The Path of Peace

It has been said that Until there is peace between religions there can be no peace in the world. Thich Nhat Hahn in Living Buddha, Living Christ writes “People kill and are killed because they cling too tightly to their own beliefs and ideologies. When we believe that ours is the only faith that contains the truth, violence and suffering will surely be the result.” (2)  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks agrees.  In his book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence he asks, “How is it that people kill in the name of the God of life, wage war in the name of the God of peace, hate in the name of the God of love and practice cruelty in the name of the God of compassion? How if we are the image of God, do we so often harm the work of God, especially our fellow humans?”  (29)  Why do we do this he asks and then responds by reminding us that we are social creatures and that social creatures are angels to those on our side and demons to those on the other side.  We are wired to be this way because as we form social groups, we compete for resources. 

It’s hard to forget where I was on September 11.  Chad and I had been married 6 months and we were living on the other side of town while going to seminary at Baylor University.  We had taken 2 cars to school that morning because we had a full day of classes and work ahead.  So on the long drive to Baylor, I turned on the radio to listen to my favorite tunes.  But when I turned on the radio, I could not find a single station playing music.  What I heard from the voices coming through sounded like someone was telling me about an upcoming movie or the premise for a new book about to be released.  I called Chad in his car that was directly in front of me and asked him if he knew what was going on.  Then as we were driving, the second plane struck and I could not believe what I was hearing.  We drove faster so that we could get to the student center where there was a TV.  Arriving at school, every class had been cancelled and we were all glued to the TV watching over and over again the planes hit the buildings. 

My brain felt frozen and I had the inability to reflect on what my response to this tragic event should be as a Christian.  I also did not have access to the higher functions of my brain that would consider what my people might have done to cause this other group of people to act this way.  This does not excuse their behavior but it explains why I had no ability to think empathetically. Then I felt swept away in the emotions of the broadcasters and the people whose lives were devastated by this event.  This made it easy to follow the path of mirroring back to the people who caused this event anger and hatred and the desire for revenge. It made it easy to see them as wrong and us as right.  And it made it even easier to slip into the idea that our group has the right to tell your group how to live and by the way, hidden beneath all of this is that we feel that we have the right to your group’s natural resources.  Now, I am simplifying the low road we took to make a point.

Our brains have an easy pathway to connect to a view of scarcity, competition, and to make enemies of those not like us and all humans are created in God’s image with the innate ability to love and have compassion. And so our God challenges us to tap into the part of us that is love that embodies peace, but this takes practice. I would say that this is walking the path of peace.

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 a sense of peace in their lives. 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 of love, joy and peace, 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 privileged to 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 us to share The Good News Jesus came to preach. 

When I experienced an internal shift that called me into ministry and away from a career in physical therapy, our scripture for today was one of the verses that God gave to me. 

Let’s hear the words from Romans 10:12-15

10:12  For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him.
10:13  For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.
10:14  How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?
10:15  And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!

For some, This section of scripture is titled The Gospel of Peace.  If the good news that Jesus came to preach is about peace then I think we need to begin to understand the fullness of what it means to embody peace. 

First, I want to take us back to the scripture we studied last week.  In the book of Nehemiah, we enter the persion period where the people have experienced exile, some have come home to Jerusalem and Ezra and Nehemiah have lead the people to reconstruct the temple and the city.  Ezra’s primary mission was to create a new community that followed the first 5 books of the Hebrew bible.  .  Now, remember with me that the heart of the first 5 books of the bible is the decalogue which we call the 10 commandments or I love how the worship and wonder curriculum for children calls it the 10 best ways to live. 

What I want to draw your attention to is that the 10 best ways to live are about how to live life in such a way that is oriented to God.  It was to be a covenantal relationship with God where we find a sense of peace for our lives and for our community.  This covenant was not based on whether or not the people followed the 10 words but it was based on the first verse in Exodus 20, “I am the lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”  In this verse, God makes it clear that it is because of God’s actions that saved the people from a life that was dehumanizing that this covenant is established.  That means that this covenant is unconditional.  So, the 10 commandments begin with God… the first 7 verses of chapter 20 in the book of Exodus have to do with our orientation towards loving God.  Jesus said it like this, “Love the lord your God with all your heart, mind, and spirit. 

Then, what comes next?  Once we move from a sense of peace in our relationship with God, God invites us to love ourselves, to find peace within ourselves…so that we can love and make peace with others.  In Exodus 20 verse 8, God says, “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.”  If we can’t make time for rest in our own lives, then most likely we are perpetuating a system of unrest in our larger community.  If we can’t find peace in our inner world, then most likely we have no idea how to act in ways that would promote peace in the community.  Jesus said it like this, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 

From here, the very next commandment is to Honor your father and your mother.  Once we orient ourselves towards God and take care of ourselves, then the first place that we must work for peace is within the family structure.  Then, the rest of the decalogue invites us to promote the flourishing of all living beings in the larger community.  Rev. Yolanda Norton in her address during the General Assembly reminded us that the 10 commandments were not given as law that we should create punishments for. They were not created to allow us to create a checklist for what makes an insider and an outsider like Ezra and Nehemiah started using it when they were forming the community post exile.  These 10 words were given so that we might be a people at peace with God, with ourselves and with each other.  Jesus boiled all of the law and the prophets down to loving God, loving ourselves, loving our neighbor and even loving our enemy. In love, we rest in peace.  So, now you can see why in Romans Paul calls this the gospel of peace.

Today, we are focusing on how to become peace?  Peace has many definitions including harmony, safety, stillness and wholeness. It is a sense that we are complete. In God’s love, we are enough. As I was thinking about practices that embody peace, I reached out to my colleague Dr. Karen Hernandez who I met at Claremont School of Theology. Karen’s focus in her dissertation was how we cannot work for peace until we have dealt with our own woundedness.  Since graduating from CST, Karen began a new job with Religions for Peace International. I sent her a text asking her as my resident expert on peacemaking if she would share with us 1 or 2 essential elements to embodying peace. She responded with 2 essential ingredients.

She wrote to me and said, “It literally must start with each one of us…individually and then we are invited to create peace within the group of people that is closest to us.”

Dr. Karen Hernandez, Religions for Peace International

I thought this was very biblical because the 10 commandments follow the same patter: God, ourselves, our family and then the larger community. Right now, I will focus on the first part…the path of peace within and then in our adult bible study right after worship, we will do an activity that helps us better understand our call for peace within our inner circle of influence.

 So Let’s get two examples of what it looks like to embody peace:

A way to become peace is to experience the gift of the present moment more often. If you were to give a % to how much of the day you spending worrying or thinking about the future, what % would you give? How much of the day do you ruminate or think about the past? Worrying about the future or ruminating on the past only causes anxiety and robs you of your peace.

Thich Naht Hahn in his book Together We Are One, writes about how mindfulness saved him when he went into exile in his early 40’s.  He was in Washington DC when he was informed that 4 countries including the US were asked by Saigon to not honor his passport because he was saying things that were not helpful in the war against communism.  Some of his friends in DC begged him to stay in the US but to go into hiding. That meant that he was risking deportation and jail.  He did not like these options so he applied and was granted political asylum in France.  They gave him a travel document called an apatride meaning that you don’t belong to any country.  He had no country…no real home. He wondered how many people feel like him on a regular basis? He writes, “Even though many of us have a nationality, a citizentship and a passport, we are still looking for where we belong.” (9) 

He said that it was because he did not have a home that he found his true home. His true home is the joy of being with the breath and the body in this present moment.  He says that the embodiment of his practice is captured in these words, “I have arrived. I am home.”  He also has a beautiful walking meditation for Christians where you imagine with each step that you take that you have fully arrived in the Kingdom of God.  You do not take the next step until you truly feel you have arrived. Whether it is a homecoming or arriving in the Kingdom of God, when we relax our bodies and our minds we are able to see that this present moment is full of beauty and wonder.

Brian Spoon adds that meditation on God’s word helps prime our brain to respond in certain ways.  He writes, “When we dedicate our minds and our lives to meditating on God’s word, we internalize and strengthen our neural pathways that remind us of God’s presence in the world…We may not be consciously aware of all the ways that we interpret and remember our reality, but the more we infuse every moment, thought, and action towards God’s presence and God’s word, the more that reality will live within us.” (72)    

Brian Spoon, Neuroscience and the Fruit of the Spirit

Remember, whatever neural connections we continually make will wire together and prime us for seeing or doing the same thing whenever a cue triggers that pathway.  Our brain is always looking for the easiest route, the route that we are conditioned to take.  So, if we are constantly meditating on God’s word then we will be primed to follow the pathway that tells us that God is at work in our lives and then we will have an easier time seeing that God is at work in other people’s lives as well.  We have the power to train the mind, but it is like exercise…we have to do it over and over again for the connections to be strengthened. 

There is a meditation that Rev. Darnell Fennell teaches that combines the idea of taking a U turn, coming to our true home, and meditating on God’s word.  So as we prepare to come to the communion table, I invite you to settle in, attend to your body..how does your body feel right now?  Can you do something to make it feel 10% more at ease? Bringing our attention to each part of our body and inviting our many parts to soften is a way to make peace with our bodies. What is your energetic level?  What is the dominant emotion that is present right now?  Now, shift your attention to your breath.  Feel the inhale and the exhale.  This is the breath that God gave at creation.  This is the breath of life.  

Now here the word of the Lord:

Be Still and Know that I am God.

Be still and know that I am.

Be still and Know.

Be Still.

Be.

The Joy of the Lord is our Strength.

: If you are happy and you know it clapp your hands.  If you are happy and you know it stomp your feet. 

Ok, now that we have our bodies warmed up..I want to introduce you to laughter yoga. 

Did anyone know that there is something called Laugher yoga? 

Laughter yoga involves teaching certain chants, meditations, breathing technique to help you have a laughing session without anything funny that inspires it!  Laughing yoga was discovered by Dr. Madan Kataria, a family physician in Mumbai, India, in 1995. Dr. Kataria claims that laughing yoga will help lift your mood, reduce stress, strengthen your immune system, increase energy levels, improve your quality of life, and help you better manage hardship. Along with this, laughter yoga is believed to help you better manage stress through controlled breathing. This allows for greater uptake of oxygen, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system, your body’s natural relaxation system. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/laughing-yoga#how-to-do-it

Let’s try one of the beginning exercises that helps you release any judgement and just feel the freedom to laugh!

Change it up:  Ho Ho, Ha, Ha, Ha  clap 2 for Ho Ho and then clap 3 for Ha, Ha, Ha.

Now, join me in a 1 min laughter session!

Isn’t it true that when you see someone laughing that it is hard not to smile or even start laughing with them. When you see someone eat something like a lemon, you pucker up and prepare yourself like you are eating the lemon. If you are watching a movie and one of the characters that you have grown to love cries, you tear up…or if you are like my dad, you stop the movie because you want to know who else is weeping with you!  And if you are out and about and someone smiles at you, you smile back.

