Compassion, a brief meditation on Mark 6

Every time there is a natural disaster, a hurricane, tornado, wild-fire, or an earthquake, the news is filled with stories of loss and heart-rending stories of survival. We also hear many stories of how human beings have gone out of their way to help others. These acts of compassion become the heart and soul of life, restoring our sense of hope in humanity.

Nearly every day we hear a story in the church office from the individuals and families who come to us looking for food and Kroger gift cards. The stories are tragic, but they are also stories of hope.  When people come to the food pantry our only restriction is that people don’t abuse it, that they’ll take what they need, and leave enough for others. And for the most part that is what happens – people take care of their needs and leave enough for others.

We are a Community-Centered Church, feeding people in mind, body, and spirit. The food pantry, Blessings in a Backpack which feeds hungry kids during the school year, and working with Good Shepherd in Liberia to build a school, are just a couple of the ways we are living out the Good News that Jesus speaks about in the Gospel this morning, having compassion for our neighbors near and far; feeding people hungry for physical, spiritual, and intellectual nourishment.

Karen Armstrong’s book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, which we read together in the summer of 2011, describes compassion as the root of all of the world religions. She writes that about three thousand years ago a phenomenon happened that moved across the globe and in and through every religion of the day. This phenomenon resulted in what is known as the Golden Rule – do to others what you would have done to you. From Christianity to Judaism to Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Zoarastorism, Confucianism, and Taoism, all of the main religions of the world adopted a primary belief and saying that grounds the faithful in compassionate living.

Armstrong writes that compassion begins by one acquiring the ability to have compassion for one’s self. There is, she writes, a disorder in western culture that stems from our inability to truly care for ourselves. It is grounded in an inability to recognize our feelings and to understand how our unconscious feelings guide our behavior. Developing the capacity to become self-aware, which includes an honest understanding of our strengths and our growing edges, is crucial to self-awareness. In addition, when we have the capacity to truly understand ourselves, and have some compassion for ourselves, we are able to take responsibility for our misdeeds and to make amends.

For example, we have a tendency to dislike and even attack others who actually exhibit the very qualities that we struggle with in ourselves. I know that as soon as I start to feel anxious and critical of another person it is probably because that person is behaving just like me. When I develop the ability to understand what and why I am the way I am, when I develop the capacity to manage my anxiety because I understand it better, when I have compassion for myself, then I am able to develop the capacity to have compassion for others and their behavior.

As we hear in our reading this morning from Mark (6:30-34. 53-56), Jesus feeds people. He feeds them with real food, bread and fish, bread and wine….. He feeds them with love and prayer. He feeds them with compassion and healing.  Jesus also feeds himself. He goes off alone to pray, feeding his spirit so he can then care for and feed others. This morning we are reminded to take the time to care for ourselves and to become as aware of our behaviors, thoughts, and attitudes, as we can be in order to not be driven by unconscious, and therefore often destructive energy. We are reminded to treat others as we would like to be treated, with compassion, loving God, self, and others as God loves us.

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Mary, strong and sure

Many years ago I received this book, “Meditations on Mary”,  by Kathleen Norris. Norris was a popular author at the time, influencing many of us with her books on life and faith. This book is filled with beautiful photographs of famous painting and sculptures of Mary. In the book, Norris offers meditations on the basic Christian teachings about Mary: as the Virgin, the Annunciation – when the angel Gabriel visited Mary and told her of God’s favor toward her, and the pending birth of Jesus to which Mary responded with beautiful poetic words that have become known as the Magnificat. Norris writes about the Incarnation, of Mary as the one who birthed God into the world in human flesh. The Greek Orthodox tradition calls Mary – Theotokos – God Bearer. Other meditations in the book include thoughts on the Assumption – when Mary ascended into heaven; the presentation of Jesus at the Temple; and thoughts on the Virgin.

Other traditional descriptions of Mary include:

the greatest of all Christian saints.

The Virgin Mother

the daughter of Sts. Joachim and Anne.

cousin of Elizabeth, aunt of John Baptist.

Mary initiated the miracle at Cana, telling to Jesus to turn the water into wine. Mary was present at the Crucifixion in Jerusalem, and there she was given into Johns care.

