A New Mind

Jesus Christ Crucifix

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Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. – Rom. 12:2

With this verse Paul makes a transition from writing about theology, ideas about God, to a discussion about how Christian people are to live. Finally, to be a Christian is not primarily about our ideas about God, but about a way of life informed and inspired by the reality that God has come among us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul writes to be Christian involves a transformation of the mind, so that one is able to see, know, discern, and one hopes actually do, what is the will of God.

Paul writes that the mind is to be renewed, made new, brought alive. The mind here is not something located in our brains, the thing we think with.  It is the center of our selves. It is the seat of our personalities. It is where our feeling, thinking, and willing come together. To be transformed by the renewing of our minds is a call to be completely changed and made new, from the inside out. Only through and inside that process, can we begin to see what is good.

Robert Barron, in The Priority of Christ, identifies three different transformations that the Spirit works in us: from fear to trust; from arrogance to humility; from autonomy to service. He suggests we are converted from fear to trust as our faith in God becomes a source hope and confidence in life as a whole. We move from arrogance to humility as we wake up to the fact that we are not the center of the universe, and the servant love of Jesus takes root in us. We move from autonomy to obedience as we realize that serving the love of God in this world brings much more joy and satisfaction than being a servant of our desires. (As Bill Coffin wrote: there is no smaller package than a person all wrapped up in him or her self.)

Paul writes, and I would affirm, that apart from that transformation, we are not able to see or do the will of God. We can only operate out of our desires, experience, and prejudices. Our biases act like glasses through which we view the world. We have our buttons and people tend to push them. This is why Jesus warns us not to try to take a splinter out of someone else’s eye; we have a bean in our own, clouding our vision. Jesus and Paul promise that God will cleanse our eyes, transform our minds, enabling us to see more clearly what is good and pleasing to God. Paul places that before us as the ongoing transformation within the life of a believer.  It is the work of the Spirit within us. It is our challenge to work with and not hinder that work.

Life in church is one important way that we help each other become transformed people. Regular weekly worship, time in prayer and reflection, time serving others, sharing in Christian conversation, all are vehicles through which the Spirit touches and renews us.  I am grateful to each and every person who has helped me in my faith walk. It is my prayer that we continue on this wonderful path together.

See you in church,

Pastor Bill

Moving Toward Easter

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“Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom!” Luke 23:42

I remember visiting a woman I in a nursing home many years ago.  It was my first visit with her. I introduced myself saying: “Hi Mrs. Smith, I’m Pastor Bill, the new associate at your church.” I will never forget her response. She turned toward me with tears in her eyes and said: “How good it is that someone remembers my name! How good it is that someone from outside this place remembers my name!”

She was the last surviving member of her nuclear family. Her children lived a number of states away and did not get to visit with her very often. It was so important to her that she had not been forgotten, that her church, someone from her church, someone from the outside world remembered her, and called her by name. She was not forgotten.

One of the most celebrated attributes of God is that God remembers. In the third chapter of Exodus God calls to Moses from a burning bush and says: “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” (Ex. 3:6) God remembers all three. God remembers their names. God hears the cries of Israel. God has not forgotten them. God will redeem them. (Ex. 3:7-10)

Many years later, when Israel is in exile in Babylon, when the people of Israel feel abandoned, God speaks through the prophet Isaiah: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” (Isa. 49:15-16) The people of Israel have not been forgotten. Their names are carved in the palm of God’s hand. God will redeem them.

From the cross a thief cries out to Jesus: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” (Luke 23:42) Jesus responds: “This day you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) He will not be forgotten. From the cross Jesus promises redemption. He will not forget.

There is a real difference between dis-membering and re-membering. To dis-member something is to take it apart. It is to separate the parts from the whole. To be dis-membered is to be removed from the group, the community, to be cast off, to be forgotten. The work of Jesus is re-membering. Jesus remembers, restores, redeems, makes whole.

The Gospel is packed with stories of Jesus going to, touching, healing, and remembering people who have been dis-membered, cut off, pushed to the margins of society. He touches lepers and cleanses them. He hears the cry of the poor and the blind. He heals the sick, claims prostitutes and tax collectors, remembering that they too are children of God. One of the earliest Christian hymns (Phil. 2:5-11) celebrates that Jesus takes the form of a slave, the most oppressed and forgotten of all people, so that no one is lost, or left behind, or forgotten. From the cross he promises to remember the thief crucified next to him.

