Monday, April 14, 2014

Reflections for each day of Holy Week


Palm Sunday

Sunday morning: for Jews, the day after the Sabbath. After a day of quiet rest in their homes, people thronged the streets of Jerusalem, joining the usual rush, but with an added edge. From the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, was riding into Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry; the people quaked in fear. He'd come to intimidate, and to keep that sort of peace that is nothing but trembling fear.

But then rumors spread: another great man is riding in from the east, not on a war stallion or in a chariot, but on a humble donkey. Jesus, descending the Mt. of Olives into the Kidron Valley, then through the gates of the Holy City. Excitement mixed with confusion: Jesus had won quite a reputation - so would he be the one to lead the rabble in rebellion against the Romans?

Jesus, as was often the case, disappointed, even before the cries of "Hosanna!" settled down. No sword was hidden under his tunic, and if anybody flashed a weapon he sternly but lovingly said "Put your sword away." He seemed more likely to be killed than to kill. He came into Jerusalem, not avoiding those who feared him or misunderstood him. He engaged, he demanded a decision - and across the centuries, he still confronts all of us with God's humble compassion, ready to bear all injustice in order to redeem it, prepared to be ridiculed to rescue our ridiculous lives, relentless in his mission of saving grace.

So now we can grasp the pathos of that children's hymn: "Tell me the stories of Jesus... Into the city I'd follow... waving a branch of the palm tree high in my hand." We follow, yes - and much courage will be required. Jesus knew he was in for a rough week - and across the years he invites us to follow, trembling a bit and yet confident in him, bracing for what may come, trusting that the dawning of the next Sunday, the Easter resurrection Sunday, cannot be thwarted.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, thank you for entering Jerusalem and our lives, thank you for your courage, your determination, your mission, for showing us the divine heart. Help me to follow - but I'll need you to give me some courage, and strength, and mostly love to be close to you, to do whatever you ask, to be a humble, fearless servant in Your kingdom."

Holy Monday

Monday morning. Jesus walked two miles from Bethany into Jerusalem, a daunting, steep, rocky road. Even rockier was the reception he got from the religious leaders: he waltzed right into the temple, and in a rage that startled onlookers, drove the moneychangers out of the temple.

Was he issuing a dramatic memo against Church fundraisers? Hardly. He was acting out, symbolically, God's judgment on the temple. The well-heeled priests, Annas and Caiaphas, had sold out to the Romans. Herod had expanded the temple into one of the wonders of the world - but he pledged his allegiance to Rome by placing a large golden eagle, symbol of Roman power, over its gate. The people were no better: a superficial religiosity masqueraded as the real thing. Within a generation of Jesus’ Holy Monday, that seemingly indestructible temple was nothing but rubble.

Jesus was not the first to denounce the showy fa├žade of a faked religiosity among God's people. Through the centuries, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Micah, and John the Baptist had spoken God's words of warning to people whose spiritual lives were nothing more than going through the motions, assuming God would bless and protect them even though their lives did not exhibit the deep commitment God desired. God's prophets who spoke this way were not honored, but mocked, arrested, imprisoned, and even executed. Jesus was courting disaster.

On that Monday of the first Holy Week, Jesus shut down operations in the temple and forecast its destruction. No wonder the authorities wanted to kill Jesus! In a way, Jesus would himself become a kind of substitute temple. The temple was the place, the focal point of humanity's access to God. Jesus, like the temple itself, was destroyed, killed - and his death, and then his resurrection on Easter Sunday, became our access to God.

Prayer: “Lord, I see that you were not just angry but also hurt that they had turned the sacred, simple, holy place into a market – the way we in our society make everything into a market, all about money and getting. You judged all that and tried to clean it up – along with our vapid religiosity that vainly imagines a few quick prayers will get you to do our bidding and then you will leave us be. I am as weary as you were with a thin, self-indulgent faith. Clean up my soul, and your church.”

Holy Tuesday

Jesus was relentless, fearless, clearly on a mission from God, ready to lose anything to attain everything.  After the drama of Palm Sunday and the ruckus of Jesus' Monday morning rampage through the temple, Jesus probably should have stayed home in Bethany, or fled during the night to safety in the north where he'd come from. 

But instead, Jesus walked right back into the temple to face shocked, mortified, angry clergy and laity, and began talking - at length.  He didn’t win any friends by foretelling a day when not one stone of the temple would be left upon another.  The crowd had to laugh:  Herod’s masons had built a seemingly indestructible temple, with flawlessly cut, massive blocks, the largest measuring 44 feet long, 10 feet high, 16 feet wide, weighing 570 tons. His words seemed ridiculous – but still caused offense.

He was only getting started that Tuesday.  Matthew shares 212 verses of Jesus talking (chapters 22-25), including some of his most famous teachings.  And don't his words carry a much heavier freight since we know he was in the final couple of days before his death?  That Tuesday, he exposed the faked religiosity of the pious Pharisees, he wept over the Holy City which had lost its way, he warned the disciples of the perils of living into the Truth. Jesus clarified that our salvation depends on whether we feed the hungry and welcome the unwanted.  Devious men tried to trick Jesus with a question about a woman with several husbands: to whom would she be married in heaven?  For Jesus, the glory of hope is too large, too wonderful to be shrunk to earthly proportions, or limited by the way we do business down here. 

