Piece of the Puzzle

random musings on whatever…

Category: Spiritual (Page 1 of 11)

The Disaster of Wealth

In the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Amos warns that contempt for truth and a disregard for the poor and disadvantaged leads to disaster. These are words that we might remember as another election day nears. Words that we might ask our political leaders to take to heart. But it is also a warning that is relevant to all of us. Too often even those of us who identify as poor, or at least feel the pressure of meeting our monthly bills on time, fall prey to the mindset that wealth is the true measure of success. It is what our culture teaches us.

And in our desire for greater riches, our desire to be a success, we start to ignore truth and forget about the poor. We start to accept some of the lies we hear, thinking that perhaps little lies don’t matter so much or that maybe it’s ok to tell lies about the liars. We don’t bother fact-checking that great meme before posting it on Facebook. Maybe we think we can’t bother with the homeless when we can barely make our own rent or that businesses shouldn’t have to pay livable wages if that means higher prices for me. Maybe we think it’s ok to vote for a corrupt politician as long as they promise to vote for my pet issue. Maybe we just covet that new phone model. Surely that will solve all of our problems.

When a rich person comes to Jesus asking how they can be one with God, Jesus tells them since they already keep all the commandments that the next step on their spiritual journey is sell all they have and give the proceeds to the poor. Needless to say, the rich person walks away dejected. Jesus’ instruction was alarming not only to the rich person but to everyone there, including the disciples. Living in a capitalistic country that sees wealth as the measure of success, we are probably alarmed as well. But Jesus knew that the person’s wealth, which brought them safety, security and status, had become a spiritual burden. It didn’t allow them to truly be compassionate toward others. It got in the way between them and God as well as between them and their fellow human beings.

Wealth can build a wall around us, isolating us. It can put a buffer between us and the suffering. Wealth can make us think we don’t need each other and get in the way of true community. We’ve all heard someone say: “we earned our wealth,” “they’d succeed if they worked harder,” “it’s only business, nothing personal,” and “the poor are lazy.” Perhaps we’ve even said similar things ourselves. But statements like these only serve to justify the distance between the haves and the have-nots and blame the poor for their poverty, letting those of us who have money off the hook. If we are not able to hear the pain of others, we will not be able to fully experience God for God is found in our relationships with each other and Creation. That, I think, is what was happening to the well intentioned rich person in the biblical story. They weren’t able to fully experience the Divine energy because their wealth stood between them and the people around them.

What burdens do we need to let go of that we might fully encounter God? Is it wealth or the desire for wealth? What burdens do we carry that keep us from living in God’s way of love in the here and now? That get between us and the Divine? Some money is necessary in our society to live, but we should not allow the pursuit of wealth to come between us and those around us. We are all on this journey together. We need each other. It is in “the least of these” that we find God.

For further reflection on the role wealth plays in our lives, check out this thought provoking Ted Talk posted on my church’s blog: https://phoenixchurch.org/home/2018/10/does-money-make-you-mean/. You might also want to listen (or re-listen) to the sermon from October 14, upon which the above reflections are based, at https://phoenixchurch.org/home/sermons/through-the-eye-of-a-needle/. This reflection was originally published in my church’s newsletter.

Making America Great Again

Have you ever wanted to be important? We want to feel needed. We want to feel like we are making a difference in the world. As kids we might dream of being the best at our favorite sport, sinking the winning shot in the championship game. Maybe we dreamed of being admired like a doctor or lawyer or maybe we dreamed of being president, someone with a lot of power. Maybe we achieved some of our dreams of importance and maybe those dreams still linger with us. As adults we still want to matter and make a difference in our lives.

But when we think of importance, when we dream of greatness, we also have to ask ourselves what exactly that means. How do we measure greatness? Is the wealthiest person great? Or is power and influence the critical factor? And who benefits from our desired greatness? Do these dreams come from pure selfishness or do we want to help others? Greatness and its motivations seem to be a hot topic in our country. Some people say they want to “Make America Great Again” but then act out of racism, sexism, homophobia, and a disregard for the poor and disadvantaged. Does being great mean making everyone else miserable? Just what does it mean to be great, to be important?

