Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Making Music as Meditation

       Several years ago, my spirituality group engaged in an exercise that is similar to Lectio Divina, but is a slightly different take on it.  Participants could choose to do either a Visio Divina exercise or an Audio Divina exercise.  For those of you for whom this is Greek (or Latin, as the case may be), what this meant is that we would do a meditation exercise on an image of some kind (Imago or Visio Divina) or a piece of music (Audio Divina). Since I am not a visual person at all, I chose to do the meditation on a piece of music.  We were supposed to pick a piece that touched us in some way.  The exercise called us to listen to it the first time by just closing our eyes and allowing it to be. After a short period of silence, we would listen to it a second time for images, feelings, memories that come forward.  Again, after silence, we would listen to it a third time for how we are called in some way to respond to what had been arising for us.  And finally, we would listen to it a last time and rest in whatever message and whatever gifts came through this exercise.
      We were doing these exercises during lent, a time that is extremely busy for most pastors.  Add to this that I had a number of parishioners in the hospital or recovering from surgery during that time, and I found that finding time to do the exercise had been challenging.  I would try.  Usually I would sit in my office (because I would arrive at church an hour before everyone else), try to close my door and attempt to start the day with this exercise. But inevitably, someone would stop by (knowing I'm at church by 8am), or someone would call, or something else would arise which needed my attention right now and...  Well, you get the idea.  But I'm also a musician. I'm a musician who had the job at the time of also being the organist/pianist for my church as well as the pastor. This meant that I was practicing on a regular basis.  So I found myself contemplating if there were a way to do this exercise during my practice time.  I realized this was unusual, perhaps stretching the bounds of what was "supposed" to be done.  But even more than an audio person, I'm a kinesthetic person meaning I connect more and learn better through doing or through moving than I do any other way.    Also, I often find my practice time to be very meditative, very reflective, and most of all, very centering.  In fact, when I am not practicing regularly, I often feel cranky and disoriented.  It's necessary to my well-being to be intentional about making music. So, I wondered, what would it be like to be more purposefully meditative and reflective as I play; not just listening to the music or working on the music, but creating the music, being a part of it, feeling it in my hands and body in a very literal way and not just as a response to what I'm hearing.
       I like making music.  I especially like making music with other people, but that does require spending time alone practicing so that when we come together we can focus on the working together, the sounds we make as a unit, how to blend and make something bigger than the individual parts, rather than focusing on learning the piece.  I found that when I was intentionally meditative during playing, listening in a different way for what would emerge, that what arose for me was not at all what I expected. One of the pieces that I had been practicing was the accompaniment for a choral Good Friday service. The piano part was amazingly detailed and full: lots of running triplet 8th and 16th notes, intermixed with quieter 8th note melodies...  I could go on.  It's beautiful.  But when I really listened to how I was feeling as I played the piece, I felt impatient and, what surprised me more, confined.  I didn't like that the G below middle C was written in so very often.  I didn't like the structure of where the music required me to go.  I didn't agree with all of the dynamic markings.  I didn't like that even as I inevitably put my own style on everything that I play, that there was so much direction in the music, and that included the very notes.  I felt boxed, contained, by the music.  There was no way around this.  As I said, this was a choral piece which we were doing for a very specific service.  But the exercise of Audio Divina is not one of "fixing" things anyway.  It is one of listening and learning.  So I sat with it for awhile longer. What was the lesson here?  Where was this going within me?
       It went to the deeper level: in that moment I realized I felt not only confined by the music, but confined by my role, by the structure of my work, by the daily schedule that I am required to follow every week.  And then it went deeper still: I felt confined by my life.  My life consisted of working,  and caring for my children. As the solo parent to three, making sure that they had what they needed for school, helping them stay caught up on their homework, checking in with them emotionally as well as caring for their physical needs, taking them to lessons, working out the financial needs of three kids who I hope will go to college, and who had orthodontia and lessons and other expenses... There is a schedule to my life, a rhythm, a structure: kids, work, kids, work.  And that structure felt, at least during this particular exercise, increasingly constraining. I imagine many (all?) of us have moments when we would like to get in the car and run away, when we would like to chuck it all and start again, when we'd like to allow our imaginations and our creativity to determine the way our life should go in any moment.  But for some of us perhaps that dream becomes even sharper, even stronger, when the responsibilities and realities of our daily existence have very little space, very little play, very little deviation.  We do what we must, every day, every hour.  And when I found that even within the creative exercise of making music, I was constrained and contained and directed by the written music in front of me, suddenly it was just one area too much.
       I found myself thinking about the people who go through mid-life crises and are able to change their lives in some dramatic way.  They change jobs, they change location, sometimes (less healthy perhaps, but it happens) people change their primary relationships.  And I thought about the luxury that is involved in those choices, those decisions. Solo parents of children (and by "solo parents" I mean people who truly are raising their kids without that other parent) just do not have that luxury. We do what we have to do to make sure our children are fed and housed and have the best opportunities they can have.  Many other people also don't have that luxury: those who are limited financially or by other constraints, those limited by necessity, by restricted opportunities, by family of any kind.  It is a luxury to dream out of the box, to envision a different life, to step into what may feel like freedom at a moment when one's current life feels confining.
       The next step in the Audio Divina exercise is listening for what to do or where to go with the feelings and insights we've been given.  So I went deeper again.  The restlessness I felt, the impatience, the burn-out, the fear of not being able to provide what my kids needed, and the sense of imprisonment in responsibilities: all of these feelings are gifts when one is willing to dig deeper: packages to be opened for their wisdom, for the information they provide, and for deeper clues as to what to do and where to go next.  So I listened again, more deeply still.  And found an invitation in the structure and in the responsibilities to put them down for a few minutes and instead to dream.  What would I really like to be doing right now? If I had that ultimate freedom, where would I want to go?  What would I want to be doing with my day?  With my work?  With my life?
        What emerged from that deep place surprised me even more... what I would choose, could I choose to be anything, do anything, spend my time with anyone, is...amazingly, what I am doing now.  I would choose to preach and to speak about the things that I believe so deeply and the changes that I believe we are all called to be part of making: creating a more just, more loving, more compassionate world. I would play music, especially with others, becoming more one with others through the amazing magical gift of this type of art.  I would write: write about the things I value, write about injustice, write about faith, write stories, write poems.  I would visit with people and walk with people in their journeys.  I would dream and plan ways for involving people in caring for others, especially those who have less privilege.  Mostly, I would spend time with the people I love most: my three amazing children, especially, but also the rest of my family, my friends, my church community. I would take my family places, I would explore new places and ideas, I would intentionally learn and read and study different things.  I would hike as much as possible.
       The final step in the Audio Divina then is to listen again to the music, to step back once more and experience it from the place of having traveled a journey into and through the music.  As I played for a final time, the process of having worked through those feelings of restlessness, impatience, fear, confinement... all of it eased.  The music became once again the beautiful piece that it was.  I was able to move within the structure of the piece in a new way: loving what was there to love, accepting with grace what I did not like as much, offering all of it my best playing and my best self.
      The point?  We avoid going deep so many times because the feelings we face are uncomfortable, are challenging, and we worry that we will discover things that we cannot change but that we also cannot bear.  David Henry Thoreau is noted for saying, "The mass of men [sic] lead lives of quiet desperation."  There is enough truth in this that we fear facing that desperation within ourselves.  But as with most painful experiences (grief, despair, loneliness), when we are willing to go deep, we often find that it is a way of moving through that allows us to emerge on the other side with greater wisdom, understanding and peace.  If I had not taken the time to do this exercise, I would have continued to feel a an unexamined anxiety and restlessness in playing the piece.  Working through the hard stuff allowed me to play it more fully with grace and joy.  This life is a journey, not only outwards, but inwards.  We miss half of it when we are too afraid to look inside and to take the steps to walk through our internal challenges as well as our external ones.  Walk your path with intentionality and a willingness to go deep.  There is great beauty to be found there.

