Monday, February 26, 2018

Wrestling with God, It Is Good Work

Wrestling with God, It Is Good Work
Psalm 22:23-31; Mark 8:31-38 

The apostle Peter does not understand what is happening around him. Jesus says that this mission project of his is about to meet a violent end, and Peter cannot see what it is Jesus is talking about. 
I have lived an easy life in the Christian faith. I was born a Catholic. I attended a Catholic Grade School and High School. We were sometimes told that Catholics were discriminated against, but as a sixth grader, John F. Kennedy was elected President of the US. I was able to dismiss the voices of religious prejudice pretty easily. Of all of the conspiracy theories about the assassination of JFK, few rested on his religion as being an important part. 
Being a child of the 50’s and a teen in the 60’s, I knew the full blush of the nation’s infatuation with youth. The population boom following World War II, the Baby Boomers were the often indulged children in the generation after the sacrifices made for the World War 2 war effort. The economy boomed with new toys for kids, advertised on the televisions that seemingly covered the nation in a matter of only a couple of years. 
All of the families went to church on Sunday. The moms wore hats and gloves, and the dads wore suits and ties. The boys had their hair slicked down and we were all excited to see the parking lot full of new cars, with lots of chrome and ever larger tail fins. The Bible stories read like fairy tales. There was a widespread concern for the good of the community, as we defined community, and we all felt good. The life of a faithful person seemed easy and natural. 
Peter represents a reliable voice of common sense, telling Jesus not to wish for martyrdom. It is unreasonable to expect hardships at every turn. When I first heard this scripture as a child, I could not understand why the usually compassionate Jesus turned on his most trusted sidekick. 
Jesus seems so harsh when he responds to Peter and calls him the devil. The devil is rooted in the Old Testament as the tempter, the voice that would invite us to seek our own simple satisfaction and not the will of God. 
It is not succumbing to the devil to seek and find the simple pleasures of life. The challenge of course is to know what time it is. Is it time for myself and my family, or is it time to step up and speak for the God’s love of justice and compassion? 
Some folks never take the time to determine to determine just what time it is. My old brain asks the 1960’s musical question, “Does anybody really know what time it is? Does anybody really care?” (Chicago) 3:23 to 4:34 (end) The question of this season of our Lenten journey comes around again, are we fully representing our dual nature, or are we settling for the plain and obvious? 
In this season of Lent in 2018, I am inviting you to see the humanity of Jesus, where we usually settle for putting the divine Son of God on a pedestal. The problem with worshipping Jesus on high, is that he stops being a useful model for us, because we are merely human, and Jesus, Jesus is divine, and Jesus does it all, and we receive salvation without any effort of our own. It is all about us.  
This year I want us to claim our own dual nature. For sure, we are made of stardust like all of creation. That makes us one with the sun and the moon, the rocks and the animals, as we are all made out of the same creaturely building blocks. We might try to keep our quarks and electrons to ourselves, but it is more than we are capable of. We belong to the whole world, not just to ourselves. 
At the same time, we are also spiritual. We are made of the same divine DNA that makes us a child of God for eternity. When we fail to honor our spiritual nature, we sell ourselves short. We act “reasonably” like Peter suggests. Reasonable people do not listen for the voice of the Still Speaking God telling them the time has come to represent God’s love of justice and compassion. 
So Jesus reads the very obvious signs that the political and religious worlds consider him a threat. They have not been able to see and hear the spiritual invitation that Jesus makes, and instead see how he completes the profile of their stereotypical revolutionary. And they have a plan for revolutionaries. They execute them publicly to send a message to any of those who might want to follow in his footsteps. The powers that be, have a dim view of those who paint outside of the lines. 
Peter, cannot see the signs. He is a political innocent. He is a  fisherman from the rural northern territory. He was not well versed in politics, or even educated in theology. This Jesus of Nazareth captured his imagination, and we cannot fault him for that, but he was not able to appreciate how this Messiah was disturbing the careful balance of power that was life in an occupied territory. 
My own faith in God is structured on what I know of the life and teaching of Jesus. I am especially grateful to Richard Rohr, Phillip Gulley and Brian McLaren who are helping me articulate my faith in this way. I believe that the life and teaching of Jesus, which I love, shows me how to know God, and makes God lovable. Instead of painting the image of Jesus with the supernatural qualities of the divine super power, I see God as the loving, compassionate presence that Jesus honored. And Jesus honored that loving God, in ways that the establishment continues to misunderstand, and often finds threatening. 
We have already noted that the Dali Lama, who might be the most widely accepted “Holy Man” of our age, lives a life dedicated to peace and wisdom, and lives in exile from his native Tibet, at odds with the occupying Chinese government. 
The psalms, the poetry and prayer collection of the ancient faithful, understand that God stands with the oppressed, the hungry, the forgotten of the world. The psalmist anticipates the Messiah, who redefines power in opposition to the violent nature of human nation states. The parades and processions of the faithful, celebrate humility and not weaponry. The voices of the faithful congregations, praise God for compassion and generosity, in conflict with the strident voices of flesh and blood congresses and administrations. 
The world is not bad, in the Creation story God called it good. But the world continues in a cycle of power supported by violence. Those values of the world are in contrast to the life and teaching of Jesus, whose God loves compassion and justice. We were born into this time and place, and gifted by God with unique talents and energies. We gather as a faith community, to deepen our appreciation of God’s love, and recognize our own call to speak out for justice with compassion. We take up out own cross. 
You and I are called to imitate this Christ, representing love and compassion in action. It is not a guaranteed smooth ride. It may not be the easy way. You are liable to be misunderstood. You might disturb the balance of power in ways you may not understand. The community may push back at you, in ways that can be surprising, perhaps reacting with violence that is out of scale with the offense. 

