A Response to Spiritual Malaise

I’m tired. 

 

I’m tired of the onslaught of violence in the world: guns and mass murders; abuse of people of color; abuse of women; abuse of children; abuse of money; and on top of all of it, the seemingly endless hypocrisy. I’m tired of being in a rut and feeling stuck. I’m tired of the world as it is and yearn for what the world could be. I’m tired of feeling like I try, but I am just spinning my wheels, like tires stuck in mud. I use to spend the month of November and the days leading up to Thanksgiving thinking about gratitude and those things that I could be thankful for in life. And, although there are things that I am truly, deeply grateful for, the effort to list them feels false and trite to be as if I were trying to hide my head in the sand and pretend that all is well. Last week I asked us to consider the state of our souls. If I really look deeply, I can only say, my soul is agitated because I want to make a difference in the world, I want the world to be a less agitating place. 

 

This week in the Gospel of Matthew we have come to the third in a series of difficult parables. Two weeks ago we had the story about a wicked servant who mistreats other servants, then last week, the story about the ten maidens and what happens to those who are unprepared, and today a story about the workers and a corrupt boss. One worker turns his five “talents” into ten, the other turns his two talents into four, and the third who buried his one talent and returns only the one, saying; “Hey boss, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” 

 

So, let’s take another look at the third worker. He knows his boss is wicked, evil, and greedy, and he calls him on it. Whereas the first two did exactly what was expected of them without question, the third person calls it like it is, has the courage to speak up against the corruption. This third person shows courage, integrity, and perhaps a reasonable sense of fear because he knows that he will be ostracized for speaking up and telling the truth. 

 

The deeper challenge of this parable is played out in the news today. It’s almost mind boggling how many people, who are tired of burying the injustices of their lives, are speaking up. Now people are finding the courage to speak out against racism, sexual exploitation, and gun violence, people speaking out against violence and injustice in all its forms. Every day. More people. It begs the questions, What is happening? Who are we? and What are we supposed to do? 

 

As Episcopalians the baptismal covenant affords us clear guidelines on who we are and how we are to stand for justice.  In fact next week we will have a baptism and we will renew our baptismal vows. These vows ground us, reminding us how we are to live as people of faith, not passively, but courageously. The baptismal covenant reminds us that we are:

 

To persevere in resisting evil, and whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord. To  proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. To seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving one’s neighbor as  one’s self. To strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. In other words, we are supposed to be the third worker. But the baptismal covenant also reminds us that we are not alone because to each of these questions the response is: “I will with God’s help.” 

 

Whenever I am feeling particularly exhausted I run on the treadmill. It’s a paradox that cardio exercise actually gives me more energy, but it does. It also relieves stress. Likewise when I am feeling spiritually exhausted I have to do spiritual cardio – I have to take more time for prayer and silence. I have to open myself up to God and trust that God will help. 

I fear there is no quick remedy for the tiredness that I feel. There is only the steady determination that prayer and action will move me into a new place. 

So perhaps, if you feeling the kind of malaise that I am feeling, there are some things one can do this week to pray and act: 

 

Come and support the Holiday Market this afternoon. The Holiday Market began 7 years ago, during the economic slump, as a way to support local artists, as a response to the shop small initiative, and as a response to the crazy rush of holiday shopping and consumerism that builds from Thanksgiving into Christmas. Our mission to feed people in mind, body, and spirit, is revealed through sharing our building with absolutely nothing gained for ourselves but the opportunity to be gracious and hospitable. So come and greet people who walk into our building and tell them about Christ Church – that the Holiday Market is our gift to artists and one way that we are making a difference in the world, enabling local artists to share their talent. Start your Christmas shopping by supporting these artists. Come to the Evensong and worship with a traditional night prayer set to music. Come and support Chapel Day’s bake sale. Come and support the musicians and enjoy a glass of wine while listening to some fine music. Share this with your friends and invite them to come too.

 

Come and participate in the Pray/Fast/Act this Tuesday night, which will be a combined initiative with the Centering Prayer group and our monthly invitation to participate in the Presiding Bishop’s call for us to Pray, Fast, and then act for justice, especially environmental justice. Come and take time in silence, listening to God, sharing a simple meal, and pondering ways we can be better stewards of the earth. Invite others who are looking for ways to respond to their anxiety and who want to make a difference in the world. 

 

Sign up to help with the Parents Night Out for Chapel Day on Saturday night, Dec. 2. Spend some time with the children of our preschool and get to know the parents. Help them experience our gratitude that they are here and that we hope that their experience of Christ Church is good.

