The Call of the Midwife Breathe. Listen. Push

Celebration Service at The Heights Christian Church

Valarie Koer is  a Sikh faith leader, a seasoned civil rights activist, the daughter of Sikh farmers, and a celebrated prophetic voice. In 2016 she was invited by William Barber II to speak at Metropolitan AME church, a historic black church in Washington D.C.  Here is what she said,

The future is dark. But what if —what if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb but the darkness of the womb? What if our America is not dead but a country that is waiting to be born? What if the story of America is one long labor? What if all of our grandfathers and grandmothers are standing behind us now, those who survived occupation and genocide, slavery and Jim Crow, detentions and political assault? What if they are whispering in our ear, “You are Brave?” What if this is our nations greatest transition?

The crowd erupted in cheers and shouts and cries of Hallelujah. And as Reverend Barber stood with his great bear hands outstretched over Valarie she cried, “What does the midwife tell us to do? Breathe! And Then? Push!

The past three weeks we have journeyed together to this very moment. We have learned the importance of the breath as a connection to the Divine. We have discovered that it takes paying attention, setting an intention, and being open to having our perceptions challenged to truly listen. Now that we have the breath. Now that we have tuned our ears to listen to the call of the midwife. Now, we must push!

There are two ways to look at our gospel text for this morning. First, we are challenged to be open to hearing the voice of the prophet—to show kindness and hospitality to the voice of those who God has called to share a message.  I hear Valerie Kaur’s words as the voice of a prophet. In our faith tradition all you have to do is read the section of our bible where the prophets share their stories to know that we have struggled to hear the voice of the prophet even when it comes packaged in a person of our own faith tradition. In more recent times, We have not heard the voice of the prophets crying out for justice for people of color. We have painted them as criminals, put them in jail or killed their prophetic voice. Sometimes we are not present in the moment enough to recognize a prophet until they have passed away. Let’s listen to the story of a modern day prophet:

In 1955, Martin Luther King Jr. was a man awakening to a call. Rosa Parks had just defied the law by sitting in the section on a bus designated for white people. A One day boycott of the city lines was put together and King had been called to persuade his church to join, but he made it clear that he had more pressing matters. Later he was persuaded to become president of the movement. King’s strategy was moderation: he asked for the bus drivers to be courteous; he asked that blacks be seated from back to front and whites from front to back and that in Black Neighborhoods more black bus drivers be hired. The organizers of the boycott  were not happy with his call for moderate change.

In all this time, King thought this would resolve and he could get back to the plans of his church. But, A month later, feeling defeated in the boycott’s efforts to accomplish anything and acknowledging no end in sight, King voiced his self-doubt by offering his resignation as president. Then, he was pulled over by two police officers for driving 30 miles an hour in a 25 mile per hour zone.

During a very confusing arrest, King was put in the police car and driven to the Montgomery City Jail. It is in this jail that he began to awaken to his call. In this cell, a group of black men gathered around him and he spent the evening listening to their stories and in exchange he gave the men a vivid account of his afternoon. Several people asked if he could get them out of jail, to which he responded, “Before I can assist you, I have to get my own self out.”

Charles Marsh writes in his book title Beloved community that It was In the spirited company of these unlikely allies—movement people, vagrants and serious criminals he realized that even jail could be endured for the sake of doing what is right. King writes about the experience, “From that night on, my commitment to the struggle for freedom was stronger than ever before. Yes, the night of injustice was dark; But in the darkness I could see a radiant star of unity.”

The next evening, he hears the voice of Jesus calling him to stand up for righteousness. To stand up for justice. To stand up for truth. And that Jesus will be with him until the end of the world. Martin Luther King Jr. received his call.

And what was he pushing for…he was pushing for something called The beloved community. The idea of beloved community was first written about by the influential philosopher Josiah Royce. Royce says that the beloved community is a “perfectly lived unity of individual men joined in one divine chorus.”

What Josiah Royce defined as a unity of men, King supported with theological vitality, but not just from his Christian tradition. King said that Christ furnished the spirit and motivation while Gandhi furnished the method. Gandhi supplied the Christian doctrine of love with a strategy of social protest.

So, what is the beloved community. The beloved community is both the hope of the ministry of the church and it is a community that cannot be contained solely in the church. It is the kingdom of God coming to earth. It is any place where we find love for the divine, love for self, and love for others including our enemies. It is any place where this deep love extends out into the community in acts that work for justice. It is any place where love and justice create a community of people.

Marsh writes in his book entitled Beloved Community “Therefore as Christians build beloved communities in, through, and outside the church, they must remain humbled by the camaraderie of unbelievers and non-Christians, grateful for their passion, and inspired if not intrigued by their pilgrimages in service, even as Christians continue to proclaim exuberantly the story of Jesus as the source of their own compassion and mercy.”

