random musings...

Category: Spiritual Page 2 of 7

Each of us is a miracle

The story of Jesus turning water into wine is known as his first miracle. But what is a miracle? Sometimes we dismiss miracles by equating them with magic but we might think of a miracle as simply a welcomed event that is unexpected, improbable and not easy to explain. Perhaps we’ve experienced a miracle in our lives. We might know someone that was unexpectedly healed of an illness or maybe something surprising occurred at a time in our lives when we had lost hope and it turned life around for us. There is another way we might define a miracle: a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. I think a miracle is Spirit revealing itself in an unexpected, improbable, unexplainable, or amazing way that results in something good and desirable. It’s God showing up to renew our hope when we’ve lost our way. It’s God taking what we were expecting and turning it upside down.

Of course, miracles don’t always happen when we want them to. Not everyone is healed, for example, and I have no satisfactory answer for why. Sometimes people are tempted to blame the person who is sick by saying “they didn’t have enough faith” or “they just didn’t pray hard enough,” which is, of course, ridiculous. When we hope for a miracle and don’t see one, it can be disappointing. It might try our faith, our trust in God. We might find ourselves wondering where the Spirit was when we were asking for Divine intervention. But, at the same time, I wonder if miracles happen more than we realize. Maybe we just don’t see them or recognize them as miracles. If a miracle is an unexpected manifestation of the Spirit and the Spirit is with us all the time, it just seems like the odds are that more miracles are happening than we think. Maybe when we lose a job the miracle that we might want – finding a new, better job the very next day – isn’t what happens. Maybe the miracle is that we grow from the experience and eventually end up being led in some completely unexpected direction that uses our gifts and talents in new, surprising ways.

We too, as human beings, are manifestations of Spirit. Spirit dwells within us and that is a miracle in my book – unexpected, improbable, unexplainable, and amazing. But we need to open our selves to this miracle that it might act in and through us. Jesus trusted that God would work through him to perform miracles. To open ourselves to the work of the Spirit, we need to trust God. Even when things don’t seem to go as expected, we’re asked to put our trust in the working of the Spirit.

Opening up to the Spirit also means opening up in relationship to each other as the Spirit within us interacts with the Spirit within others. We are meant to act together. We are meant to be in loving, supporting community. The gifts of the Spirit that act in and through us aren’t meant for our personal glory. They are meant to be used in conjunction with the gifts of others for the common good of the community and for the common good of all of God’s creation. The miracle of wine into water required both Mary and Jesus. Jesus seemingly had no intention of saving the party (a communal event) until his mother egged him on. He even objected, “It’s not yet my time.” An objection which his mother simply ignored, instead inventing the phrase made famous by Nike: “Just do it.” Without Jesus, nothing happens. But without Mary, nothing happens either.

But here’s the caution: if we open to the Spirit, our lives are going to change. That’s both good news and a little scary. When Jesus objected he didn’t seem sure about what his mother was asking him to do. He knew it would change his life. It would set his mission and ministry in motion. Never again would he get to be the wallflower at a wedding reception.

Each of us, our bodies, our souls, our gifts and talents, is a manifestation of the Spirit. Each of us is a miracle. Let us not be afraid of taking risks and even failing. Let us look for the miracles in our lives, whether they be big miracles or little miracles. God is always turning our expectations upside down and showing up in amazing and improbable ways. Let us trust and reside in the Holy Spirit, following where the Spirit leads.


This reflection first appeared in my church’s newsletter on February 1, 2019. You can visit the church web site here.

A Guiding Star

Who were the people that the Gospel of Matthew tells us came from far away lands seeking a new ruler? Christian tradition calls them kings or wise men but the Greek word magi implies they were most likely Zoroastrian priests. They were not people seeking worldly power. They weren’t kings seeking a rival, but priests seeking something of divine and cosmic importance. They were seeking truth and meaning. And, as the story goes, they were led by a guiding star which appeared to light their way to the child Jesus. That mysterious star was an epiphany, a light in the darkness that revealed something important. It showed that God’s love is born into this world in unexpected places (a small out of the way town) for all people (not just God’s “chosen”).

