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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.

The Family of God and LGBTQ Pride

In the early morning of Saturday, June 28, 1969, the New York City police raided a bar called the Stonewall Inn. This was a bar that catered to marginalized people: drag queens, transgender people, effeminate young men, butch lesbians, male prostitutes, and homeless youth. But the raid didn’t go as planned. Those marginalized people fought back against persecution that night. Riots developed and the modern liberation movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons was born. One year later, on June 28, 1970, Christopher Street Liberation Day marked the anniversary of the Stonewall riots with the first ever Gay Pride march. The New York Times reported that the parade of marchers stretched for 15 blocks.

48 years after that first march, we still celebrate Pride. Although the world is much different than it was for LGBTQ people in the 1950’s and 60’s, it is still important to celebrate who we are and to stand up and declare that LGBTQ lives matter. I feel blessed to live in a city that is relatively liberal and accepting but we don’t have to stray very far into the world to know it’s not that way everywhere. Even here in Kalamazoo, there is still much work to be done. Because of that Pride shouldn’t be a once a year party. We need to live with pride in who we are every day, affirming our self-worth to ourselves and to the world.

Our culture would rather that those who are oppressed and marginalized be invisible. Humans fear what we don’t understand. The world would rather we deny our authentic selves rather than challenge their notion of how the world is supposed to work. But, to deny who we are is, in religious language, a sin. To deny who God created us to be – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, cis, gender-bending, queer, straight, etc. – is a sin. Denying who we are separates us from the Divine Presence within us and around us. It creates a barrier between us and the sacred and that barrier is what we mean by sin. In Jesus’ words found in Mark 3:20-35, it’s a serious sin, an unforgivable sin, a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

When the religious scholars accuse Jesus of working for the Devil, they are accusing him of being something he is not. Jesus responds by telling them that they know better than that. They know his power comes from God but they deny it. They know the truth and yet they deny it. And he goes on to declare that denial a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. In other words, to hear and understand the voice of the Divine within and still deny it is an unforgivable sin. To use the word unforgivable is a bit misleading, however. It’s clear from all of Jesus’ other teachings that there is nothing that cannot be forgiven. Or in the apostle Paul’s words, there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. Perhaps Jesus here is engaging in hyperbole, exaggerating to make a point. Perhaps he’s trying to stress the seriousness of denying what we know to be true. For if we deny who we are, how does one recover from that? For those who are LGBTQ, we all have experience with what we call being in the closet. We know firsthand how damaging it is to our mental and spiritual well-being to deny who we are. The only way to recover from that denial is to embrace who we are. That’s not always easy.

We may need to work on discovering ourselves. We may need to overcome internalized homophobia. We may need to deal with hostility from friends or family. We may need professional help. We certainly need the support of good, healthy relationships. These things are not always going to be easy, especially if we lack the support of family. In scripture, Jesus’ family wasn’t so sure about him, either. We’re told they thought he might be losing his mind. Religious leaders were accusing him of working for Satan. He was constantly being mobbed by crowds of marginalized people, those needing healing, those thought possessed by demons. It was all beyond his family’s understanding. So his mothers and brothers went to try and rescue him, but Jesus wasn’t having it.

Jesus redefines family as what I’d call the Family of God – family defined by love, not blood. Anyone who lives with and by God’s love is our sister, brother, mother, and father. Jesus is teaching about community. To live an authentic life we need loving community, the support of family, of people who love us for who we are, as we are. That may include our birth family but it certainly includes the Family of God, those who love us for our authentic selves, who will support us in our times of need, who will forgive us when we mess up. It is this Family of God that we are called to be. It is this Family of God that can change the world.

One of my seminary professors interviewed people about what changed their minds regarding their acceptance of LGBTQ people. What he found was that it actually had little to do with their understanding of scripture. Discussions about how to interpret scripture and apply it to their lives didn’t matter nearly as much as getting to know someone who identified as gay. Relationship and love – these are the things that change people. Welcoming people into this Family of God is where the hope lies for this world we live in. That doesn’t mean converting people to Christianity. It simply means loving people unconditionally, for who they are, as they are. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Note: The above reflection is an edited version of my sermon from June 10, “Family of God.” Go to www.phoenixchurch.org/sermons.php to listen to the entire message.

A couple thoughts on discernment

“The place God calls us is the place where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

– Frederick Buechner

At the beginning of each new year, it is customary to make resolutions and reflect upon our desires for upcoming year. A big part of discerning the call of the Spirit is to simply listen and reflect on God’s voice in our lives. Discernment means to live attentively while intentionally listening for the Spirit in our lives. It will eventually lead us to decisions and actions but it’s not necessarily about getting there in an efficient manner. It’s more about sitting with our questions and dreams and listening for God’s guidance. It’s about asking what God wants for us, not from us. It’s about being true to ourselves and to our chosen spiritual community. Discernment is something we do both individually and together.

