God is with us

In a few days, we will celebrate the winter solstice.  The winter solstice is when the tilt of the earth’s axis keeps us away from the light of the sun for the longest time of the year.  Many of our traditional winter celebrations including some of our Christmas traditions point us back to an ancient Roman solstice celebration called Saturnalia which was a festival of lights dedicated to the god Saturn who was referred to as the sun-star. In the height of it’s festivities, Saturnalia was a weeklong party that included feasting and gift giving.  One of the cool things I read about this festival is that slaves were allowed to participate and even greater than that, some of the masters turned the tables and served their slaves.

In an effort to replace the worship of the sun, Christian’s during this season speak about awaiting Jesus, who we call the Light of the World. But before the Light of the World comes, we must face the darkness that covers our planet and the darkness that we find in our hearts.

In my yoga community, we celebrate the winter solstice every year. I love this practice because it is very dramatic! During the practice, we start with all the lights on bringing awareness to the summer solstice which is the longest day of sunlight. Then as we move and breathe, I slowly extinguish the lights so that by the middle of our practice, we cannot see anything. We are surrounded in darkness and I invited my students to close their eyes and draw inward. The winter solstice invites each of us to get still, to be quiet, to go deep within so that we might become aware and let go of beliefs, patterns of thoughts, ways of being that are holding us back from expressing our best self. Then, as we move and breath to the end of the practice, I begin to add in a tiny bit of light and we begin to think about who we want to grow to be in the new year recognizing that the seeds we plant today need to be nurtured everyday, just like seeds in the earth need water, sun and rich soil to grow.

The winter solstice is a recognition that mother earth is on a journey to the longest night of the year and we who live through her abundant gifts take this journey into the darkness with her while clinging to the hope that the light of the world will once again come and illuminate our skies and our hearts in a most radiant way.

Today, we know that the sun will return and we trust that the days will grow longer, but back when the solstice celebrations began, they did not fully understand how or why the sun returned. It was a time of magic and wonder. Today, as Christians we know that the Light of the World is Emmanuel, God with us, but back in the time of Mary and Joseph this Good News reoriented the poorest and the wisest. It was a time of magic and wonder where angels sang to poor frightened shepherds and stars guided the wise men.

Not only do we journey with mother earth at this time of year, but a part of our holiday traditions is to travel for our celebrations. We journey home for celebrations. We journey to new destinations. We take shelter in places that are not our homes and rest our heads on pillows that are unfamiliar.

In our scripture, Mary and Joseph are on a journey to Bethlehem.

Mary and Joseph are taking a journey to the place of Joseph’s ancestral heritage.  They are headed away from the comforts of home into that which is uncomfortable and utterly new.

But let’s think about who else is on a journey. In this week of Advent, we recognize that the Son has left his place at the side of the Father and is making the uncomfortable journey to be with us.

The shepherds are minding their flocks when they are compelled by the angels to travel and seek.

Even the Magi make the uncomfortable journey outside of their faith tradition and outside of the place that they live to follow a star that tells them of the birth of a newborn king.

Through our journeys, we are learning the significance of Emmanuel, God with us.

We are in our third week of advent and our theme for the advent season is Radical Amazement. Advent is about awaiting and anticipating the birth of Jesus, but I think most of the time we await something we think we already have or already know most everything about. And so we have broken down radical amazement into 3 parts.  First, we explored the idea of reclaiming our childlike eyes so that we might view the birth of Jesus with wonder. Second, we joined Mary and Joseph in a Joyful baby shower celebration. Today, we will notice that a part of living in Radical Amazement is remembering.

Our scripture this morning talks about Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, but it also reminds us that Joseph is of the line of David. So as we think about the journey of our planet and the journey of the characters in the story of Jesus’ birth, we also remember that the ancestors of our faith took many journeys following God into unknown, uncomfortable, and foreign places.

I love Psalm 136 because the psalmist is giving us the opportunity to remember the story of the ancestors of our faith. The practice of remembering is deeply embedded in our faith tradition and our way of remembering is not just to recount the facts of the story but it is to look back through the lens of faith that we might see Emmanuel, God with us.

Here some of the words written in Psalm 136

What HUGE story did this psalmist not write about? The call of Abraham to leave his family and his land, journey to a new place so that he might be a blessing to others.

The ancestors of our faith were experiencing Emmanuel, God with us.

Bringing it a little closer to the present day, let’s just think about our own history because Heights Christian Church did not always worship in this space. At the very beginning of our church in 1912, we gathered in a room above Dexter’s Grocery Store on 17th and Rutland. In a few months later, they purchased three lots on the corner of 16th and Rutland and met under a tent while a wood frame was being constructed.  They called this wooden frame a tabernacle.  Then, they purchased the property where we are currently located and in 1927 built our first sanctuary what we now call Lambert Hall. Then in 1965, they built our current sanctuary. Then in 2020, the pandemic moved us from inside our building to meeting on zoom. Then on Easter of this year, we began meeting outside. Over the past 6 months, we have met in person in our sanctuary and in Lambert Hall and online for prayer and study.

In remembering the journey of Mary, Joseph, the Son, the shepherd, the magi, the ancestors of our faith and those who established our church, we realize that we come from a long line of people following God on a journey.

And as we retell our sacred stories….

We are remembering Emmanuel, God with us.

If you were to look back over the year, would you say you are learning that no matter what God is with you? How would you articulate that?  How would that prepare you for what is ahead?

When our family gets ready to take a journey to one of our family’s homes at Thanksgiving, my children always ask me what they should pack.  And so I find myself using words like, “Well, remember that Nana likes us to dress nice for Thanksgiving dinner, so please pack 1-2 nice outfits.  Oh, remember Papa likes to go for a hike, so pack your tennis shoes and outdoor clothing. Remember that Grammy likes to play games, so pack a few games that you would like to play.”  Remembering is super helpful and yet we can’t stop there.  Then, we have to prepare for what the weather will do this year. We can remember times when it snowed in Missouri at Christmas and times when it was 65 degrees, so that is not helpful in choosing what to bring.  We have to look ahead to what this new holiday, this new thanksgiving will bring so that we pack our suitcase with all the things we will need to make us comfortable when we arrive at our destination.

In our text today, we see Mary and Joseph set up a home in Bethlehem, an unfamiliar place and doing the best they can to bring comfort to a most uncomfortable barn. We read about the shepherds and later the wise men talking about this unusual and quite foreign experience like they are visiting old friends in a comfortable space. A few verses later in our text it says, “There was no room for them in the inn and this reminds us of when a grown Jesus says to the teacher of the law who wants to follow him, “foxes have dens and birds have nests but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”  In the end, God with us, Emmanuel, did not find a permanent home in Jesus either, but died and rose again as the Christ breaking our ideas about what is sacred and what is secular that we might see this new thing that God has done!

One thing that this story can teach us is that when we feel uncomfortable or dislocated or not at home, that we remember that our true home is with Jesus.  This story reminds us that wherever the child who was born for all people lays…that is our true home. We can trust that as we become aware that Jesus truly is Emmanuel, God with us, then wherever we find ourselves, even in what is new, even in the uncomfortable, even there our unsettled spirits can find rest and joy and peace. 

The sacred text that we have read today makes me wonder if we have grown too comfortable, claiming our homes, our place of worship, our money for ourselves instead of saying, “my home is not my home…my home is with you Jesus and so I am open to using my home in a way that honors you.  My church is not my church…it is your church Jesus and so I am open to using my church in a way that honors you. Our money is not our money….it is your money, Jesus and so I am open to using our money in a way that honors you.” This may be a new way of embodying the message Emmanuel, God with us.

Maybe as we look to 2022, we need to pack lightly, bring with us only what we can carry and welcome dislocation and feelings of discomfort by joining Mary in saying, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord. May it be according to your word.”

Wonder

“The ninth-century Buddhist master Lin Chi said, ‘If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.’ “Kill the Buddha” often is considered a koan, one of those bits of dialogue or brief anecdotes unique to Zen Buddhism. It is said that by contemplating a koan, the student exhausts discriminating thoughts, and a deeper, more intuitive insight arises.

When you see the Buddha, kill the Buddha. What is this supposed to mean? Well,, one way to think about it is that your teacher or guide is just another human being who is pointing beyond himself or herself or themself to something greater.  I love this idea because this takes the pressure off me being perfect and invites you to listen and then discern what is right for you.

Another way to think about this koan is that when you think you have found the truth, the thing, the person to guide you, the way out of suffering, the answer, acknowledge it and step passed it. This brings us to the question,  but Why would you not cling to what you have found…like a treasure that you go bury in a field? It’s because you are only 1 human being and cannot know everything. So when you think you found the truth and then you cling to that truth, that person, saying or thing actually prevents you from seeing and learning anything else. 

When I considered this Zen Koan and it’s wisdom for our Christian tradition I ran across this quote in Richard Rohr’s Universal Christ. Richard is quoting from the Divine Milieu by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He writes, “God does not offer himself to our finite beings as a thing all complete and ready to be embraced. For us he is eternal discovery and eternal growth. The more we think we understand him, the more he reveals himself as otherwise. The more we think we hold him, the further he withdraws, drawing us into the depths of himself.”

Might I suggest that we hear in his words, “If you meet Jesus on the road, keep walking.” Or if you think you know Jesus, realize that you are only holding onto an image, an idol of your own making.  Or if you are frustrated by following Jesus, maybe you have followed 1 human being’s path to God instead of discerning how the image of God within you is best expressed.

We are in our second week of advent and our theme for the advent season is Radical Amazement. Advent is about awaiting and anticipating the birth of Jesus, but I think most of the time we await something we think we already have or already know most everything about. But what if we could experience this advent season a little differently? What if we could embody the wonder of the shepherds, the joy of the angels, and the memory of the wise men?

It is in this time of advent or waiting that we return to the prophets who foretold of who we are awaiting and what this person will do for God’s people.  So, let’s remember what has happened and why the people are awaiting a Messiah.

The land that was promised all the way back in the time of our ancestor Abraham, the land that in future generations became Judah and Israel was taken away from them by bigger and stronger armies. The people of God were exiled. The Temple was destroyed. This was both a political disaster and a religious disaster because the people of God felt that their identity was wrapped up in the land. They understood that the temple represented God’s presence with the people and the King had been the primary mediator between God and the people.  So naturally, when these 3 things were taken away, the people began to ask some serious theological questions like, “Where is God?” “Is God able?” “Is God faithful?” and “Are the gods of the newest rulers of their land more powerful than YHWH?” 

Now, the time of the prophets span from before the land was conquered, before the temple destroyed, and before their Kingly line was eliminated all the way to the time when the people begin returning to the land, putting the torah into writing, and rebuilding. So, most of what the prophets say have to do with current and slightly future happenings.  It is not until after Jesus lived on this earth that the writings of the prophets began to be interpreted as related to Jesus.  What this means is that as you and I read the prophetic material, we must first understand what it meant during that day and time and then build a bridge to what it might mean for us today. 

Now, the time of the exile was not all bad for the people of God. Two positive things came out of the time of exile. First, the people of God began to tell others about the One True God.  There was a missionary zeal of sorts. So, some of the gentile converts during the time of the exile fully converted to Judaism while others wanted to participate in the community, hear the wisdom of the ancient text, and have a moral code to live by but not adhere to the legalistic requirements.  These partial converts were called proselytes at the gate or God-fearers. It is thought that this group comprised the early urban converts to The Way which was the first name of Christianity. The other important change to their life was they began to work for social justice both for the people of the covenant and for all people.