Let’s hear from another prophetic voice not from our Christian tradition:

In my final class at Claremont School of Theology I wrote a critical review on Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Together we are one: Honoring our diversity; Celebrating our connection. This book offers us a window into their community’s creation of retreats for people of color called Colors of Compassion.

More than 10 years ago, a group of practitioners had been meeting to discuss how their Sanghas could be more inclusive of people of color. Thcih Nhat Hanh agreed and pointed to his own skin. The community understood that Buddhism offered a way to acknowledge suffering as the ground for enlightenment, but realized that people of color retreats were new areas that would create new expressions and practices. In order to provide space for new expressions, The people of color retreats were shaped by listening circles, testimonies, dharma teachings, and mindfulness practices.

At the end of the book,

Thich Nhat Hanh writes that he met Martin Luther KingJr in June of 1966. They discussed how they could be a part of spreading ideas of truth and right thinking regarding peace, human rights, and social justice. Dr. King found common ground with Thich Nhat Hanh and talked about the Buddhist Sangha (Sangu) as a beloved community. Thay writes, “The Sangha (Sangu) is a source of inspiration and protection. Martin Luther King Jr built his Sangha in his own way, and I have built my Sangha in my own way, but we were both sowing the seeds of peace, nonviolence, human rights and togetherness.” (220)

Valerie Koer, Martin Luther King Jr and Thich Nhat Hanh are creating something new…within their different religious traditions, they are pushing for the Beloved community.

Today, What we need is something new, something we have never seen before, something that we create together that honors differences while celebrating our connection. The prophets in our sacred text called for something new when God’s people were suffering in exile. The people were tempted to look through rose colored glasses at their past and long for former times, but the prophets were saying PUSH! IN our reading this morning, Jeremiah declared that God was making a new covenant. God cries out through Isaiah saying, “see,  I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” God spoke through the prophet Exekiel saying, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” Then Jesus joins the voices of the prophets when he is in conversation with nicodemus, He says, “you must be born again!”

The second way to look at Our gospel text this morning is to see that it is situated at the end of chapter 10. Chapter 10 reads like an ordination ceremony.  we see Jesus sending the disciples out knowing that in some places they will be treated with kindness and hospitality and in some places they will not. What if today we hear these words in a new way? What if we hear these words as our being sent into the world to discover God in the face of the other. What if we are being sent to set ourselves free from the suffering we have caused ourselves through exclusionary thinking and exclusionary practices. What if the only way forward is to recognize where love and justice is present and to join God in that movement? What if we as Disciples are being sent to follow in the ways of Jesus as healers of a fragmented world?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who wrote the book: Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says “Religious people in the grip of strong emotions-fear, pain, anxiety, confusion, a sense of loss and humiliation-often dehumanize their opponents with devastating results. Faith is God’s call to see his trace in the face of the Other…If only we were to listen closely to the voice of the other, we would find that beneath the skin we are brothers and sisters, members of the human family under the parenthood of God.” (Not in God’s Name, 25 ,160.)

Today, we listened to the voices of many prophets and it is time to PUSH! We are pushing forward through the darkness of the birth canal and we are uncertain of what it will look like on the other side. It is a painful time. It is bloody. And as all births are it is a time for celebration.. God is at work in the world inviting us to join in the creation of something new.  It is time to push forward out beyond the walls of our church, our traditions, and the ways that our thinking creates boundaries.  It is time to push forward by linking arms with people who were born with a  different skin color, who come from a different religious tradition,  or who embrace a different political ideology. It is time to PUSH into the hope of the Beloved Community.

Beyonce & Hagar: Listen

Full Celebration Service at The Heights Christian Church

I can’t tell you how elated I was to find that our lectionary text today is part of the Hagar Narrative. The story of Hagar is very dear to my heart. In fact, I devote 3 years and 100 pages to theologically ground my Doctor of Ministry project in Hagar’s story. I was drawn to the story because it is a story shared by 3 different religious traditions. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share this story and interpret the story in ways that are similar and in ways that are very different.

The Hagar story unfolds in two scenes. The first is in chapter 16 and today we read the second scene where we find Hagar and Ishmael in danger.

Hagar’s name means “The Other.” Let that sink in for a moment. “The Other.” Hagar is “the other” in the story because she is a woman in a man’s world-she doesn’t get to keep her heritage or her own religion because she is absorbed into the house of Abraham; she is baptized into the God of Abraham without her consent. She is a slave in the house of her master and so she does not get a say in what happens to her body; she is property and can be used for surrogacy. She is the other because she is Egyptian; she is not one of them; she does not know Abraham’s people or Abraham’s God. Hagar does not even have a voice until God speaks to her. Hagar is three times the Other. Are we seeing Hagar a little more clearly? Can we begin to hear her voice a little more clearly now in the story?

