Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Inter-Faith Dialogue

(Read Genesis 12: 1-4a, Luke 3:1-17. Also, see Ephesians 2:11-18, Message translation)

I truly believe that my Christian faith has made all the difference in my life. Not only is my life’s work intertwined in the religion, but Christianity has shaped the way I think and act, given me hope, and helped me to be a more forgiving and loving person.

But one of the great struggles I have had, and continue to have with Christianity, is our claim at exclusivity. When Christians say that belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, that being a Christian is the only way to salvation, to redemption, to heaven; immediately, warning bells go off in my mind.

The claim that faith in Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation has New Testament basis, especially if the verses of Scripture are read in isolation or without utilizing any historic or literary criticism, (which to most modern and progressive people, this type of Scripture reading is considered unacceptable).

Some examples of such Scriptures are: “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’” (John 14: 6).

Or from the book of Acts, a more obscure passage: “Let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is "the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.' There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:10-12).

Also, from our Gospel lesson this morning, it says: “Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit’” (John 3:5). A Christian might claim that this Scripture means that a person must be baptized in order to enter God’s kingdom. However, this is just one way of interpreting the text. Other religions believe that we are born of God’s Spirit, and water could refer to many things, including the purity rituals of other traditions.

Also, the great commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19), has lead some Christians to force our faith on non-Christians throughout the world. Jesus commanded his followers to share the good news, to forgive and to love, but instead, many have used the great commission to justify oppressive, cruel and violent behavior.

The bloodshed that occurred in the name of Jesus Christ during the Crusades is part of our religion’s less honorable past. Wikipedia offers a brief summary:
The Crusades were a series of military conflicts of a religious character waged by much of Christian Europe against external and internal threats. Crusades were fought against Muslims, pagan Slavs, Russian and Greek Orthodox Christians, Mongols, Cathars, Hussites, and political enemies of the popes… The Crusades originally had the goal of recapturing Jerusalem and the Holy Land from Muslim rule and were originally launched in response to a call from the Eastern Orthodox Byzantine Empire for help against the expansion of the Muslim Seljuk Turks into Anatolia. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crusades).

Basically, the sad truth of the Crusades was that so many people were killed in the name of Jesus, which disgraced our religon. Even to many people today, Christians are remembered as violent people because of these battles wages by our Christian anscetors.

Christian missionary work has also given Christianity a bad name throughout the world. Nowadays, we have done much to remedy the mistakes of our past. Current Christian missionary efforts try to honor and respect the cultures and societies we enter. We try to be helpful and of service while sharing the good news, but not coercive in making people believe. This is a relatively modern approach to missionary work. A few hundred years ago, Christian missionaries to South America, Africa, and other parts of the world literally tried to eradicate the native cultures and practices of the people, and replace them with a quite narrow, Western Christian paradigm.

Some even argue that the Holocaust was one of the results of the belief that Christians are superior to the Jewish people. Although, I think there is much more to the Holocaust than that, which makes this too general of a statement to make

My point is: the Christian claim that we are the only faith, the only religion acceptable to God, the creator of heaven and earth, for salvation has had devastating consequences for people throughout the world

Not only has the claim of exclusivism degraded the Christian faith and lead to violence, it contradicts many of the teachings of Jesus and the overall message of the gospel.

Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors as ourselves, but he never said, ‘Love them only if they are exactly like yourselves.’ One of the origins of our faith is that at one time, only a chosen few were loved, protected and redeemed by God, and that was the tribe of Israel, but through Jesus, God made a new covenant for everyone and anyone so that all people could be in relationship with God, protected, healed and redeemed. (See Ephesians 2:11-18, especially the Message translation). In time, however, a certain criteria developed that faith in Jesus as Savior was necessary to enter into this relationship with God. It is ironic that a once inclusive movement developed into an exclusive religion.

When John the Baptist saw Jesus walking towards him, John cried out, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Of the world.

“And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world” (1 John 4:14). The Savior of the world, not only those who believe.

“Therefore just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all [Adam], so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all [Jesus]. For just as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:18).

Some Scriptures say that believing in Jesus is critical, others just focus on the will and work of God to save all people through Jesus. Period.

I think John 3:16-18, part of which we heard this morning, demonstrates the problem at hand very well. It describes both an inclusive and exclusive point of view.

Verse 16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son [inclusive], so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Exclusive.

