Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Letter of Encouragement from Pastor Mandy

Dear Friends,

Happy 2010! The beginning of a new year is the perfect time to reflect on your past and dream about your future. It is a time to recommit yourself to the spiritual path you are walking and reinvent yourself according to God’s call in your life. Too often, Christians are sabotaged by a false sense of humility that makes us believe we don’t deserve more success and happiness, that we shouldn’t want more out of life—but that is not true. God has instilled passion and creativity inside of each of us and created a world with abundant possibilities. We are living faithfully when we use our gifts and take advantage of all that life has to offer.

Benjamin Mays, who was a minister, scholar, social activist and the president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, said, “The tragedy in life does not lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream.”

Take some time this month to dream, and then set goals for yourself that will help to make those dreams come true. What do you care about? Who do you want to help? What have you always wanted to do that you have not yet? There are only so many tomorrows, so stop putting your heart on hold. Invest yourself in each day as you live it. This year, may you achieve a dream or accomplish a goal that you can feel proud of and that brings excitement to you and your loved ones.

The Spirit will guide you and help you!
Pastor Mandy

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Jesus, Be Born in Us Today

I met Sara several years ago at a mutual friend’s birthday party, and we began talking about spiritual matters almost immediately. As soon as Sara found out I was a minister, she said, “I am so angry with God that I’ve stopped praying.” I asked her what happened to make her feel this way. “Well,” she said, “God never seems to give me what I want.” Sara explained to me that she had been in a turbulent marriage which ended because she wanted to have children and her husband didn’t. She had been divorced for 5 years now, and since then she had been praying for God to bless her with a loving relationship and a family of her own. She had dated a few men, one who broke her heart and the others didn’t amount to much. “I’m so lonely,” she told me, “and I don’t even feel like God cares about my happiness.”

Sadly, Sara’s anger towards God is not uncommon. I have spoken with many people, young and old, male and female, single and married, church-goer and non church-goer, who feel like God doesn’t answer their prayers. Seth is a colleague of mine in his 50’s who is struggling in his relationship with his teenage son. Seth explained to me that he and his son argue all the time and not for any good reason. Seth feels like his son fights with him just to fight. Seth is a faithful man, and so he took his concerns to God, praying that there would be less hostility between him and his son, praying that they might actually get along and enjoy being together.

“This has been going on for three years,” Seth told me, “and nothing has changed.” “Maybe God is powerless to help in this situation because my son doesn’t believe in God,” he said. “I don’t know what to think anymore.”

Sara’s anger and Seth’s disillusionment are feelings I think most of us can relate to in some way. Anyone who has ever had a problem that persists, whether it be health concerns, money issues, relationship difficulties, destructive habits or addictions usually wrestles with their faith in God at some point. We ask questions like: Does God even care? Does prayer really work? We might even start to doubt ourselves, wondering if we are asking for the wrong things and that’s why our prayers are going unanswered. (Isn’t there a scripture that says your prayers aren’t answered because you ask wrongly?)
For many of us, having faith in God means putting our trust and hope in a divine being outside of ourselves. This means that we put ourselves in a powerless situation waiting for God, who is out there, external to us, to enter into our lives and make something happen. It’s no wonder that so many people end up feeling bitter towards God and helpless. In trying to be faithful, we give our power away.

Tonight, we celebrate and rejoice in the incarnation, that God came to earth to be with us in the person of Jesus Christ. But we aren’t just remembering a historical event that took place 2000 years ago halfway around the world. We are celebrating and rejoicing because Jesus is being born again tonight in the hearts of all who believe. On this most sacred of evenings, consider that God has come to dwell in you. Jesus was a human being with the divine inside of him. The miracle of Christmas is that we are human beings with the divine inside of us also.

To have faith in God is to let the Christ child grow inside of you so that as you think, speak and act, it is Christ thinking, speaking and acting in you. Jesus remains present in the world through each of us. As Paul proclaims in Galatians, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

Think what this means then. The power of God is no longer something completely external to yourself, something you are waiting for, something you have no control over. The power of God dwells in you. To believe in God is to believe in yourself. To have faith in God is to have faith in yourself. To have confidence in God is to have confidence in yourself. And to trust in God is to trust in yourself because you and God are one, like Jesus and the Father are one.

Imagine how this understanding will change your relationship with God, the way you feel about yourself and the way you live your life. Instead of being angry and feeling helpless when prayers aren’t answered, instead of crying to the heavens who don’t respond or abandoning faith all together, you can now turn inward and find the strength, the wisdom and the love to be the change that you want. When you have confidence in yourself, you realize that you are capable of accomplishing great things. (And maybe not even such great things, but more than you ever did before.) Fear and doubt and worry no longer rule your life. You are empowered instead of being a victim. You can take chances. You realize that you can be transformed and you help to transform others. You realize that you have the gifts to inspire love in the hearts of others, beauty in the eyes of others and change in the world.

As Christ’s Spirit is born in your heart and as it grows, you become the one who can answer your prayers. This is the same thing as God answering your prayers. God is in you, and he wants you to know it.

The bad habit or addiction you can’t break, with God in you, you will find the power to choose differently, to choose health over destruction. The worry over money that keeps you up at night and on edge during the day, with God in you, you will have a new perspective from which to approach the world. That cycle of blame and regret you have with your loved one, with God in you, you will break that cycle by becoming someone who responds rather than reacts and someone who listens before you speak.

Jesus said, “Abide in me as I abide in you. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15: 4, 5). But when we abide in him and he abides in us, we can do anything.

To have faith in God is to have confidence and trust in yourself.

My friend, Sara, she will have a loving relationship and a family of her own, but she needs to take ownership of her life and her decisions first. She needs to learn how to love herself and take care of herself instead of wanting someone else to do it for her. My colleague, Seth, he can stop arguing with his son as soon as he chooses to. But he has to stop reacting to his son’s negativity. He needs to look at the power struggle that is going on between them and acknowledge his son for the person he is without trying to change him.

In saying all of this, I am not trying to take away God’s omnipotence, or the fact that God is wholly other, beyond any single one of us, beyond all of us put together. I just want to emphasize what I don’t believe was ever emphasized to me. I was taught my salvation had to come from a source external to myself. (That put me in a needy position). I thought that God was outside of me, but now I know that God is in me and God is in you. (That empowers us as children of light.)

Inside a pregnant woman’s stomach is a baby, a living human being, a miracle. My friend, Lara, is 8 months pregnant, and I saw her on Sunday. She said that she and her husband, Justin, just keep looking at her stomach and touching her stomach, and they are in awe and wonder. There’s a miracle inside of her. and its ready to be born.

There is a miracle inside of each of us, many miracles in fact, and they want to be born. So if no one ever told you this before, the miracle tonight, the night of Christ’s birth, is you.

Our next hymn is “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and verse four says, “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.”

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Celebrating Together

(Read Luke 1:39-45)

In last year’s December 1st issue of the New York magazine, the feature article was about loneliness. Perhaps the publishers of the magazine chose this topic because Christmas is not only considered the merriest time of the year, but also for many people, the loneliest. For those who live far away from the ones they love, for those who are mourning the death of a loved one, for those who are having trouble in their relationships or don’t have close relationships, Christmas can be a tremendously sad and lonesome time of the year.

The other night as I was listening to Christmas music, I paid close attention to the words of “Blue Christmas.” They go: I’ll have a blue Christmas without you, I’ll be so blue just thinking about you, decorations of red on a green Christmas tree won’t mean a thing if your not here with me.” Sadly, this sentiment conveys the painful reality of so many people during this supposedly festive season.

A dear friend called me the other night confirming the sorrow-filled condition of many. She lives away from her family in a small town with very few close friends and only a handful of meaningful acquaintances. While at a Christmas party last weekend, she was overcome by feelings of loneliness. Sure the party was filled with people, and she was never without someone to talk to, but the conversations were mostly devoid of substance, and the people, although physically close, seemed very far away.

Perhaps you have had a similar experience during the Christmas season or at some other time of the year. You’re in a room filled with people, and yet for some reason, you feel more alone than ever. Or you’re in a room with someone you love, but because he/she isnt’ being there for you or you are not seeing eye to eye, the lonliness you feel is worse than if you were just by yourself. Unfortunately, feelings of isolation, sadness and loneliness create a tragic aspect to Christmas.

The article in New York magazine explored the myths and reasons for loneliness. Many believe that people in cities are the most lonely because the people who live in cities tend to be transplants, living away from their hometowns, family and friends, and also because people living in cities are more likely to be single than married.

For example, in Manhattan, one in every two apartments is a single occupancy apartment. That’s 50%. 50% of the apartments in Manhattan house only one person. While I don’t know the percentage of people in this area who live alone, you can bet that the number is significantly lower. One would think then that Manhattan is one of the loneliest places to live, but it isn’t. According to the research of social scientists, Manhattan is actually one of the least lonely places to live.

The article offers several explanations for why this is so. One explanation is that city dwellers have to work collaboratively with so many people, and they have to trust so many people on a moment by moment basis just to survive. Think of trying to cross the street in NYC. You have to work with and trust literally hundreds of people every time you cross a street in NYC so that you don’t get run over. The significance of such a simple thing like relying on others to cross the street safely is actually quite large. Researchers have found that being a part of a social network, a network of people that depends on each other to get by, contributes to a person feeling less lonely. Instead of feeling isolated and alone, those in cities actually feel like they are a part of a group, like they are a part of something bigger than themselves, like they belong.

While a close and healthy marriage is the best way to avoid being lonely, it certainly is not the only way. Harvard epidemiologist Lisa Berkman says, “Friends substitute perfectly well for family” in combating loneliness. And here’s the statement in the article that I found most interesting. “There’s evidence to suggest that the religious people who live the longest are the ones who attend services most frequently rather than feel their beliefs most deeply.” That means that its being together, that its living in community that makes us happy and extends our lifespan. (Senior, Jennifer. New York. Dec. 1, 2008. pg. 28). We are in the midst of blessing, here, together.

