18 February 2010

Meditation: "Mortality"

"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return" --traditional words spoken on Ash Wednesday as ashes are traced on the forehead in the sign of the cross

"The best thing of all is, God is with us." --reported to be the final words of John Wesley (founder of the Methodist movement in England)

"When we are living, it is in Christ Jesus, and when we're dying, it is in the Lord. Both in our living and in our dying, we belong to God." --from the hymn Pues Si Vivimos (When We are Living)
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Dear Friends,

Last night, as I smudged ashes on foreheads with the words above ("Remember that you are dust..."), I was struck by two paradoxical feelings--how uncomfortable it felt on the one hand, and how freeing on the other.

For those who don't know, Ash Wednesday is the first day of the season of Lent, a season characterized by repentance and renewed commitment to God. Every year, on Ash Wednesday, Lent begins with the reminder of our mortality--which is an inescapable part of being human. Being reminded of our mortality reminds us of our humanity which, in turn, is a reminder of our utter dependence upon God. Hence, the season of Lent is a time to do some "soul clean-up" with a renewed commitment to trust God, and God alone.

There was a time in my life when I was more at peace with my own mortality. Maybe it was because I was young and foolish--I was in my 20's at the time. But I can't help but wonder if it was because I spent a year working in a hospice for homeless men with full-blown AIDS where death was inescapable. I know it sounds bleak, but in a way being exposed to death--as tragic as it often was--normalized it. What I mean is that I began to understand that death is as much a part of life as being born. It will happen to all of us, sooner or later. Because in so many ways we shield ourselves from death, no wonder so many feel great fear and anxiety when they are in the presence of dying and death. Though I never got completely used to it, working in an environment where death was not a stranger eased some of my fear of it.

But that was then. Now, in my late 30's and with two small children, I am not so cavalier about death. I look at my children and worry over what their lives will be like if something happens to me. I have a deep sense of responsibility for their well being. I look at my children and wonder what my life will be like if something happens to them. Though it seemed cute at the time, it gave me pause when my own girls--5 and 1 1/2--asked me to trace the sign of the cross in ashes on their foreheads. "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." I couldn't even bring myself to say the words. I don't want to think about their mortality--they are just children, after all.

But that's what Ash Wednesday forces me to do--to acknowledge my own mortality, and the mortality of all those I know and love. That's the uncomfortable feeling I felt last night. In a death-denying culture, it's no wonder I would feel that discomfort. At the same time, however, there is a sense of freedom in acknowledging my mortality. It is freeing because it is an affirmation that I am not God, and don't need to be. There is a sense of honesty in acknowledging my mortality which allows me to let go of my illusions of power and control and perfection. I am a finite creature, plain and simple, a creature of God. As I looked around that circle of human beings with their mortality smudged on their foreheads, I thought, "Well look at us, O God, your creatures. Not one of us is perfect. But in our living and in our dying, we belong to you."

The spiritual move Ash Wednesday challenges me to make is this--to entrust the whole of my life to God. Not to run away from death. Not to pretend like it does not exist. But to acknowledge it and at the very same time to say,

"In you alone, O God, I place my trust."

Blessings on you,

Jeremy

Prayer: Compassionate God, Help me to live not in the shadow of death, but in the strong light of your merciful grace. Amen.

09 February 2010

Meditation: "Paying Attention"

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but God was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but God was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:11b-13)

Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. (Exodus 24:15-17)

Theophany (noun): An appearance of God to a human or to a group of people, as with the burning bush to Moses (Exod 3:4) or the pillar of cloud or fire leading the people (Num 14:14).

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Dear Friends,

Are you driven to distraction?

On Frontline last week there was a report about the changes happening in society because of the digital revolution. Even in my lifetime, I've seen a huge shift with the rise of personal computers and the emergence of an incredible array of digital gadgets. This particular program was about the ever shrinking attention span of young adults as they, more than any generation before them, have learned to multi-task with an iPod in one hand, a cell phone in the other, and a laptop open before them. As it turns out, fewer and fewer people have the power of concentration and an ability to deeply focus on one task or thought for any length of time.

