Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sermon for June 29, 2014

Laws for Living #2: Peace with Hardship
If the gods bring to you
a strange and frightening creature,
accept the gift
as if it were one you had chosen
from “Each Moment a White Bull Steps Shining Into the World” by Jane Hirshfield
Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy.  For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow.  So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. James 1:2-4
We are told each moment offers a gift. James seems to say this. He writes to first century Jewish converts to Christianity – people who know a little something about trouble and hardship. James writes, “Troubles are an opportunity for great joy.” In other words, “Each moment is a gift.”

Is this true? Is hardship a gift or is it a curse? What exactly do we call the wildness that thunders and storms into our lives – the sudden illness, the loss of a loved one, the awakening that leads to a spiritual crisis, the unexpected reconfiguring of your world, the tempest of love? Events like these break in and break us open. Are these roars and rumbles gifts or curses? Are they chances to surrender ourselves or dangerous opportunities to finally experience life?

Many of you are familiar with the serenity prayer, or at least the beginning of it. It goes like this:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
The second part of the prayer – perhaps the less familiar part – goes something like this:
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as God did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that God will make all things right
if I surrender to God’s Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with God
Forever in the next.
Let’s go back to the line that says “accepting hardship as the pathway to peace.” That’s quite a statement. Common sense tells us that if we can solve all our problems, eliminate all hardships, and remove all the causes of stress in our life, only then we can find peace. We tend to believe the reasons for our anxieties lie in circumstances over which we have little or no control. If we can gain the upper hand over our problems, we will have serenity. We can make peace with hardship.

For some, we have to fix life’s problems on our own because God has fallen asleep on the job. We must draw upon our human capacities. No supernatural help is coming. That’s why we struggle so hard to gain control over difficult people and impossible situations. We secretly tell ourselves that we will only be happy once we become more omnipotent. We try desperately to manipulate people and situations over which we have no control. We end up failing and we get upset because we always fall short in one way or another. What we eventually discover is the more we struggle against unmanageable circumstances, the further we are from the peace we seek.

Scriptures like the Book of James, and modern texts like the serenity prayer, put us in a tough spot. They suggest we are looking for peace in the wrong places. They say the reason for our anxiety lies not in our circumstances but in whom we are trusting. They propose we must admit we are only human and then surrender our will over to God where it belongs. They talk about accepting hardship rather than by struggling against it. Peace is the by-product of trusting God.

Our scriptures are rather insistent on this. “Trust in the Lord and lean not on your own understanding . . .” Well, that’s all fine and good, but so what? What does it mean to trust and surrender to God when hardship is staring me down?

Poet Jane Hirshfield thinks about some of these ideas in a poem she calls “Each moment a white bull steps shining . . .” She opens the poem saying,
If the gods bring to you
a strange and frightening creature,
accept the gift
as if it were one you had chosen
.
Jane Hirschfield wants is to imagine a strange and frightening white bull – no ordinary creature, but one that steps forward, shining into your life. The bull is the embodiment of strength, power and sexuality. It is also dangerous and scary. You have probably never encountered such a beast before. Is it a gift or a curse? Perhaps your life was coasting along. Fulfilling. Predictable. And then, out of nowhere, in this very moment, something enters your world that you cannot fail to notice; something strange, fascinating, and overwhelming. Your comfortable, conventional circle is suddenly broken. Everything is thrown out of kilter. What do you do when you are offered a gift like that?

Can we trust that this can be a true gift and not the curse we may take it to be? Can we accept it with grace – as if it were kind of gift we would have chosen for ourselves?

Eastern Christianity offers us a tool to help answer that question. Eastern sages said that the way to find peace is to remember that there is a divine resource, deep within us. The Eastern Church calls it theosis. God’s aim for the world is for all of us to be restored to the full potential of our humanity. And our full potential is a lot bigger than we can imagine. We actually have the potential to be one with God. We were created to be one with God. We were created to be one with all creation. If we can reach full union with God, we will be able exist within God’s love. The Eastern Orthodox Saint, Basil the Great, said. “The human vocation is to fulfill one’s humanity by becoming God through grace.” United in love, we become divine. That is theosis. Ok, let’s admit that this kind of talk makes Protestants twitchy. It sounds like idolatry. So take a deep breath and hear me out. The idea of theosis is that, through daily spiritual practice, we become more and more like Christ, slowly and steadily. With patience and practice, we arrive at union with God. In union with love. We can’t help but to become love in the flesh. Thomas Merton has this experience. He wrote of his own theosis.
“In Louisville, on the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I was theirs, that we could not be alien to each other, even though we were total strangers ... I have the immense joy of being human, a member of the race in which God became incarnate ... If only people could realize this!  But it cannot be explained.  There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
Despite the pain, despite the hardship, no matter what comes our way, we hold one another in love. Tenderly. Gently.

