That Annoying Voice

The mind is a wonderful tool for thinking, but it has a dark side. There is an aspect of the mind that is not useful but pretends to be useful.  I don’t know what the technical name for this aspect is, but it’s related to ego. It is the aspect of our mind that has a running commentary going in our heads as we go about our daily business.  Much of the time, this voice seems like our own thoughts and our own voice, and we often express these thoughts verbally, for example, “I love her so much!”  Or, “Man, is it hot today!”  Other times, though, this voice is like the voice of a parent or other authority outside ourselves, for example, “You’ll never be good enough.”  Or, “You need to get more fiber in your diet.”  We tend to take this voice seriously; we rarely question it. Western Christianity in particular is guilty of elevating rational thought to the exclusion of all else, so we tend to believe our thoughts, whether they are true or helpful or not.  

I am coming to believe that the voice in our head is not a reliable guide for me, even though I tend to accept what it says.  In Buddhism, there is a heavy suspicion related to this inner voice; it is seen as the cause of all human suffering. It fights change, it tends to cling to fear and appearances, and as such it reflects something less than the true self.  Thoughts we hold inside bring us a lot of negative experiences: fear, guilt, anger, jealousy, shame, sadness, resentment, envy, hopelessness, worthlessness, and depression. Without these thoughts, might we not live in deeper harmony with ourselves and others?? 

Buddhists stress the importance of emptying the mind in meditation to clear this illusion of mind away.  Christianity, for its part, stresses prayer as the path to leaving sin behind.  Either way, the basic message is the same: we have to move out of the ego self (the seat of sin in the soul) and into the Eternal Present where God lives and moves.  

Jesus himself tells us that “the one who has held adulterous thoughts in his heart has already committed the sin” of adultery, and this, to me, means that there is no sin that is not founded wholly on thoughts and that inner voice. The voice has no substance, and yet it feeds the false self, the sinful self, the self that is rebellious against God’s view of ourselves and others.  For example, we say things like: “I’m a woman, I don’t have a degree, I don’t like traveling, I’m middle-aged, I only like blue shirts , I’m married, my father deserted me when I was young, I want to be a writer, I’m not smart enough,” and so on. These things create a false image of who God is creating us to be, and are therefore unworthy of us. Who we really are has nothing to do with any of these ideas, feelings about yourself, or stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.  

Our true self, the self that was liberated by Christ through his suffering and resurrection needs to be free of destructive stories, thoughts and images. We have to move out of our limiting thoughts about ourselves into the experiences we are having right now, minus the thoughts and intellectual constructs we’ve used to frame our existence. In classical terms, we need to locate the source of our sinfulness and assert new thoughts and patterns of living. We tend to become entranced by our thoughts and overlook reality as it really is.  Our selfish side, the ego, doesn’t want us to stop paying attention to these thoughts, however, so it works overtime to keep us engaged in the process of hiding from our true selves. Finding space to assess ourselves honestly will allow us the opportunity to let the false self slip away, leaving only the true essence of who God made us to be. 

This begins by stepping consciously into the present moment.  What else are we experiencing besides reading this article?  What sounds and sensations?  What intuitions and insights?  The more we bring our focus into the present moment and onto our actual experience (as opposed to focusing on our thoughts), the more we experience the joy and contentment of the spiritual being that we are. If we can join God in the Eternal Present, we find more than enough peace, joy and contentment. Minus our sinful, habitual thoughts, we are beautiful and amazing–just as God made us to be!

My prayer for you this week is that you pay closer attention to the limiting thoughts (sinful structures) that you hold in your mind.  Once you identify the reality of these thoughts and how great a disservice they do to the authentic you, you will be able to release them to God and be born anew.  This is the idea behind St. Paul’s admonition that we “rejoice always in the Lord”, knowing that the ego self is put aside in favor of a deep attentiveness to the Present. 

 

Posted in Becoming "Church" | Leave a comment

Wringing or Working?

