Posted by: smstrouse | December 9, 2018

Practicing Peace at the Edge

LennonWallImagineGrace to you and peace from God, our Creator and Christ, our Wisdom.  Amen.

Grace to you – and peace.  The second candle on the Advent wreath is often called the Peace candle. You might also hear the second Sunday in Advent referred to as “the prophet’s day,” with our texts devoted to John the Baptist. The psalm that Zechariah, father of John the Baptizer, sings in Luke – which we said together a few minutes ago – bring the two together: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

What Is Peace?
The way of peace. We share “the peace” every Sunday. But what is peace? The simple answer is that it’s the opposite of war, the absence of conflict. And that’s certainly valid. In these days of unending warfare, we long for the kind of celebrations that broke out the end of WW II. And though the signing of the Paris Peace Accords ending the Vietnam War may have been marked more with fatigue and grief, peace was definitely welcome. It seems to be getting harder to achieve peaceful outcomes these days; one war just seems to bleed (literally) into another. We long for peace as an absence of war. But it seems to be a very elusive goal.

That’s true for other conflicts as well. We’ve just come through the Thanksgiving holiday when we’ve heard endless jokes about disruptive family gatherings. On The Late Show, Steven Colbert quipped, “Personally, I love Thanksgiving traditions: watching football, making pumpkin pie, and saying the magic phrase that sends your aunt storming out of the dining room to sit in her car.”

We laugh at these jokes because we can relate. Many of us have an aunt like Colbert’s. Or, in my case, an uncle, who could make me grit my teeth and keep quiet for the sake of keeping peace in the family. But that kind of peace isn’t really peace-ful; it just keeps the conflict below the surface. Or it serves to allow someone’s bad behavior to continue – at best, a mild annoyance; at worst, abuse and oppression. 

So again, peace is elusive. In a way, this is beginning to sound like what I said last week about hope. Everybody wants it, but what is real peace, and how do we get it?

After all, this is the season when we sing a lot about it.
“Hark! The herald angels sing, Peace on earth, and mercy mild . . .” 
O Little Town of Bethlehem: “Praises sing to God the King, and Peace to all the earth”Handel’s “Messiah” –“and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”

Prince of Peace? Really?
But you know, I remember that even when I was a child, hearing these words and looking at the world around me made we wonder if I was missing something. If Jesus had come to bring peace on earth, we’d have to seriously evaluate his job performance. That might sound irreverent, but this question of peace is an important one – not just for Advent and happy (or at least conflict-free) holiday times. But as Douglas Todd, a columnist for the Vancouver Sun wrote in a lovely Advent devotion a few years ago, “Peace can have an edge.” That phrase has stuck with me ever since. As well as his conclusion that “practicing peace is both an individual and communal discipline, a demanding one.”

Thinking communally, we might recall Rev. Alan Boesak, a leader in the struggle against apartheid in South African, who said: “Peace is more than the absence of war, it is the pursuit of active justice.”  And thinking individually, Mohandas Gandhi comes to mind. He said: “If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed – but hate these things inside yourself, not in another.”

Practicing peace, indeed. On both of these fronts I, for one, need a lot of practice. I need a presence in my life, in my heart that is a bearer of the kind of peace needed both within me and around me. As probably most of us know, it can be tricky to bring peace into our personal lives. We’re too harried, too anxious, too estranged, too un-centered. We don’t really feel the deep satisfaction that could be called peace.

Practicing Peace at the Edge
Advent calls us to the edge of our usual distracted state and urges us toward a better way.  As we proclaimed along with Zechariah, “the dawn from on high will break upon us,to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

But not a sugar-coated or false peace. We’re talking about shalom. When those of the Jewish faith say “Shalom” and Muslims say, “Salaam alaikum,” they are conveying a peace that is encompasses harmony, wholeness, completeness, and tranquility. In her book The Case for God, Karen Armstrong writes that peace is about wholeness. It is about coming home: to oneself, to the universe, to the richness of the holy. Peace is large enough to contain apparent contradictions, such as sorrow, hope and joy.

That was the kind of peace embodied by Jesus, the kind he offers to us as well. I’ve read somewhere that true peace is more like an improvisational jazz concert; a constant responsive blending of discord, mistakes, beauty, competition, cooperation, unpredictability and insight – all in the name of a larger harmony.  Maybe along with our beloved and sweet Christmas carols, we should also have some jazz to lead us into the way of peace. Peace with an edge, yet peace that leads us home.

It sounds contradictory. We seek the kind of peace that enables us to feel at home within ourselves, to feel whole, to be free to bask in the love of God that is there in our hearts. That’s a warm, comforting place to be. But at the same time, we seek the kind of peace that enables us to reach out into the world to do the things we can to bring peace and justice to others.

I’m leaving for San Diego this afternoon to participate tomorrow in an action at the Mexican border in support of migrant justice. I tell you this, not as a political statement (you may agree or disagree with my position on the matter). I tell you as a “peace with an edge” moment in my life. At the Parliament of the World’s Religions last month, I was listening to an address by Jim Wallis, the founder of the Sojourners community and magazine, which is committed to social justice and peace from a Christian perspective. He was speaking about the caravan moving up through Central America towards the US border, and he said that people of faith should be there to meet them in a visible show of Christian compassion. I applauded his speech along with everyone else. And I remembered that when the call to action came: tomorrow morning at 8:00, clergy and other religious leaders will gather at the offices of the American Friends Service Committee to be bused to the border.

To be perfectly honest, I thought of a good number of reasons why I shouldn’t go.: money, time, convenience, laziness (there’d be enough people there), discomfort.  But ultimately, I decided that if I could applaud Jim Wallace in the comfort of my chair in an auditorium, then I could go and be uncomfortable at the border. And also, to be perfectly honest, I knew in my heart that it was the right thing for me to do. It is, for me, peace with an edge. On the way of Christ: as we move inward to discover that which is within each of our hearts, we then move outward into the world, wherever that may take us.  

Now – Your Stories
You will have your own stories of what this looks like for you. And I invite you to ponder those stories during this hectic season. And ponder as well the ways that you have found to come home to the shalom that lives in your heart.  Finding that peace is no easy, one-size-fits-all practice. And if you’re like me, you’re able to sustain it for a time until the mind’s chatter interrupts again. It’s an on-going process of letting go and listening for the still, small voice.

For me, meditation and music are ways I’ve found to go more deeply into my heart place. You may have others.  In this Advent time, I find the light of the candles and the smell of incense to be helpful. Holy Communion is also a time of renewed mystical connection with Spirit and with other members of the body of Christ. Reading or listening to the insights of others as they work out their own jazz improvisations of life are also precious roadmaps along the way.

The way of peace is open to all.  But remember that the way has an edge. Jesus certainly knew that. His followers knew it. It didn’t take long for “Away in the Manger” to turn to “Crucify him!” But that does not mean that Jesus failed to live up to his identity as Prince of Peace. It just means that the peace he offers is deeper than the kind we usually get.

The way of Advent invites us to go deeper – deeper into hope, deeper into peace.  On this “prophet’s day,” as we remember John the Baptist and his father Zechariah, we proclaim with them the dawn from on high that is breaking upon us, giving light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and guiding our feet into the way of peace.

Amen

1

The psalm that Zechariah, father of John the Baptizer, sings in Luke 1 is one of the most beautiful psalms in the Bible. The Second Sunday of Advent is traditionally “the prophet’s day” with texts devoted to John the Baptist. The song’s theology, which rehearses fidelity of “the most high God of Israel” to the divine promises spoken in the Old Testament and fulfilled in Jesus. is perfect for Advent.

It is written . . .

“Blessed are you, the most high God of Israel—
for you have visited and redeemed your people.
You have raised up a mighty savior for us
of the house of David,
As you promised
through the mouths of your holy ones,
the prophets of ancient times:
Salvation from our enemies
and from the hands of all our foes.
You have shown mercy to our ancestors
by remembering the holy covenant
you made with them,
The oath you swore to Sarah and Abraham,
Granting that we,
delivered from the hands of our enemies,
might serve you without fear,
In holiness and justice,
in your presence all our days.
And you, my child, will be called
the prophet of the most high,
for you will go before our God
to prepare the way for the Promised one,
Giving the people the knowledge of salvation
through forgiveness of their sins.
Such is the tender mercy of our God,
who from on high
will bring the Rising sun to visit us,
To give light to those who live
in darkness and the shadow of death
and to guide our feet
into the way of peace.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Posted by: smstrouse | December 2, 2018

Advent 1

little_blue_flickering_candle_by_emmaweasley-d5aq9loI have to say that most days I’m not optimistic about the state of the world. However, I always  have great hope for the state of the world. To anyone who doesn’t know about Advent, those two statements are diametrically opposed; one cancels out the other. But those who do know about Advent – and get its deeper meaning beyond opening up a little door in a calendar the month before Christmas to find a piece of chocolate – know a secret: amid darkness, hope goes deeper than optimism.    

