Just Me and My Shadow

lenten altar

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on Sunday, March 26, 2017, the Fourth Sunday of Lent.

Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-7

Some here have been attending a Lenten study series that I have been leading with my colleague Rev. Rebekah Hatch from St. Alban’s Episcopal Church down the road.

We are discussing the book, Breathing Underwater: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps by the well know Franciscan priest, author, and spiritual teacher Richard Rohr. Rohr makes a number of provocative assertions in his book, first, that the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous serve as a rich source of spiritual wisdom; second, that the twelve steps are consistent with the teachings of Jesus; and third, that we are all addicted to something. Rohr suggests that at the very least we are all addicted to our own way of thinking. What does that mean? Rohr writes, “We all take our own pattern of thinking as the norm, logical, and surely true, even when it does not fully compute. We keep doing the same thing over again, even if it is not working for us.” In the same way an alcoholic organizes his or her life in order to support their drinking, so we all organize our own lives and relationships in ways that won’t fundamentally challenge our beliefs and opinions.

I find Rohr’s perspective compelling, and would love to preach a whole sermon series on the twelve steps at some point.

But this morning’s story of Jesus giving sight to a man born blind resonates with Rohr’s interpretation of the Fourth Step. I’ll introduce that Fourth Step in a moment, but first let’s take a look at this text.

In his book, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, noted scholar and author John Shelby Spong makes a persuasive case that the Gospel of John was not written to be taken literally. Instead, John’s Gospel, uses stories of Jesus symbolically to inform our relationship with God. Blindness and sight, like darkness and light, are to be understood as symbols. Keep that in mind in hearing these first five verses.

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

Blindness and sight. Darkness and light. If these are symbols as Spong suggests, what are they symbols of? Let’s return to Rohr and the Fourth Step. It reads, “Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

Step Four asks the alcoholic to review their entire life and account for every moral failure. As a counselor and pastor I have known a number of people who have completed the Fourth Step; it is both exhaustive and exhausting. They begin in childhood and work forward, filling page after page in spiral notebooks with confessions of their failures. As awful as this sounds, the Fourth step is meant to break through the denial that allows the alcoholic to justify hurtful and self-destructive behavior.

And here we find the meaning of the blindness symbol in this morning’s text, an inability to see the error of our own way. Rohr uses the language of “shadow” to describe these parts of ourselves that we deny, the things we would rather leave in the dark, traits, beliefs and behaviors that we are blind to.

He writes, “Your shadow self is not your evil self. It is just that part of you that you do not want to see, your unacceptable self by reason of nature, nurture, and choice. That bit of blindness, what AA calls denial, is what allows us to do evil and cruel things – without recognizing them as evil or cruel”

(singing)

Me and my shadow
Walking down the avenue
Me and my shadow
Not a soul to tell my troubles to
And when it’s twelve o’clock
We climb the stair
We never knock
Cause there’s nobody there
Just me and my shadow
All alone and feeling blue

This old song reminds us, living with our shadow can be a rather lonely existence. Keeping our shadow hidden from the world, means that nobody really know us as we are.

The man born blind is all of us, unable to see or acknowledge our shadow.

When Jesus says that neither the man nor his parents sinned, He means that such blindness is not evidence of judgment, but an opportunity to open our eyes to experience God’s grace. Jesus invites us to bring our shadow out of the darkness, into his light; to be fully known as we are. Rohr calls this acknowledgment of and engagement with our shadow, “shadow boxing,” I might prefer the image of dancing with our shadows. Rohr writes, “Shadow boxing is necessary because we all have a well-denied shadow self. We all have that which we cannot see, will not see, dare not see. To do so would destroy our carefully crafted and preserved public and personal self-image.”

I heard a fascinating story on the radio yesterday about self-image, the story of the three Christs. In 1959, psychiatrist Milton Rokeach brought together three schizophrenic men who believed they were Jesus Christ hoping to cure them of their delusions.

When he learned of these three men Rokeach became curious about how we construct our own identities or self-image. Who do we think we are?

He brought the three men to the state psychiatric hospital in Ypsalanti, Michigan. He thought that bringing the three into relationship with one another would reveal the incongruence of their delusions and cure them. At first they did not get along, they spat, they argued, and they fought to assert their role as the king. But in time they became friends after a fashion, sitting together, sharing rolling paper, and most importantly, humoring each other’s delusion. Though each believed that they were the true God, they turned the other cheek and let the others believe that they were god too.

As the study went on, Rokeach began using morally questionable methods, pitting the men against each other, and hiring a woman to see if one of the men would fall in love. In the end, the man figured out that the woman didn’t love him and never would, and concluded, “Truth is my friend, I have no other.”

In the end, none of the three Christ’s was cured of their delusions. They were unable to overcome their blindness, unable to see their shadow.

Now I recognize that alcoholism and severe mental illness may not be easily relatable to many of you. But Rokeach’s study is instructive for all of us. We too aspire to be like Christ. We carefully construct a self-image that appears Christ-like, hiding our shadow, even from ourselves. This self-image becomes our truth, and that truth becomes our friend, sometimes our most important friend, more important than relationships and even love. And this life with just our shadow can leave us all alone and feeling blue.