 

  

We humans have a tendency to complain about things.  We look around the world and see suffering, inequality, injustice and cruelty.  We hear of people in Third World countries actually dying of diseases that we in North America thought were eradicated decades ago.  We complain and condemn the state of our world because that is a lot easier than getting involved in some effort to actually change the world.  The reality is that we can’t wring our hands and roll up our sleeves at the same time!

So, we can either complain about things or we can choose to do something. We can either wring our hands or we can roll up our sleeves—but we cannot do both.

The church memorial garden has been a labor of love for the past 5 years when I asked Rev. Julia if I might be allowed to begin renovating it.  It was thick with thistles as high as my knees, and although I sprayed them and pulled them repeatedly, they always seemed to come back.  That first year was especially rough and the work was endless to the point that I wondered why I had even attempted to remake the garden. It might have been easier to just complain about the weeds and to wring my hands and just let the weeds grow for yet another summer rather than “roll up my sleeves” and tackle the garden one weed at a time.  Because of my persistence and the addition of a lot of other people since that first year, the garden is what it is right now—a lovely oasis of color and life and beauty.

In a similar manner, our politicians have often find themselves accused of misdeeds and always seem tempted to “wring their hands” and hope the investigations will go away because they don’t know how to “roll up their sleeves” and right the wrongs they’ve committed.

Like most people, I have been disturbed and heartbroken by reports of other priests in the Catholic Church who have violated boundaries in their relationships. And I have watched as the church’s leadership stood by for decades, doing nothing but wring their hands, unable or unwilling to roll up their sleeves and actually do something to fix the problem.

A long time ago, I used to have a babysitter who would watch our son—we only had one child at the time—at her house.  She was inexpensive and very good with infants, however, her standard of cleanliness was very different from ours.  Her carpets were never clean, she always had stacks of dirty dishes all over the kitchen, and the kitchen floor was so sticky from spilled soda and juice that whenever I had to walk on it, my feet would stick to it. Fortunately, Chris was an infant and wasn’t crawling around yet or that situation would not have been acceptable.

The woman had three kids of her own, her husband was incarcerated, and she was overwhelmed by the amount of work it takes to be a single mother.  We could have just wrung our hands or complained to each other, but instead, we decided to pitch in and help get her place back in order. One Saturday we arrived at her apartment with cleaning supplies and equipment and began the process of cleaning up. I don’t mind playing with young kids, so I got the task of taking the kids outside so they wouldn’t be in the way.  It turned out that the first step to “rolling up our sleeves” was to remove the mess-makers!

In 1886, Leo Tolstoy wrote a great story called “The Godfather.” It’s about a man who was trying to learn how to make up for some wrongdoing. The man is never named, but the story begins with him looking for and finding his mysterious Godfather. When the Godson finds his Godfather, he stays with him for a while but breaks one of the rules of the house and is sent away. He is told to watch for clues about how to right his wrong on his journey home.

One of the clues he gets is the scene he encounters in a small restaurant. While sitting there he watches a waitress scrub a table over and over again. When he asks her what she is doing, she looks at him blankly – one of those “stupid” question looks – and points out what should have been obvious, that she is cleaning the table.

He suggests that she rinse her rag once in a while. Without realizing how important that would be, she thanks him and in short order, the table is clean and her work is complete.

But it isn’t until years later that the Godson realizes the message of the dirty rag for his own life’s story.

The kitchen floor doesn’t get cleaned if we don’t get rid of the dirt.

The garden isn’t going to be thistle-free if we just pull a few weeds and leave them laying on the ground.

Politicians will never repair their tarnished records by trying to keep our attention on only the good things they’ve done, without ever holding them accountable for the other things.

The church – whether Roman Catholic, United Church of Christ, or Methodist, or Evangelical or Baptist – cannot expect to “clean house” by simply allowing pastors or priests who’ve violated ethical boundaries to be reassigned or rehired.

And the table isn’t going to get clean if we’re always using the same dirty rag—regardless of how great our detergent is!  That rag must be rinsed out and the dirt removed.