There are many ways we might listen for God’s voice. Take some time to think about what works best for you. Most of our spiritual practices are about listening and communicating with the Divine Spirit within, that loving wise voice deep in our hearts that wants the best for us and this world. Common practices include prayer, meditation, and reading scripture. However we talk to Spirit, though, we also need to make sure we take time to listen by building some silence into our spiritual practices. Try to let go of ego and cultural pressure to think and act in a certain way and listen for what Spirit is trying to tell us. Try not to analyze everything to death. Thinking in logical practical terms is a good thing but not if we stay so much in our heads that we stifle our hearts and our creativity. Do something artsy as part of the listening process. Draw, write a poem, journal, whatever works for you.

As we’re listening, how do we know we’re hearing Spirit? How do we know we’re tapping into Divine intention? Perhaps we start to feel excited instead of fearful, challenged instead of overwhelmed, energized instead of tired. We might feel a sense of peace and clarity. Maybe something will just feel “right,” as if it was meant to be. Spirit can be subtle. It might not be easy to hear over the din and hubbub of our daily lives, the political turmoil, and everything else going on in the world. That’s why we need to not only be attentive but intentional. If you don’t already, set aside some time, maybe each day or a couple of times a week, to ask Spirit a question and then listen for the answer. It might be most helpful to ask the same question multiple times and in different ways.

(This short reflection was adapted from a slightly longer one I wrote for my church’s newsletter on January 5, 2018. The church’s website is http://www.phoenixchurch.org)

Preparing the Way for Peace

What do we mean when we talk about peace? Are we referring to a political peace, the absence of war and violence, or an internal peace, a deep spiritual contentment? Sometimes peace gets defined as a lack of violence but I wonder if it wouldn’t be better defined as a lack of fear. Jesus connects peace and fear more than once in his interactions with the disciples. We often let our fears control us whether we realize it or not. We shop like crazy because we fear not having enough. We think power means prestige because we fear not being in control. And when our fears make us desperate, we turn to violence. But we can achieve peace if we stop letting our fears run our lives.

A first step in preparing the way for peace within ourselves and in the world is to follow the model of John the Baptist who prepares the way for Jesus, whom we might call the bringer of peace, with a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.” This is just a church-y way of saying that to turn to God (i.e. repent) we need to take that which separates us from God (i.e. sin), our fear, and remove its power over us, leaving it behind. To do that we need to name our fears, recognize, and confess them so we can leave them behind. Naming something can reduce its power over us. To leave our fears ignored, un-named and un-challenged is to leave them in charge. In naming and rejecting the power of our fears, we repent, turning instead to the Divine, to God. We put our trust in the power of love that is our very nature as children of the Divine.

There are a couple of other tools that are helpful in preparing our hearts for peace as well. The first is the practice of non-judgement. Jesus teaches us not to judge others. When we spend too much time and effort on judging people and situations we create fear, anger, and disappointment in ourselves instead of living in peace. We do need to make judgements sometimes but what would it be like if we were extra-slow to judge people and situations as bad or good, right or wrong, as just or unjust? Might we be able to see others in a new perspective? To be more compassionate for what others are going through? To avoid self-pity and depression, always thinking how unfair life is?

The second tool is mindfulness. What if we took just a little bit of time each day to not worry about the past or the future but just live in the moment? Take five minutes today to just pay attention to what’s going on around you, hear the sounds you might normally ignore, look for something that’s always been there but you’ve never noticed before. Engage all of your senses. In that moment, realize that you’re alive and that God loves you. In that moment, when you don’t worry about past or future, there’s nothing else you need. There is nothing to fear. And because in that moment you fear nothing, you let a little peace into your heart.

(I originally wrote this short reflection for my church’s newsletter. It was inspired by my sermon from Sunday, December 10, 2017. The church’s website is http://www.phoenixchurch.org)

Doubling Down

Doubling down is a betting term that involves taking a risk for increased reward. It can also mean to become more tenacious or resolute. In the Parable of the Talents found in Matthew 25:14-30, we can find examples of both. In the parable, a rich landowner entrusts funds to three servants and then goes away on a trip. When the landowner returns, he finds two of the servants have invested the money and doubled it. The third servant buried the money, neither gaining or losing. In accounting for his actions, the third servant basically calls the landowner a tyrant and says he buried the money out of fear. The landowner gives the third servant’s money to the first two and then has the third servant banished, declaring that the rich will get richer and those that have little will lose it.