In time, Rokeach came to recognize this. Twenty years after he published his study in his book The Three Christs of Ypsalanti he wrote an Epilogue, “Though I failed to cure the three Christs’ delusions, they succeeded in curing me of mine. My God-like delusion that I could change them by omnipotently arranging and rearranging their daily lives.”

You see, all the while Rokeach was trying to cure the three Christ’s of their blindness, he was blind to and in denial about his own moral failings.

Like the three Christ’s we often humor each other’s contradictions and inconsistencies, not challenging incongruities.

Rohr writes, “The kind of moral scrutiny required by the Fourth Step is not to discover how good or bad we are and regain some moral high ground, but it is to begin some honest shadow boxing. In other words, the goal is not the perfect avoidance of sin, which is not possible anyway, but the struggle itself, and the encounter and wisdom that comes with it.”

Jesus understands that if we see rightly, the actions and behaviors will eventually take care of themselves.

Let me close with this reflection on what this might all have to do with church. I had a wonderful conversation with a member recently. This was one of our older members, a very devout woman serious about her faith. She was remembering a day when worship on Sunday mornings was set apart as a sacred time, the sanctuary set apart as a holy place. This sacredness brought with it certain expectations. Children sat quietly and upright. Members dressed up, the men in suits, the women in nice dresses, no pants and certainly no jeans. “There was a time we even wore white gloves,” she reminisced fondly. Church has changed, she said.

Hers is a view in which we bring our very best selves to church. We aspire to be as much like Christ as humanly possible. Our dress and behavior give evidence of our intent, our desire to be good, and moral people. There is not a thing wrong with this. In fact, I think she is right, we have lost some of this sacred understanding of church.

But this is not all church can be. Church can also be a place where we can bring our whole self, a place that invites not just our best but our worst, a place that welcomes us and our shadows. This is a bit of a challenge. How do we be church in a way that encourages even expects the best from all of us while genuinely welcoming each of us just as we are, shadows and all?

How do we the church encourage shadow dancing?

Part of the answer lies in the Fourth Step. We don’t all need to fill notebooks with our moral failings, thank goodness, but we can all make a personal commitment to recognizing and, when safe to do so, share our shadow. Rohr writes, “People who are more transparent and admitting of their blind spots and personality flaws are actually quite easy to love and be with.” When we take off our white gloves, individually and collectively as a church, we just might find that we and our shadows are not so lonely after all.

 

Same But Different: What It Means to Believe in Jesus

lenten altar

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on the Second Sunday of Lent, March 12, 2017.

John 3:1-17

There’s a ton squeezed into these seventeen verses from the Gospel of John. It’s hard to know what to make of it all, and I won’t attempt to unpack the entire text in our brief time together. But I expect a couple phrases caught your attention.

First, Jesus’ response to Nicodemus that one must be “born again” in order to enter the kingdom of God. These words, popularized by American Evangelicalism, have come to be associated with the importance of personally accepting Jesus into one’s heart. And unfortunately, these words have too often been applied as a litmus test in an attempt to separate so-called “Born Again” Christians from other faithful.

The other verse that no doubt jumped out was John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” Luther called this verse “the gospel in a nutshell” and it has served as that for many, signaling God’s profound love for us and indicating the depths to which God will go to convey that love. It too, however, has sometimes served as a wedge between those who “believe” and are “saved” and those who, some say, are not.

It is ironic and unfortunate that two verses that are so central to the faith of many, just as surely divide good people from one another.

I admit that these verses were stumbling blocks for me when I was first finding my way back to the church in my mid-twenties. Thomas Jefferson famously used a pen knife to cut out passages in the Bible that he found troublesome. I have never been willing to entirely reject difficult passages, but rather have sought to interpret them in ways that have meaning and integrity for me.

In this spirit, I will share some reflections on John 3:16, not to say that this is what the author meant when he wrote this verse, but as an example of a kind of interpretation that is available to any of you who wrestle with particular passages in the Bible.

First, the term eternal life is one that has not always been accessible to me. Over time I have come to interpret this for myself to mean “perfect and timeless union with the divine.”

God sent Jesus so that everyone who believes in him may experience perfect and timeless union with the divine.

But the most significant issue for me when I was first exploring my faith was what it means to believe. What does it mean to believe in Jesus? Maybe that sounds like an odd question. For some the answer will be self-evident. For some, to believe in Jesus means to believe that the biblical claims about him are factual, that he was born of a virgin, and that he was bodily resurrected after his death on the cross, and most importantly that he that he is the Messiah, our Savior. Those thirty years ago when I was first taking passages like this one seriously this answer was not apparent to me.

But there are other ways to understand what it means to believe, aren’t there?

The Greek word translated as believe is pisteuo (pist-yoo’-o) which means to put faith in, to trust in, place confidence in, and have fidelity to. Think of what we mean when we affirm a child, spouse or friend by saying, “I believe in you.” This means that we have full confidence in that one, even to the point, perhaps, where we would put our life in their hands.

What would it mean to apply this understanding of belief to Jesus? To trust, to be faithful to, to put our life in the hands of Jesus?

To answer this, we need to understand who Jesus is, what he represents.

