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Deuteronomy 18:15-20 | Psalm 111 | 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 | Mark 1:21-28

When I was at St. Paul’s, the Servant Leadership classes they offered enriched my spiritual growth and development. The classes taught and introduced me to ways of expressing my experiences that I didn’t get by attending church every Sunday. (It seems funny to me that we would think that an hour or so a week will give us all we need to make our joy complete, but I digress…) One of the classes was on Compassion, one of the main tenets of servant leadership. It was in this class that we talked about the effect we have on one another. If you’re like my husband, you think this is where I start sounding new age-y: we read about studies of coherence, how researchers quantify the feeling, the energy, the aura–if you will–that we put off ourselves and that we experience when we’re in the proximity of others. I’m pretty open-minded and tend to let my experience guide me. It seemed to me like we are measuring our heart rate, how calm we are, but still . . . that sense of presence extends beyond us, and  invites or distances others from ourselves. So when I talk about imagining being in the presence of Jesus and how compelling it must have been, I’m trying to imagine being in the presence of God made manifest, in the presence of holiness, in the presence of the imago dei–the image of God, that says, “This. This is who you are called to be. Beloved. At one with me.”

Coherence defined is “the quality of forming a unified whole.” In physics, coherence is “a fixed relationship between the phase of waves in a beam of radiation of a single frequency. Two beams of light are coherent when the phase difference between their waves is constant.” So in class when we focused on compassion, among other things, we talked about being coherent with ourselves and one another. If we want to feel at one with one another, in sync, we focus on recognizing suffering and not inflicting it ourselves: we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. As Christians, this looks like recognizing the lack of belovedness that’s present in the world around us, and we show love.

One of the greatest exercises we did in the class and that I’ve done in small groups many times since, is a compassion exercise of taking a moment of love and joy in my life, breathing it in and exhaling it, intentionally spreading it beyond myself until it expands to God beyond the cosmos . . . and bringing it back in to me, here and now. I think we often forget that we have a great capacity to make a difference in our world, near and far.

This matter of forgetting is of critical importance. In the Jewish tradition, recall the imperative behind telling the stories to the children, to the future generations so that the people wouldn’t forget who they are, whose they are, the imperative behind maintaining their identity. Isn’t that true in every cultural group? What’s your story? What’s your narrative? What do you know in your bones, tell to others, and share with the world? What are the most used words on your social media sites? Who do you surround yourself with and share in the same narrative?

We are inclined these days to align with our social or interest groups, right? A big game is happening next week: are you Eagles or Patriots? People get passionate about their recreation. We also identify with our employment or lack thereof. Politics, too. Republican or Democrat? Conservative, mainstream, progressive, or liberal? Our place of origin. East or West? North or South? Legal or Immigrant? Our very identity: gender; ethnicity; sexuality; fertility . . . every which way we have to classify and sort ourselves, we accomplish it by furthering whatever story we have to affirm for ourselves, even if that means part of our story is to separate or alienate ourselves from others.

I’ve mentioned Brené Brown so many times, and she preached in the National Cathedral last week, so I’ll revisit her words again: she states flat-out that we’re in a spiritual crisis. Our spirituality is based on belief that we are connected, not only to ourselves but also to something greater. Sure, our spirituality can be that we’re die-hard Eagles fans, and we’re bonded with other Eagles fans. But is the Eagles that “something greater”? We’re dyed in the wool Democrats or Republicans, Yankees or Rebels . . . but is our political or geographical homeland that “something greater”? I’m a priest in The Episcopal Church. Is the National Cathedral or even the organizing bodies at 815 my “something greater”? Our “something greaters” have a tendency to become idols, false gods, lifted up by false prophets, stumbling blocks to the weak. These idols don’t sever our connection with one another even from the “other” who doesn’t support or understand where we’re coming from, why we do what we do; they can’t sever that connection anymore than they can destroy the frequency between us: it can make it incoherent. The idols have a way of distancing ourselves from what is truly greater, making things in life so discordant and segregated that we forget what is truly great. As Christians, what is truly great is God, the God who imprinted God’s own image in each of us, whose divine imprint is breathed within every living thing. Especially as humans, who bear the image of God, we are inextricably connected to one another, and this is so important that we make vows in our baptism to respect the dignity of every human being. And when one person hurts in the whole world, our compassion compels us to recognize that suffering and work to alleviate the pain that it might not be inflicted upon them or us so that we can be whole with God.

