Change Is Coming…

Change is a universal constant that affects our lives from the moment we are born until we leave earthly existence behind. We’re in the season of planting, so it’s easier for us to observe that at the root of all growth, we find change. Occasionally, change (and the circumstances leading up to it) are a source of extraordinary joy, but more often than not they bring feelings of discomfort and fear. Though many changes are unavoidable, we have the guarantees contained in the Gospel that God’s universe isn’t a system of whimsical forces. If we trust that God’s universe is under God’s control, then clearly it is our responses to our circumstances that will determine the nature of our experiences. At the heart of every transformation, no matter how chaotic, there is substance. When we no longer resist change and instead regard it as an opportunity to grow, we find the truth that we are not helpless in the face of it. 

We are masters of our own lives and destiny, therefore, we can choose to make change work in our favor. The first step is to simply accept that we cannot hide from the changes taking place all around us. The life we are currently living, the one we consider normal, is not going to stay this way forever. Changes will happen whether we choose them or not, launching us into an unexpected landscape. In other words, transformation will take place whether we want it or not, so it is up to us to decide whether we will open our eyes to the blessings hidden in disorder, or close ourselves off from opportunities hiding behind obstacles. 

To make change work for us, we have to look constructively at our situation and ask how we can benefit from the transformation that has taken place. As threatening as change can seem, it is often a sign that a new era of our life has begun. If we reevaluate our plans and goals in the days or weeks following a major change, we can discover that our ambitions can be adapted to circumstances. We can choose to capitalize on these changes! Optimism, enthusiasm, and trust will aid us greatly, since there is nothing to be gained by dwelling on what might have been. Change can hurt in the short term but, if we are willing to embrace it proactively, trusting in God’s grace, its lasting impact will nearly always be physically, spiritually, and intellectually transformative.

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Excuses, Excuses!

Students have excuses why their homework isn’t finished; parents have excuses why they’re not spending more time with their children; people have excuses why they don’t go to church, or give money to charity, or check on their elderly neighbor. Excuses are our attempt to rationalize our choosing not to do something, without having to admit that we are, in fact, making the choice. The problem with excuses, of course, is that they can keep us from achieving personal goals as well as God’s goals. For example, too often we accept our excuses as reasons why we cannot accomplish what we set out to do, and instead of finding alternatives, we give up. Other times we choose to isolate ourselves rather than engaging with other people and their lives, and we miss opportunities to reassure them that they are not alone, that someone cares about them, that God cares about them. If we can stop making excuses and embrace integrity, we won’t have any need to give excuses for anything. When we keep our minds focused on the bigger picture, excuses evaporate in the light of our priorities, and obstacles become pathways to our becoming wiser and stronger. 

Sometimes we may give others excuses rather than be fully honest. We may think it is kind to tell someone we are willing to do something with them, whether work or play, but then keep putting them off. This is what our politicians seem to do all the time, and we should be better than that. When we can take responsibility for our feelings and express them honestly, but gently, the other person is free to find someone who is better suited to accompany them while we are free to pursue the things we are called to do. Put another way, there is power in saying “no” when an opportunity really does not fit well with our own particular gifts.  

There’s another way in which making excuses impacts our reality, namely through the power of our thinking. If we find ourselves in situations, for example, where we are being asked for financial contributions, but we always use the excuse that we can’t afford it, we create more lack and limitation in our lives. The same goes for seemingly simple things like pretending to be ill when we want a day on the golf course, or any other dishonest statement. Making excuses do not make anything easier, rather, they complicate our lives because now we have at least two versions of reality to have to commit to memory!. When we can commit to our personal priorities and to God’s priorities, when we can take responsibility for our choices and communicate them honestly to others, there will be no need to make excuses, and we will have much more energy to dedicate to all the things and people we love. And God’s reign will be just that much closer to full revelation.

