When Fear Blocks Ministry

This morning’s Gospel reading places Jesus on the road with his disciples. It’s a story that we can relate to because it’s about three things we’re all familiar with: fear, fighting and how we struggle to be first. Mark tells us that Jesus and his posse are passing through Galilee and because he needed some time alone with the disciples, he didn’t want anyone to know he was in town. If you’re thinking that this sounds familiar, you are correct: this is the second time in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus is predicting his own betrayal, death and resurrection.  Even though this is the second time Jesus is telling them these things, they still don’t understand. They don’t get what Jesus is talking about and yet they are too afraid to ask him to clarify. Maybe that seems odd to us that they are too fearful to ask for clarification, but haven’t we all been in situations where we didn’t understand something but were too afraid to ask?

Math was always my lowest grade in school: I didn’t understand the formulas or the logorithms and I certainly never understood quadratic equations.   I still don’t. My worst nightmare were those horrible story problems that usually involved trains: If Train A is traveling southeast at 70 miles per hour, and Train B is traveling northwest at 55 miles per hour, what color dress is the conductor’s wife wearing at the cocktail party?  Those train story problems always read the same way to me! And I don’t know if the teacher was moving too quickly or if my brain was simply stuck in neutral, but I was convinced that I was the only one in the room who didn’t get any of it. In high school my algebra teacher made us stand at the board until we figured it out on our own: I spent a lot of time standing at that board, needless to say. And while she did occasionally ask the class if there were any questions, I could tell by the tone of her voice that it would be better not to say anything. I certainly didn’t want to annoy her or, worse, appear to be stupid myself.

So then, why is it that we disciples are sometimes afraid to ask questions when we don’t understand??

For some of us- it is embarrassment. We don’t want to be the only ones who “don’t get it”. We don’t want to look foolish, so we don’t ask. We don’t raise our hands or ask our questions. Some of us would rather remain in the dark than be in the spotlight by calling attention to ourselves. But on a deeper level, maybe we are afraid to ask the question, because we really don’t want to know the answer. We don’t ask the question because in fact we are terrified of the truth. We really don’t really want to know, what we suspect we already know. Sometimes, it’s easier to be oblivious- than for us to confront the obvious.  It’s like the former military policy of “don’t ask- don’t tell”.  We’re hoping that if we don’t ask, then God won’t tell us what we’re unable or unwilling to hear.

The older I get, the more convinced I am that at the end of our lives it’s not going to be the answers we found that will bring us peace, rather it will be the quality of the questions we learned to ask.  So maybe it’s not that we’re afraid to ask, but maybe it’s that we don’t know how to ask the question.  Our questions seem awkward and so we don’t voice them.  Maybe that’s how it was with the disciples. Maybe they just weren’t ready to deal with what Jesus had shared about his betrayal, suffering and death. Maybe they didn’t want to understand because they were afraid.

It was on the road to Capernaum that their argument began. Perhaps they whispered; maybe they mumbled. But clearly they didn’t want Jesus to hear their boasting. “I am the one with the best talents for this ministry. No, I’m much more talented than you.” “No way, my gifts are greater than all of yours!”. Jesus didn’t say anything on the road, but when they got to the house, he confronts them, and they were no doubt embarrassed. Maybe even ashamed. They certainly realized how stupid their argument sounded. So no one spoke up. No one took ownership for the fight. What would they say: Jesus we were fighting about which of us is the best?

They knew that Jesus had overheard their bickering and their lobbying for the title of GREATEST- for that position on the top- -that place of honor that would give them prestige in the ministry. Their fighting was just another indication that the disciples didn’t get it. They didn’t really understand what Jesus and his message were really about. So they are silent and they don’t answer. And Jesus sees this teachable moment, sits down and calls them over.

This is such a comforting story because it illustrates so wonderfully how God doesn’t give up on us. Here are these disciples who are squabbling among themselves about something stupid and Jesus doesn’t send them away- but teaches them- and uses them to teach and reach others. If Jesus can use these disciples, he can also use us- in spite of our fears, in spite of our fighting, inspite of our questions.  And Jesus says to his disciples “whoever wants to be first needs to be last. Whoever wants to be greatest- must be the servant of all.”

