I really do believe that when I took my ordination vows, I didn’t quite have a full understanding of how deeply I would fall in love with those whom I serve. I see how hard they are working to better themselves, spiritually, faithfully and as disciples in this world. I see their good works, their successes and how they sometimes stumble. I see them take ownership for where they are, and how the past “sins” of the church has affected them. I see them struggle and feel their passion for change and a longing for healing. And I see them doing this all while caring for their first ministry, their families and loved ones at home. That’s why, like a Momma bear, when an unknown author on public platform criticizes them, I want to defend them, protect them and hold them more tightly.
The church in which I have been called has a long history of conflict, betrayal and broken trust. It all went on for far too long. There is quite a bit of trauma. There are flashpoints in the history of the conflict and trauma that we can look to, but the truth is the toxic culture started long before the main event, it most always does. Generally the person holding the hot potato or let’s say grenade that finally explodes serves as the scape goat to responsibility and ownership. Often you will hear something like, “Things were good until so and so was here.” But that’s rarely ever the case. The toxic culture started long before “so and so” and continued long after.
Dismantleing Toxic Culture is not an easy task, and quite frankly it’s not one that every church leader has been called to do, has the strength to do or is equipped to handle. I am fortunate to have the skill set, training, support system and people in place to assist me as I walk alongside my church and lead them to a healthy way of being. I read today, “If God has called you to a toxic church, it could be the joy of what can be is greater than the pain you are facing.” Truly, I want them to know the Joy of Christ, the Joy of living, the Joy of Worship and Fellowship, the Joy of Community and Service to Others.
The Good News is many are catching on and healing, but it all takes time. When I first arrived a local leader in the community shared, “It will take you five years before you even begin to get the trust of the community.” Hard words for the first weeks of a first call in the middle of a pandemic, but I hold them close whenever I am frustrated and remeber to be patient.
I do believe that toxic environments in our churches perpetuate because it is easier to accept what is toxic rather than the pain that often comes with becoming healthy.
There are many of us who have served or are serving in a church with a dysfunction or a toxic culture? The toxic church culture can lead many to quit ministry before they’re time. Sadly though there are some churches that actually love the toxic culture they are accustomed to.
We all have joked and have heard some of the following toxic sayings, “We have always done things that way,” “Why do we have to have those people join our church?” “If we change that paint color, or remove a pew or change the hall I am leaving the church.” And here’s a common doozy, weaponizing pledges, “I won’t give another penny until they change or I get or I see, A, B, or C”
If we fear Sunday attendance and adhere to toxic threats to smooth things over, we only perpetuate an unhealthy cycle. Be fearless in your ministry, put God first and allow the Holy Spirit to claim the rest. This takes courage, resillience and the ability to stay steadfast in your love for your people and your church.
Tips on moving Forward
I share with you the Following from Lifeway Research which sums up simply some of the steps for Clergy leaders to take to dismantle toxic behavior and rebuild a healthy church enviornment. Be gentle with yourself and your flock, it’s a slow process.
Preach the Word. The Apostle Paul told his protege Timothy,
Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.
In a toxic environment we must trust the Word of the Lord to clear the air. As leaders we are called to trust the Lord and stand on His word. Point people back to the glorious truth of the Cross. It could be that the toxic person has forgotten that it is about Jesus not about them, money, or property. This may mean you preach on specific issues, such as the function of the church, living on mission, or discord. It may also mean your Sunday school or small groups take a break from curriculum for times of prayer for the church.
Don’t be afraid to confront. If I am honest, I dislike conflict. Praise God as He is helping me grow in my leadership I am much better in dealing with conflict. However, one thing I had to learn, not all conflict is a bad thing. In fact, healthy conflict can cause change for the good.
Is there a toxic person you need to address directly? Matthew 18 is clear that we are to go to our brother if we have a fault with them. In any conflict, the only one we have to fear is God. People may get mad with you, but they don’t give you value, worth, or identity. Our identities come from the Lord. We should not allow toxic people to destroy others within our local church. So, confronting in love needs to be direct, immediate and clear, leaving no room for misunderstanding or questions as to what you are saying.
Evangelize, disciple and pray. The hard thing about a toxic environment is people don’t want to be part of it. However, what if the breath of fresh air needed is new people coming to faith in Christ?
I love new Christians. They are not concerned about who left peppermint paper on the back pew on the left side of the sanctuary—it isn’t a life or death issue the church must address. The new follower of Christ wants to do just that: follow Christ and help others do the same. As leaders let us pray, trusting that God can change the hearts of people.
Thom Rainer said it best, “Change is urgent because the gospel is urgent.” Let us seek gospel change to the glory of God allowing the air to become clear of a toxic culture.
To end this blog where I began, I am proud of all the hard work and willingness my leadership is willing to engage in as we build a healthy community. I am in awe of their strength and courage and am ever more curious to the see what the Holy Spirit reveals as we continue to walk along side one another.
They say the beach in which my room overlooks is known for its healing qualities. If I had any doubts when I first arrived they have all been alliviated now.
The word retreat in the Christian world conjurs up so many thoughts and memories. For some it draws us back to retreat houses, talks and quiet reflections, for others it’s the thought of monastaries and convents, a quiet rule of life with common worship and meals. As retreat houses, convents and monastaries close what are we to do and where are we to go as christians to restore, refresh and deepen our relationship with God in our secular world?
