Thursday, April 2, 2009

Drawing Power

* John 12:20-33 - Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 

Magnets are an important part of our daily lives, serving as essential components in everything from electric motors, loudspeakers, computers, compact disc players, microwave ovens and the family car. Their contribution is often overlooked because they are built into devices and are usually out of sight.

Understanding the scientific properties of magnets can be a bit overwhelming at first. But there are some interesting principles about magnets that can inform or theological discussion today. At the very basic level, the motion of charged particles such as electrons produces magnetic forces. This magnetic force may cause attraction or repulsion, depending on the movement of the electrons, which may pull magnets together or pull them apart.

A magnet attracts iron, steel, nickel, and certain other materials. The attracted materials then become magnets themselves in a process called magnetization. For example, if you were to place a nail near a magnet, it would become magnetized and would then attract a second nail. Magnetization occurs because the magnet causes particles called electrons in the atoms of the nail to align along the magnet's lines of force. The atoms with aligned electrons then act like tiny bar magnets themselves.

Magnets have many uses in our everyday life as well as in our homes. We see them most frequently clinging to our refrigerator with pithy sayings or our favorite photos. However, the most important use of magnets in your home are the ones found in electric motors. Believe it or not it's electromagnetic and permanent magnets that help keep your blenders, vacuums, CD players and washing machines all running. They are also termed "heads" when referring to your VCR.

Scientists have also discovered that many animals, including pigeons, honey bees, salmon, tuna, dolphins and turtles are able to detect the earth's magnetic field and may use it to help find their way. Particles of magnetite have been found in the body tissues of these animals. They suspect the particles form part of a system that sense the geomagnetic field. Certain species of bacteria found in the water have also been found that use the geomagnetic field to find their preferred habitat. Each bacteria use the particles as tiny compass needles to guide them along the electromagnetic field. (Source: portfolio.html#hm)

After listening to this scientific summary, I’m wondering if you caught on to some of the properties of magnets that just might “attract” you to the Good News this morning. It is helpful to remember a few things about the ministry of Christ. He spoke pretty straightforward about it in verses 25-26 of our Gospel text.

If there is one sure thing we can say about Jesus’ life—it was a life of great extravagance—in the truest sense of the word. He was extravagant in his reckless and scandalous expenditure of his life for the sake of the world's life. That is what the author of John's gospel wants us to hear today. Christ gave his life away without thought of gain or reward. He loved people wastefully. As a result, his life was not a very prudent life. It was not a very conservative life. It was not a very cautious life. It was not - by the standards most people use to measure things - a very successful life.

He shunned no one, not even adulterers, not even tax gatherers, not even neurotics and psychotics, not even those tempted to suicide, not even alcoholics, not even poor people, not even beggars, not even lepers, not even those who ridiculed him, not even those who betrayed him, not even his own enemies. He shunned no one. And the words that describe his ministry seem to be words of sorrow, poverty, rejection and radical unpopularity —words of agony and loss.
“As I am lifted up from the earth, I will attract everyone to me and gather them around me.”

That is what John wants us to get from his gospel. It is something at the very heart of what John believed Jesus was all about. Jesus was a magnetic force in the world, because he knew his purpose. He understood his reason for being. And in the midst of a religious society that determined its connectedness to God according to how connected they were to wealth and power, Jesus message was a shock to the system. He believed that his connection to God demanded sacrifice and service to others.

It is the ultimate paradox, of course: lose life in order to gain it. That statement reflects the essence of all that Jesus said and did. It gave his life meaning. Trust life so much that you are free to give it away without thought of return. Apparently, he expected us to live our lives like that - so selflessly, so innocently, without thought for tomorrow - that our lives would seem to be profoundly careless. Was that not the kind of trust that marked the character of his life?

That paradox: giving our lives away in order to gain them is supposed to characterize the Christian life as well. We, too, are called to identify with the least of our brothers and sisters, as he did, that our lives take on the very same sorrow, poverty, rejection, agony and radical unpopularity that summarized his life. After all, he did not tell us just to "make it up as you go along". He called us to live the only life he considered worth living, which is, of course, the life he was and is.

From so many conversations I’ve had with other clergy within our denomination and outside of it, it seems that most churches these days are about preserving and maintaining what they possess. What do we need to do in order to reduce the deficit, repair the boiler, pay the staff, and keep the photocopier running? That's the stuff that usually takes up nearly all of their time and energy. Instead the very elementary question that we need to ask—in whatever church we find ourselves, is—do we have and hold what we do have and hold with integrity? The answer to that, of course, is that we do, IF we are free to give it all up for the world as a witness to the ministry of Christ, as a sign of dying in Christ, and as a way of attracting others to Christ. (Excerpts from Barry J. Robinson’s sermon “Paying the Rent” for April 6, 2003 –

From the outside looking in, Jesus magnetic personality does seem to be a downer in our consumerist society that values ownership and affluence. But I think his way of being was so much deeper than we really understand. In fact, we are just beginning to unlock the secrets to his teachings. Jesus drew so many people to him, not just because of his philosophy about God; he knew who he was. He knew his purpose. He understood his reason for being.

One of the great laws of the universe is the Universal Law of Attraction. It states: We attract whatever we choose to give our attention to—whether wanted or unwanted.

This Law is Universal because it does not matter who you are, where you live, what your religious beliefs are, what year you were born...the Law is true for everyone equally. It is as true as the Law of Gravity. Most of the time, we attract by "default" rather than by deliberate choice. We just sort of go through our day, focusing on problems that need to be solved or on things that did not feel good nor seem right. In so doing, we are actually creating more problems, more of what does not feel good and more of what does not seem right.

Think of yourself as a huge magnet. The kind that pulls metal to itself from afar off. It doesn't "try" to attract, it simply does attract. It is the same way for us. Whether or not we are trying to attract, we ARE doing so all the time. And we attract the likeness of what we think about. If we are thinking about a lack of something, we are attracting more lack (scarcity). If we are thinking about something we love, we are attracting more of what we love and enjoy. I know it sounds incredibly simple, and it is. We humans are actually very powerful attractors and we can use this wonderful, God-given power to attract more of what we want in life-simply by paying attention to where we place our thoughts and desires. Picture your heart as a powerful magnet. Your heart is the "vibrator" of all the signals that attract.

Think of a radio. It has many different stations. To tune into a station you dial a specific frequency. As soon as we turn our attention to something it begins its journey to us. To be rid of something you do not want in your life, simply tune in to a different vibration (frequency or radio station)—to something that you do want. Just as magnetic fields are created by the motion of charged particles like electrons, our thoughts and emotions will create our reality. The first principle of the Law of Attraction is;
In order to attract what you need, be very clear about what it is you want.

The next principle of the Law of Attraction concerns magnetization.
You attract or repel negative and positive emotions by aligning your thoughts with what you want.
The more you focus on what you don’t want, the more likely you will get it.

And the third principle of the Law of Attraction;
Allow what you want and need to come to you.
You can do this through detecting the greater force that is around you; trusting that God and the universe will bring to you all that you need, and allow that to guide you.

Just as the magnet attracts and repels, we have the opportunity to gain clarity in knowing precisely what we want, through the many "contrasts" that life offers us. The key to successfully using contrast is to observe it briefly and use it to help you decide what you do want. This takes a little practice, since our habit is to talk about, tell others about and focus on what we did not like.

