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A Change of Clothing

Image of a hiker overlooking a mountain trail

I’m taking a class on discernment this fall as part of a graduate certificate program in spiritual direction. Up until now I had always considered discernment as the process of making big life decisions and was startled to discover that discernment is best when it is an intentional part of daily life. I say “intentional” because many of us engage in discernment without conscious thought. However, think of the possibilities if we were to all intentionally seek out what God desires for us in every day. I don’t mean in a ritualistic way that can become rote practice. I mean in a way that takes us deep within ourselves to discover the Holy and allows us to draw that holiness out into our daily lives. We would be better equipped to care for our neighbors, ourselves, and the planet.

In the context of discernment, Paul’s words to the church in Philippi make far more sense. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (4:4-7). If we are reaching for the Holy that lies within us every day, then it is easier to connect with the Holy around us. Rejoicing in the Lord always becomes a very real possibility. Then we can pray with gratitude and open the way for peace to flood our lives. It’s not as easy as it is simple, of course. Yet, this speaks to a yearning of my spirit and maybe to yours as well.

These days it is not easy to find peace, and if we find it, it is fleeting. This is likely because we think peace and passivity are linked. However, it is possible to act out of peacefulness. It is possible to be guided by passion and cling to the peace that Paul wrote about. Even in pandemic, it is possible to seek peace in our lives and offer peace to our neighbors. The key is to avoid getting caught up in the fear and chaos that abounds.

Remember the Israelites in their desert wanderings? As soon as Moses was gone from them for a few days they demanded that Aaron make a god they could see and touch. While I don’t think many of us are creating golden calves, we are often lured away to worship gods of our own making. These are the gods that thrive on fear and chaos and gain power in our distress. The path to worshiping these demanding gods is much easier to follow than the path of the God who desires us to be at peace in ourselves and in the world. Is it possible for any of us to sit still long enough to (re)discover the holiness that is our very core? Is it possible for us to pull away from the chaos and fear that so easily grasps our attention and focus on what is good and kind and beneficial to all?

I think so. Jesus certainly believed it was possible. Why tell the parable of the wedding banquet if Jesus didn’t believe that we are capable of seeking what is good? We have been invited to a feast and we often fail to attend. When we are summoned, when we feel the pull of the Spirit, it is best we follow. There is a seat at the table for all. However, we cannot go clothed with our ego and our own desires. We must go with clothed with the peace of Christ, with humility, with love. It is better we ignore the invitation than go without the proper clothing.

Discernment, looking for the pull of the Spirit, seeking the banquet invitation, is a daily activity the deserves more of our attention. We might find ourselves in strange company if we genuinely ask what God would have us do on a daily basis. We might discover that we have a whole new wardrobe to wear as we offer ourselves in service to our neighbors, to God. Isn’t it time we leave behind the ways of idol worship? We need not wander in the wilderness of fear, anxiety, hatred, or violence any longer. There is truly a better way. I intend to seek it out. Will you join me?

RCL – Year A – Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 11, 2020
Exodus 32:1-14 with Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 or
Isaiah 25:1-9 with Psalm 23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

Photo: CC0image by Dariusz Staniszewski

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Musings Sermon Starter

In Search of God’s Good Pleasure

Image: a field crowded with sunflowers in full bloom

Anger. Outrage. Despair. These feelings coursed through my body, and linger even now. At first I heard that none of the officers involved in Breonna Taylor’s murder were indicted. Then I saw that one officer was charged with “wanton endangerment.” Not because Breonna Taylor died. Rather, because the other bullets endangered Breonna’s white neighbors. It is no wonder that uprisings are happening in Louisville and other cities. If I were not high risk for COVID-19, I would be out on the streets protesting police brutality, state sanctioned murder. It is hard for me to stay at home and do nothing other than pray and write.

How much more blood has to fill our streets before we recognize that our militarized policing system, which grew out of slave catching, has no place in civilized society. And the criminal legal system is no better. The officer was indicted for the bullets that threatened white neighbors, not for the bullets that ended Breonna’s life. There is no justice to be had here. Police need to be held accountable for the lives they have stolen from POC.

