Monday, July 21, 2014

Last week, we discussed the parable of the dirt. Remember how I told you about the desert fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries, how they would go into a cave and meditate on one single parable for a YEAR? And then they would come out and explain that they could not plumb the depths of its meaning. These parables are rich, with many levels of meaning about our lives with God.

Today Jesus tells us another parable. This one is also about gardening but it has to do with wheat and weeds. Jesus says that the kingdom of God is like a man who sowed wheat in a field but the enemy came at night and sowed weeds among the wheat. When the reapers come, they cannot remove the weeds without hurting the wheat so both must grow together until harvest time. And then the judge will separate the two. The wheat will be stored in his barns, the weeds will be burned.

This parable is talking about three major levels of reality all at the same time. It is talking about 

1. The External of our earthly lives, our relationships and decisions
2. The Internal world world of our minds and hearts 
3. The Eternal world of everlasting life and what happens to us when we die

Jesus is talking about truth which simultaneously exists in all three realms of reality. The truth is very simple, and it is this: the world that you and I live in, both inside and outside of our bodies and minds, is complicated. It is a complex world made up of good and bad, light and darkness, wheat and weeds. Our instinct is always to believe that situations and people are simple, that the world is black and white, but in reality, it is very complicated.

Why did Jesus use the image of weeds? Well, for one, weeds multiply. For another, they are generally unwanted. If left unchecked, they can take over a garden and choke the wheat. They tend to be identifiable, ie, they come in certain repetitive forms and they never stop growing. They never stop coming.

I have a small garden behind our house. I am growing tomatoes, kale, mint and parsley, and some lettuce. It is an amateur garden for a busy mom. And there are constant weeds. In the five years that I have lived in Florida, I have gotten to know the weeds. There are four or five kinds. It is best if I glance at the garden and pull them daily or they can get out of hand. The more the rain, the more they grow.

Let's talk about the first level of reality that Jesus refers to, the reality of the external world in which we live. The external world has wheat and weeds, people who are good and people who are evil. This part is hard for most Episcopalians to admit, that there might be evil people in the world. But all you have to do is look at the Malaysian plane that was shot out of the sky this week, killing 300 innocent souls, and you must admit that perhaps Jesus was right. There are people who are evil. It is not our job to get rid of these people but they do exist. Jesus tells us that they do exist. M Scott Peck, a well known psychologist, calls these People of the Lie. These usually are the people who would never confess their sins or admit their faults. In their minds, they are beyond reproach.  Be aware that such people do exist. And one way to identify them is by the fact that they would never admit their faults.

The second level that this parable speaks about is the reality of your mind. You have wheat and weeds in your mind. You have thoughts that come straight from God and from love itself. These good thoughts are about your worth and your beauty and the fact that God wants you just as you are. And the weeds are the opposite. The weeds are all those thoughts that tell you that you don't deserve to be here. Here are some good weeds...

The "if only" weed. If only, I had made this decision or done things that way, then I might be happier! This weed can take over your whole mind and force you to live in a world of regret, stuck in decisions of the past.

The "poor me" weed. I get this one a lot. Just feeling sorry for yourself rather than asking for help or rest. 

The "I'm worthless weed" that tells you about how many mistakes you have made and how bad you are.

Alcoholics can tell you about weeds, about the thoughts that they have that will never go away, thoughts that tell them that they deserve to drink, even after thirty years of sobriety.

Let's be honest. Our minds are a mess. Even CS Lewis, one of the greatest theologians of our era, wrote that at least one third of all his thoughts were completely self-absorbed and vain. Our thoughts are a mess of weeds. But there is some wheat in there too, and that is what we need to focus on.

Many people avoid silence because it brings them into a direct encounter with the weeds that live in their minds. But you cannot identify those weeds if you can't hear them. They have less control over you when you know what they are and where they are. So silence is important. Knowing what your weeds sound like, that is important. And learning to love yourself despite your weeds, well, that is absolutely essential.

Remember what the psalmist wrote, God discerned your thoughts from afar. God knows how ugly and hateful they can be. God hears your lust and your insecurity and your fury at life. And God still finds you good. How bizarre is that? God still says to you, "I see your weeds, I hear them, but I made you and there is a lot of good in you...focus on the good."

