Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Birthday Revelation

On January 28th, 2008, my 30th birthday, I wrote these words following a period of contemplation:
In the last ten years, God has utterly transformed my inner world, and therefore, my life. My restless nature, a spiritual ailment that has plagued me since high school, has finally surrendered, giving way to contentment, which has lead to my joy.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Faith of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

(read Isaiah 10:1-3 and Luke 6: 27-36)

Injustice angers Almighty God because our God, the God of Israel, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is “the God of justice and hesed (loving kindness or steadfast love). Yahweh demand[s] that his people form a just society [which includes the command to love one’s neighbor]. [In the Bible,] Canaan was pictured as a land of abundance, ‘flowing with milk and honey,’ [but] not all Israelites benefited equally from the land’s resources. The Torah accordingly made specific provisions for the poor, mandating that they were entitled to the same legal rights in court as the rich-a contrast to Mesopotamian law that applied different legal standards to nobles and peasants. The Torah also required that no interest be charged for loans made to the poor, and that their debts be cancelled every seventh year” (Harris, Stephen. Understanding the Bible. Seventh edition. pg. 198.).

Wouldn’t we like our debts to be cancelled every seventh year?

“Despite these Torah statues and the social customs they reflect, some of Israel’s ruling class found ways to increase their wealth by exploiting the poor, a practice that the prophets denounce as hateful to Yahweh...One of the major reasons the prophets give for Yahweh’s anger against Israel is economic injustice…Prophets such as Amos, Micah and Isaiah of Jerusalem, repeatedly point out that God is the champion of the poor and defenseless, and that he abhors the ruling classes’ practice of gaining riches at the expense of the poor” (Harris, Stephen. Understanding the Bible. Seventh edition. pg. 198.).

The importance of justice and kindness for all people, regardless of economic status, age, race, sex is also a predominant theme in the New Testament. The Great Commandment given by Jesus includes the charge to love our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus praises the inherent virtue and goodness of children, a radical notion in his day. Jesus proclaims that those who serve others will inherit the kingdom of heaven. He says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” This statement confused those to whom Jesus was speaking, so they asked him, “When did we do these things?” His reply: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25). But woe to those who do not give food, drink and clothing. Woe to those who do not provide care for the sick and visit the prisoners. God looks upon such people with harsh judgment.

Perhaps the most notable Scripture verse that tells just how important equality is to God comes from the words of St. Paul, who says, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:27-29). Through Christ Jesus and in God’s perfect kingdom, injustice, oppression, captivity, inequality, all these things have come to an end. A righteous land will uphold all peoples’ human rights and human dignity.

The United States of America was not a righteous land when it practiced segregation, which is “The policy or practice of separating people of different races, classes, or ethnic groups.” As you are all painfully aware, segregation separated black people from white people until just 50 years ago in this country. Not only were whites privileged to sit in the front of the bus while blacks sat in the back (Rosa Parks), but each group had separate bathrooms, drinking fountains and schools. As the Supreme Court declared, there is no such thing as separate but equal.

When I read the words from Isaiah 10, it is as though God’s chastisement was written specifically to us regarding this injustice in our land. “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people” (Isaiah 10: 1-2).

Last Monday, most of our country shut down as we celebrated a national holiday to honor one man. The only other national holiday that I can think of that honors just one person is Columbus Day, celebrating Christopher Columbus who is said to have discovered the New World in 1452. Veterans Day, Presidents Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, these honor several people or thousands of people, but Martin Luther King Day, it is in honor of one man, Martin Luther King Jr., and him alone because of his contribution to end segregation in the South and increase civil rights.

In the beginning of King’s famous, “I Have a Dream” speech, he said these words:

But one hundred years [after the Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves], the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.

On that day, King was speaking at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. at the largest civil rights rally in the history of the US with more than 200,000 people gathered together for a nonviolent protest aimed at securing justice for black Americans.

