Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Hungry and Thirsty

Some people are literally hungry and thirsty. They are our brothers and sisters. They live in homes and on the streets, holding signs that say something like: homeless and hungry. Anything will help.

While some are literally hungry and thirsty, all people are spiritually hungry and thirsty. The homeless person and the family that lives on Park Avenue, the drunkard and the prudent, the adulterer and the monogamous. All people are hungry for meaning and purpose in their lives. All people are hungry for love, joy, inner peace, confidence and courage.

Oftentimes, we satisfy our hunger and quench our thirst with substances and activities that don’t actually satisfy and quench. We fill the void for love with food and alcohol. We fill the need for peace with television and the internet. We fill the empty place where joy should be with shopping trips and cheap thrills.

Example: I know a woman who is insecure and desperate for affirmation. She tries to fill those holes in herself with expensive clothes in a size 2. But it doesn’t work. Her efforts are futile.

What we really need is not more things or more activity. What we really need is: close personal and intimate relationships that truly satisfy our human longings. I would be nothing without my relationships to my parents, siblings and childhood friends. How about you? Do you depend on those relationships as well?

What we really need is to feel good about ourselves and believe in ourselves. You are a beautiful and good person created by God and of sacred worth. It’s important that we know that, believe that, and be that. Live boldly in God’s love.

What we really need is to trust in God and rely on God to lead us in the direction that is best for our lives. What can we say about God? In the fullest sense of the word, God is our blessing; God is our abundance; God is the feeling inside that gives us peace and comfort, desire and motivation.

Our faith in Christ can nourish us. Faith is believing that God will help us and provide for us when it comes to things that we cannot control. We can’t control the behavior of other people or the random situations that come up in our lives. But we can trust in the Lord to help us through.

We can also control how we respond to the hardships we encounter. We can control our anxiety and our fear. We can take steps to move on from our pasts, live the best we can in the present and create for ourselves secure and positive futures.

I encourage you to spend some time in self-reflection and figure out what you are truly craving beyond the dinners and the nights out, and then take it to the Lord in prayer. God is listening to us. Jesus wants to fill our hungry spirits and quench the thirst of our souls. The Holy Spirit is moving in our lives to bring us the love, peace and joy that we so desire.

Deep down you know what you are truly seeking. You can give it to yourself. You can ask other people that you trust to give it you. And you can ask God to bless you. Beyond that, we are just grasping at those things that don’t satisfy.

What do we truly desire? The Lord in all God’s magnificence. If we let God reign as Lord in our lives, we will not hunger or thirst anymore.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Keep It Simple, Sweethearts

King Solomon, the supposed author of Ecclesiastes, is having a bad day, or maybe it’s a bad year.  He’s greatly perplexed and completely dissatisfied and has come to a place where life just seems pointless. “Vanity of vanities!” he says.  “All is vanity.”  Or as another translation puts it, “Meaningless!  All is meaningless.”  The wise king is saying, it’s not worth all the effort.  Work, work, work and for what?  Just to get by?  “Everything is wearisome,” he says. 

Have you ever felt like that?  I know I have.  Some days, not all days, but some days, and these are definitely not the best days, life does seem pointless.  It seems like a lot of effort for little reward.

King Solomon goes on to say, it all just seems futile.  The sun rises, then it sets.  The wind blows this way, then it blows that way.  The streams run to the sea but the sea is never full. The world just keeps turning round and round and nothing comes of it.  And on top of that, human beings are never satisfied.  No matter how much we hear, we haven’t heard enough.  No matter how much we see, we haven’t seen enough.  No matter how much we receive, we are never full, just like the sea.

I was talking to a friend who has three kids and is a stay at home mom.  Her husband is a good man who works hard every day to support his family, and they live in a nice home.  It’s everything she ever wanted.  Or is it?  Some days, my friend feels more trapped than she feels like she is living her dream.  She feels exhausted and frustrated.  She’s worried about her son going back to school because he had problems last year, the boiler needs replacing, it’s time to renew her car registration, she has to cook dinner AGAIN.  The big things and the little things add up to a feeling of being overwhelmed, and when she collapses on the couch after putting the kids to bed, my friend wonders, is this the meaning of life?  Is this all there is?  To work all day long only to get up and do it again tomorrow?

That’s not the meaning of life.  Experiencing joy, spreading love, communing with others-now those are reasons to live. 

But sometimes, we cannot see the forest for the trees.  We forget the reasons why life is such a blessing.   When everything gets too complicated in your mind, like a tangled ball of string that we will never be able to unwind, this is the time when it is best to focus on the simple things in life.  This is the time to focus all your attention in the now and just put one foot in front of the other.   This is the time to count your blessings and stay positive, instead of directing all your attention to what is “wrong” in your life.  This is the time to keep it simple, sweethearts.

Simplicity is God’s gift to the mind and peace to the soul.  With simplicity comes clarity.  We can break big questions and big problems down into small, manageable pieces.  We can have breakthroughs in our thinking.  One time when I was lost in my own world of darkness, I heard these words: “It’s okay.”  I think it was God breaking through my terrible thinking and trying to assure me that I didn’t need to be so upset.  “It’s okay,” I heard.  A simple message but so profound in the moment that it took me out of my dark place and back into the light.  I felt so much better.

Now after King Solomon goes off on the vanity of life and how it is meaningless, he comes to the conclusion that we should simply enjoy life, that we should simply enjoy what we have. 

King Solomon eventually sees through the darkness in his own mind and realizes what is important.  After all his philosophizing, he comes to the conclusion that we should simply enjoy life, enjoy each other and enjoy the bounty of this great world. It’s as though the complicated question, “What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?” becomes very simple and clear.  It’s not about what we gain.  It’s about appreciating what we have been given.

Solomon says, “Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do.  Let your garments always be white, do not let oil be lacking on your head.”  Then he says, “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun.”  He’s saying, enjoy what you have, whether it’s your wife or your husband or your children or your church family.  Enjoy living with these people in this time and in this place.  Enjoy sharing your life with them because this is the lot you have been given.

I read this book called Working with the Law, and in that book, the law is another name for God or the One who makes and guides the universe.  So the title could be, Working with God.  One of the laws in the book is the Law of Compensation, and the basic idea is that whatever a person sows, that he or she shall reap.  Wherever you put your energy into, that is where you will produce your reward.  If you put your best effort in, then your life will expand.  If you do the best that you can, then your life will grow in that direction.

For example, if you want a bigger or nicer apartment, take the best possible care you can of your current apartment – decorate it well, keep it clean- and as you fill the space,  you will grow into a new space.  Either the apartment that you have will become what you want it to be or a new opportunity will become available to you. 

Another example is that if you want to have better relationships, then you should take care of the people in your life, be close to them, love them the best you can.  When you put that energy out there, your relationships will improve.  They will grow stronger and new opportunities for those relationships or even new relationships will come into your life.

Perhaps you want to find a partner, a person to share your life with.  Well, then, live as though you would if you had that person.  Cook for yourself, just like you would cook for the two of you.  Give up your bad habits just like you would if you had someone you loved telling you to do so. 

