Mirrors

In the movie, Shall We Dance, John Clark (Richard Gere) is looking for something more exciting than the life he is living, and he soon finds himself learning to dance with a beautiful dance instructor (Jennifer Lopez), whose studio he spotted on his daily commute. After realizing something was amiss in their marriage, his wife, Beverly (Susan Sarandon) has hired a private investigator because she thinks her husband is having an affair.

It is at that point in the movie where Beverly is meeting with Devine, the private investigator played by Richard Jenkins, to find out information about her husband, and she asks him a question: “All these promises that we make and we break. Why is it, do you think, that people get married?”

He immediately responds, “Passion.” She smiles and says, “No.” He then says, “It’s interesting because I would have taken you for a romantic. Why then?”

Beverly’s response here is the key point:

Because we need a witness to our lives. There’s a billion people on the planet … I mean, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things … all of it, all the time, every day. You’re saying ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go unwitnessed because I will be your witness.'”

It’s finally about seeing and being seen at the deepest, most authentic level. In a previous post, I shared about what it means to be a witness, but here I want to take a slightly different turn to talk about what that kind of witnessing is all about.

It is about mirroring.

One of the greatest, yet least utilized, gifts of our Judeo-Christian roots is that we have story after story about how God mirrors the authentic us back to us … who knows every part of us and who loves us and calls us by name … and who then asks us to mirror that same authentic reality back to everyone we meet, whether in our family, in our community, or in our world … whether they are people whom we know intimately or people whom we would call “our enemies.”

Psalm 139 is the most poetic rendering of how God searches us and knows us … who is with us as we journey, and when we lie down for sleep … who knows every word coming off of our tongue … who hems us in behind and before … above, beneath, and beside us. It is this God who formed our inward parts and who knit us together in our mothers’ wombs. As children of God, we are called to fully know just as we have been fully known.

That is what mirroring is all about.

As a credentialed coach with certifications as an End of Life Coach and as a Discipleship Coach, I have learned through the years that the most important thing I can do as a coach is to mirror the image of God I see in others. In discipleship, it is to empower people to see the Christ within them and enhance their journey to more powerfully mirroring Christ in this world. In death and grief, it is to let the Christ in us connect with the Christ in others that we might share the power of resurrection, which awaits us on the other side of brokenness, death, despair, and grief. This is my calling in ministry and an essential tool in coaching.

I have often quoted Father Henri Nouwen as he describes, in his book Reaching Out, a conversation he was having with a former student when, after a few moments of silence, the former student said, “Father Nouwen, I see Christ in you.” Nouwen responded, “It is the Christ in you who sees the Christ in me, and when we see Christ in one another, the ground between us becomes holy ground.”

Isn’t that what it means to mirror? Father Richard Rohr speaks about mirroring in The Universal Christ as he describes how the Christ in Jesus sees the Christ in all things and has compassion and love for the other because, when seen from this new perspective, there is no “other,” at all. When we see ourselves literally as the Body of Christ, it is Christ loving Christ’s self in us and in all things.

So where does this lead us? I’m thinking it speaks into our current realities where we are experiencing so many adversities and so much harm. Whether we experience harm and brokenness through the pandemic, bigotry, overt acts of racism, acts of violence or the overt destruction of the planet itself, the deepest indictment of humanity is our failure to see the divine DNA in everything and everyone God created.

And yet …

God cannot stop seeing the divine DNA … the mark of the Christ … in you and me. Even in this moment, God is wooing us and calling each of us by name. God sees you. God sees me. Just as we are!

So my journey is that of the seer. Not the doer of magic. The seer is the one who sees. In every encounter of every day, I look to see Christ and to mirror that Christ back to the one who is seen. It is to say deliberately that “your life will not go unwitnessed because I will be your witness.”

And when we find ourselves mirroring the image of the divine … this Christ … in the ebb and flow of life … amidst the brokenness and the healing and death and resurrection … we might just discover that the ground on which we are standing is holy!

Sifting Out

It really should not come as a surprise to me.