The first two servants in the parable took a risk, invested their funds, doubled the money, and were rewarded by the landowner. In a way, they doubled down and it paid off. These first two servants are often portrayed as the good guys in this story because we almost automatically interpret the landowner as analogous to God. In this view the first two servants took risks with the gifts they were entrusted with and multiplied them. To be willing to take risks on behalf of the Divine is not a bad lesson.

However, what if the third servant is right? The landowner concludes the parable with the declaration that the rich will get richer but this isn’t what Jesus teaches us elsewhere. Jesus consistently teaches that God will humble the powerful and lift up the poor, that wealth is more problem than virtue. So, what if the landowner really is a tyrant, not meant to represent God at all in the story but instead meant to be just what he is named as – an unfair and dishonest business person? Then, the third servant becomes not the lazy servant but the hero of the story because he refuses to use the money he was given to participate in the systemic evils of the economic system. And, when called to account, he doubles down. He becomes more tenacious and resolute even though it costs him all that he has. What if acting in the manner of this third servant is really what it means to live in the kin-dom of God?

We always come across those forks in the road where we have to decide which path to take and we have to struggle with the indecision and fear, much like I imagine that third servant did. We have to struggle a little to hear God’s call for us. Perhaps this parable is telling us that to follow God’s way of love, to live in the kin-dom, is to face our fears and walk through them, even knowing that things may or may not work out as we want. Because it’s the right thing to do and because, well, what if we spoke truth to the world and it did work out? What if we created new life where before there was death? What if we created a flourishing, abundant world of love, peace, and justice?

God’s kin-dom is a way of life, a way of living into the future. There may be delays and distractions. There may be failures along the journey. But there is also the promise of new life, the promise of something always waiting to be born again. Jesus’ own story doesn’t end with death but with resurrection. Let us be kin-dom people, putting our trust in God and walking God’s path boldly, walking tenaciously and resolutely through our fears into the promise of new, abundant life. Let us be the seeds from which God’s kin-dom of love and justice grows.

(I originally wrote this short reflection for my church’s newsletter. It was inspired by my sermon from Sunday, November 19, 2017. The church’s website is http://www.phoenixchurch.org)

Called to Serve

Jesus calls his followers to be servant leaders: to lead others by serving them, by doing for them, by acting out of concern for their well-being. This leadership model reminds me of Martin Luther King, Jr’s statement that no one is free until we are all free. By calling us as servant leaders, Jesus asks us to work on our own freedom by freeing others from whatever injustice holds them down: racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, violence, poverty, and on and on. Until we can free our neighbors from these evils, we cannot ourselves be free of them.

This is the vision of a world free of injustice, filled with love, peace, and hope. It’s what we mean when we talk of the kin-dom of God. But is such a world really possible? I trust in God that it is. If we can envision it we can build it. When we begin to live by the principles of the kin-dom (love, justice, and peace) then the kin-dom begins to exist within each of us. Born within our hearts, the kin-dom begins to grow in the world.

We answer this call to be servant leaders by humbling ourselves in the service of others and not worrying about what we get out of it but serving out of compassion and concern. This type of leadership by example is sorely needed in our “me-first” culture. Jesus’ call to servant leadership stresses the equality of all, that we’re all equally important in God’s sight. It also acknowledges that our true leader as Christians is Christ, God’s word of love to the world. Above all else, we are led by Love.

There are also temptations and dangers when we start to think of ourselves as leaders. We can fall prey to hypocrisy, not practicing what we preach. We can get attached to the power and the praise, becoming all show and no substance. We can also give in to greed, serving only those who can give us something back. A strong relationship with the Holy Spirit can give us the strength and courage we need to help us avoid these kinds of temptations as we answer Christ’s call to work for a justice filled kin-dom.

As followers of Christ we are called to be servant leaders, to serve where, as Frederick Beuchner says, “the place of our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” By beginning to build the kin-dom within ourselves by opening our hearts to the strength of the Spirit and by offering ourselves as God’s servants in the world, we can make God’s kin-dom a reality. We are called to serve. How will we respond?

(I originally wrote this short reflection for my church’s newsletter. It was inspired by my sermon from Sunday, November 5, 2017. The church’s website is http://www.phoenixchurch.org)

More Prayer, Not Less

One of the lessons Christians take from the teaching of the resurrection of Jesus the Christ is that senseless violence is no match for the love of God. Although the world may reject love way in favor or greed, violence, and a thirst for power, we put our trust in the promise that love, forgiveness, and peace will win out in the end. This does not negate our grief or our anger over tragedies of violence that make no sense. It doesn’t lessen our call to act to make such atrocities less likely. Indeed, it offers hope and renews the call to act, to live out of the love of God that is rejected by the world and build the kin-dom with faithful action, compassion, and resolve.