 

Be an ambassador for this church every where you go. Share that we are creative and caring, working to do our part to restore some sense of justice in the world. Talk about Blessings in a Backpack, the food pantry, warm clothes for men, Creating Hope International, the League of Women Voters, AA, martial arts and stretching, the community garden, the labyrinth and pet memorial garden, and the many ways we share and care and strive to make a difference through prayer and action.


Maybe a little time on the spiritual treadmill will do the trick, unsticking what’s stuck, relieving the sense of malaise, and reinvigorating a tired soul. 

A reflection on the Gospel of Matthew (25:14-30) in Proper 28A

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Sitting on the Spiritual Porch

I have a good friend who is always late for everything. Whenever my friend and I schedule a date to get together I plan to arrive 15 minutes to a half hour later because inevitably she will call and say she’s just leaving.

At first brush, the Gospel story of the bridesmaids seems very critical of those who tend to be late. Unusually harsh because the story says that none of them knows the day or the hour that the bridegroom will come. However, if you don’t know the day and the hour how are you supposed to know when to be ready? Under those conditions even the most conscientious of us could be late and unprepared.

Perhaps the reading is not about promptness at all, but about what it means to be  awake, attentive, preparing? Specifically, in our context, what if it is speaking of spiritual preparedness?

Jim Wallis, one of the founders of the Sojourners community, tells a story about a colleague who was living in a village in Central America. She worked in a community that was marginalized in all kinds of ways. She poured herself into her work for social justice, laboring with great might to bring change to this village. One day, some of the people of the village came to her, asking her why she worked so hard, why she didn’t join them in their fiestas or sit with them on their porches in the evening.

“There’s too much work to do!” the laboring woman replied. “I don’t have enough time.”

“Oh,” the people of the village said. “You’re one of those.”

“One of who?” the woman asked.

“You are one of those,” they responded, “who come to us and work and work and work. Soon you will grow tired, and you will leave. The ones who stay,” they said, “are the ones who sit with us on our porches in the evening and who come to our fiestas.”

For me this story begs the question: Am I working hard, exhausting myself in the name of God, but ironically leaving no time or energy to just be present to God? Do I think that working hard is enough? Or is it actually more effective to listen for God’s direction and then go and do?

The Gospel reading points me to look at is how I spend my time and what occupies my inner thought process – in particular those things that draw me closer to God and those things that pull me away from God. Essentially asking me, above all, to make time for God.

Nothing is more important than our relationship with God, with self and with others. And the only way to have a healthy relationship with God, with self, and with others is to nurture those relationships. To rest on our spiritual porches and commune with God.

So let’s take a moment and rest on a spiritual porch with God. Get as comfortable in your pew as you are able. You may want to close your eyes so you can pay attention to what’s going on inside of you. Take some deep breaths, right into your belly, and breath out. Can you feel yourself quieting down a little? Now pay attention to how you feel inside, and your thoughts. Consider the state of your soul. Are you at peace? Or are you restless? Are you agitated or calm? Do you feel at peace with your self? Do you feel at peace with your family, friends, and neighbors? If so, give thanks to God for this time of peace in your life. If not, ask God to guide you into the steps it will take to bring you to a place of peace, whether that means letting go of something, or forgiving some one, or making a change in yourself. Now ask God what God hopes for you, what is God’s best idea for you and how you live your life?

When you are ready, open your eyes.

I’m not going to ask you share your experience but I hope it was something you appreciated. Making a little time for God can be rewarding in many ways, sometimes long after we’ve made the time.

There is an ancient Jewish legend about two men walking through the Red Sea, which God had parted in order to aid the exodus of the Jewish people. Imagine that walk, the high walls of water held back by a mysterious and awesome force so a group of people can follow God to freedom. Now imagine two men named Ruben and Simon who were part of that group, but instead of looking up and seeing the glory of God, they looked to the ground and saw mud.

“This is terrible,” said Ruben, “There’s mud all over the place.”

“Disgusting” said Simon, “I’m in muck up to my ankles!”

“You know what?” replied Ruben, “When we were slaves in Egypt we had to make bricks out of mud just like this.”

“Yeah,” said Simon, “There is no difference between being a slave in Egypt and being free here.”

And so it went, Ruben and Simon complaining the entire way across the bottom of the Red Sea. For them there was no miracle, only mud. Their eyes, heart, mind, and spirit were closed to the possibility of miracle, grace, and God, even though they walked right through it all.

