A Church that Reflects and Supports Lived Spirituality

blogpic spiritualhealthWhile in seminary in the late 80’s, I remember learning about the predicted decline of Christian churches in the US as we moved into the 21st century. Some also imagined that instead of sending missionaries elsewhere in the world, countries in Africa and Asia would send their missionaries here.

Both if these predictions have come true. The decrease of participation in religious institutions is obvious to all of us who work in the church, and is well-documented by Pew Research and others. Rebecca Y. Kim, Professor of Sociology at Pepperdine University published a book in 2015 called, The Spirit Moves West: Korean Missionaries in America which documents the phenomena of missionaries who come here to revitalize and evangelize Americans.

Although it's a great start, the church needs more than to evangelize people into believers and follwers of Jesus. In his book, Religion and Spirituality: Explorations for Seekers, Robert Haight writes, “…religion has as its purpose to reflect and support spirituality. When religion fails in this function it loses its reason for being.” It seems that American Christianity is missing in action when it comes to engaging in activities, services and practices that connect spiritually with people today, especially Millenials. The question that rattles around in my head is, “what would our religious institutions look like, feel like and do if we were effectively 'reflecting and supporting spirituality' as people live it out today?” This goes deeper than worship and music style, opportunities for hands-on mission, and how to engage youth.

What would church look like right now if it were reflecting and supporting your spirituality? I would love for you to post a comment on the blog and let me know! This is a question I’m going to start asking more often. I started this conversation with my 18-year old daughter and she said that it would address holistic well-being—like healthy eating, physical exercise—an experience that integrated mind, body, and soul together. What would you add to this that would support your spirituality? What would it look like?

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Embracing the Mature Spirituality of The Beatitudes

blogpic BeatitudesA Sermon preached on Matthew 5:1-12 at St. Mark Lutheran Church, Belleville, IL on January 29, 2017

“Good for you!” “How fortunate!” “How enviable!” This is what Jesus proclaims in The Beatitudes with the word, “Blessed!” "Good for you when you are poor in spirit! How fortunate that you mourn! How enviable are the meek! Good for you when you are persecuted. How fortunate are the merciful! Blessed!"

WHAT? What on earth is Jesus saying? He seems to affirm everything we avoid. We could call The Beatitudes, “How to not be an American,” “How not to win friends and influence people.” The Beatitudes will not be found in the Self-Help section of our local Barnes & Noble.

Our society encourages us to avoid the painful experiences of life. We live in a consumer culture that bombards us with products that can assuage our pain and try to make us happy. We are constantly tempted to avoid all feelings of grief, insecurity, sadness, rejection—if we can just consume enough to fill that empty painful space inside. Some fill this emptiness with shopping, others avoid painful feelings with alcohol or drugs, still others with exerting control over others, some use food and sugar to bring a sense of comfort (my personal favorite) and others, with a feverish pursuit of goals in the race up the ladder of income, status, success, or power. Consumption and Busyness can be great antidotes to feeling any of the hurts that Jesus cheers for in The Beatitudes.

Yet, we are not getting any happier. A Harris Poll a year ago, reported that only 1/3 of Americans report being “Very Happy” which is a decrease from previous years. Our strategies aren’t working, but relentless consumerism tempts us to try again with the next new and improved party drink, fashion style, sugar-free super snack, or the latest life hack for career success. We never get off the merry-go-round because the emptiness, despair, grief, meekness, fear, or rejection doesn’t go away. It’s the true nature of addiction: once the rush wears off, we need another fix of whatever helps us ignore our pain and temporarily feel a little better.

If this is where we end up, then how can Jesus call being “poor in spirit, mourning, hungering for justice, being merciful, persecuted, and rejected, “blessed” “enviable,” “fortunate” and “good for us?!”