Not only do we mirror each other’s facial expressions, but when we mirror what they are doing, we actually feel a shift inside of us. 

So, not only do you smile back, you feel happy and lighter inside. If someone approaches you with a furrowed brow, you get your eyes all squinted up and furrow your brow as well and you might feel protective or on the defense even before they begin to talk to you! What’s interesting is that the brain does not know if you are actually experiencing what is happening or if you are the observer.  In an article titled, “The Neuroscience of Smiling and Laughter,” Pieter Rossouw, writes, “our mirror neurons are responsible for our ability to mimic another person’s facial expressions (and this) also triggers an internal state of being.”

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 sense more love, joy and peace in their lives. People want to be their best self and unbecome anything that is holding them back from living the life God created them to live. If people are hungry for spiritual practices that change their external and internal state of being and if our bodies are this amazing instrument that God gave us to tune to God’s frequency of love, joy and peace, 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; against such things there is no law.”

We are privileged to 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 feelings of love, joy, peace. Now that we have this intellectual knowledge, we are invited to explore what it feels like in our bodies to experience the fruit.  We need to be able to describe what having a sense of joy or peace feels like in an embodied way so that we can recommend to our friends that what they are looking for….we have found.  This is an essential piece to the Good News Jesus came to preach.

The reading from our Sacred Text today was from the book of Nehemiah. (Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 9-10)  Not something you read from everyday I am sure!  So let’s get a little history lesson.  First Ezra and Nehemiah used to be one book but was separated into two books.  One date to hold in mind is 586 BC when the Babylonians destroyed the Temple, destroyed the city of Jerusalem, and exiled a number of Judah’s ruling elite.  Some were exiled in Babylon and joined the prophet Ezekiel there and others in Egypt who joined the prophet Jeremiah there.  So almost 50 years have gone by and the people in exile have settled into their new homes, some have intermarried, and they have wrestled with questions like how do we worship God without the temple and how do we sing the lord’s song in a foreign land.  They have suffered much and sought meaning in their suffering.

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah begin what is called the Persian period. It is now 538 BC and God’s people are coming back to Jerusalem after being in exile. Not everyone is excited to come back!  As I said, many people have found a new home and do not want to leave.  But in the people who return, There is a new identity emerging that is no longer connected to the land or to a certain kingdom. This new identity becomes a combination of religious, social, historical and cultural markers.  So instead of worrying about invading armies or being slaves to other people groups, now the chief concern is with ethnic pollution.  What I mean by that is that Ezra and Nehemiah really focus on who is in and who is out.  Questions like were you born in Jerusalem and who are you married to become highly important.

These two men have very different jobs when they return. Ezra has come back to Jerusalem from Babylon with the mission to bring religious reform.  Nehemiah came from Babylon to be the governor. Having both religious and political power between the two of them, they ignited a passion to rebuild the city, rebuild the temple, and to return the people to living according to the first 5 books of the Hebrew bible which is the Torah.  The people would once again be the people of the book.  As the people are coming home to Jerusalem, it takes many years to reestablish the temple, the community and the city.  In Ezra and Nehemiah, we see this happening in three stages: The first stage is the rebuilding of the temple. In the second stage, it is Ezra’s mission to form the community according to the Torah. The third stage is Nehemiah’s mission to rebuild Jerusalem.  At the point of our reading today, all of this has happened and now they are in a time of celebration of all that has happened during the reconstruction. 

I love how Nehemiah sets the scene.  He describes men and women gathered eagerly awaiting  the reading of the word of God.  They seem so eager and so hungry to be fed spiritually.  Then Ezra reads from the Torah and they have interpreters available so that everyone present understands what the reading means.  The Scripture concludes with Ezra and Nehemiah both telling the people to celebrate! It reads, “Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law. 10Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our LORD. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”

The people were eagerly awaiting, then moved to tears at the reading of the Word of God.  Ezra and Nehemiah want to mark this joyous occasion with celebration: food and sweet drink and giving generously to those who would not have such extravagant items. 

And then Nehemiah reminds the people, “The Joy of the Lord is our strength.”  This sounds like a shift from internal states of fear, worry, and struggle to a sense of love, joy and peace.  This sounds like embodiment to me.

  I can only imagine that through the people’s suffering in exile, they spent many nights trying to sense God’s presence and their purpose without the land and the Temple.  They looked into each other’s eyes for a sense of hope. Then the long return home building and reconstructing the Temple…that all of this labor united the group in their continual saying Yes to what God was calling them to do next. They saw God in each other and mirrored that back. And now their joy will be multiplied because it is a sense of joy that is contagious.  This is how our mirror neurons help with our sense of joy!

We might feel a sense of connection to God’s people in the book of Nehemiah.  For many of us, this pandemic has felt like an exile of sorts.  We have been stuck at home, away from our friends and family, isolated, not worshiping in our sacred spaces, and even our bodies have grown weary and tired of the fear, stress and dis-ease. I know for me…I am completely frustrated with how covid has ruled my life for the past 18 months.  I am ready …eagerly awaiting…hungry…to hear a word from God so that I might celebrate what it means to be alive in God’s safe and wonderful world!!

In one of my yoga classes at the University of Houston, I used a poem that to me is an expression of the joy that we can find as we live in our human bodies, interact with nature, and experience this state of flow where who we are is finite and yet there is a sense of expansion from this finite body as you experience the interconnection of all living things.  The poem is Walt Whitman’s song of myself.  Here are a few lines from the poem.  I invite you to close your eyes, breathe in the words and feel the joy of being alive spread through your heart, mind and body.

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,

Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,

I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,

Hoping to cease not till death.

The smoke of my own breath,

My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs,

The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and dark-color’d sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn,

The sound of the belch’d words of my voice loos’d to the eddies of the wind,

A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms,

The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag,

The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and hill-sides,

The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun.

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,

You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,

You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,

You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,

The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,

The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue.

I am the poet of the woman the same as the man,

And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man,

And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men.

I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Let us shout for joy with a hearty AMEN!  Brian Spoon in Neuroscience and the Fruit of the Spirit writes, “Joy is the fruit of the spirit, but it is also the disposition that we have to any fruit of the Spirit working in us. We can find joy in kindness. We can find joy in peace. We can find joy in gentleness. When we stop judging ourselves and others by their output and relish doing our best, then we can rest in joy. We can rest in the joy of God’s love working through us, of God making a home in us. Christ helps remind us of this profound truth, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” John 15: 10-11 (61)

And the Greatest of these is Love

Scripture says that Our bodies are beautifully and wonderfully made. The Human body is composed of tens of trillions of cells and each one of our cells contains our DNA. Our DNA houses more than 3 billion base pairs of encoded information.  If that’s not cool enough, the human brain has 100 billion neurons which have the ability to make an infinite number of connections.  Remember last week, we learned 2 things about the brain. First, through neuroplasticity we have the ability to change the brain from the time we are born until the time we breathe our last breath.  Even as we get older, new connections can be made.  Second, as the brain makes connections, the more that pathway is travelled, the more it wires together.  So, when we develop a practice that helps us embody a sense of love, it might feel really difficult at first, but then over time, the response to the practice becomes more automatic.

Our bodies are the instruments that we tune over the course of a lifetime. Now, most processes go on without our even noticing…our body breathes, works to regulate our temperature, digests our food, and is watchful for any stimuli that might be threatening.

Bryan Spoon in his book Neuroscience and the Fruit of the spirit writes, “Our body is the greatest resource we have. It is the only real resource we will ever know or by which we will ever know anything else.”  Pg 19 

What he means is that everything that happens to us in this life is experienced and interpreted by our bodies. For some people it is really hard to know what we are feeling in any given moment, but the body tells us how it is feeling so if we pay attention, we are being given clues about our experience.  In paying attention to the instrument of our bodies we have the ability to recognize when we are experiencing the fruit of the spirit or when we are needing something because we are not experiencing the fruit of the spirit. Paying attention also helps us become less reactive when we notice patterns in our lives that are more harmful.  For example, I notice with my son that we have developed a habit..or a pattern of the way we relate to each other.  When I need him to do something, I ask him nicely to do something like put away his clothes. He answers back that yes he will put away his clothes in 5 min after he finishes a video that he is watching on his phone.  I say Great!  And I go and set the timer.  After 4 min, I remind him that he has 1 minute to put whatever he is doing away and follow through with the task that I need for him to do.  He says great…just give me 1 min.  After 1 min is up, I gently remind him that he needs to get to work. He says Ok, let me go to the bathroom which is another stalling technique. I say that is fine but you need to bring me your phone first. He throws a fit and I go over to take his phone away. He wrestles with me and I get really angry. Yelling happens and then he looks at me and says, “What is wrong with you, mom?!”  This pattern repeats all too often.  And now I can feel how nicely I ask him the first 3 times and how by the 4th time, my blood is starting to boil.

This type of paying attention gives me the power to observe how I go from nice to nasty in a matter of 10 min and it gives me power to change things.  In this example, I recognize that I do not want to get to the yelling stage so most of the time, peyton does not get his phone or whatever it is he wants to do until he has completed his chores.  This way we avoid a meltdown for both of us.  But if I find myself in this moment again, I can observe that WOW, this is happening again to me…I can name how I am feeling angry, unloved, disrespected which is activating my Sympathetic Nervous System. And in those brief minutes I can go sit by him and breathe to engage the parasympathetic nervous system which helps me calm down, experience bonding in community, and find rest.

Dr. Alane Daugherty in her book from Mindfulness to Heartfulness writes, “Our human body is the instrument through which we experience life, and the instrument through which transformations are continually taking place.”[1]

Last week, I shared that our people are crying out to find ways to be their best self and unbecome anything that is holding them back from living the life God created them to live…If this is true and if our bodies are the instruments God gave us to experience this life, then we 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, we are called 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 Galations 5:22 where paul writes, “22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”

We are privileged to 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 feelings of love, joy, peace. Now that we have this intellectual knowledge, we are invited to explore what it feels like in our bodies to experience the fruit.  We need to be able to describe what having a sense of joy or peace feels like in an embodied way so that we can recommend to our friends that what they are looking for….we have found.  This is an essential piece to the Good News Jesus came to preach.

In our scripture for today, Matthew 22:37-40  orients us to the greatest of the fruit of the spirit.  The question was asked, “Teacher which commandment in the law is the greatest. Jesus responds, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first commandment. And a second is like it You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

When Jesus says, Love the lord with all your heart, soul and mind, what he is saying is love God with your very suchness…your very being. What is fascinating is that Jesus starts with the heart or the seatbed of the emotions or some would say it is the place of your will.  This is interesting because we now know that your heart is more powerful than your brain.