In the ninth chapter of the gospel of Mark, Jesus’ disciples were debating this very question, arguing amongst themselves about who was the most important of their group. And Jesus tells them how to be great in his eyes: become a servant for others. Greatness has nothing to do with wealth or power. The greatest are those who put the welfare of others first. Cultivating peace and justice; being kind, considerate, and compassionate; acting in the interest of others and the common good… these are the things by which we should measure greatness.

This is the way we are called to live if we choose to follow God’s path and live by God’s wisdom. True greatness is measured by love. We can say God is great because God is love. God loves each one of us without condition. If we want to be great, Jesus tells us, then share that love with those around you. Be a servant and welcome the children and the vulnerable. Love. By welcoming the vulnerable we welcome God. When we love others, we love God.

What if we used love as a measure of greatness everywhere? What if “Make America Great Again” meant: let’s see how loving we can make our country? What a great place that would be! Imagine people outdoing themselves to help others. Imagine people competing to see who can create the most efficient and impactful programs. Not to put money in the hands of the rich but to feed people and provide health care, to end racism, to help victims of abuse instead of blame them… and on and on. What if the greatness of our country and our government was measured by love? Not military power or wealth, but how much it helped people – all people, but especially the vulnerable and oppressed. That is the place I want to live in.

Let’s all have a great (loving) day!

Note: This reflection was originally published in my church newsletter. The church website is www.phoenixchurch.org.

Just Say “Wow!”

This summer I spent several Sunday sermons reflecting on the writings of various mystics, including the 14th century Sufi mystic Hafiz. In one of his poems Hafiz gives us the image of several thieves who stole a large jewel and because they didn’t trust each other they split the jewel into small pieces. Of course, by breaking the jewel into many small but more manageable pieces they ruined its value. Hafiz’s poem goes on to warn us that we do this to God as well.

We yearn for something bigger in our lives, for meaning and purpose, but at the same time we’re uncomfortable with mystery and afraid of the unknown. So when we encounter the mystery of God we try to divide it up to make it more manageable. We want to put God into nice neat boxes that make sense to us and so we analyze, label, and organize until we have doctrines and dogmas that explain away the mystery. Even worse, we demonize what doesn’t fit our understanding. But, in doing so, we diminish the priceless value of encountering the Divine as mystery. Perhaps there are times when we need to understand with our hearts instead of our minds, times when we need to just experience instead of analyze.

The apostle Paul suggests something similar when he tells us to see with the wisdom of God and not the wisdom of the world. Instead of re-making God into something convenient and non-threatening as our ego / mind would have us do, we need to balance that tendency by also listening with our hearts. The heart is more willing to sit with mystery. The heart looks at a sunset in awe while the head wants to explain how light interacts with the atmosphere to produce colors. Both are important. It’s good to know why we see beautiful reds and oranges in the sunset but sometimes we just have to sit, stare, and say “Wow!” Sometimes we just have to sit in the unconditional love of God and say “Wow!”

Where do you encounter God? Where do you find awe and love? Perhaps it’s in the sunset, a walk in the garden, during meditation, or in encounters with other people. The mystics often found God in people in need just as much as in their visions and prayers. As you go through your day, open your heart to the expansiveness of Divine love and mystery wherever you may encounter it. Take a moment to look into someone’s eyes or at the beauty around you and just way “Wow!”

Note: This reflection was first published in my church newsletter and inspired by my sermon from August 12, 2018 titled “Voice of the Invisible.” An audio recording of the sermon can be found on the church sermon page.

The Mystic Journey

I’ve always been intrigued by stories of spiritual mystics, who often describe their encounters with the Divine by talking about visions or ecstatic experiences. Sometimes they talk of the Divine as a lover. But what exactly do we mean when we call someone a mystic? One definition we might use is a person who seeks to experience God directly without the church or anyone or anything else as a mediator. A mystic is someone with a thirst for knowing the Divine Presence in their life. Mystics, however, do not typically stand alone but are part of a religious community and every major religion has mystics within its ranks.

The mystic can spend years preparing themselves for this encounter with God through a variety of spiritual practices including reading scripture, ascetic practices such as fasting or a vow of poverty, prayer, spiritual direction, etc. Although mystics may sometimes have visions, a vision does not make one a mystic. Similarly, one could be a mystic and never have a vision. It’s not about a brief ecstatic experience but a journey of transformation. To directly encounter the God of Love is to be transformed.