Buddhism taught me the word compassion. “This is what Christ is all about!” I nearly exclaimed to my professor. “Why have I never heard this word before?” I had never heard the word, but I had seen it in practice. We see it now. Students are dying in schools from gun violence, and we hurt. MOMS Demand groups sprang up five years ago after Sandy Hook to say no more children will die this way . . . my child won’t die that way. Every week, the possibility draws closer to kids we know. God forbid it be our own. What are we doing to bring coherence? To manifest compassion.

We all know someone affected by the layoffs, right? Maybe you’ve experienced in the past if not now. Maybe you’ve had to deliver the news yourself if not with Walmart then in other lines of work. No one wants to fire or lay off anyone. We want everyone to have gainful employment. We want to plug people in and make deeper, truer connections, enable fruitful labor. Yet I hear rumblings that people are recognized as humans but rather as just another employee, just another calculation affecting the bottom line. What are we doing within our places of employment to reinforce our dignity and humanity and connection? Our work isn’t the greatest thing we do. Our lives are the greatest thing we have to show forth the love we have. Yes, we need to pay the bills in our homes and offices and churches, but at the end of the day, even at the end of our lives, how did we show the world our love of God and God’s love for us?

Jesus taught with authority in the synagogue and cast out the demon from the man who never speaks for himself. And those gathered around him wondered at his words and work. Great crowds followed Jesus. Where was their focus? Where was their “something greater”? They made famous a man who did amazing things.

The unclean spirit, however, called Jesus “the Holy One of God.” The demon, the embodiment of evil knew the coherence of Jesus, perceived the frequency, knew the divinity Jesus possessed, and the demon was powerless at His command though it did not leave without convulsions and crying out. The unclean spirit made a scene.

Our idols or our demons don’t call out divinity when it appears, but they are mighty strong at enabling us to forget our imago dei, to forget the Christ Light we bear, to forget our connection with others, even to forget our connection to God. If we’re inclined to forget all this, how dim becomes the story of Jesus, the life he lived, the death he suffered, the resurrection and ascension he showed us as he returned to full Glory in God, in unity, wholeness, and perfect coherence.

Hear our prayers, O God, and grant us peace, that we might be free from all that binds us and blinds us to the power of the Life and Love of Christ to restore us all to God.

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For further reading on compassion, I commend Karen Armstrong’s work on compassion, highlighted by this article on Brainpickings.

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Room for Improvement

A Sermon preached by Sara Milford at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, on July 22nd, 2012.

The Scripture Texts for Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 11, Year B are:

2 Samuel 7:1-14a; Psalm 89:20-37; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56


Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He 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. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.


There’s a blog my husband saw a few years ago, which has since gained in popularity, thanks in large part to wonderful little lists, guides, how-to’s, and incredible dedication on the part of the author.  A former journalist and a father of six, Leo Babatua writes about simplifying life and living well.  Striving to live fully into his blog’s name, Zen Habits, he chronicles his journey into right living through the creation of healthy habits.

One of his posts, right between “The Best Procrastination Tip Ever” and “Toss Productivity Out,” is “Improve Every Moment.”  The problem statement, essentially, is what if you can’t slow down?  What if you can’t escape the busy-ness of your life?

His tiny guide:

  • Be more present, so life doesn’t rush past you without you noticing.
  • Enjoy every activity you do more, so life is better all the time.
  • Feel more relaxed, so every day is as good as a vacation.
  • Be ready to handle anything that comes your way.

He elaborates a bit more, saying basically that, like children, we need to live more in relaxed mode.  In relaxed mode, we sense and feel more and get out of our thinking heads to remind our brain what it’s like to feel.  Maybe one by one we can release those muscles that are so used to being constricted.  Soften the jaw.  Roll back and drop the shoulders.  Breathe to our bellies.  Smile.

For practice Leo suggests being aware of our physical body, the present environment, at any given moment and doing so as often as we can.  Most of us are blessed, after all, with five senses.  We can feel the temperature of the air and feel the support of the pew; smell the old wood of this place; hear the creak of the floor or the breath on the exhale.  Hopefully, we see the light showing through the beautiful stained glass.  Perhaps you can taste your morning coffee on your tongue.

But how easily we get distracted from life as it is and get caught up in that whirlwind of busy-ness.  We find a groove and stick with it, maybe a comfortable routine, something that doesn’t rock the boat too much but fills every moment of our days and nights.  We will work ourselves to the bone.  It may even be with good, worthwhile work, or work that we have to do, but we forget our whole person.  Eventually, no matter what we’re doing (or not doing), we find that our system isn’t sustainable.  What seemed to work isn’t working any longer.  Something’s wrong.  Something needs to change.