In Luke chapter 1, the angel Gabriel is sent by God to tell Mary that she has been chosen to be the earthly mother of the Son of the Most High, whom she is to name Jesus. And do you know what she does immediately after she is told? She goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth and share with her the very important news she has just been given. She goes to be with and talk to someone she loves, and she stays there for three months.

Let me ask you this: Think of all the people you have bought or are going to buy presents for this Christmas. In the busyness of this month, have you spent any quality time with them? Have you talked to them on the phone or in person about what is really going on in their lives right now? Have you made time to watch a movie together or enjoy a nice dinner? More important than giving presents, have you given them love and connected with their spirit?

The wise and compassionate teacher, poet and Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, says, “To love means being there for your beloved, recognizing his/her presence as important. To be there, to be fully present, to appreciate the preciousness of your beloved, this is the practice of true love” (Thich Nhat Hanh. The Art of Power. New York: Harper One, 2007. Pg. 115).

He says that there are three declarations of love that we can make to those for whom we care. The first is, “Darling, you know, I am really here for you” (pg. 117). It’s that simple. When you don’t give your attention to a person, it’s impossible for that person to feel loved by you. Whereas just telling someone you are there for them will make them feel special, loved and cared for.

The second declaration of love is, “Darling, I know you are there and it makes me happy” (pg. 119). This is to recognize, to acknowledge the presence of the one you love. And the people that you love most deserve to be recognized and acknowledged. They should know that just them being alive fills your heart with happiness.

The third declaration of love is, “Darling, I know that you suffer. That’s why I am here for you” (pg. 120). You don’t have to fix their suffering. You just have to be there for your loved ones in their suffering. That makes all the difference in the world right? When someone is there for you in your sadness, worry and pain? “Darling, I know you suffer. I am here for you.”

Thay also teaches that you cannot truly be there for your beloved though until you have learned to be there for yourself. So I ask you: Are you present to yourself? Do you take care of yourself? Do you understand, accept and love yourself? Because if you don’t, it will be quite impossible to understand, accept and love another person. The first step of being able to love is loving yourself, and the second step is extending that love to others.

Elizabeth strikes me as someone who loves herself, and I think that because of how present she is and how loving she is towards Mary. Elizabeth is so excited when Mary comes to visit her. She exclaims, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy” (Luke 1:42-44). Elizabeth is truly acknowledging Mary and rejoicing with her.

My dear friends, we are blessed to have each other, to be the body of Christ together. And beyond that, each of us is blessed with family and friends whom we love. This holiday season, let us celebrate together with the ones that we love. And may each person know that you are truly there for them, that you are happy because of them, and that you will stay with them in suffering, as well as in celebration.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Life if Beautiful: A Spiritual Perspective on Thanksgiving

(Read Luke 17:11-19 and Philippians 4:4-9)

Life is Beautiful. This is the name of an Italian film which was released in America in 1998 and won the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film, as well as Best Actor.

Life is Beautiful begins as a whimsical, slapstick, romantic comedy. Guido, an Italian Jew, is a happy guy, wearing a big grin on his face, playing silly jokes on people, and trying to win the love of a woman named, Dora. Robert Benigni, who plays Guido in the film and who won the Best Actor Academy Award, sets the tone for this movie with his jovial, fun-loving, and kind –hearted personality.

But somewhere along the line, after Guido has won Dora’s heart, after they have had a son named, Giosue (Joshua), the circumstances of the whole family’s life turn from good to bad. You see, Life is Beautiful is set in Italy during World War II. And since Guido and Giosue are Jewish, they are arrested and taken to a concentration camp. Dora, though not Jewish, insists on going with her family when they are taken captive.

You would think that the tone of the film would change dramatically at this point, and I suppose a sort of melancholy or sadness does arise. But Guido remains the same loving, laughing, spirited guy. The title of the film, Life is Beautiful, becomes ironic as Guido tries to protect his son from the ugly realities of life in a concentration camp.

What Guido does, you see, is keep Giosue with him at the concentration camp, hiding him from the Nazi guards and sneaking him food. Guido convinces Giosue that the camp is just a game, in which the first person to get 1,000 points wins a tank. He tells Giosue that if he cries, complains that he wants his mother or complains that he is hungry, he will lose points, while quiet boys who hide from the camp guards continue to earn points. Guido convinces Giosue that the camp guards are mean because they want the tank for themselves and that all the other children are hiding in order to win the game. Despite being surrounded by rampant death and sickness, Giosue does not question the fictional reality his father constructs because of Guido’s convincing performance and the boy’s own innocence (partially quoted from wikipedia entry).

Guido maintains this story right until the end, when—in the chaos caused by the American advance–he tells Giosue to stay in a sweatbox until everybody has left, this being the final test before they will win the tank. After trying to find Dora, Guido is caught, taken away and shot by a Nazi guard, but not before making his son laugh one last time by imitating the Nazi guard as if the two of them are marching around the camp together. Giosue manages to survive and thinks he has won the game when an American tank arrives to liberate the camp. He is reunited with his mother, not knowing that his father has died. Years later, Giosue realizes the sacrifice his father made for him and how he kept him alive and happy even in the worst situation imaginable. (wikipedia entry).

This movie offers a perspective on life that many people would consider inconceivable: that life is beautiful even amidst tragedy.

When you think about it, perspective makes all the difference in life. Yes, life is filled with sin and sickness and suffering, with pain and cruelty, but it is still beautiful. Life is still filled with love. There are always people to care for and be with. There are always flowers to smell and songs to sing. There is always air to breathe, a heart with which to feel, and a spirit that wants to live and soar.

In the Gospel of Luke, nine lepers took what God had to give, and they literally ran away with it. By healing them, Jesus reintegrates these lepers into a society which had thrown them out, giving them a new lease on life. They run to the priests, as Jesus instructed, to receive their welcome back into society, but they do not come back to give thanks for what God has done.

“Where are they?” Jesus said. “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God?”

The Samaritan leper who returns to thank Jesus and praise God, he is the only one with an attitude of gratitude, the only one with the right perspective. He has the understanding necessary to truly appreciate life. All ten of the lepers were cured of their disease, but only the one who returns is truly made well. Only he is able to rejoice completely, in body, mind and spirit, with all that he is.

My friends, we are designed, we are created to rejoice and appreciate life. Life is beautiful. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Phillipians 4:4).

Philipians 4 says, “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

The holiday of Thanksgiving is upon us, and it is such an important spiritual holiday because it is one way of resisting all the worry and fear that we live with on a regular basis. For one day, we focus on the positive and not the negative. We focus on the blessing and the abundance. We celebrate what we have, instead of striving for something more. We allow ourselves the luxury of being content. For one day, we focus on all that is good in our lives, how life is beautiful, and let the troubles we normally give so much thought to fade into the background.

Thanksgiving is more than a day of the year though; thanksgiving is a perspective on life. Thanksgiving is an attitude. It’s a way of living; it is a way of looking at life and seeing that God has blessed us. To put those blessings at the forefront of our minds instead of taking them for granted is the point of giving thanks.

An attitude of gratitude or an attitude of thanksgiving keeps our eyes open to God’s goodness and presence in the world.

Tonight I encourage you to accept Paul’s challenging invitation in Philippians 4:8, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

Don’t dwell on what is wrong in your life or with another person, but on what is right in your life and admirable in another person. Don’t fantasize about a life that you don’t have, but embrace what you do have. Don’t try to change what another person is feeling, but honor who they are and where they are at.

Most of all, don’t look at life and concentrate on the suffering. Look at life and see that life is beautiful, that heaven is all around.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What's Your Salvation Story?

(Read Mark 2:13-17, Matthew 11:1-6 and Isaiah 61:1-4)

If Jesus were still alive, on any given night, where do you think he would be hanging out? At Cozimos on Route 9, where you can barely find a parking spot, eating wood-oven pizzas? At the Danbury Plaza ballroom, where Grace James, a female, Pentecostal minister, who looks like Dolly Parton but with black hair and dressed all in black, is shooting the Holy Spirit into people, healing in Christ’s name? Or in the living room of some ordinary family, where television and alcohol are the primary sources of entertainment?

The truth is, Jesus is in all of those places. Wherever people are sick and suffering, wherever people are sinning, wherever people are searching for healing, that’s where Jesus is.

The Pharisees were surprised to find Jesus at Levi’s (Matthew’s) house. Surprised because it seemed like he was keeping unworthy company. They asked his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matthew 11:16).

Jesus overhears the question and responds by saying, this is where I need to be. Or in his exact words: "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners." (Matthew 11:17).

And there we have it. Jesus Christ, who is the Living Lord, dwelling among us, is present amongst those who are in need. He doesn’t play it safe, hiding from the problems of life. He enters right in, penetrating into the heart of all that matters, offering comfort, healing and redemption.

One of my concerns with Christian language and theology is its emphasis on sin as the umbrella description of the human problem. I have no problem admitting that I am a sinner in need of forgiveness, but that’s not my only problem, that’s not your only problem.

Marcus Borg, an excellent contemporary Professor of Religon and Culture at Oregon State University, in his book, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, writes: “[Our] problem is not simply that we have been bad and have rebelled against God [aka. sinned], but that we are blind, estranged, lost, in exile, self-centered, wounded, sick, paralyzed, in bondage, grasping, and so forth” (pg. 169-70).

Sin is a part of what you and I struggle with on a daily basis, but it’s not the one-size-fits all designator of our human condition. We also struggle with being confused and not knowing what to do. We also struggle with trying to love people who don’t love us back in the way we need them to. We also struggle with fear so deeply entrenched in our hearts that our entire perception of reality is distorted in some way, making us timid and defensive instead of confident and trusting.