When we do hear of a mystic having a vision, how do we tell the difference between truth and delusion? Can we trust the experiences of others when they may sound so foreign to our own life experiences? One test is whether the mystical encounter of God results in a transformation based in love or not. If someone is unchanged by their experience or that change is not based in love, then perhaps they weren’t really encountering the Divine. Mystics tend to seek God with their hearts rather than with their intellect but we shouldn’t completely discount the intellect. We must seek God with both head and heart.

Many of the spiritual practices used by mystics are aimed at letting go of their own egos, that part of our minds that tries to control our lives and protect us. In letting go of our egos, we empty ourselves and make room for the awareness of the Divine Presence to enter, often achieving higher levels of consciousness as we become aware of the Sacred in and around us. While we may not all be called to dedicating our entire lives to the encounter with the Divine, everyone can at least open their hearts to the God within. We can all open ourselves to loving and being loved. Perhaps we can start as we go through our normal day by trying to notice where we see the presence of the Divine… in conversation with a co-worker, in a hug, in a flower or sunset… God is everywhere, in us and around us. Opening ourselves to that awareness will begin within us a transformation of love.

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The above reflection is inspired by my sermon from July 8, “Mystic: Journey of Consciousness.” Audio recordings of sermons are posted at www.phoenixchurch.org.

A Radical Welcome

Providing a radical welcome to marginalized people, especially the LGBTQ community, was a founding goal and principle for Phoenix Community Church. Of course, to welcome folks is about more than tolerance. Radical welcome is about providing a place of belonging, compassion and support. A radical, inclusive welcome remains as important as ever as we see renewed attacks not only on LGBTQ folks, but on many marginalized groups. Immigrants in particular have become a scapegoat for our nation’s problems and insecurities and are regularly demonized and persecuted. A recent public letter from the national officers of the United Church of Christ denounces governmental persecution of immigrants and reminds us that we are called to respect and honor the humanity and sanctity of all people.

It is important that we stand up and speak out, especially in this current stormy period in history that feels increasingly dangerous. As we more and more see the ugly shadow side of humanity on display in places of power, it is easy to feel frightened and panicky, much like the disciples who were caught at sea in a storm in Mark 4. In their fright they wake a sleeping Jesus who calms the storm and then challenges them: “Have you no faith?”

In their panic, the disciples reveal their lack of trust in God. On the other hand, Jesus in this story models faith for them by displaying the courage and audacity to confront the danger. His question “have you no faith?” implies the disciples should have handled the situation themselves. One might think the disciples had faith because they turned to Jesus in a time of trouble but by looking to Jesus to solve their problem for them, they actually showed how much they doubted God. Faith doesn’t mean trusting God will swoop in and perform miracles for us like Superman or the Lone Ranger. Faith means that God is already with us, guiding us, empowering us, ready to perform miracles through us.

But, how do we remain centered like Jesus and find the courage and audacity to act when the world feels like a deadly storm bearing down on us? How do we find the courage and audacity to stand up in the current climate against racism and homophobia? How do we find the courage and audacity to stand up for the rights of immigrants who are the beloved children of God as much as we are? Another way to ask the question is, what reminds us of God’s presence in a time of trouble? When panic, fear, and unfocused anger threaten to overwhelm us?

Unfortunately, we each have to answer that question for ourselves. One suggestion might be to choose an image we have for God and then picture that image merging with our own body. Perhaps the image is Jesus or a bright light or a flame. It doesn’t really matter what image we use for the Divine, but focus on that image (which is, of course, a symbol for God and not actually God) merging with us so that we become one with it. If we fix the merged image in our mind then when our seas are feeling too stormy we can call this image again into our minds to remind ourselves of the Divine that resides within us always, to remind ourselves that we are worthy and sacred, that through this Spirit of God within us we have the courage and audacity to perform the miracle of facing our fears, that we have the courage and audacity to stand up and speak truth to the powers of this world as we seek justice for all people.

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The above reflection is inspired by my sermon from June 24, “Stormy Seas.” Audio recordings of sermons are posted at www.phoenixchurch.org/sermons.php for about 6 months.

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