In the face of tragic heart-breaking violence I understand the frustration behind the sentiment that people don’t need our thoughts and prayers, especially when the prayers come from the mouths of politicians who refuse to otherwise act to reduce the violence in our culture. But I’m a little confused when people of faith say we don’t need prayers. We actually need more prayer, not less. Of course, although I think prayer is indeed necessary, prayer alone is not sufficient. We also must act.

I think those who speak against prayer have a basic misunderstanding of what prayer is and is not. It is true we don’t need empty prayers. Jesus teaches in Matthew 6:5-8 that we should not pray empty prayers meant only to put on a show for others. Unfortunately, these are the prayers we get from politicians who want to look like they care but who refuse to act when it is in their power to do so. However, sincere prayer, understood properly, is needed more than ever from people of faith. Prayer is not a magical murmuring that calls upon God to solve all of our problems for us. Such prayer is also useless because it actually discourages us from acting. Prayer is not a magical solution and it never absolves us of the responsibility to care for the world. Prayer is meant to help us act and not avoid acting. Prayer is meant to express our compassion, to open our hearts to God’s call to love and justice, giving us the courage and strength to act. We are the instruments of the Divine. We are God’s voice and hands in this world. We are the means through which God acts in this world. We need more prayer, not less, that God may work through us to end the madness of our culture’s violence. Let us pray for healing, for forgiveness, for wisdom and for courage and when we’re done praying let us take action.

Out of the Ashes Interview

I did an interview about my book, “Out of the Ashes,” with the local NPR station that is airing today, Nov. 6, 2017. See http://wmuk.org/post/wsw-out-ashes-church-where-questions-can-be-asked.

Reclaiming Our Faith

A healthy spirituality, our relationships with God, Creation, and each other, is so important for a healthy and vital life. In our relationship with God we are “given” our faith as children. We’re taught certain ideas and concepts about what we should believe and how we should think and act. However, as we live our lives, we sometimes find ourselves harmed by these concepts or we simply can no longer make sense of what we were taught as children because it doesn’t match our life experience. When this happens, we can either cling to our beliefs, becoming fundamentalist, or we give up on our faith altogether. However, there’s also a third way.

Beyond the given God there is also an “ungiven” God, a hidden and mysterious Divine Presence that we can’t quite ever know fully. There’s always something new to be learned, some new revelation to be discovered. When the given God doesn’t make sense anymore, we can reclaim our faith by going in search of this ungiven God. We can try to find more meaningful understandings of the Divine and our spirituality. But, because what we’ve been taught is so deeply embedded in our psyche this can be a difficult journey. It can seem very threatening when we are presented with challenges to how we have always understood the world. However, if we choose to take on this mission, there are several steps we might consciously consider that can be helpful:

1. Name our hurts. It’s important to tell our stories and name out loud what has hurt us or what no longer makes sense to us. If we can’t name it, if we can’t express our doubts and concerns, then we can’t get past them.

2. Understand our hurts. We need to deconstruct what is bothering us. What doesn’t make sense? How does it conflict with our life experience? How does this make us feel? It’s important to explore both the logical and emotional aspects.

3. Let go of the beliefs that hurt us. We need to give ourselves permission to let go of what is no longer useful or healthy for us. This can be very difficult as it might be scary or even feel like a betrayal of our upbringing. Ritual might be helpful in letting go. It might also take time. Think of letting go as a process, not as a one-time decision.

4. Reclaim our faith. It might be easier to let go if we’re aware that there is something else waiting for us, that there are other valid ways of understanding the world and the Divine. This step is our search for those understandings. In addition to letting go, we might ask what was good about what we were taught? What is worth hanging on to? We can also learn about new understandings by reading books, talking to spiritual leaders and our peers in our spiritual community, and by reflecting on our personal experience. We might even dive deeper into how our religious tradition has understood whatever issue we’re trying to let go of because often religious traditions can have more than one way of understanding something.

Spirituality is an important part of our human experience. We have a choice how we react when we are confronted with crises of the spirit. Don’t give up on your soul but embrace growth, the never ending cycle of resurrection, of letting go and being re-born.

(I originally wrote this short reflection for my church’s newsletter. It was inspired by a discussion I led at a church retreat in October 2017. The church’s website is http://www.phoenixchurch.org)

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