There are many types of retreats and various offerings one can find, if you are willing to search and/or travel. There are health and wellness retreats, spiritual retreats, contemplative retreats and more. There are even retreats centered around one particular intrest like music, the arts or religion. There are directed group retreats and solo self-directed retreats as well. There are retreats in cities and in rural areas.
If you have the discipline and clear intention you can retreat in just about any place in the world, away from where you are right now, but be careful not to confuse retreat with vacation. A vacation isn’t necessarily restorative or focused on the awesomeness of our God. How many times after coming home from time away have we uttered the words, “I need a vacation after my vacation just to recover from vacation.” No a retreat has a clear purpose and objective. It requires discipline. Even a silent retreat in a convent full of nuns requires discipline to adhere to a rule of life. It is not passive. I went on a silent retreat before becoming ordained. Unfortunately it was the last retreat I was on before now. I don’t normally like to go this long, but much like the world around us, COVID got in the way.
Having been so long and living through 2020 and most of 21, I was long over due to sit with God away from my usual surroundings with the clear intention of healing mind, body and spirit in and with the presence of God discerning the path ahead. I was long over due in allowing myself the time and space to release, heal and restore in the presence of the Holy Spirit. The obstacle I encountered was that all of my favorite nearby retreat houses closed in recent years and another had waiting list into the new year. Upon the advice of my spiritual director who has walked beside me for many years, this time with God could no longer wait so I set out to create a meaningful self directed, solo Christian retreat in a secular world.
I share this now with you because many of you have inquired to where I was going and what I was doing. After sharing the following with my son, he said jokingly, “Ma, it sounds like a spiritual rehab.” He’s not all that wrong, I tapped into my roots, my foundation and set out to create a mind, body, spirit christian retreat in which I have found to be restorative while deepening my relationship with Christ.
In addition to the two books I’ve read, Joan Chittister, The time is Now and God’s Voice Within: The Ignatian Way to Discover God’s Will by Father Mark E. Thibodeaux SJ, what follows are some, not all but some of the modalities I used during my retreat over the course of this week.
The Artist’s Way
Every day began with Morning pages.
In 2009 I had the spectacular blessing of sitting in class at Lincoln Center in New York City with Julia Cameron as my teacher. She is an author, artist, poet, playwright, novelist, filmmaker, composer, and journalist. Best known for her book The Artist’s Way (1992), she taught us about nurturing the divine creativity within and provided three tools that I utilized on my retreat this week. You too may find them useful in your day and or week. Below is a summary of the three and if you choose to learn more about Julia, The Artist’s Way, or any other of her works you may find her at the following link: https://juliacameronlive.com/
According to Julia’s book and website:
1) The bedrock tool of a creative recovery is a daily practice called Morning Pages.
Morning Pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning. There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages– they are not high art. They are not even “writing.” They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind– and they are for your eyes only. Morning Pages provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize and synchronize the day at hand. Do not over-think Morning Pages: just put three pages of anything on the page…and then do three more pages tomorrow.
2)The Artist Date is a once-weekly, festive, solo expedition to explore something that interests you.
The Artist Date need not be overtly “artistic” — think mischief more than mastery. Artist Dates fire up the imagination. They spark whimsy. They encourage play. Since art is about the play of ideas, they feed our creative work by replenishing our inner well of images and inspiration. When choosing an Artist Date, it is good to ask yourself, “what sounds fun?” — and then allow yourself to try it. Learn more about the Artist date at the following link: https://juliacameronlive.com/basic-tools/artists-dates/
3) Walking as Prayer
“When I wrote The Artist’s Way, I got all the way to week twelve and said, P.S. Walk. I have been teaching now for twenty years since the publication of the book, and I now realize that there are three basic tools, not two, and they are Morning Pages, Artist Dates, and Walks.”
“All large change is made through many small steps. Notice that word in there– “step.” Walking leads us a step at a time. Walking gives us a gentle path. We are talked to as we walk. We hear guidance. It comes from within us and from the world around us. Walking is a potent form of prayer.”
The Divine Office
Now empty of my own distractions I was preparred to move onto the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours, Prime-6:00 am, Terce-9:00am, Sext 12:00pm, None-3:00pm, Vespers 6:00pm, and Compline 9:00pm) I used the Roman Catholic App The Divine Office which can be downloaded at https://divineoffice.org/ I use this app alot and enjoy praying with people across the world. The readings do vary a bit from our Episcopal tradition, but I enjoy the prayers, chants and hymns that are embedded in the office.
Spiritual direction is an ancient practice in which one person helps another to listen for the voice of God in his or her life. The first known spiritual directors were the desert fathers and mothers, the fourth-century hermits have often been considered the first Christian monastics who lived in the Near Eastern desert and helped each other as they tried to live Jesus’s teachings. Spiritual direction has been a part of the Catholic and Anglican traditions for many centuries.
Spiritual Direction does not prescribe the “right way” to pray or live one’s faith. Instead, spiritual directors are trained and experienced in sacred conversation. Through attentive Holy listening, storytelling, reflection, conversation, prayer, or silence, a spiritual director helps a directee come to better understand God’s movements, presence, and callings in one’s own life. Hence deepening the relationship between the directed and God.
Some resources you may find useful in Spiritual Direction:
Margaret Guenther, Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction. Cowley, 1992. A wise book on how to give others the gift of disinterested, loving attention.
