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.