In our second reading this morning, Peter suggests that being forgiven of our sins is only one part of the process of purification. It is the most important part; it’s the most difficult part. It’s also the part that God does for us so we don’t have to “wring our hands” about the mistakes we’ve made in our lives.

But accepting God’s forgiveness is only the first part of the process of becoming God’s people. We must also work on a day-to-day basis to remove the unworthy things from our lives so they don’t resurface.

It’s the equivalent of taking our shoes off at the door so there won’t be as much dirt on the carpet to vacuum up.

It’s like planting a lot of ground cover in the garden to keep the thistles from springing up in the garden.

It’s the process of looking closely at our lives to ensure that there is nothing there to distract us from doing God’s work.

Every Saturday growing up we kids were expected to dust, mop, vacuum and otherwise clean the living areas of our house.  We rotated duties so that one week I would vacuum, the next week I would dust.  There were 4 of us kids at that time, so if we stayed on task, it would only take half a day to get everything done.  I remember wondering where on earth all the dust came from since there didn’t seem to be any dust anywhere by the time we were finished with the Saturday chores. Even in the winter, with all the windows sealed tight, the dust was everywhere. The same is true of our hearts: sometimes those negative and unworthy attitudes continue to find their way inside.

It’s God who continually cleans up our lives.  We just can’t do it on our own, so God always offers cleansing and renewal. The fact that we are always in need isn’t something we can simply wring our hands about, nor is it something that we can simply roll up our sleeves about. Rather this is something that invites us to raise our hands in prayer, to clap our hands with gratitude, and to reach out our hands to others who are also struggling.

Our lives may not be “squeaky clean,” our home may not be dust-free and our garden may not be completely free of thistles, but by the grace and goodness of God everything has been made fresh and clean and new.

 

 

Posted in Becoming "Church" | Leave a comment

Thoughts Held in Mind….

  

Einstein once said that the world we live in is a product of our thinking, and that in order to change the world, we need to change our thinking.   I’m coming to realize more and more how profoundly true that insight really is.  The thoughts we entertain and hold in our minds are not simply ethereal snatches of information that enter our minds and then disappear.  Thoughts are energy, and the words and ideas we hold in mind have power to create reality to the degree that we hold those thoughts to be true.  If we believe, for example, that people are basically unworthy of our trust, we will become even more aware of people who lie, cheat and steal.  On the other hand, if we believe that people are basically good and really do try to do the right thing most times, we will find ourselves surrounded by ethical and caring people. What we think is so powerful, that we can literally shape our lives and move toward either success or failure.  How we think and feel can have profound effects on our ability to recognize opportunity, how well we perform, and the outcome of the goals that we have embraced.  When we maintain an optimistic, grace-filled outlook and make an effort to harbor only positive thoughts in harmony with God’s ever-present creative thoughts, we begin to create the circumstances conducive to achieving what is in our highest good.   We feel in control, and despite life’s challenges, we are not overwhelmed because we already know that things will work out according to Divine Order. To be sure, there are a lot of energetic preachers whose only message is maintaining optimism above all else.  This is not the same thing as remaining positive.  Choosing to remain positively convinced in the power of God’s grace does not mean that we ignore difficulties or disregard limitations. Instead, it means spending time focusing only on the thoughts that are conducive to our well-being and that of the world.  

Choosing positive thoughts dramatically improves our life and our chances of success in virtually every endeavor. When we are sure that God has made us worthy of love and therefore we are automatically empowered for ministry, we can relax and begin looking for creative solutions instead of dwelling on problems.  We are more likely to imagine positive situations or outcomes and disregard the thoughts related to giving up, failure, or roadblocks. What the mind expects, it finds. If we anticipate joy, good health, happiness, and accomplishment, then we will experience each one. Thinking positively may sound like a simple shift in attention (and it is!) but it is a mind-set that must be developed. Whenever a negative thought enters our mind, we need to recognize it as such and try replacing it with a constructive one instead. This takes a little effort, but with persistence, we can condition our mind to judge fleeting, self-defeating thoughts as inconsequential and them simply put them aside.  