Kenneth Leech, Soul Friend: An Invitation to Spiritual Direction. HarperSanFrancisco, 1992.
Anne Winchell Silver, Trustworthy Connections: Interpersonal Issues in Spiritual Direction. Cowley, 2003. This is one of the most practical books about the how-to of spiritual direction, addressing many of the issues and challenges that can arise with wisdom and clarity. (Ann was my teacher at General Theological Seminary)
The Healing Power of Water
I spent a good deal of time in the water, drinking water and gazing over the water in prayer.
Water is mentioned a total of 722 times in the Bible, more often than faith, hope, prayer, and worship. Genesis 1:2, “The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” Water is an essential component of life, it was created on the very first day.
In Revelation, water is mentioned again, and it is almost the last words of the Bible. Revelation 22:17, “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”
Water flows throughout the scripture, and this reminds us of its importance…both spiritually and physically.
“St. John Damascene summarized, “Water, then, is the most beautiful element and rich in usefulness and purifies from all filth, and not only from the filth of the body but from that of the soul, if it should have received the grace of the Spirit”. (An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith– Book 2: Chapter 9). Water has the power to heal, as can be seen from the stories of Naaman – the Syrian cured from his leprosy in the waters of Jordan (2 Kings 5:1-14) and the annual miracles at Bethesda in Jerusalem (John 5:1-9). Water has the power to purify, to provide deliverance, and it can also destroy evil and enemies as in the stories of the Flood (Genesis 6:17) and the flight of Israel from Egypt (Exodus 14:1-15:21).
Christ of the Abyss–Cristo_degli_abissi 70 to 75% of the earth’s surface is covered with water. Roughly 70% of an adult’s body is made up of water, and about 85% of the adult brain is made up of water. Water is essential to life, and all living things need water to survive.”
In the waters of baptism, we are lovingly adopted by God into God’s family, and given God’s own life to share, and we are reminded that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ. Holy Baptism, which is performed through the pouring of water or immersion in, marks our formal entry into the congregation and in our wider Church. Water, therefore, is a reminder of not only life but our life in Christ through the vows we share in our Baptismal Covenant. We are marked as Christ’s own forever.
Sound Bath Meditation
I read somewhere that a sound bath helps tune the nervous system just as one would tune a piano.
What a glorious meditative experience I had with Abra at Shift Studio in Ventnor, NJ. My words alone cannot do this experience nearly enough justice. Surely this will not be the last visit.It was thouroughly healing.
Many of you inquired about this method of meditation as I eagerly shared that I could not wait for this experience. The following is what I found on the web:
“Sound baths have nothing to do with a relaxing soak in the tub, and yet more psychiatrists, therapists, and other wellness experts are acknowledging the practice as ultra restorative and cleansing. A sound bath is a meditative experience where the individual or those in attendance are “bathed” in sound waves. These waves are produced by various sources, including healing instruments such as gongs, singing bowls, percussion, chimes, rattles, tuning forks, and even the human voice itself.
It may seem like sound baths are a New Age trend, but sound therapy is as old as time, dating back over 40,000 years. Ancient Greeks used flutes and lyres to treat digestion and mental health, Tibetans used singing bowls for over 2,000 years for meditation purposes, and Australian aboriginal tribes played the didgeridoo to heal the sick.
There’s a ton of research on the benefits of sound healing, which is why many health experts say sound baths are a promising tool. The practice can have a tremendous impact on the mind and body.
Most sound bath programs last 45 to 60 minutes. The sessions are led by a sound bath practitioner trained in how to use various instruments and use vibrations — gongs, chimes, tuning forks, singing bowls — all assist to facilitate deep meditation, relaxation and, healing.”
The following is a meditative piece with one of my favorite healing artists, Ashana. This piece has the addition of Piano by Thomas Barquee. You can imagine yoursef here giving yourself to God, having Jesus wrap his arms around you, loving you and holding you. Ashana uses the Crystal bowls and her voice to bring deep restorative peace. Close your eyes and enjoy 10 minutes of calm.
Prayer through Art
Just by taking a look around this blog site you can see the artwork that I produced all through the power of prayer. No plan, no insight, no thought, just prayer that gives life through color and reflection. I took time to pray doodle and create with the Holy Spirit this week. On a side note, there were times in my life in which I had no words, I couldn’t speak, prayer through art radiated the message that needed to be heard. It simply said what I couldn’t.
We generally think of prayer as something we read, say, or listen to. But prayer can also be a visual experience. As the saying goes, “a picture is worth 1,000 words.” Images (and all forms of visual arts) can often evoke rich nuance and meaning that cannot be replicated in words. Similarly, art can bring another dimension to prayer.
There are two main modes from which to approach prayer through art: meditating on art as a starting point for prayer and creating art as an expression of prayer. While they are in some ways opposites, they both use visual means to engage in and nurture prayer, reflection, and meditation.
Art has a long history within the Christian church. Paintings, tapestries, sculptures, friezes, stained glass, and other images and icons were some of the first ways the common people could understand the stories of Christianity. It was not until the 1450s that the printing press began to make the Bible accessible to those outside of the church, and even then the majority of people in Europe and the U.S. were not literate until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (and globally not until the mid-to-late twentieth century!). For thousands of years, oral and visual traditions were the primary means through which people were exposed to the Bible and the Christian faith. The result is a wealth of religious artworks in every style and media—a treasury from which we, today, can draw inspiration.