Jesus knew all this.  I don’t recall anyone ever telling Jesus how to improve every moment, that he needed to be present, enjoy the moment, relax, and be prepared to handle anything that crossed his path.  No one had to tell Jesus to embody mindfulness and compassion — that’s just who he was, who he is.

From today’s Gospel, I imagine the disciples, like young children after being rounded up, greedy for attention and approval from the teacher they most adore, recounting to Jesus all the good work they’ve been doing.  Imagine the thrill of their work, the endorphins that were coursing through their bodies as it is with any of us who are in the zone, doing what we love.  They have been fueled by their passion, living into the miracles brought about by their faith.  They’re on a roll and ready for more.  I imagine Jesus smiling knowingly, patiently (for wouldn’t he already know all they’ve done?), admiring his chosen.  They have done good work.  But they have more to learn.

“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”

Following their great teacher, they go along to this deserted place that may likely have been a vacant place between two settlements, someplace not terribly accessible, particularly by foot, so they go by boat.  But there were many who saw them and recognized them and rushed to get to where they were going first – by land, on foot.  The crowd is willing to risk the journey to get even a glimpse of this teacher, to get a chance to be taught.  I wonder if the disciples saw the crowd, too.  I wonder if the disciples tried to persuade Jesus to change destinations, saying something more along the lines of, “Jesus, they know who we are.  They know You.  We’re not going to get any rest.  Let’s go somewhere else.”  The excited children from before now realize their lack of sleep and their hunger.  Settling into their bodies, pulling the focus inward, they now have their sight set on rest, food, and time alone, with Jesus, of course.

When they get to shore, Jesus has compassion on the people, these lost sheep.  Without missing a beat, he teaches them, taking them into his fold.  They were hungry for the nourishment He provided.  Now, I don’t know about the disciples, but I do know how my children behave when they are tired, when they’re hungry and just done.  If I say we’re going somewhere to do something, that had better be what we do.  If I stop to visit with someone, there is no end of exasperated sighs and eye-rolling.  You’d think I was torturing them intentionally.

But that’s not it.  As a mother, I want to set an example for my children to stop and to pause when needed.  Every moment we have a choice to make, I’m always telling them. We can indeed improve every moment.  More often than we realize, we’re given a choice to make a difference in someone’s lives, including our own.

I figure Jesus exemplifies love in action.  He sees a crowd in need, sheep in need of a shepherd.  Jesus’ innate goodness may make it seem like he had no other choice than to teach to those willing to hear, but Jesus was man.  Jesus chose to speak to those with open ears and open hearts.  They listened.  They were fed.  All were fully present.

Except maybe the disciples, who were there, likely sighing deeply with their growling stomachs, muttering to one another.  I picture the teens rolling their eyes and groaning under obviously dire circumstances, thinking of themselves, spiraling into diverse tangents that took them out of the moment, away from the full-bodied mystery before them.  Not in the present.  Not enjoying the moment.  Not relaxed, and definitely not prepared for what’s to come.  (But that story’s saved for later.)

We get in today’s reading the bookends of the miracle of a great feeding.  We hear that after Jesus teaches a crowd, they cross over to meet yet another crowd.  The crowds kept coming.  Wherever Jesus went, they followed, hoping that they might, like the hemorrhaging woman, “touch even the fringe of his cloak.”  It says that “all who touched it were healed.”  We remember that Jesus felt the power drain from him when the one woman touched his garment.  But this multitude of people keep coming and coming, and Jesus keeps healing.

Where does Jesus rest?

It strikes me that this story isn’t about Jesus resting.  We don’t get the bit today about Jesus going to the mountain to pray.  He told the disciples to come away and rest awhile; he didn’t say he would.  Maybe the disciples had it in their head that if they were going to rest, surely Jesus would be taking time off, too, but when does the Son of God clock in and clock out?  He was just telling the disciples to rest.  Maybe it would have prevented their grumblings if he had more explicitly said, “Y’all just sit back and let me do the work now,” like any mother who’s ready to take over in the kitchen from the inefficient children trying to help.

We just don’t have the stamina to do all the work alone.  Even the disciples in God’s presence, though they were empowered to perform miracles, could not use compassion alone as fuel.  They were probably a little too much of this world, a little too much tied down in their own minds.

What if,  instead of being so preoccupied in our busy lives and daily struggles, we were aware enough not only to feel the physical environment but also sense and perceive the needs around us?  Feeling this, relaxed, we could have awareness and presence.  We may very well find joy and great energy in such moments, maybe even a bit of fun.  If we are living into the Good News of Christ, we know the right thing to do in the moment because we love one another — above all else.