What might happen if we stop looking at hardship as a barrier to serenity and begin sensing it at it as the pathway to a much deeper and more enduring kind of peace; not dependent upon circumstances beyond our control, but upon loving union with God?
If the gods brings to you
a strange and frightening creature,
accept the gift
as if it were one you had chosen.
Jane Hirshfield wrote another poem that speaks to our condition and can help us make peace with hardship...
FOR WHAT BINDS US

There are names for what binds us:
strong forces, weak forces.
Look around you, you can see them:
the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,
nails rusting into the places they join,
joints dovetailed on their own weight.
The way things stay so solidly
wherever they’ve been set down—
and gravity, scientists say, is weak.

And see how the flesh grows back
across a wound, with a great vehemence,
more strong
than the simple, untested surface before.
There’s a name for it on horses,
when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,

as all flesh,
is proud of its wounds, wears them
as honors given out after battle.
I like the image of proud flesh. It’s actually called granulation tissue. Treating proud flesh is an important and necessary part of healing a wounded horse. Horses are majestic animals but also incredibly fragile and thin-skinned. The most frustrating injury a horse can get is a cut on its lower leg where there’s very little muscle or fat between skin and bone. The skin pulls apart, and it’s virtually impossible to suture. The healing process can be deceptive. Healing appears rapid. You can almost watch fresh pink tissue forming on the horse’s leg injury. But the new tissue keeps growing, pink, ugly and lumpy, growing above the healthy tissue around it. That scar tissue is called proud flesh.

It’s a long, painful process to treat a horse with a wound on its lower leg. It requires patience and hope, courage and stamina. The horse hurts and doesn’t want you messing with its wound. The horse sees you as the source of its pain and will most certainly kick.

I get it horse. I’ve been there, kicking against the threats in life. I imagine you have been there too. We face those painful moments and ask, “Is this a gift or is this a curse? My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me? How could God let this happen to me? How dare you try to comfort me?”

The wound hurts. The hardship is real.  But with care and attention, with attentive love, that horse can heal up and run with stallions.

Maybe people are not so different: Worn, weary, wounded, and wondering if these moments of life are gifts or curses. Then, in a flash of grace, in loving union with God, we experience theosis. We make peace with hardship by becoming the presence of healing love. We become one with God and God’s creation. And they are one with us. We are changed. We are God's love. We rise. New life stirs. Yes, the indelible bruises of hardship mark us. We still bear our scars and wounds. New life doesn’t remove them. They actually have a purpose. Those scars show us where healing has happened. Don’t ignore the wounds. Touch them.

Touching my wounds is only way to know who I really am,
as all flesh,
is proud of its wounds.

Sources:
http://pjmiller.wordpress.com/2007/07/11/proud-flesh-a-metaphor/
http://www.mpbconline.org/sermon.php?sermon=2008-09-07
http://lowellsermons.blogspot.com/2009/08/our-praxis-gives-theoria-of-our-theosis.html
http://interruptingthesilence.com/2011/07/09/theosis-the-human-vocation/
http://interruptingthesilence.com/2011/07/14/theosis-in-the-episcopal-church/

Roger Housden, Ten Poems to Change Your Life Again & Again (Harmony Books, 2007)

Monday, June 16, 2014

Sermon for June 15. 2014

Laws for Living: #1 Peace with the Past

If we deny happiness, resist our satisfaction,
We lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. . .

~Jack Gilbert, "A Brief for the Defense"

One of the survivors of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil drill disaster made an escape that sounds like something from a Tom Cruise Summer blockbuster movie. While drilling the ocean floor, a geyser of mud, methane gas, and seawater erupted onto the rig, shooting 240 ft into the air. The methane ignited into a series of explosions and ultimately a firestorm. The initial blast sent a three-inch thick metal fire door slamming into a worker on the exploding rig. As soon as he was able to free himself, another explosion sent another door straight into him, pinning him to the wall again. By that point he was starting to get angry. After watching all their fire drills go to waste by the panic around him, the worker plunged two or three stories into the ocean which gave him a few seconds to think about the fact that he had jumped from a place that wasn't on fire into the ocean, which actually was aflame with burning oil. When he got over being stunned by hitting the water, hard, he realized he wasn't dead because he felt a burning sensation all over his body; fortunately he wasn't on fire.

We see this story again and again, in real life as well as in books and screen: the hero, so righteous, so noble, good and pure, one trauma is not enough to break her. If traumatizing a hero once can earn the audience's sympathy, then what better way to earn love for a character than to lay trauma after trauma on her like a falling row of dominoes? Whatever can go wrong for our hero will go wrong. The hero will lose everyone she loves, find every promise broken and every dream unfulfilled. Some call this dramatic effect “The Trauma Conga Line,” and it’s a story as old as the book of Job. In the face of suffering, the audience wants to save the person. We want to pluck her out of her tragedy and hug her with nurturing love. Audience members experience relief from their own hurts by fantasizing about relieving the protagonist’s pain.