If we look around the world, we can clearly see that the challenges the disciples faced are the same we face today.  Following Jesus is still a challenge because we lack understanding, because we’re carrying so much fear around inside, and we keep getting drawn into arguments about things that just don’t matter. In Matthew 25, when Jesus is judging the sheep and the goats, not ONCE does he question them on what they believe, or what level of faith they have.  Instead, he just wants to know how they have served the least of their sisters and brothers by feeding them, clothing them, visiting them in prison, etc… So if we’re going to be striving to be first or the best or the greatest, let’s see how much and how deeply we can care for the needs of others.  In the end, that’s all that matters.

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Finish Line

Years ago, when it looked very much like the boys and I would be relocating to midtown Manhattan to be near their mother, I was very apprehensive.  New York City has a lot to offer, no question about it, but the idea of moving there with young sons who were accustomed to midwest living??  It didn’t feel right.  I loved the idea of being a New Yorker all right, but only if I could do it part-time!  I’d like it a lot better if I could just commute there occasionally instead of living that frenetic life full-time.

This is kind of what a lot of Jesus’ followers were feeling: when they realized that he expected them to accept his invitation to build the Kingdom of God with him AND that it could only be a full-time commitment to living in that Kingdom in the here and now….they weren’t ready to do that.  If they couldn’t commute they weren’t going to commit to being part of it.  There is a certain sad note to the way this Gospel ends, I think, because certainly Jesus had spent a lot of time refining his teaching over many months, maybe even years, and more and more he was getting more explicit about what the Reign of God was, and the more details he gave them, the fewer people were actually willing to continue following him.  One by one they drifted away. And so, feeling sad and disappointed, Jesus turns to the Twelve and asks, “So, are you guys going to leave as well??”

And of course it falls to Peter to pipe up and say, “Look, Jesus, where else are we going to go?  We might have some issues with some of what you say, but hey, we can see that you’re the Messiah and we are relying on your teaching to give us life.”

Good old Simon Peter. Impetuous. Excitable. Sometimes speaking before his mind was fully in gear. But Simon Peter was in for the long term. His commitment was no momentary, fleeting experience good only when things were going his way. Certainly, he got discouraged. After the crucifixion, he was ready to go back to his fishing nets. We totally get that! He was crushed, profoundly disappointed and grieving besides…but the commitment never failed.

As a pastor, I see the same thing.  New people show up at church and they cry when they’re told they can receive communion no matter who they are, no matter where they are or where they’ve been on life’s journey.  They hug me afterwards sometimes, and more than a few have told me, in the emotion of the moment, that they will follow me “to the ends of the earth.” And every time that happens, I now know what certainty what will follow: they may come once or twice again, but they will eventually disappear, never to be seen again.  Or sometimes parents who are dedicated, regular attendees stop going to church as soon as the kids are raised and out of the house.  I have known people who spent twenty or thirty years in their congregation, and suddenly have a disagreement with another member or with the pastor, and they disappear. So when people really are listening to the invitation from Jesus to be part of the community he founded, and they are willing to take the risks of following him, it is nothing short of a blessing!  These people have a special kind of faith, a faith for the long run, a faith that will there for them in challenging times.

We have very few promises about this life, only that God will love us unconditionally and he will be with us now and in the life to come.  Life is a marathon: it’s hard and the obstacles are many.  Just because we get swept up in the emotions of the moment and declare our faith in Jesus does not mean God will make our lives any easier. We will still get cancer, have heart attacks, strokes, and type two diabetes. We will watch family members and the ones we love most go through terrible suffering.  We will lose our jobs, our dignity and our most precious memories.  The longer we live the more losses we will endure, the more funerals we will attend, the more grief we will carry.  We’re not going to make it out of this life alive, and we’re certainly not going to make it out of here without a faith geared to the long term.