So like our Jesus, we trust in God’s good love. Like the generations of faithful people before us, we ask Jesus to take our hand and go with us, as we keep our commitment to love in action, Amen. 

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Prayer of Awareness

Prayer of Awareness 

May I be free from inner and outer harm and danger. 
May I be safe and protected.
May I be free of mental suffering or distress.
May I be happy.
May I be free of physical pain and suffering.
May I be healthy and strong.
May I be able to live in this world happily, peacefully, joyfully, with ease.  

The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society,

Repeat: Inserting different names inlace of “I”, family, friends, those you are trying to forgive. 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Who Is the Rainbow For?

Who Is the Rainbow For? 
Genesis 9:8-17, 10:1-10, Mark 1:9-15

The Genesis story of Noah is a curious one for us to feature in the children’s Sunday School. Sure, it is cute to gather the animals together and put them on a boat. But the story of a wrathful God, intentionally wiping out life on the planet because that God is ticked off, well, I think that is a terrible lesson. 
Before I go any farther, let me be clear that as old as the story in Genesis is, evidence suggests that the story, with variations, exists in other literature from the region, some even earlier than the Bible. Dramatic flood stories also appear in the literature of other peoples in the world. We might want to argue about oral traditions, and which came first, the chicken or the egg, but the fact that multiple traditions share similar stories usually means that something actually happened, and there are multiple interpretations about what it might mean. It could also mean we are always comparing ourselves to others including their religions, and maybe ‘compete’ is a word closer to the truth than ‘compare.’ 
The story of the Flood becomes most important for our tradition because of how it is brought to a close. The story closes with God making a covenant promise that this will never happen again. The covenant is made with ALL of the living creatures who came out of the Ark. This undoes all the claims that natural disasters are God punishing the world for one thing or another. God keeps promises.  
I personally treat all of the stories of Genesis as legends. Legends are stories that are fundamental to the understanding of people in a culture, and structure their common approach to life. The truth of a legend is not best measured by evaluating the accuracy of the description to known facts, but rather, does it capture a truth of the human condition and the appropriate response in our time and place. Does the legend provide real people with a meaningful way to deal with the challenges of life? We honor Julius Caesar and other stories of Shakespeare, not because of its historical accuracy, but because it is true to human nature under stress. 
Oddly enough, this was the usual way of dealing with the most ancient of the biblical stories for more than 1500 years of Christianity. The fixation on literal belief in the text, is a relatively new movement. It is a logical extension of the western church’s preoccupation with believing the right thing, independent of living according to our beliefs. When the text is put on a pedestal, it creates a tension - where the written word becomes a God, indisputable, unchanging; that challenges the living, Still Speaking God.  
In addition, the story of the Flood is really two tellings of the story intertwined. Think of a person with long hair, where one side of the head is dyed one color, and the other side is died another. The two are weaved together in a ponytail braid into a single story, but the text has different numbers of animals, different flood durations, several of the details are different.  
In Lent this year, I want to invite you to contemplate the dual nature of humanity and the dual nature of Jesus the Christ. In the case of Jesus, we are awash in songs and poems and anthems, that celebrate the divine Jesus, dying to forgive the sins of humanity. This season, let’s allow ourselves to think of Jesus as a human being, faithful to God, but human enough to wrestle with the big issues. Let us permit Jesus to think, grow, and respond to the changes he sees in the world around him. 