This complexity that exists both in our internal and external worlds also is reflected in heaven, where there is a cosmic struggle going on between the good and the evil, the forces of light and the forces of darkness. It is clear from the very beginning that God has allowed evil to coexist in the creation and that it sows weeds. In your baptism, you took vows of cosmic significance. You vowed to fight evil and to stand for the good. Your life, your thoughts as well as your actions, also effect God's cosmic battle with evil. This is mystical stuff beyond our understanding but it is real. You are important to God in more ways that one.

 This parable tells a deep truth and the truth is this: you cannot get rid of your weeds. God knows your weeds and God loves you anyway. God finds you good, even with your weeds. In fact, Jesus is very clear that we are not to try to remove our weeds. God wants you to grow and mature with both weeds and wheat. And it is God alone, Christ alone, who will separate the two.

And what you do inside your head matters to God, says the Psalmist to God, "you discern my thoughts from afar..."  Your mind matters. What you chose to focus on matters. What you do matters, not just in your own life but in the life eternal as well. Choose the wheat. There is some kind of blessing in almost every day, some kind of goodness in almost every person. Seek out the good, the wheat. But always be aware of the weeds too. And trust that God alone can make them go away.



Friday, July 18, 2014

American Peace: A Rest for the Soul

There is an old folk tale about a king. He was a great and wise ruler and he was getting very old. His final wish was to leave his kingdom in the hands of his son, but he wanted to teach him one important lesson before he died. He wanted his son to know that no matter what chaos ensued, it was important for the king to stay focused and at peace within himself. Dedication to serving his kingdom would bring a king inner peace that could never be taken from him, no matter what the circumstances.

But the king's son did not seem capable of grasping this concept. He believed that cunning and power were more important than inner peace. So the king decided to demonstrate his point by calling upon all the artists in the kingdom. He called his senior advisors and instructed them to organize a painting competition. "The painter who is able to best represent peace and serenity will win a great reward," said the king. The king also added another instruction, "Under no circumstances are you to reject any work of art, however strange it appears or horror it should cause."

Paintings came from every corner of the kingdom. Scenes of marvelous beauty, of calm seas and clear skies, flocks of birds in flight and other idyllic scenes were painted to evoke beauty and peace. And then, in the midst of all the beauty, there appeared a most bizarre painting. Painted in dark tones and with little light, it pictured a rough sea in the middle of a storm. High waves were crashing violently against dark cliff rocks. The sky was covered with dark clouds.

The senior advisors instructed the painting to be placed in a dark corner of the exhibit, for they did not think it worthy of the king's attention. It was only the memory of the king's instructions not to discard any work that prevented them from simply throwing it away.

The day came for the competition. The king walked the great exhibit hall looking carefully at every painting, his son at his side. With each painting, the king seemed to get more and more morose. When asked what he was thinking, he said that the paintings were beautiful but that there was something lacking in every one of them. Finally, the king glanced at the painting tucked in a dark corner. "Why is this painting tucked away?" he asked. "Did I not instruct you to show me everything?" The advisors claimed that this painting was obviously created by a lunatic who had no understanding of peace, but the king was not listening. He walked up to the picture and looked at it more closely than any of them had.

After a full minute of silence, the king exclaimed, "This is the one!"

"My friends," he instructed his advisors and his son, "you did not look closely enough."

The nobles approached the painting along with the prince. The king showed them something tucked among the rocks. It was a small nest where there was a newborn bird. The mother was feeding it, totally detached from the storm taking place around her.

"Peace does not come from living in an ideal world as it is reflected in the other paintings, with their calm seas and clear skies. Peace is the capacity to keep your attention on what is a priority for you, despite the difficult circumstances."

In 1776, fifty-six men signed the Declaration of Independence. We look upon these men with admiration for their brilliance, but they possessed something even more important.  Have you ever wondered what happened to them? Five were captured by the British, tortured and killed. Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned down. Two lost sons in the Revolutionary War. Two had sons captured. Nine died from wounds in the Revolutionary War. They lost their property, went into hiding, their spouses died, their children died. This was not a time of peace but a time of mass chaos and war, and yet, in the midst of the darkness, a small but powerful idea was born, the idea that all people are created equal and that they can govern themselves. At the heart of the storm, there was this birth of inspiration, a gift from God, the gift of a free nation.