We are living in tumultuous times. We can begin to feel as if we are forgotten. But the good news of the Gospel is that we are not forgotten. We are moving toward Holy Week, which begins on Palm Sunday, and ends with the celebration of Easter. It is the story of how far God goes to remember and restore us. Jesus goes all the way to a place so dark it is called the place of the skull. He even enters the grave, the darkness of death. And God remembers and raises him from the grave! His victory is our victory! God would have it that no one is forgotten or left behind. And that is good news!

Pastor Bill

Beginning Lent

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We enter one of the more solemn and beautiful seasons of the Christian year, the season of Lent. It begins on Ash Wednesday and concludes on the Wednesday of Holy Week. The season coincides with the arrival of Spring, the return of warmer days, the budding of trees and first flowers.   It is a season in which we are invited to prepare spiritually to celebrate the Resurrection on Easter Sunday

The Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday includes these provocative words attributed to Jesus:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where  thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt. 6:19-21)

We tend to get this backwards. We think that our treasure follows our hearts. Jesus says otherwise. He says that our hearts follow our treasure. Even when we know better, our hearts tend to cling to our stuff. So he warns us to be careful about the stuff we invest in and gather around us.

I like the way an Amish grandfather speaks to his grandson about this in the Harrison Ford movie Witness. He warns his grandson: “Be careful what you take into your hand. For what you take into your hand you also take into your heart.” So it is that Jesus warns us to be careful about what we take into our hands. He advises us to invest ourselves, our time, our resources, in the things that really matter; to build our treasure in that which is life giving, good, and eternal.

Lent is a season in which we are invited to get real with ourselves; to check and evaluate what we are invested in, what we are devoted to, what we have taken into our hands.  Are we taking more care of people and relationships than things? In the middle of all of our concerns, are we treasuring our relationship with God, who is the source of life and all that is good?

The question is not about how we feel, but about what we do. Someone said if we really want to know what is important to anyone, we should study their check books and their calendars. If we examine how we spend our time, how we use our money, what we make sure we do each day, what we put on our calendars, what does this tell us about our treasure and our hearts?

In this season before Easter, let’s accept the invitation to do that kind of reality check. Are we centering our time, resources, presence, in the things that really do matter most to us, or have we gotten a bit sidetracked? Let’s commit to investing in the things, and especially the people, who do matter most. Above all, let us return to God, who is the center of all things.  Let us be devoted to the way of Jesus Christ. Let this not be with just words or feelings, but in the things that we do each day.

All God’s Peace,

Pastor Bill

Recovering the Inner Life – 2

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“Be the change you want to see in the world” – Mohandas Gandhi

Gandhi’s statement speaks more truth than we often realize.   He speaks a basic and often unrecognized principle:  when we change ourselves, in a very real way we change the world around us.

It follows that if we want to change the world around us, we need to look first within ourselves; there is where change begins. If we want a kinder world, we start by being kind. If we want a more peaceful world, we start by becoming more peaceable. If we want less racism in the world, we need to confront the racism resident in ourselves. As we change, we become agents of change.

To experience this try a simple experiment: commit to a full day of practicing random acts of kindness. Smile at strangers. Say hello to people you usually walk by. Hold doors open for people. Treat somebody to lunch. Let someone get ahead of you in line.  Then the next day commit to random acts of unkindness. Don’t smile. Scowl a bit. Complain to whoever will listen. Let the door close on the person behind you. Complain to strangers about how slow the line is moving, and how poorly the cashier is at his or her job. Get angry at the stupidity of other drivers. Notice what happens and how you feel each day. Notice how people react to you and around you. I am very willing to bet your experience on those two days will be very different. The world around you will be different.

Richard Rohr, a writer on Christian spirituality, addresses this in his book The Naked Now. He writes about this approach to change: “We mend and renew the world by strengthening inside ourselves what we seek outside ourselves, and not by demanding it of others or trying to force it on others.”

He also provides some examples of what that might involve:

* If you want others to be more loving, choose to love first.

* If you want a reconciled outer world, reconcile your inner world.

* If you are working for peace out there, create it inside as well.

* If you notice other people’s irritability, let go of your own.

* If you wish to find some outer stillness, find it within yourself.

* If you find yourself resenting the faults of others, stop resenting your own.

* If you want a more just world, start by being just in small ways yourself.

* If your situation feels hopeless, honor the one spot of hope inside you.

* If you want to find God, then honor God within you, and you will see God beyond you.

(Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See, Crossroad Publishing, 2009. 160-1.)

Jesus taught the same lesson to his disciples, and to all who follow him in every age:

“Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back…. The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks” – Jesus, Luke 6:37, 38, 45

What we give out somehow manages to return. He taught that those who are merciful, practice kindness, extend compassion, live generous lives, who do not find it necessary to strike back, who bless and do not curse, will both reflect the nature of God into the world, and even though they will experience difficulties, will ultimately discover that what they have given to others will be poured back to them.  He taught that we act out of the condition of our hearts, and called on us to have the kind of heart that reflects the very love of God.