According to one tradition, she went to Ephesus. Another tradition states that she remained in Jerusalem. The belief that Mary’s body was assumed into  heaven is one of the oldest traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. The feast of the Assumption is celebrated on August 15. 

The feast of the Immaculate Conception is not a celebration of Gabriel’s visit to Mary, rather it is a celebration of when Mary was conceived, and comes nine months before her birthdate, which is Sept. 8. Gabriel’s visit to Mary is called the Incarnation, although we tend to think of the incarnation as the birth of Jesus on Dec. 25.

All-holy, immaculate, most blessed and glorified Lady are other terms people use to describe Mary.

Mary’s influence has infiltrated India, a nation known for its reverence of women saints.

Like other Hindu goddesses, Mary is viewed as a saint who will fulfill the aspirations of people and answer their prayers. People in India, Christians and non-Christians, pray to Mary for divine assistance when seeking a job, conceiving a child, or alleviating an illness.

But, of all these titles and images, perhaps the most fascinating are the images of the Black Madonna. Famous Black Madonna’s can be found all over the world. Many of them were created between the 12th and 15th centuries. Some newer images have arisen as cultural expressions of Mary from African or African-American people. Some Black Madonnas were created using dark pigment or stone. Some of the Black Madonnas have turned black with age and patina. Some were created black to represent the woman from Song of Song’s a book in the Bible that compares the love between two people with the love of God for humanity. In the Song of Songs the woman is described as “I am black but beautiful.” Some think that the Black Madonnas have a historical link to pagan goddesses of the earth – the rich black soil of the earth transfers into the Madonna as the one who birthed God into the world. An ancient Eastern Orthodox Eucharistic Prayer uses these words:

I am the bread of life, said Our Lord.

From on high I came to earth so all might live in me.

Pure word without flesh I was sent from the Father.

Mary’s womb received me like good earth a grain of wheat…

(from http://campus.udayton.edu/mary/meditations/blackmdn.html)

One of the primary images of Mary portrayed by the Christian tradition is that of a poor, submissive, passive girl. This image has been used as a model for feminine virtue through the centuries, not a very useful model for real human beings. However, if one really listens to the story in Luke, one hears something quite different from Mary. She is brave and confidently takes on this task asked of her by God. She accepts the role of birthing God into the world, despite a very uncertain future in doing so. She stays with her son, God in the flesh, to the very end, despite the dangers of being at the foot of the cross where she too could have been crucified for treason just because she was there. This Mary is hardly weak, hardly submissive, hardly passive.

Our readings this morning tell the story in reverse order. In place of the Psalm we have the Magnificat. This poetic piece is often sung and is one of the standard offerings in morning and evening prayer in the Book of Common Prayer. In the Gospel of Luke the Magnificat comes after Mary is pregnant, when she travels a distance to see her cousin Elizabeth who is about to give birth to John the Baptist. Mary and Elizabeth represent the miraculous way God breaks  into the world – an old woman, long past her prime is about to give birth to a baby boy, a prophet who will pave the way for Jesus. Mary, a young girl is pregnant too, and she will give birth to God in human flesh. Both women are favored by God – not so much because they live exemplary lives, although they may have. Rather they are favored by God because they are lowly. In a world where human beings honor great leaders – kings and queens or athletes or movie stars, or artists or business people – God works in a different way. God works in unexpected ways and as a result sometimes the world is turned on its head.

God has worked in unexpected ways in and through us, too. A few years ago we had no idea that we would help build a school in Liberia, create an exterior plaza that will be a welcome place of respite for humans and animals alike – not to mention a great social venue as well. We had no idea that we would become immersed in Blessings in a Backpack, feeding hungry kids on the weekends during the school year. We had no concept of a food pantry in the church nor of our ability to feed over 23 families on a monthly basis, And, although we have talked for years about increasing the wheel chair accessibility in the church space, we had no plan and no idea how we would do it. But in the last three years, God has stirred our hearts and inspired our spirits, and we are working on all of these, and more!