Borg writes, “When sin becomes the one-size-fits-all designator of the human condition, then forgiveness becomes the one-size-fits-all remedy. And this is [a] problem. [Because] If the issue is blindness, what we need is not forgiveness, but sight. If the issue is bondage, what we need is not forgiveness, but liberation.” “If we are in exile, we need to return; if we have closed hearts, we need to have our hearts opened; if we hunger and thirst, we need food and drink; if we are lost, we need a way, we need to be found” (pg. 168).

I chose today’s Scriptures so you would see very clearly who Jesus of Nazareth is, what he did in his earthly ministry, and what he can or is doing in our lives. Isaiah, a great prophet of Israel, testified that one anointed by God would come out of the house of David to “bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1).

John the Baptist, who was called to prepare the way for the anointed one (Messiah) that Isaiah prophesized about, baptized Jesus in the River Jordan. And “When John heard in prison what [Jesus] was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matthew 11:2-5).

Jesus was, and is, a healer and redeemer. He came, and continues to come, to mend our brokenness.

I want to show you a video that witnesses to the power God has in people’s lives. The Bible is filled with stories of a God who saves, and this video is filled with the stories of people like you and me, who have unique journeys of how they went from being sick to healthy, of how they went from being lost to found. As you watch the video, think of how Jesus might enter in, or has entered in, to your life. How would you describe your salvation story?

Watch Video. For those of you who can’t, here is a description: One person after another came forward on a stage carrying their own posterboard, with a word written on the front and a different word on the back. They would stand up and show the first word, and then slowly but surely, flip the board over to show the second. And in just those two words, or maybe two short phrases, these people, these children of God, were witnessing to their unique faith journeys, and the grace, love and mercy that they have known in God.

The poster board would say on one side: hurting; on the other: healed.
On one side: Addicted; on the other side: set free
On one side: Angry; on the other: peaceful.

The people kept coming with their testimonies.

Bitter turned to Gentle.
Despairing. Grateful.
Slave. Servant.
Dead. Alive.
Tortured. Loved.
Desperate. Saved.
Sinner. Forgiven.
Broken. Whole.

Isn’t that an amazing testimony? Do you see what God has done for these people? Every single one of us has or can have a testimony like that. What Jesus did for the sinners and tax collectors 2000 years ago, what God did for those people in the video, the Spirit is doing for us today.

We all have a story, and our happy ending, our salvation, begins by inviting God into our lives to help us. Surrender. Be lead. It’s not easy because it requires you to be vulnerable, to open yourself up.

When God heals us, it often makes us uncomfortable because we are being challenged to be different than we have been before. That’s always a foreign, awkward feeling. It will be uncomfortable and challenging when God puts in your life what you so deeply need.

Albert Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” We have to be willing to think, act and speak different than we always have.

Don’t be insane. Be faithful. This morning I invite you to surrender to God and let real healing and transformation into your lives. Go to that new place and let Christ come with you.

Sunday, November 8, 2009


(Read Ruth 1:1-18)

When Elimelech and his sons die, Naomi is left with practically nothing. Her husband and her sons were her security, her protection, her fortune. I say practically nothing because she was left with two daughter-in-laws. But really, that’s just added pressure. Now, there are three women who are lacking security, protection and fortune. That’s how it was in those days.

Naomi decides to head back to Judah, where she is from, but she encourages her daughter-in-laws, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house…The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband” (Ruth 1:8-9). Naomi is telling them to return home and find new husbands to take care of them. Orpah wants this for herself, and she returns to her mother’s house in Moab. Ruth, on the other hand, chooses to remain with Naomi. She puts Naomi’s well-being before her own. Or maybe Ruth believes that her well-being is intertwined with Naomi’s well-being.

For the moment anyway, the truth is, Naomi is not doing well at all. She could use Ruth’s support. Naomi feels abandoned by her husband, her sons and God. “It has been far more bitter for me than for you,” she says, “because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.”

I have great compassion for Naomi. The word "compassion" means to suffer with. Think of her heart-break. She is a widow. She has lost not one, but two children. She is living in a foreign land.

As I was thinking about Naomi’s suffering and trying to enter into her story, I couldn’t help but think of so many others who are suffering right now. The families of the 13 victims who were killed at Fort Hood. My friend’s mother who has lung cancer, and to make matters worse, fell and fractured her hip a few days ago. Now, she has to have surgery. All the adults, and especially the children, who have swine flu and are in the hospital.

People are sick, not just in body, but also in mind and heart and spirit. You have to be sick somehow to go on a shooting spree and hurt so many people.

Just think about our church family, and how many people need prayer, and for all the different reasons. The world needs a lot of love and healing right now. What can we do? How can we love and heal each other?

I think Ruth shows us a way that we can make a difference in each other’s lives. Those of us who are healthy and well need to stick by those of us who are hurting and sick. May a renewed sense of loyalty rise up among God's people.

Lately, I have been talking a lot about your future, saying things like: God has a plan for you, a vision for your life. Continually you are being encouraged, invited to join together with God in the process of your own healing and transformation so that you will mature spiritually and spread the love and light of Christ in this world.

Today, in light of Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi, I would like to suggest that the unfolding of your future is intertwined with the unfolding of someone else’s future. It could be a friend or a total stranger. Most likely, it’s a member of your family. Whomever it is, consider that what your life might be about right now is helping someone else get through their life.

Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends” (John 15:13). To lay down one’s life for another could be referring to a soldier in the war or a martyr in the faith. Or it could be referring to you putting yourself second for someone that you love. It could mean scrapping your individual agenda and sticking with someone who needs someone to stick with them. That someone could be you. Greater love has no one than this, than to set aside your own life for your friend’s life.

It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s certainly not always fun for you, but it could mean all the difference in the world to someone who is suffering. And that is noble and a reason to live.

I know a woman named Beth with a great personality, filled with vim and vigor, filled with Spirit. She worked very hard in her life to become a principal at a school. Many years ago she was diagnosed with MS. She remained active and worked for a couple of years, but now she is to the point that she can’t leave the house very often and the wheel chair almost never. She struggles with a sense of purpose and feels isolated from the world.

But she’s got two things going for her that make life better, that make life worth living. A Yorkshire terrier named Tabitha with golden ears and a black button nose who doesn’t leave her side, and a husband named Peter who has become her companion and friend. As Beth tells the story, Peter wasn’t always her companion and friend. Earlier in their marriage, work, fishing and baseball were his priorities. But since Beth’s illness has progressed, Peter has taken an increasing interest in her as a person and in their relationship. They love to play Risk together, of all games. They rented and watched every movie that has won the Academy Award for Best Picture starting with the first, Wings, in 1927 all the way to Slumdog Millionaire in 2008.

Peter gets weary sometimes. He wishes they could travel more. He worries about Beth falling when she transfers. But he also knows that he’s not the one living with MS. He’s not the one who can’t walk anymore and whose mind gets fuzzy from the medications. In fact, Peter took up hiking as a way to thank God that his legs still work.

I respect Peter. I am proud of what he is doing with and for his wife. Not all husbands would. Not all wives or sons or daughters would.

In the Bible story we heard today, I respect Ruth as well. Even with uncertainty before her, even with a long life yet ahead of her, Ruth sticks with Naomi who is in a really difficult situation. She is loyal, faithful, steadfast. When Naomi tells Ruth to go her own way, Ruth says, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die-there will I be buried” (Ruth 1:16-17).

What powerful words. What devotion.

I have never been in a dire situation like Beth’s or Naomi’s, but I have been through some rough times, and I know what it’s like to have people be there for me. It’s the most loving, comforting, reassuring feeling in the world. And I know that if I lost it all, my health, my direction, my financial security, my employment—there are people who would be there for me no matter what, who would pick me up if I fall, feed me if I’m hungry, house me if I’m homeless, cheer me on if I’m depressed.

I am incredibly grateful for those people in my life.

I pray that you have such people in your life.

And on top of that, I pray that we can be that person for someone else. That we can be the loyal ones, that we can be the ones to sacrifice our life for a period of time in order to make someone else’s life better.

When I was looking up the definition of the term loyal, the word faithful kept coming up. And so the last thing I want to say is that, no matter what side we are on, whether we need help or if we are giving help, we all can rely and get strength from a faithful God.

The testimony to God that is the Hebrew Scriptures uses the words “steadfast love” and “faithfulness” in reference to God upwards of 150 times. Whatever we go through, we know that God is on our side, bearing our pain with us, picking us up when we fall, carrying us when we cannot walk.

May we all rely upon the One who is eternally loyal, eternally faithful to us.
And may we be a reflection of the faithful One, laying down our lives for one another
in this world.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Born of water and Spirit

(Read John 3:1-17 and Romans 8:12-17)

None of us exists in isolation. We live in community. We all affect each others lives. You are who you are because of who you relate to and how you relate to them. I am who I am because of who I relate to and how I relate to them.

Relationships have the potential to heal and bring joy to our lives. They also have the potential to harm and bring suffering to our lives.

I am always saddened when I hear stories and statistics of domestic abuse and child abuse. The family is supposed to be the safest place in a society, the place where one is loved and nurtured, but according to the Department of Justice, over 2 million men and women are assaulted by their intimate partner every year. Twenty percent of nonfatal, violent crime perpetrated against women happens in the home (, and at least half of those women have children under the age of 12 in their home. “A recent study of low-income pre-school children in Michigan found that nearly half (46.7 percent) of the children in the study had been exposed to at least one incident of mild or severe violence in the family. Children who had been exposed to violence suffered symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as bed-wetting or nightmares, and were at greater risk than their peers of having allergies, asthma, gastrointestinal problems, headaches and flu” (Sandra Graham-Bermann & Julie Seng, Violence Exposure and Traumatic Stress Symptoms as Additional Predictors of Health Problems in High-Risk Children, 146 J. of Pediatrics 309 (2005)

When it comes to relationships, abuse is at the furthest end of the spectrum. The way God does not want it to be. It’s what we want to eradicate. As we move along the continuum, we hope that relationships become more healthy and loving to the point that it is in our relationships with each other that we find our fullest and highest expression of ourselves. It is when “we” are together that you not only feel safe as a person, but that you are built up as a person. It is in our life together that you find the courage and commitment to live into your calling as a child of God.

