Friday, May 31, 2019

Stop and let the love happen

Recently while visiting with my family in Atlanta, I surprised my grandson, Emerson, by my arrival. He had just finished his breakfast and was in his mother’s arms getting ready to play. He reached for me (you know how my heart melted over that!) and I took him joyfully into my arms, preparing to sit on the floor for his favorite activity – reading a book.

When I received him into my arms, however, he put his head down on my shoulder and got very still. I waited, then realized he was loving me with his whole body. I had been prepared to get right to what we were going to do together, but Emerson had a different plan: he wanted to stop and let love happen first. I surrendered and we stayed in that embrace for a very, very long time.

This lesson from Emerson is one I have to learn over and over again: stop and let the love happen. Like so many in our culture, I am generally oriented toward getting things done. Our internal chronometers compel us to keep moving, keep accomplishing, mindful of the schedule for the day.

The first person to introduce me to this lesson was my Transition Minister from my home diocese of< Georgia. Born in Selma, AL, and a friend of my husband’s family, The Rev. Bob Carter was a slow (and I mean slow) talking Southerner. I was in the process of ordination at the time, so Bob would call me often. When I’d hear his melodic address: “Vaaalllori, this is Booobb Caaaahtuh” my internal chronometer would shut off and I’d stop what I was doing ready to listen for as long as it took. Bob was a loving man, a wise counselor, an experienced priest, and a valued friend. It was always worth attending fully to what he had to say – for as long as it took him to say it.

Relationships deepen when we stop to listen or to let love happen. Sometimes the most important thing we can do is let go of our schedule for the day and notice who or what is seeking our full, loving attention. It may be a hug from a precious baby, or a call from a slow-talking friend. It may be a bird whose song compels us to join it in creation, or a memory of a loved-one that draws us into prayer and remembrance.

There is nothing we can accomplish on our calendars that has more eternal significance than stopping to let love happen, it all its many forms. As we move into the many tasks calling for our attention, I pray we remember to stop and let the love happen and our relationships deepen.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

5 Easter, 2019-C: It. Is. Done!

Lectionary: Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35

Note: If the above player doesn't work on your device, click HERE for an alternative audio format.

En el nombre del Dios: Creador, Redentor, y Sanctificador. Amen.

I begin with a prayer from Orison Marden which we shared at our third summit. It’s called “Divinely Empowered.”

Deep within humans dwell these slumbering powers,
powers that would astonish them,
that they never dreamed of possessing;
forces that would revolutionize their lives
if aroused and put into action.

This past week in my interim support group we discussed “pioneers” vs. “settlers,” terms used and defined by our mentor, The Rev. Dr. Rob Voyle. Our discussion focused on the context of individuals and church communities, and how those two groups – the pioneers and the settlers – can affect churches in transition.

Human systems are usually a mix of pioneers, who leave the safety of established cities, towns, and farm and head out into unknown territory. Settlers are those who follow the pioneers out then put down roots, make a home and build a culture where their new land.

When a church is in transition, it’s the pioneers who lead the way with vision and courage into a new promised land. Settlers help everyone figure out how to live there once they arrive.

In our story from Acts, Peter, who is a reluctant pioneer, pushes out into uncharted territory. Belonging to a people who have been conquered and oppressed for much of their history, the Jews learned to cope and survive by distinguishing themselves from the culture that conquered them. They accomplished this spiritually through their rituals and physically through circumcision; establishing an interior and exterior “them” and “us.”

As Peter grows in his understanding of who Jesus was and what he did, Peter struggles with the commandment Jesus gave him to love as he loved them. Peter knows loving as Jesus loved would mean violating Jewish law that restricted Jesus’ way of loving. The nascent Christian community is looking to Peter, the Rock to whom Jesus gave the metaphoric keys of the kingdom, to lead the way. Meanwhile, Paul is nipping at Peter’s heals pushing for full inclusion of Gentiles into their burgeoning community.

Trying to be faithful, Peter goes where the Spirit of God leads him – to a northern coastal town. As he arrives, a representative of the household of a Cornelius, a Roman officer, finds Peter and tells him that his master sends for him to come to his home.