Don’t get me wrong; I love opening the little doors of Advent calendars with chocolates hidden behind them in the countdown to the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus. But I also don’t want us to miss out on the profound message that is also hidden in this Advent time. It’s a message so counter-cultural, even counter-intuitive, that we do often miss it. Advent is a time we look with hope both to the celebration of the birth of Jesus 2000+ years ago and to the continuing birth of the Christ light into our lives and world.

So a little group of people gathers together on a Sunday morning and lights a candle. Such a small, seemingly insignificant thing. Yet it’s part of a much bigger movement undertaken by people of many different religions and spiritualities. We are not alone in our longing for light. Many spiritual traditions look to the natural cycles of light and dark, morning and evening, summer and winter as an invitation to consider the movement of our inner lives.

Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains have already had their festival of lights, called Diwali. One of the major festivals of Hinduism, it spiritually signifies the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, and hope over despair. The 5-day celebration includes lights shining on houses, around outside doors and windows, and around temples and other buildings.

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This year, the 8-day Jewish celebration of Hanukkah – commemorating the time when the wicks of the menorah burned for eight days even though there was only enough sacred oil for one day – begins tomorrow.

Of course, here in the northern hemisphere we’ve inherited many of our Christmas customs from northern Pagans, for whom the Winter Solstice (or Yule) is a major festival marking the longest night and shortest day of the year.

It’s no coincidence that this time of year heralds the beginning of the Christian calendar, the season of Advent. Winter darkness has descended. Night comes too early. Many, even in the relative warmth of CA, suffer from SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder. We wait for spring. We wait for the light. Even the spiritual-but-not-religious can identify with the underlying need for Advent. Candles, wreaths, Advent calendars tap into universal deep feelings and ideals. Not the least of which is hope.

Our longing for light is not just a physical desire. The long night also symbolizes our fears: for ourselves, our families, our nation, our world. It’s become traditional in many churches to call the first candle on the Advent wreath the flame of hope. But hope is often elusive. And there are few things worse than feeling hopeless. As Swiss philosopher Emil Bruner wrote, “What oxygen is to the lungs, such is hope to the meaning of life.

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But wouldn’t it be nice if hope were more clear-cut? It seems we can approach it, at best, only through metaphor. For example, according to poet Emily Dickinson, “hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” She goes on to tell what this bird does (sings), how it reacts to hardship (it’s unabashed in the storm), where it can be found (everywhere), and what it asks for itself (nothing, not even a single crumb).

But where can one find such hope in the midst of a dark night of the soul – whether it is in the soul of an individual or the soul of a nation? This is where we have to remind ourselves that hope is deeper than optimism. It shouldn’t be confused with belief that everything – whether your own life or the future of the nation or the survival of our planet – is going to work out just fine. Hope is not wishful thinking. The late Christian writer Henri Nouwen, emphasizing that hope is faith in something beyond our control, said “I have found it very important in my life to let go of my wishes and start hoping.” Adding, “Hope is always open-ended.”

But like faith, hope can be elusive. How do you get it? How do you keep it? Well, to be honest, sometimes it’s simply a matter of faking it, as they say, until you make it. Living “as if” you have hope can actually open up the spiritual space for that “thing with feathers” to build its nest. Other times, it’s a matter of carrying hope for someone who’s not yet able or allowing someone to carry it for you.

Years ago, when I was a hospital chaplain, I was visiting a patient who told me that he didn’t have any hope. I don’t remember what the situation was, but I do know that I wouldn’t have encouraged unrealistically optimistic medical expectations. So it wasn’t necessarily about hoping for a cure. Before I left, I told him it was OK that he wasn’t able to feel hopeful just then, but that I was going to be hopeful for him. I’ll never forget the huge smile on his face when I said that and his appreciation of my offer. I don’t know what happened to him. I can only hope that the open-endedness of “things hoped for” made some difference in how he saw his life and his situation.

Oddly enough, apocalyptic writing in the Jewish bible and Christian scriptures – those passages about the end times – were all about hope in times of deep darkness and persecution. We usually read them today as threats. For example, the gospel warned: “Be alert! For you do not know the day your Savior is coming.” In other words, “You better watch out, you better not cry, Jesus Christ is comin’ to town.” Or, in the old Bob Hope quote, “The good news is that Jesus is coming back. The bad news is that he’s really (ticked) off.”

But we too can think about apocalypse in a hopeful way. Everything in the New Testament, from the teachings of Jesus to the letters of Paul, is informed by the anticipation of the arrival of the realm (commonwealth, kin-dom) of God. Jesus was very specific about what that kin-dom would be like: the thirsty receive water, the hungry are fed, the naked clothed, repentance and humility are practiced, the poor are lifted up, the rich are brought down from their thrones. This kin-dom is not necessarily a time in the future, but happening now. In other words, apocalypse is really about revealing, showing forth the signs of God’s commonwealth right here and now. It’s happening all the time and all around.

And this is where another big Advent theme enters in. If we’re going to notice these in-breakings, we have to pay attention.  As Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “It is now the hour for you to wake from sleep.”

I’m also partial to the poem by the Sufi poet, Rumi:

The breezes at dawn have secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep!
You must ask for what you really want. Don’t go back to sleep!
People are going back and forth across the doorsill where the two worlds touch,
The door is round and open. Don’t go back to sleep!

The Buddhists call this mindfulness.Don’t sleep through your life. Don’t let a holy moment catch you unawares. Don’t miss God moments occurring throughout the day. The Divine comes to us in every encounter. A pivotal life event might be happening right now. Pay attention. Don’t go back to sleep. Creative transformation – awakening to God and living in God’s commonwealth – is available to us all the time. We need to prepare moment by moment to experience God’s provocative possibilities. Advent living isn’t just a month-long thing that ends on Christmas Day. It’s our training exercise for a lifestyle of expectancy. We’re to live as if God is with us, precisely because God is with us.

Is it hard for me to remember this when I pick up a newspaper? You bet it is. Am I feeling optimistic about the state of the world? Not by a long shot. But if there‘s one thing I know, it is that amid darkness, hope is deeper than optimism. And Advent calls us to exercise and develop our spiritual muscles so that, as followers of Jesus, we can be light to the world: bringing water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, clothing to the naked, forgiveness and hope to those in deep darkness, lifting up the poor, and bringing down systems that benefit only the rich.  

One little candle symbolizes it all. Better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness, as the saying goes. This quiet lighting of a candle can help us nourish our hope, deepen our resolve, draw strength from the fertile darkness and bear witness to the community we long to become and are working to create.

I’ll close with this blessing by Jan Richardson, creator of a wonderful website called The Advent Door: Entering a Contemplative Christmas

Blessing for Waking

This blessing could pound on your door
in the middle of the night.

This blessing could bang on your window,
could tap dance in your hall,
could set a dog loose in your room.

It could hire a brass band
to play outside your house.

But what this blessing really wants
is not merely your waking but your company.

This blessing wants to sit alongside you
and keep vigil with you.

This blessing wishes to wait with you.

And so, though it is capable of causing a cacophony
that could raise the dead,

this blessing will simply lean toward you
and sing quietly in your ear a song to lull you
not into sleep but into waking.

It will tell you stories that hold you breathless till the end.

It will ask you questions you never considered and have you tell it what you saw in your dreaming.

This blessing will do all within its power
to entice you into awareness because it wants to be there,
to bear witness,
to see the look in your eyes on the day when your vigil is complete
and all your waiting has come to its joyous end.

I am not optimistic about the state of the world. However, I do have great hope. Wait with me and watch. Don’t go back to sleep. For the light – this little light and so many like it – shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never, ever overcome it.

