Monday, December 31, 2012

Changed minds


Advent places a special emphasis on the mission of John the Baptist. John was a prophet. He was obsessed with the truth. He lived a life of rigorous honesty and was killed for it. In the New Testament John prepares the way for the Christ by telling people there is a problem, there is work to be done. What would we do with John the Baptist? Would we ignore him, or say to him “go away, we like our lives just fine, we don’t want to change”. After all, there are major problems in our lives and many people would rather not hear about them…We have some very smart men and women telling us we are, AS A CULTURE, at an impasse. We need a miracle—only the impossible can help us now. Advent is about preparing for, longing for, the impossible…isn’t the coming of the Christ associated with symbols of the impossible? After all virgins can’t have babies—or can they?
Advent is not ultimately a time of preparation leading up to a celebration of something that happened in the historical record 2 thousand years ago. Christmas, although it symbolizes the birth of a kind of Independence, represents something much more profound than the fourth of July. The fourth of July commemorates a declaration of Independence on the historical or temporal plane of existence—Christmas is ultimately about freedom or independence at the very center or ground of our being.  And just as it was with the American independence—the kind of freedom we are to prepare for during advent also requires radical change, and even deliverance from the control of a king.  But this is not a king ruling us from some distant shore—this is a king we live with day in and day out. Last week I was in Wegmans and I just stood there in the middle of the crowded store listening, and watching. There were advertisements trying to seduce, there were celebrity magazines, there was a child screaming and jumping up and down because she wanted something---men and women with shopping carts so full they could feed 10 families.  If consumption without need is a hallmark of addiction then wegmans and east-view mall are crack-houses. Consumerism is making us all junkies.  And this time of year always reminds me of this—with its explosion of stuff, craving, and over-indulgence. Heck, just like heroin or cocaine addicts, we even rationalize these behaviors—I can splurge—after all it’s the holidays. In the words of one of the leading thinkers on the subject: “addiction is rising like the world’s oceans, and for many of the same reasons—there is a rising flood of addiction all over the world” and another says that she believes the vast majority of Americans bear the psychological marks of addiction.   Why are we at an impasse, why do we need the impossible to happen? Why do we need a miracle? Because as any of the top-guns in the field of addiction would tell you—you simply cannot think your way out of an addiction—in fact the more you try to think you’re way out, the deeper in the hole you go—so once you’re really hooked—you’re in an impossible situation. You need an intervention. You better hope a power greater than your-self shows up. Christmas is meant to represent the appearance of a power greater than ourselves within creation that brings freedom, independence, and deliverance. AND Advent is the preparation for such an appearance. But our consumerist culture has turned this season into a celebration of materialism, dependence, self-centeredness, and addiction—and for those of you that read Richard Rohr, he reminds us that self-centeredness and addiction are synonyms for what the Bible calls sin. In Alcoholics Anonymous, members commemorate the day they quit drinking—they call it their “sobriety date”. This is, if you will a kind of Christmas for them—it’s the appearance in their lives of a power greater than themselves that is also the birth of a New Way of experiencing and living and Being in the World. This is essentially what Christmas symbolizes— and this is what we are to prepare for during Advent. It seems to me that during the Christmas season the modern American culture is like an alcoholic preparing for the celebration of her sobriety date by spending a month doing shots of Jack Daniels.
Embedded in our text this morning is important information about the spiritual practice OR PREPARATIONS of the first century Jews we call the first Christians and this clues us into the real meaning of this season…
As I said before, Advent gives a special emphasis to the mission of John the Baptist. In Luke 3:3 John is preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This is a loaded line packed with a whole culture’s way of preparing the way of the Lord—or in other words their way of preparing for an immediate experience of a power beyond and greater than the self.
For first century apocalyptic Jews baptism was very different than it is for the modern church-goer. Baptism in Christianity is now a rite of initiation that often takes place once and often during infancy; but for ancient apocalyptic Jews like John and Jesus baptism was very different---it was a preparatory rite—a ritual that was meant to prepare them for a direct encounter with the divine.  It was part of a whole series of rituals, part of an entire religious practice meant to cleanse and prepare one for a meeting with God. Such practices would go on for mystics like Jesus and John anywhere from 12 to 40 days. It is said that this was part of the way Jewish mystics would “still their hearts”. Stilling their hearts meant making peace within the deepest part of their being.  And then they would be ready to receive a power greater than self. How do we facilitate such an experience of peace in our lives? How do we quiet ourselves down so that we can receive and commune with the divine? Do we even take religious practice seriously? Peace certainly does not come through craving and buying what a consumerist culture tries to sell us.   
A baptism of repentance—the word we translate as repentance is the Greek word metanoia. This word means “going beyond or changing your mind” it refers to a transformation of consciousness. Anyone that has successfully dealt with an addiction will tell you it required a change of mind—what Bill W. called a profound personality change. It seems to me that our culture desperately needs a change of mind. One of the ways we know ancient Jews and Christians transformed consciousness was through the practice of deep forms of prayer—this is not verbal, petitionary prayer---this is the kind of prayer Jesus described as “going into your inner room”.  Through such a practice one could change his or her mind. Modern brain science tells us that in fact, this kind of prayer does change minds—it actually changes the physical composition of the brain and it has been shown to improve all kinds of conditions from cocaine and alcohol addiction to anxiety disorders and depression. It can also facilitate spiritual experiences that include a sense that one has encountered God. It is good for the body and the soul. John offered a baptism of metanoia or changing one’s mind for the forgiveness of sins. How might changing one’s mind bring about the forgiveness of sins? Well if we look at the Greek word we translate as “forgiveness” we might get a better sense of what Luke is talking about. Aphesin means to release, as in the letting go of a prisoner or the release of someone from obligation or bondage.  In deep forms of prayer one can experience the release or letting go of self and the sense that one is in the presence of God.  This is surely the release or forgiveness of sins or self-centeredness Luke is talking about.  
For ancient Jews these are a few of the practices that would have prepared the way of the Lord. What are we doing to change or go beyond our minds, to release ourselves from the addictive, consumerist culture on full display during this season? Do we take such practices seriously anymore? Are we doing THIS in preparation for Christmas? Or are we giving ourselves over to a market and dollar driven culture that encourages the opposite—the building up of self and self-centeredness?
Taking our spiritual growth and development seriously by actively engaging practices similar to those of John and Jesus is something we can do to “prepare the way of the Lord”. In this way we can transcend self-centeredness in a world that is turning all of us into addicts. If we prepare the way, maybe we can change our minds and be released from the bondage of self and experience the birth of a New Way of Being in the world.  A very powerful consumerist culture says you don’t have much of a chance.  But maybe the impossible will happen; maybe a virgin can have a baby. LET IT BE SO!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Go tell