Or perhaps you want to have children or grandchildren.  Then treat all children you meet with love and respect.  Be good to children and you will see the relationships you have get better and even more children will come into your life.  The same is true of your work life.  Do your best, and you will receive the best opportunities.  Live as a success and you will be a success.

The Law of Compensation makes sense to me.  Simply act like you would if you had what you wanted and what you want will come to you.  I’ve been working this law lately and my friendships have grown much stronger, and I feel more love from people than I ever have before.

If we combine King Solomon’s wisdom to simply enjoy life with the Law of Compensation, we will find that we are meant to put our energy into living a joy-filled existence.  In doing so, we create the life we want, and we spread joy in this world.   

It was funny because my friend with the three kids called me the other day, and she was in such a good mood, which is rare for her lately.  She was happy and bubbly, and I said, “Lisa, what’s going on?  What happened to you?  Two days ago you were bemoaning your life and wondering what you could do to change it.”  You know what she said?  “I went dancing.”  Yes, dancing.  She said she couldn’t remember the last time she had so much fun.  It was so simple. My friend put a little energy into doing something she enjoyed, and it changed her whole demeanor.

Ask yourself, do you take enough time to enjoy life?  Do you put your energy where your happiness is?

Let us eat, drink and be merry, my friends.   Let us dance and sing.  Let us play with children and animals.  Let us smell flowers and see the beauty of the sky.  Let us cook good food and share it with others.  Let us give love to our friends and relatives.  Let us bask in the sunshine and notice that the days are getting shorter and it’s starting to feel like fall

Especially on those days when it all feels like too much and there’s no point in any of it, just remember to keep it simple, sweethearts.  Enjoy what you have been given and put your energy into those things that bring you joy.  I promise you, you will reap what you sow.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

How Is This Ever Going To Work Out?

Every year we hear another story of a person or a few persons lost out in the woods. In February of this year, 3 mushroom pickers were lost in the woods south of Portland, Oregon for six days. The Connes family spent the first night in the rain before locating a large, hollow log that they could all fit into. With no lighters or matches to start a fire and a wet forest surrounding them, they shivered in the dark praying that rescuers would find them. As the days went on and they could not find their way out, nor did help come, the Connes considered eating their beloved dog, Jesse, such was their hunger.

Can you imagine that? Being lost, afraid, desperate, and thinking to yourself, “How are we ever going to get out of here? How are we ever going to make it?  Who will rescue us?”

In truth, many of us ask those exact questions even if we aren’t lost in a thick forest. The concrete jungle that is New York City can be a scary place to navigate and an overwhelming place to live. Fear and trepidation can creep in on even the most secure and able of us. They wouldn’t say, “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,” if this weren’t a challenging place to live.

And there are other jungles in our lives if you will: divorce, moving, job loss, sickness, financial troubles.

I recall speaking with one young woman who had recently moved to New York from Texas, and she was beginning to have panic attacks. She told me that it all just felt like too much: being in a new place that was so intense, trying to make it in the early stages of her career, being away from the friends and family who kept her grounded and made her feel safe back home. Only 4 months or so after moving to New York City, this young woman headed back to Texas. She simply could not see how it would all work out for her here. She too was asking the questions, how am I ever going to make it? How is this ever going to work?

We have to remember that growing up is hard on the young. It’s hard on the old too. We are all always growing.

When this young woman and I were talking, she was struggling to rely on her faith. She repeated aloud to me what we have all heard in church and read in the Bible. That God is faithful. That God is our Shepherd when we are lost, our strength when we are weak, our courage when we are afraid. But for some reason, she could not get those words to sink in and believe in them fully. Her faith was such that it did not translate into peace of mind and perseverance, so she went home.

Have you ever felt so lost, so overwhelmed by the present and afraid of the future, that your faith was seriously shaken? A time when you didn’t know what you believed anymore. A time when you couldn’t see God working in your life. I’d venture we all have. We don’t see how God will get us through.

That’s because God works in different ways than we work. The way we think about things, the way we understand, is different from God’s infinite wisdom. If we want to get from point A to point B and back to A again, we figure we will just walk in a straight line between those places, but God might take us up, then down, and all around so as to get us where we belong. It’s all about the journey after all. So, no, we cannot fully comprehend how God works.

Maybe, the young woman from Texas was supposed to go home. Maybe, this wasn’t the place for her, and God had other plans. Or maybe, she gave up too soon. I don’t know, and only in hindsight may she even know what was the right thing to do.

Or maybe, there was no right thing to do. There was a just a choice. In the young woman’s case, the choice to stay or leave. In your life, there are choices you make every day. Choices to talk it through or walk away. Choices to argue or listen. Choices to carry on or quit. Maybe life is just a series of choices that lead to different ends, and we have to pick the choice that we think will get us to our desired end.

Life develops as a combination of our choices mixed with God’s ways.

This is why the words from Isaiah ring so true to so many of us. The Lord says through the prophet’s mouth, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55: 8-9).

God’s ways are higher than our ways; God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts, which explains why we often don’t understand exactly what is going on in our lives. Because ultimately our lives are God’s creation. That’s what God does. Create. And the mind of God is higher and deeper and wider than we can even imagine. We simply have to trust that the way God is working is in our best interest and will lead to a desired end.

The Scripture continues, “For as the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55: 10-11).

God’s word, God’s decree, what God intends to happen always happens. It succeeds. The good that God has in mind for us will come to fruition, but we just might not be able to see it happening when we are in the thick of it.

I believe that the young woman who went back to Texas is 100% still embraced in God’s larger plan for her life. She may have taken a detour here or there, but God will not be defeated. That’s the message of the Cross, that sin and death will not have the last word. As Paul says, “where o death is your victory? Where o death is your sting? But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” No one could have imagined the way up from the grave, and yet, Jesus rose to new life and stood before his disciples. Life and love have the final victory, both now and forever, declares our God. We would be wise to remember that when we are lost and afraid, wondering, “How is my life ever going to work out?!”

It just will. Life just does work out. People worry about the future all the time, and it’s like poison to the soul. Why? Because we can’t face our future fears in the present moment. They aren’t here yet; they aren’t real.

What we can do though is realize that the present moment creates the future. How we act today, those choices that we make, will affect what our lives become. So it is wise to invest all our energy into this moment, instead of worrying about something that probably won’t happen in the next. Just be here, now.

And let us remember that God always accomplishes what God sets out to do.

In today’s gospel, Jesus knows the disciples are worried and at their wits end. There’s never going to be enough food for all these people, they say. But Jesus isn’t overcome. He is secure and assured in the grace of God, that there will always be enough.
So Jesus gathers the loaves, gives thanks for what they have (instead of worrying about what they don’t have) and begins giving the bread and fish away, as much as people want. In a moment where it seemed like it would never work out, Jesus made a way. He found a way so everyone could eat and be satisfied.

Can you trust that the Living God, that Jesus Christ, is still working in this world and in our lives making a way? That when you are crying, “How is this ever going to work out?” God is right there devising a plan for everything to work out perfectly. I hope you can. I pray you do. Because the alternative is panic attacks and decisions made out of fear. The alternative is being lost in the world without hope.