As we come to the end of Advent, with Christmas just around the corner, let us give thanks for the in-breaking of the Holy Spirit. For in breaking through into our lives God helps us, leads us, guides us, in doing more than we could ever imagine. With God’s help we are able to make a difference, to impact the world around us, to transform pieces of this broken world and make them whole. For, as we learn from Mary, although nothing is impossible with God, God chooses to work in and through us, to bring forth God’s kingdom, here and now.

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Awake, Aware, and Wild-eyed

A reflection on Mark 1:1-8 for Advent 2B

The Shoshone are a diverse tribe of indigenous people who inhabited parts of California, Wyoming, Nevada, Idaho and Utah. One particular Shoshone tribe lived in  the mountainous  region of what is now southeastern Idaho and northern Utah. A peaceful people, this traveling tribe of hunters and gatherers, found themselves struggling for food and land as European settlers moved into the region. In 1862 one settler discovered a horse missing and accused a Shoshone boy of stealing it. The boy was convicted of the crime and hung. The Shoshone retaliated by killing a couple of the settler’s relatives. Anxiety escalated among the settlers who requested that the US government intervene. Col. Patrick Connor with an army of 200 volunteers from California was hired to intervene.

Before sunrise on Jan. 29, 1863 Col. Connor and his volunteer army waged an attack on the Shoshone tribe as they slept in the homes near Bear Creek, just a few miles north of Preston, Idaho, which is where my mother was born. The attack was brutal and resulted in the deaths of 450 Shoshone, many of them children. The women were raped, beaten, and killed. The men were tortured and then killed. The hundred or so who survived struggled to rebuild a life.

Ten years later the remaining members of this Shoshone tribe initiated a working relationship with local Mormons. Under the leadership of Brigham Young, the Mormons had a peaceful relationship with the Shoshone. In response to the request for help Brigham Young sent George Washington Hill, my great grandfather five generations back, to work with them.

George learned their practices and their language, built mutual trust and respect, and created an English-Shoshone dictionary to help with communication between the Mormons and the Shoshone. When the government wanted the Shoshone to move to the Ft. Hall Indian reservation the Mormons intervened. Some went to the Reservation, while other Shoshone chose to keep their land, although they had to be members of the Mormon church and pay taxes to the US government in order to do so.

I imagine the Shoshone would tell a much different version of this story than my Mormon family genealogy. They would tell a story of white settlers taking over the land, using up all the resources, and marginalizing the indigenous people who had lived on the land for generations. They would tell a story of violence and poverty and degradation. My grandfather is considered a saint by the Mormons, but I don’t think that the Shoshone people feel the same way.

Conflict between people who are different from one another, whether by skin color, ethnicity, religious beliefs or gender and sexuality, is as old as time. The Bible is filled with stories of genocide and war. Current news reports cover a multitude of stories on violence, of one people killing another simply for being who they are.

We are not immune to it here in Dearborn nor in the metro Detroit region. Tension around race, religion, and human sexuality define us, too.  No doubt in recent years the people of Dearborn, and we at Christ Church, have worked hard to grow in relationship with our sisters and brothers of all colors, religions, and genders. Nonetheless, my clergy colleagues, people of color, upon learning that I live in Dearborn, tell me that to this day they will go out of their way to avoid driving through Dearborn. This is residual reactivity from the days when the phrase “Keep Dearborn Clean” was not about litter or untidy yards, but about persons of color. My very first day here in Dearborn was marked by Terry Jones’s visit to the Islamic Center of America where he intended to burn a Q’ran. Many of you were part of a protest movement against Terry Jones, in support of our Muslim brothers and sisters. Far from perfect, we are making an effort to live our baptismal covenant, to respect the dignity of every human being. This is an ongoing process and requires us to be ever mindful and action oriented.

Our readings from last week, the first Sunday of Advent, called us to stay awake, or in other words to be aware and attentive to how God is acting in the world around us and how God is active in and within us. This week the readings build on that theme and ask us to be aware and to repent.

