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Stepping Up

blogpic womanonstairsFor the last two months, I’ve been in physical therapy for both of my knees. I’ve been experiencing pain going up and down stairs accompanied by a crackling, crunching sound. Welcome to the 50+ club. Apparently women’s knee caps are more prone to misalignment. The goal of therapy is to first strengthen the muscles around the knee to hold the knee cap in the proper place and second, to stretch the tight muscles along the outside of the quads which, when constricted pulls the knee out of alignment. We have also used tape to try and hold my knee cap in place for 48 hours at a time.

In order for these therapies to work, I need to do a regimen of exercises everyday – strengthening and stretching, building and loosening, pushing forward and letting go. If I strengthen without stretching, the muscles up my leg still pull the knee out of alignment. If I stretch without strengthening, there’s not sufficient muscle to hold my knee in place.

In addition, I have to pay attention to how I walk up and down stairs – keeping my feet straight, pressing with even weight, stepping with intention—no more dashing up and down stairs in a hurried jog or a happy jump. The daily exercises to strengthen and stretch help me to be present to how I move my legs and feet throughout the day.

What a wonderful metaphor and pattern for our daily spiritual life. We have exercises that help us strengthen our faith like prayer, meditation, contemplation, devotional reading and more. In and of itself, these practices do not make up a full spiritual regimen, however. We also must engage in stretching and letting go of the places where we hold tension, control, or rigidity. Releasing to God’s care the outcomes, events and people over which we have no control is a second and necessary part of our spiritual exercises.

If I strengthen my relationship with God through daily spiritual practices, but don’t allow myself to be released from that over which I desire control, my ego can pull my soul out of spiritual alignment. If I let go of all my tension and control needs, but don’t also engage in strengthening my faith through prayer, meditation or other practices, I am flapping in the wind and blown off course by whatever whim comes my way.

Like physical therapy, both of these spiritual emphases of strengthening and stretching, building and loosening, pushing forward and letting go, invite us to pay attention to how we move through the day. Rather than dashing around in a hurried flurry, we can step forward with mindful intention—both in body and in spirit.

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Thanksgiving Prayer

blogpic Thanksgiving2A Litany of Thanksgiving

Howard Thurman - African American author, philosopher, theologian, educator and civil rights leader

In Your presence, O God, we make our Sacrament of Thanksgiving.
We begin with the simple things of our days:
Fresh air to breathe,
Cool water to drink,
The taste of food,
The protection of houses and clothes,
The comforts of home.
For all these we make an act of Thanksgiving this day!

We bring to mind all the warmth of humankind that we have known:
Our mothers' arms,
The strength of our fathers,
The playmates of our childhood,
The wonderful stories brought to us from the lives of many who talked of days gone by when fairies and giants and diverse kinds of magic held sway;
The tears we have shed, the tears we have seen;
The excitement of laughter and the twinkle in the eye with its reminder that life is good.
For all these we make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

We finger one by one the messages of hope that await us at the crossroads:
The smile of approval from those who held in their
hands the reins of our security,
The tightening of the grip of a single handshake when we feared the step before us in the darkness,
The whisper in our heart when the temptation was fiercest and the claims of appetite were not to be denied,
The crucial word said, the simple sentence from an open page when our decision hung in the balance.

For all these we make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

We passed before us the mainsprings of our heritage:
The fruits of the labors of countless generations who lived before us, without whom our own lives would have no meaning,
The seers who saw visions and dreamed dreams;
The prophets who sensed a truth greater than the mind could grasp, and whose words could only find fulfillment in the years which they would never see,
The workers whose sweat has watered the trees, the leaves of which are for the healing of the nations,
The pilgrims who set their sails for lands beyond all horizons, whose courage made paths into new worlds and far-off places,
The savior whose blood was shed with the recklessness that only a dream could inspire and God could command.

For all these we make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

We linger over the meaning of our own life and commitment to which we give the loyalty of our heart and mind:
The little purposes in which we have shared with our loves, our desires, our gifts,
The restlessness which bottoms all we do with its stark insistence that we have never done our best, we have never reached for the highest,
The big hope that never quite deserts us, that we and our kind will study war no more, that love and tenderness and all the inner graces of Almighty affection will cover the life of the children of God as the waters cover the sea.

All these and more than mind can think and heart can feel, we make as our sacrament of Thanksgiving to Thee, Our Father, in humbleness of mind and simplicity of heart.

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Christ the King Sunday: A Response to Fear

blogpic ChristtheKingLisbonPortugalChrist the King Sermon; November 21-22, 2015
Preached at St. Thomas/Holy Spirit Lutheran Church, St. Louis, MO

Text: John 18:33-37 - Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" 34 Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?" 35 Pilate replied, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?" 36 Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here." 37 Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."

Grasping power through violence, threatening death to embed fear, dominating villages, towns and cities to oppress and expand territory,distorting religion, torturing and murdering innocent people, sending refugees fleeing for the lives.