Monday, February 26, 2018

The Spiritual Discipline of Solitude

Psalm 46
Lamentations 3:22-28
Mark 6:30-32

As a people, we spend a lot of our time being busy...very, very busy.  We run around with our work and our errands and our activities.  But even when we aren’t running around we fill our lives with noise and activity.  Music, television, computers, smart phones, texting, emailing, tweeting, Instagram, Facebook, our machines that take care of the house – vacuums, dish washers, washing machines, mixers, coffee makers, etc.  We fill our heads with busyness, thinking about what will be happening next, what needs to be done, problems that need to be solved, places we want to visit, conversations we’ve had with people, etc.  We are not comfortable with silence.  We are not comfortable with stillness. We are not comfortable with solitude.  Of course there are exceptions to this.  Some people are very good at taking quiet time for themselves.  And I think the older generations are generally better at this than the younger generations. The last time I was in an airport I noticed that all the people my age and under were busy on their phones, but several older couples, whom I guessed were in their eighties seemed much more content to simply sit and wait.  So I will grant that this is a growing problem and one that affects the younger much more than older folk, but for many of us, we avoid solitude and silence.
      We run from quiet, we run from stillness.  We run from anything that seems like “wasting time” and by wasting time I mean anything other than being busy.  This is so much the case, that even though it is one of the ten commandments to have a day of rest, to honor Sabbath, a time of quiet, stillness, prayer, study and solitude, I know very few people who actually honor the Sabbath.  The Sabbath is not just a day off from work or any work related activities like household chores (which in itself is hard enough).  It is a day to do nothing but pray, study, rest, be quiet, be silent, and practice solitude.  But we don’t know how to handle this anymore.  And so we don’t do it.
      In running from solitude, we are really running from two things.  We are running from ourselves.  And we are running from God.  Sometimes even our relationships can be ways of running away.  Sometimes we avoid ourselves, we avoid solitude, we avoid quiet by being focused on someone else and on the drama of that relationship.  I speak from my own experience here.  From the time I was a young teenager on, I was never NOT in a significant relationship until my divorce. I could not tolerate being without a partner of some kind.  I was not married until I was 29, but I was always in a relationship, with someone, as a way to avoid being alone, until that time.  When I was divorced, therefore, I had not been ALONE in the sense of not being with a partner since I was a teen. And I didn’t like it. I was afraid alone. I was lonely alone.  And rather than looking at what that meant and why that was, I simply made sure that I was never by myself.  There were my children to fill the space, constantly, almost all the time.  They filled the empty time, they kept me busy.  But in the evenings, after they were in bed, it was just me, for the first time in three decades. And it was hard. That quiet. That stillness. That solitude.  I often filled it with conversations with friends, especially those on the West Coast (I was in Ohio at the time) for whom it would not really be so late.  Still, there were spaces of aloneness. Sometimes it was so hard, so lonely, that I wondered if I really existed in those times alone.  It’s kind of like all the jokes about if a tree falls in the wood and there is no one there to hear it, does it still make a sound. I truly felt in some of those moments that if there was no one beside me, maybe I didn’t exist in those moments.  Or rather, that my presence didn’t matter in those moments.  My existence didn’t matter, didn’t have purpose, didn’t have meaning in those times.  A lonely, hard place to be.
A very wise spiritual director said to me during that time that every search to be filled – with noise or busyness or community or connection is, ultimately, a search for a deeper connection with the Divine, with that which is bigger than ourselves. When we feel alone, when we feel lonely, when we feel empty, and even when we feel anxious because we are not DOING anything in a particular moment, these feelings are ultimately and deeply a search to connect with the Divine.  So if we can actually turn our yearning for fulfillment, for connection with others, for feeling filled into what it really is; if we can focus that yearning on connecting with God, we can find ourselves filled in a much fuller, truer, more whole way than we might otherwise experience.  If we can choose, through prayer and meditation, through the intentional search for solitude, and through a decision to seek solitude, through time set aside to be alone with God to ask for that closeness with God rather than filling up the emptiness with others, with food, with busyness, with addictions, we can find God in new ways.  We are invited through the discipline of solitude to just BE in the quiet, in the aloneness. We are invited to truly “be still”, and know that God is. We are invited to be quiet and come to know more about who God is, and through that, to come to know more about who God calls us to be. We can experience God more fully and completely, and in doing so, come to know ourselves more fully and deeply as well. That achy loneliness that we have all felt is a call from God to be in the silence and to listen, rather than to push those feelings away and fill the emptiness.
I am reminded of the story in 1 Kings 19:11-13 of Elijah’s encounter with God –   “Go out and stand on the mountain,” God replied. “I want you to see me when I pass by.” All at once, a strong wind shook the mountain and shattered the rocks. But God was not in the wind. Next, there was an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake.  Then there was a fire, but God was not in the fire.  Finally, there was a gentle breeze, and when Elijah heard it, he covered his face with his coat. He went out and stood at the entrance to the cave.
God asked, “Elijah, why are you here?”
We tend to think we can experience God in the big, in the dramatic, in activities in our busyness, especially when we are doing work FOR God. But the work and busyness we do FOR God should be our response to having encountered God.  They are responses of service that should stem from gratitude about our relationship with God. But encounters with God, while they come in many forms, are often most deeply to be found in solitude.  We don’t find them in the loud earthquakes, or in the big dramatic fires, or in the crazy windy storms of our lives.  We will find them, we will find GOD, in the quiet, in the stillness, in the solitude.
We have Jesus’ examples, too, of that spiritual practice.  Jesus, who “often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:16); Jesus, whom we are told that after healings and time with the people, withdrew for solitude with God.  Mark 1:35 “And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.” After John died, Matthew 14:13, “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself.”  Before choosing the twelve apostles Luke 6:12–13, “In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God.”  When he retreated to the garden in Gethsemane, and at many other times.  Sometimes he invited his disciples to join him.  “Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.’ So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place”.
Solitude, or that quiet time away, is an important practice for all of us.  So how do we practice solitude?
Here are some concrete suggestions:
1. Turn off the noise and distractions for 15 minutes a day.  That means turning off the ringer on your phone, getting away from TV, radio, music, media, the computer, machines, and intentionally seeking out quiet alone time.
2. Go for a walk in nature by yourself.
3. Go on a silent retreat.
4. Sit in a park for a time by yourself.
5. Take time to sit in the quiet of the sanctuary any time, by yourself.
6. Create a spot in your home for a quiet retreat space and use it.
7. Walk the labyrinth, again, by yourself.
8. Spend time reading scripture, in quiet, by yourself.
9. At a lesser level, turn off the phone, radio, podcasts, news in the car when you drive alone.
10. Practice Sabbath – take a day of rest, prayer, study, quiet and solitude, each week.
            Alone time, solitude time, allows us to get to know God and ourselves more deeply.  It invites us into prayer and reflection on where God has been in our lives, is currently acting in our lives.  It invites us into self-reflection and into a time of listening for where God is calling us to move, how God is calling us to be, and what God is calling us to become.  It is an invitation for closeness with God.  One we don’t accept easily, but one that is filled with gifts from the Spirit.  Amen.