Repentance is one of those words that make me cringe, from misuse and abuse. Used as it is intended, repentance is an important word in Christianity. Repentance is an interior process of looking at ourselves as individuals and as a society with a keen eye for the ways in which we are hurting others economically, socially, spiritually, or physically and then doing something to change our behavior. Often the way we hurt others is hidden from our understanding, lost in the complexity of our social and economic institutions and systems. The challenge of determining who should be held accountable for the deaths of young black men like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice leaves some enraged and others perplexed. Disputes over how justice should be served as a response to these killings bring out strong emotions on all sides. The New York Times runs daily articles and editorials on the “chasm” between races, our legal system, and the difficulty for white Americans to grasp the depth and breadth of institutional racism. There are similar struggles with religion and human sexuality.

Ultimately we are all subject to the consequences of systemic racism – some of us live in daily fear for our lives, others of us live in denial that racism still exists, some of us are mute because we cannot understand the way racism continues.

Robert B. Moore wrote a popular essay about the subtlety of racism through the use of language. He writes, “An integral part of any culture is its language. Language not only develops in conjunction with a society’s historical, economic and political evolution; it also reflects that society’s attitudes and thinking.” He asks people to rewrite a paragraph eliminating the 30 uses of racist language in it. Here is a portion of that paragraph:

“Some may…accuse me of trying to blacken the English language, to give it a black eye..… They may denigrate me by accusing me of being black hearted, or having a black outlook on life…which would certainly be a black mark against me….I may become a black sheep, who will be blackballed by being placed on a blacklist in an attempt to blackmail me to retract my words. But attempts to blackjack me will have a Chinaman’s chance of success, for I am not a yellow-bellied Indian giver of words, who will whitewash a black lie…..”

Have you ever thought about how the words we use perpetuate racism or sexism or prejudice of any kind?

Today’s text from the Gospel of Mark makes reference to Isaiah chapter 40 and Malachi chapter 3. Both of these Old Testament readings ask God to deliver the people from suffering, but with the caveat that the people must first look at themselves and understand their role in causing the suffering.

In this context repentance means becoming aware of and having the ability to tell the truth about ourselves in order that we can redirect our lives toward God and God’s desire for us. One way we can deepen our awareness is by paying attention to the words we use and whether those words build up others or whether those words in some way disparage others.

So whenever find yourself beginning to say something like “black-sheep” or“blackballed” or “Indian-giver” stop and think about how those words perpetuate the undercurrent of systemic prejudice in our language and consider what you might say instead. I guarantee you will find the process of considering the words you use to be eye-opening and transformative and grace filled in a kind of John the Baptist wild-eyed way, preparing your heart to open even more to the love of God in Jesus and leading you to an ever deepening and more authentic love of neighbor.

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Glimpses of hope and love

A reflection on Isaiah 64:1-9 and Mark 13:24-37 for Advent 1B

Recently my husband, son, and I watched (again) the first two movies of the Hunger Game’s series, in preparation for the release of the third movie. When I read the books a few years ago, I couldn’t put them down and consumed each of the three books, one after the other. I loved and hated them simultaneously. The storyline was so disturbing that it infiltrated my dreams in which I tried to rewrite the story so it was less upsetting. The setting is a post-apocalyptic era sometime in the future, in a country named Panem, which is divided into twelve districts that are ruled by an iron-clad government and where oppression and violence and poverty prevail. Ultimately it is a story of hope, justice and love.

Apocalyptic texts in the Bible do not forecast the future. Instead they address a present time, a time when life feels hopeless. The apocalyptic tone of our readings this morning are paradoxical, describing a hopeless state while pointing out a long history of God’s presence in the world.  Only as we learn to understand how God has been with us in the past can we come to understand how God is with us through all of life’s challenges.