A reminder that we do not see things as they are, we see things as we are….

Taking time to focus on God is the only path toward living a balanced, holistic, fully integrated and authentic life of faith. But how does one do this? In a world in which many people are increasingly busier than ever, how does one find time to grow one’s faith and relationship with God?

A regular process of preparing and taking the time to be present with God can open one’s heart to the peace of Christ. With the peace of Christ in one’s heart, one’s spiritual lamps become filled with the kind of holy oil made up of  God’s love igniting the light within and the capacity to shine out into the world. Shining out to be God’s hands and heart in the world. Shining out to feed people in mind, body, and spirit.

 

A reflection on the reading from Matthew 25:1-13, for Proper 27A

One Degree of Difference

I did this exercise with us a few years ago, but I want to do it again. How many of you have your cell phones on you? If your cell phone has a camera, take out your cell phone and take a picture of your self. If you don’t have smart phone close your eyes and imagine seeing yourself in your mind’s eye.

Now look at the picture and notice what your see. Notice the color of your eyes and their shape. Notice the shape of your face and your skin tone. What are your thoughts as you do this?

Now looking at your face imagine that the face you are looking at is the face of God. It’s your face – but it’s also God’s face.

Does that change the image you see? Are you able to see that the image in the selfie is you and is also an image of God? God has your eye color, your skin tone, and the same shaped face as you.

God looks like each one of us and all of us at the same time. God reveals God’s self in and through every human being. God is black and brown, pink, and white, olive toned, and all shades of skin color. God has blue eyes, brown eyes, black eyes, gray eyes, green eyes, and every shade of eye color. God has all hair color and all textures.

At the same time God has none of our human characteristics – because God is neither limited nor confined by human constructs – God made us in God’s image – thus God is like all of us – but God is also more, much more than all of us.

The identifying characteristic that made the Hebrews different from any other faith is the reality that God was with them, where ever they went, God went with them. As Christians we’ve come to know God as revealed in the person of Jesus. God with us gives us the idea that we can see and know God in human form.

Now take a look at the person sitting near you. Yes, this will feel a little uncomfortable. But try it anyway. As you look at a person sitting near you, say out loud, “You are the face of God. In you I see Jesus.”

Just sit with that for a moment. “You are the face of God, in you I see Jesus.” Each one of us is the face of God, in us God’s love made manifest in Jesus is revealed to the world.

So looking again at your image in the selfie – think about this, that God is looking back at you. What does God see?

God sees a beloved human being. God sees a person that God loves deeply. God looks at you tenderly and with compassion, holding all your fears and worries with love. God looks at you and says, you are my most precious creation, with you I am well pleased.

God does the same thing with our church. God looks at us, with all our flaws, and says, Christ Church in Dearborn, is my most precious creation. God does this for every church, every synagogue, mosque, and house of worship. God loves God’s creation.

At Christ Church we have many ways of expressing God’s presence in and through us and out into the world around us. As a community centered church that feeds people in mind, body, and spirit, we reveal the face of God, the love of Christ, to those who come into our building for the food pantry, for blessings in a backpack, to support the work of Creating Hope International and its initiative to educate women in Afghanistan, to the League of Women Voters and their work to develop informed voters, to dance classes, martial arts, stretching, voice lessons, Chapel Day preschool, AA meetings, even to the postal carriers who come here every day for a brief respite and a bathroom break.

These are just a few of the ways that we reveal God’s love made manifest in Jesus, God’s love in us, through the mission and ministries of this church. One could say that revealing God’s love is a Christian practice, a habit, that gets formed in one’s self  when one comes to church and works on growing into a mature Christian with an active faith.

Christian practices help us form habits of faith which then inform how we live. Developing habits of faith is a process, one that we develop by being intentional and consistent, by literally practicing the practice of being a Christian. We learn the practice of being a Christian in our worship on Sunday morning, that is its purpose – to form and inform us – so we can go out into the world and live our faith, seeing God in one another and loving as Christ has taught us.

Next Sunday is Consecration Sunday, the day we bring to the altar our pledge of support for the mission and ministries of Christ Church for 2018. It’s called Consecration Sunday because in the act of filling out the pledge card and bringing it to the altar we are connecting our financial giving to the most sacred and intimate practice of our Christian faith, the place in our worship where we come face to face with ourselves and with God in the bread and the wine, in the act of sharing, in giving and receiving, in being fed in mind, body, and spirit. Coming to the altar with your pledge card is an act of consecration, a practice of faith, of making sacred and holy, yourself and your gift, all of who you are. It’s turning what is Caesar’s into something blessed and holy, transforming our money and ourselves into an offering for God and God’s work in the world.