Friday, February 23, 2018

The Power of Touch ("The Power of..." Part III)

         There is a Thompson Twin's song called Lay Your Hands On Me.  Some of the lyrics that I find especially meaningful:
 This old life seemed much too long
With little point in going on
I couldn't think of what to say
Words just vanished in the haze
I was feeling cold and tired
Yeah kinda sad and uninspired
But when it almost seemed too much
I see your face
And sense the grace
And feel the magic in your touch...

 Back and forth across the sea
I have chased so many dreams
But I have never felt the grace
That I have felt in your embrace
Oh I was tired and I was cold
Yeah with a hunger in my soul
When it almost seemed too much
I see your face
And sense the grace
And feel the magic in your touch

        I understand that these words written by pop artists are probably intended to refer to a more sexualized touch that how they strike me, but they can be read either way, so I'm asking you readers, for the moment, to put aside that other understanding of these words and to stay with me in a very basic look at the power of touch to heal, to transform and to comfort.
        In many of our faith traditions there are rituals of healing, almost all of which involve some kind of touch. While many Western cultures have been mostly uncomfortable with touch (and really only seem to talk about or celebrate it in a sexualized context), other cultures still celebrate and emphasize the power of healing touch.  We are getting better: we now recognize the healing in massage and while acupressure has not received the same acceptance yet, it is moving in that direction.  But touch is something we still don't discuss very openly.

       In the CE Curriculum, A Sensual Faith by Ian Price (British Columbia, Canada: MediaCom Education, Inc, 2000), Dr. Tony Nancarrow shared this story:
      “It was Friday, the morning I was due to visit the geriatric ward of a large regional hospital where I was a minister.  I was anxious to get it over with as quickly as possible.  I found it difficult to talk with these elderly people.  There was a nurses’ aid at the hospital – a very practical person.  She was middle-aged, overworked, a gruff no-nonsense type of person.  Yet as she plodded around that ward on her tired feet, trembling arms were held out to her, faces turned towards her warm homely face, quavering voices called her by name.  And she, knowing the heart hunger, the loneliness of the old, was lavish with her touch.  She patted a cheek, pushed hair from a forehead, or sensing a really special need gave a hug.  As I watched her, I thought, if it works for her, perhaps it will work for me.  The response shook me to the soul.  Eyes that I thought dull as marbles kindled, wrinkled hands returned my clasp.  As I was leaving, I noticed an old German woman.  Her hand, brown-flecked, dry as a leaf, lay upon the chair.  I touched it.  It was cold.  She looked up in recognition with eyes I’d always thought of as vacant.  And in response to the deepest need in all of us, she said, “I’m lonely.  Hold my hand.”
        From a Christian faith perspective, our gospels tell us that Jesus did a great deal of his healing through touch.  The synoptic gospels also share an interesting story about power claimed through touch: healing occurring through one person claiming the healing power of another by touching them. The story of the woman with the hemorrhage in Mark 5:25-34:

A woman who had had a hemorrhage for twelve years, and had endured much at the hands of many physicians, and had spent all that she had and was not helped at all, but rather had grown worse— after hearing about Jesus, she came up in the crowd behind him and touched his cloak. For she thought, “If I just touch his garments, I will get well.” Immediately the flow of her blood was dried up; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her affliction.  Immediately Jesus, perceiving in himself that the power proceeding from him had gone forth, turned around in the crowd and said, “Who touched my garments?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you, and you say, ‘Who touched me?’” And he looked around to see the woman who had done this. But the woman fearing and trembling, aware of what had happened to her, came and fell down before him and told him the whole truth.  And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your affliction.”

      Perhaps many of us find this story bizarre and unintelligible. For, as the disciples said, others were crowding around. How does a touch move energy in this way?  How is it possible for Jesus (for anyone) to feel a drain of his power from a touch? How can that be healing? I used to be one of those confused by this, although, as I reflect back there have been rare people who've reached out to hug me who have felt like, in doing so, they have literally been a drain on my energy.  I think the reason we are not aware of the power in touch is because we don't spend time being conscious of it or giving it any thought at all.  Most experiences of physical touch, especially platonic hugs in our culture, are very short, which does not allow for any kind of awareness of energy exchanged. In my own experience, most of the time hugs that are longer have also felt like mutual exchanges of affection or energy.  When it comes to hugging one's children, I think there is an unconscious expectation that we are giving more in the hug, more energy, more care, than we are receiving because our children need that from us.  We don't think about it much, therefore. It is normal, natural, unconscious, but still a real exchange of power or energy, that can, at times leave us tired. But we aren't very conscious about power leaving one and going to another through touch.  
        Our animals seem more aware of this than we are.  I know many of us have had the experience of being sick and finding our pets snuggled up next to us as if the warmth of their bodies and the healing in their touch could make us well.  They intuitively seem to understand this, much more than we do.
         For myself, the only times I had even had even a small sense of this were the rare times when, in hugging someone who was at the bottom of their energy, I have left the exchange feeling drained afterwards; or those times when I've felt that my pets cuddles really were speeding along my recovery from illness.  But four years ago, my own experience changed my understanding of all of this.