Jesus tells us again and again that salvation is now, that healing is ours for the asking, that we can work tremendous miracles armed with nothing but trust in Him.  Thus it is certainly within our power as baptized Christians to manifest the Living Christ to those around us.  Staying positive may not have an immediate effect on our situation, but it will likely have a profound and instantaneous effect on our mood, the quality of our praying, and overall experience of living our life.  In order for positive thinking to change our life, it must become our predominant mind-set. Once we are committed to embracing God’s positive thinking,  we will come to see clearly that everything we envision for the world is coming into reality.

Wishing you a week of pursuing your highest good, 

Posted in Becoming "Church" | Leave a comment

Titles, Privilege and Service

When I was a teenager, the title I wanted more than any other was the title “adult.” Because of a home life that was less than what I needed, I managed to graduate high school early and move to another city some 20 miles away from where my parents lived.  I was only 17 at the time, and the economy, like today’s, was not good, especially for a young man with no training and just a diploma in his hand.  As a result, I ended up working for a speakeasy in a bad part of town as an underaged bartender.  The place where I worked had no sign out front, no phone number, yet the place was hugely popular and I made a ton of money. The kitchen served amazing food and it was there I learned to cook.  Unfortunately, the establishment was also known for its ready supply of drugs and escorts for clients so inclined.  I worked long hours with my fake I.D., and by the time I turned 19 I was already pretty burned out on being a bartender and living “the adult” life. It turned out that being an adult was a lot more work than I ever imagined, and the appeal of being an adult pretty much vanished under the weighty reality of actually living on my own.

The same is true of other titles I’ve aspired to: “husband”  “parent” or “priest.”  In every case I’ve learned that what had originally sounded pretty impressive or desirable carried with it responsibilities I had not considered. In the reading we just heard from 1 Peter, we find the writer trying to express his understanding of the role of church members through a number of strong and rather positive sounding metaphors.  I should like to consider with you today four of those descriptions, which at first glance sound very desirable. They will help us to understand what Christians have been called to be.

The first thing Peter says is that Christians are members of a chosen race.  Throughout the Old Testament this title is applied to the Jews.  Time and again their prophets and leaders wondered why God had chosen the Jews to be a special people. It wasn’t because they were so numerous, or because their culture was superior.  It wasn’t because they were better at treating people with simple justice, and it wasn’t because they were in any way better than other people. It was Moses who explained very simply: “God loves you because God loves you.”  The Jews listened to that teaching, and they were moved:  they, who had been a ragtag bunch of competing tribes became a united  people–solely through the actions of God.

This is what the author of First Peter is trying to say about the church.  The early Christians, too, were at a loss to explain why God had chosen them.  St. Paul looked at the church at Corinth in his day and wondered what God was thinking: there was adultery, incest, drunkenness, and gluttony—to name but a few sins in Corinth. Then it occurred to Paul; God is doing it again! He had chosen people, not because of their righteousness, but just because he loved them.  So Paul said, “Look around the church – there are not many wise, not many powerful, not many noble: yet from this hodge-podge, from these nobodies, God has chosen a people.” (I Corinthians 1:26 ff)

But chosen for what?  The Jewish people permitted the idea of being chosen to mean “Chosen for privilege”, rather than “appointed for service”, and that idea damaged their usefulness. The same thing has happened time and again in the church.  The idea of being a people of God can become an occasion for pride as people see themselves as part of the chosen few – very few. Christians have been chosen, but for mission; we have been appointed, but to serve; we have been summoned by God, but to be a people for God’s purposes.

Back in the 1800s, the stagecoach was a primary means of transportation. Stagecoaches had three different kinds of tickets: first-class, second-class, and third-class.  A first-class ticket meant that you could remain seated, no matter what.  If the stagecoach got stuck in the mud, or even if a wheel fell off, you could remain seated.  A second-class ticket meant that you could sit down until there was a problem.  Then, you had to get off and stand to the side while somebody else fixed the problem.  If you had a third-class ticket it meant that you could sit down until there was a problem, but then you had to get off and push!  You might have to literally put your shoulder to the wheel and solve the problem!  Through the centuries, too many church people thought they had a first-class ticket.  We are still in that mindset for the most part. True enough, we have all been selected to make the spiritual journey, but we all have third-class tickets!  We have been chosen all right, but chosen to serve.