Sailors have a saying, when navigating far out at sea the horizon can be deceiving such that even a one degree of difference can completely alter one’s course and where one lands.

A one degree of difference in how we see ourselves and live and practice as Christians can alter the entire outcome of the world we live in. A one degree of difference in what each of us chooses to give back to the church for God’s work in the world can completely alter the outcome of the work this church can do.

Give more not because the church needs it, because ultimately it is not about us, it’s not really about this church, but about God’s work in the world, which is done through the church.

Each of us is being asked to seriously consider what we are giving to the church and honestly assess if we can give more. This is not meant to pressure or shame. It’s an invitation to consider how one sees God in one’s self and in others. To look at your selfie on your phone and see God in you and you in God. To see the face of Jesus in the person sitting next to you. To recognize the deep love that resonates in and through this church and the generous ways we share God’s gracious love with the world, acknowledging that many people are fed in mind, body, and spirit, because this church exists right here on this corner. Christ Church has made a positive impact on Dearborn for 150 years. Making a one degree of difference now in how we reveal God in us and us in God, we can continue to be effective witnesses to God’s love and work in the world for years to come.

a reflection on the readings for Proper 24A: Exodus 33:12-23; Matthew 22:15-21

The Aim of Life

Like most people, when I was in my twenties,  I was focused on trying to figure out my life. I struggled to figure out what I was going to do to make a living, what I valued and what was important to me. Along with some friends of mine I found my way into practicing a form of Buddhism that focused on chanting. The idea was that the chanting had a harmonic resonance with the universe and would literally align one’s entire being, like a magnetic field aligning electrons, with the spiritual pulse of creation. One chanted every day with an intention held in one’s mind, something that one wanted. My chanting was grounded in the hope of finding a deeper relationship with the divine and aligning my life with the creator. I suppose, then, that it was really no surprise when one day while chanting, I realized that I was not a Buddhist, but a Christian. At the time this was actually a startling realization because I thought I had left Christianity behind when I was 15. I thought that Christianity was too narrow minded, too legalistic, too judgmental. But in my thoughts that morning I was ruminating on how much I appreciated Christmas and Easter, and not just as family time, but because I had also started going to midnight mass on Christmas Eve and Easter morning services. It’s true that I had no desire to go to church on a regular Sunday. In fact the idea of stepping foot in a church on a Sunday morning filled me with trepidation and fear, fear that they’d “get” me and before long I’d be a narrow minded judgmental person too.

Eventually I realized that this form of Buddhism was in some ways just as legalistic as my perception of Christianity because it taught that if one ever stopped chanting one’s life would fall apart and one would live in chaos. I was just as afraid to stop chanting as I was of entering a church on Sunday morning. But eventually I found my way back into church. It helped immensely that I found a church that invited questions and was open to ideas and exploring faith. It has also helped that becoming part of a faith community and worshiping on Sunday mornings anchored me in a tradition that had a long history, that had roots, which then formed roots in me and gave me the foundation I needed to navigate the complex nature of life as a person of faith.

Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, is addressing this idea, that we become more ourselves when we become more like Christ. The primary aim in life, Paul writes, is to know Christ.

Paul, before he became a Christian, was an educated Hebrew, a Pharisee. He was wealthy and had high standing in his community. He was all the things that Jesus addresses when he calls the Pharisees out for their hypocrisy, their strutting around as if they are perfect but failing to be faithful to God because of their judgmental self righteousness, of their rigid attitudes for who belongs and who does not.

And then Paul had an epiphany and he changed completely from that narrow minded Pharisee to a follower of Jesus, striving to love as Jesus loved. Loving those on the fringes of society as much as he loved his closest friends. He spent the rest of his life living the teachings of Jesus – going out into the world to serve others. He tended to the sick, fed the hungry, clothed the naked, loved the marginalized, and taught entire communities how to do the same. His letters to the churches in Rome, Ephesus, Philippi, and Corinth are profound teachings on how to live in community as followers of Jesus, how to love as Jesus loved, how to reveal the love of God in human flesh. He taught communities how to listen deeply to God.

