Through the Jello

One of the things many of us struggle with is the question of what God is calling us to do right now with our lives. We go to work in the morning, we interact with our colleagues and friends and family on the weekends, we support our parish family with time, treasure and talent—but there seems to be a deeper calling within us and we wonder what it means. I like to think of spiritual direction as helping someone wade through a swimming pool of lime jello (yes, lime would be Father’s favorite!) with no clear sign of what step to take next. By looking over our shoulder, however, seeing how our life has unfolded thus far, we can perceive a possible trajectory for what has to happen next. In my experience, this is the typical way of moving forward.
There are other times in our lives when all the signs seem to be pointing us in a particular direction. Our thoughts and dreams are echoed in the songs we jam to in the car on the way to Kroger. Our desires are expressed on the pages of the novels we read and stories we hear at work. Our vision is expanded and our heart strings are pulled through the various media we encounter. Through all it, a message becomes clearer. Maybe that message doesn’t even seem to make sense. Maybe the message has no discernable “real world” application, nonetheless in the deepest part of us these plans and urges feel right. Maybe we feel like we are being invited to relocate across the country to create a new life, even though everything is going well right where we are. Or maybe we feel the desire to pursue a new direction in our career when it never really interested us before. Or maybe God is tickling our fancy with the thought of a fresh way of serving others that we hadn’t even considered before. When we spend time in the Silence, getting in touch with our higher soul-self, our intuition sends us messages that are meant to lead us into becoming our most fulfilled selves. The first step is to become open enough to hear the message; the next step is to simply decide to take action and make a move.

Curiously, once we make the decision to pursue these inner urgings or desires, the whole universe that God has created begins to set into motion all the right means for the details of God’s plan to come to fruition. Where we were once stressed about the insecurity and fear of change, now a sense of peace comes over us, because we know that our questions will no longer make us wonder if God’s call is possible, rather, we will find ways to make that call’s vision really happen. Instead of deterring us from our goal, these new questions only serve to clarify our focus as we move forward. This is not about “throwing caution to the wind” in order to pursue some wild dream, rather it’s about trusting that the God who planted these deep desires within us will certainly guide and direct us. It’s the move from fear to loving trust: the shift in our soul’s energy will then affect everything around us in a positive way. Like a tsunami of grace, that energy can then go ahead of us, clearing any debris from our path so we can move forward to embrace the dream God has given.
Like all the great dreamers in our Scriptures (Samuel, David, Joseph and all the Prophets) we will find that our new attitude will attract to us all the help we need, including likeminded people. Sometimes even the most unlikely angels arrive at just the right time to help us with the information and nurture we need. Whatever our dreams are, wherever we are feeling drawn to make them come to light, it all begins with a simple surrendering of our fears in order that God can help us take that first step. Taking action is the difference between dreamers and workers.

Wishing you a week of fearless dreaming and great daring,

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Squirrel Sermon

The winds are blowing as I sit in the dining room of the rectory today; the few leaves that remain attached to the trees are being ripped away, the daylily beds are yellow and brown, and only one rose bush continues to defy winter’s approach by continuing to open it’s cherry red blooms in an elegant act of defiance and faith. And then there are the squirrels. I swear there are more squirrels running around the yard today than I’ve seen all spring and summer. And right now, as I look out, one of them is clutching a nut of some kind in his front paws, sitting on the privacy fence as he looks me right in the face. He can see me as clearly as I see him, and I realize that Brother Squirrel has a lesson for me today.
I’m not completely off my rocker, you know. Native Americans and many other cultures considered all living beings as brothers and sisters that not only shared this precious planet with us, but they had as much to teach us as we had to teach them. By observing and listening to these other family members, we could learn great lessons: how to work in harmony with all that is, how to enter into the flow of nature’s cycles, and in the case of Brother Squirrel, how to prepare and conserve during periods of plenty for the times when nourishment might become scarce. Today Brother Squirrel sits to remind me to set aside a portion of my most precious resources as an investment in the future. As a North American who lives in the wealthiest country on the planet, this surely includes my financial resources and perhaps my food and drink, but I suspect there is a deeper lesson.
We are all busy people, expending our energy on a variety of projects, ideas, people and things. Our energy is made manifest in a plethora of ways because we have so many of these things. Sometimes we run the risk of depleting ourselves, of becoming spread so thin that our energy is diffused to the point of our becoming exhausted. We can begin to feel like we are always focused outward with precious little energy expended on ourselves or on the things we most value. This is because it’s easy to allow ourselves to be distracted from the most important things. There is another way.
We can conserve the valuable asset of our creative energy by being aware of the choices we make and choosing only those that nurture and sustain us. This is not about being self-centered or selfish because even when it comes to engaging in ministry, we can easily get involved in hundreds of “good” things. When we take time to pause and consider, however, we occasionally realize that we are called to do the “best” things instead of a hundred “good” things. This same principle extends to the natural resources of our planet as well, using what we need wisely with the future in mind.