We can picture him moving about within the temple precincts, stopping under a portico, then strolling down the large stone staircase, standing for a while near the gate, probing, questioning, listening and yet ruminating at length.  Take some time on this Holy Tuesday to read Jesus' words from his Holy Tuesday: Matthew 21:23-25:40. 

Prayer: “Lord, we are so grateful that on your final Tuesday you had so much to say.  We need to hear and heed your thinking – although your Tuesday words are hard.  We might prefer easy platitudes or simplistic spiritual niceties – but in truth we are eager to hear and embrace your deeper, riskier, more satisfying truth.  I will make time to read your words, and to ponder them, even when they expose the triviality of my faith, and my lackluster half-attempts at following you.”

 
Holy Wednesday

Wednesday of Jesus’ last week.  Frankly, we have no idea what happened that day, besides the usual sunrise, meals, maybe chores, rest, casual conversation.  It’s often that way, isn’t it? – the day before the most important day in your life, the dark day that proved to be an unexpected plot twist in your journey, you weren’t doing anything in particular.

Somehow I like the idea that, during a week of intense activity for Jesus, we have a blank day, on which nothing earth-shaking took place.  Did Jesus simply chill with his friends in Bethany?  Did he teach someplace, or heal someone, but nobody wrote it down?  Did he visit two or three people privately?  Surely a public person like Jesus had private relationships, perhaps with someone like Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea - or maybe he took a long walk with Peter, Mary or John.  Could it be he simply withdrew from people and activity and prayed?  Quite often the Gospels tell us "Jesus withdrew to a lonely place to pray" (Luke 5:16, Matthew 14:23); if this was his habit, his sustenance, his greatest delight, wouldn't he have done so during Holy Week?

I also like the idea that Jesus is bigger than what we know.  John's Gospel ends by saying "There are many other things which Jesus did."  We hope so, and we even experience this ourselves, for the fruit of Holy week is a crucified and risen Savior, who is active today, not only continuing his ancient work, but doing new things.

Prayer: “Lord, sometimes I associate you only with the weighty days.  I forget you know the normal, seemingly dull days too.  I assume that on Wednesday you were on intimate terms with God.  I pray that this could become my own habit of mind and heart.  Be near me, Lord Jesus, at work, driving, cleaning, reading, conversing, eating, waking and sleeping, even on a Wednesday, mid-week.”

Maundy Thursday

“Maundy” is derived from the same ancient root as our word "mandate."  Jesus issued a mandate: "Do this in remembrance of me."  Today, we do.

So many of Jesus' meals were memorable!  Pious people complained that he "ate with sinners" (Luke 15:2).  As a dinner guest, he let a questionable woman wash his feet (Luke 7:36), and another anoint him with oil (Mark 14:1). He suggested that when you have a dinner party, don't invite those who can invite you back, but urge the poor, blind, maimed and lame to eat with you (Luke 14:14).

His most memorable meal though was his last.  For the Jews, it was Passover, the most sacred of days when they celebrated God’s powerful deliverance of Israel from Egypt; the menu of lamb, unleavened bread, and drinking wine symbolized their dramatic salvation.

Jesus must have struck the disciples as oddly somber on such a festive night.  He washed their feet, then spoke gloomily about his imminent suffering.  As he broke a piece of bread, he saw in it a palpable symbol of what would happen to his own body soon; staring into the cup of red wine, he caught a glimpse of his own blood being shed.  We still use the words Jesus spoke on that Thursday when we celebrate the Lord's Supper now.


After an awkward, poignant conversation with his friends, Jesus walked out of the walled city of Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives to pray in the garden called Gethsemane.  Kneeling in anguish, Jesus prayed "Not my will, but Your will be done."  But no slight hint of fatalism was in his heart; Jesus’ mood wasn’t resignation:  he actively and courageously sought and embraced God's will, which isn't some dark luck, but is when we with trusting faith go where God leads us, no matter the cost.

Jesus mercifully bore Judas’s betrayal, then was arrested.  During the night, charges were trumped up, witnesses were compelled to lie.  The proceedings were highly irregular...  Who was responsible for Jesus' death?  The Jews?  The Romans?  You and me?  The Jews handed him over to the Romans, the Romans handed him back to the Jews, the disciples handed him over.  No one wanted to be responsible, and so they (and we!) are all guilty.

Ultimately, God was responsible for this riveting, revolutionary enactment of divine love and holy determination to be one with us, and to save us.  Through that dark Thursday night in detention, Jesus was abused, mistreated, his destiny sealed.  Holy Thursday waited all night for the chilly dawn of the day with the paradoxical name: Good Friday.

Good Friday

What time is it?  All day, this Good Friday, keep an eye on the clock.  Earlier this morning, at 6am, Jesus faced a mock trial, was treated cruelly, yet took it all peacefully.  By 9am, Jesus’ wrists and ankles were gashed and shattered by iron nails, the cross slammed into the ground; the snide snickering of onlookers began.  At noon the sky grew eerily dark; then at 3pm Jesus breathed his last.