In chapter 16, we find Hagar running away from Abraham and Sarah because she was being treated harshly. God searches and finds Hagar, and asks her where have you come from and where are you going? This is the first time in the Hagar narrative that she is given a voice.  God listens to Hagar’s response and Hagar feels seen. This scene marks the beginning of her healing and transformation. She marks this moment by being the first and only person to name God. She names God El Roi, the god who sees. But she will have another challenge to face. God sends her back to Abraham and Sarah. This is a very confusing story because it seems that God is sending Hagar back into the hands of her oppressors. Delores Williams a womanist theologian points out that according to the law of the time, Hagar must be returned to Abraham to save her life and to secure her freedom. Otherwise she will be seen as a runaway slave. Abraham must set her free and God promises Hagar that her son will have this freedom. God doesn’t just give her a promise that puts her son’s freedom under the umbrella of the Patriarch Abraham, but God sees Hagar in her Otherness and offers hagar and Ishmael a promise similar to the promise of Isaac.

 Hagar returns to the house of Abraham where she is again low in status as a woman, as a slave, and as an Egyptian.  But she returns with the hope That the God who sees will fulfill the promise given to her and her son.

Now, in chapter 21, we find Abraham setting Hagar free. God first speaks to Abraham and assures Abraham that Ishmael will be a leader of a great people with God’s blessing which makes Hagar a Matriarch. Abraham gives her food and water and releases her from slavery. This is Hagar’s Exodus experience. I can almost hear the cry of Moses saying, “Let my people go!” But we don’t think of Hagar as our people do we? Have we ever taken the time to listen to Hagar’s story in such a way that we find ourselves in her story? We know the Exodus story of Israel being released from the hands of the Godless Egyptians as our story. But well before that story, we have an Egyptian woman experiencing her own Exodus from the hands of the oppressors who we have considered our people. Let that sink in a moment.

When we shift our gaze from the central story of those we consider one of us to listen to the character on the margins, we are given the most beautiful gift. We hear the Other naming the God of her experience as the God who sees and naming her son God hears. Brian McLaren says that this story reminds us that God sees and God hears The Other

Say, “I think Beyonce gives the invitation of our sacred text. She shares what we are to do and how we are to be for Others.Let’s Listen.” Listen for Hagar. Listen for the voice of The Other.

Play to 1:34 then stop.

God found Hagar in the wilderness, asked her a question, and then listened. This is the first time in the hagar narrative where Hagar has a voice. God is showing us how to show up for people; how to put into action the great value that God places on one particular life; We are learning How to listen. Leaders from President Bill Clinton to President George W. Bush are calling out for us to Listen. So let us understand what it means to truly listen.

1-Listen is paying attention

Just think how naturally we hear something, we turn our face towards the noise, and then we are invited to pay attention. The first two might be automatic, but paying attention is a choice.

Seth Horowitz who is an auditory neuroscientist at Brown University writes, “Hearing in short is easy. You and every other vertebrate have been doing it for hundreds of millions of years. It’s your life line, your alarm system your way to escape danger and pass on your genes. But listening, really listening is hard when potential distractions are leaping into your ears every fifty-thousandth of a second—and pathways in your brain are just waiting to interrupt your focus to warn you of any potential dangers.

Paying attention is the key to move beyond just hearing into listening. When we actively focus on what we are hearing our brain works like a set of noise suppressing headphones for those sounds that are not as immediately important. Then, we become able to attend to the words of the person and beyond the words to the cry of their heart. I think this is what I intuitively knew as a child. I’m sure my mom heard my endless chatter, but was she paying attention enough to listen.

2-Listening is also requires intention. For the past year, I facilitated listening groups. It began as my doctor of ministry project and then continued beyond that initial experience. When I gather with my listening groups, we make commitments to each other before every session. These commitments help us create a safe enough space for people to participate. The first commitment is to seeing each other’s inherent goodness. To say out loud that every person was created with a core of compassion and goodness. The second is to notice judgments when they arise; to notice our perceptions, to notice the stories we have created about a person; to no longer deny what is inside of us, but to offer it love and compassion, and then return to recognizing their inherent goodness. The third commitment is to listen to each other as though God speaks through and from within the other person. This shapes the quality of our listening. If I am listening as though God is speaking through you then I am open to changing my view or seeing a situation through a new lens.  My heart is open and receptive.

