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.