In the gospels, Jesus is referred to as both the Son of Man and the Son of God.

Son of Man emphasizes Jesus’ humanity. In this persona we find something familiar, one that is always like us.

Son of God emphasizes Jesus’ divinity. In this persona we encounter difference, one that is forever other.

In Jesus we encounter both ourselves and the other, friend and stranger.

So, what does it look like to believe in this Jesus, familiar yet foreign, to trust, to be faithful to, to put our life in the hands of one that is the same but different?

Listen for these themes of belief in self and other in this story from the Washington Post.

When the Nazis ripped his family from their home in Poland, Ben Stern survived life in the Warsaw Ghetto, nine concentration camps, including Auschwitz, and the death march from Buchenwald by never losing faith in human kindness.

Following the war, Stern and his wife immigrated to America with no education, no trade, and no money, and could not speak English. But he had his life.

“I was reborn,” Stern says (note the language he chooses). “I did not forget what happened to me, but I was determined to rebuild the family that I lost and speak out about the pain and losses that so many people suffered, because they were hated because of their particular religion. In America we found a mixture of religions being accepted and that was opening the door for a free life that was a gift; until today I am thankful for the opportunity to enjoy the freedom to build the beautiful family that I have.”

So now, at the end of his life, the 95-year-old has found an almost perfect antidote to how he was treated by the Nazis: Opening his California home to one of their descendants.

His roommate, Lea Heitfeld, is a 31-year-old German student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, whose grandparents were active and unrepentant members of the Nazi Party. Rather than shy away from her family’s history, it has inspired her to learn about Jewish people and educate others about their religion and what they endured during the Holocaust. She’s even getting her Master’s Degree in Jewish studies.

Welcoming Heitfeld, the kin of the very people who brutally forced him from his childhood home, to live as his roommate while she finishes her degree feels like “an act of justice,” Stern said in an interview. “It was the right thing to do. I’m doing the opposite of what they did.”

There is much about their living situation that defies norms: the sizable generation gap, the gender divide and, of course, the fact that they’re a Holocaust survivor and the granddaughter of Nazis. And yet they’ve both found they have so much to give each other.

In the evenings, the unlikely pair watch TV together, usually the news. They have dinner together almost every night, and snack on herring salad and crackers before their meal — a mutual favorite. They have long conversations about history and current events and he tells her stories of his life in Poland before the war. Last semester, Stern, who never went to high school or college, audited a graduate class with her, and they walked together to campus every Thursday night.

For Heitfeld, Stern’s friendship is the rarest of gifts — an insight into human resiliency and compassion.

“This act of opening his home, I don’t know how to describe it, how forgiving or how big your heart must be to do that, and what that teaches me to be in the presence of someone who has been through that and is able to have me there and to love me,” she said. “That he was able to open the door for someone who would remind him of all his pain.”

To trust, to be faithful to, to put our life in the hands of one another. Is this what it looks like to believe? Could this be what it means to believe in Jesus?

I sometimes think of the sermons I preach as either having a social justice focus or a pastoral focus, the one looking outward into the world, making an appeal to respond to the needs of others, the other focusing within, seeking to minister to your needs. I’m reminded this morning that this way of thinking sets up a false dichotomy. It seems fair to say that Lea and Ben care for one another personally or pastorally through their shared commitment to each other; while their relationship is also, as Stern says, an act of justice, witnessing to necessary reconciliation in a divided world.

The rise of anti-Semitic-fueled acts in the United States — bomb threats at Jewish community centers and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries — has been weighing heavily on Stern and Heitfeld. The vitriol directed at minority groups, not just Jews, is all too reminiscent. “I walk with a fresh injection of pain and hurt,” Stern said. Heitfeld feels it, too. “I’ve been in more pain that I’m living with a man who went through this and now has to be confronted with this on the news,” she said.

Entrusting our lives to one another requires sharing pain. This is one meaning of Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross, an act of divine empathy and commitment, a willingness to share pain with us. We might even say that the cross represents the place that God and humanity entrust their lives to each other, affirm their belief in one another. It is by believing in the other that Lea and Ben have come to be most fully themselves.

Lea and Ben model for me what it means to live out a belief in Jesus who embodies for me both friend and stranger. Note, neither Lea nor Ben are Christian, but their example informs what it means for me to believe.

Ben Stern concludes, “I feel like it’s important for the reason I survived to tell the world, to tell the next generation what to look out for to have a better, secure, free life,” he said. “It’s important for them to learn how to behave with other people, with other nations, and religions. We’re different, but we’re all human and there is room for each and every one of us in this world. It should be in harmony instead of hatred, racism. … We are all born; we’re all going to go. While we’re here, we should try to improve the world.”

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

I can now say that I believe in Jesus. I trust in, have confidence in, the one who represents for me both friend and stranger, pastor and prophet. And by entrusting my life to this Jesus, I glimpse that promised perfect and timeless union with the divine.

During this Lenten season, I invite you to return to the passages in the Bible that are a stumbling block for you and see if you might find there something to believe in, an opportunity to be born again, an entry, perhaps, into eternal life.

Temptation: Just One Bite

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on March 5, 2017, the first Sunday in Lent.

