God's Return Policy

blogpic GodsReturnPolicyA Reflection based on Joel 2:12-17

If you’re like me you have items in a bag in the closet that have to be returned to the store. I have trouble returning things. One Christmas I bought Dan slippers that were too small and I hung onto them for so long, I ended up just donating them. Another time I had a Crate and Barrel candle holder that I received for Christmas once and I left in the closet for four years before I finally threw it out.

Every store has a return policy—some are better than others—but you have to follow their rules:
Rule 1. You must have a receipt. You have to prove that the product came from that store and upon its return, that it belongs there—it’s their product and they are responsible for it

Rule 2. Its not supposed to be used. You can’t wear the clothes and then return them; you can’t use the dishes, wash them and then bring them back. You can’t play with the toy and when you’re tired of it, return it to the store. The difficulty is that it’s hard to know if you really want something until you’ve tried it and then you realize it’s not what you had wanted or hoped or expected, but of course, then you can’t return it.

Rule 3. Stores often don’t want broken things. The Customer service counters usually want you to prove that it was a problem with the product to begin with—that you didn’t misuse it or fail to follow the directions. If YOU broke it, if YOU’RE at fault, they may not take it back, you may not get your money back. Your return can’t be broken – or broken in. You can’t take one step outside in your New Balance shoes before discovering that the heel slips or your stuck with $130 heel-slipping shoes for two years because you were breaking them in inside and forgot and walked out to the mailbox.

Rule 4. Customer Service likes returns in their original packaging with the tags and stickers on there. Never mind a lot of toys and electronics are like getting into Fort Knox. I’ve often joked that we should put the people who wrap up Barbies and their furniture in charge of National Security – no one’s getting through that plastic packaging. Also you may not get your money back if you have lost your box, threw out the plastic, tossed the stuffing and Styrofoam, or wrecked the wrapper.

Finally, returning anything is just a hassle – there are long lines, forms, signatures, time limits – within 30 days, and often, you can do exchanges but not receive cash. So, now you understand why we avoid returning anything.

This past week we began the season of Lent and Lent is a season of returns. Perhaps we avoid returning to God as well—we’re afraid of being judged by God for our sin, for not following all the rules, and we don’t want to feel bad, shameful or guilty. Or maybe we already do feel ashamed or guilty and we’re afraid we’ll feel more judged if we come to God.

But Joel reminds us, “Return to the Lord, you God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”

Returning to God is not about judgment, but rather about love—It’s about trusting God’s love for us, even when we don’t get it right. Confessing our sin is not about judgment, but about experiencing God’s steadfast love and being liberated from our fears, guilt or shame so we can grow more and more into the image of Jesus.

If God coming to us in human form means anything, it certainly means that God “gets” our human experience. God won’t be surprised by whatever we’re hanging onto that causes guilt. Lent is a call to move from sin to Love. So during the season of Lent, God calls us to return, to return ourselves, our lives, and the hidden corners of our soul to the God who abounds in steadfast love.

God calls us to return from those places and ways where we have wandered away. God calls us to return from the places in our life where we have been afraid to allow God in. Unlike the Customer Service Counter at any retailer, God’s return policy doesn’t require a lot of receipts and rules.

With God’s return policy of steadfast love, you don’t need a receipt to prove that you came from God—that you belong with God. God knows his own product-line. In steadfast love, God created your inmost being; God knit you together in your mother’s womb; you are fearfully and wonderfully made! God knows what God made. God knows you belong. God wants to take you back and is delighted at our return.

With God’s return policy of steadfast love, God expects us to be used —those are the returns God loves the most. God wants us to be used up and return empty. God imagines we will be worn out and rough around the edges, using our gifts and expending ourselves for good; hoping we have been out in the world living and loving and serving.