Also on that day, King described the problems of segregation like this:

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by a sign stating: "For Whites Only."* We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

I think one of the most important things to keep at the forefront of our minds and that we, as disciples as Jesus, can learn from King is how his faith impacted his life, speech and actions. King was not a politician. His “I have a dream” speech wasn’t some crafty campaign for re-election. Actually, it was a sermon to the American people for King was a minister of our Lord Jesus Christ and his allegiance was to God’s righteous kingdom. Because of his Christian background, King knew that segregation was a system of injustice incompatible with God’s intentions for what the kingdom of heaven was to be.

And it was King’s leadership that inspired the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, on behalf of whom he spoke, to have a nonviolent policy when they protested. King based his philosophy on the teaching of Jesus and those of the Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi. It was Jesus who taught King to turn the other cheek. It was Jesus who said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6: 27-28). King shows that he is a disciple when he said:

But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.


Kings most famous and inspiring words are not secular, they are the words that we hear in the Scriptures. King speaks in the language of the faithful.

Listen:

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

By God’s grace, MLK lived his life in faith and not in fear.

Fear is tyranny to the soul. In his book titled, The Philosophy of Jesus, John Macmurray writes, “Like fear, [faith] is an emotional attitude in living. [Faith] might…be better translated, ‘trust.’ As a general characteristic of a [person], it means that [he or she] is not on the defensive, but full of confidence. In a general sense faith is trust in life, the conviction that there is nothing to be afraid of.”1 And by faith, human beings become courageous, revolutionary, transformative agents to bring forth God’s hopes for his creation.

This is God’s invitation for us today. With God’s help, we too are able to live in faith and not in fear. To stand up for the things we know to be right, and to take action so that we build God’s kingdom on earth.

I’m a proponent of keeping religion and politics separate, but sometimes, we just can’t. Our Gospel is a social Gospel. Part of our responsibility is to care for the sick and the outcast, to fight for the rights of the poor and the oppressed. One of our missions is the mission to uphold human dignity and the dignity of all living things. Rescuing girls sold into sex slavery, giving refuge to abused children, education, health care reform, the prison system, the environment, animal rights—These are matters that concern us!

Each of you must care passionately about some issue beyond yourselves, related to the earth, to animals and to basic human rights for all people. Take the problem that breaks your heart and make it your problem. This is no time and we are no sort of people to live in fear and apathy. In faith, do something about what you care about. Play your small part, knowing it is not insignificant. The more you know about the cause you care so much about, the more you can do to help. And then, come here to this place and share with us what we can do.

Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream. In faith and through action, his dream changed the world. What about you? Do you have the faith to fight against injustice? Do you have a dream to make things better?

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Called to a Meaningful Existence

(Read Isaiah 49:1-7 and Mt 4: 12-25 from the Message translation)

“For a moment, stand with Andrew and Peter fishing by the sea, or sit with James and John seated in a boat with their father. The familiar salty air reeks with a sense of security. Would you suddenly drop everything known best to you and go traipsing off to who-knows-where with a man who shows up one day and speaks with an authority that suggests he can change everything? When you hear this man say “[come with me],” would you not first want him to tell you something about where you would be going and what you would be doing? Would you not want some assurance of a worthwhile pay-off for embarking on such a risk[y] journey? Perhaps you would think to yourself: Fishing on Lake Galilee may not seem like much, but it is a means of making a living. And this is home.” (The Minister’s Annual Manual. 2007-2008. pg. 229).

I can imagine the other fisherman on the beach watching first Andrew and Peter, and then James and John go. They were probably somewhat happy to see them go because now there would be less competition to catch the fish. They probably also poked fun at the men for being so gullible. Maybe, they even made a wager. One man might have said to another, “I’ll bet you 2 to 1 that Andrew and Peter are back within a week with nothing to show for themselves but red faces and empty stomachs. And they’ll be so hungry they’ll be begging us for fish! Those fools.” Ha, ha, ha.