The rise in violence over the last decade, and especially the last couple of years, from mass shootings to terrorism, to murders, human trafficking, the world crisis caused by displaced persons who have no country to call home, the intense rise in natural disasters from hurricanes, tornados, and earthquakes leaving entire islands and countries devastated and perhaps to never recover, and the cruel and violent language people use to speak to one another across the spectrum of social media and even in person – this rise in violence speaks to a world that has lost its moorings.

Karen Armstrong, a world religions scholar, once wrote about a phenomenon that happened about four thousand years ago, which caused all the world religions of that era: Judaism, Buddhism, Confusionism, and Hinduism, to almost simultaneously develop the concept of the Golden Rule, do unto others as you would done to you. This concept changed the course of human relationships, rooting humankind in the idea that our purpose in life, however one understands the Word of God made flesh, is to love one another. It raised to awareness that the Word of God, which was with God from before time, speaks into the human condition, into all the world religions, guiding human beings to treat each other with love and respect, everyone equally. This higher calling asks that human beings change, like Paul, from living a narrowly defined life to a life that embraces all people equally. As Christians we understand this as the teachings of Jesus, who we also know as the Word of God made flesh.

As your spiritual leader, your priest and Rector, I am convinced that the only way we are going to truly find our purpose in the world today is to practice actively listening to God and making room for God to speak to us and guide us. I have every confidence that if we stop and listen intentionally, offering space for silence, that God will enter that silence and lead us.

Recently with the Vestry and then with the Renaissance Strategy Task Force, I led us in some silent prayer and guided meditation.  These ancient prayer forms are designed to help us make room for God’s presence in our lives and to awaken our antenna, our capacity to listen and to recognize God speaking to us now.

How will we know if the ideas we have, and the pulls we feel, are of God and not just of our own limited sense of direction? How will we know if we moving out of a Christmas and Easter service only experience and into a life transforming every day experience?

The mystics and other Christian teachers, including Paul, tell us we will know it is God speaking if the direction we discern is one that pushes us out of our comfort zone, out into the community, out into the world to learn and grow and build relationships with others.

We will know this because that is how God always works. This is how God worked through Jesus and it is how Jesus worked through Paul and it is how the Holy Spirit works through us. Its how the Word of God spoke into the world thousands of years ago and caused a seismic shift in self awareness and the awareness of others. It’s what we’ve reflecting on all year in the Gospel of Matthew. And especially what we hear in Matthew 7: In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

 

a reflection on the readings for Proper 22A: Philippians 3:4-14

Does the world see Christ in us?

The summer I was 19 years old was they first time I visited my father in Puerto Rico where he had just moved to work for Goya foods. My dad lived in Puerto Rico for about 20 years and I visited him several times. Puerto Rico is a beautiful island and distinctively different from one side to the other. San Juan is a large metropolitan city with an historic district known as Old San Juan. El Morro, an old stone fort built in the late 1500’s guards one end of the city. The fort is high on the cliffs and looks out across the Atlantic Ocean toward Spain. The rest of the city is a mix of gorgeous white sand beaches and ritzy hotels intermingled with extreme poverty. Driving across the island one encounters industry, like the canning factory of Goya foods, mountains with thick rain forests and waterfalls, and the Arecibo Observatory on the western end. From its construction in the 1960s until 2011, the observatory was managed by Cornell University. The observatory’s 1,000-foot (305-meter) radio telescope was the largest single-aperture telescope from its completion in 1963 until July 2016 when the Five hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) in China was completed. It is used in three major areas of research: radio astronomy, atmospheric science, and radar astronomy. I’ve been to it, and it is quite amazing.

On the south end of the island one comes to Ponce, a beautiful old city and the sandy beaches of the Caribbean, with it’s amazingly beautiful teal blue waters. From one end to the other Puerto Rico is a gorgeous, lively island filled with lovely people.

Or, at least it was. The one-two punch of hurricane Irma and the even worse hit by hurricane Maria, whose eye went directly over the Arecibo Observatory, has devastated the island. Rescue and recovery efforts are hindered by everything from the challenges of providing gasoline to the lack of water, to government assistance or the failure of assistance, to private individuals using their own planes to fly sick people out, to cruise lines using their ships to transport people off of the island, to people giving monetary donations to organizations like Episcopal Relief and Development, in an effort to help people before more lives are lost. The mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, has been in the news reporting that while the disaster brings out the best in people, people helping people, this is not a “good news” story. People are desperate and dying.

In the seven years that we have used the worship materials for Season of Creation, we have never had a year filled with this many disasters: three major hurricanes to make landfall in the USA and two devastating earthquakes in Mexico, all within weeks of each other. Not to mention the intense monsoons, flooding, and loss of life in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal. If ever there was a year for us to be attentive to creation and the needs of others, this is it.