Verse 17: "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Inclusive. Jesus came to save the world, not to bring condemnation to anyone, which I imagine includes even those who do not proclaim him as Savior.

Verse 18: “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Exclusive!

It is a great struggle for our religion. Interestingly, in the lectionary, the reading ends at verse 17. I think that is because verse 18 condemns people, and Christians are trying to steer away from that sort of judgment.

Christianity is one of many religions throughout the world. Does the rest of the world have to be wrong in order for us to be right? Can we continue to believe in the Cross without having to hang anyone else upon it?

Will we continue to believe in the Cross without having to hang anyone else upon it?

Abraham is the father of our nation, but not just ours. What about the other two religions that claim Abraham as their father? Judaism and Islam.

“Now the Lord said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis 12: 1-3).

All the families of the earth, whether Muslim, Jewish or Christian are blessed through the faith of Abraham.

The question for us is: How do we remain faithful and convicted as Christians AND tolerant, respectful and loving of people of others religions, especially Muslims and Jews?

This past week, I went to NYC to participate in interfaith dialogue with Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Jews with 25 other Methodist ministers to ponder this very question.

I want to say a little bit about what I learned from the Muslim and Jewish conversations because it is our lack of education about these other religions and the people who practice these other religions that leads to our prejudices. And it is our prejudices and de-humanizing of other people that allows us to condemn and be violent towards them.

First of all, Christians, and Muslims for that matter, are forever indebted to Judaism. Monotheism rose from the tribes of Israel, and the Hebrew Scriptures are the first great record of a monotheistic people. Both Christianity’s sacred texts and Islam’s sacred texts contain the sacred texts of Judaism.

That’s not to say that we are not different. We are. The basic and fundamental difference between Christianity and Judaism is that Christians believe Jesus is the Messiah, and Jews do not believe Jesus is the Messiah. Jews do not believe the Messiah has come yet.

Steve, a United Methodist Minister, was talking to a Rabbi and an Imam one day, and what the Rabbi said helps to explain the problem between our faiths from the Jewish perspective. The Rabbi said, “We know that you [meaning Muslims and Christians,] look at us as though there’s something missing, as though we are incomplete.”

The Rabbi was right. This is one of the problems.

It has lead to what is called supersessionalism. Christians think and act like the Jews are not as favored as we are, not anymore. We believe that our new covenant through Jesus Christ supersedes or takes the place of the covenant that God made with Israel, and that the covenant God make with Israel so long ago is now inferior or even broken.

I was told in seminary never to try to convert a Jew. It’s okay if a Jew wants to convert, just as its okay if a Christian wants to convert, but they don’t need to The covenant God made with the Jewish people has not been revoked. Through the Prophet Jeremiah, God said to them, “But this command I gave them, ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk only in the way that I command you, so that it may be well with you.’” This promise has not changed, and when Christians act like it has, that is very hurtful.

Trying to be more sensitive to the Jewish perspective, I asked a Jewish woman who was at the conference if the Jewish people were mad at Christians for letting ourselves in on their covenant with God?

And she simply said, “That is your belief.”

Then, she concluded by saying that maybe we were not so different after all because the Jews are still waiting for the Messiah to come, and we are waiting for the Messiah to come again. Maybe next time, we will both agree.

When it comes to being tolerant and respectful towards our Islamic neighbors, the main danger we Christians face is our ignorance. We simply do not know much about Muslim faith and practices, partly because Islam is predominantly practiced on the other side of the world. We haven’t really been exposed to it.

And sadly, our great exposure to Islam has come recently through terrorists, who aren’t the average Muslim, but are Islamic extremists. There are millions of Muslims out there that we do not know at all. It would be kind of like if people thought that you and I were the same as the Christians of the Crusades. The one thing we must be clear on is that the terrorists are not the Muslim people.

A few basics about Islam: Islam began in the 7th century when the Prophet Mohammed was given the Quran by God. Muslims consider Moses, David, Jesus prophets, but Mohammed is the last prophet sent by God. Allah simply means ‘the-God,’ the same God of Abraham, the Father of Jesus. Muslims even believe in the virgin birth and consider Mary the most holy of women. Their five pillars, the five duties of every Muslim are: 1. a confession of faith. 2. pray five times a day (which comes from the Christian monastic tradition), 3. fast during the month of Ramadan, 4. give money to the poor, 5. take a pilgrimage to Mecca if able.