Building a bridge to the time of Jesus, the people are again living under the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire. They wanted all the same things that they wanted during the exile. They wanted their land back and a King from the line of David to rule over this land, and many were crying out for religious revival.

OK, so let us listen to what the prophets tell us we are awaiting during this season of advent.

1- Isaiah 64: 7-65:1

Listen to the people in these verses. (read 64:7-12) They are attempting to blame God for the loss of their land and the burning of the temple.  They are saying, “You God, have left us.”  Here God’s reply in Isaiah 65:1.   It gives me goosebumps everytime.  God says in response to the people, “I was ready to be sought out by you but you did not ask, to be found by you but you did not seek me. I said, “Here I am, here I am.” To your whole nation but your nation did not call on my name.” This writing also reminds me of our Zen Koan. If you have decided that God has left you, listen again for God is saying, “Here I am. Here I am.”

1- Jeremiah 33: 14-16

(Read) God promised someone from the line of David would always be on the throne in the land that God gave the people. God promised that the land would be safe and that this person would execute justice for the people.

2-Micah 5: 2-6

(Read) God says that a person will come from the line of David to be the next ruler who will feed the people and bring peace to their land. God also promised leaders who would rule with a sword to weed out the people who do not belong on the land. This is the way that God’s people would live in peace.

3-Luke 1:67-79

Let’s bring this a little closer to the time of Jesus and read a scripture that is said to be the announcement for John the Baptist. (Read the verses) It is here that we find that they are awaiting religious reformation. We also hear that God is going to save them from their enemies, most likely Rome, through this person.  God is going to fulfil his promise to Abraham of descendants, land and blessing. God is going to give mercy, forgiveness, and grant us peace.

If the people were awaiting someone to keep their belly’s full, a new king, a leader, a warrior, did they find him?  Yes and No. I would say that mostly their expectations, what they awaited, prevented them from seeing who Jesus was and what Jesus was doing. Some were frustrated by him for stirring up trouble. Others hated him for being a rule breaker.  Some just got stirred up by the mob and shouted for his death.  This is not to blame any of these groups but it is to ask the question, “How are we like them?”  How is what we are awaiting clouding our vision so that we miss seeing the Jesus that is? How are our expectations for what Jesus is supposed to do for us, our church, and our world causing us pain and suffering because we don’t see what we expect to see happening?

Awaiting can bring us suffering and it can offer us hope, peace, joy and love if we are willing to shatter our expectations, step beyond what we think we have found, and stand in wonder of what is.

Rev. dr. amber mattingly

Wonder is about seeing life as if for the first time like reclaiming our childlike eyes. It is about slowing Down. Pausing. Releasing expectation so that we can accept the gift of what is right in front of us.

I think our children understand this.

When Peyton was newly crawling, one evening during advent Chad and I could not find him.  He was not in his room. All the bathroom doors were shut. The baby gate was blocking him from attempting to go downstairs and he was not in the kitchen.  In the house we lived in at the time, we had this front room that went largely unused.  We did not need a 3rd living room and we did not want a formal dining room so for the year we lived in the house, it stayed empty….except at Christmas.  When we were decorating our home for Christmas, we decided to put our tree in this unused space because this room had a large window that looked out over our cul-de-sac.  Chad loved seeing the lights on our tree through the window when he drove home from work.  So, guess where our newly mobile son was?  Yep! He had crawled and was sitting up close to the tree. We peaked from around the corner because we did not want to disturb his precious moment with the tree.  He touched the tree, he put some of the tree in his mouth but it was very poky so he did not do that again. He smelled the tree and at one point he looked up to the top of the tree and that was the moment, I new what wonder looked like, felt like, tasted like, smelled like.  

How do we as adults reclaim that sense of wonder? I think one way is to let Go of our expectations.

Here these words penned by Danna Faulds

“Let go of the ways you thought life would unfold, the holding of plans or dreams or expectations. Let it all go. Save your strength to swim with the tide. The choice to fight what is here before you now will only result in struggle, fear, and desperate attempts to flee from the very energy you long for. Let go. Let it all go and flow with the grace that washes through your days whether you received it gently or with all your quills raised to defend against invaders. Take this on faith; the mind may never find the explanations that it seeks, but you will move forward nonetheless. Let go, and the wave’s crest will carry you to unknown shores, beyond your wildest dreams or destinations. Let it all go and fined the place of rest and peace and certain transformation.”

How We do things is as Important as What we do

How many of you have experienced your faith journey…the journey of your life as a straight linear path?  How many of you might say your faith journey has been more of a wild roller coaster ride?  How many of you might say that your faith journey has been more of a spiral of moving a couple of steps forward and then shifting backwards to more familiar territory and then plunging forward and circling back time and time again?

When I think back to the first time I acknowledged the presence of God in my life and was conscious of my spiritual journey, I was 5 and in the Methodist church.  The church I grew up in and the family I was born into were very conservative politically and in their interpretation of the scriptures.  As a young child, I watched my dad have a spiritual experience that closed out one chapter of his life as a nightclub owner and shifted into spending time and energy at the church. With this change, he gave up alcohol and was sober for 20 years. This was an amazing transformation.  But over the years of spending time in church life, he lost his ability to celebrate God in all human beings because of the church’s conservative reading of scripture. As you would imagine, my journey was greatly impacted by my family of origin and the church home I was raised in. My journey has been more like a spiral where I can name people like Melanie, Jenni, and Charlie who loved me in my more conservative stances and this love propelled me forward in seeing God in all of life. Then, I had to go back and do the theological work to recreate a foundation that included reading the history of our tradition, the study of scripture, and allowing all of this study to be in conversation with my experience of life.

Philip Clayton in his book How I found God in Everyone and Everywhere talks about how he grew up in a home that did not speak of God and that when he became a Christian as a young teenager that this was the most effective form of rebellion that his parents could dream of.  They could handle drugs, alcohol, etc, but become a Christian? They did not know what to do for him. In his young adult life, he grew increasingly more fundamentalist. And it was not until he dove into studying every word of the bible, his views were challenged. He realized that not every word made sense in light of other scriptures.  He finally broke out of the fundamentalist mode when he met an academic who guided him to see that studying and wrestling with the questions of life is more important than nailing down the answers.  Answers make us feel comfortable, but questions make us do the hard work of wrestling with scripture, tradition and life experience.  He finally found a home in the Quaker tradition and he writes, “A central conviction for Quakers is that there is That of God in Every One.” If there is That of God in a Muslim, you don’t kill him; in a black man, you don’t imprison him unjustly (or shoot him); in an animal, you don’t torture or eat her; in nature, you don’t rape and pillage it for your own pleasure. Because of That of God in the person before me, I strive to hear her as deeply as possible, whatever her color, culture, or creed.” And then he asks us 2 questions, “Imagine what would happen if members of each religion listened for That of God in all the others and held themselves to nonviolence in thought, word and deed? Imagine what would happen if we learned to see and hear That of God in every part of the natural world around us?”

Turn over to the back of your bulletin and I invite you to take a moment and think about your faith journey, the journey of your life, and write a couple of names, places, animals, natural elements where you have encountered God’s love in a more expansive way than you were used to at that particular time. Which experiences were surprising? Which ones were slow coming?

(Pause)

Seeing that of God in the people, places, animals, and natural elements that you have listed on the back of your bulletin, makes the next statement all that more relevant. If you see God in your experiences with people, then people are looking to see that of God in you.

Today, we are focusing on Stewardship of the Gospel. The scripture is clear: you are I are God’s plan for sharing the Good News of God’s love in Jesus Christ with the whole world. In 2 Corinthians 4:7 that we read a few weeks ago, we are reminded that we have the treasure of the Good News within us and that this Good News is not so that we might think highly of ourselves but it is so that our words and actions point to the power of God’s love for all God’s creation. So, what it means to be good stewards of the gospel is that we have this precious treasure of the Good news with in us. We are responsible for how we embody the Good News and for how we share the Good News. As Christians our desire is that our light shines brightly so that we might see our own path more clearly and we hope that others see their path more clearly in our presence. Which makes the distinction that our path may not be their path to God and that is not for us to judge or worry about the outcome of sharing God’s love.

As Christians, our intention is to share our light and our love that all might be refreshed, renewed, and restored from the experience.

A part of being good stewards of the gospel is sharing our faith with our words. Jesus said that we are to go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation (Mark 16:15).

Now gospel or good news is actually a political statement and not a religious term.  In the first centuries, the good news referred to an announcement about Ceasar Augustus and his era of prosperity and peace that was won through brutal and bloody violence.  Later after a civil war, Caesar’s adopted nephew Octavian won the war and restored stability and peace.  The announcement of his victory and the peace he brought was called gospel, or good news.  Jesus would have been aware of this meaning and so he used it to say how God’s vision for this world could and should be. 

Jesus said that God anointed him to proclaim good news to the poor, to free the prisoner, heal the blind and to set the oppressed free. (Luke 4:18) So, the good news is transformative of us and of our world. It sets us free and we share it that others might be set free. It gives us sight in areas that we are blind and we share it that others might be healed of their blindness. The Good News desires that we flourish and then the good news in us desires to see all of God’s creation flourish no matter the religious path they have chosen or not chosen to follow.

Now, for me, this definition of the Good News makes the word evangelism, the sharing of the Good News, less scary. This word evangelism is a loaded word because it reminds us of people who have exploited the gospel for personal power or gain. It brings up images of people beating people over the head with the bible in the name of Jesus or being pushy or judging or churchy. All those things can be true and yet we are not let off the hook in speaking the Good News. 

Our scripture passage today tells us that we will speak and when we speak we must do so as one speaking the very words of God; So, sharing God’s love with our words is not a special skill for some, it is a basic foundation of Christian faith for all. You might say, “But I do other good things for people!” Our denomination does a good job with showing the gospel through our actions which is especially important because words have not been backed by actions with some in our faith tradition. And Yet…we need words ready to explain why we do the good things we do so that we are pointing to God at work in our lives as the strength and the reason by which we serve. The ending of our scripture passage today said, “we will serve and when we serve we must do so with the strength that God supplies, SO THAT God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ.”

It is important to reflect on what words are meaningful for you to share.  Our speaking about the Good News is important and needs to be authentic in its expression which means that not one person in this room will use the same words or speak the gospel in the same way that another person might. What is similar for all of us is that the good news is about transformation. It’s about my being loved into being more open and loving. It’s about Philip Clayton being set free from trying to fit God into a nice and tidy box.

So, take a moment, turn over to the back of your bulletin and see if you can fill in the blank, “Being a Christian has changed my life because…..”  You can even just jot down a few key words that would be important for you to include as you craft your sentence. Think about what difference Christ makes in your daily life. Is it forgiveness that speaks to you? Comfort in tough times? Unexplainable joy? Peace that passes all understanding? What are your key words?

(Pause)

I have said this for 8 weeks straight…so much so that I expect that you have it memorized. 

With what is happening in our world today, our people, the people in our communities that we may or may not know yet, are crying out to find ways to shift their internal state of being away from mirroring the fear, anger, and anxiety that is present all around us. They want to know how we are transforming to live lives full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. 