I have faced many challenges in my life – challenges to my health when I thought I might die; financial challenges that nearly devastated me when investments or jobs did not turn out as I imagined. I have faced deep and profound challenges which have caused me to doubt my faith, dig deeper into my faith, and sometimes wish that God was a magician who would change all the circumstances of my life and in one swift poof, make everything better. I know what its like to be completely broken and helpless and filled with a despair beyond words. And I know what its like to feel God’s presence in that bleak, lost state, and rest in the assurance that somehow life will get better, though I know not how, because God is with me and God yearns for my life, and your life, to be healthy, peaceful, and hopeful.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a famous Christian theologian who lived in Germany during the reign of Hitler. He was imprisoned for being part of a group of people who tried to overthrow Hitler. Bonhoeffer’s reflections on faith that rises in response to injustice, prison, and even the hiddenness of God, are among some of the most famous writings in Christian literature. He writes that though we yearn for a God who, (like some superhero, will fly into) our lives and with mighty power overturn the challenges and turn our despair into joy, this is not how God has chosen to be with us. Instead,  God does not determine the circumstances of our lives – but God is with us. God rejoices with us when we are happy and suffers with us when tragedy strikes, God loves us along the way. God’s love manifests itself in us through the compassion of other people. God’s love manifests in those fleeting moments when trust prevails and peace can fill our hearts. God’s love is present when we give up the dogged fight to control every aspect of those uncontrollable circumstances. This peace, this release of control is the serenity prayer – God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. The serenity prayer is a prayer of release and hope. “Hope is what is left when your worst fears have been realized and you are no longer optimistic about the future. Hope is what comes with a broken heart willing to be mended.” Hope is the feeling that comes to us, as a sign that God is with us.

Tragedy, grief, challenges, despair, fear can silence and paralyze us. But so too, they can open us to know God in ways in which God is otherwise hidden. In our deepest moments of vulnerability we become so raw that God’s presence can be seen and felt in the least expected ways. Like Katniss in the first Hunger Games book, refusing to allow the government to win, refusing to choose between her life or Peeta’s she makes an unexpected choice, an act of compassion. This compassionate act of love and justice sets in motion a turn of events that changes everything.

Today begins the season of Advent. Advent marks the beginning of the liturgical cycle in the church year. The tone, the colors, the feeling of worship is distinct in Advent – more reflective, more subdued, a contrast to an otherwise hectic world.

During the four Sundays of Advent we are preparing for Christmas, for the birth of Christ. On this first Sunday of Advent we are called to stay awake. Staying awake means we are to stay aware of and attentive to the world around us. We are also to be aware of what is happening inside of us – how God is acting in and through our lives. God is calling us to action, to love and compassion, to hope and trust, even when everything seems lost. This call is not about magical thinking – which has a child-like quality to it. God’s call to action is about maturing faith, faith that grows deeper through the challenges of life, providing us the substance to sustain us through the most difficult times, affording us the ability to find peace despite all obstacles to the contrary. God’s call to us is a reminder that when all seems bleak and lost, when one door has closed and the other has not opened, when we live with fear and anxiety, when the future is more uncertain than usual, God’s call reminds us to stop, to look, to be attentive, to breathe, to be still, to just be, so that we can feel God’s presence. We may be assured of God’s presence from stories in scripture or our own life experience, and through prayer enabled to feel God as a fleeting sensation of peace. Elusive though the moments of peace may be, Advent invites us to intentionally seek moments of silence, wherein we may catch a glimpse of hope and love, and the potential for the new life to come; the promise of Emanuel and the comfort of knowing that God is with us, and somehow, all will be well.

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10,000 Hours, A practice of Staying Awake….

A reflection on the Propers for 27A, Matthew 25:1-13 for Stewardship Sunday

Twenty years ago, when I was a seminary student, my mentor in the ordination process use to say “Keep awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Usually he would say this to diocesan staff or his clergy colleagues, and I always thought he was talking in some kind of code. I mean, I knew he was quoting scripture, but I had no real idea of the context in which he intended it when he said this to the Bishop’s secretary or the receptionist at the diocesan staff office. On the other hand, every time this piece of scripture comes up I think of that mentor and the time he journeyed with me.

Keep awake, for you never know when Jesus is going to come, is a piece of Christian wisdom that takes on different meanings depending the context in which one considers it.

We all grew up hearing proverbs and wise sayings from our parents or teachers. Some I remember are: “never eat yellow snow.” and, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

What are some “wise” sayings that you remember? (give people time to speak)

Proverbs and wise sayings are told by parents and grandparents to children through the generations as a way of teaching kids to think, to pay attention, to be aware, and to grow wise. Sometimes these wise sayings stay with us and we end up repeating them our own kids. But actually growing in wisdom, becoming wise and aware, takes more than just repeating words, it takes time and intentionality.

