Breaking Up Is Hard to Do…

Anyone who has ever watched Dr. Phil or Maury knows all about unhealthy relationships and how the experts advise us to free ourselves from them. Once we realize that this person has broken up with us, or that the relationship is abusive, or that we ourselves are clinging in a way that is not appropriate, we know what to do. We don’t call, text, email or post our personal business on Facebook. We end the relationship directly and in person; we don’t give in to the temptation to contact them again, even though the sound of their voice might give us a rush of pleasure temporarily. We know in our souls that as difficult as it might be to end the relationship, the truth is that anguish and unhappiness are sure to return if we resume with this person.
But, what if the unhealthy relationship isn’t with someone else, but with one’s very self?? How do we “break up” with a side of ourselves that is clearly unhealthy and not what God calls us to be??
I think the answer lies in applying the very same techniques we would use with another person, and the things we should avoid doing with others, we should avoid doing to ourselves.
First, avoid being impulsive and instead try to slow down your reactions to situations. Find your internal “pause” button and use it liberally, with the intention of delaying as long as possible between an event and your reaction to the event. Think: is what I am considering in my highest good? Is this a productive response? Am I willing to accept the consequences of my reaction? There is no merit in simply acting in the moment when we would be better served by simply sitting on our feelings.
Second, avoid clinging to unhealthy interactions with or images of yourself. Clinging is any behavior that demonstrates holding on, not letting go of what clearly is not in your highest good. For some, this clinging can be to the illusion that we aren’t good enough, that we aren’t as attractive as everyone else, or that because we don’t have this or that advanced degree that this makes us not smart enough. Intellectually we probably know better, but on an emotional level, we cling to these fears and everything that happens in our lives is viewed through these lenses.

I think it’s the same consequences when we cling to someone else: clinging causes distancing. The more we cling to a fear-based view of ourselves, the further we get from God’s view of us. The result is a very real lack of intimacy with God and with others because if we can’t come to trust that we are good, whole and effective according to God’s infinite plan, we will not be able to nurture others who struggle with these same limitations. The fact that we can be compassionate and more comprehensive in our understandings of others’ weaknesses should be proof enough that that is what God wants from us…and that mercy is also intended for ourselves.
Besides avoiding the impulsivity and clinging, what else might we do to “break up” with that part of ourselves that no longer serves our highest good? If we were breaking up with someone else, we might go to match.com and find someone new and better. When it’s a self-image that needs to be changed, we need to find ways to peel back the layers of the spiritual/emotional onion and find that purity we once held clearly in our minds when we were kids. Maybe we do this by calling a trusted friend or family member. Maybe we do some serious journal writing about our attachments to false images of ourselves. Perhaps we engage in the process of spiritual direction with a compassionate spiritual director.

Finally, but certainly not last, visualize yourself through the eyes of someone who loves you or has loved you unconditionally. Visualize yourself in a relationship with the One who called you to life, who is completely in love with you, who is never quick to condemn you, who, for all your resistance to the Power of Love, has nothing but affection and blessing for you. If God chooses to see you as part of His infinitely wise and compassionate plan for humanity, then surely we can find the strength to “break up” with our false selves in order to enter more deeply into relationship with who we were meant to be.
If we’re trying to hold onto an image of ourselves even though you know it’s a hopeless situation, we are resisting the inevitable. When it’s time for an unhealthy relationship to end, even if it’s hard, we simply cannot fight the overwhelming grace. The time for unhealthy relationship with ourselves is past: it is time to surrender to what is really true. And although only God sees the full brightness of our divine nature and giftedness, we can choose to embrace it even when we can’t always see it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Breakfast With Jesus

 There are many variations on the story of stone soup, but they all involve a traveler coming into a town beset by famine. The inhabitants try to discourage the traveler from staying, fearing he wants them to give him food. They tell him they have no food. The traveler explains that he does not need food, and that, in fact, he was planning to make a soup to share with all of them. The villagers watch suspiciously as he builds a fire and fills a cauldron with water. With great ceremony, he pulls a stone from a bag, dropping the stone into the pot of water. He sniffs the brew extravagantly and exclaims how delicious stone soup is. As the villagers begin to show interest, he mentions how good the soup would be with just a little cabbage in it. A villager brings out a cabbage to share. This episode repeats itself until the soup has cabbage, carrots, onions, and everything needed to feed the village a substantial meal. 