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New Life, New Possibilities

Those of us in the northern hemisphere have an easier time when it comes to celebrating new life at Easter: it’s springtime! (I’m not sure how I would function in the southern hemisphere with Easter coming in the autumn…) Spring comes when the earth, nurtured by warmer temperatures and more abundant light, begins to awaken from winter’s sabbath. The soft rains bring sustenance to flower bulbs planted in faith six months earlier; the lawn springs to life; the buds on trees pop out of nowhere like small victory pennants. Rebirth and repopulation fill the void of winter with a riot of color and fury—just when we thought we would never again be warm. Even though it happens this way every year, we stand in reverent awe, our spirits trembling in the certain knowledge that Life must always have the last word. 

This is the traditional season for falling in love, for being able to speak from the heart without edits, for saying “yes” to things we would normally reject out of hand. How on earth do we say “no” when the whole of creation stands before us as an astounding affirmation of God’s dream for humanity and all of creation?? When I am able to put the top down and just soak in the warmth and beauty of a spring day, I feel like I’m still that 8 year old boy, giddy with joy, completely oblivious to my limitations. And without even consciously making choices, I find myself eating better, cleaning out unnecessary items of clothing, and cutting my hair shorter—all of these things as an expression of my moving beyond the man I was and embracing the possibilities of who God is calling me to yet become.

The Paschal Mystery, which we enter into again this week, is the springtime of our souls. Our Sacred Triduum invites us to trust that along with the earth, we too might change, release the past, give birth to new ideas, new relationships and new ways of living the truth of Resurrection. It is, to be sure, the work of a lifetime and it is not for the faint of heart. Lent has, ideally at least, helped us identify the things we need to allow to die and bury in the earth, surrendering the limiting seeds of fear and addictive behaviors in the certain knowledge that Easter matters. And as the stark vestiges of winter gently slip away, our physical world mirrors our inner vision of greenness and possibility.  It is this harmony that underlies our commitment to doing the next right things in service of God’s dream, living proof that Christ is always rising, always drawing all things to Himself.

With the people of Holy Redeemer Catholic Community and Grace St. John’s United Church of Christ, I pray you have a blessed Holy Week.

Fr. Michel

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The Thing About Grief

Last week was the anniversary of my son’s death, and although it’s been 22 years, in my heart it feels like yesterday. Grief is part of this life, and although I’ve tried to run from it, deny it, stuff it away and otherwise avoid entering into it, the truth is we all lose people,places and relationships all the time. Change is something that is ongoing because there is only one constant in the whole of creation: God’s love. That means everything else is already waxing and waning. Understanding this daily process of gaining and losing can potentially bring us wisdom and grace. 

Whenever we lose someone or something we love, it is important to take time and truly feel the weight of what we are experiencing. For myself, I call it “falling into the abyss” and I’ve learned that trying to avoid it or skate around it is unhealthy. It’s counterintuitive because it seems that allowing ourselves to enter the darkness might take us to a place we won’t ever escape, but in fact there is no healing possible without facing the deepest darkness within. In other words, we can’t just fast forward past Good Friday and Holy Saturday in our rush to Easter. Grieving is a natural and necessary process that allows us an opportunity for sorting through our emotions. It might seem easier to involve ourselves in activities that take our minds off our sadness, but this is like refusing to allow stitches after surgery—healing simply isn’t going to happen!  Unless we listen to where we are in the moment, the emotions we experience will only grow in intensity, and our feelings will manifest in more powerful and less comfortable ways. Once we consciously acknowledge that these emotions are present, however, we are more able to soothe the sorrow of the moment. In so doing, we open ourselves more and more to God’s healing. 

There is another aspect of grief that I’ve come to terms with over the years, and that is the fact that grief continues even when we’re not consciously lost in our sadness. Whether I remember consciously about the pending anniversary of Chris’ death or not, my spirit and my cells remember. For me, then, March is forever a month of living in my feelings, of weighing what is precious and what needs to be surrendered.  Facing and embracing sorrow honestly allows me a chance to accept my loss and find the blessings that always manifest, according to God’s gracious design. This makes it easier for me to accept that joys and sorrows are always a part of this life, and that I am never alone.