It used to be thought that the heart was only a pump that delivers blood to different parts of the body, but now we have new research in the field of Neurocardiology that tells us that the heart has a powerful impact on our own bodies and on other people.  Andrea S. Cohen writes that the heart has approximately 40,000 neural cells—the kind that we used to think existed only in the brain. That means that 60-65% of the heart’s cells are neural cells. Research tells us that the heart sends many more messages to the brain than the brain sends to the heart![2]

When we experience feelings of love, our heart rhythms shift and direct new electromagnetic impulses to our brain. And then our brain sends chemical and hormonal outputs all over the body. So our heart impacts our body’s well-being!

What is even more cool is that the heart’s electromagnetic field is several thousand times more powerful than the brain’s electromagnetic field, and it expands at least six to eight feet beyond our body. So when we shift our own physiology to embody love and compassion, this change in ourselves affects all those around us.

So in a moment, I am going to ask that you extend loving kindness to our new elder as she is being installed today. But before we do that let us get our heart, mind and body oriented to a sense of love so that our new elder will sense a profound impact as you extend your love to her.

I will guide us through a meditation on love.  Our minds are amazing tools.  One thing that the mind cannot distinguish is if something is happening right now or if you are reliving a memory or if you are watching a movie. So, we can use this to place ourselves in moments that are beautiful, loving, kind and gentle so that our bodies sense these good feelings as if they are happening right now.

Get into a comfortable seated position.  If your legs are cross, gently uncross them and feel the feet on the floor.  Soften your shoulders and release your tongue down from the roof of your mouth.  Soften all the muscles around your eyes and slowly close them.  Now, bring to mind a time when you felt loved.  Savor the images that come to mind, the sounds, the people, the tastes, smells, if there is a sense of touch. Relive this experience.  Now, imagine that this love you are feeling is a color.  See this color flowing between you and the experience that you are imagining.  Now with every breath, see your body fill with this color. On your next inhale, breathe in your color of love and imagine that this color fills you up from your feet to your hips.  Now, soften in this sensation of love.  Inhale the color of love and imagine that it fills your body from your hips to your shoulders.  Now, rest in love.  Inhale the color of love and imagine that it fills your body from your shoulders to the very tip top of your head. Now, be in love.  Take the next few breaths to feel your entire body filled with love. Notice the sensations. Enjoy the experience. 


[1] Dr. Alane Daugherty, From Mindfulness to Heartfulness: A Journey of transformation through the Science of embodiment (Bloomington: Balboa Press, 2014), 73.

[2] Andrea S. Cohen, Practicing the Art of Compassionate Listening (2017), 34-35.

One July when I was middle school age and my sister was around the age of 9, we decided to bake a cake for my parents anniversary. We did not think ahead of time and plan this out well. Nope. We decided to start baking the cake at 10pm that evening. My parents had gone to bed and we snuck downstairs to start making this secret cake. Well, the cake turned out fine, but the kitchen looked quite a mess with flour and ingredients everywhere. But by this time it was almost midnight. So, instead of waiting for the cake to cool to add the icing, we decided that we just needed to get the whole thing finished. We started making the icing but could not get it right. It was super runny. Then too thick. Then too runny. We were undeterred so we decided to add the now too runny icing onto the warm cake and then quickly put it all in the freezer. At some point in the shenanigans of the evening, my mom crept downstairs to see what all the giggling was about. We told her to go back to bed because we were planning a secret surprise for their anniversary. I’m sure that she took one look at the kitchen and thought, “Oh, I wish you hadn’t!!”

Doing things in secret for other people can be really fun. There is something exhillerating about it. But we also know that our shadow sides come out in secret. Disorders like anorexia and bulimia thrive in secret. Some Addictions are taken up in secret and very powerful to break when we are alone and left to our own devices.  I think Jesus knew this and that is what our scripture for today is talking about.  How we think, speak and act in secret has a profound affect either positively or negatively on who we are. 

The People outside our walls are telling us that they want transformation and we know that it is in our practices that are sometimes done alone and sometimes done communally that truly have the power to transform our daily lives.  I have said this before but research suggests that people no longer show up at church because they want to know what to believe or how to behave or even our strongest one which was to belong.  Now, they want to be and become.  One quote I posted on FB this week offered another insight into being and becoming.  It stated that maybe it is about ‘Un becoming” everything that is not really who God created us to be.  Becoming or unbecoming both signal some kind of transformation that doesn’t just happen magically.  The joy of being a part of a religious tradition is that we have ways to help us experience a change of heart, mind, and body. One of the ways that we talk about that In our tradition is that we are called to experience being so connected to the source of life, The Divine that we bear fruit. 

The fruit that we are talking about comes from Galations 5:22 where paul writes, “22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”

But what we have forgotten is that We need to know what it feels like in our bodies to experience the fruit.  We need to be able to describe what having a sense of joy or peace feels like in an embodied way so that we can recommend to our friends that what they are looking for….we have found.  This is an essential piece to the Good News Jesus came to preach.

As we are continuing to experience the effects of the pandemic, we probably can better describe how fear shut off our brain…what anger feels like…what it does to our chest to feel overwhelmed… of intolerance; of sheer frustration.  These we know intimately…but this is not what Jesus had in mind when he said that he came so that we might live life to the fullest. This week we are beginning a new series to reintroduce the fruit of the spirit so that we can begin to shift away from these negative emotions and find a deeper connection to the Source of life… Our outside world may not change, but what we can change is our inside world.

Matthew 7:16  You will know them by their fruits.

Through neuroscience, we are coming to understand that the fruit of the spirit produces profound neuroscientific and physiological change in our bodies. (13)

1- neuroplasticity:  No matter how old you are, your brain still has the ability to make new connections and rewire to do something different. So there is no excuse my friends!!!  You can change until you are no longer with us in this world!

2- Hebb’s Law: Neurons that fire together wire together.  When we practice something, that practice strengthens the neural circuitry.  We can literally become more like Christ through practicing things that build allow love, joy, peace, to grow in our lives.  But it takes continued and sustained practice. 

Just because we believe in Jesus does not make us more loving people.  Just because we intellectually know that we are called to love, does not make us become more loving. We now have the understanding that we actually need to train our brain…to feel it in our bodies so that we can intimately know the truth that sets us free. And this is what contemplative practices have offered for centuries but that we are just now having the ability to understand how it works. These practices may seem small or individual or not of value because no one is looking or praising us for it….these are the things that affect change.

When the Christian Church Disciples of Christ began taking form on American soil, it met and was shaped by a culture that need to feel freedom from religious tradition. Our founders sought to restore and unify the church.  The restoration can be thought about in terms of what the church should not be doing which has to do with the church structure, creeds, not believing that people can read the bible and keeping people from the communion table. And restoration has to do with the things that our founders felt we should be doing which is getting back to being New Testament Christians and grounding all that we do in scripture.  The other hope was that all Christians could unify into one Christian Church which they felt would usher the return of Jesus.  The people here in America had hard lives making a way in this land and so they wanted a church that could show how Jesus offers simple and practical help for coping with a hard life.

I think that we have come back to this very spot here in America where our people are crying out for our religious communities to offer something that will help them cope with the hard lives that we lead. They want to experience peace and love. This is exciting for us because it is a place that the Christian Church Disciple’s of Christ thrived in the past.  What we must offer is something intellectually stimulating but that is grounded in the realities of life so that our faith has practical and profound affects in daily living.

This week, my daily practices were disrupted by covid. I found myself fearful and full of anxiety…fear and anxiety seemed to be more powerful than the actual symptoms of covid for our family. But what I learned is that despite the disruptions and the fear/anxiety, I could lean on years of daily practice.  I could remember to pause, find my breath, and let that feeling of peace and love that I have come to know so well flood my body. Then, I was able to trust the counsel of my doctors and my body to heal.

Something that is new for me that started to happen 18 months ago is kindness toward myself. One of the benefits of a sustained contemplative practice is that there comes a moment where your internal dialogue shifts from being critical, judgmental, and demanding to hearing a voice inside that is encouraging, uplifting, and gentle.  I remember sitting in meditation all those many months ago and when I finished my practice, I congratulated myself on committing to a daily self-care regimine.  This voice was very new to me and I wrote in my journal that a smile came to my face.  I have always been a cheerleader for other people whether I was teaching an aerobics class in the 90s or helping a friend keep her commitment to the next step in her wellness journey or when Peyton learned his first word in sign language at the age of 3.  It’s just in me to cheer people on, but I had never experienced being a cheerleader for myself. This week, I cheered my body on for mounting a response to the virus and slowly making its way towards health and healing.

Kristen Neff who is an associate professor in human development at the University of Texas and is a pioneer in the work of self-compassion writes that our culture emphasizes being kind to your friends, co workers and neighbors but not to ourselves. She defines self kindness as the ability to recognize when we are being harsh with ourselves, pause and shift to actively comforting ourselves.  In a study done on how the brain reacts to self criticism or compassion groups where asked to imagine a situation of failure like applying for jobs and getting a third rejection letter in the mail.  One group was asked to react in a critical way and the other group was asked to react with kindness.  What they found is that the group that reacted critically activated a part of the brain that detects errors and engages in problem solving. The other group who reacted with kindness activated the part of the brain associated with positive emotions and compassion. In conclusion, Neff writes, “instead of seeing ourselves as a problem to be fixed, self kindness allows us to see ourselves as valuable human beings who are worthy of care.” (49)

So, my challenge to you this week is to spend a few minutes everyday to get to know your interior world…your inner voice. Maybe some of you already know that voice and don’t want to hear it anymore often than you do….proceed gently with this practice, but know that your inner critic really wants the best for you even if the way in which it speaks is no longer useful for you today!

You can use Kristen Neff’s activity to guide your time this week:

1-take 5-10 min each day and just observe your inner dialogue. 

2-any time you notice a self-critical voice, make an active effort to soften that voice by thanking it for always keeping you safe and helping you to improve.  It may feel silly at first but this is practice!

3-reframe the observation made by your inner critic in a kind, friendly and positive way.  You may need to journal this one!!!  For me, I used to beat myself up if I did not perform to my standard of perfect. I would also speak very harshly to myself saying things like You blew it Amber no one will ever give you another opportunity.  Now, I assess the situation, thank my inner critic for wanting me to improve and then reframe it by saying, “I offered my best today. My best is not perfect and I will have another opportunity to try again.” 

Jesus was right in that it is the things done in secret that impact our lives the most..that either make life a living hell or allow us to experience a little bit of heaven on this earth.

Life of the Beloved: Where is the Sacred?

We have spent the past 6 weeks exploring themes from Henri Nouwen’s book Life of the Beloved. And now it is time for me to tell you the hard truth. Henri’s book was deemed a failure by Fred and his friends and he wondered if he should even publish the book. But there is a twist to this story…What is interesting is that Nouwen’s admission of failure was the opening the participants in my doctoral project needed.  At the initial meeting where I gathered everyone interested in participating in my project, I shared the story of Fred and Henri. Fred, a man who identified as a secular Jew commissioned his dear friend Henri a catholic priest to write a book about the spiritual life for his friends who were disconnected from any faith tradition. When Henri finished the book, he sent it to Fred and although Fred had many good things to say about the book, it was clear to Henri that he had not touched the hearts and minds of Fred and his friends. This story intrigued my participants because it leveled the playing field and created a need for dialogue.