Human beings are created in the imago dei, which is latin for “the image of God.” This means that we are to reflect who God is in our lives. Christians often discuss this in terms of being like Jesus, but today, I would like us to think about how being created in the image of the triune God impacts our life. While the word “Trinity” never appears in the Bible, it is one of the unique Christian claims about who God is in God’s own being. The word “Trinity” may not appear in the Bible, but the concept of God existing as a Creator, a Father, a Messiah, a Son, a Spirit, the Breath of Life does occur over and over again throughout the Old and New Testaments. It is Christianity’s unique claim that we believe in one God existing in three persons, often referred to as Father, Son and Holy Spirit or, in more inclusive language, the Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. The readings today from John 3 and Romans 8 are two passages that mention all three persons of the Trinity within just a few verses.

What Scripture and Christian theology tell us about God is that God is relational within God’s own being. The Creator of heaven and earth, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit have a shared, communal life together in which they all play a distinct role. The Trinity exemplifies two ways that we can reflect the imago dei, and the point of this is to move our relationships away from the end of the spectrum that is harmful to the other end, in which our relationships are edifying. First, we are called to exist in relationships of mutual, self-giving love, and second, at the same time, each of us is called to become a distinct, unique person, to live into God’s vision of who you, and you alone, are created to be.

Let me explain this a little more fully:

The persons of the Trinity have a relationship that is one of mutual self-giving on our behalf. The Father/Creator poured out his love to create the universe and all that dwells within it. The Son/Jesus gave his life to save humanity of our sin and put us in right relationship with God. And the Holy Spirit/Spirit of Life gives us its power, guidance and comfort so that we might be transformed and become the children of God we are created to be. In this way, the individual persons of the Trinity work together, giving freely of themselves for the creation and redemption of the world.

Even as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are bound together in relationship, inter-connected and inter-dependent on each other, giving and taking from each other, each person of the Trinity remains distinct. No matter what they give or how closely they work together, they never morph one into the other. No matter how much love the Father pours out, he remains the Father. Even though Jesus sacrificed his life, he remains Jesus of Nazareth. And no matter how much power the Spirit sends out, it remains the Holy Spirit.

Now, how can we best reflect these two aspects of the Triune God?

1. We are to exist in relationships of mutual self-giving, and in order for these relationships to be healthy, the mutual self-giving needs to be balanced.
Relationships in which I try for you, and you try equally for me. I offer to you, and you offer equally to me.

This means that when you are in a relationship, if you give and give, but receive much less than you give, then that relationship is out of balance and does not adequately reflect who God is calling us to be in our shared life together. The same is true if you are receiving and receiving, but not giving back in mutual support.

Think of the most important relationships in your life or the relationships that are affecting you most. Are they balanced? And if not, try to figure out what the problem is. Does one person have too much power? Is one person overly needy? Etc. We have to be careful with each other in all of our give and take so that we don’t get out of balance. And if and when we do find ourselves in a particular relationship that is out of balance, it is necessary for us to work towards restructuring that relationship if we ever want it to be a holy, life-enhancing relationship.

2. The second way we reflect the Triune God is to remain a distinct self, a strong presence while in relationship and while giving.

Jesus didn’t lose who he was because he gave himself over to the Father’s will. In fact, Jesus became Jesus because of his sacrifice. The Spirit did not compromise itself as it came down at Pentecost to remind us of Jesus and teach us the truth. In fact, the Spirit showed us exactly who it is and what it does when it came down at Pentecost. The Father did not cease to be the almighty, unnameable God when he gave his essence of love to create the world. In fact, God proved to us exactly who God is at creation.

This means that as “I” exist in relation to “you,” as I love you, as I serve you, as I serve with you, as we walk together on this journey, I will mature and develop as a person, as a spiritual being, as a unique child of God, and so will you. Our relationships shouldn’t make us less like God’s design, but help us to live more fully into who God is creating you to be.

This reminds me of Paul Simon’s song, Slip Slidin’ Away, which says:

I know a man/He came from my hometown/He wore his passion for his woman like a thorny crown/He said, “Dolores, I live in fear/My love for you is so overpowering that I’m afraid I will disappear.”

I know a woman/Became a wife/These are the very words she uses to describe her life.
She said, “A good day aint got no rain.”/She said, “A bad days when I lie in bed and think of things that might have been.”

In each of these instances, the man and the woman are expressing that they have somehow lost themselves or fear losing themselves because of the relationship they are in.

Even though a man and woman become one flesh in marriage, they are each to retain a strong sense of self. The one flesh that they become is a new person comprised of the two individual selves. Couples fall into dangerous territory when one or both lose/compromise their own identity in their coupledom. Examples: maybe we give up our hobbies or even our dreams, maybe we let our values slip or let our priorities get rearranged.

We can diminish or compromise ourselves in many other types of relationships as well.

Another type of relationship where people tend to get lost is that of employer/employee. I have a friend who, if her boss is stressed, she is stressed. If her boss has a good day, she has a good day. I know it’s natural to be affected by others, but this friend started making decisions she wouldn’t normally make, and even stopped taking care of her own needs at one point to please or appease her boss. This is not a healthy relationship. It showed a lack of boundaries. A lack of a strong sense of self. We don’t need to blend into each other just because we work together. A distinct person remains distinct even as we relate and give to each other.

Another relationship in which one or the other or both can lose their identity in their life together is that of parent and child. We all know the dangers of parents who try to live through their children. And a child who never asserts him or herself beyond the parents is one who never fully develops. I read a promising story a few months ago in People Magazine of all things. The actress Melissa Joan Hart (best known for her role as Sabrina the Witch) was on the cover looking great in a bikini, and the headline was, “How I lost 45 pounds.” I just scanned the article at the newsstand, but essentially, Melissa said that after she had her children, she gained a lot of weight. In her story, she said, just because I am a mother to my children doesn’t mean I have to be unhealthy and overweight. She doesn’t have to give up the lean, active woman she has always been just because she had children.

In John 3, Jesus says that in order to walk in the kingdom of God, in order to really live this life to the fullest as God intends, we must be born from above or we must be born anew. We are physical beings so we had a physical birth, but we are also spiritual beings, and so we must have a spiritual birth. Different religious traditions have different rituals or rights of passage signifying spiritual birth. For the Christian, we are born of water and Spirit. To be born of water is to be baptized, to be claimed as a child of God and invited into the family of God, and to be born of Spirit is receive the Spirit of God and let it live through you, guiding you, inspiring you, transforming you and the world you live in.

This morning, I invite you to remember your baptism and receive the Holy Spirit once again. Let us all be spiritually reborn together. Rebirth has the potential to invigorate our lives, our relationships, our communities, our world. As we join together in the liturgy and in Communion, remember that we are created in the image of the Triune God, which means that we are created with and for each other. May all of our relationships be a blessing. May they bring us a sense of belonging and comfort. May they build us up in love and inspire us to live out our divine destiny as children of God.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Imperfect and Embraced

(Read Romans 7:14-25 and John 8:2-11)

There are parts of the Bible I have a hard time understanding and I cannot relate to, like the book of Numbers and parts of Revelation, for example. But one passage I understand and relate to very well, and I expect you might also, is Paul’s words from Romans 7. Paul says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).

You know what he’s talking about, right? Each day or maybe every other day, we find ourselves in conflict, wanting to behave in one way, but instead behaving in another. We want to get up early, perhaps to workout or have devotional time, but we end up hitting the snooze until the last possible second. We want to take care of important matters, like calling friends, putting together the photos from last year’s vacation or cleaning the house or doing the yard work, but instead, we end up watching some pointless TV show or surfing the net, or whatever it is.

Sometimes, when we “do the very thing [we] hate,” our actions are even more detrimental. We want to serve God, but we feed our own selfish desires instead. We want to give love, but we end up hurting the people we love instead. We want to follow a straight and narrow path that leads to life, but we end up going down the dark road that takes us deeper into the heart of our own misery.

As Paul says, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it” (Romans 7: 18).

Being unable to do what we want to do is a part of being human. In a way, it sounds ridiculous. Why wouldn’t we be able to do what we want to do? Paul says that it is the sin that dwells within us that keeps us from doing the good we want. Without speaking any condemnation this morning, I simply want us to acknowledge that sin, inner conflict and making harmful, unhealthy, unskillful choices is a part of our human reality.

We love God, and we want to do what we believe is the healthy and right thing for us and others, but there is a war that rages within us. Sometimes, we choose the noble path. Othertimes, we are overcome, destructive, even possessed. We succumb to the very behaviors, addictions, actions, and interactions that cause harm.

Sometimes, we can see it coming a mile away, and we watch ourselves as we do the very thing we hate. Othertimes, we surprise even ourselves because we don’t have much awareness when it comes to our shadow side. We sort of close our eyes and act automatically because we don’t want to admit the darkness and pain that is within us. I don’t think we “do what we don’t want to do” because we are evil. I think we do it because we are hurting, and in our pain, we confusedly and mistakenly reach for things that cause us and others more pain.

Think about the woman who has been caught in adultery. She’s probably a good woman, but she is lonely and in need of love. I’m sure she would rather have a relationship with a man she could fall in love with and marry, but for some reason, that option doesn’t seem available to her. So she takes what she can get. And in settling for less than she deserves, she increases her own suffering and the suffering of others.

The woman caught in adultery was wrong to do what she did, and yet, she doesn’t deserve to be condemned or stoned.

You know what Jesus said to those who brought her before him. “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

And everyone disappeared.

Why? Because the scribes and Pharisees and everyone listening to Jesus suffer from the inner conflict and the harmful actions it leads to just like she did, just like we do.

Jesus says, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

Her reply, “No one, sir.”