       Before I tell you my story, I want to say that I've always been a very affectionate person.  Still, when I took the "love language" test in the book The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman, I was surprised to find that, according to the test at least, my primary love language was physical affection (again, this is not primarily about sex: this is about how we understand that we are loved and it turns out I mostly understand that through hugs and other physical expressions of care). What this reflects, though, is the reality that in my almost 50 years of life I've experienced a great deal of physical affection. I've given a lot of hugs, I've received a lot of hugs.  I am very affectionate with my children and with my friends. (I am less so at church only because we've been trained in our "boundary" classes to always allow parishioners to initiate hugs lest we overstep personal space or invade in a way that is harmful.)  I value and enjoy massages.  I even took a number of massage classes at one point thinking that I might become a massage therapist.  I believe in the healing power of touch.  

      But despite all of this, despite a great deal of touch  I had never before experienced healing touch personally... until I met David.  Again, no, this is not about sex. This is not going to be a TMI situation.  But I will tell you, with a deep honesty, that I had never before felt the kind of hug, the kind of touch where my cells felt like they were being healed, nurtured, fed, rejuvenated before I had been held by David. His hugs do that to me.  Not every time.  And I can't tell you why or when they are different.  But there are times when the healing feels so deep, so real, that it moves me to tears.  I don't know if this is a gift he has, or if it is a gift he has for me. He has acknowledged that sometimes he, too, feels the "power drain from him" and it leaves him tired, though it has never stopped him from reaching out.  I wish I were not the occasional source of that drain on him, but at the same time, I am so very grateful that he has given me this healing touch that I obviously deeply needed.  I am grateful for the healing, but I am also grateful for the insight it has given me into the power of touch, the reality of healing touch, the need for that connection that can rejuvenate, rebuild, and restore us.  
       I want to acknowledge that of course there is another side to this.  The worst damage that can be done to another involves touch as well: rape, assault, abuse can destroy not only bodies, but souls.  That, too, must be named.  Touch is powerful - for either good or evil, it is powerful.  Therefore we must touch with respect, with permission, with consent, ALWAYS.  Because it is so powerful, we must, must, must be especially aware and careful of how we touch one another.  But I believe this is true of all of our deepest gifts.  They are given to us to use for good.  But the amount of good they can do is only equaled by the amount of damage they can do if used for harm.
       The power of touch is immense. I encourage us all to be more aware of the reality of that power. May we strive always to use it for good!

(I apologize for the bizarre formatting in this article.  I've tried to edit it and the program is simply not allowing me to do so...).

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Power of Kindness ("The Power Of..." Part II)

       Once again I am a bit late in deciding what my Lenten discipline will be this year.  It's not that I hadn't been thinking about it - I had.  I thought at first that maybe I would give up media at home: I've done that before, just really focused on time with my kids without computer, phone or TV interruption.  But this year with the Olympics it isn't so easy since the kids and David also want to watch these.  I thought about giving up sweets, but again, can't get the kids on board with this particular practice and it is really hard to do this when others are not limiting their sweet intake.
        But finally the universe conspired to show me what it is I really need to do for my Lenten discipline this year.
         First, I saw a clip from Oprah in which she was talking to a young woman about deciding what kind of energy she would choose to keep around her: positive energy in the form of kind, helpful people or negative energy from angry, attacking, abusive people.  The young woman said she wanted to do good by helping the negative folk to become more positive.  Oprah said, "that's great, but..." and went on to talk about how others' negative energy can really impact us in harmful ways if we do not also have people around who boost us up, affirm life and remind us of the good in the world.                Second, I saw this paragraph posted on a friend's FB page, "You are holding a cup of coffee when someone comes along and bumps into you, making you spill your coffee everywhere.  Why did you spill coffee?  You spilled coffee because that was what was in your cup.  Had there been tea in the cup, you would have spilled tea.  The point is that whatever is inside the cup, that is what will spill out when it is bumped.  When life comes along and shakes you (which will happen), whatever is inside you will splash out.  It's easy to fake it until you get rattled.  So, we have to ask ourselves, "what's in my cup?"  When life gets tough, what will spill out?  Joy, gratefulness, peace, and humility?  Or will anger, bitterness, harsh words and violent reactions come out?  Today let's work towards filling our cups with gratitude, forgiveness, joy, words of affirmation, kindness, gentleness and love for others."
       And finally, I read several comments in response to posts on FB that were, frankly and simply, unkind.  There was no reason for the cruelty, there was no reason for the unkindness.  In one post a mother shared the joy of having a 19 month old boy who was doing very well. Her post was a happy comment about a joyful boy and it ended with "tell me the wonderful things about your children and what they do that makes you proud!" This very positive, affirming post was met with attacks accusing her of bragging and trying to make others feel bad.  It was absolutely unkind.  And as a result, she left the mothering group that I was part of, saying she joined for support and was leaving because of the unkindness she found instead.  I understand her experience.  I had to leave a group of pastors recently (yes, pastors!) because one of the administrators of the group was attacking and unkind to me when I shared something very vulnerable, very personal, and very hard.
       All three of these events coincided in a way that made the discipline of this Lent a clear choice for me: I will be focusing on kindness.  I will work hard not to respond to others, even to people who are being mean, with anger.  I will look hard for the kindness that surrounds me.  I will focus on the good, the positive, the life-giving joy and beauty in each day. I will delight in what is lovely and on actions of grace and unexpected generosity.  I will live into what is wonderful each day. And I will do my best to pass on kindness and care to others.
        Towards this end, I may have to turn off much of the negativity, stay away from FB at times unless it is to post something positive, but I will work hard to surround myself with those who are gentle and humble and kind.
       I find that once I start looking for the good, for the kind, that it surrounds me constantly, and often comes in unexpected ways: David spinning my daughter down the aisle in the grocery store, my children saying silly things that bring the deep gift of laughter, kind comments of appreciation, beautiful stories of generosity towards others, smiles from strangers, the offer of help with the simple things: carrying in a large box, taking off one's coat, getting out of a car.
      It is not only easy to see kindness once we start looking for it, it is also easy to participate in it.  Ask people how they are, not as a brush-off salutation, but with genuine interest.  Bring a flower to someone.  Write a thank you note just saying you appreciate another person for being who they are and doing what they do.  Offer a meal, offer a prayer, offer a shoulder to cry on.  Take a moment to compliment someone, to offer an affirmation of caring and support.  Pick up a piece of garbage and throw it away.  Wash an extra dish, one that isn't yours.  Take an extra minute of time to be with someone else.
       The power of kindness increases with every moment of attention we give to it.  Seeing, noting and giving attention to the good and then taking time to pass it on or to offer gratitude for it: these make a difference.
       I begin my Lenten practice of noticing and participating in kindness then by thanking all of you who read my blog.  It is the highest of affirmations to know that my words and thoughts are read, that they matter to someone else.  It is a vote of confidence and support that does not go unnoticed by me.  I am grateful that you spend that time with me in this way.  I am grateful that you feel my words and my person are worth your attention.  Have a beautiful day.  And do not underestimate the power of your kindness to me, or to others!