Here it is… that moment the pioneer must make the choice to go or not go. Pioneers know that heading into the unknown is difficult, people will always complain about it (at first), and it requires summoning up the courage to face what comes and a profound trust in God to be near, guiding and protecting. Pioneers like Peter know that the path toward their goal isn’t clear; neither is the goal most of the time. The only thing that is certain is the voice of God telling them to go.

God shows up in a real way for Peter by speaking to him through a vision during a trance. Remembering what I preached last week, I wish more of us felt comfortable growing into this spiritual reality because when we are in this intimate a relationship with God, a relationship of mutuality is developed and we respond out of trust, not fear of retribution even when the world reacts negatively.

During this vision, Peter clearly hears God’s guidance: “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.” Once there, Peter witnessed God’s redeeming love and he understood that he and his people were safe to let go the defense mechanism they’d forged long ago for their survival.

Peter saw that “the Holy Spirit fell upon them [the Gentiles] just as it had upon us [the Jewish disciples at the first Pentecost]. Peter continues, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" In this moment, the slumbering powers within Peter began to awaken and he chose to push on in faith and enter this unknown territory.

Suddenly his path and goal were clear and he went fervently into the missionary field to which God was sending him, and the whole newly forming Christian community followed their pioneer into their shared divine purpose. In each new place, the settlers established ways of being a Christian community among the people they encountered there.

The harmonious co-existence of pioneers and settlers can be a powerful tool of transformation as the early church demonstrates. Problems arise when they disconnect from their divine inspirer or when they stop working together, prioritizing one group over the other.

In the church setting, pioneers who become disconnected from God can devolve into authoritarians who may resort to spiritual, emotional, or physical violence to protect their place of power, exerting power over rather than empowerment of; and their community of love becomes a personal or small group-controlled empire. Settlers can devolve into rules-makers and rules-enforcers, inhibiting the free movement of the Spirit among the settled community, stifling creativity and continued evolution of the community, eventually doing harm to people who don’t comply or who cry out against injustice.

I think of the awful experience of ordinary people during the Reformation, the Crusades, and the colonization of the “New World” - our own history – as the European monarchs and their church leadership enforced their version of correct belief and practice using some of the most horrifying tortures imaginable. I consider that our own present world society exhibits many of the same practices today.

Our civil leadership currently defends the use of torture, what is now euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation techniques” including “sleep deprivation, waterboarding, prolonged standing, and exposure to cold” for the purpose of national security. Currently, eight states have or are passing laws that will force women and girl children who’ve been raped to bear the child of the rape, even when her life (not to mention her mental health) are at risk.

The 20th century was one of the most violent periods in human history.
Every 9 seconds in the US a woman is assaulted or beaten. One in five women is raped at least once in her lifetime, and 40% of them are under the age of 18. The presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation increases the risk of homicide by 500%. If African Americans and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates as whites, prison and jail populations would decline by almost 40%.

This is our current reality and it isn’t in keeping with the way of love Jesus modeled for us. I love the description of that world found in our reading from the Revelation to John. It’s a vision of the ultimate reality of reconciliation in the world.

John, the visionary pioneer says, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth,” one in which God dwells with mortals, one in which God wipes every tear from our eyes. “Death will be no more; crying and pain will be no more… See I am making all things new…”

But the most exciting statement to me in this revelation is when God said, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life."

It is done, and God has done it. And God promises to give life, which is likened to a spring of water for those who are parched, imprisoned, assaulted, or tortured.

This is affirmed by Jesus in our gospel from John when he says, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.”

Now. Immediately. It is done.

God has been glorified in Jesus and Jesus has been glorified in God. Since Jesus has reconciled us to God, we also have been glorified in God. To be glorified is to be invested with dignity, honor, and importance.

Everyone is important and is to be treated with dignity - even an 11-year old girl made pregnant by her rapist… even a brown-skinned person who believes and practices differently… even a black or brown or white-skinned prisoner… even those who want to coerce or control them. Because through Jesus all humanity has been invested with dignity, honor, and importance.