Now, let me turn this statement in a new direction…With what is happening in our world today, our people, the people in our communities that we may or may not know yet, need to hear the Good News in a way that does not mirror the fear, anger and anxiety that is present all around us. 

Here is the part that really matters to me…How we do things is as important to me as What we do.  If we speak words or serve others mirroring the fear, anger, anxiety, or arrogance that is present all around us, then we are not faithfully glorifying God in all things. Because God is not fear, anger, and anxiety or arrogance. God is love. Jesus is humble of heart.

 This doesn’t mean we have to be perfect or there is only one way to do things.  Just think about love for instance.  Some people’s gift of love is gentle and tender like my sister who brings home every stray cat, pig, chicken, and goat.  She nurses them to health and loves them to the end. That is not how I show love. My way of loving is to listen, dry your tears, feed you a good meal and then say, “Now, let’s get moving!” My love lets you rest and then cheers you on as you continue the journey.  And then you get every form of love in between.

There is no one way with the gift of love, but there is the way that God has gifted you to share with those around you. Remember that as you speak and as you serve that you are glorifying God.  How you do it matters. And as it relates to our speaking, how we share the gospel with our words is something we must reflect on, write out, experiment with, and regroup if we feel it is not authentic to who we are as God’s beloved.

This is not easy work! Being stewards of the gospel is in some ways an unanswerable call, because we are supposed to be stewarding something we don’t fully understand. We might understand the gospel by using certain words today, but with life experience and reading scripture, we might change our wording tomorrow, next month or next year!  Being stewards of the Good News is unanswerable and is a never-ending calling. The question, “How has Jesus changed my life?” is a question that we must answer today and keep wrestling with for the rest of our lives. 

This week I read a book about the journey of one of our sister churches. In this book, the author points out that when they came to the church that they recognized that the church had a great reputation for caring for the community. It was a great start to be a part of a church known to the community as a place of love and care. And yet the church was in decline. Another moment of celebration was when people in the church became so excited about what is happening in their own lives and in the life of the church that they wanted to tell the stories. Then it all came together for this church when the community who has felt loved by the church became open to hearing the stories and the church members were eager, exited, loved to tell the story.

This reminds me of the song, “I love to tell the story.” In the song the writer expresses how much they love to tell the story. We energetically sing along the words, “I love to tell the story; of unseen things above, of Jesus and his glory of Jesus and his love. I love to tell the story because I know tis true; it satisfies my longings as nothing else can do!” My friends, each of our stories tells the story of Jesus and his love, so let us speak and when we speak let us tell our stories as one speaking the very words of God.

We need Community

Philip Clayton in the book How I found God in Everyone and Everywhere writes, “Each of us has our own life to lead. Each one is powered by needs and longings, by love and hate, by acts of deep compassion and acts of self-assertion. Crippled by pain or dancing with joy, we walk this journey from birth to death. When our eyes are open, we feel wonder; when our souls are open, we feel awe; when are hearts are open, we feel reverence for all that is.” (How I found God in everyone and everywhere, 19). We have been studying the fruit of the spirit this fall, but not just looking at how to be more loving or how to embody peace, but really emphasizing how the fruit of the spirit tunes the amazing instrument of our bodies transforming us into a new creation. In 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul writes, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”

In Paul’s words, I don’t hear that what we were before is bad and is somehow magically gone. What I hear is that God is enhancing what is already there drawing out the image of God that each one of us bears so that we might reveal more of God’s likeness in the world.  Jesus said in Matthew 7:16, “You will know them by their fruits.” When we express the likeness of God in the world…the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness or centered, gentleness, and self-control or balance, we become recognizable to others as Christ followers.  This is the fruit that we bear!  This is not a judgement statement but a way for the eyes of our heart to recognize.  Much like when we say, “The Christ in me recognizes the Christ in you!”

This new creation talk is not just about our spirits disconnected from our bodies, but instead it includes our bodies as we have been talking about this entire series. Brian Spoon the author of Neuroscience and the Fruit of the Spirit writes, “Our experience of reality is filtered through electrochemical signals in our bodies. This is true for all of us. It is our prioritization and emotional connection to certain signals versus others that dictate what we value.” What this means for us is that there is a part of our faith tradition that calls us to be good stewards of our bodies because we experience life through our bodies.  Our bodies are this amazingly complex ecosystem that must be tended to with care and not for our own benefit, but so that we might go about the work of being the hands and feet of Christ in our world. 

Our mind and body interpret everything in our external world and our internal world. What we put into our bodies and minds can be stored in unhealthy ways that can cause dis-ease.  My friend Pema and I were talking about how I wanted to stop watching certain TV shows or movies. I felt like crime shows or shows where people are plotting revenge…these kinds of shows were affecting my sleep.  During the conversation, we started talking about how we recognize the effects of what we put in our bodies, and we might even notice what is beneficial to our mental state, but we don’t really think about is how things affect our spirits.  Pema pointed out that our spirits are like an innocent child that we should protect.  What you watch or read or put in your body or do to your body, you should consider that this innocent young child…the spirit of you…is also seeing, hearing and being affected by. 

Our National Disciples of Christ church wrote bill GA 1732 called Stewardship as a spiritual discipline.  In this document, there is a section on stewardship as loving attention to body and mind.  In this section, the author writes, “Jewish thought understands not that we have a body, but that in fact we are a body…To love God with body, mind, and soul in harmony would have been familiar to Jesus as well as Paul.”  In this section, the authors emphasize the importance of our bodies referencing 1 Corinthians 4:7 where it says that we have the treasure of the gospel in clay jars. Paul was referring to our bodies.  Add to this scripture the passage in 1 Corinthians 6:19 where Paul says, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?”

All of this talk about growth and transforming and being made into the likeness of God is true and as Christians we cannot deny that we are called to growth, but this must be balanced with loving ourselves as the beautiful creation, the beloved of God that we already are.  If you are very growth minded like me, it is important to know that love for yourself in just the way you are provides the most optimal conditions for growth to happen.

So let’s take a moment to recognize the fruit of the spirit in our lives. God has created each of us to naturally experience one or more of the fruit of the spirit without changing, transforming at all.….we just enjoy the gift of this fruit. 

1- Experience:

a-     Consider what fruit of the spirit you see in your own life? Take a moment to give yourself a hug or dance a little jig in celebration of this fruit!

b-      Make a point this week to tell 1-2 people what fruit of the spirit you see in their life. Take a moment to celebrate with them!

c-         This next part has to do with community. Remember we learned last week that new habits do not form themselves.  We need each other to form a new habit.  According to the book, the Power of Habits, an essential ingredient to creating new habits in our lives is community.  The author writes, “When people join groups where change seems possible, the potential for that change to occur becomes more real.” All of us recognize that we do not embody every single one of the fruit of the spirit. Each of us can pick out one or more of the fruit of the spirit that we desire to embody.  It is encouraging to be a part of a community that desires this type of growth. So, now I invite you share with someone what fruit of the spirit you would like to see grow and flourish in your life? Ask them to consider praying for you this week.

Community is a wonderful element that we need to grow and flourish.  We need people around us who believe that we can do it and who also desire to see growth in their own lives.  Part of it is accountability because when we know that other people are invested in something, then we feel like we need to do our part as well.  The meditation group that my friend Pema and I created never met in person and only met on zoom 3 times over a 6 week period and yet many times people’s journals told us that they kept to their daily meditation practice because they believed in our research and because there was a felt sense of community support and accountability in that they did not want to let each other down.

Another ingredient to flourishing on Jesus’ path is that we need to practice self-care. We have the ability to either make the internal environment very harsh and judging or we can be loving and encouraging to ourselves.  Jesus in Matthew 22:37-39 writes, “Love the Lord with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” What does it mean to love ourselves? We are told in scripture that our body is a temple and if we believe this is true then we are to be in awe of how beautifully and wonderfully we are made and then be good stewards of this precious gift that God has given to us.

Jesus knew that how we treat ourselves usually comes out in how we treat others, so he said love yourself and then love your neighbor as you love yourself.  If we are harsh and judgmental to ourselves most likely that will come out in how we treat others.  If we are loving and gentle with ourselves, then we can be more loving and gentler with others.  When I was in junior high, my catholic school did not have a 3 strikes your out punishment type system.  Instead, we had what they called “Catch them being goods.” 

Teachers were looking for us to be the good little students and leaders that they knew we had the ability to be and if that part of us peaked out and they saw it, then they would give us a reward.  If we got so many catch them being goods then we received a personal reward, but if the whole class got a certain number of catch them being goods, then we would get a pizza party!  What they were doing is setting the stage for our best selves to flourish.  They created an environment where they were looking for the goodness in us! This type of environment that believes we can do it and encourages us to be  kind, loving and being gentle and if the community buys into the process and does it together then we are creating the most a fertile environment for positive transformation!

There are many ways that we can be good stewards of ourselves so that our fruit has the potential to grow! Turn over on the back of your bulletin and let’s read some ideas: Rest, worship, maintain our health through exercise, meditation and nutrition, use our gifts, accept ourselves, generosity

2-Experience:

a-        Consider how you care for yourself: body, mind and spirit? Have coffee with someone and talk about the importance of self-care. Tell them how you care for yourself and then listen to how they care for themselves.

b-        Now, answer this question. What is one way that you would like to care for yourself…something you want to do but is not a current part of your self-care practices? Tell your friend so that you feel the support and accountability of this small group. 

Lastly, Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 writes about how there are a variety of gifts of the spirit and for today I will say fruit of the spirit, but that they all come from the Spirit of God who resides in the temple of our bodies.  God gives each of us gifts not so we can compare and desire what the other person has but so that we individually might flourish and the body of Christ flourish.  Remembering is a practice that invites us to imagine the many ways that our care for our bodies affects those around us. We must remember that being good stewards of this incredible instrument God has given us in our body is also related to our ability to offer our best selves to our loved ones and those closest to us.  And it is bigger than that. We must remember that being good stewards of our bodies relates to our ability to offer our best self to Heights Christian Church.  And it is much bigger than that. We as a church must remember that we are just one part of the body of Christ and that we are called to be good stewards of the resources we have so that we offer our best selves to the Larger Body of Christ in the world.

The authors of Another Way: Living and Leading Change on Purpose offer us 4 statements to remind us of who we are and how we are all connected. Hear these affirmations spoken for you personally and spoken over Heights Christian Church.

You are the dream of a community. You sit under trees you did not plant and drink from wells you did not dig. Your life is not simply your own. You are leading your life on behalf of and connected to a larger community. 

Another Way: Living and leading change on purpose

Let’s add what Jesus said about who we are.  Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. Go and be who you are.”

Finding Balance

To the untrained eye a painting created by Pissarro (puh saa row) , Monet, or Van Gogh looks like fluid stokes of paint creating an image. The impressionists painted their masterpieces using course lines, but if you view their work from far away the painting appears to be fluid and all the individual lines work as one. I think the best way to study impressionistic painting is to come in close and admire every stroke, but then back away to remember the whole of the masterpiece. As students of our sacred text, we should study the bible with the same care that impressionistic paintings should be studied. We can view the bible as a creative work of art, a masterpiece put together by many authors over the course of time. As we read the bible closely, we can admire every brush stroke. If we stay too close, we can find ourselves lost and disconnected from the bigger picture. Names, dates, places, marriages, and wars start to lose meaning if we forget the unifying themes and purpose of the bible. A student of the bible must balance looking closely at all the individual strokes with stepping back and remembering the broader themes that move and work as one to create the masterpiece.  