One of the main confusions for me is that the governments of Middle Eastern countries and the religion of Islam are kind of intertwined. For example, when we think of Islamic women, we often think of their head coverings or hijab. “Hijab is the Quranic requirement that Muslims, both male and female, dress and behave modestly. The most important Quranic verse relating to hijab is sura 24:31, which says, "And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their private parts and not to display their adornment except that which ordinarily appears thereof and to draw their headcovers over their chests and not to display their adornment except to [the men in their family]..." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_and_Islam#Dress_code).

One of the women that spoke to us when I was in NYC said that only in Saudi Arabia and Iran are there laws and legal ramifications for not wearing the hijab. In Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and all the other countries where Islam is practiced, women are expected to wear them as a sign of their faith, but they do have a choice. The Prophet Mohammad said something to the effect of, religion should not be under compulsion. The idea being that religion and religious practices should not be forced upon anyone, but that these things are a matter of the heart.

The woman speaking to us was maybe in her 20’s, and she said that more and more, Muslims in this country are wearing hijabs to set themselves apart as faithful women, women who reject the exploitation of women in American society. I found myself thinking I might like to wear one myself.

As Christians, we might think of the hijab kind of like how we are supposed to go to church, pray, read the Scriptures, ask for forgiveness, serve the poor, take care of the sick, etc. These are commended to us by our religion, our priests and pastors. There is even some sort of social pressure to do these things that comes from other Christians, but no one enforces it, no one can make you. Ultimately, acts of piety and acts of mercy are up to each person. It is similar in Islam, except in some countries, in particular Saudi Arabia and Iran (and before the US took over, Afghanistan), which have made the rules of the Quran the rules of the country.

I believe our task as Christians of the 21st century is to have more honorable relations with Jewish and Muslim people. As Christians, our goal is to remain faithful and convicted in our beliefs that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world, AND AT THE SAME TIME, to be tolerant, respectful and loving towards the people of others religions.

Three ideas on how we might do this:

1. Leave judgment and salvation up to God.

Romans 4: 16 says, “The fulfillment of God's promise depends entirely on trusting God and [God’s] way, and then simply embracing [God] and what he does.” (Message Translation). This is God’s world, not ours. Let’s just accept that what God is doing is bigger than we can comprehend.

2. Dialogue with people of other religious traditions. Get to know each other. Listen to what everyone has to say, and at the same time, proclaim our beliefs clearly and sincerely, but without coercion and forcefulness.

One of the ways we tend to try to make amends for our checkered Christian past is to water-down our beliefs. We don’t have to do that or apologize for what we believe. The Pastor at St. James and St. Andrews UMC in NYC, whose name is K, said that the first time he knew Jewish people would be attending his Christmas Eve service, he preached on angels. He was afraid to offend his guests so he barely mentioned Jesus. Pastor K said the sermon was a total flop; his worst Christmas Eve sermon ever. At the end of the service, a Jewish person came up to him and said, “That was a nice service, Pastor, but I thought I would hear a lot more about Jesus.”

The importance of dialogue is not only to learn and understand, but to connect a theology, a religion with a person. When we sit down and actually speak to people of other faiths, we realize that there is no such thing as meeting a faith, we meet a person. All of our grand ideas and theories don’t sound so smart when you are actually sitting face to face with another human being.

3. Another way we can remain faithful and convicted in our beliefs that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world, and at the same time, be tolerant, respectful and loving towards the people of others religions is to get educated. We can do this through dialogue, through books, classes, lectures, TV programs. I for one want to read some of the sacred texts of other traditions. The idea is that we learn so that our ignorance and prejudices are replaced with knowledge and understanding.

Not only should we learn about other faiths, but we should also go deeper into our own faith. We barely scratch the surface in here on Sunday mornings. The more convicted you are in your own heart, the more you understand our faith and believe our teachings, the more you experience the Living God, the less you will need to defend your beliefs or convince others of your beliefs.

It’s kind of like when you know the final score of the basketball game was Knicks 76, Cavs 75. Then, sitting near you, there are 2 guys fighting back and forth. One demanding the Knicks won, the other demanding the Cavs won at the buzzer. You might pipe up and say what you know, but as they go on arging, you detach from the conversation. You don’t need to fight about it. You know the score.

The more convicted you are in your faith, the less there is to argue about. However, in religious dialogue, we should still listen to one another, find commonalities, disagree on matters of importance, but do so without acting superior.