Our ministry, our work if you will, is to let go of all resistance and believe that what you want will come to you—simply because you want it. Jesus did the same. He knew his purpose, we focused on that intention, and he transformed the world by following it. And Jesus challenges us to follow to. Let go of your life as it is, being reckless in your love for God and others, and you will have God’s life—without illusion, real and eternal. The Universal Law of Attraction also confirms it: in order to receive love, you must first give it. How will you give love this week? And how will you receive it? (Source:

Monday, March 23, 2009

Trading Up!

* Mark 8:27-38 - Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

I’ve had quite a few hobbies collecting things in my life. I’ve collected stamps, foreign money, beanie babies, and beer steins. But my most recent collecting craze has involved collecting symbols of my faith. I’ve brought a few of items from my cross collection. As you can see, I have crosses that come from different cultures and theological perspectives. I don’t know what it is about the cross—but I am intrigued at how my understanding of cross and its place in my spirituality has evolved over the last decade. For me, the cross is not just a nice artifact that I like to collect, but has become one of the most important symbols of my faith. It wasn’t until I looked into the cross’s own journey as a symbol throughout the last 2000 years, did I come to understand it could have a deeper meaning for me.

I’d have to start by saying that I’ve always been intrigued by ancient symbols. During the season of Lent and Easter our Christian symbols play a vital role in connecting us to Jesus’ own journey to the cross and his crucifixion. We use a lot of symbols to identify Jesus as our center of worship.

Does anyone know what these letter stand for? It is the most common abbreviation used in churches, and they are on our altar, and on our banners. IHS stands for the first three letters of the name of Jesus in Greek—Iota Eta Sigma. The name Jesus was actually pronounced as Y-AY-SUS. Since there is no letter “J” in the Greek language, Jesus name actually begins with a “Ya” sound—as in “yoke.” The second letter of the Greek name of Jesus is the Eta. This Greek letter looks like an English “H” but sounds like a long “A” sound—as in “hay.” And of course the Greek “sigma” is our English “S”. Thus IHS is actually pronounced I-AY-S.

Disciples of Jesus have also been symbolized from ancient times by the word fish, which in Greek is “ICHTHUS.” ICHTHUS is also an acronym for Jesus.
During the early centuries following the death of Christ when it was illegal to be a follower of Jesus, the sign of the fish was used as a secret indicator of being a Christian. It was a symbol of brave faith and of deep conviction.

It is however during the season of Lent that we focus on a symbol that are probably the most well known through the Christian tradition. It is of course, the cross. However, you may have noticed that there are many different images of the cross. Perhaps we are most familiar with the Latin cross shown here. Our own crosses in the sanctuary are modeled after this cross. The Latin cross is a very plain image. Its simplicity and clean figure appeal to the time of Lent when we seek clarity and simple expression in our worship.

My favorite representation of the cross is the Celtic cross. I have several images of that version in which a circle is added to the classic Latin design signifying eternity. The Celts believed that the work of redemption accomplished on the cross was planned in eternity—and that work continues permanently. This cross suggests the timeless dimension of God’s salvific work.

But the cross has a dark history as well. Did you know that a cross hung over the concentration camp at Auschwitz? The cross greeted the thousands of Jews, homosexuals and others who were murdered by the 3rd Reich. In the face of such tragedy and brutality delivered in the name of Yaysus Christos, we have to ask ourselves; how did this symbol of faith evolve from the execution of Jesus to a symbol representing the extermination of millions of people who don’t follow him?

Perhaps Jesus himself can tell us a little about that. Our gospel text this morning comes at the middle of Mark's story of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus has begun his public ministry and people have started to follow him. But Mark wants this struggling and grassroots band of believers to know what's involved in following Jesus. In particular, he wants them to know that being a disciple is not some simple theological belief; but that it's about being willing to pay the price. Jesus asks outright, “Who do people say that I am?” The other disciples, of course, play the role of the clueless and ignorant. "How about Elijah?" one of them says. "Guess again." "John the Baptist?" another chimes in. "Wrong again." “Just another prophet?” still another suggests. Finally, good, old, impetuous Peter comes through for us. "I know who you are – You are the Messiah!" Ding, Ding, Ding! Peter hits the jackpot, he gives the winning answer. Peter has figured it out. Hooray for Peter! Hooray for all of us who know who Jesus really is.

But Mark doesn’t leave it there. Peter is immediately silenced by Jesus. “Yes, you are right. But I’m going to die for my cause. So keep quiet until it’s time.” Why would Jesus predict the end of his ministry this way? Why on earth would Jesus gain by scaring off his disciples prior to accomplishing his most important work? Jesus is telling his disciples that if they are to follow him they must confront the powers that be. Jesus will not enter Jerusalem as the triumphant military leader everyone expected the Messiah to be. Rather, he will be executed by the leaders of the nation; and if that weren’t enough; he would choose not to avoid it.

And what is Peter's response? “No Jesus! I refuse to accept this meaning of Messiah. There’s no way you are going to die. I won’t let it happen. Absolutely not! You’re not going to Jerusalem. I won’t let you. I won’t listen to this anymore!” This sharp exchange between the two escalates until finally Jesus silences Peter. "You are aligned with Satan!" he tells him. "Get out of my way!" Wow! Talk about a conflict of interest. But, if you think about it, we really shouldn’t be too hard on Peter. After all, we have had much in common with him. Christians still have trouble following a Messiah who ends up on an execution stick. The point being - the cross was not a religious icon in first century Palestine. Nor was "taking up the cross" a metaphor for surviving personal anguish. Crucifixion had only one connotation: it was the vicious form of capital punishment reserved by imperial Rome for political dissidents.

But it didn't stay that way for long. Around 312 C.E. the emperor Constantine was leading an army to battle against another Roman emperor, Maxentius, for control of the entire Roman Empire. Before a crucial battle Constantine had a vision of a cross with the inscription, "In this Sign Conquer". And the rest, as they say, is history. Christians started planting crosses all over the world, usually in the bodies of their victims. All in the name of Jesus under the sign of the cross.

The Crusades were followed by the Inquisition, in 1232 and lasted for more than 600 years down into the nineteenth century. Its high point was the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain in 1492. Women were singled out by the thousands and burned at the stake as witches. All under the sign of the cross. The cross at Auschwitz, in other words, did not get there by accident. It grew out of that particular mindset, ingrained into the Christian psyche, that we had a right, even a moral and spiritual obligation to rid the world of those who were not like us. The question is: how much is there left in this symbol of the humble Galilean and his vision of the kingdom of God—a realm where everyone is equal in God’s eyes? It’s not easy to hear what has happened to this symbol many of us have treasured all of our lives, is it? But we need to own what the church has done down through the centuries if we are ever to understand those who see us now as the infidels, the faithless ones. After all, our history speaks for itself!

So where is the good news today? How can we reclaim the image of the cross of Jesus as a symbol of salvation it was intended to be? I suppose the answer to that lies in how serious Christians are willing to suffer for Jesus' vision as much as he was; because that's what the cross was really about for him. The cross is a symbol of Jesus’ self-sacrificing life. And the cross in the daily life of a believer is not mere suffering, but is a symbol of our service to others—service which is often costly and burdensome. The authentic cross bearer is the one concerned about service instead of slaughter, kindness instead of killing, welfare rather than war, forgiveness more than fortune. That's what the cross really meant. The question is: are we prepared to live that way?

