For a long time, I believed the great divide in our nation was between political conservatives and political progressives. Over the last four years, as we have watched the division grow wider, it has actually become clear that those are not the lines that divide us at all. If it were about conservative vs. progressive approaches to problems then we should be able to reasonably negotiate compromises for the good of our nation and her people. But we seem to have lost the ability to compromise. No, a battle between conservative and progressive is not what is ailing our nation.
Category: Spiritual Page 1 of 14
We often perceive something lacking in our lives. We want something better, something more than what we’ve got. Perhaps we’re seeking a better job or a romantic interest. But what are we truly looking for? What would fulfill us? Are we seeking love? Peace? Hope? Meaning? A deeper knowledge of ourselves and of God? A sense of belonging? Community? Maybe we are looking for ways to contribute to making the world a better place. Do we even know what we want and need?
If we don’t know what we’re looking for, how do we know we’re looking in the right place? It’s a lot easier to find what we need if we know what it is. So often, we sense a lack in our lives and we try to fill it in the strangest places and in the worst ways. We buy stuff as if how many possessions we have is the answer to all of our unasked questions. Or we turn to alcohol or drugs. Or we seek power or to control other people.
In the gospel of John, Jesus notices two people following him and asks them, “What are you looking for?” and they respond by inquiring about where he lives. How strange! But one answer is that Jesus lives in the kin-dom of God. The kin-dom, however, is not a literal place but a way of life. Is that what they were looking for, a new life? The good news is that Jesus invites them to “come and see” for themselves where he lives. If we are looking for God, for love… if we feel a lack in our lives and want to be fulfilled, then we too are invited to come and see where Jesus lives…
Do we find ourselves falling into despair because of what’s happening in the world and in our country? Or are we also able to see those that are working for justice, that are making a positive difference in the world? Because that’s where Jesus lives – in those that reach out a hand to a stranger in need. Do we take time to look within ourselves? We need to interrupt our thinking heads once in a while to see and feel what is in our hearts. For there also Jesus dwells. I wonder if what we really seek is our true essence. I wonder if what we really want and need is to uncover that gleam of the Divine that lives within each of us.
Perhaps the full answer to what are we looking for is uncovered through the journey. This journey to “come and see” is best taken in community. If you’re looking for people to walk with you and don’t have a spiritual community, you are always welcome at Phoenix Community Church no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey (as we are wont to say in the United Church of Christ). If we seek the kin-dom of God, if we seek a life of hope and peace, a path of justice, then come and see where Jesus dwells. On the path revealed by Jesus we experience the kin-dom of God and open ourselves to the transformation and healing that uncovers our true essence, that lets our lights shine, filling the world with hope and love.
This reflection was inspired by the sermon, “What Are You Looking For?” from Sunday, January 19, 2020, and published in my church newsletter on January 31, 2020. Audio recordings of most sermons can be found at https://phoenixchurch.org/home/phx-sermons/.
Call to Worship (inspired by Psalm 40:1-11)
One: Happy are those who do not turn to false idols but put their trust in God.
Many: Let us put our trust in God!
One: God hears our cries and lifts us from our despair.
Many: God hears us and helps us, asking nothing in return.
One: O God, do not withhold your mercy from us.
Many: God’s steadfast love and faithfulness will keep us safe forever.
One: God’s wondrous deeds are beyond compare!
Many: We come together to sing God’s praises to the world!
One: Let us share the glad news of God’s salvation with joy.
Many: Let us delight in God’s desires for us.
Invocation (inspired by 1 Corinthians 1:3-6, Isaiah 49:6)
Call out to us this day and fill us with your grace and peace.
Enrich us with your Spirit that we may be strengthened
in our service to you. Guide us on your path
that we may be the light of your salvation to the world.
Although some of us might have already taken down our trees, manger scenes, and other decorations, it is still officially the Christmas season. In the church calendar we celebrate Christmas until Epiphany begins on January 6, which is also still about recognizing the light that has come. Sometimes we need these many reminders of God’s presence born into our lives.
What does it mean when we celebrate this child Jesus who was born so long ago? Historically, there isn’t much we really know with certainty about Jesus’ birth. We have the four biblical gospels, but Mark and John don’t even talk about Jesus’ birth and Matthew and Luke differ on the details. And, of course, these accounts of Jesus’ birth, as well as those of his life, death, and resurrection, aren’t really written to give us historical details, but to tell us deeper truths of who Jesus was and is.
Matthew tells the story of an angel visiting Joseph. The angel tells Joseph that there is something special about the baby that Mary is carrying and the angel gives the baby two names: Jesus, which means “one who saves,” and Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” Both names are important statements about who Jesus is, but perhaps “God is with us” better captures the spirit of Christmas.
Christians understand God as having taking human form in a small baby. A baby is vulnerable. A baby needs help. A baby does not represent a vengeful God who comes to crush our enemies. God doesn’t come to us as a violent God, but as a child, vulnerable as we are vulnerable, to be received and loved, not feared. John 3:16 says that God so loved the world that God gave us Jesus. Despite the connection often made between this famous bible verse and Jesus’ death, John 3:16 doesn’t actually talk about his death and resurrection. It says only that Jesus is a gift of love. Jesus is the incarnation of God’s love. Jesus as “God with Us” is also “Love with us.” When we get to wishing people would put Christ back into Christmas perhaps we’re really saying let us put love back into Christmas. I’m ok with that because the world needs a lot more love.