I’ll close with this antidote, told by Dr. Irvin, President of New York Theological Seminary:

There was a shepherd whose sheep kept escaping, wandering off, so he had to build up larger walls and put up more fences to prevent them from leaving the pasture.

Meanwhile, there was another shepherd who had no walls, no fences, and his sheep all stayed in their pasture, happy as clams.

The first shepherd said to the other, “What’s your secret? How do you do it?”

And the shepherd who had no walls, no fences, no protective barriers said, “I have dug very deep wells. This is the place they want to be.”

So I think it should be with every person’s religion.

I say these words in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, February 11, 2008

There is Freedom

(read Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 and Matthew 4:1-11)

Our New York license plates read: Empire State. Not a very memorable slogan if you ask me. But then again, many other state license plates aren’t that impressive either. Iowa reads: corn state. Nebraska: beef state. And Idaho: famous potato. As if the most important thing we could say about the great lands that we live are what sort of produce grows best there.

There are more interesting state plates. For example, Arkansas reads: The Land of Opportunity. (Who knew?!) Alaska is the Last Frontier. (Wonderfully true, especially if you’ve seen, Into the Wild). The District of Columbia makes a political statement, which is fitting: Taxation without Representation.

But the #1 license plate slogan in the United States comes from New Hampshire, where on the back of every car, it reads: Live Free or Die.

Nothing is as important to human beings as living free. Freedom is a person’s natural born right. In fact, our country was founded upon this very principle. As the Declaration of Independence declares, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Liberty here is a synonym for freedom, (probably chosen because two L words in a row have a nicer ring to them then an L and an F word: Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness as opposed to, Life, Freedom and the pursuit of Happiness).

But the meaning is the same. Each person has been created by God, and each person deserves to live that life. No one should threaten it or be able to take it away. Not only do we each own our own lives, but we deserve to live them freely, how we choose, and to pursue happiness freely, in the ways we want. These are our rights, and they always will be.

The Judeo-Christian faith also stresses the importance of freedom: the freedom of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt; our freedom from sin and death through Jesus Christ; our free will to choose good or evil; the freedom given to our spirits by God’s Spirit.

The definition of freedom is: the condition of being free of restraints; the capacity to exercise choice; free will (http://education.yahoo.com/reference/dictionary/entry/freedom).

When we think of freedom, we tend to think of what Thomas Merton called, “choice freedom.” (Thomas Merton was a brilliant Catholic Monk and practitioner of Zen Buddhism). Choice freedom means that we can do what we want, go where we want, say what we want, buy what we want, etc.

Do you remember the feeling of being a teenager when you really began to have some choice freedom? Getting to go to your friends after school without a note to your teacher or permission from your parents, getting a job if you wanted, taking out the car and driving wherever.

For me, one of the most amazing moments was when I realized that I could go to T.G.I Fridays and get a bowl of cheese broccoli soup if I wanted to. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but you have to realize that I was the youngest child of three by six and eight years. Plus, my dad always had a pretty big say in what we did. Even though we did sometimes go to Fridays, it was never enough for me.

This whole situation affected me so much that by the time I was 18, and Brian Horba came to my house on a Friday night to pick me up, all I wanted to do was go shopping at Old Navy, followed by a bowl of cheese broccoli soup at Friday’s. I can still remember the night like it was yesterday. I was so excited, so alive, so free. (The fact that Brian Horba was one of the cutest boys in school didn’t hurt either).

Jason, who is not only my boyfriend, but also a sergeant in the New York National Guard and an Iraq war veteran, says that one of the main reasons he joined the Army at the age of 17 was because it was the first real decision that he could make for himself. The recruiters came to his high school, rounded up the boys, and told them what an honor it was to serve their country. The told them about the training, how they would get to shoot guns and fly in helicopters. They told the boys they would travel and make money at the same time. The government would even pay for them to go to college. And all they had to do was sign some sheets of paper.

Jason couldn’t believe that he was finally able to make such a substantial choice, a decision that mattered, that would affect the rest of his life. He said, “Heck, yeah! Where do I sign?”