Remember the Connes family who was lost in the woods for six days and about to eat their dog? Rescuers found them, and their beloved dog Jesse. The family used the screen of a dead cell phone and a knife to reflect the sun off of, and finally, a helicopter pilot noticed them down there in that thick forest and got them safely home, minus some hypothermia and dehydration.
How is it ever going to work out? We wonder. It just does. By the grace of God, it always does.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Caught In-Between

All of us have had the experience of being caught in-between, of being stuck in the middle. We are on our way to one place, but not yet there. We are trying to move forward, but still shaking off our past. Sometimes, we are caught between parents; sometimes caught between boyfriends or girlfriends; sometimes, caught between jobs; sometimes, caught between schools or grades; and always caught between billing cycles on our credit cards, between having money and not having money. Other times, we are caught between depression and happiness; caught between discontentment and satisfaction; caught between anger and forgiveness; caught between knowing who we are and feeling totally lost.

When we are caught in-between, it’s best to just take things slow. To give ourselves time to figure out what we want, and then, to start making moves to get what we want.

Jesus is caught between two places in today’s scripture. He and the disciples are caught between needing rest and dealing with the demands of the world. Who here hasn’t been in that predicament? The text says, “Jesus said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat” (Mark 6: 31). But then, as they are heading to the deserted place in a boat, people saw them leaving and ran ahead of them on foot so that they were waiting there when Jesus and the disciples arrived. Of course, Jesus can’t just ignore them in their need so they took to healing all who came.

Many of us are tired, in need of down time, but the demands of everyday life just don’t allow us to take a much needed break. If I had a nickel for every person who has told me, “There isn’t enough time in the day.” Or “I’m just so busy,” I would be a rich woman. We have houses to clean, jobs to work, classes to attend, sports to play, exercises to perform, friends to socialize with, worship to go to, you name it.

However, author Brecht Vandenbroucke argues that we impose this busyness on ourselves because without being busy, who would we be? He writes, “Our frantic days are really just a hedge against emptiness. Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance…obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”

Perhaps all busyness is not inevitable. Perhaps some of it is chosen. If you feel overly busy, it might be worth your while to write down all the things you do in a week with your time. What of them are essential? What are pleasurable? What are busywork? Just like operations can be streamlined at a factory, so too can the ways we spend our time be streamlined based on what is truly important and life-giving. Anything that we do that wastes our time, is nonessential or adds to our stress might just have to go.

Because we pay a hefty price for all our busyness. One, it leads to stress and exhaustion. Who here can truly enjoy life when you’re on your last nerve and burnt out? I maintain that one of the meanings of life is that we are here to enjoy it. If we are too busy, we lose some of our ability to enjoy and to just be.

Two, busyness prevents us from taking time for our relationships, which I would argue are the most important things we have in life. There is this touching story in The Art of Power by Thich Nhat Hanh about a little boy who wants nothing more for his birthday than for his father to be present with him. Usually, the father is too busy with work, but when his son says that all he wants is his daddy to be around for his birthday, the father can’t help but make more time in his week for his child.

Third, busyness makes us lose touch with ourselves and with God. Each of us should be our own best friend. We should know and love ourselves as well as we know and love any other. I don’t begrudge the women who get pedicures or the men who spend Saturdays playing golf. People need to make time for themselves. And when we make time for ourselves, we make time for God because the Spirit is in us just waiting for a little down time so we can pay attention to it.

So when you’re writing down all the ways in which you spend your time, consider also making a list of the ways you wish you spent your time. Include in that second list, time for rest, time for relationships, and time for yourself. Make it your goal to integrate these important aspects into your daily routine.

So, what about Jesus? Did he ever find time to rest, time for relationships, time for himself? He definitely made time for people. In the Bible, he’s always making time for people. And the Scriptures also tell us that he made time for himself and his relationship with God as well. You can’t give to others continuously if you yourself are an empty vessel.

Let me read you the words of Bernard of Clairvaux, who advises us to be more like a reservoir than a canal:

Those who are wise will see their lives as more like a reservoir than a canal. The canal simultaneously pours out what it receives; the reservoir retains the water till it is filled then pours forth the overflow without loss to itself. They know what a curse it is in on those who allow their own property to degenerate. And if you think my opinion worthless then listen to one who is wiser than I. “Fools,” said Solomon, “come out with all their feelings at once but the wise subdue and restrain them.” Today there are many in the Church who act like canals, the reservoirs are far too rare. So urgent [is their need to help] that they want to pour it forth before they have been filled. They are more ready to speak than to listen, impatient to teach what they have not grasped, and full of presumption to govern others while they know not how to govern themselves. (Pennington, Basil (editor). Bernard of Clairvaux: A Lover Teaching the Way. Pg. 107).

We have to fill up in order to give from our abundance, like a reservoir; otherwise, we will just be giving the little that we have, like a leaky canal.

Whether you’re caught between this thingor that, one person or another, it is always important to remember that we can rely on the Creator, on Christ and on the Holy Spirit to love, support and guide us along the way. While we are taking our rest, while we are filling up, God is still working in us and among us.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Jesus Ascends, But We Are Not Alone

Do you ever feel like you are looking for an opportunity, but all the doors seem to be closed? Do you ever have a great idea and put it out there, only to be told “No” by multiple people? Does it ever seem like the path of your life is stuck, and you don’t know in which direction to walk anymore?

We have all felt blocked at certain times in our life. No matter how hard you try, you just can’t get moving. These are times when our faith must really kick in, when we believe that God does in fact have a plan for our lives, and in due time, that plan will unfold.

While Jesus was still on this earth, he told his followers that once he left this world, we would not be alone. He said, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever” (John 14:16). This Advocate is also called the Helper or the Holy Spirit. Jesus says that he will not leave us orphaned as children without our parents. We will have this Advocate who will abide in us and be with us always to help us through.

To me, the Holy Spirit might be one of the most beautiful aspects to Christianity. God did amazing and miraculous things in and through Jesus Christ, but the Holy Spirit is the way that we connect to Jesus after all these years. The Holy Spirit is both in you and around you. The Spirit is the one who helps to transform our lives and guide our paths.

I want to read you a poem about destiny. It is thought-provoking, and while you hear it, keep in the back of your mind the thought that it is the Holy Spirit who leads us into our destinies.

Let me read to you a poem titled,“Follow Your Destiny, Wherever It Leads You” by Vicki Silvers:

There comes a time in your life when you realize that if you stand still, you will remain at this point forever. You realize that if you fall and stay down, Life will pass you by. Life’s circumstances are not always what you might wish them to be. The pattern of Life does not necessarily go as you plan. Beyond any understanding, you may at times be led in different directions that you never imagined, dreamed, or designed. Yet if you had never put any effort into choosing a path, or tried to carry out your dream, then perhaps you would have no direction at all. Rather than wondering about or~ questioning the direction your life has taken, accept the fact that there is a path before you now. Shake off the “why’s” and “what if’s,” and rid yourself of confusion. Whatever was — is in the past. Whatever is — that’s what’s important. The past is a brief reflection. The future is yet to be realized. Today is here. Walk your path one step at a time — with courage, faith, and determination. Keep your head up, and cast your dreams to the stars. Soon your steps will become firm and your footing will be solid again. A path that you never imagined will become the most comfortable direction you could have ever hoped to follow. Keep your belief in yourself and walk into your new journey. You will find it-magnificent, spectacular, and beyond your wildest imaginings.