I collect crosses. I am intrigued by its symbolism, its beauty, and its meaning in my life. I enjoy reflecting on it as a vision of my own journey to be an authentic child of God. And like many of you, I’ve experience persecution because of that vision. I pray that I might live out that vision as one who embraces the cross of Jesus. For it is Jesus that asks us; "If any want to become my disciples, let them deny themselves and take up the cross and follow me." What will you trade for this kingdom value? What will you trade to join Jesus on his journey to the cross? Amen!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Creating Inner Space

* Mark 9:2-9 - Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.

Do you mind if I take your picture before I begin? I want to remember this moment. Could all of you kind of scrunch in together so I can get you all in the picture? Noel, could you lean in your head toward Elva? Perfect. Say Cheese. (Click!)

The world is full of amateur photographers, and I am one of them. I think that most of us are obsessed with taking pictures and having our pictures taken. In focus or out of focus, posed or candid, we are forever snapping pictures of each other, of the things around us, of things inside of us and anywhere else we can focus our trustworthy lens. There is nothing too sacred to escape the click of the omnipresent shutterbug. Baptisms, confirmations, weddings, birthdays, and especially family vacations are all fair game for amateur photographers.

And now in this new age of digital media, we put our photos not just in wooden or plastic frames, but on digital photo players, mouse pads, key chains, refrigerator magnets, slideshows, on internet web pages and social networking sites, even on DVDs. We have turned the photography business into a multi-billion dollar industry. Indeed, it wouldn't surprise me that if the Jesus appeared here this morning, someone would immediately whip out their camera phone try to digitally capture him.

It occurred to me, as I contemplated our obsession with picture taking, how things might have been in biblical times if these familiar characters had had the use of the modern camera. Can you imagine Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, with Eve trying to take a photograph of Adam for the grandchildren? "Stand up straight, Adam, and for goodness sake keep those leaves still. We will never get these pictures back from Walgreen's if you don't keep covered up!"

Or can you see Noah, after the flood was over, trying to get a picture of all the animals in front of the ark with the rainbow in the background? "Japeth! Tell those rabbits in the front row to stop fooling around. And get that giraffe to hold his head down so I can get him in the picture."

Or King Solomon taking a picture of all his foreign wives and concubines and kids? It might have looked like the Democratic National Convention last year.
Or can you imagine a church historian at Pentecost trying to get a picture of the crowd with the tongues of fire over their heads? "Preach that sermon one more time, Peter, I want to get a shot from the back."

Or the disciples taking pictures during Jesus' ministry? "Don't heal that leper yet, let me get my camera in focus. OK, go ahead! Oops, could you have him kneel away from the sun?"

Can you see Peter on the day of the Transfiguration? "Oh, isn't this wonderful? Lord, if only we could stay here always! Just a minute, let me get a picture of this so we can show all the guys when we get back. Jesus, could you have Moses and old E'Lije come back for just a minute so I can get a picture of the three of you together? No one is going to believe this!"

If Peter had had a camera that day he would have been taking pictures until everyone was tired of posing. Peter was just like most of us. He wanted to preserve a meaningful moment for all time. If he had had his way he would have stayed there forever. "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."

We all try, in our own ways, to prolong the mountaintop experiences of our lives. But they never look quite the same in photographs or on videotape. The Holy can never be fully captured by pictures or stories. Jesus is always taking us back down the mountain, back to our everyday realities. The best we can do is to enter fully into the transfiguring experience so that the way we live our lives from that moment on will have a transfiguring effect on others.

“And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” The language of transfiguration is not unfamiliar to us. We use phrases such as, “the radiant bride,” “the beaming father,” “her face just glowed.” When we use this language, we are describing a transfiguration of someone near to us. Transfiguration happens not only in the Bible but also to real people in the real world today.

I’ve truly had many experiences in my life when I was transformed from one state of consciousness into another. I remember the experiences of visiting a new country while stationed in the Air Force overseas…always meeting someone who was also traveling and sharing the experience…like; standing on the edge of the cliffs of the Island of Santorini in Greece. Riding my moped across the Island of Crete and picking olives for extra cash. I remember jumping off of waterfalls in Hawaii…and the feeling of exhilaration from such a perilous experience. The time I traveled to Israel, was baptized in the Jordan River and visited the places where Jesus walked. I’ll never forget standing at the entrance to Checkpoint Charlie in West Berlin, being inspected by Russian guards before crossing the border. Memories of; flying over the glaciers in Iceland in a helicopter; standing atop the Eifel Tower in Paris; climbing to the top of one of the pyramids of Giza in Egypt; all of which I’ve taken pictures.

But I’ve also been transfigured by every day ministry experiences; the death of my grandmother after her short illness, holding her in my arms and pleading for just one more minute of time with her. Walking into a hospital room and praying for a beloved church member as they pass from earth to heaven. Sitting in that first church service after 10 years of running from God, and feeling so much love as if it were a warm blanket surrounding me. Standing before our association and answer questions about my theology. Being applauded for my desire to risk ministry as an out gay man. Walking the aisle during my ordination service, and releasing all the memories of oppression and prejudice from the church of my past. The opening night of Common Grounds coffeehouse in Lebanon, and the hundreds of people surrounding me with good wishes and hope for my emerging ministry.

And often it’s not the mountaintop experiences that have the biggest impact on us, but the ones that occur while we are living the darkest valleys of our life; those dark night of the soul kinds of experiences. The phrase, "This too shall pass" is not telling you that you should not enjoy the good in your life, nor are they merely meant to provide some comfort in times of suffering. They have a deeper purpose: to make you aware of the fleetingness of every situation, and the transience of all forms. When you become of way of the instability of everything, your attachment to them lessens, and you then can disidentify from them. Knowing that change is inevitable, you can enjoy the pleasures of the world while they last without fear of loss or anxiety about the future. The recognition of “this too shall pass” brings detachment and with detachment another dimension comes into your life—inner space. It comes as a stillness, a subtle peace deep within you, even in the face of something seemingly bad. Suddenly, there is a space around the event. And from that space emanates a peace that is not of this world. This is the peace of God.

Whenever you are upset about an event, a person, or a situation, the real cause is not the event, person or situation but a loss of true perspective that only space can provide. The words, this too shall pass, can restore awareness of that inner dimension within you. And in this space do we find the perfect love of God.

What the disciples witnessed with Jesus was obviously a transfiguration. The fullness of his life burst out. The Spirit within him erupted. He was full of love for God and humanity. It was obviously a total, energetic love. Jesus turned his life over to humanity and God for the sake of God and humanity.

Marianne Williamson, a prolific writer on the power of love in spirituality, wrote “As you are liberated from your own fear, your presence will automatically liberate others.” The presence that Williamson speaks of is Christ consciousness, or oneness with Universal consciousness. Resting in the stillness of Christ consciousness, you cannot DO anything for another person. You simply manifest your stillness as outer purpose that automatically liberates others. You cannot DO anything. You cannot change anything. You can be the change, and by being the change, you align your purpose with the flow of the universe. Then change happens, and you are part of the co-creation of a new earth.

Just like it was for Jesus, the fullness of life and love is for us too. The transfiguration is about us. It is for us. It’s about being the incarnation of God. We trust God with our lives. We die to our old life and are born to a life in the Spirit. We shine with new life. And the transfiguration is for our churches. We talk of transformation and revival. What we want is transfiguration. We want energy, spirit and radiance. What we want is what God offers.

Transfiguration is about changing appearances. We change not because of necessity, but out of our desire to please God. How can we please God? What exactly did Jesus do to evoke such strong emotion from God? Can we do the same? What are the mountaintop experiences that change us? (Excerpts from John Keeny, “Lectionary Musings,” (

Love Is...

