Growing up I remember visiting a museum (might have been the Smithsonian). I saw a display with prehistoric skulls with holes in the skulls. Archaeologists call this trepanning. They have varying theories as to the reason for trepanning. But one of the explanations I recall reading at the museum is that these individuals may have suffered from severe headaches attributed to evil spirits and that those within their villages believed that boring a hole through their skull would provide an opening for the evil spirit to escape. (I know; crazy, right?) I don’t remember much of what I saw in museums growing up, but I have never forgotten that display. As I moved into my teen years I developed migraine headaches and from time to time reflected on the fact that, had I lived in prehistoric times, I very likely may have been judged as demon possessed and someone would have carved a hole in my head… Which would be about as helpful as – well, a hole in your head!
In such primitive times, gods or demons were considered the cause of any unexplained phenomenon. It was a rather superstitious, magical world folks lived in and I’m thankful we now have the benefit of things like MRI’s, cultures, vaccines and blood panels. But sometimes I’m not so sure we’ve made a huge amount of progress with regards to mental health issues, especially in the church. Take depression, for example. Sometimes those within the church treat others who struggle with depression as if they are somehow spiritually deficient. They should pray more and keep a Gratitude Journal… neither of which is likely to make a dramatic change in brain chemistry. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a big proponent of prayer and counting our blessings. But medication or therapy can also be God’s answer to our prayers… and not everything that goes wrong in this life gets fixed in this life.
Sometimes I wonder if individuals with mental illness or physical disabilities simply cause us fear with regards to our own well-being. Perhaps we don’t want to consider our own vulnerabilities and want to believe that faith and prayer are a kind of talisman to protect us from anything that might go wrong (modern day “magic”).
But when we rush to judgments or practice avoidance or refuse to talk about or think about issues of mental health, it’s not healthy, it’s not loving… and it’s not even Church. Church should be a place where we can share our struggles and face our fears together. Church should be a place of compassion and honesty. That’s what Jesus was about.
At our February Trinity Fusion, we’ll engage in some open, honest dialogue about mental health and how to support those who struggle with mental health issues. We’ll consider how the Church can follow the example of Jesus and respond to those with mental health issues with the honesty and compassion of Christ.
For those of you who participate in that custom of selecting a word for each New Year, here is mine: listening. I hope – and pray – in 2019 to get better at listening. It’s hard because we live in a really noisy world. People talk over one another and past one another and try to get in the last word.
Our culture prizes the ability to multi-task. We consider it an asset. But if you really think about it, multi-tasking officially sanctions poor listening because – despite what athletes and life coaches may say – it’s really mathematically impossible to give 110%. So, when we multi-task, we’re giving each task (and the people involved in them) less than our full attention.
I heard a true story a while back about a young child and her mother. The little girl could tell that her mother had tuned her out based on the monotone, rhythmic “um hmms” she was hearing, a clear indicator of poor listening. So the child walked over to where her mother was seated, placed both of her chubby, little hands on her mother’s cheeks, and guiding her mother’s face so it lined up with her own, looked into her mother’s eyes and said with slow deliberateness, “Pay attention!”
It’s pretty obvious that no one in Washington is listening anymore. When ideas and values clash, the only way to find resolution is to listen because listening leads to understanding and no challenge can ever be resolved if we don’t understand where the other person is coming from.
At Trinity (www.trinitylafayette.org) we focus a lot on listening. Our new monthly gathering, Fusion (http://www.trinitylafayette.org/fusion) is all about listening. We listen to the sacred stories and we listen to the stories of our lives and the lives of those around us. Christianity is an incarnational faith. We believe that God’s Word took on flesh in Jesus and we trust that God’s Word still takes on flesh in our lives. When we listen deeply to another person, we can also hear the voice of God speaking through their life.
This Monday, Jan. 21, our Fusion speaker will be Rebecca Hauer (rebeccahauer.com). Rebecca is an avid writer, amateur theologian, and abuse survivor who will share her life’s journey around issues of faith, abuse recovery, and mental health. Fusion is more than a monthly event. It’s designed to carve out a space for grace; a space where – by listening to the voices of God and one another – we can connect, discover and grow.
As our nation nears the one-month mark of this government shut-down, I pray that all of us can learn to “listen with the ears of our hearts,” as St. Benedict said, for if we listen deeply, we can hear the voice of God.
