I was surprised how easy it was to hold still this time. The Darth Vader-like mask was locked over my head, the IV was in and I was squished into the sliding platform with cushy headphones on my ears. Since my head-MRI a year ago, I've spent more time in prayer and meditation. I remember working at holding still, wondering how long it would take. I stealed myself against the loud banging and clanking of the magnetic imaging, trying hard breathe calmly and stay still.
What a difference a year makes. This time, it was more like a new opportunity to meditate. Being still was easy, even relaxing. I listened to classical music instead of NPR and let go of trying to listen to the daily news between the foghorn blasts of the MRI. I turned my attention inward for a conversation with God. Sometimes the machine was so loud it drowned out the music playing in my ears.
"It's awful noisy out there," I offered to the sacred presence within.
"Yes it is," replied God, "the world is a noisy place."
"It's very noisy," I agreed. I thought of the highway traffic that can be heard from our back deck at rush hour. The music seeped into my ears through the hammering.
"But if you listen closely and pay attention," continued the sacred voice, "you can always hear the symphony of creation playing underneath; it's always there." I remembered listening to the birds sing over that din of traffic.
Just like the voice of God in the stillness of a noisy MRI.
The words of Psalm 46 are true: Be still and know that I am God.
"We're getting such great pictures!" the technician announced excitedly into the headphones.
"Take your time," I thought, "I''m listening to the symphony of creation."
Photo Copyright: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/profile_iguanasbear'>iguanasbear / 123RF Stock Photo</a>
A sermon based on Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42) preached July 16-17, 2016 at Lutheran Church of the Atonement in Florissant, MO
If you’re a Martha, a do-er, like me, you may feel like Martha’s gotten a raw deal in this passage. For most of my ministry I’ve somewhat cringed internally at this passage as if Jesus were judging me directly.
The problem is that like it or not, Martha’s are necessary—whether male of female, Martha’s are the ones who get the work done. At home, food must be prepared, cleaning must be done, beds must be changed, and children must be bathed. At work, reports must be written, calls need to be made, meetings must be held, and the tasks need to be accomplished.
If Mary has chosen the “better” part, how do we accomplish anything? How does the work of a household, a business, a church get completed? Surely not by shaming the Martha’s who step up to the plate to get things done, who focus on others by providing hospitality and service.
For those of us who get things done, life can feel like one Martha-day after another. We may long to have Mary-time, to sit and be nurtured without guilt or shame. Deep down, we do share Mary’s desire, to sit and listen, to reflect and ponder. We do want to find ways to restore our soul, to nurture our deeper longings, to feed ourselves spiritually and emotionally.
Wouldn’t we love to take a slow walk in nature, a luxurious bath, or to relax to uplifting music? Or if you’re more like my husband, wouldn’t you love to go to more Cardinals games, play a hard game of racquetball or have a beer with a friend? Sometimes taking Mary-time feels like a luxury we can’t afford—it’s hard to take the time for Morning Prayer and Bible reading, much less these other relaxing activities, if we’re going to accomplish the tasks of the day.
It’s always felt like a competition between the two. You’re a Martha or a Mary. You get things done or you’re a slow-moving meditative mystic that drives the rest of us Martha’s crazy. The competition between the two only makes us feel worse, like we’re never going to get it right.
It’s taken me 25 years and two health crises to figure out this internal dilemma that the story of Mary and Martha evokes. Admittedly, I’m a stubborn and slow learner.
The first health crisis came in late 2007 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer that had spread to the lymph nodes where it was also invasive. I was on disability for 9 months for a difficult course of surgeries, chemo and radiation. When I came through it all, I struggled with survivor guilt, having known other women who died from this disease. When I went back to the parish I was serving, I started working even harder as a Martha-type than I had before, trying to make myself worthy of survival.
Two years ago I started experiencing severe chronic migraines and had to stop working again for a year. I served on two non-profit Boards and had to resign from both. Did I mention I’m stubborn and slow? Nothing helped—I saw new neurologists, changed my diet, tried new medication and prayed fervently. I was still wired to be a Martha—to take care of everyone and everything else first and always, and had still not learned how to take care of myself.