From early on in life, most of us consider saying “yes” the ultimate freedom. Afterall, rules/restraints are made to be broken. Our parents have had us under their control as long as we’ve known, and we can’t wait to make choices for ourselves. When the opportunity arises, we want to be able to take advantage of it. First, it’s choosing the boy or girl we want to dance with or go on a date with, then it’s choosing the man or woman we want to marry. First, it’s deciding when to become sexually active, then it’s deciding when to have a baby. First, it’s choosing what sort of student you will be and if you will go to college, then its deciding how you will earn money to support yourself and your family.

Each and every day is determined by our choice freedom. Our very lives are determined by what we say “yes” to, AND what we say “no” to. I think one of the great dangers in life is conceiving of freedom predominantly in terms of saying “yes.” Only about half the time is the best choice saying “yes,” the other half, the best choice is in saying “no.” There is actually great freedom in saying “no.”

Let’s look at today’s scripture readings. In Genesis, Adam and Eve are enjoying living in the Garden of Eden. It’s paradise. They have whatever they want; they can say “yes” to everything, except one tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That tree they are told to say “no” too.

Then, the serpent comes and convinces Eve that it is foolish not to eat the fruit on that tree “You will not die if you eat from it,” the serpent says. “Just the opposite! Your life will be greater than ever if you eat that fruit, for you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

What is the choice towards freedom in this situation? If the very definition of freedom is “being free of restraints,” it was seem that to be free of restraints here would be to say “yes” to the apple!

Or is it?

We know what happens. Right after Adam and Eve eat the apple, their lives change and for the worse. They immediately become self-conscious and ashamed, which they never were before, and then, God kicks them out of the garden. As the story goes, all of humankind is forever covered in sin because of Adam and Eve’s disobedience.

True freedom is not just bucking the system or disobeying God or parents or government or religious authority or society or whatever. True freedom is doing what’s best for your soul, and for the soul’s of others. Sometimes, what is best for our lives requires us to say “no.”

One of the things that makes so many people unhappy these days is having too much to do or being in situations where they are doing something that they don’t like doing, doing something they resent. Why don’t we say “no?”

It is true that there are often responsibilities that we have, but if something is really hurting your life and bringing you down, don’t you deserve to get away from it? Isn’t that where you’re freedom would be?

And what about decisions regarding sex and drinking and drugs. These are not only teenage issues. Adults are faced with them also, and many of us never learned to make them well in the first place. Is freedom always saying “yes” to these things? One really bad hangover will tell you it’s not. Wisdom and experience have taught us otherwise.

What about eating a cheeseburger and French fries every day? I’ve heard people say, “I can eat whatever I want to.” They think that this is freedom. But if you keep getting fatter every year or are diagnosed with heart disease, wouldn’t actual freedom be not eating those thing? In this situation, true freedom is not getting to eat whatever you want, but not eating the things that will kill you. True freedom is choosing life over death.

When Jesus is tempted in the wilderness, he is tempted to say “yes” to the offers of the devil, but his successful rejection of evil is in saying “no.”

This Lent, you are all encouraged to take on a spiritual discipline, and I suggest you make a choice towards freedom, a choice that will awaken the person God wants you to be. This may mean saying “yes” to reading Scripture, praying, going to church or it may mean saying “no” to gossip, violence or some negative thought or behavior. Get creative when you pick the way you will observe Lent, but choose something that really will set you free.

Ultimately, freedom is not always either a “yes” or a “no” answer, but freedom is about following the Spirit of God and making choices that are life-giving to our own spirits.

2 Corinthians says, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3: 17). There is freedom when we are one with the Lord. We feel truly alive and happy when our spirits are in harmony with God’s Spirit.

Thomas Merton says that even greater than having choice freedom in life is spontaneity freedom. Spontaneity freedom is living from our truest selves, living from the divine image deep in our souls. Instead of thinking and acting by following the status quo or from our learned behaviors, old habits, and preconceived notions, spontaneity freedom is making every choice, taking every breath, saying every word, doing every action from your transformed and enlightened spirit.

Thomas Merton says in his book, The New Man:

Freedom of choice is not, itself, the perfection of liberty. But it helps us take our first step toward freedom or slavery, spontaneity or compulsion. The free man is the one whose choices have given him the power to stand on his own feet and determine his own life according to the higher light and spirit that are in him. The slave, in the spiritual order, is the man whose choices have destroyed all spontaneity in him and have delivered him over, bound hand and foot, to his own compulsions, idiosyncrasies and illusions, so that he never does what he really wants to do, but only what he has to do.