 

lenten altar

Romans 5:12-19, Matthew 4:1-11

Temptation.

A young couple are to be married soon. A few days before the wedding the bride’s attractive sister asks the groom to come over to help her with her tax return as he is an accountant. He obliges and is met at the door by the sister in some revealing clothes. He tries to ignore this and carry on as a professional. But as they work through the taxes she gets more and more suggestive, finally getting up, bending over, and whispering in his ear, “Meet me upstairs.” She winks and slinks up the stairs. He sits for quite a few moments before getting up and walking quickly to the front door.

As he steps outside he is met by his soon to be wife and her parents. ”Surprise!” they say. It turns out they wanted to make sure that he was the right man for her, and that he would remain faithful no matter what. He passed the test! Thrilled, they invite him back inside to open a bottle of champagne in celebration.

As the groom turns to follow them back in the door, his heart pounding, he can be seen to silently mouth the words, “Thank goodness I left my condoms in the car.”

Temptation. It’s real. The consequences of giving in can be profound. And yet, like the groom in the story, we succumb all the time.

Temptation to engage in forbidden sex makes for the most titillating stories and best jokes, and indeed such temptation is real. But there are many, much more subtle forms of temptation that we confront every day, and these are revealed in today’s passage from Matthew.

Jesus has just been baptized by John in the Jordan, God pronouncing, “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.” Immediately, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness where he is tempted by the Devil. We read that Jesus fasted for 40 days and forty nights. 40 is a significant number in the history of Judaism. God brought 40 days of rain upon Noah. Both Moses and Elijah spent 40 days on mountaintops with God. And the Israelites spent 40 years wandering in the desert before reaching the Promised Land. So Jesus’ 40 days in the desert invoke themes of both trial and deliverance.

Jesus is famished when the Devil appears, challenging him to change stones into bread so he can satisfy his hunger. We might understand this as the temptation to put our own needs, our own security first, by amassing more than we need.

Jesus responds by quoting Moses in Deuteronomy. The full passage that he references reads:

“Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

Next, the Devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple, inviting him to throw himself off that Jesus might be saved by angels, thereby demonstrating his special relationship with God. We too know this temptation, pride, or the assertion that we are somehow uniquely deserving.

Here again, Jesus quotes scripture and refuses the Devils’ offer.

Finally, the Devil takes Jesus to a mountaintop and shows him all the kingdoms of the world. All this will be yours, if only you worship me, says the Devil. Here the temptation is to claim earthly power over others, and that temptation is as real for us today as it was for Jesus.

One last time, Jesus refuses, again quoting Deuteronomy, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

At this, the Devil departs and, we are told, angels come to wait upon Jesus.

Note, that none of these three invitations from the Devil are sinful in themselves. In the course of his ministry, Jesus will claim each of these powers in service to others. He will perform a miracle that transforms and multiplies bread to serve thousands of hungry. He will trust the power of God, not to save his own life but to carry him beyond death that all may have new life. And instead of claiming earthly leadership for himself, Jesus will instead offer the realm of God to all those who follow him.

The sin in all three of these invitations is that they tempt Jesus to benefit, exalt and empower himself instead of serving God and others. I would suggest that every temptation we face does the same, tempting us to put ourselves before God and others. Such was the case with the groom in the joke who was prepared to put his own pleasure before his commitment to his bride.

Temptation does not typically come to us as it did to Jesus, boldly and clearly stated by the Devil, a clear and obvious choice to be made. Temptation most often begins with something seemingly innocuous. The groom in the joke no doubt thought, what could be the harm in helping sis with her taxes? Temptation is often present before we even identify it as temptation. The internet is a special kind of wilderness where sin is just one click away. What could be the harm, we think, as our finger clicks away on the mouse.

We are really hard on Adam and Eve. But put yourself in their shoes (well, they had no shoes), but imagine being in that garden. They must have thought, one bite of an apple, what could be the harm? And just as the Devil was in the wilderness to tempt Jesus, the serpent was there with Adam and Eve to sow doubt. What could be the harm?

The serpent is always there with us in the form of self-justification. We can talk ourselves into anything. The Nobel Prize winning quantum physicist, Richard Feynman, once said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and,” he concludes, “you are the easiest person to fool.”

As in quantum physics, temptation begins with small things.

My Gramp used to recite this old proverb at the dinner table:

For want of a nail, the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe, the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the message was lost. For want of a message the battle was lost. For want of a battle the war was lost. For want of a war, the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Temptation begins with the excusable and seemingly insignificant, but like the horseshoe nail, can take down kingdoms.

In the passage I read from Romans, Paul writes, “Sin came into world through one man, death through sin, so death spread to all who sinned.” That sin was taking just one bite of an apple, just one bite, what could be the harm. Small concessions and compromises ripple outward, leading to a world of hurt.

A therapist once told me that the time to resist temptation is at the very beginning. Because after giving in to one little temptation after another, after another, after another, the larger temptation that follows becomes all but impossible to resist. So the time for the groom to have acted would have been as soon as he walked in the door, saw sis and felt his heart go pitter patter. By the time she propositioned him and headed up the stairs, it was too late. He was headed to the car for condoms.