In this season of Easter we remember together that Jesus comes to claim the here and now (as we will sing in our closing hymn) because It Is Done. The reconciliation of the whole world to God is happening now and we have been chosen to participate in its completion.

I close with a prayer we shared at our second summit: The Awareness Prayer

May there be peace within us today.
May we trust God that we are exactly where we are meant to be.
May we not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith.
May we use those gifts that we have received, and pass on the love that has been given to us.
Me we be content in knowing that we are each a child of God.
May God’s presence settle into our bones and allow our souls the freedom to sing, dance, praise, love, and imagine.
Help us to see that this is true for each of us and for all of us.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

4 Easter, 2019-C: Abnormal for Christ

Lectionary: Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

Note: If the above player doesn't work on your device, click HERE for an alternative audio format.

En el nombre del Dios: Creador, Redentor, y Sanctificador. Amen.

I know a woman who is trying to come to terms with a lifetime of spiritual experiences that the world judges as “abnormal” but she knows deep within her to be truth – the truth about her and her oneness with God and all that is. Due to her fear of judgment by the world, this woman has learned over time to fear having these experiences in case someone might notice.

The experiences persist, however, so to cope she simply doesn’t talk about them anymore, which leaves her feeling a bit isolated. Over time she has come to see herself as physically broken and spiritually disjointed and incomplete. She is comforted by studying about persons in the communion of saints whose experiences seem something like her own.

The Good News I could share with this woman is that she is already whole in a marvelous way; that she is graced with the gift of experiences of divine unity many others never have. The result is she has a reconciling heart, strongly desiring that others share in the unifying love she knows so well.

This woman experiences oneness with God and all creation, and she always has. She also knows that the world is not open to hearing about her unusual experiences and will intervene to return her to the “normal” range of experience. It’s been done before.

Many Christians with mystical experiences or extraordinary gifts share this impression. I wonder if St. Francis of Assisi were around today what his fate might be; or how the world might diagnose Julian of Norwich who had shared experiences of the passion of Jesus on his cross. What if Mary Magdalene were to make her Easter proclamation today? They’d probably tuck her into a DSM category of people who see dead people.

What if Peter raised a child from the dead today? How would the world understand that? What would we do to him? Would anyone even consider the possibility that God was working through him? Does the modern world allow for a concept of God who can do that – much less a God who can bring the whole world to a place where we hunger and thirst no more, and where every tear is wiped away from our eyes?

The concept of God most often presented by the people of God in the world today seems to be a punishing, vengeful God, not the God of goodness and mercy described in the 23rd Psalm who spreads a feast before us far outpacing our hunger; who refreshes us and fills us to overflowing with divine love and mercy.

The world tends to be fearful of God and suspicious of people who live in union with the infinite love of God. Even the Christian world tends not to believe, despite our belief that we are formed in God’s own image and called to dwell in God’s infinite love.

When we encounter someone actually doing that, however, we generally respond by trying to force them back into the structures and patterns we have agreed are “normal” and acceptable. Our gospel shows us that the response was no different for the first person who lived in complete divine-human union: Jesus the Christ – the one who called us to live as he lived.

Jesus bent or completely blew away all kinds of “normal and acceptable’ structures in his day. He hung out with women, tax collectors, and known sinners; he touched dead bodies and healed lepers. Granted he was restoring them to life and health, but that must be overlooked in order to force him back into acceptable structures.

When the Jewish leadership confronted Jesus at the festival of the Dedication, that’s exactly what they were trying to do. We often read this as gospel story as if the Jews are actually seeking clarification from Jesus. In actuality, this is a threatening encounter. They have encircled Jesus, trapping him within their ranks as they tried to trap him in blasphemy in order to get him arrested.

Knowing what they’re up to, Jesus simply says: “I have told you, and you do not believe.” The Jewish leadership knows about Jesus; his reputation has spread far and wide along with news of crowds who gather in the thousands when he teaches. They know Jesus has healed lepers and demoniacs, cured a man born blind, and even raised his friend, Lazarus, from the dead and restored him back to life.