When I began my journey with Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved as the sacred text for my doctoral project, I imagined that I would gather yoga students who  were disconnected from any religious tradition. I hoped to recreate Nouwen’s intended audience and provide a safe space to dialogue about the spiritual life. But what I discovered was another group of people that Dr. Duane Bidwell calls Spiritually Fluid. Spiritually fluid people identify with 2 or more different religious traditions because of being raised in a home with more than 1 religious tradition represented or by choice or by experience.

What makes this group unique is that because they do not identify with only one religious tradition, this group is rarely included or invited to share their experience of the Divine. I met with a friend of mine months before the project to talk to her about participating and she replied that she would love to participate because and these are her words “I was attempting to include people that are usually excluded from religious conversation.”

Today, we conclude our teaching series following Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved. During this season of Lent, we have followed the words that Nouwen suggested is the journey of the Beloved. And as Disciples of Christ, we are very familiar with these words because hear them every Sunday as we gather around the communion table. Nouwen says that as the Beloved we are Taken, Blessed, Broken & Given. Today, we arrive at The Living Beloved and Nouwen asks us one final question, “If Fred is right in saying that the sacred has disappeared from our world, then where and how can we rediscover the sacred and give it the central place in our lives?” (145-146)

So let us return to our sacred text to see if it can give us any clue about how to rediscover the sacred….

The story goes that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that it was empty so she ran to tell the disciples. I love how it talks about how Peter and an unnamed disciple raced each other to the tomb and the unnamed disciple got there first. This unnamed disciple did not dare go into the tomb first so he waited for Peter who was apparently not as fast a runner! Peter went inside and saw the wrappings that should have been on Jesus’ body were lying there and the towel that would have been on Jesus’ face was rolled up and in a different spot. The unnamed disciple then entered the tomb and the scripture says, “He saw and believed.”

While this is going on Mary Magdalene had made her way back to the tomb and is outside weeping. The sacred text says she saw two angels and has a conversation with them. But the text seems to imply that she didn’t really see them. Then the narrator tells us that Jesus appears and asks Mary why she is weeping. It says that Mary sees Jesus, but she didn’t really see him because she thought he was a gardener. Then Jesus said her name in a way that must have been very familiar, and immediately her eyes were cleansed, the stone on the tomb of her heart was rolled away and she saw Jesus. As any human would do, she clings to Jesus, but he tells her not to hold on to him, but instead to go and tell his brothers. So Mary runs to tell the disciples that she has seen Jesus. 

1) In this story there is a lot of activity that heralds the coming of someone important. You read that Mary and the disciples run to the tomb, Mary goes back to tell the disciples, and back to the tomb to weep. Along with all of this activity, we read that Mary and the Disciples See Things.

What touched the hearts and minds of the participants in my project was that the form of dialogue we employed to discuss Nouwen’s book helped them feel seen and heard. They described be seen as feeling connected to each other as human beings who are both blessed & broken while also celebrating the uniqueness of each person.

Let me explain through this story….My yoga teacher once told me that she wished we could all just appreciate our connectedness as human beings without being concerned about our different religious traditions. In her words, I heard a longing to move away from our natural tendency to divide and exclude. Which is something I really appreciate. At the same time, I felt something lacking in her statement. Upon reflection, I realized that her statement embraced our similarities while discounting our differences. If I am only seen as a human being, then I am not fully seen as Amber. I am fully seen when a person embraces what makes me unique: my physical appearance, my interests, my dislikes, my politics, my health, and even my religious tradition as it influences how I live my life.

Nouwen says to us that we must see ourselves as God sees us which is to understand that God calls us The beloved as a general term of endearment given to all living beings and as a particular love language unique to the individual. When we let the truth of our belovedness become enfleshed everything we think, say and do then our eyes will be open to see that the risen Christ is with us.

And so we read in our sacred text today that the stranger who appeared to Mary turned out to be the Christ who the Gospel of John said was here at the beginning of Creation. Out of a Christ-soaked world, Jesus came, put on flesh, and dwelled among us. Jesus suffered and died on the cross and was raised to new life that he might reveal himself again in a Christ-soaked world.

Let us return to Nouwen’s question “If Fred is right that the Sacred has disappeared from our world Where and how can we rediscover the sacred?” It is the journey of becoming the Beloved and of daily saying yes to the one who first loved us…reveals that the sacred has not disappeared but is everywhere if you have eyes to see.

Richard Rohr Writes, “People of the Light will quite simply reveal a high level of seeing, both in depth and in breadth, which allows them to include more and more and exclude less and less.” (Universal Christ, 178)

2) In our sacred text, Mary hears a familiar voice and turns to see that it isn’t a gardener, but it is Jesus who is beside her. So she clings to Jesus, but he tells her that she must not. Instead he redirects her to go and tell the disciples what she has seen.

A very human Mary Magdalene clings to the shape and form of Jesus, but Jesus gently reminds her that she can’t cling to him being here on this earth like a scarce and rare commodity, but that now as the risen Christ there is an abundance of Christ to go around.

During a time of inner turmoil, Nouwen had the pleasure of meeting Mother Teresa of Calcutta. In a conversation with her, he began pouring out all his problems and difficulties. When he had finished Mother Teresa looked at him and said, “Well, when you spend one hour a day adoring your Lord and never do anything which you know is wrong…you will be fine!” He said that her words were like a flash of lightening in his darkness. He realized that he had been clinging to the Jesus of his youth which had to die, so that a new awareness of God’s covenant that includes everyone could live!. It was only Then that he was able to see the greatness of God everywhere. (Spiritual Direction, pg 5, 20, 48) A friend of mine said the same thing that he had to leave the Jesus of religion/church in order to find the risen Jesus.

And don’t we see the resurrection story playing over and over again. I see it in my relationship with my spouse and our children. I know for me, Chad and my first 2 years of marriage was terrible. Looking back, I can see that pieces of me had to die so that something new…the oneness we now experience could live!  I can look back and see this story playing out when I was a new mom.  There were days that I wept in the middle of the kitchen floor while holding 2 crying babies because I felt totally lost, exhausted, and utterly useless…but I wiped my tears, looked into my children’s eyes and saw that as controlling/perfectionist parts of me were dying, I was a part of new life taking shape and form right in front of me!

See the resurrection narrative in Nouwen’s writing. Nouwen’s failure at touching the hearts and minds of Fred and his friends gave new life to the people in my project. Resurrection is suffering transformed.

The season of Lent asks us to take a hard look at the ways we are taken, blessed, broken, and given, but lent is not what defines a Christian community. For We are an Easter people. We can see the suffering of Mother Earth and the agony of human suffering and know that when something dies, it means something is being reborn. It doesn’t justify us doing nothing to prevent unjust suffering or aid in the healing of our planet…. For we are called to do that daily!

Living as the Beloved is to see God at work in our mess.  It is to have new ears to hear the Good news being spoken here and there and everywhere that the wind blows. It is for our minds to dwell on beauty and goodness and all the many expressions of love. It is to be crying like Mary and to still have a Alleluhia on our tongues.

Nouwen asked, “Where is the sacred?” My spiritually fluid friend said it best, “It is when I smell the coffee brewing in the morning and it is when I play with my dog.” The sacred isn’t gone…It has risen to new life and can be found everywhere if our eyes are cleansed and the stone on the tomb of our heart is rolled away.

Life of the Beloved: Given

This summer I attended a virtual conference called Womanist Dialogue #Say her Name: Preaching and teaching for Freedom hosted by Rev. Dr. Mitzi J Smith.

(Rev. Dr. Mitzi Smith is a teacher, preacher, biblical scholar, author and founder/president of living in full empowerment. She is the first African American female to earn the PhD in New testament from Harvard. )  If someone asks

The Say Her Name campaign, is a social movement that seeks to raise awareness for Black female victims of police brutality. It was created by the combined efforts of the African American Policy Forum and the Center for intersectionality and policy studies in 2014. It is meant to include women in the national conversation about race and policing. While the killing of black men brought us names and stories, the killing of black women and their stories have not been heard –women such as Elenaor Bumpers, Martina Brown and Kayla Moore and many more.

In the womanist dialogue #SayHerName: preaching and teaching for freedom ,

I heard amazing women of color put flesh and bones around the big idea that Rev. Dr. Smith said, “We must read differently so that we can preach differently.” Dr. Teresa L Fry Brown a womanist scholar at Emory University spoke about how your name is the essence of your being and if your name is not said its like you don’t exist. This is true for how the women feel today and it is true for how we read our sacred text. She asked, “What about the unnamed women in the bible who were in the background who go unnoticed?”  She challenged us to #SayHerName in order to humanize the characters.

In our scripture today, the narrator says that wherever the gospel is told, her story will be told…she will be remembered. But let’s think for a moment…In the planning of Holy Week, do we tell her story? Do we say her name. Nope. We do palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and then Easter Sunday. So today, we are going to #Say Her Name. Because as important as the Last Supper is, we must remember that there was a First Supper initiated by a woman.

Today, we continue on in our teaching series following Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved. In this book, we see a new friendship begin to flourish between a writer named Fred who identified as a secular Jew and Henri Nouwen who is a catholic priest, academic, and prominent speaker about the Spiritual Life. As this friendship develops, Fred commissions Henri to step away from writing to insiders in his Christian tradition and instead write a book for people who are outside of feeling that they belong to any particular religious tradition. Fred said, “If you don’t who will? Visit me more often; talk to my friends; look attentively at what you see, and listen carefully to what you hear. You will discover a cry welling up from the depths of the human heart that has remained unheard because there was no one to listen.” (23)

As you and I are beginning a new friendship and a new season of ministry in the life of The Heights Christian Church, I see Nouwen’s book as a conversation starter and a way for you to get to know my heart for ministry. Nouwen suggests to us that a way to look at the journey of becoming the Beloved is to follow the path of the words that we hear every Sunday as we gather around the communion table. He offers us 4 words: Taken, Blessed, Broken & Given.

Today, we arrive at the word Given. Nouwen writes, “Don’t you think that our desire to eat together is an expression of our even deeper desire to be food for one another? Don’t we sometimes say: “That was a very nurturing conversation. That was a refreshing time?” I think that our deepest human desire is to give ourselves to each other as a source of physical, emotional, and spiritual growth. Isn’t a baby at its mother’s breast one of the most moving signs of human love? Isn’t tasting the best word to express the experience of intimacy? As the beloved ones, our greatest fulfillment lies in becoming bread for the world. That is the most intimate expression of our deepest desire to give ourselves to each other.” (Pg 112)

Nouwen says that we are called to give ourselves in life and to give ourselves in death.