We ponder that old hymn, “What wondrous love is this?” Julian of Norwich offered this moving thought:  “The love which made him suffer surpasses all his sufferings, as much as heaven is above the earth.”  Today we read and reflect on the profound words of the prophet Isaiah:  He was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. Surely he has borne our grief, and carried our sorrows. He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, with his stripes we are healed. He was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth, like a lamb led to the slaughter; they made his grave with the wicked, although he had done no violence (Isaiah 53).

Without the holy, divine love, without God’s eternal plan to use this day to bridge the chasm between heaven and earth, without God’s merciful determination to share in our sufferings and redeem us, this Friday would be relegated to the history books, perhaps with a sad title like Dark Friday, or Tragic Friday.  But we dare to call it “Good Friday.”


In the throes of death, Jesus cried out, "My God, why have you forsaken me?"  Doesn't this leave us space to cry out in the darkness when we seem forsaken by God?  God did not remain safely aloof in heaven, but God entered into human suffering at its darkest.  Just as Jesus stretched out his arms on the cross, so God envelops us in a love that even death could not defeat.
Be still, and quiet, as much as you can this day.  Ponder the suffering, and love embodied in the Cross.

 
Holy Saturday

We can ponder Hans Holbein’s painting of Jesus lying in the tomb.  But can we fathom the sorrow, the guilt, doubts, disappointment and fear those who knew and loved Jesus felt between his burial on Friday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday?

God could have raised him immediately.  But God waited.  And we wait.  We have all found ourselves in the throes of some numb day, our own Holy Saturday.  We’ve endured Good Friday, the losses – but there’s no new life yet.

“Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength” (Isaiah 40:31). “I wait for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning” (Psalm 130:5). Saturday was, for them, the Sabbath, a day of rest.  Jesus rested in the tomb; God rested in heaven.  And so, with the disciples, and Jesus’ mother, we wait wait this day, and every day, trusting the God we cannot see, resting in the hope that Easter really is coming.

 
Easter Sunday

On the third day, Sunday, women came to the tomb, but Jesus was not there, and then he appeared to people over the next few weeks.  Easter, constantly doubted, forever yearned for, the vortex of our faith.

Easter, as happily familiar as flowers in Spring or birthday parties growing up – and that very familiarity tricks us into missing the utterly unexpected shock of resurrection.  Dead people stayed dead – until Jesus was raised.  Nothing automatic here, no silly sentiments about the memory of someone living on.  Nature itself was happily subverted; the dreaded enemy, death itself, toppled.

But Easter isn’t primarily about us.  God raised Jesus – and ours is to praise you and extol the wonder of Jesus.  How great thou art.  God is incomparably wonderful, powerful, and tender.  Yes, benefits come to us because of Jesus’ resurrection – elusive glories like forgiveness and hope.  But on Easter, we want to stop, and simply be awestruck at the grandeur of grace that is the heart of God – and like the first witnesses to Easter, we ask the risen Lord what tasks we might fulfill in the wake of it all.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ash Wednesday - an Invitation to Lent

Ashes on the forehead represent mortality, grief, and loss - and thus a new way of thinking and living, and hope.

     Our culture has a way of handling grief and loss. We pile on kind expressions of sympathy - and then we move on, and hope to grieving one moves on also. Lingering grief - or worse, an ongoing sense of loss - is unbearable. We want our sympathy to "work," to make the other person feel better. We want to feel better when we suffer loss, and soon.

     The Bible, oddly, seems to seek out grief, stirs it up, invites it, even expects it. The vast majority of the Bible's prayers are laments, expressions of sorrow, rage, grief. We are even invited not merely to mourn our own losses and those close to us, but the pains of strangers in other places, and even to let our hearts be broken by whatever breaks the heart of God. It's as if the spiritual entails some daily sorrow.
 
    Fascinating thing about tears: they cleanse us inside, something bottled up is released; in the Bible, tears are an open channel into the heart of God. Perhaps it is only as we grieve that we open ourselves to true joy. Suffering reduces us to who we really are, the fake, surfacey stuff molts away, and we sympathize with others; our minds change. Suffering is inevitable - and God is there.
 
    In a letter to Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton wrote that life with God "isn't a matter of getting a bulldog grip on faith and not letting the devil pry us loose from it. No, it is a matter of letting go rather than keeping hold. I am coming to think that God loves and helps best those who are so beat and have so much nothing when they come to die that it is almost as if they had persevered in nothing but had gradually lost everything, piece by piece, until there was nothing left but God... It is a question of his hanging on to us, by the hair of the head, that is from on top and beyond, where we cannot see or reach. What man can see the top of his own head?" 

    Prayer from the Daily Office: "Lord, I have spent much of my life running from pain and losses, medicating my pain and quickly moving on to the next project. I ask for grace to embrace all of life - the joys and the sorrows, the births and the deaths, the old and the new."

     Our Ash Wednesday services are at 11am and 7pm.
     Sunday's sermon, An Invitation to Lent (on the Transfiguration, Matthew 17), is on YouTube.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Dementia, God, & Christian Faith

Dementia, Alzheimer’s, senility:  these words cause us to shudder with grief, or fear.  Polls indicate that we fear dementia more than we fear cancer.  All of us have loved someone whose mind became something unrecognizable, muddled, confused, forgetful.  I had a friend who died after suffering Alzheimer’s for a decade; his wife said it was as if he died not once but twice.

