Generosity From Poverty

 I have a student whose mother is a serious alcoholic and who, of necessity, has assumed the role of parenting her younger siblings.  She has considered cancelling her own college plans so that she can stay home and care for her family, but I am pressuring her to move on and not take responsibility for people and things for which she is not and should not be responsible.  She said to me recently, ” I feel exhausted and empty and I just don’t have any more to give.”  This remark got me thinking about times in my own life when I’ve felt extenuated, but somehow found a way to move beyond the feelings of aloneness and poverty.
Lent calls us to deny ourselves creature comforts so we might realize more deeply our dependence on God.  Too, we are called to increase our generosity to others, but it is difficult to be generous is when we ourselves are feeling poor. While some of us have experienced actually being in the red financially and emotionally, there are some of us who would feel insecure even if we had a million dollars in the bank and we were in perfect health.  Either way, as the old adage goes, it is always in giving that we receive–meaning that when we are living in a state of lack, the very gesture we may least want to give is the very act that could help us realize the abundance we seek. One way of thinking about generosity is to expend energy where it is needed. Giving money to a cause or person in need is one way to give energy. Giving attention, love, or a smile to another person are other acts of giving that we can offer. Praying for others is also a deep way to give, after all, there are people all over the world that are hungry for love and they need our prayers. 
Sometimes when we practice generosity we are being selfish.  We expect something back from the one we have helped. We might even become angry or resentful if that person does not reciprocate. However, knowing that God alone is our Source should allow us to practice generosity with no strings attached. This is the purest form of giving. So often we forget that what we send out invariably comes back to us. Selflessly helping a friend in need without expecting them to return the same favor in the same way, is a way of expressing faith in God that He will provide for you when you are in that situation. Besides, while giving conditionally creates stress (because we are waiting with an invisible balance sheet to receive our due), giving unconditionally creates and generates abundance. We give freely, because we trust that there is always an unlimited supply. This is our way of co-creating the universe after God’s eternal plan.

Being aware of how much we are always supported by our gracious God is one of the keys to abundance and generosity. It helps to remember anyone who has helped us when we were in dire straits, allowing us to embrace all situations that come into our life for the lessons and gifts they bring. Remember that all things given and received emanate from generosity. Giving is an act of gratitude. Plant the seeds of generosity through your acts of giving, and you will grow the fruits of abundance for yourself and those around you. Feeling extenuated and poor ourselves, we find that giving even a small bit of our truest selves can be healing balm in the midst of the worst personal drought.

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Silencing Distractions: Practical Lenten Advice

Our lives are typically filled with so much noise and though much of this occurs in the larger environment where we cannot control it, there are other sources of noise that we willingly allow into our lives. These noises, from seemingly innocuous sources like the television, computers,and radio, can actually help us avoid dealing with uncomfortable thoughts and emotions.  If we know, for example, that our son or daughter is struggling in school and needs a parental intervention, and we are reluctant to engage in that conversation, it is easier to simply allow the distraction of the evening news to help us disengage from what needs to be done.  There are times when we need a little distance from our immediate problems, and TV and the rest are appropriate.  However, using noise as a distraction can be more harmful than good because we run the risk of numbing ourselves to what really needs our full attention.  During this Lenten journey especially, we may be experiencing God’s call to go deeper beneath the surface of our lives so that we can find healing and wholeness and integration. Distracting ourselves with talk-radio, television, or other background noises can prevent us from finding insight and closure to issues that need attention. 
Noise as a distraction can affect us in many ways. It can help us stay numb to emotions that we do not want to feel, allow us an easy way to avoid dealing with problems, distract us from having to pray and think, and make it easier for us to postpone dealing with the truth of given situations. Drowning out the thoughts and emotions we find uncomfortable or overwhelming can complicate our issues because it allows them to fester. By choosing to turn off the noise and enter the silence, we creat the space to experience and express what we are hiding, and what God is particularly desirous of us to resolve. It is only then that self-exploration can begin in earnest and we can stare down even the most intimidating issues. In silence, it becomes easier to let our strongest, deepest feelings come forth, deal with them, and find new ways of interacting with them and the larger reality of our existence. 

When we go within,  without the veil of noise to shield us from ourselves, we will be able to figure out exactly what it is we need to heal. Embracing silence and introspection allows us to work through our thoughts and emotions and, in offering them humbly to God, we find ways to transfigure them into something life-giving. Free of the need for noise, we can come to a place of deep acceptance, where all our pain, anger, and frustration can surface and be resolved into grace-filled opportunities in service of God’s Reign. 