I remember sitting on the couch in the living room wondering what in the heck was wrong with me and my body, and it was like the Spirit whispered in my ear: you’ve never tried taking care of yourself first.
Slowly I started trying to take care of myself and what I needed first every day—and I can’t describe to you how unnatural and wrong it felt—and how difficult it still is, sometimes. I was tempted to do the laundry, plan dinner, clean the bathrooms—anything—the urge to get something done instead was surprisingly powerful, almost like an addiction.
But over time the Mary in me came forward and I had to practice listening to her wisdom about self-care. Do I need meditation on the deck, a walk in the fresh air, devotional reading or a conversation with a spiritual friend? Even the things I already did for myself, like exercise and prayer, took on a different energy. Instead of doing them to check them off my to-do list in a feverish rush, I slowed down and did them with more love and care for myself.
An amazing thing happened. All of the sudden I found that I had more energy to serve others, more emotional and spiritual availability to engage in the Martha tasks, because I wasn’t trying to pour from an empty cup. It was astounding to feel the difference in my body.
It’s not either/or – either be a Martha or a Mary; either sit at Jesus’ feet or do the work. It’s both/and.
While it seems like I’m stating the obvious, I didn’t really get it until I felt it in my body, in the relief from pain, in the decrease of my migraines, in the energy that comes from starting my day with Mary at Jesus’ feet. The second greatest commandment that Jesus identified now made sense, not just as an idea, but in my bones—you shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no love of neighbor or Martha-service without self-love and self-care first, with Mary.
Martha beautifully gives us the signal to watch for when we’re off track—when we take care of other people and all the tasks before taking care of ourselves. Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Martha has become resentful. She, too, desires to sit at Jesus feet and be loved and nurtured, but she’s too driven to give herself permission to do it.
I'm ashamed to admit this feeling of resentment is all too familiar to me. When I’m taking care of everyone else’s needs to the neglect of my own, I feel resentful. Doesn’t anybody care about me? Doesn’t anybody see this work that has to be done? Resentment is the emotional signal that I have neglected my own self-care. So when resentment bubbles up, I have learned to change the question from, what’s wrong with everybody else? to what do I need to do to take care of myself to resolve this feeling of neglect?
Jesus’ response to Martha’s question is that Mary has chosen the “better” part. This is not my favorite translation because it sets up this competition between the two. The Greek word here, agathane can also be translated, “Mary has chosen what is good, what is beneficial, what is kind, or what is generous.”
Sitting at Jesus’ feet and nurturing your spirit is the good or beneficial thing to do first; it is the kind and generous thing to do for yourself. Because when we have listened and prayed and pondered with Jesus, then we are physically, emotionally and spiritually freed and energized to serve, and to do the work that needs to be done.
At my meeting with my Spiritual Director last month, we talked about this very subject. Rose said that self-care in a busy schedule doesn’t have to be complicated or difficult. Take 15 minutes in the morning—meditate or pray for 5 minutes, read the Bible for 5 minutes, stretch for 5 minutes. I encourage you to try it if you’re not doing this already, trusting that your time with Jesus will not be taken away from you.
Like many Scripture stories, Luke doesn’t tell us what happened next in the story of Mary and Martha, leaving us to finish it with our own choices. I imagine that Martha sat down next to Mary at Jesus’ feet for about 15 minutes. Then the two of them prepared dinner together while their brother, Lazarus, also pitched in to set the table and pour the wine. And Jesus smiled.
Thank you for your patience--website is as good as new!
With the turn of the new year, gurus in every area of human accomplishment and fulfillment are promoting new on-line classes in everything from meditation and ministry to confidence-building and business-launching. When I peruse all the topics of learning, the number of podcasts that interest me, and add the fiction I would like to read or hear, it’s overwhelming. If all I do is stop to prioritize my learning and reading goals for this new year as a tool to pick and choose in what to invest my time and resources, I have missed the deeper spiritual yearning such desires awaken.
