from Matthew that portrayed the impact of prayer on Jesus’ life and his ability to stay focused on his beliefs and values and not succumb to temptation. 

Today’s reading from the Gospel of John uses birth as a metaphor to convey the messy and painful challenges of life and faith. Jesus and Nicodemus are talking about discipleship and the moral quandary of being both just and human. This is the invitation to and the point of self-examination. By self-examination I mean taking time every day to review what one has said and done. This practice is best developed in the Ignatian Exercises. St. Ignatius lived in the 16th century in Spain and is credited with developing the practice of spiritual direction, wherein a person journeys with a spiritual guide to help one develop one’s awareness of God’s presence. Every person going through the ordination process is required to have a spiritual director, and I am a trained spiritual director and have practiced the Ignatian exercises, of which the daily examen is one part. Practicing self-examination one:

1. Becomes aware of God’s presence.
2. Reviews the day with gratitude. 
3. Pays attention to one’s emotions.
4. Chooses one feature of the day and prays from it.
5. Looks toward tomorrow.

The purpose of developing a practice of self-examination is to deepen one’s awareness of one’s self, one’s relationship with God, and one’s relationship with other people by becoming more aware of the broken and hurting places in one’s life and working to make amends and heal them.

When Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus he is talking about discipleship and rebirth - which is exactly what we are looking at too - how are we growing our relationship with God and with our neighbors, which is discipleship, and how are we going to take risks in these relationships with the hope of revitalizing, rebirthing this church. For example, every time I update or post something on our Facebook page or website, I am thinking about what it says about who we are. Because most people find a church from social media sites, how we portray who we are is crucial, and the burden always falls along the lines of conveying our values and beliefs, and in particular today, what it means to be humane and just, and how through the mission of this church one might find purpose in one’s life.

Nicodemus follows Jesus from afar, approaches Jesus in the darkness of night. It’s not that Nicodemus’ faith is faulty, even though it is secreted away in darkness, it’s that its too small, incomplete, immature, like a fetus in its mother’s womb. Darkness is the beginning of life, it is how life and light are born. But one is required to labor through darkness to be birthed into light. This means taking risks to move out of an insular space and into the world outside.

What kinds of risks will we take to move this church into its next 150 years? What kinds of risks will grow discipleship and bring about new birth? To understand how we are to do this will require, at the very least, self-examination and prayer. But self-examination and prayer must lead to action, the labor of rebirth. 

Which is where Nicodemus gets stuck. He can’t manage the anxiety of taking action so he moves back into the safety of darkness. The diocesan workshop, “Requiem or Renaissance” will challenge us along these lines. Likewise, as we learned in the diocesan Diversity and Inclusivity training, there is work to be done to reconcile and heal relationships that have been affected by racism, sexism, genderism, homophobia, and xenophobia - because all of these “isms” are embedded in our institutions, including the church. Therefore they are deeply rooted in us too, often unconscious in our thoughts and actions, requiring us to do self-examination and become aware of how words and actions affect our relationships, how they may or may not be just and humane.  As we do our self-examination, as we explore discipleship and our relationship with God, our neighbors, and one another, our challenge is to not get stuck in the process but to become creative risk takers. Although we don’t hear about it, Nicodemus must struggle with this, with his faith, with justice and his place in humanity, because at the end of the Gospel he comes out into the light and lives his faith in a new way. Likewise, we are to consider who we are and how we are telling our story of faith. Darkness is forming us and if we embrace the process and work with it, then it will birth us into new life, as a more humane and just community that truly and deeply feeds people in mind, body, and spirit.

a reflection John 3:1-17 for Lent 2A

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Holy Habits

When my children were little we had a daily habit of praying two prayers. One was the prayer before meals:

Bless us oh Lord and these thy gifts which are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord. Amen. 

The second one I prayed with each child at bedtime. It comes from the New Zealand Prayerbook: 

Dear God, Thank you for today. I am sorry if I have been unkind to anyone. Help us to forgive each other. Thank you for my family and friends. Please be with me tonight. Amen. 

The bedtime prayer in particular became an opportunity for me to talk with my children about our day, what had gone well, to reflect on occasions to forgive and be forgiven, to consider how we responded to life’s challenges, and how we might respond better the next time. 