     I’ve been trying to think about dementia and God, dementia and faith, dementia and the church – and I’ve gotten a lot of help from a Scottish theologian named John Swinton.
The premise of his book, Dementia: Living in the Memories of God, is that in Christianity, well-being is not gauged by the presence or absence of illness or distress; well-being is defined by the presence of God, and God is not distant from the one with dementia, or from those who love someone with dementia.  How do we understand this sense of God’s presence? and then how to live faithfully with dementia?  What might those of us who aren’t dealing with dementia directly learn about our lives because of the way we think about those with dementia?

     In America, we define being human by what we think, how we talk, what we can do, how productive and interactive we might be.  What happens when we aren’t productive? or become passive recipients of the care of others?  This question applies not only to dementia but also to aging, or people with disabilities.  W.H. Vanstone write a marvelous little book called The Stature of Waiting, in which he explains how in the first half of each Gospel, Jesus is in command, boldly striding into new territories, conquering demons; he is a doer, in control of everything, even the wind and the sea.
 
     But then the mood changes abruptly.  Jesus becomes reflective, less proactive, darkly hinting at his fate.  He is “handed over” by Judas, to the authorities, and he does not fight back; he says nothing.  He is no longer active, but passive.  His glory dawns not when he acts, but when he is acted upon.  Vanstone says this is hopeful for us, for our lives often traverse that same ground:  we grow old or sick and are increasingly forced to be dependent on others.  We fear our identity is lost if we are not active and productive.  But Jesus shows us that who we are, who he was, is found not in our activity but in what we suffer, in what we receive.

     Persons with dementia might continue to be productive, if we let them; I know a woman with no short-term memory who vacuums her house several times a day, and is content.  But even when we cannot be productive, we are no less valuable, to God and to Jesus’ followers.  We all need to learn dependence upon God – and it may be our best object lesson is in someone for whom we are caring.  Dependence is not humiliation, but grace.  My worth is not measured by my usefulness.  Because of the Gospel, nothing can happen to make you less of a person. 

     What about memory?  Life is often valued by what we remember, or what we think others remember about us.  But we never remember everything, or remember what we remember accurately.  Most of what I have read or learned, or what has happened to me, I have forgotten.  If I forget, am I any less valuable?  I do not remember my parents rocking me, feeding me, or nursing me; but they did, and I am the beneficiary.  My children do not recall me doing these things – but those moments were no less wonderful for not being remembered.
 

     Jonathan Goldingay, an Old Testament scholar, once invited his students to his home for pancakes.  He told them his wife suffered severe multiple sclerosis, and so she wouldn’t recognize or respond to them:  “She probably won’t remember you afterwards, but in that moment she will appreciate you.”  Is a visit, a tender word, or an embrace futile because the person won’t remember?  I have visited people with dementia, and have felt in the moment much love – and have even been ministered to myself because of the other person’s ability to love and nurture, even if my name and identity are an enigma.
     Here is God’s truth for all of us:  you may be uncertain about who you are, and you may be confused by the people around you, but God knows you.  Who are you?  You are God’s.  You will not be forgotten.  What did God tell us?  “Can a mother forget her baby?  But even if she forgets, I will never forget you” (Isaiah 49:15).  The thief on the cross asked Jesus, “Remember me” (Luke 23:42) – and God remembers us, always.  God remembers everything you have forgotten, and clearly.  No memory is lost in God; everything that is elusive at this moment will finally be redeemed.

     Can someone with dementia have a spiritual life?  I’ve seen forgetful, withdrawn people be quite prayerful; faith sometimes achieves a lovely simplicity in such instances.  I have seen extremely confused, forgetful people smile warmly and tearfully and even join in singing when some old hymn is played.  Perhaps the dementia sufferer cannot pray or read, but the rest of us can for them, and with them.  Four men brought a lame man to Jesus, who healed him not because of his faith but because of theirs (Mark 2:5); all of us are carried on the tide of the faith and prayers of others. 
 
     Lauren Winner (in her book, Still) tells a wonderful story of an elderly couple coming for Communion.  They both took a communion wafer from the priest.  The woman dipped hers and ate; then the man dipped his, handed it to her, and she ate it for him.  Lauren later learned he was afflicted by a wasting disease making it impossible for him to eat.  They were truly in that moment one flesh.  Can we be one flesh with persons with dementia?

     Swinton says we are wise always to give the person the benefit of the doubt, to treat the person as fully human.  We speak of love.  We say “I am glad you are here; I love you.”  We all have decay, we all suffer limitations.  The difficult symptoms of dementia (belligerence, anxiety, withdrawal) are perfectly understandable reactions to confusing situations, strange living quarters, strangers poking and treating you. 

     To be with someone with any disability requires patience.  What really is required is a new sense of time.  Time isn’t about being productive, or packing a lot in.  In patient waiting, those who sit with someone with dementia sometimes see small glimpses of beauty. 

 Jean Vanier (in Living Gently in a Violent World) tells about a hugely successful businessman he knew whose wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.  He said he just couldn’t put her in an institution, so he scaled back his responsibilities (and income), and stayed with her, fed and bathed her.  He said “I have become more human” – and he was there one night when for some reason the fog lifted.  Suddenly she was lucid; she looked and said “Darling, thank you for all you are doing for me” – and then, just as quickly, slipped back into the fog.  He wept and wept – both sorrow and joy. 