God also gives us guiding stars to light our way to Christ, to show us that we might find meaning in God’s love manifested in the vulnerable flesh of a small child named Jesus. So powerful is God’s love that even this small vulnerable child, unable to defend himself, is seen as a threat to the powerful and wealthy of the world – hence the warning to that magi-priests that they should avoid Herod. But what is so threatening about love, mercy, and grace? We’re still threatened by these things today. We see it when we talk about universal health care, about livable minimum wages, and about social security. These attempts to help people in need, which God through Jesus commands us to do, are seen as threats to the powerful and wealthy. But into the darkness of a culture which treats wealth as its god, shines a guiding star and a child is born, God’s love manifested in human form. And it shows us the meaning underlying life: to love one another.

The good news is that God’s light and love continues to shine among us today. We can look around us and see all the problems but we can also look around us and see our own guiding stars, those lights that reveal the presence of the Divine: the people that work to feed the homeless, those that help protect victims of violence, those that advocate for programs that help the needy, those that might simply offer an encouraging word when we most need it, or the stranger who gives us a genuine smile to lift our spirits. We can look into our world and see these guiding stars among us, little lights of hope that tell us that God is here now and God cares.

God is not only still at work in the world, but is at work in us, offering to transform each one of us to be a light in the darkness: to take a stand for justice and against fear, to live with love and compassion in our hearts and in everything we say and do, to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless, to resist oppression and violence… to love one another.

Let us come to the Holy One in worship and prayer, opening our hearts to the light and love of God that we too may become bearers of the light, an Epiphany people who know that the joy and grace of Christ’s birth is not just a gift to be admired and praised but a gift to be shared and put to work for the sake of the world that Gods loves so much. Let us open our hearts and become beacons of compassion and justice, that we may let God’s love shine into the darkness through us.

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This reflection first appeared in my church’s newsletter on January 18, 2019 and is inspired by the sermon, “A Guiding Star,” from January 6, 2019. The audio of the sermon can be found at https://phoenixchurch.org/home/phx-sermons/.

Look, Then Leap

Everyone loves a show! The bigger and more outrageous the spectacle, the more we stop what we’re doing and pay attention. In the 12th chapter of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus warns us against people who go out of their way to put on a show just to impress others, to puff up their importance by wearing fancy clothes, who insist others defer to them and serve them, and who always have to be in a place of honor. These are the ones, we’re told, who are hiding something, the ones who behind the facade are taking advantage of the poor, the widow, and the immigrant.

Jesus goes on to notice a widow who gives her last pennies to the Temple treasury. This widow is one of the very people who are being oppressed by those who try to look so important but Jesus takes his time to notice her and the situation she is in. Noticing what is happening around us is an important first step in correcting the injustices of the world. Too often we don’t notice those in need. We legislate the homeless to corners of our cities where we won’t see them or we hear about a caravan of people fleeing the violence of their homes and we demonize them, creating the fear that helping them would somehow ruin our own lives. We fail to notice their humanity, the fact that they are parents and brothers and sisters, that they love and are loved just as we are. We fail to notice that that poor person is a human being in need who likes ice cream and romance novels and not someone to be objectified.

We fail to notice because it absolves us of the responsibility to respond. We might think we can’t respond because we don’t have enough ourselves – so how can we help anyone else? But scripture is full of stories of people who thought they weren’t good enough or didn’t have enough and yet God used them to change the world. What if we truly made an effort to notice what happens around us? Who or what do we ignore and overlook as we go about our daily business? What would happen if we started to notice – and then, putting our trust in God, started to respond? What a difference we could make!

May God bless you and the work you do to notice and respond to the injustices around you.

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This reflection first appeared in my church’s newsletter on November 16, 2018 and is inspired by the sermon, “Look, Then Leap,” from November 11, 2018. The audio of the sermon can be found at https://phoenixchurch.org/home/phx-sermons/.

Do We Know What We Want?

Have you ever struggled with a difficult decision, perhaps a major change in life such as whether to move or quit a job? We’re faced with decisions all the time and sometimes we’re not sure what would be best. When we make difficult life changing choices, we often look for meaning and a sense of inner peace. But, if we ask for meaning and peace of heart, do we know what we are asking for? Do we seek meaning in the accumulation of things as in the story of the rich person who wasn’t able to give up their wealth to follow Jesus? Do we believe that winning a huge lotto jackpot will bring us peace? Or maybe we seek meaning in status, having people look up to us and think we’re important. Or maybe we seek peace in power, thinking, “if only I had more control…” Even in the church we look to the world’s definitions of success, thinking to follow Jesus “successfully” means bigger churches and bigger offerings. We think that is what measures how meaningful we are, whether our efforts are “worth it” or not.