In today's gospel, Jesus invites us to come to him for rest. "Come unto me all you that travail and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for you will find rest for your souls...you will find peace." Jesus, who himself was crucified in a most brutal manner, offers peace to those who focus on him. Jesus did not experience physical peace while he walked the earth. He had people chasing him, needing him, arguing over him and even murdering him. During his ministry, the only moments of quiet that he had were when he went away early in the morning to pray. But the peace that he was offering had nothing to do with external circumstances. It had to do with dedicating your life to God.

Our lives are crazy. Most of you are incredibly busy. The economy has not fully recovered. We are afraid of what is happening in the Middle East and especially Iraq. There are people all over the world who hate Americans and would rather see us dead or at least failing in every way. The storms of the world are brewing. We cannot even agree among ourselves as to the best course of action. We are a nation divided and enslaved by fear.

And yet, Jesus claims that we can find peace in the midst of the storm, if we only focus on him. And how do we look to him? We must be willing to devote our lives and our entire focus to something greater than ourselves. In the midst of the storms of life, we must be willing to tend to the work of Christ and the birthing of his kingdom into the world. If we give our lives for something greater than ourselves, though the world may crumble around us, we will be at peace.

On September 19, 1789, an article addressed to "The PEOPLE of the United States" appeared on the inside pages of the American Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia's major newspaper. In this short letter, George Washington explained that he would not stand for reelection as President of the United States. Instead, amid all the chaos and uncertainty, he would go home to rest at Mt. Vernon.

This man was called The Father of the Country. At six foot four, he was regal. He was a war hero. He had it all and everyone felt more secure with him at the helm. But George Washington understood that he was following an ideal higher than his own ambition. And he understood that, if democracy was to succeed, that a president should not serve for more than two terms. And so, in the midst of the instability of a new and volatile country, Washington went home.

In this day and age, our commercials make you think that buying the best product or going to a spa will bring you calm and peace. But that is not true. Peace does not come from finding a quiet place or witnessing a beautiful sunset. Peace only comes when you nurture the birth of something greater within your own soul, the service of God, the life of Christ. You must give up your life for a burden even greater, something worth dying for.

True freedom comes, ironically, when you give your life away to something much greater. And then, even if the whole world caves in around you, you will find rest for your soul.

Remember the hymn about the disciples and the peace of God that they found? Here are the poetic words:

Contented, peaceful fishermen,
before they ever knew
the peace of God that filled their hearts
brimful, and broke them too.

Young John who trimmed the flapping sail,
homeless in Patmos died,
Peter, who hauled the teeming net,
head-down was crucified.

The peace of God, it is no peace,
but strife closed in the sod,
Yet let us pray for but one thing --
the marvelous peace of God.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Dirt

The parables that Jesus told are remarkable. They contain a depth of meaning that cannot be reached. The desert monks of the fourth and fifth centuries used to go into caves alone and meditate on one parable for a year. A year! And the monk would emerge claiming that he had not yet plumbed the depth of its meaning.

The parable that we heard today is called the parable of the seed. But I don't think it's really about the seeds at all. I think it is about dirt. I think it should be called the parable of the dirt.

In fact, I want to talk to you today about dirt. Most of us have spent years contemplating seeds, that gospel message that Jesus gave us and how we are to spread that message to everyone, spreading seeds of the kingdom so that others may learn about God and about God's Son and in this way their lives and souls may be changed and even saved.

But the story is not as much about the seeds as it is about dirt, about different kinds of dirt. You see the success of God's message to us is dependent not as much on the message itself as on the way in which it is received. In other words, God's love and God's salvation in Jesus is offered to all people. It is our reception of that message that determines our relationship with God.  The seeds are the same throughout the story. It is the dirt that changes. This story is about the dirt. It is about where the seeds land.

God loves you. The question of your life is whether or not you will choose to love God back.

There are four kinds of dirt that Jesus describes. 