* Mark 1:40-45 - A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

You’ll have to forgive me in advance today for what I’m calling my “sick sermon.” I call it that because I was literally sick while writing it. Now I’m not going to tell you a sob story about being ill with the flu this week…but, it was horrible. Ever have one of those weeks when everything just felt more depressing or chaotic because you were sick? I mean the dogs and cats around the house were more annoying than usual…you see I have 5 dogs…and, hmm, several cats, and have you ever realized just how loud a beagle sounds when you have a headache? Or how about a cat kneading its paws on your back while your trying to sleep away your flu body aches and pains? Feels like a frickin’ chain saw!

Okay…so you get the picture. I didn’t feel well. So as I’m laying in bed yesterday for the third day in a row, starting to think about how the heck I’m gonna write two sermons by tonight on seemingly two totally different subjects…one of which is about Love…possibly the biggest subject in the world…my mind kept going to the Gospel text for this Sunday. The story of the leper that finds Jesus in Galilee. On the surface it’s certainly doesn’t seem like a story about Love…at least not in the traditional sense. It’s not a story about Love like you find in Corinthians…oh you know that story…written by Paul to the church at Corinth; Love is patient. Love is kind. Love does this; Love does that. You know that Love letter…right? I mean, have you ever been to a wedding when that scripture wasn’t read? No…instead of concentrating on what the Bible might say about Love, in general, my mind kept seeing and hearing the chaos and conflict that must have been surrounding Jesus in our Gospel text for Sunday.

That’s why I love the lectionary. Instead of taking “pot shots” at our sacred scriptures, it forces us to look at the context of the stories of our faith, and helps us discern the Good News for this very time and place. So…in our text we find Jesus in the middle of taking a whirlwind trip through Galilee healing people with diseases, casting out demons in every small town up and around the Sea of Galilee. In just a very short time, perhaps only a few weeks or several days…Jews from all over the area hear about the amazing things this teacher and prophet from Nazareth is doing.

I mean…there is some serious stuff going down. The crowds are growing larger and larger…and even Jesus seems to be a little concerned. No longer is his anonymity a safe haven. The world begins to see him as a commodity and wants more of him. It kind of reminds me of a relationship I once had with a friendship I once had with someone I met at a Bible college I attended in the early 90s. His name is Kevin Jonas, and he was the worship leader at the college, with which I occasionally sang. Over the years I tried to get in touch with him, but without much success. I heard he had moved to the East Coast and was working in the music business. Well, one day I was flipping through TV channels and I got a glimpse of Kevin on...the Oprah Winfrey Show. I was as surprised to find out that his three songs, Kevin, Joe and Nick were actually the Jonas Brothers that had skyrocketed to fame within the last year. No wonder I couldn't find Kevin! He had been quite busy over the last 18 years!

So here we find Jesus in the midst of this rock star like atmosphere; and somehow this leper, some unclean person gets close to Jesus. Now the original Greek uses the terms leper and leprosy pretty interchangeably. It can mean a number of diseases or conditions. We now understand leprosy to be a skin disease that can take the appearance of scales (from the Greek – lepi, meaning scales of a fish). And it’s interesting to note that leprosy is not highly contagious like it was once thought. It is a bacterium that can be treated quite easily. Whatever the man was suffering from, it was bad enough to ostracize him from society. But I’m not talking about being talked about behind his back…or being blacklisted from the country club…this guy had been physically removed from the city limits by the religious leaders.

You see, according to Leviticus law, if the priest discovers that someone in the family has any kind of social illness; they are labeled impure, unclean, and a source of danger and contamination to the entire family. For that reason they must be expelled from the community according to sacred law (Lev 13-14). They can not pray in the temple or go to the synagogue, or eat at the dinner table with their family or friends…or spend the night in the homes. They become isolated people; a separate species.

So this outcast comes to Jesus, doing what he always does… begging, but instead of begging for money, or food, he asks for Jesus to make him ritually clean again. “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Now for this man…being ritually clean was the answer to everything. Being clean would mean he was restored to society. It means that he would be given a way back into relationship with his family and friends. He could once again eat at their tables, have Sabbath dinner again. He could celebrate all the Jewish festivals; spend the night at Mom and Dad’s house again. He could be made whole and complete…clean…again. Was he asking for healing? We don’t know…that’s not what it says…all he said was that he didn’t want to be ritually unclean any more. Remember, leprosy was a social disease.

And Jesus response was classic. The NRSV said, “moved with pity.” The NIV says, “filled with compassion.” But this Greek verb, “splanch-niz-omai” is only use 3 times in the entire book of Mark. It literally means to explode kindness, consideration and compassion upon another person.

Splanchnizomai - to be moved with intense emotions for another

To shower someone with intense feelings of care and concern overflowing out of an intense emotional response to their relationship with you. People…this is what LOVE IS! It is one of those truly Christ-like qualities that we rarely possess for very few people…and when we possess it they know it!

It’s like getting a bouquet of hear shaped balloons at your work desk from your favorite person. It’s opening a fresh box of Esther Price chocolates from your lover. It’s getting that Hallmark Card for no other reason than…there is someone that loves you. It’s dinner on their dime. It’s Valentine’s Day…every day. That is the kind of LOVE that Jesus is pouring out to this total stranger, this ugly, scaly, socially impure, not fit for anyone’s table broken down poor old man with leprosy. This is LOVE. This is Jesus.

We meet so many people looking for this kind of love in their lives. They search from church to church looking to be made clean again. The come to us in their rags of despair and isolation. Their skin bruised and discolored by the rules and regulations of our doctrines and dogmas. Their spirits broken by our self righteousness. And over and over they are turned away because they aren’t socially acceptable. And all they want is to be invited back into God’s family. And that’s where we’ve missed sharing the Gospel. Being the compassion of Jesus is not merely a matter of temperament, but is the mark of a disciple. As disciples of Jesus we are called to break down all barriers—social, economic, political, and yes, religious—between human need and God’s liberating mercy. To touch the untouchable, to violate our Christian rules and regulations and risk becoming unclean ourselves. To rewrite the book on God’s beloved community.

And so…do you know what love is? Have you ever received an unwarranted, unexpected act of compassion or kindness from someone you didn’t even know? Has someone ever broken down a barrier that kept you from feeling God’s grace and mercy? Have you been touched by the Christ and made clean?

We are the children of God, sent by Christ to do just that. Not just telling another that we love them…but by showing every person we meet the unbridled compassion and unrestrained grace of God. How do you do that? Well, you can start with “splancknizomai-ing” somebody today. Somebody that doesn’t deserve it…but somebody who desperately needs it. I bet you’ll know how. And I’ll bet you get “splancknizomai-ed” in return!

Breaking Free From Pain

Excepts from Eckert Tolle's book, "A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose" as it relates to the Gospel text in Mark 1:29-39 -

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

That is such a great line from the movie Shrek, “Ogres are like onions! Lots of layers.” Emotional pain is like Shrek’s ogre, layer upon layer of tears. Yet like the onion, the more layers you peel back, the lighter it feels, and the greater your relief. If you peel back the pain far enough you discover that it has no lasting substance and less hold on your life in the present moment.

Emotion is the body’s reaction to the mind. An instinctive response is the body’s direct response to some external situation. An emotion, on the other hand, is the body’s response to a thought. Although the body is very intelligent, it cannot tell the difference between an actual situation and a thought. It reacts to every thought as if it were a reality.