Answering the call to follow Jesus is never foolish, but it is daring when you think about it rationally and reasonably. You’re taking a chance, a risk, and most of us like to have a solid assurance that our risks will pay off. Calls often lead us to quit our jobs when we aren’t even sure of what we’ll do next. Calls often have us enter into some new activity that we think we might be interested in and good at, but don’t even know.

It’s scary. What if you don’t have the talent or skill to do anything other than what you’ve been doing? What if you won’t make enough money? Money is a huge factor in why people resist the callings of God. Time too. It may take years before you have the education you need to get the right job or years to get the restaurant or the small business up and running. The uncertainty of striking out into uncharted territory stops all of us at one time or another. That’s why people who end up following Christ when he calls are people of courage. You have to have courage and trust to do what it takes to follow where the Spirit is leading.

“When Jesus showed up that day in front of James, Andrew, Peter, and John, they did not [even] know what we know about the one who called their names and asked for their loyalty. My goodness, we have thousands of years of evidence of the credibility of [Jesus’] vision, the power of his authority, and the healing in his ministry. But, still we hesitate to heed his call” because we are too cautious or afraid to take a leap of faith. (The Minister’s Annual Manual. 2007-2008. pg. 231).

My childhood friend, Jeni, is a woman that I really admire these days. She didn’t start out with the easiest of circumstances because she got pregnant in high school. But now, some 10 years later, she has three kids and a wonderful husband. She works full-time as a special education teacher in the public school system, a career she very much wanted to enter into years ago. But recently, Jeni hasn’t been enjoying her job as much. She doesn’t feel fulfilled; she’s tired, burnt- out. About six months ago, Jeni told me that what she really wanted to do now was be a high school guidance counselor. I said, “That sounds like a great job for you. Can you switch?” Jeni said, “Yeah, but I have to get a Masters. It will take two years.”

And you know what, bless her heart and pray to God she has enough energy to make it through, she’s doing it! Three kids, working full-time and getting her Masters, but she’s doing it; she’s following her heart. I admire that she didn’t let excuses stop her, and I’m inspired by her courage and action.

Answering the call takes courage. You have to be daring; you also have to be trusting, trusting that God will see you through. From my studies, from my conversations with many faithful people, and mainly from my own personal experiences, I think following the urgings of the Spirit, following the plan of God, is 100% worthwhile and the right thing to do because I believe it leads to a better life and service towards others.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t challenges along the way, because there are. It’s hard to learn to do something new. It’s unsettling to put yourself in unknown territory. It strains you, your family, your finances. But I still say it’s worth it. Challenges build character, and commitment to the righteous path no matter the cost builds integrity. Don’t we all want to be people of character and integrity?

God knit each of us together, giving us unique spirits and individual gifts. And we’re meant to use them, even, especially as we change and grow.

One other concern I had regarding God’s calling to his children was brought up by the Isaiah Scripture. Why did Isaiah, who was following God’s call, feel like he was working in vain? When I read Isaiah 49, verse 4, I felt bad for the prophet. He said, "I've worked for nothing. I've nothing to show for a life of hard work.” We’re not supposed to feel like that when we’re following our path. The new life in Christ isn’t meant to be meaningless and defeating.

But, as I read Isaiah’s words, they resonated with me and some of the other people who were at Bible Study this week. Sometimes, we all feel like we’re working like dogs, trying so hard, and for what? So we can go unappreciated? Or even worse, so we can be judged and yelled at by others for all our efforts? Sometimes, it feels like we are putting all our energy into working, and it isn’t fun, and it isn’t getting us anywhere.

The entire book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament is about this very thing. It begins, “Smoke, nothing but smoke. [That's what the Quester says.] There's nothing to anything - it's all smoke. What's there to show for a lifetime of work, a lifetime of working your fingers to the bone? I’ve seen it all and its nothing but smoke-smoke and spitting into the wind” (Ecc. 2-3, 14).