The second thing Peter says is that Christians belong to a royal priesthood. A basic Catholic and Protestant tenet is that all believers have a priestly role. But what is that priestly role? Well, for one thing, a priest connects people with God. The Latin word for priest is pontifex, — which means bridge-builder—one who brings two sides together.

To accomplish this, priests are expected to speak to the people on behalf of God.  We resist that idea because we would most often like to wait for somebody else to speak for God!  If we’ve ever gotten someone to actually come to church, maybe we’ve felt like that was all we were asked to do. But the church is not God’s message; at best, it is only a frail and tarnished vessel in which the message is carried.  To change metaphors, we, who are the church, are God’s letter carriers, authorized to deliver a message.  Getting people to church is just another method of delivery – general delivery at that.  What God has given to every Christian is a special delivery message for those with whom we come in contact.  If people act surprised that we are the ones chosen to deliver that message, well, let’s just agree with them! We are like messengers trying to deliver a singing telegram, when we cannot even carry a tune.  Regardless, the message is the Gospel, the good news that God loves people, forgives them, accepts and empowers them despite their weakness. As priests, that is the kind of message we must deliver. 

But priests also speak to God on behalf of the people.  We are called to offer prayers daily for all those God brings into our lives, especially those most in need.  We’re called to offer a sacrifice of prayer, because that is what priests do.

Peter goes on to say that Christians are part of a holy nation. That was originally a title given to Israel.  The “nation” part of that title was certainly more evident for Israel, for they were people of a common ethnic background and they were settled in a confined geographic place.  When applied to the church, the term is more difficult to understand, because the church is composed of people from varied national backgrounds, varied languages, widely distributed across national boundaries.  This new nation transcends national boundaries.  It’s not a territory, it’s an attitude of the heart.  We call it the Kingdom of God where we share a common allegiance to God alone.

The hallmark of this new allegiance, says Peter, is holiness. Christians are to be a holy nation.  The root meaning of the word translated as “holiness” is “separateness.”  It implies living life in a manner which is separate, distinct, from the way other people conduct themselves. 

Finally, Peter calls the church God’s own people.  Sometimes, the value of a thing lays not so much in itself, but in the one to whom it belongs.  I have in my possession a small child’s sandal once worn by my youngest son, who is now 31 years old.  It is meaningless to everyone but me, and for me it is precious because it reminds me of the joys and sorrows—but mostly joys, of raising him.

If you or I were looking down on planet earth from heaven, witnessing all the hurt and suffering, selfishness and pride, disease and violence, we would probably nudge the angel next to us and say, “Why doesn’t God just destroy the earth and end all this once and for all?  Look at how they’ve failed to put God’s dream for them into action!”  But we already know the reason why God keeps us around: we are God’s own precious property, and our worth derives, not from our own cleverness or goodness, but from the fact that we are God’s.

Chosen race, royal priesthood, holy nation, God’s own people. Which title do you like?  As members of the church, all of them belong to each of us.  They are not titles of privilege, but reminders that all of us are called to be in service. 

Whatever our hands touch in this world, we leave our fingerprints: on our walls and furniture, on doorknobs and dishes. As we touch, we leave evidence of our identity. The same is true of our faith in Christ, but the fingerprints we leave on other people’s hearts can literally change their lives forever. Our world is very much in need of more of that type of fingerprints, the kind we leave behind as evidence of our willingness to love others in service to God.