Let’s explore what it means to give ourselves in life.

The woman’s story in our sacred text today is a story about the gift of her life and her story comes to us in many forms throughout the gospels. In three out of the four stories, she is the woman who has no name. For our purposes today, we are going to #SayHerName so I will borrow the name that John gives her knowing full well that John’s gospel was written much later and the story set in a very different situation. John tells us her name is Mary. In Mary’s story, we receive very little information about her. If you read the four accounts closely, each account has a different message that the author was trying to tell and so details are changed and shifted. But in Matthew’s gospel, the one that we read today, Mary is a women with an alabaster jar who walks into a dinner at Simon the Leper’s house to anoint the head of Jesus. She does not state why and the disciples are angry at the amount of money she wasted. But Jesus scolds the disciples and says that Mary did a good thing to prepare him for burial.

So, let’s talk about this dinner party where food and wine were tasted, where those gathered saw each other and heard each other, where a laugh prompted the touch of a hand to the other’s shoulder in a gesture of good will. Dinner is a very intimate and sensory rich experience. And here comes Mary. Mary, a woman and an outsider, enters the door of the home of simon the leper. She is not invited and so she takes a risk to come to Jesus. Mary is courageous and she has planned this moment perfectly. She brought with her an alabaster jar of a very costly ointment that was fragrant in its smell. And she anoints Jesus’ head with oil.

Now, there are two words when the authors of the gospel wrote about the type of anointing she gave Jesus. In some of the texts it uses a word that refers to the anointing that means you are set aside for a special purpose…it is how kings were anointed.  In other accounts, a word is used that is in the practice of anointing the body for burial. But Maybe as we bring the texts together to get a much fuller picture of what is going on maybe she is bringing both of these ideas together. Maybe She is signaling who he is…an anointed one for special purpose and she knows where all of this is leading very soon….to his burial. In the first supper, all those who gathered were in denial. They had listened and dismissed what Jesus kept saying to them about where he was headed. But apparently not Mary. If Mary came to anoint him for burial, then she was the only one who took seriously Jesus’ prediction that he would be given in death. #SayHerName.

In Luke’s account, Jesus asks, “Do you see this woman?” He is not asking did you glance at her or do you know her.  He is asking, “Have you recognized that she is created in God’s image and so her actions have something for us to learn from?” But we know that the disciples did not see this woman, instead the gospels tell us that they were angry and dismissed her gift and judged her action.

Now, we can be really hard on the disciples about how they behaved… but Don’t we do this too…in more subtle ways?

I’ll just speak for me…When someone offers me hospitality or calls to ask if I need anything this week, I am quick to dismiss the gift that this person is offering which is the gift of their life. I do it automatically because I either don’t believe that they truly want to know what I need or I think well, they have more to do than I do so my need is not that bad.

When I do this I am devaluing this beautiful human life that is generously offering me a gift of themselves!

Or, I am quick to judge. I have been welcomed into homes and offered a lavish dinner and judged this is a waste of this person’ money because I know that the family struggles to pay their bills.  Or someone sees a way to beautify the sanctuary and offers a generous gift and I judge their offering because I see our transient population struggle with basic food, water and shelter.

But Jesus says to me as he says to the disciples, “Practice receiving gifts well so that you honor the gift of the human being that is in front of you…see them and accept the gift of their life.” And Jesus says, “it is not your right to judge” and then he quotes from Deuteronomy reminding us that it is a daily requirement that we open our hand to the poor and give to those in need while in this moment at this time…this is a one time…special gift…that must be honored because it is someone giving something precious of their life to another.

And more often the gift of our life has nothing to do with a monetary gift. I called up a member this week and she quickly asked me what I wanted and I shared that I was just calling to get to know her and spend time visiting. I thought at first that our conversation might be short and simple, but she opened up and invited me to meet her friends and invited me over to her home for lunch. She commented over and over again how much she appreciated my call. This small simple act of offering the gift of my life helped her feel more alive, animated, and curious about me!

Nouwen writes, “More surely than ever before, I know now that we are called to give our very lives to one another and that in so doing, we become a true community of love.”

Nouwen turns our attention to see that just as we are given in life..We are given in our death: He says, “Still as the Beloved, I am called to trust that life is a preparation for death as a final act of giving. The deaths of those whom we love and who love us open up the possibility of a new, more radical communion a new intimacy, a new belonging to each other. If love is indeed, stronger than death, then death has the potential to deepen and strengthen the bonds of love.”

Nouwen’s words remind me of our final resting pose at the end of every yoga class. The final resting pose is called Savasana or corpse pose. In savasana, you are lying down on your back with your arms by your sides palms facing up. In this shape, we close our eyes and we wait for the body to get really still. We notice that the breath gets smaller and more shallow. As we rest, the mind quiets. We stay like this for 3-5 min practicing for our final rest where we will take our last breath. In an article called the Savasana of Lent at artandtheology.org, the author writes that “the practitioner embraces the impermanence of life and, by doing so, is empowered to live with greater gratitude for what is, right now, and with a continual attitude of surrender. Facing one’s mortality is seen as freeing rather than fearsome.”

It is from this pose that we rise up off our mat to embrace the newness of life today! It’s a beautiful and powerful experience and creates a different relationship with death!

I don’t know if any of you have had an experience where you meet a loved one who has long passed in a dream or suddenly you smell something and you are reminded of this loved one or you say something and you know those words were spoken before by a loved one. Last year in a class at Claremont School of Theology, I was invited to expand my idea that my meditation practice was just about healing myself and helping me to be a good person. I was asked to create a display of my ancestors…some who have long since passed and others who are still living and to explore what it would be like to practice my meditation on their behalf as well…that my meditation practice was not only healing me but is healing generations of family members through my prayers.  I will say that I experienced a sense of connection that even in death they live on in me…in my very DNA.  I also recognized that death is no match for the power of love. If love is stronger than death then our relationships continue in a different way.

Jesus asks us to remember Mary long after her death and today we say her name proudly so that across time and space and through the bonds of love we invite a relationship with the one that Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” The gift of her life and her death continues to bless all who #SayHerName. Let us prepare to come to the communion table.

Life of the Beloved: Broken

According to HAI Global (www.hai.org/connection-is-essential-to-survival), the more we understand about neurobiology and social psychology the more we understand that humans are wired to connect. The latest neuroscience out of UCLA tells us that the drive for connection is as essential to our wellbeing as our basic needs of food, water and shelter.

Back in 2016, the US Surgeon General warned that Americans are facing an epidemic of loneliness and now we have experienced a global pandemic that has us shelter in place and keep a distance from each other to protect and care for each other so that the virus does not spread…But we see teenagers suffering from depression & committing suicide, people who struggle with addictions slipping back into unhealthy patterns of behavior, a growing rate of reported domestic and intimate partner violence issues, and increased loneliness among the more vulnerable population.

This is not to discount the death toll in relation to the pandemic, but it is to look at the science that says that our need for community is as important as keeping our physical bodies safe.

Even if you were the healthiest human being or the healthiest faith community in all of human history in 2019, we all experienced a degree of brokenness in 2020.  If we did not recognize the many ways we are broken before 2020, we feel the weight of our brokenness today. The many wounds of our hearts need tending, need the support of community, and need for a people to bring a message of hope that healing is possible.

Today, we continue on in our teaching series following Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved. In this book, we see a new friendship begin to flourish between a writer named Fred who identified as a secular Jew and Henri Nouwen who is a catholic priest, academic, and prominent speaker about the Spiritual Life. As this friendship develops, Fred commissions Henri to step away from writing to people who are connected to a faith tradition and to instead write a book for people who are disconnected from any particular religious tradition. Fred was asking Henri to respond to the great spiritual hunger and thirst that exists in the world and to offer a message of hope to a people who no longer came to churches or synagogues. Fred said, “If you don’t who will? Visit me more often; talk to my friends; look attentively at what you see, and listen carefully to what you hear. You will discover a cry welling up from the depths of the human heart that has remained unheard because there was no one to listen.” (23)

As you and I are beginning a new friendship and a new season of ministry in the life of The Heights Christian Church, I see Nouwen’s book as a conversation starter and a way for you to get to know my heart for ministry. Nouwen suggests to us that a way to look at the journey of becoming the Beloved is to follow the path of the words that we hear every Sunday as we gather around the communion table. He offers us 4 words: Taken, Blessed, Broken & given.

Two weeks ago, we explored the challenges we have with the word taken or chosen which can feel exclusive and competitive. And Nouwen invited us to understand Chosen in a new way.  Chosen means that God sees us in our uniqueness, is captivated by our differences, and chooses each person as God’s beloved. Last week, Henri pointed out that our prayer practices and cultivating the gift of presence are two ways that we get in touch with our blessing so that we can be a blessing to others.

Today, we arrive at the word broken. The order of these words reminds me of the many youth summer camps I attended. There was always a night where the message raised the level of emotions high and mixed in with lack of good sleep, we were all crying and bonding over the many ways our hearts were wounded. I can look back and smile at that experience but in the moment it was the most intense religious experience of my life. Maybe you are like me and you were raised in a faith community that structured your youth experiences in that way and now you raise an eyebrow at the push for heightened emotions or maybe you did not. But something that is true about that experience is that humans bond over sharing our woundedness. Nouwen writes, “The way I am broken tells you something unique about me. The way you are broken tells me something unique about you. That is the reason for my feeling very priviledged when you freely share some of your deep pain with me, and that is why it is an expression of my trust in you when I disclose to you something of my vulnerable side.”

Back in 2016, I resigned my former position as associate pastor. This was the result of 2 years of struggle that took a toll on my emotional, mental, and physical well-being. You see, I had been waiting for 10 years to finally arrive at a place where my son’s intensive care and therapy were manageable and I could devote myself to my calling. Many women dream of having the gift of staying home and caring for their children, but this was not my dream. In fact, in the tiny town I grew up in I would tell boyfriends that if they expected me to be the little wife and stay home, then they better move along. My husband knew the price I paid for choosing the health of our son over my career.  It was a constant struggle and many tears were shed, but I knew in my heart that I had made the right decision. But even in making the right decision to care for my son, there are consequences. During those 10 years, we had embraced a new denomination that did not know me or any of the work that I had done before children. During the 10 years that I stayed at home, I felt disconnected from all the training that I had experienced in seminary. After 10 years, I was a different person and I wondered where I would fit.

So, this opportunity to work as an associate pastor represented all of my hopes and dreams that I had been waiting for over 10 years to see realized. And then just as quickly, it all came crashing down. The drive I used to pursue healing for my son was too much. My ability to think outside the box was considered hostile to the normal way things were done at the church. My care for the outsider was interpreted as a lack of care for members. And so I tried to change myself. I tried to fit a round peg in a square hole and it was painful. And the words that had been spoken over me my whole life came to fruition…you are too much. No one likes a saint. You’re too up in the clouds to be any earthly good.