I recently had a frustrating text message exchange with someone who was very rude and insulting to me. This person has some serious problems...and was obviously activated by me call. I was so angry that I thought and thought about this text message exchange for hours. Before I knew it I was having a mental argument with the person. I was replaying in my head over and over what I should have said to them, how I was going to punish them for their insults, and even contact their place of employment to lodge a formal complaint against them. After obsessing about it for a few days, I realized that I had turned a few callous words into a full fledged fight to the death! I assumed so many negative things out of this really meaningless exchange.

Unconscious assumptions create emotions in the body which in turn generate mind activity and/or instant reactions. In this way they create your personal reality. Any negative emotion that is not fully faced and seen for what it is in the moment it arises does not completely dissolve. It leaves behind a remnant of pain.

Why indeed, do we choose to carry on living with the enormous residue of pain that mars a full experience of life? Both Tolle and the teaching of the Bible offer practical ways to lessen the pain. Christ can be seen as the archetypal human, embodying both the pain and the possibility of transcendence.

Pain is cumulative. Some of it predates your birth; including the sins of the fathers and mothers, e.g. the inherited cycle of abuse or addiction. Some of it is from childhood trauma, or unconscious messages of self-limitation and self-sabotage. The pain festers unresolved and sometimes suppressed. You add new pain to the mass every time you hold on to a grievance or a disappointment. The mass of pain becomes familiar, even comforting. The ego uses it to justify playing small or being a victim. In many cases, it becomes so massive that it begins to take over your identity.

Any emotionally painful experience can be used as food by the pain body. Because the pain-body has an addiction to unhappiness, it awakens when it gets hungry, when it is time to replenish itself. Alternatively, it may get triggered by an event at any time. The pain-body that is ready to feed can use the most insignificant event as a trigger, something somebody says or does, or even a thought. Suddenly, your thinking becomes very negative—followed by a wave of emotion invading your mind that might manifest as a dark or heavy mood, anxiety or fiery anger. Eventually the pain-body takes over and you become completely identified with the voice in your head that tells sad, anxious or angry stories about yourself or your life, about other people, or past, future or imaginary events. Every thought feeds the pain-body and in turn the pain-body generates more thoughts. At some point, after a few hours or even a few days, it has replenished itself and returns to its dormant stage, leaving behind a depleted organism and a body that is much more susceptible to illness. In essence—you were exposed to a psychic parasite.

If there are other people around during your exposure, the pain-body will attempt to provoke them—push their buttons, and feed on the ensuing drama. Pain-bodies love intimate relationships and families because that is where they get most of their food. Consider the layers of pain that relate to an insult. Someone insults you. Their words hurt. The pain reminds you of another time you were hurt. You make the insults mean something about your identity. Maybe you decide that you are unlovable. That heaps many new layers on the pain mass, and all because of a set of stories you told yourself. There has to be a better way to live.

Tolle says that if you begin to watch the tendency of your own mind to create stories, you will lessen your attachment to those stories. You can notice them from a distance and not allow them to run your life. It’s amazing how liberating it is to take just this one step. When you hear someone insult you, notice that this person is speaking from their pain and the story you create isn’t so personal and hurtful. Notice when you are speaking out of your pain, and you won’t hold on to resentment so fiercely. It’s not all about them, and it’s not all about you.

The beginning of freedom from the pain-body lies first of all in the realization that you have a pain-body. Then, more important, in your ability to stay present enough, alert enough, to notice the pain-body in yourself as a heavy influx of negative emotion when it becomes active. Conscious presence breaks the identification with the pain-body. When you don’t identify with it, the pain-body can no longer control your thinking and so cannot renew itself anymore by feeding on its thoughts.

Someone with a heavy pain body easily finds reasons for being upset, angry, hurt, sad or fearful. Relatively insignificant things that someone else might shrug off become the apparent cause of intense unhappiness. They bring back to life the old accumulated emotions that then move into the head and amplify and energize egoic mind structures. You look at the present through the eyes of the emotional past within you. What you see and experience is not in the event or situation but in you.

When you are completely trapped in the movement of thought and the accompanying emotion, stepping outside is not possible because you don’t even know that there is an outside. You are trapped in your own movie or dream, trapped in your own hell. To you it is reality and no other reality is possible. And as far as you are concerned, your reaction is the only possible reaction.

If you are able to stay present, it sometimes happens that your Presence enables the other person to disidentify form his or her own pain-body and experience the miracle of sudden awakening. In Zen Buddhism, this sudden glimpse is called satori, which is a moment of presence, a brief stepping out of the voice in your head, the thought process, and their reflection in the body as emotion. It is the arising of inner spaciousness where before there was the clutter of thought and the turmoil of emotion.

In the stillness of Presence, you can sense the formless essence of yourself and in the other as one. Knowing the oneness of yourself and the other is true love, true care, true compassion.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Human Being or Human Doing?

* Mark 1:14-20 - Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

The evening conversation around the dinner table that night began the same as every night. It had been along day—12 hours on the lake in the hot sun—arms aching and the stench of raw fish hanging in the air. Salome slapped the top of John’s hand as it reached into the hot skillet to sample the sizzling sardine steaks. “Stop that, Jonathon! How can a son be so incorrigible?” she scowled—releasing a smirk across her mouth. “Mother—it’s been a long day. I’m tired and hungry—please throw me a scrap from your delicious cuisine!” “Ack, Ack! Wash your hands young man. And then set the table.”

John kissed his mother on the forehead as he snatched a smoldering olive from the skillet. “Love you Mom!” And off to the cleaning basin he went. At about that time James came through the door with his wife Phoebe and little Joel in tow. “Grandma!” the boy toddler exclaimed running into Salome’s arms. “My little grandson—how big you are getting! Phoebe, what are you feeding this child?” “The same as you fed me, Momma—fish and bread.” James cut in. “What else is a fisherman’s family to eat?”
“James—such disrespect for your mother,” Phoebe replied with a condescending grin. “Don’t pay attention to him, Mother. I fix him the same—and there are no complaints. Are there my dear husband?” she flashed her eyes. “No my love,” James responded. Fish and bread are good for the likes of one so in love—with a fisherman’s wife like you.” “You see, Salome,” Phoebe smiled. “Your son has been made respectable!”

Salome and Phoebe laughed together. Nothing was so sweet as the combined collaboration of a mother and her daughter-in-law. In fact, no man could match the collective power of that kind of feminine energy. Salome and Phoebe continued the preparation of the evening meal as James began to set the table. “Father,” little Joel asked. “Yes, Son?” answered James as he pulled tin plates from the cupboard.” “Why do we eat fish all the time?”

Joel was turning 5 next week. Although his mother didn’t allow him to follow his father to work on the lake—he often listened to the stories of the fishermen, told by his uncle John, with awe and wonder. “Fishing is an honorable profession,” James said, lifting Joel upon his lap as he sat down at the crude wooden table. “My father was a fisherman, as well as my grandfather. And I suspect you will be one someday—just like me and your Uncle John and the rest of our family. And if that is so, then eating the fish that you catch yourself is an honor too. You see, we fishermen provide good things to eat for many, many people—especially to people that can’t always work for themselves. You’ll learn more about it when you start school at the synagogue next year. Now, go wash your hands—and find out where your Uncle John is.”
Joel jumped off James’s lap and scampered outside. Phoebe slipped her arms around James’s neck and kissed him on the head. “You are a good father, my husband—now time for you to wash those dirty fishermen’s hands.” “Yes, dear” and James followed his son outside.