Some say that people who practice an instrument or are apprentices to an art or a trade need to practice for 10,000 hours before they become a master at their work. Think about that. How long would it take for you to acquire 10,000 hours to become a master at what you do?

Every yoga class I take at the studio down the street begins with the instructor inviting us to dedicate our practice. The idea is that the class is less a time of instruction, less a work out like going to the gym, and instead a practice, a discipline, that shapes and forms us in deep ways. The invitation to dedicate our practice is not about becoming a master yoga practitioner, its  about the way I engage in yoga and how the discipline and practice transforms me from the inside out.

For the last eight weeks we have dedicated our stewardship season, and our practice of faith to “Nurturing an Attitude of Gratitude.” Since Sept. 7 when received the money and the invitation to “Grace It Forward,” these phrases have become our wise sayings, our proverbs.

This project was made possible because a gift of money was given to the church to be used for outreach or new mission projects. The Stewardship Commission requested some of the money be given to each one of us to use as we see fit, sharing with others, or using for ourselves, money that was a pure gift of grace. It was an outreach initiative to help us grow within ourselves a deeper awareness of gratitude and generosity. These eight weeks are just a start, just an initiation into what could become for each of us a life long practice of growing in gratitude and generosity.

Practice takes discipline and developing a discipline takes practice. Practice involves a willingness to move through times when it’s easy to practice and times when its hard to practice. Some days practicing yoga is profoundly rewarding. Other days, my yoga practice feels too repetitive, doing the same thing over and over, and I grow weary of it. But still, I continue to practice. In time the repetitive nature begins to feel challenging and rewarding at the same while also being deeply prayerful. The practice has transformed me inside and out. It will, no doubt, continue to be challenging as I grow in and through the practice. But that is the point, practicing a discipline takes practice. 10,000 hours to become a master is just a metaphor for a life time of  practice.

We hear in the Gospel reading this morning that the bridesmaids are waiting for the wedding feast. They grow tired and fall asleep. When the groom comes the bridesmaids awaken, but some of them have run out oil and didn’t bring any reserve.  The Gospel asks us to consider what it means to be prepared for the wait. Or, to rephrase this, what does it mean to keep on practicing through good times and bad, through times when it feels rewarding and times when practicing our faith feels dry.

The only difference between the wise and foolish virgins is this: the wise virgins are prepared for the wait and therefore bring extra oil. As we practice our faith, as we strive to grow as Christians, we need to be prepared for the challenges that will try to take us away from our practice. As Christians, particularly as Episcopalians, we are formed by community. This means a significant aspect of our discipline, our practice, is coming to church and being present in worship, being with one another as we pray, sing, listen to scripture, and share the bread and wine. Some days this will feel profoundly rewarding. Other days this will feel dry and difficult. But the point is, it’s in the practice, no matter our state of being, that we are formed and transformed.

Today we will have two rituals that are part of our practice of faith here at Christ Church. First, after the announcements we each come to the altar and offer our pledge cards – our anticipated contribution to the mission and ministries of Christ Church for 2015. If you aren’t prepared to offer a pledge card come forth anyway and offer yourself. This is for many people a profound invitation to be come to the sacred table and spend a moment in prayer, offering what one is able. It is a reminder that all that we are and all that we have is a gift from God for which we give back with generous hearts.

The second thing we will do is celebrate a festive communion with the children who have spent five weeks preparing for this day. They have learned about the worship service and Holy Communion, baked the communion bread for today, and created icons as part of their formation and practice of faith.

Today, as we prepare to come to that altar and offer ourselves to God, remember that Nurturing an Attitude of Gratitude takes practice. Gratitude comes from sharing with others, from “Gracing forward the gifts we have been given.” Let us come forth in thanksgiving for all that God has given us. Let us remember to “Stay awake!” –  for Jesus is near, and one never knows the day or the hour when Jesus will seep deep into your soul and transform your life from the inside out.

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Becoming One’s Self

Highway 89A outside Escalante, Utah

A number of years ago I drove from Tucson, Arizona north to Escalante, Utah with my son and his dog.

Actually, we were driving to Chicago, but we made a stop in Escalante to see my father. A few days later we drove the “loop” from Escalante along the top of the Rockies and then north to Salt Lake City. Our stay in Salt Lake included some time visiting a number of my family members.