What does all of this mean? I think it means that our inner lives, our character, the state of our souls, the well being of our spirits, are tremendously important. It shapes our lives and our experience. It makes a major difference to those around us. It makes a tremendous difference to the character of our communities. Angry, spiritually immature, reactive people will create unhealthy and unhappy families and communities. In the same way healthy, mature, gracious people generate healthier places to live.

We give such extraordinary attention to the things around us, how much we earn, what kind of cars we purchase, what kind of smart phone we use, where we go on vacation. Are we willing to give that kind of attention to what lies within us? To becoming better, wiser, more mature people?

If we want to lead happier lives, or to live in a more loving family or community, we need to nurture the capacity for happiness and for love within us. It really is that direct.

Gandhi is right. If we want to change the world, we do need to become the change we want to see.

Pastor Bill

Recovering the Inner Life

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“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”  – Paul, Romans 12:2

Awhile ago  Dr. Phil broadcast a show on the prevalence of cheating in our school systems and beyond. I was fascinated by his conversation with one young woman who was very open and clearly pained by her own cheating. Why did she do it? No new revelations: she felt enormous pressure to achieve a high standing in her class and all the awards that were signs of success (straight A’s, Honor Society, varsity letters, class president, etc. etc.) Those things defined success for her. They defined her as a worthy or an unworthy person. Achieving those markers had become more important to her than her character, or real learning. So she cheated to gain an edge, to get what she believed she needed.

Her self image, her self esteem, had become defined by these things which have very little to do with who she is. She defined herself by things outside of herself, and in comparison to others. She looked very successful, but in fact was very unhappy.

The truth is that she is far from alone. Studies show that most people cheat in business, sports, etc. as adults also cheated in High School. Cheating is more common and on the rise. The reasons are essentially the same: the thing I believe I need has become more important to me than character, integrity, or the quality of what I am doing.

I write this, not to rant on cheating or cheaters, but to notice one sign that our culture tends to be very externally directed, defining life and what is good, by things that we get or have. It tends to let go of the important world of our inner lives. Even though we know better, at some level we come to believe that happiness, success, etc. is more about what we have and less about who we are.

So, people are driven to get the newest gadget, the next car, the next promotion, to go on the next more exotic vacation. People, even cultures, become rich in things, as Jesus taught, and impoverished in spirit. That we become angry, reactive, and aggressive, even violent, is no surprise. That developing deep, life long committed relationships is very difficult, is no surprise. That addiction is epidemic is no surprise.

The apostle Paul, like every great spiritual teacher, points in a different direction: who we are is enormously more important than what we have. Happiness is an inner capacity, not an external achievement. Paul writes very clearly that we are not to be conformed to the patterns around us, but are to be transformed, renewed in mind and spirit. We are to let the Spirit work on us and in us, to renew our inner lives, our minds and hearts. That renewal will transform us, so that we can then know what is good, and experience life as God would have it for us.

The key that opens this lock is not outside of us, but inside of us. The things that lead to deep and joyful life are things like compassion, generosity, a peaceable spirit, personal integrity, the capacity to forgive, the capacity to love.

Spiritual teachers speak about the value of having less, and not getting addicted to the need for more, the beauty of the ordinary, the power of serving others. Spiritual teachers speak about the infinite value of who we are before God, and the relative unimportance of what we have, or how we might impress our neighbors.

As we enter this new year, what will you do that will focus on your spiritual growth and maturity? What will you do that will open your spirit to the very Spirit of God? Will you be conformed to the culture that would have you get more, newer, bigger, faster things? Will you listen to Paul who advises us to take a different path?

I think Emerson said it best: “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us. “

Pastor Bill

(Source of Emerson quote: http://www.quotationspage.com/quote/2160.html)

The Longst Night: Winter Solstice

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One of the oldest and most universal symbols of hope is a candle shining in darkness. How many of us have had the experience of being home at night during a storm, and suddenly there is a power outage. All the lights go off. We rush around looking in drawers and closets to find a flashlight or a candle. When we light it, the light of even one candle pierces the darkness. We know everything will be okay. One candle in a dark room restores hope. We know we are not lost. We will find our way again.

The central symbol of Advent, the Advent wreath, has its roots in this ancient symbol. Before Christianity the Germanic people would create wreaths decorated with candles during the dark and cold month of December. They lit the candles to remember that the sun would return.