With God’s return policy of steadfast love, God expects we will return broken—that something in our lives is amiss, that there is pain, and grief and frustration –that we are broken and in need of healing. God’s not looking for who’s fault it is—if we didn’t read the manual or follow the directions, or take care of ourselves how we were supposed to, or if we’ve lived by fear. God knows you were made “very good” at creation, and in love, takes us back broken, to fix us up and feed us and heal us again.

With God’s return policy of steadfast love, we don’t need to be in our original packaging with everything in its place. The packaging may be different now—we’re older-- maybe we’ve grown taller or maybe we’ve shrunk a little. Maybe we have a few more wrinkles, maybe we are thinner or heavier, perhaps we have lost some things along the way—innocence, childlike wonder, delight, or maybe a sense of joy. God can restore those again—God’s concern is that we return.

With God’s return policy of steadfast love, you don’t need a tag or sticker. Whether or not it is Ash Wednesday, God sees that smudge on your forehead—the sign of the cross that was traced in your baptism. You’ve already got Jesus’ name on your forehead and Jesus’ claim on your life and that’s all that really matters.

So return to the Lord your God this Lent with all of who you are and don’t hold back any part of yourself or your life. Trust that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love! For with God’s return policy, there’s never a line, there’s no waiting for an available clerk, there are no forms to sign, there is no time limit, the counter is always open and no one is turned away! Simply ask God to accept you, to embrace you, to love you, to forgive you, to guide you, to help you live out of love.

"Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love!" Now that’s a return policy we all can embrace!

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Trauma Therapy for Veterans

blogpic veterancoffinToday I am preparing the second funeral in less than a year for a young veteran who came home with PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) and died of complications from alcohol addiction. My heart is broken. Medication can help, but it doesn’t heal.

There is effective therapeutic treatment for PTSD that many of our veterans and their families don’t know about. EMDR therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) moves traumatic memory through the brain so it loses its power to be triggered and re-lived repeatedly. It uses directional movement of the eyes (similar to REM sleep) or other dual-stimulation techniques, such as sound alternating in the right and left ears, to reprocess disturbing images and memories. It has been researched extensively and helped millions of people throughout the world heal from many kinds of trauma.

When I returned to my work as a pastor after nine months of breast cancer surgeries and treatments, I was immediately called to the hospital to visit a young woman with lymphoma. When I came into her room, I began re-living the traumatic elements of my own treatment; it took every ounce of strength I had to stay there, talk and pray with her. I got out of there as fast as I could, realizing that I had PTSD.

I wasn’t going to be able to do my job if I didn’t get help and healing. Fortunately, I had learned of EMDR therapy several years earlier at a conference. I found an EMDR therapist in St. Louis whom I saw weekly, and was feeling much better within two months.

The National Center for PTSD reports that 10% of Desert Storm veterans, 11% of Afghanistan veterans, 20% of Iraqi veterans and 30% of Viet Nam veterans have PTSD. They can access free EMDR training through Trauma Recovery; those in St. Louis and may also contact our local chapter of the EMDR International Assoication, EMDRIA St. Louis, which also supports first responders.

Please help spread the word so we can support and save our veterans.

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Union with God

blogpic unionwithGodI receive Fr. Richard Rohr's Daily Meditations and was so moved by this reflection this week that I wanted to share it below. You can sign up to receive these daily meditations here. Connect with Rohr's Center for Action and Contemplation on Facebook or Twitter.

Awakening to Oneness
Monday, February 20, 2017

Guest writer and CAC teacher James Finley continues to share insights on meditation (another word for contemplative prayer).

We begin in ego consciousness, imagining that the union with God we seek is far off. After all, ego consciousness is the subjective perception of being a separate self that has to find God, who is perceived as being other than one’s self. But as ego consciousness yields and gives way to meditative awareness, we begin to recognize the surprising nearness of God.

God is already here, all about us and within us—the very source, ground, and fulfillment of our being. But subject to the limitations of ego, we tend not to experience the divine mystery of who we are, created in the image and likeness of God. We do not directly realize the God-given Godly nature of ourselves in our nothingness without God. This is why we meditate: that we might awaken to God’s presence all about us and within, as Saint Augustine phrased it, closer to us than we are to ourselves.