1. The path, where there is no dirt at all, like a concrete highway, no place for the seed the find purchase. 
2. The shallow ground, where there is a little dirt, but no room for the seed to put down roots
3. Thorny ground, where there is some dirt, but also thorns that take up a lot of space and choke the seed.
4. And finally, good soil. Good dirt, the stuff of growth, the place where the message of God can take root and grow.

Let's pause and think for a moment about something that you all know but may never have taken the time to truly contemplate. What is dirt?

Dirt is made up of things that have died, of nature's trash, you might say.

That means that good spiritual soil would be full of all the things in your life that you have had to suffer with, move through, be challenged by and let go of. Failed relationships, illnesses, mistakes, fights, sadness. All of this hard stuff makes for good soil. In fact, the best soil is called compost and it is made up of stuff that has died and rotted into the soil. All the stuff that you have terminated and that you wish you could forget about yourself or your past. These are the very things that make God's word grow. Struggles. Suffering. Pain.

According to the American mindset, a person does well if he or she is successful. Do you have a good job? A fancy education? Do you have lasting friendships? Successful children? Productive employment? These are the ways we measure our lives. But none of this kind of success makes for good soil. A life of comfort and success does not make good dirt. No, God wants us to grow and die to ourselves and grow again. And growth hurts.

When my middle son, Jacob, was about seven, he awoke in the middle of the night with a sharp pain on the side of his stomach. I immediately got worried about appendicitis. I rushed into the bedroom where my husband JD was fast asleep. JD had long ago had his appendix removed. I woke him up and asked him what side his appendix was on. He told me and, sure enough, that was the side that was causing Jacob pain. So I rushed Jacob to the emergency room.

Of course, we waited for hours. When finally a doctor was able too see us, he told us that JD must have been too sleepy to give an accurate answer. The appendix was on the other side and what Jacob was having was probably nothing more than growing pains.

Thanks a lot. Three hours in the middle of the night and all it was was a growing pain. But I had never thought about the fact that growth, particularly rapid growth, can hurt. And it is the pain of growth that provides the good soil in which the gospel can be planted and grow.

A world-renowned Stanford University psychologist by the name of Carol Dweck just published a great book. It is called Mindset: the New Psychology of Success. In the book, she paints a picture of a day with small set backs. Imagine yourself in the midst of this day, she writes. It begins with a C+ on a mid term paper that you have worked hard on. Then, you find that you have gotten a parking ticket as you leave class. You are so frustrated that you call your friend, who brushes you off and doesn't listen to you. How do you respond?

A person with what Dweck calls a Fixed Mindset will say these kind of things to him or herself..."that the professor is stupid" "I must be an idiot, I'm not that smart...I never get good luck and I really don't have good friends." In other words, a person with a fixed mindset will define themselves by these experiences.

But a person with a Growth Mindset will see these experiences as a challenge, as contributing to their soil...they will ask themselves, "What can I do to learn how to get a better grade on the next paper? Maybe I will meet with the professor...I have to pay this parking ticket immediately so it does not drag me down and I've got to be more careful where I park...and I need to call this friend back and explain that I really didn't feel heard...I wonder if there is something going on in her life that prevented her from listening..."

Dweck says, at any point in a persons life, no matter how old that person may be, that the person can decide to have a growth mindset. It is a decison. It is an action. 

Your hardships, your suffering, your failures...they make for good soil. And if the real purpose of this life is to know and love God, well, you might even go so far as to admit that your struggles bless you. And that, my friends, is what the cross of Christ is all about.

Dirt. It is rich stuff, made up of all that has been discarded or has died. It is where you will find yourself growing into the person that God wants you to be.





Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Love God Survival Kit

Julianne Koepcke was seventeen years old when she was in a plane crash. The small airplane, a Lockheed Electra, was flying over the Peruvian jungle on Christmas Eve, 1971. Julianne had just been to the local Roman Catholic Church. She was wearing her white confirmation dress and high heels and was sitting next to her mother on the plane when lightning struck, causing the plane to suffer extensive structural failure. They were going down and the plane was coming apart at the seams.

Julianne would later describe that her initial feeling was not panic but wonder as the plane went down. "I noticed that the trees of the jungle looked like cauliflowers," she would later describe. She was awake and aware, not screaming or vomiting or crying but just noticing everything around her.