This story addresses our tendency to hoard our resources: when we perceive that we are in hard times, we retreat into a stance of non-sharing and use our energy to focus only on ourselves. We isolate ourselves and shut out others. As the story of stone soup reveals, in doing so, we often deprive ourselves and everyone else of a feast. This metaphor plays out beyond the realm of food. We hoard ideas, love, and energy, thinking we will be richer if we keep to them to ourselves, when in truth we make the world, and ourselves, poorer whenever we stockpile our reserves. The traveler–a clear representation of Jesus–was able to see that the villagers were holding back, and he had the genius to draw them out and inspire them to give, thus creating a feast of abundance that none of them could have created alone. 

Today, my first morning here in Madison, I encountered a nameless man who is the host at the hotel where I am staying.  He manages the enormous breakfast buffet, and greets everyone with the same smile and chatter, making everyone feel welcome.  As Gayle and I were sipping our coffee, barely awake, this man came over to speak with us.  In his most upbeat and cheerful manner, he told us that his philosophy of life includes the idea that there is no point coming to work down or sad because there will always be someone else who is truly struggling.  He related the story of an elderly man and his wife, guests  here at the hotel, who were seated every morning one week in the same corner of the room.  Every day this man tried to engage the elderly man in conversation, without success.  The elderly man wouldn’t engage or even look at him.

At the end of the week, their last day here in Madison, the elderly man approached our host and said to him, “I apologize for not speaking to you this whole week.  You see, I just lost my brother and I have been so overwhelmed with sorrow that I just couldn’t greet you or be part of your cheerfulness.  Thank you for not judging me and for continuing to speak to me.”  Our host teared up as he told us this next part.  The elderly man continued, “This week I lost a brother and my heart was broken, but this is also the week I met my new brother who was cheerful to me and didn’t judge or dismiss me.  Thank you, brother!”  And the two strangers embraced tearfully in the middle of the restaurant.

And so it is that, on the first day of my trip home–always an emotional experience anyway–Jesus appeared to me in the guise of a cheerful black man whose only goal was to make me feel welcome, and to remind me that the smallest acts can change the world.

So, let’s not be like those villagers in the tale who are holding back, focused only on ourselves.  As we share the Christ within, we feed and nourish the Body of Christ all over the world.  This is indeed a foretaste of the banquet of love that we celebrate in Eucharist and also as we sip our coffee in a hotel restaurant.
    

Hoping you recognize Jesus when he comes to you this week.

Fr. Michel
Posted in Becoming "Church" | Leave a comment

Finding Jesus in the Storm

A few years ago I had a revelation while talking with someone who was a non-church goer. He had asked me some questions about what it meant to live as a Christian, and I gave him my very best theological responses—exactly the responses every good priest learns early on during his studies. I expected him to be suitably impressed with my breadth and depth of knowledge and to come to the humble realization that he was wrong and that I was right. But that’s not how it went. Instead, he said simply that my answers to all his questions were abstract and theoretical, and that wasn’t what he was looking for.

His observation was valid because his questions were really about seeking clear, concrete directions on what he ought to do in real life situations. But as I recall, the situations he was concerned with weren’t directly addressed in the Scriptures, so all I had to draw on were broad statements made by Jesus in the Gospels that the Church had spent centuries refining into abstract theological principles.

Today’s Gospel is a good example. We have Peter and the other disciples in a boat in the middle of the night, with a storm raging around them.  Jesus has gone off to pray, and, having finished, is walking across the water to catch up with the boat.  The disciples see him and are terrified, thinking maybe they’re seeing a ghost, at which point he tells them that it’s him, and not to be afraid.  Peter asks him to prove it by calling him out on the water, and Jesus says, “OK, come on.”  So Peter steps out of the boat and starts walking on the water toward Jesus, but partway there notices the storm, gets scared, and starts to sink.  In his fear he cries out to Jesus for help, and Jesus reaches out a hand and saves him.  Jesus says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”  Then they both get back into the boat, everyone worships him and calls him the Son of God, and they continue on their way.

This is really an abstract story, and so that’s how we interpret it. We take from this story that we’re supposed to be like Peter and ask for Jesus’ command or will.  Once we receive it we’re to step out in faith, even when we’re called to do something seemingly impossible like walking on water.  If we take our eyes off Jesus and let ourselves worry about other things around us, we’ll begin to sink or fail, but even then if we call out to Jesus for help, he’ll be there, and he won’t let us fall, because he is the Son of God.

OK.  Great.  This is not as easy at it appears because when we pray, we don’t always “hear” God’s voice—and this is where we fall down.  In the absence of a voice or a burning bush giving us specific orders, we’re left with a process of discernment.  But that gets tricky, because there are so many factors influencing our decisions that we can never be sure what is the voice of God, and what is simply our own preference or limiting view of things. So we default to the abstract answers that so frustrated my coworker. We say that in a general sense we know that God is calling us to live in faith, and if we keep our eyes on him and maintain our faith in him, he’ll get us through the storms of life. That makes this reading a really nice story.