It may sound silly that a job would devastate me, but this was the dream I had postponed and built up over the years. And a pastor’s job is not just a job…it is a calling from God and acknowledged through the church. I felt that my calling had been stolen from me by a diagnosis of autism. And yet, through my Doctorate of ministry, I would discover that the death of that dream, the brokenness that I experienced, and all of the tools I gained through loving my son…this is the vehicle by which I would bless others.

One of Nouwen’s favorite passages in scripture is John 12:24. “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”[1]  Nouwen understood this through an experience in his own life. In the 1990s, he felt a call to become the pastor at Le’Arche in Canada. Le’Arche is a community of people who have physical or neurological differences. In stepping into life as a pastor, he was given care over a community member named Adam. Nouwen’s one job was to care for Adam’s needs. But Adam did not speak and could not do many things for himself. So, Henri had to learn Adam’s unique rhythm so that he could notice the subtle communications that Adam would send about his needs.  During this time, Henri suffered greatly from a wounded heart. He had experienced a broken relationship and was devastated at the loss. He also did not realize how much it would affect him to step out of the limelight of speaking, writing, and teaching and into caring for the humble needs of Adam. He did not realize that his self-worth was wrapped up in receiving praise, book deals, and experiencing success at the university. The death of that part of Nouwen continues to bear fruit today. It is through his relationship with Adam that he began to understand the importance of mutual ministry which is a new way to think about pastoral ministry. So much of pastoral ministry is about what the minister can do for the people and what the minister can do to grow the church. Give give give until you burnout. But what Nouwen means by mutual ministry is that the pastor is to recognize that every person that walks through our doors or shows up online is sent to us as a gift from God! Each person gives us something to learn. Each person offers us something that will help us flourish. It is the meaning of the statement The Christ in me recognizes the Christ in you.…even in our brokenness. 

Nouwen suggests two ways to handle our brokenness. 

First, we have to befriend our brokenness.  What he means is that we must turn to face our suffering, talk to it, understand it is a part of us that needs attention, and nurture that part of ourselves back to good health.  In another book that is a complilation of his writings, Nouwen wrote “Ultimately mourning means facing what wounds us in the presence of the One who can heal.”  Xv  So we turn to and develop a relationship with our suffering while sensing a sacred presence that gives us hope for our healing journey.

Nouwen says that the temptation is to distract ourselves from facing our suffering or to push it down and belittle our pain. As I looked at bestselling books in 2020, I saw the human tendency to escape our pain. Romantic comedies increased in sales by 188%, lots of murder mystery novels made the list, and not surprising a couple of comfort food recipe books. But then, many people turned to face their suffering by reading books to help them more clearly see the racism that supports, undergirds, and benefits white people. They turned to books like The body keeps the score to understand trauma.  The pandemic forced many to look at the consequences of unhealthy behaviors/routines so books like Atomic Habits made the list. We also turned to poetry like Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur to give voice to our suffering..

The sections of poetry in Rupi’s book are about the experience of a broken heart. Rupi’s experience tells us something unique about her and it also speaks to the ways we are similar in our suffering as human beings…see if you can hear the cry of the human heart….listen.

“You tell me to quiet down because my opinions make me less beautiful but I was not made with a fire in my belly so I could be put out. I was not made with a lightness on my tongue so I could be easy to swallow. I was made heavy half blade and half silk difficult to forget and not easy for the mind to follow (30)…..I didn’t leave because I stopped loving you. I left because the longer I stayed the less I loved myself (95)…When you are broken and he has left you do not question whether you were enough. The problem was you were so enough that he was not able to carry it. (103)  Losing you was the becoming of myself (174)” Milk and Honey

In her words, it is easy to hear the cry of women. Listening deeper, you can hear the cry of people of color. Allowing the words to sink in, these words resonate with the suffering of the poor, the oppressed and the refugee.  This is the cry of the human heart that Fred hoped Nouwen would hear as he listened.

If we do not turn to and face the ways we are wounded, then the consequence will be that we will wound others intentionally or unintentionally. The way she ended that last line leads us to Nouwen’s final suggestion. Nouwen suggests that we “pull our brokenness away from the shadow of the curse and put it under the light of the blessing.” (97)  Here is how I understand what he is saying. We all have stories that we tell ourselves about our lives and if you are not familiar with the story you tell yourself just ask a loved one because without being aware of it, your speech is filled with it. Some of us see the world as against us and so anything bad that happens we fit under that umbrella. For me, I was always told I was too much or too saintly so no one would want to marry me, or too direct in my speech so that no one wants to hear what I have to say.  So, when my time at my previous church came to an end, I put that under the umbrella of the curse.  I told myself, “well of course this did not work out because you are too much. Well of course people did not like your leadership style because you are too much.  Well of course…..” 

Instead, Nouwen invites us to pull our wounds out from that narrative that story that we tell ourselves and put it under our statement of blessing. So for me that would look like, “well now that I have experienced this pain, I want to create a safe space where people feel the freedom to share their experiences of the divine without judgement. Well now that I understand what it feels like to be rejected, I am able to see and hear other people. Now that I have experienced a pain that went deep, I am able to be more compassionate to the wounds in people’s hearts.  It’s not that God caused this to happen so that I can be a blessing.  It is that God uses everything in our lives, even the wounds, for the good of ourselves and for the good of the world.

The church that I left turned and faced their many wounds. My resignation was like an ambulance alarm that forced them to wake up to patterns of behavior that no longer served them. They sought out wise counsel from an expert outside of their congregation. And they had to let old patterns, old ways of doing things die. It was brutal. It was ugly and painful for everyone. But at the bottom of their pain, they suddenly felt a new calling to be an inclusive place for people. They felt a surge of energy to create a space that would welcome people who are different from them. And they are flourishing….

I think this is what Jesus meant when he said, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”[2]


[1] John 12:24 (NRSV).

[2] John 12:24 (NRSV).

Life of the Beloved: Blessed

In the documentary my octopus Teacher, a diver sees an octopus while spending time in a kelp forest off the coast of south Africa. The diver delighted in this strange creature. She was a wonder to behold. And he was drawn to her recognizing that there was something to learn from this creature. And so He wondered what would happen if he came to that same spot everyday. Well, at first the octopus would hide and run away when he came near. Then after time, the octopus began to trust that he was safe. His continued presence in the water day after day earned the trust of the octopus until finally the octopus stretched out one tentacle and placed it in the diver’s hand.

The diver said the blessing he received is that he no longer felt that he was a visitor but a part of this place we call home. In his experience with the octopus, he began to realize that humans are similar in many ways to this alien looking creature.. and this realization changed him and began changing his relationships with the people in his life. In his words, I hear that the octopus touched a truth deep within him; it was what author Henri Nouwen says, “A blessing touches the original goodness of the other and calls forth his or her belovedness.”

Today, we continue on in our teaching series following Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved. In this book, we see a new friendship begin to flourish between a writer named Fred and Henri Nouwen who is a catholic priest, academic, and prominent speaker about the Spiritual Life. As this friendship develops, Fred commissions Henri to write a book for people who are disconnected from any particular religious tradition. Fred says, “Speak to us about the deepest yearning of our hearts, about our many wishes, about hope; not about the many strategies for survival, but about trust; not about new methods of satisfying our emotional needs, but about love. Speak to us about a vision larger than our changing perspectives and about a voice deeper than the clamorings of our mass media. Yes, speak to us about something or someone greater than ourselves. Speak to us about…God.” Pg 23

As you and I are beginning a new friendship and a new season of ministry in the life of The Heights Christian Church, I see Nouwen’s book as a conversation starter and a way for you to get to know my heart for ministry. Nouwen suggests to us that a way to look at the journey of becoming the Beloved is to follow the path of the words that we hear every Sunday as we gather around the communion table. He offers us 4 words: Taken, Blessed, Broken & given.

Last week, we explored the challenges we have with the word taken or chosen which can feel exclusive and competitive. And Nouwen invited us to understand Chosen in a new way.  Chosen means that God sees us in our uniqueness, is captivated by our differences, and chooses each person as God’s beloved.

Today, we are focusing on the word blessed. Nouwen writes, “The characteristic of the blessed ones is that, wherever they go they always speak words of blessing.” Pg 82  yikes!!  Wherever they go, they speak words of blessing. If I were to think back over this week, would I be able to say that wherever I went I spoke words of blessing? I’m pretty sure not. So Let’s turn to 1 Peter 3:8-15 for words of wisdom regarding our speech

1 Peter 3:8-15 NRSV – Suffering for Doing Right – Finally, – Bible Gateway

Peter names 5 characteristics of the life that brings blessing and Edmund Clowney writes that they are like 5 fingers that radiate from one center and work together.  1 Peter 3:15 ends by saying “but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.” This is the center point. In these words, I hear the author of 1 Peter saying, “get back to the blessing that is in your heart. The truth that you hold most dear.” In the Disciples of Christ tradition, our one unifying statement is that Jesus Christ is the son of God, Lord and savior of the world. And then we add to that the statement that each of us feels most resonates with the truth of who we are in Christ Jesus. For me, that is I am a Beloved Healer. For one of our members, he said that his statement is I am a blessing.

When this truth is settled in our hearts and we sit with that sensation and let it soak into every cell of our body, then all of these characteristics that 1 Peters talks about radiate from this center and work together.

so before we look at the 5 attributes, we first need to understand how we might hear our blessing so that we are quick to offer a word of blessing?

Nouwen suggests 2 ways:

1-Through prayer. And today we practiced the style of prayer that Nouwen invites us to explore. 1-petition- we take the time to voice our concerns, our struggles, and the challenge we find to see God in our world and then we embrace silence so that we can hear the voice that blesses us and that calls us forward to be a blessing in this world. Nouwen writes, “The movement of Gods spirit is very gentle, very soft—and hidden. It does not seek attention. But that movement is also very persistent, strong and deep. It changes our hearts radically. The faithful discipline of prayer reveals to you that you are the blessed one and gives you the power to bless others.” (pg 78)

Prayer is about speaking to God things that are on our hearts so that when we are finished speaking, we shift into a time of silence where we are able to pay attention. This moment right now. While listening for that soft and tender nudge, that gentle whisper, that deep knowing for how we can respond in a way that we are the beloved and that we are called to bless others. I will tell you that my prayer life has changed dramatically over the years. My prayers used to be filled with petition and then end with Amen. There was not a moment of silence or a thought to listen for God’s gentle whisper. I never even considered sitting in silence. Now, through my study of yoga and meditation, my practice of prayer has shifted. Now, I express a confidence in God’s presence and wait in silence. Getting quiet and shifting into a calm and steady state opens my being to sense a connection to my blessing so that I can be a blessing to others. 

We have so much busyness in our minds that sometimes it is filled like a where’s waldo image. I can’t even look at a where’s waldo image without feeling anxiety of all the stuff everywhere, people, animals, toys, things everywhere.  Isn’t our mind sometimes too busy and too full? and so our act of prayer is a time to lift our burdens so that we can clear it out, get quiet, and  listen. We lift our burdens to clear and cleanse the mind. We listen to sense the sacred and to know how to respond.