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Power of Music ("The Power of..." Part I)

      Every song I listen to connects to some memory or memories for me.  I know for other people it's often smells that connect to memories.  But for me, every song I hear brings back images of specific times, events and people.  The older a song, the more complex those memories since there are usually more than one memory associated with each piece, but often it is the most intense memories that I associate with a song.  I was listening to my iTunes library the other day and each song flooded me with recollections. This song reminded me of the break-up with a seminary boy-friend. That song reminded me of an old friend of my youngest daughter.  Another reminded me of a specific high school dance.  One reminded me of travelling to see a man I was dating for a short six months before meeting David.  Another reminded me of dancing in my parents' living room when I was a little girl.  Another reminded me of my sister when she was in high school...  Again, each song was tied in to these strong and powerful memories.  I found how I felt about each song had more to do with the kind of memories each invoked rather than the qualities of the song itself.
        The downside of this is that there is a whole library of songs that are associated with our nightmare experiences in Ohio that I cannot listen to.  Most of my iTunes library, actually, was bought and downloaded during that time: it was a way of escaping as well as processing while I was going through terrible times. The music was helpful and healing at the time, and so I listened to my music a great deal.  But now those same songs that brought meaning, peace, and healing are connected with hard memories. There are some exceptions: the songs our praise team sung fill me with a positive nostalgia and fond caring for the folk in that mid-week community.  But others...  Sting's If On a Winter's Night - I listened to that over and over again during the first nightmare Christmas that our world was flipped on its head.  Each Christmas since then I have thought, "Well, this year there should be enough time and distance from all of that, that I can listen to it again.  After all that music is so beautiful!" And each year as the first song begins to play, a panic attack starts and forces me to shut it off for yet another year.
        The upside is that as I go back and listen to songs that call to mind even earlier experiences in my life, hard memories, while still there, are often tempered with other memories and with the positive resolution of whatever challenge I was facing at the time.  In other words, the songs change from being reminders of hard times to being bearers of memories of positive times of growth, of movement, of maturation.  I also think there is truth that we remember the positive more than the negative generally, and as time goes by, more and more positive memories surface in response to those pieces about times that once were dominated in my thoughts by harder events.  Music, then, marks that transition for me, shows me growth in my memories as well as in my person.
       How much more this becomes true for me when I am actually creating the music myself: playing piano, flute, guitar, singing: making of music also ties me to the past.  The difference in making the music is that I can alter how I play it, how I sing each song or each phrase, and in the altering, adjust not only how I hear the music, but also how I understand the stories that connect to it.  I can change and grow through the changing emphasis on different words, different phrases, different parts of a piece of music.
       The power of music! It brings healing, it points to healing.  It can also be a catalyst, calling us to face memories that still need our attention and care.  Within each phrase there is transition, and a reflection on the movements of our lives.  Within the words, there are stories to be told that mirror our own experiences and call us to look at and describe them in new ways.  All true art reflects aspects of life, music no less than the visual arts.  Music gives us a lens to frame and to understand our tales, our journeys, our values.  When we create the music itself, it also gives us an outlet of expression and a way to tell our stories and share our journeys that can touch others as well.  The making of music can create the new memories and new stories that link us not only to the music, but to one another and to all creation.
       I am deeply grateful for the power of music as it breathes through my work, my play and my living.

(As a postscript, I am looking for new music for my library at this point in time.  What are your favorite pieces of music and what pieces touch you, give you life, give you joy?)

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Spiritual Gift of Simplicity