In Scandinavian countries a wheel decorated with candles would be used as a symbol of the turning of the seasons. People  would pray for the return of the sun. By the Middle Ages, Christians adopted the practice as a way of preparing to celebrate the birth of Christ, the light of God who comes into the world. The wagon wheel became an Advent wreath.  (http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/religion/re0132.html)

In the same way, the Longest Night Service has its roots in an ancient yearning for the return of the sun. In Celtic regions, during the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year, greenery would be brought into the house, holy and ivy. Pine cones would were brought in as symbols of new birth. Yule logs would be prepared and burnt in fireplaces. All of this served as a source of celebration, and a reminder that the sun would return, the days would lengthen, spring would return. In Celtic worship, the Winter solstice became a night to remember that Jesus was born to bring light to all of us especially, in the darkest days and hardest of our experiences. (http://theoldbill.typepad.com/thebackroom/2006/02/celtic_worship_.html)

Today Christmas has come to mean so many different things. We decorate our churches, and more people come to church. We get together as family and friends. Families have their own traditions. We see relatives we have not seen all year, we give gifts to each other; perhaps we remember to give back a bit to people in need. We serve at a soup kitchen, or give food baskets etc.

We can get carried away. We spend a bit too much. We eat a bit too much. But I do think, even though we get carried away, and we can get a bit too materialistic, that it is good. It is good to have this time for celebration, for family for generosity. We hope that the day is a special one, even magical, especially for children.

But there is an important side of Christmas that we can easily forget, or leave behind. One that is deeper and perhaps even more important than all of that. One that is best symbolized by a candle shining in the darkness: in our yearning and need for God, God comes to meet us.

We often forget that the passages we read from the prophets during Advent and Christmas were first spoken to people during a period of great loss and devastation. It was a time of exile. Israel had come through a period of overwhelming violence. Jerusalem had been destroyed by its enemies. Its walls were torn down. The Temple burned. They were forced to live in exile in a foreign land.

It was when all hope was gone, that the prophets began to speak a different word:

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them a light has shined…For the yoke of their burden, and the bar on their shoulders, and the rod of their oppressor, you have broken…For a child has been born for us, a son given to us…and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…” (Isa. 9:2-6)

“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not grow weary…He gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted, but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Isa. 40:18-31)

These were words spoken to people in a time of desperation and need. They were spoken to people who were experiencing grief and loss. They were spoken to people who had lost all hope.

Then the prophets brought a different word: God had not abandoned them. God would be with them. God would strengthen them, carry them, redeem them, restore them. Precisely to those walking in darkness, in the most difficult time in their lives, God’s light would shine most brightly. It is in the darkest of nights that the stars shine most brightly.

Christians believe that what the prophets pointed to was fulfilled in the birth of Jesus Christ.  The symbol that best speaks to the meaning of his birth: this ancient symbol, a candle shining in the dark:

John 1:4: “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”

John 8:12: “Jesus said to them: I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

So it is that on the Winter solstice, the longest night of the year, we remember that He is our light, he is the light of the world. The darkness of night cannot and will not overcome his light.

And this light shines very clearly, and perhaps most brightly, for those who are walking through darkness, those who are feeling some loss, perhaps some grief.

A pastor, Rev. Bruce Epply, talks about the Christmas in which he experienced this most powerfully. I share his words with you:

Three years ago, I spent Christmas Day in Georgetown University Hospital’s chemotherapy ward.  My only child was being treated for a rare form of cancer.  On Christmas morning, we walked, father and son, the four blocks from his home to the hospital, carrying a fruit and pastry basket for the nurses who chose to work on Christmas Day.  For six hours we sat together in the chemo ward, hoping for good news through modern chemistry, while my wife, mother-in-law, and daughter-in-law prepared a meal that my son could digest. There was celebration that Christmas in 2008, but it was tinged with anxiety and fear, and the realism that life can be difficult.

But, make no mistake, this is the world in which the Christ-child comes — the world of grieving spouses, homeless families, frightened immigrants; a world of care and uncertainty.  This is precisely where “we need a little Christmas” — not false hope or a good-time God, but an all-season spirituality, grounded in a love that embraces the dark night & the joyful dawn. (http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Joy-and-Ambiguity-of-Christmas.html)

Christmas is a hard time of the year for many. We are surrounded by bright colors, carols, all the advertisements and Christmas specials in which everyone is happy and every problem is solved.  Yet we feel the sadness of loss or grief. Recent or in the past. Everything around us can make it feel worse.

Tonight we take time to remember that Christ is born even, and especially for these times. His light is there for everyone. For each of us. No one is to be left out or left behind. Remember that his light shines in the darkness and the darkness, the sadness cannot overcome it.

May the peace of Christ reign in all of our hearts and homes this Christmas.