We all have thoughts like this, but they should be fleeting. They shouldn’t last for years. Isaiah eventually realized his life had meaning and purpose, and he felt good about his accomplishments. Right after he’s all down on life, he says, but “I'll let God have the last word. I'll let him pronounce his verdict." And God’s verdict, not only will Isaiah recover the tribes of Jacob and round up the tribes of Israel by what he says and does, but he will also be a light to the nations, a light to all people so that salvation will be global. Isaiah’s work is not in vain because he has been given a task by God. “Kings will see, get to their feet - the princes, too - and then fall on their faces in homage” (Isaiah 49: 4, 11). When God says come with me and we follow, every effort we put forth is worth its while.

So, if you have felt like you’re drifting, busting your butt for no good reason or wasting your precious days of life, that might just be the Spirit’s way of speaking to you through your own emotions, telling you that your are meant for something different, telling you that you are putting your efforts in the wrong place, calling you to a new reality.

“At the center of Christianity stands a decision-the decision-about following Jesus.”(The Minister’s Annual Manual. 2007-2008. pg. 231). Many of us say we follow Jesus, but we don’t take the big chances, and put our faith into action. It often takes us until our backs are against the wall or we just can’t take it anymore to take the plunge, which is better than not taking the plunge at all. Although ,we might be better off if we went more willingly like Peter, Andrew, James and John. Less inner conflict.

Make the decision to follow your Leader and Guide. Be courageous and trusting. Take action!

When God calls to you, you will know. Callings are not things we “should do.” Callings are inspirations to things we want to do. “When we really hear Jesus’ invitation-‘follow me’- it is as if time and place fade. His words slice through the centuries between when he first spoke them and when we first hear them…[We think,] What do those words from the mouth of Jesus mean for [my life]?” (The Minister’s Annual Manual. 2007-2008. pg. 229).

But don’t try to figure it all out at once. You won’t know the whole plan that God has in store for you in once instant. Just start by putting one foot in front of the other. One step at a time. As you follow your calling, the road will open before you and the wind will be at your back.

By the way, if it is not you who are being called, but someone whom you are close to, your husband or wife, sister or brother, parent or child, friend, support the chosen one who has been called. Encourage him or her. Reassure their insecurities and put their worries to rest. We all need someone standing by our side saying, “You can do it!” Courage comes naturally when you receive encouragement.

And those of you who are being called, listen and believe what you hear.

If I had to put a bet on anything in life, it would be that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have plans for your good and not for harm. If you hear the Spirit or Jesus say, “Come with me,” Get up and go. The odds are you will have an amazing journey.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

New Life For the Children of God

(Read Mt 3:13-17 and Romans 8:9-17 using The Message translation)

In The United Methodist Church, the Baptismal Covenant begins, “Brothers and sisters in Christ, through the Sacrament of Baptism, we are initiated into Christ’s holy church. We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvations and given new birth through water and the Spirit. All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price” (UM Hymnal, pg. 33).

I have often pondered the significance of baptism. How does the Church understand it? What does baptism mean for us? It is one of our two Sacraments so it must be very important. John the Baptizer performed baptisms of repentance to prepare the way for the Messiah. Jesus himself was baptized by John, even though he was greater than John, and as “Jesus came up out of the baptismal waters,” God’s Spirit, which looked like a dove, descended and landed upon him. “And along with the Spirit, a voice: ‘This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life’” (Mt. 3:.16-17). Or in the words of the translation we are more accustomed to, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:17). Baptism was also practiced among the earliest of believers as recorded in Acts.

And it has continued as the initiating rite of a Christian. Although, we must admit, just because one is baptized does not mean that person will be a practicing or even a believing Christian. But the central idea remains, through baptism, a person is brought into Christ’s church, receives the promises of forgiveness of sins and resurrection to eternal life, and is reborn by the water that is put on his or her head, and transformed by the Spirit who comes into his or her life.