The Apostle Paul also had a place in the Trauma Conga Line. When we pay attention to the book of Acts and Paul’s letters, we read about one trauma after another. Paul was flogged an uncounted number of times, received 39 lashes five different times, beaten with rods three different times, was stoned one time, shipwrecked three times, and spent a day and night bobbing in sea. Paul was weary and in pain, and often sleepless. He was imprisoned many times. As legend has it, Paul was tortured and eventually beheaded by the Emperor Nero. During one of his imprisonments, Paul writes on of the loveliest, most hopeful letters in our Scriptures. Either he is the ultimate optimist, or he’s insane from all the trauma. In the Book of Philippians he writes,
“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you" (Philippians 4:6-9).
I can just picture a tortured man with a long beard and tattered clothes chained to a murky subterranean cement wall. Cue the music – it’s Bob Marley in the background singing:
“Don’t worry about a thing,
‘Cuz every little thing, gonna be alright.”
Or, if you need more irony, maybe the Shirelles singing, “Mama said there'd be days like this . . .”

Joy? Praise? Thanksgiving? Beauty? Acceptance? We are not always so sure about positive, life-generating responses to trauma. Suffering we get. Suffering characters resonate with us because many of us have narratives of our own lives that tell the story of one ache after another. An antagonist has tested and tried us, beaten us down, robbed us of joy and stolen our dreams.

All of our experiences of the past put us where we are now: all of the past traumatic events. all of the past disappointments, past insults we’ve believed, past offenses, and past mistakes. We can be quick to blame others. We can become victims of the past. But what about joy in the midst of suffering? Gratitude in times of want? Beauty in the face of terror? What might happen when we make peace with the past and allow ourselves to create, to love, to shine? What happens when we make peace with the past and begin to risk delight?

Imagine yourself as the hero of your own story. You start out in the ordinary world of your life with nothing but a nagging notion that things can be better than how they have been in the past. There must be something more to life. Listen to the voice that separates you from your past. That voice asks you to step into a Hero’s Journey.  What is it you’re no longer willing to accept anymore in your world? What’s a new goal that you want to set for yourself, a goal enticing and powerful enough that would want to make peace with the past and step into a new life? What is the treasure you seek?

In all good hero stories, the treasure is guarded and protected. There are obstacles in the way. Challenges to overcome. As the hero of your story, the closer you come towards your treasure, the more difficult the obstacles become. Heroes have no choice but to face down the most difficult challenges. So, you travel into the heart of darkness; you go into the Innermost Cave of the Evil One, the one being who would do anything to see you fail. We all have someone standing in the way of our deep desires. There’s that someone you’ve been putting off facing even though you know you need to; or the situation that’s been giving you difficulty but you’ve avoided facing; or a limiting belief that’s been weighing you down.

Facing failure may be the most difficult point in your Hero’s Journey.  It’s where everything seems bleak and all hope feels lost.  But facing the worst of your demons, you push beyond your limits, and triumph over that which stands in the way of claiming your treasure.

Once you triumph over the worst of the negative energies coming your way, then you can learn from them. You’ve stretched yourself so far beyond your old self that you will no longer return back to the status quo. You get to claim your treasure. But wait! That’s not all! You also find that the journey itself has strengthened you. You’ve grown wiser with experience and knowledge. You’ve been reborn.  And the treasures you’ve discovered will also benefit someone else out there who needs it.

We can do it. We can discover joy in suffering. We can uncover beauty in ashes. We can shift our perceptions. We can make peace with the past.
The journey can begin today. What might happen if you declare, “Not even the Trauma Conga Line can break me.”
I no longer pretend.
Today I embrace who I am—all of me—the good, the bad, and the ugly.
I am grateful for all of the experiences I’ve encountered.
I realize that I was judging myself far more harshly that anyone else ever could.
I let go of the belief that I have to hide from my past.
I let go of the belief of being “less than.”
I let go of the belief of not being worthy.

Or, in the words of Poet Jack Gilbert:
If we deny happiness, resist our satisfaction,
We lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight.
Poets have a stubborn refusal to be cowed by terrible circumstances. They can praise the gift of life and the beauty of this world, even in the midst of suffering. They know this world is a ruthless furnace. It devours everything in its flames. But there are two types of flames. As T.S. Elliot reminds us in The Four Quartets:
The only hope, or else despair,
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre –
To be redeemed by fire or fire.
Which flames do we allow to define our existence, the flames of hell or the flame of the Holy Spirit? Gladness, joy, beauty, delight – these have no place in our hells. When we are captive to the suffering of the past, we turn inward, tempted to wallow in self-absorption. In our personal hells, injustice becomes the only measure of our attention. But the flame of God, the gift of the Spirit, turns us outward to the world, no longer alone.