Saving and conservation might sound like they are a reaction based on fear of scarcity or not having enough of something—this is not the case. Saving is a clear affirmation of an abundance yet to be made manifest. Brother Squirrel is quite clear on this point: nuts are buried as part of the cycle of life, allowing one to face winters with enough faith that spring will surely and eternally come once more. Knowing that change is part of life’s grand cycle, we can choose to create a safe space, both spiritually and physically, that will support us in the present and sustain us in the future. This means not filling our space with things, or thoughts, that do not serve our highest interest. Without hoarding more than we need, we keep ourselves in the cyclical flow of life when we donate our unnecessary items to someone who can use them best. This allows for more even abundance to enter our lives, because even Brother Squirrel knows a life of abundance involves more than mere survival.

His lesson to the priest clearly presented, Brother Squirrel jumps nervously off the fence, quickly buries the nut, and chases around the yard with some of his kin. This conservation business takes some effort, but squirrels are never too busy to have a little fun. They see to be great communicators, and by helping each other watch for danger and nosy clergymen, they do not seem to allow worry to consume their energy. Instead, they allow their curious nature to lead the way, staying alert to opportunities and learning as they play. For you and me, it’s clear that we’re meant to enjoy the journey of life’s cycles even as we plan and prepare for an amazing future, taking time to pay attention to life’s lessons and to play along the way.
Wishing you a week of listening to the voices of wisdom without getting too nutty,
Fr. Michel