If you’ve ever watched even the CNN highlights of the Tour de France, you know something about life.  The bikers who are in the lead at the start of the race are rarely the ones who finish first.  Life is that kind of marathon, it’s a Tour de France, so how we begin is decidedly less important than how we finish.

Most of us are good starters: we have talent, we have enthusiasm, we start off with a burst of good intentions and probably some kind of strong emotion. But those intense beginnings can’t be sustained, and therein lies the problem. That’s true in all our commitments: to Jesus Christ, to our spouse, our partner, in our work, in our school work, etc….  How then are we going to finish? And what is the “second act” of the theatrical production of our lives going to look like?

That is the real test of any commitment. When the enthusiasm fades, when the passions cool, when the numbers drop off, can we maintain enough intensity to reach the finish?  Think about running a marathon.  There comes a point when we just want to stop the pain, to give less than our best, and to maybe hope that we’ll finish by luck or by other people doing even less well than ourselves. The truth is that unless we’re willing to push past our limits, past our hangups and our perceived limitations. Life is a marathon. Finishing is what it is all about.

So we come to the punch line for this sermon, and that is: faith is all about finishing, and it’s critical for us to see that clearly. It’s easy to believe in Jesus when the sun is shining and we’re healthy and all our bills are paid. Real faith becomes real when we are down and out, when nothing in our life makes sense, when we’re unable to find solace in reading the Scriptures or in any kind of praying, when we’re ready to call it quits.

Corrie ten Boom, the Dutch woman who spent months in prison and in the Ravensbrueck concentration camp for hiding Jews during WW2 found that kind of faith. Her experiences in the camp caused her to question her faith, and she often asked God to give her a sign that He was there somehow, and that somehow God was still in charge. Months and months went by with no sign from God, and many nights she fell asleep weeping in despair. Then one morning Corrie awakened to see a beam of light shining through a crack in the concrete ceiling, illuminating a few straggly blades of grass that were growing on the dirt floor.

“I knew without any doubt,” Corrie writes,, “that God was alive and that his light would shine again in my life in a beautiful and wonderful way, even though it seemed impossible.”

That morning Corrie found the faith that mattered most: her fundatmental trust in God and her renewed commitment to holding fast.

It’s not how we start, but where we finish. Real faith, faith that is far beyond emotional reactions or feelings, is about hanging tough.  It’s about doing what we can throughout the race, and coming down to the finish line doing whatever it takes to see the miracles all around us. Revelation put God’s promise to us about finishing the race like this: “Be faithful unto death”, the writer of the Revelation writes, “and I will give you the crown of life” (2:10). In other words, life is a marathon, don’t lose sight of the finish.

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Fear As Vehicle of Grace

It has always fascinated me that the most often repeated advice throughout the Scriptures can be boiled down to two simple words: Fear Not!  To me this means that Our God knows us so well, knows how we are sometimes consumed by fear of listening, changing, trying something new, and a host of other things. The message seems to be anything worth doing in this life will always have some level of fear attached to it.  Think about deciding to marry someone, or having a baby, or changing jobs, or moving across the country.  Every life event or decision seems to have fear attached and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  After all, human evolution has gifted each of us with a strong survival instinct, and sometimes fear is our way of questioning whether we really want the new life these changes will bring. It is also a potent reminder that releasing and grieving the past is a necessary part of moving into the new.

Fear has a way of throwing us off balance, making us feel uncertain and insecure, but that does not always mean that we should feel discouraged or avoid making decisions that are life-changing. Sometimes its purpose is to notify us that we are at the edge of our comfort zone, poised between the old life and a new one. Choosing to face our fears allows us to overcome an inner obstacle and move fully into the new territory of life, physically, emotionally and spiritually.  The more we learn to respect and welcome the presence of the Living Christ within us, the easier it will be for us to determine what kind of fear we are holding.  Is it a fear that derives from our soul’s desire to maintain the status quo because that is what God is whispering to us? Or is it a fear that comes from our limited view of the great dream God has for us and that is preventing us from embracing our call more fully?  The more we are able to determine the nature of our fear, the easier it will be to allow its wisdom to let us know whether the time has come for us to move forward or not. Clearly we are never going to feel comfortable with fear, but we can learn to recognize its arrival, listen to its rationale and even come to respect it as a harbinger of real transformation. And if indeed this fear is informing us that the change we are considering is significant and according to God’s holy will, then we can better approach it with the proper reverence.