A compassionate intelligence knows this world is both heaven and hell, here and now. When we feel sorrow, our job is not to blame the past. Our job is to feel the depths of the sorrow. And when joy arises, who are we to question? Our job is to give in to delight, utterly. The only thing we are not allowed is indifference. Indifference is the greatest obstacle to an awakened heart.

In the midst of our traumas, our personal hells and inner caves, obstacles and challenges, yes, even in rehearsing the sufferings of the past, we acclaim this: whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Think on these things NOW. And the God of peace will be with you.

Sources:
http://tinybuddha.com/blog/releasing-the-need-for-approval-and-making-peace-with-yourself/\
http://tinybuddha.com/blog/6-questions-that-will-make-you-fee-peaceful-and-complete/
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TheWoobie
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TraumaCongaLine
The Hero’s Journey By Alvin Soon From Life Coaches Blog, http://www.peerzone.info/sites/default/files/resources/The%20Heros%20Journey.pdf
The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz
Ten Poems to Change Your Life Again and Again by Roger Housden.


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Sermon for June 8, 2014 / Pentecost



Inspired by the Flame

Want the change. Be inspired by the flame
Where everything shines as it disappears.
~From Rainer Maria Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus

In one Buddhist tradition, the story is told of a god-king who interviews those who have died. The dead are forced to gaze into a mirror in the god-king’s palace. Each is told: “Look into this mirror and see all you have done when alive.” Eyes averted, each would protests Nobody wants to look. But the god-king insists. . . “Look into the mirror.  What do you see in the mirror of Karma?” Now for some reason, much of the artwork around this story has to do with people looking in the mirror and seeing themselves butchering cattle. I’m not quite sure where that comes from – maybe a hold-over from Hinduism.
At any rate, when one stands before the mirror, one’s true nature is completely unveiled. In reality, this mirror isn’t extraordinary or miraculous.  It’s just a mirror. But to stand before it, is terrifying for the mind makes one conscious of the evil deeds of the heart.

We humans tend to nurture a fixed idea of who we are and where we are going. We harbor notions of what is good for us and what is not, and try to organize our lives accordingly. And it happens that sometimes, in the flow of change, bound by fixed beliefs and agendas, we forget who we are. On most days, I kept a running mental tally of all the ways I messed up—all the insensitive things I said, all of the dim-witted ideas I suggested, all of the unsuccessful attempts I made to make people like me. Religious traditions give us a chance to look in the mirror. We may be terrified to see all the wrongs, and hurts, and disappointments of our lives staring right back at us. Yet there is hope. In the Buddhist story, after looking in the mirror, one gets a final chance to enter into a time of self-examination and turn things around. There’s another chance to begin again in love. There’s a chance to change and grow into one’s beautiful self, on the way to even greater beauty.

Jewish legend has a similar story, but it’s about a book instead of a mirror. It’s said that the Book of Life closes during the High Holy Days. If your name is written there, you are promised life and happiness in the coming year. But. . . if your name is not there it means you have, over the past year, missed the mark, turned away from the Holy and from all you value. If you name is not in the Book of Life, your destiny looks bleak.

One gets a final chance to enter into a time of self-examination and turn things around. There’s another chance to begin again in love. The Book of Life will open again, just for an instant at the close of the High Holy Days, and the name of the righteous will be written there. There’s a chance to change and grow into one’s beautiful self, on the way to even greater beauty.

Our religious traditions give us chances to start over again. Transformation comes after a time of reflection and purification. In our Christian Pentecost story, the opportunity is not through a mirror or a book, but through a room.

We meet up with the disciples of Jesus, secluded up in a room in Jerusalem. That room is a place of reflection. I imagine the disciples huddled together.
They are disoriented.
They are grieving the death of their Lord.
They are confused by his resurrection and ascension and his strange promises of return.
They are scared that they are next on the list to be killed by the authorities.
They are uncertain as to what the future holds for them.
Maybe they feel guilty. Maybe they feel they are to blame for the bad events that have happened. Maybe they feel hopeless.
They gather in self-judgment and fear.

Then comes the promise of the Spirit, alive in wind and flame. Fire is often used as a symbol of purification. The flame of the Spirit burns away all that stands in the way of union with God. Some of you know the work of John O’Donahue, a Catholic Priest who writes beautiful blessings. He writes about this idea of fire and purity: 
In the name of the Fire,
The Flame
And the Light;
Praise the pure presence of fire
That burns from within
Without thought of time.
The pure presence of fire rests on the disciples and burns away their poisonous self-criticism. The fresh wind of God blows away the self- judgment. There will be conversions. Miraculous utterances. Transformation. Destiny. Before Pentecost, these fear-filled disciples looked into the mirror and saw failure. They read the Book of Life and heard judgment. Sequestered in a room, they focused on their fears and pains.

But, when the opportunity for transformation comes, they move beyond self-indulgent pity and leg-locking fear. They remember who they were destined to be. There’s a chance to change and grow into their beautiful selves, on the way to even greater beauty.