The constant glut of information and opportunities can tempt us away from seeking the wisdom that God has planted within us — our unique contributions, insights, and faith that come from the indwelling Spirit who enlightens our own particular incarnation in space and time. It’s easy to think that the answer to our struggles or unmet goals—whatever they might be—is “out there” somewhere, if we just find the right mentor, program or continuing education event.
The urging of the Spirit inside, however, calls me to set aside time to listen inwardly in contemplation before I look outside me for the direction or answers I seek. That’s not to say that I cannot be helped by others’ teachings; human development requires us to share our wisdom with those who come after us. But we rob ourselves and others, when we do not listen to the insight, hopes, plans, and dreams that bubble up from the God who makes a home in each of our hearts.
With this in mind, I have coined a phrase for my focus in 2018: “explorational balance.” I want to balance outward seeking with inward listening, reading with meditation, consumption with contemplation. I pursue a life that seeks new ideas, a deep growing spiritual life, faithful decisions, and a greater embodiment of love in and for the world — all of which can happen only when I moderate my search for learning from others with time to listen to the wisdom within.
We are each a one of kind embodiment of spirit and matter, energy and consciousness that has come into being after nearly 13.8 billion years of the evolution of Creation. What is the unique message the Spirit calls you to share in 2018? I invite you to join me in listening deeply with explorational balance!
Image: Mandala 77, Downloaded from hadas64.deviantart.com.
Message for Holy Trinity Sunday on Isaiah 6:1-8, Romans 8:12-17, John 3:1-17 given May 30, 2021 at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church. I regret that due to technical difficulties, there is no video recording of this sermon or worship service.
When I served my first church in Detroit, MI, I met a woman in the neighborhood named, Regina, who had been ordained by her congregation—not because she went to seminary like in our tradition, but because she had the gifts of the Holy Spirit for ministry. She became one of my mentors. When we would discuss issues, she would say, “well the Spirit said, to me…” and she would go on to tell what the Holy Spirit said directly to her.
I had spiritual experiences, but I did not have the sense that the Holy Spirit was speaking to me, like Regina did when she was referring to an internal conversation with the Spirit. I would say to myself, “I just do not have that gift.” But after a while I thought—“maybe I am just not quiet enough to listen!”
All 3 of our Scripture passages today talk about listening to and being in the Holy Spirit:
• Isaiah is in the Spirit when he is given the vision of the Lord sitting on the throne, his sins are forgiven with a burning coal and he hears the Lord call him into ministry.
• Paul calls the believers in Rome to live in the fullness of their identity in Christ which is to be led by the Spirit of God as children of God.
• Jesus calls the Pharisee Nicodemus into full relationship with him by being born of water and the Spirit.
But listening to the Holy Spirit does not come naturally to us as Lutherans. We are more comfortable with the Creator—the Father/Mother of God—with the mind, with knowledge, with study, with linear thinking and argumentation, and logic. When I was in seminary, the first classes we took were Greek and Hebrew, biblical interpretation, theology and history—and these are all important and valuable disciplines for understanding our texts and I love and value them.
Such emphasis on the Bible makes us amazingly comfortable with Jesus—with his life and mission, with love of neighbor, and social justice where live out our faith in Incarnational and sacramental ways. We are terrific at disaster relief, feeding the hungry, doing global mission, building water wells, hospitals, and living out our faith in a way that embodies a God who came to us—in a body—and who continues to come to us in through bread and wine—earthly elements. We love the story of salvation where Jesus’ humanity bridges the divide and heals the brokenness between us and God, redeeming our suffering, forgiving our sin, and bringing us into a wholeness and union with God that lasts forever.
But this Holy Spirit stuff makes us a little nervous. We do not want to become too emotional or out of control. We are not going to speak in tongues or talk about being born again. We are not going to have some wild vision that we cannot distinguish from a chemical imbalance in the brain. We will not whoop and holler or dance and sing (no matter how much Pr. Linda tries to get us to move!) Many of us come from ancestors who have been ignoring their feelings for generations, and we are not about to let all out, Holy Spirit or not.