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All Saints Day 2014

“God bless you.” We say that fairly often, don’t we? If someone sneezes in church or if they tell us about some struggle that they’re facing, those are words we use right away. “God bless you.” It’s nice to believe in a world where saying those words makes a difference, that God might, in fact, bless us—and He does. In fact, God’s first Word to us is always one of blessing – of promise. Martin Luther, reflecting on the Ten Commandments, writes that even when God gives us a command, it is always attached to a promise. The promise always comes first. Often we think it’s the other way around: if we’re good, or if we repent, THEN we’ll get the promise. As if we have to do something to earn God’s blessing, like maybe God is like us—reluctant to just “give away” free stuff. The catch is we’re never good enough to earn anything from God, it’s all grace. That’s where Jesus starts today. As Jesus delivers the Sermon on the Mount, the crowd gathers below Him. He sees them all – the sick, the lame, the wounded, men, women, children – ordinary people, like you and me. Not the powerful, not the religious leadership – most of those kind of people wouldn’t be caught dead with the kind of people who are gathered around Jesus now. These are just ordinary people, struggling to get by the best they can. Jesus sits down, and sets out to instruct them. He opens His mouth, and the first thing that He says is, “God bless you!”
This reminds me of the pastor who was preaching on all the sins of world that were, in his opinion, destroying the younger generation. He railed against gambling, and one older woman in the church yelled out, “Amen! You tell them, pastor!” And then he preached against alcohol, and she yelled out, “Hallelujah! You tell them pastor!” Then he preached against gossiping, and he paused, waiting for her. Everything was quiet for a minute, then her voice was heard, “Now you’ve gone off preaching and gone into meddling!”
Did you ever notice that Jesus never preached fire and brimstone to those who had been labeled “sinners” by the religious establishment? The only ones he hit with fire and brimstone were the religious and political leadership, those who had contempt for ordinary people. But to these ordinary people, Jesus says simply, “God bless you!”
The Gospel that was read just last week at my installation was the same one from John that was read at my ordination 7 years ago. Jesus tells his disciples, “You did not choose me, I chose you.” It was a gift of discipleship for them and for me and for all of us. We are His people. We meet the requirements for a relationship with Him, simply by being broken people who need healing. He meets the requirements of that relationship by forgiving us, breaking down the barriers between himself and us, making us all saints by carrying most of the cost of the relationship himself. Of course, the people gathered around Jesus couldn’t know that – but Jesus did. They supposed that the Pharisees and all those other good religious people were blessed, but not them. They supposed that those good Pharisees had all the answers, but not them. They supposed that the Pharisees had everything together, and that if they wanted a relationship with God, that these good, religious people were the ones who had the inside track, the ones that they should emulate, the ones who could help them. They supposed that they were like the little child, standing outside the candy store without any money, looking in the window at all that wonderful stuff that they couldn’t have. So what a wonderful surprise it is to them, to have Jesus sit down in their midst, and begin with these words: “God bless you!”
Notice the words of the blessing. Jesus begins: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The “poor in spirit” are those who, realizing that they have nothing to offer God, depend on His grace alone. They know that they have nothing to offer – that if they are to live in His presence, that they must live only in the shadow of His love and grace. There is a God-shaped void in the middle of their life that nothing else can fill. They are empty, waiting for God to fill them. The promise is that those who seek will find. Are you “poor in spirit?” Then, “God bless you!”
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” In terms of our relationship to ourselves, God demands truth and humility. The ones who mourn are those who see the brokenness of one kind of relationship or another and they are in pain. Jesus says that they shall be comforted. The ones without power or influence will also be lifted up by the Spirit’s presence and gifts. The Spirit is the down-payment that they receive on the Kingdom. Are you the meek? Are you the one who mourns? “God bless you!”
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” In terms of others, God’s demand is for justice and mercy. Justice means “right relationship”, – bringing about wholeness, peace, shalom, unity – fulfilling the purpose for which God created us, that we might, as Adam and Eve originally did – walk in the Garden with God. Those who “hunger and thirst for justice,” are starved for better relationships – they want them so bad that they don’t have time to carry a grudge, they refuse to think evil about another, refuse to backbite or slander or gossip. They are those who go beyond the call to be reasonable, to give eye for an eye, to do what can be expected, what is deserved or what is even allowed – to be merciful to others. They are always willing to forgive; they love without counting the cost, and so come to dwell in the heart of God. They shall receive mercy, Jesus says. Are you one of these – those who are starved for better, restored relationships? Are you the merciful? “God bless you!”
“Blessed are the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.” There is also a social demand in our relationship with God. That is what is expressed in the last three Beatitudes. “The pure in heart,” are those whose lives are aimed in one direction. The pure in heart don’t care what others say – about cultural values or social expectations. Their aim in life is to reflect God’s life in theirs, to mirror His concerns in theirs, to make God’s heart the sole object of their own heart. They are the peacemakers, the “shalom” makers, whose presence brings healing and wholeness and restoration to this world. They are the ones who are more willing to bear injustice than to create it, who are more willing to be victimized by the world than to allow that any of god’s children should suffer injustice. He compares them to the prophets who, in speaking for God, suffered persecution. Are you one of these – the pure of heart, the peacemakers, one who is willing to be persecuted for righteousness sake? “God bless you!”
Are you happy today? What makes you happy? What brings you joy? Do you get up in the morning, excited about life? Do you have the kind of joy that has staying power? Is your life bearing the kind of returns you want it to? Jesus says that it can. That is the promise: “Happy are you.” God has already called you to new life in Him. He has given you the possibility of a deeper, more fulfilling relationship with Him. It isn’t something you have to strive for – it is a gift for you today. You are one of the saints of God, so “God bless you!”