When James and John came to Jesus in Mark 10, asking to sit beside in him glory, maybe they were wondering if following Jesus, with all his talk of death and persecution, was really worth it. Maybe they were seeking a sense of meaning. But like many of us they thought meaning was found in glory, power, and wealth. But Jesus responds that in God’s eyes to be great is to serve. This is where we find the natural harmonies and rhythms of life that bring peace. God created us as interdependent beings, not to be competitors for empty glory but to be companions meant for relationship and community. To be great, to find meaning and peace, to find what makes it all worth it, is to serve, to help each other, to support each other, and to love each other.

Jesus asks if we can follow in his footsteps and give up our pursuits of wealth, power, and glory to serve? Can we help each other, support each other, and love each other even if the world around us is threatened by it and despises us for it? That isn’t an empty threat either. Right now in our own times, journalists who are seen as threatening the power of so-called leaders are being denigrated and even killed. If we as Christians do as Jesus did and stand up to oppressive power, we too may put ourselves at risk. There can be a cost to following Jesus. We often think James and John didn’t realize this, that they wanted glory with no effort. But, I wonder if they just wanted to be reassured it was worth it. I believe it is. We will get resistance when we live for justice. We will get pushback. But we were created by God to be companions, not competitors.

I also believe in resurrection, in God’s promise of new life. In every discouraging lie told, for every degradation of the poor, of women, of immigrants, of LGBTQ people, I see more and more people standing up and saying this is not acceptable. In standing up for each other we plant the seeds of hope. We begin to nurture new life – a life that acknowledges that to serve and support each other, to love, is the order and motion of God’s Creation. This is where we find true, lasting meaning and peace in life: in God’s unconditional, everlasting love flowing through us and into the world.

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This reflection is inspired by the sermon, “Do we know what we are asking for?,” from October 21, 2018. The audio of the sermon can be found on the Phoenix Community Church web site.

The Disaster of Wealth

In the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Amos warns that contempt for truth and a disregard for the poor and disadvantaged leads to disaster. These are words that we might remember as another election day nears. Words that we might ask our political leaders to take to heart. But it is also a warning that is relevant to all of us. Too often even those of us who identify as poor, or at least feel the pressure of meeting our monthly bills on time, fall prey to the mindset that wealth is the true measure of success. It is what our culture teaches us.

And in our desire for greater riches, our desire to be a success, we start to ignore truth and forget about the poor. We start to accept some of the lies we hear, thinking that perhaps little lies don’t matter so much or that maybe it’s ok to tell lies about the liars. We don’t bother fact-checking that great meme before posting it on Facebook. Maybe we think we can’t bother with the homeless when we can barely make our own rent or that businesses shouldn’t have to pay livable wages if that means higher prices for me. Maybe we think it’s ok to vote for a corrupt politician as long as they promise to vote for my pet issue. Maybe we just covet that new phone model. Surely that will solve all of our problems.

When a rich person comes to Jesus asking how they can be one with God, Jesus tells them since they already keep all the commandments that the next step on their spiritual journey is sell all they have and give the proceeds to the poor. Needless to say, the rich person walks away dejected. Jesus’ instruction was alarming not only to the rich person but to everyone there, including the disciples. Living in a capitalistic country that sees wealth as the measure of success, we are probably alarmed as well. But Jesus knew that the person’s wealth, which brought them safety, security and status, had become a spiritual burden. It didn’t allow them to truly be compassionate toward others. It got in the way between them and God as well as between them and their fellow human beings.