Amen

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Posted by: smstrouse | November 23, 2018

I Ain’t Shopping Anymore

With apologies to the late, great Phil Ochs, here’s my annual anti-consumerism protest song. Watch the video if you don’t know the melody (or the original words).

“I Ain’t Shopping Anymore”

Oh, I shopped to the battle of the Cabbage Patch dolls
In the decade of the 80’s Christmas war.
When the toy store got them back in stock,
I joined the lines around the block.
But I ain’t shopping anymore.

For I’ve stomped my share of shoppers in a thousand different stores;
I was there at the crack of dawn.
I heard many sales clerks sighing; saw many more a-crying.
But I ain’t shopping anymore

(chorus)
It’s always the rich who lead us to the mall
Always the poor to fall
Now look at what we get – to our ears in credit debt
Tell me is it worth it all

For I stole a Beanie Baby from another mom’s hand;
And I fought for a Sony XBox score.
Yes I even shoved my mother and so many others.
But I ain’t shopping anymore.

For I shopped to the strains of “Silent Night”
In a season of peace and love for all.
But when Apple gadgets filled the land,
I fought to get them in my hands.
But I ain’t shopping anymore

(chorus)
It’s always the rich who lead us to the mall
Always the poor to fall
Now look at what we get – to our ears in credit debt
Tell me is it worth it all

For I rushed from the table after pumpkin pie,
To get ready for Black Friday’s mighty roar.
When I saw my Visa burning, I knew that I was learning
That I ain’t shopping anymore

Now the politicians tell us shopping makes our nation work;
Patriots will head out to the stores.
Call it “Sense” or call it “Treason;”
Call it “Wisdom,” call it “Reason,”
But I ain’t shopping any more.
No I ain’t shopping any more.

Posted by: smstrouse | November 19, 2018

Don’t Worry? A Sermon for Thanksgiving

shutterstock_496324180Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters. You will either hate one and love the other, or be attentive to one and despise the other. You cannot give yourself God and money. That’s why I tell you not to worry about your livelihood, what you are to eat or drink or use for clothing. Isn’t life more than just food? Isn’t the body more than just clothing?

“Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t sow or reap; they gather nothing into barns, yet our God in heaven feeds them. Aren’t you more important than they? Which of you by worrying can add a moment to your lifespan? And why be anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They don’t work; they don’t spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in full splendor was arrayed like one of these. If God can clothe in such splendor the grasses of the field, which bloom today and are thrown on the fire tomorrow, won’t God do so much more for you—you who have so little faith?

“Stop worrying then, over such questions as, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’ Those without faith are always running after these things. God knows everything you need. Seek first God’s reign and God’s justice, and all these things will be given to you besides. Enough of worrying about tomorrow! Let tomorrow take care of itself. Today has troubles enough of its own.” – Matthew 6:24-34
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Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and Christ our Wisdom. Amen.

One thing that I really appreciated at the Parliament of the World’s Religions which I attended earlier this month was the attention and honor paid to the indigenous people who originally lived on the land on which we were meeting in Toronto. I made a promise to myself to do the same when I came home.  I learned that the first settlers of San Leandro came to the Bay Area between approximately 3500-2500 BCE and were members of the Jalquin Tribe. They were most likely the ancestors of the Ohlone Nation we know today, part of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area.I also learned that there was an important Ohlone settlement in San Leandro on what’s now 152nd Avenue. So, especially during this Thanksgiving week, I would like us to take just a moment to silently give thanks for the Ohlone people – past, present, and future – and acknowledge their presence on this land.

Now, speaking of Thanksgiving . . .  I had a real struggle with this gospel reading for Thanksgiving. It was one of those times when I would really have loved to be able to talk to Jesus – I mean face-to-face, up close and personal. Although I’m afraid that most of those times, what I’d have to say would be along the lines of “Huh?” or “Could you explain that?” Sometimes, my reaction to a saying or teaching of Jesus is even more visceral – like in this one: “Do not worry about your life.”

Don’t get me wrong; this is actually one of my favorite sayings of Jesus. I love the shutterstock_32150692imagery of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. But if I was given the chance to have a conversation about this with Jesus, I think it would go something like, “Are you kidding?!” – even though I know I’d be risking the admonition of “oh, you of little faith.” Still, risking that, I might say, “Look around Jesus. We’ve got plenty to worry about.  I don’t think it’s realistic to expect us to ignore all that.”

I have to admit, though, that Jesus lived in tough times, too.  Living in Judea under Roman occupation was no picnic. Poverty was rampant. Sickness and disease, mental illness, family strife – it’s all there in the pages of the Bible. 

So I don’t think Jesus was speaking from a place of ignorance or even denial. He doesn’t deny the reality of worries: “Don’t worry about tomorrow because tomorrow will bring worries of its own.” So he doesn’t have his head in the clouds; he’s a realist. So we can be too. We can be realistic about the things that worry us – as long as we don’t stay stuck there. This teaching from the Sermon on the Mount is about living in the world – with all its worries – as a person of faith.

I can imagine the people listening to Jesus and thinking about their own troubles and wondering if he was for real. Maybe they got to have that face-to-face conversation with him and got some clarity about how to put their worries in their proper place. I don’t know, though. Jesus seems to have been all about putting the teaching out there and letting his listeners work out the meaning for themselves. 

Which is right where we are.  So maybe it’s best if we start with the worries. Let’s start with family. If you have kids, worry is a given. My parents are both now gone, but I remember very clearly the worry my brothers and I experienced as we watched their ability to care for themselves decline while also facing the fact that they did not want to leave their home or lose any control over their lives. You may have your own story of a family situation that concerns you that you can’t help worrying about – and/or worries about your own health or job or financial situation.

As Christians, we also worry about the church. There’s no doubt about it, the church as we’ve known it in our lifetime is changing, some would say dying, others would say evolving into something new. In any event, it’s causing anxiety within congregations and denominations. We don’t know what the church of the future will look like. But even if we don’t worry about that, we still have to worry about what to do with the church of today. A conversation with Jesus could be very helpful right about now.

And then there’s our country. We have a lot to be worried about. No need to get into politics; those on both the red and blue divide are worried – I’d say even fearful. The stoking of that fear on both sides is itself worrisome.

Do I even need to mention wildfires? I looked up synonyms for worry: anguish, pain woe, distress, plague, torment, misery, consternation, dread, fright, horror. How about all of the above? We’re worried about the people of Faith Lutheran Church in Chico, Our Savior Lutheran and Paradise Lutheran Church in Paradise, as well as the health of our own lungs as we breathe in smoke and ash from this devastation.

Well, if you weren’t feeling anxious when you came in, your blood pressure has probably risen by now.  And this is supposed to be a Thanksgiving service!  

But don’t worry; it is. Paradoxically, it’s in the midst of great trial and tribulation that we have the potential to recognize most clearly the presence of God. Maybe this Thanksgiving we’ll have to go even more deeply into that holy place within us to find the kind of gratitude that enables us to give thanks for obvious blessings as well as for the ability to have faith that all will be well when all evidence is to the contrary.

I have so many stories from the Parliament, but the overarching feeling I had during the entire week was hope. Despite the fact that many of the issues taken up by speakers, panels, and workshops were about the many serious concerns shared by people of all religions from all over the world. There was the Climate Action Assembly, the Women’s Assembly, the Indigenous Assembly, the Justice Assembly, and the Countering War, Hate, and Violence Assembly. In no way was anyone denying the troubles of our world. And yet there was a spirit of joy, gratitude, excitement, and hope among 10,000 people.  

And here’s what I came away with: in order to do the work we need to do in the world, we must continually tend to our souls. There are many things over the course of a lifetime that can threaten to suck our spirits dry. But when we have a strong spiritual core, we are able to not only withstand the worries of the world, but also enjoy peace in the midst of them. In other words, our ability to take care of all of the stuff going on around us comes from the inside.

This isn’t anything new; it is the life of discipleship. But it does help to be reminded of it every now and again – especially at Thanksgiving. Jesus saying, “Do not worry” reminds us that the thing for which we can be most thankful is the presence of God in our hearts, which gives us our spiritual muscle.

This doesn’t mean that we can just sing “Don’t worry; be happy,” as if God is somehow going to swoop down and take care of it all. Try telling that to the people losing their homes, belongings, and lives in the wildfires.