   All Christians are called to a radical hospitality, a welcome of the stranger – not just to welcome strangers, but doing what we can to be sure they stop feeling like strangers.  And studies show that if caregivers believe the person is still there, and still have value, the person does better.  Relationships impact the brain over time; people with dementia, if left alone or only pitied, decline more rapidly.  Those with dementia suffer an intense loneliness.  It’s not as if our presence cures them – but all our lives we long to be treated as a child of God, the God who never forgets us, who knows us thoroughly and still loves totally, forever.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Faith & Mental Illness (or Health) - parts 7 and 8

7. What kind of church?


Perhaps the most crucial question we need to ask when moving toward an Emotionally Healthy Spirituality is What kind of church do we want to be? What kind of church do we really need? What kind of church might promote health and growth?


The saddest words I’ve heard regarding church were from a woman I saw in a store. I told her I’d missed seeing her in worship – and she replied, “Oh, I’ve been having a horrible time in my life; I’ll be back when I’m better.” Church isn’t supposed to be a place for grinning, together people to hobnob with each other; church is a hospital for broken people. We may be polite and say to one another “I’m fine!” – but church should welcome and expect struggle, confusion, and hurt. “It’s harder to feel accepted by Christ and covered by his grace when you’re hiding in the church” (Amy Simpson).

AA meetings include humble, hopeful introductions: “I’m James, I’m an alcoholic.” Church should mimic this, even if only in our minds as we converse: I’m John, I’m Susan, I’m broken, I’m a sinner, I’ve struggled this week. We need each other; we need fellow travelers on the journey; we need honesty. Too often in church we ask What are your strengths and abilities? – and that is how we will put you to serving. Maybe we can learn to ask What are your wounds? Jesus never asked In what ways do you have it all together? Show me your resume! Paul portrayed the ideal church as “If one suffers, we all suffer” (1 Corinthians 12:24) – and the truth is, we really do.

What kind of church will we be in the face of mental illness? If someone has cancer we deliver casseroles and join prayer chains. But if someone is bipolar? or borderline personality disorder? or deeply depressed? We avert our gaze, and wonder if the troubled person might be happier elsewhere. Yes, the mentally ill need medical treatment. But they also need God, and a loving church. If we cannot reach out tenderly to those suffering the most daunting emotional difficulties, we will not be able to help anybody at all, even those who smile a lot and don’t really report much difficulty.

My dream, for all of us, for all of the churches, is that we will abandon ideas that we’re the people who are doing great – but will create a climate of caring, compassion, openness, a safe haven for everything from the most profound afflictions to barely detectable anxiety. Our mantra is Grace – and grace is unconditional love, felt, enacted, a commitment to be a church that mirrors Jesus’ healing compassion.

8. Jesus the Healer


Once when someone asked me if I believed the stories about Jesus working miracles, I found myself privately musing that I almost wish he hadn’t. Of course, I’m glad he healed, and I believe he did – but since he healed, some emotionally unhealthy spiritualities have dogged us for years.

Since Jesus healed (and frankly, many of his miracles were of emotional maladies, like schizophrenia and personality disorders), we see it as God’s primary job to heal us – although healing was only a small fraction of what Jesus was about. And dreams of healing have been the ruin of prayer. The vast majority of prayer requests we receive are health related – when there are a bevy of other things (praise, gratitude, confession, wisdom, holiness) to pray about.

Jesus did heal a few people – apparently to declare something about his identity, and to make larger points; he healed the blind, not evidently just so the blind could see, but so the spiritually blind Pharisees would realize their piety was bogus. Jesus’ healings were “signs” of a new way of life with God; the majority of sick people Jesus encountered remained sick.

We might think of Jesus’ best healing, not in his miracles, but in his habits. Over and over, the Gospels tell us Jesus withdrew from the bustle of the crowd to pray; Jesus knew how to say No to increasing demands on his energy. Jesus gathered people together into a loving community that accepted everybody. Jesus was intimate with God, and embraced hurting people where they were. Jesus’ spirituality was emotionally healthy. Jesus displayed that “saving grace of repetition.”

Jesus Christ heals the emotions today through formation, new habits, and others in what really can be the Body of Christ. Jesus Christ also heals us by exposing the false gods that beleaguer us. He doesn’t scold, but he tenderly reminds us that things, money, diversions, being cool, climbing the ladder simply can’t deliver, and are perilous to the soul.

Jesus cast out demons – and there certainly are destructive spiritual presences out there, and in our own heads. We can trust that this happens for us now – and ours isn’t to pinpoint evil presences, but to keep our focus on what is good, whole, beautiful, healthy. Thomas Merton was right: the devil attention above all else – and the one who is close to Christ increasingly notices only what is good and hopeful.

In this short YouTube I try to explain the Miracles of Jesus.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Faith & Mental Health (or Mental Illness) - parts 4, 5 and 6

Peter Scazzero, God & the Emotional Life

  Peter Scazzero gave a dynamite talk at our Church (watch here).  It was more than just a lecture; we had an experience, we engaged, we interacted.  I like this: too often we think of religion as info about the Bible or God being downloaded into our heads. But Jesus, it appears, was not much of a lecturer. He asked questions, he probed deeply, he got people moving and involved.