“He looks tired,” Salome reflected. “Do you think something is wrong?” “I don’t know,” Phoebe answered. “He has been quiet today. Perhaps something is going on at the docks.” “What is this about the docks?” Startled by the booming voice Phoebe and Salome screamed as Zebedee entered the kitchen and slammed the door behind him. “Zebedee!” exclaimed Salome. “Where have you been? We’ve been waiting for your return and dinner is just coming to the table.”

“Speaking of the docks—just some trouble to contend with. I’ve been meeting with some of the other business owners after pulling in the nets for the night.” “What is the matter?” Salome questioned her husband. “Oh, nothing too alarming. It seems that some of the fleet have unexpectedly closed their fishing business. I’m not sure who it is yet, but we are looking into it. An announcement is coming tomorrow concerning reallocation of fishing quotas.” Salome grabbed her husband by the waist. “Why would anyone do such a thing? With the Romans exorcising more taxes on us, and businesses losing so many servants to military enlistment, you would imagine that anyone having a good paying job would stay with it.” “Not to worry, my wife. We will just have to increase our own efforts to make up the quotas. More fish for us to catch means more denari in our pockets. Our boys will be up to the challenge. Speaking of our boys, where is my little grandson?”

“Grandpapa!” shouted Joel as he ran into the kitchen followed by James and John. “Well! Here are my strapping sons to share my table.” “And me too!” Joel yelled. “And don’t forget your beautiful and kind daughter-in-law!” Phoebe laughed, pecking Zebedee on the cheek. “Now enough child’s play!” Salome exclaimed. “Everyone, sit down, sit down. Husband—bring us the blessing!”

After a second of scrambling for chairs, all were seated around the weathered wooden table. Zebedee grabbed the hands of his wife and grandson and bowed his head. “Sh'ma Yisrael Adonai Elohaynu Adonai Echad. Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. Your gifts of plenty bring seasons of thankfulness. And may our thankfulness inspire new gifts to you. Amen.”

“Amen!” the family echoed—and dinner began as Salome passed the platter of freshly fried fish around the table. “Have you noticed a decrease in musht over the last few hauls recently?” James asked his father. “I heard it was from the unusual winds coming from the Galilee hills,” John interrupted. “They say the storms will be the worst ever this spring. Fish don’t like storms.”

“I think it’s the young fishermen that don’t like storms,” laughed James. “I’m not afraid” John quipped back. “How could anyone be afraid of a little wind and rain?” “Well, I don’t think it’s the wind or the storms,” James reflected. “It’s the Romans.” “James!” Phoebe whispered in a quiet shout. “You mustn’t speak so. There are spies everywhere. You know what happens to dissenters now that Caiphas and Pilate are bedfellows.” “I’m not afraid of the Romans! Or the pompous Pharisees,” John blurted. “How long will we let these foreign mongrels and their puppet priests dictate what we discuss or how we live?”

“Enough!” Zebedee exploded. “Not in my house. We will eat tonight without speaking of such things.” The room became silent with the exception of clinking spoons and knives on tin plates. Quietly a tiny voice pierced the silence. “What’s a mongrel?” asked Joel. John turned to his nephew and smiled. “A mongrel is just a fancy name for a dog, Joel.” “I like dogs!” Joel replied. “Dogs get to do anything they want. Sleep outside. Play in the street. Take baths in the lake. And I bet they don’t have to eat fish every night!”

The laughter exploded around the table. “Yes, my grandson.” Zebedee smiled. “The life of a dog can be very—care free!” Seconds passed without conversation. The night was closing in and a new day was just hours away. But James knew he needed to say something. The anxiety gripped his stomach as he struggled to form his words, when out of the blue John spoke up.

“Andrew and Simon left their nets today.” James looked at his brother and sighed. The easy part was over, but now came the tough conversation he and his brother discussed having with their father. “What do you mean they left their nets today?” Zebedee raised his eyebrow. “Father, they’ve left the business.” James answered. Salome gasped, “Andrew and Simon? But why? Where did they go? What will they do? What about their families? Does their father, Jonas know? Did you talk to them?”

“Woman, let them speak!” Zebedee shouted. “Tell me son. What happened?” “It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,” James continued. “We were mending our nets after pulling in the last haul for the day and we saw Jesus approach them from the shore. “Jesus? You mean my sister, Mary’s son? Your cousin Jesus? He’s here from Nazareth?” Salome asked. “Yes, he’s here!” John replied. “We heard Jesus was with John the Baptist and his disciples in the wilderness. But today he was walking along the beach and came up to Andrew and Simon and…”What John? What happened?” Salome cried. “Jesus told Andrew and Simon to follow him. He said that he would make them fishers of people. He told them to leave their nets and help him build God’s kingdom.”
“But how?” Salome asked in shock. “How will they live? What about their families? They can’t just leave the family business? What is Jesus going to do with them?”

“Now, Salome!” Zebedee interrupted. “You can’t expect these boys to know everything that happened. I’m sure there is a logical explanation for the whole thing! Maybe Jesus just wanted a job. I’m sure they could use a few more hired hands on their boat, right sons?” he turned towards James and John. A long pause drifted across the room as Zebedee looked into his son’s eyes—and then down at the table. “He asked you too—didn’t he?” Zebedee looked up at James and John. “Yes, Father” James answered. “Jesus asked us to follow him too. And we are. We leave tomorrow for Capernaum.”
“You’re leaving tomorrow—for Capernaum? Did you know this Phoebe?” “Yes, Salome. I did know. We’ve discussed it, and Joel and I are going with James.” “I’m going to!” John added. “But how? How can you leave your father? How can you follow this man? How will you live? What will you do?”

Salome could take no more as she jumped from the table and fled into the bedroom. The table fell silent. After a moment Zebedee stood up from the table and walked behind his boys, laying his hands on each of their shoulder. “You are good men,” he began. “And times are very different now than when I was your age. Yahweh’s people have been enslaved by evil influences. Our religious and government leaders value power over peace and use our sacred texts as weapons against us. I didn’t bring you into this world to be oppressed by it. And I hope that this man, your cousin Jesus can liberate us from it.

James and John stood up from the table and embraced Zebedee. “We love you, Father” they said through tears. “You’ve taught us well—to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. And event thought we are no longer fishermen, we will continue to cast our nets for God’s kingdom.”

Let us pray. Lord, we sit here today, in this community of doctors and firefighters, caretakers of children and business executives, students and administrators, musicians and ministers, teachers and preachers—contemplating a gospel text that challenges us in our day jobs. Just like fishing was to the disciples—we work in our chosen professions and hear your call to become more. We hear your call to become disciples of Christ—to dive into mission and ministry to the world. Give us the fast reflexes of those first four disciples—Simon, Andrew, James and John. There’s a part of us that hesitates, afraid to get out of our boats; fearful of setting aside our roles and personas. We know that your call may come at any time to leave behind our comfort zones and respond to needs we never expected. But in that moment, give us the courage to make the immediate decision to follow Jesus—and become who you challenge us to be, setting aside the temptation to accumulate possessions, or accomplishments, or degrees, or labels that attempt to bring us a sense of worth or value. Instead, reveal to us the opportunities in our own lives that will engage us in a deeper journey with you. For we know that it isn’t what we do, that makes us your blessed children, but who you created us to be in each moment of our life. And all the people said, “Amen.”

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Voice in Your Head

* Mark 1:4-11 - John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.

