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Posts Tagged ‘spirituality’

Fully Human

The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” Luke 1:35

For those of us with a religious or spiritual bent, there is no doubt we are an uneasy mix of earth and spirit. Our bodies are made from elements of the earth, and when we die, those elements remain with and return to the earth. Essentially everything that is visible to us is also of and belongs to the earth – our clothes, our cars, our homes, our money. One can say there is a clear distinction between what is of the earth and what is of the spirit because that which is of the earth is made from the earth and belongs to the earth. The common phrase about death, “You can’t take it with you,” applies only to the stuff of the earth. When Jesus tells us not to focus on treasures that “moth and rust” consume (Matthew 6:19), he is warning us not to become too attached to the stuff of the earth. Which is not to say our earthy incarnation is not without importance.

We all know people whose lives have a consuming focus on earthly matters – most of us fall into that category, at least occasionally. We become caught up in an obsession for a new car, a home, a pair of shoes, or a different job, and we grow inattentive to the spiritual matters around us. We spend less time in personal prayer and study, our relationships suffer, and we lose any sense of a stable, spiritual center.

For us to become fully human – to reach for the highest state we can attain – we must acknowledge that we are a physical and spiritual being. Not only must we acknowledge our dual nature, in my opinion, we must also celebrate and develop accordingly. Focusing too completely on our physical nature leads to perversions of our good and beautiful earth. We become gluttonous, greedy, and narcissistic. Focusing too completely on our spiritual nature, however, leads to detachment from our earthly incarnation. We risk becoming aloof, out of touch, and inaccessible. Either way, we are only developing part of our capacity.

Regardless of whether one accepts the factual nature of the Immaculate Conception (where Mary is impregnated by the Holy Spirit, resulting in the birth of Jesus), the symbolic message is instructive. The perfect mix of earth and spirit – Jesus – is the result of the impregnating of earth by spirit. It is when we grow our spiritual nature along with our physical nature – allowing the spirit to impregnate us – that we begin to become fully human. Prayer, study, reflection, fellowship, relationship-building, and humble service to others – these are food and exercise for the spirit.

Come home to church this Sunday. Awaken your full nature.

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Life Notes

 

The Desperation of Poverty, Part 3

For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish, but you will not always have me. Mark 14:7

I live a fortunate and blessed life. I have never had to worry about where my next meal would come from or whether I would have a roof over my head. I have always had people in my life who loved and valued me. I confess this so you know I do not write about poverty from first-hand experience. I have observed it from a distance on a few occasions – most recently in Honduras – but I have never lived in poverty, nor do I have a desire to do so. In Life Notes the past few weeks, I have written about the desperation I observed from the poverty in Honduras.

All four Gospels accounts have Jesus saying something to the effect that the poor will always be with us. Some use this to argue that there is nothing effective we can do to address poverty – and they may be right, at least on a global scale. I think, however, they miss the point. Certainly, poverty is a pervasive issue, but it is also an individual faith issue. Whenever we encounter poverty, suffering, or human struggles, we have decisions to make. Can I help this person or situation? If I can, am I willing to help this person or situation?

A third manifestation of the desperation of poverty is personal – it is my desperation to understand how I can best help. Many of us, me included, regularly walk past people asking for money on our streets. There are reasons why we do that, some of which have a measure of validity. If I give money to everyone who asks, how long will it be before I am on the streets begging for money? What if I give them money, and they buy drugs or alcohol with it? I work hard for my money, and they should, too. How do I really know these people are worse off than I am? These are pretentious questions, however, because in most cases we cannot know the answer. Again, we miss the point of being confronted by the poor. The point is how we decide to respond, and how we justify that choice. I am less convinced there is a right answer to the question and more convinced the poor pose a universal conundrum meant to illicit serious soul-searching on our parts – individually and collectively.

We are not called to solve world poverty. Indeed, the poor will always be with us. Jesus made clear by his examples, however, that we are to help. The fact that we cannot do everything does not negate the fact that we can do something. What we do and how we respond is the faith issue facing us. Some will respond with money, others with non-monetary gestures, others will feign ignorance. All of us make choices about our responses, however, and one day we may have to answer for those choices.

Come home to church this Sunday.

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Life Notes

 

The Fingerprint of God

But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this! In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being.  Job 12:7-10

The Old Testament book of Job begins with a conversation between God and the devil. They are observing Job, a prosperous man who, according to God, would remain faithful through any difficulty. The devil claims that if Job were stripped of his family and possessions, his faith would soon leave him. God agrees to put Job to the test. All of Job’s children, his crops and animals, his health, and all of his wealth are taken from him – all with the approval of God. Interestingly, Job’s faith does not waiver, but he does get extremely angry with God. In the passage above, Job claims that all of creation knows who caused his calamity because God’s fingerprints were all over it. Much of the book consists of discourses between a livid, desperate Job and his friends, and between Job and God.