But how do we do this? Because they are so small, these little temptations can be hard to identify and easy to excuse. The answer, says Bible scholar David Lose, lies in living into our identity as God’s beloved. Remember the words Jesus heard just before being led into the wilderness to face temptation, “You are my precious child, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.” This affirmation, says Lose, is critical to understanding how Jesus successfully navigates temptation.

“Because,” Lose continues, “when push comes to shove, all the various temptations we may encounter stem from the primary temptation to forget whose we are and therefore to forget who we are. Because once we fail to remember that we are God’s beloved, we will do all kinds of things to dispel the insecurity that is part of every human life, and to find that sense of security and acceptance that is essential to being happy.”

I find this fascinating, that giving in to temptation follows from insecurity. The serpent played on Adam and Eve’s insecurity, sowing mistrust of God, and they give in. We are not so much victims of original sin as original insecurity. It kind of makes sense. Whether infidelity, greed, pride or envy, it is easy to recognize these as responses to insecurity, attempts to secure our identity on our own rather than simply claiming our identity as beloved children of God

Jesus refutes the Devil’s attempts to sow mistrust by repeatedly affirming his relationship with God, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

There are so many temptations in this world, most of them coming not as apples hanging from a tree but rather subtle messages that seek to undermine our identity and invite us to forget whose we are. So many commercials suggest we are inadequate. So many headlines suggest that there is not enough to go around. And so many politicians – of all parties – contend that we have a great deal to fear. In the face of these identity-obscuring messages, we have the opportunity to root ourselves in the same baptismal promise that safe-guarded and empowered Jesus. This is the baptismal promise that reminds us that we are so totally enough in God’s eyes, that there is plenty to go around, and that we need not live in fear.

So, brothers and sisters, I invite you to repeat after me:

I am God’s precious child…

Chosen and marked by God’s love…

Delight of God’s life…

Just as I am…

And that’s enough.

Amen.

Shaving through Lent: A Practice of Everyday Mindfulness

This is the column I wrote for the March 2017 of the First Church Simsbury newsletter, The Cornerstone.

shave

Lent is the season in the church year that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends forty days later (not counting Sundays) on the Saturday before Easter. The forty days represents the time Jesus spent in the wilderness. We can think of Lent as a time for us to cultivate an awareness of and be present with the desert experiences of our lives, those places that are, metaphorically speaking, dry, harsh, rocky and inhospitable. During Lent we are invited to attend to our soul through spiritual practices such as fasting (giving something up), praying, or meditating. Meditation, sometimes called mindfulness, is a method to quiet our heart’s yearning and mind’s churning. By meditating, we learn that we can simply “be” in life’s desert places without restlessness, anxiety or fear.

Meditation might bring to mind a Buddhist monk, sitting perfectly still on a cushion, a picture of peace and enlightenment. I have meditated in this way periodically over the years, sitting quietly, watching my breath, in… and out… in… and out. And though this practice has been, at times, richly rewarding, I have found it difficult to maintain for more than a few months. But sitting quietly isn’t the only way to cultivate mindfulness; there are everyday practices that can function in the same way.

I share one such everyday practice that centers me, with the hope that you might also find a day-to-day activity that can help ground you in the dry, rocky, desert times of your life.

One day last fall I was complaining to Rev. Kev about the exorbitant price of cartridge razors. In response he revealed that he shaves with an old-fashioned, double-edged safety razor. I was intrigued, so around Thanksgiving off I went to Target where such a razor can be had for less than $20. Upon using it the next morning, I was hooked! Not only am I saving a boatload of money (each blade costs ten cents!), I love the ritual of using a shaving brush and soap, and the old-timey feel of the razor in my hand.

At first I didn’t recognize shaving as a mindfulness practice. But over the past few months I have realized that shaving with a double-edged razor requires the same gentle attention as watching my breath. Like meditating, it requires one to slow down and gently let go of thoughts as they arise. Hurrying, using too heavy a hand, or letting my mind wander while shaving will result in nicks and cuts, not to mention a poor shave.

And shaving, like meditating, is a sensory rich experience. When I quiet my mind in meditation I notice the chill in the air and hear the birds singing. Similarly, when I shave there is the smell of the shaving soap, the feel of the warm lather and soft brush, even the sound the razor makes when I pull it across my face. Giving attention to these helps quiet my mind; and should my thoughts again begin to wander, I gently return my attention to the movement of the razor across my face. I experience that same calm, centered, contented feeling after my morning shave that I would feel after meditating.

Though there are still things that make me feel anxious, my morning shave grounds me in a way that makes me better able to respond to the day’s challenges.

So, this is my invitation to you. During this season of Lent, identify an everyday activity that may function as a spiritual practice for you. It could be walking, taking a bath or shower, doing the laundry, or cooking. Slow down, cultivate an awareness of the sights, sounds, and feel in each moment. Any of these, and many other activities, when done with intention and attention, can quiet heart and mind and allow us to simply be present with God, even in those barren, rocky, wilderness places in our lives.

The Secret of Joy

This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, February 26, 2017, at First Church Simsbury. We celebrated this Sunday both as Transfiguration Sunday and Mardi Gras Sunday.