No, that’s not what Jesus is saying.  Strive for the realm of God – which is not someplace or someday far away. It‘s here and now. Seek the presence of God within you; it is there, whether you recognize it or not. Exercise your spiritual muscles. Find those practices that feed your soul. If you’re having trouble finding one, talk to a trusted pastor or spiritual director. The possibility of finding a place of balance between trying to overcome the worries of the world and being overcome by them is within you. That’s also the place from which your genuine gratitude will come.

What I am thinking about this Thanksgiving is finding gratitude in the hard places – those worrisome places within me and around me. There were several firefighters on the plane from Chicago to Oakland last week – on their way to help fight the wildfires. I am grateful for all of them.

Another of the things I was most thankful for at the Parliament was the presence of young people. They even had their own plenary session and many workshops. At their planetary, I was in awe of the many ways young people are working for peace and justice in the world. And doing so from their own religious traditions.

For example, Habiba Dahir, working on women’s peace and security programs in the Horn of Africa.  And Frank Fredericks, founder of World Faith, a global movement to end religious violence, Jessica Bolduc, from the Batchewana First Nation in Ontario, Canada, Executive Director of the 4Rs Youth Movement, seeking to change relationships between young Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, and Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith Youth Core, dedicated to the idea that religion should be a bridge of cooperation rather than a divisive barrier. With them, I felt like I was truly in the realm of God. And I give thanks for them.

And I give thanks for all of you, who are living out your faith in the midst of very real worries. But do not worry; give thanks. What a radical statement that is! A radical statement of trust, faith in that still small voice that resides within each one of us, reminding us that we are not in this alone; we have spiritual strength beyond our understanding. Worry may indeed be real, but it is not the final answer.

Thanks, thanks, thanks, be to God.

Amen

 

Yes! Yes! Yes

At the 2009 meeting of the Parliament of World Religions, former US President Jimmy Carter called the worldwide abuse of girls and women the greatest unaddressed human rights crisis of our time. He stated that this problem is “largely caused by a false interpretation of carefully selected religious texts and a growing tolerance of violence and warfare.” Carter discussed these issues in A Call to Action.

In my address to the Parliament of World Religions on November 5, I will agree with Carter that religions play a major role in the abuse of women and girls, but I will question his view that religion’s contribution to the abuse of women and girls stems from the misinterpretation of a few selected texts. Rather I will argue that patriarchal ideas permeate most of the so-called great religions.

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Posted by: smstrouse | August 29, 2018

Do I Have the Right Not to Marry?

marraigejpg-2429551_lgIsn’t it ironic?
For so many years, I supported the right of LGBTQ people to get married. And I rejoice with those who have made that decision. I’ve presided at same-gender weddings and celebrated at their receptions. I support the right to marry for all those who want to marry. And I also support the right not to marry. But I’ve discovered that my insurance company does not agree with me. 

Having been through two disastrous marriages myself, I am convinced that it’s not for everyone. Whatever the reason (e.g. poor parental role models), some of us do not do well in this kind of commitment. Now don’t get me wrong; I am not anti-commitment. In fact, I’m in a domestic partnership; we have the certificate to prove it. And the state of California grants us the same rights and privileges as marriage – without the religious, legal, and emotional baggage.

The state of California recognizes this arrangement, as does my church denomination. However, the insurance company of my denomination does not. They used to include coverage for the domestic partner of a contributing member – until same-gender marriage became legal. So now I can’t put my partner on my policy. Either she has to pay for her own, doubling our health care budget or I have to opt out of my plan. 

Danger! Danger! Warning!
An article in the Fordham Law Review comes at it from a legal perspective:
When I refer to a “right not to marry,” I refer to the right to be free from state-imposed marriage as a matter of current U.S. constitutional doctrine.

But this describes exactly what has happened to us with my insurance company:
In Obergefell v. Hodges, the United States Supreme Court recognized a constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry. Although the decision is an important milestone in the struggle for equality, it also threatens to destabilize the relationships of those who previously entered into civil unions or domestic partnerships and may, for a variety of reasons, prefer not to trade their existing status for marriage. That is because states have routinely responded to the legalization of same-sex marriage by eliminating their non-marital statuses. Some states have terminated such statuses and have required couples to opt into marriage to continue receiving the rights to which they had become accustomed. Other states have converted the non-marital statuses to marriages and have required couples wishing to avoid marriage to dissolve their legal relationships. These actions have made it difficult—and in some cases practically impossible—for couples to choose not to marry.

Now this really ticks me off (I originally typed another word here). I like my plan. I like my doctors. I spent a lot of time researching options when I retired, so I could have the best supplemental plan possible. Now today I’m back at the computer, researching again. (Did I mention that I absolutely hate doing this? I’m actually writing this post to avoid working on it.).

In his book Living in Sin, John Shelby Spong has a section of a chapter devoted to what he calls the “post-married,” that is “mature single people, many of whom are not interested in remarriage ever again, or at least not at this time.” Indeed, I may change my mind someday, but certainly not because the Church or an insurance company tells me to. 

I would add to Spong’s statement that “post-married” applies to those who identify as gay, straight, or non-binary. Regardless of the fact that I’m a straight, cis-gender woman, Spong describes me perfectly. The Fordham article also doesn’t go far enough because it addresses only the status of same-sex domestic partnerships. It is sadly ironic that the right of same-sex couples to marry has engendered problems for those who prefer a civil union or domestic partnership. 

However, it has also created an opportunity for discussion about the Church’s teachings about marriage.

Should the Church Be in the Wedding Business?
I have long believed that the Church is overdue for an overhaul of its thinking about shutterstock_1022015119marriage. The frequently bandied-about statement that “marriage was instituted by God,” in my opinion, is hogwash. If Genesis 2 is the only basis for this, then I want to know who officiated at the wedding of Adam and Eve. 

I have no doubt the marriage was indeed instituted as a way to organize society and provide a social and legal framework in which to work. And maybe it was even divinely inspired. Mosaic Law, which guided the ancient Jewish people, may indeed have been so. But there’s a lot within those laws that are now outdated or otherwise unnecessary. Even if divinely inspired, there is no reason not to revisit teachings about marriage. 

For better or worse, the state is the arbitrator of who can get married and by whom. The license comes from the state, not the Church. Which is why I would prefer to see the Church get out of the marriage business altogether. For those who would like to have a spiritual blessing, then that would be the appropriate role for the Church. It would also remove much of the rigamarole of church weddings for non-church folks. Although many couples today are opting for venues other than churches, enough still want a pretty church, a cooperative clergyperson, and a reasonable (cheap) fee for services. 

The Min Biz
My late landlady proudly informed me when I filled out the application to rent her house that she had been ordained by the Universal Life Church so that she could officiate at weddings. As I left, she said, “We’ll have to get together one of these days to talk about “the min biz.” I sadly thought about my years of study, the student loans, the sweat and tears of parish ministry. I saw on the ULC website that I could get an ordination certificate forblogs-aisle-say-friend-officiating-wedding-ceremony a very reasonable price in the “Minister Store.” Sigh.

Now I know many people who in good conscience want to officiate at a friend or loved one’s wedding. But why not provide for their participation in a civil ceremony or create a lovely ritual for the religious blessing? The “min biz” simply highlights the absurdity of our current system. 

So what now?
I can imagine the blowback for even suggesting that: 

  • marriage was not ordained by God
  • non-married couples can live in committed relationships without endangering their eternal souls 
  • churches would no longer have to be wedding chapels 
  • (gasp) not everyone wants to get married
  • insurance companies should stay out of relationship issues 

But what if we just started to talk about it? What if we did some real biblical study on the origins of the Christian understanding of marriage? What if we took into consideration the realities of life today as opposed to biblical times (i.e. longer life spans, financial considerations, etc.)? Just asking.

The Latest Update
Today my insurance company responded that they want to work with us to see what options are available and would work best for our situation and for the denomination. I’m pretty sure that allowing for our domestic partnership is not going to be best for the denomination. That would be opening up a can of worms that an insurance company doesn’t want to deal with. So it looks like I’m going to be switching my provider – and sadly, my doctor.

Well, OK. So be it. Just because I’m ticked off with my insurance company doesn’t mean I don’t still want to talk about this.

Anybody else want in on the conversation? 