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Trading Things: Lent 2014

Today, on this First Sunday of Lent, I want to explore the lives of people who made changes in their lives, people who traded one thing for another.  My hope is that we will hear in their stories an invitation to make changes in our own lives.  Each Sunday in Lent this year I will end the sermon with an invitation to discipleship, meaning, I will offer you an opportunity to change, to trade something in your life as we learn to walk more closely with Jesus.

Our story today is about the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, who unintentionally traded away paradise. I say unintentionally because as I have read their story, I’m not sure they understood what it was that was going to happen.

I also know that when most people read this story they immediately make a leap from the story itself to the traditional Christian doctrine of “original sin.” That sin, according to many early theologians, was based on the pride of Adam and Eve who chose to seek their own will rather than the will of God. From the moment they made the choice to act on their own, they began to experience separation from God.

Sure enough, God had told them they would die, but the story would have us believe that nothing had died as yet, so they couldn’t have known what death was.  They saw the fruit, it looked delicious, and they ate it. This is the same story that we ourselves are living: we tend to act impulsively, seeking immediate gratification without considering the cost or consequences.

We hear all the time, for example, that as a country we have become increasingly overweight. The teen obesity rate is almost 30 percent, and can be traced directly to a desire for immediate gratification. Fast food, snack food, processed food have all made it easy to grab something quick and easy – and in the process our health is suffering.

Our national financial system has been compromised by the desire for short-term gains, even if it yields long term losses. Quarterly earnings reports rather than annual reports, for example, and daily reporting of stock market values put enormous pressure on business leaders to make short-term decisions, to act on impulse as they respond to the daily news rather than sound business practices.

Or think about the economic crisis that began years ago, something that we may or may not be working our way out of today. There were people who were borrowing beyond their budget. They wanted to have the biggest house and the most expensive car and the fastest boat – and they wanted it now. So they borrowed on the future to have their immediate desires met, but all of that was an illusion, and their bubble was painfully and abruptly burst. The rest of us are still paying the price for the selfish choices made by others.

One could argue that the growing national debt is a result of our desire for immediate gratification. Far too many representatives and senators have, over the years, been seeking re-election by finding programs for their own constituents, often at the expense of the nation’s well-being.

And while it’s easy to point at other people’s actions, the fact is that we often do the same thing.  None of us is innocent.  As a result, we have yet to learn the lesson of the Garden of Eden, so we repeat it again and again.

Adam and Eve ate the fruit and paid the price, and countless generations later we continue to do the same thing. We find our own fruit that looks good, so we eat, and we pay the price.

Fasting, on the other hand, is a remedy for this—fasting is nothing more than practicing delayed gratification. This is precisely what Jesus does in the wilderness when Satan tempts him:
Rather than bowing down to Satan, he waits until he is raised from the dead to have the world see who he is (Mt. 4:8-10).
Rather than turning stones into bread to feed himself, he waits until there is a hungry crowd before he feeds them with just a few loaves and fish (Mt. 4:2-3).
Rather than tempting God, Jesus waits for God to act when he is on the cross, even if it means God’s response will take place three days later (Mt. 4:5-7).

We all fall into the temptation of seeking immediate gratification, and the only way to avoid it is to be clear about our purpose, to have a clear sense of who we are and what we truly believe in—and sometimes what we truly believe in has nothing to do with what we SAY we believe in.  Choices always involve trading one thing for another.  Adam and Eve’s choice may not have been intentional, but the consequences of their trade had lasting effects.

So, how do we make better choices and trades than they did? One of the things I think we do not hear often enough in our text today is the abundance of gifts God has given to us. Adam is given the garden in which to live, he is given a task or a purpose in the garden, he is given permission to eat the fruits of his labors, and he was given a boundary in which to live (Gen. 2:15-17). The serpent (who in Jewish understanding is not Satan, but merely a snake, btw) frames the question in such a way that the gifts of God are overlooked and the only thing that matters is the “warning”.

When we hear or read this story, that’s pretty much how we understand it as well, because we’ve not allowed ourselves to hear the whole truth.  Instead, we trade away the story of vocation and freedom for a tragic tale of sin and punishment.