Typically on this first Sunday in October I speak about St. Francis and the blessing of the animals and our role as stewards of God’s creation to care for the earth and all its creatures. The feast day of St. Francis is October 4th, which inspires both the Season of Creation materials and the blessing of the animals.

These disasters point us not only to our worship liturgy, and to the care of creation, but to the very question that our readings ask today: Does the world see Christ in us? Can the world see in us, in our actions, the love God being manifest in ways that help others?  Paul is asking this question in his letter to the Philippians. And in a way this is also the heart of the Gospel. This entire year we have been studying Matthew, and the focus of the Gospel of Matthew is to show how Jesus is the fulfillment of all the law and the prophets – that Jesus is the way.

And the way of Jesus is to love, to go out and serve others, tending the poor, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and loving all people equally.

How are we doing this?

Does the world see Christ in us?

In the verses leading up to our reading today, Jesus has gone into the temple, the symbol of those with power and authority, and overturned the tables of the money changers.

It’s a complicated story that deals with atonement of sins, the ability to purchase animals to sacrifice as a symbol of atoning for sins, and the greed of merchants in the temple selling animals and providing change for the purchases. Jesus sees the hypocrisy in the temple and reacts with anger.

In today’s reading, as a result of his disruptive behavior Jesus is in a discussion with the leaders concerning his authority – who does HE think he is? Jesus enters into his typical debate and concludes with a parable that describes the hypocrisy, greed, and entitlement of those he is speaking too. Jesus sees deeply into the human condition and tells these people that the temple is a place of formation, a place to know God in their lives, but then they have to go out from the temple into the world and care for people. Staying in the temple has led to self centeredness, entitlement and greed.

God, alive in Jesus, compels people to move out into the world to serve others. It’s what Jesus did. It’s what the disciples did. It’s what we are to do.

Does the world see Christ in us?

For the last month I have posted opportunities on our Facebook page for us to contribute to recovery and relief efforts in Houston, Florida, Puerto Rico, and Mexico.

Abagail Nelson, Senior Vice President of Programs for Episcopal Relief and Development offers frequent updates, which I have posted, on ERD’s coordinated efforts with the Episcopal Dioceses in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico to get supplies and recovery efforts into the local communities, despite the huge challenges of transportation and housing. I hope some of you have seen the posts on Facebook and contributed to ERD or an organization of your choice.

The readings today are a cautionary tale for us, reminding us that this church and our worship is where we come to be formed. But we are not to get stuck inside, we need to venture out. As a faith community, as part of the Renaissance Strategy, the primary question I have been asking us to consider is, what we are doing as a whole, as the body of Christ, to reach out and make a difference in the world?

Another way I could ask this questions is: “Does the world see Christ in us?” and if so, how?

a reflection on the readings for Proper 21A: Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32

Imperfect…listening

When I was a new mom I read every book and magazine article I could find on parenting. I felt a need to be the perfect parent raising perfectly healthy children. I’ve shared enough stories about my childhood that you can probably understand why I was worried about my ability to be a good parent.

Likewise when I became a priest and a Rector I had a similar drive to be the perfect priest. I have read countless books on church leadership, church growth, stewardship, conflict, vision and mission, pastoral care, you name it, if it applies to church leadership I have read it, gone to a conference on it, and applied it in my ministry. Not to mention that I am a licensed social worker trained in family systems, group facilitation and group dynamics, and individual and couple therapy. And, I am a trained Spiritual Director, educated in the ways of listening for God and helping others listen for God. 

But the one thing I have learned through thirty years of parenting and twenty years of church leadership and despite my driven type A personality, it is that I will never be perfect. 

On any given day I will let down as many people as I have helped. On any given day I will fail perhaps more than I succeed. For every thoughtful sermon I preach there will be someone who is bored, someone who criticizes what I say or don’t say or how I say it. For every pastoral care concern I meet there will be one I fail to meet. For every word of inspiration I offer there will be a time when I fail to be inspiring. For every learned opportunity I present there will be times when I fail to know what to do. There is no way that I can ever be all things to all people, not even to myself.

I remember studying psychotherapy theories when I was working on my masters in social work. One theorist named Winnicott developed a theory that has become known as the “Good Enough Mother.” It applies the principle that no parenting, no care-taking, will ever be perfect. Caretakers will always at some point in time fail to respond to those they care for. That’s as it should be, because those failures actually produce in the other the opportunity to develop a sense of self and the ability to self-soothe, to learn how to care for one’s self. Children develop the capacity to care for themselves in those in-between moments when parents fail to provide an immediate response.