The two churches I pastor are in a flux because our beloved church building has been sold and we will have to reinvent ourselves in another context elsewhere. There is grief in abundance right now, but there is also quiet gratitude for having had this place as our base of operations in ministry. We are being called elsewhere, and like the children of Israel under Moses’ leadership, we haven’t a clue about where we’re headed. But we also know that despite our present sadness, God has something else in mind for us. We are the church; the building is just brick and mortar.

As we collectively confront our grief in these final weeks of Lent, let’s at least find a way to be thankful for our feelings. So many people, many of them young, have completely ruined their lives with one addictive behavior or another in order to escape their feelings. It’s impossible to stay sober and clean if they don’t face their grief head on. It’s impossible for the rest of us to grow spiritually if we don’t do the same.

Praying, crying, and laughing with each of you this week, I remain,

Fr. Michel

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The Bigger Connection

With all the many things that happen in our lives—the blessings, the challenges—it’s easy to overlook a central truth of our life in Christ, namely, that we are part of something bigger and greater than ourselves. Call it what you want: the Universe, the collective consciousness, or the Kingdom of God. It’s about being an integral part of a greater calling that goes beyond our individual existence. We tend to forget this, so we make quick decisions on the daily that simply do not reflect our connectedness to God’s larger purpose. One of the tools I teach  my recoverees is useful for everyone making a decision. It’s a simple cost/benefit analysis and it works like this: on a sheet of paper, write down all the positive reasons for doing the thing you’re considering. Then, write down all the negative reasons and effects that would accrue if you followed through with this idea. The final part of this exercise is to label each item as either a short- or long-term issue.

Here’s an example related to addiction: the positive effects of my drinking to excess include being more socially confident, escaping the stresses of my life, enhanced dancing skills, and euphoria. All of these are short-term benefits because, alas, when the effects of alcohol wear off, the real world is still there waiting for me. The negative effects of drinking to excess include legal issues (DUI or a serious accident), health issues, loss of trust in my family, employment trouble from calling in sick, loss of connection to God, etc…  Clearly, the negative effects of drinking are generally long-term effects. So, in comparing the short-term positives with the long-term negatives, one is left with the obvious conclusion that the price for getting drunk is way too high. For Christians, we not only forget our connection to building the Kingdom, we sometimes consciously opt out because it seems too daunting a task. The challenge is to expand our hearts and minds beyond our individuality and embrace the view of the mystics of every world religion, namely, that there is not a hard distinction to be made between ourselves and others. We are one on the deepest spiritual level. Knowing this keeps us aware of how our choices and actions always impact everything and everyone. 

Contributing to the greater cause of the Kingdom includes prayer, fasting, and helping the poor, but there are many less obvious ways to engage. We can help clean up debris along our waterways, we can plant a tree that will shade our yard as well as serve as home to birds and squirrels, we can compost all our organic waste and use that to grow vegetables to share with the local food bank. We can decide to smile and greet panhandlers and homeless people instead of looking away. We might check in on an elderly neighbor, bring food to a single parent with children, or randomly pay for someone’s coffee at Starbucks. When we choose to serve the greater good of the Kingdom, every act and every thought leads us to the truth that anything done for someone’s highest good benefits everyone.

When we know we are serving God’s larger purpose, suddenly we lose our fears and doubts. We know that what we do will benefit others, and we know we are manifesting the Presence of Christ, even when so much of our world seems locked in darkness. Serving the greater purpose allows us to live within the space of our Christ-consciousness, bringing new life and real change to our world.

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The Truth About Temptation

A chubby priest decided to get serious about losing weight, and when he drove to the church every morning, he had to pass the bakery where he’d been buying donuts for many years, so he decided now that he was trying to stay focused on his health, he would take another route to work, without having to pass by the bakery. One morning, however, he showed up at the rectory with a bag of donuts and powdered sugar all over his face and jacket. The church secretary was astonished, and asked him why he was eating donuts again. “I forgot about my commitment to driving a different way to work, and I found myself driving past the bakery, and I had a sudden craving for sweets. I prayed immediately to God, for Him to help me stay strong and do the right thing. But then I remembered that I had already lost 10 pounds, so I simply asked God to send me a sign.”  The church secretary replied, “So, what happened? Was your prayer answered?”  “Oh, yes,” said the priest, “on my tenth trip around the block a parking spot opened up, so I knew it was a sign that my prayers had been heard.” 