To practice meditation as an act of faith is to open ourselves to the endlessly reassuring realization that our very being and the very being of everyone and everything around us is the generosity of God. God is creating us in the present moment, loving us into being, such that our very presence is the manifested presence of God. We meditate that we might awaken to this unitive mystery, not just in meditation, but in every moment of our lives.

This is how Jesus lived. Whether he gazed at a child on his lap or a leper wanting to be healed; whether he looked at a prostitute or his own mother; whether he witnessed the joy of a wedding feast or the sorrow of loved ones weeping at the burial of a loved one; whether he observed his own disciples or his executioners—Jesus saw God. We meditate that we might learn, with God’s grace, to see God in all that we see.

Saint Paul writes, “In your minds you must be the same as Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). Our oneness with Christ deepens in a lifelong process of conversion in which Christ’s mind and our mind become one mind, one way of seeing and being in the world. The faithful practice of meditation is a way of learning to follow the Spirit’s prompting along this self-transforming path.

In Christian terms, meditative experience offers the least resistance to the Spirit of God within us, who, with unutterable groaning, yearns that we might awaken to eternal oneness with God. As our resistance to God’s quiet persistence diminishes, our experience of ourselves as other than Christ dissolves into realized oneness with Christ. Little by little or all at once, we come to that point of blessedness and freedom in which we can say, along with Paul, “For me to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21). That is, for me to live is for me to be that oneness with God that Christ embodies and proclaims.

Reference: Adapted from James Finley, Christian Meditation: Experiencing the Presence of God (HarperSanFrancisco: 2004), 7-9, 42-43, 175.

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Center for Action and Contemplation

 

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You Bring About What You Think About

blogpic TransformedbytheRenewingofYourMindA Sermon preached on 2-12-17 at Lutheran Church of the Atonement, Florissant, MO for Epiphany 6 on Matthew 5:21-37 and Deuteronomy 30:15-20

I stayed home with my children for nine years while they were small, and I ran a home business with Mary Kay Cosmetics as a BeautyConsultant and later, as a Sales Director. No, I never drove a pink car, but I did drive a free red Grand Am for several years. In addition to training us on the details of good skin care, make up application, and so on, a large part of the training involved how to think: how our mindset affects our behavior, how our attitude affects our outcomes. We were encouraged to get rid of “stinkin’ thinkin’,” and to start each day with a “check-up from the neck-up” by repeating positive affirmations.

I have never been one for platitudes because I find life to be full of paradox, irony, mystery, and unexpected emotions, but over time, I began to appreciate the wisdom and the truth these teachings contained. My favorite phrase of how our mindset affects our behavior is, “you bring about what you think about.” I tried to teach my children that “you bring about what you think about,” but they were skeptical at first as well. That is, until one day, when my parents were visiting us here in St. Louis.

The bushes in the yard really needed to be trimmed, so my dad thought he would get out the hedge trimmer and give us a hand with the yard work. But before he went outside, he regaled us with the humorous tale from several years beforehand when he was out trimming the hedges. He wasn’t paying close enough attention and the power cord got caught in the hedge trimmer and sliced it in two. We had a good laugh, and out he went to trim the hedge. About fifteen minutes later, he came back in the house—guess what happened?! Yup, he cut the power cord with the hedge trimmer, because “you bring about, what you think about!”

You bring about what you think about. This is a simplified summary of some of what Jesus is talking about in this part of Sermon on the Mount. What we think about matters. Our inner life is important because it manifests itself in our behavior whether we intend it to or not. To justify judgmental thoughts and bad behavior, you have probably heard people say, as I have, “well, at least I haven’t killed anybody,” as if this were the standard of decent behavior. Jesus stops this up short by saying that we have completely missed the purpose of the Law, which is not just to restrict a few choice bad behaviors, but to preserve the well-being of the whole community, all of humanity. Such community well-being begins in our mind and with our thoughts.