You probably think I am referring to the recent terrorist attacks on a plane of Russian tourists, in Beirut, in Paris, in Nigeria, in Mali– and their devastating destruction and tragic loss of life.

But I am also describing first century Palestine and the life of the Jewish people under the Roman Empire – an empire and culture of violence that provides the context for our Gospel lesson this morning.

It’s startling, isn’t it? How similar our stories have come to be. We can imagine the conversation between Pilate and Jesus as a modern day dialog about which kind of kingdom, which kind of power, and to what kind of dominion will we be devoted.

In the John 18, Jesus and Pilate are using the same language and the same words – kings, dominion and power, but they are each talking about completely different things.

In verse 36, Jesus claims his kingdom is not from this world and he contrasts himself with Pilate:

• Pilate's rule brings terror, even in the midst of calm; Jesus' rule brings peace, even in the midst of terror; we hear this in John 14:27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

• Pilate's followers imitate him by using violence to conquer and divide people by race, ethnicity, and nationality. Jesus' followers put away the sword in order to invite and unify people, as Jesus does when he says, And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. (John 12:32).

• Pilate's authority comes from the will of Caesar, the emperor, and it’s always tenuous. Jesus' authority comes from doing the will of God, which is constant and eternal.

• Pilate taxes the poor, takes what is not his, oppresses those without military might, cares not for others except to the degree that they serve his agenda. Pilate has no interest in building community - much less one guided by truth and love, and Pilate keeps order through fear--through the threat of death on a cross or otherwise. Again, by contrast, Jesus’ ministry has been a traveling parade of love, healing, renewal, second chances, beatitudes and bread – lots of bread to feed thousands and thousands of people. The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers leap for joy, the demon-possessed dance with praise. Jesus empowers others and uses his authority to kneel down on the floor and wash the feet of those he leads. Jesus spends his life on them, every last ounce of it; he gives his life to bring life. Jesus enters death to show us beyond the shadow of a doubt, that not even violence and death can stop love, eternal life and the reign of God.

We have all heard in the news this week the dozens of governors refusing to allow Syrian refugees to resettle in their states. Who’s kingdom are they listening to – Pilate’s kingdom or Jesus’ kingdom? We’ve heard our legislators in Washington debate, jockey and write laws to stop the influx of not only Syrian refugees, but others as well – Who’s kingdom are they listening to – Pilate’s kingdom or Jesus’ kingdom?

We each struggle with a very real fear along with angry abhorrence and deep sorrow to what we have witnessed around the world in just over a week. We are tempted, and we do want to give into fear, to close our borders, increase military action abroad, use drones and every kind of fire power against our enemy, but who’s kingdom does such action follow, Pilate’s kingdom or Jesus’ kingdom?

We bring our cries and prayers before God today and we ask for the power and wisdom of our risen Lord and King to help us tease out the differences between what our fear want us to do and what our faith in Jesus Christ calls us to do. The great sin of American Christianity has been to merge our patriotism with our Christian calling in the world, but our Gospel lesson makes clear today, that these are often not one in the same. I can’t think of a more appropriate time to lift up Jesus Christ as King.

For all violence, whether wrought by terrorists or nations, is the way of Pilate which never leads to a crown, a kingdom, and a power that is true and everlasting.

For the way to the crown is through the cross; and the way of the cross leads to the crown of righteousness. Mahatma Ghandi said it this way: “The enemy of love is not hate, but fear.” In fact, there are 365 verses that say, “Fear not” in the Bible – one for every day of the year. Clearly, fear is our major human issue in our relationship with God!

It does not mean that we don’t need systems or screening at our borders. But as Christians, we must call to account manipulation through fear-mongering and unethical, inhuman policies that result from fear.

Jesus did not let fear, the threat of violence, or the pain of death put a stop to his love, compassion and solidarity with God’s people. In fact, his kingdom is so powerful that it
bridges this life and the next life, the earthly realm and the heavenly realm, the finitude of this world and the infinity of the next. Communion is one event where these two realms are joined: When we celebrate Communion, we do so knowing that we are at the table with the Church triumphant at the heavenly banquet. We make up ½ the table here and the other half extends into heaven where all the saints of God and our loved ones who have gone before us (including my Mom and my in-laws) are feasting with us in heaven as part of this “Holy Commuion!”

Knowing that our life ends not in death, not in fear but in a real, risen, eternal life with our Lord and with all people and with all of Creation, Jesus, our King, calls us to live in this eternal kingdom here and now, as a witness against the “Pilates” and “terror-mongers” of our time. St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order and The Spiritual Exercises, words Jesus' call to us in this way:

It is my will to win over the whole world, to overcome evil with good, to turn hatred aside with love, to conquer all the forces of death—and whatever obstacles there are that block the sharing of life between God and humankind. Whoever wishes to join me in this mission must be willing to labor with me and so by following me in struggling and suffering, [in loving and forgiving], that you may share with me in glory. (A contemporary interpretation by David L. Fleming, S.J. in Draw Me Into Your Friendship, p. 85)

Jesus’ call to embody his kingdom here and now—before its final and complete fulfillment—goes out to all peoples, yet he specially calls each one of us in a particular and unique way.