A church member recently loaned me the book With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God by Skye Jethani. The author examines different “postures” or approaches to our relationship with God. One is what he labels “Life Under God.” It is an effort to win God’s favor by combining rituals and morality. It is an approach through which we “are seeking to exert control over God through strict adherence to rituals… and moral codes… We put God into our debt and expect him to do our bidding in exchange for our worship and righteous behavior.”[i] On a communal scale, this results in churches and religious leaders functioning as “divine police” “ensuring no one violates the Almighty’s will, because it’s not just the individual on the line, but the whole community.”[ii]
On Monday, Oct. 15, at 6 p.m. during Trinity’s Fusion gathering, I’ll be talking about the story in John, chapter 4, of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. Growing up, the woman’s sexual exploits seemed to merit salacious speculation on the part of bible preachers and teachers. I also recall preachers who labeled the woman’s question to Jesus about worship as an effort to change the subject in order to avoid confronting her own moral shortcomings.
But today I feel differently about the story and the woman.
For one thing, Jesus only seems to name her life’s circumstances in order to demonstrate that he is more than some random guy passing through town. Frequently in John’s gospel, Jesus knows the unknowable. In chapter 1, his intimate knowledge of Nathanael prompts surprise followed by a profession of faith. Jesus repeatedly seems to “call us as he sees us” not in an effort to embarrass; but to cut through the pretense and get at the heart of who we really are. It’s a “zero to sixty” path to intimacy.
Once the Samaritan woman recognizes that Jesus (through his inexplicable knowledge of her life) must have a “God vibe” going on, she asks Jesus a question of incredible importance. It is a question about how to be in relationship with God; about how to enter in to God’s presence and it leads to a conversation in which Jesus discloses his true identity for the first time in John’s gospel.
In reading Jethani’s book, it occurs to me that this story of the Samaritan woman is so often examined from a “life under God” approach. It is reduced to a lesson in morality: Jesus confronted her with her sin and led her toward repentance and faith.
But maybe there’s a different way to view the story. Jesus never tells the woman to repent. He never circles back to “confront” her immoral behavior. Instead, the woman’s sincere and deeply important question is where Jesus focuses his attention. In his book, Jethani talks about how our lives change when we take on a posture of life with God. It seems to me that few gospel characters understand this concept of life with God better than the Samaritan woman. And, even though she is a woman, a foreigner, and living in a dubious setting, Jesus is “all in” to dialog with her about what life with God looks like. That’s the kind of dialogue that gets Jesus and the woman excited. And if Jesus had made her gender, ethnicity, or morality the focus of the conversation, they likely would have never gotten any farther.
It seems to me that we have become, increasingly, a culture more concerned with policing one another’s morals than with honest dialogue about how to be in relationship with God and with one another. And it doesn’t seem that such an approach is doing much to help the Church or the world. But what might happen if we could come together around the table to discuss with openness our common seeking of God? Perhaps in our common quest, we might experience community.
Right now in the United Methodist Church we are bitterly divided over the issues of gender and sexuality. As we move toward the February General Conference, there is discussion of winners and losers, allies and opponents, factions and successions… because we have focused on a moral issue over which we do not agree. What if our focus changed? What if we could sit down face to face with one another and agree to discuss the most important question: how can we be in deeper, more loving relationship with God and with others? If that is our primary question, then surely – despite our differences – we can come together.
[i] With by Skye Jethani. 2011; Thomas Nelson Pub; p. 27
[ii] Ibid, p. 31
I grew up in a culture that didn’t really pay much attention to the connection between body and spirit. Spiritual things were things you couldn’t see and my physical body was nothing more than a shell that I would shed someday in the great bye and bye. But over the years I’ve grown to see a powerful connection between body and spirit. Years ago I began to notice that, on days when I exercised I could stay more focused during my prayer time and fall asleep more easily. It was almost as if my body was telling me that it needed its fair share of time and attention. In recent years, I’ve also noticed that, on mornings when I take time to meditate or engage in centering prayer before I leave for work, I manage my work life better. I have more patience with people and I don’t find little inconveniences so irritating. I’m not as apt to “blown them up” in my mind.
Today, many of us deal with a lot of stress and have over-extend ourselves and we’ve sometimes forgotten about the need to balance the needs of our bodies, minds and spirits. The prophet Elijah knew what it felt like for his body, mind and spirit to just kind of collapse under the weight of stress and over-work. His story is found in the bible in 1 Kings, chapter 17 through 2 Kings, chapter 2. The culmination of the story comes in 1 Kings, chapter 19, when (all by himself) Elijah climbs his way to the top of a mountain and recognizes the presence of God in quiet and stillness. Twice, God asks Elijah the question, “What are you doing here?” What a great existential question for someone in the midst of an existential crisis! Sometimes we all need to take a moment to get away to a quiet place and acknowledge just how tired we might be and to remember that are bodies are living organisms, not machines; and that our spirits live and find expression within those bodies.