A conversation I had with a dear friend of mine gives us an example of how to listen. I was in a crisis having just resigned from a job that I thought was a dream job. I was feeling wounded. I was feeling that people where pushing me into a box where they could not see me or hear me. My friend knew a summary of my experience, but wanted to give me an opportunity to share my story. As we sat down at a table in a coffee shop, she took my hands, looked into my eyes and said, “I want you to know that I see you.” She turned her attention to me and she shared her intention which was to see me: to see me in my pain, to see me in my failure, to see my pain as love lost, to see my inherent goodness, to see God in me. As I shared my story, she listened with her whole body. As she reflected back to me what she heard, she was able to recognize how an experience that she had in her life had some similarities so that she could say, “I understand your pain.” Although our stories were very different, in our suffering there are similaries so that we could offer compassion to each other. This is a deep level of listening that honors differences while celebrating our connection.

3-Listening invites us to challenge our perceptions

There is a lot going on inside when we set our attention and intention to listen. And so we also have to recognize what is bubbling up…do we feel threatened when we listen, do we feel challenged, does the story we are hearing resonate with our own experience, do we feel overwhelmed when our listening gives us new information that changes the way we have viewed something for a long time.

Let’s think about Hagar’s story…

What story had you heard about Hagar before today? Was she the one who was a threat to the promise child Isaac? Was she the sin of Abraham because he did not have patience? Was she the slave who looked down on her mistress and deserved punishment? Or was her story just absorbed into what we call the Abraham and Sarah narrative? We say that our God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but what about the Matriarch Hagar and what about her son, A leader of a great people blessed by God? For a long time, I had only heard her story through the dominant narrative of the chosen people.

In Galatians, Paul writes that those who continue circumcision are of the line of Hagar, slaves to the law. Those who no longer circumcise are of the line of Sarah, free and blessed by God.

Letty M. Russell writes that this is Hagar’s second rejection: first in her representing the non-chosen people in the Hebrew Bible and now in Hagar being linked to the Jewish people who were the chosen ones in the Hebrew bible, but are now considered outsiders by Paul.

We have failed to see Hagar even in our own sacred text, even in our own religious house. She is a Matriarch. Her son is the leader of a people who have God’s blessing. But today, we have done the work to listen to her story a little more clearly. To see past our perceptions or the narrative we the dominant chosen people have created about who she is.

If we did not listen to Hagar, we miss a very profound moment that has shaped three faith traditions: her experience of God seeing and hearing the outsider. In Hagar’s story, God models a way of being in the world that we are called to emulate. As people of faith, we are called to embody the gospel and that is what my friend offered me..she offered me her face, her eyes, her ears, her hands. I return to this memory over and over because this simple conversation in a coffee shop marked the beginning of my healing and transformation.

In these uncertain times, where it feels difficult to see the way forward…We follow what God is teaching us and we listen. We turn our face towards those on the margin and we choose to pay attention. And we just might find ourselves in a new story of healing and transformation.

Benediction

May God bless you and keep you.

May God’s face shine on you and be gracious to you.

May God hear you and turn her face toward you and give you peace.

The Power of the Breath

Full Celebration Service at The Heights Christian Church

In the past three months, we have been reminded of the power of the breath. The novel coronavirus is experienced differently in each body, but in severe cases, it is an assault on the breath. Coughing, congestion, tightness in the chest, the body not receiving oxygen even when the breath isn’t labored, pictures of people on ventilators, the cry for more ventilators, and the tears shed as nurses and doctors witness countless final breaths.

Then, we heard the cry of George Floyd, “I can’t breathe.” We have seen the video of George’s final breath and witnessed the silence of those in power who heard Floyd’s cry and saw Floyd’s anguish. We have responded in outcry over the assault on his breath.

The collective trauma we have experienced from the fear of the coronavirus and from witnessing the murder of George Floyd has quite literally taken our breath away.

So, let us remember the power of the breath.

In the book of Genesis it says that God created humankind by giving them the breath of life. We live and move and have our being sustained by the breath of God. Jesus in John 20:22 appears to his disciples and breathes on them that they might receive the power of the holy spirit to animate their ministry.

Dr. Frank Rogers who is the codirector of the center for engaged compassion at Claremont School of theology writes, “For many spiritual traditions, breath is intimately connected with the sacred and sustaining life force of the universe. Chi in Taoism, Prana in Hinduism, Lung in Tibetan Buddhism—all refer both to our literal breath and, more profoundly, to the animating life energy of every living thing. In Hebrew (ruach) and Greek (Pneuma) and latin (spiritus), the words for breath are synonymous not only with the human spirit but also with the Divine Spirit. Catching our breath, then, deepens our connection with the sacred source of life, the vital spiritual energy that sustains and restores all living things.” (Practicing Compassion pg. 45)

Human beings naturally understand the power of the breath in everyday life. Just think about anytime we are overwhelmed or angry or filled with anxiety or deeply saddened what do people say to us, “let’s just stop and take a deep breath.” What we know is that the breath grounds us, helps us regain our footing. What we also intuitively know is that in order to take a deep breath, in order to reclaim our center, we must be still. Our scripture for today reminds us that when the earth is shaken and when the cities are in uproar that as people of faith we are to first, “Be Still and Know that I am God.”