There are three lines of the poem that really stick out to me:

First, “The pattern of life does not necessarily go as you plan. Beyond any understanding, you may at times be led in different directions that you ever imagined, dreamed, or designed.” Isn’t this the truth?! Life does not go as we plan, but I have come to find that the surprising twists and turns our lives take lead to very interesting and worthwhile places, places we wouldn’t have known to choose ourselves. When we open ourselves to the movements of the Spirit, God’s will for our lives takes over and we find ourselves in unknown territory, but its okay because it is divine territory.

The second line of the poem that I want us to reflect upon is: “Rather than wondering about or question the direction your life has taken, accept the fact that there is a path before you now.” We all have ideas and dreams and hopes for our lives, and that is a good thing, but we must ultimately hand over our lives to God’s will. The Advocate’s primary work is to give us a path and to encourage us forward on that path. And in fact, we are on that path right now! No matter how stuck or frustrated you might feel at this moment, things are happening. Stars are being aligned; circumstances are being brought together all so that God may move you forward in your life.

The third line: “Keep your belief in yourself and walk into your new journey.” I would also add, “Keep your belief in God and walk into your new journey.” Even if you feel stagnant right now, you are not. You are on a journey and God is leading you forward into your destiny. Change is always happening in big ways and small ways. People of great faith know that life is not about the destination, it’s about the journey we are on now. So believe in yourself, believe in God and enjoy the journey.

In my experience, I have found a name for God that rings true to me. God is the Great Orchestrator. God is the true designer of our lives, putting the right people and opportunities in place at just the right time so that we can receive them and handle them with skill. God is orchestrating our futures, and God always has a symphony in mind when it comes to our destinies.

My friends, Jesus has ascended to heaven, but we are not alone. We are surrounded by and filled with the Holy Spirit, who is orchestrating all of our lives in ways unknown. Do not be afraid. Be filled with joy and confidence. The journey that you are on is not a dead end road, it is a mystical path which will continue to unfold before you, leading you into a brilliant future, planned by God’s own mind.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

From Fear to Personal Power

My friend’s former roommate, Kerin, has some real problems. She’s unemployed, 2 months behind in the rent and constantly in fear of running into the landlord. The man she is dating has recently begun making excuses for why he can’t get together, and whenever Kerin talks to her mother on the phone, they argue. It seems as if nothing is going right for her, and she often laments how she hates her life.

Those of us who have to listen to Kerin’s tales of woe want to feel sorry for her, but she makes it difficult. The main reason is because Kerin isn’t doing anything to change her situation. She’s just crying about it.

One day, I sat down with Kerin and asked her what the problem was? Why was she going out late all the time and waking up late every day instead of looking for a job? Why was she not talking to both her boyfriend and mother anymore instead of trying to work things out? We sat there for a moment, silent tears streaming down Kerin’s face, and then she finally said, “I’m just so scared.”

Kerin had gotten to the point where she was afraid to deal with life. Too many things made her anxious, and she felt powerless to change her circumstances. It was as though the sky were falling. She didn’t have the confidence to do anything, and even if she did, she didn’t know who she was or what she wanted to do.

Many people seek to move from a place of fear to empowerment so I have outlined three steps to take you from fear to personal power:

1. Confront the fear. You have to look into the face of your fear and see it clearly for what it is. Just an obstacle in your path that you can handle. You don’t need to hide or feel ashamed or doubt yourself. You can approach any situation. Handle it the best you can, and that will be enough. Most situations are manageable. We just get afraid when we’ve never confronted them before, and we are not sure how to handle our experience. But, you can handle it. You will not die. You will simply learn, and more painfully, you will grow. If you want something, you go after it. No excuses. That’s no fear.

2. Decide what to do. You need a course of action, and it’s up to you to decide what that plan is going to look like. You should figure out the end results that you want, and then, when you have made your decision about what your future will look like, you start planning from the beginning. You see your destination and you learn to walk there. It’s kind of like being on a golf course and walking towards that 18th pin. When you tee off, you hit a nice, long straight drive down the fairway. Then, you walk to your ball. Now, you can see the pin. You hit another shot, walk to your ball and take aim again. When you reach the green, it’s time to go in for the kill. You putt the ball. It falls into the cup! It’s as though you knew what to do at every juncture, your steps took you in the right direction, and you were spot on with your instinct, your intuition.

3. Implement the plan. Now, it’s time to execute, to take action. You know what you want, and you aren’t afraid to go get it. It’s time to put the plan in motion. The first thing you do is take a step. One step leads to another and before you know it, something really exciting has happened. You don’t know where it will lead, but you have a good feeling that it will definitely lead somewhere that you would want to be. Now, you are one step closer to having the reality you envision in your mind and the feeling you crave in your heart. Take another step. And another. Repeat. That’s all wise action is is walking forwards with purpose and insight.

There will be hurdles though. There will be times when the road seems impassable. There will be times when the water is too high. There will be times when your spirit wants to quit. Or when it wants to fight. Through it all, embrace. Take it in and don’t let it hurt you. Nothing can hurt you if you don’t let it. Jump each hurdle as it comes in your path, and even if one knocks you down, get up and finish the race. One hurdle is not enough to keep you down. Keep running while breathing deep. Relax into the flow of movement. That is taking action. Relax and keep moving forward.

After the disciples healed in Jesus’ name, they were arrested and put in jail. When they were released, the disciples did not become afraid and go into recluse. Instead, the disciples became bold. They let their light shine. Bold means being courageous. It means being willing to give all of yourself without hesitation or self-doubt. It’s the action, the walking forward, the running, the flying that we are capable of when set in motion. To be bold is to live fully. The disciples were living fully when the Holy Spirit descended on them, and they became bold.

I pray that Kerin can learn to be bold. I pray that she stops feeling afraid and that she realizes she’s just as good of a person as everybody else. She has just as much to offer. Inside, she already knows what she has to do. Go back to school, but she’s hesitant to make the investment. Instead, she’s investing in nothing and squandering her life. These are precious years for us to be building. We can build up. We can build expansive. But growing is not optional; it is what we are here to do.

Let’s grow healthy. Let’s grow strong. Let’s move away from fear to people who own their power, and therefore, own their life.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

What Have You Done For Me Lately?

Some people are excellent at being grateful and content. Then, there’s the rest of us. The people who aren’t quite satisfied. The people who want more.

There’s a fine line we must walk as people who want to be faithful and successful at the same time. On the one hand, we have been richly blessed, and we should acknowledge our blessing and be happy with what we have. On the other hand, we are meant to excel in this life so we need to go after what we want and constantly be pushing boundaries. I believe we can do and be both.

Real problems develop when our desire for success, power, wealth, fame and accolades surpass our contentment and gratitude. We walk around always wanting more from this person or that and from God. And when we don’t get what we want, we are bitter. The other day I found myself trying to count my blessings, but then thinking that just one thing was really missing from my life – my published book- and I found myself saying to God, “God, you have helped me through so much. But it has been awhile since something truly great happened in my life. I think it’s time.”

And then, the Janet Jackson song “What have you done for me lately?” popped into my head.