As an adult my preferred way of praying is in silence. I spend 30 minutes every day in silent prayer. I give myself over to that liminal space and open myself to the possibility that God may speak into my life. I learned how to pray this way in the 1970’s when meditation was the cool thing to do. For many years I meditated because it made me feel calmer by settling my autonomic nervous system, that part of my brain that regulates breathing, heart rate, and what’s known as the “fight or flight” response. Fight or flight is the automatic trigger that surfaces when one feels threatened. However because its automatic and reactive, its done without thought. Meditating gives one access to those automatic responses deep inside and even some degree of control over them, slowing one’s breathing and heart rate, calming one’s emotional reactivity, and building a reserve so that in truly anxious moments one can be a little less automatic. 

Over the years I’ve transitioned from experiencing this silence as meditation to understanding it as prayer. Teresa of Avila, a 16th century saint advocated for this kind of prayer. She found using words to be distracting and was drawn to silence. Silent prayer is also known as contemplative prayer. Prayer because in the silence one opens one’s self to God and contemplative because it offers a space into which God may speak. 

Not everyone is like Teresa of Avila, able to sit in silence while seeking God. Many people need to do something that engages their mind and body in a more conscious way. Some of us find that we need to walk outside in nature, or listen to music. Some people journal, writing down the random thoughts floating in their head, which can also lead to recognizing where God is active in one’s life.

The point of prayer is that one takes time to slow down and invite God to be present in one’s life. Yes, God comes, bidden or unbidden. However, one is more likely to recognize God when one has made room for God’s presence through prayer. Inviting God into one’s life is an opportunity for one to be transformed, healed from the brokenness of life, restored, and more at peace. 

Lent is a season to focus, intentionally, on the broken places of our lives and to work to repair them, to say we’re sorry, to change our behavior, to turn and return to a right relationship with God, with others, and with ourselves. Forty days is long enough for this intentional focus on our behavior to establish some long lasting changes in what we do habitually.
Changing habits is a process. Charles Durhigg wrote about this process in his book, “Habits,” saying this: “Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they’re not. They’re habits…..At one point, we all consciously decided how much to eat and what to focus on when we got to the office, how often to have a drink or when to go for a jog. Then we stopped making a choice, and the behavior became automatic. It’s a natural consequence of our neurology. And by understanding how it happens, you can rebuild those patterns in whichever way you choose.”
The key to changing habits, Charles Durhigg states, is in finding the trigger, particularly the trigger that elicits pleasure in that habit. 
On Ash Wednesday we were invited to observe a Holy Lent by engaging in five spiritual disciplines: prayer, self-examination, fasting, reading scripture, and repentance. Each of these are helpful in understanding the impact of sin in one’s life. These are spiritual practices that can become a discipline, a habit, if one engages in them during the forty days of Lent. These disciplines invite us to contemplate our bad habits, our “sins.”
Each of the scripture readings this morning considers the nature of sin. Genesis reveals the moral dilemma of sin as broken relationship in all its forms: broken with God, broken with other people, and even broken with one’s self. Broken because of anger, denial, lack of self accountability, blame and shame. The point of the Genesis story is that through our brokenness our eyes are opened, we become vulnerable, but as a result we have opportunities to learn, grow, and mature.
In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus is tempted to sin but he does not fall for the temptations. He stays focused on what he values and believes, stays focused on his love of God, love of self, and love of others which provides him with the strength, stamina, and wisdom to not succumb to the temptations. 
The disciplines that are highlighted in Lent become an opportunity to change the brokenness into healing, to create new habits, new patterns of behavior, and practice them through the season until they become a part of who we are, capable of holding us up when we might otherwise fall. 
I focused today on the spiritual disciple of prayer because prayer is a good place to start. Prayer is practiced both individually and in corporate worship on Sunday morning. In worship prayer can be in silence, through the spoken word, or with music either instrumental or sung.
Our Lenten worship uses Taize for the service music. Taize music was written by a faith community in France, using words from scripture set to simple, easy to sing tunes. The simple words and tune and the repetition of the song, sung over and over, enables Taize to take on a meditative quality, to be sung prayer. The entire Lenten service is intended to offer us an opportunity to slow down, to enter into a liminal space for prayer, self-examination, repentance, and reflection on scripture, allowing us a time to fast from the busyness of life in order to be present to God. 

May this be a season of making holy habits that last a lifetime.

a reflection on the readings for Lent 1A:  Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11

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