It had been along time since I had remembered it, but every once in a great while a certain forgotten memory comes crashing back into the present. The story is that, growing up, I had been given a nickname at my high school—which on the surface didn’t seem that awful! There was this group of guys that apparently thought I was an odd sort—and would make a habit of embarrassing me in class. One of the guys would yell under his breath “nice” and the other would echo “Brice.” Well, as you can suspect—being considered “Nice Brice” should have been a compliment. But only if you were my grandmother. But in the context of a “Christian” school and in the company of some very unchristian behavior—it singled me out as a teacher’s pet or goody two shoes if you will. “Nice Brice” was a name I was called that eventually created my reputation as being abnormal—when normal was considered rebellious and renegade.

I also had other names though—especially when my mother was angry and then it was my first and middle name said loudly and fast. You can imagine my fear when hearing those two put together...Brice Arnold!!!!!! When you hear your own name spoken, what thoughts and ideas does it conjure in your mind? No doubt there is some baggage from the past, maybe some ideas about your past self that you are trying to shed, as well as hopes for the future based on wants and desires. These thoughts are just ideas. However; you tend to personalize them and make them mean something about yourself and life.

When you hear the name “God” spoken, what thoughts and ideas does that conjure in your mind? On page 15 of his book, Eckhart Tolle says that God is unnamable. God is not an entity that exists in some particular place. Rather God is the underlying essence of all things. This essence is beyond language. Tolle points to the danger of getting stuck on any particular names for God. These ideas about God tend to be the same as the mental ideas of self you get stuck on. In other words, if you have an idea that God is a personal being, you tend to believe that your ego is personal. If the ego is personal, then when someone criticizes a role you play it feels like a thoroughly personal attack on who you are. So much suffering in the world comes as a result of guarding your “self” against outside attack. So many wars begin because religions guard their names for God against outside attack.

One of the Hebrew names for God is Y-H-V-H....four consonants that are impossible to pronounce together. In Hebrew, it comes from the root word “to be.” God was introduced to Moses in Exodus 3 as Y-H-V-H, often translated as “I am what I am and always will be.” Y-H-V-H seems to be a combination of the past, present and future tense of the verb “to be”. So it might be more accurate to think of Y-H-V-H as eternally in process or “never-ending becoming,” manifesting as infinite possibilities in every moment. It's tough to get your mind around that concept. Even the ancient Hebrews felt the need to make name for God pronounceable by integrating the vowels of Adonai...another name for God...with the 4 consonants...which is our word for Jehovah. The concept of something that is unnameable is difficult for cultures that are defined by its language.

The New Testament picks up the same notion of eternal becoming. In John’s gospel, Jesus is recorded as identifying himself with a series of “I am” statements. Each one says something about a temporary role. For example “I am the shepherd” indicated his role as a rabbi…a pastor and teacher. But then, at other times Jesus was an indignant activist, like when he cleared the temple of financiers. Jesus manifested in whatever role seemed most appropriate at the time…healer, provider, intercessor, and ultimately sacrifice or Savior. However the “I am” refers back to the unnamable essence of eternal becoming. “I am” is Jesus’ awareness of a consciousness beyond his roles and ideas. In this sense, Jesus realized his divinity because he experienced himself both in particular time bound roles, but also in his connection with the very flow and essence of life.

Do you remember the famous line from the cartoon character, Popeye? When people tried to pigeonhole the spinach munching marvel with insults, he replied nonchalantly, "No matter what ya calls me, I am what I am an' tha's ALL that I yam!"

I love reading the words of our gospel text—especially the message from God directly to Jesus. The Message translation of the Bible says is this way. “The moment Jesus came up out of the baptismal waters, the skies opened up and he saw God's Spirit - it looked like a dove - descending and landing on him. And along with the Spirit, a voice: "This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life."

Wow! Can you imagine hearing those wonderful words? We all enjoy being bragged on once in a while. My mother is probably my biggest fan and supporter of everything I’ve done in life. In fact, sometimes she really embarrasses me when I introduce her to a group of my friends or people in my congregation. “That’s my son!” I’ve heard her exclaim. “I powdered his behind when he was just a baby!” That’s the comment that usually gets the loudest laugh and turns my face the reddest shade you’d think I was a Maine Lobster. Ah yes, mothers do that sometimes. But I think that’s all of our responsibility in this life. Don’t you? I mean how else are we to express our praise and pride for the people we love but by bragging on them just a bit? Those moments make me think of how I believe God thinks of us. God is like the parent or guardian who is essentially proud of us. The same God that called Jesus, “Beloved” also calls us “Beloved.”

How do you respond when people aren’t so loving…and call you names or criticize you? The next time someone accuses you of being na├»ve or irrational or whatever insult it is, try responding the same way Jesus did when he was asked if he was the Messiah…the new king of Israel at his trial. Simply respond, “So you say.” Or maybe try out the wonderful line, “Thanks for noticing.” Maybe you could just say this in your own mind, to remind yourself that no matter what anyone says you are more than your roles, you are more than your successes or mistakes, you are more than your personality. You are “I am."

Take your roles and personas seriously. They are important. That’s how you get things done. Practice noticing the various roles you take on in a day, and some roles that are put on you by other people. With this increased awareness, you will begin to hold them only loosely as changing functions, but not your essence. You are so much more than your roles and personality. It is a liberating experience when you begin to understand that you don’t live life…life lives you. There is much power when you stop taking your life so personally.

Anais Nin, a Cuban-French author who published her personal journals about her life experiences spanning 60 years said, “You don’t see things as they are. You see things as you are.” I suspect this holds true for your portrait of God also. Humans tend not to see God as God is. We tend to see God as we are. Now relate this notion to your portrait of others around you. Do you see them as their roles or personas, or do you occasionally glimpse beyond their outer shell to the beauty of their eternal becoming?

Rabbi Rami Shapiro offers a wonderful spiritual practice. He says that when Y-H-V-H is written vertically in Hebrew, it looks like a stick-figure drawing of a human being. Rami suggests that you “visualize the Name of God as the physical body of any person you meet: the Yod is the head, the Hey is the shoulders and arms, the Vav is the torso, and the final Hey is the pelvis and legs.”

You are engaging with none other Y-H-V-H in the flesh. Your partner, child, friend, colleague, enemy is eternally becoming just as you are eternally becoming. Appreciate the roles, just don’t get stuck on them as unchanging and personal. Remember, they are there not to reflect who you are…but to teach you who you are becoming. Amen! (Excerpts from Ian Lawton’s presentation, “Lesson Two: Where Do You See God” - ).

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Time to Wake UP!

* Read John 1:1-9 then watch this hilarious video!

Let me tell you a familiar story...after all, it’s still Christmas.

One day in the past there was a baby that was given to unlikely and unsuspecting parents. Yet this unseemingly super-human being descended to earth from another place…some called it the heavens…by miraculous means. Upon arriving, he grew up as a precocious child with unusual gifts and was a source of consternation and anxiety for his human parents. He was intelligent beyond his years, and amazed everyone he encountered. Eventually, his legacy…or his mission to earth was revealed to him in the form of a luminous object, which he was apparently not able to utilize until he reaches the age of manhood - say about thirty years of age. To perform the rites of initiation, he had to enter a desert-ed place in order to ponder his role and his real identity. He subsequently launched his career as a hero to some, and an outlaw to others in a large, urban center. He became the defender of the weak, friend of the victimized and scourge of the self-righteous. His identity in the everyday world, however, had to be hidden, and so he is disguised as a mild-mannered everyday citizen.