When we can’t escape the busy-ness, we are shown that we can have mindfulness and compassion.  And when we can’t do that — because we will fail — we are to know that God can.   Jesus didn’t try to escape the crowds that sought him out.  For the disciples, and for us, Jesus is showing the way.  When it’s time to work, we will work – and hopefully with awareness.  When it’s time to rest, there will be rest.  When there are those who are in need, they will be cared for.  All this through the Love of God.

Amen.    

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Day 3

Glory to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.

You’ve given me to be one of those people who get headaches, and I’ve had all kinds.  Dull, ice-pick, tension, stress, heat, sinus, barometric, migraine.

You’ve also given me a gift of healing.  Now, I know how that works.  The truth is, I don’t do anything.  I just call upon you.  I tend to practice this gift with others.  I’m not very good at using it for myself.  That seems to take extra energy, extra effort.  How quickly I forget that you are ever-present and that strength through you knows no bounds.

I’m reminded of your love and compassion in the faces of those who are guests in our country this weekend, especially in the one who is our guest in our home.  Their people have known suffering I cannot imagine, and she practices and lives in her faith and beliefs in a way I can only admire.  Somehow in her journey she has found part of Your Mystery, has reached a point of not understanding, and yet the trust in You is called upon and overrides any slightest hint of doubt, if, indeed, there ever was any.   She doesn’t falter; she does blossom.

I was asked questions, too, about my beliefs.  What it boils down to is that I have more to learn about the Bible, about our history and creeds, but I have a solid grasp on the core of my faith.  I truly believe it’s the core of any faith, that God is about Love — love to God, love to self and others through, for, and as God.  This is practiced and appears as compassion, and it is Good.

Thank you for showing us the way of compassion through the great Teachers, Christ and Muhammed be praised.

Bless our home with radical hospitality.  Bless me with strength and healing.  Bless us all who strive to walk in your way, whichever path we take.

As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.  Amen.

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The Only Way to Know

There are moments in conversation with dear ones when I know I don’t have the experience they have.  The only way to know how they feel, what they’ve been through, is to have been through a very similar situation.  (Losing one’s home does not equal losing your favorite CD.)

These days I’m looking at everything as gaining experience, diversifying my life skills.  I’m building my portfolio, so to speak.

But most importantly, I remind myself that there is so much I don’t know.  There are some experiences I hope never to have.

I give thanks for this luxurious life, knowing that my scale of luxury differs from others’.  With thanksgiving and appreciation, I go forth into the world.  All I can do is live this life with compassion.  That’s the only way I figure I can know God’s love, if such a thing can even be done.

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Recurring Lesson: Choice

In philosophy classes in college, I remember much discussion about free will.  I remember how difficult it was for me to work with the soft clay of my spirituality/religion/philosophy of the time; at once there was form but no form, convictions but infinite potentiality.  There were times when I wondered why these philosophers made such a big deal about it anyway.  (Obviously philosophy wasn’t my major.)

My faith and beliefs aren’t so much clay anymore but a beautiful tree that grows even from the clay of the earth.  The belief that we have choice and free will is one of those branches.  Having children, especially older ones, and following my life path, I see this in every moment, day in and day out.

My older son chooses what he does in the morning.  He’s the early riser, but often he’s the last to walk out the door.  Our youngest is choosing whether or not to tell the truth these days.  Our oldest is choosing to speak with kind words or anger.  We can watch the wheels moving in the mind of our six-year-old as he chooses to do what he wants to do or what he knows he should do.

While we do make choices in every moment, not all of them seemingly life-altering, there are those times when we deliberate and discern.  We try our best to look down the road to see what future that choice will hold for us.

In a discussion with my husband, I told him I almost felt I didn’t have a choice regarding what may very well be my life’s work.  He helped me much when he said he was sorry that my God didn’t give me a choice.  An awakening in my awareness occurred.  Of course I have a choice.  God has granted us free will.  It’s my choice.  But I can’t think of many times in this life when I have chosen to do anything because it was easier.  This life to me isn’t about just barely getting by.  I have a responsibility to learn and grow and evolve and mature, not only for my own benefit.  I don’t believe one can embody positive change without affecting others, too.  Ultimately, I have made a choice to choose the road that pushes my limits until they break open a new understanding.

I cannot force this perspective on others, let alone my kids.  I may very well have a child or two or four who are content to be here now and enjoy the moment simply for the sake of being blissfully present and unaware of greater suffering.  This is hard for me to imagine, but it’s possible.

