Leaf Peeping

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” Ecc. 3:1

One of the pleasures of living in a region in which the seasons change is experiencing the beauty that each season offers. There are few things more pleasurable than driving through New Jersey farmland in October. Corn stalks are tall and changing. The trees are changing. Rich earth tones transform the landscape: reds, copper, yellow. It’s a season for leaf-peeping, for stopping at farm stands, for purchasing fresh apple-butter, pumpkins, gourds.

One of the paradoxes of the season though, is that its beauty is actually due to the dying of the leaves. Shorter days and cooler temperature result in a process called senescence. There is an increase in enzymes that break down the leaf’s cells. There is less chlorophyl causing the green to fade. Other pigments become prominent, carotenoids, tannins, and anthocyanins, producing the brilliant red, yellow, purple, and brown colors. Slowly the leave’s veins close down. The leaves separate from the branches and fall to the ground.

Autumn has its own unique beauty. Its beauty is also a reminder of what Buddhists name impermanence. Nothing remains the same forever. Everything changes. Each transition, each season, has its own beauty. One thing passes away, and in its passing, gives birth to something new.

The teacher of Ecclesiastes begins to reflect on life with the observation that for everything there is a season. Life does not stop. It ebbs and flows. To cling too tightly to the present moment makes it more difficult to receive the gift hidden in the next. Such is the nature of the life we are given. One challenge that comes with being human: to embrace and fully enjoy the beauty of what is, knowing that it will inevitably change, to remain open to the beauty of what will come next.

We enter the season of the harvest. The work of ploughing, planting, tending, watering, waiting is over. Growth is full. It is time to gather.

Soon winter will be here. Then Spring returns, and summer.

Faith teaches that God is in every moment and in every season, that in God nothing is lost forever.

Sound of Silence

 

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. – 1 Kings 19:11-12

Periodically I feel as if I am standing with Elijah outside the cave on Mt. Horeb. His life is a bit more dramatic than mine. He has just killed all the prophets loyal to Queen Jezebel. The Queen has sworn to find him and to kill him. He has run away to save his skin. His path has led him to a cave on the Mountain of God. He lodges there. He waits.

He hears a voice. The text says “the word of the LORD” came to Elijah. The voice asks him what he is doing there. He rants: “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of Hosts. For the people of Israel have forgotten your covenant…killed your prophets…I am the only one left and they seek my life, to take it away.” The voice tells him to go outside the cave and wait; the LORD is about to pass bye.

Elijah waits. A strong wind rises, tears and breaks rocks. But God is not in the wind. After the wind there is an earthquake, and then fire. Rock shattering wind, earthquakes, and fire are great images for the presence of God and God’s presence is often associated with all three. But this time God is not found in them.

Then Elijah hears something. The hebrew is translated in different ways. He hears the sound of something like a soft breeze. Some texts name it “a thin silence,” others “a sheer silence.” This silence is not the sound of emptiness. It is the silence of presence. When Elijah hears it he wraps his face in his cloak and goes out to the entrance of the cave; he knows he is in the presence of God.

Someone once said that if we are to embrace the spiritual life we eventually have to become comfortable with periods of unknowing and silence; we enter into a relationship with God who enters into a relationship with us, and yet always remains beyond our knowing. We use many words, and our words are important. Yet God remains beyond our words.

It sometimes happens that the images we have of God, the knowledge we have accumulated, the stories we have cherished begin to crumble. The things that moved us, inspired us, comforted us, begin to feel empty. We may feel as if we are loosing our faith, or that our faith was unreal. The truth is not that the stories and images are not good or helpful, or that our faith was or is unreal. It may simply be that we are moving closer to the one who is spoken of in the stories, but is so much more than the stories. The stories, the words, the images must give way to the reality of the living God.

Thomas Merton underscores the importance of this for our religious practices. He writes:

“If there is no silence beyond and within the many words of doctrine, there is no religion, only religious idolatry. For religion goes beyond words and actions, and attains to the truth only in silence and Love. Where this silence is lacking, where there are the “many words” and not the One Word, then there is much bustle and activity but no peace, no deep thought, no understanding, no inner quiet.” (Love and Living. NY: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1979, p. 20)

It is so easy for us to fall in love with the busyness and activities of the church. We need to be careful that we do not fall in love with our own busyness and our own words, and forget that God is the center of all that we do. There are times in which we must stop, be silent, and listen to God, who meets us in silence. The stories we tell, the images we use, the words, are important. Even the work we do. But at some point, like Elijah we must stand outside the cave on our own Mt. Horeb. There we discover the presence of the One who meets us in silence.

Resistance

I learned something this morning, something you probably already knew. I didn’t. I bought a new LG smart phone, turned it on, and there it was, this new (to me) fact: beneath the LG logo are two words: “Life’s Good.” I did not know that LG stood for “Life’s Good.” In addition to all the other magical things this little device does, it makes a very basic religious, philosophical, existential statement. Turn it on, listen to a short delightful musical prelude, know: LG – Life’s Good.

I needed the reminder. I woke up with a headache. My body felt soggy. My arms and legs were struggling to wake up. I fixed my coffee, opened my newspaper, skimmed the headlines. Things had not changed much since yesterday. Angry violent people continue to drag the rest of us into larger cycles of violence. The plight of refugees continues. A congressman reports a dream of rising terrorism and burning American cities. Another child is shot while sitting on a porch playing. My heart aches. My conscience is tweaked. I am frustrated; I know I can do so very little about any of it. In addition, I was scheduled for a root canal in the afternoon. So it was good to get a reminder: LG – Life’s Good!