But then I met Regina, who was the most loving person I had ever met, who answers the phone with the words, “peace and love,” speaking as if she was having conversation with Holy Spirit. She was so peaceful—and if talking with the Holy Spirit led to that kind of peace, then I wanted some of that, too.
So, I started to practice listening. I did all kinds of prayer practices and met with my spiritual director, and I quieted my mind and heart and body and listened (and if you think I have energy now, you should have seen me 30 years ago—it wasn’t easy!). And then, slowly, I started to hear. Over time I realized, I could hear, feel, know, understand the Holy Spirit’s guidance in much deeper ways than I had been taught. And it was not about emotion. In fact, it was quite the opposite. If an emotion or trigger does come up, it means we have something to work through or breathe through, often fear or anxiety. We may need to attend to those strong emotions with counseling, conversation, journaling, or calling your pastor! But the Spirit’s guidance is most often
• Neutral- no emotional charge
• Truth (freeing or hard)
• Impersonal- you are a witness, watching something unfold*
Sometimes we can have an emotional response to the message—relief, or overwhelming love can cause tears, or we may be afraid to do what God asks us to do, but the Spirit does not give us fear.
How the Spirit speaks to me and to you may be different: Today we affirm a Trinitarian God—we are made in this image—Creator, Jesus, Spirit, so God can speak to us in a variety ways--through our Mind, Body or the Spirit/Intuition. We may have one dominate way or maybe we have all channels open. Spirits messages can come in the
• Mind – new thoughts, a flash of insight, an idea, a problem solved—that came from outside yourself, a voice that rose up, rather than one you generated
• Body – experiencing a gut feeling, a heaviness or warmth in chest, a sense of energy moving in the body, a feeling of peace, goose bumps, some other physical sensation
• Spirit/Intuition – A sense of knowing without words, feeling of love or compassion, seeing a picture or image, seeing color, or a vision, or even a dream at night (start writing them down as soon as you wake in the morning).
Sometimes Nothing happens. You may have nothing noticeable happen and simply relax in the presence and peace of God. That’s ok! I prayed for 52 days once and nothing happened. WAIT is legitimate answer from the Spirit!
So today, we are going to practice listening, which I know is unusual for sermon. It will just be brief, and we’re just scratching the surface, but I want to give you a way to practice listening, which you can then try on your own. I want you to think of one simple question where you would like guidance, help or an answer. Just one. It could be about your health, what to do about a relationship, if you should sell your house, a question at work, the future mission of the congregation. We all need to practice, because in order to recover from the pandemic and be healthy people, in order to discern our future as a congregation, in order to follow Jesus in all areas of our lives, we want and need to be led by the Holy Spirit. Get as comfortable as you can in your pew:
• Close eyes—and begin to breathe deeply. Let us pray- “we ask for your presence Holy Spirit, for your fire to rest upon each one of us, and dwell with in us, as we listen for your loving presence and guidance in our lives. Amen.
• Continue to breathe deeply in and out
• Focus on your breath—the rise and fall of your belly
• If thoughts come, let them float by like clouds without thinking about them, and come back to your breath
• Breathe in the Spirit, blow out fear
• Breathe in Christ, blow out worry
• Breathe in God, blow out anxiety
• Breathe in peace, blow out stress
• Breathe in gratitude, breath in love, breath in Spirit (blow out anything negative)
• Now ask the question you had in mind and see what comes up in your body, mind or intuition
• Pause and pay attention for several minutes
• It’s okay not to notice anything –sometimes faith and Spirit are about relaxing in the peace and presence of God together.
• Acknowledge what you have received.
• Internally, say thank you and express gratitude for this sacred time and whatever you experienced.