Today, then, I want to remind you of the good things that God gave us—all of them gifts to be kept in balance.  Our time is limited, and some things we will have to wait for, but we can still make choices that are more consciously in line with God’s grace and God’s timing.

As I said earlier, each week during Lent, I am going to provide you with an opportunity to respond to the homily.  Today’s invitation is to do some soul-searching and self-examination in silence for a few minutes.

I invite you to ask yourself the question of where and when you have sought immediate gratification rather than allowing God to bring you joy. Lent is about entering the wilderness, so perhaps you could consider changing one aspect of your life.  What is one thing you could trade in an effort to more closely align your life with God’s best dreams for who He made you to be??


(Show video clip at this point.) Video:

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Present to the Present

Memories are great because they give us a sense of who we are as individuals.  By dipping into the past, we can often find the trajectory of our lives more easily than trying to figure it out as we go.  This is why Alzheimer’s is such a cruel disease: it robs the afflicted persons of their past, leaving only the present, without any context or information that brings peace or clarity.
The rest of us, by contrast, often get completely focused on our past or future that we don’t even know what the present is about! It is relatively easy for us to skate through life distracted to the point of not being engaged in the present moment. While the twin attractions of dwelling on the past  and living for the future are commonplace and attractive to many of us, we can’t live anywhere but in the present moment.  We cannot jump into our DeLorean DMC-12 (can you name the film reference??) and make a hasty run back to when we were children any more than we can make a sharp right turn and find ourselves in the summer of 2033.  Think about it.  We can spend so much energy trying to rewrite the past or imagining a glorious future that we spend our lives trying to play catch up with the moment we have just allowed to slip past us.
From a spiritual perspective, we need to remember that God can only meet us in the present moment.  Yes, God was with us in our past (even when we doubted His presence) and yes, God will be with us in the future.  But the God we need today is only available to us now, in the present.  Ultimately, there is only NOW.
As challenging or insecure the present might feel, we are called to stay awake, to be open to the grace that is always in abundance, and to remain receptive to whatever it is God is trying to teach us. Being in the present moment requires our  full attention so that we are fully awake to experience it. When we are fully  present, our minds do not wander. We are focused on what is going on right now,  rather than thinking about what just happened or worrying about what is going to  happen next. Being present lets us experience each moment in our lives in a way  that cannot be fully lived through memory or fantasy and it allows us to cultivate a space of fertile receptivity for the knowledge of God.
OK, you say, I want to be in the present, but how do I do it?  How do I turn off the “mind chatter” that always seems to get in my way, seducing me into either the past or the future?  Coming into the present in a mindful way is certainly overwhelming at first.  The mind chatter is a reality and an obstacle to be surrendered rather than overcome. This takes practice, but when we persist, we will find a state of stillness that is as rewarding as it is frightening at times.  We might feel a lack of  control because we are not busy planning our next project, assessing our current  situation, or anticipating the future. Instead, being present requires that we  be flexible, creative, attentive, and open (at least theoretically) to being spontaneous in our response to God’s voice.  It is said that each present moment is  completely new, that nothing like it has happened or will ever happen again. To grasp this truth, even as a fleeting shadow, is to touch something of the Mystery of God because, as all the mystics of all the great religious traditions attest, God IS the Eternal Present.  This might be  easier to perceive during morning prayer or meditation, but the goal is to take that same awareness with us as we move through our day, remembering to stay as present as possible in every moment. I am not a master at doing this, I have to admit, but I do work on it and I have to say that the more effort I expend on being present, the less I live my life waiting for the future or longing for a past long gone. God is not waiting in any place but the present for me, and when I open myself to this truth, my life feels a whole lot more integrated into God’s Life.
I invite you, this week, to expend a little effort at living in the present. See if perhaps God isn’t waiting to tell you something important there!
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Gracious Living