When the fear sweeps in and threatens our ability to make a decision, we can engage in conversation with our fear, plumbing its depths for a deeper understanding of the changes we are considering.  Prayer, meditation, journaling, conversing with a spiritual director or other companion—all of these are possible ways to discern the nature of the fear.  So often it is the frustrating mix of emotions that derails us, but when we can articulate our worries, our sadness, our excitement, our hope, we can find the answer we are seeking.  Fear doesn’t need to stop us in our tracks, it can instead be used as a vehicle for the soul to discover the next layer of its sacred calling. Fear almost always comes alongside anything worth doing in life, so there’s no need to allow ourselves to be paralyzed.

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Pentecost, Again

Pentecost is sometimes described as the “birthday” of the Church, and in some ways that is true, but for the most part that is too sentimental a view to take because Pentecost isn’t supposed to be a sentimental, comforting story, it’s meant to be a dangerous one. The story opens with that small group of believers isolating themselves from the rest of the world, gathered in fear.  But looking back, had they actually known what the Spirit had planned for the group, they might have fled to the four corners of the world!  It turned out they were in no danger from outsiders, the danger came because they were all together in one place and God was about to crash the party of their limited view of the world and compel them to bring in everyone they had spent their lives trying to avoid.

Things got a little cray-cray then with the wind and the fire and the different languages.  It was very different from our experience of Church in the 21st century: there were no musicians or board meetings or religious education.  There weren’t even any ushers to hand out bulletins to the crowds waiting outside, and there weren’t bake sales or rummage sales either. It all looks so different, unless we look closer at the people, in which case there isn’t much difference at all.

We still have fear and isolation in some branches of the Church, a fierce sectarianism that divides us…so nothing new there.   And those people who did the whole speaking in tongues thing …well, they must have been Pentecostals. And that long list of how many different nationalities showed up must have been added by the first member of the UCC boasting about multiculturalism.  Nothing’s changed there either.  Then there were those who witnessed this powerful act of God…this Pente-chaos and, in an attempt at intellectualizing it, all they said was “What does this mean in the larger economy of God’s grace?
These were the Catholics, of course.

And the ones who said, “Those people are drunk” were perhaps some Evangelicals focused on the personal morality of others. Nothing new there.  Then finally there’s the nice but completely naive Methodist guy who says “O my gosh, there’s no way they can be drunk…it’s only 9 o clock in the morning.”

Nothing’s changed much.  People are people. There are the emotional ones, the judgemental one, the naïve ones, and of course the ones like myself who insist on categorizing and naming everyone as though people can be reduced to a label.  Honestly.

So there we all are even from the beginning.  Flawed, smug, confused, embarrassed and embarrassing…in other words the very perfect people to whom God sends the spirit.

Because, it turns out, God hasn’t changed either. Just like that first Pentecost, God still crashes our parties and invites in the people we would rather avoid. God still says “yes” to all our polite “no thank yous”.  This is what is so crazy dangerous about the whole thing.  This isn’t a sentimental birthday celebration, it’s a revolution. When speaking of the Holy Spirit we have to revert to metaphors: Paraclete, Comforter, wind, dove—but the thing to remember is that the Holy Spirit is NOT a metaphor.  She will mess you up in ways a metaphor cannot.

Even though we call the Holy Spirit the comforter, that doesn’t mean she brings warm cookies and nice bedtime story to help us sleep.  The Spirit brings the comfort of the truth – and if you’ve had any experience of the truth whatsoever you can testify that it’s not exactly cozy. The truth has often set me free from comforting illusions, but I’m here to tell you, I can’t think of a single instance when that felt like a warm cookie or a bedtime story!