In fact, it was probably because of his works that Jesus was judged as “abnormal and unacceptable,” and needed to be stopped. That was the purpose of this conversation at the portico of Solomon: to stop him.

So, Jesus being Jesus, presses this conversation to the limit claiming the truth of his wholeness and oneness with God: “The Father and I are one" – a shockingly bold statement. The next line in this gospel, not included in our lectionary, is that the Jewish leadership took up stones and tried to stone him.

It’s a strange dilemma we’ve set up for ourselves – to strive in our Christian journey for union with God in Christ, in whose image we’re made and whose spirit dwells in us while at the same time counting the achievement of that, even in moments of our lives, as abnormal and unacceptable. It is fear that causes us to close in the walls around what is normal and acceptable – for God and for us. What is an attempt at spiritual safety, however, becomes a prison, and it is faith that sets us free.

We have nothing to fear when we lie down in the green pastures of the presence of God. Not even the valley of the shadow of death can harm or distract us from the divine feast that has been prepared for us by God, a feast that fills us to overflowing.

Each Sunday we partake of a tiny bit of that feast at Holy Communion. So come, share the feast and celebrate being abnormal and unacceptable to the world!

I close with the first verse and refrain from a song by Pink called, Wild hearts can’t be broken:

"I will have to die for this I fear
There's rage and terror and there's sickness here
I fight because I have to
I fight for us to know the truth
There's not enough rope to tie me down
There's not enough tape to shut this mouth
The stones you throw can make me bleed
But I won't stop until we're free
Wild hearts can't be broken
No, wild hearts can't be broken."


Sunday, May 5, 2019

3 Easter, 2019-C: Listen for the extraordinary

Lectionary: Acts 9:1-6, (7-20); Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

Note: If the above player doesn't work for you, click HERE for an alternative audio format.

En el nombre del Dios: Creador, Redentor, y Sanctificador. Amen.

It can be difficult to connect the truth we know about the transformative effect of Jesus’ resurrection to how we live that in our present reality. Thankfully, today’s Scripture helps us make that connection.

This gospel from John illustrates so well the very human experience of getting on with life while still in that foggy state of consciousness that follows any extreme experience – in this case, the execution of the Messiah and then his appearances to them afterward. He’s dead and yet he lives. Imagine how hard it was for those first disciples to process this.

So, Peter does what most of us do – he makes a first step back into life as he knows it: “I’m going fishing” he says. There is nothing extraordinary about this statement. In fact, the beauty of it is its simplicity. Peter was a fisherman. He went fishing. He did what he does… in all the fogginess of his state of mind. Peter’s nascent leadership of this tribe of transforming souls is made evident by the others’ response: “We’re going with you.”

The gospel writer tells us they caught nothing. No surprise there. Going through the motions rarely generates any fruit, but it does help us carry on while the transformation from death to resurrection life is happening in us.

It’s interesting to note that Peter and the rest went fishing in the night. We know this because we’re told that it was just after daybreak that Jesus appeared to them. They went, therefore, from darkness to light as they processed what the resurrection of Jesus meant for them.

Not recognizing Jesus at first, even though they’d already seen him several times, and even though he called them “children” as he was wont to do, they obeyed the voice that spoke to them in their fogginess of mind, and the very ordinary thing they were doing became extraordinary. The fruit of their fishing was huge – so huge it broke the earthy container attempting to hold it.

Ever gently guiding them in this transformative process, Jesus stood on the beach and called them to come to him and eat food he had already prepared for them. Jesus was calling them from the waters of rebirth back into life on the earth. He fed them fish for their stomachs and bread for their souls. All the while they’re still in that liminal, foggy state of consciousness not daring to ask who he was because they knew it was the Lord, they just didn’t know how it could be…

Jesus questions to Peter grant him the real opportunity to repent of his betrayal and use the pain of it to transform his upcoming ministry which was to feed and tend the newly forming flock of the Good Shepherd. We all have humanity that gets in our way, but we also all have forgiveness that frees us to live into our divine purpose.