What we already understand intuitively about the breath and what our faith teaches us about the breath, neuroscience helps us understand the power of the breath a little better.

In a healthy brain, a threat triggers the mid-brain and this sensory information is directed through the higher brain that decides on a plan of action in response to this threat. But there is another pathway that when the mid-brain senses threat it bypasses the higher brain and quickly activates the lower brain for an immediate response. We call this the fight or flight response. When this happens, the autonomic nervous system floods the body with hormones to speed up the heartrate and breath, to sweat, to send blood, energy and oxygen away from our organs and into our limbs helping us get ready to physically respond to the threat. In a healthy situation, we expend this excessive energy, and the parasympathetic nervous system is activated to bring a sense of calm, to help slow the heartrate and breath, and to bring the blood, O2 and energy back to the core of the body. Now, the higher brain becomes accessible to help us reflect on what just happened. Fight or flight is balanced in the body with rest and recover.

Over the past three months, we have experienced a profound sense of trauma which leaves the brain operating in a different way.

“Trauma is defined as any event that overwhelms our capacity to cope and respond. Trauma leaves us feeling helpless, hopeless, and out of control.”  In the first few days of quaranteen, I felt a tightness in my heart and my breath was quick and shallow.  I could not read anything for comprehension. It felt like my brain was shut off. I also felt a surge of energy to clean the house, buy all the necessary groceries and cleaning supplies, jump into homeschooling my kids…I was an unstoppable force of activity. In talking with other moms, we experienced a similar surge of activity. But this quickly turned into not knowing what to do. I found myself walking around my house aimlessly. I was finishing my doctoral degree that I had been working on for 3 years, and I noticed my thoughts turning to “who cares anyways. What does this even matter.” One friend said she could not get out of bed or change her clothes or care about eating. This surge of activity quickly turned into feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.  

Why? It’s because our brains experienced a threat but it wasn’t just a one-time situation that we could fight off and recover, it was months of on-going numbers of cases and deaths rising, it’s the news framing our experience in terms of war against an invisible enemy. Every time we see or hear these things we reexperience the trauma. Neuroscience tells us that once we have experienced a trauma that the brain is wired in a certain way so that anytime we experience something that is remotely similar, we respond as if the initial trauma were happening in the present moment. In this way, we wire our brains to by-pass the higher brain which allows us to step back and assess the situation and immediately we are overwhelmed by the autonomic nervous system for fight or flight.

Enter into this ongoing trauma, George Floyd’s words, “I can’t breathe.”

Another response that the body has to trauma is freeze. I know that as the information was coming in about George Floyd’s murder, I felt frozen, paralyzed. I spent time in bed crying as I watched the video of his murder. I cried as I saw police hitting protestors with their batons and spraying protestors with tear gas. I held the covers up over my body only exposing my eyes as I witnessed traumatized people express deep wounds and a profound sense of loss.

Our faith now supported by neuroscience offers us a way to heal. Our faith now supported by neuroscience offers us a way to access our creativity for how to navigate a way where there seems to be no way. (Isaiah 43:19)

Be Still (The power of the Breath) and Know (gain wisdom & understanding).

The power of bringing our attention to our breath is that it activates the Parasympathetic nervous system shifting us away from fight or flight and into a sense of rest and recover. This is the bodies natural response to bring everything back to a sense of shalom, but we also have the power to activate a sense of recovery. Our Scripture says Be Still. That is where we find the power of the breath. When the brain is asked to focus on the breath, this singular job, quiets the chatter of the mind. When the mind is still, the body is flooded with hormones that say, “we are ready for rest and recovery.” When the body feels a sense of rest and recovery is sends messages back to the brain that I am at rest. This feedback loop from brain to body and body to brain allows us to rewire the brain from the traumatic event. Our Scripture says Be Still and Know. Yes, our beautiful bodies are designed for healing-and with neuroplasticity we know that we have the opportunity to heal the mind and heal the body from trauma.

The breath is a tool that connects me to the relationship between my mind, body and spirit and it is a gift that reminds me of my relationship with the Divine…to an awareness of the presence of God here and now. When I am sitting with my full attention on the inhale and exhale, I am fully connected to this present moment instead of ruminating on the past or anxiously planning for the future. The breath reminds me that God is with me now in this present moment providing all that I need. The breath reminds me of the miracle of life-that I am alive in this moment and that I have the opportunity to bring the Kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven in this moment. The power of the breath heals and animates life.