2-The second way Nouwen suggests is through the cultivation of presence. Our lives are so busy that it is hard to see and hear the blessings all around us. 

When I entered the Doctor of Ministry program at Claremont school of theology 4 years ago, I had this burning question to explore. You see I had started teaching yoga and students were coming up to me after class saying that they no longer went to church, but that my yoga class was better than their past experience of church. This intrigued me and I wanted to know what they meant. So in my doctor of ministry project entitled From the Pew to the Mat invited yoga students from any or no religious background to share their experience of the Divine. But how would I create a practice that would help them shift into a calm and steady states so that they could be more present to the truth they hold most dear? How would I structure a practice that would feel safe enough for a diverse group of people to participate? So, I used the spiritual practice of meditation and yoga to give them time to release tension and stress so that would feel more open to sensing the sacred. Then, I invited them into dialogue about the spiritual life. I structured the dialogue with agreements and commitments that we held for the way we would speak and the way we would listen to each other.

In the end, I learned that this experience felt more like church for them because it is an embodied practice where instead of telling them about god or the spiritual life, I was inviting them to explore their connection to the Divine through their senses. What I learned is that the benefit of yoga and meditation is practicing being present to ourselves that in turn allowed the students to be more present to each other. I also learned that we are a lot like the Octopus because it was my consistent presence and my strict adherence to the rules we agreed to that made the space feel safe enough for even the most timid student to participate.

 In the book What we say matters: Practicing Nonviolent communication, Judith and Ike Lasater write that the gift of any spiritual practice is that it brings us into the present moment. That is when we are able to hear the blessing and call forth the blessing in others.

Each of us has a need to receive a blessing especially during this time where our media and our news are spouting how cursed we are, how divided we are, how I am right and you are wrong….we need something bigger than ourselves, something that reaches deeper…we need a blessing. So Nouwen takes us right to the heart of the matter.. to connect to our inner blessing, to sit in prayer everyday long enough to allow the blessing to infuse every cell of our being, and to be more present in our lives. Our world is in desparate need of a people who are quick to speak a blessing to others. And it goes deeper than our words. Judith Lasater and Ike Lasater talk about how people sense how we feel about them even before we  speak.. they know whether we are blessing them or cursing them in our minds. (pg 41) They feel whether we have room for them in our hearts. So the impact of prayer and presence is immediately felt all around us before we even address our words.

Now, that we know how to connect to the truth we hold most dear and the personal blessing we sense from God. Let’s unpack the message in 1 Peter 3.  The author gives us 5 attributes of a life that brings blessing: unity of spirit, sympathy, love, compassion, and humility. Edmund Clowney connects the first attribute with the final attribute. Clowney writes that to have unity of the spirit we have to have a humble mind. If you remember with me, a few weeks ago we explored the idea that being the beloved is a humble position and not an exclusive elitist club.  Humble means low to the ground, earthy, and considers other people equal to or better than ourselves. This helps us understand how we arrive at unity for if each of us views the other as equal to or better than ourselves then we are always open to learning from each other and never cling to our way as the right way. If we set our intention for unity, then we have to cloak ourselves in humility.

The other 3 attributes have to do with the way we relate to people: Sympathy, brotherly love, and compassion. Sympathy is being ready to rejoice with those who rejoice and to mourn with those who mourn. It is recognizing that when one part of the body of christ suffers the entire body suffers. We are not isolated but part of the whole. Brotherly love is our familial bond through Christ Jesus. We are no longer estranged, but we are brothers and sisters, children of God. Compassion which is a movement in the womb of God. We are moved to respond to each other with kindness, solidarity, and wisdom. In all three of these words, I hear relationship..I hear connection..I hear interconnection. And so our words have the power to enhance connection by expressing sympathy, seasoned with familial love, with the hope of relieving suffering.

The attributes that 1 Peter calls us to embody are words that enhance relationship and isn’t that what Jesus was all about. He boiled down all the laws into love for God, for self, and others. And then he said, but don’t just love the ones that are easy to love.  Love your enemies. It’s about relationships. It goes beyond right and wrong..your way or my way…which break apart relationship. Instead it asks us to see God in every person we meet. It asks us to make room in our hearts for the challenging person. It’s like tuning our eyes to look for waldo but instead of 1 waldo in the sea of images…it is finding the small waldo within each image. And this is the journey of the Beloved. It is the idea that our blessing calls us forward into who we are becoming and our words of blessing also speak a truth that calls others forward into becoming the beloved. Our words become a powerful message of hope!

Unity, humility, sympathy, familial love and compassion are the hallmarks of a life of blessing…a way to walk the path of peace in our relationships with each other.

Nouwen reminds us that there are very practical ways that we continue on the journey of becoming the beloved. Being the beloved is not a lofty idea but it has real earthy, tangible, practical impact. He writes that becoming the beloved means letting the truth of our belovedness become enfleshed in everything we think, say or do. And so as we prepare to come to the communion table, let us take a moment to consider the power of our words.

Life of the Beloved: Taken

Today, we continue on in our teaching series following Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved. In this book, we see a new friendship begin to flourish between a writer named Fred and Henri Nouwen who is a catholic priest, academic, and prominent speaker about the Spiritual Life. As this friendship develops, Fred commissions Henri to write a book for people who are disconnected from any particular religious tradition. Fred says, “Speak to us about the deepest yearning of our hearts, about our many wishes, about hope; not about the many strategies for survival, but about trust; not about new methods of satisfying our emotional needs, but about love. Speak to us about a vision larger than our changing perspectives and about a voice deeper than the clamorings of our mass media. Yes, speak to us about something or someone greater than ourselves. Speak to us about…God.” Pg 23

As you and I are beginning a new friendship and a new season of ministry in the life of The Heights Christian Church, I see Nouwen’s book as a conversation starter and a way for you to get to know my heart for ministry. Nouwen suggests to us that a way to look at the journey of becoming the Beloved is to follow the path of the words that we hear every Sunday as we gather around the communion table. He offers us 4 words: Taken, Blessed, Broken & given.

Our first word is taken. For some of us the word taken sounds negative, unsafe, like I have no choice in the matter and so Nouwen invites us to use the word chosen as a way to soften and warm up the concept. And yet, chosen might also bring up feelings of exclusion, competition, and comparison. If you are like me chosen reminds me of times when I have been singled out, lifted up, and raised high above others in a very competitive spirit. Also, it reminds me of times that I have not been chosen when I have felt that I was not enough, not special, not wanted in comparison with others.

Competition and comparison rob us of the opportunity to claim the truth that we are the beloved, chosen by God. And so Nouwen invites us to explore a third way a higher way of understanding the words taken/chosen.

For Nouwen, God choosing us means that we are each seen in our uniqueness. He writes that being taken is a compassionate choice where God intimately sees and is captivated by the unique beauty of every living being. A Student who studied this book with me at the University of Houston pointed out that to be chosen felt like someone sees your passion and chooses you. Another student added that chosen sounds purposeful like we are here for a reason.

A tale often told about Michelangelo forming a statue speaks to this idea of seeing each of us in our uniqueness in being and becoming the beloved.

There was once a sculptor who worked hard with hammer and chisel on a large block of marble. A little child who was watching him saw nothing more than large and small pieces of stone falling away left and right. He had no idea what was happening. But when the boy returned to the studio a few weeks later, he saw, to his surprise, a large, powerful lion sitting in the place where the marble had stood. With great excitement, the boy ran to the sculptor and said, “Sir, tell, me, how did you know there was a lion in the marble.? The sculptor replied, “I knew there was a lion in the marble because before I saw the lion in the marble, I saw him in my own heart. The secret is that it was the lion in my heart that recognized the lion in the marble.” Nouwen’s book on Spiritual direction, pg 16-17

For me, this tale gets to the heart of the matter regarding being chosen.

It’s about trust. Trust is a huge challenge right now because the virus has broken our sense of trust that our world is a safe and wonderful place to live. It’s hard to trust that God has a purpose for our lives because we feel out of control right now. Our sense of trust in our leader’s ability to make the right choices for the best interest of everyone has been broken.  Our sense of trust with each other to see our differences and appreciate how our differences make our country stronger instead of act as a source of division. And let’s go even deeper…we are having a hard time trusting ourselves to make the most compassionate choice with the information we currently have.

I think Nouwen is speaking to us about this deeper sense of being able to trust ourselves. How do we build or regain a sense of trust?

First, the sculpter had to spend time tending to his internal world so that he could see the lion within himself. A way to begin to repair broken trust is to acknowledge the ways that we have broken trust with ourselves. In difficult situations, it is easy to run around looking to everyone else for advice or to read every book on the subject..I am a read every book on the subject type of person. But what we neglect is our source of inner wisdom or the way of the heart. Our faith tradition calls us to be knowledgeable, to seek wise counsel, and to trust in our God given ability to make the right choice with the information that we currently have. This reminds me that I am created in the image of God that I have the Divine DNA within me and that if I pay attention this can be a great source of wisdom and guidance. But it takes practice to build trust.

I began the process of building trust in my own life after my son Peyton was diagnosed with autism. I am a person who immediately addresses a crisis with action. So, I read all the research. I took him to a variety of doctors and I spoke with experts who helped children with autism live full lives. I also surrounded myself with moms of special needs children. These are all good things and yet God was teaching me something deeper. It wasn’t too long before I realized that I would need to trust my own intuition, my own inner wisdom to guide my son’s therapy. For example, a therapist told me early on that my son would never walk. I listened to her expert opinion and this did not feel right to me so I pushed for continued therapy with a plan for him to gain the strength he would need to walk.  Now he walks, runs, plays golf, baseball, and basketball.

A speech therapist assessed Peyton and said that we should stop teaching him to talk and instead teach him sign language. I listened to her realistic and wise counsel, but I felt a red flag when I heard these words. I agreed to teach him sign language as long as 50% of the time, we worked on speech. Now, he is articulate and talks endlessly about subjects that he has interest in like sports and Nascar. You can find him on Instagram giving running commentary on his favorite sports.

Time after time of listening to my inner wisdom and finding the strength to follow that guidance taught me that I could trust myself to help my son flourish. Now this does not mean that we made all the right choices or that we perfectly navigated the process. Nope! We went down many winding roads and made some quick U turns. I will say that I found it easier to learn to trust myself to care for another person and much harder to trust myself to care for myself, so there is always opportunity for growth!

Next, we offer gratitude. Our sacred text helps us trust that our world is a safe place to live and that God is actively involved in this world.