And then these words, some of the greatest words in the whole Bible. “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

Jesus doesn’t condemn us for our sin. He embraces us. He accepts us. He loves us even when we are broken. We are imperfect and embraced by God all at the same time. And we need to follow God’s lead on this. If God loves us no matter what, than we must love ourselves no matter what. We should be honest with ourselves about who we are and what we do, and even if we wish we were making better choices, the best way to treat ourselves in all circumstances is with acceptance and love.

The main reason is because all people, no matter who they are or what they do, deserve to be loved unconditionally. End of story.

The other reason is that if we have any hope at all of changing, of transformation, we must begin from a loving place. If when we “do what we don’t want to do,” we condemn ourselves or beat ourselves up, all that does is push us into a shame spiral. We feel bad about how we act, and then we go and do something unhealthy to kill the pain of feeling bad. This is a trap.

Through compassion, acceptance and affirmation of the self, we receive the love and freedom we need to make change possible. When in our weakness, we continue to build ourselves up, we are strengthened within. We develop character and integrity.

And the truth of the matter is, we can do what we want to do, we can stop making poor, unhealthy, destructive choices in our lives, but we need that character and integrity to do it. It takes courage to face our demons. It takes strength to turn away from our vices and our anger and our sadness. It takes strength and understanding to get our needs met in ways that are healthy and righteous. Courage, strength and understanding develop in the soul that knows unconditional love and acceptance.

Paul says, “Wretched man that I am! [Which isn’t a very loving thing to say by the way…] Who will rescue me from this body of death?” And then immediately he says, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Because God has rescued us through the love of Jesus Christ. Not even the fear of death could make Jesus compromise his love for us and all living beings. And after Jesus died and God raised him from the dead, God declared that the law of sin and death was forever broken. That means we can say “no” to sin. We can say “no” to the path that leads to death. In Jesus Christ, we are set free, and we are given the power to choose what is good, what is healthy, what is wise and loving.

The Lord has been gracious and merciful to us our whole lives. God has forgiven the transgressions of our past and with steadfast love continues to urge us to reach our full potential as blessed children of God. So when you find yourself conflicted and acting in ways that diminish your existence as a unique, loving, Spirit-filled person, don’t waste time condemning yourself. When you see others going astray, don’t waste time condemning them either. Jesus isn’t. God isn’t.

But love yourself. Love that other person. And know that God is loving you as well. You are imperfect and embraced all at the same time. When you know this in your heart, healing and transformation will happen. And you will be free to live life as you choose.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Freedom to Follow

(Read Mark 10:17-31)

The nature of all people, animals, plants and minerals, the nature of all objects is impermanence. Nothing lasts forever. The grass withers; the flower fades. Cars rust; houses rot. Life for me and for you comes, and it goes.

Not only are living beings and objects impermanent, but so are feelings and thoughts. How you feel right now will not be how you feel at the end of this service. What you are thinking right now will not be what you are thinking tomorrow morning. Everything moves; everything changes in this life. Jobs change; goals change; relationships change. Impermanence is a fact of life. And if we know this, if we embrace this truth, we will relieve our own suffering and the suffering of others.

The rich man in today’s Scripture reading does not understand the law of impermanence, and thus he has allowed himself to become attached to his possessions. And in being attached to them, he cannot leave them.

The rich man goes to Jesus very excited, saying, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus tells him to follow the commandments, and the man proudly exclaims, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” And then, Jesus clues in on the man. Jesus takes a look at him and sees that this rich man really wants eternal life; he wants to have the life of the Eternal One as a part of his earthly life; he’s already walking the spiritual path and he wants to exist on a higher plane. Jesus feels love for him because this man is a kindred spirit, one who wants to walk with God.

Jesus says, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” But as we know, in hearing Jesus’ instruction, the man is shocked and greatly grieved for he has many possessions, and he walks away.

The rich man isn’t just grieved because he has many possessions, he’s grieved because he has put great value in his possessions. He has built his life around them. He thinks he needs them to be happy. If he sells them, he thinks he will lose his happiness.

There is nothing wrong with being rich or wealthy in and of itself. The problems arise when we become attached to our wealth, when we give our riches value that they do not deserve, when we let wealth control, guide and rule our lives, instead of God, which is what the rich man has done. He can’t follow Jesus; he can’t walk in the kingdom of God because his heart and time and energy are being put into acquiring, enjoying and preserving his wealth.

The kingdom of God is a past, present and future reality. It was established in the past. It exists in the present, and it comes to completion/fulfillment in the future, what we might call heaven.

To be in the kingdom of God on this earth is to live a life where God is the ruler. So in a way, we can step in and out of the kingdom of God depending on what we are letting rule our lives. If we live for God, then we are in it. If wealth and riches or anything else control us, then we are not walking in the kingdom.

This is a trap that we must be careful not to fall into. We all know that we must earn money and acquire some possessions in order to survive in this world, in order to create a safe and comfortable place for our families to live and grow. So we start out innocently enough, working diligently to get to that place we have conceived of in our minds, that level that we have marked as enough. But I think we all know that it’s easy to get caught up and not to be able to stop. To want a little bit more, a little bit nicer. To feel pressure to work a little bit harder, a little bit longer. But at what expense? Our souls become enslaved when they live for something other than their own expression.

If the reason we wake up in the morning and do what we do throughout the day is to acquire and maintain our wealth, we have a real problem, spiritually speaking. This is not the purpose of life. And the term "wealth" can have broad meaning – living for cash, stockmarket, houses, cars is one aspect. But also, living for power, for status, for presige is another form of how we feel wealthy. Even our family can be considered our assets. Jesus tells us to leave father and mother, children, sisters, brothers if we have to in order to follow him and walk in the kiingdom

What Jesus is trying to tell the rich man, whom he loves, is not to make the purpose of his life about acquiring, enjoying and maintaining things he values. Life is about more than that. Jesus tells him, use your life to follow me, which is to say: Use your life to seek the face of God. Use your life to grow in understanding and insight. Then, use what you learn to love others, to relieve their suffering. (Help families see through their quarrels. Help those who are afraid grow courage, etc). And teach others how to live in this way also. Teach others how to follow Christ, how to walk in the kingdom where God rules. So that what all of us are doing here is building up the kingdom of God. We can use our lives to decrease illusion, blindness, confusion, suffering, anger, fear. As these things decrease, the kingdom of God expands. It grows. We can use our lives to increase understanding, insight, compassion, happiness, peace, wellbeing. As these things increase, the kingdom of God expands. It grows.

What the rich man is lacking in putting his wealth above following the spiritual path is freedom. He is not free to live as the child of God he was put here to be. He is not free to live into God’s great vision for what his life is meant to be. His spirit is not free to learn and create and love.

But Jesus calls us all to such freedom. Leave what you have behind and follow me, he says. So I ask you: what are you living for? What gets you out of bed each day? Do not waste your energy on the acquisition and preservation of things which by their very nature will not last. Let go of whatever you have to so that you can follow the Spirit as it moves through your life, shaping your destiny. The kingdom is here and now. Enter in. Live in it. Help it to grow.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

What Does Your Soul Really Need?

(Read James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a)

When I was a kid, I loved fairytales. And now my neice, Soliel, loves fairytales. She is obsessed with “princesses.” There’s Cinderella and Bell and Jasmine and Snow White and Ariel and Aurora. They are all princesses to her. Even though Soliel likes me to tell her the stories, if I mess up or change some of the storyline, Soliel stops me, and she corrects me. “No, Mandy. First, the prince kisses Snow White, and then, she wakes up.”

Lately, I have been changing the storyline a lot. Why? Because I feel like I am indoctrinating my precious niece with the idea that the way to happiness in life is to fall in love with a prince, get the prince to fall in love with you, and get married. In all these stories, that’s how one lives happily ever after. As a woman who is 31 years old, single, without children, working in a profession once available only to men, and as one who knows countless women who believe that if they just get married, everything else will fall into place, I cannot in good conscience teach Soliel this fairytale.

Today, I’d like us to question what we are taught by fairytales, movies, and advertisers, and to get serious about seeking wisdom from God, the real teachings we ought to live by.

In today’s Scripture reading, the community that James is writing to is experiencing conflict; people are fighting, disputing. Commentaries say that there were various teachers within the community, and several of them were not wise teachers. It appears that some of the teachings were flawed, and some were downright incorrect, “false to the truth,” contrary to the teachings of Jesus. But since the teachers were filled with selfish ambition, they kept insisting on proclaiming their warped message. It was causing real disorder within the community. As the Message puts it, things were falling apart and people were at each others’ throats (James 3:16).

When you think about it, our community, our society is filled with unwise teachers and teachings as well. And this also creates problems for us. I think that advertising has one of the loudest voices in our society, teaching the masses when we don’t even realize it. And the crazy thing is: advertisers don’t care about us. They are trying to make money.

They make promises to us with their products, but these are promises that their products cannot ultimately fulfill. Just because you drink a certain kind of beer, does not mean you will be surrounded by a great group of friends, where everyone is filled with laughter. Makeup, hair dye and expensive lotion might enhance your appearance, but they can’t make you feel beautiful inside. Certain prescription drugs can be very beneficial to one’s health and wellbeing, but they can’t fix all your problems; they do not guarantee happiness. But advertiers falsely try to convince us that is the case.

James 4:3 says, “You ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly.” I think we ask wrongly in that we desire, we go after that which cannot fulfill our deepest needs. We settle for cheap thrills and quick fixes. Sometimes, we do this knowingly, but often, I think we are unaware. We don’t know what will truly satisfy our souls. And earthly “wisdom” (if it can even be called that), leads us astray.

On a surface level, you might desire a donut or a drink (pick your poison), but when you go deeper, when you wrestle with God dwelling inside of you, you might realize that what you are really hungry for or thirsty for is a closer connection with your family or friends or partner. You might pray for time and money to take a vacation, but when the still, small voice speaks to you, you might just discern the Holy Spirit telling you that what you really need is to live every day at a slower pace. You may ask God to change something about someone else, but maybe what you really need is for something within yourself to change.