Here’s the thing about hiding ourselves away. Locked rooms can feel safe. Their walls can feel protective. But hide out in those close quarters for too long and the hideout will become a habitat. Live with constant fear, grief and judgment as your roommates, and after a while the environment will form you into a different person. Your life will take the shape of the walls you thought were protecting you. I’m not just talking about physical rooms, you know. . . I’m talking about emotional containers and spiritual habits that may keep us from growing fully, and fully loving, our most beautiful and authentic selves.

Annie Dillard tells a story about these emotional containers. In her story, the container is a jar. She writes, “The Mason jar sat on the teacher’s desk; the big moth emerged inside it. The moth had clawed a hole in its hot cocoon and crawled out, as if agonizingly, over the course of an hour, one leg at a time; we children watched around the desk, transfixed. After it emerged, the wet, mashed thing turned around walking on the green jar’s bottom, then painstakingly climbed the twig with which the jar was furnished. There, at the twig’s top, the moth shook its sodden clumps of wings. When it spread those wings—those beautiful wings—blood would fill their veins, and the birth fluids on the wings’ frail sheets would harden to make them tough as sails. But the moth could not spread its wide wings at all; the jar was too small. The wings could not fill, so they hardened while they were still crumpled from the cocoon. A smaller moth could have spread its wings to their utmost in that mason jar, but the Polyphemus moth was big. Its gold furred body was almost as big as a mouse. Its brown, yellow, pink, and blue wings would have extended six inches from tip to tip, if there had been no mason jar. It would have been big as a wren.

“The teacher let the deformed creature go. We all left the classroom and paraded outside behind the teacher with pomp and circumstance. She bounced the moth from its jar and set it on the school’s asphalt driveway. The moth set out walking. It could only heave the golden wrinkly clumps where its wings should have been; it could only crawl down the school driveway on its six frail legs. The moth crawled down the driveway toward the rest of Shadyside, an area of fine houses, expensive apartments, and fashionable shops. It crawled down the driveway because its shriveled wings were glued shut. It crawled down the driveway toward Shadyside, one of the several sections of town where people like me were expected to settle after college, renting an apartment until they married one of the boys and bought a house. I watched it go.

“I knew that this particular moth, the big walking moth, could not travel more than a few more yards before a bird or a cat began to eat it, or a car ran over it. Nevertheless, it was crawling with what seemed wonderful vigor, as if, I thought at the time, it was still excited from being born. I watched it go till the bell rang and I had to go in. I have told this story before, and may yet tell it again, to lay the moth’s ghost, for I still see it crawl down the broad black driveway, and I still see its golden wing clumps heave.”

You’ve been that beautiful moth whose been stuffed in a jar. I have, too. At some point in our lives, like the disciples of old, we’ve lived in sheltered places, afraid to be found out. Those emotional containers and spiritual habits were too small for us. We became shaped by doubts, fears, mistakes, and insults. Many of us go to great lengths to hide the truth about how we feel about ourselves. The sad part is, the very walls we thought were protecting us begin to form us -- a de-formation instead of a transformation.

Sad to say, sometimes church life also becomes a jar of judgment. The late author Brennan Manning pointed out that sometimes the church creates the impression that once we begin to follow Christ, the Christian life becomes a picnic on a green lawn. Marriage blossoms into conjugal bliss, health flourishes, acne disappears, and sinking careers suddenly soar. Everybody is declared to be a winner. An attractive 20-year old accepts Jesus and becomes a star, a floundering lawyer conquers alcoholism and whips Alan Dershowitz on court TV, a tenth-round draft choice for the Ravens goes to the Pro Bowl. Miracles occur, conversions abound, church attendance skyrockets, ruptured relationships get healed, and shy people become outgoing. But it’s disingenuous. It’s not true.

For many of us, life is more like a victorious limp. And for me, that’s the miracle of Pentecost – not the visions, not the ecstasies, not the tongues of fire or miraculous languages. The miracle is their victorious limp – their capacity for faithfulness. Battered by their own unruly emotions, bruised by rejection and ridicule, the disciples stumbled and fell, they endured lapses and relapses. But on Pentecost, they stood up, left the safety of their room, and became bold and audacious in their faith, faults and all.

Here is the victorious limp in my life. There are times when I’ve felt unloved and unsupported. There are times when I felt unlovable. There are moments when I’ve felt cheated by life and fooled by fate.  Pentecost invites is to redefine ourselves. It invites us to go places where we never thought we’d go. And we may just go there with a limp – a beautiful victorious limp, each step telling a story of how we overcame adversity. 

There are times when I’ve felt unloved and unsupported. There are times when I felt unlovable. There are moments when I’ve felt cheated by life and fooled by fate. I was wrong. I only had to look into the mirror once more and see someone beautiful. I only had to look in the book of life and see my name written in its pages. I only had to let the wind and flame of God blow open the walls that protected my self-made limitations. It’s a chance to change and grow into my beautiful self, on the way to even greater beauty.