Last summer, the director of the childcare center at the church I serve asked me to give a Bible lesson once a week to the kids. She thought maybe I could start with The Beatitudes. So I stood before the elementary aged kids and asked this same question: “why would Jesus say, ‘good for you’ when you are sad, ‘good for you’ when you are grieving or lonely, ‘good for you’ when people reject you?” A third or fourth grade girl shot her hand up in the air and said, “Because then God can help you!” No wonder Jesus said we had to become like a little child to enter God’s kingdom! (I asked if she could come and preach this sermon for me today, but she had to go to Sunday School!)

Because then God can help you. Isn’t that true? When things are going well, when we’ve got the world by the tail, when we’re planning our work and working our plan as if we were the author of life and creation, and we’re wrapped up in our own ego, we’re not paying attention to God’s presence and love and help in our life.

But when our plans don’t work, when we’re plunged into crisis or grief, when we’re lonely or rejected, and life just isn’t working, we become open. A space opens up in us that wasn’t there before, for God to enter our lives and bless us, strengthen us, comfort us and help us. When we can remain in that openness when life falls apart—and hold off going on that shopping spree, or pouring that beer, or diving into that bag of chocolate: God can slip in where wouldn’t let him go before. God invites us to really feel the pain in order heal it and have it lose its power over us; God is there to embrace us with deep love (often through another person), fill us with a peace that passes all understanding and surround us with God’s healing presence.

These gifts are there all the time of course—we’re just not available to receive them often times, until things fall apart. Even psychology affirms this process. Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a University of California psychology professor and author of The Myths of Happiness, explains: “It’s often negative experiences that help us grow and learn, which is vital for being happy.” Or in the language of faith, negative events are the doorway for experiencing the blessedness of Jesus and the peace of Christ.

Franciscan Priest Fr. Richard Rohr says it this way: “the way down is the way up.” Or he says, you can say it the other way, “the way up is the down.” Rohr writes, “There is a cruciform shape to reality it seems, and loss precedes all renewal, emptiness makes way for every new infilling, every transformation in the universe requires the surrendering of a previous “form.” Nothing in the human psyche likes this pattern.” This is why we try so hard to avoid it!

But we can’t and don’t get to peace, contentment, or blessedness without grappling with whatever form of suffering life gives us. And that is the way of the cross. The way to new life and resurrection is through suffering, where God claims power over all of death, and makes it evidently clear that love consumes and supersedes all of it. Resurrection means that love and life win in the end, no matter what! Richard Rohr continues with, “Love is the energy driving the universe forward.”

Jesus embodies this all-encompassing love of God which drives the universe forward. Because didn’t Jesus become and embody all of these Beatitudes in his life? Jesus was poor in spirit, for he humbly acknowledged he had nothing and was nothing apart from God—and he inherited the kingdom of heaven. Jesus mourned over Jerusalem and wanted to take them under his wings like a mother hen, and he wept at the death of his friend Lazarus—and he was indeed comforted. Jesus was meek—not weak—in the face of Pilate and his accusers. He grounded his identity in God and in God’s dominion, so he remained calm and centered during the trial and did not shift with the circumstances—and the earth and all that is in it belongs to him. Jesus was merciful, most powerfully seen in his words from the cross when the rest of us might seek vengeance, he uttered, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”—and he did receive mercy.

We could go on with each of The Beatitudes. Instead of giving in to the limits of human experience and emotion, Jesus embodies for us what it looks like in the midst of hardship, to be at one with and fully defined by God—to be blessed, and enviable and fortunate, no matter what. Retired Theology Professor Sr. Carla Mae Streeter calls the Beatitudes “the revelation of Jesus’ own mature spirituality.” She describes that in Jesus we see the “total life of a person whose consciousness is permeated with God" (from the book, Foundations of Spirituality)

Jesus begins his ministry with The Beatitudes in Matthew so that the disciples and us, understand from the outset, that Jesus calls us to live with this same consciousness—one that is permeated with God. Jesus calls us to allow the difficulties and grief of this life to push us to seek our own mature spirituality. It’s a spirituality that enjoys the good things and the blessings in this life—like a smooth glass of wine paired with apples and cheese, or a cold beer at the Super Bowl Party, a suit that makes us feel like a million bucks, a dark chocolate truffle after a family meal, a clear plan to meet our goals—without these things becoming hindrances or addictions that get in the way of our deepening relationship with God. Instead, these blessings become celebrations of our spiritual maturity as a person who is permeated with God’s presence and love.