Vincent Van Gogh said, “I wrestle with nature long enough for her to tell me her secret.”

I think that now is the time for us to wrestle with God long enough for God to tell us the secrets that we need to know. Since God dwells within us, we will find answers when we wrestle with ourselves. Let’s cut to the heart of the matter. Ask yourself: what does my soul really need? With all that you pursue or purchase or are attracted to, what’s underneath it? What do you really need in your life?

Cars and anti-wrinkle cream make promises to you that they can’t keep. But God keeps his promises. And God wants you to be fully satisfied in healthy ways.

What a little girl needs when she grows up is not a prince. She needs a family that loves her, a community that will support her, and strength within herself to walk unafraid through this world. God taught me that when I wrestled with him.

My friends, like there was no shortage of unwise teachers and false teachings in biblical times, there is no shortage of unwise teachers and false teachings in this day and age. It’s time to question many of the messages we have been sent.

What abounds even greater than the false teachings is the wisdom of God available to all of us. We are called to be the wise and to live wisely. It is important for you to know what you need and to seek it directly.

You will be wise if you wrestle with God, if you seek his face, if you seek his kingdom. And in being wise, you will be truly satisfied.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Just Thinking Aloud

I used to think that knowledge applied was wisdom. Now, my thought has progressed one step further. Wisdom applied is love.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Following in Jesus’ Footsteps

(Read Mark 8:27-38)

Jesus could have avoided the crucifixion. But in order to do that, he would have had to denounce who he was as a person. If he lied about what he knew to be true, if he denied the God that guided and loved him, if he chose to placate the civil and religious authorities, Jesus could have saved his life.

But in doing so, he would have lost it. He would have had to stop healing the sick and performing miracles. He would have had to stop contradicting Jewish law with the good news. In a sense, Jesus would not have been Jesus anymore. He would not have been the Son of God sent to redeem the world. If Jesus had chosen to save his own life, not even Peter would have recognized him as the Messiah.

Jesus is the Christ because of what he said and did, because he went about the towns and villages healing the people and preaching the good news. Jesus is the Christ because he lived into God’s vision for whom God had created him to be.

Peter knew that Jesus could have avoided the crucifixion. And from a human perspective, that was the way to go. Imagine what their conversation might have been like. First, Jesus said, “[I] must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days, rise again” (Mark 8:31).

From Peter’s perspective, this must have sounded like a horrible plan. So, Peter took Jesus aside and said something to the effect of: Jesus, don’t talk like that. You are so wise and loving. You are such a great teacher and a profound healer. One unlike Israel has ever known. Don’t worry about the elders, chief priests and scribes. We can avoid them or appease them as needed.

But Christ silences Peter. “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Satan: the tempter. Satan: the one who tries to thwart God. Peter is trying to tempt Jesus to compromise himself. Peter has his mind on human things. Like living a long life. Life being accepted and embraced by all people. These are the hopes of human beings, right? But they are not the true path of the Messiah.

God has greater concerns. The divine mind is not set on whether the religious leaders approve of Jesus. God’s not worried about Jesus shaking things up or if he lives into old age.

God’s greatest concerns are that all people come to love and follow their Creator, that we are reconciled to God and to one another, and that we live into the unique calling that God has for each of us. In order for that to happen, God knows that Jesus must show the rest of us the Way. And in order for Jesus to show us the Way, then he must be faithful to whom God has called him to be and what God has called him to do.

In the book, Cross Talk: Preaching Redemption Here and Now, Author Sally Brown suggests that God’s greatest concern, that God’s will, was not for Jesus to die on the cross per se, but that God’s greatest concern was for Jesus to be whom God created him to be. She writes:

What God willed…was not that Jesus should die, but that Jesus should pursue utter fidelity to the ways and will of God. It was the utter fidelity of Jesus’ life to whom and what God had called him to be and do that led to his death… [H]is refusal to be other than what he was, his refusal to disclaim his identity and role [lead to the crucifixion]. (Brown, Sally A. Cross Talk: Preaching Redemption Here and Now. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008. pg. 65-66.)

What Brown is implying then, is that Jesus could have opted out, been untrue to himself as God created him to be and been untrue to the God he loved in the process. In doing so, he could have saved his own life. But, in saving his life, Jesus would have lost it. In saving his life, he would have ceased to be himself, to be Jesus.

As it is written: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35). I briefly want to tell you what the original meaning of this text, Mark 8:35, was because it is one of the most complicated, and therefore, potentially misused texts in the New Testament.

The readers of Mark were a community familiar with persecution and martyrdom. Christians were being killed because of their beliefs in Jesus as the Messiah. “The primary meaning of whoever would save his life was exactly that, in a physical sense. The man who saved his life by renouncing his faith in Christ would lose it in the next world, when he came before the judgment seat of God. And he that lost his life through fidelity to Christ would save it in the world of eternity” (The Interpreter’s Bible. Matthew and Mark. New York: Abingdon Press, 1951. pg. 771). Thus, in its original context, this Scripture was an encouragement and an assurance to followers of Jesus Christ to keep the faith even under persecution.

This interpretation is not particularly relevant to 21st century Americans, although it is important to acknowledge that in other parts of the world, Christians are still being martyred for their faith. As we explore the spiritual truth offered in the words, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it,” we are not going to equate losing our life with actual physical death and saving our life as eternal life in heaven. Although, as I just explained, this is a traditional interpretation. We are going to focus on losing our life as a spiritual loss of life that happens to all of us in the course of living, and saving our life as a spiritual rebirth that happens when we become intentional in our relationship with God, and from that, we live into our divine calling as Jesus Christ did.

God has created each of us with a unique, divinely-infused spirit, a spirit we are to live into, a person we are to become. Like Jesus had a calling to live into, which required him to be true to God’s vision of himself, so do each of us have a calling to live into.

The world we live in however does not always encourage such faithful living. Our culture tells us that we should pursue flawless bodies and material gain. Our schools tell us that the most valuable students are the ones who receive straight A’s. Even our religion sometimes mistakenly gives the message that to be a “good Christian” we should come off as nice and polite, perfect and without any problems. As we try to live up to these expectations, we have to hide our true identities, our spiritual selves.

Our families try to love us well, but often as children we experience shame, causing us to feel vulnerable and exposed, and without the inner resources to handle such strong emotions, our ego defenses grow. As we move from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood, the pain and hardships of life build up our walls and our hearts begin to close and harden. As a way of coping with our own insecurities and fear, we feel we have to become people that we are not. We build up false selves in order to fit in and get by. We compromise ourselves as we assimilate into the expected norm. We try to save ourselves in the eyes of other people and protect ourselves against the world, but we end up losing ourselves according to God’s vision. We lose our lives spiritually speaking.

But this is not our destiny because our God is in the saving business.

To illustrate the point, let me tell you a humorous parable that comes from contemporary Wisdom teaching. (A version of this parable is found in Bourgeault, Cynthia. The Wisdom Way of Knowing. San Fransisco: Jossey-Bas, 2003. pg. 64-5):

Once upon a time, in a not-so-faraway land, there was a kingdom of acorns, nestled at the foot of a grand old oak tree. Since the citizens of this kingdom were high functioning, Westernized acorns, they went about their business with purposeful energy. They worked hard and were very accomplished. They had full social calendars, and they even took time to get their shells polished so that they would shine, at least on the outside.

One day in the midst of this kingdom there suddenly appeared a knotty little stranger, apparently dropped out of the blue by a passing bird. He was a capless and dirty acorn, making an immediate negative impression on his fellow acorns. He seemed content to lay beneath the oak tree, soaking up the sun, not rushing or trying to fit in. The others thought he was lazy and uncivilized. One day, while crouching beneath the oak tree, he stammered out a wild tale. Pointing upward at the great oak tree, he said, “We…are…that!”

The other acorns thought he was delusional and basically ignored him. But one of them continued to engage him in conversation: “So tell us, how would we become that tree?”

“Well,” said he, pointing downward, “it has something to do with going into the ground…and letting our shell crack open.”

“Insane,” one woman cried. “That’s horrible,” another yelled. The final words on the matter with these: “What a waste of a life! Because then, we wouldn’t be acorns anymore.”

Obviously, the acorns don’t get it. No, they wouldn’t be acorns anymore, but they would become oak trees. That is the acorn’s destiny. And if God has that kind of destiny planned for an acorn, imagine the kind of destiny God has planned for his beloved children, for us.

Our destiny is not to be people in hiding, but people who glow with an inner light. Our destiny is not to act from defensive positions and to squeeze bits of love from our hardened hearts. No. Our destiny is to be receptive and open, so that our lives can be filled with peace and beauty, love and joy. Our destiny is not to please people in power, but to live into the vision that God has for each of us.

Jesus showed us the Way.

When Jesus Christ surrendered his life, not only did God save him, God resurrected him. God completed and perfected him. And as you and I surrender our lives to Jesus Christ, God saves us as well. Spiritually, we are being reborn, transformed from the inside out until we are completed and perfected in love, and live into God’s vision for our lives.

Jesus shows us the Way. Follow in his footsteps.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Wesley’s General Rules: Rule #3 - Stay in Love with God

(Read Mark 1: 29-37 and Psalm 63:1-8)

Last Monday, a man woke to the sound of his alarm. Beep. Beep. Beep. He hit snooze twice before finally rolling out of bed. He performed his morning routine mindlessly. Shave, shower, dress, eat breakfast—in the middle of breakfast he remembered that his cell phone bill was due, so he left the remains of his cereal to get soggy, and went to pay his bill online. He got distracted and spent 15 minutes surfing the net. When he finally noticed the time, he realized he was going to be late for work. He rushed to put the dishes in the dishwasher, brush his teeth, put on his coat, get in his car, and sped off to work.

Later that evening, in a different house, in a different town, a woman put her children to bed. She was so exhausted, she almost fell asleep while reading them a story. Upon leaving their room, she headed to the kitchen to finish putting the dishes in the dishwasher. She wanted to take a shower before bed, but she was too tired. Her last thought as her head hit the pillow was: Oh no. I forgot to make their lunches.