The simple phrase “Let go and let God” was something I first heard somewhere during my college days. It was an almost trite phrase, yet it defined God’s ultimacy for a kid looking for something absolute. It has kept coming back to me over the years. It would later become a key theme in my life.

Early on, I would occasionally use it, yet I had not seriously plumbed the depths of its meaning until later in my ministry. As I continue to delve into its meaning, that deeper meaning tends to surprise me … usually in its raw simplicity.

That was the case as I read in Richard Rohr’s book, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi. It is there that he quotes Neale Donald Walsch:

Yearning for a new way will not produce it. Only ending the old way can do that. You cannot hold onto the old, all the while declaring that you want something new. The old will always defy the new. The old will deny the new. The old will decry the new. There is only one way to bring in the new. You must make room for it.

The truth in this is its remarkable simplicity. So why was it hard for me to see? I think it lies in the risk. As a child, I remember attending the circus where I watched trapeze artists swing from bar to bar. I can still recall my emotional response to that moment when the person would let go of the one bar and float momentarily above certain death before either grabbing the other bar or latching onto the arms of another person swinging from their knees on the other bar … it was sheer panic, with butterflies completely consuming my stomach.

Fear of scarcity … fear of loss … fear of death. That fear drives so much of our common life that it has become the primary motivator for our culture, our economy, our politics, and sadly, much of our religious life. We live with this notion that there is not enough to go around. Not enough power to share. Not enough resources to take care of everyone … food, water, healthcare, or wealth. Not enough grace. Not enough God.

It is this fear of scarcity that fundamentally drives systems of injustice. Racism, heterosexism, misogyny, ethnocentrism and any other of our “isms” that comprise systems of domination are rooted deeply in the fundamental notion that there is just not enough.

It is scary to let go. Even if we count ourselves among those who are subjected to these systems, we are afraid of losing what little we may have. Letting go just isn’t an option.

But Jesus came to challenge our fear with a gospel of abundance. Jesus says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:35) He is not being rigid here or even being demanding. He is telling us that there is an abundant life … known in integration philosophies as the “True Self” … which is far better than the small, scarcity-driven notions of life … known by those same philosophies as the “False Self.”

I’ve preached about the abundant life that God is offering all of us, and I have preached about the pouring out of self that is the ultimate imitation of Christ. What I had not seen clearly was the idea that I still have not adequately made room for the new … the abundant life … the journey to my truest sense of self created by God.

What we are experiencing in our pandemic-possessed world is more than a letting go. It is not just a pouring out of self. It is a sifting out (like being put through the wire basket where the particles and particulars in our life are separated from one another). It is uncomfortable, and it is scary. We fear losing life as we have known it, and all we want to do is go back to the life we knew before the pandemic began to exact its toll on us.

The hard news for us to hear is that there is no going back to just what we had before. Something new continues to emerge.

Instead of thinking about this as a tragic loss, I wonder what would happen if we saw this as making room for something new. Perhaps this is a time like so many prophets and teachers in the faith envisioned as a just society … a radically hospitable society … a generous society. Perhaps this is an opportunity to create the world envisioned in Matthew 25 where we have adequately cared for “the least of these” brothers and sisters and found in them the face of Christ.

Perhaps this is the time to listen to the cries of our black and brown siblings … of women in the work place … of immigrants … who want to be seen as children of God seeking justice and equal opportunities. Perhaps this is a time to listen to those who express a fear of scarcity and assure them that, when they let go of the bar to which they so tightly cling, they will be jumping into the arms of a God who loves them despite the harm they may have done.

That is abundant grace, and it is what resurrection is all about. You see, Jesus was sifted out in a brutal execution, and his resurrection had nothing to do with going back. I have said before that it is not resuscitation … it is resurrection.

It stands as the greatest message of the Christian faith: when we let go of the old, God will most certainly bring about something new. I think this is Dr. Martin Luther King’s image of the Beloved Community. A community of justice, hope, and peace. And it has little to do with the good old days. It is a vision of a new community.