Matthew 19:16-22
Luke 12:13-22

                During lent this year, we will be focusing on Spiritual Disciplines. I want to start by clarifying that discipline does not mean something painful or harsh or unpleasant.  Instead they are called spiritual “disciplines” because they are ways of organizing, committing to and structuring our dedication to a behavior or way of being.  Spiritual disciplines are activities that bring us closer to God.  The purpose of the disciplines is to help us focus on our relationship with God for a specific period of time, and to invite us to ask, with our behavior, Where is God in our experience?  How do we discern God’s presence?  And what is God doing anew in our lives?  The disciplines are for the purpose of relationship with God.  Therefore it is very important that they be about relationship and not about being rigid or stuck in a behavior.  Richard Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline, who is known as an expert on spiritual disciplines put it this way, “The way to death is to turn spiritual disciplines into laws.”  They are meant for our good, and they are meant to enhance our faith and relationships with God. 
                There are 12 spiritual disciplines that Foster identifies.  Four are considered inner disciplines and those include prayer, fasting, meditation and reading or study.  Then there are four outward disciplines: simplicity, solitude, submission and service.  Finally there are four disciplines that are considered communal: confession, worship, guidance and celebration.  Some of these - prayer, reading, confession, service and worship, in particular, we practice regularly in the church.  Others you might do on your own – meditation, for example, or seeking guidance.  But others we are less familiar with. 
                Of those twelve disciplines, fasting, or the giving up of something intentionally, is the one we most often focus on during lent.  But I would invite us to try to add or to focus on any of these spiritual disciplines during lent as a way to intentionally deepen and focus our relationship with God.  There are twelve, and yet we tend to focus on the one of fasting from something in particular.  But I would like to  encourage all of us to expand our way of thinking about these disciplines, and instead of thinking of giving something up, think of adding a practice into your faith commitments.
                Each week I will focus on one of the spiritual disciplines in particular as well, and today I would like to start our Lenten focus by talking about simplicity.  The idea behind simplicity is that we become enslaved to the complicated things in our life, in particular the “things”, the possessions that clutter our lives.  Most of our fear in this world seems to be directly tied to anxiety about losing our stuff, our possessions and therefore the things that we think make us secure.  And as a people, we are controlled by that fear.  It enslaves us.  Therefore, the spiritual discipline of simplicity calls us to let go of the fear, that bondage and enslavement to our stuff.  To trust instead that we can survive, truly, with nothing but God.  Our fear, and our desire to protect ourselves with possessions, separates us from God.  Our desire to hold on to our things separates us from truly relying on and trusting God.  The spiritual discipline of simplicity calls us to be intentional about letting go of those things that build a wall between ourselves and God, that separate us from God.
I have mentioned before that there have been a number of studies that show that the richest people in the United States give a shockingly small percentage of their incomes to charities, while the poorest people in our nations give a huge percentage.  An article came out in a few years ago in Forbes Magazine that looked at giving and indicated that this trend is on the increase: the poor are giving more and more of their resources and the rich are giving less and less. I’ve shared with you before the joke about the poor man who begged God for money with the promise that he would give 10% of everything he earned.  After finding 10$, he faithfully gave one back.  Then he found $100 and faithfully gave back $10.  He soon found a job and was making $10,000, and faithfully returning $1000 of it.  But when he got to the place where he was making $100,000 and had to give $10K of that back, or later when he made $1,000,000 and had to give back $100,000 to keep his promise, he began to feel very uneasy.  He went to the local priest to ask how he could get out of his deal with God.  The priest responded, “Well, I don’t think you can get out of the deal.  But I’m sure God would be happy to return you to making only $100 or so, if you’d be more comfortable only giving $10.
It is clear that it should not be the case that the poor give so much more than the rich. And the reality is that we could go a long way towards ending suffering if the rich were to give even a small percentage more than they currently give.  We could easily end world hunger.  We could fix the water problems around the world.  But the reality is that the more we have, the more fearful we seem to become about losing what we have.  So fearful, as I said, that we hold on tighter and tighter to what we believe is “ours” forgetting completely that nothing we have is ours – all of it belongs to God.  We are stewards of God’s resources, and as such, are called to use the resources entrusted to us for the good of all people, not the good of ourselves alone. I am reminded of the parable Jesus told of the servants who were given the talents of differing amounts.  Do we bury the resources we are given?  Do we SPEND the resources we are given on ourselves?  Or do we share them, grow them, use them for God’s good which is the good of God’s creation? 
                Simplicity, learning to live with less stuff, learning to depend less on our things and more on God teaches us that God really is all we need and that forming idols from our things does not make us happy, healthy or whole.
                If we decide to take this on, then, as a spiritual discipline, where do we start?
There are specific things we can do towards the goal of simplicity:
a.        Buy things for their usefulness rather than simply because they are pretty or because we like them.
b.       Reject addictive things
c.       Get used to giving things away
d.       Refuse to be propagandized
e.       Enjoy things without owning them (library books, videos, skates, etc.)
f.        Appreciate creation
g.       Pay for things now, not later – incurring debt is not conducive to simplicity
h.       Use simple speech: in other words, don’t use big words when simple ones will do.  Don’t feel the need to say in a paragraph what can be said in a single sentence.  Don’t repeat yourself.
i.         Reject things that oppress others – this includes ideas as well as things that put some people in an oppressive position: women, people of color, hierarchies of relationships.  This includes being aware of the chain of events that leads to each product that you buy, and make care to buy from places and from people and specific objects that do not hurt people in order for you to obtain them: don’t buy things made with child labor or slave labor.  Buy things that are purchased fairly and that pay the actual workers fairly.  Don’t buy products that harm the environment or that are made by harming the environment.  Be aware of where you buy things and how things come to be on your shopping list.
j.         Shun things that distract you from God: social media, TV, or anything that takes you away from God.
                None of these things are easy.  But as a Lenten discipline, I think the intentional choosing of simplicity is an act that can have a radical effect on how a person relates to God. 
                Rev. Mark Scandrette said this in the study, "Animate", “Shortly after I began working as a pastor, I had a moment of crisis. One Sunday morning I was standing in the pulpit preaching and as I looked out on the congregation, I saw people falling asleep and fidgeting in their seats anxious to get home to watch the game or to get to the restaurant before the noonday rush. I knew that no matter what I said people would come through the line after the service, dutifully shake my hand and say, “good message pastor” or maybe make a comment about a funny story I’d told.  The possibility that I might spend a life time of Sundays reenacting this script made me want to scream, “Is anybody listening?!  This should really make a difference in how we live our lives!”  And then I thought about myself that I could preach a sermon about love and then go home and be crabby with my family.  Or talk about God’s heart for justice knowing that I wasn’t in relationship with anybody in poverty or struggle myself.  This was all going through my mind while I was speaking and I wondered, is anyone actually listening to what I’m saying? Is what we are doing here making a difference for any of us?  Do I really know what I’m speaking about from lived experience with God?  Or am I just regurgitating what I’ve read?  Maybe we’ve forgotten that Christianity isn’t just something to believe, but it’s a way of life that we are being invited to practice.  It seemed to me that we were being invited not just to (rehash) the Christian story but to become part of it, joining what our maker is doing to bring healing, restoration and hope to our world.  It’s what Jesus described as the kingdom of God or what I call Jesus’ revolution of love. I realize that many of the ways I’ve learned to be religious didn’t naturally move me towards transformation for the good of the world.  It was easy to get stuck in my head. There was a huge gap between how I wanted to live and how I actually lived.  My practices tended to be individualistic, information driven and disconnected from the gritty details of life.  Slowly I began to realize that if I was going to be part of the revolution of love that  Jesus embodied and promised, that I would need to be more honest, more active and more connected with other people. …  We won’t learn how to practice the way of Jesus without taking tangible steps to walk in his way.  The promise of the gospel is that we can learn a whole new way to be human, to live without worry, fear, greed, lust or anger.  To live a life animated and empowered by love.  This is the kind of life Jesus lived and invites us to experience. ….” 
                Mark Scandrette talked about a number of things his congregation did and does as a way of following Jesus.  One of them had to do with the Lenten discipline of simplicity and that was the “have two, give one away”, which simply means if you have two of something, give the second one away.  The congregants met weekly for two months, talking through the stuff that they had, what they really needed, and what could be given away or sold to help those who have less.  In the process of selling and slimming down and giving away, they raised thousands of dollars to help overcome poverty.  But as Mark realized, the practice probably did not make a big dent in the world’s poverty.  Instead, it changed those who engaged this practice of simplifying.  They came to really look at their stuff in a different way: as resources, lent to them by God for the use of all of God’s people, as objects that could be used for God’s glory, or could be simply selfishly held on to for one’s own pleasure. 
My last congregation tried a similar project.  We worked together and supported one another in going through our things and collecting objects for a huge rummage sale with the idea that we would not be selling these objects to one another, but really getting rid of things that were no longer useful, had no purpose other than self-gratification, were cluttering and complicating our lives in a time when we were called to simplify and cut back. All of the money we raised then went towards hunger issues. I would encourage you all to consider doing the same.  Go through your things this winter and spring.  Really look hard at what you have that you don’t use or don’t need, see what you have two of that you only need one of.  Again, this is for OUR benefit.  We may not change the world by it, but we can start to change ourselves as we strive to be closer to God and more active in our following of Jesus.  This is just one way, but I find that the de-cluttering of our lives, the simplifying of our lives is an amazing step towards overcoming fear and greed in particular.  It is an invitation to rely more fully on God.  It is an invitation to trust.  It is a call to be more fully present with God.  And that is a gift indeed.  Amen.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Violence and some terrible reactions to it.