That’s what spirituality is really about: finding those ways to be attentive to God’s presence in our bodies, minds and spirits – alone and with one another… because when Elijah came down from that mountain, his first assignment from God was to find a partner, named Elisha, who would help him manage the work and the stress.
On Monday, September 17, at 6 p.m. at Trinity, we’ll be talking together about this connection and need for balance between body, mind and spirit at our new gathering, Trinity Fusion. We’ll also hear from a local yoga instructor about how yoga helps us maintain that healthy connection between body, mind and spirit. There’ll be an opportunity to learn more about centering prayer, an ancient form of prayer that helps us “tune in” to the quiet, peaceful presence of God in our lives. I hope you can join us! Learn more at: http://www.trinitylafayette.org/fusion.html
TRINITY FUSION – Connect, Discover, Grow
I was a young adult and not much interested in politics during the Reagan years. But I read an interesting story recently about a speech Reagan made during a visit from the Japanese Prime Minister. In the speech, Reagan described his visit to a concentration camp at the conclusion of World War II. It was quite emotionally stirring but later found to be completely untrue… even Reagan’s own White House issued a statement saying so.[i] Was it an outright lie, emotional manipulation? Or, did Reagan delude himself, feeling that – as leader of the free world – surely he should have had a deeper personal experience/ encounter with this great injustice that had such incredible impact on the world?
I fear our culture is undergoing a crisis of response ability. We are so globally connected; social media and traditional media allow us to track the movements and obsess over every step and action undertaken by famous people. As a pastor, in recent years I have encountered people who cannot sleep at night, whose employment has been compromised, by their obsession with our national state of affairs.
We’ve become reactive rather than responsive and sometimes overwhelmed by problems we feel powerless to address. I imagine all of us could benefit from a little more engagement with the Niebuhr prayer used by Twelve Step groups:
God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,
courage to change the things that should be changed,
and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Serenity Prayer (1943)[ii]
Recently, I was listening to an episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Contemplate This[iii], in which the guest said (my paraphrase… I didn’t write down the exact quote) that, sometimes, the best thing we can do is not make things worse. I’m concerned we are increasingly becoming a culture in which we can’t see the trees for the forest (yes, although I’m sometimes cliché-dysfunctional, that was a purposeful flip of the phrase). We’ve become so obsessed with large-scale, national or global problems that we miss the simple opportunities to act in just and merciful ways each day to make ourselves and our communities a little better. We have the ability to respond and make a difference if we just take the step to live in the moment and be present to what – and who! – is around us.
This Sunday (June 3), I am launching a new sermon series at Trinity (www.trinitylafayette.org) called Response Ability. It’s a chance for us to examine scripture, our lives, and our world and consider ways to make things better, not worse because we are all created and gifted by God to connect with and serve those around us.
[i] Story found in The Selfless Self by Laurence Freeman; Canterbury Press; 2009; p. 90.
[Join us December 10 at http://www.trinitylafayette.org as we observe United Methodist Global Migration Sunday and focus on the themes of vulnerability and weakness. At 9:15 we’ll gather for a discussion on how our personal weaknesses can become a gift and a blessing to others. During 10:30 worship, we’ll be joined by Syrian immigrant and local physician Dr. Akram Al-Makki who will share the story of his extended family’s experiences (past and present) with immigration and migration.]
When I started graduate studies at the University of Akron, I did not have an apartment. So a faculty member invited me to stay at her home. On my first day of fall semester, I drove the 1 ½ hours from northwest PA to Akron to attend class. It made for a long day. Before leaving campus, I stopped in the office to discover the professor had left a note for me. She would be delayed getting home. She provided her address and directions to her house. She explained the door had been left unlocked. I could go in and make myself comfortable.
It was pre-GPS days so I had a hard time finding her house. When I arrived (feeling already stressed and anxious), her dog was barking aggressively at the door. I decided I would hang out in my car and wait. One hour turned into two. I was getting so hungry. Money was scarce. I had a bag of peanuts. I munched on those. It began to get dark. I began to cry. Why was I here? Over the next hour I played a self-defeating loop of negative thoughts, convincing myself that grad school was a big mistake; leaving PA was a big mistake; coming to a city where I knew no one… also a big mistake; thinking I could become a professional musician: big mistake; staying in the home of a complete stranger… you guessed it – mistake; risking walking in on a barking dog that I’d never met: sure to be a mistake.