Luke 2:22-35
Colossians 3:12-17

I'm not much of a history buff, but I was doing some of my Benedictine continuing education reading...Esther DeWaal writes about the practice of baptism in the early centuries of the church
Baptisms were usually done as the culmination of Lent, at Easter Eve worship, by immersion in candidates stood at the edge of the pool of water, they were instructed by the bishop “take off your clothes!”
Following immersion they were clothed with new garments, symbols of their new life in Christ.

We may not do that anymore, most of us would say thankfully (especially our two girls being baptized today)--but there is still much to learn from this ancient practice. The willingness to drop everything of your old life, the vulnerability to stand naked in front of all, and the openness to a completely new life are still hallmarks of the Christian community.

We can see such hallmarks even before there was such a thing as Christianity, we see it in the nativity stories.....shepherds left sheep behind, stood vulnerably where they shouldn't really be, and judging by their telling everyone about what had happened, they were open to something new.
Likewise Simeon in our story today...

We can see this pattern all through faith history, not just in Christianity: listen, go, tell

shepherds listened to angels, went to Bethlehem, told what had happened.
Simeon listened to the Spirit, went to the temple, fore- told what he envisioned
If we'd read on, Anna listened to scriptures, lived at the temple, and told what she'd encountered in the Christ child.

That is the pattern we are called to live: listen, go, tell.

Each of us has different experiences with God, we're not all called to “listen, go and tell” in the same exact way....what I hear and how I encounter the Divine, where I live and where I work will be significantly different from how Chris does, or you do. But that doesn't excuse any of us, individually or as a congregation from living this pattern.

Those early Christians being baptized had listened to God's call on their lives, listened to teaching all through Lent, then went to the edge of the pool, and dropped their past to tell everyone watching who and whose they now were.

And those new clothes bring us to the meat of this new life pattern, as St Paul writes in Colossians.

As God’s chosen ones: Like those first Christians, God has chosen us for a great task—the task of living together in a covenant of love
God has chosen us to live out that covenant not only for ourselves but in community, for it was to a community of Christians that this letter was written—so our chosen-ness by God is to be shared with others, and felt by others.
Not only are you chosen by God, but you are
Holy and beloved in the sight of God.
If God considers you and me sacred, holy…if God calls you ‘beloved’, can we do any less for each other?

Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility meekness and patience:
Today we’re all decked out in our finery for church; we have taken time to look good on the outside; new clothes or jewellery we got at Christmas perhaps, make up, cologne. We go to a fair bit of trouble to look nice in our outward appearance.
What God asks of us is that we take as much care, not just for church or special occasions, but moment by moment and day by day, with how are lives are dressed, how we are on the inside
All are hallmarks of the life pattern of Listen, Go, Tell, because that's how people will know who and whose we are.

All are attitudes of spirit that many of us have already found in one another, and all are attributes that will strengthen and grow our faith life together here in this place and beyond these walls. We listen to scripture, to God, to one another, and learn to cast off our old attitudes and behaviors, put on these new clothes, and by our lives tell what God is doing.

So today, let us not only celebrate the birth of the ultimate chosen one, holy and beloved as he was, but let us celebrate the love and expectations God has for each and every one of us.

Listen--What has an encounter with angels, or the Christ child or the Spirit meant to you?

Go---Get dressed in compassion, kindness, humility, patience

Go-- tell it with your life.

Thursday, December 27, 2012


This meditation for Christmas Eve was enhanced by Linda's hammered dulcimer in the background and in pauses marked

Starlight                                            Christmas Eve 2012

Music plays quietly in the background, returning regularly to the refrain of “We Three Kings”  (star of wonder)

And God made great lights to shine,
one to rule the day,
and one to rule the night,
and God also made the stars, says the tradition,
determining their number,
and calling each of them by name 
Zohar in Hebrew, brilliant light
Zohal in Arabic, brightest star
and they looked up and saw a star, a Zohal,
a star, a star
 shining in the east
beyond, beyond them far
and to the earth, to the earth,
 it gave great light
and so
it continued
both day and night
a star, a star,
 dancing in the night
with a tail as big as a kite
a star leads us to the child, the child,
sleeping in the night
who will bring us goodness and light
and the star they had seen went ahead of them
and they followed, followed
until it stopped
stopped over the place where the child lay,
the star child,
the inner light of the universe
star child, earth child,  go-between of God
love child, Christ child, heaven's lightning rod
This year, this year,
let the day arrive when Christmas comes
for everyone, everyone alive
And those who are wise, says the psalmist,
will shine like the brightness of the stars.......
stars that have their own unique splendor
each different from its neighbor, says St Paul,
so children of God,
Children of God,
 in a warped and crooked generation,
you, you will shine among them
like stars in the sky
We, we who have the Christ light in us,
we are called to be stars,
stars of wonder,
stars of light,
stars of hope to the hopeless,
stars of peace to the wartorn and abused,
stars of joy to the deep sadness pervading our world,
stars of love,
love, Love...for God so loved the world.....
sometimes stars shine
and bring light in the darkness,
sometimes stars flicker and fade,
overcome by the darkness, 
but we,
we who have the Christ light of Love within us
shine on,
and simply trust when darkness overwhelms us that others shine in the darkness when we cannot,
until it is our turn again,
ignited by the Christ light,
 to be stars of love.
star of wonder, star of light,
star with royal beauty bright,
westward leading,
still....still to this day preceding us,
guide us to that perfect light…..
shine in us
shine through us
so we may be light in this dark world
radiant with hope
shining for peace
brilliant in joy
ignited by Love.