In the song, Janet’s boyfriend used to do nice things for her like take her out to dinner and dancing, but then, he stops doing nice things for her. She feels taken for granted and unappreciated. Janet’s friend says to her, “I know he used to do nice stuff for you. But what has he done for you lately?”

The reality is, God and people are always doing nice things for us if we have the eyes to see and the heart to appreciate. In today’s scripture reading, we hear that “God is love.” And that “We love because God first loved us.” We know what love is because of God. That feeling we have that makes us look at children with adoration. That feeling we have that makes us want to give to others. That feeling we have that makes our hearts swoon and our stomachs turn. They are all feelings of love that come from God.

So the next time we are feeling like we deserve more and that God hasn’t blessed us enough, let us think of love. It is always surrounding us, whether we feel it from someone else or we feel it for someone else, it is from God. What has God done for you lately? God has loved you.

There are three simple ideas I have about love that can keep our hearts forever in check:

1. Love is a gift. It comes from seemingly nowhere, (although we know where its from- God). It doesn’t matter if you do or say the right things. It doesn’t matter if you are perfect or flawed. The people who love you love you for who you are, and there’s nothing you can do to change that. Let’s say it right now, turn to someone near you and say to them: You are loved, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

2. The more you feel love, the more you want to give. When your cup runs over and love is pouring out of your heart, you can’t help but share it. A warning to the wise, this will get you hurt because not everyone you want to share love with is ready to receive it or is experiencing the same overflow of love, but wisdom tells us it’s the way to live. Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. Or better to have loved and it not be reciprocated than never to have loved at all. At the end of the worship service, we will sing “Pass It On.” The refrain goes: that’s how it is with God’s love, once you experience it, you spread God’s love to everyone, you want to pass it on.

3. Keep some love for yourself. We are so quick to give away that which we have. We want to share it! It’s such a glorious feeling to give and share with another, but each of us is a tender and vulnerable being that needs to hold some love in to nourish ourselves. Just make sure that as God loves you and your heart is filled with love, you give some of it to yourself. You need it and you deserve it!

“God,” we might ask, “What have you done for me lately?”

The answer we hear is soft but clear. “I love you, my child. I love you when you wake up and go to bed. I love you when your bad and when your good. I love you when you are near and when you are far.”

My friends, etch it on your hearts. God is love, and we love because God first loved us.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Ad Astra Per Aspera: To the Stars Through Difficulties!

When was the last time your heart burned within you? Now, I’m not talking about heartburn. Not talking about how your throat feels after your third cup of coffee or how when you lay in bed at night that steak you just ate feels like its stuck in your esophagus.

I’m talking about the kind of burning in your heart that means you are inspired, that means you are passionate about something or someone. That feeling of enthusiasm that means you are truly alive, that you are willing to take a risk. I’m talking about the kind of burning the disciples felt in their hearts when they were walking with the Living God. When was the last time you felt like that?

Perhaps its been awhile. The ins and outs of daily life are hardly inspiring most days and the routine becomes something that we just do. At times you may feel bored with life, uninspired, and even complacent. You aren’t producing great ideas and aren’t willing to take risks.

The spiritual journey is not an easy one for any of us, although all of us have the opportunity to live happy lives even amidst adversity. This is where the title of the sermon comes from. Ad astra per aspera, or to the stars through difficulties. My father taught me this Latin phrase in high school, and it has been a constant reminder since that it is through our pain, our suffering, our challenges and our difficulties that we do great things, that we reach the stars.

I’d like to use a man named Stan Curtis as an example. Stan Curtis was a man who knew difficulties. He was born to parents who didn’t or couldn’t care for him, so he was abandoned by them and raised in an orphanage. He often felt alone and sad; he often doubted his self-worth and wondered why he was unlovable. But he didn’t let the hardship reduce him as a person. Instead, he worked harder and put himself through college. He took risks and became a successful stockbroker. At first, I’m sure he strived for success for himself so he would never be vulnerable and dependent again, but through his difficulties he developed compassion for others, and then made it his mission to give and serve those who were in need.

I’ll tell you the most note-worthy thing Stan has accomplished in a minute, but he isn’t that different from most of us. We all have our stories about how life has challenged us. The abusive home, the absentee parent, that first person who broke our heart, the trials and tribulations of growing up, the need for money, the divorce, the illness, the loneliness, the depression. None of us is a stranger to heartache.

But the message of today is ad astra per aspera! To the stars through difficulties. Difficulties and risks.

Jesus knew the pain and struggle and the risk. The great teachings and loving ways that he put out there were ultimately rejected by his society. Then there’s the disciples, who had to leave their nets, their families, everything they had known to follow Jesus, and boy is that a risk! They also knew the pain of loss. First, they lost the one person who meant so much to them. Then, their whole philosophy on life was called into question when Jesus was brutally murdered.

But then, the resurrection happened.

In the days and weeks after the resurrection, a change happened in the disciples. They discovered their power; they were anointed with new life. This new life made them enthusiastic; it stirred them up. We have heard the stories of how they were afraid at first, but imagine the joy around the table the night that Jesus walked with them to Emmaus and broke bread with them at the table. They were sitting around eating and talking. Scripture doesn’t record the conversation, but Jesus must have said something to inspire the disciples to act because in the book of Acts, we hear of the disciples doing mighty deeds in Jesus’ name. They were empowered to preach, to teach and even to heal.

After one such healing, the religious authorities were upset by what was taking place. They questioned the disciples as though what they were doing was improper or wrong, but the disciples didn’t get intimidated and back down. Instead, Scripture says they became filled with the Holy Spirit and said to those questioning them, “let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” While in front of those who doubted and questioned them, the disciples didn’t apologize or run away. Why? Because they had developed character and strength through their difficulties and were on their way to accomplishing the goals of heaven (to the stars through difficulty). Empowered by the Holy Spirit of God, the disciples brought healing to the world in the mighty name of Christ.

Which gets me thinking about us, the present day disciples of Jesus. Resurrection hope leads to new life, and new life is active and brave. The activity and bravery comes forth when one is willing to take a risk of some kind. Risk combined with talent is the creative force of God in this world empowering us to bring forth/birth new life. Instead of letting the difficulties shut us down, let them open us up and make us brave and bold.

What about you? What challenge in your life has sparked passion and eventually propelled you onward and upward? I think this is how God works sometimes. Ad astra per aspera: to the stars through difficulties. Because even though we have challenges before us, we also have the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. Even though we are troubled each in our own way, we can still be enthusiastic and empowered in Christ.

So let me tell you more about Stan Curtis, the boy left by his parents at an orphanage who decided to make something of his life. Back in 2004, Curtis took a leap of faith, he took a risk and started a program called Blessings in a Backpack, which provides food for children and families over the weekends.

I didn’t know this but according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Education, 21 million children are on free or reduced-cost school lunches, which means 1 out of every 2 4th grader receives a free or subsidized meal. What that often means then is children who are fed well during the week often go hungry on the weekends because there is not adequate food at home. Through Blessings in a Backpack, such kids are given a backpack filled with nutritious food on Friday afternoons to take home for the weekend. Stan Curtis started this ministry because he grew up poor and hungry; in his struggle, he grew strong and courageous. He took a leap of faith and now because of him, 1000s of children are not as hungry and any one of us could start a Blessings in a Backpack in any neighborhood. It’s like a franchise outreach project.