Our faith tradition also illuminates our next steps. When we are grounded in the loving presence of God and have cared for our own suffering, we are able to see the suffering of other people through eyes of compassion and have access to the part of the brain that gives us the ability to discern how to act in a way that values life.  

It is recorded in Matthew 9 that Jesus went around healing and teaching. The scriptures say that Jesus saw the crowds through eyes of compassion recognizing that people were wandering around like sheep without a shepherd. Then, he turned to his disciples and he turns to us today saying, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

I have read many posts on social media where people were crying out for someone to stand up and lead us into a new future. I found this question resonated with the feeling I had of being like a sheep without a shepherd. As I took a breath and gained understanding around why this question spoke to me, I realized that I was looking for an inoculation for the pain I was feeling; I was looking for an easy pill to take to give me a sense of safety and peace. I was looking for the quick fix, someone else take charge, so that I don’t have to do the messy work of understanding my culpability in the systems that oppress people of color.

You know who is called to humbly lead the way? I am called to humbly lead the way. You know who will humbly lead the way? You will humbly lead the way. It won’t be perfect and you and I will do and say things that need correction, but in humility we will lead.

I participated in Part 1 of a series on Dismantling Racism with the Disciples of Christ. At the end of this session, Rev. Virzola Law sent us out with these words, “Show up and pay attention. Then, take that next right step.”

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1LC64ZXUPeUMN51cp1DId3XJqhMxa9l6i/view?usp=sharing

The link above will take you to the video of the meditation below.

Mirror, Mirror on the wall, Who is the fairest of them all?  The Queen asks to the magic mirror in the timeless story of Snow White. Time after time, she sees her face in the mirror and is told that she is the fairest one of all. Then one day, She asked the same question, “ Mirror, Mirror on the wall, Who is the fairest of them all?” She is expecting to see a picture of her face with the mirror responding, “You are the fairest of them all.” But on that day the answer is different. Do you remember the mirror’s response? Well, on this day the mirror does not reflect her image, but gives her a picture of this young fair skinned, red lipped girl and says, “Snow White, O Queen, is the fairest of them all.”  How does the queen respond to this unexpected turn of events? She is filed with hatred for Snow White. So much hatred that she demands that a huntsman kill Snow White.

Mirror, Mirror on the wall, Who am I if I am no longer the fairest of them all?

In today’s story from our sacred text, we meet a man who is wrestling with a similar question…When I come face to face with the image of myself, who am I? Meet Jacob. This is the Jacob we are referring to when we say that our God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Jacob is the son of Isaac and Rebecca. He is the twin of Esau. Jacob was born second clinging to his brother’s heel. Jacob is the son who Rebecca loves, but Jacob doesn’t want to be Jacob…he wants to be Esau. And rightly so because Esau is his father’s favorite.  Esau is the first born and he is the Captain America of hero characters with a muscular physique, great hair, a winning smile, and talent as a hunter oozing out of every pore.  Esau is the character who looks in the mirror everyday and asks the question, Mirror Mirror on the wall, who is the best of them all and the mirror shows a heroic picture of him and proclaims, “it is definitely YOU!”

Jacob is not that guy. Jacob is everything that Esau is not. He does not have great hair anywhere on his body, he does not have the hunter’s skill. He is smaller and stays closer to home tending the land. It is easy to think that when Jacob looked in the mirror and asked the question, the mirror showed him a picture of his brother and said, “O Jacob, you are so cute to even ask, but your brother, Esau is the best of them all!”

The story goes on to show us that Rebecca helped Jacob steal the blessing from Esau by tricking his father Isaac into believing that he was Esau. Isaac was nearing death and almost blind so he could not see the face of Jacob. Jacob and Rebecca knew that Isaac would be using his sense of taste, his sense of smell and his sense of touch and his sense of hearing to determine which son was standing before him. So Jacob tricked Isaac by preparing a hunter’s dish for him to eat. Jacob tricked Isaac by wearing Esau’s clothes so that he smelled like Esau. Jacob tricked Isaac by placing hairy fur on his arms, but Jacob could not trick Isaac’s sense of hearing.

We are left wondering, would these tricks be enough for Isaac to think that Jacob was Esau?  Isaac wrestled with the conflicting information, but in the end, the tricks worked. Jacob receives the blessing of wealth and power that should have gone to Esau. But the blessing came at a great price. Esau threatens to kill Jacob and Jacob must run away in fear for his life.

Mirror, Mirror on the wall, who thinks Jacob is the fairest of them all?

Not me.  Not Jacob. Not Esau. Not Isaac.

Before Jacob runs away, he asks his father, Isaac for a blessing just for him. Daddy, if you were able to see my face, what blessing would you give me?  Surprisingly, the blessing Isaac gives Jacob is similar to the blessing God gave Abraham. This second blessing had nothing to do with wealth and power like the first blessing meant for Esau. This second blessing had to do with children and land.