Also accomplished in this conversation was a redirection. Peter and the others (including us) keep looking for Jesus outside of ourselves. Jesus redirects Peter (and us) to find Jesus within ourselves, in our love and care for the flock of Christ.

Then Jesus issues a subtle warning that our divine path will take us where we do not wish to go. It took Jesus there. “Follow me,” he says. The comfort in this simple statement is that Jesus is always there, a step ahead of us, encouraging and empowering us as we do the ordinary things we do, transformed into extraordinary, by his spirit which dwells in us.

Peter was an ordinary fisherman who became an extraordinary fisher of people in the power of the transformative effect of Jesus’ resurrection in him. Whatever is ordinary in us, whatever we do in our lives, becomes extraordinary in the transformative effect of Jesus’ resurrection in us.

Some of us, however, get bogged down in the earthly. When that happens, God acts to set us free. The story from Acts illustrates this for us, showing how God restores us to a path of life when we are going down to the grave, as the psalmist says.

Saul was a Pharisee bent on protecting the Jewish tradition he loved. So zealous was he in his endeavor, that he found a way to justify hunting and killing those whom he thought threatened it, namely the followers of Jesus. So, God came to him and the brilliance of the light of love struck Saul blind, rendering him helpless to do anything but listen to God, then make a choice on how to respond.

How many of us have seen people whose eyes are open yet who see nothing? It’s a very human condition.

As God is sending Saul to a disciple of Jesus named Ananias, Ananias experiences a divine revelation. God asks Ananias to lay hands on and heal Saul, who is on his way to him. Ananias asks an important and familiar question to many of us: Are you sure, God? This one is pretty brutal.

God was sure, and Saul became Paul, an apostle of the resurrection – eyes opened in faith by the faithful and very human contact of the disciple Ananias.

As I said, it can be difficult to connect the truth we know about the transformative effect of Jesus’ resurrection to how we live that in our present reality. The only way I know to do that is to listen. For some of us it takes being struck blind and helpless as Saul was, or hopeless as the disciples were, to finally stop and listen.

In 1994, Steve and I took our family to live in his hometown of Selma, AL, in order to be present with his parents as his father was dying. We attended St. Paul’s Episcopal Church there – a synchronicity of the first order, as you’ll see. On Ash Wednesday of that year, as I stood in line for ashes, a draft of air from the floor vent on which I was standing rose up and I felt the brush of it on my face. Almost immediately, my eyes began to burn and tear.

The next morning, the pain was nearly unbearable so I went to the eye doctor and learned that my eyes and face had suffered severe chemical burns. I was blinded for two weeks, during which time I was bedridden. My children were 12, 3, and 2 years old. Steve, some friends, and our housekeeper kept our household functioning during my incapacity.

So, there I lay for two weeks, helpless to do anything but pray and listen to God. I found myself unable – finally - to avoid God’s continual call me to begin a path to ordained ministry.

Finding and walking our divine path doesn’t mean we suddenly lead lives of blessing and favor. That’s a false understanding, as Jesus made very clear to Peter, and as Paul’s life illustrates. These apostles of the resurrection were imprisoned and finally killed for speaking love into the world.

I know the author of the gospel indicates that Jesus’ statement points to the death Peter would suffer in the world, but I also hear in it that God may be the someone who takes us where we do not wish to go. Even Jesus experienced this as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane – until he let go his life and trusted in God’s plan of redemption working through him.

Living into our divine purpose means letting go of our lives and letting God’s plan of redemption work through us. The story of Saul being transformed into Paul shows how hard that is for us. Paul is an icon of answering Jesus’ call to lose our life in order to save it; of dying to self in order to live.

I close with an invitation: this week, let’s all make time to listen; real time we schedule on our calendars or adapt into our prayer and devotions time. During this time, let’s listen together, as a community, for this: what are the ordinary things do we do that God seeks to make extraordinary through the transforming power of the resurrection in us?

God bless us as we open ourselves to listen and make our choice to respond.