That is exactly what Tama Clapper is doing out in Gillette, Wyoming. She started by giving backpacks to 50 kids who one local school said were hungry, and now she is feeding over 400 children in 10 different schools. She and the 50 Holy Spirit, empowered volunteers who have come forward are working to end hunger in their community.

We human beings are capable of so much when we are inspired and impassioned about something. Recently, one word has come to be special to me and that word is risk. Because going through the tough times and living into our potential as children of God requires some risk on our part. You have to keep putting yourself out there. Ad astra per aspera.

To the stars through difficulties.

Remember the heart burn we talked about in the beginning? If you have it or not? Passion. Intensity. Enthusiasm. Heart for something or someone other than yourself. It’s a call to action. It’s a call to be who you truly are and live your best life now. Let’s go for it.

So I’m going to leave you with these words about risk, and I pray you heed them when the Spirit strikes.

Risk: Be willing to lose something in order to gain something else. Take an emotional risk: [trust someone fully or say to someone else] I love you and want to be with you. Take a financial risk: [change jobs or] invest in [your own] business. Take a creative risk: pick up a paintbrush or a violin; go [dancing]; show your [memoires] to somebody. Be willing to show your vulnerabilities: cry. Take the risk and show more power than you’ve shown before: insist! Risk everything, and if you lose it all, realize how much richer you are for it. Risk being laughed at, risk being heckled, risk being silenced. Risk being hurt. Risk being more joyful, more brilliant, more alive, and more filled with the [Holy Spirit] than you’ve ever imagined. Only when you’re ready to risk losing it all can you risk having it all…. (Snyder, Rachel. Words of Wisdom for Women. Pg. 268).

My inspired comrades, let’s take a risk! Ad astra per aspera! To the stars through difficulties.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

On the Winning Team!

The tulips are blooming. The trees are popping. And the sun is shining! It is as though earth knows what heaven is up to.

And yet, sorrow still holds its place in this realm. My second cousin, Jamie, had a stroke on Friday at the age of 15! A stroke at 15! He will never play his favorite sport of Rugby again. And poor Trayvon. He will never play again. As if these things aren’t bad enough, the revolution for freedom in Yemen has turned into a massacre.

In light of all this, it is hardly notable that one, simple man was killed some 2,000 years ago. One more crucifixion in Rome was not history in the making, and Jesus of Nazareth surely wasn’t the only innocent man who hung on a cross.

And yet, we know his story better than we know almost any other. How the crowds shouted, “Crucify him.” How the sun refused to shine on that fateful day. How the curtain of the temple was torn in two after he uttered his last words, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

What makes Jesus story so exceptional is not his death wrought by human hands. We have come to expect such foolishness from ourselves and others. What makes Jesus story so exceptional is his resurrection, made possible because God’s love and power is greater than any horrible act humanity can commit, because (as the old hymn proclaims) God’s grace is greater than our sin.

You see, Good Friday is about what people are capable of. Easter Sunday is about what God is capable of.

Easter is packed with meaning and its implications for our lives are numerous. For the young or the young at heart, just the awesome details of the story produce wonder: that the stone was mysteriously rolled back, that angels sat in Jesus’ tomb, that Jesus stood in the garden on the 3rd day and talked with one of his best friends, and that she, Mary, saw him alive after she had seen him dead. Just the story itself is enough to wake you out of your spiritual slumber if you have the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

For the experienced seekers among us, the story’s details, while rich, are nothing compared to what the story means for us as disciples. Experience in this life may have convinced us that death has the final word, but Easter makes us question our certainty. Like Paul we cry out, “Where o death is your victory? Where o death is your sting?”

We realize that it is God who has the victory. It is life that wins. And we say to ourselves, if God raised Jesus from the dead then nothing is impossible for God. Not mortgages, not marriage problems, not infertility issues, not chronic illness, not chronic pain. Because of what God has done in Jesus Christ, we know that anything is possible for us as well.

For the disappointed, the depressed and the doubtful among us, the Easter story proclaims the mindset we have been missing. We find hope in this idea that there is life after death. That there is joy after suffering. That there is a new story being written. While we are trying to figure out our lives, this Easter message breaks in and announces to us, “Because he lives, you also shall live.” Yes! We are no longer held captive by spiritual death but are resurrected with Christ to new life.

And for those who are drawing near to the end of their life on earth, they remember Jesus’ words on the cross: Today, you will be with me in paradise. And Easter for those in this realm is the promise of a future and a new existence. They know that they are headed to the mansion, and they are confident and secure because Jesus has paved the way home.

Easter is a grand proclamation by God that life will not be simple or easy, but it will lead to great rewards in this life and in the next. Christ had to die in order to be resurrected, but resurrected he is!

On this day, Jesus wins. God wins. Life wins. We win. And so now we must ask ourselves, how will we live into the Easter story? Because grace (and the messages of Easter are the very definition of grace) requires a response from us. Now what?

It’s time for us to live like winners. No more walking around with our heads down and shoulders slumped, apologizing for who we are, what we say and what we do. Our team just won and we need to share the glory and the victory with everyone and everything. We need to put our joy out there.

I’m not talking about being conceited and prideful. I’m talking about sharing the love, celebrating the life, proclaiming with exuberance the happiness we feel.

You’ve probably seen a sport’s team celebrate after a hard won victory. In football, they dance in the end zone and dump Gatorade on the coach’s head, in basketball they cut down the nets, in baseball they rush the pitcher’s mound, in soccer they tear off their shirts and run around the field, in tennis they shoot balls high into the stands. In essence, the people express the excitement and enthusiasm they have.

Don’t be afraid, my friends, to express your joy, your victory, your new life! Because come this morning, into this evening and again every day after today, you are on the winning team. Live like a winner.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Creating Your Life Through Presence

Stop and freeze? How did you get to this moment right here? At the Park Avenue United Methodist Church, specifically at Space for Grace, sitting in whatever pew you’re sitting in, thinking about whatever you’re thinking about, looking how you look, working where you work, dating who you’re dating…

It’s a combination of things that brought you to where you are and who you are in this moment – it’s biological, part of it is genetic. It’s circumstantial; part of it has to do with the people who have been in your world and the things that have happened to you. It’s self-created; part of it has been entirely because of the choices you make.

And today, I want to talk about this self-created aspect of our lives. Now, not everything is because of our choosing. I don’t think people choose to get cancer, for example. It is true however those things people choose to do can lead to cancer. I don’t think, for example, a woman chooses to marry an abusive spouse. It is true however that some men show signs of being abusive long before a woman marries him, and she chose not to see those signs.

We don’t have control over every aspect of our lives, but that’s all the more reason we should exercise control over that which we can. And there’s a simple way to do this: some call it mindfulness, some call it presence, some call it awareness, some call it the power of now. Call it what you will, the important thing is that it works.

One of the simplest definitions of this idea that I’ve heard of is paying attention to the present moment, to fully be in the here and now.