Let go of the old, my friends, and after the moment of panic, you will discover yourselves as children of the resurrection … safely enfolded in the arms of God.

Lost

Lost. On more than one occasion, I have felt lost. In this pandemic, I find myself disoriented. I am a person who thrives on deep social connections and deep conversation.

Don’t get me wrong. I love phone calls and Zoom and social media … up to a point. Then there is this need to shake a hand, share a hug, and look at actual 3D people without looking directly at thousands of very small light emitting diodes for hours on end. Without social connection, I feel … well … lost.

This inability to flow through modern life without restraint and this inability to be with people without fear of what they might be carrying in this pandemic creates a feeling of “stuckness” that adds to the feeling of being lost. And there is a kind of essential sadness that is also manifested in so many of us.

To those of us whose lives are marked by a great deal of privilege, unconstrained movement, upward mobility, and the belief that we deserve to be completely unfettered in our “free society,” this is unfamiliar and seems soul crushing. As Father Richard Rohr shares in Falling Upward: Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, people who develop true wisdom are those who learned about “containers” in the first half of life. They are people who were taught about boundaries and borders and rules and limits. They were people who understood the law, whether natural, biblical or civil. They learned how to live within a container.

In his critique of modern western society, he notes that we have made a great deal out of eliminating these limitations for children and even young adults. With a wife in education and with my own experience serving on the board of my alma mater and chairing their Academic Affairs Committee, I have learned all about helicopter parenting and now what is known as bulldozer parenting. Helicopter parenting was the perpetual presence of parents (yes, even in higher education) who hovered above their children to offer near-constant guidance to help them avoid any obstacles. Bulldozer parenting (much more common these days) is when you have parents who have dropped from the helicopters to the ground and are just clearing the path of all obstacles … even when those “obstacles” are expectations and demands of the educational task. In each of these scenarios, the student never fully learns to cope with boundaries, rules, expectations, and consequences. That is a student who often fails in life beyond the academy.

In this time, there are so many people who are suffering and dying. There are those who have contracted COVID-19, and with its wide-ranging effects on people, some have survived with little illness while others have died. There are also those who are suffering the economic downturn … who have lost employment … who have become desperate for the economy to come back. These needs are no less real.

What grieves me is the fact that there are those who continue to downplay the severity and the conflicting demands that require a true wisdom to navigate. Instead there are those who are recklessly putting others at risk for their own ego needs, highlighting again their unwillingness to exist inside any container. (No, this is not a commentary on any business or how that business should reopen … it about the people who throw caution to the wind as if this pandemic does not exist.)

Containers are important. Limits are important. If this pandemic has provided nothing else good, it is a reminder that we live in this container called life, and we live in it with every other person and part of creation.

In this container, maybe it is ok to feel a bit lost. You see, it is in this lostness that I think we might find a God who is looking for us. It is in this container that we might learn more about ourselves and one another … maybe even learn to love ourselves and one another. We might just learn to love in a way far different from what we have known.

We might just learn to love as Jesus loves.

This has become, for me, a time of deep reflection. In my lostness, I have stopped long enough to hear where God is speaking to me. God is calling me to be still long enough in the darkness to sense something new that may be emerging. In the midst of this lostness, I am sensing God calling me to the place of love.

This Sunday (17 May), we will be hearing Jesus talk to his disciples about love. Along with that, we will be singing one of Charles Wesley’s most popular hymns, Love Divine, All Loves Excelling. The lyrics of the last verse of that hymn read:

Finish, then, thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in thee;

Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

Lost. In this container that, at times, feels so terrible, let me be lost in wonder, love, and praise! When I do that, then perhaps I will have been found!