This new birth is what fascinates me and has captured my attention. I want the new life that comes with the new birth that we are given in baptism. In fact, at times, I believe I am already living it, but at other times, the life that I live seems more like the old life.

To me, the old life is a life that is stuck. Nothing ever changes for the good; we are doomed to repeat the same old mistakes and sins over and over and suffer from the same types of negative and fearful emotions over and over. The old life is filled with effort and striving only to learn nothing new and gain nothing of value. The old life is marked by scarcity, in contrast to the new life, which is marked by abundance. That means no matter how hard you work, there is never enough. The things of God, like love, peace and joy are scarce in the old life. And that is why it is so important to be born again of water and the Spirit; because it is the kind of life our souls long for, life in relationship with God where all things are possible, and we are free to truly live, in the greatest sense of the word.

Listen to what Romans, chapter 6 says, according to the Message translation: With baptism we enter into a new life, a new country of grace."That’s what baptism into the life of Jesus means. When we are lowered into the water, it is like the burial of Jesus, when we are raised up out of the water, it is like the resurrection of Jesus. Each of us is raised into a light filled world by our Father so that we can [live] in our new grace-sovereign country. Could it be any clearer? Our old way of life was nailed to the Cross with Christ…What we believe is this: If we get included in Christ’s sin-conquering death, we also get included in his life-saving resurrection.” (Romans 6: 3-9ish, from the Message translation).

The resurrected life is the life we hope for and know in our hearts is possible because of God’s abundant love. Jesus Christ defeated sin and death for eternity on the Cross, and that means his disciples enter into a new kind of living. The new life is assured in the grand scheme of things, as is God’s victory over death, but one of the struggles we still must face in our day to day experience of realty, is that both death and the old life continue to hold sway. They are still being worked out as God’s kingdom is being worked in.

That’s why we sometimes feel like we are in the new life, and other times, in the old life. Because we are continually moving from one to the other, growing and changing, becoming more and more alive.

Jesus had to die before he rose, and that pattern continues for us. We enter into our new ways of living by going through the cycles of death and birth, birth and death. This is how we are reborn. This is why we continue to suffer even with all of God’s promises. The important thing to remember is that every time the old life knocks our legs out from under us, the Spirit is there waiting to pick us up and set us back on the path to glory.

Eckhart Tolle talks about this reality in his book, Practicing the Power of Now, (although he uses a different sort of language). (By the way, the concept of now is important to the discussion of rebirth because now, the present moment, is the realm of God. God exists, God lives, God works in the now, in the present moment.)

Eckhart Tolle says:
The down cycle is absolutely essential for spiritual realization. You must have failed deeply on some level or experienced some deep loss or pain to be drawn to the spiritual dimension. Or perhaps your very success became empty and meaningless and so turned out to be failure

There are cycles of success, when things come to you and thrive, and cycles of failure,
when they wither or disintegrate, and you have to let them go in order to make room for new things to arise, or for transformation to happen.

If you cling and resist at that point, it means you are refusing to go with the flow of life, and you will suffer. [Parts of our lives must disintegrate or decompose into fragments] for new growth to happen. One Cycle cannot exist without the other, [like the cycles of birth and death] (pg. 103-4).
Baptism is no quick fix, but it does lead us down the worthy path, and it gives meaning to the ebb and flow of life. Our lives repeatedly fall apart, and God puts them back together for us in God’s own, superior way.

Even though change is good for us, and these processes we are talking about are the path to our enlightenment, they can be very painful and difficult to deal with especially if we don’t realize that God is present and working in every circumstance that we face.

The cycle of birth and death and the process of transformation demand that we let go of that which we have come to know and rely on. Our attachments to the things of this world often make us resistant to what God is doing. We hold on to what we know instead of making what God is doing most important. (It’s my house, my job, my dog, my dream, my addiction, my pain, etc).

Again Eckhart Tolle writes,
As long as a [persons judges a condition as “good”], whether it be a relationship, a possession, a social role, a place or your physical body, [then you become] attaché[d] to it and identify[y] with it. It makes you happy, it makes you feel good about yourself, and it may become part of who you are or think you are.