 In the Catholic tradition, living in relationship with God is referred to as “living in the state of grace.”  When we are are free from those actions, attitudes and choices that place our path in opposition to the God’s Life, we live in that state of grace.  That is, I think, a rather narrow experience of what it means to live in grace, and seems to limit the idea of grace to something that is more or less mechanical and not all that “amazing”, as our beloved hymn asserts.  Grace  exists not only within us, it is also found around us.  It is the spark of divinity that lies within us that radiates warmth and love outward, touching everyone we encounter.  It is the unseen hand that seems to reach down and pull us up when we need it most. And living in the state of grace has nothing to do with our feelings of worth (or un-worthiness, as the case may be) because grace is completely unearned.  It is the favor of God, freely bestowed and available to us, our birthright as Christians.  When we open our eyes to its pervasive presence, we find and experience grace everywhere.
Grace is in  the rain bringing back the green to our drought-stricken lawns and gardens in July.  It’s the unexpected lead on a perfect job or opportunity for ministry that comes from a casual conversation. Grace is what happens to  someone when they miraculously escape injury; it is even the things we call “good luck”, like when we are able to get home before our tire goes flat. Grace resides in the love between two people, the  gift or check that comes unexpectedly in the mail, the down comforter on our bed, and in the acts of forgiveness we bestow upon others. It is grace  that moves us to go out of our way to help a stranger. In music, a grace note is  the pause between notes that is so important to the pacing of a song. Grace is  the state we are in when we are doing nothing but just being who we are meant to be.

Understood in this way, we are never outside the state of grace–not because we don’t make ridiculous mistakes, because we do.  Not because we aren’t often falling short of our own ideals, because we do that daily.  When we accept that we always exist in a state of grace, however, we are able to  live our lives more graciously. Knowing we are graced gives us hope, makes us  more generous, and allows us to trust that we are taken care of even when we are  going through difficult times. Grace is our benevolence of heart, and our  generosity of spirit. Grace is unconditional love and the beauty that is our  humanity. Think of it: if our humanity wasn’t beautiful, why would God have chosen to become one with us through the coming of His Son?? When we know that we are blessed with grace, when we are confident that God’s love can never be lost to us, we can’t help but want to  live our lives in God’s service.

I hope that this week brings each of you a deeper awareness of the grace that dwells within and without, helping you make it through the squalls of life.
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Barbara Walters’ interview with John the Baptist

“Well, you know, Barbara, sitting here in this dark prison cell has given me a lot of time to think. You’re right in suggesting that.  I always thought that Jesus and I were on the same track, but the longer I sit here and think about it, I can see how very different we are, and frankly, I’ve had to reevaluate my life and ministry.

 The first thing that now occurs to me is how different our attitudes toward life have been. Some of that, I suppose, is due to the things we were exposed to while growing up. My birth name was John Ben Zechariah, but for the past year or so, people just refer to me as “the baptizer.” John Ben Zechariah means John, son of Zechariah, but now it’s like I’m not even that person anymore.  My ministry has turned me into someone else.

How did I come to believe I had a mission from God?  Well, growing up as I did in the hill country of Judea, I often made my way to the desert area around the Dead Sea. There were a number of small Essene communities dedicated to purity of life. My contacts with these people became more and more frequent, so that they came to have a substantial effect on my thinking. They taught me that life in the towns and cities was corrupt, so I learned to prefer the wilderness. They taught that good Jews must be scrupulous about keeping dietary laws, so I learned to eat the food of the desert – locust and wild honey – and to avoid any compromise in diet. They trained me to realize that if I was going to service God as his emissary, I would have to give up living the easy life.  So I turned away from soft clothing and took to wearing camel skins.  I felt in my heart that God wanted me to live a simple and austere life, and to focus on keeping the entire Law to the letter. My family questioned me sometimes, and I think there were times when even they thought I was some kind of fanatic.

How did that differ from the upbringing of my cousin, Jesus….?  Well, for one thing,  Jesus had a totally different set of experiences. He grew up in a town, and he accepted the fact that most people couldn’t just pull up stakes and move out to the desert. He lived like everyone else did: he dressed as they did, ate what they ate, drank what they drank.

The town in which he grew up, Nazareth, is in the area called Galilee, a kind of commercial crossroads, which was therefore influenced by a lot of other cultures because of the trading that took place there.  We used to snicker and refer to it as “Galilee of the Gentiles” because so much happened there that was just so compromised from my perspective.  Jesus himself became fairly lax: he didn’t always wash his hands before eating, he went to a lot parties and dinners with people who were known sinners, and it seemed to me that he was wrong in doing this.  Why did I feel this way?  Well, in my opinion, if one is to take religion seriously, then it is an all or nothing proposition.  You either accept every last bit of it, or you reject the whole thing.  I’m not an advocate of cafeteria style Judaism!