   Scazzero's value is in his insights into the linkage between God and our emotional life. Sure, many Americans think about God and feelings - as in Do I feel God? Do I feel anything in worship? But God is interested in your inner emotional life, in bringing healing, and redirection to your emotions. The Bible is an intensely emotional book: the stories of complex people, the profound prayers, and even the rich swirl of emotion in the very heart of God!

   If we think of depression, anxiety, and other maladies that afflict us, doctors and counselors are of much help. But a healthy spirituality is pivotal to our well-being, and to understanding the depth of God's own heart.

   In yesterday's sermon, I spoke of the sinister messages our world bombards us with, lies about who we are and why we are here: I am a burden, a producer, I need others' approval, I can't make mistakes, it's all up to me. No wonder we are anxious. Beseiged by smug, pious people, Jesus said "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick" (Luke 5:31). Hint hint: none of us are well, or not yet. We need this physician.

   The way this physician heals us is intriguing: he diagnoses our brokenness, and we are glad - for we are healed, not by going faster, but by slowing to a stop, by faith, abandoning our obsession with success and failure. Jesus heals us with mercy, and we learn to be merciful with ourselves, and others, and life itself. Karen Armstrong wrote that "For grace to be grace, it must give us things we didn't know we needed, and take us to places where we didn't want to go."

    {In addition to Scazzero's book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, we're also recommending a daily devotional, also by Scazzero, The Daily Office (or Kindle), which for me is the best devotional book I've used in a decade or more.}

     {Join an Emotionally Healthy Spirituality Small GroupThis is the best and most strongly recommended way to learn and grow in this process! We'll start the week of Feb. 3.}

 
Repetition as Saving Grace

   Part of Scazzero’s genius is the way he has found the intersection between the emotional situation of 21st century people and the classic disciplines and spiritual practices the Church has utilized for centuries.  Christianity has the goods – like being still and simply meditating (not just a Buddhist thing!).  John 20 tells us Jesus “breathed on them” – and maybe he was teaching them how to breathe, how to inhale and then exhale, deeply, and feel the grace of God filling body, mind and soul.  Jesus showed them how to be with other people, who also need grace, to open up, to be a church where deeply flawed people love and help each other toward healing.
   To be well, we think about all our habits, like diet, sleep and exercise; we rely on our physicians, and more of us should go in for counseling – which can be wonderfully useful for the spiritual life!  Kathleen Norris, who underwent plenty of therapy herself, found immense value there – and yet also realized how therapy “falls short of mystery, a profound simplicity that allows for paradox.  In therapy I search for explanations, causes, and information to help change behavior.  But wisdom is the goal of spiritual seeking.”

  Wisdom.  Mystery.  Grace.  This is God’s realm.  We might fix anxiety or depression medically, but still feel a hollowness, a restlessness.  St. Augustine prayed, “O Lord, You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in You.”  Finding that rest in God is actually essential even for dealing with anxiety, depression, guilt, sorrow, and broken relationships.  There is a deep weariness in the soul no vacation or napping can alleviate.

   I’m riddled with uneasiness; do you have anything to take for this?  How about reading the Psalms, or a breathing app on your phone, healthy prayers, listening to a hymn, joining (maybe for the 1st time) a group to grow in God?  There is a spiritual malaise at the deepest marrow of your self.  Building spiritual habits into your daily routine:  this is the only way to complement diet, exercise, sensible habits, and whatever the doctor has prescribed.

   Kathleen Norris spoke of “Repetition as Saving Grace.”  No single prayer, lecture, sermon or email will do it.  We are embarking upon a discovery of a committed rhythm of connection to God and others – and the very repetition itself will be God’s grace for you.

 
God’s heart, your heart

  Think about your heart – not just that fleshy engine that pushes oxygenated blood throughout your body, but that inner core of your being that desires, loves, grieves, and hopes.  The Bible tells us about God’s heart – and the healthiest I can be spiritually is when I get my heart beating as closely as possible to the heart of God.

   I learn God’s heart by a long project of immersing myself in Bible, worship, prayer, and conversation with others.  I come to want what World Vision founder Bob Pierce spoke of – for my heart to be broken by the things that break the heart of God.  An emotionally healthy spirituality involves caring about God’s world, growing up and away from self-absorption, frustrating by injustice out there, discovering what God is calling me to do, becoming a person who embodies God’s own compassion.
 
   You may say, But I am too broken myself to do any good.  Yet, your brokenness may prove to be a surprising, lovely gift.  Nassir Ghaemi’s intriguing book, A First-Rate Madness, explores how great leaders like Lincoln and Churchill led brilliantly, not in spite of their bouts with deep depression, but precisely because of them.  Studies show that depressed people are more realistic, and are naturally more empathetic to suffering.

   Of course, we all battle something or another in our souls – and the battle is the way to compassion, and ministry to others.  Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a striking letter to his young poet friend in which he urged, “Do not believe that he who seeks to comfort you lives untroubled.  His life has much difficulty and sadness.  Were it otherwise he would never have been able to find these words.”