Now, we come to the part in our story that is most interesting to me. It is 22 years after Jacob ran away from home because of Esau’s threat to kill him. Now, Jacob is coming to Esau hoping for a reconciliation. As Jacob’s family approaches the land in which Esau lives, Jacob is told that Esau is coming towards him with 400 men.

If you had tricked your father to steal the blessing from your twin brother, would you think the 400 men were coming in peace? If your brother had threatened to kill you 22 years ago, would you think your brother was ready for reconciliation?  Probably not. So, the text says that Jacob strategically plans his approach. First, Jacob sends gifts. Second, Jacob prays. Third, Jacob prepares his people for war. Then, in the cover of night, Jacob sends his family across the river ahead of him and spends the evening alone. I like to think that his wives had a hand in this.

Here is what I imagine really happened. I think his wives knew there was something that Jacob needed to wrestle with that had nothing to do with all of the external preparations. I think they had seen him wrestle for 22 years over what it might be like to reconcile with Esau. Maybe they were sick and tired of all his planning of all his preparation of all his strategy because they knew that he was avoiding the conflict within himself. So, maybe Jacob did not send his family across the river, maybe the wives looked at his face and said, “Jacob, we are going on up ahead, but you are staying behind because you are avoiding the most important part of this reconciliation.  I hear them saying, “get your act together!” maybe their words were not as nice as mine since they had spent 22 years hearing the same story over and over and over again about how he is not Esau, he is not Esau, he is not Esau.

As I wrote this sermon, I wrestled with the text. I took the path of Jacob and decided to paint a room in our home to avoid the work I needed to do. I avoided by planning activities with our children. I avoided by shifting priorities of finishing another work that someone asked me to do. Mine was only a few days of avoidance and Chad laughed at my confession of not doing the work. My beloved only listened to my complaints for a few days, but imagine what 22 years of spouses seeing their husband avoid the wrestling that needed to happen.  This was the final moment.  It was the 11th hour and Jacob had avoided too long. The wives most certainly said, “Don’t go a step closer to Esau until you have understood who you are.”

Mirror, Mirror on the wall, who am I if I am not the finest of them all?

So, the story goes that Jacob spent the evening wrestling with God. There is much debate in thought about was this an angel or was this really God or was this an internal wrestling that Jacob did in the presence of God. We don’t know, but what we do know is that the wrestling needed to happen and that the course of the history of the Abrahamic traditions was changed because of this night. As daylight broke over the horizon and the wrestling match came to an end, Jacob asks God for a blessing. And God returned the question with a question, “What is your name?” 

This is the moment we have all been waiting for.  Will he say, “I am not Esau.”  Will he remain silent because he still does not know who he is?  Maybe you have done some wrestling during the hours you spent at home during the quarantine. If you are like me, then maybe you have seen some ugly qualities and behaviors arise during stressful moments. One of my wrestling is that even though I now have a doctor of ministry degree, I am still Amber. The degree changed me in many ways that have made me a better person, but I am still Amber. I still have my personality that has many positives and many negatives. I still talk the same. I still have the same struggles even though I know better. I am growing and I am learning and yet I am still Amber.

Mirror, Mirror on the wall, I am Jacob, the trickster of them all.

Truth has been told. Jacob has accepted who he is. The miracle in the story is that in the moment Jacob sees his face and accepts who he is, God looks at Jacob’s face and sees the image of God.  Then, Jacob looks at God’s face and sees Jacob.  The text says Jacob called this place Peniel for I have seen God face-to-face.

So instead of giving a formulaic blessing that is traditionally given in these moments, God gives Jacob a new name. God says to Jacob, You will be called Israel for you have wrestled with God and won. This name change was given in the moment, but future texts still call him Jacob because the name suggests a new calling that Jacob will need a lifetime to live into. Jacob is wounded from this wrestling match and the wound will remind him daily of his experience and of his new name. This section of the text ends with, “and Jacob emerged complete.”

Here is how we know Jacob emerged complete. When Jacob finally meets Esau, he says, “to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” Once we wrestle so hard with God that we see our face in the face of God warts, freckles, squinty eyes and all, then it is easier to see God in the face of our enemy. Instead of wishing that he was Esau, Jacob recognized that all people bear the image of God.

I have heard many stories of wrestling during the past 4 months. One family emerged from a period of wrestling, sold their home, and moved to a place they wanted to live. They saw life differently and acted upon their vision.  One friend lost her job and decided it was time to align herself with the priority of caring for her teenage daughter. She decided that she wanted to invest more time with her daughter which would require her to find a job closer to home so that she did not spend an extra 2 hours everyday on the road. She wrestled with anger and sadness over her job loss, but saw an opportunity to reprioritize.