At the same time, we like to portray ourselves as merely human, engaged in a struggle between the temptations of our flesh and blood existence, and our ideals and the force of our wills. This season you will hear me directly appealing to the gifts of your spiritual life, a life that is closer to God than your reason and your will. The eternal part of you that is most at home with the divine, and already alive and well. 
In the story of the Flood, it is easy to picture a God angry with selfish and sinful behavior, and sending a devastating punishment. We know powerful people who have punished entire populations, just because. Genocide is a real thing. Our human history seems to mindlessly repeat this vicious cycle. 
What is hard to envision, is that same God, contrite for overreacting, making promises to the whole of living creation, to never destroy all of the earth again. We carry forward from here, the image of a God of promises. We see a God of relationship. We see a God who is responsive. The end of the story promises an end to the vicious cycle of violence. 
It is hard to know the covenant God, because we are a suspicious people. We are reluctant to forgive ourselves. We struggle to bring ourselves to forgive those who have sinned against us. It is harder still, to go all the way through to reconciliation, building a trusting relationship with one who has done us wrong. But God presents us with a model of forgiveness and reconciliation, and a rainbow symbol thrown in for good measure. 
Jesus went into the desert following his Baptism. He was tormented by temptations by the devil. Mark does not detail those temptations, Mark seems to believe the devil is in the details, and it is enough just to name the tempter. 
Like David encountering Goliath that we talked about on Ash Wednesday (you know, you might want to read that reflection on the blog if you were unable to be here), David  confronts temptation by staying focused on the goodness of God and the strength of his faith. Our true nature is both flesh and blood physical, and spiritual beyond the reach of our will and reason. 
When Jesus says the Kingdom of God has come near, I believe that it is nearer than we think. Our access to the Kingdom is in us and among us. But the way to the door is clouded by our urgent need to force the conversation, to judge, and to control. The Kingdom might be understood by saying we listen for the Still Speaking God, by being still and seeking the presence of God. We might seek access, by looking for the light of God, in those people who have a glow of wisdom and understanding. Look to those who reflect the goodness of God, and seem to have positioned themselves in the light shining through a window to God’s Kingdom.  
On Ash Wednesday, we detailed the components of “active listening’” that constitute the practice quieting our inner judging monologue. It is a human sized task, that can teach us the skills for contemplative prayer. 
Who can be such a person? We were called to be that person, to be the living, anointed of God, in our time and place. There is only one true God, but many loving ways to know that God and share in God’s love. The rainbow takes the light, and as it passes through the water vapor, which sorts out the light in the visible spectrum. It is a natural phenomenon. Despite growing up in the church, my first thought of rainbows was always leprechauns and pots of gold. A child of today, might first think of Gay Pride Parades and people with their hair dyed and streaked with bright colors. 
The story this morning in Genesis tells us to think of God, and God’s promises. Consider how the light of God, washes over all of creation. That light can be reflected in ways that are true to God, in many peoples and many traditions. The light, passing through you, can invite others to see God as the God of forgiveness, the God of Welcome, the God of Promises Kept. 
So trusting that the Kingdom of God has come near, we quiet the little voice in our head, and we seek the presence of God in all that is genuine, in all that is generous, in all that reminds us of faithfulness. We intentionally get out of our mind, to see the world with the mind of Christ. 
Please consider coming on Wednesday evenings; for soup at 6:00, and a discussion at 7:00. It could be your introduction to a whole new way to engage God, and change the way you wear your Christianity. 
The rainbow is a natural apparition, that reminds God of the love God has for the world. The rainbow is the string tied around the finger of God, to be compassionate in the face of human sin or indifference. The rainbow reminds us to live like Jesus, who proclaims the Kingdom of God has come near. 