You know the story right? Of course you do…we are talking about Superman. He came from Kryptonite and was delivered to a poor elderly couple. Once he entered adolescence it was apparent that he possessed some very unique gifts and they marveled at his abilities. He soon learned his mission to earth when he discovered an illuminating crystal that revealed his true identity. He then traveled to a desolate place in the North Pole where he was tested. Once he returned he moved to the big city disguised as a mild mannered reporter. He fights crime, is the defender of the weak, friend of the victimized and scourge of the self-righteous. He is hunted down, imprisoned in a prison of kryptonite, and left to die. Yet he defeated his arch enemies and rose again. Sound familiar?

In fact, the only difference between the mythic story of Superman and the story of Jesus is the presence of a love interest…Lois Lane. Well, at least we don’t know for sure if there was such a person known to Jesus. Interesting…huh? Why it’s the same idea at the base of the myth of the American west.
The good cowboy rides into a town beleaguered by villains, has a shoot-out with these perpetrators of evil, rescues those who are unable to rescue themselves, and then rides off into the sunset. The Lone Ranger was the original version of this myth. You television and movie buffs can probably name any number of replicas of this same plot line. And, of course, when the old West was no longer 'cool' as the setting for modern audiences, Captain Kirk and his crew came along to save, not just the world, but the whole darn universe.

And what is the common thread, the identical plot line running through all of these well-known myths? It is that of the extra-terrestrial, external redeemer who comes to us from somewhere else and does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. It is the same master idea behind John's prologue to his gospel and much of Christian theology: Jesus is the true teacher sent by God from heaven to a human world "below", whose mission is to go back to reclaim the glory that he had with God from the beginning, once he has accomplished his mission. He comes into the world as its light to rescue anyone who believes in him from being in the dark. The hero in this plot comes from beyond and belongs somewhere else. He is not one of us really. He is qualitatively different. Moreover, the way this plot-line works, humanity is basically flawed and cannot help itself.

The Jesus we find in the Gospel of John is not the Jesus we find in Matthew, Mark and Luke. John's Jesus does not speak in parables and witticisms to shock his listeners. He speaks in long, often boring monologues. This Jesus is not the one who seems to agonize over his mission, but the one who accepts it with seemingly super-human resolve. This Jesus is the one who always seems to be in control and to have advance knowledge of what lies ahead. When we read John, we are not reading a portrait of the historical Jesus so much as a church document designed to persuade and impress. It is theology, not history. A scholarly argument, not a documentary. John had one purpose in writing what he did and that was to convince people of who Jesus was. We also must remember that the people he was writing to tended to believe that saviours came from somewhere else and that they were different from everybody else. And that is, by and large, what we get in John: a hero who came from heaven. It is one of the founding myths upon which human civilization is built.

And it’s the same story that Christians have told the world. Why it’s become the greatest holiday in all of the world. Christians have said, for the most part, that Jesus came from somewhere else and belonged somewhere else and was able to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. The question, not just for those who study the Bible, but for serious-thinking Christians is not just whether this was who Jesus really was but whether this superhero Jesus is the one we really need.

This basic plot line of the redeemer from beyond who comes to save us from without has led to tragic consequences for the human race. If we are basically powerless to overcome the forces of evil both within and without, then we will always need someone else to take responsibility for what happens. It is that same attitude that convinced Christian missionaries to compel other people to submit to baptism. After all, "we" came from a superior world and "we" knew what was best for them! It is that same attitude that leads to the kind of bankrupt religion, morality and politics we know all too well. The average person, you and I, are really just pawns in the cosmic drama being played out for us. We do not need to get involved, nor assume responsibility for our lives or for anything else because the powers above us are going to do it for us. It is the plot that makes for spectator religion and impotent Christians; people who become tranquilized by their faith for a God who will do it all for them. When we have become convinced that we have been absolved of all accountability for the way the world is and the way it could be, what is there left for us to do? Just hold tight and pray that we make it until the end?

It's just that the Jesus of history, as far as we can guess, seems to have seen God in a very different way. Not the experience of God breaking into life from the outside but the experience of God breaking out of life from the inside. The worst thing that happened to Jesus, even worst then his crucifixion was when Rome shifted from persecuting Christianity to institutionalizing it as the official state religion under Constantine in the fourth century. From that time, Roman Christianity (both the Catholic and Protestant branches) has always been the predominant form of Christianity, and it has often brutally suppressed any alternate understandings of Christianity, including Gnosticism.

Roman Christianity is based on the authority of creeds, the inerrancy of the Bible and a personal salvation system through the death of Jesus. The church holds the keys to absolute truth and carries God’s authority. However, this wasn’t the only form of Christianity current in the first centuries after the life of Jesus. The Gnostics believed that Jesus’ life and death was an allegory for universal consciousness. He represented what every person must go through, dying to self and rising to a new awareness in the here and now. The Greek word that is commonly translated as “resurrect” is just as accurately translated as “awaken”.

There is solid evidence that Gnostic Christianity was the original and most pure form of Christianity. Christianity began with little interest in dogmatic beliefs, and more interest in the experience of self awareness. Roman Christianity was a later shift into rigid beliefs systems. Jesus’ life and death was a model for universal awakening, and the primary interest of early Christianity was to share Christ Consciousness, for people to realize the kingdom within, and to create a new earth of awakened human beings.

As we begin this sermon series using the book, “A New Earth” to inform us, I acknowledge that some Christians feel a profound clash between the spirituality of Tolle and their religious heritage. Here is the liberating truth. You can unite the spirituality of Tolle with your Christian heritage. In the process you can rid yourself of many limiting, literal interpretations of the Bible, you can discover amazing inner awareness, and you can open yourself to the essence of Christ Consciousness. This series will offer a way for you to unite the message of A New Earth with the original message of Christianity.

Jesus acted as a mirror to his disciples. He modeled union with God. At one point, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” He did this to illustrate that people were locked in a number of ideas about his identity. Jesus was the persona they needed him to be; a mighty victor, a compassionate savior, a superhero. Then he brought the question closer to home, asking them, “Who do you say that I am?” Now he was urging them beyond personas and roles to engage in the moment with him. The answer came, “You are the Christ, the Son of God”.

Ask yourself the question, “Who are you?” You too have all sorts of roles and personas. They are valid and important. Embody them fully. However, remember that they are bound by time and space. Your true essence could never be captured by an occupation, a gender, a religion or a personality type. Your true essence is beyond words and description. You are nothing less than a Christ, a child of God, an expression of universal love in this moment. You are the Word of God made flesh. Within you is the light that shines in darkness. It’s time to wake up and learn how to shine that light brighter and brighter.

The following affirmations will guide our search together:

1. The nature of Nature is to transform
2. Crises precedes transformation and problems are evolutionary drivers
3. Nature creates new whole systems out of separate parts (Synergy)
4. Nature creates evolutionary jumps through greater synergy and cooperation
5. Evolutionary advances; democracy, science, technology
6. Awareness of our capacities for conscious evolution is the key revelation of the 21st Century
7. Metaphor of the butterfly metamorphosis – in the birthing process the imaginal cells holding the image of the butterfly to come are expelled by it’s the immune system. Ultimately these cells multiply and overtake the caterpillar. Humanity has killed off its imaginal cells (JFK, MLK, Gandhi, Jesus) but they are proliferating and will eventually overtake it.

(Excerpts from Barry J. Robinson’s sermon “A Jesus With a Different Plot” for January 5, 2003 –, Ian Lawton’s presentation, “Lesson One: Christianity and A New Earth” -, and Barbara Marx Hubbard's documentary, "Humanity Ascending" -