I wonder if we can apply this way of studying scripture to studying our thought life.  I wonder if we can take a close look at our thoughts in a day and see all the worries, ideas, creativity, and daydreams as coarse strokes in a broader framework. What if the individual strokes of our thoughts about work, thoughts about play, thoughts about spirituality, and thoughts about family, friends, and enemies are working together to create a masterpiece? If we stepped back from the individual thoughts to look at the masterpiece, would we be proud of our creation? If we discern that our thoughts are not creating an image that looks like Jesus, do we have the power to shift the pattern of our thoughts to create a new masterpiece?

With what is happening in our world today, our people, the people in our communities that we may or may not know yet, are crying out to find ways to shift their internal state of being away from mirroring the fear, anger, and anxiety that is present all around us. They want to mindfully choose to live a balanced life through embodying self-control. If people are hungry for spiritual practices that change their internal state of being and if our bodies are this amazing instrument that God gave us to tune to God’s frequency then we as the church must talk about how the mind & body are involved in our spiritual practices.  It helps us better understand how we are a new creation in Christ.

We are in a new sermon series titled, “Your brain on fruit” We are taking this series from Galatians 5:22 where Paul says that the result of following Christ is that we will bear fruit.  The fruit he is talking about is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Today, we are talking about your brain on self-control.

No one likes to talk about self-control.  It feels negative, limiting and shaming. I think we have swung so far away from talking about self-control that we have missed the benefits of a life of temperance. I think a word that people resonate with now is balanced.  We talk a lot about work/home life balance or eating a balanced diet or balancing our driving yang energy with yin energy of rest and restore. We all know that our human experience is greatly affected by the health of our body, mind, & emotions. We can contribute to our suffering through living a life out of balance or to our healing.  The doctor who helped me understand my children’s bodies was a Jewish man and he always told me that God created the body to constantly work to heal itself AND we must support it’s healing!! 

I loved that when I was studying at Baylor, they gave all of the freshman a wellness wheel. On this wheel was all the aspects of wellness like social, emotional, mental, spiritual, physical. Then, they talked about how when we are in finals, we are doing too much mental work so we need to balance the time spent studying with good nutrition, social interaction, moving our bodies and resting.  I loved that they included spiritual wellness because we are spiritual beings. And what affects our bodies and minds also affects our spirits. The goal is not to be perfect, but we do need to be mindful, and choose wisely what we allow to enter this finely tuned instrument of our bodies.

This statement makes it sounds like you are in control and if you were just mindful enough or wise enough, then your wellness level would be optimal. But Guess what you are not in control. Most often you are not consciously aware of what you are thinking or doing. 

Would it be surprising to hear that you had no choice in almost ½ of the actions you take in a day? A paper published by Duke University in 2006 found that more than 40% of our actions are not based on decisions we make, but rather habits.

Our habits rule us, but before our actions became a habit, we had a choice. A habit is formed because a cue presents itself and then we decide on a behavior in response to that cue and then if it goes well, we are rewarded by the reward center of the brain.  If we are rewarded, then our brains present this same pattern every time a similar cue is presented.  If we continue to behave in the same way in response to the cue and the reward system kicks in, then over time the brain decides this is the easiest path to follow so the neural pathway becomes automatic.

According to Hebb’s Law, what fires together wires together. And when patterns wire together to form an automatic routine, this is known as chunking and it is at the root of how habits form. (The power of habit, 17) When a habit forms, the outer part or newer developed part of the brain according to an evolutionary perspective goes on autopilot and diverts its attention elsewhere to allow the older part of the brain to automatically perform the task. This older part of the brain that oversees habit formation is the basil ganglia. So unless you mindfully observe the habit, fight the pattern to create a new routine, then the path will be followed automatically.

For example, in the early 1900s people were not interested in brushing their teeth.  We were becoming a wealthier country and with more wealth came the abundance of sugary processed foods.  With an over consumption of sugary processed foods, came tooth decay.  At the beginning of WW1, the government began drafting young men. The government saw too many young men with rotting teeth that they declared poor dental hygiene a national security risk. During this time, a prominent American executive named Claude C. Hopkins was approached by a friend with a new business idea.  He wanted to sell a toothpaste called Pepsodent.

Hopkins had already achieved massive wealth through marketing products in a way that created new habits for the American people, so he began to think about how he could get people to brush their teeth.  It seemed impossible but then he had an idea. What if he drew people’s attention to the film on their teeth.  Feeling the film on their teeth would become the trigger for creating the new routine of brushing their teeth.  The reward would be advertising toothpaste as a beauty product.  So break this new habit down: Cue=film on teeth, Routine=brush your teeth, Reward=beautiful smile.  It only took 3 weeks to raise the demand for this product.  Before Pepsodent, only 7% of people had a tube of toothpaste in their cabinet; after a decade that number raised to 65%; by the end of WW2 the government downgraded concerns about dental hygiene because soldiers were brushing their teeth every day. (Power of Habit, 31-33) Now, it is of great interest to me to sit with a group of people and brainstorm the creation of the habit of coming to church. What would be the cue? Routine? Reward?  This is something I am eager to explore.

Habits are powerful. Your brain is no longer in control when a habit forms and we can train our mind to breakdown the cue, routine and reward so that we can change a habit.  Paul in his second letter to the church in Corinth directly says that as Disciples we must look at the pattern of our thoughts and take our thoughts captive if they are not following the way of Jesus.   

Our journey with Paul today begins in the city of Corinth. The city of Corinth was strategically positioned with ports on the east and west side; ships could take the slipway through Corinth to avoid the dangerous seas. The city quickly became a city of trade and commerce and the people rich and diverse. The city also bustled with new life, new thought, and new religions and the blending of traditions due to interfaith marriages.  The people of Corinth valued intelligence and power of speech which threatened Paul’s career and his church in the city of Corinth. 

So in our verses today, Paul is defending his Christianity.  He knows that Corinth values intelligence and power of speech and so is questioning how an all-powerful God who sent Jesus could possibly be in this weak, humble, and poorly spoken man. But in verse one, Paul points out that he follows Jesus who was meek and gentle.  So, Paul is saying that the values of Jesus are different than the values of this city and its’ people.

In verses 3-5, Paul begins to use the language of war.  Anytime, I come to war language in the bible, I cringe a little because it is hard to talk about war when we call Jesus our prince of peace.  But Paul is talking about a war of the mind. He points out that a city has several layers of defense: the outer wall of the city is the first line of defense and then there is an inner stronghold. Paul presents that he is at war with the values of the people of Corinth which keep his church from fully embracing the gospel. Paul is writing to the Corinthian church saying, “You guys are arguing about my Christianity because I am not impressive and I do not have eloquence in my speech.” But I will breakdown this outer wall with my argument that I am following Christ’s meek and gentle spirit. 

Then, he realizes that the stronghold of his people that keeps them from embracing the power of the gospel is that their thought is not solidly connected to the belief in Jesus that they profess. So the people end up star struck with the next amazingly eloquent super apostle to come through Corinth.  He invites them to notice the power of their thoughts. The obvious cue for their behavior is when someone appears with confidence and eloquence of speech. The behavior is they begin to move away from their faith in Jesus to follow this new person and they are rewarded by feeling closer to the people of the city.

This is hard to compete with especially that reward of feeling connected and supported by your people.  But, He is challenging them to look deeper than appearances to recognize when and if the message is consistent with the message of Jesus Christ. Paul says our minds follow two paths: one that leads to death and the other that leads to life.  He says this most clearly in Romans 8:5-6, “For those who live according to the flesh, set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the spirit set their minds on the things of the spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the spirit is life and peace.” 

Paul presents the people of Corinth with a new reward…life and peace. Paul writes that peace comes when we embody the fruit of self-control or finding balance in our thought life so that the pattern of our thoughts follow Christ.  Paul invites the people of Corinth to be mindful of what thoughts they entertain, to see this unhealthy pattern that they have created and to create a new habit whose reward is peace.

Isn’t this what we all want?  More peace in our mental chatter!

One way to get familiar with the pattern of your thought life is through Centering Prayer.  A few weeks ago, I invited you to practice St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Prayer of Examin.  This is an amazing form of prayer and one that is recommended by Brian Spoon the author of Neuroscience and the fruit of the spirit.  In considering personality differences, the prayer of examin is beneficial for those who do not have an active self-reflective practice. This practice can be less beneficial to those of us who reflect too much!  This is why we have so many different spiritual practices.  We can try them on and see what works for us. 

Today, I want to offer you another form of prayer that helps us see the patterns of our thought life and release individual thoughts. Centering prayer was developed by Fr. Thomas Keating after he became engaged in interreligious dialogue with Buddhist and Hindu teachers and their students. Centering prayer has 4 stages.  Before beginning, you are asked to choose a sacred word.  I choose a word every January, so that is the word that I use in my time spent in centering prayer.  In the first stage, you are invited to close your eyes, settle your body, and pay attention to a few of your breaths.  Then, begin to repeat your sacred word.  You can repeat your sacred word the entire length of the prayer or once you feel that you have settled, you can let go of the word and move into the second stage which is resting in a sense of God’s presence, a loving presence, a feeling of peace.   In the Third Stage, you might notice that when the body and mind are resting that undigested material begins to emerge from the unconscious in the form of a bombardment of thoughts or emotions. 

For me, I experience lots of mental chatter and feel overwhelmed or carried away by all the thoughts.  Then, I remember that this is a part of the evacuation of these thoughts and emotions and so I acknowledge them and release them. This is done very gently and with love. Over 400 years ago, St. Francis de Sales wrote, “Act with great patience and gentleness toward ourselves…We must not be annoyed by distractions or failures but start over without further ado.” (Contemplative Practices in Action, 65) Finally, I return to my sacred word.  It is recommended that you end your centering time with the Lord’s prayer or some other form of prayer like the prayer of St. Francis.   

Your Brain on Gentleness

Olive Schreiner’s story of a dream tells the story of how a single person’s purpose fits into the narrative of a larger vision. 

            A woman walking out of a desert approaches the steep, high bank of a river where an old man meets her. She is seeking the land of freedom. He tells her it is before her but she sees nothing but a fast-flowing river and a steep and slippery bank. He encourages her to look beyond her initial vision and when she shades her eyes she can see—on the other shore—the land of freedom. She wonders how she will get to this land of trees, hills and sunshine: there is no bridge, the water is deep, the banks are steep and slippery, and no one has managed to cross the river before. She determines to go. But in a moment of hesitation, she blurts out: “For what do I go to this far land which no one has ever reached? Oh, I am alone! I am utterly alone!”

            And the old man says to her, “Silence! What do you hear?” She listens intently and says, “I hear the sound of feet, a thousand times ten thousand and thousands of thousands, and they beat this way!” He says, “They are the feet of those that shall follow you. Lead on! Make track to the water’s edge! Where you stand now, the ground will be beaten flat by ten thousand times ten thousand feet.” The old man explains how locusts cross a stream. First one descends to the water’s edge and is swept away. But as others quickly follow, their bodies pile up to build a bridge over which the rest can pass. And she says, “Over that bridge which shall be built with our bodies who will pass?” He says, “The entire human race.” At that, the woman grasps her staff and turns down that steep and slippery bank to the river. (Another Way, Lewis, Williams & Baker, 48)

When I think of gentleness, I think of what I tell my children to be when they are holding their new baby cousin, Lily.  I hear myself over and over saying, “Be gentle, honey.”  What I mean by that is to touch her in a way that is soft and slow; hold her securely but without too much tension; to be aware of the difference between their larger stronger body her small body. This is indeed what it means to be gentle in that situation, but the story about the woman and the old man that I told a moment ago gives us two new aspects of gentleness. We heard the woman in the story have this moment where she shifted from a protective stance to open hearted courage through applying t two of the three habits of gentleness which are listening and courage of heart.