We also had different ways of dealing with people. When I was about twenty-eight years old I felt that God was calling me to do something really big for him. I left the desert and began preaching along the Jordan River. I felt that people needed to be confronted with their sinfulness so they would repent, but first I had to get their attention. How did I do that, you ask?  Well, I wasn’t timid about calling them what they were: snakes and hypocrites!  I let them know that God was on the march, that the present world order was going to be destroyed by the righteous anger of God. I pointed out ways in which they were breaking God’s laws and I told them to repent because God’s kingdom was at hand. People came out to the river by the hundreds to hear the message, to repent and turn their lives around. I told them to be baptized – that is, to wash themselves in the Jordan River as a sign that they really wanted to be cleansed from their unrighteousness. Large numbers of people followed my advice.

Yes, well, that is an interesting question, Barbara, and it was a day I’ll never forget.  One day, Jesus just showed up in the crowd and asked me to baptize him. This was right before he started preaching openly.  Of course we knew each other, since his mother and my mother are cousins, but aside from some family celebrations, we didn’t see each other that often.  We certainly didn’t hang out together because we were so different.

As soon as I saw him, it was so weird, because something inside me said, “This is the one you have been proclaiming; this is the one who is going to deliver Israel.” I was shocked and confused by this thought because if he were the deliverer, I should be baptized by him. I suggested that, but he just told me to baptize him.  There was something different about the way he looked at me when he came up out of the water, and a look on his face that said he had just resolved some big question or problem.  The next thing he did was to go out and live in the desert for a while. I guess he was getting his thoughts together and planning his strategy. About forty days later he returned to where I was preaching and I caught a glimpse of him in the crowd.

I was anxious to see what he would do next. Israel needed a good house-cleaning, and if I had called people snakes to get their attention, he would no doubt be even more confrontational.

But that isn’t the way he went about it. Instead of judging people, he affirmed them. Instead of convicting them of their sins, he seemed to accept people with all their weaknesses. Instead of emphasizing the law that was being broken, he stressed the love of God. Instead of keeping himself free from sinners, he included a tax collector and a terrorist among his close associates. He allowed a woman of doubtful reputation to have a place in his entourage. He said that Zaccheus, a known collaborator with the Romans, had a place in God’s love. I did not understand anything he was  doing.

 Not long after Jesus began his public ministry I was arrested because I criticized Herod, the ruler of our province, for taking his brother’s wife.  And I get lots of time to think.  Was I wrong all this time?  Is Jesus right about the way he’s doing things?  I wake up in the middle of the night with those questions in my mind.

Fortunately, God has helped me to resolve my doubts about Jesus and about my own calling. Some originally thought I was the Messiah, or Elijah or another prophet, but I knew I was not any of those.

“Well, then, who are you?” they insisted. For the first time my role suddenly became clear to me. I was not destined to be the leader of some great movement; I was to serve as a proclaimer of someone else. So I answered them with words from the prophet Isaiah. I said, “I am the voice of one who shouts in the desert: ‘Make straight a path for the Lord to travel.’” (John 1:20-23)  My own words remind me of my role. I am not the savior of the world. I am simply a voice called to give testimony to what God is doing in the world. I have to do it my way because of who I am. If I am too direct or if I offend some people, I am sorry for that. All I have wanted to do is to get people’s attention.

What do I see in the future??  I do not know if I will ever get out of this prison cell. I feel like there is still a lot I can do, but realistically, that may not happen.  And that is okay, Barbara.  I have done what I was called to do. I have been that voice calling people to prepare, to make a place for God in their lives. I may not always have fully understood what God was intending to do, but I have been faithful to the best of my understanding.

Any last words for the followers of Jesus??  Look, I think my ministry has a message for all of them.  I was never one to call attention to myself, rather, I kept preaching and pointing toward someone yet to come.  That day by the river when I saw Jesus among the crowds, I actually did point to him and shout, “There is the lamb of God.” (John 1:36)  I felt bad afterwards because two of my followers left that same day to be with him instead of me.  I felt hurt, but as I prayed about it, it became clear that Jesus was meant to increase while I was destined to decrease.

So, I don’t know about any last words, really, except to say that since he is the Messiah, maybe his followers need to step up and be a voice of testimony for him.  Maybe every one of them should be pointing to the one they follow, the one who makes such a difference in their lives. I did it in my way, the only way I knew how.  Maybe it’s time for them to do it their way, because you know, Barbara, in the end, God is going to make it all work out right.”


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2013 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,200 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 53 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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