Like Mark’s Jesus, we are called to be love in action. The rainbow reminds us to break the cycle of violence in our personal lives, in our communities, and in our public actions. As live into our roles of sharing God’s good love: with the birds and the animals; with the planet choking on our exhaust; and with our combative human family, who are starving for the love of God; we find peace between our own bodies and souls, Amen. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Out of My Mind for Christ

Out of My Mind for Christ 

1 Samuel 17:4; 8 - 11; 40 - 47 

The text chosen for tonight is a radical departure from the traditional Ash Wednesday text. In fact, this season we are embarking on a journey to do Lent with a very different frame or perspective. You might be tempted to think that I am out of my mind for choosing an unconventional approach to the holy season of Lent.

In this season of my personal spiritual development, I find myself invited to see Jesus with new eyes, a perspective different from what has been treated as orthodox, or the right way, during my lifetime. 

In a sense, it seems what I know of as a traditional approach is thoroughly self-centered, and makes Jesus and his faith, a distant second to worrying about me and my stuff. 

So I am not going to call you to focus on your shortcomings. I will not encourage you to dwell on the sins of your past. I am not going to put words in your mouth that say, “Jesus died for my sins.” I intend to invite you to let this Lent not be all about you. 

In the story of David and Goliath, David is a young boy and Goliath is a seasoned soldier of super human proportions. It happens in our world. Once in a while, and human being grows to a size that defies our imagination. Here Goliath represents the enemy of the collection of tribes known as Israel and their Tribal Leader Saul. The giant heaps insults on Israel and their God, in the hearing of the foolish youth.  

David becomes inflamed by the rhetoric, and vows to step up and defend the honor of the God he believes in. For his part, the giant mocks and taunts David. He insults the very manhood of the men of Israel, and especially little David. 

Throughout the exchange, David never takes the insults personally. He hears and sees all of these challenges as if they were directed at God and the glory of God.   

When I first noticed that David did not allow his ego to get involved, I thought I was on to something. I wondered, how much better of a Christian I could be - if only - I were able to tell which of the stresses in my life were rightly a challenge to me as a person, and which of the challenges in my life were actually a challenge to my God and my faith. 

I carried the question with me for several weeks. I took it to work with me. I toyed with it as I negotiated with my teen-aged and young adult children. It was a part of my prayers and my self-talk in between everything else. The question would not let me go. 

Slowly I began to rephrase the question, in hopes of being able to make a distinction between my issues, and my faith issues. Which stresses do I face that do not involve my faith and love of God? 

In time, it became clear. But I assure you, I fought it off tooth and nail for quite a while. It became clear that all of the stress in my life could be seen as a challenge to my faith and my God. Could I see the love of God around me? Could I find the Spirit of God in the community I was among? Would I ever learn to trust that God would walk with me through whatever difficulty I faced? 

Now I assure you, there are some places where I am tempted to go, that has nothing to do with faith. My friend Ron Colby has often repeated that anytime he is walking into a new or unusual circumstance he breathes the prayer, “Jesus, take my hand and go with me.” If he is headed into a situation where he does not want Jesus to go with him, he really does not belong there. It is a very useful perspective. 

It is tricky, to try to function in everyday situations, looking inwardly for the love of God and God’s guidance. The best example I can think of is good, active listening. Listening is hard work. It is harder work than most of us acknowledge. 