Yes, as white people we are conditioned to call police when we feel we are in danger. There is so much wrong with this. What constitutes danger? Surely, it has to be more than the presence of someone whose skin is not white. And police cannot continue to justify their murdersome ways by claiming that they fear for their lives. This is ridiculous. This white supremacist nonsense is lethal to too many of our neighbors. It must stop. How do we not remember that Jesus had brown skin and would be targeted by police in this country if he were alive and speaking truth to power today?

In Philippians, Paul calls us to account: Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus… (2:3-5) Notice there are no qualifiers here. If we have true humility, we regard others is if they were better than we are – all others not just white others. Moreover, their interests are to be attended to before our own. Those police officers and D.A.s who call themselves Christians seem to forget this when they “fear for their lives.” And the mind that was in Christ, the mind that ought to be in the church as the Body of Christ, is a mind of Love. This Love views all human beings as beloved. Shouldn’t we?

Elections are weeks away. While I’m sure most people have decided for whom they will vote, there is yet time to prayerfully consider which candidate will better serve the interests of all who call the U.S. home. Which candidate is more inclined to advocate for those who are different from himself? Which candidate is more likely to recognize the rights of every citizen, and those seeking to become citizens? Which candidate is willing to learn what he doesn’t know and change his behavior if he learns his ways are causing someone(s) harm? Is there humility to be found in either candidate? When you are still, and listen to God, which candidate is likely to do the greatest good, or at minimum, the least harm?

Friends, there are days when COVID-19 seems the least of our worries, and it is very worrisome. However, the loss of lives because we refuse to change systems of policing and the criminal legal system and remain bound by systems that were built on and thrive on white supremacy, seems to me to be at least as concerning, if not more so. More so because there is no vaccine being developed for racism and white supremacy. The example and teachings of Jesus should be enough of a vaccine against hatred, though it seems not to be the case.

Later in the second chapter of Philippians Paul writes, “…with fear and trembling work out your own salvation, for God is the One working in you to both will and work according to God’s good pleasure” (2:12b-13, my own translation). May we all take an honest inventory of our lives and figure out where we have more work to do on our own hearts and minds. If we can open ourselves more to God’s work within us, then maybe more of us will be transformed from ways of hatred and death to ways of Love and life, not just for ourselves, for the whole of Creation. Because we need to be more focused on “God’s good pleasure,” I leave you with this prayer attributed to Marthe Robins who relied heavily on a similar prayer by Ignatius Loyola:

May God take my memory and all it remembers,
Take my heart and all its affections,
Take my intelligence and all its powers;
May they only serve your greatest glory.
Take my will completely,
for always I empty it out in yours.
No longer what I want, O my sweetest Jesus,
but always what you want!
Take me … receive me … direct me.
Guide me! I surrender and abandon myself to you!
I surrender myself to you as a small sacrifice of
Love, of praise and Gratitude, for the Glory of your Holy Name,
for the enjoyment of your Love, the triumph of your Sacred Heart,
and for the perfect fulfillment of your Designs in me and around me.

RCL – Year A – Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 27, 2020
Exodus 17:1-7 with Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 or
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 with Psalm 25:1-9
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

Photo: CC0image by Inactive account – ID 9301

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Seemingly Impossible Joy

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Rejoice in the Lord always. Always and everywhere. Was Paul kidding? The world is too challenging a place to be full of joy always, isn’t it? I mean look at what is happening around the world – war, hunger, sickness, climate change – and in this country – murder, incarceration, tear gas, hatred, fear – and in my neighborhood – isolation, anxiety, desperation. Who can find joy in all of this? Funny thing, Paul’s world wasn’t all the different. He was imprisoned, not for the first time when he wrote to the Philippians. He was no stranger to oppression, war, violence, hatred, fear, and other such soul-destroying things. Yet, he found joy in the Lord.