Exodus 24:12-18, Matthew 17:1-9

Some of you know that I attended Tulane University in New Orleans. After my freshmen year in the dorms, I rented an apartment, the first floor of an uptown home, with a couple friends. One Saturday morning, no doubt after a late night of dancing to the Neville Brothers at Tipitina’s, I was awakened by the sound of horns outside my window. Not car horns mind you, these were trumpets and trombones and tubas. None too pleased, and with my head pounding, I rolled out of bed to see a jazz funeral processing by my front door. We lived just half-a-block from an old, over-grown cemetery. The mourners walked slowly and somberly down the street, accompanying the casket as the brass band slowly played (I slowly sing), “Just a closer walk with thee; grant it Jesus is my plea…”

In spite of my headache I thought this was pretty cool. After the procession had passed and the music faded I went back in to make myself a cup of coffee. But not much time had passed before the sound of horns returned, this time playing a spirited rendition of When the Saints Go Marching In. I again sat on my stoop as the funeral party strutted and danced down the street, laughing, shouting, some waving handkerchiefs, others twirling colorful umbrellas.

At the time I didn’t conduct a theological analysis of what I had just witnessed, but tucked the experience away as one more great thing about New Orleans.

But I recalled that jazz funeral and its expression of joy in response to suffering and death when I read this morning’s story of the Transfiguration.

Jesus takes three of his disciples, Peter, James and John, up to the top of a mountain with him where he is “transfigured.” Transfiguration means a complete change of appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state. Indeed, we are told that Jesus’ face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white!

It is easy to get distracted by the supernatural nature of this story, wanting to know what exactly happened and how. But for our purposes, it will be more interesting and fruitful to explore what the story means.

This story is traditionally interpreted as a revelation of Jesus’ divinity, his embodiment of God’s glory, an incarnation of joy. This has translated into our popular culture into the idea of a “mountaintop experience,” an ecstatic spiritual experience of becoming one with God. Love, music and nature are sometimes said to facilitate such “mountaintop experiences.”

But there is more to this story than just an individual experience of joy. And to get at that we need to further explore the context of Jesus’ trip up the mountain with his disciples.

After Jesus was transfigured, Moses and Elijah appeared next to him. Both Moses and Elijah had also encountered God on a mountain top, this morning’s passage from Exodus chronicles one of these encounters. And both also responded to God’s call to confront evil and dangerous kings who were oppressing the Jews; Moses confronted Pharaoh and Elijah challenged Ahab.

Following Moses and Elijah’s appearance, God speaks, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Now, before Jesus came along the term “son of God” was used to refer to Roman emperors, including Tiberius who ruled during Jesus’s lifetime. The title communicated the emperor’s divinity, putting them above any challenge to their rule. Having God himself claim Jesus as his son here represents a direct threat to the Roman Empire.

Within this context, Jesus’ transfiguration is understood to be much more than a parlor trick to reveal God’s glory. Rather, Jesus is transfigured to invoke and emphasize his connections to Moses and Elijah, thereby confronting Rome’s oppressive rule, revealing God’s will, and anticipating Jesus’ rejection and ultimate vindication by God. In fact, Jesus spells this out for the disciples.

Just before heading up the mountain with the three disciples, in Chapter 16 of Matthew we read, “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

And, shortly after the transfiguration, still in Chapter 17 of Matthew, Jesus says to his disciples, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.”

So yes, through the transfiguration Jesus reveals his divinity and shares an experience of divine joy with his disciples, but this is no individual, spiritualized, mountain top experience. This is a joy which emerges from and refuses to be conquered by suffering and death. This is a joy that challenges empire.

It can be tempting to think of mountaintop experiences as an escape from the world’s troubles. Indeed, we might hope that we could seal ourselves off from life’s ugliness, and that God will somehow carry us above and beyond all earthly suffering. This may well be what the disciples were hoping when they suggested building structures on the mountaintop to contain and preserve that moment for themselves.

But what does Jesus do? Fueled by a joy that resists suffering and death, Jesus leads the disciples back down the mountain to confront the violence and struggle that await in Jerusalem.

The quote that opens Alice Walker’s book, Possessing the Secret of Joy, is from the book African Saga by a white author, Mirella Ricciardi, and reads “Black people are natural, they possess the secret of joy.” Walker uses Ricciardi’s words with bitter irony, because the African protagonist of Walker’s book, Tashi, knows no such “natural” joy. After escaping a traditional female circumcision procedure as an infant thanks to the intervention of missionaries, Tashi voluntarily submits herself to the procedure as a teenager as way to identify with the struggles of her African kin. But the humiliation and brutality of “receiving the mark” almost destroys Tashi physically and emotionally. The novel catalogues her descent into madness, her long fight to salvage and reconstruct a self, her return to Africa, her final costly liberation, and her discovery that… “resistance is the secret of joy.”

Here again, we find the two contrasting perspectives on joy. The one communicated by Ricciardi’s quote, we could call this the “don’t worry, be happy” perspective, suggests a denial of or escape from suffering. The other, discovered by Tashi, confronts, challenges and overcomes suffering and death.