Haven’t you had the experience when you’re mad at someone, and you keep thinking about it and thinking about it, it gets bigger and bigger—and you get more angry, not less. What we focus on—what we think about gets bigger. That kind of anger affects all our relationships. We’re mad at someone at work, but make a sniping remark to our spouse when we get home. It always comes out, somehow, doesn’t it? Because we bring about what we think about.

Jesus’ sermon points us to the intention of the Law which is so clearly described in Deuteronomy: to help us choose life. “Be reconciled to your brother or sister and then bring your offering to the Lord”—that’s what it means to not murder. None of us can say, “well, at least I haven’t killed anybody”—yeah, we have—we have damaged relationships and hurt the well-being of our community when our negative or destructive thoughts come out in our words and behavior.

The same depth of understanding applies to the other 10 Commandments. Jesus highlights, "Thou shall not commit adultery." When we look at another person with lust, we commit adultery. When our thoughts are focused on our own desires, we think of the other person like an object. And when we think of someone like an object, we treat them instrumentally—for our own gain—rather than as one who bears the image of God. Thoughts lead to behavior. We must make a conscious effort at this in our culture because “sex sells”—the objectification of especially women in advertising everything from cars to cowboy boots makes lust a profitable marketing strategy.

It is also because of negative cultural attitudes towards women that Jesus expands his teaching on adultery to include divorce. As you may know, in ancient times, women were considered property which was passed from the father to the husband in marriage. Men were within their rights to issue a certificate of divorce for frivolous reasons, including if his wife burned the bread. If there wasn’t a male relative to take in a divorced woman, she would be left destitute. By elevating divorce to breaking the 6th Commandment against adultery Jesus pushes the patriarchal culture to re-think attitudes toward women in order change behavior toward them. “Choose life,” says Deuteronomy, life for the whole community, including women.

Does this mean that there’s no such thing as life-giving divorce? Of course, not. I know many people who are better off for ending an unhealthy relationship. Jesus’ wants our attitude toward our spouse and others, to bring about respect, honor and well-being.

In a poem called, clothesline, Marilyn Maciel* beautifully describes the importance of our thoughts,

...if words could be seen

as they floated out 

of our mouths

would we feel no

shame

as they passed beyond

our lips?

if we were to 

string our words 

on a communal clothesline

would we feel proud 

as our thoughts

flaspped in the

breeze?

So does Jesus then, leave us with the tall order of thinking perfect thoughts that lead to flawless behavior? Is he preaching the expectation of not only works-righteousness, but thought-righteousness? An unattainable goal that none of us can meet in this life? I don’t think so, because he adds this admonition in the middle of our passage: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.”

It doesn’t sound like grace, but I think it is: grace in the form of hyperbole and exaggeration. If we all poke out our eyes for engaging in impure, damaging thoughts, and cut off our hands for doing something we shouldn’t have done, every last one of us would be blind and without hands. In other words, we can’t do any of this on our own. We will all flunk. So while our thoughts and our behaviors do matter to God, Jesus knows we can’t do it alone and we’re not going to get it right all the time. Which is he why he came to be like us in human form. Jesus came to be not only the salvation of our souls, but also the source of our strength, the forgiveness for our sins, and the model for how we are to think and behave. The Apostle Paul in Philippians says is this way: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Step 11 of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous says, “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out.” Through our own prayer and meditation, we can daily open ourselves to conscious contact with God to receive God’s will for us and the ability to behave that way in our daily life. Knowledge and ability, thoughts and behaviors. Jesus is our source for both those of things, and our forgiveness when we fall short.

This is what Paul meant in Romans when he said “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed through the renewing of your minds.” With the mind of Christ, we can bring about what God thinks about.

*"clothesline," poem by Marilyn Maciel. Published in Patti Digh, Life Is a Verb: 37 Days To Wake Up, Be Mindful, And Live Intentionally.(Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), 42.

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Quotation of the Week

The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.

 

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