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Dying to Rise

Yesterday afternoon, when the temperature was still in the 60s, I was able to bully Gayle into helping me plant the remaining 120 tulip bulbs in front of the rectory—in anticipation of a rainy day today and the advent of a cold front.  There is something deeply sobering about planting fall bulbs when one knows full well that soon the bitter snows will cover them and that it will be a very long time before any sign of the bulbs’ life becomes apparent.  From the grave of an autumn planting will come new life: that annual miracle never fails to astound me and fill me with gratitude.

Like those fall bulbs, sometimes a part of us must die before another part can come to life. Even though this is a natural and necessary part of our growth, it is often painful, confusing or disorienting, especially when we don’t know consciously what part of the cycle we are in. In fact, confusion and disorientation are often the surest signs that a shift is taking place within us. These shifts happen throughout the lives of all humans, as we move from infancy to childhood, from adolescence to middle age and beyond. With each transition from one phase to another, we find ourselves saying good-bye to an old friend, the identity that we grew into in order to move through that particular time.
It’s clear to me that God calls us to become more and more a truer form of ourselves, so as we change jobs or enter new relationships, we grow into new identities, more authentic versions of ourselves.  None of this is meant to be permanent, though, so when the time comes where God is calling us to move forward and grow some more, our life begins to feel unsettled. Sometimes all it takes is for us to look more closely at the changing surface appearances of our lives to realize that something deep is shifting within us. For example, we may go through one whole chapter of our lives creating a protective shell around ourselves because we need it in order to heal from some early trauma. One day, though, we find ourselves feeling confined and restless, wanting to move outside the shelter we needed for so long.  That new part of ourselves cannot come to birth within the confines of the shell our old self needed to survive.
It’s a weird combination of emotions we may feel at these transition times.  We may feel a mixture of exhilaration and sadness as we say good-bye to a part of ourselves that is dying in order for a whole new identity to emerge in its place.  This is, from a Christian worldview, the continuing cycle of Good Fridays and Easter Sundays—the ongoing dyings and risings of human life in Christ.  The natural world provides an outward sign (Catholics would say “sacramental”) of this interior movement: whenever an animal molts or sheds its skin it prepares for new skin or feathers to emerge.  This is the great cycle of death and rebirth, physical and spiritual, to which we are forever linked. We are not called to become some kind of static, unchanging being, like a plastic statue of Jesus my grandfather used to have in his Dodge Dart.  Instead, God calls us to surrender to the process of dying and rising, to letting go of our past selves with great love and gratitude, and to welcoming the new version of ourselves with an open mind and heart, ready for our next phase of our life in Christ.