Yes, sometimes I still feel like a cowering disciple in a locked room. Sometimes I still feel like that moth in the jar. Whoever put me in that jar, I forgive you. You probably just thought I was beautiful, and wanted to keep me around. I forgive you. And whoever kept me in that little jar . . . Yes, that would be me, me . . . I forgive you, too. . . I forgive me. I’m continuing to change and grow into my beautiful self, on the way to even greater beauty. My prayer is that you are, too.

Sources:
http://www.uucava.org/page/transformation-ten-days-to-claim-your-power-by-interim-senior-min?xg_source=activity
http://firstparishbrewster.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/20120401-Benson TransformationAFoolsErrand.pdf
http://blackwalnutdispatch.com/2012/01/27/annie-dillard-and-the-polyphemus-moth/
Roger Housdon, Ten Poems to Change your Life Again and Again.
http://academic.reed.edu/hellscrolls/scrolls/Aseries/A01/A01c.html

Sunday, June 8, 2014

God Give Us Power to Lift the People - in Memory of Richard Jaeggi

“And so it is that I, a man entering the last third of his life, continue to steer my life, for better or worse, according to the patterns set by this odd pantheon of heroes: a terrorist, a madman, and a religious fanatic.” Richard wrote those words in his Big Acorn column in 2005. He was referring to three heroes who formed his worldview. The terrorist was Robin Hood, an enemy of freedom— at least to those who define freedom as the right of the rich and the educated to freely exploit the poor and the ignorant. The Madman was Don Quixote, who determined that the only life worth living was one of uncompromising service to the highest ideals. Of course, the religious fanatic was Gandhi, who dedicated his life to the discovery of how power might be applied by ordinary men and women to right the great wrongs of the world.

Richard found a way to combine each of those qualities to become a spiritual activist. To some of you, that may sound like a strange word combination – spiritual activist. Spirituality has a reputation for being interior and individual-centered. Activism, on the other hand, is other-focused as it brings communities together around issues of social justice. When we put the two concepts together, spiritual activism becomes love in motion. Spiritual activism is prayer made visible. Spiritual activists believe we need to do justice and love mercy in order to create positive change. If we really want to live in more compassionate and humane world, we need to become more compassionate and more humane ourselves.

The painful reality is that many of us were taught to believe and think, “My way is right, therefore your way is wrong.” I believe there must be another way to live, a way that unites action with mindfulness a way that says, “You don’t have to be wrong for me to be right.”

One way to find healing from this divided thinking is to become a spiritual activist. And the first quality of spiritual activism is Satyagraha. Satyagraha is a word invented by Gandhi and his followers. It’s a synthesis of two words: the word satya means truth founded in love, and the word agraha means firmness, insistence and force. Satyagraha means a force and a power born in truth and love. It was the word Gandhi used for non-violent resistance to bring about change. Gandhi sometimes called it “love force” or “soul force.”
Satyagraha means clinging to truth, no matter what. Under no circumstances can a spiritual activist hide or keep truth from an adversary The spiritual activist is obligated to be honest, open, and direct in dealings with opponents. No matter the cost, one must follow the truth, even as he or she endeavors to be truthful.

Gandhi’s idea of non-violence can be tracked to a number of thinkers. We begin with an American Protestant minister named Adin Ballou. In the 1800’s, Ballou sought social reform, teaching an idea called, “non-injurious force.” That’s why we read part of his catechism earlier in today’s service. Shortly before his death in 1890, Ballou began a correspondence with Count Leo Tolstoy of Russia, who was amazed to learn that this prophet of non-resistance had been almost forgotten in America. Tolstoy sponsored translations of Ballou’s work, which deeply influenced his own thinking about non-violence.  As a Christian, Tolstoy taught absolute non-resistance to violence. He believed that all coercive action was forbidden by Jesus. When Gandhi read Tolstoy’s 500-page theology book called The Kingdom of God is Within You, he said it, “overwhelmed me.” They started a correspondence. In his last letter to Gandhi, Tolstoy wrote, “Your activity is the most essential work, the most important of all the work now being done in the world.”

So, Satyagraha is very close to the spirit of the Christian Gospel, though sadly not lived often enough. For Gandhi, Jesus was the supreme non-violent resistor. Martin Luther King Jr. noticed the same thing. Through Satyagraha, King found a new way to affirm the teachings of Jesus, which spoke well to his people in his time and to some of us beyond.