It is my instinct to get up and go when someone calls. It is my instinct to be by the side of the sick, the suffering, or those in need. When I was in school in NYC, I’d stop and pray with those living on the street, never afraid to hold hands or bless a forehead or even give a hug. It is my instinct to be present, to love, to break bread with a stranger. I naturally presumed that is what I was called to do, but the truth is not in and of itself the action but in the revelation of the glory of God that comes from the action.
Today I’m called to obey, to listen, and wait.
Waiting is hard. I want to fix everything. I want to ease the pain, to be by my loved ones who are secluded, alone or even hospitalized, yet I’m called to be still, to pray, to love from afar, to wait for the Glory of God to be revealed.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is called. He is called by Mary and Martha to be by the side of his ailing friend, but does he drop everything and run? No, for he is also called by God. He continues his ministry from where he is and waits two days, loving from afar. Some may say, but how O’Lord can you do this? Why are you allowing the suffering of the ones you love? Many of us may be asking that question now?
“Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice”
The answer is both simple and complex.
If Jesus jumps and goes to Lazarus too soon how then how would the Glory of God be revealed for all to see? Jesus must wait, still, and set his sight on God, having faith and abiding in His steadfast love.
So too must we… Abide, have faith and obey.
On Wednesday Christians all around the world stopped what they were doing at noon and called upon the Lord through prayer. All eyes on our Sovereign God.
On Friday Pope Francis held the special Urbi et Orbi from the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica. As the rain fell steadily, the Pope offered his prayers, his blessing and sat in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. My heart stopped for a moment as I watched him stand and receive the Monstrance. I could feel both the almighty power of God and the deep sadness of the world. With his feeble body and all his might the Pope turned to the Square and the world; he lifted the monstrance holding the Body of Christ high making the sign of the cross from the east to the west. As he then returned the Blessed Sacrament to the priest, I can feel the gasp of my Breath. “Oh Lord out of the depths, I cry to you.” With the rain falling on a dark and empty St. Peter’s square, I cried.
And I remembered, Jesus wept too!
Jesus, returned to the village where Mary and Martha were with Lazarus, and although he knew the Glory of God was about to be revealed, he recognized their suffering, and he wept. There is no greater two words in our Gospel, “Jesus wept.” He shared in their suffering, he shared in their love, he shared in their grief, and he shares in ours as well.
Jesus shares in our grief, in our suffering and in our world. Stillness does not mean nothing is happening or that God is ignoring our calls but rather that God’s Glory is about to be revealed in ways we never could have imagined. Just as we could never imagine that a man dead for four days could rise and live.
“Lazarus, come out!”
Just when you imagine all hope to be gone, all life to be dead, hope rises and a new life begins, to and for the Glory of God!
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe in me?”
I will never take another hug, another handshake, or kiss for granted. When the oil of my hand touches another, their imprint, their bond, will live on.
Yes, Lord, I believe! I believe the Glory of God is at hand. I believe that Easter is coming and you, O’Lord will rise and conquer the hearts and lives of all your people.
Yes, Lord, I believe, I believe you are the light and life and with you, in you through you, life is eternal.
May the Blessing and love of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit be revealed in his Glory and abide in you always.
A couple of weeks back, John introduced us to Nicodemus. Throughout the entirety of the Gospel, we see Nicodemus in the background slowly undergoing a spiritual transformation as he moves from identifying Jesus as a man to the prophet to God, Christ the Messiah, a slow steady witnessing that requires him to let go of everything he knew and trusted to become a believer.
Our lectionary today brings us to the same awareness.
Samuel grieving over Saul was hurt and rejected yet takes God’s charge, heads to Jesse to seek out a king. He sees Eliab and by his stature, he is reminded of Saul. “Surely this must be the Lord’s anointed,” but the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him.
Why do we seek to hold on to things that God has rejected?
Samuel cast judgment based on emotion. Feelings that held him back and tied him to the past, not to God’s direction. How often do we do this in our own lives, hold onto people, places or things that we know are toxic, bad for us, or simply stunts our spiritual growth keeping us stuck?
How often do we allow our fears, our hurts, our sorrows or insecurities to speak over the truth and the direction of God?
You see, seven more brothers pass him by. The Lord chose none of them. No instead he chose David, the smallest of them. David the sinner. David the one out in the field. Surely he appeared nothing like Saul, but God sees what Samuel couldn’t.
Jesus sees a blind man, outside the synagogue, and on the Sabbath, he makes mud, rubs it on his eyes. Jesus then sends him to wash, and as the water cleanses the mud, he sees. Then almost immediately the man must account for Jesus.
In the first paragraph, he says, “The man called Jesus made mud and spread it on my eyes.” Recognizing Jesus as a man. In the second paragraph, he answers the Pharisees, “He is a prophet,” and then in the last paragraph, he says, “Lord, I believe,” recognizing Jesus as the Messiah. The transformation of the man was more than the physical, it was a spiritual transformation.
Now the people wanted to see Jesus as a sinner, after all, he made mud on the Sabbath and that would be a no, no. It’s always easier to lay blame on someone or something when our belief or way of life is challenged or suddenly changed. It can almost feel threatening to our own comfort and security to be thrust into a new way of life or perspective.
Emotion and fear of letting go and allowing God to direct our lives can be overwhelming. After all that’s why they sent the healed man away and why his parent’s feared to answer the people in the synagogue. Spiritual growth and Change can happen over the course of time, slowly like Nicodemus. It can happen systematically like Samuel or it can happen quickly causing a stir like the blind man.