   So, believing in the saving grace of repetition, we pray once more, You called people from their daily work, saying to them ‘Come after me.’  Today, may we hear your voice, and gladly answer your call - to give our lives to you, to serve your Church, to offer our gifts, and give away our hearts to you only. Bless our hopes: the first tiny stirrings of desire, the little resolve to go forward, the small vision of what might be. Deal gently with our fears, the hesitation of uncertainty, the darkness of the unknown, the lack of confidence in our own capacity, and turn it all to trust in you.

 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Faith & Mental Health (or Mental Illness) - parts 1, 2 and 3

Faith & Mental Illness (or Mental Health)

  A few months ago we kept getting questions, and hearing many personal concerns, around the area of mental health and Christianity. Between now and Easter, we will try to understand how faith matters for the struggles we face - or even provide strength of soul for all of us.

   Mental illness is intriguing; words like bipolar, depression, and personality disorder give us pause, or drive us to our knees. Then there are the inner battles we usually don't share in public: anxiety, shame, darkness, insomnia, fractured relationships, drinking, addictions - our whole emotional life. Maybe we think everything's great - but something's missing.

   Does religion help? or make things worse? Shouldn't we be able to pray, and Jesus will just make it all better? We will examine ways religion is actually a problem - like the idea that God is punishing me, or I'm not praying hard enough, or God is only in places where there is sweetness and light. We will see how weakness and vulnerability are not problems to be conquered, but the very openings for God's best work in us. God did tell Paul, "My power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:7). We will ask What kind of church is God calling us to be in light of people's real struggles?

Epiphany: the Iceberg
 
 Usually I think of the word "Epiphany" in terms of looking up - to a star, a light in God's immense sky; or perhaps we think of the dawn, the bright sun peering over the horizon, or a light bulb going off in your head.

   But perhaps for there to be a real epiphany, a real revelation and discovery in our lives, we need to look down, deep, beneath the surface - like the iceberg, the bulk of the thing hidden, dangerous, very real even if unnoticed. Much of our life is lived on the surface - and sadly our religious life often is limited to some nice, observable acts: I go to church, say a quick prayer, volunteer once in a while, occasionally read my Bible.

But it's only the tip of the iceberg; the bulk of my life remains untouched, submerged - and I may not even be familiar with the depth of my own life! But it's down there. God is keenly interested in that submerged, unaddressed life. "Lord, you have searched me and known me" (Psalm 139:1).

   Our goals in this series (and in life!)? To grow in emotional health, real compassion for others, to break free from destructive patterns, and be filled with grace; we can embrace weakness, accept the surprising gift of our limitations, learn to resolve conflicts, and forgive.

   Our methods will be to take time to go deep, probably with others - and to utilize classic spiritual disciplines most Christians have forgotten or never heard of. Saints and other faithful followers of Jesus through history have practiced simple things like breathing, meditation, silence - slowing down, being anchored in God's love, abandoning delusions and society's alluring but harmful messages, serving humbly. When we learn these simple habits, our life with God becomes deeper, wider, fulfilling - and we begin to feel the ebbing away of anxiety, depression, hopelessness, and fear.

   We never perfect this quest; we live in a fallen world, and our very inability to get it all right opens us up to the mercy of God, and the joy of the journey. We will learn how feelings of emptiness, or the wounds we carry, are God calling us home. Imperfection is a great gift; vulnerability is the way to life. This is the Epiphany we pray for.
 
Emotionally Un-Healthy Spirituality
 

During my lifetime, we the people have become far more attuned to healthy eating. We care about how the food was processed, how it's prepared, and the impact on our bodies, now and over a lifetime.   So how odd then that when it comes to our spiritual life, we gobble up spiritualities that are maybe quick, readily available, easy and even cheap! There is a lot of Un-Healthy Spirituality out there - and we've all tried it, but it's only made us flabby, lethargic, and prone to catastrophe.

   Here are just a few of the popular but really unhealthy ideas about faith that will ruin you. Quickie piety: say a prayer, or even many prayers, and God will just magically make everything great. Guilt-driven: I done wrong, God's raging mad, I should do better. Sunshiney-faith: since I believe in God, I'm all smiles, always. Denial of Darkness: since God is the antithesis of anything negative, I ignore my own anger, fear, sadness and pretend God will fix things. Superhero belief: I have no limits, and can do even more than my already jammed full life since God is with me. Choiceless religion: I don't have to say No to anything to say Yes to God. Occasional religion: if I go to church now and then and slap a few prayers onto meals, I'll be close to God. The Evil God: horrible things happen, so the controlling God made bad things happen. Judgmental God: God must be as annoyed at people I don't like as I am. Laid-back God: God can't be bothered with my inner life or my daily habits. God the Butler: God exists to do me little favors. Tyrant God: I should be very afraid of God.

All these are false gods. And all of these jam spiritual cholesterol into your arteries. You need a new diet, maybe even some surgery. You need an Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. We begin by saying No to fast-food, junk religiosity, and begin to know and even be with a good God. And we take the time to dig deeply - into God, into my self, and into others. Real change most often happens in the company of other people. You may feel hesitant, or think you're too busy - but aren't you hungry for lasting change, and even joy?