Life is busy. Most of us feel worn out and tired on a fairly regular basis. With all that we have to do in a day, with all the various people and activities clamoring for our attention, with all the worries, it’s no wonder that we have lost a sense of wonder in our lives.
Our minds keep us in perpetual motion, remembering this, planning that, figuring out something. While lost in our heads, we have lost touch with our spirits. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that fatigue, depression and anxiety are the dis-eases of our time.

There is no shortage of busy people, no shortage of responsible people, no shortage of accomplished people in 21st century America. “The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people” (Foster, Richard. Celebration of Disciplines. Pg. 1). People filled with wonder. People who are grounded, centered. People whose primary concern is engaging life to its fullest, and who are deeply in touch with the Spirit of Life flowing through them and animating everything around them.

I desire to be a person of depth; one who explores and invests in
the kingdom of heaven on earth. As Henry David Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, to suck the marrow from the bones of life; to put to rout all that was not life, and not to come to the end of life, and discover that I had not lived.”

Wesley’s third rule, to stay in love with God, can help us accomplish this very worthwhile, this very holy, goal.

In Wesley’s original language, the third rule was, “Attend upon the ordinances of God.” Ordinance is a word we don’t use much these days. As Wesley used it, ordinance meant a custom or practice established by long usage or a Christian rite. “To Wesley, it was a word that described the practices that kept the relationship between God and humans vital, alive, and growing. He names public worship of God, the Lord’s Supper, private and family prayer, searching the Scriptures, Bible study and fasting as essential to a faithful life” (Job, Reuben. Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2007. Pg. 53).

By attending upon the ordinances of God, we come into contact with God and that helps us to stay in love. And to say in love with God is to stay in love with life. God is life afterall. We will always have things to do, responsibilities, etc, but our orientation to them and our perspective on life will be different if we carve out time to remember who and what we are living for.

In making time for God, we are nourished and nurtured. We are connected with our source and all that is good.

In additional to the spiritual practices that Wesley encourages (and I agree those are vital to living a spiritually healthy life), each of you might have personalized practices that put you in touch with God’s Spirit, that ground you and fill you with a sense of gratitude and wonder. Taking a Sabbath is a perfect start. Imagine a whole day dedicated to life and love and rest. And if you can’t find a day, how about a Sabbath morning, or a Sabbath afternoon or a Sabbath evening?

For you, staying in love with God might mean taking nature walks, meditating, reading spiritual literature or a self-help books, dancing, singing, listening to music, arts, crafts, fishing, golfing, watching a movie. These can all be entryways to connect with the divine. As long as your practices or disciplines help you to feel the Spirit, as long as they enhance your sense of wonder, offer insight and meaning into the depths of your soul, as long as they inspire faith, give strength and guidance to your life, provide rest and refreshment, that is what matters most.

Following this rule is nourishment for our souls. It re-energizes our life force.

Do you make time for such ways of living? If not, life will increasingly be overwhelming and alienating, rushed and distracted. That is not the life meant for the faithful. We are here to live and love. To see beauty and know peace. To rejoice and comfort one another.

Also, if we ever hope to fulfill Wesley’s first two rules, to do no harm and to do all the good we can, (which aren’t just Wesley’s rules but Christ’s commands), then we must stay in love with God because our love for God is what helps us to love each other and fuels our efforts.

Rueben Job’s book, Three Simple Rules says this: “The first two rules are important and bring immediate results, but without the third rule, the first two become increasingly impossible. Staying in love with God is the foundation of all of life. It is in a vital relationship with God that we are enlivened, sustained, guided, called, sent, formed, and transformed. The writer of Psalm 127 [v.1a] declares, ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.’ We practice the rules, but God sends the power that enables us to keep them” (Ibid, pg. 48).

I love today’s passage from Mark. Jesus is teaching in the synagogue, then he is healing those who are sick and possessed with demons. The whole city was gathered around the door of the house he was at. Finally after a long day and night of service, he takes some time to go off by himself and pray because he’s smart! and he knows that if he is going to continue healing and teaching, he needs to be renewed by God. When the disciples can’t find him though, the text says that they hunt for him. And when they find him, they say, “Everyone is searching for you” (Mark 1: 36). All the more reason why he needed to go away, why he needed to keep the love between him and God flowing.

So the 3 rules are: #1 - Do no harm-not to yourself, not to any person, and not to the earth or any living creature on the earth. #2 - Do good- in any way you can, big or small, in all the places you can, for all the people you can, paying special attention to those you might easily overlook. And #3 - so you don’t burn out and so life remains a joyful gift, take time to stay in love with God.

On a Monday morning, in a warm house, a man awoke to the sound of his alarm. Beep. Beep. Beep. He hit snooze twice, and as he slowly aroused from sleep, he remembered yesterday, Sunday. It had been a beautiful day. He’d gone to church with his family, then shared a wonderful meal with them. He took a nap, something he rarely did. And then he went to the driving range with his son and daughter. Before falling asleep, he and his wife talked about how blessed they were. He slept peacefully that night. His snooze went off again bringing him back to reality. He smiled and took a deep breath before rolling out of bed.

On that same Monday evening, in another house, in another town, a mother put her children to bed while her husband did the dishes. She took a warm shower, and as she packed the kids lunches, she thought about what a relaxing weekend they had all had together. Her last thought as her head hit the pillow was to recall
part of the Psalm she had heard at church that weekend. “My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy. My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me” (Psalm 63: 5).

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Wesley's General Rules: Rule #2 - Do Good.

(Read Luke 10:25-37)

As a child, I felt bad for Tim Kassuf. He was the kid who everyone made fun of and pushed around. In 4th grade, he had big, thick brown glasses. His feet turned out so he kind of walked like a duck. He was short and chubby. He dressed like a dad. Not that any of these things really matter or say anything about what kind of a person Tim was, but they were reason enough for a bunch of insensitive children to be cruel.

I felt bad for Tim Kassuf, but I never defended him, and I never befriended him. I didn’t tell the other kids to be quiet, and I didn’t go over to him and say hello. I actually really liked Tim Kassuf’s laugh. I can still remember it. It was a happy, jolly giggle of sorts that spread across his whole face and squinted his eyes behind his thick, brown glasses. I never told Tim this of course, and I never told him jokes to get him to laugh. I just felt sorry for him from afar. Even worse, I ignored him.

Can you remember someone in your past who you were weren’t good to? Someone you didn’t know how to help so you just ignored them? The dorky kid in school? The crying lady from your office? The old guy who lived across the street? Your own child crying but you couldn’t deal with it? Your parents or grandparents? The bum on the street who asked you for money and smelled like urine? I bet we can all remember people that we would go back and treat differently. Or maybe you were the one who other people didn’t stop to help when you wished they would have. On behalf of all the people who don’t know better, I apologize.

John Wesley’s second rule is to do good. Last week, we talked about his first rule, to do no harm. Next week, we will talk about his third rule, to stay in love with God. Today, we explore his second rule: do all the good you can, in all the places you can, to all the people you can. It’s a tall order to fill like most of Jesus’ instructions. It challenges us to be more generous and courageous than we typically are.

I started thinking about all this when I read the parable of the Good Samaritan. I wasn’t the one who really inflicted much pain on Tim Kassuf, but I walked right by him. In this most beloved of parables, there is a man stripped, beaten and suffering. The robbers who inflicted his pain quickly disappear, and two strangers, one after the other, walk by him laying there on the ground practically dead. The first two, a priest and a Levite, they look at the hurt man, and they look away. They pass by him on the other side of the street doing nothing to help. The third stranger, however, the one known as the good Samaritan, he is moved to pity when he sees the man, and so he bandages his wounds, he takes him to an inn and pays for a place for him to stay as he heals. The good Samaritan has mercy and compassion. He takes care of someone he doesn’t know and didn’t hurt himself and nurses him back to life.

We all admire the helpful Samaritan, and we know the point of the parable is to be like him, which is easier said than done. Actually, I found it quite easy to think of possible reasons why the priest and the Levite passed by on the other side. They are the same reasons we have today for not helping those who are in need.

In no specific order of importance, here are some reasons, or perhaps I should say excuses, why we might not do all the good we can, in all the places we can, to all the people we can.

• Afraid-

Most of the commentaries on the good Samaritan raise this issue. What if the robbers weren’t that far off and were waiting for another victim. If you came across the victim of a violent crime, might not you be afraid to go near? Perhaps you have heard this before, but law officials recommend yelling “fire” not “help” if you are ever being attacked. People are curious about fires; they are afraid of crime.

Another example is that you might actually be afraid of the person in need. It wasn’t that long ago that no one would touch a child with AIDS. And what about homeless people and drug addicts. Our fear of them prevents us from reaching out to them.

• Don’t think its any of your business/don’t want to interfere

Anorexic girl at college that I never approached but who desperately needed someone to help her.

• Insecurity/indecision/do not feel empowered-

“Do you think they really need help?”
“What can I possibly do to help”
"I have too many problems of my own to offer any sort of help to another."

• Self-oriented-

You have your own agenda in mind, and thus, rationalize to yourself that they do not need your help. An experiment done on people who had time versus people who “didn’t.” In this experiment, an actor who looked desperately in need of help lay on the steps of a college building where students were going for interviews. There were three groups. The first had a wide window in which to do their interview. Several approached the broken man. The second group had a more specific time to do their interview, but there was some lattitude. A few approached the broken man. The third group had a specific time in which they had to do their interview. Few if any stopped to help. The message: when we believe our needs and responsibilities are greater than the others, we will ignore them.

• We don’t see or don’t want to see the people who truly need our help.

Many people unconsciously put blinders on we get near people who don’t look like us, who aren’t familiar to us, or people that make us feel uncomfortable. And because we don’t really “see” them, our consciences don’t become too troubled when we walk right by. I was able to ignore Tim Kassouf because I chose not to really look at him, to see the pain he must have felt being ignored and ridiculed by a few kids every day while many kids pretended nothing was wrong.