From man, to prophet, to God… I believe.
We have been thrust into a new way of living. The Corona Virus has impeded and changed just about everything. How we engage as people, how we live our daily lives, how we dine, how we worship, perhaps even how we pray. In this new era, we have a choice, to hold on to what and how we lived, mourning like Samuel or embrace a spiritual transformation through the desert, opening our selves to a new life and perspective. No, growth is not always easy, it’s bumpy and sometimes even scary, but letting go and moving one step at a time forward gives us all room for God’s good grace.
So, don’t let how you feel get in the way of what God desires for you in your life and in the life of others and don’t be so quick to count others out, and don’t be so quick to let others count you out, for we look at the outward, but God looks at the inward. We cannot see what God sees, but we can trust, let go, and let God. A new day, a new glory is on its way… If you’ll allow it.
Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
On Thursday evening I received a call from my son. I barely said hello as in his excitement he exclaimed, “God humbled me Ma’! God wanted to humble me. I swear.” I could tell that something big happened to him, something special, something memorable. “Slow down, breathe. What happened?” I said. “God was active in my life, God was active.” I could hear the tenderness in his voice as he began his story. I could tell he was moved more deeply as if he was spooked but at the same time at peace, a deep peace, that kind of peace you feel when you are brought to tears by an exuberant joy. “I missed the 5:06, and had to catch the next train when it came I jumped on, but it was an Express to New York. I had to get off in Woodbridge so I waited for the next train. I was cold, really cold, and just as the train was supposed to come, I heard the voice on the loudspeaker, the train was canceled. My phone was dead and I didn’t know what to do. Then out of nowhere, this old black man began to talk to me. I asked if he could call me a cab, so he dialed the number and the station no longer exists, so he offered me a ride to Linden.” He was excited, he had to share. As a mom I wanted to say, “Are you mad! What if something happened to you?” but as I priest, I took a deep breath, stayed still and I could hear something did happen to him, something big.
“I got into his car and we talked the whole time. He told me that when he was in college all of his friends had cars. They would pass him by with a beep and a wave. He took the bus to get to school from one end of New York to another. It was far. Well, one day he missed the bus. His friends drove by, beeped and waved like they always did and then there was this guy in a pick-up truck with a big dog. He stopped, waved him on in and gave him a ride to class. Mom, he said, “From that day on son, I promised to never let any one man go stranded. If ever there was someone stranded, I would pick them up and give them a ride.” Ma’ he knew me. He knew that’s what I do for all my friends, that’s what we should do and he did it for me. God was active in my life today. He wanted to humble me Ma’, humble me. I’ll never let anyone go stranded.”
In a world where we are building walls, social distancing and shutting out the other, Jesus engages the other in the story of the woman at the well. It’s not about quenching his physical thirst as a man or asking for a favor. The story is deeper, more lovely and beautiful as Jesus expresses his knowledge of her for all that she is, even as a Samaritan woman, he loved her without shame, without pretense, without expectation.
Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.
Excited about her encounter with Jesus, she rushed to the city to tell everyone she knew. God was active in her life, humbled her and she was known and to be known is to be loved and to be loved is to be known.
In a world that at times, seems to lose its sanity, engulfed in fear, and stockpiling silly amounts of toilet paper, are we still enough to trust and know our encounters with our active God? Are we brave enough, to engage in a relationship with those who are seemingly unlike ourselves? Do we allow ourselves to be nourished, not by tap, well or bottle, but by the spirit of God that lives among us? The spirit that truly knows who we are, faults and all.
I keep wondering, what if I had a mom reaction and instilled my fears in my son, would I become an obstacle to his grace, or would I miss the blessing of his shared grace? He evangelized his mother. He trusted, had the courage and felt the call of God who nourished him and in turn nourished me. That’s evangelism, that’s God.
To be known is to be loved and to be loved ist to be known.
In this time of “social distancing” be intentional, be in a relationship, reach out and let another know how deeply they are loved and proclaim the Grace that God has given to you, to everyone. Engage, lovingly engage.
I am so very grateful to the man and to the God who loved my son.
When I was a mere 21 years of age, I lost a dear friend and mentor. I remember her brother sitting in a wheelchair alongside the family near the coffin. We were still in the middle of the AIDS crisis. Everyone knew he had the disease. He had the visible sores, on his hands, face, and arms. He did not have much time left in his flesh.
The line for the viewing was long, it wrapped around and outside the funeral parlor, my mentor was well-loved and touched many, many lives. As I stood slowly inching my way through the room, I saw person by person, walking by her brother, barely a nod, afraid to touch him, console him or acknowledge him as if their seeing him would somehow endanger themselves. They shied away, looked elsewhere and passed him by. They created boundaries around themselves of not only flesh but of the spirit. Our mourning grew sadder.
By my very nature, that is not who I am. I can’t pass you by, overlook you, or walk away. As I approached him, I hugged him, kissed him on the side of his cheek, and together holding hands we mourned and reminisced. I shared how deeply I loved his sister and shared my condolences. I remember the look in his eyes, the feel of his hand, his long beared as he gazed back at me. That moment was powerful for us both.
At the risk of being seen, I loved. At the risk of being unseen, he was loved.