And we are supposed to do the same no matter what is going on around us or in our own lives. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. However, joy is not the same thing as happiness. Joy is a more mature, deeper, transforming emotion than happiness. Happiness is dependent on one’s circumstances. Lots of things can make us happy. Joy is built on the connection between the human spirit and the Holy Spirit. Joy does not end when the moment has passed. This is how Paul could rejoice even when circumstances were not in his favor.

Where is the joy for today’s Christian? To be perfectly honest, I spent a good portion of my younger years feeling anything but joy. It was so hard to see through the pain of the past and the precarious balance of the present to any kind of lasting joy. It’s also hard to feel joy if one does not experience love. Only when I began to see myself as someone worthy of love, someone whom God loved deeply, did I notice joy blossoming in the depths of my being.

Zephaniah’s and Isaiah’s call to sing God’s praises even while still captive and filled with shame, make much more sense when considered in the context of God’s steadfast love. I don’t know why or how, but God continues to love humanity no matter what we do. When we engage in war and violence, God’s love remains. When we are filled with fear and hatred for our neighbors, God’s love holds fast. When we are lost to anxiety and despair, God’s love abides. Nothing we can do to ourselves, each other, or creation can change the fact that we were created in Love for love. For reasons beyond my capacity to fathom, God still loves all of humanity and waits for us to grasp hold of this truth.

When we understand ourselves to be God’s beloved, then joy becomes possible. The shame gives way to hope and the fear gives way to peace. Suddenly the world holds more beauty than violence and all our neighbors are God’s beloved. No, I don’t think it’s possible that any of us live in this truth 100% of the time. We are still subject to the emotions coursing through our bodies and the pressures of living in this chaotic world. The difference comes into play when we sit still long enough to sink into the very center of ourselves. When we allow ourselves to become conscious of the truth that resides in the depths of our being – we belong to God and nothing can change that. When we embrace this truth, then joy grows and becomes something that nothing can remove. Yes, joy can grow dim in the face of hardship. It can be masked by depression, anxiety, and other forms of mental illness. It can fade in the face of grief. Yet, it remains, always. A light in depths that cannot be extinguished.

Of course, this joy might require we do some odd things. We might have to write letters of hope and promise to churches from a prison cell. We might have to proclaim the power and presence of God to a people lost in shame and fear. We might need to preach release, salvation, to captives. We might have to sing while those around us weep, sing of God’s promise of hope, peace, joy, and love.

So, yes, let us rejoice always, trusting that peace that truly passes all understanding to keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. It might just get a little easier to stand with John the Baptist in the wilderness and prepare the way…

RCL – Year C – Third Sunday of Advent – December 16, 2018
Zephaniah 3:14-20
Isaiah 12:2-6
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

Photo: CC0 image by Gerd Altmann

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Who Will Intercede for Us

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Who will intercede for us as we worship gods of our own making? Who will plead with God on our behalf while we become supplicants of gods who cannot satisfy us? I find myself wondering this as I read through the story of the Israelites and the golden calf in the context of our self-serving society that places more value on pretty, shiny things than it does on human beings.

Unlike the ancient Israelites, God did not lead us into this wilderness where compassion is rare and condemnation flies freely in all directions. The Israelites became frightened and distrusting when they thought Moses and God had abandoned them. They wanted a God they could see and touch and be sure was present with them as they continued the journey toward transformation and liberation. I can sympathize with them. That was a grueling journey and to feel alone and abandoned would make any people yearn for something tangible, a pretty, shiny god. But, as I said, God didn’t lead us out into this wilderness. We got here on our own chasing the shadows of glitzy and glamourous gods made to please us (or fool us).

We are responsible for a society that values wealth over humanity, quick, violent solutions over slower peace processes, silence over justice, oppression over hospitality, and the status quo over transformative change. We fill ourselves with nostalgia for a past that never existed and yearn for a yesterday that is more fiction than fact. America was never great. However, if we stop focusing on ourselves and our golden calves, America could be better than it is.