       I'm going to say some things that may not be very popular, and I am saying them from a place of anger, so beware: if you are uncomfortable hearing a different opinion than your own, or if you are uneasy with my anger, you might want to stop reading right now.

       In response to the recent mass shooting, I read some very disturbing posts on Facebook.  One blamed the kids for not reporting that the shooter seemed to be having a hard time, and blamed their parents for not encouraging profiling. There is no other way to put this.  It put people in boxes and told us we should all do the same to prevent violence, never mind that this shooter was a white, heterosexual male. This rant stated that the shooter should have been reported and then locked up before he did anything because he was clearly having a hard time and the solution to people having a hard time is to throw them in prison, which would have prevented the shootings.  It went on to blame liberals who don't want to indiscriminately lock people up, as being the problem and said that if someone at school names another person as having an issue, that kid should be imprisoned.  Another comment I read on Facebook indicated with joy that one community did imprison a student who appeared to be struggling with mental illness, thereby preventing him from shooting anybody.
        I think I was almost as disturbed by the suggestions in these posts as I was by the shootings themselves for several reasons.  First of all, if we set up situations where, when a kid doesn't like someone else, they can just "report" that child as being disturbed with the reaction that the child reported will then be imprisoned, we are inviting a whole different kind of very serious bullying.  What happened to innocent until proven guilty?  Are we now saying it is okay to imprison someone on the chance that they MIGHT hurt someone else?  Forget proving guilt, this is even suggesting arresting someone before they have done anything wrong!  And again, what an invitation to bullies.  I can see it now.  Bully says, "If you don't give me your money or do exactly what I tell you to do then I will report you as seeming 'off' and they will throw you in prison!"  Bully says, "I don't like you - I'm going to get you thrown into prison just because I can!"
       Second, and more importantly, if we start dealing with people who have problems, are disturbed, and are struggling by throwing them into a prison where undoubtedly their problems will be exacerbated and emphasized, we are creating the very villains we are hoping to prevent.  What happens when they are released, then, from prison?  Or are we thinking we just lock them up for life because they are mentally ill or are struggling?  And if we expect them to eventually be released, are we thinking that because of their time in hell (no exaggeration here... I've visited enough prisons and talked with enough inmates to know that American prisons are hell, despite what certain media may tell us), they will be calmer, better able to handle the stressors in life, better qualified to deal with their anger and less likely to go on a shooting rampage?!  We would have to be insane to believe this.  Prison creates and hardens criminals, it increases rage, it cements hatred, and it gives people no skills for dealing with those feelings, make no mistake about that.  When a child is struggling with mental illness, anger, depression, rage, and other problems they need help.  Our prisons do not help people.
        There are so many aspects of our society and culture that must be addressed here; so very many, starting with how we help one another, how we care for one another, and how we learn to love one another.  People who are struggling should not be put into a box we call "other" or "bad" and then simply locked away.  They are us: they are our family, they are our siblings and our parents and our children and they need us to help them. I write this from the personal experience of having kids who are "different".  Yes, I admit it, my kids are different. They don't fit in in the same way many other kids do, they've gone through some hard things, they struggle at times, and they are sometimes bullied. I deal with this with counseling, love, resources, and as a result they are doing well in school, doing well at home, they are balanced and healthy, they have skills for dealing with their anger and pain, though they undoubtedly will always be a little "different".  But many kids do not have those resources.  And I can see it being all too easy for those kids without those resources to be thrown into prison for their pain.  We have to stop separating ourselves into "us" and "them".  We have to be willing to love people who are different from ourselves and to recognize that for a society to be truly healthy, everyone in it must be healthy.  We have a responsibility to create the opportunities for care, opportunities for growth and learning.  We have a responsibility to care for one another, and to heal ourselves in the healing of each other.
      We also need to address our justice system and move into a more restorative justice model where both victims and offenders are recognized as needing help and healing, and are given the help to change and to heal. Societies that use restorative justice models have an extremely small recidivism rate: people learn how to be better, how to do better, which lowers crime in those places substantially.  The victims also truly achieve healing, unlike our current system where they are often re-traumatized by the court processes.  The revenge-punishment model we have for our prisons does NOT work to deter crime, to lessen crime or to help the victims.
       Mental health care needs to be funded and seen as a priority.  Again, we do this for all of us: when we create a society where people with mental health issues cannot afford or obtain help, we create societies where violence is inevitable.  We also need to teach how to deal with anger and rage.  That too is a mental health and emotional health issue that as a society we need to begin to address.
       Gun control also must be addressed: yes, it must.  But I will allow others who are more knowledgeable and articulate to speak on that at this point: there are so many who do so much better than I ever could.  I will only say that from a Christian perspective, I see absolutely no justification for our turning towards violence as a solution.  Jesus was clear that killing was never acceptable.  He was clear about turning the other cheek.  Our arming ourselves with weapons whose only purpose is destruction of another is antithetical to everything he taught about seeing the other, even our enemies, as people we are called to love.  Period.  And our responding to violence with more violence escalates the problems.  It does not bring peace.
       Perhaps more than anything else, these tragedies call us to show who we really are.  Are we people who take seriously the call to love one another, even those we consider "enemies"?  Or are we fear based people who want to destroy, put away, and get rid of anyone who is different than ourselves?  It is truly worth thinking over.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Listen to HIm