It’s important to be in each moment because moments are the building blocks of life. The present moment creates your future moments. Take the example of something scientific and easy to prove – weight. If in the present moment I choose to eat a filet mignon with garlic mashed potatoes, and then for desert, follow it up with cheesecake, I know that I’ve eaten a large portion of my daily caloric intake in one meal. If I’m trying to lose weight, this choice has taken me away from my goal. If the next day, I work out and eat only yogurt and salad, I’m back on track.

Now an example that is a little more complex might deal with human relationships. If in the present moment I chose to tell you how I disagree with the way you are handling a situation, and I know you don’t respond well to criticism, then chances are, by choosing to make that comment, I’m choosing to get in a fight with you. If however, I don’t want my future to be filled with fighting, I can simply choose not to make the comment.

All of our power lies in the present moment. Just like a tree that is good bears good fruit and a tree that is bad bears bad fruit, so too does a person with presence live a life of his or her own making. What you are is what comes forth. Christians often talk about being “wise stewards” of the earth’s resources, of financial resources, even of how we spend our time. Let us also consider that we must be wise stewards of our moments.

How do we do this? It’s as simple and as difficult as it can possibly be. We do this by staying awake in the here and now, by being present to what is.

In the meditation that follows, we will first pay attention to our breathing because it is the most basic entry point into this current moment. Then, we will pay attention to our thoughts so we can gain some understanding as to what is consuming our minds. Then, we will listen to music and also watch a slideshow. With each exercise, just try to stay focused on what is happening. As we learn to do this, we assume power over our lives and help to create the existence that we truly want.

Sit with your feet flat on the floor and close your eyes.

Do not pursue the past.
Do not lose yourself in the future.
The past no longer is.
The future has not yet come.
Looking deeply at life as it is
In the very here and now,
We touch the source of life itself.
We come near to God.

Breathing in, I know that I am here.
Breathing out, I know that it is now.

Breathing in, I feel the flow of air entering my body.
Breathing out, I feel the flow of air leaving my body.

Breathing in, I feel myself sitting up straight.
Breathing out, I release all tension and anxiety.


Now, let us turn our attention to our thoughts and feelings. Be present as the watcher of your mind, because whenever you are able to observe you mind, you are no longer trapped in it. You are the witnessing presence established in the here and now.

In the coming silence, just listen to your internal voice. Watch your mind as though it were a video. Don’t get caught up in the thinking, but watch yourself as you think.


Breathing in, I see my thoughts.
Breathing out, I feel my emotions.

Breathing in, I know where I am.
Breathing out, I am happy to be here.

Breathing in, I relax into the present moment.
Breathing out, I open myself to life.

And now, let the music and the images on the screen take us further into the present moment.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

You Are the Mountain

(Read Psalm 30)

Life is not just falling in love. It is also falling out of love. Life is not just landing a job. It is also leaving a job. Life is not always feeling happy. It is also feeling sad.

Most of us would prefer that this isn’t so, but it is the reality of human existence.

Part of what we must do on our spiritual journeys then is learn to embrace that which plagues us. By embrace I don’t mean that we have to like our trials and tribulations, but we must learn to accept them as a part of our life, we must learn to love ourselves though them, otherwise, we will end up bitter and angry.

Part of the reason that embracing is so important is because what you resist persists. If you resist the ongoing argument you are having with someone in your life, the argument persists. In fact, resistance fuels the flame and makes the problem bigger. If you resist and deny your declining health, the problem won’t go away, it will persist. The best way to help yourself is to embrace what you are going through, to look at it through the eyes of compassion and learn to work with it instead of fighting against it.

There is something called a mountain meditation. And in this meditation you are the mountain, and no matter what happens on the mountain, you stand firm and at peace. The sun may be scorching the earth, the wind may be blowing fiercely, the rain or snow may be pouring down, but the mountain is unaffected by all the turmoil going on around it.

The elements of sun, wind, rain and snow are like the changing circumstances of our lives. The important thing to remember is that we are not the elements, we are the mountain. The elements swirl around us and sometimes they make life pleasant and good, while at other times, they make life miserable and bad. Through all of this, you, the mountain remain calm.

The things we have to endure - breakups, work stress, disagreements, destructive attitudes and behaviors, poor health - if we don’t get caught up in these storms of life, we can truly make it through them and be better off than before. But this will take time. Years even. What we should learn to do is harness our energy so that we can make skillful choices that will lead to healing, reconciliation and wellness.

So right now, we are going to take a few minutes to imagine ourselves as the mountain. After I finish speaking, music will begin to play and some images will be displayed on the screen if you would like to look at them. This will be a time for reflection in which you can think about the circumstances of your life and the best ways to respond to them.

To sum it up simply, the road to health and happiness starts with us being strong and still, unaffected and firm like the mountain, and we move further down the road as we respond to life with insight and wisdom.

I invite you to sit up straight or stand in the mountain pose if you like. Close your eyes and focus on your breath.

Breathing in, I see myself as a mountain
Breathing out, I feel solid and strong.

Imagine yourself as a majestic mountain with your summit in the clouds. Imagine how solid and strong you are, how connected to the earth you are, for you, the mountain, have stood for thousands of years.

The weather has always been in a state of flux around you. Some days, the sun shines brightly overhead, and you feel its warmth and bask in its light. Other days, the sun is too hot, and it scorches the earth and rock. No matter what the weather, you, the mountain are solid and strong.

Some days, the sun is hidden by the clouds, and it feels so cold on the mountain that you shiver. On these days, the wind is like a whip against your skin. Debris blows across the mountain, but you are not harmed. You are solid and strong.

Other days, the heavens open up and rain falls gently to the earth providing it with much needed water. Or snow falls from heaven and covers you in a gentle blanket of white, and even though it is cold, there is no harm to you for you feel as though you are covered by a down comforter. No matter the weather, you stand firm and immovable.

The winds of change have whirled for centuries around you without any noticeable effects. And as this meditation ends, you shall remain still, firmly grounded and connected to the earth regardless of the circumstances of your life. So now just sit and continue to follow your breath as you sink deeply into your majestic mountain base. Become one with the feelings of solidity, strength and connection.

Breathing in, I feel calm.
Breathing out, I am centered.

Breathing in, I feel secure.
Breathing out, I am strong.

Breathing in, I feel still and connected.
Breathing out, I reflect on things as they are
And I am at peace.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Grace Prevails Over the Wars Within Us and Among Us

There are parts of the Bible I have a hard time understanding and 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? Some days, maybe even every day, we find ourselves in conflict, wanting to behave in one way, but instead behaving in another. We want to eat healthy, but we end up at McDonald’s or Crumbs. 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 matters of the heart, like calling our parents or friends who live far away or putting together the photos from last year’s vacation, but instead, we end up watching some pointless TV show or surfing the web.

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 at all this morning, I simply want us to acknowledge that the inner conflict and the damaging behaviors that come from it are a part of our shared human reality.

We love God and we want to do what we believe is the good and right thing for us and others, but there is a war that rages within us. Sometimes, we follow the good. Other times, we are overcome, destructive, even possessed. We succumb to the very addictions, actions, and interactions that ultimately convict us of our brokenness and our weakness.

Everyone needs forgiveness.

Do you think the woman who committed adultery, was caught and put before Jesus as an example wanted to be in that situation?