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Posted by: smstrouse | August 28, 2018

Having the Courage to Converse

shutterstock_1094129717 copyWhat do you do when you have a good friend whose politics are different from yours?
It didn’t use to be so much of a dilemma. But
after the presidential election of 2016, maintaining a friendship with someone who voted for
He Who Shall Not Be Named became a huge challenge. We did have a few short phone conversations and went out for dinner once since the election. But we never approached the subject of the elephant in the living room. That was OK for a while, but I knew it wasn’t a recipe for a lasting friendship. So what to do?

Maybe the first thing you do is go out to a really nice place for dinner.
Sitting in a seafood restaurant overlooking the San Francisco Bay, sipping a raspberry margarita turned out to be a good way to start. Let me confess: I did not have any plans for launching into a political conversation. Call me a wuss; I was just trying to be a friend. Maybe that’s all she had in mind as well. But finally, after about two hours of catching up on job and relationship news, she went there. I had a moment of dismay, and then decided that this was the perfect opportunity to practice what I preach. So off we went into uncharted waters. shutterstock_286118273 copy

And guess what! It actually went very well. I really shouldn’t be surprised Both of us come at things from a spiritual perspective; we served together on the board of an interfaith organization; we’re both trained as ministers. We’re on opposite sides of the political divide, but in other ways we are very much aligned. 

But the presidential campaign and election definitely put a strain on us. I knew she had felt alienated during and after the election; supporters of HWSNBN are rare here in the Bay Area. After feeling verbally attacked by people at her church when she tried to tell them that not everyone in the congregation was on the same political page, she has mostly kept quiet about her politics. I, on the other hand, have been vocal in my criticism of HWSNBN, those who voted for him, and those who continue to support him. It would seem that there would be no common political ground on which we could stand.

The second thing you do is listen, really listen . . .
But I was determined to listen. And as I did, I realized something. My friend was not talking so much about politics as the emotional pain of not being able to have civil conversation about issues, of not being able to be her authentic self, of being pre-judged. She also was expressing her dismay at personal attacks on HWSNBN and others in the administration. I realized that what was upsetting her most was our inability to separate issues from people. 

Then you confess . . . (at least to yourself) . . .
I had to agree that it’s not right to shut down someone who is expressing an opinion – even if you vehemently disagree with it. It’s not right to attack a person’s very being – even when they are behaving in a reprehensible manner. It’s the old “do unto others” rule. And I confess that I’ve been put off by some of the over-the-top mockery from the Left. Even when I laugh along with it, I’m not entirely comfortable with stooping to mean-spiritedness. Still, while I was agreeing in principle, it was hard to keep from coming back with, “Yes, but . . . “. I must admit, this election has most certainly tried my adherence to the Golden Rule. “Going high when they go low” seems to have only emboldened bullies. And yet . . . 
You can probably sense my ambivalence here; this is a hard mirror to look into. Is it possible to separate the being of HWSNBN from his actions? My spiritual belief tells me that it is and that I have to pay attention. 

Even HWSNBN
What I told my friend – and this is what I do believe – is that no one is beyond the possibility of transformation. Each and every person is born a beloved child of the Divine. And even when life has piled on layer after layer of hurt, disappointment, trauma, and other woundings – that beloved child is still inside. I have to believe that is true of HWSNBN. But – as I also told my friend – I will never accept the behaviors that he exhibits; I will never stop doing whatever I can to get him out of power. And she accepted that. We continued to discuss and disagree on some of the issues of the day over coffee, but that was OK. 

Taking it on the road???
As we were getting ready to pay the check and leave, I commented that we should put together a workshop on how to have civil conversation in the midst of political differences. I reminded her of Don Frew, a friend of ours from interfaith activities. Don, a Wiccan elder, has been friends for over 30 years with Brooks Alexander, a conservative evangelical Christian and one of the founders of the Spiritual Counterfeits Project (you can read the full story here). They have a program they do together (which I’ve attended) in which they tell their story and model how they manage to maintain such an unlikely friendship. Maybe my friend and I could do the same.

She wasn’t convinced. Maybe some day when she wasn’t feeling so hurt by reactions to her by people like me. I wanted to come back with, “Yeah, well, all of us have been feeling hurt since you elected him.” But I didn’t. That would not have done anything to advance the cause of civil discourse. However, she did agree that coming at it from a spiritual perspective would be the right way to go. So maybe . . .

No illusions
I have no illusions that this will be easy. As I watch the petulance of HWSNBN in refusing to acknowledge the life and service of Senator John McCain, I can’t separate him from his actions. However, I can also see the wounded, fearful, mistrustful, anxiety-ridden person hiding behind all the bluster. The layers are massively thick around this one’s beloved center. So I will continue to pray for the healing of that wounded human being, even as I continue to work against the damage he is causing. That is the commitment I make to civil conversation – and to my friend. 

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Posted by: smstrouse | August 20, 2018

Abiding in the Divine Milieu

A sermon for Pentecost 13, August 19, 2018

beginningI used to have a love/hate relationship with the gospel of John. On the one hand, I’ve always loved his soaring, cosmic opening: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Even if I didn’t know exactly what that meant, I knew John was telling us that Jesus was something special.

Where I ran into difficulty with John’s Jesus was in some of the “I Am” passages. Let me give you an example. Some years ago, I attended a funeral. At the church, I saw my friend Kitty from our interfaith women’s group and sat next to her. When the priest read the familiar passage from John’s gospel, I heard it through the ears of my friend Kitty, who is Jewish: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father but by me.” I was God-smacked. I’d preached on that same text many times, but hearing it this time was such a powerful epiphany that I didn’t want to go up for Communion. It felt rude, exclusionary, and offensive.

Another example is the gospel today. There’s a song I used to love called “I Am the Bread of Life.” The lyrics are pretty much taken right from this passage. But the first time I heard it after my experience with Kitty at the funeral, I heard the words in a new way:                                                                                                                                                    Unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man
And drink of his blood, you shall not have life within you
.

I couldn’t sing that song any longer. Then there were other experiences that confronted me as I became more involved in interfaith activities. And I developed a whole lot of questions about the exclusivity of Christianity as the only way toGod.

What About “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life?
she-likes-itshe-likes-itI also knew that many other people had the same questions. I discovered when I spoke to Christian groups about interfaith matters, the question that always came up was: What about “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life and “Unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink of his blood, you shall not have life within you.”? Which is why I wrote my book and my blog, The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves about INTERfaith Matters.

This isn’t a plug for the book (OK, maybe it is!), but rather a way of taking us even more deeply into this 6thchapter of John’s Bread of Life chapter that we’ve been seemingly stalled in for four weeks now. And I believe that it’s an important place for us to be stalled. If the church is to be relevant in the midst of the religious diversity all around us, we need to be firmly grounded in our own understanding of who we are as followers of Jesus. How can we be unapologetically, yet non-exclusionary Christian?

This is no small question, given that John has often been used as a weapon against other religions. It’s absolutely essential for us to understand that this gospel was written in a time when Jews who were followers of Jesus were evolving from being a sect within Judaism to becoming its own religion. Scholars debate over the exact date when Christianity became fully separated from Judaism, but it’s agreed it was by the end of the 1stcentury – not at the birth of Jesus, not at the death or resurrection of Jesus. So you can imagine that in the decades of this transitioning process, there was a lot of back and forth about what it meant to be a Jew and what it meant to be a Jewish follower of Jesus. And as is the way of all church matters, there were conflicts. So you have John saying some pretty harsh things about “the Jews.” Which is why The Inclusive Bible that I use instead calls them the Temple authorities, mindful that “the Jews” has been used – even in contemporary history – to fuel anti-Semitic flames.

So – mindful that John’s community was undergoing a process of figuring out their identity as followers of Jesus in the midst of another religion, we can see the same process going on for us today as Christians in the midst of many other religions.

Betraying Jesus?
head-slap-283x300Another story. In the days after 9/11, many congregations wanted to learn about other religions. At my church, we decided to begin a study of the world’s religions and picked Hinduism to look at first. I asked if they’d be open to inviting a Hindu guest, who was willing to share her story and answer any questions, to one of our sessions. They said yes, so I invited a Hindu woman who was active in interfaith activities to come to our next meeting. The visit went well. The Christian participants were welcoming and respectful. They asked insightful questions. But after the session one of the group asked if she could talk to me about something that was bothering her. She began by saying how much she was enjoying the study. She had appreciated meeting our guest and hearing her story. But she had a big concern: “If I accept the Hindu path as equal to Christianity, I’m worried that I’m betraying Jesus.”