I include myself in this. More than I care to admit I will try to do at least two things at once--say, talk on the phone and read email. At home, it's often three or more things at once as I add children into the mix! But there have been times, very deliberate moments, when I have realized that I am driving myself to distraction. There are times when I am acutely aware that I need to intentionally set all of it aside and just focus and pay attention. To what? At the least, anything other than the beeping phone, the flashing email, and the ten other things I was just doing at once!

This matters to me because I don't want to live a distracted life. I want to live a focused life, a life that is attuned to the presence of God in and through all things. I believe that God does indeed reveal Godself to us. But in my experience, full-blown theophanies (see definition above) are extremely rare. In my experience, God does not thunder and shake the earth and burst things into fire as is so vividly described in the Hebrew scriptures (and not meant to be taken literally). Rather, God tends to reveal Godself quietly and subtly. If we aren't able to pay attention, to really concentrate or focus, then how will we hear the still, small voice of God? (This, of course, is what contemplative Christians and practitioners of meditation have understood for ages.) If we are so distracted by the incredible volume of information instantaneously available to us on our computer, by the sensory overload of mp3s and the internet and HDTV, how capable will we be of perceiving the less spectacular, quieter manifestations of God?

I'm pondering how I can take this further in my own life. Maybe, instead of fasting or giving up chocolate or coffee during Lent, I'll "fast" from all electronics for a day. And not just fast, but pay attention--to God, to my life, to the Spirit of God moving in the world around me.

Blessings on you,

Jeremy

Prayer: God of the sound of sheer silence, each day grant me the will to set aside the distractions and focus my heart and mind on you--even for just a few minutes. Amen.

04 February 2010

Meditation: "Confidence Boost"

God said, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.”   --Jeremiah 1:4-10

We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, talented or fabulous?” Actually, who are you NOT to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us, it’s in everyone. --Marianne Williamson
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Dear Friends,

Last Sunday in worship, we heard read the words above from Jeremiah. They are among the most personally meaningful verses to me in the whole of the Bible. Perhaps like me you've found yourself in a situation in which you feel completely and utterly inadequate. You just don't know how to do what you are being asked to do. Or you don't think you can do it. Sometimes we find ourselves in these positions because we sign-up for something and then discover we are in way over our head. Other times, we find ourselves thrust into a position (perhaps by God) when we're being asked to do something or to speak or to act--and we are at a loss about how to proceed.

This is a bit how I felt when I became a parent. Despite all the preparation--parenting classes, books, the works--when the day finally arrived and I actually was a parent, I found myself in new and unfamiliar territory (and, as my kids grow older, I still frequently do!). It took more than head knowledge for me to fulfill this new role of parent. It took heart knowledge and intuition and trust that the God who called me to parenthood would provide a way for me to live that calling out.

This may come as a surprise to some of you who join me in worship most weeks, but I have never really viewed myself as a "preacher." Getting up in front of people and speaking was way outside my comfort zone. I would get terribly nervous--dry mouth and trembling hands. Now, over time I've gotten a handle on it--mostly. But it was a bit rocky at the outset.

Which is why these words from Jeremiah are so meaningful to me. They are a reminder that when I stand up to speak (whatever the situation) and I am speaking from my most authentic self, God will provide--words, if necessary, as well as the confidence I need. The Bible in my office is always open to the first chapter of Jeremiah so that, when I walk into our sanctuary to lead worship and preach, I can read these empowering and confidence boosting words from God.

When you find yourself in a situation when you are called upon by God to do something new or different or outside of your comfort zone, remember Jeremiah. Recall God's promise "to be with you to deliver you."

Blessings on your week,

Jeremy

Prayer: Gracious God, when I doubt my abilities and gifts, remind me of your empowering Spirit that will guide and direct me. Amen.