Sorry for the history lesson – but I think we need some context to understand the work of Richard Jaeggi, an progressive Christian spiritual activist who continues to teach us how to put Satyagraha into action. When I look at the life and legacy of Richard, I wonder: what can we make of all this? What do we do with the non-injurious force of Adin Ballou that we read during our service? What do we do with ideas like the Soul Force of Gandhi and the political resistance of King? What do we do with love and nonviolence in a country where power and politics reign supreme in our institutions, including religions? What do we do when many of our institutions marginalize or silence the voice of dissent to protect the status quo? Of what relevance is Satyagraha at a time when only select, handpicked social crises tend to shock the moral sensibility of political, civic, business, educational and religious leaders?

Think about those who have been deeply wounded by life. Think of those who have suffered most terribly, those who flee their homes in the face of violence and brutality, those who feel like outcasts because of the violence of betrayal, suspicion and hatred. This sense of shame and duplicity is true of so many people who have lived lives where tragedy, violence and fear have robbed them of self-esteem. As we know violence is all too common within the homes in this country fed by a diet of vicious entertainment and dysfunctional relationships. And how much lasting peace has a war on terror achieved? How many have been converted by violence?

Violence leads to more violence. Spiritual activism is liberation. It is freedom. It is the choice to participate in God’s suffering for the world. As Spiritual Activists, we say no more! If we want to honor Richard and continue his legacy, then we summon the courage to declare, “Violence is not what God intends for the world.” In a day when guided ballistic missiles can carve highways of death through the stratosphere and remote operated drones can attack out of nowhere, we no longer have a choice between violence and nonviolence; it is either nonviolence or nonexistence. So, for me, the spiritual activism of Richard Jaeggi issues an invitation to follow the way of Satryagraha, the Soul Force of loving of non-violence. Justice will be done, evil will be beaten, and God will set all things right through our prayers and through our actions. The life of Richard inspires my prayer: God, give us power to lift the people.

When people are discouraged, God, give us power to the lift the people.

When those who have been victimized by violence can’t face the horror of life, God, give us power to the lift the people.

When those who have been thrown away and marginalized can only respond with apathy and resignation, God, give us power to the lift the people.

When victims of oppression take the blame for oppression and lose their trust in humanity, God, give us power to the lift the people.

For those crying for justice, God, give us power to the lift the people.

For those yearning some peace in a fallen world, God, give us power to the lift the people.

For those who believe there is still something wonderful to do in our lives and in our world, God, give us power to the lift the people.

For those who think that justice means injuring those who injure us, that error can be corrected by error, that evil can be vanquished by evil, God, give us power to the lift the people.

God give us more power to tear down the walls that separate us from one another. That’s what Gandhi and King began to do. That’s what Richard dedicated his life for. God give us power to lift the people.

Richard, you showed us how it’s done. We bid farewell to you, a beloved husband and father, son, brother and friend.  Go in peace with God. Walk in the spirit of life and love until we meet again at the breaking of the dawn of the new creation. Until that time, we will keep figuring out how power might be applied by ordinary women and men to right the great wrongs of the world.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Sermon for June 1, 2014



Be of Good Cheer
June 1, 2014

It’s been twenty-four years since my own High School Graduation. Twenty-four years ago, I saw an unlimited future ahead of me. I wasn’t completely sure of what was ahead of me but that really didn’t matter. I had graduated. There were all sorts of opportunities ahead of me . . . too many, in fact, to imagine at the time.

Soon enough, our High School graduates will be off on their own adventure. And every adventure has anxiety. It wouldn’t be an adventure if you weren’t summoned to explore the world outside of your comfort zone. An adventure with no risk isn’t an adventure. It’s called a vacation. So this morning, on the eve of great adventures, I wanted to share some survival tips – some proverbial advice -- some things I’m learning along the way. This is not just for the grads. Here are a few life lessons for all of us to ponder.

My first piece of advice is to get a life. Anna Quinlen, novelist and former NY Times writer, dishes out the some solid advice in her book A Short Guide to a Happy Life. Anna writes:
“You cannot be really first-rate at your work if your work is all you are. So I suppose a piece of advice I could give anyone is pretty simple: get a life. A real life, not a manic pursuit of the next promotion, the bigger paycheck, the larger house. Do you think you’d care so very much about those things if you developed an aneurysm one afternoon, or found a lump in your breast while in the shower? . . . Get a life in which you notice the smell of salt water pushing itself on a breeze over the dunes . . . Get a life in which you pay attention to the baby as she scowls with concentration when she tries to pick up a Cheerio with her thumb and first finger. Turn off your cell phone . . . Keep still. Be present. Get a life in which you are not alone. Find people you love, and who love you. And remember that love is not leisure, it is work. Each time I look at my diploma, I remember that I am still a student, still learning every day how to be human. Get a life in which you are generous. Look around at the azaleas making fuchsia star bursts in spring; look at a full moon hanging silver in a black sky on a cold night. And realize that life is glorious, and that you have no business taking it for granted. Care so deeply about its goodness that you want to spread it around.”