Wealth can build a wall around us, isolating us. It can put a buffer between us and the suffering. Wealth can make us think we don’t need each other and get in the way of true community. We’ve all heard someone say: “we earned our wealth,” “they’d succeed if they worked harder,” “it’s only business, nothing personal,” and “the poor are lazy.” Perhaps we’ve even said similar things ourselves. But statements like these only serve to justify the distance between the haves and the have-nots and blame the poor for their poverty, letting those of us who have money off the hook. If we are not able to hear the pain of others, we will not be able to fully experience God for God is found in our relationships with each other and Creation. That, I think, is what was happening to the well intentioned rich person in the biblical story. They weren’t able to fully experience the Divine energy because their wealth stood between them and the people around them.

What burdens do we need to let go of that we might fully encounter God? Is it wealth or the desire for wealth? What burdens do we carry that keep us from living in God’s way of love in the here and now? That get between us and the Divine? Some money is necessary in our society to live, but we should not allow the pursuit of wealth to come between us and those around us. We are all on this journey together. We need each other. It is in “the least of these” that we find God.

For further reflection on the role wealth plays in our lives, check out this thought provoking Ted Talk posted on my church’s blog: https://phoenixchurch.org/home/2018/10/does-money-make-you-mean/. You might also want to listen (or re-listen) to the sermon from October 14, upon which the above reflections are based, at https://phoenixchurch.org/home/sermons/through-the-eye-of-a-needle/. This reflection was originally published in my church’s newsletter.

Making America Great Again

Have you ever wanted to be important? We want to feel needed. We want to feel like we are making a difference in the world. As kids we might dream of being the best at our favorite sport, sinking the winning shot in the championship game. Maybe we dreamed of being admired like a doctor or lawyer or maybe we dreamed of being president, someone with a lot of power. Maybe we achieved some of our dreams of importance and maybe those dreams still linger with us. As adults we still want to matter and make a difference in our lives.

But when we think of importance, when we dream of greatness, we also have to ask ourselves what exactly that means. How do we measure greatness? Is the wealthiest person great? Or is power and influence the critical factor? And who benefits from our desired greatness? Do these dreams come from pure selfishness or do we want to help others? Greatness and its motivations seem to be a hot topic in our country. Some people say they want to “Make America Great Again” but then act out of racism, sexism, homophobia, and a disregard for the poor and disadvantaged. Does being great mean making everyone else miserable? Just what does it mean to be great, to be important?

In the ninth chapter of the gospel of Mark, Jesus’ disciples were debating this very question, arguing amongst themselves about who was the most important of their group. And Jesus tells them how to be great in his eyes: become a servant for others. Greatness has nothing to do with wealth or power. The greatest are those who put the welfare of others first. Cultivating peace and justice; being kind, considerate, and compassionate; acting in the interest of others and the common good… these are the things by which we should measure greatness.

This is the way we are called to live if we choose to follow God’s path and live by God’s wisdom. True greatness is measured by love. We can say God is great because God is love. God loves each one of us without condition. If we want to be great, Jesus tells us, then share that love with those around you. Be a servant and welcome the children and the vulnerable. Love. By welcoming the vulnerable we welcome God. When we love others, we love God.

What if we used love as a measure of greatness everywhere? What if “Make America Great Again” meant: let’s see how loving we can make our country? What a great place that would be! Imagine people outdoing themselves to help others. Imagine people competing to see who can create the most efficient and impactful programs. Not to put money in the hands of the rich but to feed people and provide health care, to end racism, to help victims of abuse instead of blame them… and on and on. What if the greatness of our country and our government was measured by love? Not military power or wealth, but how much it helped people – all people, but especially the vulnerable and oppressed. That is the place I want to live in.

Let’s all have a great (loving) day!

Note: This reflection was originally published in my church newsletter. The church website is www.phoenixchurch.org.

Just Say “Wow!”

This summer I spent several Sunday sermons reflecting on the writings of various mystics, including the 14th century Sufi mystic Hafiz. In one of his poems Hafiz gives us the image of several thieves who stole a large jewel and because they didn’t trust each other they split the jewel into small pieces. Of course, by breaking the jewel into many small but more manageable pieces they ruined its value. Hafiz’s poem goes on to warn us that we do this to God as well.

We yearn for something bigger in our lives, for meaning and purpose, but at the same time we’re uncomfortable with mystery and afraid of the unknown. So when we encounter the mystery of God we try to divide it up to make it more manageable. We want to put God into nice neat boxes that make sense to us and so we analyze, label, and organize until we have doctrines and dogmas that explain away the mystery. Even worse, we demonize what doesn’t fit our understanding. But, in doing so, we diminish the priceless value of encountering the Divine as mystery. Perhaps there are times when we need to understand with our hearts instead of our minds, times when we need to just experience instead of analyze.