Life in Liminal Spaces

The time we are in is a time in between. Many continue to suffer the dramatic effects of the novel coronavirus and its disease known as COVID-19. It continues to stoke a great deal of fear in people who are afraid of what opening our communities back up can mean for their own health. Then there are those who have suffered without work and desperately need the economy to restart if they have a hope of paying their bills, their rent, their mortgages, and the many other expenses that have piled up. There are those who are true extroverts who are desperately wanting to reconnect and experience the expansive life they had previously experienced … moving beyond the walls of their confinement for more than a fast run to the grocery store. Then there are those who have enjoyed this time as introverts and who are glad to spend more time alone. Even as things begin to reopen (some perhaps too soon), we find ourselves in that space between in and out … isolation and connection … fear and courage … the now and the not yet.

As a young boy, I became fascinated with Peter Pan. I grew up with the 1953 Disney animated version of Peter Pan, but I was especially fascinated because I spent about four years of my childhood in Weatherford, Texas, which had a statue of Mary Martin as Peter Pan from her role as the young boy in the broadway production shortly after the release of the Disney movie. We called it Peter Pan Park. Martin, and her famous son, Larry Hagman, hail from Weatherford (thus the statue).

And in all the movies I have seen, there are some incredible lines, many of them first penned by the original creator of Peter Pan, J.M Barrie. So many of them speak to me today!

The boy who wouldn’t grow up is an archetype of the natural child in all of us. It contains stories of fantasy, mischief, a place “where dreams are born and time is never planned.” Perhaps this is the child I have always longed to be … it speaks to an inner desire to be the most authentic self as dreamt by childhood. Then there is this one line that spoken in the movie Hook, by Tinkerbell (played by Julia Roberts) to Peter Pan (played by Robin Williams): “You know that place between sleep and awake, that place where we can still remember dreaming? That’s where I will always love you. There’s where I’ll be waiting, Peter Pan.”

Liminal Space!

That childhood archetype describes what Jesus means when he says that we “must become like children” to enter the kingdom of God. It is here that we can hold the contradictions of the now and the not yet … of the yes and the no … of liminality. It is where my pastor’s heart hurts for both those whose health is in danger by the reopening of our economy and those whose livelihoods are seriously threatened when our economy is shut down. It is in this place where we experience the now and not yet of life in God’s creation. It is learning to be still and be held by God in this time that feels utterly suspended.

Contemplative practice would teach us that this is where we can seek an encounter with the divine. God is perhaps revealed best in these liminal spaces. It requires of us a practice of mindfulness … to practice a deeper awareness of everything happening in this very moment. It asks us to avail all of our senses to what is happening right now even as you read this. It is to see that God is making use of this time to connect with us.

There will always be something new emerging … that is the gift we know as resurrection. But while we await that new thing … our renewed calling as the body of Christ … don’t let this time pass without seeing where God is loving us and waiting for us! As we experience the challenges of being caught between sleep and awake, look for the touch of the divine reminding you that on both sides of this liminal space you are loved and cherished.

May God find you right where you are!

Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday, April 12, 2020

Matthew 28:1-10

A day without fear. A day of hope. A day of resurrection. That is today!

In worship, many have heard me share the wisdom of Father Richard Rohr, especially from his newest book, The Universal Christ. One of the greatest ways of describing the work of God is through his understanding of the three boxes: order, disorder (chaos), and reorder. It is the same as life, death, and resurrection.

In our wish for things to be as they were … for us to have one more day with our loved ones. To have a chance to get it right the first time so we don’t have this grief and regret. Let’s just change the game plan a little bit so we can go back.

Yet this ever-evolving God of ours doesn’t go backward … only forward. What is so hard for us to see is that beyond that vacuous darkness is resurrection … a new life that awaits us. It’s not just what we consider to be life after death. The resurrected life awaits us right here. Right now!

This is a story that requires the kind of emotional sensitivity … the raw emotional honesty … that only the two Marys can help us see. Their grief is so real. Their fear is worn on their faces. Their bewilderment at the revelation of something unexpected is palpable. Their exuberant joy at the sudden intrusion of the Christ on their hurried run to meet the others.

The words still ring. “Do not be afraid,” said the angel. “Do not be afraid,” said Jesus. Be courageous. Take heart. God is greater than our griefs and more enlivened than our death.