But nothing lasts in this dimension where moth and rust consume. Either it ends or it changes, or it may undergo a polarity shift: The same condition that was good yesterday or last year has suddenly or gradually turned into bad. The same condition that made you happy then makes you unhappy. The prosperity of today becomes the empty consumerism of tomorrow. The happy wedding and honeymoon become the
unhappy divorce or the unhappy coexistence.

[Another possibility is that] a condition disappears, so its absence makes you unhappy. When a condition or situation that [you have] attached [yourself] to and identified with changes or disappears, [its terribly difficult to deal with and accept]. [We] cling to the disappearing condition and resist the change. It is almost as if a limb were being torn off your body (pg. 104-5).
Our happiness plummets in the cycle of death mainly. The process of birth is more exciting and hopeful as the Spirit works to build us up; the painful part is creating space for that building to occur-- the letting go, the death cycle.

For example, when I was fired from my job working in film production in West Hollywood, I thought the world would come to an end. One minute, I was among the rich and famous, pursuing a career in the movie industry. The next, I was rejected and jobless. I was terrified; I was confused. What was I going to do now?

Well, God knew. Once I was fired from that mundane, task-oriented job, I entered seminary and eventually became a minister, the most fulfilling work I’ve ever known. I moved from a land of superficial beauty to a place of depth, where unconditional love awaited me. That is to say, upstate New York, living near my nuclear family. But letting go and allowing for that change to occur was grueling because I was so resistant and afraid of what was happening.

People who develop illnesses, even life-threatening ones, have told me that what was once the worst news they have ever received, the diagnosis, somehow, eventually became a gift. The illness helped them to appreciate life in a way they never had, and to live and love more fully than ever before.

What we must remember is that God is present in every circumstance of our lives. None of this happens without God being there. And so, instead of resisting what has come to be our life, we must surrender to it. By surrender, I don’t mean something negative, as though to imply “defeat, giving up, failing to rise to the challenges of life, becoming lethargic and so on. True surrender is something entirely different. It does not mean to passively put up with whatever situation you find yourself in and to do nothing about it” (Tolle. Practicing the Power of Now. Pg. ), but to find where God is in that situation and align yourself with the Spirit’s work.

“Surrender is the simple but profound wisdom of yielding to rather than opposing the flow of life. The only place where you can experience the flow of life is Now, [in your present circumstance], so to surrender is to accept the present moment…without reservations. [Surrender] is to relinquish inner resistance to what is” (Tolle. Practicing the Power of Now. Pg. ), and to follow the Spirit of God as it moves through your life, helping you to be born again from above.

Listen to what Paul says in Galatians: “How did your new life begin? Was it by working your heads off to please God? Or was it by responding to God's Message to you? Are you going to continue this craziness? For only crazy people would think they could complete by theirown efforts what was begun by God. If you weren't smart enough or strong enough to begin it, how do you suppose you could perfect it? Did you go through this whole painful learning process for nothing? It is not yet a total loss, but it certainly will be if you keep this up! Answer this question: Does the God who lavishly provides you with his own presence, his Holy Spirit, working things in your lives you could never do for yourselves, does he do these things because of your strenuous striving or because you trust him to do them in you?” (Galatians 3: 2-5).

Grace comes in many forms, and many of them we are just beginning to recognize. The alive and present God who raised Jesus from the dead is moving in your lives, doing the same thing in you that he did in Jesus Christ, bringing you fully and freely alive. You don’t owe this old do-it-yourself life one red cent. And the best way to get on with your new life is to surrender right here and now to where it is you find yourself. Yield. Go with the flow, and trust that God is doing something beautiful in the space he has created.