I think this latter understanding is the joy that I witnessed in the jazz funeral procession that I watched pass by my door on Lowerline Street in New Orleans. Those who strutted and twirled were not denying the reality of the death they still mourned; rather theirs was a fierce, even a defiant joy that laid claim to a light that can never be extinguished. Theirs was an act of resistance, and resistance is the secret of joy.

I read a review of Possessing the Secret of Joy in which the writer points out that Tashi is an archetype of Everywoman and Everyman who is violated and in crisis. Well, there are a lot of women and men who are violated and in crisis today, immigrants, Muslims, Jews, and transgender teens, to name a few.  Violated and in crisis.

And it is so darn hard to see it, sit with it, and feel it all. I would love to escape to a mountaintop with Jesus, set up Camp Joy, and bask every day in the reflected light of God. But this is not the joy that God calls us to. God fuels us with a fierce and defiant joy that we might again turn to confront empire through the cross.

(Piano begins to softly play, “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.)

Tuesday is Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday. In my years in New Orleans I knew this as a feast day before beginning the fasting season of Lent. And it is that. But having reflected anew on the transfiguration I have a deeper appreciation of Mardi Gras, I find here a fierce and defiant joy that will equip and sustain us as we set our face to Jerusalem to resist oppression, suffering and death in all its guises. Because as Jesus knew, and Tashi learned, resistance is the secret of joy.

Please stand and sing, “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.”

Pastor Pondering: Trouble

Published in the February 2016 issue of the First Church, Simsbury newsletter, The Cornerstone.

The world-weary voice of folk singer Ray LaMontagne cries…

Trouble… Trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble
Trouble been doggin’ my soul since the day I was born
Worry… Worry, worry, worry, worry
Worry just will not seem to leave my mind alone

I hear LaMontagne’s words and music as a plaintive invitation into Lent. Lent is the season of the church year during which we seek to grow closer to God, not through ecstatic experiences of joy, not in response to warm, cozy feelings of love, but by recognizing God’s presence in the midst of suffering, in the troubled, world-weary, worry-filled places in our lives. We are assured of God’s empathetic presence in times of trouble through God’s own suffering as Jesus Christ. There is no dark place humanity can visit that God has not already trod through Christ’s persecution, torture and death on the cross. In the forty days preceding Easter (not including Sundays) we accompany Jesus to the cross, and God accompanies us through the trouble and worry that dog our soul.

Those who were in church on Sunday, January 17, know that an old college friend of mine, John Fahsbender, joined us in worship. Later that evening, Lourdes and I sat down to dinner with John, his brother Tom, and sister-in-law Jennifer. As often happens when pastors are present, we got to talking about church. Jennifer observed that church is the one place where everyone is encouraged to share their heartache and pain, maybe the only place where we can count on being loved in response to our troubles. This understanding of church was affirmed for me when I visited the small group Bible study led by Cathie Behrens. One of the women present said, “Each of us here has experienced a crisis or tragedy or two, but we can share it here and know that we will be loved and supported.” Caring people are everywhere, at work and school, in our kids’ sports leagues or scout troops, in our family and among our friends. But only church specifically invites us to lay our burdens down and commits to love us through the shadowed valleys of our lives.

Our culture often communicates the message, “Don’t worry, be happy!” Sometimes we hear this as a helpful encouragement. But at other times we need someone to acknowledge our pain and sing the blues with us.

Ray LaMontagne concludes his testimony:

Well I’ve been saved by a woman… She won’t let me go.

Well we’ve been saved by a God who enters into suffering and death with us through Jesus and won’t ever let us go, carrying us beyond the cross to a new life in Christ.

Come to First Church during Lent (from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday), lay your burden down, know you will be loved and that God will never let you go.

In Christ,

Pastor George
Published in: on June 9, 2016 at 7:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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A Matter of Life and Death

This morning I preached on the passage in the gospel of Luke where Jesus is asked about the connection between sin and suffering (Luke 13:1-5).  First, some in the crowd ask him about some people from Galilee who were slaughtered by Pontius Pilate.  Jesus asks, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than others from Galilee?”  Then, he is asked about eighteen people who died when a tower collapsed in Jerusalem.  Here again, Jesus asks if these people died because of their sins.  Jesus answers both of his own questions with a clear, “No.”  God does not punish us for our sins with suffering and death; God offers forgiveness, grace, love and mercy in response to the world’s sin and suffering.

I preached this sermon because I know there are people in my congregation who are hurting and believe that God is punishing them for something they have done.   Sometimes they don’t even know what they did, only that God must be angry at them about something because their life is so hard.

Then, this evening, I taught a lesson about forgiveness at our recovery ministry, Celebrate Recovery.  I noted that forgiveness includes accepting God’s forgiveness, forgiving those who have wronged us, and forgiving ourselves.  There was a man there who is drinking himself to death because of his inability to accept that God forgives him and so, is unable to forgive himself.

God’s love and forgiveness can save lives.  I have seen it happen again and again.  But one of the most difficult things about being a pastor is that while we can preach it, we can teach and council it, and we can try to embody it, we cannot make someone believe and live in the knowledge that God loves and forgives them.  This is where we need to practice letting go and letting God, no matter how painful it is.