The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
What if Abram didn’t listen? What if Abram hid from God and buried himself in the busyness of his days? What if Abram was so full of fear that he refused to be seen by our creator? After all, it is risky to get up and go, to leave our place of comfort and go out into the darkness of the unknown. It is risky to trust, to give up control, to lay aside the presence of those we are familiar with, to change our routines, and to reach out to those we do not know. We risk the feeling of loss, of rejection, or of being alone, but when we sit refusing to see or to be seen, when we hideaway, and we say, not me God, not now God, I can’t do it, God, I’m too busy God, then we risk our spiritual lives. We risk not being born.
Like a seed planted in the garden, so is the life of our spirit. If we do not tend to the seed it will not flourish, but if we love the seed, give food to the soil, water the seed and pay attention to its needs; giving it shelter when it’s grown too cold, and providing it with light when darkness is too much, the seed will grow, it will be nourished, it will have endless potential to grow into everything God has intended it to become, and as it grows, as it flourishes, the essence of its being will nourish life along the way. Think of your favorite flower, the smell of a rose or a lily, and how your breath and step changes its pace as you preserve the moment of its grace in your presence. Think of the wind as it blows the pollen of a flower to reach the soil, or the bee or hummingbird that feeds on the nectar giving and sustaining life as it risks to be seen.
It was the week of Passover, people flocked to Jerusalem. The town swelled to a number several times its size. Jesus was teaching in the streets, performing miracles, drawing large crowds. He drew the attention of the Sanhedrin, who was the supreme council and tribunal of the Jews headed by a High Priest and having religious, civil, and criminal jurisdiction, they were not fond of Jesus. The Sanhedrin feared that Jesus was causing a rebellion, an uprising among the people.
Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin, then goes in the cover of darkness, sneaks out at night, afraid to be seen by others, who may mock him, or ostracize him, or accuse him of betrayal to the council in which he served, to go and speak to Jesus. While dodging the risk of being seen by his community who knows him well, he also risks being seen by God who knows him best.
He sits before Jesus…
The Spiritual life of Nicodemus was not born here but it began here, it was conceived here. He knew the teachings and was well versed in Jewish law, but he had not yet been born by the spirit which breathes life into us all if we allow ourselves to see and be seen.
Any woman who has conceived a child and given birth knows the process does not happen overnight. The process is long, it’s arduous, it draws us out of our comfortable places into a vulnerable existence whereby everything changes, from our bodies to our souls, to our minds. Like being born from our mother’s womb so too is our spiritual life, our relationship with God. Being born again is not an instantaneous lightbulb moment but a journey of deepening witness allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, to be seen as we seek, to be drawn out of ourselves and into the complete care of our creator.
Here in our Gospel of John, Nicodemus shows up for the first time, like a seed deep in the soil, in the dark, but as we move through our Gospel, the spiritual life of Nicodemus is being fed, it’s being drawn out from the darkness and into the light. From seeing Jesus as a man in the flesh to seeing Jesus as the Savior, the Christ. Nicodemus stands up for Jesus in Chapter 7 against his own, he begins to believe. Then after Jesus is hung on the cross Nicodemus comes with a 100lbs of Myrrh in which to bury him. Born out of God’s brokenness on the cross, is the spiritual witness, the deepening faith, the love of Nicodemus, being born again and breathing new life into us all.
Nicodemus like Abram was drawn out from the comfortable place of his existence, where the boundaries were clear and defined by law, concrete, and into existence with the unlimited possibility that goes beyond the flesh and into the promise of immortal eternal life.
Our lectionary invites us to leave our comfort zones, to let go of the flesh, and see more deeply beyond the surface; to give up control, to open ourselves to new people, places and things, and to surrender our lives to the care of our almighty God.
We can do this in many ways; by being in the presence of God, through the active stillness of centering prayer allowing the Holy Spirit room to dwell among us, or we can do this through communal prayer and worship and by seeking God in everything and everyone. We can do this by being present to God and being in the presence of God with others, by acknowledging the dignity of every human being.
Take the risk, allow yourself to see, and be seen. Smile at someone, bless them, pray for them, hold a door and be kind, and most importantly, listen and be present to one another, You will see God, and God will see you.
All we have to do is make time for God, make God our priority and take the risk.
No, prayer in the car on the way to work is not enough, or while you are doing the laundry, not enough, be intentional, truly intentional and give God your time, your space, your presence. Allow yourself to truly be seen, to be known, to be touched, to grow.
There was a priest I knew who lived in Princeton. One evening he went to visit with a gentleman from his congregation. He had never been invited in until this day. As he approached the home and drove into the long drive, he took special notice to the meticulously taken care of lawn. It was a seven-bedroom estate, large, and beautiful.
In awe of his surroundings, the priest crossed the threshold, and the man led him to the living room. He sat on a chair that was tattered and worn and quickly noticed the silence. The home was nearly empty. This was the only furnished room. The priest was confused, the gentleman never missed a tithed, showed up on Sunday regularly and was always dressed in a suit and smiled at those he greeted.
The walls were bare, the space was silent, and the man began to weep before his priest.
According to Homer in Greek mythology, there are creatures, hideous monsters, half-bird, and half woman, referred to as Sirens. They lived on an island and lured sailors to their death. They would sing and by the power of their sweetness in their song, they stirred an illusion to every sailor who would hear, an illusion of beauty, the sailors couldn’t resist.