But, I don’t think God intends it to be just a nice story.  I think God means for us to take that discernment seriously.  So we look at the big, once-in-a-lifetime situations.  We’re stuck in a dead-end, soul-sucking, relatively well-paying job in a career field we never liked, and we feel called to do something else, maybe something that gives something back to society.  So, using this story as our guide, we believe that Jesus is calling you to do this other thing.  It seems impossible, but we step out in faith, leaving the security of the job we don’t like in order to go back to school, retrain, and become a less-well-paid teacher, or nurse, or social worker, or (God forbid!) even a pastor.  It’s a scary, stormy, turbulent transition, and we cry out in fear many times, “Lord, save me!”  But Jesus is there, and sees us through, and it all works out.

Or we’re looking for a place to worship, and we join a small congregation that has dwindling resources or, worse, one that doesn’t even own its own building. Over time we feel called to get involved and begin inviting our friends and neighbors to church with us. Or we decide it’s time to get our hands dirty in building up the congregation, even though it seems like a huge undertaking that seems impossible. And, because Jesus is the Son of God and he’s the one you’re focusing on, it all works out and things come together.

These are a couple examples of how to apply today’s Gospel to our present situations, but they’re not the only ones.  Discernment doesn’t have to be limited to big, life-changing events.  God’s actions in our lives don’t have to be dramatic–most of them aren’t.  And much of what we’re called to do seems small and insignificant, so small and insignificant that we often don’t think it matters to God, so we don’t bother trying to discern.

We’re on the golf course and someone starts badmouthing someone that the two of you know. He’s complaining and judging this other guy, and although you didn’t start the conversation, you listen and nod occasionally and try to be understanding about this person’s willingness to triangulate. At no point do you stop him because, after all, it doesn’t seem so bad to allow someone to tear down someone else since you didn’t start the conversation. It’s not like the Gospel relates to this situation….or does it??

Maybe the Gospel could apply if that scenario had happened llike this: You’re on the golf course and someone starts badmouthing someone else you both know, and you remember Jesus’ admonition not to judge others and to love your neighbor. That remembering translates into the feeling that you should try to put a stop to this triangulation and tell the complainer to speak directly to the person he is upset with.  It’s awkward, perhaps, but you step out in faith and say that maybe this isn’t such a good conversation to be having, and your friend needs to have this conversation with the other person.

Maybe your friend is polite and changes the subject, but now he looks at you funny. Maybe he resents you for saying something to him about talking behind someone’s back. Maybe the next time you see him he gives you the cold shoulder because his feelings for you have changed since your refusal to engage in criticizing someone else. You notice all this and wonder if it was really worth it? And you wait for things to get better, for Jesus to calm the storm, knowing that you could calm it yourself by just joining in the badmouthing with your friend. But you also know that that’s not what you’re called to do.  So you continue to wait, and wait, and wait, remembering that Peter got an instant response, wondering why you’re still waiting.  Weeks go by, months go by, maybe things blow over, maybe they don’t.  Either way, your relationship with your golf buddy is never the same as it was.  And then you remember: Peter was sinking when Jesus saved him.  I don’t know how deep he sank—up to his knees?  Up to his waist?  Maybe up to his neck?  And when Jesus pulled him up and they got into the boat, he was wet.  And cold.  And probably shaken from his experience.  He was not unaffected by it.  And neither are we.

Being a disciple of Jesus changes who we are, how we act.  I think it’s easy for us to apply these lessons to the big events in life because they don’t happen that often.  Some of us may never be in a situation where we’re called to step out in faith in a big way.  But remembering that everything we do in every aspect of our lives is a response to Christ’s call to follow him is a lot more challenging.  There is no aspect of our lives that Christ doesn’t claim, and there is no aspect of our lives in which Christ isn’t there for us.  We will have times when we misinterpret our call and step in the wrong direction.  But Christ will be there then, too, ready to save us and help get us back on our feet.  Following him is not always an easy ride; in fact, following Christ pretty much guarantees us a stormy time. We will experience fear and we will have times when we feel like we’re sinking. But in every instance, Jesus will be there to hear our cry, and he will raise us up and he will see us safely back in the boat, maybe wet, maybe cold, maybe shaken, but in the presence of the one who alone can calm the storm.

When we get to the point where we can truly respond to Christ’s call, we will come to know him truly as the Son of God, and we will then be able to truly worship him. Even when we’re cold and shivering and wet up to our necks, shivering in the aftermath of life’s storms. Amen.

 

Posted in Becoming "Church" | Leave a comment

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