We are the children of God. The hurt can be healed; the dead-end can become the open road; the bad situation can transform into what you were hoping and praying for. But stop holding on so tight and trying to control things. Let the Spirit take the wheel. As you experience God’s unfathomable, mind blowing, awesome grace, pretty soon you too will be expectantly greeting God with a childlike, “What’s next Papa?” (Romans 8:15).

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Epiphany

(Read Jer. 31:31-34, Ephesians 3:1-12)

In the late winter of 2004, I was sitting in Sunday morning worship at the Princeton University chapel, and I was feeling pretty down. My academic load seemed beyond my abilities, my personal life was overshadowed by conflict, and I had no inner peace to speak of.

Worship began and we sang a few hymns as usual, then came the prayer of confession and the words of assurance, then another hymn. It was the same Sunday morning ritual I had participated in hundreds of times. The minister assured the entire congregation and myself that, in the name of Jesus Christ, we were forgiven. He reminded us of God’s great love.

And then, as I was sitting there, all of a sudden, I believed every word the minister said and knew them to be true. All the problems I had been struggling with only moments ago disappeared, and a tingling sensation went through my heart. “God loves me,” I said to myself, and I both laughed and cried at the utter relief and pure joy that I felt. My life’s circumstances didn’t seem so overwhelming and my “issues” did not seem so big. God loved me. God was for me. God was there right by my side encouraging me in this once dismal hour.

What happened on that Sunday morning some 4 years ago was, what I consider, an epiphany. In an instant, my understanding, perspective and feelings altered radically, and for the better!

According to the Encarta World English Dictionary, an epiphany is a "sudden, intuitive leap of understanding, especially through an ordinary but striking occurrence."

That’s exactly what this Sunday morning was. It was sudden; it came out of nowhere. It was intuitive; I hit me in my heart and gut. I understood my whole life and person in a way I never had; I literally felt like a different person. It may have been just another ordinary day, but I have never been quite the same since.

That day changed my life because to know, and I mean to really know, that you are loved is a transformative moment in one’s life. So is knowing that you are forgiven. When you think about it, to realize something is for that thing to become real in one’s life. On that day, the love and forgiveness of God became real in my life.

My experience is not a privileged one; epiphanies happen to all people, the thoughtful and the thoughtless, the young and the old, the least and the greatest. (Although I will argue later that to be thoughtful is better than to be thoughtless).

Can you recall some of the most memorable epiphanies you have had throughout your life?

Epiphanies come to reveal many things. They can be related to why your car won’t start, or what you want to do for the rest of your life; they can be related to why you and your brother have been fighting for the last 20 years or they can shed light on a doctrine of the Church.

An epiphany is more than a realization; it is a spectacular realization! One minute you know facts A, B, C and D, and while its good to know those things, they don’t really mean anything significant. The next minute, they add up. You see the connection between A, B, C and D, and your understanding is altered forever.

An epiphany converts knowledge into wisdom. It changes the way we see and relate to the world. The way we know and love God.

Epiphanies are explicit communications from Sophia, from Lady Wisdom herself.

Julian of Norwich, a woman of great significance in the Christian tradition, received an epiphany on May 13th of 1373. Julian was 30 years old and living in a small room off of a church in England. She was very concerned about her salvation, as was common among people based on the hell and damnation theology of their day. Julian was literally sick to death by her fear and lack of understanding of God’s will. But then, on that fateful day in May, she had a great moment of clarity and truth when the Lord revealed to her this, in Julian’s words: “And so our good Lord answered to all the questions and doubts which I could raise, saying most comfortingly in this fashion: I will make all things well, I shall make all things well, I may make all things well and I can make all things well; and you will see yourself, that all things will be well” (Julian of Norwich. Showings. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978. pg. 151.).

A profound peace came over Julian like never before. In that moment, Julian was assured of her destiny as a beloved child in God's eternal kingdom, and she achieved a level of spiritual maturity she had never known.

The epiphanies that we seek and praise God for on this day are the one’s that transform our lives and illumine our relationships with God and each other.