2 Kings 2:1-14
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Mark 9:2-10

Transfiguration Sunday

            The Disciples have had a hard time listening to Jesus throughout the time they have been together.  Jesus has spoken about his death.  They deny it.  He has spoken about inclusion.  They still try to send the children away.  He has spoken about love and giving and servant-hood, and they still don’t let him wash their feet, and they still want Jesus to be honored, revered in a way that he doesn’t seek or think is appropriate to who he really is.  He has called them to join him as healers, and they are unable to do it.  He has spoken about faith and they still stumble on the water.  He has spoken about many things and the disciples remain confused, unclear, clue-less even at times.  This is proven once again by their speech on the mountain.  They don’t get it.  They want to stay on the mountain.  They want to build shrines and bask in the glory.  They want to continue the mountain top experience, rather than carrying it down with them to the people, as a source of strength to do their ministry, to do their service, to live the lives Christ calls them to lead.  They don’t get it. 
            In light of that we have God’s words “This is my Son, whom I dearly love.  Listen to him!”  God has three things to say.  This is my son.  I love him.  And listen to him. 
            When you listen to Jesus, what do you hear?  I would like to invite you to take a moment and really think about that.  When you listen to the Jesus you read about in scripture, in our conversations, in bible studies, in life, what do you hear?
            Do you always like what you hear?  Or are there times when the words are hard to hear, not what we want, but still are what we hear? 
When I was in Ohio, I was part of a weekly lectionary group in which we read the lectionary assigned scripture passages for the following week together.  We often read from different translations of the Bible.  And because of that, we have found at times that the different translations are translated differently  For example, Mark 1:40-41.  In the NRSV, this passage is translated, “A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!”  However, the passage that in the NRSV is translated, “moved with pity” is translated in the NIV (which you have in front of you) as “Jesus was indignant” and in the CEB (the one that I usually use) as “incensed”.  The word they are translating is actually “anger” so “Moved with anger” might be a better translation in both.  Either way, there is a huge difference between “compassion” and “anger”.  And the reason for these different translations is that when we look at the old manuscripts of these texts, they don’t always agree with one another.  There are many old manuscripts and scrolls of these Biblical passages, not one.  And they don’t agree with each other.  It is not always clear which one was written earlier, which one was the “original” or which one is closest to what Jesus actually said.  So the NIV and CEB chose a different original manuscript for this phrase than the translators of the NRSV.  Different translators have to pick which text they believe to make the most sense, to be the most accurate, to be the most original.  And different translators often pick different original texts from which to translate specific passages.  As we sat, in my lectionary group, with the difference between Jesus being incensed and Jesus having compassion, one of our pastor friends made the comment that because translators are also interpreters at some level, they want the passage to make sense and to match with their own theology.  Therefore, the translation that is least comfortable is actually often the one that is the most accurate.  The ones that are more comfortable are often made that way by the translators, by the interpreters.  The words that they find which are uncomfortable, they try to ease, to smooth down, to make more palatable.  So they pick the texts that make most sense to them and translate them according to those texts.  They don’t always pick the ones that really appear to be the oldest, or the most original, or the closest to what Jesus probably really did or said.
This is a very human thing to do and we do it as well.  We try to block out things that make us uneasy, things that don’t make sense to us. We see this with our news, and our reaction to news, actually. I recently read about several psychological studies which show, consistently, that in light of evidence that disproves people’s biases, people are more likely to entrench in their own viewpoints rather than change their opinions.  Even when hard, cold facts that cannot be argued are presented, if what is offered is different from what the receiver believes, most people will discount the new information rather than be willing to change their minds or be confronted by a truth other than what they already know to be true. This applies to scripture as well. 
The truth is, if nothing in the Bible has ever disturbed us, then we haven’t read it closely enough.  Or rather, we haven’t listened well enough.  If nothing in Jesus’ words has ever disturbed us, then we haven’t been paying attention.  Because Jesus said disturbing things.  Jesus challenged us.  He challenged us with passages such as Matthew 25: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. (for) I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink.  I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’”
We are challenged with words such as, “This is so that they can look and see but have no insight, and they can hear but not understand. Otherwise, they might turn their lives around and be forgiven,” which seems to imply that he doesn’t want specific people to turn their lives around and be forgiven.  We are challenged with words such as “I came not to bring peace but a sword,” and “Anyone who does not hate their mother and father, brother and sister, wife and children- yes, and even his own life - cannot be my disciple.” We are challenged by the many parables which are hard to understand such as the story of the wheat and tares.  We might be challenged by Jesus’ own breaking of the biblical rules such as the Sabbath laws, by curing and picking grain on the Sabbath.  We might be challenged by Jesus telling us we are to do what he did and to follow in his footsteps. These should make us uncomfortable. And when they don’t, it could be because we disagree and are okay with that.  It could be because we have taken the time to really study the passages and have come to an understanding we can live with.  But I think often it is, if we are honest, because we are not really listening.
            There was a wonderful article in Sojourner’s Magazine a few years ago entitled, “Five Ways I’m the Worst at Following Jesus” by Christian Piatt.  He said, “My biggest concern at the moment is that though a lot of us claim to “be Christians,” or even to follow Jesus, a lot of us don’t spend much intentional time trying to figure out what that means and what it looks like in daily life. We try not to be too (mean) to other people, try not to kill, steal, adulterate… or worship graven images. We try to love, and to accept love — though we still hurt each other. A lot. The world is messed up and so far from realizing the fully kingdom-inspired image of wholeness and reconciliation to which God invites us. And at least in my theological world, that’s on us, not God. I believe, with all of my being, that the audacious vision of God’s kingdom, here and now, isn’t something we sit around and pray for God to make real for us. Like Jesus said, we can (and should) collectively do greater things than even he did. …So here I am, not so much trying to be Jesus, but trying to at least follow his life, teaching, and example better. And in taking my own personal inventory, I can see that I (am pretty bad at it). That doesn’t mean I’m giving up, but it’s clear I have plenty of work to do.” 
Are we aware of the things we do that are failing to follow Jesus?  And again, if we aren’t aware, it means we have not been listening. 
            But the good news in all of this is that despite our failure to listen, Jesus stays in relationship with us.  God stays with us no matter how we fail to hear.  Jesus brought Peter, James and John up to the mountain top and even though they didn’t get it, he let them see the transformation, hearing God’s voice directly and God’s instructions in a clear voice.  Jesus explains his parables to them, even through his frustration with their lack of understanding.  He repeats his message, repeats his descriptions of what is to come, repeats what they need to hear, despite their lack of deep listening.  He loves them and models for them what that love looks like, despite their reluctance to embrace it, to follow him completely, to walk the path he walked in the way he walked it.  And he does the same for us. 
            Still, God calls down, “This is my son whom I love.  Listen to him.”  Bonhoeffer said, "The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists of listening to them. Just as love of God begins with listening to his word, so the beginning of love for our brothers and sisters is learning to listen to them." —(Life Together).
            Peter, James and John wanted to stay on the mountain. They had been given a new glimpse of who Jesus was, one that filled them with joy, with hope, with life. They had seen the transfiguration, they had a real and deep glimpse of who Jesus really was. And it filled them with a joy that they did not want to give up. That is understandable. That is absolutely understandable.  To be given that mountain top experience of seeing God and seeing Jesus as God’s son – what an incredible gift. To see Moses and Elijah next to him. To experience these people of God in this way.  It was an amazing gift.  It was a gift that was not withheld even though they failed to listen and understand.  It was still given.  And the opportunity to listen to Jesus was also given again, with the instructions, direct from God, to listen.  We, too, make mistakes. But we, too, are not deprived of the good gifts of God.  And we, too, no matter what we do or fail to do, are invited every time we hear Jesus’ words to “Listen to him.”    Amen.