To listen well we have to give our attention to the other. We need to quiet our own inner monologue and quit judging the other. Tell the little voice in our head - who keeps trying to make things lineup the way we like to see them - to just shut for a minute. We need to let go of our mind - and let their reality speak. We need to listen for the heart behind the words, we need to read the facial expressions and body language, we need to appreciate the frame of reference that they are using. It is hard work. We have to step out of our egocentric mind, and see the perspective of the other. This is called love of neighbor, when we see them as they are, and not how the measure up against our criteria. 

Often we want to cut the story short. We might want to tell them they have the wrong approach. But the best of advice becomes useless words littering the floor until the speaker believes they have been really heard. Until there is a sense that they are understood, it is hard to accept even good and useful advice. 

We cannot honestly make progress in hearing the guidance offered by the Still Speaking God, until we develop our skills for listening well in this world;  within our marriage, within our family, within our faith community. Start wherever you have a reliable friend or partner, and build those listening habits. Learn to tell the little voice in your head to shut up, and let you listen without judging, listen out of your mind. 

We know that David deeply loved God and God was active in his life. But the scriptures detail that David’s relationship with God was marked by dramatic ups and downs. David was not able to sustain the attention to God, and his faith suffered in the times he lost his focus. 

So this season I will invite you to do two things. We will proclaim that Jesus of Nazareth was fully human and fully divine. Our routine orthodoxy readily and consistently proclaims the divinity of Jesus. We routinely fail to acknowledge the humanity of Jesus. 

That is a shame, because it first insults God, who went to a great extremes to demonstrate a radical love for humanity, and God’s appreciation of the complexity of human life, and provide us with a genuine, human sized model of faithfulness of love in action. 

The second half of the invitation is for us to recognize that we are also creatures with a dual nature. Yes, we are flesh and blood humans. Our bodies share the same common building blocks as the stars and the rocks and even Brussel Sprouts. But, we are so much more than that. We are made in the image of our Creator, with a spiritual nature that has been assembled from the same building blocks as the heavenly bodies of angels and of God.  

Tonight, we repeat the rite of the ancient church, putting on ashes and recognizing an appropriate humility before God. We accept that we often fail to appreciate our own spiritual nature. Let us not dwell on our past failures, but take a step outside of our own mind. Be encouraged that the presence of God is immediately available, and appreciated best -  when we are willing to do the hard work - of getting out of our mind, and seeing the world with the mind of Christ. 

Monday, February 12, 2018

Glow in the Dark, Like Jesus

Glow In the Dark, Like Jesus  
2 Kings 2:1-12, Mark 9:2-9 

The scriptures from this morning are right on the border between really cool, and suspiciously over dramatic. You know, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot, coming for to carry me home, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, coming for to carry me home.” 

And we get a glimpse of the glorified - perhaps Resurrected? - Jesus. We have seen the pictures of Mt. Tabor overlooking the Plain of Armageddon, in the shadow of Nazareth on the mesa to the North. We can now place this Transfiguration event on Google maps. Here it sits on the plain between the sea of Galilee and Nazareth. Somehow, knowing the place that is referred to, adds an element of reality to a story that seems steeped in the supernatural.  

Over the years I have struggled with Bible stories like these. They are right on the border of this world and the next. While poets and prophets and televangelists have loved this territory, I am so less confident. I truly believe in life after death. I have had experiences where I am really pretty certain there was movement between the states of life, still my rational self is not prepared to make broad claims saying that I understand or can interpret these kinds of events. 

We know that Elijah and Elisha, were men of God, widely known and respected in their day. Not many prophets are recognized as holy in their own day and age. We recognize that the fiery chariot came for Elijah in the Jordan River Valley, not far from the site of the Baptism of Christ, and the city of Palms, Jericho. 

The Dali Lama might be the most widely appreciated holy man of our day. He too, lives as an exile from his native Tibet, in response to the occupation by China. The truly religious and peaceful, pose a threat to political systems. As Christians, we can acknowledge the wisdom we associate with the Dali Lama, but feel awkward about how to regard the relationship of a Buddhist to our God; the God of the Jews, Muslims and Christians.   