In his book A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer writes:

The deeper our faith, the more doubt we must endure; the deeper our hope, the more prone we are to despair; the deeper our love, the more pain its loss will bring; these are a few of the paradoxes we must hold as human beings. If we refuse to hold them in hopes of living without doubt, despair, and pain, we also find ourselves living without faith, hope, and love.

Job’s reactions are interesting to me, as he falls into deep despair. He is in agonizing physical and emotional pain and begs for relief, but he never loses faith. His misfortune occurs over an extended period, with calamity piled upon calamity, each as bad as or worse than the previous one, yet he continues to believe God is in control. I fear I would abandon my faith in God under a fraction of the weight of Job’s condition.

We seem to have evolved a belief that only what we perceive as good is of God. The bad in our lives comes from something or someone else – an evil power, greedy humans, or the presence of sin. It seems to me if God is in control of anything in our lives, God must be in control of everything in our lives. That God sometimes intervenes in the apparent course of our lives is clear to me. How, when, and for what purposes God choses to intervene is a mystery. It seems arrogant on my part to assume God only intervenes in ways I will consider good. Who am I to judge what is good in God’s eyes? For me, at least, every challenging event in my life has led to an unexpected blessing. Even the animals, plants, birds, and fish declare God’s fingerprint on all of creation. Perhaps we are the ones most challenged to see it.

Come home to church this Sunday. Find God’s fingerprint on your life.

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Life Notes logo2

 

The Truth about Truth

Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  John 8:31-32

When I first learned the truth about fertilizer, I was aghast. How could something so good and necessary for healthy plants come from such nasty raw materials? As our home was being built, I watched as the exposed lumber, nails, pipes, and wires that form the shell of our home were covered over, the dirt and debris removed, and a beautiful home took shape from its messy, ugly beginnings. In Government class, my instructor taught “If you love breakfast and love your country, never watch sausage or laws being made.” Having had the opportunity to witness the law-making process, I wholeheartedly agree.

We uncover truth not as a destination but as a journey. Parts of most worthwhile journeys are difficult, and often unpleasant, even though the end may be beautiful. Jesus says the truth will make us free. Just because we know the truth, however, and just because the truth makes us free does not mean knowing the truth makes our lives easier. In order to get beyond whatever holds us in bondage, we must first experience, understand, and acknowledge the sometimes-hurtful realities that lead us to truth.

In his booklet The Servant as Leader, Robert Greenleaf writes, “Awareness is not a giver of solace – it is just the opposite. It is a disturber and an awakener.” Becoming aware is not necessarily a freeing experience. It is, however, a necessary part of our growth. We cannot begin to understand human behavior without taking a deep dive into the complex and bothersome web of cause and effect that underlies our decision-making. Without acknowledging the good, bad, and ugly of human motivation, however, we will never comprehend the “truths” from which people act, particularly those closest to us.

While knowing the truth makes us free, in one sense, it obligates us to action in another. One can argue that if truth does not motivate us to action, then our understanding of truth is not complete. As we grasp the truth about our world, we can no longer not act. We cannot pretend not to see the desperate circumstances of some of our brothers and sisters.

Significantly, our truths evolve as we grow. My truths are more encompassing today than they once were. Holding lightly to our understanding of truth is a desirable trait. Jesus tells us to continue in the way of discipleship, and we will know the truth. That implies the journey to truth is a lifelong road. It requires an expansive perspective. The minutia of life blocks the view of truth because truth is a product of the forest, not the trees.

Come home to church this Sunday. Building a beautiful life can get ugly at times.

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Life Notes

Where Are You?

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?”  Genesis 3:8-9

After eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve were so ashamed they tried to hide from God. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had unfettered access to and a direct relationship with God. When they ate the fruit of that tree, which God had prohibited, Adam and Eve committed what today we call the Original Sin. It was the first recorded act of direct defiance of God’s will. They were banished from paradise and became self-conscious beings – conscious of themselves as distinct from others.

Intellectually, we know God is omnipotent – all-knowing – and omnipresent – present everywhere – so there is no logical way for us to hide from God. Even so, in the Genesis story, God calls out to Adam and Eve, “Where are you?” While Christians disagree about the factual nature of the stories of the Garden of Eden and Original Sin, the recorded experiences are intriguing and enlightening. Today, humankind remains a self-conscious species. We go to great lengths to display our individuality, emphasizing that which sets us apart and deemphasizing that which we share in common.

I believe the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is an allegory, recorded to help us understand our human condition. Our perception is that we are separate beings – independent from each other and independent from God. That perception of separation is an illusion, and that illusion is the source of most, if not all of our suffering. When we understand we are interconnected, we realize we are our brother’s (and sister’s) keeper. We get serious about solving society’s problems once we recognize them as our issues and not someone else’s problem. Intolerable conditions like starvation, homelessness, war, and many preventable illnesses will be eradicated once we take responsibility for the care of our neighbors, as we do for ourselves.