 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Prepare Him Room

Prepare him room - now, not later
 
On Christmas Eve, right after we finish the last stanza of "Silent Night," and then blow out our candles, the lights blaze and we triumphally sing "Joy to the World!" - including the intriguing plea, "Let every heart prepare him room." One year I remember muttering, "Too late."

When Jesus came the first time, there was "no room in the inn." Sorry, full already. If we have any chance of Jesus getting into our lives, we'd best start today. Only 23 shopping days left? Only 23 getting ready for Jesus days left!

Your agenda probably involves bringing bags of things into your home: gifts to give, food to serve, coats for winter. But for me, the excess of Christmas in our culture reminds me that we suffer from an excess of stuff not just on Christmas morning but all year long.

And not just stuff. My time is jammed full, especially in December. My soul is crammed to overflow, not with simply joys, but with anxiety, impulses, cravings and wounds. To hang out a "vacancy" sign on my life, I'll have to do some clearing out. For me to say Yes to Jesus, I will have to say No to a few (or many) other things.

We fear not grabbing all we can, or staying on the move - but the greater, deeper fear might be that we never slow down, that we climb to the top of the ladder and realize (as Thomas Merton suggested) the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.

So before we sing "Joy to the World" on the 24th, let's take inventory right now, on the 2nd, and get serious about "Prepare him room," or there won't be room. You can't squeeze in a little mini-Jesus in the cracks between an otherwise untransformed life. Just say No to this, to that, to the dazed craziness of December. Be still, know that God is God and you aren't. Breathe - and wait on Jesus.




Prepare him room - Christmas Lists

I'm a compulsive list-maker; I stay organized, and dig the satisfaction of marking through a task as "Done." At Christmas we make lists of things to do, gifts to purchase, places to be - and even things we might want for Christmas. Kids rattle off a wish list for Santa, who is himself "makin' a list and checkin' it twice."

Why do we exchange gifts at Christmas? I mean, we always have... but why? What's the purpose? During the Depression, kids got socks and coats they needed. Do we give to show our love? And why now?
What to give someone? Do I ask What do you want? Do we simplify (for ourselves) and settle on the gift card - the self-evident purpose being "so he can get whatever he wants"? Is Christmas about getting what we want? The world didn't ask for an infant - but that's what God sent.

Do we really need (in our souls) more gadgets and clothing options? Jewelry and toys? I love Amy Grant's carol, "Grown up Christmas List." She sings of being beyond "childhood fantasies - but we still need help somehow, the heart still dreams." So her grownup Christmas list, "not for myself, but for a world in need": "No more lives torn apart, time healing each heart, everyone has a friend, love never ends... Packages and bows can never heal a hurting soul."

What is needed this Christmas? What do you need? What do those on your list really need? Can we give not what they superficially want, but what they need deep inside? Can we discover gifts that are genuine blessings? Perhaps something precious we already own, long unspoken words written, a prayer, something made with our own hands, something that might lead the other person to know this Jesus?

Let every heart prepare him room. Can we prepare a list that might be more about blessing than accumulating? Is there a way I can give my very own self, my deeper, spiritual self, appealing to the other person's deeper, spiritual self? That's what God gave us the 1st Christmas: God's own self, reaching out to our inner self, inviting us to love, to belong, and to hope. Spiritually speaking, might there be a grown up Christmas list this year?


Here's Amy Grant singing "My Grown Up Christmas List."

 
Prepare him room - like Joseph



When I was a little boy, I tried out for the part of Joseph in the Christmas pageant. Some other kid landed the role, and I wound up as a baahhing sheep.

Absolutely no acting skill would be required to play Joseph! He just stands there, no lines, no dramatic gestures, just peering over Mary's shoulder into the manger, holding the reins of the donkey.

We don't know much about Joseph - and the little we know seems ridiculously inconsequential. And perhaps God's highest calling is for us to be like Joseph. He was simply there; for him it was enough to be close to Jesus. "As for me, it is good to be near God" (Psalm 73:25). Our world insists, "It's all about you." But in God's upside-down culture, it's not about you. It's about Jesus - and the genuine fulfillment of You is simply to stick as close to Jesus as possible.

Something else on Joseph's spiritual resume: he did not rush to judgment, or judge at all. Mary looked terribly guilty. Joseph had good cause to "expose her to public disgrace," and to divorce her (Matthew 1:19). But he was quiet, and prayerful enough, to be in sync with God's Spirit on this one, and so he refused to pass judgment.

How do we "Prepare him room"? Your mind, if it's like mine, drifts easily to little critical barbs, even if we don't say them out loud. I seem to be adept at finding fault, and zeroing in on what's wrong with everybody else. We might combat this with the famed words from Pogo: "We have met the enemy, and he is us."
But Jesus is even better: he came not to knock off your enemies, or to expose the enemy that is us. Jesus came so we would not have enemies. "Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity" (Martin Luther King). Jesus is all love - and the way to prepare for him, to let him be in you fully, is to get rid of enmity.

A judgmental thought rings your doorbell? Don't answer. A critical remark hangs on your lips? Hush. An ugly observation, about somebody out there, someone you love, or even yourself, suggests itself? Take a breath, and imagine Joseph hovering lovingly next to Mary, whom he could have despised, and over Jesus, God's love bundled in the manger.

Then cling to those donkey reins, and be still in the presence of the Lord.