I had a friend wrestle and do the hard work of healing from past and present wounds. She arrived at a place where she felt that her name no longer reflected the new person emerging, so she changed her name to say to the world, “I have wrestled and won.”

I am still wrestling with the mirror. I have times when I appreciate the gifts and qualities God gave me and there are times, I want to be Esau…someone else…anyone but me. In the wrestling with God, I am finding small ways to continue to align myself with the values I profess- the image of God I see in the mirror on my best days. I experienced a profound moment when I went to vote on when to return to school. At first, I voted with what was best for me. But before I pressed submit, I paused and asked myself, “but is that what is best for everyone?” I went back and changed my vote and pressed submit.

Like Jacob, the wrestling to see God our face in the face of God will take a lifetime. But Jacob’s new name gives us hope, for to be in the faith tradition of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob means that we will wrestle with God and win.

Richard Rohr writes,
“Wrestling with God, with life, and with ourselves is necessary…the blessing usually comes in a wounding of sorts. For most of us it is an entire life of limping along to finally see the true and real blessing in our life.”

Mirror, Mirror on the wall, I see God in myself which makes me One with All.

A Fresh Approach to a Lenten Practice

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As I thought about Lent, I realized that my idea of a Lenten practice has changed. For me, Lent is a time to practice embodying more of the qualities of Jesus. First, I believe that Jesus came to show that we have never been separated from God, that God loves us, and that nothing can separate us from that love. Second, I believe that Jesus shows us the way to reveal more of our true nature which is that we are made in the image of God. Our inherently good or God-like nature is covered over by wounds, self-protection, and even self-rejection. The powerful message of Jesus is that we can follow his path to becoming more fully human and more fully divine in this life!

With this in mind, I see Jesus healing wounds, forgiving his enemies, and expanding his arms to identify with the suffering of the world. How can I engage in the qualities that Jesus embodies?

I feel that the Buddhist Loving Kindness practice cultivates the quality of compassion that I need to be able to “include more and more and exclude less and less.” So, here is a Fresh Look at a Lenten Practice.

Loving Kindness in Practice 2020

March 2020
Journey to the Heart of Loving Kindness
Instructions to guide your journey:

1- Begin at the center with Day 1 and circle around the sheet until you end with Day 35.
2- The 7 Red Hearts are for you to practice Loving Kindness for yourself each day for 7 days.
3- The 7 Purple Hearts are for you to practice Loving Kindness for your Beloved for 7 days.
4- The 7 Yellow Hearts are for you to practice Loving Kindness for a Stranger for 7 days.
5- The 7 Green Hearts are for you to practice Loving Kindness for a Difficult person for 7 days.
6-The 3 Blue Hearts are for you to practice Loving Kindness for yourself, a Beloved, a Stranger, and a Difficult person for 7 days.
7-The 4 Pink Hearts are for you to extend Loving Kindness to all living beings for the final 4 days. You can extend this section to finish at Easter if you would like this to be a Lenten practice.
8-End your time by planning a Celebration!

What is Loving Kindness?
This practice comes from wisdom across multiple religious traditions about offering kindness to people who are not like you. Loving Kindness is the spirit of unconditional love. Loving Kindness gives birth to compassion, the joy we feel when others succeed, and a sense of peace even in difficult situations. Loving Kindness can be expressed in actions or in prayer and meditation. Simple Acts of Kindness can be performed in the spirit of Loving Kindness. In the spirit of Loving Kindness, we send love to ourselves, our Beloved, strangers and difficult people in equal amounts not because we expect change in them, but because we are open to seeing God/the Divine/Absolute Love/Light in them as we see it in ourselves.

As a Christian, I experience this practice as a foundational piece in understanding how to develop the ability to love my neighbor as I love myself and even to follow Jesus more intimately by loving my enemy.

How do I offer Loving Kindness each day?
(You will find an online guidance in the loving kindness meditation at ambermattinglylivefree.com, then click on @Yoga Sanctuary and scroll down. It is labelled Loving Kindness Meditation)
Sending Loving Kindness to someone can be as simple as closing your eyes and visualizing rays of the sun shining on them. Add your own creativity! The ideas listed below come from understanding that each person is unique in the way they show love and unique in their path to the Divine. Maybe you want to plan your 31 days out by picking a person for each day. Maybe you want to practice sensing who bubbles up as your person for the day. Ideas: Pray for one person that fits the category for the week or use the section of the online guided meditation that applies to that week. Journal, pray in color by drawing a prayer for a person each day, perform random acts of kindness, send an email, send a letter, give a small gift, bake something, take an extra minute to listen to someone, walk in nature expressing gratitude for all that you see, hear, smell and feel, or take pictures practicing seeing things in a new way.

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