The  mountain side view from the Salt Lake Cemetery where my mother and many family members are buried.

The most notable aspect of this trip was time spent with family – from my son to my father to my aunts and uncles.

As a little girl I loved my family and have fond memories of spending time with them. That ended when I was nine and we moved away from Salt Lake. Then my time with family became rare, a mere handful of trips between the age of nine and this trip, as a grown woman of 53. I grew up learning how to be disconnected from family, on the one hand, and overly connected to my mother, on the other. It’s a long story, this over-connection to my mother, but it defined me then and is at the root of the challenges I have faced ever since.

My life has been defined by learning how to be my own person. In Bowen Family Systems theory this is described as being “Self-differentiated.” A person who is differentiated is simultaneously clear within the self about who one is and the values, beliefs, and principles that guide one’s life AND able to be in relationship with others, particularly one’s family of origin. Being in relationship with one’s family of origin means the ability to have meaningful conversation while not engaging in the debilitating patterns of family dynamic that cause anxiety such as unhealthy triangulation that blames or shames another; distancing and avoiding others or cutting others out of one’s life by moving away or not speaking for great lengths of time. My family easily falls into a pattern of distancing or cutting off. Working to maintain relationship is hard work and it requires intentionality.

This year I have taken a number of workshops offered by the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center which focus on helping clergy and congregations live together and do ministry in a healthy way. The primary focus is on the self – one can only change and work on one’s self. One can only look at one’s own family of origin, and the joys and anxieties produced in those relationships, in order to come to an understanding of the dynamics that manifest in all of our relationships.

Becoming my own person means learning how to be comfortable with who I am, solid and centered in my beliefs, values, and principles, which reside in me in a conscious, thoughtful manner. Becoming my own person means recognizing when the anxiety of my childhood is activated in my current relationships but not allowing that to determine how I function, now. It’s a process of becoming “self-differentiated.”

When I was ordained my mentor gave me a copy of this poem. It stands for me, and I’m sure was the intent of my mentor, as a reminder of self-differentation, of becoming my own person.



The Journey

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice–

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

“Mend my life!”

each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers

at the very foundations,

though their melancholy

was terrible.

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do–

determined to save

the only life you could save.

– Mary Oliver

The real task of becoming one’s own person, of being self-differentiated, is a process of growing in relationship. One cannot become one’s own person out of relationship with others. It’s a journey. The journey of life.

That road trip, from Tucson to Escalante to Salt Lake to Chicago, was a drive through my past and into my present, leading me to my future. The time I spent living in Arizona was fraught with conflict that I was ill prepared to navigate, although I tried. I am not sure I would do any better now, if were to encounter the same dynamics, but I do understand my role in them and what was triggered in me, better. My time there was, on the one hand, a “failure.” But on the other hand, it has provided me with a great learning opportunity. Leaving Arizona I left behind some great sorrow and drove toward a new, healthier self.

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A Selfie of God….

A reflection on the readings for Proper 24A: Exodus 33:12-23 and Matthew 22:15-21

How many of you have your cell phones on you? If your cell phone has a camera, take out your cell phone and take a picture of your self.

Now look at the picture and notice what your see. Notice the color of your eyes and their shape. Notice the shape of your face and your skin tone. What are your thoughts as you do this? Are you judging yourself and being critical? Are you okay with how you look? Have you never really thought about how you look?

In the last ten years there has been an increase in people taking photographs of themselves with the camera on the cell phones. These are called “selfies.” A television star name Kim Kardashian is supposedly writing a book called “Selfish” on how to take selfies. It will include some 200 selfies that she has taken.

Also in the news are reports that there is an increase in plastic surgery since selfies have become so popular. People are so dismayed at the images they see from their camera phones that they choose to have plastic surgery in order to look better on their selfies.

Now go back to that selfie and as you look at that selfie realize that the face you see is God. It’s your face – but it’s also God’s face.

Does that change the image you see? Is it startling to imagine seeing God in your face? Are you able to see that the image in the selfie is you and is also an image of God? God has your eye color, your skin tone, and the same shaped face as you.

