How’s Your Heart?

1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15 | Psalm 138 | 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 | Mark 3:20-35

When someone asks, “How are you doing?” or more likely, “How ya doin’?” What’s the common response? . . . It’s usually “Fine,” right? Maybe we even return the question to make sure everything’s “fine” for them, too. Do we really believe them? Chances are we don’t believe them because we know full well we’re not telling the full truth; we’re just giving them the short, socially acceptable response so we can save the full answer for our next counseling session. And that’s okay and actually preferred because we’re all carrying around our stuff. (I think that’s why we like our pets so much because their lives remind us to remember the basics of what keep us alive.)

If we think about it, we’re simultaneously functioning at many levels: within Creation, as part of humanity, in a nation, as part of community/work/tribe, within our family, and as ourselves, as an individual. So when someone asks us if we’re fine, it might take a while to do a thorough reality check. Maybe when we say “fine,” what we really mean is that we’re coping alright with everything we’re dealing with. Maybe that’s what I mean. 😉

Our gospel reading for today captures these levels pretty well. At least as a reader of Mark’s gospel, we somewhat have an understanding of who Jesus is. He is born in the flesh as human. As a Jew, we know he’s part of the nation of Israel. He’s surrounded by community of his choosing and those who have chosen him, either as friend or foe. He is associated with a particular family, though as a person it gets complicated, being the Son of God and all.

Do you notice that it’s not recorded that anyone ever asks Jesus how he’s doing?

He does get a lot of accusations thrown his way, though, among those that he’s aligned with Satan, using the power of the devil to cast out demons.

Jesus, as part of his response, says that a kingdom, a house divided against itself cannot stand. I know he says more, but let’s take that right there: “if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.”

Jesus gives us a good rule here by which to measure ourselves with a sincere reality check. How’s our house doing? On all levels.

Creation: Our stewardship is showing weakness as ecology groans under our constant demand and pressure.

Humanity: All God’s children. We’re not all doing okay. We’re only as strong as the weakest link, so we have work to do. I’m going to the Poor People’s Campaign: A Call for Moral Revival on Monday, and the theme is “Everybody’s Got a Right to Live.” It’s a reminder that education, a living wage job, housing, and income are things everyone needs to live. This is going to look differently around the world, but it’s how we express it here. I think we can all agree that education is power, and empowering people to live whole lives in their environs is transformational.

Nation: I just got back from traveling between nations, touching ground in England (albeit briefly), and traveling between Israel and Palestine. Coming home, I smell the sweet air and enjoy my place of privilege and power in the world. Yet within our nation, we’re wrestling with other nations, with peoples from other nations. As a US citizen, my leaders are identifiable by others. Are we a house united? How strong are we? Who do we consider allies? What motives govern us?

Community/work/tribe: So readily do we identify with people like ourselves, that our sense of community is often defined by where we live, with whom we work and associate. This is pretty selective, so this can be where we feel strongest. North of Nazareth is a place called Nazareth Ilit (i-l-i-t). Any time I had heard it mentioned, I thought they were saying “Nazareth Elite.” In a way, they were. I asked a cab driver what “ilit” meant. He didn’t define it for me, seeming to wrestle with the translation, but he told me it’s where the religious orthodox live, so where the rabbis and more conservative would live. It feels safe to surround hunker down in the security of “our people,” doesn’t it?

Family: God help us. Our families are complicated before we are born, so let’s just trust that dysfunction is the norm, and we all need Jesus in this department . . . and his family calls him the one who’s out of his mind!

Ourselves: Be gentle here. How’s your house, your self doing? Have you even checked in lately because there’s been so much attention at all the other levels? Ultimately, for each of us, all of the levels come to a fine point within us. How’s your heart? How’s your will? How firm is the foundation of your house? How great is your faith?

God bless you if you’re at 100%: I’ll sit down and listen at your feet. But I’m guessing that right now, we’re listening and praying together.

We see Jesus, followed by a crowd because he’s got it all together, and we want what he’s got. He’s showing us the way. At the leadership talk given this past week through the Head & Heart luncheon for the women’s shelter, Alex Cottrell from Milestone Leadership said the only way to break our own pattern of thinking, our perpetuation of our prejudices, is to surround ourselves with people different from ourselves. I don’t think Jesus had to worry about his prejudices much, but I think being surrounded by the imperfect, the disenfranchised–and seeking them out–kept our imperfection, our absolute need for grace ever-present. And we want/ need to keep seeing God’s work manifest before us. Jesus makes the whole unconditional-love-follow-God’s-will look easy. Everyone’s a beloved child of God, without boundary; they just have to believe to experience the love, liberation, and life God promises. All the levels are perfectly contained within the heart of Christ, the heart of God.

More often than not, Saul is more familiar to me. For him, I imagine, the notion of a human family is pretty abstract, as it’s easier to focus on God’s chosen people as the only ones who matter. We’re united as a people in one nation; our tribes are our community, identified in our work and where we live; and our birth families are so entwined with who we are in our place in our tribe that who I am as a person is pretty insignificant, unless I bring shame to my family. If something happens to disrupt the order in which I understand the world to work, it might be too much for me. I might hold onto my ego, my agenda, my worldview, even if God’s will and way are being revealed to me, and I might interpret my consequences as God’s punishment and disfavor. It’s easier to blame God and everyone and everything else than it is honestly to face the error of my ways.