Posted in Becoming "Church" | Leave a comment

Managing Pain

As we have all come to know more acutely this past Lenten season, pain and suffering exist everywhere in the world; pain is a fact of our existence and tends to permeate all of our lives to some degree.  We feel sometimes that others are somehow exempt, that their lives are easier or less tragic, but this is simply untrue.  Too, we all know someone who has allowed life’s challenges and heartache to sabotage their positive outlook or to keep them from living fully engaged in their life’s calling.  We complain about suffering and seek to escape from it, yet since that very hurt is part of our experience (and often tied to relationships and events that have touched us most deeply) sometimes we cling to it and don’t want to release it. For some of us, it is frankly easier to hold our pain to ourselves, using it as a shield that protects us from others, giving us a “victim” identity, or in some way allowing us to tough it out by sheer force of our wounded will.  We do these things, I suspect, because we feel singled out by the universe/God.

The truth is that pain is universal, and because this is so, we can choose to embrace the mystery of the cross to empower ourselves to use our own hurt to help others heal. Furthermore, all pain has this potential, so even when we cannot relate directly to another’s specific situation, we can nonetheless use our hurts to relate to others’ pain.  We can help bring about the healing of individuals whose hurts are both similar to and vastly different from our own. We can choose to surrender our pain to Christ, uniting it with his suffering so that it, too, can be transformed into a healing love that will help us to help others, one person at a time, thereby spreading a cloak of healing Christ energy around the globe.  

The capacity to heal others can only come about when we choose to disassociate ourselves from our victim identity. In fact, the simple decision to put aside the pain we ourselves carry, uniting it to Christ’s, is what grants us the strength to redeem that pain through service. There are many ways to use the hurt we feel to help others. Our pain gives us a unique insight into the minds of people who have experienced trauma and heartache. We can draw from that same wellspring of grace that allowed us to emerge on the other side of a painful experience and pass that grace to individuals still suffering from their wounds. We may be able to share our own coping methods that have helped us; other times we might be limited to offering sympathy and support.  Regardless, the pain we all experience allows us an opportunity to connect more deeply with those around us.  

Helping others can be a resurrection experience that helps our own faith to grow and our heart to be made whole. In channeling our pain into compassionate service and watching others successfully heal, we find our own healing enhanced and made more profoundly evident. Our courageous decision to reach out to others is one of the best ways to declare to ourselves and to the world that pain has not defeated us, rather, it has become the locus of new life. 

Posted in Becoming "Church" | Leave a comment

Emmaus: The Trip to the Past

Does this gospel story seem real to us or is it just someone else’s story??

To learn the answer, we have to place ourselves in the roles of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.  It is Easter afternoon, and the two of you  just heard about the women finding the tomb empty. The guys checked it out, and sure enough, there was no sign of Jesus’ body. The idea of resurrection is appealing, but it seems highly unlikely—too good to be true. As you walk down that road, you are grieving, trying to hang on to the memory of the living Jesus, not the suffering and dying Jesus.  You remember every expression on his wise and kind face. You remember every inflection of his voice. You remember every gesture, every word and action of kindness and grace, and his powerful parables.

And the more you recall, the deeper you sink into grief.  Your hopes are gone, your life’s purpose is undone.  You are lost and overwhelmingly sad, and there is nothing for you now but to turn back to your former life and head home in defeat. That road to Emmaus is the road to your past, and although you don’t want to go there, there is no other option for you now.

Your conversation is quiet and subdued. You are talking to your friend, searching for explanations that can’t be found, for sensible answers to the terrible way the life and ministry of Jesus has ended. Your discussion goes in circles because Jesus was always a person of hopeful, happy endings and his crucifixion is neither hopeful nor does it have a happy ending. And yet, neither can you make sense of this story of the empty tomb.

Then a stranger, one who has been walking along in the same direction not far from you, moves alongside you. He matches your stride step for step, and eventually he discretely enters into your conversation. You kind of take to him and don’t mind filling him in on your conversation topic. You don’t recognize him because this is the resurrected Jesus. His body is more perfect than the Jesus you knew so well these past two years.