Christmas is ultimately not about Mary being a virgin, or the wise people traveling from a far away land, or angels appearing to shepherds. All of these are wonderful stories which are told to convey to us the truth that God is with us. Our Christmas celebrations invite us to stop and look for “God with us,” to notice the Christ-presence in our own time, to notice where and when Love is born into the world. Take a moment today to look for signs of love within you and around you: a kind word, someone helping a stranger, a special unexpected gift, an act of charity and compassion, sunshine peaking through winter clouds, the companionship of a pet… where do you see Christ in the world? Where do you see love in the world? Stop and look. Stop and listen. For God is with us.
This reflection was published in my church newsletter on January 3, 2020 and inspired by the sermon, “God is with Us,” from Sunday, December 22, 2019. Audio recordings of most of my sermons can be found at https://phoenixchurch.org/home/phx-sermons/.
Part 2 — To read part 1 go here.
I’ve already tried to describe a little of what going to the Wild Goose Festival is like in Part 1: What is the Wild Goose Festival and what is it like? Now I want to take just a couple more paragraphs to reflect on the messages of the Goose. I’m so impressed by the big names that come and speak at this festival every year. I can’t say enough about how inspiring and energizing the experience was but I’ll mention a few of my favorite things from this year’s (2019) festival, in no particular order.
The opening night speaker was Otis Moss III. His talk was energizing but to be honest I don’t remember much of what he said. I don’t think that is his fault. He spoke on opening night and so much happened since then it just got pushed out of my brain. I’ve heard him speak before and I’ve always come way impressed.
I also love hearing Barbara Brown Taylor speak. She was interviewed about her new book, “Holy Envy.” I tried to buy a copy the next day in the festival bookstore but it was already sold out. I’ll be buying a copy now that I’m home. She wrote the book as a tribute to students she’s taught as a world religions professor. She writes of their experiences learning about other religions as well as how we can learn from each others’ faiths. Again, I don’t really remember a lot of the details but I was left with the feeling that this is a book I definitely need to read.
William Barber, a Disciples of Christ Minister and found of the Poor People’s Campaign, is also always inspiring. He made a passionate call for a “moral Pentecost” – right here and right now! It’s something we should all be concerned about and consider getting involved with: https://www.poorpeoplescampaign.org/.
One of the musical groups was the Nine Beats Collective, a world-wide ranging group who gathered to do music inspired by the Beatitudes. Check them out: https://9beats.org/.
In a smaller workshop I attended one of the speakers talked about forgiveness not only being about the “sinner” but also about the victim of the “sin” and the pain of those sinned against. We can’t claim innocence but need to deal with our complicity in others’ pain. That seemed like a point worth hanging onto for further reflection.
Christy Berghoef, Brian McLaren, and John Pavlovitz had a panel discussion on civil discourse vs. prophetic voice. I found it engaging because this is a tension I’ve felt as a minister. I would paraphrase the conundrum like this: Do we work on building relationships with those we disagree with, which might involve holding our tongue or moderating what we say and how we say it? Or do we bluntly tell the truth as we understand it and let the chips fall where they may, even if it may break relationships instead of building them? Berghoef was new to me and I’ve always admired McLaren’s work. I knew of Pavlovitz before this talk but he’s always seemed too confrontational to me. I came away impressed by him. I’m a fan now. One thing he talked about is while he uses his prophetic voice in social media and comes across as a jerk to many, he also tries to engage in dialog with those he angers. So maybe there’s a line here where we can be truth-tellers and still be relationship-builders. I hope so.
Another person who was new to me was Stan Mitchell. While many of the messages I heard over the weekend were energizing and inspiring, his really touched my heart. The weird thing is, I’m not really sure why because what he was saying was pretty much what I’ve tried to preach myself but perhaps presented in a little different (better?) way. Or maybe it just had to do with where I was spiritually and emotionally in the moment. Anyway, what he was talking about was coming from a church where he was taught of his supposed inherent evil and separation from God as a fallen human being. He gave interpretations of the Garden of Eden story and of the Parable of the Prodigal Son to make the point that we are not inherently evil but we are inherently beautiful, good, and beloved by God. Some points to ponder: it’s not sin that separates us from God but shame. When Eve covered up her nakedness in the Garden, it wasn’t because she was bad and she had to be covered before God would come near her but she needed to cover up so *she* would be comfortable in God’s presence. It wasn’t about sin, but about shame. God doesn’t separate from us, but we separate from God. Further, he didn’t like the word separation but preferred estrangement from God because estrangement implies that in our natural state we belong with God. Separation is space between two (potentially unrelated) things. Estrangement is space between two things that belong together. Mitchell didn’t state it, but I think the estrangement terminology comes from the theologian Paul Tillich. Also, talking about the Prodigal Son, Mitchell pointed out that the father in the parable never goes looking for the son who squandered his wealth. But he does go looking for the son that had stayed home but doesn’t come to the feast. That is, the lost one in the parable is really the elder son. There was more to it, but I think it is a point worth reflection. I wish I had a video of this sermon. It really made me think about shame and what shame I might carry with me that estranges me from the Holy.
So, perhaps the big question is that now I’m home, how do I carry this experience into my every day life. With current events, the plight of children housed in concentration camps by my own government is on my heart… one of many important, emotionally deflating, and often inter-related issues (for example, what’s happening to those children is directly related to racism and the white nationalism espoused by our president). Can I do something about it? How can I use my prophetic voice and my circles of influence to create justice in the world?
My post festival to-do list: 1) find my niche in justice seeking and 2) make time for my spiritual practices that I might get in touch with my inner shame and draw closer to the Holy. Will I do these things? Only God knows for sure what the future holds, but here’s a prayer that the Wild Goose (i.e. the Holy Spirit) will fly before me, leading me (and all of us) into the Way of God’s kin-dom of love and justice.