The moment in the story when the old man invites the woman to listen, the story changes.  Before she listened, she was feeling alone and scared and disconnected. And what does she hear?  she hears the sound of thousands of feet coming her way. He says to her, “They are the feet of those that shall follow you. Lead on! The woman listened and recognized that she was not alone but that she was called to go before everyone to make a way for the whole human race to cross the river safely.  She found the courage of heart once she felt her mission had purpose. This moment in the story is a dramatic portrayal of what happens when we shift from a protective heart to embody gentleness.

With what is happening in our world today, our people, the people in our communities that we may or may not know yet, are crying out to find ways to shift their internal state of being away from mirroring the fear, anger, and anxiety that is present all around us. They want to walk through life with a gentleness of spirit that would inspire them to listen, forgive, & be courageous of heart. If people are hungry for spiritual practices that change their internal state of being and if our bodies are this amazing instrument that God gave us to tune to God’s frequency which is gentleness then we as the church must talk about how the mind & body are involved in our spiritual practices.  It helps us better understand how we are a new creation in Christ.

We are in a new sermon series titled, “Your brain on fruit” We are taking this series from Galatians 5:22 where Paul says that the result of following Christ is that we will bear fruit.  The fruit he is talking about is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Today, we are talking about your brain on gentleness.

Brian Spoon writes that when we practice the 3 habits of gentleness that we become capable of working through conflicts together and I would say that this is important right now for our church.  The three habits of gentleness are listening, forgiving, and having the courage of heart. So, what does gentleness do for our brains that would allow us to work through conflict together?  The hippocampus is a part of your brain that is near the Amygdala which is gives us the quick fight or flight response. But the hippocampus helps us store and create memories and when we are in a safer space we feel comfortable sharing our memories. Then we have the reward center of our brain that is activated when we feel accepted by a group.  When we feel safe and accepted, we are better able to access the parts of our brain that are creative, committed to working for the good of others, and flexible to adapt to changes. 

Today, we read about a character in our sacred text who practiced all three of these habits of gentleness.  But first let’s get a little background information

In 922 BCE, the kingdom of David had been split into two parts: the north was called Israel and the south was called Judah.  Two hundred years later, in 721 BCE the Assyrian army conquered the Northern Kingdom and exiled its leaders.  Now the southern Kingdom was having it’s own problems that the prophets spoke directly against, but they also experienced a revival of sorts. They began to reject other religious practices in favor of centralizing worship in Jerusalem.  But in 586 BCe, the Babylonians destroyed the temple in Jerusalem exiling the leaders to the northeast leaving only a remnant in Judah.  The people could not believe that God would allow the destruction of the temple and the loss of their homeland.  But the prophet Ezekiel came along and said you guys seem as lifeless as a pile of dry bones, but God will make you come alive!  Just 3 years later, the Persians conquered the Babylonians and the Jews were allowed to return home. It is during this period of the Persian rule that the story of Esther is situated. 

Esther begins with celebration and feasting.  The story goes that while the King of Persia is merry with wine, he asks Queen Vashti to come before he and his friends wearing a crown.  Now, an extra source says that that is all he asked her to wear!  So, the queen is commanded to parade naked but with a crown on in front of the king and his friends and she refuses.  This enrages the king and he declares that she is never to come into his presence again!  I’ll show her.  She might have rejoiced at her punishment!! Then when the king sobered up he remember Vashti, but his servants told him to round up a bunch of pretty girls and pick the one he likes best and that she can be his new queen. At this time in the story, Esther is living with her cousin Mordecai because her parents had died. Esther is one of the beautiful girls who comes before the king and our text reads that “the King loved Esther more than all the other women; of all the virgins she won his favor and devotion, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.”  What Esther did not tell the king was that she is Jewish.  Now, this becomes an important detail a little while later.

 Now, there was a man named Haman who was promoted by the King and all of the people had to bow to him, but Mordecai Esther’s cousin would not bow to Haman. This made Haman very angry. Haman found out that Mordecai was a jew and plotted a revenge against him.  So, Haman went to the king saying there is this group of people that does not obey the King so the king should have them all killed.  The King said to Haman, “Do with them as you will.” When Mordecai found out what was happening, he reported the news to Esther. It is at this point in the story that Esther moves from a passive figure doing what she is told to do by the men in her life, to being an active character determining the destiny of the story. 

Mordecai says to Esther, “For if you keep silent at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise from the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” Then Esther said to Mordecai, “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day, I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the King, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.”

After 3 days, Esther goes to the King, he pardons her for coming into his presence without being called and she saves her people. 

Esther saves her people by practicing the 3 habits of gentleness.

First, she Listens

Esther’s character is silent until chapter 4.  She is moved around without her consent. But she was listening.  She was listening to all that was going on around her. She was listening to what works with her new husband the King so that she could strategically plan something that would work to win his heart.  She listened to Mordecai’s counsel that now was the time to act! Her listening gave her the wisdom and courage to pray and strategically plan how to win the King’s heart so that he would grant her request. Her listening gave her the wisdom and courage she needed to approach the King even though she could have been killed for approaching him without being summoned.  

2-Forgiveness

Esther is a character in a story that she did not choose.  She did not have a choice as to where she lived. Her parent’s died and so she went to live with her cousin Mordecai. She did not have a choice whether to be in the position that she found herself in.  So, I think we can safely imagine that she needed to practice the second habit of gentleness which is forgiveness. Maybe She needed to forgive her cousin Mordecai for putting her in this situation even though he really had no choice either.  Maybe she needed to forgive her parents for their early death that brought her to live with Mordecai.  Maybe she needed to forgive herself for not telling anyone that she was Jewish before they found themselves in a situation where her people might be persecuted.  Forgiveness is an element of healing that many of us do not want to address because it is uncomfortable. 

Scriptures says in Matthew 5:24 that if you are in an act of worship and you remember that you are at odds with your brother, to leave the altar and go and be reconciled with your brother.  I think the same holds true for when we have not forgiven ourselves. So, today, we will engage in a ritual of forgiveness.

Please hold your candle. This votive represents the best possible you. But you are not able to fully express your light because of the burden of that which you have not forgiven within and that which you have not forgiven in others. What is unforgiven, as well as your resentments, keep you from expressing your best self. Notice you are not alone, all those around you are living dimmed lives also.”

Please hold your piece of twine. This piece of twin represents the cords of the entanglements and attachments to the people, places, and situations that you have not forgiven. Imagine this cord wrapped around everyone in this room including yourself. We are not living in the freedom that Christ came to bring when we do not practice forgiveness.

Take a moment to think of those you have not forgiven and of resentments towards others that you are hanging onto.

I forgive you, I release you, I let go.’ “

Take a moment to think of how you might be bound up in a lack of forgiveness for yourself.

I forgive myself, I release myself, I let go of this burden.

Released from your burdens and entanglements, now please hold the candle, the vessel of your true self; contemplating where you can bring your light into the world and be an instrument of peace. When you feel ready to share your restored light, please light your candle. 

Forgiveness Ritual | The Ritual Space | Spirituality & Practice (spiritualityandpractice.com)

To me, Listening and forgiveness are wrapped into the third habit which is having courage of heart. Maybe you can jump to being courageous, but I tend to think that the practices of listening and forgiveness come first.

Brian Spoon writes, “Courage comes from a root word that means heart. To have heart and to be wounded are two of the most fundamental aspects of being gentle.” (Neuroscience and the Fruit of the Spirit, 148)

This is exactly what Esther experienced. Although she did not play an active role at the beginning of her story, she was listening. Although no one had a choice in what brought her to the palace and into the arms of the king, she needed to forgive. Listening and forgiveness gave her the necessary courage to approach the King even though she could have been killed and then all her people after her.  After much prayer, she had the courage to take the risk even though death was a possibility.

Tomorrow, we have a conversation with Connection Christian Church.  In their story I hear the type of gentleness that practices listening, forgiveness, and courage. They wrote on their website, “Sometimes God calls you to do something bold. And sometimes, you summon the courage to say yes. That’s our story. After 111 years of dedication to sharing the love of God in Jesus Christ with the people of Odessa, God called us to do a new thing. We were led to sell our historic building and set out on a new adventure. We bought and remodeled a new building, changed our name from “First” to “Connection” to reflect our heart for Odessa, and committed to reach out with the radically inclusive gospel more broadly than ever before.

Connection Christian knows that part of their journey is that they have gone before those of us who are now like the woman in our first story at the water’s edge.  They have no intention to direct the churches like ours to follow the exact path they took in fact Rev. Dawn Weaks said that one church they met with decided to stay on their property. Another eventually closed. The invitation to us is the same invitation they give on their website. They invite us to have the courage of heart to live more freely, to love more boldly, and to reach more widely by saying “yes” to God wherever that path may lead!

Your Brain on Faithfulness

60% of Americans report that they have had an experience of the presence of God or a patterning of events in their lives that persuades them that they are a part of a cosmic design. (Fingerprints of God, Barbara Bradley Hagerty, 150) A man named Michael Persinger gained notoriety for his research that produced what he called the “God helmet.” He was researching what happens in the brain when people have a spiritual experience.  What he found was that the left hemisphere of the brain is in charge of language and gives us a sense of self.  The right hemisphere of the brain is more involved with feelings and sensations.  So, if you stimulate the left hemisphere of the brain you become aware of your “self” of you as an individual.  But if you stimulate the right hemisphere of the brain, you sense a presence other than yourself which he claimed is the prototype of the God experience.

80% of the people who put on the God helmet which stimulates the right side of the brain experienced feeling a sensed presence, as well as dizziness, vibrations, spinning and visions. Through his experiments, Persinger isolated the right temporal lobe of the brain as the sweet spot for spiritual experiences. What Michael Persinger’s work suggests is that anyone with a temporal lobe has a gateway to the divine and that when we have divine experiences that our brain is altered by the experience.

We are in a new sermon series titled, “Your brain on fruit” We are taking this series from Galatians 5:22 where Paul says that the result of following Christ is that we will bear fruit.  He lists the fruit of the spirit as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Today, we are talking about your brain on faithfulness. Faithfulness can be defined as being sincerely religious, devout, full of faith, trustworthy & dependable.  While faithfulness can mean all of these things, I think there is a new word that people in our communities can better understand. 

Faithfulness feels like what we mean when we say, “Let’s take a moment to center ourselves.”  Being centered and being faithful say that we embody the qualities that would enable us to find our way back to core truths when life throws us off balance.

With what is happening in our world today, our people, the people in our communities that we may or may not know yet, are crying out to find ways to shift their internal state of being away from mirroring the fear, anger, and anxiety that is present all around us. They want to find a treasure that is worth centering their lives around so that when life catches them off balance, they have a way to align their whole self with this treasure. If people are hungry for spiritual practices that change their internal state of being and if our bodies are this amazing instrument that God gave us to tune to God’s frequency which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness etc. then we as the church must talk about how the mind & body are involved in our spiritual practices. 