Between Saul and Jesus Christ, we have the words of Paul coming to us: “do not lose heart.”

God gives Saul a new heart after he was anointed king, before he was proclaimed king to the people. On Saul’s way back home, we’re told in Ch. 10 that “As he turned away to leave Samuel, God gave him another heart” (1Sam 10:9). Don’t you know God knew Saul would need all the help he could get. Saul needed the power of God within him. Psalm 51 (v. 11) comes to mind for me: “Create in me a clean heart, O God,/and renew a right spirit within me.” If I’m going to do the work God has given me to do, I need a new, clean heart and a right spirit. I need to check myself to make sure my way forward isn’t obstructed by all the things I want or by all the things I don’t want to do.

What we don’t want to do is just as significant as what we don’t want. When Saul is going to be identified by Samuel to the tribes, he actually hides among the baggage or equipment. He’s tall, so for him not to be seen, he has to be crouching down, literally hiding. We do this, right: hide from that which we know we can do?

And I want to say that after his initial hesitation and rough start that Saul turned out to be a great king, thanks be to God, but that’s not how it goes. Saul never really gets out of his own way, never fully heeds the directions given him by God, and ultimately he loses God’s favor and grows in his jealousy of David. Maybe you know, too, that he takes his own life after being wounded in battle so that he doesn’t die at the hand of the enemy; at least, that’s what the text and commentary says.

In a week when suicides stream across headlines and tv banners, we must be cautioned not to over-simplify reasons why someone takes their own life. What we do know is that we have free will, and we don’t always choose the best path for ourselves. Paul’s words ring true to us, reminding us of the life, the house of grace we have through Christ that is unseen by our temporal sight but is eternal in our spiritual nature. That grace extends to all, “so we do not lose heart.”

If each of us have a heart touched by God and a conscience intent to align our will with God’s, that new world ordered by Love will be revealed, justice will roll down like water, and valleys will be made high and mountains low. That worldview from the heart of Christ will give us the mind of Christ, and we’ll be too busy loving our neighbor, blessing one another, sharing in our abundance, empowering one another to reduce ourselves creating barriers to stop the flow of God’s grace and love.

I can imagine this. I have hope. If I can imagine it, remember, then there’s still reason for hope. If I have love of God and neighbor at the front and center, then I can pretty sure that my will is aligned with God’s, and where there’s a will, God help us, there’s a way. Amen? It’s going to seem complicated at all levels, and it’s going to be disruptive. This is how we know we’re praying well, when the plans we make get caught up in the wind of Spirit and land back to us all disrupted and aligned with God’s will. But grounded in the presence of Christ, nothing feels stronger or more right, and we do not lose heart–it’s been given to us with grace and love.

Continue Reading

Our Humanity & Transfiguration

2 Kings 2:1-12 | 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 | Mark 9:2-9 | Psalm 50:1-6

You may have read in this week’s newsletter that this weekend is The Clergy Letter Project’s Evolution Weekend, the 13th year of pulling together clergy of all traditions to advocate for a relationship between science and religion rather than putting them at odds with each other. Our Bishop Benfield signed onto the Letter, as did I. As responsible citizens and faithful Christians, we have a responsibility to know how our actions impact our environment, how science enhances our understanding of the world around us. Our growing understanding of the world around us does not negate the existence of God. If anything, this understanding enforces the magnitude of the beauty and mystery of Creation, in what we know and the growing expanse of what we don’t know.

This year the theme of Evolution Weekend is “Our Shared Humanity.” Because of the divisiveness in our societies worldwide, emphasis is placed on our shared humanity, our commonalities even and especially at our genetic level. Often, divisiveness is based on “race,” which is itself a human construct, a designation based on geography or melatonin levels. We’ve used race and ethnicity to sort people throughout history, so much so that we’ve shown a tendency to reduce a person to their race or ethnicity, losing sight of their humanity: that’s how we end up de-humanizing people and finding ourselves in the midst of discrimination and oppression to outright racism and genocide. This seems particularly appropriate during February, Black History Month. So neglected from our American narrative, the black story needs at least a month a year to get recognition as an affirmed part of our collective narrative. We need incentive to pay attention to what often gets the attention and recognition, let alone how we use language and imagery. Think how often we associate darkness with what is bad and light with what is good. We need to think. We need to be aware. We need to wake up more often to our shared humanity.

This Epiphany season we’ve been focusing on how we manifest the Light of Christ in our humanity. We’ve been highlighting wonderful organizations and efforts to serve our neighbors, especially those who are suffering. We recognize the brokenness in our humanity that enables the perpetuation of this suffering, and we realize the desperate need we have for Jesus Christ to be in our midst, the wholly human and divine one that opened our way to reconciliation and redemption.