So, good for you when you are poor in spirit! How fortunate that you mourn! How enviable are the meek! Good for you when you are persecuted. How fortunate are the merciful! For you are open and receiving all the blessings God has for you. Such blessedness is being loved, embraced and consciously living in the peaceful, comforting and empowering presence of God no matter our circumstances. Blessed are you!

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Gift of the Heron

blogpic heronI watched a great blue heron in the creek behind our house yesterday. It was fun to watch her movements through the water, the S-shaped curve of her long neck that straightened out as she stood still, the bending and peering into the water as she watched for minnows that might serve as breakfast. She acted completely like a heron—not an egret or an owl, not a squirrel or a snake. She behaved exactly as she was created, carrying out her morning routine with the surety of creatures oblivious to any possibility that they could be other than what they are.

The heron was also oblivious to the spiritual lesson she taught as I watched her from my kitchen—the practice of self-acceptance. While I wouldn’t give up the self-reflective consciousness that separates humankind from the rest of the creatures on our planet, it does come with its own traps of self-doubt, self-absorption, comparing ourselves to others, and needless suffering when we question the worth of our existence. I do seek to continually grow and mature as a person, which can be propelled by experiencing some of the afore-mentioned traps, but the gift of the heron was to bring me back to simple truths. I am created by a loving God to be who I am, not someone else; I am saved by this same God through Jesus Christ, who’s love redeems my brokenness and blesses me with the Spirit who makes me so much more than I can be on my own. It’s beautiful to behold any of God’s creatures who live with that kind of acceptance and grace.

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Hidden Figures Brings Us All into the Light

blogpic.hiddenfiguresmovieGo see the movie, Hidden Figures!

I was both inspired and disturbed as I watched this movie last weekend. It’s not difficult to understand the depth of structural and institutional racism that lingers in this country when only 60 years ago, Katherine Johnson had to run a half mile to find a “colored ladies” restroom at NASA; Dorothy Vaughan couldn’t access a computing book since it was in the “whites-only” section of the library; and Mary Jackson had to petition a judge to attend an engineering class only taught at a segregated white school. Neighborhoods were red-lined and schools were and continue to be under-resourced. In her blog, the Rev. Wil Gafney, PhD, writes, “This intentional under-education, miseducation, and constant changing of job qualifications to exclude African Americans—along with excluding black veterans from the GI Bill—was designed to build the white middle class at the expense of and on the plundered wealth of black folk.”

And whites today still wonder why there’s a Black Lives Matter movement when the racist attitudes behind the segregation so clearly portrayed in Hidden Figures is still manifest in some of our institutions. It’s hard for us as white people to admit that an equal playing field for people of color feels like oppression to those of us who are accustomed to preference and privilege. The importance of the movie, Hidden Figures, is that it so clearly portrays that access for and full use of the talents and intelligence of ALL Americans does not create fewer opportunities for others; on the contrary, it benefits all of us—it got us to the moon! It’s hard to let go of the zero-sum approach to equal access and economic success, but having these three powerful women working in NASA in the 1960’s was a boon to all Americans, indeed, all of humanity. Far from diminishing others, their lives and work created more opportunity for so many, not the least of whom of was John Glenn.

We can still support our societal structures and those who work in them (e.g. law enforcement) and also hold them accountable to the hard work of eliminating prejudice and racist beliefs that manifest themselves in unequal treatment (and too often, death) of persons of color. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson succeeded due to their brilliant minds, their tenacity in the face of discrimination, and the support of their families, church and community. We all need to continue to work for a country where their counterparts today find even more support through fully funded schools, safe neighborhoods, access to healthcare, and institutions that advocate and celebrate their contributions to society on an equal playing field with all citizens.

 

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Linda Anderson-Little

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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