 As I thought about this later, I knew she’d raised a significant issue for Christians today. I ended up getting a doctoral degree on the subject and writing the book and blog – and am now working on a video series. So you can see that this is a subject near and dear to my heart, which is why I can’t shy away from these difficult words in today’s gospel. But I also can’t go on and on with all this background information – after all it took me a whole book to say it all! But one important thing I’ve learned about these passages is to avoid using them to answer questions that weren’t originally asked, and to look instead for the message the author actually is trying to convey.

One of John’s Favorite Words!
Which is why, as I was thinking about today’s reading, I was drawn to the word abide. It’s kind of an odd word; we don’t use it that often. I usually think of it in a negative sense, as in “I can’t abide Brussels sprouts!” – meaning I can’t tolerate them. Or as in telling your rowdy children that you simply “won’t abide that behavior” – as in there are consequences for breaking the rules.  Neither of these applies to John’s meaning.

I did have an interesting encounter with another aspect of abide last Easter. I happened934984_10200507251937105_301113930_n to notice the sign on a bar I always passed on my way to work that said “The Dude Abides.” I actually took a picture of it because I thought it was a great Easter message. It wasn’t until I posted it on Facebook that I discovered the line was from the cult classic movie The Big Lebowski. Evidently, at the end of the movie, after the Dude’s been through all kinds of escapades, he sums up his philosophy of life, “the Dude abides,” meaning that he’ll continue on just fine. Not quite the Easter message I was looking for – or what John is talking about.

Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I abide in them.” Now if abiding isn’t about not tolerating nasty-tasting vegetables, or about enforcing rules, or about being a slacker like the Dude, what does it mean? I decided to do a search of the New Testament and found that in the New Revised Standard Version, the Greek word μένω is translated as abide 38 times: 13 times in John’s gospel and 24 times in I John. Turns out it’s one of John’s favorite words! The only other place is “now faith, hope, and love abide; the greatest of these is love” in I Corinthians. Nowhere else. So we can see that ‘abiding’ is a major theme for John; it’s his primary way of characterizing what discipleship is.

Living in the Divine Milieu
9781903900581To abide in Christ is to recognize that we live within the Mystery of Divine life – or as the philosopher/priest/scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called it – the Divine Milieu, the body of God in which we live and move and have our being, as St Paul described it..

Here’s one description of it: “A milieu is as penetrating and omnipresent as the air we breathe; yet we mostly take it for granted. We simply forget about the atmosphere, even though we are dependent upon it at every moment. As soon as we are deprived of oxygen to breathe, we quickly become aware of our need for it. Fish live in a milieu of water yet are unaware of its importance until they are taken out of it. The most important spiritual fact of our existence is that at every minute you and I are swimming in a divine sea. Fortunately we can’t be taken out of it. At every moment we are inhaling and exhaling the divine life. In the divine milieu we live and move and have our being. While it is true that God is always “in heaven” (transcendent) and also always “within us” (immanent), the more important fact is that we are always living and moving (we could say abiding) within the divine milieu.”[1]

This is not some abstract philosophical discourse. There are implications for our daily lives. We’re reminded that in this milieu, we’re all connected – as Jesus said in another “I Am” saying: “I am the Vine and you are the branches.” Organic, interdependent. Abiding in Christ is never an individualistic matter.  The more we’re open to a way of experiencing ourselves, everyone else, and in fact, all of creation in this way, the more we will naturally want to care for one another – following the example of our Teacher, Jesus.

Bread of Life
The Last SupperFor John, abiding is deeply sacramental. In this Bread of Life chapter, the language of Holy Communion abounds. I’ve spoken about that in previous weeks. This table is one of the primary ways we open ourselves to the experience of Divine Presence. But the more we can realize how pervasive this Presence is, we can carry the mystic sweetness of Communion with us into all aspects of our daily lives – the easy parts as well as the challenges. We can also carry this Presence with us in all of our encounters with those of other religious traditions – abiding in Christ and being Christ in compassionate, diverse, inclusive relationships – in the name of the One in whom we live and move and have our being.  

Amen

John 6:51-58
Jesus said:

“I myself am the living bread
come down from heaven.
If any eat this bread,
they will live forever;
the bread I will give
for the life of the world
is my flesh.”
The Temple authorities then began to argue with one another. “How can he give us his flesh to eat?”
Jesus replied,
“The truth of the matter is,
if you don’t eat the flesh
and drink the blood of the Chosen One,
you will not have life in you.
Those who do eat my flesh and drink my blood
have eternal life,
and I will raise them up on the last day.
For my flesh is true food
and my blood is true drink.
Everyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood
abides in me, and I abide in them.
Just as the living Abba God sent me
and I have life because of Abba God,
so those who feed on me
will have life because of me.
This is the bread that came down from heaven.
It is not the kind of bread your ancestors ate,
for they died.
Whoever eats this kind of bread
will live forever.”  

[1]Louis M. Savary,The Divine MilieuExplained, Paulist Press , 2007.

 

 

 

Posted by: smstrouse | August 12, 2018

Bread of Life for the Hungry Heart


900_Viktor-Hertz_Hungry-heart-1Everybody’s Got a Hungry Heart

When I was a little girl, I’d sometimes go into the kitchen and say, “Mommy, I’m hungry.”
My mother would say, “What are you hungry for?”
I’d say, “I don’t know.”
She would then go through a list of possible snacks.
“Do you want some cheese?”   “No.”
“Do you want an apple?”   “No.”   
“How about some orange slices?”    “No”
“A bowl of cereal?”   No.”
Finally she’d say, “I don’t think you’re really hungry.”

She was undoubtedly right. I was probably bored or in need of attention other than the food kind. I think of those times when now, as an adult, I will wander into the kitchen in search of – something. Have you ever opened the refrigerator door and just stand there looking? The fridge might be filled with all kinds of good stuff, but there’s nothing that appeals to you. So you start looking in cupboards, and maybe find a cookie or a couple of crackers. But somehow, even these are not satisfying. Sometimes hunger isn’t about food.

One of our great modern-day theologians, Bruce Springsteen, put it like this:
Everybody’s got a hungry heart; Everybody’s got a hungry heart.
Lay down your money and you play your part; Everybody’s got a hungry heart.

It’s All About Food for the Soul
This hunger is what the writer of John’s gospel is getting at in his long chapter, in which he portrays Jesus going on and on and on about being the Bread of Life. In last week’s reading, Jesus made it clear that he wasn’t talking about physical food – although make no mistake about it, physical food is important, but that’s another part of the gospel and a different sermon. This Bread of Life series is all about the hunger in our souls. When one eats to satisfy physical hunger, the satisfaction is never permanent. Only the bread of God that gives life to the world will ultimately satisfy the deepest hunger.51dGKNZ7YnL._AC_US218_

We might also call this hunger ‘longing.’ Another contemporary theologian, actually a Sufi teacher, has written: “The soul’s longing is a universal theme. The innate longing to unify with the Divine . . . reaches out towards the eternal. Such longing opens our hearts towards a greater understanding of our beings, our lives, our souls, and the Divine that embraces all that exists.”

And lest you think this is just a recent discovery, St. Augustine wrote in the 4thcentury: “O God, You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” 

How the Church Got It Wrong
This hunger is a universal theme, not restricted to any age, place, or any one religion. It’s a longing expressed by those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” or by those who would never even use the word spiritual, yet who seek for something that gives meaning to their lives, that feeds their hunger for community, for purpose, for something bigger than themselves. Unfortunately, the Church hasn’t always been very good at conveying the message that John tried to hammer into us: there is Divine food, Bread of Life, enough for everyone, with lots even left over.

Well, it’s not surprising. John says that even Jesus had a hard time convincing people. They could only see a local kid, Mary and Joseph’s son. Who did he think he was, talking about bread from heaven? Who he was was a thoroughly spirit-imbued teacher who was so completely connected to the Divine within him that he could envision all people living so closely and intimately within the heart of God. He longed for his friends and followers to feed off of his example and open their hearts to the Divine Presence.