The transfiguration story we have in the Gospel of Mark highlights the contrast between the humanity of the apostles and the divinity of Jesus, while still holding on to Jesus’ humanity, too. Jesus needed these witnesses, even if he didn’t want them to share anything just yet. There was a hill to climb, a revelation to be had, and a moment to be savored.

There’s so much meaning in the details. Note that when something significant happens, it’s often someplace hard to get to, set apart, or up high. On this high, set apart mountain, Jesus, radiant in glory is accompanied by two who were thought to be ascended directly to heaven (Moses, whose burial site is unknown, though the was buried, and Elijah taken by chariots in the whirlwind): this moment is a revelation of God. In Greek tradition, a transfiguration or transformation occurred when the gods walked the earth in human form and then manifested their divine glory or radiance. Peter’s response to make three dwellings was completely in line with the Greek tradition to build a shrine on the site of an epiphany of a deity, as was their response to be in awe and fear of the divine manifestation.


But what of Jesus’ response of silence, of not knowing what to say? That might seem odd to us–thankfully we have the voice of God speak up–but Mark doesn’t have a problem showing Jesus’ humanity. His divinity has words, but the human doesn’t. We so often don’t have words for the most intense moments of fear, grief, sadness, joy, or love. We just have our witness to those moments. I have no doubt that Jesus brought a full-bodied awareness to the moment with the apostles, with all their fear and awe and wondering. The wisest people have a way with silence, and it’s not always what they don’t know that calls for silence. Think of all that Jesus didn’t say during his wandering in the desert, in his times of prayer, and during his trial and crucifixion. When Jesus does speak, he tells them to hang on until after Easter, which the guys didn’t understand yet because they hadn’t experienced the resurrection yet.

But we have.

And we’re neither Greek nor Jew, nor East nor West, nor male nor female . . . but we are humans, created in the image of God, gifted with the saving grace of Jesus Christ, whose glory we believe in because it shines in our hearts (as Paul says). But because there’s still suffering in the world and God’s glory hasn’t been fully realized in me (and maybe not in you, either), there is need for transfiguration, for transformation. There is need, and there’s a way: through Christ’s reconciliation and redemption.

We start with ourselves. We climb the climb of whatever struggle we’re facing and do it again and again until we’ve seen and tasted the image of God long enough to bring it back into our daily lives, until we’ve heard the Word of God and take it with us, working through our fear/resistance/oppression until we trust in the power of the resurrection to see us through death and even hell itself. We do this because Jesus showed us the power of eternal life. We do this because Jesus Christ is alive, pulsing with every beat of our hearts.

We nurture this pulse of Christ with our prayer, worship, and fellowship. I read an article that addressed the trend of churches giving up time-consuming worship to emphasize sharing a meal and doing deeds. That hits close to home because I find great value in meals shared and service in the community. But like the article emphasizes, the time we share and the service we do outside of our worship times and prayer practices are an extension of our gratitude for all God has given us, our way of sharing in God’s glory, our way of manifesting the Christ Light into the world around us that others might recognize it for themselves. That’s what I think of when I think of ministry. It’s not about doing good to make people feel good about themselves or make them think that our church is “the” place to be. I apologize if I haven’t made that clear.

What we do is an extension of our praise and thanksgiving to God through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. We’ve been saved from death, we’ve died to sin in our baptism. We’ve been redeemed by Jesus Christ. We’ve been given the greatest gift, for which we don’t have the capacity ever to repay. But we’re told to love one another. And our loving one another with thanks and praise to God–genuine worship and gratitude–manifests the Light of Christ in our communities. It shows in the fellowship we share, in the works we do, and we have room to grow and improve in this area, for we have so much to be thankful for. I’m going to continue doing my best to make sure we have beautiful, meaningful, prayerful worship together as a first priority. And I’m going to continue to encourage living out that meaningful faith in acts of service to our neighbors.

When I went to the Q Commons event, Sister Lisa from Mercy shared her 8th Street Motel feeding ministry. The motel was a site for sex trafficking, abuse, drugs, and violence. Since they began the feeding ministry, which occurs once  a week, reports of violence reduced drastically. Relationships built over time also helped former motel residents establish more stable lives. My ears perked up when she said she was starting the same program in Bentonville at a motel that showed great need for positive influence, a place that often houses those who are homeless, addicted, impoverished, and otherwise marginalized. I can imagine a so-called transfiguration story of those who are in the midst of battles making it to a bounteous buffet, receiving the love and hospitality of willing volunteers, and going back to their friends to share the good news of a free meal. That story seems kind of flat. More meaningful is the story of people being fed, listening to one another, encouraging each other, empowering the weak and afraid, and showing up month after month to check in and share where they’ve seen points of hope in their lives, where they’ve sensed grace and experienced faith. More transformational still is the story of those who thought they were easily dropping off a portion of a meal but who stayed with people who might otherwise challenge them–even frighten them–and stayed with them long enough, built relationship with them deep enough, to recognize their shared humanity and develop a common bond, not for their sake alone but because they loved God so much they wanted to share it with others. 

Continue Reading

Free

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.

+ + +

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

Continue Reading