Julianne awoke in the dark. She was still strapped into her seat and her mother was nowhere to be seen. It was raining hard. Julianne hid under her seat to protect herself from the rain and waited for daylight.

When the sun rose, Julianne made up her mind to get up and find help. She had no survival gear, just a few pieces of candy and a small cake in her pocket. She had no idea how to live in a jungle, but her father had told her that if she was ever lost to go downhill and try to find water, that people were most often found near or around water.

Julianne walked for eleven days. She walked in the cooler parts of the day, and rested in the heat. Tropical insects bore under her skin to lay their eggs, hatched, then dug out of her body. Leeches drained her blood. She lost her shoes and never found her mother, but she kept on wondering at the beauty of the jungle. She did not succumb to self-pity or fear. She just focused, leaving room in her mind for whatever might happen next.

Of the twelve people that survived the initial crash, Julianne was the only one who made it out of the jungle alive. She eventually stumbled into a shack where some fishermen lived and they took her to a local doctor. All the other passengers who survived the crash followed the rules and waited to be rescued. And all of them died.

A few weeks ago, my son Max asked his dad a really hard question. "Dad," he said, "Who do you love more, me or God?"

JD came to me wondering if he said the right thing. This is what he said...

"Max, I love God more than I love you. That's what the Bible tells me to do. But the weird thing about loving God first is that it makes me love you more, not less.  Loving God doesn't take away any of my love for you. In fact, it gives me more love for you. It's like some amazing, mysterious mathematical equation."

Jesus tells us today that we must love God more than father or mother or son or daughter. To love anyone or anything more than God is to disobey God's great commandment. And to do so will throw your life and your relationships into turmoil and disarray. Son against father. Daughter against mother. Family members at war with each other, vying for who loves who the most. But how in the world can we put our family or our loved ones second?  It seems so cold. So hard.

That is the mystery of God that I would like to talk to you about today. You see, love for God is like no other love. It awakens the mind and expands the heart. To love God first is to put your life in the correct order. It is to awaken your consciousness to the supremacy of God above all else. The love of God does not compete with the love of others. It heightens all other love. It makes you love others even more.

Julianne survived the jungle because she kept awake. At the base of her consciousness, there was this awe, this awareness that comes from the love of God and of life itself. In his book, Deep Survival, Lawrence Gonzales looks at the minds of survivors. After extensive research, Gonzales comes to the conclusion that those who survive natural or man-made disasters possess a quality of awareness, a kind of humility. They do not think they know everything that there is to know about their surroundings or about nature. They remain humble, noticing that it is  God, or powers beyond their control, that will determine their destiny.

Jesus said, "Those who find their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it." Julianne was willing to lose her life, to let go of her mother, to let go of her self-pity, her panic, everything she knew. She was somehow able to let go, step outside of her grief and pain, and trust in something, someone beyond herself. That was ultimately her salvation. The other passengers who survived the initial crash held onto the way that they thought things should go. They froze in panic and stayed put, waiting for someone to come and rescue them. And they all perished.

Your life belongs to God and God alone. If you cling to your loved ones as if they are your first priority, your relationships will suffer. In fact, you will never truly love anyone.  Let me say that again:  if God is not your first love, you will never truly love anyone. If you try to craft your life into the way you think it should be, you will lose it. Let go of control. Love God first and above all things. In every decision that you make, ask this:  "God, how can I best love you?"  Love is not a feeling.  It is a decision that you make, a setting of priorities, a way of listening.


This is what I like to call the Love God Survival Kit. It is the way to live life fully now and prepare yourself for the hereafter. It is simple, yet it is incredibly hard. Love God first. Love God above everyone else and everything else. It is the only way to survive the jungle of your life.  It is the only way to really live. 

Monday, June 02, 2014

Saying Goodbye

Linda loved spending time with her mom. They would bake brownies together, play games, dress up. Her mom was so much fun. She did not work and from the time that Linda was a baby, her mom was just around, laughing and playing with her. They would paint, draw, garden, cook and play the best games of hide and seek. Her mom was always laughing.

When Linda was nine, she came home from school to find her dad at home. She was an only child and never had her dad been home when she walked home from school. But there he was, with this terrible look in his eyes. He looked like a ghost. And then he told her what had happened. Her mom had gotten into a car accident and she was dead.