First, we must learn to make the choices that will help to nurture our spirits and awaken our best selves, the children God created us to be. Through this process, we are transformed. We begin living from a place of true freedom, where our spirits are alive, full and bright in the world.

How many of you live by your spirit? How many of you know the difference between when you are living by your spirit versus by your lower self? By the end of Lent, by Easter, I hope you all know that answer. That as Christ is released from slavery to sin and death, you too will be released. That as Christ comes alive again, you too will come alive and be set free. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3: 17). “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3: 17).

And the Spirit of the Lord is in you!

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Ash Wednesday

Lent is a time when we often focus on changing something in our lives. I encourage you all to take on a Lenton discipline (see below), such as taking on something that is live-giving or giving up something that is life-taking. But just for a moment, here on Ash Wednesday, let us just be as we are—human beings, both blessed and cursed, healthy and broken, strong and weak, faithful and sinful.

“Don’t Change”

I was a neurotic for years. I was anxious and depressed and selfish.

Everyone kept telling me to change.

I resented them, but I also agreed with them. I knew they were right. I wanted to change; I felt like God wanted me to change, but I simply couldn’t. No matter how hard I tried, (and I tried over and over again), nothing worked.

What hurt even more was that my closest friend also kept insisting that I change. She would tell me stories of how her brother had changed and suggested I should do the same. She even cut self- help “tips” out of magazines for me.

I tried and failed. I gave up. I tried again. I felt powerless and trapped.

Then, one day, just as my friend was about to give me some advice, I saw her stop in mid- thought. Her mouth hung open and her lungs were filled with air, eager to tell me what to do to make my life better. Instead of speaking though, she just exhaled.

Then she said, “You know what, don’t worry about it. You’re wonderful! Don’t change. I love you just the way you are.”

Those words were magic to my ears. Don’t worry. Don’t change. Don’t worry. Don’t change. I love you just the way you are.

I looked at her.

I exhaled.

I relaxed.

And that’s when it happened. I changed!

It took years to get to that pivotal moment in my life. First, I had to accept myself for who I was. First, I had to remember that God loved me no matter what. And then, I needed someone to remind me—that love is free whether we change or not. That’s when change actually became possible for me.

Written for Ash Wednesday (based on an anonymous poem titled, “Don’t Change”)

Monday, February 4, 2008

Take Up a Lenten Discipline

Aaahhh…Lent. My favorite time of the liturgical year! Lent is a time to dig deep, to go within yourself and hunt around for where the Spirit is dwelling, a time to reflect and get on board with what God is doing in your life.

The most common tradition associated with lent is to “give something up.” In my younger years, I hated this tradition. I didn’t want to give anything up; I only wanted more! At that time in my life, instead of giving something up for Lent, I would add something life-enhancing to my daily routine. Some ideas to add: prayer, read a book on spirituality, go to church, meet with a pastor to discuss your journey, take an art class, go to therapy, exercise. The list is endless really. As long as you are taking something on that will improve your health in mind, body or spirit, you are on the right track.

However, I have finally reached the point where giving something up works for me and brings healing to my life. I do not give up things that I like such as chocolate or going to the movies, although there is value in that if one is attempting to learn self-control or develop discipline.

During Lent, I choose to rid myself of some thought process that is preventing me from living the abundant life that Jesus offers to the faithful. This year, I am giving up judgment. Judgment is poisonous to the self and others. When I judge myself, it creates doubt within me, and then I cannot follow Christ when he calls or act on the inspirations of the Spirit. Judging others is also no good for so many reasons, (like Jesus said not to). I suppose the main reason I want to quit judging others is because, when I do, I don’t really get to know people as well. I assume things about them, which becomes a barrier to authentic communication. Also, when I judge people I already know well, I tend to make critical comments about them, which is destructive to relationships if given carelessly. Plus, I have learned through spiritual masters that judging someone else often says more about me than it does about the other.

A few years ago, I gave up guilt. For 40 days, whenever I felt guilty, I just gave it over to God. By Easter Sunday, I had learned so much about the difference between healthy and unhealthy guilt that started saying “no” to the unhealthy kind and the suffering it produces, and I started acting upon healthy guilt, making changes in my life.

This lent, please take up a Lenten discipline. They hold the promise of being transformative. Either take something on that will bring you closer to God and make you a more loving, joyous person or give something up that is preventing you from living the life that God offers God’s children. The hope is that in 40 days, your life might change for the better.