According to Brian Spoon our resident expert on how the fruit of the spirit profoundly affects our mind and body, faithfulness means that we experience a feeling of our whole self being aligned with God. He writes that when we are not in alignment then our mind and body feel distressed, but that when we are aligned then we are able to think more clearly because the part of our brain that that is involved in moral and ethical decision making agrees with the part of the brain that is involved with reasoning, planning, & executive function.

 As a minister, sometimes it is hard to get up in front of a group of people and say, “Jesus said we must live this way!” when we know that we are not fully aligned with God’s love for the world.  There is this sense of angst about needing to be mind, heart and body aligned with God before we tell others that this is how we should be as Christians. What I try to remember is that sermons are for me too.  Sometimes, I think I learn more from my own sermons than maybe you learn from them…and that is OK!  The beautiful thing is that sometimes I have an experience during the week that challenges what I am about to say in a sermon so that I either have a story to tell you that I can say, “Please don’t do what I did,” or “Here is how I navigated faithfulness this week.”

 This week I had one of these experiences. On Tuesday, we went to bed and as soon as I laid my head down on my pillow, I felt like a part of me was yelling at me.  Having studied Internal Family Systems Therapy, I understand how to step back and navigate all the parts that make up who I am.  This part of me was angry for anything and everything going back years.  Now, another part of me recognized that the yelling part of me was blowing things out of proportion and behaving irrationally.  But, as I have been asking you to do, I turned towards this part of me to listen because there was something that I needed to hear so that the yelling would grow quieter. 

What I learned is that there is a part of me that felt vulnerable leading through this discernment process.  As a new leader in our church, I discovered something about how we use our property that put us in the position of having to make life altering decisions.  The scary part is that this situation has a similar tone and feel to a past church experience. So, the angry part of me was mad at me for getting us into this situation. But here is the part I want you to hear.  I was able to calm the angry part of me down by acknowledging the fears of the angry part of me. I also was able to thank that part of me for being faithful to watch out for my well-being. Then, I was able to speak truth that aligned my body, mind and spirit with God’s love because I know that I am called to be with you during this great time of transition.  I have no doubt that God worked through your committee to bring me here.  I also recognize that God gave me the gifts and skills to lead and learn together.  The part of me that was yelling threw me off balance for a long night but grew quiet as I returned to center.  This is one picture of what it means to be faithful.

As a church worldwide, we know that Matthew 28:19-20 is what we center our vision and mission around. This is the great commission given by Jesus Christ for all people who would follow the path of Jesus.  It reads, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” 

The beauty of Jesus’ words is that they are a guiding light for each church to prayerfully decide their unique vision and mission statement. As Disciples of Christ, the unique vision of our denomination or what we imagine a world to look like because of us is to be a faithful growing church that demonstrates true community, deep Christian spirituality, and a passion for justice.  We center our vision statement in Micah 6:8. Our mission or how we are going to live into our vision of being a faithfully growing church is that we will be and share the Good News of Jesus Christ, witnessing, loving and serving to the ends of the earth.  We center our mission statement in Acts 1:8

Why is it important to define our unique vision and mission?  Simple.  It keeps us centered on what is important to us so that we don’t run around doing 100 things with minimal impact.  It keeps us faithful to what we feel called to do together so that when we get knocked off balance by pressures and change, we know the direction God has called us to go.

Anytime we can get together and pray for God’s vision for our church is an unbelievably hopeful experience.  Research shows that churches go through mission stagnation every decade or two, so we need opportunities to reconnect with our people and look at our changing community and say,

“Ok, God, how are we uniquely positioned to follow the great commission? How is Heights Christian church going to be a faithfully growing church in our denomination?  How will HCC love and serve to the ends of the earth?”  But it is always a risk to ask these questions because what if you actually feel called to do something!

Six women in our denomination got together in the late 1800s to pray about how the church could care for the “least of these.” These 6 women are described as “courageous innovators,” ahead of their time. Their lives exemplified “visionary leadership and sacrificial risk-taking” in the face of countless obstacles and “formidable odds.” “Why did they take on such a mission? The answer is they felt called to a task larger than themselves.”

This is the story of the National Benevolent Association which is a part of our denomination.  The story goes that this group of women looked around the streets of St. Louis and noticed how many children were living on the streets and through prayer, they discerned that they would care for the least of these by giving a home to the homeless, providing care for the sick, and comforting the distressed.”  Later, the NBA went through a time of great transition. Federal aid provided for children to remain at home, birth rates were in decline and the demand for adoption increased.  The buildings that the NBA had purchased for housing were no longer full.  Instead of closing the NBA, a new vision for ministry was birthed that remained faithful to God’s call to provide care for the least of these.  The community problems had changed so they reassessed the needs and realized that while housing was no longer necessary, treatment centers were needed to house the high demand for mental health professionals and retirement communities were in high demand to extend care to the elderly, so the NBA transitioned to meeting these needs. For 130 years, the National Benevolent Association has made it their mission to care, and that mission centered the association during times of great transition. As needs in our community’s change, that does not mean we are no longer necessary. What it means is that we have to pray and faithfully meet the needs of this new day.

According to Partners for Sacred Spaces, an organization created to help churches creatively explore how to navigate times of great transition, the majority of resources available to struggling congregations suggest that if your congregation has lost its sense of purpose and/or has slipped into spending more on the building than on outreach, you may have reason to close. As shocking as this is, their point is that the mission of the church must be what guides all of the decision making of the church and if a church doesn’t know its purpose for remaining in their building, then it is time for a great transition. A highly significant African American United Methodist Church in Philadelphia found itself in a time of great transition. The church was situated in a neighborhood that in the past decade went through profound demographic change.  For over 80 years, this church’s signature program was a soup kitchen, but with the change in the neighborhood, the church’s mission did not fit the needs of the more affluent neighbors.  The church recognized that their mission did not match the needs of the neighborhood so they made strategic changes in 2 ways: 1- they upgraded their kitchen to become a commercial kitchen that could be rented out to food entrepreneurs when the soup kitchen was not in operation.  2-they upgraded their facility to host not for profits who could no longer afford commercial real estate prices in their area.

This is just one of the ways that churches are being creative about how to remain faithful to their mission when in a time of great transition.

Faithfulness helps us navigate our way home in times of distress and faithfulness invites us to imagine a new way forward.

The Rt. Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows writes to us during the 8th month of the pandemic, “I often preach that the task of the spiritual life is to take a long, loving look at the real. Meaning that we are called to face life’s challenges with care, sensitivity, honesty, and as much wisdom as we can gather, trusting that on the other side of the challenge is new life.”

Your Brain on Goodness

Who hear has ever been called a Goody Two Shoes?  I have and it does not feel like a compliment, but this week I looked at the history of where this phrase originated from and I can confidently say that if you have been called a Goody Two Shoes, then you should take this as a compliment. 

One of the first places that this phrase appears was in the title of a children’s book published by John Newbery in London in 1765.  In the book, you meet Margery Meanwell and her brother Timothy.  These two children are penniless orphans who walk around wearing only rags. The book makes a point of the fact that Margery only has 1 shoe.  One day, Margery is given 2 shoes by a generous benefactor.  This gift sets off a series of events that encouraged Margery to work hard to become a school mistress.  Later, she falls in love and marries a man who owns land.  While Margery seems to have good fortune, her brother also returns from living overseas bringing with him a fortune that he gives to Margery as a nice dowry for her wedding.  Margery now has money and land, but this doesn’t change who she is. Having once lived in poverty, Margery views her wealth as something to be used for the good of those less fortunate and not for personal pleasure.

Being a goody two shoes is used to describe someone who has high moral standards, who has a clear understanding of right and wrong, and who acts for reconciliation in the world.  Goody two shoes are people who want the light to shine in areas of darkness so that truth might be revealed. All of us not just the goody two shoes among us have this internal sense of goodness as we are created in the image of a God whose very nature is good.

Our people, the people in our communities that we may or may not know yet, are crying out to find ways to shift their internal state of being away from mirroring the fear, anger, and anxiety that is present all around us. They want to show the goodness that is in their heart through their thoughts, words, and actions. If people are hungry for spiritual practices that change their internal state of being and if our bodies are this amazing instrument that God gave us to tune to God’s frequency which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness etc. then we as the church must talk about how the mind & body are involved in our spiritual practices. 

We are in a new sermon series titled, “Your brain on fruit” Today we are talking about your brain on goodness. Through new discoveries in Neuroscience, Christians have another way to talk about what we mean when we say “In Christ, we are a new creation!” This is exciting to me because it confirms what practitioners and mystics have written about for 100s of years and it gives us a new and interesting way to talk about our faith.

In our sacred text, we find letters from highly esteemed mentors addressing people of faith throughout the region.  In the letter to the Thessalonians that we read from today, their mentor, Paul, writes about the idea that how we live our life today matters.  How we care for ourselves and each other each and everyday matters.  Let us hear the words again from 1 Thessalonians 5: 12-18,   “But we request of you, brothers and sisters, that you cultivate a grateful heart for the leaders among you.  Live in peace with one another. 14 How we live our life each day is important, so We urge you, to speak to the [k]unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone. 15 See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people. 16 Rejoice always; 17 pray without ceasing; 18 in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

The definition of goodness that I am using today is that goodness is having a zeal for the truth. But what many of us think this means is not exactly what it means.  A passion for the truth begins with acknowledging our ignorance which is what Jesus called us to do when he said, consider the log in your own eye before you offer to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.  So, we have to do the internal work that humbly acknowledges that we don’t know everything and that we have a particular bias towards the knowledge that we do have. And we can understand our bias through looking at how our brains work.

Brian Spoon in his book Neuroscience and the fruit of the spirit writes, “If we believe something to be real, the thalamus will help make the perception become our reality.” (115) What he is saying is that if we trust a certain line of thinking, our brains are primed to see more of it and now we know that our media is filtering what we see to reinforce our bias. News sources focus solely on telling us how bad the people who don’t think like us are which creates more division and less opportunities for reconciliation.

Instead of just believing everything we read that fits in our narrow window of thinking…What goodness does is give us the ability to be curious instead of judgmental and creative instead of hopeless as we work for reconciliation between opposing groups. When we shift into a sense of curiosity and creativity, then the prefrontal cortex is engaged to help us problem solve and make plans to make the world a better place.

How does a person cultivate this sense of goodness that becomes like a North Star pointing them in the direction of the truth? How do people become curious and creative in their work for reconciliation?  Let’s look at 3 different stories that are examples of what our sacred text encourages us to do which is to take seriously how we live our lives everyday: we want to be a people who live in peace, who are patient with each other and who encourage each other to continue working for the good of all people.

In the year 2000, a man named Paul Ekman had the opportunity to spend a few minutes with the Dalai Lama.  Paul Ekman said, “He held my hands while we talked and I was filled with a sense of goodness and a unique total body sensation that I have no words to describe.”  Ekman talks about how most of his adult life he struggled with anger and rage, but that once the Dalai Lama touched his hands, he felt completely cured of his anger and rage. Recently, Paul interviewed eight others who have experienced similar transformations after meeting the Dalai Lama.  (Mind in the Balance, Allan Wallace)

The Dalai Lama credits his regular meditation practice to wiring his brain and flooding his body with a sense of goodness that can relieve the suffering of others through a single touch. He knows his daily practices matter! Reading his story inspired a curiosity in me about how other people accessed their inherent goodness. So let’s hear another story about a well-known, well-loved individual.