Unfortunately what happened was that Christianity became codified, written into creeds and doctrines that made faith a matter of believing a set of assertions put forth by the winners of the great theological debates of the 4thcentury. Maybe even more unfortunately, John’s gospel has often been used in the service of a kind of Christianity that turned the great “I Am” sayings into a way of excluding those who don’t believe in the same way, creating barriers between those who are in and those who are out.

Hooray for the Mystics!
But throughout the ages there have always been those who have seen things in a Hildegard of Bingendifferent light. Thankfully, in recent years there’s been renewed interest in the experiences and writings of mystics, who were all too often were ostracized and even punished for their trouble: from St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi, the German mystics, such as Hildegard of Bingen and Johannes Tauler (who had a profound influence on Martin Luther), to contemporary thinkers, like Brother Wayne Teasdale, author of The Mystic Heart. Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong even nails it in the title of his recent book – The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.

But it was theologian Henri Nouwen who said that we’re all called to be mystics. Now you might be thinking that that’s going too far. But hear me out. I know that for many people, when they hear mysticism, they immediately think of heavenly apparitions, visions, and other woo-woo behaviors. But what if we said that mystics are those who have “a learned capacity to recognize God within themselves, in others, and in all things.” (Fr. Richard Rohr, What the Mystics Know)?  “The mystic is anybody who finds union with God in real life — in the bread and wine of Communion, in moments of creativity or in flashes of awe-filled wonder, in the overwhelming love that carries us beyond ourselves into the source of all life. We might say that every experience of grace is a mystical experience.” (Mary M. McGlone, Do You Love Me)

So in these “I Am” sayings: the Good Shepherd, the Gate, the Vine, the Way, Truth, Life, Light of the World, Bread of Life – you might imagine the Presence of God reaching out for you. In Jesus, we can see the embodiment of this Presence, beckoning to us, longing for us to come into that Presence, to go more deeply into a way of being that is, in actuality, the fulfillment of what humanity is meant to be. That’s what Jesus is talking about. He’s not telling the disciples to obey rules, he’s inviting them to share his heart.

You Might Be a Mystic If . . .
Last Sunday I invited you to be on the lookout throughout the week for ways that you sensed that God was trying to feed you with food that gives life. Perhaps, as you reflect on some of those moments of insight, you might also recognize – in light of Fr. Rohr’s definition – that you’ve had a mystical experience. 

Another criticism of mystics is that they are otherworldly, totally unconcerned with earthly matters. But that also is a misconception. I quoted a Sufi teacher earlier. Her name is Dr. Nahid Angha and I do meditation with a student of hers. You may or may not know that Sufism is the mystical tradition of Islam (at this level of religion, there is a great deal of common wisdom). The evening after the election in 2016, I was scheduled to go to meditation. To be honest, I was depressed and didn’t feel like going anywhere. But I did decide to go. Sufi meditation is all about connecting with the Divine within your heart. And I spent about 40 minutes in silence, sometimes struggling to feel any connection at all, sometimes feeling an overwhelming Presence. At the end of the meditation, I felt a profound peace that I wouldn’t have thought possible that day.

We then talked about how, as people of faith, we deal with the heartbreaks and injustices of the world. The wisdom of that evening, which I’ve lived by ever since, is that when we connect with the Divine Presence in our hearts, we are infinitely more capable of doing the work we need to do in the world.

What Drives You?
Another important learning was that even the times that my mind is distracted, when I can’t feel the connection – it’s of value to simply recognize the longing. And this made me think of a psychological test I took years ago. The purpose of the test was to determine what your drivers are, what motivates you and influence your thinking, feeling and behavior. Basically, they’re the internalized demands and expectations of the authority figures in our lives. They’ve become such an integral part of our being, we don’t usually even recognize them for what they are. 
There are different versions of the list of drivers, but the one I remember has five:

  • Be Strong
  • Be Perfect
  • Please Others
  • Hurry Up
  • Try Hard                      

Now there are plusses and minuses to these drivers. And self-awareness is key to emo-tional health. But I was thinking also that these drivers also represent ways that we want to be fed. If my driver is to please others, I hunger for love, acceptance, validation. If my driver is to be strong, I long for autonomy and control over my environemnt. If my driver is to be perfect, I am restless when I make a mistake or can’t live up to the expectations of myself or others. 

imagesAnd if one (or more) of those is my driving motivation, my deepest hunger, then I’m really in need of life-giving food. Another thought came to me as I wrote this, of the acronym H.A.L.T., which stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired. It’s a check-in tool used by people with dependency or addiction issues as a way to avoid relapse. But you don’t have to have a drug or alcohol problem to need HALT. All you have to do is ask yourself: what is my deepest hunger? What have I tried to do to feed that longing?

We all do something. If I’m hurt or angry, my drug of choice is a bag of Utz sour cream and onion potato chips. For some people it might be chocolate, alcohol, shopping, a new relationship. None of these bad on their own (well, except maybe the chips). But when used as food to feed our deepest hunger – empty calories. Only Bread of Life, life-giving food – deep connective experiences with the Presence of God – can truly satisfy. That’s what Jesus is talking about in John’s gospel.

Your Invitation
So this week, my invitation to you again is to partake of the mystic sweet Communion of vessels-ministry-the-heart-of-god-lightthis table. And to go out again and pay attention to those moments of creativity, and flashes of awe-filled wonder, to experiences of overwhelming love that carry you beyond yourself into the source of all life. 
Be fed. Take it in. Drink it up. Savor the mystery and the wonder. And don’t worry; there’s plenty more where that came from. There’s enough for you to have your fill and then some to share. You are mystics –like Jesus – deep within the unity of God and with arms stretched out to the world.  Amen


Hungry Heart: a Song by Bruce Springsteen print by Viktor Hertz

John 6:35, 41-51
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. No one who comes to me will ever be hungry; no one who believes in me will be thirsty.”

The Temple authorities started to grumble in protest because Jesus claimed, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They kept saying, “Isn’t this Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph? Don’t we know his father and mother?  How can he claim to have come down from heaven?”
“Stop your grumbling,” Jesus told them. “No one can come to me unless drawn by Abba God who sent me – and those I will raise up on the last day.  It is written in the prophets,
‘They will all be taught by God.’

Everyone who has heard God’s word
 and has learned from it  comes to me. Not that anyone has seen Abba God –  only the one who is from God  has seen Abba God.
The truth of the matter is, those who believe have eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate manna in the desert, but they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, and if you eat it you will never die. I myself am the living bread come down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: smstrouse | August 6, 2018

Bread of Life – And No Carbs!

31821_sfs-sourdough-8If you know me, you’ve probably figured out one thing about me: I like to eat. And one of my favorite foods is – bread. Any kind of bread: wheat, rye, pumpernickel, and of course since moving to the Bay Area, sourdough. I also love anything made with bread dough: pizza, pretzels, bread bowls, you name it. Maybe the same is true for some of you. Maybe we would also share another thing: the fact that our love for food can cause problems. Bread, in particular, can be a nemesis for the diabetic and gluten intolerant, as well as the weight-conscious among us. As much as it breaks my heart, I know I have to limit my intake.

So it’s with mixed feelings that I entered into the series of gospel reading for the next imagesseveral weeks, which are all about – bread. It started last week and will go on for the rest of the summer. Which is kind of strange. You may not have noticed this, but up until last week, we were reading from the gospel of Mark. We’ll go back to Mark in September. But in between, the lectionary (schedule of assigned readings) has thrown in five weeks from the gospel of John. It’s as if the creators of the lectionary have announced,
We interrupt our regularly scheduled program with this important message from John.
It’s weird in a way because we’ve jumped out of the earliest of the gospels into the latest (at least 20 years after Mark), from Mark’s no-frills, just-the-facts Ma’am account into John’s more mystical and metaphorical creation.

So we need to shift gears a bit to figure out what’s going on. Five gospel passages from the same chapter that go on – and on – about bread. It must have been really important for John because he takes a whole chapter to talk about it. But I mean, how much can you really say? Bread of life: we get it.