Curiously, the stranger doesn’t agree with any of your fatalistic and defeatist conclusions. Instead, he starts listing the prophecies in scripture to explain why Jesus the Messiah had to die. What he says to you isn’t easy to accept: here you are grieving unimaginable loss, and this stranger is quoting a dozen scripture passages telling you that he had to die. Maybe, you feel upset with him at several points and as you finally run out of “yes, buts,” you  realize that this stranger shows more belief in Jesus’ resurrection than either of you possess.

As you near your stopping place for the night, you realize something else. You realize that even though you have been arguing, this stranger’s words of hope and promise are filling an empty place inside you. You want to listen to him some more, and so you invite him to join you for the evening. He accepts your offer, and, as is the custom, you recline at a table and for an evening meal.

Then the stranger takes the bread in his hands and says the blessing, and, breaking off pieces of the bread, he hands a piece to each of you. At that moment you see that this isn’t a stranger at all. It’s your beloved Jesus for whom you’ve been grieving. And in the same instant you realize who it is, he’s gone.

The two of you look at each other in astonishment. You see in each other’s eyes that neither of you was imagining this, and you exclaim to one another, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the road?” Who can eat or sleep at a time like this? You both gather your things together and put on your cloaks and go out into the night. You will risk making the whole trip back to Jerusalem in the dangerous dark just so you can tell the eleven what happened to you.

So, is this parable something that you can relate to, or is it simply a story that happened to other people? Is it possible that this very thing has actually happened to you?

Did you ever come to a Sunday service/Mass weighed down by a problem that troubled you so much that you couldn’t sleep? Maybe you didn’t feel like coming today because you felt depleted, exhausted or worn out.  Perhaps the problem is weighing on your heart and you are feeling suffocated by it.  You’ve got nowhere to turn to for help except to God. You’ve been praying that God will do something soon because things are getting worse.

So, you sit in the pew. You sing the hymns. You listen to the prayers. You wait for some word to be said that will straighten out the knot in your stomach. You do your best to listen to the Scriptures but it’s hard not to dismiss the gospel stories as having happened to other people in other places and not to you. You do your best to take the sermon to heart. Still the problem weighs on you. Please God, you pray, lift this burden from my heart. Help me in my hour of need.

You join your voice to the (Eucharistic) prayer, and then it’s communion time. You look up toward the front of the line, and there’s someone up there that has helped you in the past with a different problem. Maybe they meant to help you or maybe they didn’t even realize what they did. Nevertheless you’ve never told them how much their kindness meant to you.

(But then the priest breaks a little piece of the host off the large one and holds it up and says, “Behold the Lamb of God. Behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are we who are called to his supper.”

You answer, “Lord, through your grace and mercy, you make me worthy to receive you.  Now only say the word and I am healed.”)

GSJ: But then the pastor holds up the bread and juice and says, “Holy gifts are for God’s holy people” and you wonder just how holy you really are.

And as you think about these words, you see other people who have encouraged you in the past also going to communion. You watch all the people who care about, get up from the pews and go forward to receive the bread and drink from the cup. It dawns on you that here at church you are once again sitting with the stranger, the one whom you didn’t recognize on the road to Emmaus.

It dawns on you that, through the love and caring between you and these other members of the parish, you somehow have already recognized Jesus in them. You feel a glimmer of hope. The problem is still there but somehow you have more confidence that Jesus will help you find a way through it. He’s done it before and he’ll do it again.

As you receive communion, you pray that you’ll have the courage you need this week to take Jesus’ love home with you like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus who left the safety of the Lord’s table to go out into the night. You pray for the courage to go out again into your own dark night and face that problem with faith in God’s loving care for you. You pray that no matter how tough your situation becomes this week, others will see Jesus in you.  Take courage, as the disciples on the Road took courage;  may the piece of the resurrected Christ be with you along your life’s journey.  God forth with God’s peace in your heart.  Amen.

 

Posted in Becoming "Church" | Leave a comment

A Question of Perspective

In 1487 the Portuguese explorer Bartoleme Dias was the first European to sail all the way to the southern tip of Africa. When he arrived there, he found a peak that juts out into the water and called it “The Cape of Storms.”  Sailors and navigators have had many terrifying stories of the storms in that area ever since.  This is still true in modern times.