The apostle Paul suggests something similar when he tells us to see with the wisdom of God and not the wisdom of the world. Instead of re-making God into something convenient and non-threatening as our ego / mind would have us do, we need to balance that tendency by also listening with our hearts. The heart is more willing to sit with mystery. The heart looks at a sunset in awe while the head wants to explain how light interacts with the atmosphere to produce colors. Both are important. It’s good to know why we see beautiful reds and oranges in the sunset but sometimes we just have to sit, stare, and say “Wow!” Sometimes we just have to sit in the unconditional love of God and say “Wow!”

Where do you encounter God? Where do you find awe and love? Perhaps it’s in the sunset, a walk in the garden, during meditation, or in encounters with other people. The mystics often found God in people in need just as much as in their visions and prayers. As you go through your day, open your heart to the expansiveness of Divine love and mystery wherever you may encounter it. Take a moment to look into someone’s eyes or at the beauty around you and just way “Wow!”

Note: This reflection was first published in my church newsletter and inspired by my sermon from August 12, 2018 titled “Voice of the Invisible.” An audio recording of the sermon can be found on the church sermon page.

The Mystic Journey

I’ve always been intrigued by stories of spiritual mystics, who often describe their encounters with the Divine by talking about visions or ecstatic experiences. Sometimes they talk of the Divine as a lover. But what exactly do we mean when we call someone a mystic? One definition we might use is a person who seeks to experience God directly without the church or anyone or anything else as a mediator. A mystic is someone with a thirst for knowing the Divine Presence in their life. Mystics, however, do not typically stand alone but are part of a religious community and every major religion has mystics within its ranks.

The mystic can spend years preparing themselves for this encounter with God through a variety of spiritual practices including reading scripture, ascetic practices such as fasting or a vow of poverty, prayer, spiritual direction, etc. Although mystics may sometimes have visions, a vision does not make one a mystic. Similarly, one could be a mystic and never have a vision. It’s not about a brief ecstatic experience but a journey of transformation. To directly encounter the God of Love is to be transformed.

When we do hear of a mystic having a vision, how do we tell the difference between truth and delusion? Can we trust the experiences of others when they may sound so foreign to our own life experiences? One test is whether the mystical encounter of God results in a transformation based in love or not. If someone is unchanged by their experience or that change is not based in love, then perhaps they weren’t really encountering the Divine. Mystics tend to seek God with their hearts rather than with their intellect but we shouldn’t completely discount the intellect. We must seek God with both head and heart.

Many of the spiritual practices used by mystics are aimed at letting go of their own egos, that part of our minds that tries to control our lives and protect us. In letting go of our egos, we empty ourselves and make room for the awareness of the Divine Presence to enter, often achieving higher levels of consciousness as we become aware of the Sacred in and around us. While we may not all be called to dedicating our entire lives to the encounter with the Divine, everyone can at least open their hearts to the God within. We can all open ourselves to loving and being loved. Perhaps we can start as we go through our normal day by trying to notice where we see the presence of the Divine… in conversation with a co-worker, in a hug, in a flower or sunset… God is everywhere, in us and around us. Opening ourselves to that awareness will begin within us a transformation of love.

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The above reflection is inspired by my sermon from July 8, “Mystic: Journey of Consciousness.” Audio recordings of sermons are posted at www.phoenixchurch.org.

A Radical Welcome

Providing a radical welcome to marginalized people, especially the LGBTQ community, was a founding goal and principle for Phoenix Community Church. Of course, to welcome folks is about more than tolerance. Radical welcome is about providing a place of belonging, compassion and support. A radical, inclusive welcome remains as important as ever as we see renewed attacks not only on LGBTQ folks, but on many marginalized groups. Immigrants in particular have become a scapegoat for our nation’s problems and insecurities and are regularly demonized and persecuted. A recent public letter from the national officers of the United Church of Christ denounces governmental persecution of immigrants and reminds us that we are called to respect and honor the humanity and sanctity of all people.