God looks like each one of us and all of us at the same. God reveals God’s self in and through every human being. God is black and brown, pink, and white, olive toned, and all shades of skin color. God has blue eyes, brown eyes, black eyes, gray eyes, green eyes, and every shade of eye color. God has all hair color and all textures.

At the same time God has none of our human characteristics – because God is not limited or confined by human constructs – God made us in God’s image – thus God is like all of us – but God is also more, much more than all of us.

And yet, as Christians we know God first and foremost as a being with whom we are and can be in relationship. That God revealed God’s self in the person of Jesus, gives us the idea that we can see God in human form.

Now take a good look at yourself agin. And then take a look at the person sitting near you. Yes, this will feel a little uncomfortable. But try it anyway. As you look at a person sitting near you, say out loud, “You are the face of God. In you I see Jesus.”

Just sit with that for a moment. “You are the face of God, in you I see Jesus.”

There is no need for any one us to be dissatisfied with how we look. There is no need for any of us to judge ourselves or another person for how we look or who we are. Each one of us is the face of God, in us God’s love made manifest in Jesus is revealed to the world.

Imagine doing this with every person you know or meet, seeing them the face of God.

Imagine how difficult this will be when we encounter people who are cruel or evil? And yet, God is in them too.

That does not mean that God is cruel or evil. Rather it means that God is trying to call that person into being the best version of themselves that is possible. Christian teachings suggest that God keeps working in and through us and never gives up. So transformation may be possible, even after death.

Our readings this morning from Exodus and Matthew offer us ideas on God and how we see God, ourselves, and others in world. Matthew in particular calls us to ponder what we idolize. In this country we tend to idolize movie stars and athletes. We pay them a ton of money to look good in film or photos or to be a star athlete. We measure ourselves to them – why else would Kim Kardashian be given a contract to write a book and publish 200 photos of herself taken with her cell phone?

Now I think selfies can be a lot of fun and hilarious. And in that context I am all for them. The danger is when we start to idolize looking perfect, and obsessing over it.

The same can be said about a faith community. Churches can become too self-focused, worried about how they look or worried about finances or some other obsession that takes them away from their mission. Such worries take us away from God and keep us stuck, frozen in an image of self that does not reflect how God sees us.

Think about that – as you sit looking at your image in the selfie – God is looking back at you. What does God see?

God sees a beloved human being. God sees a person that God loves deeply. God looks at you tenderly and with compassion, holding all your fears and worries with love. God looks at you and says, you are my most precious creation, with you I am well pleased.

God does the same thing with our church. God looks at us, with all our flaws, and says, Christ Church in Dearborn, is my most precious creation. God does this for every church, every synagogue, mosque, and house of worship. God loves God’s creation.

We have many profound ways of expressing God’s presence in and through us and out into the world around us. As a Community- Centered church we reveal the face of God, the love of Christ to those who come into our building for dance classes, martial arts, stretching, voice lessons, preschool, AA meetings, even to the postal carriers who come here every day. Some of them bring our mail. Others just need a place to use the bathroom and come in from the cold. One postal carrier gave us a $500 donation as a thanksgiving for leaving our doors open so she can use a bathroom or come in from the cold. At least two different postal carriers come in to our building every day for this purpose.

We are the face of Christ as we feed hungry people. Soon we are going to ask for donations to our food pantry for turkeys and the ingredients for people in need to make aThanksgiving dinner. I don’t know if Leon’s does this, but if they sell gift cards we could purchase some of them so that people who have no place to cook can go to Leon’s for a hearty Thanksgiving meal.

These are just a few of the ways that we reveal God’s love made manifest in Jesus, God’s love in us, through the mission and ministries of this church.

We are intentionally nurturing an attitude of gratitude. For it is through our ability to be grateful for all that we have and all that we are – without comparing ourselves to others and without judgement – but with thanksgiving – that we are able to become even more grateful. It takes practice. It is, as I said last week, a discipline of perception, formed by how we choose to see our lives and the world around us.

Nurturing an Attitude of Gratitude becomes the inspiration from which we are able to Grace it Forward – sharing the love of God that we’ve come to know in our lives  – with others in the world.

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