How does a child learn about absence? She had never been without her mother, without the laughter and the simple warmth of her presence. She would wake up in the middle of the night, crying for her mom and there would be her clumsy dad, patting her on the back and crying. Or sometimes he was so exhausted that he wouldn't even hear her cry and she would wake up, sweating and sobbing and alone. The silence was deafening. The emptiness felt like it would swallow her up. She was alone.

Today marks what, for me, is the strangest holiday in the Christian year. Today we celebrate the fact that Jesus left us. Jesus, who loved us so profoundly and walked among us and told us stories and cried and joked and played. He died but then he returned, changing the greatest tragedy into good news. After the resurrection, Jesus would appear from time to time to laugh and eat with his disciples. I am sure that the disciples longed too see his face and wondered when he would next appear. It must have felt like the best game of hide and seek ever, not knowing where and when he would pop up next. Jesus was so playful in the resurrected form. Just like Linda's mom, he seemed to play and laugh a lot. I love the way he just popped in from time to time.

And then Jesus brought them to a hill outside Jerusalem and he told them that he would give them the gift of his spirit and they had no idea what he was talking about. And then, he left. He did not die but instead his body was lifted up to heaven. And he was gone. And the emptiness returned. And they were alone. The disciples just stood there, gaping up at the sky, with no idea what to do next. How can you go on when the one you love is gone?

Why did Jesus have to leave us? Why couldn't he just keep popping in from time to time? What kind of a holiday is this, the Ascension? Why do we even celebrate this day? What could be so good about it?

In his book, Learning to Fall, Phillip Simons talks about getting Lou Gerig's disease. At 37, he found himself in a wheelchair and he was told that he had only a few years to live. And that was when he became aware of how precious life is, when he learned that he would die. He learned to be fully alive when he learned that he was going to die. Life became much more precious when he knew that he would have to say goodbye.

All of us who dare to love must one day say goodbye. In truth, we say goodbye whenever we go to sleep at night or get on an airplane or into the car. We say goodbye continuously because we can never be sure that tomorrow will come. All that we have is this day, this moment. The future is forever uncertain for all those who are willing to wake up to the fragility of life. We are always saying goodbye.

Of course Jesus had to say goodbye. Saying goodbye is part of the truth of human existence. It is something that we can't avoid. Jesus knew that we couldn't avoid goodbyes so he showed us how to do them.  Jesus taught us how to say goodbye. He said goodbye in a way that we could all remember. This is what he did...

He took his loved ones to a special place.

He told them that he loved them and told them the truth about saying goodbye.

He gave them the gift of his spirit.

And he blessed them.

Every day, we should follow his example. The time is now. Don't wait. Just a few days ago, our former parish administrator,  Monica McKenzie, lost her brother. He went in for emergency heart surgery and made it through the surgery just fine, but then something happened and he was gone, just gone. He was 57 years old.

The time is now. Don't wait. Step out of the fray of your busy lives and make sure that you tell your loved ones that you love them. Give them the gift of your spirit. Reassure them that you will always be part of them, and bless them. Yes, you can bless your loved ones. It is not just priests who can bless.

But in order to say goodbye, we must face our worst fear, the fear of losing our loved ones. To be truly free to love is to recognize that saying goodbye is part of the story, it is part of the joy of love itself.  Jesus said goodbye and we must do this too if we are truly to be free to love without fear.

It took years, but gradually, Linda's nightmares turned into dreams of thanksgiving. Linda came to understand that her mother taught her how to play and that she had her mothers laugh. She became a kindergarden teacher. And whenever Linda played with the children, her mother was there. Her mother's spirit lived on in her, in her laughter and in her teaching.  Linda became thankful to have known such love at all, and she realized that her mother never really went away. Her mother was inside her now, in her heart.

After Jesus left, his disciples worshipped him and then they acted as if they were him. They did just what he would have done. They became true ministers, children of God. They took his spirit inside of themselves and they were changed.

Goodbyes are hard but they make you powerful, for you hold the spirit of your loved one inside you. It is one of the greatest mysteries of life, but sometimes, when you say goodbye someone you truly love, you become more like them. And that will never change and it will never be taken away.