Today is called Epiphany Sunday because the Magi, or the astrologers, who followed the star to Bethlehem, and who were not Israelites-- they may have come from Assyria or Persia-- realized that Jesus was the King of the Jews. Epiphany is the day that Jesus is revealed as the Messiah to the nations, to the Gentiles, and not to Israel alone. It is the most important of days because the covenant with God that was once cut off from all people but the Israelites is now open to all who believe in Jesus as God’s Son.

That is what Paul is trying to say in 1 Peter. While he himself was a Jew, Paul had a revelation, an epiphany, of just who Jesus was, and through the wisdom he received, he began proclaiming to the Gentiles how they were now welcomed into covenant, into relationship with God and were born anew in Christ Jesus.

“Through the revelation [Paul] received, [he] now begins to grasp the breadth of God’s reach of love and compassion. The world has changed! Everyone, regardless of nationality, has equal, sustained, and immediate access to the love and companionship of God! This revelation, this revolution, transformed [Paul's] life to such and extent that he now introduces himself not as Paul the eminent scholar [of the Jewish nation, but as a servant of the Gospel and our Lord Jesus Christ.]” (cannot remember exact source).

God continues to speak and convey profound wisdom and insight to believers. The greatest epiphany most people experience is when they accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior, and not just because someone told them to, but because they know it to be true. But revelation does not stop there. One could argue that is only the beginning!

Epiphanies are one of the extraordinary ways in which God communicates with us; through them we mature spiritually and our minds are renewed into the likeness of Jesus.

God told the prophet Jeremiah, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jer. 31:33). God speaks to us, teaching us how to love and serve. Perhaps even more fundamental, God shows us how much God loves and serves us. To know the love of God--that’s divine knowledge. That’s the assurance of heaven.

While epiphanies are by definition sudden, that doesn’t mean that we can’t help facilitate the process. It is absolutely crucial for those following the Way to be open and welcoming of insight and change.

There are spiritual practices that we can do to set the stage for our leaps in understanding.

A new year is upon us. The beginning of a new year is a good time to reflect upon our lives: the year that was and the year to come.

Today, you have a piece of paper that asks you what you are thankful for in 2007, as well as what you hope for in 2008. Fill it out and keep it in a place where you will read it throughout the year.

The spiritual practice pertaining to 2007 involves the colorful glass bead you took this morning. It is for our gratitude. Give this colorful piece of glass a meaning; make it a representation of something you are truly grateful for. Family, friends, health—these are all important, but also consider a fruit of the spirit or a virtue. How have you grown this year? Less angry? Less materialistic? More giving? We have all grown in a spiritual way this year, and as the worshipping community of faith, it is a joy to acknowledge our maturation together.

Once you have identified this stone with something important that has happened to you, give it back to God. After I’m done speaking, you will have an opportunity to come forward, and put the jewel into this vase. What God has given you, you can come forward and give to God in reverence and thanksgiving.

Then, and this is our spiritual practice concerning 2008, come over to the table of candles, and light a candle regarding what you hope will happen to you this year in your spiritual life. Perhaps to bear a certain fruit of the spirit or a virtue that would really transform each and every day. To have inner peace? To be less judgmental? To be more trusting? It’s important that we communicate our hopes to God. By being intentional about what we desire, not only are we praying, but we begin to look with eyes open at what God is doing to help us along the way.

We cannot make an epiphany happen, but we can put ourselves on the path where God can reach us with very important, life changing messages.

The giving of the glass jewels and the lighting of the candles, these are rituals we can embrace to bring in the new year with gratitude and hope. They also might be the beginning of a great revelation, one that God is working within you. A revelation that you are partners with the Lord in creating.

This is not the end of the sermon; now comes the most important part. Please come forward with your glass jewel, handing them over in praise and thanksgiving. Then light your candle as a sign of your trust and hope in God for spectacular things to happens in 2008.

As the Lord said through Jeremiah, “I shall be there God and they shall be my people...They shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (Jer. 31:33, 34).