I think we might all say that Mr. Rogers was a goody two shoes!  During an interview, Fred’s wife Joanne was asked, “What’s it like being married to a saint?” After a short pause, she responded, “If you call him a saint, then what he does is somehow unattainable,” she explains. “He works hard at it. Its’s a practice.” Mr Rogers’ credits his daily practices of silence, swimming, and playing the piano. And it seems that these worked to help give him the clarity and courage to do ministry in a unique way.


When Fred was going to seminary to become a presbyterian minister, the TV was just being introduced into people’s homes. He began to see that having a TV in every home was shaping and escalating the racial tension in America quite similar to the way the internet shapes and escalates the ways that we are divided today. So, Fred decided that his ministry would be through the TV so that he could capture the hearts and minds of children across America.

I was reading an article this week that reminded me of an episode that Mr Rogers created 4 months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.  He created an episode that would reach into every home in America that would address the crisis in America in a different way.  In this episode, Mr Rogers did not do his traditional opening where he comes into the home singing, changes his shoes and sweater and begins the episode.  Instead, he stayed out front of his home and took off his shoes so that he could put his feet in a baby pool full of cool water because he was so hot.  As he is enjoying the cool water on this hot day, his friend Officer Clemmons, a Black police officer with the voice of an angel arrives and Mr. Rogers invites Officer Clemmons to put his feet in the pool with him.  This was a radical act because one of the hot button issues at that time was the segregation of the public pools.  But here in Mr. Rogers neighborhood there is no problem. Mr Roger’s was working for the good of all people in his own peaceful and patient way.

Now, I want you to hear from someone in our own tribe. His words to us are like a fresh word coming from a mentor to our local church like how Paul was  writing to the Thessalonians.  Pastor Terrell McTyre is the head of New Church Ministry for the DOC and he sent out a newsletter a couple of weeks ago that I feel calls Heights Christian Church to embody a sense of goodness that would allow us to be curious and creative as we approach the task of discernment that is before us today. The practice that he engages to relate his goodness is through drawing inspiration from our sacred text.  Here is what he says to us today.

He invites us to consider the first 9 verses of Joshua chapter 1. In these verses God is talking to Joshua and saying to him that it is time to pack up and cross over the river so that the people can enter the promised land. This is the land that God had promised to Moses and it is now right in front of Joshua. God reminds Joshua 3x’s that he must be strong and courageous. God tells Joshua to be strong and courageous as he leads the people into this new land. God tells Joshua to be strong and courageous as he leads the people to continue following God’s ways in this new land.  God tells Joshua to be strong and courageous so that fear and discouragement does not hold him back from the new life God is calling him to move into.

Pastor Terrell writes directly to us about this text. He writes, “As you transition to the part of your future story where you must conquer and divide your new territory—your new spiritual battleground—you cannot be weak or afraid.” He encourages us..


Don’t choose the familiar over the uncharted.

Don’t let fear become interference (inner fear).

Don’t select a familiar hell over an unfamiliar heaven. 

Rev. Terrell McTyre

Friends, Just like in the time of Joshua, we have a river to cross and we may be tempted to hold onto all that is familiar, but let us use this discernment process to celebrate where we have been, to choose what to bring with us and what to let go of, and decide together where God is calling us to go so that we can walk boldly into the next chapter of HCC.

This will take strength and courage listen for God’s voice because there are many pressures that might seem easier to just decide to be who they want us to be. This will take strength and courage to continue encouraging each other along the way. This will take strength and courage to discern how HCC will work for the good of all people in our next chapter.


So let us declare with strength and courage the last verse of Joshua chapter 4 but insert our own time of transition so that we make it more personal to the mighty river that we are packing up to cross over…
This statement is printed on the back of your bulletin. Let’s read it together!


This discernment process is so that everybody on earth would recognize how strong God’s rescuing hand is and so that we would hold God in solemn reverence always.


Be Kind to Yourself

Kristin Neff a professor who first established self-compassion as a field of study, developed a questionnaire aimed at measuring self-compassion.  I am going to ask you a few of her questions that relate to the category of self-kindness and let’s see where you fall.  They are printed on the back of your bulletin so you can follow along.

For each statement, rate yourself on a scale from 1-5

1=not at all              3=somewhat                       5=strongly agree

I try to be understanding and patient toward those aspects of my personality I don’t like.

When I’m going through a very hard time I give myself the caring and tenderness I need.

When I feel inadequate in some way, I try to remind myself that feelings of inadequacy are share by most people.

When things are going badly for me, I see the difficulties as a part of life that everyone goes through.

When I’m feeling down I try to approach my feelings with curiosity and openness. 

When I fail at something important to me, I try to keep things in perspective.

How did you do?  How many of you got close to 35 points?  How many of you received closer to 7 points? 

Don’t worry, if you did not score very highly. This just makes you normal in our western culture. When Thupten Jinpa who has been the principal English translator to the Dalai Lama for nearly 30 years helped create a compassionate cultivation training at Stanford University, he realized that the usual Buddhist progression of kindness to self being the starting point for expanding kindness in wider and wider circles that eventually include all sentient beings was not a good way to start.  He saw that for his students, kindness to self was not a starting point but an obstacle to further development, so he changed the order of the training.  But what this says is that most of us have a deep problem with offering ourselves kindness.  Our internal dialogue speaks to us in tones that we would not want to repeat to someone we love.  Our internal state of being might even be one of self-hatred instead of kindness.  But even that can be a starting point because we hate that which we care about deeply.  So that part of us that still cares can be nurtured so that it shifts our internal state of being into a place of kindness.

Our people, the people in our communities that we may or may not know yet, are crying out to find ways to shift their internal state of being away from mirroring the fear, hate, and anxiety that is present all around us. They want to experience kindness in their relationship with themselves and others. If people are hungry for spiritual practices that change their internal state of being and if our bodies are this amazing instrument that God gave us to tune to God’s frequency which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness etc. then we as the church must reimagine a way to engage the body in our spiritual practices. 

Jesus talked about it like this…he said I am the vine and you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will bear much fruit. As Christians, Jesus invites us to experience being one with the The Divine and the natural result of this oneness is that we will bear fruit.  The fruit that we are talking about comes from Galatians 5:22 where Paul writes, “22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; ”

We are in a new sermon series titled, “Your brain on fruit.” Today, we are talking about your brain on kindness. It is so amazing that we live in a day and time where new discoveries in neuroscience help us understand what practitioners and Christian mystics have written about for 100s of year that our heart, mind, and body are profoundly affected when they are flooded with the fruit of the spirit. We become a new creation and that is what inspires me to share The Good News Jesus came to preach!

We just read Luke 6:36-37 and for most of us we immediately think that this scripture is talking about how we should treat others but let us read it again and focus the reading on ourselves.

“Be merciful to yourself, just as God is merciful to you.  Do not judge yourself, and you will not be judged; do not condemn yourself, and you will not be condemned. Forgive yourself, and you will be forgiven.”

Does that feel slightly wrong to change up the words? Does it feel harder to think about? Or does the change resonate with a part of you that longs to be trained in kindness?

I have often struggled to understand the difference between nice and kind.  As I read different articles this week, I put a few definitions together that help me appreciate the differences.  Nice is extending pleasantries that are in a way required by our society.  Nice is agreeing with people when you are supposed to in conversation.  Nice is how we should behave and is a surface level, rule-oriented posture. 

Kindness is the orientation of the heart towards yourself or another and is not just a matter of our behavior.  Kindness extends care to everyone unconditionally, but does not have the need to save everyone from themselves. 

Did you ever think about the idea that Kindness may not be nice.  Kindness may cause us to share a point of disagreement or call us to share painful truth. Kindness may break the rules of niceness leaving us better for the disruption.  

So how do we begin to be kind to ourselves or as the scripture asks us to be merciful, not judgmental and to forgive ourselves. Thupten Jinpa, In his book, “A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to Be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives lays the foundation for a more compassionate world by teaching readers how to first cultivate kindness towards themselves.

  1. Take the position of an observer of your thoughts and reframe negative messages
  2. Set a daily intention in the morning (scripture, your personal intention, a piece of writing, poetry, etc)
  3. Self-Compassion practices
  4. Imagine yourself as a child…be kind and protective
  5. Change the narrative from humans are inherently selfish to humans are inherently kind and compassionate

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2015/05/14/the-dalai-lamas-translator-explains-why-being-kind-to-yourself-is-good-for-the-world/

These shifts take time but they are remarkable when you begin to notice the difference. 

So, now we have some homework this week to offer ourselves more kindness. Let’s begin to expand the circle a little wider, Jinpa’s last encouragement to us was to

Change the narrative from humans are inherently selfish to humans are inherently kind and compassionate but this is hard if you turn on the news at all.  So what we need to do to orient our brains in this direction is to look for stories that confirm this narrative.

In the Little Book of Lykke (Lu-Kah), Meik Wiking writes about a man named Clark.  He goes by the title “The Free Help Guy.”  Clark had a regular job but felt he wasn’t changing the world.  So he quit.  He posted a note on the internet that said, “If you need help, I’ll help.  For free.”  He had his first reply in a day.  A family wanted to open up their spare bedroom to an unhoused neighbor, so he helped them .  Another woman asked for help naming her baby.  He helped a man find  and reunite with his long lost father. Then, there was a young girl named Margaret who suffered from leukemia and needed a bone-marrow donor.  Clark organized a help mob dropping flyers around the area.  They found her a donor but sadly she died 10 months later.  (240-241)

Clark confirms that showing kindness to others reorients our hearts towards them giving us a sense of purpose and connection. It can bring us the warm fuzzies as well as great sorrow as with Margaret. Clark says, “My heart beats in a way that it never has. My life is vivid. Giving is happiness. The person who has been helped the most by the free help project is me.” Clark now works as a free-lance business consultant and is committed to helping people for life.(242)

Why would someone want to be the Free Help Guy?  Neurologically it is because of the neurotrasmitters that produce endorphins and give you what is called the Helpers High. We get a helper’s high when the reward center of our brains is active. This happens because of our mirror neurons that we talked about a few weeks ago.  When we help someone and see the joy they experience, our brain and body experience the joy they experience as if we were receiving the help. The brain cannot tell the difference if we are giving the help or receiving the help, so we get a reward too! Isn’t God so good to create us this way!

Kindness neurotransmitters decrease the effect of the stress hormone cortisol, produces oxytocin which is the feel-good hormone for bonding, and serotonin helps with regulating our mood. Research has shown that increased levels of oxytocin increase feelings of trust, safety, generosity and connectedness not just for others but with ourselves! (Neff, Self-Compassion, 48)

If Kindness does good things for us, the opposite of kindness also has a profound affect. The opposite of Kindness which Brian Spoon in his book the Neuroscience of the Fruit of the Spirit says is hate. Hate causes muscles to tense, breathing to become fast and cortisol to be dumped into the system to give us access to quick energy. Hate for self or others actually harms us more than the other person because we poison our bodies through a cascade of destructive neurochemicals. 

Here’s another more recent story to help us change our narrative from humans are inherently selfish to humans are inherently kind and compassionate.