Our anxieties yet consume us in a culture where fear is a tool of the powerful … where, if we worry enough or are afraid enough, we will continue to rely on those who come with nothing but empty promises and who ultimately broker only death.

Listen again to the angel and to Jesus: “Do not be afraid!” Look up and see the risen Christ standing before you!

Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen, Indeed!

Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday, April 11, 2020

2 Corinthians 4:7-18

Following my first funeral in 1982, this poem formed in my mind before I left the cemetery. I offer it here for Holy Saturday.

From a darkened stillness in the night,
     We are thrust into the current of life;
A current that sweeps around us,
     Over us, through us . . . against us.

It is a struggle, this strife, this fight.
     It is neither wrong nor right,
Against the current we fight lest it stifle us,
     Stop us, drown us . . . destroy us.

Then amidst the struggle, a voice, tender as a dove,
     Speaks: "Be still, and do not try
To resist, to fight, or wrest it free;
     Be still, be held, and know . . .

I AM GOD!

But to be still in the struggle is to give in,
     To let the current take us in.
And how is it even possible to be still
     When caught up in the current's will?

Ah, but Friends, it’s the current's will
     To hold you close and fast until
It brings you home to rest
     In death: a thought we so much detest.

In death, our stillness we now confess
     That in God's hands, by grace, we're blest.
For in the stillness of the sod
     We've but one hope left . . .

LET GOD BE GOD!

Good Friday

Good Friday, April 10, 2020

Matthew 26:31 – 27:54

Our culture doesn’t like grief. Grief is a complex emotion … a series of emotions as different in each person as is one fingerprint from another. Grief is darkness, and we don’t like darkness. Brené Brown says that our contemporary way to deal with darkness is to come in and start turning on as many lights as possible to shoo away the darkness. We don’t like grief.

Yet today is a day of grief. Resurrection Sunday loses its impact without stopping to witness the suffering Messiah … the dying Christ. The words of the narrative move us to this place. There is nothing but silent darkness. It is that vacuous sound and extreme darkness of nothingness. You know what this means if you have suffered loss of someone very close to you, and you also know that few will understand it or have the emotional capacity to just sit with you. Our culture doesn’t care that much for grief.

Jeff’s death came to us that way. He was the son-in-law we had known more as a son. He was ours. Then in a moment, our world was transformed from dreams and hopes to uncertainty and sorrow. The darkness was all consuming … there was no part of my world that was immediately accessible to me in that moment. I couldn’t see or hear in that dark, vacuous space … even God could not be seen and certainly not heard. Nothing.

Each year, I collect my griefs, bound in memory … and bring them to the cross. It is a Friday called Good, but it’s misnamed. It is a day of sorrow and a day of grief. Then I look up and realize that the “Goodness” is the growing awareness that there is someone suffering in the darkness with me … with us. The God I have come to know and love has quietly slipped into my darkness … unseen and unheard … until I hear the nails hammered into hands and feet. In an act of ultimate solidarity, Christ does not hang on the cross alone. Christ knows our brokenness … our suffering … our loneliness … our shame. We are not alone!

Silence.

Maundy Thursday

Maundy Thursday, April 9, 2020

Matthew 26:17-29

Communion and betrayal. I am going to go out on a limb and say that I believe Judas actually believed in Jesus. By all accounts, he betrayed Jesus, but what if he just believed in the wrong Jesus … the wrong Christ. Through the years, I have heard countless sermons (some preached by me) that espoused a belief in the militant messiah. The one who comes with a sword of justice and who demonstrates the full power of redemptive violence.

What if this was the messiah Judas believed in? What if his betrayal was the plan to reveal Jesus as the messiah we believed him to be all along? Judas is a Zealot, so this isn’t a far stretch. This isn’t betrayal … it is a strategic step in the plan of salvation.

As they gathered at the Passover feast, and Jesus talked about betrayal. Judas’s question, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” sounds heartfelt. “Revealing a secret isn’t betrayal. It’s nudging you in to the open so all will know your true power! Betrayal? No!”