A good part of my own spiritual journey today is intentionally avoiding the “standard” answers to the great questions of life and faith, and becoming more comfortable sitting with the questions. Are you comfortable, sitting with questions? Are you at a point in your life where you can tolerate a bit of mystery? 

I believe we exhibit a certain level of maturity when we can see that everything was not always black and white, sacred or profane, good or evil. When I found in myself, true affection for portions of both sides of an argument, then I knew I was growing up. I am less likely to scream at my opponents, since I understand they have reasons for their position, that are valid in their eyes. 

As Elijah was nearing the end of his days, his protege Elisha did not want to let him go. He went with him all around the area. Everyone with a spiritual sense, knew that the day had come, and Elisha acknowledged his personal understanding. 

As an Interim pastor, I do not always get invited by the family into sacred times. Recently at my last call, a special needs person was nearing death. The family called and invited me to the Nursing Home, where he had just been placed in Hospice Care. 

The gentleman was in his fifties. He had been an especially cheerful man until his health betrayed him in his last year. Wonderfully, the staff and residents at the facility where he had lived since his mother died, treated him like the “old Timmy” even though he was often sour and difficult. 

I sat by the bed talking with his older brother, a no nonsense plumber. “Timmy’s” favorite Johnny Cash album provided the background music. We talked of Timmy’s mother, and her protective devotion to him. The brother tearfully recalled being unable to keep Timmy in his house, even though he had promised his mother. It just did not work. 

In the residential facility, Timmy made great and lasting friendships. I assured the bother, his mother understood and accepted his choice, and clearly his brother lived a fuller and more joyful life than his mother could have imagined, “constraining him in an institution,” could ever deliver. 

As we spoke, there was an undeniable relaxation in Timmy. There was a sense of peace. The brother and I talked on about challenges in the brother’s life, and ways to look for grace. After a couple of hours I took my leave. There were staff members in the room, present on their day off, looking after their dear friend. The family seemed at peace. 

Before I left, I told them that I sensed the spirit of his mother, who had come from heaven, to bring her special child home. Shining eyes around the room, nodded their agreement. He died within the hour. 

Timmy was a flesh and blood human. But like you and I, he also has a spiritual nature, known and loved by God, and most comfortable in the presence of God. His spiritual nature was not restricted by his reason and ability to make choices, and neither is yours. Your spiritual nature is already alive and well and in the continual presence of God. 

There are moments in the real world, where the space between heaven and earth seems so narrow that one could reach through from one side to the other. This is not the only occasion I have been in this space. This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and we will enter the liturgical season of Lent. I will invite you to seek a new appreciation of your own dual nature, both the physical and spiritual, and how that gives us a wider perspective of this life and how our eternal life is already surrounding us. 

On the holy mountain in our gospel story, Mark, the master of understatement, tells us of a magical event where Jesus gives us what may well be a glimpse of the resurrected Christ. Certainly, we are offered an appetizer, and confirmation that Jesus is not alone in the afterlife. Moses and Elijah, well loved by God, represent for us that there is a seamless transfer from this life to the next. 

Yes, the figure of Jesus the Christ is glorified. Yes, Jesus represents the love of God as an action figure in the gospel of Mark. We get a hint in today’s passage of Mark’s “Messianic Secret.” In Mark, Jesus continually tells his disciples to not tell the world that he is the Jewish Messiah until the end of his days. It is part of Mark’s dramatic telling of the story. 

Today, we stand at the last gas station before entering the desert -  that is the season of Lent. We are here to fill our gas tanks and buy bottled water, against the possibility of mechanical failure. We pause before we enter the time where we confront both our limitations and our possibilities, our humanity a silhouette against the recollection of the impending torture and execution of Jesus of Nazareth. 

We have our feet on the ground, though on a high mountain, show us the picture of Mount Tabor. A holy place, distinct and solitary out on the plain. And here our hearts and minds are suddenly aware of the glory of God that awaits Jesus, and those who are lovers of God. Like you and me, lovers of God. As Jesus glows as a blinding light, you and I live to reflect that glory. The time is not yet, and still, it is time. We exist in this world of flesh, and our spirits already live, in the world to come, Amen.