Decades after the fact, I look back on that evening and laugh. The faculty member finally arrived home with take out from a Chinese restaurant. We ate dinner and talked. She was gracious and hospitable and, by the end of the week, I’d found my own apartment. But that evening, waiting alone in my car outside a stranger’s home, I felt terribly – dreadfully – vulnerable… and I didn’t like it one bit.
In life we often become attached to stuff, positions, accomplishments, even relationships that we think will provide us with a sense of security: retirement plans, an influential supervisor or mentor, a title that sounds impressive, prominent positions in civic organizations. We want to feel strong and capable; not weak or breakable. But to be human is to be vulnerable.
In our gospels, Jesus admonishes his followers to become like children. We love children in our culture. They are adorable! But in Jesus’ culture, children weren’t viewed as precious and innocent. They were viewed as chaotic and undisciplined. Their only virtue lay in their potential to grow up and be respectable adults who could contribute to the honor of their family and village. There were no Children’s Protective Services. If people wanted to beat their children, that was their business. Ugh! Children were extremely vulnerable and entirely dependent on their parents.
When Jesus invites us to become like children, he is inviting us to embrace the reality that we can’t control life in this world. No matter how we worry and scurry and plan, things can go wrong. But, God is with us and loves us and will be faithful in looking out for us if only we will embrace the reality of our vulnerability.
This Advent, the United Methodist Church is celebrating Global Migration Sunday. Migrants and refugees – like the children of antiquity – find themselves in an especially vulnerable and precarious position. Jesus, the Savior whose birth we will soon celebrate, knew that experience. Matthew’s gospel tells us that Jesus, Mary and Joseph were forced to flee the country, escape across the border into Egypt, because King Herod was slaughtering infant boys all over Bethlehem and the surrounding area in an effort to find Jesus and kill him. The Son of God (along with the whole pregnant-mom-out-of-wedlock thing) was born into a family of poor peasants forced to become refugees in order to escape genocide (see Matthew, chapter 2). Maybe that’s why God has always been such a fan of welcoming the alien and the foreigner.
I have to confess: there are moments when I think that ministry might not have been the best decision for my soul. After all, fewer and fewer people go to church in America these days and everything has become far more complex than it was when I was a child going to Sunday School… back in the days when just going to church made you a “good American” and a “good neighbor.” And so we are all challenged (by the culture and our own religious establishments) to work harder and do more to “grow the church.”
But the irony is, as I have aged I’ve discovered, the harder I work for God, the less I become like God. When I work more than I should, I become tired and I find myself losing patience with others and myself. I become resentful of others, cranky and easily frustrated and discouraged.
In her book, “Sacred Rhythms,” Ruth Haley Barton writes, “The point of Sabbath… is to honor the body’s need for rest, the spirit’s need for replenishment and the soul’s need to delight itself in God for God’s own sake… I live within physical limits of time and space… There are limits to my capacities relationally, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. I am not God… [O]ur unwillingness to practice Sabbath is really an unwillingness to live within the limits of our humanity… Something about begin gracious and accepting and gentle with ourselves… enables us to be more gracious and accepting and gentle with others.”[i]
Sabbath was listed among the Ten Commandments and I find we Christians struggle to know what to do with those commandments (OK, even the word itself – “commandments” – leaves us feeling uncomfortable). Some church-goers today seem to feel that memorizing those commandments would get us all back on track and straighten out the world. Others remind us that, as Christians, we are living under the new covenant established in Jesus. But either approach seems to recognize that those commandments – like the incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus – were really all about relationship; i.e. what it means for us to live as human creatures in right (or righteous) relationship with God and one another.
So I don’t think a legalistic enslavement to the practice of Sabbath will help us unwind and rest in God’s presence. But I do think it is God’s reminder – God’s invitation – to us to consider what it means to be human and to live relationally. God is God; we are not. We need rest: time for prayer and play, rest and reflection. If nothing else, we need time to settle in to an awareness of God’s presence, to simply breath in the breathe of God, and invite God to “have thine own way” within us so that we can become not just hard workers for God, but joyful collaborators with God.
[i] Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation by Ruth Haley Barton, IVP Books (Formatio); 2006; pp. 137-138.