The Exodus story tells us that God was angry when the people worshiped the golden calf they had made. God intended to wipe them out for their rather significant transgression. However, Moses interceded and reminded God of the covenant made with the ancestors. God relented and sent Moses back to the Israelites with the Ten Commandments to bring them back into right relationship with God and to build a healthier community.

I’m not sure that God was so very ready to smite the Israelites, but I can understand how those who first told this story might think so. I don’t think it was God who needed to be reminded of the covenant God had made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jocob; I think it was the Israelites who needed the reminder. Either way, Moses interceded and the community got another chance.

Now I do think that today God might be angry with those of us who call on God’s name and then go worship lesser gods. At the very least, God has to be disappointed that we still have not figured out how to love one another. We still have not figured out how to trust God to lead us through the wilderness even when we end up there by our own volition. God has reasons to be disappointed, angry, and frustrated with us all.

However, God’s steadfast love endures forever. God will wait patiently for us to turn away from the gods we have made. God will wait for us to recognize the image of God in all human beings. God will wait for us to recognize the beauty and wonder of Creation and take better care of the planet. I’m just not sure how long we want to keep God waiting.

We know better today than those ancient Israelites did. We know that the journey from oppression to liberation is a grueling one and that transformation is often a slow and painful process. We also know that God never abandons the people of God. We turn away often enough, but God does not. God patiently awaits our repentance so that we can live in right relationship with God, with our neighbors, with ourselves, and with creation.

Isn’t it time we stop making false gods? Isn’t it time we put away our attraction to quick fixes and instant gratification? Isn’t it time we roll up our sleeves and commit to working for justice, for peace, for liberation of all God’s children? Does it really matter so much what country someone was born it? Does it really matter what name a person calls God? Does it really matter how poor or wealthy a person is? Does it really matter which labels of division we place on one another?

The Apostle Paul tells us to turn our attention to things that are true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. Maybe we should try that before we find ourselves in an outer darkness littered with the tarnished, dented gods our hands have made.

RCL – Year A – Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost – October 15, 2017
Exodus 32:1-14 with Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 or
Isaiah 25:1-9 with Psalm 23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

Photo: CC0 image by Steve Bidmeand

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Sharks in the Waters

scuba-diver-1049945Many years ago I became an advanced open water diver. If you’ve never been scuba diving it is the most peaceful, beautiful experience. It’s just you, the sound of your breathing, and all the wonders the ocean has to offer. Two of the reasons I chose to learn to dive are that I am claustrophobic and I am afraid of sharks. You’d think that a person with both these things would avoid diving, right? Yes, except that I cannot tolerate my choices being ruled by fear.

As it turned out, the claustrophobia wasn’t an issue for me because I didn’t feel confined in any way by the gear required for diving. The shark thing was another issue, though. I saw one, once. Now it seems funny, but it didn’t seem amusing then at all.

I was with two other people and we planned a simple dive near Humarock Beach in Massachusetts. The goal was to give us more practice and maybe catch a few lobsters for dinner. We swam out to the rocks where we planned to dive. One person dove down and two of us were still on the surface. My friend was having some difficulty letting herself sink. I was talking her through what she needed to do when I saw a very large dorsal fin about 100 feet behind her. All my calmness vanished. I yanked on the flag line to let the other person know there was a problem and quietly asked my friend who was a total novice if she saw what I saw. She did. The three of us swam as fast as we could to the nearest shore. If anyone had seen us, it was probably pretty entertaining to see three grown women in full scuba gear scramble for the rocky shore. I don’t think that shark knew we were even there. But my thought was that if we were looking for dinner, maybe the shark was, too. When we stopped by the dive shop a little while later, we were informed that it was a basking shark. Absolutely harmless since they have no teeth.

sea-79836I felt foolish for giving into my fear that day. Fear is a powerful emotion. It can keep us safe and prevent us from engaging in harmful activities. However, fear can easily cross from healthy and practical to unhealthy and irrational. A fear of sharks is healthy until it prevents you from swimming in the ocean. A fear that reminds you to be cautious in strange places or with unknown people, is reasonable and smart until it prevents you from going out of your house or making friends with your neighbors. It’s the latter kind of fear that seems to be flowing through the US today. You’ve heard the politicians and seen the way people respond. There’s nothing smart or reasonable about the xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and the other nonsense about immigrants, refugees, and People of Color that floods the media.