Wishing you a week of gentle releases and grateful opportunities for acceptance,

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Light Through the Cracks

As kids, many of us heard the words of Jesus, “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” and mistook that to mean that God wouldn’t love us unless and until we were morally perfect. Not so. The original idea of perfection in the Hebrew mind was one of integration and wholeness, and had nothing to do with morality per se. So, then, God calls us to perfection of a different sort. What does God want from us? It’s not to be morally perfect, so when we do make mistakes, sin or make otherwise poor decisions, there is a need to repent, but there is no reason to dwell on the fact that we aren’t good enough or not measuring up. What if we took a different attitude about life? What if we came to see life as something that needs some experimenting, some experiencing and some learning? If that is the case—and I think it is—then being imperfect becomes a prerequisite. Our life might become much more joyful and interesting if we let go of our illusions about moral perfection and aspired instead to perfection of intention.
This does not mean that we don’t strive to do our very best and to make the best moral choices. We simply accept that there is no such thing as perfection in this life: all living things are in a constant state of movement, literally every part of us. While we are reading this reflection, for example, our hair continues to grow, our cells are dying and being reborn, and our blood is being pumped through our arteries. We may think of ourselves as being unchanging witnesses to the world around us, but in fact, nothing we were born with even exists anymore—not a single cell. Our life changes the more it seems to stay the same. Can we experience moments of perfection? Yes. But that doesn’t mean it will last because like everything else, it is an impermanent state. Trying to hold on to perfection (a perfect day, a perfect embrace, a perfect meal, etc…) or trying to forceably make something perfect recurr can only result in frustration, unhappiness and despair.
On some level, we understand this, yet so many of us are stuck in a crazy cycle of trying to be perfect in ways that are not meant to be. Parents want to be perfect role models for their kids; students want to be perfect in their academic discipline. Priests want to be perfect examples of every possible thing for their congregations and musicians want to consistently play their instruments on pitch and with perfect timbre. It’s just plain craziness! One way to nudge ourselves out of this tendency is to look at our lives and notice something that is, at first, shocking: no one—literally NO ONE–is judging us to see whether or not we are perfect. Sometimes, this perfectionism pathology is a holdover from our childhood, perhaps an ideal we inherited from a demanding parent who was obessed with her or his own imperfection. We are the adults now, and we have hopefully learned from our own parents and teachers and pastors enough to realize that we are always free to let go of the need to perform for someone else’s approval. Similarly, we can choose to experience God as a Loving Parent who cares less about our moral perfection than our willingness to align ourselves, albeit imperfectly, with God’s dream for humanity. Once we realize this, we can begin to take ourselves paradoxically less and more seriously: less obsessive about moral rectitude and more passionate about being the best human person we can be according to God’s dream for us. I submit that living this way is also a lot more fun! Imperfection is inherent to our being human; by embracing our imperfections, we embrace the truth about ourselves and the truth that God’s light is more likely to shine through the cracks of our imperfections than anywhere else.

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Projecting Our Own Issues

This week’s meditation is a follow-up on an earlier one that had to do with “beaking up” with images of ourselves that we know no longer serve our highest good. The truth is that we all have “issues”, in other words, things about ourselves that we don’t like, or traits we find undesirable. Most of us realize that we are not perfect and that it is natural to have unpleasant thoughts, motivations, desires, or feelings. However, when we do not acknowledge these things, we might find ourselves ascribing these attributes to someone else, judging others as angry, jealous, or insecure. From what I recall of my psych class in college, this kind of fault-finding is called “projection.”
When we ourselves become the target of projections, it is frustrating and even annoying, especially when we know full well that we are not the cause of someone else’s distress. Even people who are well aware of their issues might find that certain subjects can bring up unexpected reactions or projections. For example, if I am feeling financially spread thin, seeing my friend in a new Lincoln might cause me to see him as extravagant. If I am feeling overweight or out of shape, I might take every opportunity with my friends to underscore the importance of eating right and getting adequate exercise. Or, if I am prone to being dissembling or opaque with others, I might wax eloquent on how I simply cannot tolerate dishonesty. It’s always easier to perceive our flaws and sins manifested outside ourselves!
When it comes to being mindful about what comes out of our own mouths (I am always telling my students, “Just because it’s in your garage, you don’t have to open the garage doors!”) it is quite another story when dealing with others. Yes, we can try to avoid the ones we know are projecting their issues onto us, but not always. We can, however, learn to lovingly deflect some projections through mindfulness and gentler language. I remember many occasions with my own family members, many of whom were not always nurturing, when I had to bite my tongue and simply maintain silence. Other times, I took a “time out” and considered that there are people who probably think that I have annoying flaws–and that allowed me a moment of gratitude for the friends who loved me regardless of my limitations. As Christians, we follow Jesus by picking up our cross every day and moving forward. We are never on our own, however, as the Light of God envelopes us at all times. That same Light of God surrounds all creation and all people, even the annoying ones trying to compel us to take some share of their issues. There is comfort and grace in realizing that we can gently remind someone when s/he is being unreasonable, and we can choose to remain calm in the face of criticism. We all know that it is never fun to have someone else’s issues dumped onto our laps; we should also remember that it feels the same when we are the ones doing the dumping. When we take ownership of our thoughts, motivations, and issues, we are less likely to project our issues or disowned qualities onto others. This is precisely why, since the earliest years of the worshiping Christian community, the calling to mind of our failings has always been the first order of business when coming together to worship.