• Take another big deep breath, wiggle your fingers and toes
• Open your eyes and return to the present space
Jot down anything that came to you or any experience you had that you want to pray about, return to, or reflect on later. This is just one of many ways to listen to the Holy Spirit when we need guidance, help, encouragement, wisdom, and that sense of the companionship of God coming alongside us in our life. I did this exercise yesterday as I prepared for today. I asked the question of whether St. Luke’s should sell the building or stay. And guess what answer I got? It’s not your decision. Your job is to be a non-anxious leader who helps the process.
Let’s test this against what I said earlier about the Holy Spirit:
• Neutral- no emotional charge—this is a neutral message without emotional charge of anger, fear, pain
• Compassionate-Loving –it is compassionate toward the congregation where the decision lies and loving toward all of us—putting us in our right place/roles
• Truth (freeing or hard)—it tells me the truth. It frees me from trying to work/manipulate a preferred outcome; it’s also hard for my ego in that I have no special or secret knowledge as a pastor or in this conversation with the Spirit
• Impersonal- you are a witness, watching something unfold—this message reminds me that the Spirit’s larger work is not about me—I am a witness to what God is doing in the church as a whole, I am a participant and leader in helping something unfold—nothing more, nothing less. My role is not more or less than anyone else’s
Now Isaiah’s vision of the throne of God, Paul’s encouragement to be led by the Spirit, and Jesus’ words that we are reborn through water and the Spirit may not seem so unnatural or strange! As we engage in this practice together and on our own, we are truly becoming Lutherans where “spirits come alive!” (St. Luke's tag line!)
*I am grateful to Dr. Judith Orloff who uses these to describe insights from our intuition, which I also understand to be part of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
Image: I took this picture of a mosaic by Sonia King which is part of her VisionShift project, a mosaic installation for HALL Arts in the Dallas Arts District.
Why do migraines and headaches haunt me daily?
Why do ailments, stress and anxiety accompany many of us?
What does our mind and body and soul desire
in our 140-character, sound-bite, tech-drenched world?
Perhaps our inner self wants nothing - the gift of nothing.
What if my body had nothing to do; how would it feel?
Just resting, being upheld by the bed of creation and relaxing into the weight of it.
All dis-ease and impurities can crumble to the bottom of my being
and slide out the open chakra at the bottom of my feet.
How deeply can I let my body do nothing, need nothing, feel nothing?
Can I allow my body and soul to be in suspense without need or urgency,
just present to the void, the space, the emptiness?
What can nothing release?
What can nothing regenerate?
How can I give my mind the gift of nothing?
I spend my devotions reading spiritual sages, poetry, assurances of the presence of God;
I imagine meadows or beaches in the mind of my Spirit to see God's presence;
I rattle off questions about what I am to do today and in life
with a spiritual list of clarifying inquiries that demand immediate answers.
But what if my mind and spiritual imagination desire the gift of nothing?
Nothing to imagine as God's presence, but just to be.
Nothing to read about peace, just the absence of thoughts, needs, directions, questions, insights.
When I can give my mind and soul the gift of nothing, perhas the urgent pain will recede.
I can listen to my own body functioning -
the high-pitched buzz of my nervous system,
the pulsing of blood
the steady thump of my heart.
Maybe my mind doesn't want more medicine, it wants more of nothing;
A presence to everything, the absence of everything, the presence of nothing -
Can nothing lower the sound of the inner buzz, slow the pulsing, breathing that is me
And enter into the void that is God?
The constant presence of sacred energy that is not managed, just noticed?
Nothing is the place of creation -
the void before atoms collide,
the darkness of the soul buried in the ground,
the dropping of the grain into air, earth
the chrysalis hiding in the dark,
the tomb of the 2nd day.
Perhaps only when we enter nothing do we become fully present.
Only when we enter the gift of nothingness
do we become the void where God creates newness of life
without our assistance.
Nothingness is freedom.
St. Ignatius of Loyola beckons me to see God in everything
and be attached to nothing,
To see God as fully present in every molecule
and myself as fully present in nothingness.
I 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