How Jesus calls me to live in love, compassion and service may be different from how Jesus calls and compels you, which may be different from your spouse, your children, or your friends.

Yet Jesus brings us together and unites us in and with his body in heaven and his spirit on earth—through bread and wine, through song and prayer, through fellowship and forgiveness, through "St. Thomas and Holy Spirit" - this church!

Be filled with Jesus love at this table today, and at your own table every day. Embody God’s kingdom in your daily life, your daily conversations and your daily actions by being
grounded in God’s love for you, grounded in God’s love for this whole Creation and for every person it; that God knows every hair on our head; that the Spirit is part of every breath we take, and that Jesus presence can work through us, making the impossible, possible.

That’s what Christ our King desires; and it’s absolutely what our world needs. Amen.

Photo Credit: dreamstime.com - Cristo-Rei, Lisbon, Portugal

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Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life

blogpic mindWhat is one thought pattern or core belief that operates in the background of your life that if you changed it, would transform you?

We all live with fundamental operating assumptions that come from our family, our education, our experiences, the larger culture, the religious system in which we were raised and so on. What if the assumptions with which you live no longer help move you toward your goals and prod you to fulfill God’s purpose for you? What thought pattern exists under the surface that if it were changed would shift how and where you put your energies?

Amy Ahlers, The-Wake-Up Call Coach, asked it this way, “Underneath the surface of your filled to the brim life there is one thing that can change everything. That one shift that will cause ripple effects in every single area of your life when you change it. What is this one thing? 'It’s your one big core belief that is no longer serving you.'”

There’s a whole host of tribal beliefs that can operate under the surface; however, there can be one dominant thought that feeds into all areas of our life. Beliefs such as, “I am not enough,” “I’m damaged goods,” “People won’t love me unless I do things for them,” or “I’m the only one who can do it right.”

This is not a new thought of course. In Romans 12, the Apostle Paul writes, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect." When I ran a Mary Kay business while the kids were small, a favorite phrase in sales training was, “you bring about what you think about.” Thoughts have a powerful influence on our behavior, and sub-conscious beliefs can cause us to sabatoge the very things we desire and for which we work.

Amy’s question gave the opportunity to reconsider the power of my dominant thoughts so I spent some time pondering what core belief dominates my behavior and my health right now. It didn’t take long for this thought to bubble up, “Everyone else is more important than me.” I had never said it so plainly, so clearly.

This one thought explains why I’ve been working on some important goals and still haven’t met them. Service to others is as ingrained in me as breathing – as a female, as a Christian, as a daughter, and as a Pastor. I’ve absorbed down to my cells the idea that everyone else comes first—my children, my husband, my extended family, my church, my work, my friends. My job is to take care of others’ needs and to spend time on myself meeting my needs and working on my goals is “selfish.” I would rather be called a liar, a cheat, a scoundrel, even a bitch, than to be called selfish. When I was growing up, I thought that being selfish was the sin of all sins (perhaps becoming a pastor is a good cover for such a sin—maybe no one will notice!).

I played around in my mind what would be different if I let go of this unhelpful, even destructive core belief. What if I was as important as everyone else? What if I thought taking care of myself and my needs was even more important than anyone else; after all, I am the only one who can take care of me. My body might have fewer chronic issues if I believed taking care of me was the most important use of my time and energy. I would spend more time meeting my own goals and listening to God at work in my own spirit, rather than doing this for others.

Over the last month I began to practice shifting my behavior. Self care first, service to others later. I cut back on two areas where I was volunteering. While a change in thoughts does shift our behavior, I believe it also works the other way around. Sometimes we have to “act as if” we believe we are important (or whatever new thought we're embracing), and as we change our behavior, our thoughts shift as well. It can be a self-reinforcing system in both directions (we have an amazing Creator!). I’ve learned it’s important to shift thoughts and behaviors at the same time in a complimentary direction!

As I shift my thoughts and daily priorities, I do notice one amazing truth: the more I care for myself, the more energy I have to serve others in a healthy way (not in a needy-please-don’t-think-I’m-selfish way). I believe this is why Jesus, in three of the four Gospels answered the question about which is the first commandment like this: “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31, emphasis is mine).

We (and most of Christian history for that matter) seem to forget the second part of the second greatest commandment – love yourself. Early 20th century mystic Evelyn Underbill said it this way, “don’t be ferocious with yourself because that is treating badly a precious (if imperfect) thing that God has made.” I’ve got the imperfect thing figured out; I’m working on the precious part.

Photo Credit: Stock Images, dreamstime.com

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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.