This apocryphal tale reveals something about how you and I tend to view temptation, namely, as giving in to the cravings we experience or involving ourselves in things we enjoy even when we know they’re not in our best interest. But is that all that temptation is? I think today’s Gospel has a fuller answer, namely, that at its root, temptation is a test to see if we will remain true to who we are and to why we’re here as children of God.  

That’s what is happening to Jesus in the Gospel story we just heard. He’s just been baptized, which was a turning point in his life. After growing up in a religious Jewish household, learning the stories of his people, and growing in his awareness of his unique place in God’s plan, he finally came to the Jordan and was baptized. And the cloud appeared and a voice declared him to be God’s Beloved. It was an amazing, powerful moment. But it was only a moment. 

Immediately afterward, Jesus heads out into the barren wilderness for a 40 day period of discernment and prayer. He’s physically weakened; he’s hungry and thirsty. And that’s when he’s tested. Will he remain true to himself and to God? Will he accept the fullness of the mission that God has entrusted to him? Or will he, just this once, give in to the normal human desires for comfort, for popularity, for power and influence? And maybe couldn’t he, just this one time, turn away from God and do what he wants??? 

     It is a test we know all too well! A difficult test, and one that didn’t just go away after the 40 days were over. I suspect it continued to happen throughout the last 3 years of his life, especially when he came to know with certainty how his life was going to end, and for what exactly?? Who are you, really, Jesus? Don’t you have any power, Jesus? Did God really say all those things to you?   Those kind of seductive assaults on his consciousness surely plagued him time and again throughout his short ministry.  And then there would be that final test, when Judas betrays Jesus, and he had to decide whether to use violence to resist his enemies, or run away from the scene, or “take one for the team” and allow them to do violence to him for the sake of something bigger than himself.   

     Jesus was put to the test.  Out in the wilderness, and again and again as he went about doing God’s mission, he was tested. But he always found a way to pass these tests. Well, you say, that’s because he was the Son of God, and he had superhuman powers that I don’t have, so it was easy for him.  That can’t be true because if he had super powers, then he was not really human like you and me. The story of Jesus only makes sense if he was able to resist temptation like the rest of us, using his full humanity and the divine nature that we all share. With Jesus at our side, we are challenged to use our full humanity and our divine nature to face those temptations, big and small, that we all face: 

I can call in sick today and play golf, after all, that’s what sick days are for…I’m just going to bump up the charitable donations on my taxes, they’ll never know…It’ll be okay to lie to my spouse and not tell her where I’ve really been, just this once…I’m going to copy the right answers off the smart kid’s paper next to me, and the teacher will never know…I’m going to be selfish and indulgent just today, there’s always time to be responsible and adult tomorrow…God knows I believe in Him, so what if I ignore Him just for awhile? He knows I’ll be back tomorrow… 

This Gospel story is a reminder that for all the many temptations we face in life, there are really only three kinds of temptation, three flavors if you will. We’ll either be tempted to be unfaithful to our own divine nature and calling, or we will doubt God’s love, or we will place something else at the center of our lives, in effect substituting a false god in place of the real God.  

At the center of the first temptation is to be unfaithful to our divine nature. We will always need food, drink, someplace to live and someplace to work. But Jesus reminds us that there is much more to life than the physical things. Like Jesus at his baptism, we have to come to a fuller consciousness of who we really are, beloved daughters and sons of God, and that means we are ambassadors for Our God.  

The second temptation, showing all the kingdoms of the world, is a temptation to settle for compromise. It’s so easy to compromise our faith and our ethics a little bit at a time. It’s easier to do something wrong when no one’s watching. It’s much easier not to speak up when we see injustice and cruelty. It’s not persecution we Christians have to be afraid of,  it’s our own willingness to compromise—slowly and gradually forgetting who we are, what we’re about, what the kingdom is supposed to look like. 