Here is a story from January of this year 2021. During the pandemic two rival schools in Cincinnati started an acts of kindness competition to help the restaurant industry. In an article I read, it stated that as of January of this year 100,000 restaurants have closed across the country and about 800 have closed in Ohio. Some hope to reopen, others likely are gone for good.

The pandemic era acts of kindness competition between the university of cincinnatti and xavier began at Zip’s restaurant when a customer tipped $1,000 with a note that ended, “Go Xavier!”

Then, a Bearcat fan had to one-up their crosstown rival — leaving a $1,001 tip to employees at Keystone Bar and Grill.

Next, a person left a $1002 tip on their bill at a local restaurant called Goose and Elder.

The restaurant posted the bill to Facebook, showing the $1,002 tip with a note that read, “Hey Bearcats, ball is in your court.”

At the time of the article, the latest tip at Keystone now puts the ball back in the court of Bearcats fans.

Xavier fan continues random acts of kindness trend, tipping $1,002 at downtown restaurant (wlwt.com)

Kindness is everywhere if we look for it and kindness is contagious. Observing or even reading stories of people being kind actually make you more kind through the mind body connection. Next time you see someone being kind, begin to check in with your heart, mind, and body. Notice if your eyes light up? Does your heart feel lifted? Does your mouth shape itself into a gentle smile?  All of these indicate a profound internal shift.

We have many opportunities in our weeks to observe kindness. A gentle smile. A verbal affirmation. A pause in conversation to ask how you are doing. I know for me I can quickly gloss over these and think, “Oh, they are just being nice.” But if I pause, I have the opportunity to acknowledge what this is really showing me…the orientation of the heart. We can’t see or hear the orientation of someone’s heart, but we can all feel it.  There is an energy, a quality that is not scientifically measurable but very real and present. 

Love is Patient

Have patience. Have patience. Don’t be in such a hurry!

How many of you in here like group projects?

When I was studying pre physical therapy at Baylor University, my final project my senior year was to work with a group to take a movement in a sport and break it down.  My group was assigned the long jump.  We had to think about and describe every movement and every muscle that was used to help the athlete perform this action.  Thankfully, we only had to describe 3 running motions!!! 

Well, my group felt inspired and had great energy to get this project started.  In most groups that I am in, I become the person who organizes the project into tasks, asks who wants what task, and then follows up with the person to make sure that we are making good progress.  I even offered to be the person that everyone would email all the parts to so that I could put it all together in a pretty and spell-checked way.  All that I asked was that my group did not email me too close to the due date.  I thought it was reasonable to ask for a good length of time so that I could complete the project and turn it in with time to spare. 

So, everyone turned in great work and in a timely fashion and we all lived happily ever after.  Nope.  Over the weeks that we had to complete our individual tasks, the group met less and less and they responded to my check ins less and less.  A few days before it was due, I became impatient because I had not received any of the assignment nor did I receive any communication.  The day the report is due, I finally receive all the pieces and then my computer crashes.  So, I had to run up to the computer lab to get help in retrieving my document and submitting it to the professor.  Not kidding. I submitted the document right before the time it was due. 

When I saw my group in class the next day, I could not even look them in the face.  I was frustrated because I was clear about our goal and they blew right past it without communicating.  I was angry at myself for taking on the role of putting the entire document together.  This experience still sits inside me to this day and I work really hard to shift my internal state of being when I approach collaborative projects.

Our people, the people in our communities that we may or may not know yet, are crying out to find ways to shift their internal state of being away from mirroring the fear, anger, and anxiety that is present all around us. They want to experience patience in their relationship with themselves and others. If people are hungry for spiritual practices that change and internal state of being and if our bodies are this amazing instrument that God gave us to tune to God’s frequency which is love, joy, peace, patience, etc. then we as the church must reimagine a way to engage the body in our spiritual practices. 

Jesus talked about it like this…he said I am the vine and you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will bear much fruit. As Christians, Jesus calls us to experience being one with the The Divine and the natural result of this oneness is that we bear fruit.  The fruit that we are talking about comes from Galatians 5:22 where Paul writes, “22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; ”

We are in a new sermon series titled, “Your brain on fruit: Any Questions?” It is so amazing that we live in a day and time where new discoveries in neuroscience help us understand that our heart, mind, and body are profoundly affected when they are flooded with the fruit of the spirit. The transformation we experience when we embody the fruit of the spirit inspires me to share The Good News Jesus came to preach!

Our reading today came from Hebrews 6: 11-12 so let’s understand a little of the context of this letter.

The author of the book of Hebrews was writing to a group of Jewish Christians and gentile Christians who were experiencing persecution and suffering.  The letter suggests that some people during this time of suffering have fallen away from the faith so the author is hoping to persuade them that following Jesus is worth it because Jesus is the son of God.

So, let’s return to the text…The writer to this community says, “And we want each one of you to show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance.”

In this part of the verse, I hear the writer talking about that there is a goal in mind and that he is encouraging the people to continue on this path so that they might reach the goal. The goal as I understand it in the book of Hebrews is to become partners with Christ in this world and their reward will be to be called the family of Jesus.  

 It’s hard to continue taking steps towards your goal and helpful when someone comes along to encourage you saying it’s all going to be worth it in the end. Part of the encouragement in this time of having a goal but waiting for the fulfillment of the goal is that we must be patient with ourselves and each other. You can think about this with our discernment process.  For some of you waiting 10 weeks to make a decision about our future is too long. You feel impatient to get the ball rolling. For others of you, you wish that we could postpone the decision making until Jesus comes back! You feel impatient towards those of us who would plan to take a vote in December. The reality is that we need a goal to aim towards and our elders have asked that we have an end date so that this process does not exhaust everyone. Now we must be patient with the process so that we can care for each other along the way.

Did you know that our brain needs us to set goals?  We need to set smart goals in order to function at our best. Goal setting or I like how one website said replace goal setting with hobby (something fun that you want to learn) helps rewire our brain so that we build up a sense of resiliency.  But Goal setting and anticipating progress, triggers the brain’s dopamine/reward system. Dopamine is what motivated you to get out of bed this morning and come to church.  You just thought it was the smell of coffee that motivated you to get up! Nope, it’s dopamine! So, the process of working towards a smart goal and feeling a sense of accomplishment along the way wires you to feel better about yourself and more optimistic which helps you be more resilient when you are facing challenges or adversity.

In setting a SMART goal, you begin with the goal.  For us that is to make a decision regarding our future. Then, you state what specific action you will take to meet this goal.  In our discernment process, we are going to go through a curriculum that addresses our situation from many different angles.  Next the progress must be measurable.  Well, we know that our study includes 8 sessions, 2 weeks for prayer, and then a vote.  We also know that we are going to be calling people, sending letters or text messages to make sure people know to be present for these 8 sessions.  Then, we think, “Is this Achievable?” What the A of smart goals is asking us is to think about who is going to hold us accountable and how will we persevere in the face of challenge.  I can tell you that our elders will hold us accountable, but that each of you must ask yourself what you need to persevere through the challenging times. For me it is trusting that God is with us and will guide us. The R of smart goals refers to how we can make this time relevant and not just feel like extra work.  Well, I have planned all kinds of activities so that you will not be board and that you might even feel energized at the end of each session.  Lastly SMART goals are time bound and ask us to celebrate.  We are time bound in that we will take our vote after we complete the process and we are ending in Advent so that we can celebrate the birth of Jesus and the birth of a new direction for our church!

The writer of Hebrews 6 continues, “And we want each one of you to show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope to the very end so that you may not become sluggish.””

What stood out to me as we read the rest of the passage is that Patience & hope are connected.

We just talked about how when we set goals we feel a sense of purpose and a sense of agency.  These are aspects of hope!  For the people in the book of Hebrews, their hope was in being a part of God’s family on the final day. This hope is what gave them purpose and what the author was trying to strengthen.  Maybe they just needed to break that goal down into smaller steps so that they could feel a sense of accomplishment, a rush of dopamine that would motivate them to take the next right step and keep them patient because their goal was long and the reward far off. This would also give them the strength to live in a time of adversity.

Paul says it like this in the letter to the Romans 8:25 “…  if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.”

In your spiritual life, what do you hope for?  What are you patiently waiting for? What is a spiritual goal that you would like to direct your attention to over the next month? Year?

Well there is a prayer that you can pray everyday to help you tune into what you are needing and how you can sense God’s presence in your life.

I want to introduce you to the The Prayer of Examen. It is a prayer form developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556) as part of his work on “spiritual exercises.”  There are 5 points to this prayer.

Now, lets add the last piece to our verses, “And we want each one of you to show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope to the very end so that you may not become sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”

Our verse concludes by asking us to be imitators and who best to imitate than God.

Do you ever stop to think about how patient God is with you and me?  I can go along and be impatient with others which starts to feel like I am better than all of you poor creatures.  But whenever I examine my day and think about all the times God was patient with me, I feel a sense of humility wash over me and I recognize my shortcomings, confess the ways in which I know I have fallen short, and acknowledge that I am still learning and that God’s love will never leave me.  If we can see how God is patient with us, then we can imitate God and be patient with others. When we forgive others their debts as we are forgiven by God, that is having patience with others. Because not matter how much we love one another, we will grow weary unless our love is patient.

For the past 18 months, I have been involved in another group project.  This project grew from my friend teaching me a meditation practice rooted in the Buddhist tradition that I translated into words accessible for Christians, Then the project grew to include teaching the practice to a larger group of 35 participants, 9 of which were Christian practitioners. Now we are writing an ebook about our experience.  Well, I had the brilliant idea to start a podcast that I could slow release when we know that our ebook will be published.  So, I outlined 8 episodes with bullet points for what we were going to talk about and I asked friends what platforms we should use. 

We had set up Tuesday morning for our first attempt at creating a podcast.  Well, tropical storm Nicolas that elevated to a category 1 hurricane threatened that plan and I had let my friend know what was happening.  I had also not received any information about what platforms to use and so Tuesday morning came and I was exhausted from being up a good portion of the night, my children were home, so my morning was all upside down.  I told my friend that if we pushed it to 1pm then I would be ready, but she could not meet at 1pm. She did not say it but she was clearly frustrated at me and let me know that she was not available at any of the times that I offered for the rest of the week.

So in order to feel helpful, I worked late into the night on pruning our manuscript, but after the day I had instead of feeling good about this progress, I was angry at myself for demanding that I do more when I was already exhausted.  So, I went to bed and slept poorly because I was mad at my friend for being mad at me and mad at myself.  Well, we finally found a time to try and record our first podcast.  We both logged on and my friend acted like she did not know what the point of our first session was.  I was already frustrated from Tuesday so when she said this to me, I felt like I was going to explode inside.  I told her that I was frustrated because I outlined it and wrote it in story form and she has had the material for a week to look at and ask questions. She recognize my frustration which helped me regain my higher functioning brain and I slowed down my hurry to get the podcast done so that I could meet her need to talk through the flow of the podcast until she was ready to begin.  Then, we stopped and started multiple times because of technical issues with our phones, ear buds, and internet connections.  It was a rough start but I felt that patience was the key to navigating the challenges of this week.

Group work is hard, my friends. Working with humans is hard. It requires patience with ourselves and with each other. 

Egyptian Christian scholar, lawyer and teacher Adel Bestavros summarizes Paul’s words about patience.  He calls them the 3 truths.  He writesPatience with others is Love,
Patience with self is Hope,

Patience with God is Faith.      

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