Our Gospel tells the story:
Jesus went out into the desert for forty days and forty nights. This is an image of a new Exodus where Israel spent 40 years before reaching the promised land, with Jesus as the new Israel. He would face a time of testing, temptation, and struggle.
Wherever in the bible we see the number 40, note the struggle and temptation. The number 40 represents the purification from sin. For instance, Noah and the flood, there were 40 days and 40 nights of rain. Moses spent 40 days on the Mount before he could be received in the presence of God and Elijah fleeing from Jezebel spent 40 days and nights in the desert preparing to meet God, a time of preparation and purification.
This is our Lenten season. So how do we prepare ourselves for our Lord?
Well, going back to our Greek myth and the story of the Sirens; Odysseus who was the King of the isle Ithica who wanted to hear what the fuss was all about so he ordered his men to tie him, tightly to the mast and not let him out. The men, knowing better and not wanting to fight temptation, took beeswax and put it in their ears. As they rowed by Odysseus heard the song and frantically tried to undo his ties, yelling at the men to realease him, but the men could not hear, and rowed on by.
The men who rowed with beeswax in their ears simply walked away from temptation, but Odysseus, wanting to hear, basically tasted temptation then couldn’t resist without the help of his mates.
And then there was Orpheus, a beautiful poet, and musician. He was considered a prophet of his time who learned to play the Lyre from the Greek God, Apollo. It is said that his music was so powerful, he could make the trees bend and the animals dance. As the Argonauts passed through the waters where the Sirens could be heard, he remembered his gift, he pulled out his Lyre and played the most beautiful song, drowning out the call of temptation. Filling his boat with all that is good, true and beautiful.
Jesus in the desert is tempted by the Devil. Like our Greek myth, he is tempted with the sin of Pleasure, by the Flesh, to satisfy his hunger.
“if you are the son of God then just change the stones into bread and fill your belly, eat your fill.” Jesus resists that temptation by saying “man doesn’t live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Jesus quotes scripture.
Then knowing Jesus quoted scripture, the devil levels up, he takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the Temple and says,
“if you’re really the son of God then throw yourself down because ‘he will give his angels charge of you.”
Here the devil veiled himself with scripture, Psalm 91,
“God will give his angels charge of you and they will bear you up less you strike your foot against a stone.”
He tried to tempt Jesus with the sin of Pride. If you are who you say you are, then do this, prove it.
“the devil took him to a high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and all of their glory; and he says ‘I’ll give this to you if you just worship me.”
The devil knew Jesus was here for all the souls of humanity, so he tempted him with the sin of possessions and offered them up, in a way that would eliminate Jesus’ suffering and humiliation, via death on a cross, if he just turned his back on God.
Jesus replies, once again with scripture, “you should only worship the Lord your God and him alone shall you serve.”
We live in a world full of illusions, the temptation of the devil, the call of the sirens dress in glamour, glitz and beautiful sounds to satisfy our instant need of pleasure, to embolden our pride, our ego or to relish and clothe ourselves with material things. Each gives us an appearance of wellness or satisfaction but leaves us thirsting for the spirit of God who is the only power who can give us the fullness of life both here and the hereafter.
I opened with a story of a man who appeared to be wealthy, no one knew the depth of his suffering, his wounds or scars. He was too proud to ask for help before this day or admit to his failures. He had fallen into sin and darkness. He gave in to the flesh, cheated on his spouse, and drank to numb his pain. His son died of drug addiction, and though he owned a multi-million dollar business, he was spiritually bankrupt and had nothing. He lost everything in the hunt for the easier softer way.
The Christian life is not an easy life. It is filled with suffering and pain, obstacles and temptation, but when we are wise and aware of the devil’s tricks and tactics, how he hides in false prophets, quotes scripture, offers instant gratification, or the promise of goods, we have the tools to resist with the help of one another, through prayer, fasting, giving alms, and reconciliation.
Over the next 40 days, arm yourself with wisdom in the reading of our scriptures, arm yourself with prayer calling on God to walk with you and guide you, and give of yourself to another human being and to the church assisting one another on this journey through a Christian life.
Love, Lift, guide and support one another, for the mercy of God is Great and the Power of God is forever.
It is good to speak truth to power, even when that power is me.
Being new to my congregation and not yet officially starting until this coming Sunday, we didn’t host Shrove Tuesday, so I attended a nearby church. They were a warm and friendly congregation. As I entered the doorway I saw some familiar faces and felt right at home introducing myself and working my way around the room. They were warm and friendly. The spirit led me to the right place.
The evening turned out to be more than pancakes and sausage, more than just fellowship or meeting new people and introducing myself, more than Mardi Gras, it turned into a moment of reconciliation and healing. A couple, who has been together for forty years mustered up the courage to confront me, share their woundedness and offer their truth. I am grateful they did. If they hadn’t I would not know the hurt they and their community had suffered, and they would not know that I am them.
We chatted for some time and in the end, I believe we all left with a sense of hope, healing and the opportunity to repair a relationship even though we never met until this day. This only happened through Grace of God, their courage to confront and my willingness to receive them. It didn’t matter whether or not I was the one who inflicted the pain of their wounds, as our scripture says,
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
I am responsible to offer empathy, understanding, and bridge to healing. I left feeling their pain, but hopeful for renewal, not only for them but for all they and who they represented.