Here are a few more things I’m learning in the adventure called life:
·         I’m learning that we are responsible for what we do, unless we are celebrities.
·         I’m learning that the people you care most about in life are taken from you too soon and all the less important ones just never go away.
·         I’m learning that the best classroom in the world is at the feet of an older person.
·         I’m learning that God does not propose to judge us until we die. So why should you?
·         I’m learning that time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.
·         I’m learning that that just one person saying to me, “You’ve made my day!” makes my day.
·         I’m learning that that being kind is more important than being right.
·         I’m learning that I can always pray for someone when I don’t have the strength to help him or her in some other way.
·         I’m learning that that no matter how serious your life requires you to be, everyone needs a friend to act foolish with.
·         I’m learning that sometimes all a person needs is a hand to hold and a heart to understand.
·         I’m learning that under everyone’s hard shell is someone who wants to be appreciated and loved.
·         I’m learning that when you plan to get even with someone, you are only letting that person continue to hurt you.
·         I’m learning those who get too big for their britches will be exposed in the end.
·         I’m learning to quit griping about church. If it was perfect, we couldn’t belong.
·         I’m learning that brain cells come and brains cells go, but fat cells live forever.
·         I’m learning that you can’t have everything. Where would you put it?
·         I’m learning that 42.7 percent of all statistics are made up on the spot.
·         I’m learning that one careless match can start a forest fire, but it takes a whole box to start a campfire.
·         I’m learning that all generalizations are inaccurate, including this one.
·         I’m learning that life is tough, but I’m tougher.
·         I’m learning that opportunities are never lost; someone will take the ones you miss.
·         I’m learning never to ruin an apology with an excuse.
·         I’m learning never to miss a good chance to shut up. As they say, a closed mouth gathers no foot.
·         I’m learning that when you harbor bitterness, happiness will dock elsewhere.
·         I’m learning that I should keep my words both soft and tender, because tomorrow I may have to eat them.
·         I’m learning that that I can’t choose how I feel, but I can choose what I do about it.
·          I’m learning that everyone wants to live on top of the mountain, but all the growth occurs while climbing it. In other words, happiness is a journey, not a destination.
·         I’m learning to be nice to my kids. They’ll choose my nursing home.
·         I’m learning to borrow money from a pessimist. They don’t expect it back.
·         I’m learning that duct tape is like the force, it has a light side and a dark side and it holds the universe together.
·         I’m learning that the less time I have to work with, the more things I get done.
·         I’m learning that money will buy a fine dog, but only kindness will make her wag her tail.
·         I’m learning that blessed are those who hunger and thirst, for they are sticking to their diets.
·         I’m learning that if you can remain calm, you just don’t have all the facts.
·         I’m learning that a clean desk is a sign of a cluttered desk drawer.
·         I’m learning never to do card tricks for the group you play poker with.
·         I’m learning that if you think nobody cares, try missing a couple of payments.
·          I’m learning that your worst humiliation will only be someone else’s momentary entertainment.
·         I’m learning that the noblest revenge is to forgive.
·         I’m learning that two people can look at the exact same thing and see something completely different.
·         I’m learning that God accepts you the way you are, but loves you too much to leave you that way.

Three is one more life lesson I’m learning. It comes from John 16:33. Let me set up this verse for you. Jesus is eating dinner with his disciples and having a serious conversation about what will happen when they arrive in Jerusalem. It’s downright scary. He predicts his followers will abandon him. They will be persecuted. They will be kicked out of the synagogue. They will scatter in fear, leaving Jesus to suffer alone.

Jesus describes perilous times. He knows life is hard to bear. It is painful, harsh, fierce and savage. 

Then, in John 16:33, Jesus says one little Greek word to heal the wounds of fear and discouragement caused by all that is about us. Each of the four gospel writers quote Jesus as using this word on multiple occasions -- we find it eight times we find it in the Greek New Testament. I believe he still whispers it to us even in the present day. We have to use a phrase to translate this word into English. Some translate the phrase, “take heart,” or “have courage.” The King James Version translated it this way: “Be of good cheer.”

Do you ever wonder why people seem to take life so seriously? Americans are carrying more stress than ever, and we’re not carrying it very well. Some of the most common responses to stress are to work harder, sleep less, worry more, and deny ourselves the opportunities for recreation that would provide a measure of relief. The flip side of that is to mask our depression with a restless pursuit of perfectionism, entertainment and distraction.

I have met many people who believe it is their responsibility to be serious, when in fact what they are truly being called to be is careful or caring; to have joy-filled courage in the face of risk; to be of good cheer.

To our graduates: your church is proud of you! We love you and we want all the best for you. We give thanks for what God has already done in your life, and for all that God has planned for your future.  We, want you to know that you have a home here always. But we also understand that it’s time to say, “Go, for we expect good things from you.” After you have experienced all the world has to offer, we know there will come a day when we will sit at your feet, listen to your advice, and learn about the ways of God.

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