Then Jesus took bread. He wasn’t talking about redemptive violence … he was talking about redemptive suffering. Suffering that would be an act of solidarity with everyone who knows suffering. The suffering that isolates us and finally destroys us!

Right then and there, Jesus was sharing the common meal … communion … with those who trusted and one who may well have believed the wrong thing about this Jesus … this God.

Of course, there are other ways to think about Judas. It might be that he was someone whose heart had turned dark. It might be that he simply gave into the allure of wealth over friendship.

The most insidious evil I experience in the world is evil based on misinterpretation … misrepresentation … even a co-opting of Jesus as one who practices redemptive violence, which I reject. But on this night, we will let it be about Jesus who practices solidarity … who teaches us about a God who meets us in our suffering.

Christ, you teach us of suffering and love. We stand in solidarity with you as you stand with us! Amen.

April 8

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Acts 5:17-32

The courage to follow God is a courage that few of us truly understand. We are still with Peter and John who have now been publicly jailed. While in jail, an angel of God opens the prison doors, brings them out, and compels them to get back in the temple and “tell the people the whole message about this life.” The religious leaders can’t believe their eyes. They can’t keep them in prison. They can’t stop them from talking. They can’t dissuade their witness. Their courage knows no end.

If anybody in this church has ever received an email or note from George Brightwell, there is a good chance he signed off: “Courage, George!” George reminds me frequently that the word “courage” comes to us from the Latin word “cor” by way of the old French word “corage.” Both are the word “heart” … as in, the seat of our passions … feelings.

Holy Week is when we talk about the Passion of Christ. It is about suffering or aching … another feeling word. So this is a week that is less about being rational and more about the suffering heart of Christ. Here God weeps with us. Here God uses our hearts to connect with those who are suffering.

It takes courage to speak truth to power. It takes courage to stand alone. It takes courage to speak out … to call out … our own faith traditions, our own denominations, our own pastors, or our own leaders. It is so much easier to fall in line and refrain from making waves. But finally, if we listen, we will hear God calling. God calls in the voice of the weak, the poor, and the people standing in the margins. Through prayer and Christian dialogue.

With Peter, we then answer the authorities: “We must obey God over human authority!” God calls us to love of God and neighbor. If our actions don’t meet that test, God is speaking. “Take courage. Speak truth to power. When you stand with me, you will never stand alone!”

Give us courage, Lord, to listen and stand with you! Amen.

April 7

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Acts 4:1-12

Peter and John are still in the temple when they are confronted by the religious leaders of the temple. They thought Jesus was gone, yet here are his disciples teaching the same thing. They arrested them and then brought them to stand before the high priest and the high-priestly family. When they were asked how they healed the man, Peter told them it was by the power of this Jesus whom they had killed. He reminded them of the psalmist who said that the “stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.”

Cornerstones are fascinating to me. They were the most critical part of early building where there were no instruments to measure or level surfaces. The cornerstone had to be a perfect cube. Each of its corners had to be perfect 90 degree corners. Each of its sides had to be perfectly level planes. If the cornerstone wasn’t perfect, there would be structural flaws in the building. Corners would not meet. The building would not be level. Walls could fall in. So the builders took extra time in choosing, crafting, and setting the cornerstone.

The psalmist says in Psalm 118 that the chosen of God is rejected, but that God sees what the builders could not see. The stone is rejected because it doesn’t suit the purpose of the builders … or because it is not what the builders expected. In the case of Jesus, he was not the militant messiah that people expected. He went to the poor and disenfranchised … not the powerful and privileged. He courageously and non-violently spoke truth to power. And he was rejected.

I wonder how we reject Jesus today. We still hear people talk about the militant messiah as if, just maybe this time, he will get it right and come according to our expectations. I fear the cornerstone will be rejected again. But this week, I believe we can get it right … if we will just let God place the cornerstone!

Christ the Cornerstone, may we align our lives with you. Amen.