I don’t! I can’t explain why she did what she did but I don’t think she intentionally wanted to be in a situation of adultery, knowing all the pain that causes so many people, including herself.

What happens to the woman caught in adultery though? No one is going to argue that she was right in her behavior, and yet, no one can condemn her or stone her.

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

And everyone disappeared because the scribes and Pharisees and people listening to Jesus suffer from the inner conflict and the 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.”

Everyone needs forgiveness, and in Christ, everyone receives forgiveness.

Jesus doesn’t condemn us for our sin or weakness. Just the opposite: He saves us from it! Paul says, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” And then immediately, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” because it is Jesus who breaks the law of sin and death, and it is Jesus who takes our condemnation upon himself and keeps us in a dynamic, working relationship with God. It’s Jesus who gives us a fresh start and another chance every day. As our opening hymn reminds us, “Morning by morning, new mercies I see.”

Thanks be to God is right!

Doing what we don’t want to do is a part of what it means to be truly human. And rather than condemn us, what this must convict us of is that we need help. To be human is to be in need.

Everyone needs help, and in Christ, everyone receives help.

You might be wondering, how does God help us?

One way is by giving us each other. We have the choice of whether we will love each other through our troubles and difficulties or whether we will hold grudges and be unaccepting.

One of the most touching stories of reconciliation that I know was a friend of mine who lived in a seriously dysfunctional family. When she was a child, Veronica’s father was an alcoholic and verbally abusive. Her mother was afraid to leave because she had two young children and no money of her own. Sadly, it’s a common story. From birth until she was 13, Veronica’s father drank heavily every night, whether at home or the bar, and he barely paid attention to anyone in the family. Then on May 12, 2007, he quit drinking. I don’t know his exact story, but he had hit his bottom, as they say. He apologized to everyone in the family, but it was difficult to forgive after all the pain and suffering they had endured for those many years.

When Veronica left for college, she had no real relationship with her father to speak of. But when her dad got sick in her senior year, Veronica went to visit him in the hospital. The road to repairing their relationship has been a long one, but one time I was with Veronica and her whole family at one of her birthday parties. Her dad said to me very quietly but with conviction, “I love this daughter of mine so much because she was willing to see past my mistakes and love me again.” That’s it. That’s all he said, but I could tell that Veronica’s acceptance and love had changed his world.

Everyone needs love, and if we act like Christ acts towards us, everyone can have love.

Another way God helps us is by giving us the strength to change our ways and to actually stop doing the very things we hate. It is possible to do things differently, and I believe it is it the work of the Holy Spirit to empower us to see the world from a new perspective and to make new choices. Veronica’s father did it with his drinking, and there are millions of success stories of people like him, who went from being weak and broken to being strong and whole.

My prayer is that we can do this and that the people whom we love can do this as well.

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. Jesus isn’t.

But point yourself or point that person in God’s direction. Turn your life back over to Christ. He will help you. God will be gracious to you. God will “relieve the troubles of [your] heart, and bring [you] out of [your] distress” (Psalm 25: 17).

This morning, I simply invite you to open up your hearts and lives and let God love you just as you are…perfectly imperfect. Acceptance, strength, transformation – these things can all be yours because…Everyone needs grace, and in Christ, everyone receives grace.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

What Happens After We Say "Yes" To God?

(Read Jonah 3: 1-5, 10 and Mark 1:14-20)

Do you ever feel stuck? Like you aren’t moving forward in any positive direction? Uninspired? Unmotivated? In a funk, we might say.

In the dead of winter, this can happen to us. Whether its actually the dead of winter, like in the months of January and February, or if we find ourselves in the dead of winter in our souls.

I know I do, but the blah days don’t have feel like the end of the world or like we’re failing in the game of life. They can just be taken in stride. The blah days are the days we treat ourselves to watching movies, eating cupcakes and taking naps, enjoying the simple pleasures of being human.

Life is a journey and a process. The beginning of the journey is when we say “yes” to God. Jesus comes to all of us and says, “Follow me.” And when we reply, “yes,” our lives head off in new directions. The disciples went from being fishermen to fishers of men, and Jonah, after he said, “yes,” went from the belly of a whale to Ninevah to proclaim the message of God. It is in saying “Yes” to God’s call that we find our lives expanding and ourselves transforming. It is in saying “yes” to God’s call that we live into our highest callings.

But this doesn’t happen overnight. What does happen overnight is a great deal of trial, of testing, of wrestling within ourselves and with God. That’s because where we are at and where God is taking us is a journey of the soul.

Think of a caterpillar on its way to becoming a butterfly. It must go through a process of metamorphosis. The caterpillar needs to wrap itself up tightly in a cocoon and allow itself to be changed.

The soul’s journey is no different. If God is calling you to change a way you think or act, you must go through the events and have the realizations that will bring you to a new place. What feels like blah days, what feels like being stuck, might actually be your own process of metamorphosis.

I also like the image of a mother who is pregnant, waiting to give birth to her child. For nine months, she is in a process called gestation. The time is necessary for the baby to develop so that when it is born it can live and thrive in this new world. Our souls also go through periods of gestation. As the Holy Spirit is actively working to sanctify us, we might feel as though we are just waiting around, being unproductive and not moving forward, but in truth, we are making advances in our development, it just takes time.

And here’s the thing, the process that we are going through, the time of metamorphosis, gestation, transition is not something you can force. It happens when the time is right and for as long as is necessary.

This can be one of the most frustrating aspects of the spiritual journey if we don’t understand what is happening because internally we feel conflict. We feel like we are stuck and changing at the same time. We long for some resolution or advancement that is not happening quickly enough.

But, if we recognize that what we are feeling and thinking is normal, if we know that what we are hoping for will in fact happen in its own due process, than we can relax into this stage of our journey. It is preparing us for the greatness to come. I now know that everything I’ve been though I needed to go through to get to that next step, and the same is true for every soul.

Think about actors or musicians who hit it big when they are only kids or teenagers, Drew Barrymore, Brittany Spears, Lindsay Lohan, River Phoenix. These people aren’t ready for their success and they inevitably can’t handle their reality and destruct. When we try to force our growth or be someone that we haven’t yet become, we too aren’t ready for the work that God gives to us. We find ourselves in the limelight without the right words to share. We find ourselves in the job without the skills necessary to complete the tasks required.

But if we are wise, if we allow for the process of maturation and give ourselves the time needed, then when we finally do burst forth, we are ready for it. We are like George Clooney acting and producing film after film of Academy Award caliber. Or author Steven Pressfield who went from being unable to write 10 pages in a six month period to someone who churns out bestseller after bestseller.

While we cannot force the timing of our evolution, we can play a part in our own development. One thing we can do I’ve already mentioned, and that’s trusting the process. Another thing we can do is take one step forward each time we are ready. The journey of a 1000 miles starts with one step. And then another step. And another step. And another. And another. Until one day, we find ourselves in the place we always wanted to reach. Having a willing attitude will make us co-creators with God in order to live into our highest callings.

What happens after we say “Yes” to God?

The journey truly begins. We find happiness in the process. There will be days, weeks, months, hopefully not years, that seem like a waste, but don’t panic. These are actually times of metamorphosis and gestation. When the time is full, we will soar like a butterfly.