God has a plan for each of us and God has a mission for each of us to fulfill. The same God who formed us in our mother’s womb is the same God who welcomed us at our baptism and He’s the same God who cries and laughs with us throughout our earthly journey. We are baptized into Christ; we ARE Christ for this time and place. And like Christ, we, too, have a sacred calling. And just like Jesus, we too have to discern what that calling is and how to carry it out. Especially now, at this point in the journey of this congregation. We will find our way forward, provided we avoid the triple temptations of forgetting who we are, forgetting that God loves us, and letting emotions or other things cloud our decision-making. We owe this to our ancestors in the faith; we owe it to ourselves; we owe it to the future. 

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Changes Are Coming

Lent is the perfect opportunity to open our hearts and minds to the God who loves us like crazy, and to consider making the changes God is calling us to embrace in order to better reflect the Christ Presence within us. Sounds delightfully spiritual and fulfilling, right? I think so, too, except when I come to an awareness of actual changes I need to make. Then the seemingly harmless spiritual exercise turns into increased tension, physical, mental, and sometimes emotional, and more anxiety than I can shake my holy aspergillum at! Usually it takes me a minute to figure out that I’m resisting grace until I eventually recognize the symptoms: anxiety, moodiness, and a general feeling of unease. It’s the threat of the impending unknown future that trips me up every time, but now that I’ve survived another birthday, maybe I’m able to find better coping skills. Change is always happening, which is annoying and wonderful at the same time. The trick is to find a positive way to move through it without denying it or trying to push it to the side. Every situation is going to change sooner or later, so I’m thinking it’s never too late to learn new responses to it, including affirmative, positive reactions that welcome the new possibilities God is presenting while gratefully releasing the past with a modicum of grace.

One thing I am getting better at is changing my perspective by using different vocabulary when describing my emotional responses to change. Instead of seeing my feelings as anxiety, for example, I can choose to see them as butterflies in the stomach that always occur when I’m eagerly looking for something new to happen. Changing the way I describe my feelings shifts my thoughts away from the sorrow of loss, and more toward new possibilities that are presently unimaginable. God has carried me through some seriously cray-cray situations and overwhelming losses, yet I have never doubted God’s love for me, and believing that to be true has allowed me the grace of trusting a little more with each struggle. God’s past dealings with me allow my feelings, no matter how fear-based, to ultimately carry me forward.

As Christians, we have another tool staring us in the face, one that every generation of believers has used before us: liturgy. Think about it: every culture and religious tradition has ceremonies to mark transitions from one phase of life to another. Ceremonies give humans the opportunity to process emotions and connect gratefully with the past in order to move forward. With every Eucharist we are brought mystically into sacred time, where the past actions of Christ result in our embracing more deeply the Presence of Christ we are called to be in the here and now. We are fed for the journey outside the confines of the church building every time we receive the Bread and the Cup. If we say Eucharist is mostly about the past, then it is powerless. If we say it’s fuel for the future–whatever that looks like–then we will rock both our inner and outer world with limitless divine energy.

Over the years, the two congregations have celebrated a lot of ceremonies: baptisms, weddings, funerals, burning bowl rituals, white stone ceremonies, blessing of memorial stones for our garden, anointings with oil, laying on of hands, installations of pastors and council members, etc… Every one of these ceremonies happened within the larger context of Eucharist, our shared Sacrament that culminates in our partaking of the Bread and the Cup. And then we disperse, to share the power we have received and to become what we have received. In all of our needs and fear of changes, Christ comes to us gently to move us from denial to acceptance, from fear to joy. Memories from the past are there to bolster our foundation, not to anchor us to a history that no longer exists. In all cases, God is here to guide us through the changes if we can simply shut up and step aside. As Bishop Steven posted earlier this week, “God is still writing your story. Stop trying to take the pen!”

Praying for all of us in uncertain times, with gratitude,I remain,

Fr. Michel

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