Christmas is the birth of the Christ

This is the fourth Sunday in Advent, the season of preparation and longing. According to Christian tradition this is the season in which we prepare to be reconciled to God through the birth of the Christ, the redeemer who will save us from the curse of the fall. In other words by reconciling us to God Christ brings wholeness where before there was brokenness. So Advent is a time of longing, of thirsting for wholeness! I am reminded of the words the psychologist Carl Jung wrote to Bill Wilson, the cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Jung wrote, and I am paraphrasing here, “the craving for alcohol is connected to the spiritual thirst in our being for wholeness”.  Of course, alcoholism is, like many other things, a misguided attempt at wholeness. This advent, as we thirst for wholeness, how are we preparing for its arrival? The author of Hebrews, our text this morning, is concerned with two distinct ways of attempting to cure brokenness, the old way of the sacrificial system, and the new way of the Christ.
Our text says, “When Christ came into the world he said, Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired” this may seem strange or just plain irrelevant to us—after all I have never seen an animal sacrifice up here.  But we do, of course have a very common sacrificial religion in our modern churches. Richard Rohr calls this “the myth of the heroic sacrifice”. And he says it is the most common substitute for the gospel. While it often looks very caring, very giving, it is usually, as Rohr says, all about me. This is because sacrifice or renunciation to gain something is barter. In this there is no giving up but only exchange. We renounce this in order to gain that. It leaves us in what Jesus might call “a den of robbers”. This so-called self-sacrifice is an extension of the self. This is actually refinement of self disguised as self-renunciation and however refined and subtle the self becomes it is still enclosed and limited. This is so close to us we often don’t see it. Renunciation for a cause, no matter how great, no matter how extensive, global or local, is substitution of the cause for the self; the cause becomes the self. This allows the person who is “sacrificing” to feel better about the disparity between herself and the people being helped. In this process there is no giving up of self, but only a gaining of greater satisfaction; and the search for greater satisfaction has no element of the true sacrifice the gospel speaks of. The helper’s rewards are the pity she feels for the disadvantaged and the social outrage she feels for the injustices of life. This does not bring wholeness. I mean the proof is in the pudding—our culture loves this kind of sacrificial religion—but our culture is not whole. That is because we help without doing anything about the psychological barriers to inter-action—we pass money through a hole in the fence. If we don’t do anything about the barriers to inter-action obviously we can never be whole—we remain separate, estranged, enclosed, and broken. That is our sacrificial religion---with its priests and zealots who, like their counterparts in the ancient temple, perform prescribed rituals, and in their own way serve the poor. All so they can take the moral high ground, as they are subliminally passing along a message of inequality, and diminishing those they assist.
Jesus and the first century Jews he was a part of strongly disliked the temple’s sacrificial system for many reasons both political and spiritual or psychological. One reason is that they saw that this sacrificial religion was without repentance—in other words it was ritualistic sacrifice without changing or going beyond one’s mind—sacrifice without getting beyond self.
If we look at verses 5 through 10 we see more clearly what the author of Hebrews says about Jesus’ approach—an approach by the way, that he says later in the letter, we are to emulate. In these verses we hear Jesus quoting Psalm 40, telling us that sin offerings do not please God. In 7 he says ‘Then I said, see God, I have come to do your will O God”. In verse 9 he repeats this and says “I have come to do your will”. Some very important ideas about Jesus’ religion are being communicated in these verses. For one, sacrifices are no substitute for repentance, in other words, this kind of religion will not bring about a change of mind and will not remove the barriers to wholeness. Also they will not cleanse one of sin therefore they will not reconcile human and divine. The other thing we learn here about Jesus’ religion is that true sacrifice is conformity to God’s will. This will bring down the barriers to inter-action. If those barriers are still up one cannot conform to the will of God because one is still enclosed behind those barriers in a state of self-centered estrangement. Remember, Jesus’ religion was apocalyptic—meaning he directly experienced the divine in visions and revelations. And as many of you have heard me say several times, because it gets at the core of the gospel, certain first century Jews practiced techniques meant to facilitate such visions and revelations. For centuries practicioners of such techniques have reported the experience of transcending self while in higher states of consciousness. In our own day brain science is merging with psychotherapy and showing us how meditative states of consciousness can help transcend self and remove barriers to inter-action, allowing for a process of integration to occur. These therapists may not know it, but since they are helping people to change their minds, they are helping them to repent. In Jesus’ religion accessing these higher states allowed one to conform to God’s will, by breaking down the self-imposed barriers to inter-action. Throughout history mystics have reported this connection to a divine or ultimate level of reality—and these experiences are often so profound that they completely rearrange one’s relationship to the world, therefore changing how one relates to other people. In verse 9 we hear that Jesus abolished the old sacrificial religion by wholly offering himself. And it is in this way that sanctification or the cleansing of sin occurs. When the author of Hebrews uses the word sin he uses the Greek word hamartia—meaning self-originated sin. We are cleansed of self-originated sin by this kind of whole-self-sacrifice. Two thousand years into Christianity and it seems we still don’t really hear what is being said. Perhaps because we misinterpret these strange writings to mean that Jesus was the only one who needed to renounce or sacrifice self, but that, I am more than convinced, is a mistake. Whenever I speak to men and women in recovery about their 3rd step I think of the New Testament. Step three says, “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him”. This kind of self-sacrifice is all over the gospels, and we are told that it leads to union with God, or wholeness. In the gospels we hear Jesus say, “If anyone wants to follow me, let him renounce himself.” In Galatians Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” And in his letter to the Romans Paul writes, “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Paul and Jesus are certainly not talking about some sort of kamikaze or suicide bomber trip. They are speaking in first century Jewish language about the kind of profound self-sacrifice that was obviously a big part of their religious practice. It is only by recovering the meditative roots of our faith that we can hope to have intelligent conversations with the culture at large about these texts.
  This Advent season I can see that the modern church needs to direct its thirst for Wholeness in an ancient and yet completely New Way—the practical and contemplative way of the Christ. This is the time of the year for the birth of the New Being. It seems to me that if the modern Christian church wishes to experience something new, if it wishes to renew its mind so that it can participate in a New State of things,—it will have to do something new—by going down a very old road.  LET IT BE SO!