Dias had first-hand experience of horrific storms, so when he returned to Portugal, he told King John II about all the ferocious winds and waves. As the king listened, he saw another possibility in this new knowledge: he saw the possibility of sailing around this cape to India. He renamed it “The Cape of Good Hope.”

A week after the resurrection, the Disciples were still frightened about what might happen to them. They found themselves huddled together behind locked doors (Jn 20:26). All they could imagine were stormy days ahead.

And today in places throughout the world: North and South Korea, Ukraine, the Central African Republic and the Middle East there are people huddled behind locked doors. The only future they can envision is filled with escalating violence and the possibility of mounting death tolls.

Even if we have not found ourselves physically behind locked doors, I know many of us have found ourselves behind other kinds of doors where we have huddled in fear:
• Some have lived in abusive homes where the pain is so great they find themselves emotionally shutting out the rest of the world.
• Some have buried a spouse and in their grief have found themselves frightened by the tasks that the spouse once performed – whether that was mowing the lawn or paying the bills or cooking meals.
• Some have survived a serious motor vehicle accident and for a time are afraid to ride in a car.
• Some have heard the words of a doctor about a debilitating disease or condition that has caused fear to reign in their lives.
• Some have had their homes invaded by strangers and jump every time they hear a door creak.  We all know people who have experienced these things even if they’ve not happened to us personally.

Conventional wisdom has it that if we have somehow avoided all these things, then we are lucky or blessed, but Peter says that it’s the rest of us – the ones who have experienced suffering and fear – who are the ones who are blessed.

Peter has written this Epistle to scattered Christians who are suffering persecution. In fact, some scholars believe it was written while Peter himself was imprisoned and awaiting his death. And still he speaks of hope. The same Peter who denied Jesus while he was on trial and lived in fear of being arrested shortly after Jesus was raised from the dead.

Somewhere between Jesus’ death and his own death, a dramatic change occurs in Peter’s life. Somewhere between Easter Sunday and the day he wrote this letter, Peter found an experience of new birth and a living hope (1 Pet 1:3).

What did NOT change were the circumstances of his life. There were still disappointments. There were still times when he faced opposition. There were still times when his life was threatened.  But somehow, he found strength and victory in the circumstances where he had found weakness and defeat before.  It would have been easy for him to look at the storms at hand and continue to live in fear – just as Dias did at the Cape of Good Hope 

It was also possible for him to look at his circumstances and pretend nothing was wrong or things could be worse, much worse – which is how a lot of people try to console other people who are suffering.

Peter chooses instead, to face the obstacles of his life and grow through them, to allow God to use them for his own benefit. He doesn’t suggest that God brought these trials into his life to make his faith stronger, but instead offers the suggestion that when trials come we find our faith is tested.

Peter is talking about real life obstacles, not training obstacles. These are not set up for us to strengthen our faith like a military obstacle course, these are obstacles that reveal our readiness to face life and trust God to give us the victory on the other side – whether that “other side” is in this life or in the next life.

I once buried a man who was an avid poker player, and in his suitcoat pocket, he wanted to have a Royal Flush, which is the best winning hand a person could ever achieve while playing poker.  His family explained that he had only  had a couple instances of having been dealt this hand during his lifetime, but that he wanted to be buried with the Royal Flush hand to remind himself and his family that where he was going, (to play poker in the presence of God), he knew he would always be dealt the winning hand for all eternity.

Peter believed that, too. He knew there was something much better beyond the current difficulties. He may not have been able to see it or even imagine it, but he knew it was there.

Like King John II, who knew there was something beyond the Cape of Good Hope – something that was proven ten years later when Vasco da Gama made the first successful trip by sea from Europe to India.  Hope springs up when we stare a challenge or difficulty right in the eye and still manage to cling to the promise of resurrection.  It was true for Peter and it’s still true for us today.

Posted in Becoming "Church" | Leave a comment