So here we are: flawed, smug, confused, embarrassed and embarrassing…in other words the very people to whom God sends the spirit to mess everything up.The very people God loves enough to send that crazy bird with bared talons and a predatory beak to come and snatch out our stony hearts and replace them with the expansive vision of God’s heart.

Because God hasn’t changed. Just like that first Pentecost God still says yes to all our polite no thank yous.  God still crashes our parties and invites in the people we are trying to avoid. That’s the thing about the Pentecost Spirit of truth: it feels like the truth might crush us. And that is right.  The truth will crush us, but the instant it crushes us it put us back together into something real—maybe for the very first time.

The fundamental radical and dangerous thing the Spirit does is always the same: she forms us into the Body of Christ.  Sometimes despite us, sometimes contrary to the way we prefer, but always for us. It’s the only way we can remember that we are not individual human beings having a spiritual experience: we are spiritual beings having the fullness of human experience.

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Who Am I?

The end of the academic year approaches and my seniors are excited at the prospect of entering “the real world”, but also apprehensive in some cases.  Being in their parents’ home and having their days all planned and scheduled for the past 12 years has them wondering who they are now.  At some point in all our lives, or perhaps at many points, we ask the same question, “Who am I now?”” At times like these, we are looking beyond the superficial, beyond our names and the names of the cities and states we came from, into the layers beneath our surface identities. We feel the need for a deeper sense of purpose in our lives, or we may be ready to accommodate a more complex understanding of the situation in which we find ourselves. Whatever the case, the question of who we are is a seed that can bear much fruit.
This questioning can send us on an exploration of our particular giftedness, of our dreams, of our deep vocation in God’s dream of who He wants us to become.  It can call us to take up new ways of meditating or journaling in order to discover that voice deep within us that seems to know the answers to our multitude of questions. It can draw our attention so deeply inward that we find the spark of Spirit that connects us to every living thing in the universe. One Hindu tradition counsels its practitioners to ask the question over and over, using it as a mantra to lead them inevitably into the heart of the divine.
While there are people who seem to come into this world knowing exactly who they are and why they are here, for the most part the human journey appears to be very much about asking this question and allowing its answers to guide us. So when we find ourselves in the heart of unknowing, we can have faith that we are in a very human place, as well as a very divine one. “”Who am I?” is a timeless mantra, a Zen koan ultimately designed to lead us home, into the part of our minds that finally lets go of questions and answers and finds instead the ability to simply be.

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It’s All About YOU

 

Whether we realize it or not, we spend a lot of our lives looking for role models, mentors, teachers, and spiritual guides to assist us on our journey through life.  Often this is complicated further by the events of our childhood, i.e., if we lacked a strong father figure as a child, we look for that in others when we are adults. There isn’t anything wrong that doing this, and in fact, finding the right person at the right time can really help us grow. However, it is important to realize that in the absence of such a figure, we can very safely rely upon ourselves—or more specifically, the Christ who dwells within us. We carry within us everything we need to get through this life, to know how to make wise choices, and to make progress on our return journey back into God. As I’ve said before, the outer world often serves as a mirror to what is going on within ourselves. To use another metaphor, our inner spiritual connection to God has a magnetic force that draws to us exactly  what we need to grow and evolve to the next level. We already have all we need, so we need to release the mistaken belief that unless we’re frantically searching we will never find what we are looking for.

The path of the Spirit is sometimes seen as searching for something far outside ourselves, almost like Ponce de Leon searching for the fountain of youth.  In this modality, we are searching for something we want but do not possess, and we are convinced that when we find it we can finally be happy and at peace. Think about wanting that Malibu Barbie when you were a young girl, or the video game you just had to have when you were a young boy.  Getting what we think we need only makes us happy for a short while, and then the happiness passes until a new object of desire presents itself. That is the difference between happiness and joy: joy is a permanent aspect of our inner selves and is not separate from us at any point. We do not have to travel to find it or imagine that it resides only in places of people outside ourselves. In fact, this is precisely what Jesus teaches us when he reminds us that the Kingdom of God is within us.