In the Garden, Adam and Eve eat of the fruit of separation and deny their communion with God by hiding. Today, we convince ourselves the universe is here to serve us, and we act accordingly. God, desiring our return to fellowship, calls out “Where are you?” Intuitively, we know God has plans for our lives that are inconsistent with our desires. We know God specializes in uncomfortable and insecure paths. Therefore, we hide by pretending not to hear. Obviously, we cannot hide from God, but we do have the free will to ignore God. Either way, we perpetuate the illusion of separation – separation from God and separation from each other. God’s love perpetually calls us back to unity.

Come home to church this Sunday. God is calling, “Where are you?”

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Life Notes

 

Taming an Ego

You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.  Ephesians 4:22-24

There is an obstacle between spiritual enlightenment and me. It is not a wall I can tear down, nor is it a body of water I can swim across. This impediment is not an intellectual puzzle I can solve by logic. My nemesis is closer than my next breath. It is the me I most closely identify with – my ego. My ego has evolved over the course of my life under the influence of my family, friends, and experiences. Actually, an ego is not a bad thing to have. In fact, it is necessary to develop a strong sense of who we are as individuals. All of us are endowed by our Creator with specific gifts and talents to be used in service to others. We need to know what those are, and our egos shout out our uniqueness.

Consider that I or me appear 12 times in the first few sentences of this Life Note. Most of us believe the universe revolves around us from a very early age. Our perception seems to confirm it, too. Unfortunately, that perception is wrong, or at least is a misleading truth. We are all special and unique persons created in the image of God. When everyone is special, no one is special. When we seek our uniqueness apart from others, we risk becoming narcissistic, selfish, and wretched beings. When we find our distinctive niche alongside others, our value is defined as part of a larger body, as we were created.

My epiphany about ego as a stumbling block to a fuller life occurred sometime after my 30th birthday. I grew weary of my self-styled life, and my existence lacked the joy of rich fellowship with others. I had a modest following as a solo musician – something that not only defined me, but also consumed my weekends. I also had a group of friends I enjoyed being with. Of course, the times they typically gathered were over the weekends when I was away, performing in clubs.

As I learned to wrestle my ego’s grip from my life, I married, had children, and developed a web of close and dear friends. Years ago, I would have considered my life today as indistinguishable from the masses. Fine, I was wrong. I make music with others, now, instead of by myself. The music, like my life, is exponentially richer. An ego becomes an impediment when we do not balance it with a social life. As Christians, we believe the body of Christ is us – all of us working together – not me, standing apart. I have discovered I am the best version of myself in fellowship with others. Taming a strong ego is hard work. For me, the optimal solution has been in find my special place within, not outside of the others in my life. A good church can help.

Come home to church this Sunday. Find your place in the body of Christ.

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My Ebenezer

Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Jeshanah, and named it Ebenezer; for he said, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.” 1 Samuel 7:12

EbenezerLast week I attended the memorial service for a cousin of my father’s. It was at the Ebenezer United Methodist Church, 3 miles south of Green and about 8 miles west of Leonardville. A group of German Methodists immigrated to the area in the 1870s and established the church, barely a decade after the Civil War. My great-grandfather, a child at the time, was among them. The remote location of the church is memorable, as miles and miles of farmland surround it. It is on the slightest of rises in an otherwise flat expanse of pasture, wheat, and soybeans.

Ebenezer UMC is a familiar church because of family reunions, funerals, and other gatherings I have attended there since I was a child. It is a plain, no-frills, wooden structure. There are no stained glass windows, no fancy stone or woodwork, and no vaulted ceilings. This church was built for function, not form, consistent with the folks it was built for – practical, down-to-earth, and humble. I always found Ebenezer UMC disquieting, due in part to its name. Perhaps it reminded me of Ebenezer Scrooge – bah humbug! Perhaps it was the puzzling line from an old hymn: Here I raise my Ebenezer; but something about the name made me think of ancient and haunted things. The church stands proud, however, on this unforgiving, horizontal vastness, tempting the unrelenting Kansas winds to blow it off its foundation. At least in my lifetime, no storm has phased it.

The biblical references to Ebenezer are in the Old Testament book of 1 Samuel. I assume the “stone” that Samuel placed was large enough to be seen for miles. That stone, which he named Ebenezer, stood as a symbol of God’s constant and helpful presence throughout their struggles. Before the Israelites crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land, they gave up everything they knew for the promise of a new life. A group of Methodist immigrants gave up everything familiar and crossed the Atlantic Ocean for a similar promise of a new life. They landed in a vast country where they could eke out a reasonable living with the sweat of their brow. In the midst of this fertile soil, they erected a visible reminder that God is good; a place to call the faithful to worship and, in their time, to call the saints home. An Ebenezer – a symbol of hope, a reminder of God’s presence – is a good thing to have as we weather the storms of life. God is always near, but sometimes we forget. When we enter new life territory, when we feel lost and alone, when we need to remember, may there always be an Ebenezer in sight.

Come home to church this Sunday. Where is your Ebenezer?

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