It is important that we stand up and speak out, especially in this current stormy period in history that feels increasingly dangerous. As we more and more see the ugly shadow side of humanity on display in places of power, it is easy to feel frightened and panicky, much like the disciples who were caught at sea in a storm in Mark 4. In their fright they wake a sleeping Jesus who calms the storm and then challenges them: “Have you no faith?”

In their panic, the disciples reveal their lack of trust in God. On the other hand, Jesus in this story models faith for them by displaying the courage and audacity to confront the danger. His question “have you no faith?” implies the disciples should have handled the situation themselves. One might think the disciples had faith because they turned to Jesus in a time of trouble but by looking to Jesus to solve their problem for them, they actually showed how much they doubted God. Faith doesn’t mean trusting God will swoop in and perform miracles for us like Superman or the Lone Ranger. Faith means that God is already with us, guiding us, empowering us, ready to perform miracles through us.

But, how do we remain centered like Jesus and find the courage and audacity to act when the world feels like a deadly storm bearing down on us? How do we find the courage and audacity to stand up in the current climate against racism and homophobia? How do we find the courage and audacity to stand up for the rights of immigrants who are the beloved children of God as much as we are? Another way to ask the question is, what reminds us of God’s presence in a time of trouble? When panic, fear, and unfocused anger threaten to overwhelm us?

Unfortunately, we each have to answer that question for ourselves. One suggestion might be to choose an image we have for God and then picture that image merging with our own body. Perhaps the image is Jesus or a bright light or a flame. It doesn’t really matter what image we use for the Divine, but focus on that image (which is, of course, a symbol for God and not actually God) merging with us so that we become one with it. If we fix the merged image in our mind then when our seas are feeling too stormy we can call this image again into our minds to remind ourselves of the Divine that resides within us always, to remind ourselves that we are worthy and sacred, that through this Spirit of God within us we have the courage and audacity to perform the miracle of facing our fears, that we have the courage and audacity to stand up and speak truth to the powers of this world as we seek justice for all people.

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The above reflection is inspired by my sermon from June 24, “Stormy Seas.” Audio recordings of sermons are posted at www.phoenixchurch.org/sermons.php for about 6 months.

Thoughts on incivility, restaurant service and homophobic bakers

The issue of civility in no way compares to human rights violations. I also have no interest in hearing complaints about civility from Trump supporters as such complaints are completely hypocritical. On the other hand, there are good reasons to try to remain civil and respectful. Rude behavior can also demean one’s humanity. Perhaps the question is what constitutes incivility versus truth-telling, because truth-telling is dearly needed right now and to the oppressor it is going to sound like rude behavior. I despise everything Sarah Sanders and Trump stand for but I still believe that they are children of God worthy of love and respect. Of course, I also believe I have a responsibility to challenge their dishonesty, their constitutional violations and their crimes against humanity. But, incivility also widens the divide. In reading anecdotal articles about those who have made inroads and helped transform people who were white supremacists, it seems to happen through showing compassion and love, not getting in their face about the evil of their ways. I might also note that Jesus challenged religious authorities over their corruption but was also known to go to their houses for dinner. Is it possible to challenge immoral behavior and still remain respectful of their humanity (i.e. be civil)? If we not, then we put ourselves in danger of becoming them – incivility is a major tool of Trump and his followers. Kicking Sanders out of a restaurant could be construed as some dramatic truth-telling rather than incivility but what if, instead, the manager had pulled a chair up to Sander’s table and started engaging in a little verbal truth-telling, face-to-face? Maybe there were better ways to handle it (and maybe not).

Regarding the baker who refused to bake a cake for a gay wedding, I’m not convinced the situation is really different. Both were refusing service based on their personal sense of morals. The only difference I see is that I agree with one of them and not the other. I’m also probably in the minority of gay people because I’m also not totally convinced that he should be forced to bake that cake (although I understand the arguments for that and don’t oppose them). Frankly, if a baker doesn’t want to make me a cake, I’d rather know that up front. I don’t want to eat a cake made for me by someone who despises my very being. What if, instead of suing the homophobic baker to force him to bake cakes in the future, folks engaged in protests and boycotts instead? I think we always have options on how to react to injustice. It’s not always easy to figure out the best way.

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