Here’s the thing. Knowing this hasn’t take away my impulse to be perfect. It has however helped me learn how to be kinder to myself when I fail, and therefore also kinder to others. And its helped me accept that no matter how much I know, there is always more to learn, and that having an open spirit, willing to ask questions, wonder, and learn, is crucial to growing in my faith, into the kind of mature faith that Jesus asks of us and which Paul is forever writing about. 

So here’s another thing. Every Sunday I show up. Standing here is about as vulnerable as a person can be.  I stand here and share stories of my life and my struggles with faith, and the ways I am trying to listen to God and follow God. I do the best I can knowing that in many ways I will fail. And I’m okay with that. I’m only human, after all. The best I can do is be authentic, respectful, and true to the values I believe in, to love God, love self, and love others, as best as I am able.

I show up every Sunday with probably a similar expectation that you have. That God will show up in our worship service and there will be a holy moment of awe, of inspiration, of hope, of transformation. But most Sundays feel bumpy and imperfect: we start late, we can’t sing the hymn, the sermon was boring or someone hates the way it was communicated, the bread and wine are distributed in a clumsy way, we forget to pray for someone or the announcements are too long, the kids are restless, the service is too long, there are typos in the bulletin, and all the many ways that worship has mistakes or fails to be inspirational. 

I have to remind myself what the purpose of worship is. The purpose of worship is to teach us, form us, and equip us to go out into the world and be witnesses to God’s presence by serving others. Jesus sends the disciples out to feed, heal, and tend to others. We know this because the very end of the service sends us out into the world with a dismissal – instructions for going out as the body of Christ, to love and serve the Lord. 

In all the bumpy imperfection of being together in a worshipping community we learn how to be people of faith. Over and over our scripture readings bring us stories of people just like us, imperfect people who are wrestling with other imperfect people, striving to figure out what it means to love and forgive as God does.

So some of the work we’ve been about this year is exploring what Spirituality is. We’ve found that it’s very difficult to define and even more difficult to describe. But simply put, spirituality is an experience of God, the divine. And no doubt, hoping to experience God in worship is a reasonable hope, even though that is not the purpose of worship. It’s reasonable because worship is our primary opportunity for formation. Experiencing God in worship can be a completely spontaneous event. But its also possible to develop opportunities in worship to help increase our capacity to listen and our awareness of what we are hearing, so that we can recognize God when God speaks.

In your worship bulletin is a Spiritual Style Sorter. It has 12 questions with multiple choice responses. Each of the four choices correlate to a type of spirituality: thinking, feeling, doing, being. Some spirituality is experienced intellectually in study, reading, thinking. Some spirituality is experienced in feelings – an interior movement. Some in doing something and some in just being, like prayer and meditation. There is no right answer, no judgement.  

Please fill it out, choosing the best response you can, the one that comes closest to what you think. I will collate these and share the responses with you to give us a sense of where we are as a congregation. If you want to know where you stand individually put your name on the paper and I’ll get back to you. Take a few minutes now to answer the questions and leave your responses in this basket or put them in the collection plate. 

a reflection on the Matthew 18 for Proper 19A

Holy Rage, Holy Action

When I was in 7th grade the middle school band, in which I was second chair clarinet, played a concert at the high school. After the concert I walked the hallways looking for my family, expecting them to be there cheering me on and, of course, take me home. But my family was no where to be found. Eventually I faced the obvious, and walked home. Arriving home I found the lights on, and my brothers,  quietly playing in their bedroom. My father was not home and my mother was in the basement, in a rage, recklessly throwing and breaking dishes and yelling. I remember thinking that my mother was furious because my father had not come home to take them to my concert. It was the 1960’s and we were a one car family. No doubt both of my parents could have made different choices that day, although afterward we always had two cars.

 

Today, everywhere I turn, there are people who are struggling with anger, with how to express their rage, their worry, their fear, their concerns. Some people insist on not expressing it, working to keep everything neutral and calm. But often this is just a surface calm, ignoring the deep well of anxiety that lives beneath the surface. Others rage on and on, blaming, name calling, treating others horribly. And some people are struggling to be focused and active, without resorting to reactivity and increased angst nor suppressing their feelings.

 

No doubt we live in challenging times. And what are we to do? 