Sometimes it takes an act of the will and all the strength of a deep conviction to claim, assert, embrace, even fight for this: Life is Good! This day, this moment, these bodies, this air, just being here: a miracle.

Think about it. I read recently that it takes 5,000 years for light to travel from the center of the sun to its surface. Only then does it flare out into the solar system, striking the surface of planets, including our earth. Our very lives are contingent upon light that began its trek toward our planet 5,000 years ago. It takes a universe to support a life.

Somehow everything came together, comes together, consistently, reliably, so that we are here. This day: a miracle. Me with a toothache, drinking coffee, grumbling about the news, wondering if getting up today is worth the trouble. You, reading this page.

I think the most basic religious quest is to reclaim, to embody this aspect of reality: life is good. The goal and practice of good religion is not to diminish our experience of life, to fill us with guilt, anxiety, or dread, but to enhance our lives, to enlarge them! To set us free from the distortions we tend to impose upon life, the harm we do to each other. In Christian language, it is the work of redemption.

One of my favorite Gospel stories is the healing of the Gerasene demonic in Mark 5. A man who is naked, who lives his life howling, sleeping in tombs, cutting himself with rocks, terrifying his neighbors, runs up to Jesus. Jesus heals him. When the people of the town hear about it, they run out to see what happened. What they see is the man, who had been possessed by legions, sitting near Jesus, “clothed and in his right mind.” (Mark 5:15) Jesus has redeemed him, set him free from all that had distorted his life. Jesus restored the goodness of his life. Jesus sends him home to live well with his family, within his village. His life is meant to be good. Jesus made it so.

Why do I go to church? Because here it is (or at least, at its best should be),  that I remember that life is a sacred gift. Not because it is an opportunity to produce something more than what it is, or different than it is. But before anything else to affirm, grasp, breathe in this basic reality: Life is good, holy, of God. 

And this day it helps that my phone reminds me: LG – Life is Good. Let us resist everything that would tell us otherwise. Let’s claim its goodness. The act of doing so is a moral imperative. For those of us who are religious: doing so honors the God of life.

Consider the BORG

 

A few years ago I decided I would give up busyness and worry. It would have been easier to give up coffee and red meat. I made it about three days. I discovered how much I am addicted to busyness and worry. Withdrawal is worse than a caffeine headache. I discovered what I suspected: if there is nothing to worry about, I find something; if I have a few hours of uncommitted, discretionary time, I find a project and get busy doing it.

I have internalized a cultural value that embraces busyness and mistrusts idleness. It is wired into my nervous system. I am struggling to get it out of my system. I am in recovery.

Reading Thomas Merton helps me in my recovery. In one of his journals he wrote:

“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to the violence of our times.”

His point: to embrace this somehow tears into the fabric of our identities. We are less and less authentically ourselves, and more and more defined by what is outside of us. We become more driven by what is expected of us (or by what we expect of ourselves), and loose touch with who we might be, what lies at the center of our own souls. It is a depersonalizing act of violence. We are drawn and quartered. Worse yet, we tie the ropes onto our hands and feet.

There is much about being human that is beautiful and good, and has absolutely nothing to do with producing anything. We are so much more than the things we do. If we jamb our days till they overflow with projects, we are at risk of loosing important parts of ourselves. Do we recognize the value and importance of simply having tea with a friend, of breathing in the smell of a damp field, of listening to the rain, of simply sitting together opening to God?

Merton suggests that not only are we missing significant pieces of our human experience. We are at great risk of misdirecting our lives. Our compulsive busyness becomes a source of violence as we begin to value others and ourselves less as people, and more as objects in relationship to our projects and goals. We fail to notice and begin to pour the dark side of our personalities over each other.

Again, Merton:

“When we live superficially, when we are always outside of ourselves, never quite ‘with’ ourselves, always divided and pulled in may directions by conflicting plans and projects, we find ourselves doing many things that we do not really want to do, saying things we do not really mean, needing things we do not really need, exhausting ourselves for what we secretly realize to be without meaning in our lives…this inner contradiction, derived from the alienation and frustration in American life, is one of the roots of violence in our society. We seek release by fantasies and dramas of violence.” (Love and Living, Harcourt, 1979, p. 43.)

Even the church is complicit when it surrenders without critical thought to cultural models that surround it. A good Christian becomes defined as a busy Christian, purpose driven, fully engaged in a 24/7 busy church. Busyness becomes a substitute for real discipleship. People unconsciously become valued more for what they do to help the church meet its goals, than for who they are as sacred persons.

A path to recovery? Recognize and name our addiction. Reclaim the beauty and power of sabbath time, silence, listening to God, of play and idleness. Value each other first as persons, and then figure out what we might do together.

We do have much to do. We are called to feed the hungry, clothes the naked, visit the sick, to respond to the needs of others that surround us. But out of compassion, not as projects that prove our significance as an organization. And we need to keep real boundaries in place, least we turn ourselves and others into cogs in some productive machine (Borgs).

We need to recover our sacred, human center.

I’m Back

It’s been awhile, but I am back to blogging. A new look. A new theme. A new beginning.

I remain convinced that faith is about becoming more human, more alive, and perhaps even more vulnerable.

So much of what we experience can dehumanize us. Faith is a path of resistance.

It is not a path to a life beyond mediocracy. It is not a passion driven embrace of a purposeful mission statement. It does not help us move from good to great.

It is a reclaiming of an essence.

Reread Jesus’ parables. He deconstructs all concepts of what is good and what is great. He cracks open our concepts so that we might glimpse a different paradigm.

I look forward to our conversation.

Bill

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

c. 1632

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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

Recovering the Inner Life – 2

2007 is back in History! Welcome to this new o...

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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

Jewish Children with their Teacher in Samarkan...

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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)