As ever, I have a choice whether to be personally entangled in the lives of my children and others, or I can choose to love unconditionally.  To live compassion.  It sounds stronger than “to live compassionately.”  Oh, that we all could and would choose compassion in every moment.

We always have a choice.  The lesson continues.

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Religion Revealed

What better day than Ash Wednesday to mention an outward expression of your personal faith?

At music time this morning, I wondered what it was on a woman’s forehead.  Ah, her cross.  We have plans to attend service this evening, as we usually do, where we will receive our mark, our identification as Christians.

But it’s not an easy thing, revealing your belief and interpretation of Spirit.  Just because I identify with Christianity doesn’t mean I’m exactly like all other Christians, or vice versa.  Indeed, I imagine I’m pretty far to the left of the norm.  It takes a special gift to be one who regularly proclaims one’s faith out loud, sharing with others, encouraging others to embody the faith they share.

I admit I have a hard time labeling myself Christian, in light of all the things that have been done and are done in the name of Christianity.  But tonight I’ll accept my cross and with it the commitments I plan to keep for all of Lent (giving up carbonated beverages and alcohol, taking on devoted journaling of meditations, gratitude and dreams).

At the core of all religions, as I see it, is Love, pure Compassion, and with that I can identify.  I can strive to follow Christ’s example.  I can try to be more Christ-like.

Who is your example of Love?  What could you do to embody unconditional Love?  It is quite simple, really. It’s letting go of the ego that’s the hard part.

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All in a Dream

On the radio today I heard two African American mothers suggest that their son could be the next president; one of the sons actually made the suggestion that he could be president.  Perhaps this is part of the hope and change that Obama seeks to revitalize in the USA.

No matter which side you voted for, we have to trust that our nation will move forward, that as a people we can join together, agreeing to disagree on some points, compromising on most others.  Personally, I believe that if we are to make things better for our children, we have to embrace a paradigm shift.  We have to leave our “look out for No. 1” mentality behind and take the “servant-leader” role.  We have to learn how to lead and live with compassion, with awareness and consciousness.  We have to make our homes safe, help people find a right livelihood and genuinely take care of one another.

Do thoughts like these increase the profit margins?  Will it guarantee that we’ll be able to buy all the best and newest things out there?  No, but do we need those things anyway?

If we can take off the layers of messages we receive from corporate media, the layers of expectations built upon us from issues of the past and set forth with a new dream, who knows what can happen.

As Obama did, we can try.  Hope.  Change.  And in the sing-song of Disney’s Pixar Robinsons, “Keep moving forward!”

Martin Luther King, Jr., proudly said he had a dream.  He dared to share his dream.  Look what he sacrificed.  Look how far we’ve come.

What do you dare to dream?

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Why Make Things Difficult?

daisy_green_blue_242467_l.jpgIt’s a sunny spring day here, and I am inspired to accomplish much, including making some honest commitments to do good for myself.  Along with eating well (which I am doing), I want to sincerely simplify my life.  Who doesn’t?

Chances are, you might share this characteristic with me — making things harder than they have to be.  Why do we do this?

So, as we strive to make every day simple and less complicated, let’s make note of our steps along the way.  Here are a few things I’ve done in the few months since starting this blog:

  • More times for crafts/hobbies
  • Increased environmental awareness
  • Planning meals better

I keep saying I’m ready to clear out the clutter, but I have yet to make the giant leap.  I’m taking baby steps in that regard, I suppose.

Life is easy, right?

Live in the now, filled with compassion for yourself and others, with no attachments.

Like I’ve said before, it is definitely easier said than done.  It fails to mention the small stuff, right?  The bills, the errands, the cleaning.  But isn’t that part of the “now”?  And isn’t there a book about not sweating the small stuff and another about chopping wood, carrying water?

When I think about choices I’ve made in my life that seemingly complicate things, I daresay that these choices have also helped me.  Lessons come my way that illuminate my ways of thinking, my way of life.  Without the attention the “drama” brings, I may not have noticed my own patterns of behavior.

It’s finally Friday of what has been a particularly difficult week with the kids.  A friend of mine agreed that she, too, had a hard week but didn’t know if it was her or the kids.  Were my week and the kids really difficult, or did I make it so because I let my ego get in the way?  Did I get trapped somewhere not in the present, lose some compassion and get too attached to what I thought had to get done or be done?  Sounds to me like a sure recipe for a rough week.  I wish I would have thought of that on Monday.

So this weekend, go forth with awareness, love and non-attachment.  It’ll be a weekend.  That’s all we can promise.  May it be a simple one.

(photo from everystockphoto.com, by Henkster)

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