A great example of this was made clear to me from the movie, Music Within. In this film, Richard is a Vietnam vet who lost his hearing during the war. In time, he realizes that the only person he can hear is a man named Art, who has Cerebral Palsy. For those of you who don’t know, CP often confines people to a wheelchair and affects their motor skills so that their movements are uncontrolled and spasmatic, and they often speak in a slow, fragmented style. Those with CP have difficulty speaking clearly, but they are highly intelligent people. This means that some perceive them as mentally retarded when in actuality, they are as mentally capable as any of us. Cerebral Palsy comes down to nerve muscle dysfunction.

In an interesting twist of fate, and this is a true story by the way, Richard realizes that the only person he can hear and understand is Art. So they become great friends. Through Richard’s friendship with Art and other Vietnam vets he relates to, Richard sees that these essentially good people are being treated terribly because of their disabilities. His calling comes in the form of a career where Richard gets people with disabilites jobs. The movie takes place in the 70’s and 80’s before people with disabilities were treated fairly, kindly.

Richard’s work is so groundbreatking that eventually the government asks him to write the first manual for employers on how to hire, train and work with the disabled. As anyone who does groundbreaking work is prone to feel, Richard is insecure about what he has to say. He spends a year writing the manual, and then gives it to Art, someone who has been discriminated against and treated as though he were disgusting, most of his life. When Art reads the manual this is what he says to Richard:

Art’s monologue: "You don’t have a clue how good this is. You know what we cripples want…to be seen. When they look at me, you know what they see? Nothing. I’m ignored. How can you ignore this? But they ignore me because I am so disturbing to their definition of human that I make them feel…What you have created, will make them see us."

Richard’s manual went on to become the first training manual for employers to hire the disabled. And Richard’s work on behalf of those who are not seen and are being discriminated against lead to the American with Disabilities Act being passed in 1990. It is because of this act that we have wheelchair accessibility, wider stalls in bathrooms, legal rights for the disabled, etc.

Rule #2: Do all the good you can, in all the places you can, for all the people you can. We as a church, and you as an individual have the power to go good and increase the quality of people’s lives, ease their suffering, carry their burdens, show them love, help them laugh.

The parable of the Good Samaritan began, “Teacher, how do I inherit eternal life?” Jesus responded by saying, love God, love your neighbor and show mercy to all. Then he instructed them saying, “Go and do likewise.” Friends, don’t let excuses prevent you from fulfilling Christ’s command. Go and do likewise.

Wesley's General Rules: Rule #1 - Do No Harm

(Read Matthew 7:1-5 and Mark 12: 28-34)

For the next three Sundays, I thought we’d go back to the basics. A life pleasing and acceptable to God and a life where we feel inner peace and happiness is a life in which we love God, we love ourselves, and we love our neighbors. I like the way the Message translation of the Bible phrases Jesus’ Great Commandment. Jesus says, “That God is one and there is no other. And loving him with all passion and prayer and intelligence and energy, and loving others as well as you love yourself…” (Mark 12: 32-33). This is the way to live!

In the mid-18th century, around 1750, John Wesley thought up some simple instructions to give the early Methodists so they would know how to fulfill Christ’s command to love. They were called the General Rules, and there were 3 of them: Do no harm. Do good. And attend upon the ordinances of God or as a recent commentary on the General Rules puts it, stay in love with God. (We will hear more on the last two rules in the upcoming weeks.) Today, we will seek to understand the first rule: Do no harm.

The recent commentary on Wesley’s General Rules is titled, Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living, and in it, Author Rueben Job writes this: “The rules are simple and they are easily understood,” but they have far reach. If everyone followed them the world would literally be a different and a new place, a more loving place. But just because the rules are simple and easy to understand does not make them easy to practice. (Job, Rueben. Three Simple Rules. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007. pg. 41).

Doing no harm seems like a pretty obvious way to live. We don’t go about intending to hurt or harm ourselves, others or the creation. We don’t hit the gas when we see a deer in the road. We don’t kick someone when they are down. We don’t pour salt in our own wounds (or do we?). But we need to go beyond the obvious as we seek to follow this first rule because it is in the subtleties, in our ignorance and unawareness when we really become offenders of this rule. To do no harm means that we must be sensitive, aware, knowledgeable and intentional in all that we say and do.

To begin, if we are to love others as much as we love ourselves, then we must begin by loving ourselves well first. Afterall, how can we give love to others that we do not give to ourselves? (Even when you try to love others but don’t love yourself, anything you say or do for those others is contaminated by that lack of love that you have for yourself. )

I’ve been reading this book called A Path With Heart. It says that in order to live with an open and loving heart, the first thing we must do is get in touch with our feelings, and honor those feelings by acknowledging them, feeling them instead of pushing them down, and passing no judgment on them. Like the General Rules, this is simple to hear and easy to understand, but much harder to live out.

Every moment, you are feeling something. Your feelings transpire into thoughts. And your thoughts transpire into actions. The root or cause of what we say and do, how we treat others, comes from how we feel. Thus, it’s important to know how we feel. To know what motivates us to do certain things.

Many of us were taught not to feel though or to deny our feelings. Hasn’t someone said to you, “Don’t get angry,” “Don’t cry”? Or when you were excited or achieved something great: “Calm down,” “Don’t be so smug.” And not only were many of us taught to ignore our feelings, we also pushed them down ourselves because we didn’t like the way they felt. It hurts when your parents yell at you as a kid. It hurts when your best friend tells you they don’t like you anymore. It hurts when you get fired from your job.

So, let’s take a moment, can you feel what you are feeling right now? Are you content to be here? Anxious to leave? Angry about something that happenend yesterday? Excited about something that will happen tomorrow?

The spiritual wisdom of the ages is that to know ourselves, to feel what is actually going on within us, requires presence. You must be here now. Within youself. And once you get a sense of what is going on, there’s no good or bad, right or wrong. There is no judgment. You just are. This just is. Feeling what we feel. Thinking what we think. It’s all ok. You might be hot. A baby might be crying. It’s all ok.

One of the ways to get to know yourself better is to name your experience. Name what is happening to you: Thinking. Feeling. Wanting something or someone. Not wanting something or someone. As your awareness increases, you can get more descriptive. Thinking what? Thinking about work. Feeling how? Feeling restless. Wanting what? Wanting a snickers bar. Not Wanting what? Not wanting to clean the house today.

The point:

As we come to know ourselves, and very importnaly, as we come to accept ourselves as who we are where we are, we move into a higher level of being. One that is sensitive, aware and knowlecable, at least of the self. This is the basic foundation for being able to stop harming ourselves. Simply, but profoundly, by being in touch with what we are experiencing, and not judging it, but simply feeling it, we are on the pathway to freedom and healing. In this way, we begin to stop harming ourselves, and become more able to stop harming others.

It is healing for you to stop condemning yourself, and that healing will help you to stop condemning others. As Matthew, chapter 7 says, “Notice the log in your own eye first.”
Once you have taken a look at yourself and halted your judgmental nature, then you naturally will begin to stop judging others. You will begin to feel the same compassion for them that you feel for yourself. The speck in your neighbor’s eye will cease to be something to condem them for. Instead, the speck will become an opportunity for you to love them with understanding and acceptance as Christ has loved you with understanding and acceptance.

Thomas a Kempis wrote, “We cannot trust ourselves too much, because we often lack grace and understanding. The light within us is small, and we soon let even this burn out for lack of care. Moreover, we often fail to notice how inwardly blind we are; for example, we frequently do wrong, and to make matters worse, we make excuses about it! Sometimes we are moved by passion [reckless emotion] and think it zeal [inspiration]. We condemn small things in others and pass over serious things in ourselves. We are quick enough to feel it when others hurt us—and we even harbor those feelings—but we do not notice how much we hurt others. A person who honestly examines his own behavior would never judge other people harshly” (Job. pg. 30).

I really was touched by the line, “We are quick enough to feel it when others hurt us, but we do not notice how much we hurt others.” That’s why its so important to be aware of what we are feeling, sensitive to what others are feeling, and knowledgeable as to what causes harm. When we know these things, then we can be intentional about doing no harm.

Drop a Pebble in the Water by James W. Foley

Drop a pebble in the water: just a splash, and it is gone;
But there's half-a-hundred ripples circling on and on and on,
Spreading, spreading from the center, flowing on out to the sea.
And there is no way of telling where the end is going to be.

Drop a pebble in the water: in a minute you forget,
But there's little waves a-flowing, and there's ripples circling yet,
And those little waves a-flowing to a great big wave have grown;
You've disturbed a mighty river just by dropping in a stone.

Drop an unkind word, or careless: in a minute it is gone;
But there's half-a-hundred ripples circling on and on and on.
They keep spreading, spreading, spreading from the center as they go,
And there is no way to stop them, once you've started them to flow.

Drop an unkind word, or careless: in a minute you forget;
But there's little waves a-flowing, and there's ripples circling yet,
And perhaps in some sad heart a mighty wave of tears you've stirred,
And disturbed a life was happy ere you dropped that unkind word.

Drop a word of cheer and kindness: just a flash and it is gone;
But there's half-a-hundred ripples circling on and on and on,
Bearing hope and joy and comfort on each splashing, dashing wave
Till you wouldn't believe the volume of the one kind word you gave.

Drop a word of cheer and kindness: in a minute you forget;
But there's gladness still a-swelling, and there's joy acircling yet,
And you've rolled a wave of comfort whose sweet music can be heard
Over miles and miles of water just by dropping one kind word.

What we say and do matters. Even the little stuff. We all know from the 10 commandments that we should not kill, steal, lie, covet,. And following those commands are some of the ways to do no harm. But its our hearts, and knowing our hearts, and taking care of other people’s hearts that’s really going to take us to that next level where we do no harm and we don’t hurt each other anymore.