Published in: on March 8, 2010 at 3:44 am  Comments (2)  
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Julleh’t Soma

Maureen Abraham shares some great remembrances of Lent and her Assyrian grandmother under the “Brewing of Soma” post.  Soma, Maureen says, is the Assyrian word for fast, and Julleh’t Soma is a pastry (like an Assyrian calzone) that was served 20 days into a 40 day Lenten fast.  Read Maureen’s comments for more for more about Julleh’t Soma and Assyrian Lenten traditions (click here to read Maureen’s comments).

Maureen mailed me this recipe for Julleh’t Soma.  I am no good at making yeasted dough, so if there are any bakers out there that would like to give this a try let me know.

Julleh’t Soma

Dough:                                    Fillings:

1 cup warm water                  ¼ cup walnuts

1 T. honey                                ½ 15 oz. can kidney beans

1 T. yeast                                   ½ 15 oz. can chickpeas

3 cups all purpose flour          ½ small onion minced

½ cup whole wheat flour        2 tsp. dried basil

½ tsp salt                                   ½ tsp. salt

¼ cup olive oil                          1 tsp paprika

1 T. sesame seeds                      2 ½ T. tahini

Dough:  Pour water, honey and yeast into a mixing bowl and mix until the yeast dissolves.  Mix in 1 cup of all purpose flour, using an electric mixer.  Mix in the remaining flour and salt.  Add olive oil and mix for 2 additional minutes.  Knead the dough by hand for 1 minute.  Cover the dough with a towel and place in a warm location for 1 hour.  After the hour has elapsed, punch down the dough to deflate.  Allow the dough to rest, covered, for 2 additional hours.

Filling:  Place walnuts in a food processor and mix until finely chopped.  Drain the kidney beans and chickpeas.  Reserve the kidney beans liquid.  Add beans and chickpeas to the food processor and pulse until mashed.  Add the remaining filling ingredients and mix thoroughly.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.

Assembly: Separate dough into 3 portions.  Roll each portion into a 10″ circle on a floured surface.  Spread 1/3 of the filling over half of each circle.  Fold the dough over the filling and press the edges together to seal.  Transfer to a greased baking sheet.  Poke holes on the tops of the pies with a fork.  Brush the tops with the reserved kidney beans liquid.  Sprinkle with sesame seeds.  Bake for 20 minutes or until golden brown.  Cool before slicing.

Published in: on February 12, 2010 at 3:40 am  Leave a Comment  
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Ash Wednesday: Seven Deadly Sins

Ash Wednesday marks the first day of Lent.  South Church (www.southchurch.org) will hold its Ash Wednesday worship service in our sanctuary at 7:30 p.m.in our sanctuary around the theme, the Seven Deadly Sins.  Their origins in the early Catholic church, the seven deadly sins have evolved over time to now include: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust envy and gluttony.  Someone joked that we would identify a section in the sanctuary for each sin, and those attending the service could sit in the area of their “favorite” or most troublesome sin.  That’s not what we are going to do.

There will be a time in the service where people will read contemporary headlines or soundbites associated with each sin.  For example for lust someone might say, “Two men in New Britain were arrested for making child pornography in their home,” and “John Edwards admitted paternity of the child he fathered with his mistress.”  The last of the series would bring that sin from “out there” into the lives of the individuals in the pews, for example for lust, someone might say “75% of people surveyed said it was OK for someone to visit an adult website.”  To be effective the first several of these soundbites should evoke outrage or disgust, and the last one should invite those in worship to see that they share these same human failings.  After each sin is explored in this way, there will be a symbolic burning of that sin followed by a sung or chanted response by the congregation.  After all the sins have been named and expiated in this way, congregants will be invited forward to be marked with the ashes that were created by burning the sins.  A restorative communion service will follow.

I ask your help in identifying the headlines or soundbites to be used for each sin.  It seems like some will be more obvious than others (wrath, greed, lust, gluttony), the others a bit more challenging.  What do you think?

Published in: on January 28, 2010 at 3:25 am  Comments (5)  
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Lent: Take a Walk on the Wild Side

Lent is a season of soul-searching and repentance.  It is a season for reflection and taking stock. Lent originated in the very earliest days of the Church as a preparatory time for Easter, when the faithful rededicated themselves and when converts were instructed in the faith and prepared for baptism. By observing the forty days of Lent, the individual Christian imitates Jesus’ withdrawal into the wilderness for forty days (Luke 4:1-13).  I have suggested Take a Walk on the Wild Side as a theme for this year’s observation of Lent at South Church.  This could mean confronting the wild world around us, a world filled with both dark foreboding and temptation.  But could it also mean claiming the wild, untethered, fierce power of our faith in Jesus Christ?

This leads to my questions.  What does the word wild mean to you.  Specifically, does wild have positive or negative connotations.  Is wild only associated with the fearsome, out of control forces of nature (a flooding river, lust) that need to be ordered and controlled?  Or is there also an understanding of  wild that communicates freedom?  If so, does such wild freedom lead only to sin and suffering, or can there be something holy in it or from it?  Is God wild?  If so, when God is wild, does suffering result (e.g., the earthquake in Haiti), or can there also be goodness in God’s wildness?  Your thoughts?

Published in: on January 28, 2010 at 2:46 am  Comments (6)  
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