Philipians 4 talks about not worrying but instead rejoicing and offering gratitude for God is near and that when we operate in the world this way that the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard our hearts and minds. What Paul is asking us to do is to look for the ways in which God is active in our world. It’s not that we are to turn away from the groans and pains of mother earth or that we stop seeing the suffering in each other’s eyes. What Paul knew is that it is much harder and it takes more practice to see where God is working in the world. And so we come to

the passage in Psalms today that we began with in our call to worship. It speaks about the intimacy of Creator God shaping and forming all living beings. It is such an expression of gratitude. Creator God, I look behind me and you’re there, then up ahead and you’re there, too – your reassuring presence, coming and going. Is there any place I can go to avoid your Spirit? to be out of your sight?  If I climb to the sky, you’re there! If I go underground, you’re there! If I flew on morning’s wings to the far western horizon, you would find me in a minute—you are already there waiting.

Oh yes, you shaped me first inside, then out; you formed me in my mother’s womb. You know me inside and out, you know every bone in my body; You know exactly how I was made, bit by bit, how I was sculpted from nothing into something. I thank you, High God – you’re breathtaking! Body and soul, I am marvelously made! I worship in adoration – what a creation! 

This Psalm reminds me of The documentary my octopus Teacher. It is such a great example of how we repair trust with a sense of gratitude.

In this movie, a diver sees an octopus while spending time in a kelp forest off the coast of south Africa. The diver delighted in this strange creature. She was a wonder to behold. And so He wondered if he came everyday would the octopus start to trust his presence there in the water. At first the octopus would hide and run away when he came near and then after time, the octopus began to trust that he was safe. His continued presence in the water day after day earned the trust of the octopus until finally the octopus stretched out one tentacle and placed it in the diver’s hand. The diver celebrated. He rejoiced that the object of his delight became curious about him as well.

Lastly, we remember. Nouwen invites us to be in communities and to surround ourselves with people that remind us of who we are…

And so we look to leaders in our faith tradition to remind us of who we are and who we are becoming. This week, our family watched the documentary on Bonhoeffer. My son and I read a book about his life last year and finally Chad and I found the film on Amazon prime that we had watched at our church in Maryland over 15 years ago.

Bonhoeffer was a minister during WW2 and one of the leaders of a resistance movement that included ministers who intuitively knew that Hitler was twisting words about God and that most of the church was either blind to Hitler’s intent or too scared to stand against him. One of the things that stuck out to me is Bonhoeffer’s reminder that Christian spirituality is not only about an individual relationship with Jesus but that “communities are the body of Christ in the world with Jesus as our head.” It was a great reminder that the church is called forward to be the visible representation of Christ’s body in this world.

Then, I am reminded of a man who shaped my life. Mr. Rogers was a minister who recognized the need to bring God’s message of love into every person’s home. His ministry captured a moment in history when TVs were becoming a feature in every home. The message he shared reminded me and all the children who watched him that our feelings matter. That our experience of life matters. That we can talk about our feelings and that he would listen. Through his words and actions, we are reminded that we are the Beloved.

And now we bring it closer to home…to hear words from this community of faith that remind us of who we are as a community at the heights Christian church. This week, I was talking with one of our members and I heard words like this church is “safe”.  It is a “Shelter.” We want to be a community with a purpose.  In our reopening committee meeting, I witnessed small acts of kindness that showed me that one of our values is that each person feel seen and heard. We are also an inclusive community that considers the needs of people outside our HCC community.

Another member offered such a hopeful statement that grounds us in trusting ourselves, trusting each other and trusting God for our future. This member said, “God guided us for 100 years and God will continue to guide us forward.” What a source of comfort and hope and a reminder that we are the beloved chosen for a purpose.

Becoming the Beloved

It used to be that people were drawn to be a part of faith communities for 3 reasons.  They wanted something to believe in.  They wanted a sense of belonging and or they hoped to find a better way to behave.  What is interesting is that research shows that what is drawing people to church and religion today—the idea of becoming.  According to a fellow Disciple Duane Bidwell in his book When one religion isn’t enough by Duane, the group that checks the NONE box when asked about their religious background are saying that Becoming is what they value most. There is something excited about this because they are longing for transformation.  They intuitively know that they at their core they are love and compassion, peace and joy and yet they recognize that they would like to experience it more fully in this life. They desire to find a path to follow that works and they are looking for a guide. Much like Fred was looking to Nouwen to be his guide in our book Life of the Beloved.

In 2019, I shared Henri Nouwen’s book Life of the Beloved with a group of students, staff and professors at the University of Houston.  This was a group composed of people who identified themselves from many different religious traditions, many of them identify with multiple religious traditions in their background and at least one who stated no religious tradition. This group and I got to know each other as I taught them yoga over the entire school year. I introduced this book in April of that year and I started our conversation by asking them if they had a special nickname that their parents, their partner or spouse, or extended family had for them.  We had a fun time sharing sweet and silly names much like I did with the children a moment ago. 

Then, we read a section of Nouwen’s book that talked about our being God’s beloved.  I asked this group how they felt about Nouwen suggesting that we are The Beloved.  I had some interesting answers!  Some said that the words were sweet and kind. One person said that it felt inappropriate because only Jesus is the Beloved.  Another person noted that they felt the energy of the words were loving.  Then, a student took the conversation in a totally different direction. She shared that The Beloved felt exclusive because it sounds like it is talking about only 1 person, so she offered that My Beloved felt more inclusive which she felt was the intent of the author.

She made such a great point. Nouwen invites us to see that I am the Beloved as much as you are the beloved as much as we are all the beloved.  There is a deeply felt understanding that God would speak these words in a way that included all people.

As much as Abram and Sarai’s new names signal a change and pulls them forward into a future reality, the truth of being the beloved is also a calling to become the beloved. We hear similar words In Philippians 3: 10-14. Paul writing to the church at Philippi writes about this idea that we as Christians are called forward into the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. When I think about being called forward it is something positive…it is the idea that God knows my full potential and is cheering me on to become my best self. For me, this is very energizing! The opposite of this view is that Jesus is behind us pushing us up a hill. I have pushed my son up a hill and it is not fun and it is clear that he did not feel energized and even became more frustrated.  The spiritual life is not all effort or pushing you somewhere you don’t want to go. Instead, we are being called forward into being. We are loved into becoming. There is work to be done, but it’s done with an energetic ease. The idea of becoming the beloved is a high calling that is fleshed out in how we breath, love, think, speak, work and play.

And this shifts us away from the overly romanticized and lofty idea of being the Beloved that does not change anything and gets us down in the dirt of human existence.

We recognize that as humans we experience loss, sadness, guilt, pain and shame.  We build layers of protection over these raw and tender places so that we do not have to suffer. These layers serve as protection so they have a good reason for being there. But left too long, these protective layers can harden our hearts.  Becoming the beloved, is sometimes tough because it asks us to peel back the layers of protection like you would an onion, to thank those layers for what they have done for us, and to relieve them of their duties. This process of becoming reveals what was hidden beneath all of these layers—a treasure that we once knew was ours but that we buried deep within.

Nouwen writes, “If it is true that we not only are the Beloved, but also have to become the Beloved; if it is true that we not only are children of God, but also have to become children of God; if it is true that we not only are brothers and sisters, but also have to become brothers and sisters…if all that is true, how then can we get a grip on this process of becoming? Pg 45

Where do we begin?

And so we have to get really clear…we have to sharpen our focus..We began that last week by recognizing that our practice of the Christian faith is rooted in humility and that we approach our journey with a kind curiosity.  Let’s add on this week.

So, this week I invite you to find your statement…the words that ground you in who you are and who God is calling you to become. But maybe this phrase doesn’t resonate with you. Maybe there is a short statement that a parent or grandparent, teacher or friend spoke over you.. a blessing that better speaks the truth deep within you. Maybe it is a few words from a song or poem or a piece of art that resonates with you. A teacher of mine once led a session on writing our statements and I love the direction she gave.  She said that this statement was to come from the heart and express a way of being a vessel of grace in service to others.

When I was in junior high an Elder in our church approached me after a youth Sunday. This man was a large man in build and in the respect he was given in the church. He walked over to me and asked to see my hand.  I was a little nervous but also knew that this man was held in high regard in our church. So I gave him my hand. He gently took my hand and traced his large pointer finger over my palm, looked up at me and said “You are a healer.”  I believe this man’s words sharpened my focus and called me forward into becoming the beloved. I have not always thought of this statement, but as I look back over my life I can see how it guided me even during times when I was preoccupied and distracted by other things.

Here is how this statement helps me sharpen my focus. This short statement helps me know what is not my job and what is my job. And this clarifying statement sets me free to do what God has called me to do in this world. As a Beloved healer, I know my job as your pastor is not to be behind our church pushing it along to live the life of the Beloved.  It is also not my job to stand in front of the church pulling you forward into your calling. My job is to walk alongside you, to listen, and to explore the tools you to live a resilient and robust life. These tools come from scripture, our long Christian history of people attempting to put words together and create practices for deepening our spiritual life, and experience. 

What we didn’t read about Abraham and Sarah is that right after God gives them new names, they began to have all kinds of thoughts about how they would never live into their names because they were too old and did not have a child and what about Ishmael…the voices in their minds grew loud distracting them from allowing their names to become enfleshed in their bodies. And all of these thoughts built a frenzy of energy inside them and they laughed to disperse the energy.

Here is what to look for while you are spending time this week thinking about your statement. 1-in order to distinguish the voice of God or to sense that every cell of your being resonates with your statement, in order to really tune in, you have to spend time in silence. What is interesting is that when you begin to get silent all of those voices start screaming at you for attention. Your internal chatter grows loud and typically your outer world grows demanding as well: the phone rings, a child needs your attention, you realize you have not done X, Y Z. These things are to be noticed.  You can even say, “well, hello distraction!” approaching the distractions with a light heart. Or you might find yourself laughing at all of the questions that arise when you write your statement and you can think, “well, I am just following in the footsteps of the ancestors in my faith tradition.”

There is a song called I am light by India Arie.  I think her song captures the way she found her phrase. The song goes, I am light. I am not the things my family did. I am not the voices in my head. I am not the pieces of the brokenness inside. I am light. I am not the mistakes that I have made or any of the things that caused me pain. I am not the pieces of the dream I left behind. I am light. I am not the colour of my eyes. I am not the skin on the outside. I am not my age. I am not my race, my soul inside is all light.  I am light.

Communion Meditation:

Becoming the Beloved is a personal experience and it is the experience of a community of people who commit to following the ways of Jesus. Nouwen identifies what he calls 4 movements of the spirit that help us become the Beloved. They are taken, blessed, broken and given. What I love about these 4 movements is that they are lifted from our communion experience. This week I had the privledge of hearing stories about the Life of our church.  In these stories, I heard the themes ebb and flow. Since 1912, we have been guided by wonderful leaders and supported by members and friends who felt that we as a community are called to be bread for the world and so we have experienced being taken, blessed, broken and given. 

So, let us hear these words a little differently this morning by hearing them as movements of the spirit that guide us as a community to become the beloved.

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