What concerns me is that people of faith buy into this kind of fear that breeds hatred and violence. What kind of faith do we have when we become so fearful of people who are somehow different from who we understand ourselves to be? Think of Abram. How different would our faith story be if fear had taken over his capacity for reason or his ability to trust in God.

Abram endured visions and a “deep and terrifying darkness” before he entered into a covenant with God that would lead him to unexpected places. Abram would have had every reason to run screaming away. In fact, we don’t know that others did not. Maybe Abram wasn’t the first that God approached with the offer of the covenant that would create a great nation from his offspring. Maybe Abram was simply the first to trust that God would indeed be his shield and that the reward would be great. I have no doubt that Abram was all kinds of anxious as he stepped into the future God offered him. Yet, Abram didn’t let his fear bind him to the dark and terrifying places. He heard the promise God spoke to him out of the depths, through the dark. And his life was transformed.

It feels to me like we as a nation, if not the whole world, have bound ourselves to Abram’s deep and terrifying darkness and aren’t willing to sit still long enough to hear God saying, “Fear not.” I am convinced that we have no reason to be afraid if we follow Paul’s advice and walk in the way of Christ. If we hold fast to a faith that says, “Fear not. I am with you” and guides us in the way of peace, how can we fail to find a way through all that frightens us? Fear is real but not always based on reality and, in and of itself, fear is seldom a good justification for inaction.

I believe that I shall see  the goodness of God in the land of the living. 
Wait for God; be strong, let your heart take courage; wait for God!

RCL – Year C – Third Sunday in Lent – February 21, 2016
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Psalm 27
Philippians 3:17–4:1
Luke 13:31-35

Top Photo CC0 image by Steve Howard

Bottom Photo CC0 image by David Mark

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Rejoice, Give Thanks, and Sing

Some of this blog might sound trite or naive,  but it’s neither. This week’s reflection is composed with the lectionary in mind, and following a rather dramatically hostile day at the hospital. Yet I choose joy, because I really believe we are beloved of God. Only in this relationship can we experience true joy, ever.

I think joy is misunderstood. I don’t think it is happiness magnified so much as it is life embraced. It isn’t a fleeting feeling of ecstasy or amusement, either. Joy takes root deep inside a person’s soul and blossoms into strength and wisdom that keeps one grounded when tragedy and chaos strike. Joy is part gift and part hard work.

It is easier to focus on the horrors. Another shooting rampage (this one in Oregon). Syria firing missiles at rebels. North Korea testing missiles. An Egyptian blogger jailed for blasphemy. A human mind tortured by mental illness. Looking for joy is challenging.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

I believe these words from Philippians are at the core of the Advent message. We are preparing for Christ to come anew. We are anticipating Christ’s return. But Christ is already here. So rejoice! Breathe. Be gentle with everyone including yourself. And stop worrying. It’s a choice to celebrate Christ’s presence even when things are painful and messy.

I have often begun worship with an invitation to worshippers to share things for which they are grateful. There is never silence. If people in a psychiatric facility can find joy then there’s hope for the rest of us. The good news of Advent is that we are already Beloved. Christ has claimed us.

We worship and participate in the seasons of the church to remind ourselves of the ancient story and our place in it. In this season let us remember all that Christ has done for us and choose to rejoice.

Surely God is my salvation;544839_10151221234859375_1385174662_n
I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for the Lord God is my strength
and my might;
he has become my salvation
.

RCL – Year C – Third Sunday of Advent – December 16, 2012

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Isaiah 12:2-6
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18