So when we find ourselves on our path, not knowing which way to turn and wishing for guidance, we can turn to the Christ-presence within. This is the enduring gift of our baptism in Christ, to be His body and sacred Presence in this time and place.  We may not know the right answer rationally or intellectually, but if we simply ask, let go, and wait patiently, an answer will come. The more we practice this and trust this process, the less we will look outside ourselves for answers and come to a deep level of peace.

Wishing you a Lent full of sweet surrender,

Fr. Michel

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What About Joy?

People have had a habit of asking me two questions over the years.  “Do you know anyone nice I could date?” and “Considering all the tragedy in your life, how do you maintain your joyful attitude?”  The answer to the former is always the same: “No, I am sorry, I do not.”  The response to the latter is more complicated and challenging to explain, so I generally fall back on simplistic answers like, “I believe in God” or “My faith sustains me”—both of which are true as far as they go, but they don’t really attempt to answer the question.  So, today I’m going to reach deep and try to answer this latter question more honestly.

First, it seems to me that part of the answer is in my DNA and my natural tendency to really love life and living.  I may be a senior citizen with an AARP membership, but I love this life!  The first snowfall makes me giddy, as does the first 75 degree day in May when it’s sunny and beautiful.  I also love to play, whether it’s on a swingset or rollerblading in Foster Park or playing tennis or “turning up” at a rave.  It’s all good and I love it all.

This leads to the second point, which is that there is no one secret for living a joyful life. Those of us who move through life joyously have not necessarily been blessed with lives of abundance, love, success, and prosperity. We have, however, been blessed with the ability to take the circumstances and storyline we’ve been handed and creatively make them into something great. I’ve often used the line, “Perception is reality” and I say that because our individual realities are colored by perception: delight and despair come from within rather than without. Situations we regard as fortuitous engender positive feelings, while situations we judge inauspicious cause us no end of grief.

Because this is true, we can move to the third layer, which is that if we can step back a bit and look at all we have accomplished in life without dwelling on our perceived misfortune and make each new circumstance, each bump in the road our own, the world as we experience it becomes a grace-filled and graceful place. A simple shift in awareness can help us recognize and unearth the hidden potential for personal and outer world fulfillment in every event, every relationship, every duty, and every setback.

So, now you know the rest of the story! Have a blessed and joyful week.

Fr. Michel

I’m not saying that life is easy: it is not.  Nor is it for the faint-hearted.  The universe is often an unpredictable and chaotic place, and for many the tendency is to focus on the negative and assume the positive will care for itself. This doesn’t work because life can never be more or less than what we make of it. For example, if we are working in a job we dislike or where we feel limited, we can concentrate on the positive aspects of the position and approach our work with positive energy, knowing that we are open to learning whatever it is God needs us to embrace. The job may never become something we “love”, but we can learn to perceive parts of it that we do love.  Likewise, when faced with the prospect of undertaking a task we fear, we might view it as an opportunity to discover how far we can bend to accommodate the new challenge. By choosing to love life no matter what crosses our path, we can create an aura of joy that is truly infectious and serves as a harbinger of fun for all those around us.  A change in perspective is all it takes to change our world, BUT we must be willing to adopt God’s own optimistic, hopeful mind-set.

To make a conscious decision to be “happy” is not enough. We have to learn to observe and embrace life’s complexities through the eyes of our inner child,  seeing everything for the first time. And we have to furthermore divest ourselves of preconceived notions of what is good and what is bad so that we can appreciate the rich insights concealed in each stage of our life’s journey. What we have in this stage of life needs to be embraced joyfully and fully because if there’s one thing we know for certain it’s that life’s circumstances are always shifting. As we gradually shift our perspective, our existence will be imbued with an authentic  joy that will carry us through whatever life gives us.

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