My friend Moe posted a video and a quote on Social Media today by Moira Rogers, “The two hardest things to say in life are hello for the first time and goodbye for the last time.” Moe went on to say,” In our life, we are blessed by those who are surrounding us. There are those out there placed specifically in our lives to make us the people we end up being today.”
When we are humble and let go of our ego; when we remember our mortality, we begin to correct our course and focus more deeply on the meaning of the cross and the sacrifice Jesus has made for us all. We open ourselves to the workings of God, to the people in our lives and the people we’ve yet to meet. We allow ourselves to be vulnerable and hear what the spirit is saying, especially when we have fallen short, kept silent or chosen the easier softer way.
Here on Ash Wednesday and through the Lenten season, we have the opportunity to correct the course, to turn and repent, learn, pray, and worship together, to be formed in a way that follows the teachings of Jesus.
Speak to me Lord, speak truth to me Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.
When our fast is recognized not of what we are depriving ourselves but what we are giving and shedding for the sake of all life and God’s creation, we truly come to understand that our Ashes are not a mark of who we are but whose we are and everything in our lives is meaningless without Him, Jesus Christ our Lord.
May this Ash Wednesday bring you deep introspection, the beginning of reconciliation, and lead you into a Holy Lenten Season building bridges and healing relationships. The relationships you have with God, with others and with all of God’s creation.
Have you ever had a dream in which you didn’t want to wake? Perhaps you wanted to sleep long enough to see the ending, to see what happens next. Perhaps you didn’t want to let go of the feeling or of the place. Perhaps there were people in your dream that you haven’t seen for years or who have passed on. People who made you feel loved, or safe, or empowered. People who by their very touch, or presence you knew were special, or magical, or connected to a higher power in some way, connected to God.
I had such a dream last night. My teacher, my PEER Leader, and mentor from High School appeared. She was as stunning as ever. She was the type of woman who never seemed to age. Well dressed, make up perfect, her hair lit golden in the sunlight as she smiled at me. She hugged me, brought me food, nourished me and then she talked about how she was going to design this new place of hers in the finest of materials. She was peaceful and endearing as she had always been. Wise, we exchanged conversation. Then I noticed my Joe, he was my protector, my friend, my contemplative guide who passed many years ago. He looked at me with a nod, and when I looked back toward my teacher she was gone. I didn’t want to wake. I wanted to hold on to her, to that moment, to that place. I wanted to see what happens next. I wanted to see the finished room adorned with everything she imagined. I wanted to feel her presence with me.
Tried as I might, I kept my eyes tightly shut, “No No, don’t wake! I want to stay here for a while.” But the sun shone through my window and my eyes defied my appeal and into the world here, I awoke, to fulfill God’s call, at the very least for another day. Somehow though, through the mystery of our Lord, her presence remains. I can see her eyes, smell her perfume and feel her touch.
Matthew 17:1-9Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
I understand why Peter didn’t want to leave the Mountain. How he wanted to hold that very special moment and those very special people. He himself must have felt special, being invited up with Jesus, being in the presence of God.
My first day at Seminary, as I was moving boxes in, I wore a T-shirt. It said, “God loves you, but I’m his favorite.” I can’t say I didn’t prepare them for who they were about to form. I wonder who on the mountain top would have worn such a shirt. Would it have been, Peter, James, or John, or would Jesus after being transfigured turn around like a superhero and glaring on his chest, ” My Father loves you, but I’m his favorite.” Thoughts like that make me chuckle.
Every day of our lives we climb mountains, sacred mountains, some are as small as hills, others as big as Mt. Tabor, the place in Israel historians point to where our Gospel story takes place, or bigger, the size of Everest. Sacred mountains of what appears as scarcity, or illness, or sacred mountains of achievement and success. Every day we journey forward with Christ by our side, interceding where he sees fit. Sometimes in ways that are fiercely notable, like when the disciples saw Moses and Elijah, or when they heard the voice of God or witnessed the very transfiguration before them. We know when we come across that special person, that gift, that spirit whose connection changes us in some way, significantly. At other times, we recognize the workings of the incarnate Christ, maybe after the fact or in subtle ways, like when Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am” and only Peter replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” The others knew he was special, they knew he was connected, they just didn’t or couldn’t recognize him for who Jesus really was, but after this moment, they can see, recognize and know who was standing before them.
Thinking back, I can see those times, where I can say, “Oh, that was you, God. It was you who come to me on the side of the road, you who lifted from despair, you who guided my success and comforted me in my failure. You who fed me when I was hungry, nourished me when I was thirsty and comforted me when I fell.”
Can you see those times in your life? Can you see, hear and recognize the voice of God in those moments past and present? Will you allow yourself to be touched and unafraid as you move forward, off your mountain and into the Loving Grace of God?
I can see, now, the living Christ in my teacher who cared for every child she met like we were her own, the living Christ in my Joe who protected and guided me and the living Christ among us all who has the power to open us to the experience of God, the power of God and God’s good, good grace.
Yes, God loves you, and Yes, YOU, we are God’s Favorite. Allow God to awaken in us the Spirit of His Grace and the Power of His Love to walk down from the mountain and share our witness with those among us, Transforming the World, one disciple at a time.
At the Transfiguration, God, You showed Jesus in glory, a glimpse of what His disciples
would see in His risen life. Bless us in our humanity, with an awareness of Your presence, leading us to share in Your divine life even in our daily struggle.
Help us to deepen our knowledge of the Law and the Prophets, channels of Your grace throughout history, and signposts for our journey.Amen.