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Past Lives, Present Life

I’ve always had an eclectic gaggle of friends no matter where I’ve lived: Christians, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, communists, Muslims, as well as New Age believers. Some of these believed wholeheartedly in the idea of reincarnation–that we have each lived past lives numerous times and that we are living this current life as a result of choices made in previous lifetimes. Like all religious teaching, this cannot be proved or disproved. What I AM certain of, however, is that the various “lives” each of us has lived in this lifetime have created the situation in which we now find ourselves.

Our phobia of spiders, for example, might stem from an early childhood encounter in the garden. The verbal put-downs we experienced from family members as a teen might be part of the reason we cling to self-limiting beliefs about not being pretty enough, smart enough, etc… Likewise, early training in sports may have given us a lifelong interest in maintaining our weight and physical health. Early praise for our art projects may have given rise to our creative endeavors later in life.

These “previous lives” have two faces, one positive and one negative. Violence, death, and abuse in life may show up as fear, uncontrollable anger, or low self-esteem later on. Positive experiences from an earlier lifetime may cause us to feel strongly drawn to certain people, places, or objects without understanding why.

For those who believe in literally having lived previous lifetimes, there are “regression therapists” who can assist in recalling memories and emotions from the past. For those of us who do not believe in a literal previous lifetime but who want to understand better why it is we are the way we are, we can use some of these same tools to explore our past.

There is an unfortunate tendency in North American culture to use the effects of one’s past as an excuse for poor choices made in the present. We hear this often in regard to sexual abuse victims who later become abusers themselves. While there might be a kernel of truth in this perspective, for me it is more appropriate to speak of our “past lives” as a key to be used to unlock the prison of the present. The past–with all its grace and sin–can hold the secret to getting rid of bad habits, limiting beliefs or a general lack of loving ourselves.

I am not a psychologist by any means, but I think it makes sense that the impact of earlier memories lies within our subconscious, and that both good and bad habits may well have their origin in those experiences. And if this is true, it makes sense to reconnect with past memories so we can understand them now as adults, and find a way to free ourselves.

How might we do this? Keeping a journal works well for some people: as they write about current situations and feelings, they discover things written earlier about similar situations that, had they not written them down, they might never have made the connection. Another idea is to think about the people we like and dislike, and why this is so. Perhaps someone we feel immediately connected to reminds us of a beloved family member who showed us unconditional love, while someone to whom we feel instant revulsion might be calling up subconscious memories of abuse or feeling taken advantage of.

The goal here is not to fan old hurts into flame, but to look calmly and without judgment at the things that have made us who we are today. If the past holds memories of grace and strength, our response should be one of profound gratitude. And if the past holds disappointments or hurts, then forgiveness is essential. Holding on to old injuries is its own kind of prison for us, never for the offending person. And the simple truth about forgiveness is this: until we forgive from the heart, we are harboring the illusion that our past could have been any different, that by holding our resentment, we can refashion the past into some other story. Clearly, we cannot. Accepting that simple truth can often be the key turning in the lock of our prison door.

There may be beliefs from our “past life” that we are still laboring under but feel a need to surrender because they do not serve our highest good. Remembering the past and finding connections to the present is useful even if we can’t find obvious connections at first. Sometimes that comes later. Regardless, we can make the most of our past by learning from those significant events the critical lessons of forgiveness, compassion, and gratitude. We will come to see that, ultimately, God is not found in our past. He is available to us only in the present. And it is precisely the present where God most needs us to be, to bring healing and miracles to a world that is so often trapped in past hurts, unable to forgive and move forward.

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