 

Kaj Munk, a Danish pastor killed by the Gestapo in 1944 is quoted as saying this in The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne: 

“What is therefore, our task today? Shall I answer: ‘Faith, hope and love’? That sounds beautiful. But I would say–courage. No–even that is not challenging enough to be the whole truth. Our task today is recklessness. For what we Christians lack is not psychology or literature….we lack a holy rage–the recklessness which comes from the knowledge of God and humanity. The ability to rage when justice lies prostrate on the streets, and when the lie rages across the face of the earth…a holy anger about the things that are wrong in the world. To rage against the ravaging of God’s earth, and the destruction of God’s world. To rage when little children must die of hunger when the tables of the rich are sagging with food. To rage at the lie that calls the threat of death and the strategy of destruction peace. To rage against complacency. To restlessly seek to change human history until it conforms to the norms of the Kingdom of God.”

I suppose, if I had not had the childhood experience that I had, I might be more inclined to agree with Munk, that a faith-filled response to the injustices in the world, in order to bring forth the kingdom of God, requires a reckless holy rage. I do agree that reckless holy rage can be our catalyst to act, but it cannot determine how we actually act. To feel the reckless rage is to acknowledge the depth of injustice and an abiding passion to right the wrongs. That holy rage can inspire action motivated by passion and inspiration. But to recklessly act in rage is to act out of control, saying and doing things that are often not helpful in reconciling situations or bringing forth justice. Transforming the rage into inspired but more thoughtful responses is taking holy action. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the movement he inspired in the 1960’s is a perfect example of taking holy rage and transforming it into holy action for the sake of justice, bringing us closer to the kingdom of God on earth. 

Our story in Exodus launches the Jewish season of Yom Kippur, a season of atonement for sins, with the directions for preparing a holy meal. It also portrays God protecting the Hebrews and punishing the Egyptians. The only problem is, if one reads Egyptian history, there is no matching story, there is no indication that something happened that killed all the first born sons of the Egyptians, including Pharoah’s son.  There is a story about exiled Hebrews being freed, but without the severe consequences for the Egyptians we hear in this reading. What does that mean? Only that the Hebrews and the Egyptians recorded different versions of a similar story. Versions that reflect their experiences, one version was of the perpetrators of injustice and slavery, the other as the enslaved and oppressed set free. 

There is a tendency for groups of people to claim that God is on their side and use that justification to support a one-sided set of experiences, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. And in small passages of the Bible one can even justify the idea that God takes sides. But when one reads the Bible in its entirety one hears that God does not take sides, God loves all, equally. God loved Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Jonah and the Ninivites, Jesus and the tax collectors, Mary Magdalene and the woman at the well.

While loving all people means respecting their dignity, it does not mean that there are not consequences for attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. God holds people accountable for acts of injustice, cruelty, and downright evil behavior. God loves and at the same holds people accountable. That’s what we hear in Matthew, Jesus teaching us the process of holding others accountable, or being held accountable ourselves, in a loving way. 

There is no doubt that my parents could have handled their anxiety better and been higher functioning parents. On the one hand I understand that they did the best they could with what they knew. I could look back with bitterness on my childhood, but instead I choose to look back with compassion and with insight, knowing that I can be different. I can hold myself accountable for becoming a healthier person. I can be more mature and make better choices and teach my children and grandchildren to make good choices.

Our Christian responsibility in times like these, when people are recklessly raging, is to access the passion of that holy rage while responding in the least anxious way one can, aiming to respect the dignity of others by not shaming or name calling, gossiping or belittling, while also holding people responsible for acts of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and any other way that people diminish or devalue another human being or whole groups of human beings. More specific to us, as we begin our annual “Season of Creation” worship services, is to contemplate how we as a body of the faithful, and as individuals, can continue our efforts to reduce our carbon footprint, and be good and wise stewards of the environment. 

It is not easy to both respect someone’s dignity and hold them accountable. I was not taught how to do this in my family, and have had to learn the hard way as an adult. But it is the kind of maturity that Jesus asks of us. It is rooted in our ability to access our holy reckless rage and utilize it effectively to make a difference, healing and transforming the broken places of our lives and world into wholeness, with love. Christian communities, now more than any other time in recent history, are asked to do this, to recognize anger and utilize it for holy action, to stand for justice and take effective action, to hold people accountable while respecting the dignity of every human being. Ultimately to love everyone as God loves. 

a reflection on the readings for Proper 18A: Exodus 12:1-14; Matthew 18:15-20