But I actually like this detour we’re taking. Maybe it’s because I struggle with food that I appreciate the necessity of wrestling with what John is trying to tell us in these passages. Of course, we know that what John is talking about here is Jesus, the Bread of Life – not your everyday pumpernickel. It’s one of the many ways that John tries to convey the immensity of who and what Jesus was and is. In this case, he confronts us with the question: How is it that God is trying to feed us with food that gives life?

one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other-27204709Last week, it was (on the face of it) all about physical hunger and physical food. Jesus fed 5000 people with just five loaves of bread and two small fish. The other gospel writers also tell the story, but John has his own unique way of telling it. If you had one of those pictures that showed the four gospels and said “one of these things is not like the others,” you’d have to pick John, who has crafted a way of portraying the Jesus story through the use of metaphors, particularly the seven “I Am’ sayings, like the Good Shepherd, the Vine, and of course the Bread of Life.

He also doesn’t use the word ‘miracle’ to describe some of the works of Jesus; they’re called ‘signs.’ Again, there are seven – another way of telling that he’s using a lot of symbolism. The first sign was the changing of water to wine at the wedding in Cana. Last loavesfishesweek was a double-header: signs four and five, the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking on the water. The feeding ‘sign’ in last week’s reading was meant to point us back to the prophet Elisha, who was able to feed over 100 people with some barley loaves and grain because God said, ‘They’ll eat and have some left.'”Sounds familiar, right? And then today we’re reminded of the Moses story, when God provides manna – bread from heaven.

So we had the feeding story, but now we’re going to go more deeply into what John is getting at. Because Jesus challenges the disciples to go deeper: “What you saw back there wasn’t about eating your fill of bread. That’s food that perishes. Necessary for life.
But now it’s time to seek the life-giving food that lasts for all eternity.“

In John’s gospel, Jesus is clear: “I Am the Bread of Life.”  John wanted his community toI-AM- know that Jesus brought the very presence of the Divine (the great I Am) to his followers through these signs. Now some 2000+ years later, we are reading this profound claim that lies at the heart of what it means to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus.

But what does it mean to be fed with the Bread of Life? How do we get this bread? The disciples didn’t get it at first; they took the feeding sign at face value. If Jesus would continue to pull off miracles like that, well, no one would go hungry. Indeed, with actions like that, Jesus could gather enough support and power to throw off the yoke of Roman oppression. Life could be good. But as we learned last week, Jesus took off when he realized they wanted to make him a political ruler, a king.

So what is the point then? Why does John’s Jesus go on an on about being fed with the Bread of Life? I believe there are three parts to the question for us to ponder:

  1. How is it that God is trying to feed you with food that gives life?                                                  
  2. How is it that God is trying to feed your congregation with food that gives life?
  3. How is it that God is trying to feed the world with food that gives life?

monkimage.phpTo start with (going back again to last week), we remember that Jesus often shared meals with people – in large gatherings and small.  At the very heart of the Jesus movement was the good news of the immediacy of active Divine presence among us, the realm of God. As practiced and taught by Jesus, this realm of God was expressed in signs of renewed community among people, especially among people who were overlooked by the powers-that-be. Maybe the most visible sign of the realm present among the people gathered around Jesus was the way that people shared meals, crossing social boundaries and discovering new community. It was truly radical. In the interfaith community, it is often said that the best way to make friends with your religious “others” is to have a meal together. Or as one person put it, “at every interfaith gathering, you have to have music and food!”

In the realm of God, there’s not only enough for everyone, there is abundance. The ‘sign’ stories in John evoke the expectation of super-abundance in the messianic kingdom at the end of time. But Jesus proclaims that time is now. Living in the realm of God, we discover that God is oh, so generous with us. And God calls us to be generous in response.

Of course, you may have recognized language here that reminds us of Holy Communion. Communion SymbolsAnd here we can certainly find one answer to our question. We can be fed with the very presence of God every time we partake of bread and wine at the table of grace to which we are all invited. It’s a mystical experience every bit as powerful as a little boy’s lunch providing enough for everyone to eat or water being changed into the finest wine. We can come away from the table filled, fulfilled, with hearts overflowing with the realization of being touched by the Holy. Knowing also that there is plenty of gratitude, love, and compassion to be distributed out in the world – by us. Call it a sign or a miracle – it is truly a wonder!

And don’t we need this feeding in order to go out into the world? There’s no doubt that we live in troubling times. We struggle to know how to respond, how to participate in the healing of our families, our communities, our nation, our world. We feel discouraged, hopeless, helpless, even despairing at times.

If it makes us feel any better, in some ways we’re not too different from the people of John’s day. They had a hard time making sense of what was going on around them. The fledging Christian community was struggling to follow the teachings of Jesus in the midst of political and religious chaos. Yet, John declared, there was Bread of Life, food for body and soul that would enable them to have life abundant, even in the midst of turmoil.

There’s food for us too. How is it that God is trying to feed us with food that gives life? It’s here today. It’s here every week. The meal to which we are invited has the power to take our discouraged, hopeless, helpless selves and transform us into renewed, hopeful, energized communities of hope, life, love, justice, and mercy.

We have a lot to do out in the world, no doubt about it. But we need to be adequately nourished or we won’t be able to withstand the slings and arrows. Thankfully we have spiritual resources near at hand.

And there are other ways of being fed and nourished by God’s Presence. These can be more attuned to our individual tastes and personality types. Listening to music, contemplating a work of art, spending time in nature, gardening, devotional reading, meditation. Actually a lot of things can be nourishing if we sense that it’s a way that God is trying to feed us with food that gives life. Watch for signs in these coming weeks, keep your senses open to the Divine all around you. Take it in, share it out.

But remember, that here, in the community of Jesus, the Bread of Life, we know what God is doing. We are invited to a meal where we don’t have to worry about calories or carbs. All of our anxieties and fears can be laid aside, as we take nourishment – tangible food and drink – from our God who is always with us, always with enough and lots left over for us to take to whatever part of the world we inhabit.

Can we believe it? Really believe it and live like we do? Maybe John knew we’d need five  weeks for it to really sink in. Can you imagine: people like you and me – bread for the world through Jesus? It really is a miracle.

Amen

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Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
                                                                                                                                  They began to complain against Moses and Aaron there in the wilderness.The people of Israel said to them, “If only we had died by YHWH’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat next to pots of meat and ate our bread till we were filled! But now you have brought the whole community out into this wilderness to die of hunger.”

Then YHWH said to Moses, “Look, I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people will go out and gather a day’s portion every day, so that I can test them to see if they will follow my instructions.”

Then Moses said to Aaron, “Tell the whole Israelite community, ‘Present yourselves before YHWH, who has heard your complaints.'”

As Aaron was speaking to the whole Israelite community, they looked toward the desert, and there was the glory of YHWH appearing in the form of a cloud. Then YHWH spoke to Moses and said,”I have heard the complaining of the people of Israel. Say this to them, ‘In the evening you will eat meat, and in the morning you will have your fill of bread. then you will know that I, YHWH, am your God.'”

So it came about that in the evening quail flew in and all around the camp. And in the morning there was a layer of dew all around the camp. When the layer of dew evapor-ated, there on the surface of the desert were flakes of something: delicate, powdery, fine as frost. When they saw this, the people of Israel said to one another, “What is it?” – not knowing what it was. But Moses told them, “This is the bread YHWH has given you to eat.”

John 6:24-35
When the people saw that neither Jesus nor the disciples were there, they got into the boats and crossed to Capernaum looking for Jesus.  When they found Jesus on the other side of the lake, they said,  “Rabbi, when did you get here?”   

Jesus answered them,  “The truth of the matter is, you are not looking for me because you’ve seen signs, but because you’ve eaten your fill of the bread.  You shouldn’t be working for food that perishes, but for the life-giving food that lasts for all eternity; this the Chosen One can give you, for the chosen one bears the seal of Abba God.” 
At this they said,  “What must we do to perform the works of God?”   

Jesus replied,  “This is the work of God:  to believe in the one whom God has sent.”   

So they asked Jesus,  “What sign are you going to give to show us that we should believe in you?  What will you do?    Our ancestors had manna to eat in the desert; as scripture says,  ‘God gave them bread from heaven to eat.'”   

Jesus said to them,  “The truth of the matter is, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Abba who gives you the true bread from heaven.  For the bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

Teacher, they said,  “Give us this bread always.” 

Jesus said to them,  “I am the Bread of Life. No one who comes to me will ever be hungry; no one who believes in me will be thirsty.”

 

 

 

 

 

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